I’ve written and rewritten this a half dozen times because figuring out what to say and how to say it is harder than I thought it would be. Every time I think I have the words I look at what’s on the page, and realize it’s all wrong. So, here goes. I’m going to be as honest as I can be with you, because it’s what you deserve.
You ruined everything.
The Stracker Family School for Professional Wrestling celebrated its graduating class in a unique way. Each student would stand at the end of the pier, receive a handshake from the head trainer, and then dive into the frigid winter waters of the Atlantic Ocean. This year’s class was small, only eight students in total. And of those, only two would survive beyond a few years in the business.
Darren Stracker waited as one by one his students stepped to the edge, shook his hand, and threw themselves into the sea. All but one. Jared Sykes didn’t have to jump. Darren didn’t give him the chance.
Justine was already back on shore by the time Jared was sent flailing through the air, pulling on her clothes over a wet bathing suit and counting the minutes until she was back in a warm car.
When Jared made it out of the water, he sprinted towards where he’d left his own clothes in a pile and froze. Something was missing, but it didn’t take long for him to find it. Justine met him wearing a smirk and the navy blue sweatshirt he’d been searching for.
“We are blasting the heat when we get back to the car. It’s freezing out here,” she said, then flashed him a smile. “This is helping. You want it back?”
“Nah, I’m fine.” His shivering said otherwise.
“You look like you’re freezing your ass off.” She stepped closer and leaned in against him, sharing her warmth. Despite months of training together, and the physical closeness that came with it, this was the first time they had shared contact bordering on intimate. By the end of the night, their relationship would be consummated. By the next morning, she would be gone. “Are you sure you don’t want it back?”
“I’m sure,” he said. He wrapped his arms tight around her. “It looks better on you, anyway.”
I had a plan. It wasn’t very complicated, because the more simple I kept it the better off my chances were that it would all work out. The goal was to sign up for training, and stay until I graduated. Once that was done I could work the local circuit and build up my skills against some more seasoned wrestlers until the call came for a bigger stage. No attachments. Just me and the plan.
You know how they say no plan survives contact with the enemy?
Justine stared at the ladder by her feet, immediately regretting her decision to help decorate the house. She had a contentious relationship with ladders ever since Rosalie Thorne tried to use one to take her head off in ‘06, and there was always the chance her father’s rusty old step ladder would find a new and exciting way to betray her.
“Can I ask ya’ somethin’? Why’d you hold up on punchin’ the weird guy the other night?”
Barrett trudged across the grass with another box of lights, his old nickname of “Leadfoot” ever more relevant in his advanced age.
“The weird guy?”
“Yeah, you know the dipshit with the steerin’ wheel who’s always honkin’ at people like a fuckin’ goose. The weird one. Have gave you a shot and you didn’t take it. Why?”
The question gave her pause. When Justine headed to the ring alone towards the end of ReVival 20 she did so with the intent to separate Darin Zion from his senses, and, if she was really lucky, separate his head from his neck in the process. It had only been minutes since the door to the conference room had been broken open, revealing what remained of Jared after Paxton’s revenge, and the furious energy that coursed through her at that moment could have powered a small city.
“It wouldn’t change anything,” she said. “I thought I wanted to do it, but then I got to the ring, and… I don’t know. It was like the match with Gladhappy. I so badly wanted to get him back for everything that happened to us, but when the fight was over I closed my eyes and could still see the nail. I could still smell the chocolate. This probably sounds weird, but it’s almost like I expected winning would give back what they took, but I didn’t.”
Barrett nodded. A particularly vexing ball of tangled Christmas lights was too big a riddle for him to solve, so he tossed it onto the grass next to the ladder.
“I ever tell you about Ben Stanley?” He said. Justine shook her head. “Former boxer. Kinda shit. Owned a gym that a lot of guys used to work out in. One day your mom comes home cryin’. Says she talked to Sadie – that’s Ben’s wife – and Ben’s been hittin’ the bottle, then gettin’ rough with her and the boys. Says she don’t know what to do. It was a different time then, before you kids was born, but I ain’t never had no place in the world for someone who puts his hands on his family. That ain’t a man, Tina. It ain’t.“
There was something in his tone that gave her pause. She looked at her father, wide-eyed. “Dad, what did you do?”
“One day I goes into the gym, and Ben says it’s been a while since he got in a ring and he wants to go a few rounds. See if he’s still got it, or whatever. Tina, I could not get my gloves on fast enough. I get into the ring, and in front of Jesus, Mary, and all the saints I give that son of a bitch the beatin’ of his life. Told him if I ever heard anythin’ comin’ out of that house that I come back and next time he don’t leave the ring still breathin’. Thought I was doin’ the right thing.”
“What happened? Did it stop? Were Sadie and the kids okay?”
“Yeah, Sadie got out. Took the kids with her. Never heard of Ben fuckin’ with nobody like that again.”
“Tell me Ben died in prison.”
Barrett pursed his lips as though he’d just tasted something sour, then shook his head and sighed.
“Nah. Like I said, different time. Heart attack got him a few years later, though. But get this… Sadie shows up at the wake. I see her, and I ask why she came after everything he did. She tells me that she wanted him to know that she was still standin’. Still livin’. That after everything he took away, he didn’t get to win.”
He lumbered over to an empty spot on the front stoop, and took a seat. Barrett brushed away a few errant leaves, then gestured for his daughter to join him.
“This is the point I’m tryna make. There ain’t no winnin’ with the kind of people you’re dealin’ with – these Love Truck weirdos, at least nothin’ that’s gonna be settled in a fight. They take things, and you never get to have ’em back. Don’t matter how many punches ya’ throw. But you and your boy, Jared, you win by movin’ on. By livin’. You follow me? Your friend knows this. Hell, looks like he learned this one the hard way a long time ago.” A calloused and ring-worn paw found her hand, and for a moment she was a little girl again. “I’m sorry you had to learn it at all.”
You turned everything upside-down, and you don’t even realize it. You threw it all into upheaval, and you didn’t even have to try. You were just you, and everything that I thought I was getting into went right to hell.
This is why I gave you a hard time for so long. It’s why it seemed like I was going out of my way to piss you off in class. Falling for someone was never part of the plan.
She tested the door and found it locked. A minor inconvenience, as Jared had never asked her to return the key she’d been given over the summer. Still, as she turned the knob to let herself in, Justine wondered whether she was going to walk in on something that she didn’t want to see. Maybe he had unwrapped a different kid of present on his birthday.
“Jared?” she said. “Are you home?”
Please be alone.
The house didn’t answer.
Justine set a package on top of the counter. She had brought an old, dark blue sweatshirt, and a small gift bag that contained two envelopes. The first was a simple card. The other was the reason that her heart raced, a letter written over twenty years ago but never delivered.
She could see the dancing flicker of flames through the kitchen window, the one that looked out into the backyard. The fire pit was around thirty feet away from the house, not far from the pool, and just along the edge of where the light from the porch would reach. His silhouette was unmistakable.
He sat in a wide lounge chair, specially ordered over the summer when Justine was spending most of her free time at the house. So many lazy afternoons had been spent laying there side by side. Relaxing, sunbathing, and a few activities that would have made the neighbors blush had the fence been any shorter
“Hey,” she said. “I called you earlier. Didn’t know if you had dinner plans.”
“Sorry. Mom stopped by, and then I had some stuff to do. By the time I got home I didn’t think I’d be very good company.”
“Why? What happened?”
“I don’t know if it’s any one thing, really. Just a lot on my mind right now.”
“Did you visit your brother?”
When they were younger, Justine had gone with Jared on what she later learned was an annual tradition. His twin brother, Andrew, had passed not long after their twelfth birthday. Jared made it a point to visit his grave each year. She wondered who else outside of his immediate family knew he did this.
“Yeah.” He paused. “I think that’s part of it. This year was… different.”
She tapped him twice on the thigh as an unspoken instruction to move over, then took a seat on the chair when he yielded the space. She didn’t say anything, she didn’t have to. The intent was clear. I’m listening.
“The routine never changes. It’s been the same ever since I got my license. But this time I got to the bakery, the one I always go to, and just… I dunno. Froze, I guess.”
The ritual involved getting two cupcakes, dating back to when the boys would celebrate as kids. Jared had told her that they could never agree on what kind of cake to have, so their mother decided that the best way to fix this was just to get each one of them a cupcake. This way everyone got what they wanted. No tears. No tantrums. Andrew preferred vanilla. Jared was a fan of chocolate.
And without him having to explain any further, Justine knew exactly why the day had gone sideways. It had been months since that night in the ring when Vickie Hall had emptied canister after canister of liquid chocolate onto that rag. Jared’s body had since healed, but the worst of the aftereffects still lingered.
“The bakery… I couldn’t go in, Cal. I must have sat in that car for a half hour watching people go in and out, and trying to tell myself that all I have to do is shut off the engine, open the door, and then it’s as simple as one foot in front of the other. I just couldn’t do it. Twenty-seven years, and this is the first time I have ever – ever – gone empty-handed.”
The words of her father resonated in her memory. “People like this – like Zion and the Halls – you can’t ever really get whole with them,” she said. “They take things from you, and no matter how much you fight sometimes those things are just gone.”
“This can’t stay gone. It can’t. I need this back, because it’s one of the ways I get to keep him with me. He was my best friend, and I… I was his…”
“Nothing. Forget it.”
She didn’t press. There was a time, not too far removed, when he would have readily confessed whatever secret he was keeping. Those days were behind them.
“We beat people like this by outlasting them. Showing them that life goes on.” She shrugged. “I don’t know. This is all new to me.”
He didn’t respond.
“Can I ask you something?” she said. “Are we going to be okay?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I mean, we’re not as young as we used to be, so the physical stuff takes longer to heal. But talking about it…”
She waved him off.
“No. That’s not…” She took a deep breath and watched it hang in the cool December air. “I mean, are we going to be okay? You and I. Us.”
“Oh.” Despite being so close to the fire, despite being near enough to leech a little bit of body heat, the flat way that he said the word made her skin prickle. “I don’t know. I want to be, I just… I don’t know.”
“Please tell me what you’re thinking.”
He was quiet for a while, with only the soft crackle of the fire to break the silence. The seconds that ticked by were slow, agonizing torture.
“Lately I’ve been wondering if you and I should be ‘us’, or if that’s just not who we’re meant to be,” he said, and the bottom fell out of the world. “Like, the summer was great, but then everything with Jon happened. I admit I didn’t react well to it, but then the next thing I know I’m sitting by myself in a hospital room after three people tried to drown me because you needed space. I thought things were changing after Thanksgiving, but then you went dark on me again for a week. I’ll be honest, Cal. I don’t know what to do anymore.”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“And I can’t keep fighting with you. I just can’t. What happens the next time I do something you don’t like? Are we right back here? I would rather be locked in a room with a hundred Paxtons than put myself through that again.”
“Why would you say…”
“Because it would hurt less, Justine,” he said. She tried to meet his eyes, but he wouldn’t look at her. He couldn’t. “Do you remember what you said when you first came here this spring? About me carrying a torch for you? You were right. The problem is that it keeps burning my hands.”
I’m sorry, Jared. I’m sorry that I didn’t say something sooner, and that I waited too goddamn long. I’m sorry that I left that morning, and for everything that came after. I know I hurt you. I do. It’s not something that I’m proud of, and I don’t really have a great reason for it. There’s no excuse for it.
She was already closing the front door behind her by the time he rose from his seat, a hushed invective on his lips. She didn’t see him step through the sliding glass door into the kitchen, or hear when he called her name. She had no way of knowing that the package she had left on the counter would catch his attention, or that his brow furrowed when he opened the card and read the note it contained.
I’ve owed you this for so long. I’m sorry it took me until now to give it to you. I don’t know what happens next, and that scares the hell out of me. Promise me we can talk when you’ve read it.
She walked away from the house not knowing that he was already halfway through her letter, that once already he’d needed to pause to pull himself together, or that he’d be sprinting after her once he finished.
I know you’re going away soon. Darren told me as much. He said that you’d had a few offers while we were still training, and I don’t know whether to think it’s sweet that you didn’t say anything because you thought it would spare my feelings, or if I should be pissed because you didn’t think you could tell me something like that.
I want you to know that I’m happy for you. You’re going to be amazing. You like to tell people that you hate wrestling, but I don’t think that’s true. One day maybe you’ll figure that out. And if I’m around to see it, get ready for a great big “I told you so.”
The car sat in the driveway, the engine idling away. Justine slouched back in her seat and pressed her eyes shut tight. Maybe he hadn’t seen the letter yet. She could let herself back in, creep into the kitchen, and dart away before he was any the wiser.
She let the situation play out in her mind, and realized just how ridiculous it sounded. No, it was done, and she would have to live with the consequences. Instead, she tried to convince herself that he would be too preoccupied with the grueling weekend ahead to give it much thought.
A knock at the window startled her out of her daydream.
He was kneeling alongside the car. The sweatshirt was draped over his right shoulder, and there was something in his left hand. An old envelope. Folded paper that had yellowed with age. A lump formed in her throat.
How would he react if she threw the car into reverse and floored it out of the driveway?
She lowered the window.
“Hey, so… okay, ummm…” Any sense of composure was gone, the thoughts were coming too fast to parse into words. “I didn’t think you’d-“
“I don’t want you to go,” he said.
“Right. Okay. But, did you read it? I don’t know what to, or how, and…” She sucked in a breath and tried to compose herself. She knew this conversation was unavoidable, but that it was happening so damn quick was a wrinkle she didn’t see coming. “I’m sorry. I don’t do very well with conversations like this. That’s why I try to, you know, avoid them.”
He leaned his shoulder against the driver’s side door. Despite her foot being off either pedal, Justine spared a quick glance to make sure they weren’t both about to roll into the street.
“The thing I’ve learned about hiding,” he said, “is that sometimes you need somebody else to pull you out of your safe spot, otherwise you’ll stay in that house forever.”
“What if I don’t know what to say?”
“You don’t have to say anything. Just give me a minute to listen, okay? And then if you don’t like what you hear then we never have to talk about it again. I mean that.”
She sighed and killed the engine. Every instinct told her this was stupid, and that she should run. It was familiar, a habit born of their early interactions, and one that she had to fight to suppress even now. When she was younger her father had told her that relationships were a lot like fighting, two people showing the rawest form of themselves to each other. For a long time she believed him, but in that moment everything was called into question. Her hands never trembled in the ring.
“Did you leave the fire going?” she said. “Fuck, I should have brought a coat.”
“It’s okay. I’ve got you covered.”
He took a gentle step forward and wrapped the sweatshirt around her shoulders. In the twenty years since she’d claimed it as her own it had served as a sort of safety blanket. Now, wearing it again, Justine understood that’s what he wanted it to remain.
“Besides,” he said, “it looks better on you, anyway.”
I don’t know when or even if you and I will see each other again. I keep hearing about more and more people from our class getting the call, so hopefully soon it’ll be my turn. Maybe one day we’ll even get to share a ring together. How amazing would that be?
But if that doesn’t happen, or if our paths don’t cross again, then at least I was able to get this off my chest.
I love you, Jared. If anything in this letter stays with you, let it be this. I love you.