There’s a common scene in cartoons where a character would stand on top of a mountain, and roll a tiny snowball down the slope. That snowball would invariably turn into a huge snow boulder that obliterated any unfortunate cartoon nemesis in its path.
Nate Colton had been thinking about those cartoons a lot lately.
Maybe it was because a snide comment at a chance meeting last month had somehow turned into a fistfight in the parking lot and Brandon Youngblood losing the Universal Championship to Phil Atken.
Maybe it was because residual anger from ReVival 13 had sent him to the gym that morning with the purpose of blowing off steam, and after attempting to bench press a not-advisable amount of weight, felt a twinge in his elbow that cut his workout short.
Maybe it was because he drove over a nail on the way home and had to change the tire on a hot day when he was already sweaty, then the shop couldn’t get the patch done today so he had to leave his car overnight, and then he had to walk a mile and a half home because there were no Ubers nearby.
For whatever reason, Nate was thinking about those cartoon snowballs.
Also for whatever reason, Nate was in a mood.
At the end of his long walk, Nate made a beeline for the kitchen for some water because of course he’d left his water bottle in the car. He grabbed a glass from the drying rack, filled it, and quickly drank its contents before filling it again. This glass he took into the dining room, where he threw his sweat-soaked hoodie onto a nearby chair and started sorting through the mail on the table.
“Bills, bills, extended warranty, we want to buy your house…huh.” There, amidst the various junk, was a letter addressed to Nate himself. He dropped the rest of the day’s delivery on the table, and tore open the envelope with his finger.
“Dear Mr. Colton,” he read aloud, “enclosed is the invoice for repairs performed on the vehicle belonging to FLAMB–oh, for fuck’s sake.” He crumpled the paper and threw it at the wall, where it dropped unceremoniously to the floor. This left him with the invoice itself, which met a similar fate.
“Two thousand dollars for a couple of windows? For a fight HE started? Kiss my ass.”
“–means you’re not going to make it then?” came his father’s voice from the kitchen.
I don’t need this right now, Nate thought, and grabbed his hoodie from the chair. Before he could leave the room, his father walked in with his phone pressed to his ear.
“No, I get it. Those appointments are a bitch to reschedule.” Jake nodded at his son, and walked around the other side of the table. There was the soft crunch as he stepped on one of the discarded pieces of paper. “Hang on a sec,” he said, and slowly knelt down.
After a series of groans as he went to the floor, and a long hiss of pain as he stood back up, Jake shook out the discarded paper and looked it over. “Well, let me know if you watch the stream, and I can take notes for you too. Yep. Take care.”
Jake ended the call, and gave Nate a quick glare that let him know he wasn’t going to escape any time soon. Nate was in no mood for a lecture, so he tried distracting his father instead.
“Who was that? Was it Frank M–”
“That scout I know, yeah,” Jake said as he put his phone down on the table. “He has to miss the Flynn Cup again this year. Needs to see his doctor.”
“That’s a shame,” Nate replied, and started walking out of the room.
“Where do you think you’re going?” his father asked in his you’re-not-getting-out-of-this voice. It usually led to Nate raking the leaves, or helping stain the deck. He only wished today’s task would be that easy.
“Out.” He put his hand at the door and started to push. He felt a little like an escaping convict, reaching the prison gates just as the guards drew their guns.
“Hold your horses, son. We need to talk.”
Nate came to a stop, finally accepting that his escape attempt would fail. “What about?”
“About what happened on the last show.”
“It was great,” Nate said, trying to sound nonchalant. “Brandon Youngblood treated me like a big deal. Called me the Next Diamond.”
Jake scowled, and his voice got a little sharper. “You know damn well what I’m talking about. That fight with the French kid. This repair bill. What the hell were you thinking?”
I was thinking I wanted to strangle the little fucker. “That’s…not how I wanted it to go.”
“I wanted to clear the air between us, but then…it’s him, Dad. He just…gets under my skin.”
“That’s no excuse. You gotta keep a clear head out there. At the level you’re at, everyone’s gonna try to needle you. PRIME ain’t like at our shows, or the Belmont, or anywhere else you’ve worked.”
How would you know?
The thought popped into Nate’s head out of nowhere. It shocked him so badly that he had to keep his jaw clenched tight, for fear of saying it out loud. Where the hell had that come from?
“I know,” Nate said, carefully. “But the way he talked about our family, the way he talked about you–”
Jake cut him off. “I’m tough enough to handle an insult. Christ, you’ve let that kid into your head already, and he’s not even good at mind games. Forget him, you might not make it past Tony Gamble.”
Are you fucking serious, old man?
There it was again. Another, quieter part of Nate’s mind was telling him to step back, to release the tension…but that snowball had been rolling all day, and it had picked up too much momentum to stop now.
“I can take care of Gamble. If FLAMBERGE can beat him, so can I.”
“Don’t get cocky! What have I always told you?”
You always tell me a lot of shit, Nate thought. The mental image of cartoons about snowballs was replaced with ones about angels and devils on someone’s shoulder, only the angel always seemed to be running late.
“Cocky turns into arrogant…” Jake started, fully expecting his son to finish the sentence.
“…and arrogant turns into embarrassment.” Nate finished. He rolled his eyes as he did so, which did not go unnoticed.
The older man pointed a finger at his son. “You can cut that shit out right now,” he snapped. “The man’s a Hall of Famer for a goddamn reason, and if you don’t get your head on straight he’ll eat you alive.”
Whatever you say, he thought.
Jake’s eyebrows raised, then furrowed. His face started to turn red. It should have been his duty to deescalate the argument, but it looked like his angel hadn’t shown up for work either.
“I’m trying to help you, god dammit!”
Nate knew he had crossed a line, but his only thought was fuck it, might as well keep going.
“How? By telling me that I’m not good enough to beat Gamble? By treating me like a little kid where everyone could see it?”
“Maybe if you weren’t acting like a little kid, I wouldn’t have treated you that way!”
I might be burning a bridge right now.
“I’m a grown man now, or hadn’t you noticed? I don’t need you holding my hand all the time!”
“I’m trying to teach you the rules–”
“Well maybe I don’t need so many fucking rules!”
I wonder what color the flames will be?
“Don’t you dare talk to me like that! Not in my goddamn house! Not under my goddamn roof!”
“Your roof, right. You gonna send me to my room next?”
“You think you can do better? You want to be the man of the house then?”
Maybe what FLAMBO said on Jabber is right.
“Wouldn’t be the first time, would it?! Or did you forget–”
Maybe sometimes, you do need to p–
Nate had already opened his mouth to yell again, but quickly closed it. Unlike Code Purple, everyone in the family knew what Red Light meant.
You don’t live a life like Jake Colton has without picking up a few personal demons. He spent twenty years settling his disputes with physical violence, after all. On top of that, he was a very passionate man. Great for when your wife puts on a Prince album, but passion is a double-edged sword.
He loved his family with all his heart, and never wanted to hurt them. But he knew he had a temper. And while he could keep it in check most of the time, he also knew that control was easy to lose, and hard to regain.
So he made a system.
Once the words were said, everyone hit the brakes. No shouting. No words at all, in fact. Deep breaths. Relaxed shoulders. Unclenched fists.
Nate waited. He let the calmness creep in, washing away the rage, soothing the frayed nerves. The angel had arrived to restore order; the giant snowball came to a stop, mere inches away from catastrophe.
When both parties had calmed down, the first words were always the same.
“I love you.”
“Love you too.”
The system worked very well and would continue to do so, as long as everyone remembered the cardinal rule.
You never, ever, ever, run a red light.
“You good?” Nate asked, and his father nodded.
“I’m sorry, Nathan,” Jake said as he slumped down into a dining chair, unable to even look his son in the eye. “I’m so sorry.”
“Hey. It’s okay, Dad.” Nate put a hand on his father’s shoulder; Jake reached up and patted his son’s hand with his own, then gave it a squeeze.
The younger man sat down in the chair next to his father. The argument had become a conversation again, which still needed to be finished.
“We’ll have to talk about that other thing again, won’t we?” Jake asked.
“Yeah, I think so. But not today.”
“Not today,” Jake repeated with a sigh. He rubbed his eyes with his hand, then looked down at the moisture on his fingers. He seemed confused for a moment, as if he hadn’t even known about the tears.
Nate felt a tear run down his own cheek. He couldn’t believe how far things had gone. How bad it had almost gotten. He held his father’s hand tighter, as if he was trying to heal the bond between them.
Jake finally turned toward his son, the redness draining from his face. Slowly, he cracked a smile.
“So…the Next Diamond, eh?”
Any part of him that wanted to stay mad died out when he saw the look of pride on his father’s face. Within moments, Nate was smiling as wide as his dad was.
“Yeah. From Youngblood himself, no less.”
“Well, god damn.” Another sigh, then Jake let go of his son’s hand, then placed both of his own on his thighs, bracing himself as he leaned forward. “I know I got a lot of rules. But you understand why, right? I want our name to mean something in wrestling. And that ain’t done just with title belts and huge fights. I want all of you to be inspirations. I want other people to look at you and say ‘he does it the right way.’ Then they can follow your lead, and others follow them…and maybe someday, the assholes won’t always win.”
“Yeah. I understand.”
“And I know you didn’t want this thing with the French kid to blow up so bad. I know you were only trying to help…but I think the kind of help he needs, you can’t give.”
Nate nodded, though he only partially understood. Must be some secret thing dads know.
“And sometimes, doing the right thing is gonna be so hard. You won’t get rewarded for it, or even respected, and it’s gonna feel like getting kicked in the chest the whole time. But that’s when it’s most important. That’s how we show the world what being a Colton means. It means we play fair, and we fight fair. The way it oughtta be.”
“I get it, Dad. Thanks. And…I’m sorry. About what I said.”
“Me too, son.” Jake started to stand up, but his old injury meant that Nate was already standing by the time he got upright. They shared a hug, then Jake stepped back, still with one arm around Nate’s shoulders. “So, about that bill.”
“I still say the ‘wipe my ass with it’ option is on the table.”
Nate smiled. “Nah, I’ll pay it. You’re right, I helped cause the damage. It’s only fair that I pay the bill.”
“Good. I don’t know what your situation is like, but I’ve got some money we can dip into.”
“I’ll pay you back, as soon as I can.”
“Don’t have to.”
Nate shrugged. “Don’t care.”
Jake nodded in approval. “That said…I think I know a way you can make a point with it.”
Nate arched an eyebrow. “That doesn’t sound much like doing the right thing.”
“Ah, I said we have to play fair. Didn’t say we had to play nice.”
“Sounds like some Hoosier Business,” Nate said with a smile. “What are you thinking?”
“Well…there was this thing your Uncle Tommy pulled in high school.” Jake smiled, in the way he always did when he brought up his old friend. “God, I wish you could have met him. He’da loved you.”
“Tell me about it later,” Nate said, knowing full well that Jake only ever talked about Uncle Tommy for a few minutes at a time. “It’s been a long, stupid day. I’m gonna swing by the Sawmill for a bit.”
“Sounds good. Call if you need a ride.’
“Will do,” Nate replied, and reached in his pocket for his keys…before remembering where his keys, and his car, were.
“Any chance I can get that ride now?”
# # #
Nate walked through the door of the family’s favorite dive and sat down at the bar. Spencer, the new bartender, flashed a warm smile at him.
“What can I get you?” she asked.
“Bud Light. Bottle’s fine.”
“You got it!” She started rifling through the cooler. “Sorry, I’m still getting used to the setup. I swear I saw it a minute ago!”
“No rush, Spence. Take your time.”
He drummed his fingers on the bar as Spencer kept searching. Then he heard a voice from his right.
Nate turned to see Dennis Colton, working on a beer of his own.
“Denny! Good to see you,” Nate said, and switched to a closer stool. “Holy shit, you’re fancy. What’s the occasion?”
Sure enough, Dennis was pretty fancy that day. Normally Nate saw him in his workout gear, or nondescript t-shirts and jeans, so the sight of a button-up shirt and gray slacks came as a surprise.
“Got a date tonight,” the big man said.
“Hell yeah! With who?”
“Her name’s Fiona. I think she was in your class.”
“No shit? Doesn’t sound familiar, but there were a lot of us. What’s she like?”
“She’s cool. She’s really active, lots of biking and rock climbing and stuff. We’ve talked a lot about meditation, too.”
“Ah, she’s into your hippie bullshit.”
Dennis let the comment slide off of him, like he usually did. “I met her at yoga, and we’ve gotten coffee together a couple of times. Tonight’s our first real date, though.”
“That’s awesome! But forgive–thanks, Spence–” he said as the bartender finally put a beer in front of him. He took a drink and gave a refreshed sigh worthy of the commercials. “Forgive me for saying, but are you sure now’s the right time for this? You’ve got the Flynn Cup in a couple of weeks.”
“I’m aware. But…what’s your dad’s first rule?”
Nate rolled his eyes–he may have calmed down, but that didn’t mean he was in a good mood. “Ugh. Don’t remind me of his rules. Up to my eyeballs in rules right now.”
“Is it wrong, though?”
“No,” Nate said, loading a lot of annoyance into a single word. “No, he’s right. ‘The world won’t wait until you’re ready, so you’d better be ready.’”
“So in that sense…’now’ is always the right time.” Denny finished off his bottle, and signaled to Spencer for another.
“Thank you, Master Splinter.”
“No, we settled this; I’m April O’Neil. Got the cute outfit and everything.”
Nate laughed at his cousin, whose sense of humor always caught him off guard. “You’re not driving to your date, are you?”
“Nah, taking an Uber. Just need to loosen up a bit first.”
“Nervous, are we?”
“Little bit,” Dennis answered, holding up his hand, with the thumb and index finger slightly apart. “I want this to go well. I really like her, Nate.”
“Well, she’s really gonna like you too. And you know why?”
Dennis didn’t answer; he just held up his bottle for the toast that was inevitably coming.
“Because you’re a Colton. You’ve got a good heart…”
“…and a great ass.” Their bottles clinked, and Spencer laughed so hard that she dropped her bar towel.
“It is the curse of all the Colton men,” Denny said. “So how’s your day been?”
“Not worth a shit, cuz. Got into a pretty big fight with Dad earlier.”
Dennis let out a low whistle. While he’d never drawn one himself, he knew how serious it was.
“I don’t even know how it happened. We were talking one minute, and yelling the next.”
“Ever thought about meditation?” Denny asked?
“No, and I plan to keep it that way.”
“You shouldn’t dismiss it. It keeps me centered. Gets the bad thoughts out, lets the good thoughts in.”
“Maybe. Or Benny could be right, and I just need to get laid.” He looked back up at Spencer, who was washing pint glasses. “Hey Spence, what are you doing later?”
Spencer was completely unfazed. “Sorry, Nate. Mom says I can’t hook up anyone who drinks here.”
“Good call,” Nate shot back. “We’re degenerates. I could use another beer when you’ve got a minute, though.”
His unserious advance shot down, Nate turned back to his cousin. “I swear, this used to be a lot easier.”
“You were a star athlete in high school, and your dad is famous. Of course it was easier.”
“Point.” Nate finished his beer, just as Spencer set another one down in front of him.
“Well, I gotta take off in a minute.” Denny pulled a bill out of his pocket and set it on the bar. Spencer tried to bring back his change, but Dennis waved her off. “But you should really think about coming to the yoga class on Friday. I think it would help you a lot.”
“Sure, let me put it in my calendar. ‘Friday at seven, Denny’s Hippie Bullshit.’”
“–but I bet I can convince you.”
Nate shook his head. “Bet you can’t.”
“Two words, cousin. Yoga. Pants.”
While he had already opened his mouth to refute, Nate quickly realized that he couldn’t think of a single argument. “Son of a bitch, you got me. Hell, I’m surprised Benny’s not there every day.”
“He was…” Dennis paused, looking for the right delicate phrasing. “…asked not to return.”
Nate laughed again; tales of his brother’s dumbassery were always great entertainment. “I’ll think about it, OK?”
“All I ask. Welp…about that time.” Dennis stood up and finished his beer, then started toward the door. “Take care, Nate.”
“You too. Enjoy yourself tonight, big man.”
With a wave and a smile, Dennis left the Sawmill, leaving Nate alone with his thoughts…and Spencer the bartender, plus a guy who had fallen asleep in a booth.
“Wow, he’s right about that ass,” Spencer said as soon as the door closed.
Nate chuckled, but he started to wonder if there wasn’t something to what his cousin said. After all, he almost never saw Dennis lose his temper…and maybe a change would do him some good.
Also, yoga pants.
He brought out his phone, and opened his calendar. “Friday at seven…Denny’s Hippie Bullshit.”
From there, he thought about opening one of several dating apps…but held back. It was always the same on those anyway. All the other profiles were either bots, scammers, or people he wasn’t compatible with.
Perhaps more changes were in order.
Instead of a dating app, he opened a search engine and softly spoke as he typed.