It was the kind of room that would send a teenage boy spiraling for all the wrong reasons. The walls were covered in anatomy illustrations showing the reproductive system in striking detail. Before I put my old life on hold to become a wrestler, I had spent a few years studying illustration and graphic design with the hope I’d be able to spin it into a career in comic books or video games. The thought that some people used their talents to draw kidneys and rectums in vivid color wasn’t something that I ever considered. What mediums do these people use?
In between the charts and graphs hung the degrees and family photos. Standard fare for a doctor’s office.
Justine and I had cleared the first hurdle in September, right before my first round match against Logan James. There had been an awkward appointment and an intimate moment with a plastic specimen cup, but the results were positive. Biologically, everything was in order. There was nothing on my end that would prevent us from starting a family, age be damned.
“And even if we try one of these approaches and start you on Clomid there’s still no guarantee it’ll be effective.”
Justine’s doctor sat across from us, her hands folded together on the desk. You could tell by her delivery that this was a speech she’d recited more timed than she could probably remember, perfecting the delivery little by little with each repetition. For the life of me I can’t remember her name, though I know it looked like the aftermath of a Scrabble disaster. I couldn’t tell you how old she was or where all of the degrees on the wall came from, only that every minute we spent in that room chipped away a little more at our hope.
We had spent the nights before convincing ourselves that the rules didn’t apply to us. We were both on the wrong side of forty, sure, but that didn’t matter. We were athletes, both of us in peak physical condition despite a losing battle against Father Time. Surely that would give us an advantage when it came to getting pregnant, right?
“It also comes with the same risks,” she continued. “After the age of thirty-five there is a higher chance for complications.”
“What kind of complications?” Justine said. She tried to sound calm – hell, to most people she might have been successful – but she was ready to crumble.
“With the treatment there is a higher chance to get pregnant with multiples – twins or even triplets,” the doctor said. “There is also the risk of a premature birth or a low birth weight. But regardless of whether we explore that option or not, there is also a higher chance of the baby suffering from a birth defect. Or, in some very unfortunate cases…” She paused, and I wasn’t sure if she was trying to find the right words, or if this was a deliberate move to really hammer home the severity of what she was about to say. “There is the chance of miscarriage, or even stillbirth.”
Justine closed her eyes.
“I know that all of this sounds scary, and I don’t mean to frighten you both. It’s wonderful that you want to start a family, and if you get pregnant there’s a very good chance that the baby will be born perfectly healthy. But it’s important you know the risks involved.”
“No, I…,” is what Justine started to say before she caught herself. She took a deep breath and straightened-up in her chair, doing her best to look brave. “I understand, and I appreciate you being honest with us. It’s just…”
“It’s a lot,” I said.
“It is,” the doctor continued. “But if this is something that you’re serious about, and I believe that you both are, then I would also recommend that you take a little time and think about some other options to starting your family.”
For the first time in years I caught myself in the middle of a silent prayer. Maybe prayer’s not the right word for it. I never considered myself a religious person, because any all-powerful entity capable of governing the direction of my life would have to be one sick fuck for everything I’ve gone through.
And that’s the thing, I can handle the pain, and the chaos that comes with it. That’s the price I pay, the one I’ve come to expect.
Justine shouldn’t have to suffer.
The last time Jared walked the halls of the Roy Wilkins Auditorium he had done so with his hood up, his eyes downcast, praying that he wasn’t recognized by anyone backstage. Or worse, anyone in the crowd. He had been back on the national stage for most of the year, but still hid his face under a mask, the longest single stretch he had ever spent as the blueberry king. Conversations were short if they happened at all, and had there not been a local team competing he may well have stayed home.
Time, so they say, heals all wounds.
The man who walked into The Roy that afternoon had been reborn in the year since. The mask was gone, cast aside at the biggest show of the year. For the first time in over a decade Jared was free of the shackles he’d burdened himself with. The specter of Wyatt Connors had been exorcized. The truth of the events that led him to exile had been made apparent. Old enemies had become friends. Despite the uncertainty in the future he and Justine were trying to make for themselves, there was light on the path ahead.
The weekend had been good for her as well, offering a chance to see Bex Savage and Angel Quinley in person for the first time in months. The New World Trash had taken the previous year’s Flynn by storm, claiming the championship and announcing their presence on the national stage. It wasn’t long after that Angel and Bex had provided a shoulder to cry on during a rough patch in Justine’s relationship with Jared.
“Why do you call him Charlie when everyone else calls him Charles?” Justine rubbed the towel over her face, wiping away the sweat that still lingered from their match.
There were no private rooms at The Roy, not to the extent they were used to at PRIME shows, but the pair had found a corner to rest in after opening the first night of the Milo Flynn Cup. This, too, would have been unheard of a year ago.
Jared shrugged. “Old habit, I guess.”
Like Jared, Charles Beckett had been a mainstay of Minnesota State Wrestling in the boom years of the National Wrestling Council. He and his partner, David McBride, had ruled the tag team landscape as Crash & Burn. The years since the Council folded had seen Charles begin a new career as a content creator for the popular Beckett WreckIt YouTube channel. And with close ties to the area, he took the lead organizing the Flynn every year.
“Did you talk to him and Dave about the wedding,” Justine said. “Are they on board? I swear, the three of you looked like kids out there earlier.”
“Oh yeah. Of course they are.”
A smirk played at the corner of Jared’s lips, one that Justine knew all too well. A cold panic shot up her spine.
“What?” she said. “What aren’t you telling me?”
“I may have appointed Charlie the ‘Chancellor of Mischief’.”
“What the hell is a Chancellor of Mischief? And why are we having one at our wedding?”
“To your first question, I have no idea, but I’m sure we’ll all figure it out at the same time. To your second… Umm, because?”
She balled up her towel and tossed it at his face. Jared made no move to stop it, instead letting it bounce off his cheek and unfurl as it rolled down his chest.
“So does that mean you’re good with this, or…?”
“When this weekend is over you and I are def-,” she started to answer, but Justine’s voice trailed off when a throng of event staff began sprinting through the area. She looked to Jared to see if he knew what was happening, but the grin had vanished from his face. He cast a glance in her direction, meeting her eyes, and then pushed himself up.
“What?” she continued. “What’s going on?”
Another, larger group ran through the area and out towards the ringside area.
“Not sure yet,” he said. “But probably nothing good.”
A lump rose in her throat.
“Jared,” she said. Her voice trembled. “Who’s in the ring right now?”
It was almost a little too on-the-nose that a gym that began its life as a candy factory would serve as host to a Halloween party. In the wake of Justine’s doctor appointment neither of us were feeling particularly festive, but we thought that getting out and among friends might help brighten the mood a little bit.
Darren Stracker, the gym’s owner, had decided to dress as me this year, though his costume was far from flattering. He had purchased a pink fright wig that he wore slightly askew, and seemed to have stuffed all of the cushions from the couch in his office down the back of his shorts.
As much as I hated the outfit, it did help in changing Justine’s mood. She took one look at Darren’s getup and burst into a laughing fit that only ended when she forced herself to step outside to calm down.
Of course, the problem with going to a Halloween party hosted by wrestlers is that invariably you’re forced to talk about wrestling. Chuck Poundstone was one of the guys that Justine had helped train, but he’d recently started assisting her in teaching classes. In another life he could have been a body double for Tom Selleck with that mustache of his, but it wasn’t Magnum PI that I thought of when I looked at him.
“So Tony Gamble, huh?”
Real subtle, that Chuck.
“Unless things change within the next week, that’s the plan,” I said.
“Is he as big a dick as Justine says he is?”
I thought for a moment, started to answer, and then paused. I didn’t actually know what she had said about him to Chuck, nor was I really sure what her feelings on the subject were. Yes, she would usually roll her eyes and make a comment anytime Gamble started trying to push everyone’s buttons on the company’s chat platform, but none of that evidence would hold up in court.
I had my issues with the man, most of them stemming from the tee shirt he started wearing in the wake of what happened to Jon, but it wasn’t the sort of thing I held a personal vendetta over.
“Hard to say, Hay-” I caught myself, but I wasn’t fast enough. Chuck’s eyebrows hit the ceiling. “Sorry about that. The guy is living in my head rent-free these days. It’s the mustache, I think.”
“Nah, don’t sweat it.” He waved a hand through the air like he was brushing the idea away. “I’m gonna take it as a compliment, because goddamn would I kill to be as successful as that guy.”
No, Chuck. You’ve got it all wrong. It’s not the success, or the gold, or even the money. It’s those temporary moments of validation that come with it. The ones you chase you like an addict because they’re all so fleeting, and maybe the next time will be the one that sticks.
I didn’t say any of that, because admitting it to myself is hard enough.
“And speaking of success,” Chuck continued, “You think you’re going to go on to round three?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
It was the truth, I had no idea what the outcome of that match would look like. Few people on the roster had been able to get one over on Paxton Ray, and of those that did even fewer managed to do it without a shiny new scar to show for it.
“Well,” Chuck said, “at least there probably isn’t a danger of him needing to start wearing a ‘Standing for Jared’ tee shirt.”
He started to laugh, but stopped himself. He was looking over my shoulder, and I turned to see Justine only a few feet behind me staring a hole through him. I’d seen this expression before, but it was apparently new for Chuck because it drained the color from his face.
“I’m sorry,” he stammered out. “It, uhhh… I didn’t mean to…”
She turned and left without a word, slaloming in between bodies on her way to the gym’s main entrance.
He made her promise not to watch.
Paxton Ray was a killer, no one would deny this. He had calmly walked into UltraViolence only a few months before with the intention of taking Jonathan Rhine out forever, and had succeeded in his goal. That same threat now loomed large over the locker room where Jared and Justine shared a quiet moment in private. She could see the tremble in his hands, hear the quaver in his voice.
He believed that he might not be the same man when he came back from the ring – if he came back at all, and so he had made her promise not to watch what happened.
Justine agreed, because it was what he needed to hear, but it was a promise she never intended to keep.
The last few moments had swirled like a maelstrom, a blur of images and sounds that her brain was still trying to process. The sound of Jared hitting the mat as Paxton deployed the same move that had crippled Jonathan Rhine. The air whipping past her as she ran to the ring. The sole of a boot against the side of her face. Arms around her, pulling her back, and then Dametreyus’ voice in her ear.
Now she stood in the makeshift command center that bridged the backstage area and the arena proper. Everyone in PRIME referred to it as the Argyle Position for reasons that Justine didn’t fully understand. The company was full of little idiosyncrasies like that. She, along with a few dozen others, stood cramped and anxious in that little space to watch the bloodbath unfolding a hundred feet away. The company refused to sanction this fight, but that didn’t mean people within the organization weren’t eager to see it.
An idea played at the edge of her thoughts, and she made up her mind then and there that regardless of what state Jared was in when he came back through the curtain, that she was going to kill him on the spot for making her suffer through this.
The minutes passed, and the command center crowd reacted in time with the audience on the other side of the make-shift wall. The room was becoming more and more cramped as additional bodies filed in to watch the violence first-hand. All the more people to witness Justine’s impending homicide.
Her heart rate had doubled. The rhythmic thunder was all she could hear. It drowned everything out until the final bell sounded and the crowd that sold-out the Argyle erupted. Then the world went silent.
She watched on the monitor as Jared left the ring while doctors attended to the unconscious Ray. Her hands balled into fists. Her jaw clenched. Any minute now Jared would be back on this side of the wall, and then he’d have another fight on his hands – one that he had no hope of winning.
The curtain parted.
She lunged forward, hands at the ready, and collapsed into his arms hard enough that they almost toppled to the ground. She buried her face in his chest, not giving a damn that it had been stained red with blood. Sobs wracked her body. Tears spilled from her eyes.
The Argyle was silent as a crypt, the cheering having abruptly stopped.
“It’s okay,” Jared whispered to her. “I’m okay.”
“Never… again,” she whispered back. She pulled her head away to meet his eyes. Her cheeks had been stained red, but her tears had carved thin veins in the blood. “Promise me.”
She leaned in again, and he pulled his arms tight around her.
“Never again,” he said.
“I just keep thinking about what happened to Angel.”
It took me a minute to convince Chuck that everyone was fine, and that it had just been a rough couple of days, so he shouldn’t take her reaction personally.
I found her sitting where we had parked across the street, perched on the hood of the car with her knees pulled tight to her chest. I hopped up next to her, and for a moment it felt like we were back in time, waiting to run away from Darren’s candy factory and take the business over. Life had different plans for both of us, but it had found a way to put us back together.
It wasn’t Chuck’s comment that bothered her, but rather someone else putting a voice to the thoughts she’d been having.
“There was no malice. No one trying to hurt anyone else. It just… happened. And then I think about all the shit that you get into. Do you remember what you said to me after Colossus?”
“Never again,” I said. “You made me promise.”
“And it was calm for a while. Really calm. Then everything happened with Ivan, and…”
“And I went too far again.”
“I mean I understand why you did it. Part of me even thought it was kind of romantic the way you went to war for my honor, but the whole time I was scared about what might happen to you. What might happen to us.”
“I’m sorry. It’s hard, but forty years of bad habits… you know?”
“What am I supposed to do if we get pregnant, and you’re in Angel’s place? Or Jon’s? Or even Frank’s? Because I can see a world where you take things that far again, Jared.”
Her comment hung in the air. She was right to be scared, and we both knew it. I could see that world, too. I’d come damn close to creating it when Ivan threatened her safety. The forklift I hit him with was not the first idea I had that day, and the others would have led to radically different outcomes for all of us.
Finally I said, “Do you know why Gabe left wrestling?”
Justine shook her head.
I’d known Gabriel Simon since high school. He was two years my senior, and a real pain in the ass. I have him to thank for the first injury to my right arm, and the off-and-on shoulder problems that I’ve lived with since. It was through him that I first learned of Stracker’s gym. We’re cool now – have been for a long time, actually – but things between us were far more hostile back then.
“His parents died when he was little. Car crash not long after Christmas one year.”
“Oh my god, that’s terrible.”
“Yeah. It really messed him up for a while. I think it’s why he was such an ass when we were younger. I can’t really blame him, but…” Focus, Jared. You have a point you’re trying to make. “Jamie got pregnant. They found out literally weeks after he signed with Hawaiian Island Wrestling. He signed the contract, wrestled one match against a guy named Dez Bradley, and then walked away forever.”
She turned her head to look at me like a scientist studying her experiment.
“What are you saying?”
I tried to speak, but the words wouldn’t come. I never thought the admission would be this hard. After all, I’d told anyone that would listen that this was never what I wanted to do for a living. I hated the job, didn’t I? So why was this so hard?
“The clock is ticking for me, Cal. I’ll be forty-five in a few months, and there aren’t many days of this left in front of me. You don’t have to worry about me not coming home after a show, because when we’re more than just me and you… when we’re mom and dad… I’m home for good.”
Because it gave me everything I ever wanted – a family and the means to take care of them. It introduced me to the person I planned on spending the rest of my life with, even if it took us twenty years to get there. And soon, it would give me a chance at the only job I ever truly wanted: to be a parent.
But if that’s the case, then why was the decision to walk away so easy?
“I’m not wasting a single minute of this life, Cal. I did that for ten years, and I’m never doing it again. Not ever.”
Because Justine shouldn’t have to suffer.
And neither should I.