“AND IVAN STANISLAV TAKES OUT JARED SYKES!”
Nick Stuart’s roars from ringside barely cut through the pandemonium that was Petco Park. Ivan’s Red Scare had left The Dragonslayer in a crumpled mess across the ring, with nothing left to spurn the Russian Bear’s onslaught. Massive chest heaving as he stood from the cover, Ivan fought for air as the Tropical Turmoil Match swelled to its crescendo. With a graying beard gilded with slobber and froth, the burning eyes of Stanislav scorched the ring in search of prey.
“AND IT ALL COMES DOWN TO THIS!” Nick bellowed.
They burned, until they found the dark, roiling gaze of the Event Horizon.
“STANISLAV! HANLON! ONCE AGAIN! HERE AT TROPICAL TURMOIL!’
Hammerin’ Hayes, arms draped over the ropes in the corner, fought for oxygen in kind thanks to the madness of the match. A boot from Jiles early on had nearly knocked him out cold, but Hayes kept the lights on to fight for another shot at his Universal Title. Jared had sent Paxton Ray packing with the Wisecrack, and Nate managed to sneak a pin on Jiles shortly after. Hanlon and Sykes couldn’t save him, though, with a Red Scare into the turnbuckles sealing the Next Diamond’s fate.
And then, with the Knight-Errant eliminated, the Bear stared down his Boogeyman for the third time.
Just how Hammerin’ Hanlon wanted it.
With a vigor renewed, Home Run Hayes launched himself from the corner, sending Ivan stumbling back with a flying shoulder block. A quick kip to his feet put the San Diego crowd into a frenzy, momentum surging as he met the Bear with a volley of rights and lefts, the seven-footer’s body leaning back over the turnbuckle and searching desperately for escape.
“AND I CAN’T BELIEVE IT!” Nick Stuart screamed, hands planted on the booth, nearly bucking out of his chair. “HAYES HANLON HAS THE RUSSIAN BEAR CORNERED!!”
The Pacific Northwest Native could feel his veins surge in his muscled biceps, clobbering Ivan over and over, until the Soviet finally lost his grip on the ropes and slid to the mat against the ring post. The Comeback Kid beat his chest, damn near frothing at the mouth. San Diego frenzied at the sight, filling the young man with adrenaline as he crouched in center ring, hands on his knees, dark eyes pinned to the Russian Bear as the big man struggled to stand.
“THIS COULD BE IT, FOLKS! HANLON LOOKING TO TAKE DOWN IVAN AGAIN! FOR PRIME! FOR JARED SYKES!!”
A smile crept in the corner of his mouth at the sight of Ivan wobbling on his feet. The Russian pivoted, finding the young thorn in his side through a foggy haze.
Just in time to find his jaw crunching against the Event Horizon’s shoulder.
“FLASHPOINT! ANOTHER FLASHPOINT ON STANISLAV!”
Ivan’s eyes glassed-over in an instant, and his massive frame went limp, rolling off Hanlon’s shoulder and flopping onto his back. The rafters shook at PetCo Park as Home Run Hayes hooked a meaty leg, and the crowd counted in unison with the slaps of Timo Bolamba.
The bell’s rings barely struck through the noise, and Hanlon’s music fared no better.Yet, neither were required; all he needed as he laid flat onto his back was the cacophony of 42,000 voices, and Nick Stuart’s frantic and electric call from the table.
“AGAIN! AGAIN! ANOTHER COMEBACK FOR THE AGES! HAYES HANLON! THE COMEBACK KID! WINNING ANOTHER CHANCE TO TAKE BACK THE UNIVERSAL TITLE!”
Eyes closed, Hayes couldn’t keep himself from laughing, a broad grin behind his mustache as he lay prone on the mat, both hands in his hair in near disbelief. Soaking in the roars, and the music, and the lights.
Another chapter for the fairytale.
…but that’s not what happened.
“A MONUMENTAL ELIMINATION!”
As his vision returned to focus, Hayes was met with the waving hand of Cancer Jiles; on the outside looking in to the remaining combatants of Tropical Turmoil. As the fog lifted from a likely concussed brain, a sense of dread seeped into his chest.
Nick Stuart’s play-by-play droned somewhere in the background noise. Hayes flicked his eyes left and right; to Cancer, sent flying off of Ivan’s chest. To Nate, catching Paxton with a stiff uppercut.
To the San Diego crowd, moving on from his elimination like a high school breakup.
Backpedaling up the ramp, ears ringing and heart racing, the walls of Petco squeezed around his mind. His heart. His soul. And so he fled, bursting through the Argyle position and into the bowels of backstage, breathing sharply through his nose and rushing past concerned assistants and techs.
Into a locker room, unsure if it was even his own, but swiftly locking the door behind him regardless. A monitor aired the ongoing match, zoomed in on Colton mounting Jiles and beating his head in, the crowd counting along with every punch.
Hayes hit the power button so hard he thought he might break it.
And then, the quiet. The awful. Wonderful. Dreadful. All-embracing quiet.
He sat slowly on a bench, leaning his broad and sweaty back against a row of lockers. The throbbing heat in his jaw aside, his body felt strong. Ready. It was that quick; his exit from the match so abrupt, leaving no time to build any bumps or bruises. For enough punches and suplexes and superkicks and clotheslines to beat him down.
Not enough pain to distract his frantic mind.
Eyes closed. Quick breaths through the nose.
They opened, flicking down to find his black duffel bag resting next him. It was his locker room after all. He unzipped it carefully with shaky fingers and rummaged through spare clothes and knee sleeves. A tube of Icy-Hot and a bottle of Advil.
And then? A ziploc bag, tucked into a shoe.
He pulled it free and unrolled it, revealing an unsightly clump of earthy stems and caps.
A dangerous choice in a fragile mindset when looking for escape. They tend to heighten the current mood. The prevailing mental state. The present psyche. None of which were going to improve any time soon.
But still, an escape.
He pulled a morsel from the bag; a gray stem leading to a round cap. Brownish yellow, almost golden.
Plucking the stem away, he popped it into his mouth, teeth gnashing into the dry, fleshy fungi, tasting like bland dirt.
And then the cap. The real commitment: The keyhole to Wonderland.
A dried crunch against his molars. As he chewed, eyes staring into the black TV screen, his hand absently searched for another.
He took that one, too.
Stem and cap.
After ReVival 31.
“I’ll call you. Later, baby.”
Waggling fingers attached to a long pair of legs and raven hair waved “goodbye” as Paul closed the door behind her, grinning ear to ear. He turned back into his brother’s Vegas suite with a contented sigh, taking steps toward the kitchenette, where Hayes already sat at the counter inside the embrace of a gray hoodie.
“That was an experience,” he said, taking hold of a pot of coffee and filling a mug as he perched on a stool.
“Oh yeah?” Hayes asked absently. “She make you see god?”
“She made me see something,” Paul replied, taking a sip. “Dude, she did this thing with her tongue where…”
“Easy, big guy,” Hayes interrupted, holding up a palm. “It’s too early and I’m too hungover to listen to your conquests.”
“My bad,” Paul apologized, looking rough around the edges with tired eyes and messy hair, yet unable to shake his shit-eating grin. “But I dunno, man. I think I might be in love.”
Hayes scoffed behind his mug, nearly spraying coffee all over his mustache. “Again? You’re on a roll.”
“Hey, man. You never know,” Paul wondered, starry-eyed and leaning back a touch, crossing his arms. “Love can find you anywhere.”
“Maybe you should join the Love Convoy,” Hayes replied, dripping in sarcasm and contempt.
“Don’t tell me you’re sweating JC Hall.”
“Yes and no,” said Younger Brother, weighing the thought with a side-to-side tilt of the head. “I’ve beat him before, but as cringy as they are, they’re capable of some pretty gnarly shit. Remember the crowbar and nail thing at the end of my match with Sykes?”
“Yeah, that was pretty fucked up,” Paul conceded, swirling his coffee.
“I dunno,” Hayes grunted, pushing himself to his feet. “The Glue boys were stressing me the most, honestly. But I guess they’re too busy hosting funerals for destroyed cars now that Tyler took off.”
He took a few steps around the counter, collecting the coffee pot.
“But man, I don’t know what we would have done if he’d managed to beat Youngblood.”
A sip, and a wandering pair of eyes set their sights on the Vegas Strip.
“I don’t know what that would have said about me, since I couldn’t.”
“It doesn’t say a thing.”
Hayes shrugged, opting for another swig..
“No more Tyler in Glue. And Ivan gets to wait around a while before he gets his shot. Maybe we should be worrying more about the Love Convoy in the meantime.”
He stepped into the suite’s living room, gazing through the sliding glass door, the Vegas sun rising above the mountains to bathe the city in gold.
“I wonder if they really love each other that fucking much.”
“Probably not,” Paul replied from the counter, grinning down at his phone as he scrolled. “But I’ll say this, bro; you’re twenty-eight now. Maybe you should give it a try.”
Younger Brother offered an amused snort, shaking his head.
“Pauly, I don’t think I even know how.”
“Oh my GOD!”
Her shriek echoed through the parking garage, a shock of long, red hair flying about in all directions, a pair of royal blue stilettos to the sky from the hood of someone else’s car. A navy dress pushed up over the hips, straps long fallen from the shoulders and chest.
His dark eyes were black holes, wide like dinner plates, staring through her shifting, gleeful face and into the void beyond. Sweat poured from the forehead as his hips rolled, black shirt open to expose his broad chest.
And yet, he had wanted to join them..
At the Hotel Indigo. At Table 509.
To celebrate the Glue falling short at the finish line. To throw back shots in the name of Mr. Fuck Around and Find Out. With all his friends. With all the good guys. Where maybe everyone would forget how Sykes, Colton, and Hanlon had failed while the Tower of Babel was triumphant once again.
He’d made it as close as the adjacent street.
But the lights were getting too bright. San Diego offered too much life, all converging and merging. Too much life, and too much love.
Instead, a concrete bed chamber. To fuck it all away.
“I…I…holy shit!” she gasped.
“Wha…what?” he asked, almost confused in his mushroom-addled mind, feet shuffling for stability, shackled by a pair of fallen slacks.
“I think…I think…”
“What?” he urged, eyes somehow widening further. “What?”
“FUCK!” she yelped, scratching at the hood of the car. “I think I fucking love you!”
A lurch in his chest.
He slowed, and lifted his warped gaze. Not a first or second thought had occurred to him about the possibility of an audience, though he was suddenly keenly aware. Hollow steps from the levels above were sharp in his ear. The laughter of the inebriated in bordering chambers swarmed from every angle.
“I SAID I FUCKING LOVE YOU!” she howled to the rafters, head arching back. For all of San Diego to hear
His jaw fell slack, mouth ajar, with no words or noise to follow.
He retreated, frantically pulling his black dress pants from the floor, desperately fighting for focus to hook his belt.
“Wait, what are you…” she stammered with lost breath, lifting her bare chest and head from the car’s hood.
“Get the fuck away from me,” he breathed.
“What the fuck? Where are you…”
“GET THE FUCK AWAY FROM ME!”
She covered herself as he escaped, his black eyes searching frantically for any onlookers. Dress shoes slapping sharply against the concrete, until he faded off into the shadows.
She quickly tugged her skirt back over her thighs, cheeks flush with shame as her blue eyes searched on their own.
“I can float you for a little while, but we gotta figure this out, Pauly.”
Hayes passed a fresh mojito to his brother as he reclaimed his lounge chair. Paul accepted it blindly, thanks to a t-shirt covering his face to hide from the Las Vegas sun. Poolside at the MGM was a staple for Hayes while he was in town. Nothing like a few drinks and a few hard bodies to shake off the bumps from a ReVival. The people watching? Second to none. And since his return to the Vegas Strip, Paul was more than happy to partake.
As long as little brother wasn’t nagging him.
“Do we need to talk about this now?” asked Paul, voice muffled from under his shirt.
“You’re almost half a million in debt, bro,” said Hayes, sipping his drink through a straw. “So…yeah. We kinda do.”
Paul groaned, pulling the shirt from his face and adjusting his chair upright. He collected a pair of nearby sunglasses and slid them over his eyes before taking a long sip of his cocktail.
“Man,” he said, shaking his head. “I just don’t wanna fucking deal with this shit right now, y’know?”
“Oh I know,” Hayes confirmed, crossing his ankles. “I definitely know. But this is no joke, dude.”
Older Brother shook his head slightly, eyeing the careless twenty-somethings pissing their parent’s money away for “the time of their lives” in the harsh Vegas sun. On pale-skinned white boys shooting their shot on bronzed beauties.
“I don’t wanna give it up, man.”
Hayes tilted his gold-lensed shades down his nose, glancing at his brother’s long stare.
“This,” Paul elaborated, extending a palm. “I’ve been good at this money shit for so long…I just…”
A pause, crossing his arms.
“…I just don’t wanna let it go.”
Younger Brother pushed his shades back up his nose. Privileged as it was, what Paul was saying rang true. A nine to five kind of life was never an option for the Hanlon siblings. Olivia wanted the status. To conquer the Oregon real estate market. To see her face on benches, in magazines, on the broad side of buses and on grocery store dividers.
Paul wanted financial freedom. To throw money anywhere he saw fit. To earn his stack in fast, hard sprints, and enjoy the in-between to its absolute fullest.
And Hayes? The spotlight.
Only the spotlight.
The youngest Hanlon sighed through his nose. A naive stance, yes, but he understood his brother’s lament. More than anyone else could.
“Listen,” said Hayes. “My contract is up at the end of the year.”
Paul’s ears perked, but he made no advances.
“If I can get back to the top of the card, back to the Universal Championship, then…I dunno. Maybe I can negotiate a bigger contract. Help get you out of this mess.”
Paul’s heart jumped in his torso. He pulled a long breath through his nose, and kept his eyes on the dancing, poolside bodies.
“Hayes, we don’t need to…”
“I know,” said Younger Brother, stopping the Older’s thought with the wave of a hand. “And I’m not saying I’ll be able to wipe it all out or anything. But…”
Hayes shook the ice in his glass, an attempt to consider his words carefully.
“…but maybe enough to get you back in a good place.”
The pair relaxed into their lounge chairs simultaneously, sharing an extended quiet, only the thumping tunes from the poolside DJ to break through.
“Thanks, bro,” said Paul.
“It starts with JC Hall, though, “ Hayes added. “If I can’t pick up that win…then I don’t know where I’ll end up in the pecking order. I need this one, Pauly.”
“I know. And you’ll get it,” he replied, lacing his fingers together. Paul allowed his body to relax, for his chest to decompress. For the first time in months, the idea of taking his life back felt like a real possibility. Like the cage was unlocked. Like the chains were about to break.
Like the gate would soon swing open.
A loud, static buzz heralded the final moments of his years at Washington State Penitentiary.
The creak of the metal gate’s horizontal glide heralded his freedom.
With a cautious, but ready step forward, he’d said his last goodbye.
Wearing everything he arrived with all those years ago, Toby Castellanos took a deep, long breath through his wide nose, and dragged two meaty palms down his face Through his heavy black beard. His long, matted locks dancing in the breeze.
With another sharp buzz, the gate reversed, and he offered a casual middle finger to the fortress behind him.
There was no one waiting to pick him up.
Not that he’d even give a shit if there was.
With one more deep breath to fill his broad chest, Castellanos took heavy strides in old boots.
He turned south on North 13th Avenue, and stuck a meaty thumb out to the wind.
The walk from the concrete bedchamber to Hotel Indigo was short, but made long with weary legs and a pulsing heart.
Fatigued fingers fumbled with shirt buttons as he made way through the Gaslamp Quarter. The street lights shimmered against the black. He could hear their hum.
He made it back to the adjacent street. Across from the hotel that housed Table 509. Where Bobby Dean would take his fill. Where Eddie Cross would be told to drink water. Where Nate Colton solemnly nursed his brew.
Where they celebrated him.
But not him.
The Hanlon Year long forgotten, replaced by another chapter in the Rise of the House of Youngblood.
It was supposed to be his night.
It was written in the stars, wasn’t it? Hadn’t he turned his back on the familiar? The safe? The unremarkable? In order to find them?
The eGG Beater was meant to topple the Tower.
Behind him, the clicks of high heels approached from the dark.
The Comeback Kid was destined to eat the Glue.
A tap on the shoulder made him whirl with stolen breath. Red hair, and a navy dress. An enraged scowl.
And a righteous slap across the jaw.
The Event Horizon was designed to carry the flag of blue and white.
He held his cheek, feeling the heat in his palm, as those royal blue stilettos clicked away the way they came.
But that’s not what happened.