There’s always that tingle in your guts when the plane starts to ascend, and your body gets confused. Hey, shouldn’t I be on the ground right now? That’s how gravity works, isn’t it?
My insides had twisted into knots, but for different reasons. A cancer fundraiser? Fuck. Memories of a lost brother, my first suit, and an early spring funeral whirled though my mind like a maelstrom. If I wasn’t careful I’d be caught up in that storm and ripped away. Cal had already done too much on my behalf. I couldn’t put her through that as well. Must remain calm, must remain grounded.
Good fucking luck.
Regardless of any issues I had with Jon, or the nature of the exchange in the hall between Shweta and Bathory, or even the mark under my eye from when Paxton Ray had joyfully introduced me to the business end of a shovel, I needed to be there. Needed to see this through. Andy would never forgive me if I didn’t.
Cal had offered to cover the cost of her own airfare, but that was never going to happen. This was a favor, and a pretty big one at that. I had to make this ordeal as painless as possible. She tried to negotiate, but ultimately didn’t have much to barter with. It’s not like a vault full of bank tellers were being held at gunpoint. The best she was able to do was convince me that, yes, we could in fact be adults about this and share one room. No need to waste money on a second.
That’s when I let it slip that I’d turned down Jon’s offer of one of the rooms at Gray’s Wrestling Academy, the school he’d inherited in New Orleans. We both knew I’d never take it; it was obvious he didn’t want me there. But Cal’s demeanor changed. Her grin took on a wicked contour. If there was ever an opportunity to piss off Jon, she said, we could come up with a few ways to ruin that room that would scar the man for life. The laughter that followed helped take the edge off.
Don’t ask me how long I spent wondering if she was serious.
“Come on, just once?”
“We’re not punching anyone in the face at dinner, Cal.”
“What about a quick liver shot when nobody’s looking? Won’t see it coming, but it’ll hurt like hell. What do you say?” Justine turned away from the window. Below them the ground was hidden beneath a blanket of clouds. Jared smiled, but shook his head. “Kick one in the crotch then?”
“Okay, so that would make me laugh, but no.”
“Alright, alright, fine. But we’re going to talk mad shit about them under our breath. You’re not taking that one away.”
“It’s a deal.”
“Remind me before we go out to put some concealer on that thing.” She reached a hand to his cheek, running her fingers along the mark Paxton’s shovel had left. “People are going to think I beat you up, or something.”
“Only the ones who know you.” His joke earned him an elbow to the ribs. “Easy, still sore. Besides, the people we’re going to see at his event would all be convinced I did something to deserve it.”
“Only the ones who know you,” she shot back.
“Walked right into that one, didn’t I?”
“Little bit, yeah.” She studied his expression for a moment. “Are you ready for this?”
“I don’t know. I’m trying to convince myself that it’ll be fine, but the reality is that this is going to suck. This is going to suck a lot.”
“I’ll follow your lead on this, Jared. The minute you start to feel overwhelmed or uncomfortable I want you to tell me, and then we’re out, okay?”
“And if I think you’re full of shit, or are trying to hide something from me, then I’m dragging you out. Kicking and screaming if I have to. Cool?”
“Wouldn’t expect anything less. But I don’t think you have to worry. There’s a chance we’re flying fifteen-hundred miles and I freeze at the doorway. A sick little girl? Hits a little too close home, you know? Gonna be rough.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Thing is, it’s a little personal.”
“Hey, great, now I’m worried. But it’s not like I can run away if things get weird.” To articulate the point, he gestured around the cabin. “Kind of a captive audience.”
“No. No, it’s nothing… You know what? Nevermind.”
“I trust you, Cal. I wouldn’t have asked for your help on this if I didn’t. What do you want to know?”
“Have you ever thought about kids? Being a dad and all that?”
“It’s okay. Like I said, you don’t have to answer.”
“No, it’s fine. Just wasn’t expecting that.” He exhaled a steady breath. “I’ve thought about it, yeah. There was a stretch when I thought about it a lot. What it would look like if I settled down, and all that. The problem was finding someone. History says I suck out loud when it comes to relationships.”
“I wouldn’t go that far, but I will say that some of your choices in that department have been a little suspect.”
“Are we talking about anyone in particular? I seem to remember you getting real-”
“Jared, I swear to god, if the next word that comes out of your mouth is ‘jealous,’ I will get up from my seat, open the cabin door, and throw you off this plane.” She had met the red-haired girl only one time, but that was enough. “Just thought you could do better, is all.”
“Uh-huh. Sure.” His ribs caught another elbow. “I mean it’s probably for the best anyway. I don’t think I’d be very good at the whole ‘parent’ thing.”
“Didn’t have the best example in that department. Mom’s great, but dad wasn’t a fan of the truth.” He sighed. “But I don’t think I have to worry about it. I’m on the wrong side of 40 in a business that takes years off of your life. Pretty sure that window’s been closed for a long time.”
Nate Colton stared daggers across the room to where his sister, Jenny, sat alongside Jonathan Rhine, and the grip on his fork tightened. Jared had tried to offer his support, bless him, but all Justine could think was that her date was on the verge of being stabbed by another coworker. It’s why she didn’t notice Paxton approaching, and by then it was too late to offer any sort of warning.
“Hey, Blueberry, I got someone I wantcha to meet.”
He was flanked by his daughter. Nora was smaller than Justine imagined; a petite girl with strawberry blonde hair and a faint scar on her forehead. Both parent and child looked like they’d rather be anywhere else.
“Nora, this is King Blueberry. When he’s wrestling he puts on a blue mask and does a bunch of silly things.” Paxton nodded in Jared’s general direction. “He’s not scary at all, see?”
“Hi,” Nora said.
Jared’s reaction was immediate, and just as Justine had predicted. He slid from his chair and knelt low in a move designed to make him look small, and give Nora a sense of control over the situation.
“Hey, Nora,” he said. His voice was soft, and his smile warm; anything to put the girl at ease. “You can call me Jared. This is my friend Justine, but we just call her ‘Cal’. That’s Nate and Melissa.” He leaned in a little and put a hand aside his mouth, his next words a secret. “Don’t tell anybody, but I already forgot the names of the other people here.”
Nora couldn’t help but giggle.
“Hi, Jared,” she said, then looked at the girl beside Nate. “My mom’s name is Melissa.”
“But we won’t hold that against ya,” Paxton said. He glanced down at his daughter. “Just a lil’ joke, sweetie.”
“Are you having fun?” Jared said. “I remember when my sister was around your age that she was all about the tea parties, and this one’s pretty big.”
“It’s okay,” Nora said. “Daddy told me it would be boring.”
“Yeah, sometimes big parties are boring for adults, too.” He picked up a glass of water from the table, holding it with his pinky extended. Justine didn’t know where he learned the British accent, only that it was terrible. “But it lets us be fancy for a night. Kings and queens, lords and ladies.”
“And how many castles do you own now, your majesty?” Justine had adopted an accent of her own. The man generated a gravity that made it impossible to not play along.
“Thirty-one, my dear. And each one is a different color.”
The two of them clinked their glasses together, and Jared’s regular voice returned.
“Sometimes you have to make your own fun,” he said.
Nora giggled again.
“I do the same thing with toys back home,” she said. “So it is like a tea party!”
“S’what I told ya,” Paxton said. “See, Nora, not all wrestlers are scary.”
“Yeah, we’re not scary at all,” Jared said. He smiled as he pointed up at Justine. “Except Cal here, but she’s only mean to me, so everyone else is safe.”
“It’s true, but he usually deserves it.”
“Are you worried about your dad?” Jared said. “Because I wouldn’t be. He’s pretty tough.”
“Yeah, I can handle myself,” Paxton said.
“I worry about the other people,” Nora said.
“That’s super sweet of you to say,” Justine said. She let her eyes linger for a little while on the mark across Jared’s cheek. Her attempts to hide it with concealer hadn’t been a complete failure, but there was still plenty of red peeking through the make-up.
“She’s right,” Jared said. “It’s very kind of you to think that. But I wouldn’t worry if I were you. Wanna know why? We learn a lot from our moms and dads when we’re little, and if you’re worried about other people, then that means your mom and dad did a great job teaching you how important it is to care.”
Jared looked up at Paxton and smiled a little wider. Justine caught a glimpse – just a flash – of the mischief Jared once built a career on. She read the unspoken words in his expression: You’re going to punch me for this, and we both know it.
“I bet your dad’s really a great big teddy bear,” he said.
“Well, he is super cuddly,” Nora said. She grabbed her father by the arm and pulled him in for a big side hug.
“I’m a big ol’ teddy bear, that’s right,” Paxton said. Justine read the intent plain: Damn right I am. “For you, Nora.”
The girl coughed.
“Are you feeling okay?” Jared said. “Do you want to sit down for a minute?”
Nora climbed into the empty seat. “Thanks. Sometimes I get tired when I stand too long.”
“You’re doing awesome. Did you know that? I bet you probably hear it a lot, but it’s true. My brother was sick when we were growing up, so I know it can be hard. But you’re tough like your dad.”
“Huh,” Paxton grunted. He stayed quiet for a moment. “Yeah, she is.”
A voice – Justine recognized it as Jon’s – called from the crowd. “Hey, Pax! Can you help?”
Foster Nackedy stood near the door to the function hall, trying to push his way in. Justine looked to Jared, watching for a reaction. She could see the gears turning, could tell that he wanted to lash out, to do something, but he didn’t move. The mission now was keeping Nora happy and engaged.
Paxton nodded, then looked to his daughter.
“Hey, daddy’s gotta go for a minute,” he said. “You can stay with Mr. Jared here. He’s safe.”
Nora looked up at Jared with a smile. “I know he’s safe.”
“That might be the nicest compliment I’ve ever been given,” Jared said. Nora’s smile only grew brighter.
“Did he get any better?” she said.
Justine felt her throat tighten.
“My brother? I still talk to him every day.”
We did our level best to keep Nora entertained while her dad went off to deal with Foster. We told jokes. We played games. I told her about the time that my parents needed to call a plumber to fix the bathroom because I flushed an Aquaman figure down the toilet. Even if the experiment failed – my parents later explained that he was never going to find his way back to the ocean – at least it reminded Aquaman of his true place in the superhero pantheon. Fuck that guy. Talking to fish is dumb.
We ended up throwing the toy away.
I like to think that she was having fun when Paxton came back to the table to pick her up a little while later. That maybe, for a few minutes, we were able to help take her mind off of being the only child in a room full of stuffy adults. Maybe she could forget being the symbol of a charity, or forget about being sick, and for that brief window of time just get to be a little girl at a tea party.
I hope I had a hand in making her happy.
It’s what Andy would have wanted me to do.
We stayed until the end. I think Cal was surprised by that. I expect she thought I’d try to bolt for the door a half-dozen times over, or that she’d pick up on the fact that I was hiding something, then make good on her threat to carry me out. No kicking, but maybe a little light screaming. By all rights she should have, but decades of practice meant that a blueberry isn’t the only mask I own.
We stayed until the end for Nora.
We stayed to make sure Nate Colton didn’t fly off the handle and start strangling the closest person he could find. Fortunately he loosened up as the night went on. I think his friend Melissa had a hand in it.
We stayed for Andy. For Jon.
The rain had slowed to a steady drizzle by the time the event had ended, and more than anything I just needed air. A thousand thoughts rushed through my mind, each competing in a bloodsport for attention. A fucking hurricane of confusion. The best I could do for a quiet spot was a short retaining wall by the parking lot across the street. I’ve never owned an umbrella in all of my adult life, and the few trees above didn’t provide much in the way of cover.
Cal stood under the awning across the street. We’d landed in one of the rooms at the Roosevelt, the same hotel where the fundraiser was taking place, and I told her I’d be up in a little bit. True to form, she didn’t listen.
I looked up in time to see her crossing the street, my jacket around her shoulders.
“I thought the deal was you were going to tell me if things got to be too much in there.”
I’d been fooling myself. She knew. Of course she did. Despite the gaps in our past she could always read me, always see through the bullshit.
“Yeah,” I said. “That was the deal.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“I don’t know. Why didn’t you drag me out? I thought that was the deal.”
She brushed a few leaves off the concrete and sat down.
“I don’t know,” she said. “But I started getting the vibe that you wanted to see this through. I didn’t want… I couldn’t take that away.”
We sat in silence as the world moved around us. Pedestrians on their way to or from a late night out. Cars passing by the hotel and turning down Canal Street. A breeze blew through and the branches overhead gave way to a few more drops of rain.
“That was incredible, by the way. What you did in there tonight.”
“You made her laugh. You made her feel safe enough that she was okay to stay with us while her dad dealt with-”
“Taking out the trash?”
“Yeah. That was amazing. She was happy around you, Jared. Not everyone can pull that off.” She paused there, and I knew it was coming, could feel it as certain and solid as the ground we sat on. Dig in. Hold fast. Don’t crack. “For what it’s worth, I think you’d be an amazing dad.”
Thank god it was raining.
The crash was loud enough to rip Justine from her slumber. In the darkness she saw Jared on the floor, breathing fast. She turned on the lamp on her nightstand in time to see him scuttling like a crab until his back was against the wall.
“Oh my god, what happened?”
He didn’t answer, and in the flickering light she caught a glimpse of red over his eye. She threw the covers aside and met him on the floor. He wore the same clothes he had at dinner, drenched in sweat and clinging like cellophane. The palms of shaking hands pressed against his eyes.
“Jesus Christ. I’ll be right back.”
She rushed to the bathroom and tore through the toiletries for a bandage, then doused a cloth in cold water before dashing back.
“Hey, it’s okay. It’s okay.” He offered little resistance when she took his hand to clean the cut. Fortunately it was small, likely caught the edge of a table when he fell. She cleaned it a second time, and set the bandage over his eye. “Are you okay, Jared? Talk to me.”
Words flew fast between short breaths.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t-”
“I didn’t want you to have to see this.”
“I should’ve just come here alone. God, I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t say that. It’s going to be okay, I promise.” She put a hand on his shoulder and felt his body shaking, vibrating with a natural electricity. “What happened?”
“Nightmare. Must have fallen asleep on the couch. It… it happens sometimes. Not as often as it used to. Mostly when I’m stressed.”
“Do you remember what it was about?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Falling. Always falling.”
A chill shot the length of her spine. Years ago she’d seen the video of Wyatt Connors’ fall despite herself. The mistake was watching it with the volume on.
“But it’s okay,” he said. “It was one of the good ones. This time it was me.”
“Jared, what do you mean?”
The words wouldn’t come. The implications too much to process.
“It could be worse, though.” A weak laugh escaped his lips. “I could be Jenny Colton right now.”
She didn’t respond.
“Jon’s got ears like handlebars, so at least she’ll have something to hold on to.”
“You don’t have to do this, Jared.”
“Pretend it’s okay.” She reached a hand to brush a few strands of matted hair away from his forehead, then pressed the cool cloth to his brow. Justine shifted on the floor, leaning against him – not hard, just enough to give him another anchor of reassurance. “I can’t imagine how you feel right now, but I’m here. And I’m not sorry for that.”
“Jared, look at me for a minute. I’ve got you.”
It wasn’t the first time they’d shared a bed together, only the first time sharing one while dressed. Jared needed some convincing, their history commanded it, but his strength had been drained to the point he offered little in the way of actual resistance. Still, he insisted on sleeping above the blankets.
“I’m sorry,” he said. For the last half-hour it seemed to Justin like the only thing he said.
She swept a few strands of pink from his face. “I wish you’d stop saying that. I’ve told you a hundred times now that you have nothing to apologize for.”
“Yes, I do. You came all the way here. You shouldn’t have to carry my bullshit.”
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t want to be.”
“I owe you so much.”
His head lolled forward on the pillow, and then jerked back. Sleep would have him soon.
“No, you don’t. You should rest. Tomorrow will be a better day. I promise.”
“I know it will,” he said. His voice faded, the words trailing. “They all are now, because…”
“Because?” Her hand brushed his cheek along the contour of a fading bruise.
“You’re in them,” he murmured, and his body conceded under the weight of the day.
Justine lay in silence, smiling, watching the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest.
“Yeah,” she whispered. She moved in close, careful not to wake him, and left a soft kiss on his forehead. “I know what you mean.”