“God I’m going to miss this place,” Roosevelt Black said. All around him the Tokyo International Airport buzzed with activity. Potential passengers rushed by as he and his tag team partner made their way to the terminal security line.
Tani Albright stuck out his tongue. “Tokyo Airport? Fuck that, those policemen freak me out.” Tani pointed at two of them who stood silently, brandishing their batons.
“Not the airport, you dumbass, the country. Japan was a trip.” For the tag team that Roosevelt referred to lovingly as Black & Tani, it was certainly a trip. One of ups, downs, and in between. The Bang! tour wasn’t as successful as they wanted inside the ring, but Roosevelt hadn’t stopped smiling the entire time. He sighed as he lugged his suitcase towards the line. “I’m just sad to go home.”
Tani laughed. “I’ll be honest, I’m excited to be somewhere I understand the language. Even someone as mushed-mouth as Paxton is going to be a welcome sound.”
“Impossible!” Roosevelt laughed. The security line moved slowly. Roosevelt looked at his watch. “You know, it was cool of Foster to pay for an extra week for us to enjoy Tokyo, but now I’m stressed that we aren’t going to make it home in time for our tournament matches.”
“We’ve got a day and a half. We’ll be fine. Maybe a little tired, but we’re facing new students. It’ll be a breeze.”
For a few moments they stood in silence, occasionally moving a few half steps forward. Roosevelt frowned, running his fingers through the top half of his messy Afro — there was no one to braid his hair in Japan; it was going everywhere and driving him crazy. “Honestly, the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that Foster’s generosity was just an excuse to mess us up for the tournament.”
Tani stared at his friend for a moment before pushing a hand in his face. “You’re an idiot, bro. Foster wouldn’t do anything that crazy, even for his gym. Plus I’m Team Foster, remember? As long as you and I are together, you’re safe from whatever weird vendetta Foster might have. That’s a line he wouldn’t cross.”
Paxton Ray sat alone in Foster’s office. He had been asked to wait for him, but it was like asking water on a pot not to boil. Paxton steamed as he drummed his fingers on the desk. After a few more minutes, Paxton stood up. “Fuck this,” he said, but as he took one step in Foster entered the doorway and slammed the door behind him.
“Jesus, Fos.” Paxton watched Foster rush by him, then felt a shoulder knock him back. Paxton pushed down the flash of rage and stared at his manager. “Ya all right?”
“No, Pax. I’m not all right. Sit down.”
Paxton nodded, then slowly sat down. “Ya mad at me because I lost, I guess.”
“I’m not mad at you, Paxton. I’m mad at us. I’m your manager. You’re a student at my gym. When you lose, we all lose. We’re all at fault. And so we all need to figure out how to get out of this slump.”
“Well I can win the qualifier for starters.”
Foster smiled without teeth. “It’s a nice start. And I know you can take down Tsonda. But we have to be sure, so I have some tips for the match.” Foster leaned forward and pounded the table. “I don’t care how youthful Chandler Tsonda looks. Forty-seven year olds have forty-seven year old knees. Attack the joints. Create weak spots in his appendages. And if you have to make sure he doesn’t walk after this?” Foster’s eyes sparkled as he spoke. “You fucking do it.”
Paxton grinned. “Sure thing. But I thought from our little meetin’ with him that you’re a big fan.”
Foster’s smile dropped. “Oh I can’t fucking stand him. He’s a guy who acts like he was cryogenically frozen in 2011 and shows up now expecting the world to fall all over itself in welcoming him back. And what a surprise, some people actually do. What did you have to do to get this opportunity? Only dethrone the #1 wrestler at the time, topple a legend, crack the top 5, and paralyze one of the last cryogenically frozen dudes. What does Chandler have to do? Show up and read a few pages from the Still Got It cookbook.”
Paxton chuckled. “Anybody ever tell ya you’re faker’n black bean cupcakes?”
Foster’s brow furrowed. “I can confidently say that no one has ever said those words to me before.” Then, he smiled. “Anyway, they think you’re evil already. Jon called you a monster. I saw somebody online made a meme comparing our gym to the Legion of Doom. People think I’m the biggest shithead in the world. So let’s earn it.”
Paxton’s smile widened. “I like that. An’ what about the tournament match today? Ya still feel that way if I hurt one’a your guys?”
“One of my guys?” Foster snorted. “That kid was brought in by Jon. As far as I’m concerned he’s brain busting practice. Who reason do you have to hold back? You don’t have a girlfriend anymore. Cross every line. Go nuts. In fact, if you think you’re going too far, you’re not going far enough.” Paxton growled in response. Foster’s eyes drifted behind Paxton and widened for a moment, then relaxed and he smiled. “My dear brother! How can I help you?”
Ian Nackedy didn’t respond to his brother. “Hey Paxton, can I get a minute with the owner?”
“Sure,” Paxton said, standing up and walking past Ian, who took his place in the chair.
Ian waited until the door closed, then pointed at Foster. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
The first time Roosevelt was in the Haneda Tokyo International Airport, he was terrified that something would happen and his limited Japanese wouldn’t allow him to handle the situation.
Now, less than an hour before his plane was to take off, he had been asked to separate from Tani and go to a back office behind the security line. His nightmare was a reality.
“Not you,” a Japanese policeman said over and over again punctuated by rivets of Japanese that Roosevelt couldn’t keep up with. Roosevelt stared at the long black baton the officer had at his side.
“Yes this is me,” he answered, forcing himself to be calm and pointing to his passport. “Roosevelt Black. That’s me.”
The shorter officer tapped the ticket and shook his head, then let loose with his own stream of Japanese. The other policeman agreed, maybe, and then said “Oh not oh oh” three times.
Roosevelt thought this was more Japanese until he saw the boarding pass. His eyes went wide.
“Oh I see now. My name is spelled wrong there. It’s supposed to be Roosevelt, with two o’s. Simple mistake, right?”
Both policemen talked over each other, and the taller one took his baton and slammed the table with it. After a few moments, a third officer walked up. “It is not simple,” he said.
“Oh thank God, English.” Roosevelt smiled, then processed what he said. “Why isn’t it simple?”
“The paperwork must be right. Could be someone pretending to be you. We need to be sure.”
“I promise it’s me. Listen, I’m a wrestler. I just did a tour with Bang!” Roosevelt pointed at his phone, which was on another table by the wall. “Ask my gym owner, Foster Nackedy, or my boss here. Her name is Inoue Doi. They arranged everything: the tickets, the passport, everything. Please call them — and quick too, because I have a lot of business to do at home.”
The other officers began to speak over each other again. After a moment the English-speaking one took his glasses off, rubbed them with a cloth from his pocket, and sighed. “We do our best. But I do not think you go home today. Maybe tomorrow.”
“No, please!” Roosevelt slumped in his chair. “What about my friend Tani?”
“His paperwork is fine. He is on plane now.”
Roosevelt didn’t hear anything else as the three officers continued to talk to each other. As he hung his head in his hands, he kept thinking the same thought.
He wouldn’t really do it, would he?
“What did I do?”
“That’s what I just asked you, asshole,” Ian said. “Inoue sent a message that Roosevelt’s paperwork is messed up and he won’t be home until maybe next week. He said they called you six times and you didn’t answer.” Ian shook his head. “Jesus Christ, Foster, did you fuck with a young man’s life to make sure he couldn’t wrestle against you?”
Ian knew Foster better than anyone. He had had similar conversations with him before, accusing him of some heinous act. He expected Foster to play dumb, be vague, hint about doing it without admitting it. So he was surprised when Foster smiled. “You bet your ass I did. Guess Cliff Christensen gets an even easier path to round two than Paxton.”
“Fuck,” Ian said, leaning backward. “You’re insane.”
“Insane? What’s insane is the month we’ve had, Ian. Since April I lost control of the gym, Paxton has lost two matches including his title, my god damn ex-wife is running around here, and now I’m forced to put my trust in eight students to make sure the gym that I built from the ground up stays where it belongs. All that and we still have no idea where Paxton’s daughter is. And do you know why we’ve struggled so much?”
Ian pretended to be deep in thought. “Because an army of chickens have come home to roost?”
“Because we’ve played by the rules. Because I pretended to be a cool sarcastic guy who just happened to manage a monster. We obeyed Lindsay Troy when she told us to behave. We eased up, let MESSIAH do their business in the dark where they thrive. And in doing so we’ve let these piece of shit interlopers fuck with our plans. Well that’s over. That’s my fucking wrestler, this is my fucking gym, and this is my fucking name.”
Foster threw a small item in front of Ian, who leaned forward to look at it. It was a picture of the front of the gym, but the sign was replaced by a different logo. “Fighting by Foster Nackedy,” he read aloud. After a second, Ian’s eyes widened. “You’re using the same initials?”
“When we win this tournament, Gray’s Wrestling Academy is dead. It will be a new gym, a new name, a new era. And from now and until the end of time, we’re doing things the way we want them done, no matter who gets hurt along the way.”
Ian sat there staring at his brother for over a minute. Finally, barely audible, he whispered, “What happened to you?”
Foster didn’t get to answer because Connor Nackedy entered the room. “Hey Unc. Hey dad.”
Ian saw the intensity slowly leave his brother’s face. Foster breathed in deep, then smiled. “Hey Con. What’s up?”
Connor looked at his feet, at the new wrestling boots that Ian bought him as a high school graduation present. “I just…I’m about to have my first real match. I just wanted to know if you…” Connor looked up, his eyes full of fear. “If you had advice for me.”
Foster looked from Connor to Ian for a moment, then folded his hands. “My advice? Don’t win.”
“If you win this match, you might win the next one. And then the next and the next. And then you’d have to fight Paxton, who will be fighting for me. He’ll try to kill you, and he might succeed. So don’t win.”
Connor stood there, expecting more. When no more came, he said “Is that it?”
“Yes. You’re fighting to take my gym away.” Foster looked down at his desk. “That’s all I have for you.”
“Oh. Okay.” Connor left the office, barely looking up as he entered the hallway. When he finally did look up, he saw his mom and a familiar wheelchair coming his way. “Dustin?”
Dustin Callais, the man whose injury in 2020 started the power struggle for Gray’s, smiled and held his hand out for Connor to grab. “Hey man. You ready?”
“As I’ll ever be,” he said, looking at Magen. “Did you invite him?”
“He invited himself,” she said, smiling.
“Ring Dispatch is interested in this little tournament, and I couldn’t miss it in a professional capacity.” Dustin grinned, flashing his press pass. “Or a personal one, of course.”
“Of course. I’m going to win this one for you, Dustin.”
Dustin shook his head. “Don’t do it for me, Connor. Do it for your gym. Do it for Jonathan Rhine.”
Connor nodded, then squeezed Dustin’s shoulder and beamed at his mom. “Okay, I lied just now. I’m definitely ready for this.”
DING DING DING!
Paxton leaned against the wall and smirked as Connor rolled up Gibson Mahorne. Gibson was a new student who was rippling with muscles, but his pool of talent was too shallow to fend off the eighteen year-old. Connor rolled out of the ring and immediately ran to Dustin, giving him an awkward hug.
Foster blew a whistle and clapped twice. “First match goes to Connor Nackedy.” He looked at Shweta and Jon, who were smiling on the other side of the ring. “Coming up in two minutes is our second and final match of the day, Paxton Ray versus Kenny Truong.”
Paxton nodded and began to bounce from foot to foot, rolling his neck around. He felt a tap on his shoulder and looked down at Ian Nackedy. “Messin’ up my routine.”
“Pax. If you listen to Foster, this is going to go a way you don’t want it to go. Don’t do this. This kid is just trying to become a wrestler. He’s not Tsonda. He’s not Rhine. Just…just don’t, okay?”
Paxton snarled. “I dunno, Ian. Foster made a whole lotta sense t’me. I worked with ya twice, and I lost twice, so do me a favor. If ya got advice on how to beat Tsonda, keep it to ya god damn self.”
“Nah. As far as I’m concerned, ya ain’t on Foster’s side so ya ain’t on mine. I don’t want ya trainin’ me either.” Paxton looked past Ian and nodded to Nathan Boswell. “Big Nate, you’re trainin’ me from now on.”
“Got you,” Nathan Boswell said with a smirk. “Show this kid how it’s done.”
“Oh I’ll show him.” Paxton rolled into the ring and watched Kenny slowly enter the ring, his confidence from two weeks ago completely gone. Kenny looked over to Jon and waved, then looked at Paxton nervously.
“Listen, I’m sorry for the things I said a couple weeks ago. I didn’t know my place.”
“Ya didn’t,” Paxton agreed, “an’ ya still don’t. But ya gonna learn.”
Foster rang the bell.
Paxton launched forward with a single punch that leveled Kenny. He then lifted him up and hit the Lafayette Lullaby. Dith bent down to count, but Paxton didn’t cover him.
“Come on Pax!” Ian shouted, but Paxton ignored him and lifted Kenny up, then flattened him with a brainbuster. As Kenny writhed in pain, Paxton turned to Foster and heard his voice in his head.
“If you think you’re going too far, you’re not going far enough.”
Grinning, Paxton grabbed Kenny’s leg and put his own on top, then fell over and pulled backward. The snapping sound could be heard all the way across the gym, as could the young man’s screams. Paxton lay on top of the body and screamed at Dith. “Count it!”
The sound of Dith’s hand hitting the mat three times was the only sound in the gym besides Kenny’s sobs. Paxton rolled off of Kenny as Shweta and Magen rushed to the ring. Near ringside, Foster rang the bell with a small smile on his face.
“Call 911, get an ambulance here!” Shweta roared as Paxton walked past Jon Rhine.
“I’m a monster, and everyone knows,” Paxton told him, then walked towards the locker room.
There were two locker rooms at Gray’s: the first was built when Pat Gray opened the school in the early 90s, and had all the amenities expected of a locker room in a small gym opened by a man with no money. When the gym started to gain notoriety in the early 2000s, Pat built a new locker room, but he kept the old one so he would never forget where he came from. No one used it because the new one was better and there were never more students than showers there.
But when Paxton saw a sign that said “showers out of order” in the new locker room, he shrugged and walked across the building to the archaic showers.
Paxton smiled as he opened the door and smelled the mustiness of neglect and sewage. As he rounded the corner and got to the lockers, he came to a halt.
Near the lockers was Connor Nackedy, sitting on top of Dustin’s lap in the wheelchair, his face pointed downward and pressed firmly against Dustin’s.
Paxton watched them kiss for fifteen seconds before Dustin finally opened his eyes and saw him standing there. He immediately pulled back, which caused Connor to look up. “…shit,” Connor said.
“I’d say get a room, but I guess y’all already did. I’ll just take a shower later,” Paxton said, turning to walk away.
“Wait, Paxton,” Connor said, turning to dismount from the wheelchair and falling to the ground in the process. He dusted himself off and walked over to The Bayou Butcher. “Please don’t tell my dad about this. He doesn’t know. I’m…I’m not ready to tell him yet. I don’t want to lose my spot here.”
Paxton raised his hands. “Ya think your dad is gonna care ’bout ya bein’ gay? It’s 2023.”
Connor raised his eyebrows. “My dad aligned himself with someone who paralyzed Jonathan Rhine. I don’t think homophobia is that far out of the realm of possibility.”
Connor sighed. “He might support me. He might not. But I’m afraid to find out. And if he knows that I’m with…” Connor looked back at Dustin. “The whole thing is complicated.”
Paxton rubbed his beard. “Always seems t’be here.”
“Listen, Paxton. I know we aren’t friends. I know you probably see me as an enemy since we’re on different teams in this tournament. You have no reason to help me out. But…” Connor pointed outside of the locker room. “You saved me last month when Quinn was trying to injure me. You didn’t have to, but you did.”
Connor walked forward and put his hand on Paxton’s shoulder. Paxton looked from Connor to his hand. “Please save me again,” Connor said.
Paxton looked back at Connor, and then past him to Dustin, who was fixing Paxton with an intense stare. Paxton thought about the words from Foster again, about going too far.
“Your secret’s safe with me,” Paxton said, flashing a wolfish grin.
Roosevelt Black’s eyelids drooped as he leaned forward in the same chair he had been in for over six hours. They had called Inuoe, who said she was powerless. They had called Foster, who never answered. And after that, they had left him there, alone, until the English-speaking policeman entered the office carrying a bag.
“I thought you like to eat something familiar,” the policeman said, holding out a Krispy Kreme donut to him. “You like American donut?”
Despite it not being dinner food, and despite Roosevelt not liking sweets, he smiled and grabbed the donut, taking a small bite before putting it on the table.
“Everything will be sorted soon. Should not be more than day or two.”
Roosevelt didn’t have the energy to react. Nodding slowly, he took another small bite of the donut. “So I’m just sleeping here?”
“No. We have hotel nearby. We will take you there soon. Someone will stay with you to make sure you do not leave.”
“Where would I go?” Roosevelt sighed. The policeman didn’t answer, only bowing slightly and leaving the room. Roosevelt glanced at the donut, then pushed it to the other side of the table and leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes. “I guess I did say I didn’t want to leave Japan,” he laughed bitterly.
He glanced over at his luggage, which sat in the corner, and he focused on the stickers on the bag: one for Bang!, and the larger one for Gray’s Wrestling Academy. Roosevelt shook his head.
“So much for not crossing that line.”