Paxton Ray stared out the window of Julian Bathory’s car. The car ride had been silent. Paxton felt oddly small in the passenger seat: it reminded him of when he had been suspended from school for fighting. His mom didn’t speak and so he stewed in the seat, waiting for a lecture that might never come.
Julian Bathory finally spoke. “I want to talk about nicknames.”
Paxton shot a glance at the driver. “Uh…’kay.”
“When I visited you in Chicago and outlined our plans, I thought of a nickname for you, one I did not give then but have used when talking about you to other members. You may be The Bayou Butcher to some, but to me you are MESSIAH’s Monster.”
Paxton bit his lip and looked out the window again. “Catchy enough.”
“Catchy, but perhaps inaccurate. You see, Paxton, Monsters inspire fear. Monsters cause destruction. Monsters don’t beg others for forgiveness, and they don’t lose in the first round of wrestling tournaments.”
Foster Nackedy heard birds chirping outside the window on a beautiful fall morning. “Shut up, you stupid fucking birds,” Nackedy grumbled.
He heard a knock at the door but didn’t respond. After a second Ian Nackedy burst through the door and bounced towards Foster’s desk. “Hey brother!”
Foster scowled. “The fuck are you so happy for?”
“You know the Nackedy happiness scale. Only one of us can be fucking miserable at a time.” Ian sat down and plopped his boots onto Foster’s desk. “Taking this tournament loss hard, huh?”
“Today’s the finals. Two members of Team Rhine. It doesn’t matter who wins. Either way, Jon gets the gym and I’m gone. It’s over.” Foster sighed, grabbing the bridge of his nose. “I thought I was doing the right thing, booting Paxton for outing Connor.”
“It was the right thing.”
“Well the right thing sucks,” Foster grumbled.
“It often does.” Ian stared at his brother for a few moments before lowering his legs and leaning forward. “You ever grow sunflowers?”
Foster interrupted his pity party to glare at Ian. “Really?”
The former PRIME Tag Team Champion shrugged. “Sometimes sunflowers die, but not all the way. They have strong stalks, and even when the stalk gets too weak to support the head of the flower, it doesn’t give up completely. So you’ll see this beautiful tall flower with the head drooping down, and it can stay that way for days, weeks even.”
“Is this a story about resilience? Because–”
Ian held up a hand. “But no matter how much you water it or give it sun, at some point it will not come back. It will stare at the ground forever until you do the right thing.”
“What’s the right thing?”
“You lop off the head with garden shears and let it dry out so you can harvest the seeds and start the process over again.” Ian sighed, then stood up and put a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “So no, Foster, this isn’t a story about resilience. This is a story about knowing when to give up and start over. Gray’s is dying, Fos. It needs to be put out of its misery so it can grow again.”
Foster continued to stare at his feet, his brother’s story ringing in his ears. Then, he shook his head and stood up. “No. No. There’s still something I can do.” He walked past Ian, who looked over his shoulder.
“The right thing for me.”
“Are you ready, Jon? The van’s downstairs.”
Jonathan Rhine sat in front of the mirror, frowning. “One second. Trying to get this pin to look right.”
“Let me.” Shweta Kallemullah strode over and bent down, planting an instinctual kiss on Jon’s forehead as she adjusted the silver pin on his shirt. “What is this, anyway?”
“Foster gave it to me when I first made it to FUSE.” Jon looked at the mirror and nodded, then began to wheel backwards. “He got a similar one from Pat when he graduated to NWC. It’s a silly trinket, probably not worth the thousands of dollars and hours we spent there, but…” Jon looked down at his lap and smiled. “It symbolizes something about the bond we have with that place. It’s special.”
“I know, and after today it’s yours again.” Shweta’s smile was interrupted by a phone ringing on the counter. She walked over and looked at the screen. “It’s Julie.”
Jon’s smile evaporated. “Ignore it.”
“I know you’re not happy with her, but you’ve missed three appointments now. The least you could do is tell her why you’re not going in.”
“Tell her what? That I saw her on national TV with the man who put me in this wheelchair? That she knows what he did to me, what he did to his own daughter, and she continues to spend time with him? Tell her that I can’t trust my body and recovery to someone who clearly doesn’t value her own safety?”
Shweta chuckled. “Honestly that all sounds good.”
“I feel betrayed, Shway.” The pair entered the elevator. Jon made a point to press the button before Shweta could reach over. “It’s not the same betrayal as…you know, but it feels the same.”
“I know, Jon. I know it hurts. And those feelings are valid. But…” Shweta trailed off as Jon shot an angry look up at her.
“You still think love is about the two right people finding each other, overcoming obstacles and ending up together despite all odds. And that can happen, but the real world doesn’t always work that way. For every love story like ours, you’ll find thousands more that are broken people finding other broken people because their pieces fit together.” She reached down and squeezed his shoulder gently. “We don’t know Julie. We don’t know her family life, her background. She could’ve gone through a thousand traumas that led her to Paxton’s door.”
“Yeah. I guess that’s true.” The doors opened and Jon wheeled towards the van. “I’ll call her back after the match.”
Shweta nodded, then pressed the button for the van to lower its ramp. “Good. If not for her sake, then for your own. Rehabilitation is more important than anything.” Jon didn’t respond as she strapped him in, walked to the driver’s seat, and started the van. “What’s wrong?”
“You said rehabilitation, and it got me thinking about him again.” Jon looked out of the window. “He apologized to Jared, to Nate.”
“Are you wondering what you’ll say if he apologizes to you?”
Jon didn’t answer.
“Here comes the lecture,” Paxton spat.
“This is no lecture, Paxton Ray.” Bathory’s tone remained measured and even. “This is simply a conversation about nicknames. Do you know the nickname of the man you face next?”
Paxton furrowed his brow. “The Diamond, right?”
“The Next Diamond. It says something about the future, and like the nickname I chose for you, it is derivative of something else. It ties him to Brandon Youngblood.” Bathory grimaced as the name escaped his lips. “It shows that he is in the same mold as the former champion, a man who can become the next great standard.”
Paxton chuckled. “Well he’s out the tournament like me, so maybe that future is a little far off.”
“Perhaps. But there are more similarities than just your nicknames. You both lost in the tournament because you underestimated the lows your opponents would go to. You both found yourselves outside of the locker room because of your actions. You both care about your family very much.” Paxton looked over and saw the faintest grin from the Carpathian Devil. “But that is where the similarities must end.”
“Nate Colton is a cardboard cutout of a ‘good’ wrestler, someone who pushes his feelings down to his toes so they don’t get in the way of his wobbly knees. He cares about paper-thin morals, his codes are his handcuffs. His love for family isn’t a superpower, it’s Kryptonite. It’s an act so apparent that it’s a wonder we didn’t see droves of kids dressing as him for Halloween.”
“Prob’ly couldn’t find any stuffed pigs to complete the outfit.”
“You laugh, but you’ve been acting like the Next Next Diamond on shows for over a month.” Paxton didn’t answer. “Asking for apologies, trying to curry favor with the supposed heroes of PRIME…this is beneath you. Apologies are weak. Sometimes the actions we take seem cruel, and people get hurt. These are acceptable consequences of a life of purpose.”
“A life of purpose?”
“The life you began when you took away Jonathan Rhine’s ability to walk. Everything you have done, everyone you have hurt, is part of your path to MESSIAH. So when you ask for apologies and show remorse, it reflects poorly on us.”
Paxton snorted. “So no askin’ forgiveness, got it. What else did I miss in the MESSIAH Employee Handbook?”
“The other side of the coin. I saw you asked the newcomer to PRIME for an apology.”
“Yeah, he owes me one for the way he spoke t’me.”
Bathory shook his head. “MESSIAH does not ask for apologies. MESSIAH delivers penance.”
Paxton rolled his eyes. “What the hell does that mean?”
“You shall see in an hour.”
Connor Nackedy whispered to himself as he sat in the corner of the locker room, his eyes closed, his knees to his chest. “Be your best. Beat your best. Be your best. Beat your best. Be your…”
“Hey Con?” Roosevelt Black walked in, knocking on the doorframe. “Match is soon. You good?” Roosevelt took a step back as he saw the tears on Connor’s face.
“No, Roosevelt. I’m not.” Connor released his feet and stretched, leaning against the lockers. “I almost don’t want this match to happen.”
“Why? This is your shot. To outlast everyone here. To prove you have a future in wrestling.”
“What future?” Connor spat, punching the locker. “No one’s hiring me after Paxton outed me.”
Roosevelt laughed in spite of himself. “It’s 2023, bro! No one cares about that shit except some stodgy old dudes.”
“Who do you think signs checks at wrestling companies?” Connor leaned his head against the locker, looking at his feet. “I feel so judged.”
Roosevelt looked behind him at the door, then scratched the back of his neck. “Does that include your dad?”
“No, surprisingly,” Connor said, looking up and wiping a tear. “He’s actually been amazing since finding out. Not just booting Paxton, but…he’s been there for me. Listened to me. Our relationship is better than it’s been for years.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” Foster said, walking in and causing his son to jump. “Hey Rosy, want to go find Theo and let him know we’re almost ready?”
“Not my name,” Roosevelt said, leaving.
“What’s up, dad?” Connor asked, aggressively wiping at his face.
“Checking in on you, wishing you luck.” Foster walked closer and put a hand on his son’s shoulder. “And…I had an idea I wanted to run by you.”
Foster turned and sat down on the bench, stretching his legs out. “Remember what I told you was the motivation for this tournament?”
“Um…the NWC, right? Whether to save it or shut it down.”
“Exactly. Well, Wyatt Connors fought to save the NWC. But after he won the tournament, he revealed he was actually working for Ben Van Iten, the man on the other side. Then the company folded.” Foster scowled. “Twenty years and I’m still not over it.”
“Wow, that’s pretty scummy,” Connor said, then frowned. “Wait…why are you telling me this?”
“Well…I’m just letting you know that switching sides is an option.”
The younger Nackedy’s jaw hung. “You can’t be serious.”
“You said it yourself: we’re closer than ever. Why not build on that? Win this for me. Work with me. Help shape the new era of Gray’s Wrestling Academy with me.”
“What about Jon? What about all the work he did? What–”
Foster knelt in front of his son, grabbing his hands and looking up at him. “None of that matters, Connor. You are a Nackedy. You know who Paxton is facing at ReV 39? Nate Colton. You hear that name and something happens in your chest, doesn’t it?” Connor nodded. “The name commands respect. It’s a foundation. And I want to build ours.”
He stood over his son and stared down, summoning all of the intensity he had mastered over a decade-long wrestling career. “Connor. This is our chance to do something together like we’ve always wanted. Think about it.”
Connor could feel it. Victory was close.
He had been in enough matches to recognize momentum. It was all on his side now after using Theodore’s size to his advantage, toppling him several times and weakening his knees. He looked down at the big man, his friend, a young man he’d come to admire and respect, and he gritted his teeth.
“All right, Theo, get up. Let’s end this.” He dragged Boswell to his feet and looked over at Jonathan Rhine, sitting ringside. “This is for you, Jon.” And he put his arm across Theodore’s shoulders.
His father called it The Bad Name Bomb. Jonathan Rhine called it The Rhine Rewind. Now all Connor had to do was hit Theodore with it, and the match would be his.
But he lacked the strength to even slightly lift Boswell off the ground. He tried twice, a third time, but nothing. And as he looked up into his opponent’s eyes, he saw a grin that made him uneasy.
Then an elbow crashed against his skull.
“Not enough, huh?” Theodore said, grabbing him. “If you had something to fight for, you might find the strength to lift me.”
“Pride,” Connor gasped. “I’m fighting for pride. And myself.”
Connor’s words died in his throat as Theodore grabbed him by the neck. “What happens when that’s not enough, Connor? You need to find something greater to fight for like I have.” Connor’s eyes widened as he saw something scary behind his friend’s eyes.
“We’re almost to Gray’s. I hope you are ready,” Bathory said.
“Hard t’be. Ya never said what the hell we’re doin’ here.”
Bathory grinned. “Do you know what makes MESSIAH so powerful, Paxton?”
“The E.U. of undesirables who do all your dirty work?”
“MESSIAH is malleable. We represent many things in many different arenas. In the midwest, MESSIAH is a bastion of hope. To the man struggling with a pill addiction to support his family. To the young teen who has lost his family, who tires of the same boring religious redemption story out there. MESSIAH is something to strive for, something to achieve, to save you from your station, from yourself.”
Bathory let the words hang in the air for a full minute before continuing. When he did, he was snarling. “But wrestling? Wrestling has no need for hope. No optimistic message, no star to shoot for. Wrestling needs fear. And MESSIAH can provide that as well.”
Paxton nodded slowly. “The MESSIAH’s Monster.”
The car pulled into Gray’s Wrestling Academy parking lot. Paxton noticed several cars pulling in as well. “Indeed. If you deliver what you are capable of, we will make PRIME quake in its boots. PRIME is a place with plenty of beds. And so I will provide the monsters to hide under them. Now, let’s go inside.”
Connor closed his eyes. The momentum was gone so quickly that he wondered if he had ever had it to begin with.
“It was a fun story,” Theodore whispered in the new icy tone that put Connor on edge. “The young trainer’s son, small in size and large in heart, outlasts the giants and wins the tournament. But stories are for children.” Theodore planted Connor with another clothesline.
“It’s over, son,” Nathan Boswell shouted. “Choke Bomb!”
Like Connor, Theodore’s finisher was a tribute to his father. Unoriginally called The Boswell Bomb, it was devastating, especially to a wrestler of Connor’s size. If he hit the move, it would be all over.
But as Theodore lifted Connor to his feet, he shook his head at his father. He grabbed Connor’s head and looked at Jonathan Rhine before whispering something.
Jonathan squinted slightly: he could tell something was off. He saw Theodore’s lips move, but couldn’t make out what he said. But he noticed the move that Theodore used: it was not The Boswell Bomb, but instead a twisting face plant. It had many names, but Rhine only knew it by one, because it was the last finishing move he had been hit with weeks before he was paralyzed.
“Chaos Reigns,” Jonathan muttered in disbelief.
Julian Bathory’s finisher.
The crowd fell silent as “Dith” Timble counted to three. Theodore Boswell stood and roared, then loudly said the words he had whispered before planting Connor to the mat.
“Forever The Crown.”
The doors burst open and men and women flooded the gym. Jonathan’s eyes grew wide as he tried to recognize them. He finally found the man who hit that move on him, standing alongside the man who paralyzed him.
Paxton looked down at his feet.
Julian Bathory stood as the members of MESSIAH organized around him. He grinned as he surveyed the confused members of the Academy.
“What is happening,” Jonathan whispered.
“Congratulations to Theodore Boswell,” Bathory boomed, “for winning the Battle for Gray’s and determining the fate of such a strong and storied wrestling institution. Now tell me, Theodore, who do you fight for?”
The seven footer raised his arm in the air. “I fight for MESSIAH.”
“No,” Foster muttered, standing up.
“Those aren’t the rules!” Jonathan shouted. “It was between me and Foster. There are no other teams in the contract.”
“Then maybe you should talk to the person who helped draft that contract,” Bathory answered. Foster and Jonathan turned slowly to the other side of the gym, where Chet Fleetwood smirked and began rifling through some papers.
“Let’s see. Yadda yadda yadda, boring legal speak, blah blah…ah! Here it is. The winner can choose to represent anyone, and upon winning the tournament that person is now the owner of Gray’s Wrestling Academy.” Chet looks up. “And that tentacle devil over there counts as anyone, I think.”
“You fucking scum,” Foster shouted.
“Uh, yeah, have you fucking met me?” Chet responded.
“Well then. It sounds like with the impressive victory of this monster in the ring, I now have a new home to harvest the next crop of wrestling excellence. And unfortunately for some of you in this room, that means your term is at an end. Your service is appreciated but no longer necessary. I will have my soldier Paxton escort you out.”
Paxton had watched the entire display with a straight face, but as he walked towards Foster and Jon, he frowned. “All right, guys, let’s not make a big deal outta it. Let’s jus’ get outta here.”
“You’re despicable,” Jonathan said as he wheeled away. “All those apologies meant so much, didn’t they?”
“Ya don’t understand,” Paxton started. “He’s got–”
“I don’t care. Every time I think you can’t take more from me, you prove me wrong.” Jon held his wheel tight which caused Shweta to stop. “Fuck you, Paxton. You’re beyond redemption. You’re beyond repair. And I hope you never see Nora again.”
A flare of anger flashed behind Paxton’s eyes, but instead of matching Jon’s anger he looked down and clenched his fists. “I’m sorry.”
Jon stared up at his former friend’s face, a tear forming in the corner of his eye. “Apology not accepted.” Jon and Shweta exited through the double doors.
Foster sent a shoulder into Paxton as he walked by. “I guess this is my fault. I brought MESSIAH in because of you, and now you’re all that’s left.” Then he shook his head. “Except it isn’t my fault. It’s yours. All of this is yours. You ruined this place. You ruined me. For once Jon and I agree on something.” Foster put his arm around his son, who was still groggy from the match. Then he looked over to Ian, who was eating a handful of sunflower seeds.
“Sometimes the flower has to die, Foster. It’s time to grow something new.” Ian nodded at Connor.
Foster turned from his son to his brother, then growled, “Fuck off.” The Nackedys followed Jon and Shweta.
Paxton turned around and trudged back towards the ring, where Bathory was walking around Theodore Boswell. “Look at him. Young, giant, imposing. A true MESSIAH’s Monster.” Bathory grinned at Paxton as he walked back. “PRIME has the beds.”
“Well looks like ya got a great monster on your hands, Jules,” Paxton said, putting his hands in his pockets. “Ya prob’ly don’t even need me no more. So why don’tcha jus’ tell me where Nora is and ya can have this gym in peace.”
“Oh Paxton,” The Carpathian Devil said, his face breaking into a grin that threatened to dissect his head. “You are wrong. MESSIAH has so many plans for you.”