Cross-legged on white carpet. Wide-eyed and captivated. Shiny brown eyes the size of dinner plates entranced by the light from the screen.
That old blue and white logo flashing and dancing in their reflection.
He did it! He did it! Tchu has captured the Universal title!”
Titans and gods waged war in a box among bright lights and loud music while rabid on-lookers shrieked and bellowed. Familiar voices from past and present narrated the years-long saga.
“I don’t believe it!”
“Believe it! Jason Snow has done it again!”
Bottom lip hung to the floor with shoulders hunched, hands resting loose in his lap.
Sold. Committed. Enamored.
Hook. Line. Sinker.
“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, CHANDLER TSONDA HAS DONE IT! HE HAS REACHED THE SUMMIT OF PRIME AND HE IS THE NEEEEEWWW UNIVERSAL CHAMPION!!!!”
Dad’s borrowed necktie tight around his forehead, loose ends dangling off to the side. Blue.
Of course it was blue.
“I DON’T BELIEVE THIS! IN WHAT HAD TO BE ONE OF THE MOST DO-OR-DIE MATCHES OF LINDSAY TROY’S CAREER, SHE MANAGES TO PULL OUT VICTORY FROM NARROW DEFEAT AND BECOME THE FIRST PERSON – MAN OR WOMAN – TO SURVIVE COLOSSUS WITH THE UNIVERSAL CHAMPIONSHIP INTACT!”
Magic. That’s what it was.
“NOVA RETAINS! N…”
….it’s the only explanation.
Then again, I’ve never been very good at giving myself credit when it’s due. There’s always something in the back of my brain. Some whisper casting doubt. That I’m some sort of imposter, squeaking by on his way to the top.
And man, when I look back on the past year, it’s hard to argue that notion.
It’s so hard for me to get a grip on. How does some kid with no name from Oregon go from a rookie in January to a shot at the Big Strap in December?
It’s magic, right?
It has to be, because I had a few tough falls. And they weren’t easy to get up from. Each one made me reach for that orange bottle of bars. Each one told me I wasn’t ready for this life. For this level.
Each one told me I should just go home.
The television screen blipped into black before Nick could finish his commentary, leaving the The Boy in the Blue Necktie seated in darkness and silence. A breath-stealing silence.
The sensation, that dark and quiet, bore deep in his chest, squeezing tight. He dared not move a muscle. Couldn’t feel the carpet underneath anymore, or the warmth of the living room. The Boy fought through the dense grip creeping into his throat. Fought the urge to exhale, lest he startle whatever was lurking in the black.
It didn’t keep him waiting.
Abrupt like a light switch, the mountain revealed itself, towering and imposing, a deep hum and heavy rumble heralding its arrival.
The child stood carefully from the dirt beneath him, tilting his head back as those brown saucer-eyes took in the monster towering over.
The enormity of it was…beyond his understanding.
Its breadth too great to see what lay behind, its peak hidden deep within the clouds. Cliff faces shuddered and crumbled down the mountainside, reverberating through the earth and the rock. So tall that it blocked out the stars. The Boy couldn’t find them.
And yet, it beckoned. To ascend. To climb.
An impossible climb.
Loosely tied sneakers shuffled in the dirt, turning away from the mountain’s angry form to look behind him. To look backward. To find another way. Another option.
And there it was.
The white house. The yard. The trampoline where he’d practice every day. Where Older Brother would cheer him on despite Sister’s sneers. Despite Mother’s scoffs.
Calling him home.
To the familiar. To the safe.
To the unremarkable.
He had to find the stars.
The Boy turned back to face the mountain with a stiff lip, and defiantly pulled at the ends of his father’s blue tie, tightening it across his forehead before marching forward to ascend.
But that’s not an option, going home. Not anymore. The ReVival of 2022 started with me, and it seems only right that I finish it.
I’m proud of this year, even though it led to a few falls. A few heartbreaks; in the tournament. At the Nightmare. Against Scott.
And yet, I somehow managed to find my feet.
After Bathory, the Five Star Title.
After Rezin, I cracked the eGG.
After Scott, I dropped the Russian Bear.
I’m proud of all that, because I’ve always seen the climb as a straight line. Like a ladder. Get a win and you climb a rung. Take a loss and you take a step down. Eventually you’ll wind up at the top, or back at the bottom. And so far, I’ve climbed further up than I have down.
But that’s not how it works, is it?
It’s not a ladder at all. It’s a winding path. A jagged ascent. There are too many variables, too many directions, too many outcomes to take the form of a ladder.
But the climb still gets steeper the closer you get to the top.
Small fingers fought to find grip.
Dirt smeared across his cheeks. The soles of his sneakers tore against the rock. Howling wind sent the ends of Dad’s tie fluttering and threatened to throw him over the edge. His small arms were nearly numb, feet long since blistered. With every inch gained he wished for his living room with white carpet. For the trampoline.
But still; one step at a time. One inch at a time. In any direction. Left, right, up.
As long as it wasn’t down.
A tremor in the cliff face forced him to pause. He shot his eyes upward as a deafening crack echoed down the mountainside. A volley of rock and debris let loose from the mountain’s grasp, hurtling and bouncing their way along its pitch.
The Boy clung tight to the stoney wall with a deep gasp, clutching for dear life and doing his best to flatten his body while eyes pinched shut and teeth ground together. The landslide crashed and rumbled overhead in a thundering torrent.
Miraculously, he found himself still clung to the cliff as he carefully lifted his gaze, the echoes of smashing boulders carrying back up from below along the wind.
A moment to breathe. With sharp, deep gasps. Until a voice from the clouds bellowed another shock through the stone.
“You may climb, Young One,” it boomed, deep and commanding.
The Boy stared into the clouds, fighting the vibrations pummeling into his heart.
“But you cannot reach the peak.”
And with great effort, he chose to ignore it, shaking the hair from his face before reaching for further grip to continue the lengthy ascent.
“The peak is not for you.”
I’ve been watching a lot of footage lately. Of old PRIME.
The nights where my heroes became immortal. When Hoyt took down Killean. When Sonny Silver beat The Queen. When Hessian defeated Tchu and Violence Jack, carrying the Strap to the end of the ReVolution Era.
Even when Nova told the world “Fuck You.”
I’ve been trying to find something in common. To see a little bit of myself in them.
But it’s still hard for me, you know?
The pressure never goes away. Every time I feel like I have a handle on it; when I don’t go looking for Molly or the orange bottle, it still finds its way back in. I’m not sure it will ever really go away.
So many of them are trusting me to take down the COOLympian. Trusting me to end the ReVival’s first year with the Strap in my hands, and not his.
And it’s easy to feel like I’m alone in this fight, even while knowing that Nova will be there in the stripes. Easy to chew a few bars. Crawl inside my own head. Hide under the covers and show my face when it’s safe.
But none of that’s true, is it?
I can get out of my own head. I don’t have to hide underneath the covers. I won’t let the Xanax numb me to what’s coming.
And I’m not alone.
I’ve had a lot of help along the way.
As the clouds began to skew his vision, he knew just how close he was, and just how far he had to go.
Instinct took over as he searched for holds and footing. Whatever instinct a young boy could have. Each step uncertain. Every reach of the hand a question mark in the haze.
“The peak is not for you,” the mountain spoke, its profound tone shaking the very air he fought to breathe in.
The clouds rolled in heavy, thickening, all but blinding the path.
He found a hold with his small fingers, pinching tight.
But it broke away.
The Boy scrambled as the stone flung from his hand and into the abyss, his sneakers frantically clawing at the rock, desperate to find purchase but finding none. He held on with that one hand, with every fiber. Every ounce of strength he had left.
It would be so easy. To let go. Abandon the climb.
To leave the stars above behind and return to Earth.
With every ounce of strength remaining in his little body, he lurched his free hand into the unknown, determined to find a ledge. A hold. A crack.
Instead, a hand.
He gasped as he felt fingers wrap around his palm, clamping down with certainty. They felt strong. They felt familiar. And he allowed them to pull him upward.
Through the cloud.
And to the air above. To the top. Where the stars shined brightest.
Exhausted dark eyes searched to find the source of the grip. The source of his saving grace.
He found another pair of dark eyes grinning back.
Shaggy haired and lanky, there at the mountain top. There to help Little Brother over the crest. Over the last hurdles. To show him the way.
To show him the peak.
With a soft smile, Big Brother fixed Dad’s cooked and borrowed tie over The Boy’s dirty forehead. The child fought for breath in his shock and utter disbelief.
“There it is,” said Older Brother, motioning to the distance.
The Boy turned his wide eyes upward.
A bright light at the peak. Beckoning. So close now.
The child turned eyes back to Big Brother, looking for an answer. For permission.
“Go get it.”
With soft eyes and a knowing grin, Older Brother stepped backward, steadily fading off into the ether. The Boy blinked, but the feeling in his chest was no longer tight and oppressive. No longer fearful.
He turned hose eyes back to the bright light, and shuffled those loose sneakers forward.
I get it. It probably sounds kinda strange; that it’s a struggle for me to see myself in this position, but I can’t ignore all the stabbing thoughts and questions in my head.
Why me? Why do I get this chance?
To take the Strap? To play the final note on PRIME’s Year of ReVival?
Why not Nova?
Why not Youngblood?
Why not Sykes?
But you know what makes me feel okay about it?
It’s that I can say the same thing for Cancer.
Why you, Jiles?
Because you’re you? Because you’ve climbed COOLYMPUS?
Because you toppled the Tower of Babel? No. Because you didn’t. You weren’t strong enough.
Because you burned down the Glue Factory? No. Because you sucker punched him. With Bathory. Like suckers.
Because it’s your Main Event? And yours alone?
No. Because I already took that from you once.
So maybe it is me. Maybe I do deserve the chance to throw you off the top of your own damn mountain.
The mountain that you never actually climbed.
But I did.
“THE PEAK IS NOT FOR YOU.”
Again it bellowed, for the hundredth time.
And again The Boy pushed forward. Toward the light. That gleaming, humming, flickering light. With aching feet inside ruined sneakers. With arms dangling at his sides, lacking the strength to hold them up.
But he had to know.
He had to know what waited in the light at the mountain top.
The Boy drew closer, feet all but dragging in the dirt behind him. The pulsing light was heavy. Powerful. But warm. Familiar.
“THE PEAK. IS NOT. FOR YOU.”
What was it?
A golden belt, waiting to be worn?
Or was it…
An unexplainable noise rose over the mountain’s growl. The sound of shining. Of glowing. The Boy shielded his eyes with a scraped forearm as it grew, drowning out the darkness; hiding the jagged edges of the cliff faces, swallowing the stars. So bright, but his dark eyes wouldn’t pull away.
A figure. A silhouette against the flash. Warm, and familiar. Enough for the child to lower his arm.
A man. Strong and broad. With near-black hair, and a dark mustache covering his upper lip.
A man, with the same deep, dark eyes as The Boy.
The light behind him faded, but not completely. It provided enough vision and warmth for the both of them. The mountain no longer felt dark and cold. The stars returned to focus.
The Man stepped closer with black dress shoes that matched his slacks and button-down shirt, looking down at the child with those identical eyes.
The Boy tilted his head up, the ends of that blue tie dangling over his shoulder. The aching in his feet disappeared. Arms no longer numb.
They stood for a while, against that starry backdrop.
“Do our dreams come true?” The Boy asked eventually.
The Man’s mustache lifted with a smile, and offered a gentle nod.
“They do,” he replied. “Almost all of them. Even the ones we didn’t dream about.”
The Boy smiled back.
“Are we happy?”
“Mostly,” was the honest response. “We’re still learning.”
The Boy nodded, flicking his eyes down and taking a moment.
“Do we finish the climb?”
The Man crouched, bringing himself to eye level, reaching forward to push a few strands of matted hair away from The Boy’s forehead, away from the blue necktie.
“We’re almost there,” he said. “We’re so close. Just one more step.”
The Boy’s smile returned, those big, deep brown eyes widening and glistening.
“…will we win?”
Hayes Hanlon’s crouched figure stands in the center of the ring, somewhat awkward under the dim lights of the MGM Grand Garden Arena, his gaze staring deep into someone absent. Absent, at least, to anyone else.
The camera pans around the ring apron. No fans in attendance yet. No stage crews.
It slowly zooms in on the Event Horizon’s calm face, and he lifts his eyes to meet it.
Then, a long exhale through the nose, and a smirk.
“We already have.”