Justine sat in the second bedroom of their suite at the MGM Grand and stared out the window. The room had been hers for those first few nights before the Great American Nightmare, back when she and Jared were still just friends hurtling towards the next evolution in their relationship, so it seemed the best place for her to calm her nerves in the aftermath of another argument.
This was supposed to be their time. Twenty years they spent as ships passing in the night, until the stars finally aligned and gave them their moment together. He’d brought her into the fold, gave her a main event on the biggest stage of her career, and together they raised championship gold. When they stumbled into the lair of Jared’s personal devil, the man who called himself Wyatt Connors, they faced that together, too. And after eleven long years of torment Jared was free.
He confessed his love for her that day and she reciprocated in kind. The future was theirs for the taking.
And then… It all collapsed.
In the wake of Jonathan Rhine’s injury, Justine had watched her lover come unraveled at the seams. It caught her by surprise when he’d agreed to film a vignette with The Anglo Luchador for High Octane Wrestling, a promotion that Jared had sworn he’d never step foot in given the violent history the company boasted.
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
But he’d done it. And more than simply serving as set dressing while Tom promised to make an example of Jace Parker Davidson, Jared had marched into the Best Arena as part of a PRIME cadre in case anything went wrong. One of his best friends had been gravely injured, and now it seemed to Justine that Jared was rushing to join Jon in the hospital all in the name of petty vengeance. For what gain? Jace had no hand in what happened that night. The Best family wouldn’t give a fraction of a fuck about the incident at Ultraviolence that left one of the best wrestlers of his generation unable to feel anything below his neck.
There was only one person to blame for any of that. And as she sat alone staring at the Vegas skyline, Justine could already sense the next step along her love’s quest for his vision of justice.
“Promise me you won’t do anything stupid.” Those were her words that night at the hospital, a desperate plea for her partner not to put himself at risk. He’d given his word. Little good that did.
She didn’t know where he went. In the wake of their latest fight he’d stormed into the hall and let the door slam behind him. She pulled the hood of her sweatshirt down low over her eyes, all the while imaging the ways he might self-destruct.
A noise from the other room drew her attention. The sound of his ringtone was unmistakable.
She pushed herself to her feet and stepped into the common area. “Jared?” she said, but no reply came.
The phone vibrated its way across the couch, but she was still able to see the name on the caller ID. Shweta. Jon’s partner. Justine grabbed the device and answered the call. If Jared wanted to argue about privacy when he got back, then so be it. They could add it to the growing list of grievances between them. But if there was any news on Jon’s condition, then Justine had to know.
“Hello?” she said.
The voice on the other end sounded surprised. “Oh, hello, Justine. This is Shweta Kallemullah. I was trying to reach Jared.”
“Oh, hey. Umm, he’s not here. I mean, we…,” her voice trailed off, and she took a deep breath to compose herself. “Sorry, he just stepped out. Forgot his phone.”
“Okay. Well, could you tell him to call…” There was a pause on the other end. “Actually, I can ask you this. I know how close you and Jared are, and so this would involve both of you.”
Justine started to speak, but the words caught in her throat. It took a moment before she could say, “Alright.”
By the time Shweta got to the crux of her question Justine sat trembling on the couch.
Gray’s Academy had birthed one of the most unapologetically violent men I’d ever shared a ring with, and for the first time in more than a decade I was stepping through its doors. I’d been invited before, a gesture that Jon had made when he learned I was attending the fundraiser for Nora last spring. A gesture made from a sense of obligation that we both knew I would decline.
How much had changed since then. We’d fought, reconciled, and mended old wounds, then his career was snatched away by a monster born of these very walls. The same one I’d managed to conquer just before Christmas. Paxton Ray.
When I left the ring at Colossus it felt like every nerve was on fire. My enemy had brought a necklace made of gator teeth with him to the ring, using them to carve open the canvas and expose the boards underneath. When he wasn’t using them to make the ring a more dangerous place, Paxton was using them as a lash against me.
It wasn’t until I got backstage that we realized I’d brought along a souvenir. In a post-match embrace Justine’s hand found one of those teeth wedged into the flesh of my back. I know it sounds macabre, but I insisted on keeping it. It served as a reminder of what some people are capable of becoming.
I wore it on a cord under my shirt that day at Gray’s like a totem to ward off evil.
Looking up at the banner that read “GRAY’S ACADEMY GRAND RE-OPENING” sent the gears turning, and for a moment I was twenty years old again, taking my first steps into a converted candy factory and putting myself on the journey that brought me here. I was broken then, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Everyone who enters this sport is, make no mistake. It’s what we decide to become that’s important.
How many of the kids this school was trying to recruit would end up like me? How many would be unfortunate enough to have it all taken away like Jon?
Would any of them let themselves fall into the same depths that Paxton had allowed himself to go?
I shuddered at the thought, and the tooth shifted against my chest, reminding me that it was still there.
Teeth had recently become “A Thing” around PRIME with the news that Arthur Pleasant had joined the roster. Unlike a lot of my colleagues, I tend to block out anything that’s not happening where I work. The blinders go up. I turn into a “wrestling monogamist,” weird as that probably sounds, so admittedly I didn’t know much about him before then, only what I’d heard in passing or in casual conversation.
“The man is crazy! I heard he carved someone’s ear off and kept it like a trophy.”
“That son of a bitch filed his teeth into fangs. Into goddamn fangs! Who does that?”
By all accounts, Arthur was someone who reveled in the violence that professional wrestling offered, and in that regard the sport is an endless buffet. Always more to chew on. It’s not what I would have expected for someone that came from a family as widely known as the Van Warrens, because when you’re part of a legacy like that there are certain doors that get opened for you. You get a head start on the race the rest of us fight to be a part of. A free lap while everyone else stands waiting for their turn at the starting blocks. All that cast aside for sadistic joy.
The question is why.
Like I said, we’re all a little broken, but there has to be a reason why someone leaves reason behind on the journey towards becoming something else.
So what is it?
What’s the catalyst?
What sends a man to the logical extreme? This sport loves its monsters, don’t believe anyone who tries to tell you otherwise. It wants the hurt, it needs the bloodshed. It demands that the people in its orbit give up their humanity. Good people suffer at the hands of monsters because it draws.
And then there are the idiots like me, the ones who think it can be better. Of the two groups, we’re the real deluded ones.
I looked at the banner again. “UNDER BETTER MANAGEMENT,” it read. Like a fresh coat of paint to cover a murder. This building had seen a caring father turn into someone who broke his own partner’s neck just because he could. In a few days I’d stand across the ring from somebody who felt compelled to file down his own teeth because it gave him another way to hurt someone. The monsters are everywhere, because this sport is full of damaged people.
Those of us who stick around in spite of it?
We might be the most broken.
We sat in Jon’s office, the same space he’d occupied years ago before taking over the head trainer’s space. The room looked like it hadn’t seen in life in those intervening years. No one had cleaned it. It was piled full of boxes. A thin blanket of dust covered every exposed surface.
We chatted for a little bit about how his physical therapy was going, and what it was like to be back in the space after a brief period of exile following Foster’s hostile takeover.
Still, none of that had anything to do with the real reason I was there. You could argue that what I was going to say could be handled over the phone, but some things are better discussed in person.
“So this is normally something I’d keep private, but somehow Savannah Scandal found out and now the whole world knows. There’s a wedding in my future. Feels weird, right? Like who gets married for the first time in their 40s?” Broken pieces trying to mend themselves, that’s who. “There’ll be a ‘save the date’ that goes out whenever we pick one, so I guess be on the lookout, but that’s not why I bring it up.”
I paused for a minute to draw in the dust on a nearby table.
“I was wondering,” I continued, then paused again. “Damn, I am not good at this.”
“What’s up, man?” Jon said.
Okay, deep breath.
“If there’s anything that I’ve learned over the last few years, especially recently, it’s that I realize I need people. Like I’ve always known, I guess, but it really took the last year or so to galvanize it. So when this all happens, when I actually have to stand up there and… you know, say stuff… I’m asking if you’ll be up there with me.”
The minute I heard the word ‘stand’ escape my lips, I had the sudden and overwhelming urge to find the heaviest object in the room and hit myself in the crotch with it.
I wasn’t ready for Jon’s reaction. He tried to hide it, but I could see tears welling in the corners of his eyes. From past conversations I knew that his dad wouldn’t really let him express his emotions that way, so to see it at all meant that this had resonated.
“Of… of course, man,” he said. “I’d be honored.”
“So, I don’t just mean in the wedding party,” I said. This was going to be the big one. “I mean, like, the spot. The best man. You know, if you’re cool with it.”
He wheeled himself back a few inches and nodded. I saw a tear break free and start to roll down his cheek, but he was quick to catch it. “I… remember this time last year? You hated me.”
“Jon, this time last year I hated everybody. And I mean that as literally as I can. Took me almost until December before I could even rehang the mirrors in my house. It’s… I was in a place where even the smallest thing felt insurmountable. It was almost like being a kid again, where you don’t know how to control the feelings you have, you just know that they’re the biggest thing ever. And eventually it all just kind of bleeds together until you forget what direction is up. That’s my failing. Mine.”
During all the years I spent away, no one who ever came by the house said anything about the blank spots on the walls. They knew. Of course they did. More than once I caught my mother staring at an empty space in the hallway where she expected something to be, but she never said anything. Admitting I’d done it at all came easier than I expected it would, even though I was pretty sure I’d never been honest with anyone about it.
“Well I think you know that I felt broken most of last year too, so if anyone gets it, it’s me. You and I have had tough paths…and that’s led us here. To me saying I am so excited to be your best man.”
Oh thank god. I didn’t expect him to say no, but you can’t ever really be sure with these things.
“Yeah, I’m excited for it too. Hopefully nothing goes sideways and no fights break out, but that’s always a risk when you get a bunch of wrestlers in a room together. If you’ve got any tips on how to pull that off, then I’m all ears.”
The reality is Jon was all ears.
Because he had large ears.
Look, there’s a reason I once convinced an entire arena to chant “Sexy Dumbo” at the man.
“Well I’ve never been married,” he said, “but my only advice is to not invite assholes.”
“Maybe not, but you guys still managed to pull off that fundraiser last year. I know it didn’t go exactly the way you probably planned it, what with the crazy cult guy giving a speech and then Foster being… well… him. By the way, I’ve been meaning to ask. How’s Nora doing these days?”
“She’s good. She’s safe. It took a long time and a lot of tries, but Shweta proved why she’s the best.” He paused for a minute and seemed to look at his shoes. At first this confused me, and then I understood. “And hey, just want to let you know…we don’t blame you guys at all for not helping to find a place for Nora. I know it was a really hard time to ask you for any favors, and we obviously found someone to help, so it’s all good.”
“Wait, what?” It was all I could think to say.
“Back in October, Shweta called your phone. Justine answered and said that it was too hard for you guys to help at the time, what with everything going on. And we totally understand. Like you said, last year was insane.”
The world around me switched itself off, like the software running reality just encountered an error that it didn’t know how to process, so in order to save the system it shut everything down. Insane? That word took on a whole new meaning. Everything I thought I knew was suddenly called into question.
Who was lying to me?
Jon? What did he have to gain from it? Was it possible that his injury was more traumatic than any of us had been led to believe? Would he hallucinate something like this? Could he? Everything I’d seen from him in the months since that night told me he was perfectly lucid and aware of his surroundings.
That meant the only other option was the one I didn’t want to contend with.
“No secrets.” That was the deal. That was the deal that she insisted on if we were going to try to balance a relationship with an in-ring partnership. Justine made me promise that I’d hold to it, no matter the cost.
There’s no way.
The words hit like a gunshot.
I made a promise to Melissa that I would keep Nora safe and hidden from Paxton.
Is there any way you and Jared could help us?
Is there anywhere in your circle that Melissa and Nora would be safe?
Justine didn’t answer at first. It didn’t seem real. Months ago Jared and Jon were at each other’s throats every week, and only repaired their friendship over the summer. Now Jon was paralyzed, his future in the hands of whatever miracle that modern medicine could conjure, and Jared seemed more than eager to throw his own life away. Her mouth went dry. She had to close her eyes to stop the room from spinning. If Jared heard about this there was no question in her mind that he would run off on another crusade without a moment spared to consider the consequences.
“I don’t know,” Justine heard herself say. “Things aren’t great right now, if I’m being honest. After everything that happened Jared kind of, well, I think he’s falling apart.” She steamrolled Shweta with her words, each one coming out faster than the last. “I don’t even know why I’m saying this. I know he’d want to help you, but I’m scared for him right now.”
“I understand,” came the reply. “I will be honest, I wish Jared had picked up the phone…”
Of course you do, Justine thought. Fucking why wouldn’t you? You know he’d say yes, and he’d do it without a second thought. Damn everyone else who would have to sit by and watch as he destroys himself, because you know what that psychopath would do if he found out, and you’re asking anyway. You know. You KNOW.
The rest of the conversation was a blur, just words blending together into a rhythmic, droning hum. It was only when the buzzing stopped that Justine realized Shweta had stopped.
“I’m sorry, Shweta,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”
Justine ended the call and let the phone drop from her hands. Only then did she give in and let the tears come. Everything had gone to hell. One decision from a madman with a grudge had catalyzed the end of all she knew. Everything she ever thought she might have was gone in the span of a few seconds, the ripple from that one event expanding ever outwards like a shockwave and razing lives before it as it traveled. Was it selfish to think this way? Perhaps. She considered the notion for a moment before a new dread took hold.
He would be back in the room eventually. Maybe not soon, but he would have to come back. Everything he brought was here. His phone was here.
He would see the call.
He would know that Justine had answered it.
Footsteps sounded in the hallway outside the door, and Justine felt her pulse quicken. She picked the phone back up and tapped at the home screen, surprised to see that it hadn’t yet locked itself. Even if it had, breaking in would have been trivial; his password was easily guessable by anyone who knew him.
The steps were closer now. She would have to work fast, but her fingers refused to cooperate and she inadvertently opened and closed at least three separate apps in her attempt to erase the evidence of her conversation. It was only when she heard the handle to the suite start to jiggle that she snapped into action. In a moment the call was highlighted, and with a tap of her finger the last trace of it vanished into the aether. This time she made sure to lock the device before tossing it back onto the cushion where she’d found it.
The door clicked open.
“Oh, hey,” he said. “Forgot my phone.”
“Yeah,” she said. It was barely a whisper. Once more the hood of her shirt was pulled low to hide her eyes.
Her legs felt like they could give out at any moment, and Justine had to fight to push herself to her feet. She drew her arms tight around her waist and tried to steady her breathing. Lies were something he couldn’t abide, she knew this from the stories he’d told about his father. If the truth of what happened ever came out then that would be the end of them. She knew this, too.
He drew her in, wrapping his arms around her shoulders and holding her close.
“I know it’s sucked lately,” he said. “But it’s going to be okay, Cal. I promise you. It’s going to be okay.”
She wished that were true.