Hayes flipped his phone screen open for probably the fifth or sixth time within that hour.
Thumb to the Messages icon.
Scroll to “Paul.” Press the name.
Just the last texts. The ones before the last phone call.
Friday, Sep 9 – 4:41 PM
Yo dude! Watching the show from Portland tonight. Sorry I can’t make this one
You got this! Whip SCOTT’s ass!
The ones before he doubled down. Like a fucking idiot.
“Is that what you were feeling? Hayes?”
He flicked his eyes back to Angelica from across the table, thrust back to a conference room inside the MGM Grand. He wasn’t Brandon Youngblood. He and Angie weren’t on the level to record the Undergroundcast in his suite.
“Yeah, something like that,” he replied into the microphone, knowing he was caught in the act. PRIME’s lead interviewer gave him a light-hearted warning glance as he placed his phone on the table, screen down.
“That’s about as hard a shift as you can get,” she said, attention restored. “From Randall Knox to Ivan Stanislav, that’s well over a foot and well over two-hundred pounds between the two.”
“And I felt every pound of it,” he laughed before returning to her original question. “But yeah, I did feel like I was getting thrown to the wolves a little bit against Ivan, but if you weigh that against having no match at UltraViolence, then you gotta do what you gotta do. Y’know?”
She smiled, twirling a pen in her fingers and bouncing a heel from a crossed leg.
“That was a pretty big moment.”
A humble grin in return. “So they tell me.”
“Some might argue it was bigger than winning the Five Star at Culture Shock, or beating Jiles at ReVival 11.”
“Well, that’s a given. Ivan is literally twice the man as Cancer.”
Her smile grew. A poor job of hiding her amusement. Angelica readjusted, pitching her torso upright. Hayes reset his posture.
“PRIME has seen a few guys like Ivan Stanislav,” she redirected. “Hessian comes to mind.”
“Plenty of dudes like Jiles, too,” Hayes pointed. “The Devilles. The Kannons. The Sonny Silvers.”
She lifted her eyebrows, impressed at the young man’s knowledge of names gone by.
“Not a lot of Ned Reforms, though.”
A hitch in the gitty-up. The knowledge only extended so far, it seemed.
“Yeah…I guess not,” he admitted. Angelica, ever the professional, allowed for a moment to chew.
“Your career has…barely begun. But, have you ever encountered anyone like The Warrior Poet?”
Hayes pulled at a stray hair in his mustache with his teeth, mulling it over. He flashed his brown eyes to his phone screen one more time. Nothing new.
“Believe it or not…I have.”
“Before I let you go, I have a challenge for you all to take with you.”
The classroom of twenty-two freshmen fought back the groans of immature youth, backpacks and books in hand as Dr. Landon Hughes held them at bay, using his fingers like puppet strings to keep them from bolting to the freedom of the Sundown Pub, or one of the Crew Team’s famous Friday ragers. The tall professor smiled through a short brown beard, wavy chestnut hair tucked behind his ears, young enough to understand the urges of his classroom. Old enough to keep the upper hand.
“Whatever comes your way this weekend, I want you to keep one question in the fore-front of your mind.”
The class settled enough to allow him to finish the thought, however impatiently.
“Ask yourself; ‘are these actions, are these pursuits, contributing to the broadening of my mind?”
A low murmur followed. Hughes gave them a moment to process.
“There will be many distractions in the coming years,” he continued. “And while we can’t expect to escape them all, we can be mindful of their effects, and refuse to let them belittle our own intelligence.”
He offered one last small smile, his words reaching the ears of some, but not all.
“I’ll leave you with that. Enjoy your weekend.”
The collection of freshmen belonging to the class of 2017 rose in near-unison, assembling their belongings and making their escape. Hayes Hanlon, aged 18, took his time from the back row, slinging his backpack over a shoulder and following his classmates out. That is, until a hand on the shoulder paused his stride.
“Mr. Hanlon, could you hang back a second?”
Hayes turned reluctantly to his professor, who waited for the rest of the class to leave. Dr. Hughes leaned his lanky frame against the edge of his desk, reaching back to pluck a collection of stapled 8x11s, holding them up and pointing them at his student like a conductor’s baton.
“This was fantastic work, Hayes.”
The young man lifted his eyebrows, surprised.
“Um, thanks. I’m not sure I really get it. I just kinda…started writing.”
“Signs of a wise mind. Beyond its years.”
Hayes could only shrug inside his gray hoodie. Dr. Hughes set the papers back on his desk before crossing his arms at the chest.
“You’re playing on the baseball team, is that right?”
“Yeah, trying for first base.”
“And how’s that going?”
“I mean, I’m not there yet.”
A smile and a nod.
“And that’s why you’re here at the University of Portland? And you’re in my class to fill your Critical Thinking elective?”
A nod from the young man with dark hair.
“Tell me, what is it about baseball?” Hughes asked, motioning for Hayes to take a seat.
“Um…I don’t really know,” was his weak answer, hesitantly taking the offer. “I love it, and it’s kinda the only thing I’m good at…”
“Is it the glory?” Hughes jumped in, catching him off guard.
“Yeah. I guess so,” he replied, after some thought.
“Those big moments? Snapping your glove at first for the out? Hitting a curveball flush and sending it four-hundred feet?”
Hayes finally cracked a smile.
“Exactly. That’s exactly it.”
Another warm grin through the professor’s chestnut beard. He held up a finger to pause the conversation before hopping off the desk and circling to the other side, sliding a drawer open and producing a thin paperback.
“Here,” Hughes said, returning to the front, handing the book over to his student. “I want you to read this.”
Hayes collected the book cautiously, lifting an eyebrow to read the cover;
“The Stoics,” by F.H. Sandbach.
“Oh, thanks.” He turned the book over in his hand. “What’s it about?”
“Just give it a read,” said Hughes, returning to the desk’s edge. “Just know that there’s more to this life than glory. The big moments.”
A confused, furrowed brow.
“See you in class Monday.”
Those last comments lingered as Hayes entered the hallway. They were almost offensive to the freshman athlete. A foreign language.
Regardless, he tucked that book in his backpack on his way down the hall.
“So what’s the course of action? What’s the strategy against a guy like Ned Reform?”
“I don’t think there is one,” Hayes was quick to answer. “I think you just show up and wrestle. He’s not Jiles. He’s not Bathory. He doesn’t require a gameplan.”
“Why’s that?” Angelica asked, genuinely curious and tapping a pen to her lips. “Because he’s not a ‘traditional’ wrestler?”
“Because he hasn’t even decided to be one yet.”
Brooks lifted her eyebrows, her face caught with a little surprise. A touch of shock.
“Seriously,” he continued. “How many people in this business have you met that only had one foot in the pool? How many roster members would moonlight as wrestlers, even PRIME wrestlers, but kept the day job?”
“Quite a few,” she admitted.
“And where are they now?”
She chewed the tip of her pen with no immediate response. She was impressed with the young Hanlon’s take, and made it known with a bright smile while she pivoted in her chair left and right.
“Where are they now,” she mused.
Angie righted her posture, leaning in slightly, twirling the pen before pointing it at her guest.
“You went all in.” The declaration swelled his chest.
“Chips in the middle,” he confirmed, proud.
“On your own. No family waiting for you here in Vegas.”
“But your brother comes around once in a while. Paul, right?”
“Yeah, my older brother. He loves Vegas, so he makes a point to catch as many shows as he can…”
Huh. That’s funny.
“…but, uh…not in a while.”
A shot from left field. His broad chest fell.
“Busy guy?” she pressed when Hayes didn’t answer.
“Yeah, he’s big into crypto stuff, but that’s not it. We had…”
The fuck are you doi…
Pressure in the ribcage, trying to force itself through the sternum, or out the throat.
“…we had an argument.”
“How important is his presence? In Vegas? During shows?”
“Very,” he was willing to share. “He’s always been there, always had…”
Erratic twitching of the fingers and clenching teeth. Angelica remained patient, but a touch concerned as Home Run Hayes struggled to find the words.
“Always had my ba…”
A deep gulp.
“Hey, can we take a break?” he asked, more of a gasp, already pitching forward and bracing his hands on the armrests of his chair, ready to stand.
“Sure, of course,” she said, pausing the recording and removing her headphones. “Is everything oka…”
The door swinging shut with a hard click was answer enough.
Dark eyes scanned the pages, a young mind doing its best to understand the words of F.H. Sandbach and the teachings of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus. Words favoring virtue and wisdom over glory and status.
No words to favor the spectacle, or the arena.
It captivated him regardless, sitting on a bench in the University of Portland’s courtyard, his purple Pilots ballcap turned backwards.
The pages forced a breach. A schism. And made him feel very, very stupid.
“Is it getting through?” A voice from behind.
Hayes lurched, spinning his head over-shoulder. Dr. Hughes stood calmly, shoulder bag hanging over a tucked-in flannel. Smiling warmly. Wavy long hair at the shoulder shifting in the breeze. Hanlon relaxed a bit.
“Sometimes, yeah,” he admitted, sliding over to allow the professor to join him. “Sometimes, not at all.”
“It takes a read or two,” Hughes confessed, taking his seat. “But is the message at least clear?”
“I think so,” the young man replied. “Pursue wisdom. Not pleasure.”
“In so many words,” the professor chuckled. “It’s a little deeper than that.”
“You think I should quit baseball,” Hayes stated.
“No, of course not.”
Hanlon sat perplexed. Landon placed a hand on his shoulder.
“It’s about control,” he explained. “And understanding that you have very little of it in this world. If any at all.”
It was a nauseating thought.
“The wins. The home runs. The monumental instances where you feel like it’s your job to be the hero. Understand that there are thousands of moving parts that lead to those moments, and your role is just a small part of it. Regardless of how big it may feel.”
Hughes offered a pat to the shoulder, righting his posture. Hayes nodded lightly, uncertain.
“And in the years to come, the wins and the records and the praise will mean little. And mean nothing to the relationships and connections you build. But your mind will.”
Landon stood, clapping his student on the shoulder one more time.
“Take your opportunities head-on, Hayes. But go forth for wisdom. Not for glory.”
With another genuine smile, Dr. Hughes made his way across the lawn of the courtyard, leaving Hayes to process the message.
Maybe the professor was right.
Maybe he wasn’t.
Instead of opening the book, he reached for his phone, thumbing a number and bringing it to his ear.
“Hey Paulie,” he greeted when the call connected. “Question: did you ever have any classes with Dr. Hughes? Landon Hughes?”
Hayes stood from his bench, retrieving his backpack.
“Know anything about him?”
It usually came creeping. This time it rushed.
The squeeze on his heart. The quickening breaths through the nose.
The short break in their recording afforded him the chance to escape. A splash of cold water to the face from the bathroom sink helped, if only a little. Angelica Brooks was sharp. Razor sharp. Pulling at threads that Hayes would rarely share openly. The surface had cracked.
And when the surface cracks, the bars rattle in their tube.
He dried his face with a paper towel, pushing a hand through his dark hair after tossing the wad.
His other hand fiddled with the bottle cap in his pocket.
“Just one. Just to get to the finish line…” he whispered under his breath.
He pulled the orange bottle out, twisting the cap, tapping the tube against his palm to gently produce just one small, white bar.
The bathroom door swinging open sent a shock down his spine. He quickly closed the cap and shoved the tube back into his dress pants. The visitor entered a stall, and Hayes kept his eyes down toward the sink, washing his hands to feign normalcy.
Minutes later he was in the lobby, making his way toward the conference room. His stride swift. Stiff.
And still, he thumbed the bottle cap.
One. Just one.
But he wouldn’t twist it open again.
Not this time.
Hayes left the tube in his pocket, letting it slide from his fingertips as he approached the door to the conference room.
We can do this on our own.
Angie’s eyes shot up as Hayes re-entered, standing from her chair.
“There you are! Is everything okay?”
“I’m good,” said the Event Horizon, reassuring her by holding up a palm. “Let’s finish the episode.”
Dr. Hughes held a stack of papers, tapping them against his desk to collect them together as his class filtered out the door. Another week of Philosophy 101, and with any luck, a few more influenced young minds.
He stood from his desk, collecting his shoulder bag and keys, ready to lock up his classroom for the weekend.
The frame of Hayes Hanlon in the doorway was an unexpected, but welcome sight. Particularly, the copy of Sandbach’s paperback in the young man’s hand.
“So,” he said with a grin and turning his chin toward the book. “Did it get through?”
“You’re Landon Hughes,” Hayes deflected, dark eyes steady on the professor’s.
“Landon Hughes,” an interruption. “Starting pitcher for the Pilots in 2006.”
The professor swallowed, and set his jaw.
“Came in on a scholarship,” Hayes added, stepping forward. “Full ride.”
“Hayes. C’mon. You don’t kn…”
“And then, a botched Tommy John surgery. It was over before it started.”
Landon had nothing to offer. His mind had already traveled back. To 2006. To his fifth start of the season. To the curveball, and the pop in his elbow. Hayes held up the copy of Sandbach and shuffled through the pages.
“There was one quote I kept coming back to. Marcus Aurelius.”
He found the page, and drew his eyes down to recite.
“‘You have power over your mind. Not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.’”
Hayes looked back to his professor, and snapped the book shut.
“I think that’s bullshit.”
“Was I in control when the ligament tore?” Hughes shot back. “When the surgeons failed to do their job? When it cost me my scholarship?”
“For some of it. Not all of it. But are you gonna tell me that because I can’t control the pitch coming in, that I don’t have any control when I crank it over left-center?”
He dropped the book on the desk with a sharp smack.
“Hayes, please…” Landon implored. “Don’t put your eggs in one basket like I did…”
“Someday you’re going to see me on TV,” Hayes interjected. “In front of a crowd. A roaring crowd. And it’s going to be big. MASSIVE. And some kid is going to remember it for the rest of their life. It’s going to change their life. Because of me.”
He stepped back toward the door. Hughes had little to offer. Only his disappointment.
“Then try to tell me those moments don’t matter.”
“Reform is well documented with his research. Does he have the Event Horizon figured out?”
Hayes snorted into the microphone. His heartbeat had calmed. The pressure in his chest had passed. He and Angelica were in a groove.
“I don’t think the guy has himself figured out, but that’s not important. Our match at Revival 18 is important.”
“Why’s that?” she asked. “What’s riding on this one?”
He took a beat.
“I was pretty pissed to see my match against Sykes get screwed the way it did,” he finally admitted. “He deserved better. We both deserved better.”
“The Love Convoy’s return soured an incredible display,” she agreed. “Not just in the ring, but your gesture beforehand. That was powerful, Hayes.”
A nod. His mind floated back to that night. To the ring. To the earth-shaking crowd when they traded shirts. Before they mangled each other’s chests with sharp chops from open hands. Before the double powerbomb from Hall and Gladhappy prevented him from making any attempt at a save.
“Jared Sykes said something to you soon after, didn’t he?”
Her query pulled him from the darkness of that evening, and with a gentle smile, thrust him back to the light of it.
A quizzical eyebrow from Angelica Brooks.
“…but that’s between us.”
Their shared gestures had turned the MGM Garden Arena into a frenzy. “F4J” filled the PRIME*View with massive white letters, the crowd roaring their endless support for the night’s main attractions. Jared Sykes and Hayes Hanlon showed theirs in kind, swapped t-shirts raised overhead, in absolutely no rush to get their contest underway despite the bell having already rung.
Hayes choked down a flood of emotions. These were the moments he yearned for and dreamt about; shared revelry with wrestling royalty and swelling crowds, bellowing their support. Still, these were new sensations for the Event Horizon, not yet a year into his career with PRIME. But he’d had those moments nonetheless. Title matches. Upsets. Failures.
They paled in comparison to this one. With Jared Sykes at ReVival 16.
“For whatever it’s worth, you have all of my respect for this,” said Sykes as the two met center-ring with a heartfelt high-five, hands lingering in each other’s grip. “And for the things you said. I hope this business gives you everything you want, bud…”
Hayes could only reply with a short nod, lips pursed behind his mustache. He barely knew this man in the blueberry mask, but there was a kinship he couldn’t shake. Something tied these two together. Some experience. Some trauma.
“…now let’s give em’ a fuckin’ show.”
The Sundown Pub generally catered to the students of the University of Portland. This particular night in early October was no exception.
A sore thumb, then, the lanky man with graying chestnut hair must have been, sitting at the bar.
“Another one, Doc?” asked the bartender, already knowing the answer. “Doc” confirmed with a nod, draining the rest of his Negroni and turning bleary eyes back to the television in the corner, watching as the Mariners successfully shut out the Blue Jays in their first game of the MLB playoffs. More than twenty years since their last appearance.
A fresh drink replaced the emptied glass, and he gave it a twirl, rattling the ice within.
Something sparked in the back of his mind, widening his eyes.
He lifted his chin to the barkeep, and turned a thumb toward the television.
“Hey Ben, does that thing get the ACE Network?”