I think I found them, Paul. They were hard to find.
God, I hope you were watching. Wherever you are. I hope you were high as a kite, watching every moment of it; every time I slammed Jiles into the mat, and every time he shoved a thumb in my eye or clawed my back.
It was poetry, man. It was electric.
It was everything we dreamed of. Everything we practiced on that trampoline a million times. In front of twenty-thousand people.
I don’t think I’ve allowed myself to believe it. Not really. It felt so far away. Such a long shot. Such a pipe dream.
But we did it, man.
I found the stars, Paul. But to find them, I think I had to lose them first.
And I have Erik to thank for that. I have Erik Black to thank for that moment.
I hope everyone got to see it.
The rumble of twenty-thousand people punching through their television was a peculiarity unto itself.
Watching their son holding this enormous, gaudy belt high over his head? Even more so.
The Hanlons sat awestruck on the edge of their couch, wide-eyed faces illuminated by the flickering screen. Gregory leaned forward on the right side of the couch, elbows on his knees, his black bearded jaw threatening to reach the floor.
Sofia was curled up on the left, legs and feet pulled in close, hiding her nose and mouth behind a clutched pillow.
Their first experience in professional wrestling. The first time they’d bothered to see it. To feel it. To witness all the lights and grit and spectacle their son had been obsessed with for twenty years.
The very first time, and they were privileged to watch their youngest son win the sport’s greatest prize.
The guilt was palpable.
“He won…” Gregory whispered, pushing himself upright and falling into the backrest before turning his head toward his wife. “Hayes won, Sofia.”
She couldn’t respond. Her blue eyes were stuck to the television. The roar of Madison Square Garden cutting the silence. Twenty-thousand. All bellowing for him. For their son.
And they could’ve been the loudest.
“He’s always been an incredible athlete but…did you know he was that good?”
“I need some air,” was all she could offer.
She stood from the couch, collecting her long, brown duster before opening the front door, closing it quietly behind as she stepped out into the night, her delicate bare feet feeling the nip of the Oregon evening. She wrapped the jacket around her slight frame, sitting at the edge of the deck, arms hugging at her stomach to brace against the chill. Teeth clenched together behind pinched lips, fighting to stifle the sharp breaths shooting from her nose.
The confusion, and regret, was so much sharper.
What does the appropriate response look like? When your flesh and blood reaches the mountain top?
To cheer? To jump and scream and cry?
To cry out to the world that they had lived out their wildest dream?
Knowing that you did nothing to help them follow it?
And that yours was stamped into the dirt?
A punishing, dead quiet in the dark. The eerie rush of wind would have been welcome while she fought back tears of joy and frustration, tilting her head to the sky to somehow force them back inside.
At least the stars were out.
The bright lights of Vegas had lured Hayes in, but the young champion never expected for the City of Sin to really feel like home.
But it did. For over a year.
His two-bedroom suite had become something of a friend. Somewhere to celebrate the highs, and sleep off the lows. A short walk and an elevator ride from the Garden Arena where he heard the bell ring fourteen times in the year of PRIME’s ReVival. Where all the pleasures of the world were at his fingertips across the street, but where fresh sheets lay waiting when he’d had enough.
Sitting on a stool in the kitchenette, he thought back to the year gone by in that suite. “The Hanlon Year.” Where he’d thrown a pretty pair of party-goers out into the hall for putting on his wrestling boots. Where he greeted many sunrises in a bloodshot daze on the balcony. Where he woke up to find Garbage Bag Johnny passed out with a blue curacao-stained beard.
The same day he saved Paul from choking on his own vomit.
Hayes laced his fingers together, hunching over in a gray hoodie and turning his eyes down the hall to the suite’s second bedroom, where his older brother spent many nights between conferences in Los Angeles and coked-out weekends in Miami.
It felt most like home when Paul was there.
A long exhale streamed through his nose, dark eyes closing for a moment. His mind tracing back to the nights where many big dreams were born…
“So what’s next, Champ? Got your eyes on the Universal Title or what?”
“The Five Star is plenty, bro. I think it’s gonna be a minute before I’m ready for that. ‘Sides, I don’t think Youngblood’s giving that thing up any time soon.”
“The way you’re goin’ he might not have a choice! Got a nice ring to it, huh? ‘Hayes Hanlon, Universal Champion!’”
“I mean…it does sound pretty good…but nah. Not yet. Not for a while.”
“Soon. I’m telling you, man. Soon.”
His dark mustache shifted with a small smile, eyes opening. The suite was all but spotless, save a couple duffel bags by the door. Almost exactly as he’d found it after driving down from Oregon a year ago.
He stood, giving the suite one last appreciative glance before pulling his bags from the floor.
Las Vegas had become home.
But the country was waiting.
Man, I wish you were here to fly with me, man. To see the country. To live this life. I hope you still will. Just us.
I’m trying not to stay mad at Mom and Dad. Or Olivia. But I just…I just don’t want them to have this.
This one is ours, right?
They didn’t get it. They didn’t even try.
But I still want them to know.
I want them to know that everyone in the wrestling world knows our name.
Olivia took a sip of a freshly made vodka martini in the kitchen of her San Francisco apartment. Extra dirty. She liked salt more than she liked vodka.
She craned her neck over the marble island, peering into the adjacent bedroom, seeing the white sheets rise and fall with an accompanying snore.
Yup. This dude was definitely planning to spend the night. She rolled her eyes behind another long draw from the beverage.
This was gonna be awkward.
She set the martini glass on the counter and tip-toed her way inside the bedroom, tightening the belt of her white bathrobe, sitting at the edge of the king size bed. Bored hazel eyes drew across the blonde beefcake currently starfishing across her mattress.
She bounced twice. No response.
So she scratched his calf with a well-manicured nail.
“Huh? Whu?” he grunted, coming to, a groggy gaze looking left and right.
“Heeeyyyy,” she feigned, letting her auburn hair fall over a shoulder with false flirtation. “You were snoring pretty loud there, big fella.”
“Shit, sorry,” he grumbled, propping himself up on his elbows. “Guess you just took it out of me.”
She fought so hard not to roll her eyes.
“Yeah…listen,” she began, running lazy hand over his forearm. “I kiiinda have a big day tomorrow, so it might be best if…”
The buzz of her cell phone hanging in her left hand interrupted the pending request. She swiped at the screen, and her expression froze, eyes darting at the incoming message.
The screen’s light illuminated her growing smile.
“What’s up?” the Big Fella asked.
She burst from the bedroom, bare feet carrying her into the living room. She quickly snatched the remote from a glass coffee table and turned it on, but found herself stuck at the app screen.
She ran back to the bedroom.
“Hey, do you watch wrestling?”
“…wrestling? Like, real wrestling or fake wrestling?”
“Wrestling,” she exclaimed with frustration. “Like…god dammit, what’s it called…PRIME! Do you watch PRIME?”
He turned onto one elbow, pinching his nose. “Like, with all the music and lights and shit?”
“YES,” she growled. “What channel is it on? Like, what streaming service?”
“Yo, I have no idea. Why are asking about wrestli…”
She ran back to the living room.
“Shit shit shit, what is it,” she muttered, flicking through Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus.
The ACE Network.
“Oh shit! That’s it!”
A few more button clicks landed her in the nick of time. Just as a broad, black-mustached man was leaping from the second rope of a wrestling ring, planting a smaller, blonde opponent into the mat. The big guy in black tights reading “Event Horizon,” woozy from the effort, fell on top of his opponent’s chest and a scraggly-bearded referee dropped to slap the mat three times.
“You little fucker,” she said to herself, shaking her head with white teeth gleaming.
Big Fella thudded his way in, scratching at a messy blonde mop. ‘Liv rolled her eyes, but kept smiling at the spectacle in front of her.
“That’s my brother,” she replied.
On the television, Younger Brother clutched a massive golden belt, his exhausted body held up by the referee, and some hulking bald guy while Madison Square Garden roared.
“That’s my baby brother.”
And then, smile fading, she pivoted in her seat, looking up over a shoulder to her visitor.
“Are you gonna go home or what?”
He’d always imagined himself on the road if he ever made it to PRIME. A new city every show, new voices and faces to roar his name. A chance to keep moving forward, to leave the tough moments and losses behind him in that arena, and carry the big victories with him to the next.
Hayes had learned to love Las Vegas and the MGM Grand, but the painful moments still lingered in the rafters. In the halls. In the elevators. There was rarely an opportunity to just…let them go. Not without a few gin and tonics and a couple Xanax bars.
Or without Paul to talk him off the ledge.
“You gotta let it go, Hayes. You know how quickly these belts can change hands in PRIME.”
“It just…fuckin’ sucks, man.”
“Well, you don’t have time to let it eat you alive. You’ve got Jiles next week. Can’t walk into that one moping.”
“I’m not moping.”
“You’re moping. And you need to get your head right. Think about it, bro. Yeah, you lost the Five Star belt, but what does it mean if you can bounce back and beat Cancer?”
“I think it’s big, man. I think it’s a lot bigger than you think.”
The elevator doors opened with a dull tone, and Hayes stepped through with those duffel bags in hand, black shoes strolling into the lobby. Candace, the brunette-bombshell at the desk, greeted him with her usual bright smile, hitting him with chestnut bedroom eyes and a hair flip that he loved so much.
“We’re going to miss seeing you around here!” she said genuinely, with an air of good natured disappointment.
“I’ll be around,” Hayes replied with a grin, setting the bags down at the foot of the desk. “Shows are every two weeks. Plenty of time to swing back and say hi.”
He shot her a wink, and she brushed some hair behind her ear before clicking at her keyboard.
“So, it says here that we aren’t looking at any changes? You’d like to keep the rental moving forward?”
“That’s right,” he replied, drumming his fingers on the counter.
“Would you like us to keep any room keys on hold?”
“Yes, please. Just one.”
“And who would you like to have that access?” A few more clicks.
“My brother. Paul.”
A lot of people are probably expecting me to freak out. To crumble under the pressure. But they’d be wrong.
I’m exactly where I want to be.
I’m glad it’s Rezin.I wouldn’t pick anyone else. I’m glad I have this second chance. It’s poetic.
But man…in a weird way, I don’t want him to have it.
Not because I’m afraid of losing to him again. But because where he took over…I took off. I took off into the stars, man.
And he didn’t.
Gregory didn’t know how much time to give her. He never did.
The broadcast had long since finished, giving way to highlight reels and recapped analysis. He wanted to watch. To learn more about this strange sport that had stolen his youngest son’s heart. In hopes to one day rebuild a few burned bridges.
But for now, his attention lay solely on his wife, sitting outside in the cold.
With a deep breath into his barrel chest, Gregory Hanlon opened the front door softly, stepping out onto the deck. His wife of thirty-eight years didn’t flinch.
“Sofia…” he started. “What’s wrong?”
A long pause in the chilled dark.
He took the invitation, taking a seat next to her on the steps.
“Have we failed?” she asked, after a long silence. “As parents? Have we just completely fucked it up?”
“In some ways, maybe,” Gregory replied with a soft, but amused snort through his nose. “But not in every way.”
“It feels like it,” she replied, resting her head on his shoulder.
He dared not move.
She hadn’t rested her head on his shoulder in years.
“I think…” he started, adjusting oh-so-slightly. “…that if we’d done it any differently, that we might have ruined everything.”
He was hoping to feel her nod through his flannel shirt. But she didn’t.
Instead, she pulled her head away and stood. He followed in kind.
And then, somewhat unexpectedly, she fell into his chest. It gave him pause, but after taking a deep breath through his nose, he wrapped his stout arms around her. And kissed the top of her head.
He held on as long as he could in that cool, December night.
When she would eventually pull away, he’d look into her sharp blue eyes with his deep browns.
“Are you going to sleep in the guest room tonight?” he’d ask.
And, much more expectedly, she’d nod her head, and walk inside.
Leaving him out in the cold.
If I don’t lose to Rezin at Great American Nightmare, I don’t win the Universal Championship at Colossus. Plain and simple.
And that’s what I have to thank him.
I think I’ll always take a loss a little hard. I don’t see that changing. A sensitive boy, I guess.
But losing the Five Star Title gave me permission. It gave me the freedom, the opportunity, to move onto something bigger. Brighter.
And I took it.
And now? Now I have the opportunity to keep it. All thanks to Erik Black.
I just wish you could be there to see it.
Hayes wasn’t a fan of flying. He was always too broad for the seats and they never had enough leg room. But he loved flying First Class.
He settled into the comfy, oversized seat, gladly taking a hot towel offered from a Flight Attendant, and was quick to put in an order for a gin and tonic. It was a long flight to Orlando, Florida, after all.
Three or four of them set the tone, and he’d fall asleep in that comfy First Class chair.
Deep enough to miss an incoming text.
It would read:
Told you it wouldn’t be that long
See you in Orlando
Toby Castellanos couldn’t stand break time in Washington State Penitentiary. Nobody wanted to play cards.
Maybe it was his hulking, heavy frame. Or his wild black beard. Or the fact that he’d cheat at any given opportunity, and nobody had the balls to call him out.
He slapped a deck onto the folding table, the kind you’d find in middle school lunch rooms. Shaking his head as he glared across the common area. A few riots from a couple months ago had taken away the block’s yard privileges, so a couple hours in the common area every evening was all anyone got.
A collective of younger inmates all cheered in unison, huddled around a small television. Toby grunted at their display.
“Oh SHIT!” said one, jumping up and down. “Motha fucka did you SEE that shit?”
“Naw, man, that’s the Super Massive!”
“Hayes fuckin’ Hanlon, boys! Got that dawg in him!”
That last one. That one caught Toby’s attention. Hanlon.
A family name.
The young group froze, all turning their heads at Toby Castellanos’s booming voice.
“The fuck’d you say his name was?”