You already know how this is going to end.
“Why would I keep something like that from you?”
The day had started like any other, calm, cloudless, with no warnings on the horizon of the impending storm. It all shifted so fast that Justine couldn’t even recall how the conversation had started.
For months she wondered what had been eating at her partner, and though he tried his best to conceal it, it was always obvious when something had wormed its way into Jared’s head. She hoped that by giving it time whatever it was would work its way out. You couldn’t press him; it would only make him shut down.
“You know, I’ve been trying to figure that out for months now, ever since I went to New Orleans to see Jon.”
“And? And what?”
“And what did you come up with? What reasons do you think I would have for hiding something like that from you?”
When it came to fighting there were strong similarities between the way Justine carried herself regardless of whether the fight was verbal or physical. Set her jaw. Lead her opponent. Give them just enough where they feel like they have a chance. Let the poor soul punch himself into exhaustion. And then, when she was sure that all of their reserves had been exhausted, finish the son of a bitch hard. Decisive.
She could control most fights this way.
“Oh, no. We’re not doing this. We’re not deflecting the conversation off in some direction where we start psychoanalyzing me.”
But not all of her opponents knew her as well as Jared. Or were as stubborn.
“And not for nothing,” he continued, “but I think it’s really goddamn interesting how you keep dancing around this. Like, you haven’t even tried to deny it once. That ain’t a good look for you, Calvin.”
She bristled at the user of her surname, something he only ever did when he was angry. “What the fuck do you want me to say?”
“I want you to tell me the truth about this, but at this point I’d settle for anything that’s even close to an actual answer.”
“Okay, fine. We’ll do it your way then. Do you have a record of this phantom call on your phone?”
He didn’t, she knew as much. She’d hurried to delete it before he came back to their hotel room the previous October. If Jared didn’t always have issues with the key card to their suite she may very well have been caught.
“Nope,” he said.
There was something about the way he said it that made her uneasy. It was too cavalier, too nonchalant. But she had him now. He’d just thrown his best punch and caught only air. All she had to do was pin his back to the ropes and it would be over.
“So then what the fuck are we even arguing about?”
She collapsed back into the couch and curled her feet beneath her. Start the count, ref. This one’s over.
Jared nodded slowly as he took it all in, but there was something about his expression that sent a shiver racing the length of her spine. Without a word he stepped out of the living room.
She planted both feet on the floor and was just about to stand when he reappeared at the threshold. She sat frozen as he moved across the room and placed what he was carrying down in front of her.
“Got this from Larry,” he said. He slid the paper across the coffee table with a single finger. The logo of his cell phone carrier was clearly visible in the corner of the page, and only then did she understand what she was looking at. “I was really, really hoping it wasn’t going to come to this.”
A single line had been highlighted in yellow and circled in blue ink. It showed an incoming call from a New Orleans area code, the date, and the length of the call.
“Let’s try this again,” he said. “Is there something you want to tell me?”
The color drained from her face taking all her confidence went with it. There would be no coming back from this, nothing she could respond with now other than the truth. She’d played her game and tried to control the argument, but all the while he had her dead to rights. Her eyes fell to the floor.
Your winner by technical knockout.
She could feel tears forming at the corners of her eyes.
“Jared, please, just let me explain…”
Quite the hurdle you have in front of yourself.
It wasn’t that long ago that you put yourself in harm’s way to get between Jenny Colton and Paxton Ray, an act that Jake, the patriarch of the Colton clan, said made you family. You celebrated with them all after the Belmont in December, then again when you could barely stand following Colossus. So eager – so desperate – for the acceptance your own father denied you.
What would he say now? Do you think you “wasted your life”? Would he?
And now you can throw it all away! Break another bond. Kill another relationship. All you need to do is prevent the Next Diamond from reaching his potential.
That won’t haunt you at all, will it?
What about Hanlon, your latest bromance? The last time you fought ended without a winner. That wonderful scamp Vickie Hall saw to that. Still, you’ve grown close, enough that you once told him that your brother would have liked him. A lovely sentiment, but one that misses the mark a bit, don’t you think?
When you look at Hayes, you don’t see him. Not really. What you see is your brother’s wish come to life. You were never the true steward of his dream. But Hayes? He WAS that little boy watching wrestling every week with his blanket and bowl of cereal thinking, “One day this will be me.” The fact that he’s ascended to the mountaintop twice already only serves to galvanize it. You don’t see Hayes. You see only Andrew.
Think you’re ready to end his dream?
I wasn’t completely honest that night in Denver, but I didn’t expect Ivan to know that. Maybe I should have.
I turned my back on four men when I left the ring that night, expecting that one of them would use the opportunity to take a shot and put me down. Alexei came closest, reaching under his coat for a weapon of some kind, but Ivan stopped him.
I wish he didn’t.
Because I would have deserved it, just not for the reasons they think.
Some of us keep secrets so that other people don’t get hurt. Some of us hide things to try and protect ourselves.
For the first decade of my career I was accompanied to the ring for every match by a man named Mervin. Tall. Rail thin. Constantly pushing a mop of brown hair out from behind a pair of glasses. He didn’t fit the typical manager look and had no real knowledge of the sport beyond what he picked up from me. So why did he do it? Because I asked him to.
It feels disingenuous to say we were friends, and calling him my best friend doesn’t do it justice either. Family is probably closer to the truth. We met a few months into our freshman year, when the high school guidance counselor said I needed a tutor to try and get my grades up. The cost of constant fighting was that everything else suffered. I was the troubled kid, and he was there to help make sure I didn’t ruin my chances of “realizing my potential.” That was the phrase they used.
But this isn’t about how we started. It’s about how we ended.
It’s not something I look back on fondly.
It was just before Thanksgiving 2009 in between matches for GTT 7. Despite the years together, he and I had started to drift. My social circle had expanded to include one Amy Campbell, and I, like a kid with a new toy, was eager to play.
“Any big plans for the holiday?” he asked.
“Not really, no. Just trying to rest up before round three. Don’t tell Coral I said this, but I thought he had me in the second round.” I was oblivious. It wouldn’t be until later – until after he died – that I realized he had come over that day with the intention of calling me out. “Not sure what I’m getting into with Knox, but Ames knows him a little bit so I figure she’ll fill me in.”
He was always so much smarter than me, and I do so love walking into a trap.
I remember him grunting, and then the look on his face changed. I imagine it wasn’t that far off from the way that I looked in the living room when Justine thought she’d just ended our argument.
“Figured she’d be involved somehow,” he said. “She always is.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
So, he explained it to me.
And now we come to my favorite part. Your raison d’etre.
It’s not that Ivan tried to break you, that’s not what matters. If they knew how little you cared about the damage done to you, the world would likely brand you some sort of masochist and move to have you committed. Again.
No, it’s that he made her watch. That he took away her freedom to do it. In spite of all the secrets she carried, this is what grates the most.
But why? Why should the impact on your precious fiancee be the heaviest burden you bear, when she was the one who instigated this all? Yes, yes, we all know how obnoxious you can be, but SHE was the first to incite violence. It happened after Culture Shock. The press conference. Alexei asked his question, and your dearly beloved threatened to brain him on the spot.
You suffer for her mentally, and now you suffer physically because of her.
Fitting that this is all unraveling right this very minute.
“Dammit, Jared, I was trying to keep you safe! With everything that was already going on at the time, with the way everything was escalating…”
She was on her feet now. They both were.
“Seriously? Did you forget how Paxton locked the two of you in a conference room and then beat you half to death with your own fucking mannequin? Because I can’t get that picture out of my head, Jared.” She closed her eyes and it all flooded back. The blood was everywhere. On the table. The floor. On him. “Joe and Sid might be the biggest dumbasses and make some really shitty decisions, but I will never be able to repay them for helping us get that door open. Paxton did all that ‘just because’! What do you think would happen if he knew you had a hand in taking his daughter away?”
He would never see it this way. She knew that. For Jared it wasn’t about the violence. Only the lie mattered.
“That’s not the point, Calvin. You said if this was going to work that we weren’t going to be keeping shit from each other, and for like nine months you’ve hid this from me.”
“Because I know what you’d do if I told you!”
“So instead you just take the decision out of my hands?”
“If it keeps you safe? You’re goddamn right I will. You think I like spending so much time in ambulances, or hospitals, or watching you sit there with the doc and her team backstage trying to convince me that everything’s going to be okay?”
“It was your rule! If we do this, then we do it together. No hiding shit from one another. Your. Rule.”
“Yeah,” she scoffed. “You said that already.”
“We’re supposed to trust each other. That’s the goddamn foundation this is all built on, and then I find out that you’re keeping secrets and deleting calls from my phone. It’s fucking shady. So now I wonder if I need to start worrying about whether I’m going to read some article about what happened with Wyatt on that scaffold…”
“Or if a bunch of reporters are going to show up at Jake Colton’s gym looking to talk to Frank.”
She balled her hands into fists tight enough that her fingers started to tingle.
“I would never!” she said.
“And after all this, how do I fucking know that?!”
She didn’t answer.
If it weren’t for Paxton Ray, today would simply be a Saturday. Sleeping in. A little “cardio” here and there. Maybe grilling in the back yard if the weather holds. You wouldn’t have had to live with the knowledge that things had been kept from you. The woodsman would never have to save little Nora from the big bad wolf.
You know what her struggle was like. You witnessed it in your own house when you were young. You know how hard the fight can be, and that sometimes a heavy cost must be paid. You could never fight the disease that threatened her, the same that took your brother, but you could fight the man who made it all infinitely more complicated.
You know how far you had to go at Colossus. You know what you had to become in order to make sure that you were the one left standing. When your friends and family tell you how scared they were during that match, you know that this is the real reason why, even if they’ll never say it themselves.
But that word…
It lingers everywhere.
The fifth man. The one with the omnipresent sunglasses and the name you refuse to say. Curious how hard you work to not think it either. You can tell yourself that it’s because he doesn’t deserve your attention, that his choice of name means he’s unworthy of your respect. You can tell yourself anything you want.
You fucking coward.
Mervin’s venom was justified.
A year earlier we’d been goofing around on Sin City’s television. Charlie Crisp dressed as a pilgrim and rapped about gravy. I danced around while dressed like a turkey. The night was all fun and games, a way to blow off steam before the holiday, and then Amy and Desade caught up with both Merv and I. Payback for something I’d said or done.
They had chairs.
We had nothing.
The line I told Ivan that no one was dumb enough to cross? The Dead Man’s Hand had no problem with it. They were on us like jackals. My own injuries were ultimately trivial. A few cuts. A bruise here and there. A welt on my back that took three weeks to settle down. Mervin wasn’t as lucky.
A CT scan at the hospital showed that the impact of one of the chairs had caused a subdural hematoma. My best friend was bleeding into his brain.
He never looked at me the same after that, not really. I had always watched over him in high school, made sure that no one fucked with him. For almost ten years he’d escaped harm acting as my manager. But on that night I was powerless to stop what happened, and the uncomfortable truth of this industry was brought to bear against the person I cared about most.
“I’ve wasted half my life,” he said. He paced the hall, hands balled into fists, and I was suddenly, completely convinced he was ready to swing on me. “Half my life following you around, putting everything I wanted to do on hold because I thought we were in this together.”
I pleaded with him. Told him that wasn’t the case, that I would always have his back the same way he had mine. But my words fell on deaf ears. I navigated the situation with all the grace and finesse of a drunken surgeon, leaving wounds in everything I touched.
I had betrayed a brother by befriending the woman who almost killed him.
“I thought we were family, I really did. College, job offers, a chance at a real future… Things I might finally get to have now. I ignored it all so I could follow you around the globe while you played pretend superhero.”
He marched towards the door, almost pulling it from the hinges as he cast it open.
“You know, it’s almost funny. All this time and effort trying to be the good guy and none of it matters, because at the end of the day… all those people you claim to care about? Who’s going to save them from you?”
He was gone less than two weeks later.
I never made it to his funeral. I got careless in my depression, and a toxic combination of benzos and whiskey robbed me of my balance. The floor came up quick, and the glass coffee table even quicker. If I hadn’t been found when I was there’s a chance… well…
I braced my hands against the counter and tried to steady myself. From where I stood in the kitchen I had a clear line of sight down the length of the hall that led to the front door. That’s where we had our last conversation, he and I. Now I only see him in photos or on old videos. Minnesota. Hawaii. Vegas. He was there for all of them. Never questioning or lamenting his decision to come with me, not until I’d broken his trust.
It’s why his is the voice I hear when the intrusive thoughts creep in and remind me of my many, many failures.
This is what I thought when I stood in the kitchen in the aftermath of the fight with Justine, while I wondered about our future and ran Mervin’s last question over and over until it took on a new shape, a new form.
When everyone else is gone, who’ll be left to save me from myself?
It’s the same story every time. No matter how well-intentioned you think you are, the result will be no different. Everything you hoped for, everything you dreamed this could be… It doesn’t matter if it’s a match or a relationship, it will all end in ruin.
Everything you’ve ever wanted is here. Right here.
The respect is there for the taking, you’ll just need to conquer five of the best wrestlers on the planet to get there. Two of them you count as friends. Two more would just as soon see you dead. The last would gleefully throw eggs at your headstone.
Your future sits brokenhearted in the other room. Guilty only of the crime of trying to keep you safe, because – and I realize this might come as a surprise – some people have healthy priorities.
But secrets are unforgivable, right? Lies are a capital offense – you can thank your father for that.
You’d be doing her a favor. One less soul caught in a decaying orbit around you, where the only options are to burn or crater.
It would be merciful.
You’d be showing her a…
The memories came all at once, swirling through her mind and sending her head spinning.
Being lifted off her feet in front of the Las Vegas crowd one night in July as she held high championship gold.
Their mutual admission of love at an Indiana rest stop in the aftermath of a surprise encounter with Wyatt Connors.
The night he proposed.
It was all gone.
Justine willed herself to her feet and drew in a breath, determined to take the first step but unsure of where it would lead her. He was right. Trust had been compromised, and now their future was left shrouded, uncertain. It had been like this before, but now the stakes were higher. The thin band of silver on her left hand now felt heavy as lead.
She drew up a plan. First, head upstairs and pack a bag. Only the essentials. She could stay with her parents for a few days until things settled. By then maybe they would both be more composed, and could revisit this without the fireworks. If she was lucky, Jared would stay in the kitchen until she was out of the house.
Head down, she stepped out into the hallway and almost ran him over.
“Hey, I…” Her voice trailed off as she felt his arms around her, bringing her closer.
They stood like that for a moment, sharing the same space but neither saying a word. It was Jared who broke the silence first, his voice quiet as he whispered in her ear. Five words. It was always five words.
“You did the right thing.”
She buried her face in his chest and let her tears stain his shirt.
The bag upstairs would go unpacked.
The ghost in the front hall would get no tribute today.