Not too far from being dead, Chandler Tsonda thinks to himself. Laid out in a cold, sterile room. Body covered by a thin gown providing modesty without warmth. Interminable waiting for something to be done with his body. Compared to what he knows is coming, death’s sweet embrace might be an upgrade. It’s that banner day in the life of a man nearing fifty: time to get a medical thingy shoved up his ass.
Chandler distracts himself with thoughts of the Almasy. Compulsive preparation, maniacal focus on in-ring perfection, it’s the only way he knows to stay sane while in tournament mode. Since Elvis Nixon’s hand hit the mat for three at ReV 38, Coral Avalon hasn’t been far from Tsonda’s thoughts. But this stage of the tournament is confounding: Chandler has to be pure of focus for Coral at ReV 39, and consider what lies beyond. Can’t look past the game Avalon, can’t lose a moment of potential prep time. Should I be scouting Hanlon? Farthington? The other bracket? The prize feels like it’s close. The end feels like it’s never been farther away.
In Round 1, he looked to get on the board.
In Round 2, he told himself he wasn’t done.
In Round 3, he knows all the names. Seven men alive who can take the thing he wants most, the thing he’s allowed himself to envision. If you keep winning, seven becomes three, becomes one, becomes nofuckinbody.
The doctor walks in. Pause the daydream.
The man’s name tag says Dr. Nithin Padar so there’s no mistaking his identity. He and Chandler shake hands and introduce themselves. The exchange of niceties quickly hits a bump in the road.
“Was that your daughter out there?” Padar asks, gesturing to the waiting room. He must have seen Jasmine. We doing casual racism or just small talk?
“Nah,” Chandler says. His patience is as thin as his blood sugar is low. The pre-appointment instructions were very direct that Chandler not consume anything but clear liquids in the twenty-four prior. So the Model Citizen is hangry and punchy.
“My mistake. Your…” The doctor leaves the sentence hanging in the air.
Christ, he thinks I’m one of *those* guys.
“Friend,” Chandler says, mercy-killing the awkward silence. He does not feel the need to qualify his relationship with young Jasmine Jeong for some guy he’s never met.
“Ah. Nice of her to accompany you,” Padar replies. “Any plan to? Have kids, I mean. Lots of my patients are having kids in their forties these days.”
Chandler snorts a laugh, before he realizes it’s not a joke.
“Nah,” he says dismissively.
Dr. Padar is no Dr. Fihlguud. Chandler, like all of the PRIME roster, sees a lot of doctors and trainers provided by the company. Their main job is to keep him fit enough to go out into the Bridgestone Arenas of the world, fill those arenas with butts in seats, drive web traffic to PRIME’s merch-mongering arm, and give Lindsay Troy the TV ratings that have ACE Network eating out of her hand come negotiating season.
PRIME docs are good people, but a fighter still needs private medical advice. Somebody to ask things like:
- Do you hope to have a usable muscular-skeletal system after retirement? Y/N
- Are you eating enough vegetables, or just grilled chicken and protein powder? Kidding, I know it’s the latter. Seriously, eat a damn vegetable.
- How’s that recurring dream where you defy death and peddle violence for the pleasure of tens of thousands of screaming crazies? Wait, that’s your job? Here’s a number for a shrink, you’re screwed.
“Anything new?” Dr. Padar asks as he settles into a seat across from Chandler. He looks at a screen that displays a litany of Chandler’s medical info.
New? Well, I gotta decapitate a guy I used to like but who turned Bandit. And I’m becoming possessed by an inescapable feeling that if—and only if—I can win this tournament then I can quiet that insatiable, monstrous part of me for, like, five whole minutes.
“Nope,” Chandler says.
“Any questions about the procedure?”
Chandler can usually get a doctor to come out to his compound. A small perk of being in the tax bracket that makes the IRS say AWOOGA and do cartoon eyes. But for today’s procedure and accompanying emotional terrorism, the office said the only safe way was in person.
So here he is.
“How close can you get to knocking me out?” Chandler asks.
“What’s your tolerance for sedatives?”
“Yeah, I watch Cancer Jiles promos all the time.”
Dr. Padar swipes across the screen without any reaction.
“Tough crowd,” Tsonda mutters, though this, too, meets no reaction from Padar. “I’d like to resemble a coma patient. Whatever pills, powders, or potions can get me there, I consent to ‘em all.”
“First time doing this?” Dr. Padar asks, a wry smile on his face.
“How’d you guess?”
“My male patients at your age tend to be very nervous about this procedure. Especially their first.”
At your age? Dude, I spiked the head of a guy a decade younger than me last week and outlasted him in a straight brawl. I worked out for three hours today having eaten nothing but diet air and vibes. I’m fighting Father Time to a hell of a draw.
“But I have to say,” Dr. Padar continues, “you might be the first person I’ve ever seen request their own flexible sigmoidoscopy.”
The words send a shiver down Tsonda’s spine to nearly the spot where Dr. Padar is about to insert something unpleasant.
“Extra peace of mind,” Chandler says. Mine and hers.
“We’ll get you prepped with propofol. Would you like me to explain how our deep sedation works?”
“More than anything in the world, dude.”
Five minutes later, Chandler Tsonda has propofol flowing through his veins, and is medically not too far from being dead.
“Dreaming? Tripping? Zooted? Higher than giraffe neck? Yes to all the above.”
It’s not all that strange that Chandler Tsonda is sitting in a waiting room like the one where he left Jasmine. He’s still in his medical gown.
It’s a little strange that across from him is…him. Younger him. Not a wrinkle on that mug. The hair is longer and moussed up. Original Recipe Chandler recognizes the face as the one he saw in the mirror over a decade ago.
“I can hear that, ya know. Your internal monologue in the italics. Seems unethical not to let you know,” Young Chandler says.
“This is obviously all in my head,” Chandler says, not sure if it’s a statement or a question. “I must be absolutely god high on this sedative, and you’re some part of my subconscious.”
His younger self nods.
“Since this is my skull we’re rattling around in,” Chandler says. “And I’m the real me, I’m going to call you Younger Chan. YC, for short.”
“Your rodeo, pal,” YC says.
“And you’re me, from…hmm, judging by that gorgeous Audemars on your wrist, that’s gotta be the 2007 model. So sixteen years ago? Oh, I get it. You’re me, when I won Jewel in the Crown.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Kinda micro-managing this hallucination, aren’t you?”
“You’re here to…what? Teach me that the real Almasy Invitational victory was the self-discovery along the way?
“I would literally rather die. Which I will, as soon as your sleepy ass wakes up.”
“Ok then, what are you here to teach me, Ghost of Tourney Past?”
“Not very much if you keep blathering on,” YC says, looking down at the aforementioned Audemars Piguet on his wrist. “We’ve got a lot to do, and that doctor’s only going to be spelunking up in you for so much longer. Blink for me?”
Chandler blinks without thinking and they are at the foot of a grand pyramid.
“That’s a convenient way to travel,” Chandler says.
The pyramid glitters in luminous gold. Every so often in its vertical rise, its symmetry is interrupted by a small balcony.
“You ready for the tour?” YC asks.
“Lead on, spirit,” Chandler replies, and within this strange reality, it’s only slightly jarring when the duo floats upwards towards the first, lowest balcony on the pyramid. Once there, they step out.
“This it?” Chandler asks, looking around. There is nothing but a table.
“Do they not have delayed gratification in 2023, pops?”
“Don’t call me that.”
“You asked what I’m here to teach. And the answer is: nothing.” YC sees the beginnings of a stinkface on Chandler’s face and preempts him. “You already know all the stuff I know, dimwit. You’re me, with the benefit of sixteen extra years. I’m not a teacher. I’m a guide. I make sure you see the right things.”
“You were in that doctor’s office thinking about the secret to the Almasy.”
“And?” Chandler asks, impatient.
YC gestures to the height of the pyramid.
“So at the top of the pyramid is…?”
The hairs on Chandler’s arms stand up. “Whoa,” he says.
“Dude, you are gullible. It’s the most pressing threat to your tournament hopes.”
“You’re a pretty mean spiritual sherpa.”
“Have you ever met you?”
Chandler gives a nod of admission. YC waves his hand, and atop the table appear four objects.
A pink envelope.
“Is that an egg with sunglasses on?” Chandler asks, pointing to an egg with sunglasses on.
“They’re not all perfect metaphors, dude. My VFX guys are working with the limits of your old ass brain.”
Chandler ignores the attitude, and points.
“So that’s Kuroyama. The Emerald Apex. A king blueberry for Sykes’ past life. I’m guessing inside that pink envelope is…wait for it…a pink Hallmark card, for Vickie and her best supporting actor husband. And the egg, my dear Watson, is Jiles.”
“We’re not as dumb as we look,” YC says.
“At best, I face one of these four, and only if I make the final. Shouldn’t they be at the top?” Chandler asks.
“Quit backseat architecting my pyramid. They’re the first level because they’re potential distractions. That’s the first thing you have to overcome: shutting out distractions until the time is right. These four are dangerous. One of them will be waiting, if you can survive that long, that far.”
“Until then, it’s just a rabbit hole,” Chandler interrupts. “I’m supposed to remember that it’s not worth guessing or worrying or losing sleep on all the if’s. Doesn’t matter how good my scout is on the potential finalists if I lose this round. These four are noise.”
“Cept for that one,” YC says, pointing to the egg. “He might not be a round-after-next concern. You think he’ll be yolking around your third round matchup?”
“I got a plan for that.”
YC nods, and they float upwards.
The second balcony is smaller and more intimate. They huddle around another table. YC does his handwave business, and three objects appear.
A bottle of Elmer’s.
A wooden Louisville Slugger.
And a regulation-sized ATM.
“You better not start,” YC says before Chandler can get a word in. “I’ve only existed for, like, eight minutes since you went under, and I’ve spent half of that on the logistics of how to get a working ATM up here. Do you know how hard it is to float that thing and keep it working?”
“…but wouldn’t a tarp make more sense to represent Farthington?” Chandler asks.
“Who’s got the float powers here?”
“Touchy. So you’ve got Elmer’s because even if I win, I’m guaranteed to face the full might of Glue. The bat for Shoeless Home Run Hayes. And the ATM which…ok, help me out here. Farthington’s the cash behind the Glue?”
“Didn’t one of them just pop out of a machine like this?” YC asks, slightly exasperated at explaining himself to himself. “I was being timely. Speaking of which: clock is ticking. My time here is nigh, and so on and so forth.”
Chandler takes the hint and looks down at the three totems.
“I’m supposed to remember that I can’t get lost pouring my entire self into beating Coral. I need to be focused, and recognize that a third round win ain’t shit in the grand scheme. Because even if I do win, I’ve got to immediately turn around and be ready for the next fight of my life. The balance between now and future is the hardest thing about these tournaments, and I’ve got the specter of Glue as a reminder.”
“Nice. You should put that part in a promo. Did you pre-write that, you rascal?” YC asks.
“I’ve had ‘the specter of Glue’ and ‘the next fight of my life’ in my head. So, ya know, maybe a little bit.”
“Nice,” YC says. The two Tsondas fist pound. “Going up.”
And they all float on, ok.
The highest balcony is even tighter. Chandler and YC are shoulder to shoulder.
“This is it, huh?” Chandler asks. “I’ll learn a lesson about Avalon, then wake up and you go back to being some small part of my psyche?”
“Spose so. But because I don’t exist beyond the bounds of 2007, that means I’ll always be the one of us who never choked against FLAMBERGE.”
“You little shit.”
With a wave of the hand, YC does his final conjuring.
Chandler looks confused.
“Why does Coral get two?”
On the table are two items.
A golden coronet.
A small pocket mirror.
“Crownless king getting crowned, sure,” Chandler says. “A threat as big as any. And I guess he’s my mirror in the ring? We’re kinda immovable object meets unstoppable force when it comes to wrestling styles. I guess I have to reckon with beating my in-ring foil to survive and advance?”
“Just a guide,” YC shrugs, and points to himself.
A smile forms on Chandler’s face, as the answer clarifies.
“No, you know this one,” Chandler says. “We are the answer. It was true in your tourney run, it’s true in the Almasy, and it’s true every time we step in the ring. I’m supposed to remember not to have the guy in the mirror be my worst enemy. The single elimination, the pressure, getting caught between planning ahead and staying focused on the now. Even having your asshole excavated for health reasons. A distraction exists at every stage of every tournament that can beat us. But we don’t let that happen on the way to winning when it matters, do we Mr. Jewel in the Crown 2007?”
YC can’t help but beam. “And Avalon?” he asks.
“You said it: the most pressing threat. The guy who took me to the limit three months ago. Who’s only gotten nastier and linked up with fellow nasties since then. The top of the pyramid, at least as far as ReV 39 is concerned. And you know why he’s so damn dangerous? Because he needs it as bad as we do. And I…we gotta remember that to take him down.”
“You’re gonna put this in a promo, aren’t you?”
“I’m gonna put this in a promo,” Chandler says.
“We still rule,” YC says, and the Tsondas exchange an earnest high five like they’ve just won a major tournament. “So, uh, time to go?”
“Think so, old-timer.”
“Don’t call me that.”
Awake, alert, alive, and enthusiastic. In the real world.
A nurse repeats his name. He looks around to make sure he’s the only Chandler in the room. Refreshing.
The Model Citizen is in a medical bed. He wiggles his fingers. He tries to get a clear thought; a head stuffed with cotton balls where a brain used to be. He squints and puts all his focus into one quick test: damn, can’t float anymore. Tsonda listens in the echo of the thought, but finds that his inner voice is back to an audience of one.
It’s forty-five minutes before they let Jasmine drive him home. Chandler remembers that she previously volunteered to take his loopy ass home after the invasion of his lower colon.
They sit in silence for most of the ride. Are they comfortable enough with each other to endure silence, or is this just the weird state of things since the blow-up in Geoje? Why not both? In the post-drug fog, Chandler is lucid enough to know he should say something, but too hazy to find the words.
Jasmine speaks from the driver’s seat.
“What’d you say?”
“You didn’t have to do that,” Jasmine repeats. She stares forward.
“It was the sedatives, Your Honor,” Chandler riffs. And then, sans glib: “What did I do?”
“No, I mean: the appointment. The gross, unspeakable medical stuff. I know you know.”
“A routine medical thing,” Chandler lies. “I’m the best thing breathing when I’m between four ring posts, but I still need maintenance on this forty-seven year-old Ferrari.”
“It’s not routine,” Jasmine says. “That’s why they don’t always catch it. And I know you went out of your way to do it.”
Chandler’s eyes follow Jasmine’s down the road, as if the horizon holds the answer to who will speak first.
If she won’t, he’s prepared to say the hard thing.
“Jaime told me. I pressed him, he didn’t wanna tell. Please don’t blame him. But he said you two had talked about how your old man got a raw deal, a bad hand. I asked how he died. And I have no right, I know. Just…trying.”
“Yes, I looked up the best, most thorough screen I could get for colon cancer. Turns out you’re supposed to start around my age anyway. I was being, like, eighty percent selfish. Promise. I won’t say I’m sorry for the funeral thing, and you won’t either. And we’ll be good?”
Chandler turns. A smile hovers at the edge of Jasmine’s face.
“Plus, they told me I’m fit as a fucking fiddle, with nothing but clean scans, and they said that—this part was weirdly specific—medically, your best and only chance of being better than me in this lifetime is nanotechnology that’s about thirty years away.”
“I’d check those medical licenses,” Jasmine cracks. “They sound like scammers.”
“Those drugs of theirs are no scam. Gave me one hell of a trip while I was out, but it also found me the final word on Coral. Wanna hear?”
They don’t need it like we do, Coral.
Your crumb’s got the Golden Ticket. Kuroyama’s been here for hot second. Farthington’s got the 5-Star and Youngblood’s scalp, and Hanlon doesn’t need this tournament so much as he needs a hug and to be told he’s PRIME’s most special little guy. JCH and Sykes go home to their happy marriages. Those six may want it, but they don’t need it.
Not like us.
You’ve got a happy marriage, and Forehead Junior on the way. But you’re like me. You can admit that you spend far more time imagining an Almasy trophy on your wall than what color to paint the nursery. Years ago, you chose to be a wrestler first, and a human being second. You couldn’t change if you wanted.
So you need it. A legacy-defining run towards the Universal Title. That exclamation point to make you a sure-fire Hall of Famer before you start to wander into the murky waters over forty. A prize to convince Annabelle that all those nights she spent alone with you on the road, the 3 AM solo wake-ups she’ll do when the little eGG white shows up, the worry over whether you’ll live up to coming home safe and sound…it was all worth it.
Your need makes you a dangerous opponent.
Mine made me a sicko.
Left an easy retirement to hunt down any and every accolade in PRIME because it ate me alive that there was a single weak spot on my application to be GOAT. I got an ego that’d blot out the sun. An inner monologue that offers me not a shred of peace unless I, alone, shine. So for the greatest competition this fed’s ever put on, bar none, where the winner stamps their name in forever gold? Imagine what someone in my position of need would do for that, Coral.
Chan, you’ve got a belt on your shoulder already. And it should be enough. But for me, that’s the appetizer, and I’ve settled in for a five course meal. Here in the third course, you’ll pay your bill early, and take your entree in a to-go bag. I’ll sit and eat ‘til I’m full.
Your hunger is for a taste. My hunger is to make sure there’s not a scrap left for anyone else.
You’re curious. I’m ravenous.
Bring your best. Bring your Bandits. Bring your armaments. Take another shot at the old man, old man.
We need it like they don’t, Coral.
So you have my sincere condolences that you’re leaving Nashville in that old familiar way of yours: crownless.
Thy kingdom crumble.
In Tennessee, as it was in Maryland.
Forever and ever. Amen.