Justine closed her eyes and prayed.
The box that she picked up from the pharmacy advertised results in three minutes, but in the lonely quiet of the master bathroom every second felt like a lifetime. Generations were born, raised, and faded into dust in the space between ticks on her phone’s timer. It should have been a hopeful moment, one full of optimism and joy. In another time it was all she wanted, but now a pall hung over the house. Lies, no matter how well hidden, always have a way of crawling into the light.
I’m so sorry.
I didn’t know he was married. He never told me.
I know you don’t have any reason to believe me but I would have never done it if I knew.
The words had burned themselves into her brain. She could see them when she closed her eyes as though a sadist had tattooed them on the insides of her eyelids. They were there when she went to bed at night and greeted her every day with the rising sun. At a red light in traffic. In the split second between songs on the radio, or commercials on television. In the space between sentences of the books she read for comfort since she was a girl.
Please don’t be pregnant. Please don’t be pregnant.
Religion was her mother’s drug. There was no room in the Calvin family home that didn’t have a crucifix nailed to the wall. But Justine had avoided the addiction. She was a social believer, looking for salvation in the dark moments when there was nothing rational left to cling to, invoking His name the same way some people only drink at parties.
Please Jesus don’t let me be pregnant.
She buried her face in her hands and focused on her breathing. Her fingers felt lighter these last few days now that she’d removed the ring. She swore then and there to never wear another.
Justine opened her eyes. California was a distant memory, but the dying days of her marriage and Derrick’s infidelity were a ghost she had yet to fully exorcize.
“Turn pink, you son of a bitch.” She glared at the test strip, trying to force it to change color with only the strength of her resolve. “Show me a second line, or I swear to god…”
There it was again, her mother’s influence shining through, only this time she prayed for a far different outcome.
She glanced at her phone. Still one minute left to go, as if time had slowed just to spite her. Still, the day was young, and outside the rain had finally let up. A break in the clouds let a few spots of bright blue shine through. “It’s always raining in PRIME,” the saying went; the same could be said of this summer.
Tropical Turmoil was less than a week away. They’d be flying to San Diego in a few days, and then Jared would have to stand in a ring opposite five of the most talented men in the industry for a chance at its ultimate prize. There was no shortage of motivation, an unsettled vendetta against Ivan Stanislav made sure of that, but if there was anything to make Jared’s fire burn a little brighter, maybe light a spark…
She forced the thought down, suddenly annoyed with herself for tainting something so beautiful with those goddamn Russians.
Justine chanced another look at the timer on her phone. Still almost fifty seconds remaining.
“Oh, come the fuck on,” she hissed.
She leaned her head against the wall and stared idly out the window. Before her the backyard took on a life of its own, shapes and shadows moving together in a kaleidoscope of scenes. She imagined tiny hands holding a little toy watering can, helping her make sure that the flower beds had plenty to drink. A single cucumber plucked from the garden was placed gently in a wicker basket just like mommy’s. She saw Jared struggling to inflate a float for the pool, because of course he would insist that he could do it without a pump.
Lost in a daydream the seconds bled away, and then the chime sounded. At last the three minutes were up.
The second line never revealed itself.
Justine waited until we were backstage after the Turmoil match and far away from the Russian celebration before she said anything.
“I’m so proud of you.”
She had said the same thing at Culture Shock when I trudged back through the curtain after being eliminated from what everyone has since taken to calling the “Murder Rumble”. That spot was supposed to be hers. In the weeks leading up to the event I had tried to plead my case that since each team only got to send one representative that it should be her time to shine, but she wouldn’t have it. Her spot had already been conceded during a private conversation with Lindsay Troy that I didn’t learn about until close to the show.
She gave me her opportunity, and I wasted it.
I’m so proud of you.
I didn’t deserve it at Culture Shock. I sure as hell didn’t deserve it in San Diego.
I couldn’t answer. There was nothing I could think to say that wouldn’t sound ridiculous. Given the situation, I thought it was a minor miracle she wanted to be around me at all. Not that there was any truth to that, but these are the things that sometimes worm their way into my head and linger. “Intrusive thoughts,” they’re called, like an uninvited guest that overstays their welcome, ignoring traditional social cues to get he hell out. Intrusive would be an upgrade. When mine hits, it’s a goddamn siege, and no mental fortress can prevent them from scaling the walls and breaching the defenses.
You could argue that the problems with the Russians were something we both had a hand in creating, and you’d be right. But only one of us was in the ring that night, and it was my job to see it done. I failed. There’s no sugar-coating it. I had a job to do, and it didn’t get done.
But I was the only one in the room who saw it that way.
Despite taking a shot from both Ivan and Alexei there was only a tiny red mark on Justine’s left cheek. A few strands of hair had come loose from her ponytail. Beyond that, and the tape she’d fastened around her wrists, there were no signs that she’d just come from a fight.
I wasn’t so lucky.
In addition to the cuts and scrapes that usually come as a result of a match, my right arm was effectively useless. Sure, it made a nice home for the cold packs that were bandaged to my shoulder, and still having the arm attached meant that I could keep symmetry with the other half of my body, but that’s as far as it went.
I tried to focus on the physical pain, to let it wash over me in the hopes it would flush out the legions of invaders playing ball hockey with my mental state. No dice.
I’m so proud of you.
“I’m sorry.” It was the best I could offer.
For failing out there. For blowing your shot at Culture Shock. For getting your hopes up about a run on the biggest stage in professional wrestling only to watch our division wither on the vine and die. How about putting you in a position where you had to hide information from me because you knew the alternative was watching me run into a missile silo with a live grenade.
Or how about because despite all your years of training, all the professional fights to your credit – wrestling and boxing – I still have yet to figure out how to silence the lizard part of my brain that constantly screams at me that my role in this relationship is to make sure that my family is protected at all costs, even though we all know anyone dumb enough to cross that line is going to get pummeled to death by you before I have time to put my shoes on.
For all the things that I wish I could take back, but can’t, because in my world the tape only moves in one direction. There is no rewind.
How’s that for a start?
“I don’t know. All of it? Everything?”
I could see her feet shuffle closer; easy to do when you’re staring at the floor. With it came the sound of a chair being dragged. A few seconds later I could feel her forehead against mine.
“I don’t know what comes next, Cal. That scares me a little.”
She pressed her head in and up, forcing me to move with her until we were quite literally eye to eye. For a moment I swore I saw something there. Trepidation? Confusion? I couldn’t place it. She blinked and it was gone. My own mind playing tricks again, no doubt.
“I don’t either,” she said, “but we’ll figure it out.”
With the exception of the time spent under a berry mask, it’s what I’ve been calling my finish for fifteen years. The name comes from Galaxy Quest, a Star Trek send-up that’s earned itself something of a cult following. The premise of the device is simple, an ideal macguffin. It can rewind time for thirteen seconds. Just long enough for someone to correct a single mistake.
Paltry compared to the might of a Time Lord.
Look, I’ve seen the TV show. I’ve read the books, I’ve listened to the audio dramas, and during my last run in the business I was known to show up to arenas in a pinstripe suit and a pair of Chuck Taylors. I get it. Based on the last year and a half, I might be the only person on the roster who understands. The proof is drawn on my skin. Among the scars on my right shoulder are a series of interlocking lines and circles that – if the internet is to be believed – spell out a passage in the language of Gallifrey.
Never cruel or cowardly. Never give up. Never give in.
It would be easy for me to discredit everything Anna Daniels claims to be, but I won’t. I can’t. Possibility and probability are very, very different things. Is it likely that she’s descended from a universe that to-date I’ve only seen in fiction? No. Does that mean it’s all bullshit?
Because if it’s true, if it’s all real, then that means there’s a chance that my collection of sins doesn’t need to exist. That the things I dream about could all be made real. Why would anyone shy away from that?
Imagine having that power. You get into a magic box, wind the clocks back, and give yourself a second chance. You can give yourself all the chances. Thirteen seconds means nothing when all of space and time bends to your will. Fixing a single mistake becomes trivial. But where to begin?
Ah, but the rules.
Fixed points, Jared. Canon events. Nexus events. Whatever you want to call them. Some things can’t change no matter how desperately you want them to, because they can’t. They’re not supposed to. They define who you are, and so you have no choice but to accept that they’re a part of you forever.
The power of a god. Mind the fine print.
A hundred feet above the arena, I could reach out to a younger version of myself as he clung to the railing out of fear that he would be the next one to fall. He might not believe me that none of this is his fault, that the wheels were in motion long before he ever made the decision to follow Wyatt up those stairs, but I could try. If nothing else, at least he wouldn’t have to suffer through the shock alone.
I could visit a scared little boy on a cool April afternoon and tell him that even though it feels like his world just fell apart, there will still be days of laughter and sunshine ahead. That the ones we love the most never really leave us. We carry them with us on our own journey.
“He always saw you as a superhero. This is how he knew you. This is who you are. And in those hard, quiet moments when it’s just you and the fear, you’ll hear his voice, clear as a bell, telling you that it’s time to put on your cape and fly.”
The world that I always wanted can never exist. There is no big blue box coming to hit the reset button. For me, time is a river. Always moving downstream. I can only ride the current and hope that it brings me where I want to be.
Maybe it’s out there somewhere. It’s one thing to dream of a perfect life, free of the pain and the years of suffering that come with it. We talk all the time about what would happen if we could go back and talk to our younger selves, what would happen if we could relive those days and what we’d do differently. But that’s where it always ends.
I can daydream all I want about a world where nobody knows my name, but no one ever asks what it would cost to get there.
Sunlight poured in through the open windows, bathing the room in a faint golden glow. Justine stood in the center of the empty space and let her mind wander.
The house had been Jared’s for almost fifteen years, purchased during his time with Sin City, but even now there were rooms left barren. Far too much space for one person, she thought. Too much space even for two. For years room upon room had sat idle, and though there was not a single piece of furniture not a single spec of dust was to be found. It was as if he was keeping it prepared for something, waiting for it to find purpose.
For weeks she had walked past the doorway, always careful not to cross the threshold, but today she made an exception.
She closed her eyes and the room became alive around her. Color crept across the walls, bright yellow and vibrant like the sun. A crib found its home in the corner, with a row of stuffed animals running along the wall and a simple mobile hanging overhead. Small plush sheep ran in a circle after the moon.
Justine opened her eyes and sighed into the emptiness, unaware of the figure at the door behind her.
“Is everything okay?” I said. Cal spat an invective and damn near jumped out of her skin. “You’ve been coming in here a lot lately.”
It took her a minute to catch her breath. Whatever world she’d been lost in when she came into this room had been suddenly yanked away.
“Yeah,” she said. “Just something I’ve been thinking about.”
“We probably should start using this room for something. Feels like forever since I bought the place, and it’s kind of ridiculous how little of it actually gets used.”
She didn’t respond, and instead slipped past me and into the hall, taking my hand along the way. She led me into the library that I’d surprised her with on Valentine’s Day. In truth, the library was more of a “Welcome to Your New Home” gift than anything to do with the holiday. I knew she’d wanted one of her own for years, and even though the room wasn’t huge – just a converted spare bedroom – it gave her a space of her own.
A small pile of books was relocated from the loveseat to the floor and she gestured for me to join her on the couch.
“What’s on your mind?” I said.
“Do you ever wish you could go back in time and do it all over again? Give yourself a second chance?”
“All the time. Especially lately. When you’re supposed to fight a time traveler it’s kind of hard to not let your mind wander. It’s funny, but I keep going back to the first time I heard her speak. I think we were on our fifth show, and she bumped into your bestie Brandon…”
The thought hung in the air unfinished. It was ReVival 5, only weeks away from our first supercard and the coronation of Brandon Youngblood as Universal Champion. He’d run into Anna, and the two did a fair bit of very public ego-stroking. Sort of.
Hi, I’m Brandon and I used to be a big bastard man but now everyone loves me. You’re the future. Let’s be friends. Also you should kick a berry to death.
When you’ve had the career that I’ve, ahem, enjoyed, you get used to being the punchline. Or at least I was used to being the punchline. Years ago I’d become desensitized to it, but this felt new. Raw. Ten years away meant rebuilding that armor. Every village needs their idiot, and I’d been christened as PRIME’s resident jester in short order. What hit the hardest was the implied desperation. That I’d pay to have it done. Some future they were crafting.
I don’t look back fondly on the days of mannequins and tasers.
“If it makes you feel any better,” Justine said, “at least you don’t have to pay to get punted in the head around here. I’ll beat your ass for free.”
She smiled, and a light elbow jabbed me in the ribs.
“But yeah,” she continued, “there is something that’s been on my mind lately.”
She went silent for a minute. Whatever was coming was big. I could feel my throat start to close as the thoughts of a hidden phone call started to percolate again.
“I took a pregnancy test,” she said. “It was about a month ago, just before Tropical Turmoil. I probably don’t need to tell you that it came back negative. I… I wanted to tell you for a while. I know I should have told you sooner, but…”
I took her hand in mine.
“I know. I found the receipt in the garage when we got back from San Diego. Must have fallen out of the bag when you bought it, but I wasn’t going to say anything. I knew that if there was something important that I needed to know that you’d tell me, and if not… I didn’t want to press you.”
“That’s just it. It is important. It’s been all I can think about lately.” She nodded towards the empty space across the hall. “Every time I walk by that room I imagine what it would look like with a crib. And then I think about how wonderful it would be if we could just turn back time and yell at our younger selves to not be such dumbasses about all this.”
“Not sure it would have worked,” I said. “Past Jared had a head full of bees.”
“Yeah. And Past Cal wouldn’t have listened. She was too busy trying to punch the world.”
“Still, it’s nice to think about.”
“And what if we didn’t just think about it? What if… Like, what if we…”
My heart thundered in my chest like a drum. This was it. This was the conversation. She’d alluded to it for months, but now it was here.
“It’s okay.” A single tear rolled down her cheek, and I wiped it away. “You can say it.”
“I know that we’ve still got to pick a wedding date, and there’s all the planning that goes with it. Hell, I don’t know what this would mean for a dress. I know that I’m still just getting started on this phase of my career, but… But I want to try and have kids before it’s too late.”
Every time I tried to speak my mouth curled into a smile. When you’re suddenly confronted by the prospect of the thing you’ve always wanted it can be a little hard to process.
“Bedtime stories,” I said at last. “Soccer games on the weekend. First steps. First words. Late-night feedings.”
“And the diapers that go with it.”
“Trying peas for the first time.”
“Walking to school every morning.”
Things got quiet again. I could feel the corner of my mouth starting to twitch, a dead giveaway for what was coming. The internet likes to spread memes about the way I express my emotions. In truth, there’s not nearly as much crying as people like to think. Except that day. I surrendered to it.
Ten years on the road bouncing between companies. Ten more in self-imposed exile and isolation. So much time spent wanting, wondering. And now, after all that, the current had brought me where I always wanted to be.
I’d made it home, the long way round.