Parents possess the unique ability to hear the precise wavelength of their childrens’ screams. Even when there’s plenty of sound to mask the source. Even across long distances.
There was no preventing Sergei Stanislav’s power that day.
A long day at work and aching joints be damned, something was wrong and he knew it. He heard it. Work boots thundered down the stairwell and he burst through the rear exit of the apartment complex. A torrent of stubborn, sticky Arkhangelsk mud was left in his wake as he hurtled towards the treeline.
His neighbors watched him from their apartment patios.
Beautiful Fanya, his light and life, held a handkerchief to her lips and did the same. She heard the screams as well.
No force can stop a fearful, protective parent. Not slopping mud or scratching tree limbs. Not bloody scratches or burning lungs. Not when a parent hears the cries.
As he arrived at the clearing where his boys frequently played, the round-faced, blonde-haired youngest Stanislav sobbed uncontrollably. Sergei’s blood ran cold. Ten year old Klim had managed to fell a tree.
It was not your normal tree. It was only twelve years old and just over six feet tall.
Older brother Ivan.
The boy’s red flannel shirt was sticky and black along one side and the darkness was spreading. He stared up, dazed, into the trees as gouts of raspy breaths exited his quivering lips. His hand pressed tightly against the wound while dark ichor leaked between his tacky fingers.
“What happened?” Sergei choked and knelt next to his fallen son.
There was so much blood.
Kliment blubbered in halting gasps. “We were playing ‘Olympics,’ Papa.”
The source of the suffering lay in the muddy grass. Cut from a tree and sharpened to a point. Ivan’s life stained the jagged point of the makeshift javelin.
“I’m sorry Papa. I didn’t mean to…”
“I know Klim.”
“Praporshchik, can you hear me?”
Ivan wearily gazed into his father’s eyes as Sergei stared back.
His boy was dying.
“Ivan. Look at me. Can you hear me?” His voice wavered as his son moaned. He watched Ivan’s life spill out between his fingers and stain the mud beneath.
“Yes, father…” he groaned.
“Keep pressing on your side son.”
Sergei tore off his jacket and uncoiled his black suspenders. He removed his undershirt and tore it in half.
It isn’t as bad as it looks, Sergei. He is going to be fine.
He couldn’t stop the fearful whimper that escaped his normally stoic body.
Please don’t take him from me.
I don’t want to lose a child.
“I need help here!”
“Go to Doctor Stephanovich.” He barked at Klim but kept his eyes on Ivan. “He is on the third floor. Room 301 or 303, I cannot remember. It is an odd number. Go! Go boy!”
What can I do?
“Everything is going to be fine, son, I promise.”
Please, don’t let me lose a son. It would kill me.
He applied his own shirt to Ivan’s burbling, boiling wound and applied pressure.
Ivan winced and could only whisper. His normally boisterous voice was strangled. “It was my idea, Papa. Klim didn’t mean it…”
Keep talking, son.
“It doesn’t matter, Ivan.” Sergei wanted to pat his face, but his hands were drenched. “Just focus on me, boy. We will be having dinner soon. This? This is not that bad,” he lied.
Ivan slowly closed his eyes and Sergei yelped fearfully. “Ivan!” His lips trembled as he shook him. Please no.
“Ivan, please, keep watching me. Look at me.”
“Praporshchik Stanislav! Open your eyes! That’s an order!”
It is amusing as you get older. Memories fade away like scars on the body. Alexei says memories are like information on a computer. There’s only so much space to remember such things.
I don’t understand the analogy.
But sometimes, something happens that revives a memory from so long ago that, while traumatic at the time of its inception, has faded with the years.
Not too many can say they were both speared with a javelin and gashed by a forklift.
Lindsay Troy warned me of a reckoning.
Was this ultimately my doing?
If so, I’ll own it.
I own the turmoil of that day, and this one, and the next.
I can only endure the confusion and uncertainty.
I hear her voice.
Don’t keep your eyes closed, old man.
Something certainly was amiss when Dr. Astrid Fihlguud saw that the solid steel door to medical hung by but a hinge. The massive bloody handprint confirmed her suspicions.
Inside was much worse.
Her neatly stacked papers were strewn along the floor, the first aid kit was torn from the wall, her desk had been knocked halfway across the room, and her medical table was shattered. Pills crunched beneath her shoes.
Everything was covered in blood.
It looked as if an angry, bleeding bear had broken into her office.
Which wasn’t inaccurate.
Ivan Stanislav was slumped on the floor next to the bloody first aid kit. His shirt was pulled up to his chest after having field dressed his wound. His military training was second nature, and he maintained weakening pressure to the gauze bandage.
It was unnerving how still he was, but he was breathing.
She surged. Glove on in a flash and a hand on the wound. She knew he had been attacked, and his rage had compelled him to attempt revenge later. The wound had torn. She wasn’t prepared for how wet it was and how wide the gash had been. The man’s sheer size may have been all that staved off an otherwise inevitable fate. Talk to him.
“Praporshchik, can you hear me?”
She yelled but never broke her gaze. Was anyone even left in the Footprint Center?
“I need help here!” She had to get him to a hospital.
He mumbled but didn’t open his eyes. She yelled down sternly.
“Praporshchik Stanislav! Open your eyes! That’s an order!”
Vacant brown eyes finally stared into her own.
My parents loved one another unconditionally through the rigors and turbulence of life. Even when illness took my father, my mother’s love never waned. He was a good man. He worked hard. He earned our love. He served as a worthy role model. Not just for myself and Klim, but for others.
And he so adored my mother.
Can you love in the same way, Jared?
He taught me that life is fleeting.
Perhaps that is why I have treated you as I have?
Because I need to be honest with myself.
I am jealous.
No, I do not want Justine Calvin.
But I want love.
I miss love.
I am afraid to die alone.
Devoid of love.
Why should you have someone on your arm and I am alone?
It is not fair.
Jared, life will not always give you a forklift when you need it.
Damn those stubborn Russians. Astrid was insistent, but the obstinate Ivan would hear none of it. After rousing him, he was adamant his people stretcher him to his van. The herculean effort necessary to move the damaged soldier was backbreaking.
Astrid didn’t leave his side until he was laid down and stable. When she turned to leave, a huge, tacky crimson hand grasped her forearm.
“Thank you, Doctor.”
She knew he was sincere.
The time between now and Turmoil would not be measured and regimented, as he preferred.
It would be erratic.
I loathe trying to cling to youth.
My return to PRIME made my age so obvious to me.
Yet, I find focusing on the scars a more productive motivator.
For you, Hayes Hanlon, I’m sure that handsome face and young body has but a fraction of my disfigurement.
Like a forklift tyne to the belly, Hayes, you remind me of someone.
He was designated as “N.P. 248931.”
He was younger and faster. He beat me consistently.
On October 21, 2001, at Red October in Moscow, in front of my people and for the highest title in PCW, Meanstreak humiliated me.
That was when my government gave him the designation.
Not because of his triumph.
But because of my failure.
I will do everything in my power to deny you that designation from my people.
I can’t let that happen, Hayes.
Not another failure on my part.
His memory ended appropriately.
It took many tries.
I defeated Meanstreak and earned t he PCW World Title.
Meanstreak is gone.
Days later, Ivan insisted he be discharged from the hospital and return to Kaliningrad. He had a match to prepare for and loose ends to tie up. Katya Belova’s unexpected entrance and traumatic exit necessitated a move closer to the capital. But he had unfinished business.
No-one made a cane for a man of his dimensions, so a four foot piece of metal had to suffice. Despite leaning on it with his elbow, it did little to ease the pain. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to stand. Worse still was the tremendous cerebral trauma he felt in this space.
Katya’s end resurfaced unspeakable horrors to his mind. She remained, psychologically and physically.
Blood was resilient.
The floor where she stood, the wall, and the ceiling were imperceptibly stained. Bleach could only do so much. Someone who had seen their fair share of blood would notice.
It was easy for Praporshchik Stanislav.
Katya seemed like a good parent. Like his own.
If only he had stopped her. Saved her.
She had the same eyes as his father on that muddy day, when Sergei tried to project strength but could only exude terror.
What a great burden to bear.
I wanted to tell Rachel that I would have been a good father.
I never did.
Parenthood must be a terrifying responsibility.
Unlike men on a battlefield, parents are responsible for their own precious little ones.
I may not understand it fully, Paxton Ray, but I can respect it.
I nearly died in my father’s arms.
He desperately wanted his sons to live and still, he buried one of us.
Did you show such fear as you held your sick child?
I sincerely hope, Paxton, that little Nora lives a long and healthy life.
Do you believe Nora is worthy of an honorable father?
Do you still fight for her?
And if you do, will you fight as hard for her as Katya did for her son, Timofey?
Would you stain the concrete of my office for her?
Would you stain the mat of your lifeblood?
An injury of this magnitude slowed time to a crawl. The breakneck pace was replaced with ginger steps leading to Tropical Turmoil. His new, more secure office in Moscow was an upgrade, but Ivan was a creature of habit. He laid it out the same way as Kaliningrad, which had been based on the same plan twenty years ago in Arkhangelsk during his PCW/OSW days.
And the roof didn’t leak.
He sat restlessly in his chair. The stitches were holding but the bruising was still creeping along his flesh. Twisting to open his drawer caused the bear to bellow and it reverberated through his den.
Arina entered immediately and doted on him like he was some invalid.
He mumbled embarrassed words of thanks as she easily produced his box of precious medals and trinkets.
He was grateful, yet scowled as she nonchalantly returned to her post. Silently, Ivan looked at one trinket in particular.
Never had he felt so rudderless.
Kliment’s dog tag glinted in the light.
How excited I was when I learned I would be a big brother!
You think you are going to be invincible and teach your younger siblings everything. That they will look up to you and you will be their hero.
It is strange to think how helpless I was while Kliment cried over me that day.
Did you feel that way at PWA-02, Nate?
Helpless on the apron while I squeezed the life out of your sister?
When your brother leaked like a sieve?
When I pinned him and you watched?
We’re both big brothers, Nate. Though I admit, you have much more experience than I.
I wish I could have been Kliment’s big brother for longer.
You are a brave boy, Nate Colton.
Just remember, bravery and fear are not mutually exclusive.
Even removing his shirt was an ordeal, and the only person he trusted to help was half the globe away.
How long was Alexei going to be stuck in America? Slashing those ambulance tires seemed genius at the time, but now he knew it wasn’t worth it. Ruslan wasn’t about to show miraculously. He’d have to face disrobing alone.
After many curses, baying, and painful attempts, Ivan finally stared at his naked torso in the mirror. Like most who do so at his age, he frowned.
He doggedly maintained his weight, but it had shifted over the years. His chest was still powerful, but his arms were thicker and his waist had settled. That V shaped form of yesterday was gone, replaced with a more solid square of a man. His chest hair was more salt and pepper now and had thinned. It failed to hide his oft-hidden tattoo, trio of bullet holes, and the memories from a lifetime of warmongering.
His thick waist was bandaged and darkened on the side.
Blood was always so stubborn.
Oftentimes, Ivan thought he looked good for his age.
But not today. No reason to pretend. He looked like shit.
You pretenders are, forgive the capitalist-tinged phrase, “a dime a dozen” in this business.
To me, you illegitimately won the Universal Title and squawked so loudly in a fearful attempt to legitimize yourself.
It did not last.
There is always a place for the liars and the cheats in this business.
You are nothing new, Cancer Jiles.
The Tyler Nelsons.
The Alan Kriegmans.
Malignant tumors, the lot of them.
You might try to get revenge, and no doubt you will rely on the chaos of the match to achieve an advantage.
But I have been around long enough against more convincing pretenders.
You best walk on eggshells.
You got your first dose of Russian chemotherapy in January.
I will happily give you a second round.
The fines leveled against him from ReVival 30 were infuriating.
Jared Sykes was the reason for his injury. He was the one who perpetrated the attack. Say what you will about fair and unfair, but could it be any more blatantly prejudiced?
It proved the justification for his aggressive actions.
But being outraged on Jabber only stretched those damned stitches.
He didn’t have the strength to be angry.
The listlessness of his life was maddening. He couldn’t train. He couldn’t work. He wanted to talk to someone.
Ivan entered and exited Afghanistan with a brother by his side. Where Kliment was unable to follow, Alexei took his place. Kliment was measured, quiet, and introverted. Alexei was a whirlwind. He was fire and energy and cathartic motion. An unending fount of zeal and momentum. He was never restful. Even from half the globe away, he projected that frenetic vigor that was typically welcome.
But not now.
Alexei apoplexy and outrage was too much. He produced too much static and Ivan had to cut the conversation short. Still, the loneliness and anxiety was suffocating.
He could not think of anyone to talk to.
Did he have anyone, outside of Russia and his old comrades, to talk with? Anyone devoid of politics, ideology, and agenda? Who would not simply tell him what he wanted to hear? Someone who might listen to him?
One unlikely person came to mind. Certainly not her.
Did he take his medication? Did he take too much?
I told you to do whatever you wished with my gift.
If you ultimately keep it, I believe it would have a worthy home.
Lindsay Troy, I cherished our brief cease-fire.
I still try to understand why.
Was it the opportunity to meet someone different and yet work together?
A short-lived friendship made possible by its brevity?
Are we so different?
If only you could see where you have been wrong and I am right.
I don’t think you could meet me halfway.
I can’t do it either.
We both know I had to go through that door, Lindsay, and come back to reality.
Yet I secretly hope that a greater evil will come along and we work together again.
If it does, victory is assured.
Publicly, I wanted you to intervene for Alexei and stick it to Jared Sykes.
And yet, privately, I am glad you did not.
You were honest.
Being true to ourselves, for better or worse, might somehow strengthen that bond.
Fanya Stanislav had trudged through the mud to be with her family. Doctor Stephanovich blanched at young Ivan’s terrible wound.
“Is he going to be okay, Doctor?” Fanya asked through teary eyes.
The Doctor was flustered, but spoke to Sergei. “Keep talking to him!”
His father leaned over Ivan. Bloody hands or not, he clasped Ivan’s pale cheeks and stared into his eyes. His lips were pallid. “Ivan. Listen to me. Open your eyes.”
“Ivan Sergeiovich Stanislav, you listen to me!”
It was easier to just relax.
“Please Ivan. Please. Open your eyes. It’s your father!”
He sobbed and massaged his son’s hair. “No no no, Ivan, don’t go…”
Desperation clung to Sergei’s chest. He could only think of one other thing. Something that always gave Ivan a surge of energy when he competed. At this moment, his son was in the most grueling fight of his life.
He whispered the words in his ear.
I now remember what my father said to me and, unfortunately for you all, Sergei Stanislav was a very honest man. Like my terrible childhood wound, I was surprised I had forgotten it.
I have been worried about Tropical Turmoil and losing this second chance at the Universal Title. The uncertainty. The worry. The honest fear. I have floated through moment after moment to get to this point. That inexorable march towards this inevitability reveals one other fact: Turmoil is also upon you.
No more lying to myself.
No more “what if’s” in my mind.
I make no illusions as to what battle awaits me.
You will all fight against me. You will all try to unite against me.
You vultures will smell my blood and pick at me.
I am responsible for most of your vitriol. Be it due to your fear of my ability, or my actions in the past. I am weak. I am injured. I am outnumbered.
Lindsay Troy predicated a reckoning. I am sure she believed it to be the forklift.
Dear Lady Troy, you are wrong.
I am the reckoning. Injured or not. Outnumbered or on even footing. This reckoning cannot be stopped.
For the faulty fines and the ridiculous stipulations. For the roadblocks and misdirection. For the futile attempts to prevent my destiny. PRIME’s destiny.
I go to war injured, but not defeated.
You will batter me and I will roar in pain. My blood will soil your bodies and the mat. I will question if this was worth it and my superiors shall question if I am worth their time. My mother will cry and my people will wail.
But your attempts have always been and always will be futile.
For despite their fears, my people will cheer. My mother will always be proud. My superiors will be satisfied. When Youngblood and Best lock up, they will know that a red Russian Storm is upon them.
They will quake.
The Red Reckoning comes.
Jared, you should have killed me with that forklift.
Hayes, you should have quit while you were ahead.
Nate? Your smart mouth will get you what you deserve.
Cancer and Paxton? Keep out of my way. Fight your own battles and let the chips fall where they will. For your sakes, do not make this personal in that ring.
Those words my father said on that tumultuous day have been echoed to each and every one of you many, many times.
As you always have in the past and present, and I am sure in the future? You never listen.
Condolences, for his words cannot be more honest.
Fanya and Kliment cried as Sergei’s quivering breath peppered young Ivan’s ear.
“Ivan. Son. Please listen to me. I know you can fight and win this. Never, ever forget an honest truth, son:”
“You are unstoppable.”
“You are unbeatable.”
“You are indefatigable.”
“I love you.”
Young Ivan’s eyes shot open.
It wasn’t time to lay down.