We’d gone to Indiana right after Colossus to join the celebration around Nate Colton’s first PRIME championship, the second Colton family party we’d crashed in as many weeks. The downtime was nice, but even after everything we’d just overcome in the form of Paxton Ray and the Love Convoy there was still one battle I had left to fight.
Jake had managed to work his magic and set up a meeting between myself and an old friend, someone I’d only seen once since hiding away in a self-imposed exile. He was born Frank Mazurskiewicz, but until the previous August I’d only ever known him by a different name.
It was arranged that we’d get together at a neutral site, in this case a diner a few miles outside of Evansville. He was already seated when I arrived, nestled in the corner with his back to the wall like a mafia don. It made sense. The man had a knack for making enemies, and no doubt lived with the specter of one showing up to get a measure of justice for something he’d done over his career as a wrestler.
I wondered if he’d have preferred that to having to deal with me face-to-face again.
“Thanks for agreeing to meet with me,” I said. The words were hard to form, my mouth having gone dry on the drive over. “When I talked to Jake I wasn’t sure if you’d say yes.”
Frank nodded and set down his coffee mug. There was a small notebook and pen on the table in front of him. The man was still an information broker first and foremost.
“It took some convincing,” he said. “Jake always says this sort of thing is ‘good for me.’”
A waitress came by and set down a mug in front of me, but she vanished back behind the counter before saying anything.
“I’m sorry. I’m not here to make things difficult for you. I thought… Well, I was in the area, and figured I’d check in. See how you were doing.”
“I’m all right. Keeping busy. Going to Utah next week; there’s a rookie out there who shows a lot of promise.” I could sense the gears working in his mind, trying to figure out my intent as he looked me over. “But that’s not why we’re here, is it?”
“No,” I said. “It’s not. There’s something that’s been kicking around in my head since the summer, and I’m trying to figure out if it’s the right thing to do.”
That cup, the one that had just been put in front of me, was suddenly the most interesting goddamn thing in the world. Maybe if I moved it around the table a little bit then I wouldn’t have to actually say the thing I came here for.
Frank went back to writing.
“Did you ever go back to Vegas?”
He paused mid-scribble and very deliberately set his pen back down. He took a long, slow breath and closed his eyes. I think he was hoping that the tension the question presented would pass. I’m sorry, Frank.
“No,” he said at last.
“So, wait, he’s not the guy with the pigeon?”
They sat side by side on the wall across the street from the Gate C entrance to the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, waiting for the appointment Jared’s agent had brokered for them. The way Jared looked at the building it may as well have been haunted.
“No,” Jared said, “that’s Devin Fox. Totally different guy.”
It was obvious that he was trying to stay calm. Despite everything they’d been through together, and all the years they’d known each other, he seemed determined to mask the worst of his own insecurity around her. They both knew it didn’t work, but old habits die hard.
“Which one was the National Wrestling Council world champion then?”
“Still Devin. There is a connection though. Guy named Rob Sharpe. We were on the SCCW roster together for a while. The original SCCW, not what FUSE turned into. He was the television champion when I got there.” He snorted a dry laugh. “Everything comes back to this fucking city.”
“Okay, I’m missing something here. How is that a connection?”
“He and Fox are tight – David, not Devin. Trained together or something.” He shrugged. “Means in addition to whatever they’ve seen in the last year that ‘Kickpads and the Thicc Lad’ also have access to my old playbook, for whatever that’s worth.”
“You sound like Tom with the nicknames.” A light shove sent him briefly lolling to one side. “Might get sued for gimmick infringement.”
Jared chuckled once then went silent.
“You’re actually worried about this, aren’t you? Rev’ twenty-three, I mean.”
“I don’t know if worried is the word I’d use,” he said, “but it’s on my mind, yeah.”
“Because of Abe?”
Another shrug. For a moment she entertained the idea of chaining his shoulders down so he would stop doing that. A history of problems with his right arm meant it wasn’t the best plan, but it would work, of that she was certain.
“Because of a lot of things,” he said. “Because I’m not going to discount anyone who can do something that I couldn’t.”
“Well it’s a good thing that’s not super vague.”
“Colossus. They did something that I had the opportunity to do last year and couldn’t, but Mushi and Fox pulled it off. I had a chance at Bobby and Dooze, but didn’t get it done.”
It was the last actual match that Jared had wrestled in before the start of Survivor, before the meeting that would rekindle their friendship and set the chain of events in motion for it to bloom into something more. He was still wrestling with that goddamn mannequin for reasons she would never quite understand, and then Bobby Dean crushed it under his massive bulk. The force of the impact sent the doll’s head off like a cannon shot into the crowd. The memes it spawned continued to make their way around the ‘Net.
“Are we still pretending that fighting glorified handicapped matches is on the same level?”
“Does it matter how it happened? Two teams walk into the ring with the same opponent, and the results are different. That’s the only thing that I care about. The Mix did what I couldn’t.” He pushed off the wall and paced to the curb before turning back. It was hard to keep him settled when the nerves took hold. “And it’s not so much about losing to Abe, that’s…”
“I can handle losing when it’s just me, but I don’t want to know what it might feel like to let you down. Not after everything we’ve been able to do over the last eight months. We’ve done something I never could have imagined, and… Christ.”
She hopped down from her seat and started to close the distance between them when the door across the street opened and a figure emerged, smiling with too-white teeth and waving in their direction.
“I think that’s our guy,” she said. “But don’t think you’re off the hook, okay? We’re going to finish this later.”
The first thing Justine thought when Clancy Kincaid introduced himself was how much he reminded her of Melvin Beauregard, the man who architected the PRIME Survivor challenge that both Jared and the Dangerous Mix had slogged through with varying degrees of success during the previous spring. If Clancy had anything to set himself apart from his MGM-turned-PWA counterpart, at least he cleaned up well.
The suit, the smile, the hair – they were all part of a carefully-crafted facade to try and convince the unsuspecting into believing he was the fanciest, most trustworthy so-and-so they’d ever meet, and gee-golly-gosh did he ever wish you’d have the bestest most fun time blowing through all of your hard-earned money inside his casino.
Justine shook his hand, making a mental note to boil her own when she returned to her room later, and contemplated how many tiny goblins were in control of the man-shaped thing in front of her. Clancy may have seemed genuine on the surface, but there was no question in her mind that he was a Melvin. The city was full of them. For everyone like Mark there were a hundred Melvins, and each one born from the same slime vat, oozing and pustulant as they crawled forth from the fetid end of the pipe.
“So you’re wrestlers? That’s interesting.” Clancy led them through the lobby into the arena proper.
The Orleans wasn’t as big as the Grand, maybe a little more than half its size with a U-shaped seating plan. It was easy to see how the building might be set up for wrestling. Ring in the middle. Entryway at the far end. Any screens could be suspended by the wall.
“One of the other casinos in town used to have wrestling every week, did you know that?” Clancy continued.
“Yeah,” Justine said. “That was us.”
“Oh, how exciting that must have been for you! We used to host those events, too, you know. It’s been a long time since the last one. That was years before I started here.” He gestured to a section of the floor that was hidden under brightly-colored mats. “Be careful where you step. We’re still setting up for a cheerleading competition later in the week. Nationals, you know. Very prestigious.”
Justine wondered whether this is what it would feel like to talk to an outhouse.
She looked to see where Jared had run off to, but didn’t get very far before Clancy leaned in close. It took all her strength to not roll her eyes. Her father would have understood, but her mother would never forgive her.
“You know,” he said. His tone was playful, like a child about to confess their mischief. “Some of the old-timers say this place is haunted.”
“Oh, yes. They say that a ghost wanders the halls. Something about an equipment accident that went wrong. Personally I don’t believe in this sort of thing myself, but ask around and they’ll tell you.”
Where the hell did Jared go?
“So, as you can see…,” Clancy started to say, but Justine had already tuned him out.
She found Jared in an empty spot on the floor a hundred feet away in a part of the building that had not yet been blanketed by gymnastic mats. He was crouched low with one hand palm-down on the exposed concrete. That was the spot. Had Wyatt punched through the ring on his way back to earth, that’s where he would have landed.
Her pulse quickened, throat tightened. Their eyes met across the distance, and she followed his gaze as it went to the ceiling and the web of metal and wires that hung suspended over the floor.
“We have full access, right?” she said. Clancy was droning on about college basketball, but the sound of her voice snapped him out of his one-man show. “Full access. To go anywhere in the arena. That was the deal, right?”
She glanced back at Jared, but he was already moving towards them. Justine turned back to Clancy.
“Where’s the elevator?” she said.
“Are you sure we don’t all want to go back downstairs? There’s so much more to see here at The Orleans. Perhaps you’d like a tour of our conference and event facilities?”
Jared’s first steps onto the catwalk were heavy with trepidation. He’d stood in silence with his eyes closed for what felt like an eternity before taking his first his first step. Clancy, who would apparently die if he didn’t hear the sound of his own voice, continued to shill his little heart out. It took him a moment to realize their party was now a man short.
“I know the agreement was for unfettered access,” he said, “but I really don’t think this is the best idea.”
Justine focused all of her energy on keeping her mouth shut. Clancy was absolutely a Melvin, of that she was sure. She wondered what would happen if the two of them were in the same room together. Perhaps they would bond over marketing strategies, maybe debate the pros and cons of a late-night buffet. Or maybe, if they were all very lucky, they would destroy each other in a matter-antimatter collision and leave only a pile of raw sewage and poorly-tailored suits behind. Woe betide the person responsible for cleaning up the aftermath of that disaster. Better bring a hazmat suit and flamethrower just to be sure.
“I don’t mean to seem obnoxious, but one ghost story is enough, don’t you think?” Clancy laughed. Justine ground her teeth. “Just a little joke. After all-”
“You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.” Her words were a dagger that sliced the air.
Clancy stood mouth-agape, frozen in the face of the anger that had just been unleashed. He tried to compose himself. His mouth moved like a fish gasping for air outside of water, but no words came out.
“There was no equipment accident. There are no ghosts. You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.”
“Miss, I assure you,” he started to say. Justine took a single step forward and Clancy fell silent yet again.
Her first instinct was to swing, that was her father’s influence. She wanted to scream, to challenge how it was possible that a person in Clancy’s position didn’t know what happened inside his own building. It had been twelve years almost to the day, and an event like that just doesn’t get erased. Sure. there would have been staff turnover, perhaps a change in the management structure, but to forget? Impossible.
Twelve years since Frank had fallen from the same catwalk where Jared now stood, and nobody in this goddamn building seemed to know anything about it. Typical Melvins, every last one of them.
She turned towards the catwalk and almost plowed straight into her partner.
“You ready to get out of here?” Jared said.
Was she ever.
I looked across the table at Frank and kicked myself for being dumb enough to push that button.
“Yeah, I get it. It was a dumb question. I’m sorry. Never should have brought it up.”
“No, it’s fine.”
And then the floodgates opened, as is tradition when the anxiety takes over.
“I think I need to see it again. To go back there, I mean. It’s… So, like… Last summer wasn’t supposed to happen. You and I were never supposed to run into each other again, but I guess the world is funny that way, because it happened and afterwards it all just felt different. Like I’d been holding my breath for ten years. I could finally stop hiding. I could take that stupid mask off and just be again, you know?”
Breathe, Jared. Just breathe.
“And I could have gone back there at any point over the last year,” I said. “I was in Vegas every other week. It was right there. Right there. But… I didn’t.”
He thought for a minute.
“It’s human nature to hide from trauma, I think. Honestly, I haven’t even been to Las Vegas since that night. Just one of the many places I can’t go anymore.”
“Don’t worry, you’re not missing much.”
I took a quick glance out the window. Outside a young family with two kids in tow were headed towards the door. They looked happy.
What would that be like?
“There are things I want to do, Frank. One of them is pretty big. I just don’t know if I can do it with that last demon out there, you know? Because if I go forward with what I have in mind… I need to make sure I’m whole, that there’s not some part of me that still lives up on that catwalk. Does that make any sense?”
“Of course. The best way to overcome fear is to face it, and I think you still need to find some closure for what happened that night. The same probably goes for me, but…well. Easier said than done.”
“You deserve yours, you know. Closure, I mean. We can’t change what happened. If we could, well, I’d go back a lot further and start tinkering with my childhood.” That’s not something I’d freely admit to most people, but my assumption has always been that if there was something about a person worth knowing that Frank had that information readily at hand. “But you should get to find your own peace with this. I believe that.”
“Thank you,” he said. He got quiet for a moment, like what he was about to say was a struggle. When you’re as adept a liar as Frank, being open and honest is probably a real bitch. “I’ve…made some progress, I suppose. The nature of my work seems to help. I spent so much time destroying other people…to build them up instead has been…fulfilling, let’s say. A small way of making amends.”
“One of ‘em just staked his claim as a legit superstar a few nights ago.” And he had to take down three champions of the ReVival era to do it, no less. “Can I confess something? I look at Nate and what he’s got going on and it makes me a little jealous. I don’t mean the title or anything like that. It’s the people around him. Never had that when I was starting out. Sometimes I wonder whether things would be different if I did. Fuck. Who knows.”
“So few of us did, back then. Probably why Jake is so intent on being that kind of guy now. Not just with his own kids, either. All his students. And his old friends, too…he tries to lend them a hand, even if they don’t deserve it.”
“So, the other reason I’m here…,” No, seriously, Jared. Fucking breathe. “I was thinking about the summer, and there was something I should have said back then but didn’t. This might sound weird all things considered, but I need to thank you.”
His eyebrows arched so high I thought they might knock a tile out of the drop ceiling. Frank had to tolerate a lot of shit from me over the years that we’d known each other. Hell, I twice cosplayed as the man’s penis on live television. I think, looking back at it, that this was the first time something I’d done had genuinely surprised him.
“We ran into each other and you could have left before any conversation took place, but you didn’t. Could have brushed off a request today, and you’re here. You let me pick up the pieces, try to put ’em back together. I know this sucks, but I need you to know I appreciate that.”
“Thank you, Jared. It feels… good to hear that. I’m glad I could help.”
A smile spread across his face. This one was different than any I’d seen when he was a wrestler.
It was honest.
I picked up the mug that I’d been fidgeting with and held it in front of me.
“To second chances,” I said.
Frank raised his own.
“I’ll drink to that.”
They watched the facilities crew unfold mats and organize them on the floor, careful to make sure that none of the concrete was exposed. Clancy had abandoned them as soon as they hit the ground level, most likely very relieved to be free of the woman he was certain meant to use him as a personal punching bag.
“It’s weird,” Jared said. “Being here… All this… It isn’t anything like I expected it would be.”
“How do you mean?”
“I got so worked-up thinking that it was all going to come rushing back, and that I’d basically be living it again. I replayed it in my head a thousand times, Cal. Then we got here, and I got up on that catwalk, and…”
“Hey, it’s okay.”
“I thought I was going to have a very public freak-out, and it’s the fact that I didn’t have one that’s freaking me out now. I don’t know what any of it means.”
Her eyes went from the floor to the ceiling. Years ago she’d watched a grainy cell phone video shot the night his life unraveled, and yet from her seat in the arena the distance seemed shorter. She found his hand, laced her fingers with his, and squeezed.
“Maybe it means that you’re okay,” she said. “That you know it wasn’t your fault. Maybe it means you know that you’re safe.”
“Thanks for being here. You didn’t have-”
“You shush. This is what partners do. One of us falls down, and the other steps up. You’ve done it for me, and I’ll keep doing it for you. Oh, and you’d better get used to this.” She rested her head against his shoulder. “Because this is your life now.”