DISCLAIMER: THE FOLLOWING STORY CONTAINS A SPOILER FOR THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER
“Ever since this started, about 8 or so months ago, lotta people talk to me. Askin’ me questions. But really askin’ jus’ one.
“How do ya do it, Paxton? How do ya keep going after all you’ve been through?
“And I ain’t never really had an answer, but I think if I had to come up with one, I’d say it’s about perspective. About realizin’ that there’s always someone around who has it worse than me.
“So thanks, GREAT SCOTT, for havin’ it worse than me.”
“Thanks for your time, Mr. Ray. And Miss Nora, of course.” The photographer whose name Paxton already forgot reached forward and shook his hand gingerly. He looked down at Nora, who once the shoot had ended reverted back to stare-at-her-shoes mode. “You did a great job smiling for the camera, Miss Nora.” The photographer shot a brief glance up at Paxton. “I’m sure your father could learn a few things from you.”
“Few things, yeah, but not that,” Paxton spat, ushering Nora away from the man.
“Thanks again. Target really appreciates being a part of the Fighting For Nora Foundation. We can’t wait for you to get cured, little lady!”
“Thanks,” Paxton grumbled, quickening his pace. He felt Nora lag behind, her smaller legs struggling to keep up, and in one deft maneuver he swung her up on his hip, causing a fit of giggles.
“Why we going so fast, daddy?” Nora asked between laughs.
“I appreciate Target’s help, but I still ain’t gonna be in this hellhole any longer than I gotta be.”
“But you promised me a toy!” Nora shouted just as Paxton exited the store, sun rays blinding his eyes. Grimacing, he turned around and walked back in.
“I did, didn’t I?”
“Nora no lie,” she said, giggling.
“Nora no lie,” Paxton repeated, a grin forming. “All right, let’s go find some cheap plastic that you’re gonna ignore in two weeks.”
“Prob’ly a bit confusing, ain’t it? You’re GREAT SCOTT. 5-1 in PRIME. Almost got the 5 Star Championship from Rezin. Everybody loves ya, loves your bear, loves your whole fun point and shouty thing. Sure, you’re homeless, but my girl has cancer. How is your life possibly worse than mine?
“Well the answer is simple, SCOTT. Bad stuff happens to everybody. My tag partner lost his girlfriend to a fire a decade back. Never got over it. That Blueberry twat is traumatized because someone he was fightin’ fell off a scaffoldin’. And there are boys and girls across the world jus’ like my Nora – struck by a disease they didn’t ask for, fightin’ a battle way above their pay grade jus’ ‘cause.
“Bad stuff comes in two forms: tragedies and consequences. Tragedies happen to people. Consequences are brought on by people. Alla my bad things are tragedies. But you? You ain’t got nothin’ but consequences, pal. Put another way, if I wanna pay back the fuckers who put me in this position, I’d have to punch a hole through the entire universe; but if you’re lookin’ to find someone to get revenge on, all you can do is hold up a damn mirror.”
“So whaddaya want, sweetheart? A doll? What’s Barbie doin’ now?”
Nora rolled her eyes as she was now the one dictating the pace, racing through the aisles, her eyes scanning the toys. “I don’t like Barbies, daddy.”
“Oh,” Paxton said, letting Nora pull ahead of him as he slowed down, scratching his head. “Then, uh…whaddaya like?”
“Lots of things. Puzzles, magic castles, Bluey…”
“What the shit is a Bluey.”
“Get cultured, Daddy!” Nora yelled before dashing down an aisle. Suddenly she turned around and fixed Paxton with the sort of stare that made him know she was his daughter. “And no cursing!”
Paxton caught up with Nora at the end of the aisle. He slowed down as he approached, not because he was reaching his destination but because the look on Nora’s face halted him. She stared up, agape, with something resembling reverence. Paxton followed her gaze and saw a cardboard cut-out of Natalie Portman as Jane Foster/The Mighty Thor, standing in an aggressive pose similar to the one Paxton just stood for. But unlike Paxton, The Mighty Thor was smiling.
“Natalie Portman, huh?”
“No,” Nora said, a smile creeping on her face. “The Mighty Thor. That’s the toy I want.”
After quickly scanning the price tag, Paxton nodded and grabbed the action figure next to the cardboard cutout, holding it in his hands for a minute. “Here you go, baby. She looks strong.”
“She is,” Nora said, pulling the box close to her chest. She was silent as the pair walked to the checkout, occasionally looking at her prize, her face holding that same small smile.
It wasn’t until they were almost to the car before Nora spoke again. “I want to take her with me into the doctor’s office.”
Paxton, fiddling with the key in the door, didn’t look over his shoulder. “Hm? Yeah, a’course sweetie. Whatever you want.” Once he entered the car, he looked in the rear view mirror to make sure she was in her booster seat. Instead, he saw her opening the box to remove the action figure. “Hey, Nora.”
“Sorry,” she said quickly, strapping herself in before removing The Mighty Thor and squeezing it to her chest. “We’re going to be okay, Jane. I know it.”
“You’re homeless. Why are ya homeless? Because ya trusted someone who was obviously runnin’ a con on ya. Listen, I won’t kill ya for gettin’ catfished. Everybody makes mistakes. But there’s a difference between makin’ a mistake and makin’ the same mistake over and over again.
“GREAT SCOTT, your biggest strength, the reason all those fans love ya, is the same thing that gets ya in trouble. You’re intense, you’re over-the-top, you’re aggressive – but you’re also sweet. And sweet ain’t a bad thing, but sweet’s got a lotta bad cousins. Naive. Silly. Trustin’. Gullible.
“And when an intense fella who’s sweet and a little gullible finds himself in a situation that’s too good to be true, he doesn’t think about it. He doesn’t question anythin’. He jus’ dives into the fire, and wouldn’t ya know it, he gets a little burned.
“Again, ya get burned once? That sucks. Put some aloe on that burn. Learn your lesson. Avoid the fire next time. But if ya get burned again? If your skin is startin’ to char because ya can’t stop yourself from throwin’ everythin’ away every chance ya get?
“Well, then you’re sweet’s worst cousin of all. The other s word.
“Longer wait than usual,” Paxton grumbled. He looked over to Nora, who was ignoring his complaints. Her attention was completely devoted to her Mighty Thor action figure, who she had been talking to in hushed tones the entire way there.
“So that’s a movie, right? Did ya see it?”
“Yeah,” Nora said, not looking up. “Mom and Mark took me.”
Paxton had been examining his fingernails for dirt, a habit he picked up since The Mud Pits years ago. Upon hearing this, his head snapped up. “Who the f…who’s Mark?”
“Uh huh.” Paxton nodded once, then twice. His feet began to tap against the linoleum floor, silently at first, then with enough fervor to make the chair creak. He clenched his fists and shot a look at the wall of the exam room. He even got as far as lifting his fist up before shaking his head and putting it back down. “I think we been back here like thirty minutes. I’ma go…” He started to stand up, but Nora finally looked up and shook her head.
“Daddy, please don’t. It’s okay, we can wait.”
Paxton looked at her and smiled. “I jus’ realized you ain’t needed to rest in a bit. And we been goin’ nonstop since this morning. You feelin’ good?”
Nora matched her dad’s smile, her fingers running through her action figure’s hair. “I feel great, daddy.”
“All right, then we’ll wait a little longer. But if we wait in here for an hour, Daddy’s gonna have to go talk to somebody.”
The silence settled then. It was silence that Paxton was used to over the past year. When the diagnosis first came, Paxton hated these silences; he would constantly talk to her, say encouraging things, tell her how she was going to beat this. As time went on, and Nora’s responses were less committal, Paxton let the silence linger. It always felt haunting, almost debilitating.
This silence felt different.
It was most likely the smile on Nora’s face, which after a year of chemotherapy and other treatment was a rare occurrence. But there was also something else that Paxton felt tugging at the back of his neck, something he couldn’t recognize.
Finally, the door opened and Nurse Julie walked in. “Hey Nora!” she said, bubbly as ever. Nora waved excitedly and held up her action figure, which caused Julie to clap. “Oh, I love her! Great choice.” She looked up at Paxton. “Hey, guys, sorry, but there’s another round of bloodwork we need to get in the back room. Can you come with us really quick?”
Nora’s smile dissipated, and so did Paxton’s. “I know ya hate it, sweetie. Let’s jus’ get it over with.” He stood up and ushered her through the doorway, following Julie through the twists and turns of the hospital. He had just enough time to think that the bloodwork office was in the other direction when Julie pushed open a door to a chorus of cheers and shouts.
Paxton stopped and looked at the scene: a dozen doctors, nurses, and other office staff, all clapping and shouting. A cake in the middle with the Fighting For Nora logo on it. And a banner behind them, declaring one word.
Nora looked from the doctors to her father, and the action figure clattered to the floor.
“But it’s charmin’, ain’t it? It’s okay if you’re a little stupid. ‘Cause you’re funny, ‘cause you’re earnest, ‘cause ya get people’s names wrong in funny ways, ‘cause ya got a bear hangin’ out listenin’ to some typa music that makes my ears bleed. And ya know what, GREAT SCOTT? I think bein’ stupid is actually one’a your biggest strengths.
“It works for ya, all right. ‘Cause most people look at ya and they see a big oaf who shouts and rushes inta things, and they write ya off. I almost did myself. ‘Oh whatever, he’s jus’ an idiot. I ain’t gotta worry about him.’ And when they think that, that’s like spottin’ ya a two-count. Or like sittin’ up atop the turnbuckle waitin’ for ya to wrap your legs around their neck.
“Guys like the masked idiot, the other masked idiot, the old guy who is prob’ly an idiot but seems nice anyway – they jus’ took ya at face value. And when it came to the ring, they suffered for it. But I can’t do that, and I won’t do that. Know why? ‘Cause I’m jus’ like ya, GREAT SCOTT.
“I been called dumb, stupid, simple, slow my entire damn life. I got a southern accent, I ain’t ever finished high school. I worked as a mechanic for a few years. And if ya ask anyone who ever met me growin’ up, they’d say that was my ceilin’. Everywhere I went , I heard the same things. ‘The boy is dumb.’ ‘He jus’ ain’t all there.’
“And maybe they’re right, like maybe I’m right about ya. But I know that there’s more to ya, so I ain’t gonna underestimate ya. And ya better do the same to me if you wanna get back on the winnin’ side a’things.”
It took Nora about three to four minutes to normalize her breathing, but after that passed, the smile was plastered to her face. She took time with each of the medical professionals, who all beamed just like Paxton, undoubtedly feeling the same pride he felt.
Paxton stood in the corner and watched it unfold, his own breathing failing to normalize. After a few minutes, Nurse Julie walked up to him. “Have some cake. This victory is just as much yours as hers.”
Paxton looked at Julie and shook his head. “No it ain’t. This is all her. She deserves all the cake, damn the stomach ache that follows.”
Julie laughed, then looked at the Mighty Thor action figure, which someone had picked up and put on the table. “Do you know the significance of that action figure?”
Paxton shook his head. “Nah. I ain’t watched that movie. Or any a’those hero films. Ain’t really my thing. It’s obviously Mark’s thing, though.”
Julie raised an eyebrow. “I’m sorry?”
“Uh…nothin’. Go ‘head.”
“Well, the character is an old ex-girlfriend of Thor’s. And she shows up in the new movie with the same powers as Thor has. And what you find out,” Julie said, her gaze drifting to Nora, who was speaking with one of the doctors, “is that Jane has cancer. And that summoning the powers of Thor makes her strong, and the cancer goes away, but only as long as she has that hammer.” Julie points to the hammer in the action figure’s hand.
“Okay, so that’s why she wanted it. Because they’re the same.”
Julie shook her head. “But they aren’t the same. Because…” Julie stopped, looking up at Paxton nervously. “Do you care if I spoil it?”
Paxton blinked. “Julie. Do I look like the person who gives a shit about spoilers?”
Laughing, she continued. “Okay, good. Well, Jane dies at the end. Mj…the hammer is too much for her to handle. So Nora and Jane are different. Because they both fought, but…Jane lost. And, Mr. Ray…Nora won.”
“But bein’ a little slow ain’t the only thing we got in common, SCOTT. We’re both young. We both pack a mean punch. And we both listen to older guys who, let’s be honest, prob’ly don’t have our best interests at heart.
“But there are three big differences between us. That last thing I said? I’m fully aware of it, and I don’t think you are. It goes back to the burn thing. You let it happen over and over again. I ain’t ever gonna get burned again. If my hand is over the fire right now, trustin’ my daughter’s care to a bunch of wrestlers, it’s ‘cause I know I’ve got the calluses to handle it.”
“The second difference? It’s how we see the world. Ya look for facial hair to find out who to trust, ya make obvious references to the black-an’-white division of the business. Ya were so hesitant to face Nate Colton ‘cause he had no beard and is an all-around good guy. So how do ya see me? I got a beard. I also got a daughter and a cause that everybody is rootin’ for.
“But I don’t fit that view you got. I ain’t some evil mastermind, I ain’t a piece of shit like Rezin, but let me make one thing clear, GREAT SCOTT:
Within the hour, the celebration died down. Paxton had just finished a phone call with Shweta, who squealed at the good news and promised to work with the hospital to deal with the logistics of finalizing the care. Paxton endured a speech about the cancer possibly coming back at some point from the doctor, and he finally ate a slice of cake that Nurse Julie practically forced down his throat.
But eventually it was just Paxton and Nora, walking out of the hospital for hopefully the last time. Nora’s dreamy smile had returned, all of her focus back on The Mighty Thor.
“I guess she’s your good luck charm, yeah?” Paxton asked as he checked the parking lot for cars before walking out.
“Yeah,” Nora said. “I’m not gonna let her out of my sight.”
“I wouldn’t either.”
The silence returned as they arrived at the car, as they buckled themselves in, as they drove away from the hospital and started the long drive back from New Orleans to Lafayette. Paxton felt the same feelings as before from the silence, but now he knew exactly what they were.
He basked in the silence, let it wash over him as he jammed the power button on the radio to silence whatever metal band was trying to divert his attention. Rather than try to end it like he had so many times in the early stage of the diagnosis, Paxton wanted this silence to endure, to last longer, to keep him and Nora forever in this stage of victory.
But nothing lasts forever. Not happiness, not victory, not silence.
“So now you don’t have to wrestle anymore, right daddy?” Nora asked from the back seat.
Paxton’s mouth dropped open a little, then closed again as he bit his bottom lip. After a few moments, his fingers started drumming on the steering wheel.
“Huh,” was all he answered.
“And the last difference, SCOTT? What I think gives me a damn good chance t’take ya down at ReVival 13? It’s what we fight for. You’re all about the glory. The glory of your fake title, the glory of whatever names you come up with for the actual titles in PRIME. And honestly, it seems like ya fight jus’ ‘cause. ‘Cause it’s all ya know how to do.
“But me? I said before that I got brought here by a guy who was fightin’ for his own reasons. And I didn’t really have one at first. I was fightin’ for my daughter. But I’m not sure how that helps in the ring. I’m gettin’ paid regardless. But now, after 9 months here, I have a new reason, somethin’ I didn’t realize until now.
“I fight ‘cause I like hurtin’ people. I really do. And that’s why, even as I got the best news a’my life this week, I’m still burnin’ like a flame to get in that ring with ya. And when we do, SCOTT?
“It’s gonna burn. It’s gonna burn bad.”