Hey, Logan. I’m Jared, and I realize we’ve never been properly introduced.
It’s funny – in a different life I feel like you and I would have probably run into each other by now, being from New England and all. There’s a fair few companies that run around here, and while everywhere has the diehard local guys, most of the people I know tend to show up in all of them. Some of them, well, they don’t speak to me very much, but that’s my own fault. Maybe if I hadn’t vanished from the face of the earth for the better part of a decade things would be different, and I admit this isn’t the sort of thing I normally do…
Here we are.
Justine leaned against the doorway the same way she had a dozen times before since moving in. The room was off of the finished side of the basement, away from the hoard Jared had collected over the course of his career. He sat at the desk, elbows propped on the flat wooden surface, hands pressed against his forehead, eyes cast down to the floor. A microphone hung at the end of an adjustable arm, and she wondered whether it might bonk him in the head if he sat up too fast.
“This road is so long, Logan,” he said.
It was a different posture than what she was used to when she found him like this. Normally he’d be slouched back in the chair with the microphone pulled close. Casual. Relaxed. The room was setup so that the chair had its back to the door. She wondered whether he knew she listened.
“I’m so tired of walking.”
So, I’ve been thinking a lot about Shrek lately.
Look, just go with me on this one, okay?
Imagine you’ve been locked away inside a tower for years, held hostage at the mercy of a lonely dragon. At the end of this you’re rescued and shaken awake by a behemoth with green skin. Yes, he’s wearing clothes, and he found gloves and a helmet along the way, but some of his skin is exposed. The gloves are missing the tips of their fingers. Half of his face is clearly visible through the open visor on his helm. This valiant knight who’s come to your aid would tower over everyone else you’ve ever met, and is as wide around as a wagon.
So why then does it come as a huge surprise when he takes his helmet off and reveals his face?
I know it’s odd, but picture yourself in this situation. All of the information you needed to make an informed decision was there plain as day, and yet you’re left absolutely, utterly dumbfounded the minute that first ray of sunlight hits his dumb green face.
Mervin, an old friend of mine, pointed this out the first time we watched it. It was the sort of detail that he would obsess over, because there was no logic to it. He could see no rational reason why royalty – who he assumed would have access to a proper education in her pre-tower years – would be this oblivious. For a while I thought it might drive him crazy, because he ranted about it in the car after we left the theater, and then again for the rest of that weekend.
“It wasn’t that dark in the tower where she lived, Jared. He showed up during the day. The man was clearly green from the start. That should not have been a surprise.”
At the time I shrugged, and told him that it was just a movie, and none of it was real, and really it didn’t need to make sense to us because it was going to make a billion dollars regardless. Besides, we weren’t the target demographic. It wasn’t enough, and for three straight days it found its way into every conversation we had.
“What a lovely spring weekend this is, Jared. The sky is blue, the grass is green, and speaking of things that are green I have some thoughts about Shrek.”
I never understood why.
I should have thought about it harder back then. It might have saved me some trouble. I should have listened to Mervin.
That last part I could say that about a lot of things.
But it makes sense to me now. I get it.
Everything that happened in the weeks that led to UltraViolence – every conversation with Hayes, every ignored call or text – it all makes perfect sense. I saw a kid who thought he had the world in his hands only to watch it slip through his fingers. Twice? Three times? This job was supposed to be everything he wanted, but now he was watching other people succeed where he failed.
I know what that feels like. I know how that eats at you. But my success on that level is limited to a handful of weeks in a long-forgotten summer. It’s the sort of thing that people attribute to a fluke, or a string of good luck. Maybe they’ve been right all along, and I’m the one who’s wrong for doubting them.
Twice he was Universal champion.
He was the First Crowned of the ReVival era when he took the Five Star at Culture Shock.
His name will forever be immortalized in gold.
I thought I could help. I’m not the mentor type – all it takes a quick little look at the trajectory of my career to see that’s the truth.
What happened that night… I should have seen it coming. He all but told me to expect it. The signs were there, clear as day. Green skin under a battered helm.
It was the last thing he said that night before we went to the ring.
Why didn’t the princess see the obvious when it was there in front of her in all its naked glory? Because she didn’t want to.
I’m not an ogre. I’m certainly no hero.
I just didn’t want to see the truth in front of me.
The worst part about a doctor’s office was the waiting. You waited to check in. You waited to be seen. Then, someone would call your name, and you would get to stand up from a bulk-ordered chair of questionable quality, stretch your back, and be led to a smaller room with a harder chair. You would wait there, too, because that’s what the gods of medical chronology demanded. Eventually someone with a fancy degree would join you in the room, run a few tests, and you’d get to wait for those results. The entire process seemed designed to burn as many hours off of your life as possible before the town apothecary would pronounce one of two judgments: either you were fine and could go about your merry way, or the end was nigh and you should make amends with your creator.
The second worst thing about the office was the collection of magazines. They were outdated, wrinkled to hell, and weren’t the sort of thing that could be cleaned easily. Anything other than a light dusting would turn the pages into a blurred, inky pulp. No, those stayed in their caddies and corner tables where they could be admired from afar; dots of color to break up the vast landscape of beige.
The magazines in this particular waiting room were even more suspect. Jared had never been to a urologist before, but given what the name implied – and the fertility test he was there to take – that meant it was even more important to go hands-off.
He kept his hands folded in his lap, his right leg pumping like a piston. There were more people in the waiting room than he anticipated – by his last count, twelve aside from him and Justine – plus a staff of four behind the check-in desk. Faces were buried in books or glancing at phones between swipes. A few brave souls dared crack the spines of the nearest magazine.
None of that mattered. To Jared, every eye in the building was focused on him and him alone. The anxiety was redlining, and the harder those tires burned the faster the ability to rationalize any of this was rendered ash.
“Hey.” Justine put a hand on his shoulder and felt him jump a few inches off of the seat. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. You need to relax. It’s going to be okay.”
“I’m fine,” he said. “I’m totally fine.”
He scanned the room to see if anyone noticed, saw only people minding their own business, and immediately knew they would all be talking about him the moment he was called into a room. One of the receptionists answered an incoming call. Probably telling her friend all about the weird guy with the pink hair and what he was there for, he thought. There would be posts on Reddit about it, for sure.
“Are you sure? Because you look absolutely terrified.” She put a hand on his knee. “Okay, you need to stop this. You’re shaking the floor.”
He drew his arms in; made himself small. Jared closed his eyes and took in a long, slow breath. It was one of the techniques he’d been working on with his therapist. By controlling his breathing and spending the effort to slow it down he could also slow his heart rate. The anxiety didn’t have to win.
He opened his eyes and saw only a room full of people in the same situation. All of them there for personal reasons, all of them avoiding eye contact with everyone else in the room. There was an unspoken vow that everyone would ignore everyone else. The women behind the counter could not have appeared more bored if they tried.
“I hate this,” he said.
“It’s the not knowing, the uncertainty. Like I could be fine, right? I’m probably fine, and I’m just deep in my own head about this, but then one little thought creeps in and it takes over.”
Justine moved her hand from his knee to his shoulder.
“All we’re doing is making sure that we’re not going to run into any complications trying to have children. That’s all,” she said. God, why did she have to sound so nonchalant? “As far as we both know, right now, there is no reason to worry. All we’re doing is making sure that we don’t have to worry.”
“You’re right,” he sighed. “I know that. Like I’m aware of it, and realize it’s true, but…”
“It’s still scary.”
“Because what if a doctor tells you or I that one of us…”
“Yeah,” he said again.
They both fell silent for a moment. That thought had its own gravity, and if they weren’t careful they’d be drawn into its event horizon and crushed beyond recognition. If the doctors ruled their ability to conceive impossible, then there were still other options to build a family, but neither of them had broached the subject yet. Jared had tried once – only once – but Justine had insisted they each talk to a doctor before going any further down that road.
“I don’t want to be the reason this can’t happen,” Jared said at last. There was a quaver to his voice, the admission coming at a cost. He fought to reign those emotions back. An outburst here would draw exactly the kind of attention he’d been trying to avoid – a collection of eyes upon him, all silently judging. “Of everything I got wrong, that would be the one I couldn’t forgive.”
“I’m sorry.” He rubbed his hands the length of his face and then let them fall back into his lap. “That’s what I keep coming back to. Every time.”
“Do you think I would blame you if we found out you couldn’t have kids?”
His answer was immediate. “No.”
“And would you think any less of me if we found out that I couldn’t…”
His answer to this came even faster, interrupting before she finished the thought. “Never.”
“Okay,” she said. “Then this shouldn’t be so scary. You and I are in this together, okay? For now and for always. We’ll…”
They were interrupted by the sound of a door unlatching. It swung open near the counter, revealing a short woman in a sweatshirt and scrubs. She held a clipboard in her left hand.
“Jared?” she said.
Slowly he raised his hand, and the woman smiled in acknowledgement.
“Okay,” he said to Justine. “This is it.”
It took a moment for his body to react, but he forced himself to his feet with great effort. Justine followed, and the two took their first step towards the door.
“I’m sorry, miss,” said the woman with the clipboard. Her sweatshirt shifted to reveal the name Sarah on a plastic tag. “But I’m going to have to ask you to wait here. It shouldn’t take very long.”
Jared hesitated for a moment, wondering if he should be offended by that remark. Instead, he turned to Justine and said, “It’s okay. You wouldn’t want to see this anyway.”
“You’re probably right.” She smiled and squeezed his hand. “You’ve got this.”
He wasn’t sure how long he held on. Seconds? Minutes? It didn’t matter. Sarah could stand in that doorway until the heat death of the universe for all he cared. He would stand hand-in-hand for as long as it took for the nerves to subside.
At last he let his fingers slip away and followed Sarah through the door.
The future was still uncertain, but for now at least the fear had passed.
You’re going to hear a lot of things about how winning the Universal championship is like climbing a mountain, Logan. If he hasn’t already, expect Brandon to say something about how this is Everest. It’s very tall, and it looks over everything, and people die on the climb. It’ll all sound super important. I never bought into that, to be honest.
The only way it’s a mountain is if you’re already looking down on everyone else.
That’s not how I roll.
Here’s my take, for whatever it’s worth.
Last year I drove out to a convention in Indianapolis – a nice little road trip. A lot of that driving was done at night out in the western part of Massachusetts, where the state sort of collides with New York and Connecticut in this weird triangle of people who are New York, people who want to be New York, and people who hate New York. There aren’t any street lights on those roads, Logan. It’s just a few narrow lanes and you. The only light you have is the light you create. To me, it’s like that.
The path to glory is dark, winding. It leads you in directions you never intended, to stops that aren’t on any maps, and sometimes the journey takes longer than you planned for. Some people never make it to the end, instead opting to turn around and head back to safety. And all of that is okay. The journey is unique to everyone.
Some of us took our first steps a lifetime ago.
Some of us are still wandering.
“You’re not my dad.” That’s what Hayes Hanlon said to me in Chicago. “You’re not Youngblood. You’re not Nova.”
He’s right. I’m none of those things. You won’t find my name on a plaque in any hall of fame. I’ll never be someone that’s spoken about with any sort of reverence. I know my place. I know where I stand.
Mine is a career built on mistakes and bad judgment calls. The pitfalls in my path? The potholes that line my journey? I dug them myself, and now I have to work twice as hard to make sure I don’t stumble in the dark. But that’s the point. I can’t show anyone how to succeed. I can only show people how not to fail.
This road is so long, Logan.
I’m so tired of walking.
“You should publish that.”
It had been a few minutes since Jared had clicked the icon to end the recording, but aside from glancing up at his computer his posture hadn’t changed. Without looking he raised a hand and pushed the microphone away.
Well there’s that answered, Justine thought.
She moved into the room and stepped over to his desk. Given its proximity to a treasure trove of wrestling memorabilia, the fact that this space was kept so clean always surprised her. Justine found a spot where another person might have kept a stack of notebooks or comics and leaned against the desk.
“Sorry,” she said. “I don’t mean to intrude on your space like this, but the door was open, so…”
She trailed off.
“Don’t worry about it.” He eased into the padding of his chair and turned to face her. “Not like this is some big secret.”
“I’m serious though. You should publish that, or post it, or… whatever it is people around here do to get heard when there’s not a camera in their face. The Shrek thing was a choice, but I think there’s stuff in here that would be good for some people to hear.”
“Maybe if it was coming from literally anyone else.”
“What do you mean?”
Jared ran a hand along his mouth, and then held his palm up as if he was waiting for a thought to land in it. After a moment he let his arm drop.
They sat in silence for a while, him not wanting to answer and her not willing to let the question go. He eventually conceded, just as she knew he would.
“I don’t know that anyone here is really interested in what the forklift guy has to say, and that’s fine. But the last few months – what happened with Hayes at UltraViolence, and how pretty much everyone else but me seemed united on the ‘fuck Nate Colton’ front – it’s got me wondering if I should maybe just shut up. Keep my head down, you know?”
Justine opened her mouth to speak, but stopped herself.
“But that’s not the reason-reason,” he continued. “This might sound stupid, but that recording… it wasn’t for anyone else. That one… That one was for me. Things haven’t gone the way I hoped they would, and I think I just needed to hear myself say it.”
“Not everyone’s career is easy. Hell, I’m living proof. It took me how long to get here? And the only reason I did is because of you.”
“It’s not just about wrestling,” he said. “You and I are going to be parents one day. I promise. But everything that I’ve heard about starting at our age… That journey, that road…”
“I don’t know how we’ll get there, or what happens next, but I’ve never wanted anything this much.” He gestured towards the computer. “I guess part of this was a promise to myself. You were right at the clinic. I just needed to hear myself say it.”
She pushed away from the desk, leaned down, and kissed him.
When they finally separated, Jared asked, “What was that for?”
“You said the magic words,” she said. “‘You were right.’”
Jared lingered at desk for a while after Justine had gone back upstairs. A debate was raging inside him on whether to keep the file or leave it to perish. He played it back, heard the sound of his own voice, and cringed. Despite spending so many years in front of a camera, hearing himself was always a strange experience. It never sounded quite right, he thought, like someone else speaking through him. The words were all there, but the tone was off.
“Some of us are still wandering,” it said.
He paused the clip, and adjusted the slider to the end.
On the desktop behind it was the icon for a hard drive with a padlock symbol in the corner. For the last two years he’d been storing files just like this one in that space, encrypted where prying eyes couldn’t go. This file, whether he kept it or not, didn’t belong there.
He pressed play, and grimaced as his own voice spoke back at him.
“This road is so long, Logan. I’m so tired of walking.”
But I don’t ever – ever – plan to stop.