He let his eyes wander to the clock on the microwave. Thirty-three minutes had passed since Jared heard Justine start the engine and pull out of the driveway. Thirty-three minutes that he’d spent standing in the kitchen with his hands against the island staring at the small, wrapped rectangle in front of him.
“Man, fuck all of this.” His words hung in the empty house.
It should have been a simple act, just reach across the countertop, take the bar in hand, and take a bite. He’d snuck treats like this before, though in the past that was to avoid the kind of jokes that Justine would make at his expense. “Better get on the treadmill, because that’s going to go right to your ass,” she’d say. “And you don’t need any more help in that department.”
Things were different then. Their relationship was still in its honeymoon phase. He hadn’t yet come face-to-face with his personal bogeyman in an Evansville gym. The mask of King Blueberry still provided a small comfort, shielding him from the prying eyes of the wrestling world and keeping the lingering shame contained.
Jonathan Rhine could still walk.
Then the seasons turned, the first leaves fell, and the fall brought with it a biting cold in the form of Vickie Hall and her Convoy. The wrestling world had moved-on, content to leave Hall and her toxic harem behind them. Vickie was not as keen to forget.
Jared spat another invective into the empty room and reached for the bar with trembling fingers.
In a few days they would meet with the first in a string of prospective vendors for their wedding. They had decided to start with the cake, figuring that it would provide the perfect excuse to break from the strict diet that their career required. Jared had reached out to his sister on what to expect, and that conversation played on a loop inside his head.
“I remember when Doug and I met with bakers,” she said, “they had us try so many different flavors to see what we liked. We must have gained ten pounds between us from those tastings, but it was heaven. They had us try a chocolate torte that was to die for.”
His fingers touched the wrapper. It would be easy to simply throw the chocolate in the trash, to never think of it again and continue to carry on as if nothing was wrong, but where would he be then? There was a wedding to plan, a reception to cater. Justine’s 43rd birthday was only days away. After that would be the holiday crush, and another birthday ritual of his own to celebrate. The Convoy had ruined the last one; he’d be damned if he let them take this one away, too.
More importantly, there was the longterm to consider. Beyond just the wedding, they had made the decision to start a family and bring children into the world. That meant birthday parties, and bake sale fundraisers at school. Ice cream on the weekends after soccer. Not to mention trick-or-treating every fall. There would be no avoiding it. Chocolate is omnipresent in the world of a child.
He could see it when he closed his eyes, a tiny face looking up not understanding why daddy won’t have some of their birthday cake.
He was sweating now. A bead formed behind his left ear and ran the length of his neck.
Another glance at the clock. Thirty-seven minutes had been lost in the stand-off between Jared and a two-dollar chocolate bar.
He peeled the wrapper open at the corner and felt his stomach lurch when the scent hit his nose, saccharine and cloying. Every detail was made apparent to him in vivid, pristine detail. It had been molded to break into twelve identical rectangles, each one stamped with the Hershey family name. It had a sheen like oil pooling on concrete, save for one corner marked with a dusty bloom.
“One bite,” he told himself in between increasingly rapid breaths. “Just one. They don’t get to have this. They don’t get to have this.”
He raised the bar, closed his eyes, and bit down.
There were hands on him, exerting their will and pinning him down. He tried to fight back but they held him fast, preventing him from moving. No matter how hard he struggled he could not get his arms free. Something large and curved drove the wind out of his body, and sucked it what could have been his last breath. If only he knew how the rest of this would play out.
They were moving him, bowing his back and tilting his head so that it faced the ceiling. In the chaos his eyes fell on two things, the first was a man he didn’t recognize. He was holding Justine hostage at the end of a rusted nail, and for a moment Jared saw the specter of Terrence Kingsley reborn, an avatar of dirt in a cloud of nicotine smoke. The last nightmare of Sin City made the nails his calling card, weaponizing them against the people Jared cared for the most. Amy Campbell still bore the scars. Thad Denver’s career had been stolen from him. Coral Avalon was lucky to escape with his life. Had the Pit Viper come back to claim another in the name of his crusade?
Axes to grind find the folk you want to hit the most. But we ain’t brandishing axes.
Even in the chaos he could hear it, words from the past spoken directly into his mind. He’d heard this before. Was it real? A trick of the imagination? Did it matter?
He looked away from Justine and her attacker to the men holding him in place, but he couldn’t make out their faces, they had him bent too far back. Matching black masks obscured the details. That’s when he saw her, a bubblegum nightmare with a gasoline can and a rag that was soon forced over Jared’s mouth.
It’s mauls. Mauls splinter.
She smiled when she turned the cap on the first canister, and smiled as she emptied its contents onto his face.
They’re messy. They’re violent.
It poured out in thick waves across the cloth. He could feel it in his nose. It stung his eyes. Instinct betrayed him. He tried to cry out, to scream for help, but the chocolate pooled in his throat and choked out the sounds before they were born.
The panic surged, a feeling unlike anything he’d experienced before, deep and primal. The flight response of an animal caught in the jaws of a predator. Memories hit in staccato flashes of the night he stood in the ring against Kingsley, when the best Sin City had to offer had been whittled down to two men: the Black Sheep and the Pit Viper. Blood, and glass, and nails, and a never-ending concussive force hammering against his chest as he lay prone in the corner, every kick threatening to break through his ribs and crush his heart. For years that moment had served as the benchmark for terror, and for years nothing had come close.
In seconds the Convoy had trivialized Kingsley’s worst, all set to a soundtrack of Darin Zion’s incessant honking.
The muscles in his throat spasmed and he coughed up a chocolate sludge, but with the rag held firm across his mouth there was nowhere for the syrupy liquid to go except back down. The fear took on a new shape. He was going to die in this ring in front of seventeen thousand witnesses.
Vickie reached for the second can.
Over the cacophony he could hear Justine calling for help for someone, anyone to stop this. She pleaded with their tormentors, offering anything and everything if this would all just stop. Her words grew muffled, drowned out by the pulse thundering in his ears.
His muscles ached, his throat burned. The ligaments in his shoulder threatened to snap, but hard as he fought Jared could not break free. Wave after wave of liquid chocolate fell across his face. The world around him began to dim.
A momentary pause gave him hope that the suffering would end, but then the third canister emptied its contents and the dread flared up all the stronger.
The words of his father echoed through his mind as his consciousness started to fade, but the voice was someone else’s.
“If this is the path you want to take,” it said, “then you’re throwing your life away.”
The end would be there soon.
He pushed himself away from the island and spun towards the counter, coughing and gagging as he turned. His stomach heaved, and then spilled its contents into the sink in a thick brown stream of chocolate and bile. Breaths came shallow and fast. Tears mixed with sweat and streamed the length of his face.
With shaking hands Jared reached for the faucet to wash away his shame.
Given the more colorful aspects of her partner’s personality, Justine expected the house to be a little more lively when she returned home, but the air was quiet. Still. If it wasn’t for the darkness coming from the kitchen she might have thought that Jared was upstairs taking a nap, or maybe he’d sequestered himself in the basement to sort through the endless collection of relics he kept there.
There should have been a light on; there was always a light on in the kitchen. It was one of his quirks, a hold-over from when he was little and would wake up to get a drink of water at night. His mother had always left a light on in that room so the kids wouldn’t be scared, and so Jared had taken the habit as his own.
“Hey,” she called out, “you home?”
“Light’s out in the kitchen.” She set down her bag and headed down the hall. “Do we not have a replacement bulb?”
“Not out,” came the response. “Just off.”
Something about his tone made her uneasy, and she felt her pulse quicken as she crossed the threshold into the kitchen. She flicked on the light.
“Is everything okay? You sound-” Her voice trailed off when she entered the room.
He was sitting at the table, hunched over with his face hidden in his hands. He drew them down just enough to reveal his eyes and cast a glance in her direction.
“I dunno,” he said. “No.”
Her eyes fell on the island and the only object that rested there. The chocolate bar hadn’t moved since Jared dropped it, a few pieces had broken off from the impact and now lay scattered across the stone surface.
“Did you… what…” A hundred thoughts competed for her attention, and Justine struggled to form any of them into words. But Jared understood. He simply nodded.
“I had to know,” he said. He leaned back in his seat and let his hands fall into his lap. “It’s been almost a year, and with everything coming up… I had to know.”
“You didn’t have to do this by yourself. I would have…”
He waved her off.
“Trust me,” he said. “It’s not something you’d have wanted to see. Complete disaster, that’s what it was. One bite, Cal. Just one. It felt like someone was strangling me. My throat just… just seized up, and I hadn’t even tried to swallow. It got pretty bad after that. It felt like I was right back there. Right back in that ring.”
“I can’t imagine what that was like for you,” she said. The night the Love Convoy attacked was something that he never talked about. He was like that with a few aspects of his life, experiences he had that held close to the vest. Wyatt Connors had been one, but that demon had been exorcised. This felt different. She tried to tell herself that it was still too fresh, too new, and he needed more time to process it. The truth, she knew, was that talking about it would force her to relive her own experience that night. His silence was a shield, but not one forged for him. “But I want you to promise me that the next time you decide to do this – if you decide to do this again – that you’ll tell me first.”
“Say it,” she said.
“I’ll hold you to it.” She reached a hand across the table. The sweat had matted a few strands of hair to his forehead, and she brushed them aside. “Can I ask you something? How long? I don’t get the feeling that this was a spur of the moment thing. How long have you been thinking about it?”
Jared leaned against the table and sighed.
“About a month,” he said. “I mean, I’ve thought about it off and on for a while, but it’s something I’ve been considering since we decided we were going to try and have kids. I kept thinking about everything I’d get to do as a dad, all the things I want to do, and then the what-ifs started. Am I going to have a panic attack if we try to make cupcakes? What happens if we go sledding and they want hot cocoa after? And look, I realize this all probably sounds crazy, but…”
“And then I hear I’ve got to deal with Zion again, and…” He nodded in the direction of the island where the chocolate bar still sat. “I bought that the day we got home from the last show. It’s been sitting in a drawer waiting, because I couldn’t work up the nerve. Hell, I spent like forty-five minutes just staring at the fucking thing after you left. But I had to know. I had to. I can’t hide from it, because I tried that before and I’m not doing it again. I’m not burning another decade over this. Not with what our future could look like. I can’t. I won’t.”
She slid her chair closer and put a hand on his arm. It was cool to the touch, clammy. Some quick calculations told her everything she needed to know about the way the day had gone. If his account of the day was accurate, then it had been close to two hours since he’d tried to eat the chocolate and triggered this bout of anxiety.
“Do you know what I think?” she said. “I think you need to give yourself a little grace. This isn’t something that you can force yourself to get over, Jared. It’s going to take time, and that’s okay. You don’t have to rush this for anyone. What’s most important is that you’re okay. And that might not be right now. It doesn’t have to be.”
He didn’t respond, but his expression told her everything she needed to know. This had been a difficult day, and it had left him in a vulnerable state. Whatever coping mechanisms he’d used in the past had been undone by ten years of isolation, so coming to grips with having an in-home support system was going to be a challenge in its own right.
“So here’s what we’re going to do,” she continued. “We’re not going to talk about Darin Zion, and we’re not going to think about Darin Zion. That should hopefully be pretty easy to do, because that guy sucks out loud as a human being.”
“Right,” he laughed – almost snorted – the word.
“And instead we’re going to focus on the good stuff. We’ve got a wedding this spring. If we’re lucky, a little family of our own not long after. Not to mention a little weekend getaway to Minnesota to think about. These are the things we should be focusing on.”
He took a long, slow breath and nodded, but for the first time since she came home Justine could see that some of the tension had bled out of him.
“We’re a team, Jared,” she said, “in every aspect of life. You never have to do any of this alone. And… I know that when the time comes, our family is going to have the best life.” She squeezed his hand. “And we’ll be with you all the way.”
When the conversation in the kitchen had ended, Jared stood up and stepped out onto the patio with phone in hand.
“Just something I need to take care of,” he’d said, and Justine didn’t question it. That his mood had improved seemed to be enough.
He leaned against the railing and surveyed his kingdom. The never-ending rains of the summer had turned the lawn into a lush green blanket in desperate need of a trim. Labor Day was fast approaching, and that meant the pool would need to be closed for the winter. In March the tulips would bloom again, including Ivan’s “gift”.
Jared closed his eyes and let his mind drift, imagining a future of pool parties. Hotdogs and burgers on the grill. Nights spent under the stars after setting up a tent on the grass.
Patience was never a virtue that he celebrated, but rather something that he’d come to accept given the trajectory of his career. The desire for instant gratification was hard to overcome; it’s why he never tended to stay in one place for very long. His history within the National Wrestling Council was proof enough of that, having bounced from region to region in search of glory that he thought he was owed. Sin City was an exception because it was the only place that would accept him. PRIME now stood as one too for the stability it offered.
And then there was the matter of impulse control. He’d mellowed considerably since his youth, but when an idea spoke to him it was nigh impossible to ignore. It’s why he borrowed a forklift for a makeshift tour of the MGM Grand over a year ago. Before that, why he made some questionable costume choices during his last run in the industry.
Justine’s words had calmed him, but they were a temporary balm to ease the sting of the afternoon, and before long the same thoughts he now tried to suppress would reawaken with newfound vigor. Their siren song would claim him. He’d try again, results be damned.
But that didn’t mean he couldn’t set himself up for success.
He scrolled through the contacts on his phone until he found the name he was looking for. It had been years since he last called this number; he had no idea if the line was still in service. With luck it would be.
Twenty years ago, the management in Hawaiian Island Wrestling had been smart enough to recognize the same thing that Jared thought he saw in Nate Colton – a young man who was dealing with something that he didn’t know how to handle. But instead of kicking him out the locker room they had taken a different approach, and put him in touch with someone who might be able to help.
His thumb tapped the name of Dr. Robert Parker.