The world wants to paint us as the heroes in this, Randall. The diametrical opposites of the bracket. Cancer embraces his role with a wicked glee, while Teddy is much cagier, more manipulative toward the perception of himself. It makes a good story in the end, good versus evil, us as saviors, the moral compass of PRIME moving forward, and if we fall, chaos in the hands of the repugnant.
But the truth is complicated.
I’m no hero, Randall. I’m just trying to be a good man.
And damnit, I’m trying.
Over twenty years have passed since we met, Melissa.
And I’ll never forgive myself.
We were both transplants from around the country, seeking fame in Los Angeles, like so many fools before us did and continue to do. You came from the Midwest, you didn’t say where at first, but then you let slip that you grew up in Wisconsin, and I laughed because it explained why you were so pale. And the elbow you hit me with in the breadbasket, it took the wind from me, no matter how much I tried to fake that it didn’t. I wasn’t the only one though; you kept calling me Cowboy, saying “watch me mess with Texas”, until I told you I was born in Canada, and then you threw the pale thing back in my face, called me Fake Tan, Illegal, asked I wanted maple syrup on everything and if I was going to apologize at the smallest of indiscretions.
I’m getting ahead of myself.
You waited tables and picked up auditions wherever you could. It was your voice that was going to take you places, though. Such a beautiful, rich voice, and your range was unlimited. You sang soprano but could flex and get down deep with the blues, the soul, that’s where your passion truly lied. And it was your singing that drew my attention away from my kettle bell presses, to this petite thing running on the treadmills with this wild and fiery hair that framed her face like the mane of a lioness. A light dusting of freckles along your nose and cheeks, along your collarbones that were so prominent. Sharp emerald eyes, that if I had been paying attention, had been fixed on my reflection in the mirror for quite some time.
We did this dance for weeks, doing everything we could to keep close proximity, but never making that first move. It became irritating after a while, but we’d made our bed, and we wanted the other to make the first move. It shouldn’t have been hard, and given our age and where we were, this game was perilous given so many other distractions around us. I thought I made the first move, getting the water bottle you forgot as you left the lat press to do your cardio cooldown, but you let me know, you always let me know, that you’d set me up so that I’d come rushing over, to give me the opening because I was proving to be too much of a damn coward. You feigned all the surprise in the world when I approached and tapped you on the shoulder, and you stood there, hand on your hip, wiping your brow, saying you couldn’t believe how careless you were. And then your cardio cooldown became our cardio cooldown. And then, after lightning quick showers and rushing to try and make sure we looked and smelled presentable, we started talking in the parking lot, gym bags slung over our shoulders until they started to go numb and we dropped them on the pavement, and the sun turned to dusk turned to night. Nothing remains of substance of that romantic first, save the butterflies. How fun this was. How this moment was the highlight of my week…my month…my year. Feelings. Fleeting tender morsels, filling my chest as I think back to them, the want and the need, the sense that ‘she is the one’ before even knowing you, and now…now…
We certainly made our way, didn’t we, Melissa?
If only you knew the bastard before you.
The past, not so distant.
The Altoona Family Restaurant was just on the outskirts of Eau Claire Wisconsin, right off the Iron Brigade Memorial Highway. Winter had brought with it an oppression of grey, drifting snow adding a half hour to Brandon’s trip from Minneapolis-Saint Paul. Thankfully, his rental truck had four-wheel drive, just in case things got worse. Local radio called for temperatures in the low teens, joked as though they were suffering through a heat wave. The Middle East had thinned his blood far too much for him to laugh. Much of the drive featured nothing but flatland and hills, snow covered trees and signs promising the nearest gas station featured the best cheese in the entire state. Part of him wondered why anyone would call this home.
Part of him was envious that they had one.
Soon, the sun would set. There was scant little of the day left, but he couldn’t help himself from feeling wide awake, despite the trappings, despite the jet lag and the caustic delays. In truth, his awareness was fueled by nervous energy, pinning in his stomach, not anxiety, this felt too distant to be that. As he turned off to North Hillcrest Drive, he saw the filled parking lot, tried to find a spot closest to the entrance so he wouldn’t get bit by the wind. No such luck; he had to pull around to the far side of the building. Shifting and turning the key from the ignition, he should’ve been gathering himself, his thoughts, rehearsed the finer points of what was swimming inside his mind. But he couldn’t. Not anymore. That was the old Brandon.
His peacoat did little against the frigid gales. He rushed toward the door, the snow once again beginning to fall, soft as powdered sugar, lingering crystals hanging in the air refracting kaleidoscope from the restaurant’s light as he reached for the door handle, holding it open for a family leaving after their meal, three small boys loudly carrying on as they darted to a sedan, their parents thanking him for the extended courtesy, the father nursing a cardboard drink holder with large clear plastic cups filled with chocolate milkshake and topped with whipped cream and caramel drizzle, his eyes lingering on the trio as they chirped about it being movie night, the nuclear family, and that tiny voice inside himself, what if, and then, but would you be happy? He abandoned the thought as he stepped inside, shaking off the cold, a hostess welcoming him in and asking how many were in his party. He smiled warmly in response, told her he was there to meet someone already there, his eyes scanning the restaurant until he found her in the back, in a booth near the window.
For the first time since she was eleven, she’d chopped off her hair. Why? She’d always loved to keep it past her shoulders. Always received compliments about just how perfect her curls were. She’d grown to love them, thought of them, silly as it was, as something that made her her. Short styles looked wonderful on so many of her friends, but they weren’t for her. And yet there she was, staring back at herself, the voice of the stylist some distant echo, do you like it, do you like it, dumbfounded, do you like it.
“It’s perfect,” she finally responded, coolly, because she knew when she got to her car, that’s when she could let it all out. Could start to cry. He never said anything in the past about liking short hair, but last time he was home he kept going on about it, and maybe this would get his attention, maybe this would get his damn attention, you stupid ignorant bastard, across the country playing rockstar, wait until you get a load of this, I’ll show you. You won’t be able to keep your hands off me, and I’ll say no. I’ll say no because you don’t deserve it. You don’t deserve me.
She knew she wouldn’t stick to it, that the moment he flashed her that smile of his, she’d feel whole again. Simple changes seeking affirmation. Change can be good. Repeated as mantra.
Change can be good.
Change can be good.
Even through the tears, change can be good.
She’d grown her hair back. Lovely curls framing her cheeks. This wasn’t a surprise, the reason why he knew a sickening shame he didn’t want to admit. She looked well, and that made him happy. He knew this was one of her favorite places. Homely, classic diner setting, carpet rather than tile, soup of the day and your coffee cup never ran empty. He drew close, closer than they’d been in years, and their eyes met, an acknowledgement of each other’s presence. He undid the buttons of his peacoat, set it inside the booth opposite of her. He’d expected that she’d look away from him at some point, but she didn’t. Taking his seat, he clasped his hands together on the surface of the table, the pads of his thumbs pressing against one another. A glass of water, a half-eaten bowl of homestyle chicken noodle. She’d been there for a while.
“Sorry for the delay.”
Her dress was pearl white, the bottom fringe wet as were her feet. A siren. Be still his heart. She looked so beautiful and soft and perfect and her smile beamed, the ring on her finger, “Brandon, don’t you dare!” And her arms tried to clamp down on her sides as his fingertips ran down her side, “I’m so ticklish right nowohmygod!” A squeal. So helpless as her body slackened and pressed against his as she tried to wrench him away, the photographer on a knee, the lightbulb flashing, her nose finding the nape of his neck, her laughter harsh as she cursed against the warmth of his skin.
“It’s all good,” she started, easing back in her seat. “You’d texted that the traffic out of Minneapolis was pretty brutal. Schools had a two-hour delay today…so…”
“Yeah.” He noticed the ring on her finger. Grief washed over him anew. Pursing his lips, he broke off their stare, looking out the window.
“Life is having a ticklish wife,” he chuckled, he warned, and in truth, she loved it. He’d given her what she always wanted, a wedding on the beach, the Pacific an amazing backdrop, and there he was, his dirty blonde hair messy, his suit pant cuffs rolled up, and she was caught in those chiseled forearms of his, and she swooned. “You just wait until tonight…”
No longer O’Malley. Youngblood. Melissa Youngblood. “Watch yourself,” she whispered after playfully biting his earlobe, regaining her composure despite how flush her skin may have been. “I know all your spots too and I can be even more evil…”
Moments of uncomfortable silence, a waitress happening by with a menu in hand and a glass of water. I’ll give you a moment, she says, and he feigns a smile. Such bleeding tension was easy to spot. It would be a while before she’d come back to the table.
He couldn’t bare it any longer. “So…”
There was no need for small talk. “Brandon, we could have done this over the phone.”
She wasn’t wrong. Even still, “I figured it’d be better if we talked about this in person.”
“Okay.” Melissa took a sip of her glass, nursing it in her hand. “I got a message from a Taciet Securities a while ago, listing me as a sole benefactor in case you, well–”
“Figured it made sense…”
“It’s not just for you. A big chunk of that was also going into Cody’s trust fund–”
It was her turn to break eye contact. She looked at her hands, at the placemat underneath. “That’s good. And I know you said you want him to be taken care of…”
So many thoughts racing through his head, a hazard course to dance through. The only way was through, with a direct path of honesty. “He will be. College. Everything.”
She needed to reassert herself. “I know you want the best for your son. I really do. But do you think running off and getting yourself killed was the best way to do that?”
Before Brandon shaved his head, when it was clear Melissa wasn’t going to land a contract to sing or appear on American Idol, there was a moment where the notion made sense. You can be my manager, he told her. It’d pay off your student debt, and we’d get to travel together. It’d be fun. And it made sense, in a strange way.
In truth, she didn’t know he was a wrestler when they started dating. She didn’t disapprove of it; she just didn’t understand anything about it. The deeper they went, though, the less appealing traveling with her husband became. She never realized how much he drank. Didn’t like how much he seemed to change as he continued down his path.
And she wasn’t lonely when she decided she was going to stay home. He’d been right, she’d managed to pay off her student loans from the University of Wisconsin and then some from the short time she played valet. He’d just signed with PRIME after making a name for himself in The Squared Circle.
The road started to come home with him, though. The trips were longer. He grew more distant. And in the quiet moments, his temper…
This wasn’t the Brandon she’d known.
“I…” There wasn’t an easy answer to that question. “Honestly, I don’t know.
She knew him well enough, despite the years, despite everything. Knew that he was at a dead end. “Me and Travis, we decided to tell him about things. How he’s not his real father–”
“That’s not right.” The years built up. What he said would’ve been impossible before, but now, it was an undeniable truth. “He’s his real father. Not me. He’s been there for him all this time. Been a better father than I could’ve been. That’s what matters.”
She didn’t intend to go through his text messages. In truth, it was an accident. Such an awful, terrible accident. They had the same model phone. And his descent into the ether was so manic, so omnipresent, that he was barely functional. His alarm had gone off, but then, when she closed it, she saw the drunken ramblings he’d been typing out to someone else.
And she kept clicking upward, reading more of what he wrote, their conversation, the words bleeding over her eyes, a sudden despair wringing from her, itself made worse by morning sickness coming in waves she hadn’t fully understood yet. And she couldn’t understand this either. Such a betrayal. Such a disgusting, gutless, wretched thing he was, fawning over her, you’re the one, I love you I love you I love you FUCK YOU.
There was nothing that could contain her rage. This oafish bastard, this useless piece of shit, wallowing in losing some goddamn wrestling match for some title by professing his love, and she screamed, she roared at him to get up, the months becoming crystallized, the nagging little bits of awareness of his behaviors, how he was so cold, GET UP, GET UP YOU BASTARD!
Drool soaked and blurry eyed, startled, he looked up at her, from the couch, her wild pacing, the sharpness of her words, a miasma of hatreds built up, and his head ringing, his mind racing, what, what is going on, what is it, and it was all he could take, he grabbed her, shook her and tried to calm her down, but she would have none of it, breaking free of his grip, packing her bag, she was leaving, leaving and…and…
“…you love her because she snorts coke off your cock?!”
Melissa didn’t understand. And she never wanted to understand. And he backhanded her. Shut up! Shut up shut up SHUT. UP. And when she fired back, spit blood in his face, instinct took over.
In his right mind, he’d never have punched her. But when she crumbled to the floor, when she started wailing, the shock overcoming her, the sting in his knuckles burned deep into his very soul. The sensation would never go away. Nothing he ever did would make it go away.
And damn him for all eternity for of it.
His words shocked her. Knocked her off center. Years upon years of apologies. Trapped in a moment, in a place she couldn’t find escape from. It took everything she had to come back home, to start over as a single mother. She’d been able to cut him out of their lives, save alimony and child support. And for so long, she hated him. She’d never forgive him.
He’d never see his child.
And then, Travis Covington came into her life. Cody was all the good from that past. Time passed. Without knowing it, she was free. Not of Brandon, but to move forward with her life on her own terms. So why? Why move back into the dying of the light? Why even remotely listen to him?
“I’m sorry, Melissa. I’ve said it so many times. And I’ve meant it. Everyone one of them.”
Because she was the better person. “Brandon, I don’t need any more of your apologies. I lived it. I’ve survived. I’ve moved on. I’m happy with where I’m at now. I’m happy with the family I have.”
“I know that.”
She expected needing to cut him off. “I don’t think you do. I really don’t.”
“You’re right.” There was a moment between the two, in the silence, of understanding. He made no attempt to try and regain dominance. Instead, he let his heart do the talking. “Every time I’ve…apologized. It didn’t matter if I meant it or not. It doesn’t wash away what happened. And it never will. So I… You’re right. You’re a survivor. And there’s so much strength in that. Me? I did the things I did. And I have to live with them. You get the scars. I get the weight they caused. And every time I asked you to forgive me, what it was, what it truly was, it was so damn selfish. It was me, groveling, begging you…”
His lips quivered, his eyes narrowing as tears began to form. The fire of torment burned and stabbed through him with an all-consuming ferocity, yet he refused to wither within it. “I needed you…I needed you to summon up just a little more strength, put the burden on your shoulders, take the weight from me. Take it away from me. So I could live again. So I could forgive myself. And that’s just too much to ask.” The more he spoke, the more his voice quivered. “I will be sorry every day for the rest of my life for what I put you through. For abandoning you. For abandoning your son. You’ve done so much…have so much to live for. So much joy. I don’t want to ruin that.” He swallowed sharply, staving off the tears, quaking as he finally gave up fighting and accepted his fate. “I’ve stolen enough from you. I want you to have the best life you can, because you deserve it. I want you to have nothing but love in your heart. And whether you forgive me? That’s for you to decide. It won’t change my hopes for you now. Know that you are amazing, and you are loved. Forever. Goodbye Melissa.”
It was the hardest thing he’d ever done in his life. Redemption wasn’t in his hands. He’d understood that before now, but it was different to accept the shackles deserved, to accept the strain and know it would never go away. There was a peace to be found in this. He stood up, wiping the tears from his eyes with his forearm, and with his coat in his hand, began to walk away.
“Hey…” her voice was urgent. Everything he said, everything he’d poured out before her, it coaxed something within her. She felt before that she was free. But where was the relief? How could the stain be scrubbed away? To survive carries with it its own burden. It took even more to be able to forgive. “You came all this way. Want to just…stay a little while longer?”
He knew he didn’t deserve it. Had never deserved her. And yet, he couldn’t help himself but nod his head, resting his coat back in the booth and taking a seat.
“The soup is really good. Always find myself craving a bowl whenever I get the sniffles.”