“I’m going to do everything I can, even if it kills me, to make sure that you leave here a champion.”
The last moments inside the locker room were tense. Mark stood by the doorway ready to bring the pair to the part of the backstage area known as the Argyle Position. He bounced on his feet, anxious to get the duo out the door and on their way. Justine tried to stand and found her legs were rubber. The panic had crept in and taken hold, and the walk from their room to the final production holding area was grueling. For years her father had fought under the nickname of “Leadfoot,” and she wondered whether she might inherit that same name based on nothing more than this one walk from her locker room to the ring.
He’d be watching at home, she knew that for certain, but the thought did little to quiet the double kick drumbeat of her heart. Daddy’s Tina, his only daughter, about to make her name on the biggest stage of her life.
Or maybe not.
Given the circumstances, Jared looked too calm. He should be just as nervous, she thought, wrestling with a mannequin meant doing all the work, but it’s just fiberglass and plastic. There’s no way for it to screw up, and if you lose because of it, well then it should have never been out there in the first place. Now he had an honest-to-god person to account for, one with no experience at this level.
Someone around them said, “Thirty seconds,” and her mouth went dry.
“Hey.” There was a hand on her shoulder. Steady. Reassuring. Holding her up so that she wouldn’t fall. Jared had pulled his mask up to show the entirety of his face, something she’d come to learn was a rarity even among peers. “I meant what I said a minute ago.”
The memories blended together into a cacophony of colors and sounds.
“Whether we win or lose we’re going to walk out there side by side,” he said. “And then you and I? We live forever.”
Barrett stood on the front porch rifling through the day’s mail when the sound of tires crunching on gravel drew his attention to the street. He and his wife June were expecting a visitor that afternoon, but Justine wasn’t scheduled to be at the house for a few hours yet.
Four stairs separated him from the driveway, every one of them a reminder of his contentious relationship with gravity and a stubborn insistence to stave off that knee replacement for another few months. He trudged a few steps along the asphalt expecting to see his daughter but instead saw Jared moving around the car from the driver’s side.
“Didn’t expect to see you so early,” Barrett called out with a wave. “Thought you’d be comin’ by later with Tina.”
The boy’s face looked pale, like he’d been drained by a vampire. To Barrett, Jared would always be a kid. They’d met when Justine was in the dying days of late-stage teenage rebellion, and so a kid he would stay.
“There are a few things I need to take care of this afternoon,” Jared said. “So I wasn’t going to be able to make it.”
“Ah, so then what? You was in the area and figured you’d swing on over because you missed my charming smile, huh?” Barrett flashed a grin that was short a few teeth, as much from his time as a prizefighter as a life spent in ardent resistance to flossing.
“Not quite. Justine doesn’t actually know I’m here. And, if it’s okay with you, I kinda need to keep it that way.”
Barrett’s brow furrowed. His tone grew serious. “Everything okay, son?”
Jared answered in a spasm of rapid nodding.
“Yeah. Yeah, everything’s great,” he said. “I think. I mean, I hope it is.”
“Kid, you’re startin’ to make me antsy.”
“I’m sorry. I know this is a little out of the blue, but there’s…” He swallowed hard. “There’s something I need to ask you. It honestly shouldn’t take long. I mean it’s pretty simple. Only it really isn’t at all.”
The light switch clicked in Barrett’s brain, and suddenly it all made sense. The way Jared was carrying himself, hands buried deep in his pockets with his arms clamped against his sides. How he looked like someone about to be strapped to a roller coaster for the first time in his life, equal parts exhilarated and nauseous. The fact that he came alone, and preferred that this all remain one big secret.
Barrett had been there before only a few years into his twenties. He remembered the long walk up the creaky stairs that led to Vito and Janice Ferraro’s third story apartment in the South End of Boston. He’d worn his best suit and got some help from a friend to make sure his tie looked presentable. Vito was an old fashioned guy, and anyone who came courting for June’s hand better damn well look like someone who was serious about giving her the life she deserved.
Times had changed since then. Most of the old customs has fallen by the wayside. But the boy still came around. He must have sensed in Barrett the same thing Barrett knew about Vito.
Derrick, Justine’s first husband, had never taken this step. It wasn’t in his nature. The optics would have been all wrong. It was one of the things about him that never sat right with the patriarch of the Calvin clan. If he’d put the same test in front of Derrick as he did for all the other boys who came knocking for his daughter, if he’d dared him to sit ringside and watch as his baby girl’s old man pounded the snot out of another fighter for money, Derrick would have run for the goddamn hills and everyone would be better off.
But not this kid. Not ever.
A heavy, calloused hand landed on Jared’s shoulder.
“We should do this inside,” Barrett said. There was no hiding the joy on his face now. “Her mom’s gonna wanna hear this, too.”
“I don’t like this, Justine. Everyone is going to be looking at your lady business!”
June poked at the tablet her daughter held and the image on the screen shifted, rotating and zooming in to an extreme degree. She didn’t understand quite what she was looking at, only that Justine had gone on a whole diatribe about renders and prototypes. There was also something about injection molding, and given that the image showed her daughter in a state of undress that June hadn’t seen since Justine was a toddler, she wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to know what those words meant.
June had always considered herself a progressive woman. In her early twenties she marched the length of New York City’s Fifth Avenue as part of the Women’s Strike for Equality. Almost fifty years later she joined millions of like-minded women in protest at the nation’s capitol in Washington D.C. She voted hardline democrat in a state that was guaranteed blue on any electoral map, because she was determined to do her part in making sure it stayed that way. But when it came to matters concerning her daughter, June was downright puritanical.
She didn’t know what a render was, or what this prototype nonsense was all about, nor did she quite have a handle on why Justine had been so excited to show it off. What she did know with absolute certainty was that the version of her daughter in that photo needed to put on some damn pants.
“Holy shit, mom.” Justine’s face flushed a deep shade of crimson. “No one is seeing my lady business.”
June frowned as she set the tablet down on the kitchen table, suddenly very much aware of the crucifix that hung over the door leading to the dining room. It had belonged to her great grandmother and was handed down through the generations. Fortunately the version of her savior that watched over the kitchen was already blindfolded. Still, if he could see, he likely would have agreed about the pants, or at least that’s what June told herself.
“Don’t you think you should maybe cover up a little?” June protested. “Looking at this is making me uncomfortable.”
Justine sighed and leaned her elbows on the table. Invariably, any argument between the the two women would reach a stage that included talking with their hands, a trait that June had picked up from her father, Vito, and that Justine had inherited in turn.
“Anything else limits my mobility in the ring,” Justine said. “I’ve had twenty years to figure this out, and this is what works for me. Besides, I wear less running in the summer.”
June made the sign of the cross and turned to her husband in a desperate plea for his support.
“Barrett, would you please tell your daughter than this isn’t appropriate?”
He glanced over the rim of his coffee mug at both women. “Nah,” he said, and brought the cup back to his lips.
“I’m forty-two, not fourteen! Forgive me for thinking you might think it’s cool that your daughter is getting her own action figure.”
June opened her mouth to begin the counterargument, but Barrett cleared his throat. If it had fallen to him to serve as the voice of reason in this debate then the family was assured of one of two possible outcomes and only one of these outcomes: either he would find a nugget of reason to settle things, or they were all irrevocably fucked.
“Relax, Junie. This is just what fighters wear these days, and our Tina’s one of the best those PRIME folks have. Settin’ records and everything. Besides, I don’t remember you havin’ a problem with it when it was me runnin’ around in just shorts.”
Barrett winked from his seat at the table, but wasn’t able to move out of the way in time as the towel his wife lobbed landed on his head.
“That was different. You can’t compare those things,” June said. She might have been outgunned in this argument, but that didn’t mean she was about to surrender the hill so quickly. It seemed a lovely place to die. “And why does she have that mask over her eyes? Seems like a waste of perfectly good fabric that could find a better home somewhere else.”
“It’s removable. I wore one just like it for a little bit last year, so they wanted to include one as an accessory.”
“Don’t listen to your mom, Tina. I could tell you stories about ‘er that would make ol’ J.C. up there jump off his cross and start sweatin’.” June closed the distance to her husband, retrieved her towel, and then punched him in the shoulder. “Look, the important thing here is that Tina’s gonna be a superhero. Like Wonder Woman.”
“Well maybe Wonder Woman’s mother should tell her to put some pants on, too.”
“Dad, just because they’re making a figure doesn’t mean I’m a superhero now.”
Barrett set his coffee mug down on the counter and went about refilling it. “Sure it does. You’re up on the TV, and now you’re gonna be a toy. We got Batman, Spider-man, and now you. Kids, they might know the difference, but they don’t care. All gonna end up in the same toy box together, and then you’re just as much a superhero as the rest of ‘em.”
“I guess we’ll see,” Justine said. She tapped a switch on the tablet and the screen went dark. “Hopefully people like it when they finally release it. It’s just so weird to think about. This time last year it was life as usual, and then Jared brought me into PRIME and it all changed.”
“Yeah? Any other changes we should know about?” Barrett winked at his wife and the towel hit him in the face again. If Justine noticed the wink she didn’t let on.
“You mean other than the fact that I might not even have a job what that figure comes out? Nope.”
“Why not? Why wouldn’t you still be there? Though you kids had somethin’ good goin’ on in that place.”
“In a few days the division that I’ve been wrestling in is going away.” Justine slipped the device back into her bag. “Doesn’t matter if we win or lose, Culture Shock – that’s our next supershow – will be my last day as a champion. Everything that comes after that is a great big question mark.”
“Nah, not everything,” Barrett said.
Justine snorted. “What do you mean?”
June moved into a strategic position behind her daughter. From where she stood she could cast a baleful glance at her husband without alerting Justine to the fact that the two of them were hiding something. Unfortunately, she was out of towels.
Barrett winked at her once again, then took a long, slow sip from his cup.
“Still a superhero, Tina. You kids built somethin’ special over there. You took a risk, a big one. Lotta people in your position wouldn’t do that. Job changed your life. And I don’t just mean the toys and whatever. Sure, it paid off for ya’, but that ain’t the important part. I mean it showed you that you had the balls to take a risk and see it through, y’know?”
Justine shrugged. “I guess.”
“So yeah, like I said. You’re a goddamn superhero.”
“So what did your parents say when you showed them? Did they think it was cool?”
It had been a mild winter by New England standards, and the first days of spring were no different. Like so many nights that preceded it, Justine found herself sharing a chaise lounge with her partner beneath a blanket and the night sky. Despite the closeness and his arms around her, she found that her mind still wandered.
“Yeah,” she said.
Some of the first nights of their relationship were spent like this, just the two of them sequestered away from the world during the early days of July. It had taken them twenty-two years to arrive at that point, and then their feelings galvanized in a stairwell minutes removed from claiming the PRIME Tag Team championship as their own. Things were simpler then. It would be months before Paxton Ray would reveal his true nature to the world. Longer still before the Love Convoy sought to break the both of them in a vile display of public torture. She had ascended to the summit of tag team wrestling, taking her first steps on the grandest stage the industry had to offer with her oldest friend at her side. The future seemed bright. Full of promise.
In the waning days of winter a cloud had formed overhead and blacked out the hope they had of continuing together, leaving them in the dark and obscuring the path forward. A ‘Royal Decree’ had brought a halt to their division. Like so many Kings before them, Jared and Justine would find their reign ending at the guillotine.
She could feel him shift behind her. Their fingers intertwined.
“It really doesn’t matter though, does it?” she continued.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because in like a week it’s going to be over, and everything we were able to do over the last year just… ends. Doesn’t even matter if we win or lose, you know? It’s gone. Just fucking gone, Jared.”
“I know. It sucks, and it’s not what I wanted for us, but…”
“What’s our future?” The question stopped him. “What do we do after this? Like, I’ve had one match on my own since July. One. I know Troy said that no one had to worry about their spot on the roster, but I don’t want to just sit around and do nothing every week. Like, okay, even if they lose in a few days Joe and Sid still have their whole careers ahead of them, right? Coral’s got connections. He can get them in anywhere. They can do whatever they want, because they’re young, and were born into this. And you can write your own ticket anywhere in the world. But me? I mean I haven’t forgotten what Brandon said, but… Christ.”
She freed a hand from under the blanket and wiped at her eyes.
“Justine,” he started to say, but once again she interjected.
“Twenty years, Jared. You’re the first person to ever really go to bat for me, and it’s been some of the best times of my life, but…”
“But sometimes I wish you didn’t, because then I wouldn’t know what I was about to lose.”
She leaned her full weight against his chest and pressed her eyes tight, desperate to stave off the tide of emotion that was welling behind them.
“I don’t want to do this without you,” he said. His voice was soft, quiet. His lips only inches from her ear.
Even through their clothes she could feel the rhythm of his heart sounding against her back.
“What’s our future, Jared?” she said again.
It beat quicker now, thundering against her though she wasn’t sure why. His right arm shifted behind her.
“That’s, well it’s… it’s kinda something I wanted to talk to you about,” he said. There was a nervous edge to his voice.
She turned to look at him, to try and read a hint from his expression, and saw the fire light’s reflection dancing in the diamond.
The ring itself was simple in its design, because he knew it’s what she would have wanted. A single stone sat atop a silver circle flecked with smaller inset jewels. It would be another day before Justine learned that Jared had intended to take a single stone from each of their championship belts to work into the silver band, and realizing that no gems adorned those particular straps would instead cause him to pry one free from every title amassed over his career. He reasoned that even though she didn’t share the victory didn’t mean she wasn’t with him when they happened. The first was a single small emerald from the victory in Minnesota that kickstarted his path towards stardom; the color always reminded him of her eyes.
“This isn’t how I planned it,” he said.
The box trembled in his fingers, and for a moment she found herself thinking of the room he’d turned into a library for her not long after she’d moved in. She thought of the books there, and of the words of Boromir on his own quest for a ring.
Is it not a strange fate that we should suffer so much fear and doubt for so small a thing?
“I’ve been hiding this for months,” Jared continued. “And I kept wondering when I should do it, or what the perfect moment would be, but I could never think of what to say or when to say it. Isn’t that crazy?”
She tried to will herself to say something, anything, but no words came. From Jared they poured out like water.
“When… When I said that I don’t want to do this without you, I wasn’t just talking about wrestling. I meant all of this. Every day. Life. Knowing that no matter what happens I get to experience it with you. I don’t know what our future looks like, but I know that I want to find out together. And I hope you want the same thing.”
“Yes,” she said, but it didn’t register as a word to either of them, coming out as little more than a breath.
Jared closed his eyes and inhaled deep to steady himself. When he opened them again she could see that they were wet.
“So, I guess what I’m trying to say,” he continued. He leaned forward, the box and its sole occupant now presented to her. “Justine Margaret Calvin…”
“Yes,” she said again, this time louder.
She offered her hand and blinked away her own tears as the ring found a home on her finger.
She thought to the last thing he said to her before their first night as a team, when the nerves of her first match in PRIME had spiraled into a full-blown dread. There, in the final quiet moments before the first step towards immortality, he’d pulled back his mask and tried to settle her anxiety. He’d swore to do whatever it took that night to make sure she left a champion, but that’s not what stuck with her.
You want to know something really cool? No matter what happens out there, win or lose…
The fire crackled softly behind them as Justine threw her arms around his neck and drew him in for a long, tender kiss. There, under the light of the spring moon, she met her partner’s eyes.
“You and I get to live forever,” she said.