Love, in the wrong hands, is a weapon. A dagger drawn close, serrated teeth sunk deep to the bone, predator and its prey, eye to eye with breaths shared, and the heart so unaware, it nary asks why someone so close would do something so awful.
Dirty soles. The canvas felt like sandpaper with every footfall. Brandon dug his toes in before he charged toward the man in front of him. They were the same size, both of them fighters bred for this. He didn’t know his name, and he didn’t care, for now. He just knew what he’d heard of him, how he’d nearly qualified for the Greco-Roman Olympic team until Saddam’s half-brother, Watban, broke his leg. His revenge became monomyth.
Youngblood had no advantages.
They circled each other in the pit, a pair of starving wild animals. No rules. They had grappled for what felt like an eternity, trying to gain control, to exert their will on the other. The crowd roared, reveling in the coming violence.
They jostled for position, their heads grinding against one another. The man before him had a face of grizzled pockmarks, shaved clean save his graying eyebrows, and his eyes, silver, and without warning, he pivoted on the balls of his feet and swung Brandon to the canvas in a violent display of precision, his arms clasped under his shoulders, the crash forcing the wind out of Youngblood’s lungs, and before he could breathe, he was being leveled by a barrage of headbutts. The mount quickly followed.
What’s his name?
Think about it as the heels of his hands batter your teeth, Brandon. As they go for your eyes, each blow feeling like it will shatter your orbital sockets. As you don’t cover up, as you don’t even attempt to make it to guard, as you smile as you lay there, blood sputtering from split chapped lips.
Think about why you’re letting him do this to you.
The answer is he deserved this. Because he didn’t feel anything anymore. Because, maybe, the pain was all he had left.
Let’s call him Lucky.
“…and I have to be honest with you, Brandon, when I started here, you were on that no-go list. Lisa told me ‘that guy doesn’t care one bit about you, and if you don’t stand up to him, he will eat you alive’. So we didn’t even really cross paths all that much and, frankly, I did everything I could to keep it that way.” Angelica Brooks was in her element, the informal conversation, everything at ease, all of it belying the sheer amount of effort she poured into podcasting. Her interview set up was impeccable; Shure SM7B microphones with Cloudlifters hooked into a RODECaster Pro. While she’d grown up wanting to be a news reporter, boots on the ground, in the thick of what was changing the world, her audio fixation was more recent, all to ensure her combat sports podcast had crisp, clear sound. Like everything else the perfectionist immersed herself in, it became quite the success.
For Brandon, he was taken aback by her approach. She was the one who lugged the equipment case into his suite at the MGM Grand, brushing off his insistence on lending a hand. ‘Delicate parts,’ she teased. Setting up the microphones and the recorder was a meticulous endeavor, and it had to be in her mind, or else the audio channels wouldn’t be clean. Someone else could have done those things for her easily. She took pride in her craft.
Their trappings were calm, with soft ambient light. Their chairs were plush, comfortable, so much so that they’d both almost fallen asleep after dinner and a bottle of wine. When broached about doing Angelica’s podcast, he’d insisted on cooking. He’d prepared a pair of two-day dry brined ribeyes, seared on cast iron, with butter, garlic, and thyme, served with a side of fingerling potatoes and asparagus. ‘There’s something soothing in the process,’ he told her, ‘something that eases my mind’.
Wine had transitioned to a neat bourbon for him. She found herself nursing a bottle of water whose branding focused on its alkaline content. “My whole perception of you changed, though, at Colossus VIII.”
“The last hurrah.” Caught in the memory, she let out an ever so faint sigh. “I’ll never forget that night. It was just so emotional. A chapter in so many of our lives coming to a close…”
“Yeah,” he started, combing through the grey and brown of his goatee and mustache, scratching, thinking of what to say. His evening wear was comfortable; barefoot with a set of athletic shorts and a muscle tee. “I spent years thinking about it. About how I missed the swan song.”
“What do you mean?” She eased forward from the back of her seat, drawing closer to the microphone, her elbows resting on the mahogany of the desk before her. Knowing her subject’s preference of keeping the air conditioner at its lowest setting, she wore a sweater and a pair of yoga pants. “You were there that night. And I think, for all of us, for everything that had happened with you in PRIME, that night changed perception. It certainly did for me.”
He smirked. “I appreciate that, but…”
“No, you need to hear this.” She reached her hand out, stopping him before he could defuse the sentiment. “That speech you gave when you were inducted into the Hall of Fame, it was powerful. And you came across as so likable. So affable. You wanted so many others to know how much they meant to you. Nobody expected that.”
He gave off an uncomfortable chuckle, and then, he was stammering over his words. “In…in all honesty? I wanted to…have peace. To have peace and accept my life and…say goodbye.” He lingered in silence for a moment, rebounding before it became too noticeable. “There’s a quote in Citizen Kane… ‘A toast to love on my terms, because those are the only terms anybody ever knows; his own’. That’s what I thought I wanted; love on my terms. But what is that? It’s meaningless. Empty. Especially when you don’t love yourself.”
“I’m going to show you something…”
Rolling his eyes for dramatic effect was hypocritical given what he was about to say. “That’s going to go great with this being a podcast–”
She rested her chin underneath her knuckles, scanning him. Her tone took a turn toward the concerned. “I rather dwell on the happy things. The happy moments.” Just as soon as it appeared, it was back to the informal. “So after the show, PRIME took over The Underground, kept the lights on well after close. The drinks, the food, all expenses paid. And I remember, we were outside, you had this big cigar, and we just started talking. And you just let me go on and on, just listened to me until I started blubbering–”
“This is really going to hurt my image–”
“I found out later that you’d paid for it all. And afterward, at the hotel, when everyone went to check–”
Full stop. This was a private moment. Something only for his companions and contemporaries of the time. Embarrassment etched his face. He needed to redirect. “–I mean, I kind of want to talk about Miles Lucky–”
It was her turn to stammer. “You-you wanna-okay, but like, but I want to make sure I tell this part, because it’s important. Okay?”
A groan was all he could muster. “Sure. It’s your show after all.”
“So at the hotel check out, the person at the front desk tells us something has been left for each of us to pick up. And we get these little velvet boxes, and inside them is this gold coin, probably as big as a silver dollar. It was minted with the PRIME logo, Number One By Definition, and so many other nice details I’ll have to share on Jabber, but on the back were the words ‘being on your stage means the world to me’, followed with your signature. Every member of the roster got one. Every person on staff and in support. They received one of those coins. So…Mister Pariah, sorry to burst the bubble of the perception of you, but outside the ring, you’re kind of a teddy bear.”
Does she ask why? Brandon, do you want to tell her why? Or are you afraid you’ll ruin the sentiment? That your gesture of humbleness was nothing more than the salvo to suicide note?
Mirror shards resting in a pool of drying blood, and even through the fractured spiderweb from the impact point of his fist, it was always him in the reflection, staring back, snarling and trembling with an uncertain rage, itself a mirage, hiding the anxiety, hiding the fear. A wash of disgusting coolness consumed his limbs, settled into a muddy sloshing in his stomach, flight or fight, an inability to stay settled, floorboards worn and trenched through by pacing, fingers clawing at his throat, trying to relieve the pressure, to breathe, to open his lungs to their very bottoms and breathe! And the cycle continued, feeding itself in perpetuity, mere feelings these phantoms were, no point of signature to address, to fight, omnipresent and so painfully bone tired annoying in how, no matter what, they simmered on the surface of his awareness.
He lashed out at the mirror because it made sense. Because at least it provided a momentary respite. Liquor had aged him, his features bloated, sweaty. A long open crescent gash from the corner of his left eye, a glistening scabbing mess that worked its way into his eyebrow, itself jutting out in swollen measure. Sadness. Pathetic, wretched sadness. He’d managed to get blood all over his cotton dress shirt, over his pale grey suit jacket.
It never would wash away.
Yet somehow, his fingertips remained steady as he took the sewing needle between his thumb and index finger, stitching closed the cut. With each full pass of the thread, he used the flame of the stove’s gas burner to sterilize the needle point. Self-surgery in some sweltering apartment in a distant land, the only other sound coming from the rusted rattle of an oscillating fan, the ribbons tied to its grill futilely fluttering as though the blades could make a difference in the oppressive mugginess. He tapped his toes against the olive and pearl laminate, working the needle through his skin, his mouth dry and his eyes lingering to what had started all this, what had made him lash out so violently…
A closed door.
Angelica was quick to redirect. “So, Miles Lucky. ReVival 3. As much as we’ve been catching up, I think it’s important to note why we’re even here. And given everything, I need to ask, because from everything you’ve communicated to me in private, you view Miles as your biggest challenge since Jason Snow, don’t you?
His response was quick, without hesitation. “Without a doubt.”
His suddenness caught her flatfooted, especially given the reverence afforded to the iconic Universal Champion. “I think that says a lot, especially given your perspective on history. And I barely know Lucky–”
“Could say that about a lot of folk here. Barely knew anything about most of them a few weeks ago. But then you see things. And it forces you to dig a little deeper. When I saw him? I did a bit more than that.”
“How much more?”
“Enough.” His mouth curled, his disgust evident no matter how hard he tried to suppress it. “Enough that he’s dominated far too many of my thoughts.”
The door was closed at the bottom of the stairs leading to the basement. Forever ago, yet still, yesterday? A single light, filtering downward, unfinished wood on all ends, the walls, the ceiling, hammer prints at nail anchor points. Pounding. Pounding.
From behind the door.
Wailing. Muffled. Guttural. When the door was closed Daddy was home.
Daddy was home.
“I have this unease just looking at him.” Brandon continued, instinctively cracking his knuckles, his shoulders coiling. “I’ve seen him speak. Seen him move. A marionette of shifting bones on strings handled by a bunch of manic children. Like some kind of creature you’d find in the deepest parts of the sea.”
“Yeah, he has this wild sense of being–”
He was quick to cut her off. “But what really gets me…one moment, he’s stone. The next? He’s weeping. A chameleon of emotion, shedding its skin one minute to the next without any real reasoning behind it. Bipolar. You don’t know where it’s coming from, or when he will lash out at you. And for me…that…disturbing sense of being…that cuts deep.”
She gave him a pensive look. There was a richness in his descriptions, a vividness in what he was pointing out. There was something troubling percolating beneath the surface. “I’m not sure if you’re just talking about his takedown of Bryan Williams–”
There was no stopping the train now, though. “Yamashi Promotions. Battlemania. Razor blade skateboards. Blood baths. It’s fighting for survival, brought out like caged animals. When I started the process, I started looking at Miles as a wrestler. For the wrestling match. But then I’m staring at a screen, seeing mannerisms, seeing behavior patterns that remind me of things. Things that rattled me to the core. Dark places–”
“–There’s a romanticism in the dark and brooding. In tortured souls. People are drawn to it through sheer magnetism. You look at Miles and there’s a charisma there. Not in his looks. Not in how he speaks. He’s a car crash. You can’t look away. And the more you stare, you swear there’s this artfulness to it all. Like it’s connected to his soul. Romanticism in the unknown, the wild, the madness.”
Her growing unease wasn’t with him; it was what she felt was being unearthed. “This is all…rather personal for you.” What he was describing, she couldn’t look away, couldn’t stop from wanting to hear what he had to say next. The microphones, the recording, it all seemed so trivial now. Their conversation had a mind of its own. She needed to protect Brandon Youngblood from himself. “I think we should stop here…”
But it was as though he was transfixed. Stabbing himself from the sternum and pulling down on the hilt of the blade to let all the pressure and blood pour from him. He’d taken his microphone into his hands. His eyes were locked on hers. “My father’s name was Benjamin. Lot’s of people called him Benji. Me? I just called him dad. I…” he trailed off, dry laughter so acrid he could choke. “It would be one thing if I could say it was alcohol, or drugs, or God knows what. Or maybe it was chemical imbalances. I don’t know. And, honestly, I don’t care.”
Closed doors have meaning.
Benji Youngblood wasn’t like his son; he was a lanky rail-ish thing, skin and bones, and he ran until his legs gave way and he couldn’t really run anymore. Benji was going places until then. His youth was wasted. He started smoking cigarettes. What he would do was done onto him by his father, and his father before that, and his father before that, traits passed through generation by blood.
Brandon was the middle child, and back then, had sandy brown hair that fell past his earlobes. His father ruffled it and kissed his forehead and smoked cigarettes unless he got angry about football, about how Brandon missed the tackle, how he was too slow on his feet, how he had to look at the quarterback’s eyes and make the read and be a damn natural, and in those moments, he’d burrow those cigarettes deep into his son’s inner thighs, as well as other places nobody would find.
Ice cream and pride. Would you look at my boy? Athletics. They were all that mattered. And his mother never minded, never knew, or perhaps didn’t care? She had to have heard the wails through the floorboards. Chris was the oldest, Tommy the youngest. It was never the girls; Candace and Lindsay, they had a chance.
You don’t taste the leather of a belt. No. What you taste is copper, and that’s because of how it cuts into your gums and the roof of your mouth.
But it started before then. Before football. Before the family moved to Texas. ‘Nobody can know how much I love you.’ And then Daddy would give him a kiss on the cheek and pull his pants up after he finished. ‘Remember, nobody.’
And then he closed the door.
Brandon’s voice wavered, unable to stop his shivering. He was right on the cusp of tears. A single string held him in balance. “I lived a long time, hating myself. Not even knowing what it was to love myself, let alone anyone else. And I lived that life, believing I deserved all of this…”
Angelica reached for him, rising from her chair, and without a second thought, took hold of him and nestled his head against her midriff, gently rocking him back and forth. “Don’t say that…”
Despite himself, despite his best efforts, the tears fell. A catharsis. But he’d sobbed so much, had done so much damage to himself in the past, that here, he’d found a resolve. He gathered his voice. “Why am I saying this to you?”
“Maybe it was just time for it to come out.” She paused. “It takes a lot of strength to let these parts of yourself see the light of day. A lot of courage. And in my eyes, with how much you’ve fought to pull yourself up from that Hell? You deserve a lot more than you’ve allowed yourself for a long time. And if you ever need someone to talk to…I’ll be there for you. Okay?”
His arms embraced her, the hug soothing his soul. “Thanks Angie.” He wiped the tears from his cheeks, and with a weight lifted, smiled.
He would die in that pit, pounded into oblivion by his mirror image, ‘Miles Lucky’, even though the only thing the past and future shared was their thirst for violence. For Brandon, a dawning reality was settling in; with each blow, with each strike his face absorbed from the heels of this man’s hands, he wasn’t letting this happen to him. It was being done to him. Nothing could change that, no matter how much he found himself laughing, no matter how sorry and pathetic and wretched and disgusted he was at himself, all in the name of punishing himself because everything else felt so numb, so disconnected.
Maybe this dawning awareness was what forced him to pull guard. Or perhaps it was an overwhelming survival instinct finally kicking in. A singular thread left lingering from deep within. He covered his face, trying desperately to gain back so semblance of control. Thick rivulets of sweat poured from his opponent’s body, the oxygen draining from his muscles with each strike he forced. The lactic acid burn was halting his ferocity.
Some stories have happy endings. For Brandon Youngblood, this was not one of them. What it was, however, was a testament, some kind of psychotic will exploding to the surface, sick of the pain, sick of the fear, sick of all of what had come to define him up to that very moment. With a quick scurry, he managed to escape the mount, and because of the exhaustion of his opponent, he was able to strike, grabbing hold of him, wrenching his arm back in a kimura, his elbow pounding into the back of his opponent’s head and, with a sudden torque, he wrenched until he heard a snap and a scream and…a shocking silence.
Having spent everything, he collapsed.
Brandon’s balcony overlooked the neon of Vegas, but he was beyond it, his mind wandering as he took drag after drag from his rubusto. Mere hours away, and he’d be there, deep in another pit, plagued by old ghosts in the form of some new shambling thing, some sickeningly sweet and honeyed apple of the eye, a shiny new toy with razor sharp concertina wire lying in wait just beneath its surface. And in the face of it, in the face of Miles Lucky, he would do as he had always done in the past; he’d reach deep into its maw and rip its throat out, tossing it aside before stomping its rotten skull it into oblivion.
Even if he failed, even if he did lose, he was going to leave his mark on the specters haunting him. Life was worth living. There was nothing of value going back.
He ashed his cigar.
Happy Pigeon Day?