Nate Colton was hopelessly lost.
What else is new?
Not just emotionally, but physically as well.
The sun was just cresting the horizon, bringing light and life to the road and fields that surrounded it. They looked…just the same as they had for the last few hours, only brighter.
There were plenty of signs and billboards around; he could use one of those for a clue…if he wasn’t so exhausted. Fatigue had blurred his vision to the point where everything else looked like vague blobs. He’d been driving mostly on instinct for…
Good Lord, how long had he been driving? He couldn’t tell. Ever since he regained consciousness backstage at ReV35, everything had been a morass of shame and anger and confusion and pain and a little bit of dizziness…
That might be a concussion and I probably shouldn’t be driving right now
A passing driver concurred with this opinion by pressing their horn.
Nate’s body shocked itself into the present. He turned on his hazard lights and pulled onto the shoulder, then shut the car off.
All right, Colton. Get your shit together, for the first time in three fucking months you–
He slammed his palm against the steering wheel, forcing a stop to the incoming spiral.
Deep breaths. Clear your head. Calmness in, worry out.
Now. What do you remember?
Nate closed his eyes and took another deep breath, searching his memory for any concrete thoughts of the last few days. He remembered…
He remembered booking a flight.
Making a realization.
Hitting the brakes.
Making a call.
Okay, that’s a start. I can think about that while I try to figure out where the hell I am.
His vision had cleared slightly, allowing him to take in his surroundings a little better. He scanned the horizon for landmarks, spotting a few signs, some crops, and an overpass.
Definitely the interstate. Looks like the Midwest, maybe Nebraska? Is that…what the hell is that?
He rubbed his eyes, shook his head, and looked again.
“I don’t fucking believe it.”
# # #
Sunday afternoon. He’d just woken up after a red eye from Detroit and an awkward Lyft where the driver was trying very hard not to ask about all the bandages on Colton’s face.
He rolled off of the couch–he hadn’t even made it to bed–and grabbed his phone from the floor. Nate had developed a bad habit of looking at his screen right after waking up, and was surprised to see that his phone was turned off this time.
“Ugh. Can’t even bother to charge your phone? Nice going, dummy.”
After a brief search of his luggage, he plugged his phone into the wall. To his surprise, the display showed the battery at 40%, meaning he’d turned it off at some point.
Nate turned it back on, then went to the bathroom while it booted up. He looked in the mirror, inspecting the damage inflicted by the Love Convoy just the night before.
He stared for a moment at the broken man in his mirror, and noted how he didn’t seem shocked by it anymore.
A few bandages showed a bit of seepage; he replaced those. Thankfully the few stitches had held. All in all, it looked a lot worse than it actually was…and, as a welcome change, this time all the wounds were on the outside.
He stumbled back to the living room and looked at his phone, taking a minute to sift through the notifications. It hadn’t just blown up since the show; it had erupted.
Just shy of a hundred calls, mostly from his family. If his voice mail hadn’t filled up months ago, it would have done so in the first thirty minutes. The texts were even crazier–probably double the number; everyone from PRIME staff to his sophomore year roommate to TAL’s kids to–
“No fucking way.”
He couldn’t tell you how much time he’d spent looking at his phone in the last three months, and he’d never admit what he was looking for…but when he wasn’t looking for it, it had finally arrived.
Two messages from Skye.
Nate scrolled through the threads, realizing halfway through that it would have been faster to tap the notification. It’s too late now, I can’t go back!
we have an off night in phoenix this week wanna come see me
Before he even thought to respond, Nate was checking available flights. He chose the first one he saw, not caring for price or seating arrangements. They could stuff him in the overhead bin for all he cared; whatever it took to get him where he needed to be.
He wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead as he typed in his credit card information. He felt a rush, the first spark of life in his heart since she walked out. I’ll go down a day early, get a nice hotel, this time it’ll be different and she’ll actually–
His finger hovered over the button to finalize the purchase. Something gave him pause, an idea stirring inside the emotional cyclone caused by Skye’s sudden contact.
# # #
Two days later and halfway to Phoenix, the question still nagged at his mind.
It was enough to make him change his plans–a few days at home plus a five-hour drive would give him time to think.
…but why now?
If there had been one constant in Nate’s relationship with Skye Reeves, it’s that he acted without thinking. The others had seen it all along, but of course he refused to listen.
…so why now?
Why, indeed. Whatever the reason, Nate had spent every waking moment rolling the situation around in his head, trying to make sense of it.
The tour was supposed to last three months, so it would be ending right about now…except that ticket sales had been so good that they added a swing through the South and up the East Coast for the fall. And like she said, Skye only had one free night. Naturally, he’d stick around for the next day and try to watch the show…but this felt much more like “I’m free” than “I’m back.”
It wasn’t because of the rumors; Skye had been a constant topic in the Scandal Sheet since she came back into his life; the ins and outs–ha ha, fuck you Savannah–of their relationship were a matter of public record. She was still popping up in the dirt sheets even though Savannah’s focus had turned to Josie Ramos; candid shots of the librarian covering her face as she walked into work served as a palette cleanser after the gossip columnist’s steady stream of bullshit.
Poor Josie, Nate thought, sparing a moment for a woman who deserved better in so many ways…but only a moment. Before long, as they always did, his thoughts turned back to Skye Reeves.
Something bothered him about this, and he couldn’t help but pick at it, like he might at any of the scabs on his face. Eventually he’d tear it loose, and it would probably hurt like hell.
No, if she were going to contact him because of anything Savannah printed, she had more than enough opportunities. Could it be something else? Maybe she saw what happened to him on the last show?
God, I hope not
Doubtful. She’d never shown an interest in wrestling at any point, and she made no mention of what happened to him at the hands of the Love Convoy. She didn’t even ask how he was; it was just “hey, come to Phoenix for me.”
“I’m reading too much into this,” he muttered as another car passed him. “She reached out; she asked me to come down. She doesn’t care if I don’t look my best, or that I just got my ass kicked on national television.”
There it was.
In the middle of trying to justify her actions again, he accidentally spoke the core truth that unlocked the rest of the mystery. The scab finally came off, and it hurt more than he ever thought possible.
Nathan sat motionless in the driver’s seat, only daring to make slight turns of the wheel to keep from driving off the road. With the stretch of his finger, he set the cruise control on his Prius.
Then he did the same for himself.
# # #
Nate scarcely noticed when day turned to night; his body steered the vehicle seemingly independent of his mind.
He certainly had a lot to think about.
His thoughts, his emotions, had run the gamut over the last several hours, from denial to acceptance with lengthy detours around all the other stages. But at last, he had a clear direction.
The plan was still the same–go to Phoenix, meet with Skye. But now there was a new motive–he needed a confrontation. Now that he had the words for what laid under his desire, he could finally say them to her.
He’d been rehearsing the speech for at least thirty miles, though he’d need to stop at some point so he could practice it in ASL. Still, Nate thought he could get his point across.
“It’s just not fair to me,” he said, hoping he would still be brave enough to say it in person. “You can’t just ghost me for God knows how long, then snap your fingers and expect me to come running.”
But isn’t that what you’re doing now?
“Shut up,” he growled…but the problem with the voice in your head is that it tends not to listen.
What makes you think this time will be any different? I bet the moment you see her, you’ll forget your whole big speech.
“I’ll be fine. I can say what needs to be said.”
Sure you will. And while we’re dreaming, maybe she’ll see the error of her ways and promise to stay this time.
“Had enough of your shit. My shit. Whatever. Exit’s coming up soon.”
Might want to check your map, chief. Or the time. ‘Cause it’s way darker than it should be right now.
Colton slammed on the brakes, barely pulling onto the shoulder before an 18-wheeler sped through the space he had occupied moments before. The driver let Colton know that he should start making better life choices.
His hands tensed up on the wheel again, and he took a few slow breaths. Once he’d calmed himself, he looked at his surroundings, as if seeing them for the first time.
Which…he kinda was.
He’d planned to reach Phoenix in the early evening. Check into the hotel and rest up so that they could spend the whole next day together.
According to his dashboard clock, it was almost two in the morning.
According to the sign in front of him, he was forty miles from Las Cruces, New Mexico.
I must have gone right past the exit, probably turned navigation off
But why couldn’t he remember? He also couldn’t remember stopping for gas, or using the restroom, or even turning the steering wheel. Yet all those things must have happened, or he’d be rolled over in the middle of the desert with an empty tank and full pants.
I’ll worry about that later, he thought. If I haul ass I can still get back to Phoenix.
With a plan in place, he started driving again. But it wasn’t very long before his thoughts started drifting again.
So when Nate found his first opportunity to turn around…he kept on going.
# # #
A day had passed. Or two. Or a week. Or forty minutes. Long enough for Nate to make a major breakthrough. He might have finally let go of Skye Reeves for good.
There was nothing to distract him from total misery.
False hope is a terrible thing, but the worst part is letting go of it. That’s when you find out you’ve got nothing else to hold on to.
Nowhere to go but down.
He thought back on their history together, and saw the patterns that his family always talked about. Cutting other women out of his life–not just Josie, but a few in high school and college. Ignoring his friends, his studies, his obligations…sacrificing everything he was for the sake of her.
Now there was nothing left. He was completely alone.
Depression had opened up a yawning chasm in his heart, and Nate dove in headfirst. He thrashed around in a sea of regret and self-loathing, knowing that he would inevitably drown.
When he resurfaced, he found himself still on the road. He was driving through the foothills of Arkansas…or Pennsylvania…or, for all he knew, the moon. Winding roads on a pitch black night, the perfect place to completely lose touch with reality. He was lucky that he hadn’t crashed.
He turned on the radio, desperate to drown out his thoughts, but he couldn’t get a signal out here in wherever-the-hell. He unlocked his phone and saw a screen covered in notifications. He tried clearing them so he could access his music…but his thumb slipped, and instead he tapped an option for one of those notifications.
Specifically, “Call back.”
So instead of the new number one single–Nate was a huge fan of Doja Cat, please don’t tell anyone–he heard…a ringing phone.
Nate looked down in confusion, and then in terror.
All of his instincts screamed at him to end the call, but he couldn’t make his hand obey the command. Just like they wouldn’t listen when he told them to turn the car around and go back to Phoenix, or during any of his idle thoughts of steering straight for an overpass support. Like Odysseus and the Sirens, the crew was saving itself by ignoring the captain.
The word was scarcely audible; the speaker probably wasn’t even awake. And yet, Nathan heard his father’s voice as clear as a bell.
A flash of panic was enough to break the spell, and Nate ended the call. But the sound stuck with him for…well, he couldn’t say for sure; time didn’t seem to have much meaning anymore.
He looked down at his hands, which were in the middle of navigating a curve. “As long as someone’s in charge,” he said, and returned to his tempestuous thoughts.
He was pleased to note that the Sirens’ song had died down a little, undercut by a sleepy but strong baritone.
# # #
“I suppose I should thank you.”
“That might have been the lowest point of my wrestling career. Beaten half to death, covered in glass, all in front of millions of people. Probably more worried about Hoyt’s goddamn window than about me.”
“You never know how long the fall is until you hit the bottom.”
“Once the medics woke me up, I had some time to think. That’s the one nice thing about having to sit still while they pick shards of glass out of your face. I didn’t really figure it out until later–they ran out of glass, and I didn’t want to bother Hoyt for another one–but after a few more days I realized something about the both of us. You and I have the same problem.”
“We both gave our hearts to someone who doesn’t give a damn about us.”
“I won’t go into a lot of detail here, ‘cause everyone’s probably had more than enough of my personal life–and I’ll be honest, I still got a lot of unpacking to do there. Long story short, I have given so much time and energy to someone, and when it wasn’t enough I gave more.”
“You might know something about that.”
“One big difference, though. In my situation, she had the decency to leave when she got bored with me. What Vickie does to you is a hell of a lot worse.”
“Forget the window, and the chocolate, and the crowbar with a nail stuck in it–seriously, what the hell–and all the other awful shit your Love Convoy has done to other people. I’ve seen the way she treats you. Hell, I saw it up close in Detroit. When she was trying to get me to stay–I never actually joined, but you saw how much that mattered–she couldn’t throw the rest of you under the bus fast enough.”
“I told you in the ring that night that loving someone means respecting them, and I’ve never seen an ounce of respect come from Vickie Hall. Not for you, and probably not for anyone. She’s like that spoiled little girl from Willy Wonka, only nobody ever had the good sense to throw her down the garbage chute.”
“I know it’s pointless telling you all this, because you won’t listen. I sure as hell didn’t. People tried to help but I just pushed them away. No, it wasn’t until you all kicked the shit out of me with the whole world watching that I realized just how badly my life had gone out of control.”
“Ain’t that a bitch? By knocking me out, you opened my eyes.”
“That’s what I’m going to do for you at UltraViolence. I plan on bringing out the absolute worst in Vickie Hall.”
“First, I’m going to pay you back for Detroit. I’m not just going to beat you, JC. I’m going to embarrass you, the way you did to me. From the moment that bell rings I will take you apart, and I won’t feel bad for a second.”
“That’s when things get really bad…and that’s when I’ll actually feel sorry for you. Because Vickie is going to show the world who she is, the way she always does when she doesn’t get her way. And you’re the one who will have to deal with that.”
“Can’t lie, man. It’s gonna be awful, ‘cause there’s no right answer and I don’t know if you’ve got anyone else who will help you out afterward. But it’s gonna happen someday, so you might as well get it over with.”
“No need to thank me, Jonathan-Christopher.”
“Just returning the favor.”
# # #
“I don’t fucking believe it.”
Nate Colton found himself face-to-face with…himself.
His jaw dropped as he tried to wrap his mind around the sight before him. It took a minute before he registered the words that framed his visage, and another before he was able to read them.
WELCOME TO INDIANA
The Proud Home of Wrestling Star Nate Colton!
His smiling face, a year old and fourteen feet tall. That goddamn billboard, paid for by the ACE Network back when they still believed in him. Somewhat faded after weathering almost a year’s worth of the elements.
You and me both, buddy.
Nate felt the corners of his mouth curl upward. It caused the small wounds across his face to flare up, but that was a small price to pay for his first authentic smile in months.
Of course he’d wind up here. A year–almost to the day–after making this trip in the opposite direction. Through all the highs and lows, through the brutal tempest he had barely survived for the last three months. Where every choice, and every turn, had been the wrong one.
Months ago, Brandon Youngblood had told Nate that he’d been “betrayed by his heart”…but that wasn’t quite true. Betrayed by his desire, certainly. But underneath the passions, the jealousy, the craving, his heart still knew the truth. Nate had just forgotten how to listen.
It had been a hard lesson, but he finally learned it. In his darkest hour, he put his faith in his heart of hearts, the core of himself…and it brought him where he needed to be.
Just outside of Terre Haute. Two hours north of Evansville.
This was by no means the end of the journey. There were fences to mend, bridges to rebuild. He still had to figure out what to do about PRIME, and Josie, and the Love Convoy, and Savannah Scandal.
But as first steps go, it was a good one.
Nate started his car and pulled back onto the interstate. He didn’t bother setting the GPS–he knew the way from here–but he did press the little icon in his Recent Calls list. Intentionally, this time.
As the phone rang, he looked up and cast one more glance at the billboard before passing it.
“It’s been a while,” he said. “Glad I finally found you.”
Funny how that thing you need, that you can’t live without…it’s always the last place you look.
And yet, somehow, right where you left it.