UltraViolence Night 1
Paxton stood near the curtain. Everything in him was telling him to walk through, to ignore the masked man ranting in the ring. Even as he stayed, the words of The Anglo Luchador had little effect, bluster from a man who was likely realizing what the world already knew: Tom Battaglia would always be a dog with strong vocal chords and no teeth.
But then TAL said The Trigger.
“…fuck you until you’re ready to be a fucking man, to be a fucking father.”
Paxton turned, his eyes wide. How was he still talking? He had shocked his throat, defeated him twice, and yet this man still had the energy to talk about him and his daughter?
Well, time to shut him up for good I guess.
Paxton strode towards the ring, his mind blank except for that sentence over and over again.
But before he reached the ramp, someone reached him first. He bristled at the touch on his back before looking down and seeing brown hair and a soft, sad smile. He closed his eyes and let the words disappear from his mind as Julie Dunn whispered a new mantra in his ear to replace it.
“You don’t have to be what they think you are.”
Paxton felt the Cool Down and opened his eyes, seeing The Anglo Luchador for what he was: a broken man clutching at anything to convince himself he didn’t lose. Paxton didn’t have to shut him up; he just wouldn’t listen.
“Come on,” he told Julie as they walked through the curtain.
Paxton’s eyes snapped open as he heard a knock on his hotel door. He rolled to his side and yelped as a bolt of pain shot up his shoulder. Grabbing his phone and clearing a missed call notification from an unknown number, he attempted to put a shirt on with one arm as he walked towards the door. Sighing, he opened the door with the shirt still hanging over his torso.
“Hey, Pax, I wanted…” Julie started before trailing off, her eyes lingering on the bruises on his chest. “God, wrestling is dumb.”
Paxton laughed. “It can be, yeah.” He saw her suitcase and frowned. “Ya leavin’?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I have a shift on Monday and I always try to plan a rest day so I can spend a day at home vegging out.”
“Uh huh.” Paxton looked at the ground and scratched the back of his head. “Listen…can ya stay one more day? I’ll take care of your ticket.”
Julie stared at him, exhaling through her nose. “Why?”
He moved his shoulder through the arm hole of the shirt. “Because last night was good for me, an’ I think you’re the reason.”
“I’m the reason you beat the shit out of another man?”
“Not that part. Turnin’ down MESSIAH. Not goin’ back in the ring t’bash Tom’s head in. An’ feelin’…well, not feelin’ so angry.” Paxton smiled. “Stay with me one more day..”
Julie tried to hide the smile creeping on her lips. “I wouldn’t mind seeing more of Chicago. The problem is I already checked out of my room.”
“Ya can stay here.”
Julie looked past Paxton into the room. “There’s only one bed.”
Paxton felt his cheeks start to flush, so he turned away, matching her gaze at the lone bed. “I’ll sleep on the floor. Listen, this ain’t ‘bout that. I jus’ wanna keep feelin’ this way.” He finally turned to look at her again and saw her confusion melt into something warmer. “Please.”
She shuffled her feet and looked down at her suitcase. Then she nodded. “Fine, but only because I want to go eat at my favorite restaurant in Chicago. Now move your purple and blue body so I can roll my suitcase in and let’s get some Hawaiian barbecue.”
Paxton grinned, stepping aside and letting her roll her suitcase in as his phone rang. He looked at it and frowned. “Not now, Shweta,” he said, giving his phone the button. Then, he wrinkled his nose. “Hawaiian barbecue?”
“What the shit is that?” Paxton asked, eyeing Julie’s plate.
“Tofu katsu. Want some?” She hacked off a portion with her fork and held it up.
Paxton jerked his head back like he was avoiding a punch. “Nah. This is your favorite place? Are ya Hawaiian?”
“Do I look Hawaiian?” Julie asked, giggling. “No, it’s really good food. I used to come to Chicago when my dad moved up here. He’d always take me here.”
“An’ people call me a bad dad.”
The glare he received from Julie gave him a chill. “He was a great father.”
“Sorry, jus’ makin’ a joke about the food.”
“I got you chicken katsu, it’s practically chicken fingers. Don’t be a baby.”
They ate in silence for a few minutes, Paxton focusing more on his companion than his food. Finally, he asked, “…was?”
“Ya said he was a great dad. Did he…?”
Julie took a sip of her water and placed the cup so that it was obscuring her face from his as she took a bite of food. When she swallowed, she said, “Yeah, three years ago. Pancreatic cancer.”
“Maybe that’s why I’m here,” she said, putting her fork down and leaning back in her chair. “Maybe that’s why I came across the country to see a dumb wrestling show with an ex-boyfriend who might be a lunatic, and why I stayed instead of going home today. Maybe I felt the same way you felt last year when you took Nora to those appointments, maybe it’s why I felt so strongly about you back then, maybe it’s why I can’t seem to separate myself now even though you’re an incredibly dangerous person.”
Paxton poked at the chicken with his fork. “I’m tryin’ t’be better though.”
“You put a shock collar on another man’s neck last night.”
“Yeah, but…” Paxton was partially thankful for his phone ringing, because he didn’t have a strong rebuttal. But he scowled when he saw Jon’s number. “God damn.”
“Gray’s folks blowin’ up my phone.” He held it up for her to see. “Not sure what they want, I ain’t talked to anybody since the whole Connor thing.”
Julie nodded. “It’s definitely weird for Jon to call you after the things he’s said to me during therapy.”
“Yeah. But I don’t wanna talk to any a’em right now. I wanna talk to ya.” He reached a hand across the table. She didn’t move to grab it, but she also didn’t move when he rested his fingers on hers. “I’m sorry. I don’t really try new things, an’ so I said somethin’ dumb. I’m sure your dad was great, ‘cause you’re great.”
Again Paxton couldn’t see Julie’s face from behind her drink. He shifted in his chair to see her and was relieved to see a small smile form. “Thanks, Paxton. But this is actually part of your anger problem. It all comes back to thought, or a lack of it. You act on instinct. You see something that confuses or frightens you…”
“I ain’t scared a’no tofu.”
“…and your first reaction is to be mean and aggressive. In order to get better, to be a man worthy of getting Nora back, you need to think, understand your feelings, and react rationally to them.”
Paxton nodded. “So what’s the rational reaction now?”
“To eat your fucking fried chicken,” Julie answered, her face breaking into a full grin.
“Fine, fine,” he said, bringing a piece of chicken katsu to his mouth. “Hey, it tas…”
“If you finish that sentence ‘like chicken’ I’m calling an uber to the airport right now.”
As Paxton and Julie walked down a street in Lincoln Park, he had to continually remind himself to slow down so he wouldn’t leave Julie behind. Not only were her legs significantly shorter than the Bayou Butcher’s, but she was looking around at the buildings and trees with a smile on her face.
“I guess he took ya walkin’ around here.”
Julie nodded, pointing down the street. “The Lincoln Park Zoo is up ahead. He’d take me there every visit. I never got tired of it, even when I was too old to go to the zoo.”
“Never too old t’think monkeys are cool.”
Julie laughed. “My favorite was the naked mole rat. It was so hideous, but somehow cute? Something about it spoke to me.” She looked up at Paxton and grinned. “Maybe that’s why I think you’re cute.”
“An’ ya called me mean.” Paxton felt his phone buzz and took it out of his pocket, prompting a frown from his counterpart.
“Another phone call? They’re really trying to distract you from me today.”
“Jus’ an email. Looks like I got my first round opponent for this tournament.” He looked at his phone and snorted. “Speakin’ a’naked mole rats.”
She looked at his phone and raised her eyebrows. “Tony Gamble. I think I’ve heard that name.”
“Yeah, he ain’t nothin’ good, that’s for sure. Been around a long time, cheats in fights, tries t’hurt people, is an asshole t’pretty much everyone, constantly makin’ fun’a Jon for not bein’ able t’walk.” He looked over and noticed that Julie was staring at him. “What?”
“It’s weird to hear someone talk about themselves so openly and honestly.”
“I know I ain’t no saint,” Paxton said. “But yeah, I see the similarities. He plays a character pretty well, actin’ like he don’t care ‘bout anythin’, but ya can tell by his eyes that it’s a lie. There’s somethin’ more there, somethin’ he really cares about. He jus’ knows better t’hide it. He’s playin’ a part just like I am.”
Julie didn’t answer as the two continued to walk down the street. The breeze felt nice as Paxton ran his fingers through his hair. Dropping his hand to his side, he looked down at Julie’s hand a few inches away, her fingers dangling as they walked. He slowed down a little more to swing his arms a little closer to hers.
“That’s how you see it?” she asked. “You’re just playing a character?”
“Yeah, an’ I think ya think so too. Otherwise ya wouldn’t have whispered that thing in my ear last night.”
She looked down suddenly at her feet, her smile gone. “You don’t have to be what they think you are,” she said again, though Paxton heard less conviction in her tone.
“Ya believe that, don’t ya?”
She stopped, reaching her hand out to grab his arm to stop him as well. He stopped and raised his hand so that it met hers, and for a brief moment their fingers locked up. His smile barely reached his lips before flattening as she said, “I’m going to be honest with you: I have no idea.”
“This is gettin’ ridiculous,” Paxton said, holding the hotel room door open for Julie.
“Three more calls,” she said as she entered. “Is that everyone from Gray’s now?”
“Just ‘bout,” he grumbled. “Dith, Foster, even Foster’s ex-wife.”
“I thought you were a pariah there. I wonder how they all have your number.”
“That part’s easy,” he said, walking to the corner of the hotel room and sitting in the chair. “When ya join Gray’s they get your phone number and your email and all the other bullshit. If they wanna find ya, they know how t’find ya.”
Julie nodded, then walked over to the mini-bar on the dresser. Julie grabbed a beer, a mini-bottle of Malibu rum, and orange juice. “Hey, they make ya pay for that,” Paxton said.
“Are you paying for the room?” Julie asked, then smirked as Paxton shook his head. “Then thank PRIME for me.” She tossed the beer to Paxton, then began to mix her drink on the dresser. “So you aren’t going to Night Two?”
“Nah,” Paxton answered, opening the beer and taking a sip. “I got nothin’ to do there, and nobody wants to see me anyway. May as well hang with the closest thing to a friendly face I got.”
“Everybody’s friendly when they get to drink for free,” Julie laughed.
“I wanted t’talk a little more ‘bout what ya said on the walk.”
Julie sat on the bed, her drink splashing a little onto the comforter. “About me not being sure about you?”
“Yeah. If ya ain’t sure, why tell me that last night? Why stay with me today? Why waste your time?”
Julie stared at Paxton for a long moment. “It’s the same answer as before, Pax. I really don’t know. I wish I did. I wish I had the sense of self to know exactly why I do what I do. But the truth is you’re not the only one who reacts to things in a way they don’t understand. Maybe that was why I wanted to help you, along with the stuff about my dad. Or…maybe the real answer is more complicated.”
Paxton took a sip of his beer as he stared at Julie. “What’s the real answer?”
Julie sighed and closed her eyes. “The real answer is I like you, Paxton. But not the you that was bleeding all over the ring last night. And not the you who paralyzes a man or tries to break some kid’s leg or – or Jesus Christ, Paxton, outs a young man to his father. But I like the you who I ate with today, who loves his daughter so much and helped her beat cancer, who apologized for hurting my feelings, who talked about my dad, who desperately wanted to hold my hand the whole time but couldn’t work up the courage.”
“Ya could tell,” Paxton said.
“Yes. But the reason I’m so conflicted is that there are two of you. And I’m wary because I have no idea which is the real you and which is the character. And you can tell me that you want to change and that you want Nora back and that you want to do everything the right way from now on, and those are beautiful words that make me happy, but they’re just words. Actions mean more.”
Paxton lifted the beer to his lips, emptying it. Setting the can on the side table, he nodded and stood up. “You’re right. Actions mean more.” He pulled his phone out of his pocket and began to scroll through it.
“What are you doing?”
“Reachin’ out to the one person at Gray’s who didn’t call me today.” He pressed the button, then hit the speaker button and put the phone on the table. After four rings, Paxton shrugged. “Guess he ain’t…”
He was interrupted by a click on the phone. “Hello?”
“Hey Connor. it’s Paxton.”
“Yeah, I know who it is,” Connor Nackedy said after a brief pause. “Why haven’t you–”
“Hold on, I gotta say somethin’. What I did last week was wrong. I was so angry at your dad that I wasn’t even thinkin’ ‘bout ya or how hard it was t’tell him ‘bout that part’a ya. I’m tryin’ t’be more aware’a people and not hurt ‘em as much. So I’m sorry.”
Connor didn’t answer. Paxton looked over at Julie and shrugged his shoulders, which prompted the nurse to do the same. “Not all apologies get forgiven,” she whispered, “and that’s okay.”
When Connor finally did answer, his voice was frantic. “That’s fine, Pax, but after what you and your goons did last night, can you really say you’re not trying to hurt people?”
“Well I was in a fight, Con, I wasn’t gonna just lay down and let The Luchador…” Paxton stopped, then cocked an eyebrow. “Me an’ my goons?”
Suddenly Paxton heard a voice in the background say, “Hand me the phone,” and a brief period of muffling static before the angry voice of Shweta Kallemullah shot out of the speaker.
“Paxton, you won’t get away with this. We’re going to find her and bring her back, and you’ll never get another chance. She’s a sweet, kind girl, and you…”
“Shway, Shway, Shway!” Paxton shouted. “What the hell are ya talkin’ ‘bout?”
“MESSIAH took Nora from her safe place last night. Melissa was hurt in the process. Do you seriously expect me to believe you didn’t know?”
Paxton’s eyes went wide as he stared at Julie. “Shway, I swear I didn’t. I told ‘em not to. I told ‘em t’leave her alone.”
“Well they didn’t fucking listen, Paxton. Your daughter is gone.”
Both Paxton and Julie jumped to the sound of a knock at the door. Paxton felt the hair stand up on his neck and wasn’t sure why. He moved away from the phone as Shweta continued to call for him and slowly opened the door to see a large figure in the doorway.
“Greetings, Paxton,” Julian Bathory said as he walked past Paxton into the room.
Paxton stood at the door, watching The Carpathian Devil glide towards the chair he had just occupied. “Wha…” was all he could get out.
“I’d like to have a conversation with you, Paxton, but the shrieking voice on the other end of this phone may be a distraction. Can you please silence it for me?”
“Paxton, who is that? Is that him? I knew it! You’re still–” Shweta’s voice was cut off by Paxton’s finger.
“Ya son of a bitch,” Paxton said, his hands balling into fists. “I told ‘em not t’touch her.”
“You did, and I know why you did. It is noble to want to better yourself and become the father you always wanted to become. I applaud that ambition. Unfortunately, that does not coincide with my own ambition and plans. I want to start by saying that Nora is safe, and will continue to be safe. Despite the rumblings you hear, I am no monster.”
“Ya sure ‘bout that?” Paxton said, looking over at Julie on the bed, who appeared nearly frozen, her eyes locked on the new guest in the room.
“Quite sure. Now, let’s talk about the things we can do to ensure that she stays that way. I told you nearly two months ago that you were free to leave my car, and that if you would not be a willing soldier for MESSIAH that we would find another role for you.”
Paxton growled. “I guess ya meant an unwillin’ soldier.”
“Crude, but not wholly inaccurate. Now, my plate is full running MESSIAH. I simply do not have the time to enter a wrestling ring again. But I look at you, Paxton, and I see everything we could be. The force that sends all of PRIME into hiding. A man that others respect and fear. An eventual champion. You could be everything MESSIAH needs to show our strength and power. And in order to do that,” he said, looking over at Julie with a smile, “you must be what they think you are.” The nurse’s eyes widened as her grip on the drink loosened, causing the cup to spill onto the bed.
“Now, I know you have a match coming up against Tony Gamble. He is talented at cheating, and has an entire network of thugs at his disposal to help him. Despite your skills, you may also need help from a network. It is something I have and am more than willing to lend. I also know that your time with Foster Nackedy has reached its end.”
“What’re ya sayin’, ya wanna be my manager?”
“I want to help you going forward. And I think winning this tournament, a tournament that I once went far in, will do well to show MESSIAH’S undeniable presence in PRIME.” Bathory smiled, folding his hands together. “I see in your eyes that you want to hit me. You can if it will make you feel better. But understand that it will change nothing. Nora is with MESSIAH, and if you want to see her again, you will be with MESSIAH as well.”
Paxton’s eyes scanned the room for something to hold onto. He saw Bathory’s grin and Julie’s shock. Then, his gaze fell to the floor. “Ya bastard,” he whispered.
“Excellent. I will start to make our arrangements. Now please, do not let me interrupt your celebration any longer.” Bathory took two long strides towards the door, then turned around. “One more thing. In a few weeks I will need you to come with me to Gray’s.”
“They don’t want me back there,” Paxton said, but Bathory waved his hand.
“I will deal with that. I’ll speak to you soon.” Bathory smiled at Julie as he passed her. “Helping people find themselves is a noble purpose, one that we share. Forever The Crown,” he said, exiting and closing the door behind him.
Ages passed as Paxton stood there, looking at his feet. Julie finally asked, “What are you going to do?”
Paxton Ray mustered the strength to peel his eyes off the carpet and looked at Julie. “I have no idea.”