The sun shines through the open windows of the Gray’s Academy conference room. When it was built, the idea was to have one wall be a floor-to-ceiling window so that passersby could see people hard at work. The purpose was not just to display their meetings to the world, but to also let in the full heat and brightness of the Louisiana sun. Today that sun is in full force, casting light through the window and reflecting off various parts of the glass conference table.
But the bright sun does not reflect the moods of the three people in this room. Shweta Kallemullah, Paxton Ray, and Jonathan Rhine sit around the table, each looking anywhere to avoid looking at each other. A fluorescent bulb in the ceiling plinks intermittently, acting as a painful reminder of the silence that pervades the trio.
Jonathan looks from his feet to Shweta, then suddenly looks down. After a moment, he clears his throat. He opens his mouth, then closes it. Finally, he sighs and says, “So.”
From the manuscript of the memoir “Renewed – The Rises and Falls of Jonathan Rhine” – to be released in Fall of 2027
I remember the weeks leading up to my match against Julian Bathory. To that point, things were going pretty well for everyone in the Foundation. We had won our first tag match since the loss at Great American Nightmare. Paxton won a match against the talented GREAT SCOTT, though it was not without controversy. I was finally about to get my hands on Bathory, to pay him back for all of the pain he caused the Foundation that night in May.
But more than any of that, Nora was in remission! We had spent the better part of a year working to raise money for a little girl in the fight of her life, and because of the hard work of her and the doctors, she was cancer free. Our purpose had been fulfilled. We fought for Nora, and Nora won the fight.
With all of that in mind, we should have been riding high at that time, filled with hope and good spirits. But that wasn’t the case. About a month before our clash with the eGG Bandits at UltraViolence, we were all in about the most rotten mood you could be in, all for different reasons.
Why Paxton Is In a Bad Mood
There’s something in the air in Lafayette. Something in the stillness, the searing heat, the way the town is spread out between fields of corn and cotton. A word you could use to describe it is “quaint,” but to Paxton Ray it feels lifeless, especially as he has spent most of his recent time in New Orleans and Las Vegas.
He walks towards his house, looking up at the neon sign of the gas station right across the street. For years before he quit, he would walk there, buy a pack of Lucky Strikes, and need a new pack by the time the sun came up the next morning. He feels a lump in his throat and resists the urge to walk across the street. Sighing, he opens the door and walks in.
He knows that despite the great news of the last few weeks that there will be no cake in the house, and that is confirmed as he sees Melissa Ray seated on the couch, her legs crossed, her eyes fixed on him.
After a moment he rubs the back of his neck and chuckles. “Man, that look’s so cold I thought the A/C started workin’ again.”
Melissa’s lip curls. “She doesn’t want to see you.”
“Come on, Melissa. This is stupid.”
“No, this is stupid,” she says, standing and gesturing towards him. “This refusal to stop wrestling is stupid. When you started this, you said you were only doing it to help Nora. That only this big-eared loud mouth and his tall friend with the impossible last name could get Nora the support she needs. But here we are, at the finish line, and you want to keep running. Why?”
“Look, Mel…” he starts, but she won’t let him finish.
“You look. This was always about her. You named the team and Foundation after her. I never wanted you to take that job, but as long as it was for her, I held back. But it’s not for her anymore. She wants you to stop. I want you to stop. So who are you fighting for now?”
He sighs, taking a few steps away from her. He sits down in the recliner, rubbing his hand along the tears in the fabric. “I’m fightin’ for me, Mel. Yeah, I started this for her. An’ I’m still gonna do it for her and you. For this house that’s fallin’ apart. But I like doin’ it. I’m good at it. I got a win by myself last week.”
“Yeah, and you got a bunch of plastic stuck in your face too. You say you’ll keep fighting for us, but what good is that going to do if you get hurt? How can you be there for her if your job keeps you from walking?”
“Jus’ let me talk to her, Mel.”
“No.” The answer doesn’t come from Melissa Ray, but from a tinier voice at the top of the stairs. Nora stands there, her hand clutching the banister.
“Please stop fighting, daddy. I’m not sick anymore. I want you to stay home with me.”
Paxton looks up at his daughter. He opens his mouth, then closes it. Finally, he looks down at his feet. “Sorry, sweetie. I can’t.”
The art of subtlety is for adults. Nora simply stomps away and shouts “I hate you!” before slamming her bedroom door. Paxton looks to Melissa, whose expression has softened.
“I know it hurts to hear that,” she says, reaching her hand towards Paxton. But he lashes out and grabs hers first, pushing it aside.
“I don’t need your sympathy now, Mel, not after ya turned her against me.” He starts to walk out, but turns around in the doorway. “The checks are gonna keep comin’. Make sure ya use ’em wisely.” Then he slams the door and walks across the street.
“Well, Shway?” Paxton asks in the meeting room. “What’s the agenda?”
Shweta Kallemullah looks at her notes, then shrugs. “I…I don’t know.”
Jon snaps his head up. “That’s a first from you.”
Shweta fixes a withering glare at him. “Well, Jonathan, sometimes things change suddenly, without warning, and the best you can do is be honest.”
Jon simply stares at his feet, but Paxton cocks his head. “What got up your ass?”
Why Shweta Is In a Bad Mood
A few hours before the meeting, Shweta looks for Jon, holding a small box in her hands. She passes Quinn Fleetwood and against her best judgment stops. “Hello Quinn. Have you seen Jonathan?”
“Why would I tell you?” Quinn spits. “You broke my dad’s heart, and his hand.”
“The second part was not me. That was Lindsay Troy. And the first…never mind. It’s not productive to argue. I’ll find him myself.” She starts to walk away but Quinn grabs her arm, squeezing a bit harder than she finds comfortable.
“I’m not going to forget about what you did to dad. I just want you to remember that.”
Shweta looks down at his hand, then shakes him off. “I will remember it if you remember to not touch women without their permission.”
Quinn lifts his hands in the air, smiling. “I apologize. Don’t worry, I’d never hurt Coach Jon’s precious fuck buddy.”
“Excuse me?” Shweta snaps, but Quinn is already walking away. After a moment she composes herself and begins walking again. She finds Jonathan standing in his old office, the one that he left to take over Foster’s all those years ago. No one ever took over this one, so it sits in relative squalor: dust on an empty desk, a few cardboard boxes that were never recycled, a ringpost leaning against the corner. “Jon, there you are.”
He turns around, a frown on his face. Shweta pauses for a moment, because she can’t remember the last time Jon looked at her without smiling. “Hi, Shweta. What’s up?”
“Are you okay?” she asks.
“O-okay,” she says. Then she looks back at the doorway. “I ran into Quinn just now. He…I think he knows. About us.”
Jon furrows his brow. “What did he say?”
“He called me your…friend with benefits. In a more crude way.”
Jon nods. “I thought we were being careful.”
Shweta laughs. “Careful? Was it careful when you reached for my hand instead of the ropes during your match? Was it careful when you were talking to Jared about it on television?”
“Well…” Jon starts, then smiles. “I guess it’s hard to help myself.”
“Of course it is. Have you looked at me? I’m a total snack.”
They both laugh, but after a few seconds the laugh dissipates, as does the smile from Jon’s face. “I guess…I guess it doesn’t matter anyway. Shweta, look…”
“Oh,” she says.
Jon closes his eyes. “It’s been great. And a part of me has really needed this…us. But we have to be realistic. The Foundation is changing. Nora is better. It just feels like…it feels like a natural end to all of this.”
Shweta looks away at the wall, her eyes moving to a picture that had never been removed: Jon and Katie in front of a small house. “I see.”
Jonathan follows her gaze and suddenly shakes his head. “It’s not…it’s just…” After a few moments of searching for the right excuse, he hangs his head. “I’m sorry.” He looks up and sees the box in Shweta’s hand. “What’s that?”
“Oh,” she says, looking down. “It was a gift. For fulfilling our purpose.” She hands him the box, and he opens it quickly to find a pocketwatch attached to a lanyard. On the face of the watch is a picture of Jon, Shweta, and Paxton. “I guess it’s also a goodbye gift.”
“Wait, Shway,” he says, but she’s already out the door.
Back in the meeting room, Jon is still stinging from Shweta’s comment. “Let’s…let’s try to move on from this.”
“Move on,” Shweta says, nodding. “Good choice of words.”
The silence that follows is stifling. Paxton shakes his head and pulls out his cell phone. Shweta looks down at her notes, though Jon can’t tell if she’s actually reading them or not. Finally, Jon leans back in his chair. “So…what are we even doing here?”
When no one answers, Jon stands up. “All right. I’ll see y’all around.”
Why Jon Is In a Bad Mood
Jon is smiling as he walks out of the gym, his hands in his pockets. He passes Connor Nackedy, who gives him a smile and says, “Good luck against Bathory, Jon!”
“Thanks, Connor. It should be a good match. I’m really excited to get in there by myself again.”
Connor nods. “I’m sure you’ll do great. Uh, hey, Aaron asked me to ask you if you knew where we had an extra turnbuckle pad.”
Jon stops and thinks. “I think we have a box of them in the locker room.”
“He checked there and didn’t see them. He was hoping you had another box stored somewhere.”
“I don’t…” After a few moments, Jon nods and smiles. “But I think I can get you one. We just need one, right?” Connor nods. “Okay,” Jon says. “I’ll meet you in the gym in a few minutes.”
Jon walks down the hallway of the Academy and turns right down the hallway. After a few hundred feet he looks through a doorway and shakes his head.
He stares into the office he used to occupy as a lead trainer before he took over the Academy. The room is smaller, and dustier, and has seen no love in two years. Jon finds what he was looking for in the corner: a broken ringpost, complete with turnbuckle pad.
He walks over and grabs the ropes, working to untie them. It takes longer than he expected, and he starts to curse as his fingers struggle to separate the ropes.
“That’s how I know you’re a good guy, Jonno – you never had to expose the turnbuckle to smash your opponent into it.”
Jon freezes. “I thought we were done with these visits,” he says. He turns around suddenly and sees her sitting on his old desk – Katie Malick, dead girlfriend extraordinaire.
“Me too. You’ve been so happy lately!” Katie grins. “And I know whyyyyy…” she sings the last word.
Jon looks down. “Yes. Shweta and I…we…” He then shakes his head. “I’m not talking to you about this.”
“It seems you are,” she says. “Don’t worry. I’m not jealous. I told you that you had to move on! And you have! Shweta is a great girl.” She stops and thinks. “I mean, besides the whole poisoning you thing. And working for the most evil bitch of all time. And she dated Chet Fleetwood, so you know she’s got questionable taste.”
“Why are you here?” he asks.
“Just like last time you asked, the answer is the same. You have to ask yourself that. I’ve been gone because those nagging feelings were gone. So the real question is…why do you feel so nervous?”
Jon leans against the turnbuckle post. “I guess it’s because…it’s over, you know? Fighting For Nora completed its goal. Nora is cancer free.”
“That’s a good thing!” Katie says.
“It is. But it also means that this – the reason I came back to PRIME, the reason I got my life back, the reason…Shweta and I became closer…all of that is done too. Why would Paxton stick around now?”
“Because you guys main evented a PPV and almost won the tag titles?”
Jon shrugs. “It just feels over. Something tells me I’m not going to be doing this for much longer. I hope I’m wrong.” He looks back at Katie. “But if I’m not wrong…then I can’t be with Shweta. Fighting For Nora made me a man that I hadn’t been in a long time, and without it, I’m that same nobody I was for the past 10 years. Shway deserves better than him.”
Katie’s smile changes. Her eyes, which had been playful before, soften. “I’d tell you that you’re crazy, Jon. That you have something real with her, and that you deserve to be happy, and that you were always the person you think you are now.” She shakes her head. “But I’m in your head, so I know you’ll never believe me. So go ahead, Jon. Make the biggest mistake of your life. She’s heading this way now.”
“What?” he asks, but Katie is gone.
Shweta walks into a room holding a box. “Jon, there you are.”
I knew my real reason for being in that mood. As soon as I realized that Shweta was the one for me, I also realized that I wasn’t the one for her.
She had rehabilitated her entire life. She took every part of her personality that was used for evil and transformed it into a strength for me and our cause. She was the strongest person that I had ever met, and it was due to her persistence and planning that we were able to be so successful as a foundation and as a tag team.
So what right did I, a never-changing bag of flaws, have to even be in the same room with her?
Hours have passed, and Jon sits at a bar stool in Pirogue’s Whiskey Bayou, taking a sip of his beer. He looks down at the pocketwatch and sighs. “Idiot,” he mutters.
“Me?” asks the bartender.
“No, me,” he says, taking another sip.
“Ah, I’m sure that’s not true,” she says, washing a glass.
“I beg to differ,” a voice rings out from behind Jon. He turns his head to see Chet Fleetwood standing behind him. Behind Chet are four men including his son Quinn. Chet looks past Jon to the bartender. “Don’t worry, sweetheart. We’ll get him home. Let’s go, Jon.”
Jon sees the baseball bat in Quinn’s hand and nods, standing and following the men outside. As they make their way behind the bar, Jon catches a whiff of fish from the dumpster and scowls.
“So I hear you’ve been fucking my girlfriend,” Chet says, reaching his hand back. Quinn puts the bat in his hand.
“She isn’t your girlfriend anymore. And…we aren’t together anymore.”
“Oh,” Chet says, laughing. “Did she finally get tired of knowing she could have done…Chetter?”
Jon sighs. “Look. If you and your son are going to beat the shit out of me, just do it. I don’t care anymore. It’s all over anyway.”
I was in a dark place. Nora’s great news made me face myself in a new light, and I didn’t like what I saw.
As I said earlier, I knew that I had used Paxton. Just like I used Dustin. And now here I was, reacting to my friend’s daughter being cancer free like it was bad news for me. My immediate reaction disgusted myself, and so I gave up.
I pushed Shweta away. I told myself I was going to retire. I prepared for Paxton to tell me he was done with our team, and that PRIME would be done with me.
And as I stood there, staring down men who wanted to beat me within an inch of my life, I didn’t even think about fighting. I just wanted to be done with everything.
“Well, since you asked so nicely,” Chet says, and begins to walk forward. Jon closes his eyes and waits for the impact. But instead all he feels is a breeze as someone stands in front of him. He opens his eyes to see it’s not just one person.
“Paxton…Connor…” he says, then looks over at the third person. “Shweta.”
“Chet, this is stupid. Go home.” Shweta steps forward.
Chet smiles. “She won’t always be around to save you, Jon.”
Chet and his gang turn around and walk away. Quinn smiles at Connor. “See you next week, Nackedy. Looking forward to our match.”
“Oh I don’t think you’re gonna be comin’ back to Gray’s, Quinn,” Paxton says, stepping forward and taking a long drag of a cigarette.
Quinn looks past Paxton to Jon, who is still staring at the ground. “Who the fuck are you to say that?” Quinn asks. “He’s the owner, you’re just a student like me.”
“If you wanna find out who the fuck I am, jus’ show up on Monday.”
Quinn suddenly turns around and walks away quickly. As the crowd disperses, Shweta turns on Rhine. “You were just going to accept a beatdown? Are you out of your mind?”
“I just…I felt I deserved it. That’s all.”
“You…deserved it?” Shweta asks.
Paxton looks at Jon and Shweta, then throws his cigarette butt on the ground and stomps it out. He puts his arm around Connor’s shoulders. “Hey, Connor, let’s get outta here.”
“We’ll be in the car,” Connor says.
Shweta waits until they walk away to turn around. “Why did you deserve it? Why are you acting like this?” She looks down, and when she looks back up at him her eyes are glassy. “Why are you pushing me away?”
He looks at his feet. “Why are you trying to save me?”
“Ever since 2020, you’ve been there to save me. I keep putting myself in positions to fail, and you stop me. You saved me when Foster paralyzed Dustin. You saved me when Paxton and Nora came into my life. You saved me after the Foundation Dinner. You saved me tonight. I’m just going to need to be saved again. So why do you keep saving me?”
Shweta steps forward and grabs Jon’s hands, causing him to look up. He sees her eyes, tears spilling out the side. He also sees her smile. “Because you’re worth saving, Jonathan.” And then he sees her lips coming towards his.