“You have to believe, Michael. You have to let me in.”
The diseased rasp of a wheeze is all that passes for a laugh, as it hurls forth from the throat of the man standing behind me. His rancid breath hangs on the back of my skull like seaweed, curdling the fine hairs on my neck in a sour haze.
Like a street preacher, the words flow through the air almost musically. Unsung lyrics, dancing in front of my eyes– it would be mesmerizing if it wasn’t so goddamned creepy. I want to shake it off. I want to break free of his words. I want to resist whatever strange, terrifying chicanery he’s casting my way… but I can’t stop him. I can’t resist. I can’t break free.
I can feel the restraints slicing into my wrists.
The sound of his breathing– that sickly, horrible heaving– it’s the only sound around me for miles, save for the rustling of the wind against the walls of the decrepit old barn. I don’t even know where I am– they hauled me in with a bag over my head. I can still feel the acid sting of the gravel embedded in my knees, leftover from being literally yanked out of the van and dragged across the loose, dusty driveway. Where I am, why I’m here, what is going to happen to me… so many questions, and not an answer in sight. Only that awful, wheezing laughter.
It’s overly familiar.
As though somehow, I’ve met him before.
The bare flesh of my heels digs into the rotting wood beneath my feet, trying to push some slack into the zip ties that bind me to the rickety old chair. It’s a hopeless gesture– even if I had the opportunity to use the leverage, where the fuck would I go? What the fuck would I do? A million miles out into the middle of nowhere– no cell phone, no car keys, not even a pair of fucking shoes.
I’d be a lamb left to the slaughter.
“Relax, nephew.” the monster chuckles, clamping a slimy hand down over my shoulder. “Fortunately for you, you shall remain comfortable for the duration of our little… experiment. It wouldn’t be befitting of the exercise if you didn’t stay put like a good boy.”
I can nearly taste the lump in my throat.
That isn’t the kind of word that you want to hear when you’re zip-tied to a chair in the middle of the fucking nowhere– not even guinea pigs enjoy being guinea pigs. They may lack the vocal capacity to express their distaste for it, but the fucking hate it. Fish scream, guinea pigs squeal, and right now, Michael Lee Best is trying his damndest not to soil himself in the middle of the murder barn.
“Ex– experiment?” I can feel my heartbeat in my temples. “…the fuck does that even mean?”
The lumbering mass of wheezing stench lurches around the side of the chair, his face draped in shadows– it’s the first time I’ve seen his face since his thugs strapped me down to this rotten old chair. Greasy, slicked back hair is matted down to his head, the bulk of his face shredded with scar tissue. His smug expression is tightly knit into an almost bemused scowl.
He is a monster, but somehow, a familiar one.
“To be quite blunt, Michael.” he beams, spreading his jagged, nightmarish smile. “My ultimate goal is to reprogram you. Make you better. And then, my dear nephew… we will once more be one big, happy family.”
This is how it happens, every single time.
I can almost see his face, and then–
He shoots up off the bed with a start, the sweat soaked sheets sticking firmly to his back as his eyes dart around the empty, darkened bedroom. No doctor. No monitors, or machines that make a loud, irritating beeping sound. He shakes his arms, finding them free– no chain, shackling him helplessly to the bed.
It’s just an empty hotel room.
His head is pounding, as though someone were beating him about both temples with small but very powerful hammers. Michael Lee Best shimmies off the edge of the bed, putting his feet down on the floor and trying to stand up. His heart is smashing desperately against his ribcage, trying to free itself from his chest– his eyes blink rapidly, adjusting to the darkness as he fights back the feeling that he’s about to vomit all over the carpet.
“It’s just a dream, idiot.”
There is no one here to answer him, of course. After Refueled, Farthington took off for a couple of weeks to “find himself.” It was bound to happen eventually, of course– both the loss of the title and the loss of himself. You don’t go on a run like that and come out okay on the other side, and in truth, it should feel like a blessing. They’d been driving each other a little crazy as of late. Even for the world’s greatest best friends, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Alone in his hotel room for the first time in many weeks, the HOW World Champion can’t help but realize the irony in wishing that he wasn’t, at this particular moment.
The nightmares had been getting worse now for weeks.
He’d been through withdrawals before– this certainly wasn’t that. When you stop doing coke, the biggest side effect is just wanting more coke. You don’t vomit. You don’t shake. You might get anxious, or irritable, or maybe even a little bit paranoid, but vivid, horrible nightmares are not generally part of the deal. Besides, you have to actually quit doing cocaine to go through cocaine withdrawal, and while he may have cut it down to a financially manageable level, Michael Lee Best is no quitter.
So what the fuck is wrong with him?
He grasps at the bits and pieces left of the nightmare, trying to salvage what he can, but it doesn’t feel like a nightmare. Not this time. It’s as though he wasn’t… dreaming… he was remembering.
It feels like a memory.
The creaking and scraping of the boards beneath his feet, as he’s dragged across the floor of the rickety old barn. The dusty, sweet smell of spoiled straw– so strong that he could taste it. He’d never before awoken from a dream and remembered the way that something smelled. And yet as he writhed between the sweat-soaked sheets, he could smell it. He could taste it, in the same way you can recall the taste of a favorite childhood meal. Like it’s almost on the tip of your tongue, even though it was a million years ago.
And then there were the screams.
“This is so fucking stupid. Just a dream. What am I, a child?”
His forehead feels damp, as he washes his hands over his face, trying to wipe away some of the sweat. He is entirely soaked through– it’s as though he’d slept in a sauna, despite the glowing “72” peering back at him from the floor mounted air conditioning. It isn’t the drugs, and it isn’t the nerves– some guys start to unravel come pay-per-view time, but for all of his flaws, Michael Best was never one to lose his calm under pressure. This was the time that he was supposed to be delivering his best.
Thatis, if he’d had a single night’s sleep in three days.
“The fuck are my meds…?”
His clammy hands thrash out in the dark, hunting for the prescription bottle on his bedside table. He swings too far, and nearly jumps out of his own skin as the table lamp tumbles to the floor. Even in the darkness of the room, he can swear he sees that face peering out of the darkness. Hear that contemptible rasp, and that horrible laughter. For just a moment, he can feel the searing pain against his wrists, as the plastic digs into his skin like so many knives.
For just a moment, and then it’s gone.
With half a sigh, and half a whimper, his fingers find the little orange bottle. His hands are trembling, as the lump in his throat feels like it’s growing by the second. He nearly spills the whole bottle onto the carpet, as he hurriedly unscrews the childproof top, tips his head back, and dumps a small handful of the little blue pills directly into the back of his throat.
Just a few little pills.
He swallows them dry.
“You truly HAVE forgotten.”
The cacophony of rusted wheels on rotten wood freezes me in place– it’s like my spine is suddenly fused to the chair, as my neck contorts and cringes from the shrill shrieking. I instinctively stop thrashing against my bindings, as I focus every iota of my being on not hearing that intolerable fucking sound.
This is where I’m going to die.
As much as I’m able to crane my neck, I can see where it’s coming from– a rusted out old metal cart, as ragged and falling apart as the man who is pushing it, screeches to a blinding halt next to the chair that imprisons me. My faceless abductor begins fiddling with the ancient machinery on top of it, scowling and grunting at it like a man possessed until it begins to sing it’s dull, electronic hum. He’s spooling some kind of film into the machine.
It’s a projector.
As the film begins to wind itself through the mechanism, my oppressor makes his way to the wooden panels sitting just feet in front of my face. He yanks down on the sheathed canvas that hangs from the ceiling, as a white sheet falls down halfway to the floor. This feels so familiar– it’s eating away at the back of my subconscious like I’ve been here before. Like this has already happened to me. It’s like deja-vu, but stronger. More specific.
And then suddenly, I can remember.
I’m dreaming right now.
I’ve had this dream a million times before, but I never knew it until just now. I’ve read about this in books before! This is my imagination, and I can do whatever the fuck I want. I can break out of these zip ties, and beat him to fucking death. I can escape from this barn on a magic helicopter if I want, or fly out on the back of a motherfucking dragon.
So why can I still not see his face?
“You’ve forgotten everything.” he grumbles, with a sadistic sadness in his voice. “Forgotten me. But soon, Michael, you will remember. Soon, we will make you better.”
Any second now, Mike. Just bust out of the chair. Fuck, make the whole chair disappear if you want to. Why do the restraints still feel so tight? Why can I still smell that horrible, rancid breath? Maybe if I just shut my eyes really, really tight I’ll wake up.
Wake up, dickdhead. WAKE UP.
The film roars to life now, as the hazed over lights of the dusty lens projects onto the canvas in front of my eyes. It’s a countdown– the same kind that always plays in old TV shows, before the home movies begin.
Why can’t I close my eyes? I need to close my fucking eyes– I don’t know what the fuck this psychopath is about to show me, but I know that nothing good will come from seeing it. The dread fills my lungs in place of air, and suddenly I can’t breathe.
Wake up. Wake up.
Every stupid, meaningless accomplishment that you’ve ever bragged about. Every eye-rolling statistic, every cringy fucking atta-boy you’ve ever demanded, and you can’t even wrench fucking control of your own imagination for two fucking seconds? What the fuck is a Hall of Famer? What the fuck is a World Champion? What the fuck is any of this worth, if you can’t keep fucking control of your own brain long enough to stop him from–
“No use fighting, Michael.” he smiles, calmly. “It will all be over in a few moments. You are sick. You are blinded. You need to REMEMBER. You have a disease, nephew.”
“Administer the cure.”
“You’d better answer your fucking phone.”
It’s very difficult to use a smartphone angrily. In the olden days, you could jam a flip phone open and jam on the buttons in a fiery rage. You could slam it shut with the thunderous crack of plastic, and throw it halfway across the room with minor confidence that it wasn’t going to shatter into a thousand pieces. You could really fucking hang up on someone, just a decade ago.
These are the thoughts in the head of the HOW World Champion, as he contemplates how ridiculous he must look right now– he swipes across the screen of his iPhone with fire in his eyes, tapping on the touch screen hard enough to convey his anger, but softly enough not to void his warranty.
Right now, this is the last thing he needs.
He stares down at a name in his contact list, mashing the button aggressively before holding the phone up to his ear.Reflexively, he notices the impatience of his own right foot– it begins to tap uncontrollably against the pavement, as his teeth grit hard inside of his mouth.
“This fucking bitch had better not ignore my call.”
Her name hadn’t fallen across his lips much over the last month or so– he’d been so busy just trying to keep up the facade of “keeping it all together” that he’d practically forgotten their entanglement in the first place. Unfortunately, she might be the only human being on the planet who can give the Son of God what he needs right now, and he needs it in time to get on a fucking plane and make it down to Tampa, Florida– his ill-fated return to the literal ballsack of America.
Still fucking ringing.
He has to give The Minister credit. For the last four months, he had occupied so much space in the head of his own adopted brother that he legally qualified as a squatter. While the World Champion had been fighting the burden of technical homelessness, The Minister had been living rent free. The stupid fucking masks, leading up to War Games… dragging out his ex-wife (or… current wife? Magic eight ball is unsure) on national television… it should all have been so childish and trivial. It should have been cringe inducing, and stupid. Michael Best should have been laughing in his face… but he wasn’t laughing. He was in Arkham, hunting down a fucking ghost, and making the last phone call in the world he wants to be making right now.
Because The Minister knew what he was doing.
He always knew what he was doing.
It was something that Max had said, right when it all began. As he stood in the middle of the ring, carving that hideous cross into the center of his skull. He looked Michael square in the eyes, and he said “I’ve been here for months now, trying to figure it all out.” They weren’t the scariest words he said that night, and to ninety nine percent of everyone listening, they meant nothing– but to Michael Lee Best, they meant everything.
They meant that all of this was going according to the Minister’s plan.
All of it.
“FUCKING ANSWER YOUR GODDAMNED PHONE!”
His words echo out into the evening, and he suddenly realizes that he must look like a crazy person. He probably looks insane enough, just conducting business in a place like Arkham in the first place. The whole creepy little town isn’t even on Google Maps, for some fucking reason– the whole place seems somehow frozen in history, aloof in it’s own spine tingling sentience. He never thought that he’d find himself in this hellhole again– it had been many years since the fire at 247 Sentinel, and the beginning of a truce that would carry Michael Best and his adopted brother all the way into 2020 without so much as single breaking of the Accords.
Of course that all seems like ancient history, now.
He’d always told himself that he and Max would have one more to round, before it all went up in flames. High Octane Wrestling, that is— the old Kael Estate had long since been rebuilt from the ashes of the fire. He’d always assumed that if they were ever going to break those Accords, it would be at the funeral for the company that they had literally given their everything to, for the better parts of their adult lives. A eulogy to Lee Best himself. Never in a million years would he have thought that it would go down like this. That it would be the Minister with a gun to his head, cackling as he threatened to pull the trigger.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen.
“Well… this is a surprise.” the sound of her voice smashes him out of the orbit of his own thoughts, jarring him back to life. “To what do I owe the pleasure, my dear Michael?”
He chokes on the bile in the back of his throat.
There was a time he thought that she was hot. He’d have this recurring dream where he was walking around with her on a leash, and she’d– you know what? Besides the point. Totally fucking besides the point. The voice on the other side of the phone had been a lot of things to Michael Lee Best over his ten years in High Octane Wrestling. A thorn in his side, a wrench in his plans, and even a co-conspirator on an occasion or two, but to call her an “ally” would be a stretch.
Unfortunately, desperate times call for– well, you know the idiom.
“Elenore Kael.” he grits his teeth, forcing a smile. “We need to meet. Now.”
He can hear her breathing on the other side of the phone. For that matter, he can practically hear the gears turning in her head– the awkward haze hangs in the air just long enough for him to know that she’s considering whether or not to hang up the phone. Perhaps it wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world, for either of them.
And then, in a moment he would probably soon come to regret… she answers.
“I’d heard you were in Arkham.” Elenore replies, the mild hum of amusement wafting through the phone. ”And what, might I ask, is the emergency, dearest stepbrother?”
He rubs the back of his neck, taking a deep breath and closing his eyes. As much as he despised the idea of being cordial with a woman who had attempted to ruin his life on more occasions that most people get the chance to attempt to ruin a life, she was perhaps the only human being on the planet who could help him.
Who could save him.
“We need to talk about the Administer Program.”
This time, she hangs up the phone.