“Fight the pain inside your head.”
I was inside of that cage for over an hour.
What I saw changed me; what I did I can never live down.
“Fight the pain inside your head.”
When the metal rose to the ceiling, my nemesis and I were granted new Life. As he stood in his corner and I stood in mine, we finally connected in the center of the ring for the very first time.
And it was wonderful.
A crack of my skull here, a family conflict there, we exchanged blows and beliefs both of us had walked out as champion. The confetti, I thought, was the final dagger.
“Fight the pain inside your head.”
These words, never truer as I rose to the top, barely able to keep my balance. My back was killing me, my knees could hardly bend. Tension built from the respectable crowd.
Was this reality?
An opportunity I never thought could happen.
At the edge of my fingertips.
Inside your head.
But I didn’t.
Tap, tap, tap.
…And that’s it.
There’s no turning back now.
— — — — —
June 6, 2021
Everyone was licking their wounds. The winning team, the losing team, the World Champion.
The one who failed them all.
About thirty minutes have passed since Sutler defeated me for the biggest prize in wrestling. I spent the majority of SRK’s celebration resting against the apron outside the ring. Slowly, with my head hanging low, I made my way behind the curtain. I’m greeted by Teddy and Lindsay, both with kind words to say. We laid it out there in the most historic War Games battle of all time (or so the dirt sheets are reporting) but came up short. I gave it everything. However, I will still put this loss on my shoulders and I won’t speak a word of it to anyone for fear of turning the attention onto myself.
“Thanks man,” I barely huff the words to Teddy. “I’m sorry I couldn’t save you in time.”
He pats me on the back and says “it’s okay, buddy” as I wander down the hallway with a surreal feeling. On one hand I lasted until the bitter end and I should be proud. I reflect on my time at the DLC the week before I flew to Japan, where I rallied the troops. I wanted to be recognized as a force, as someone who can be taken seriously when called upon. And most importantly as someone who despite my looks and interest, can evoke enough plausible fear to become a World Heavyweight Champion.
I can hear Walter in my head saying something along the lines of “mission accomplished”.
But I scoff.
I don’t feel that.
I don’t feel that whatsoever.
I’m at the end of the hallway. I look behind me, hoping to see Teddy or Lindsay standing there. Honestly, even Wahl might be a sight to see. At least he could help me take my anger out… or beat the piss outta me.
I always figured it would be lonely at the top but it’s even lonelier when you were right there and just couldn’t do it. Blood trickles down from my forehead. Actually, it might be tears. I’m too tired to brush a hand over my face to find out.
… … … … …
Dearness Living Center
June 8, 2021
It’s late as I swipe into the living quarters. Off to my left is the commons room, although I don’t expect anyone to be up at this hour. There’s a big “CONGRATULATIONS” sign hanging above the television, signifying the Elders were waiting for me to come home and celebrate sometime before nightfall. Only Margo and Louie remain in the family room. Louie’s sound asleep, sprawled across one of the couches and snoring heavily. Margo glances towards me, eyes fogged over, mind trying to process yet thoroughly confused. It will take her minutes to recognize who I am so I toss my duffle bag over my shoulder and make my way through the hall as quietly as possible. The bedroom doors are shut, everyone else is passed out as expected.
At least I’m home.
Reports have High Octane back on the road in two weeks. Pittsburgh. What was initially meant as a two month road trip has turned into a HOW touring party across the US. I won’t be able to spend much time here, not like I did in the earlier days.
Arriving at the end of the hall I turn and see my bedroom. As I wander in, I flick the light switch and almost have a stroke. My gaming chair spins around with Walter sitting there, arms folded across his lap.
“Conor,” he greets, ensuring he wasn’t trying to be creepy. Fail.
“Jesus Christ, Walt. You’re gonna give me an early heart attack.”
Walter waves his right hand around like it’s no big deal. “Easy, son. I would’ve kept the light on but I was about ready to call it a night. You kids and your late night shenanigans.”
All I can do is shake my head. “Walter, it’s fucking 10pm.”
Again, he’s dismissive. “And I’m 95-years-old.”
I feel my eyes rolling. “Look, thanks for the CONGRATULATIONS sign out front. I’m sure you had something really nice planned and I’m sorry I’m late. I was, uh, attending to some things…”
Walter rises from my Secretlab OMEGA Stealth 2020 Series Gaming Chair and looks me over.
“What’s the matter with you, son? Got your skull rammed in with a steel chair?”
“No Walter,” I convey. “That was my grandfather.”
Now it’s his turn to roll his eyes. “I’m aware. Try sarcasm.”
There’s a long drawn out silence as I walk past Walter and throw my bag on the floor.
“Huh?” Walter says again. “You’re acting as if you lost everything. My boy, you’re a Tag Team Champion!”
I pause for a moment before collapsing on my bed. Leaning over, I unzip my duffle bag and see the grey-blue-silver championship shining through my wrestling gear, beside my Nintendo 3DS. If I’m gonna be honest with myself, tag team wrestling is a lost art. I may rip on Jatt Starr and John Sektor tongue-in-cheek but I can respect the hell out of the mileage they’ve gotten with these achievements. Winning this belt has been lost in translation.
“You’re right, Walt. Nothing to be ashamed about.”
“Ashamed?” He scolds.
Before Walter continues, I interject. “I didn’t mean it like that. This is an incredible honour. As someone who first made a name for himself in tag team wrestling, this is what I know best. Teamwork is important in video games, life… wrestling.”
Walter nods, as if insinuating I didn’t have to tell him this information. He looks down at the championship belt and then up at me.
“Didn’t you say you wanted to be taken seriously?” Walter asks.
“Doesn’t get more serious than being able to hang with Dan Ryan.”
I take the leather belt out of my duffle bag. Holding it across my palms, I let the old man’s words sink in a little further.
“Look, Walt, I hear you. I have an incredible opportunity here. I can work alongside a legend and a very dangerous man who’s decided he’s not going to rip my head off just yet.”
Walter doesn’t say a thing as I continue to stare at the belt. Instead, he moves towards the entrance.
“I don’t think someone like Dan Ryan would have much interest in you if the two of you aren’t holding those titles. Just my feeling, son. So I would fight with everything I have if I were in your shoes. The longer you hold the gold, the more you can learn from one of the most calculating killers in wrestling history.”
Man. He’s got all the answers.
“Besides,” Walter looks back at me with a clever grin for a guy his age. “Wasn’t your main goal to defeat your grandfather?”
He says with the faintest wink possible or it was literally a muscle twitch, I’m not sure.
“And you accomplished that. You damn sure did that.”
The old man leaves, flicking off the light and closing the door behind him. The Tag Team Championship gold still glistens from the moonlight through my window.
… … … … …
Water Tower Place (Foodcourt) – Chicago
June 10, 2021
If you’ve followed my journey for a while, I have a slight obsession with holding “meetings” at Starbucks. Well, I’ve decided to change it up today and get my coffee from Do-Rite Donuts instead, along with a half-dozen. What? I’m young enough. The Elders are always in my ear saying “enjoy it while you can, Conor” when speaking about the junk food I consume. I plan to work it off in a gym session anyway. I’m just waiting for my acquaintance to show up.
My mind has been wandering for days. Rumours are swirling after the first Re-FUSED show from War Games was announced. Walt was right. This is a title defense I can’t screw up because I need to learn as much as I can from my partner. He showed me the places he was willing to go inside the cell. I should’ve known but it’s one thing to see it up close and personal.
My mind drifts past the actual tag team contest and into other rumours. Lee’s stance with Lindsay is a big one. There have been grumblings for weeks the two continue to be at each other’s throats.
The GL214. Are we still going to team? Are we going to keep Zion, Arthur and Xander in our !ranks? Zion’s fun. He kinda reminds me of, well, me. Poor guy can’t catch a break until recen-
“Is this seat taken?”
I glance up, completely off guard. There’s no way this is correct. A woman stands across the table. Long, blonde hair. Big, lush blue eyes. Dressed in a black tank top and grey yoga pants. I look down to see her hand is placed on the chair in front of the table. My table.
The woman laughs lightly. “Well, is it?”
I’m trying to figure things out.
“Uhhhh…” Is the best I can come up with as my voice fades away.
“I’ll take that as a no,” she states, pulling back the chair and placing her tray down.
She leans forward, clearly realizing I’m rather uncomfortable. “Sorry,” she says with a coy tone. “There’s nowhere else to sit.”
As I look around me, she’s not lying. The other tables are taken and I do have a free seat.
“Marin,” she greets, sticking her hand out as I pull mine cautiously forward. We shake.
“And what brings you here today, Conor?” She seems very friendly. A little too friendly if I’m being honest.
“Uhhh, nothing really.” I have no idea why it’s difficult for me to speak. “Just killing time.”
There’s a moment of silence but she seems good with it.
“You?” I question.
“I’m off today,” Marin mentions as she digs into her bag of Wow Bao. I thought of going there but I decided on donuts instead. “Was planning on attending my yoga class. What do you do for work, Conor?”
WTF is wrong with me right now?
“I’m a trainer,” my eyes are darting around for the person who was initially supposed to meet me here but I don’t see them.
“A trainer?” I catch her eyes as they are looking directly at me. “Yeah, I’m a Pokémon trainer.”
I also laugh but much more uneasily. “It was a joke.”
“I know; you’re funny.”
She’s got some kind of teriyaki chicken bowl. Lo mein noodles and loaded with vegetables. Meh, I prefer my donuts.
“You from around here?” She inquires.
“Well, yes and no. Moved here last year.”
Marin nods while taking a bite out of her bowl. I decide I should probably ask her the same. “What about you?”
“Yeah, I’m Chicagoland. Park Ridge, if you’re familiar?” I’m not really but she continues on. “What about you?”
“I- Ah- Um- Well-”
She leans forward and grabs my arm with her left hand.
“You don’t live with your parents, do you?” Marin says with a wink.
It takes a moment for me to respond. “Not exactly.”
She lets go of my arm and leans back in her chair. “See? I can be funny, too.”
And I laugh, albeit, once again, uncomfortably.
“So how’s your day going?” Marin changes the topic. We don’t need to go into every detail from here but the entire time I can’t help but wonder why she decided to sit down in front of me.
I say about twenty minutes pass. I try my best to keep up with the conversation but I have no idea how it went.
“So are you going to ask me for my number yet?” Marin states.
“Number? You- you want my number?”
She shakes her head no. “I don’t want your number. I want you to have mine.” And begins to scribble digits on the back of what looks to be a business card. She slides it across the table when finished.
“Digits on the back are the ones you really want.” And gives another playful wink as I try to keep cool.
“Oh yeah no for sure.”
Jesus, real COOL Conor.
I take the business card and place it in my pocket. “So thank you.”
She smiles warmly and begins to collect her items. “You’re welcome.”
This girl is outta my league and I’m sure I’ll spend the next few hours replaying this chance encounter over and over again.
“I hope to hear from you very soon, Conor. It was a pleasure meeting you.” She throws her purse around her shoulder, smiles once again and we say our goodbyes.
I pull out her business card. It looks like a real number.
What just happened here?
Luckily, I don’t have any more time to process. The Game Boy takes a seat in front of me. 6’6”, 300+ pounds of hulking muscle, in case you forgot. And he wears his luchador NES themed wrestling mask.
He doesn’t speak; he never speaks. But in this instance his communication is loud and clear anyway.
“What?” I snap.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” I say, placing Marin’s card back in my track pants. “I don’t even think I believe me.”
… … … … …
Local Wrestling Gym – Locker Room
June 10, 2021
I put in four hours with my Game Boy. I told him to go HARD, despite my body being in extremely rough shape. My head pounds from the Cancer Jiles egg drop, my knees from the various dives I perform every match and my neck… still recovering from the Sutler Reynolds-Kael triangle choke.
“Good session my little buddy,” I say to The Game Boy as he pats me on the back, stands up and works his way towards the locker room door. “See ya again next week, okay?”
The Mini Boss doesn’t say a word before vanishing. Having a guy his size whip me around the ring on a weekly basis has been a great use of his services, considering I had let him go as my pseudo “manager” within the first few months of HOW. Maybe one day I will use him in that role again.
But I don’t need a Laser. I don’t need shit. I need to take my losses like a man and I need to Level Up.
I notice the familiar voice right away as I stand up and walk to the locker room mirror. It’s me, “New-Age” Conor aka NAC on the other end of the mirror. I met him formally before War Games, although he has made appearances here and there. He’s me at 45-years-old and it’s always fun to converse with myself.
“Well shit. Isn’t today just filled with appearances. How’ve you been?”
“I’m alright,” NAC replies.
I scratch my neck. “I thought you’d show up a little sooner to be honest.”
“Naaa. Wanted to let you be.” NAC grins. “Besides, you had some new people to meet. One woman in particular…”
His voice trails off.
“Yeah, she seems nice.”
“I’m sure she is.”
“You don’t like her?”
NAC is quick on the defense. “Oh no. Sorry, I didn’t mean to give that impression. She’s great. Go with it.”
I’m inquisitive so I decide to ask. “Do we get married or something?”
“You know I can’t answer that for you,” NAC says, rolling his eyes.
“So what brings you here, then?” I say, looking myself over. I look pretty damn good for 45.
“Just wanted to touch base and make sure you’re ready. Since the Fallout of War Games, you can grasp where you stand, right?”
“Good. This is gonna be your biggest challenge yet. Defending the Tag Team Championships, rebuilding The Grapplers, working alongside guys such as Dan Ryan, Teddy Palmer, dare I say it, Darin Zion. Yes, you’ll beat yourself up for coming SO close to winning the World Title but you may receive another shot. First, you’ll have to prove your worth.”
“Great,” I sigh sarcastically. “I’m like Frodo Baggins meets Link… or something.”
New-Age Conor chuckles while he starts to fade away.
“And then, if you CAN make it to Sutler again, call my name and I’ll let you in on a few secrets you’re dying to find out…”
NAC’s gone. I take my gym bag and leave.
— — — — —
“Fight the pain inside your head.”
Because that’s all pain is when you truly think about it. It’s inside your head. It’s as real as you want it to be.
And I believed.
I failed myself, the Grapplers and these people.
Because the champion doesn’t have to be misguided or corrupt. The champion can think for himself.
I can be the champion. I already am one of them.
Cancer Jiles, Steve Harrison, it’s no coincidence we meet again and for the Tag Team Championships, too. I had failed Teddy and Lindsay the first time we wrestled for these titles but I promise you I am different. I didn’t go through an hour of hell for no reason. I’ve learned significant lessons.
You two will be the first names I take in my wake to the top. This will always be a Game to me and that is no slight on the system.
“Fight the pain inside your head.”
Gaming is everything.
Push yourself, Conor. Grow. Fight. Climb the !ranks.
And fight the pain inside your head.
Because I let it slip away. Sutler Reynolds-Kael is World Champion and Human Resources looms over all of us now. He is not GL214, nor is he Best Alliance. The darkness, this infection, is beyond explanation. I can feel a mischievous presence inside the walls of the PPG Paints Arena as I sulk in its corner trying to pick up the pieces. It’s a power Lee could only dream about capturing.
Steve Harrison, I am sorry for you but this has become an obligation for me.
I won’t put you in a wheelchair. I won’t cripple you. I don’t know how to do those things. My partner does, though. Would you like an up close, personal view? Would you like a hospital bed next to my grandfather?
We are going to defeat you. And Dan Ryan is personally going to make you suffer.
Cancer Jiles, please make me suffer in return, as you have a few times already. Yes, you are not an imposing athlete but you’re clever, underhanded and always find a way.
Not come this contest.
In this contest I overcome you, proving I am the force to be reckoned with.
Cancer, Steve, it’s not going to happen for the two of you. This match isn’t a penis joke, or a dick measuring contest. It’s not a get rich quick scheme. This match means something way beyond. It allows me to keep pace. It grants me the potential for another opportunity to face Sutler Reynolds-Kael.
A true journey to the top. Campaign. Quest. Destiny. Whatever you want to call it. I won’t be sucked into either of your bullshit. I will prove I’m beyond a miracle. Perfection holds no bounds.
And don’t think for one second I’m not aware of the guest referee. It’s a neat little twist.
Hello. Congratulations on winning the World Championship Sutler, formally. However, don’t stand in my way. This upcoming match is not a place for you and I. It’s simply a place for me.
I can feel things changing. High Octane Wrestling begins a new era this weekend. One with me front and center.
So let the ultimate Game begin.
I just hope you’re all ready. Because none of you will see it coming when I make it to the top and take everything away from you.