“So what do I say now? What’s the go-to?”
“Do I sit here and tell Mike Best and Cecilworth Farthington that their days on top of High Octane are numbered? That they’re on the edge of a massive collapse?”
“Who would believe me? Why would anyone even listen?”
“I mean, strictly speaking, their days are numbered. Nobody does this forever.”
“Are y’all on the edge of a massive collapse? I dunno – maybe? Maybe not. There’s very few scenarios that could play out at War Games that’d have you two at each other’s throats for more than a ‘final two’ brawl to close things out.”
“So… not impossible, but unlikely as fuck.”
“Still. Who would believe me? Who am I and what’ve I done?”
“Mike, you and I verbally sparred for over a year. You gave some good shots, I gave some good shots. Finally, match time comes and I give you a solid thworping. Then you turn the fight on its head and walk out with your hand raised.”
“No, I ain’t Little Jimmy. I don’t play that ‘Mike Best didn’t beat me, I beat me’ self – delusional happy horseshit. Mike Best beat me. What right do I have ta’ talk shit after that, huh?”
“For that matter, what right would any of us have to mock Cecilworth Farthington? From the moment you were knocked out of the World Title tournament last year, literally the only time you haven’t been the ultimate winner of any match you’ve been in was last year’s War Games.”
“And being tied for second in a match like War Games? Dude, you don’t sleep on something like that.”
“You two are the heavy bats’a the Group of Death, if for no other reason than this has been your backyard for far longer than almost anyone else in the company, let alone in the match itself. And you’ve got a bond that transcends professional wrestling company lines.”
“That’s something that means something.”
“And it doesn’t really matter which Cecilworth Farthington shows up for this match. A year ago you were entertaining us with a pseudodrama from Swarthy Farthy Estates or whatever the fuck it was called; the Farthington that plays the clown officially comes in second at War Games.”
“How the fuck does any of us have a shot against the Farthington that is the king?”
“Fortunately, expectations for me are at the bottom’a the barrel after the year I’ve been having. On paper, I’m not in anyone’s league. Mike, Lindsay, and Dan have all completely shut me down this year, and there’s literally no reason why I’d even be a blip on Cecilworth’s radar.”
“So let’s just skip to the end, guys. Save us all some time and call me Mary Sue Flair, call me some variation of ‘mmmJeff,’ imply I’m biting off my dad’s successes’a twenty years ago, say ‘cool’ and call it a day.”
“And I’ll see you guys in the ring.”
Shit. I felt movement next to me.
The boy puts his hand on my back and I immediately relax.
Hey, I say to him, turning a bit to look. I was hoping I wouldn’t wake you.
Kevin presses the palms of his hands into his eyes, and, slightly more awake, looks at the clock on the wall. Or tries to, at least.
“What time is it?”
Early, I say. Go back to sleep.
He doesn’t go back to sleep. He sits up in bed and sees my two bags and my one unzipped boot, and he gets himself fully awake.
You got in at like three in the morning, I say, defending myself. You work again tonight. You need ta’ sleep more than like four hours.
He puts his arms around my waist in a tight hug, but I quickly feel myself lifting up as he pulls me over him and on the other side, laying down next to him.
I give, I give, I say, laughing, as I tap out on the mattress. And I kick the boot off my foot for a little more comfort.
“What time is your dad getting here?”
Soon, I say. I think they got a late start because my mom was still packing, but he drives like a maniac.
The boy hugs me and I lean back into it. “It’s really cool your parents are going,” he says.
Yeah, my parents are going, and my uncle Teej is going. Well, he’s already there – he’s been bouncing around Europe for a few weeks and is gonna be making a detour.
“What about Jack?”
I honestly don’t know, I admit. We haven’t talked all that much since the Bandits match.
“By choice, or by coincidence?”
I really don’t know, I repeat. I mean, he hasn’t picked up the phone either.
I remove his arm and shift myself around so I’m looking him in the eye.
I like the team, dude, ya know? But I also like both hands on the wheel being mine. Am I making sense?
He nods. “It’s like in the kitchen. You’re part of a team, and everyone on the team has to contribute. Someone ends up in the weeds, the whole team goes down. But at the same time, there’s gotta be that one person in charge. Does that make sense?”
You lost me a bit, I say, with a chuckle. But I think I get you. And I don’t know if Jack’s gonna go. Half the time I don’t know what he’s ‘bout to do until he does it, yeah?
“That could be good,” he admits. “It could also be bad. Be careful.”
I smile, and I kiss the boy on the mouth.
You worry too much, I say. I’ll be home in just a few days, and the absolute worst possible outcome is that nothing’s changed.
He takes my hand in his, and I hold on tightly with my other hand.
Few days is all, I continue. Then we’ll be right back here, either none the worse for the wear, or with a big-ass title belt.
The moment is interrupted by my phone buzzing with a text message.
There’s my ride, I told him. I give him another kiss and roll to the end of the bed where I retrieve both boots. Skipping the zipper on the side, I sloppily pull them on, knowing that they’re going off within ten seconds of getting into the car.
One bag of wrestling gear, one bag of everyday clothes, and I’m out the door.
Later, babe, I say, pulling out my keys. Love you, I’ll make you proud.
“Be safe, babe,” he calls after me, “Love you too, and you always do.”
And that, right there, is incentive enough to come home every night.
Some people white-knuckle it on plane trips. My mom told me, the first time she ever got on an airplane she felt she had to stare at the wing, unblinking, to make sure it didn’t fall off mid-flight, and her only hope was that there was someone equally neurotic on the other side of the cabin doing the same thing.
Me, I’m reclined with my eyes closed and my headphones on, listening to the mellow beats of KMFDM’s WWIII album. I’ve never been worried, scared, or anxious on a flight.
Good thing, too. Babies are annoying enough to begin with, can you imagine taking one on tour if it didn’t have the ability to sleep through travel? Seriously, it’s to the point where I need to get woken up by the flight attendant for the pre-flight safety lecture.
Travel. Mariella Jade Flurstein at her most mellow.
I’m woken up by a gentle elbow into my ribs, and I open my eyes to see the drink cart.
Ginger ale, please and thank you. My mom, sitting next to me, hands me the cup, taking care not to spill anything on her journal. Based on the lines filled in, crossed out, replaced, rewritten, and circled, she’s working on a new piece.
You’ve been stuck on that piece for days, Ma, I tell her with a smile. You’re working all the time already, just take a breather and take a vacation.
“This keeps me centered,” she replies, “I don’t think about the flight, I don’t think about the landing, and I don’t think about that match you’ve got coming up.”
It’s gonna be fine, I try to reassure, but she fixes those piercing blue eyes on me and shakes her head.
“You said that last year, and came home with a title belt and rope burns around your neck.”
But a title belt.
“But rope burns around your neck.”
I’m fine, Ma. I was fine.
“You know I can’t stand that word,” she says with a sarcastic smile.
I thought the only word you hated was ‘Freebird.’
She laughs, and I laugh. If you’re a musician, you know why.
“Every time your dad said he’d be ‘fine’ or called me after a match to tell me things went ‘fine,’ that’s when he was always beat up the most.”
Peripheral guilt hits me in the guts while my mom sips her cup of wine. She’s only ever seen one of my dad’s matches live and it ended with him getting hit in the head with a brick. Before I was even born. From that point on, professional wrestling was never her cup’a tea.
You can imagine how thrilled she was when she found out I’d been doing it in secret. Twice the fun when you realize I was wrestling as a minor with forged credentials.
Everything’s gonna work out how it’s gonna work out, I tell her, and I’m gonna be just fine. Knox and Cally vouch for Andy, and that’s good enough for me at least until the other team is eliminated. So I feel like I’ve at least got an enemy-of-my-enemy on my side, ya know?
“That doesn’t reassure me.”
Yeah, I know. But the only potentially dangerous thing in that match last year was the noose, and that won’t happen again.
She raises an eyebrow.
“How can you know for sure?”
Because last year I wasn’t expecting it. Now I am.
Despite herself, my mom laughs out loud.
“Not really the personal growth I was expecting from your participation in the sport,” she admits, “but that’s… something. Still, I know enough to know that’s a lot of heavy hitters you’re in there with.”
I know, I tell her, and I can’t get away from that fact. But I’m not worried, I just think of you.
I can tell – that one did surprise her.
Yeah, I explain. Every one’a them, they’re some kinda legend. But they all started where I am. Andy wasn’t the king at twenty. Dan wasn’t busting egoes. And so forth. You and the guys?
I gesture to her notebook.
You took it on the chin all the time but you kept on moving forward. Eventually you made it from the opening act to the midcard, then the midcard to the main event.
She laughs again. “Your wrestling analogies are killing me here.”
And I join her laughter.
At the end’a the day, Ma – I know you’re gonna worry because you’re my Ma. But even if I’m the first one out, I’ve earned the right ta’ be in there just as well as the rest of ‘em.
And I smile.
I’ll be fine.
She’s trying so hard to be angry, but she’s too adorable to pull it off.
“You’re a rotten kid, you know that?”
Learned from the best, I did.
Hey babe, I said into my phone. Just lettin’ ya know we’ve landed, we’ve got to the hotel safely, and we’re good to go.
“Great, babe,” he replies. “Any trouble with the trip?”
Nah, nothing. Easy in, easy out, easy transit to the hotel.
“Your mom calm down at all?”
We talked on the plane, I think she’s gonna be okay. Actually I managed to make a pretty good analogy between our respective careers.
“Not surprised, you’re both performers. And you both need to be in good shape to do your thing.”
Good point, dude, good point.
I’m really not. Surprisingly.
“Wow. Sure it’s not overconfidence?”
Trust me, I say with a laugh, I’m not overconfident. I–
I guess I’m just… Literally everyone seems to be disregarding me at worst or treatin’ me as a liability at best. Having no expectations takes the pressure off.
“I can see that. Just make sure you’re safe, okay? And watchful.”
“I’m serious, babe. I know you – you’ll get laser focused on one person and not see the two coming up behind you.”
Babe, I promise I won’t be turning my back on anyone.
“You say that now, but I’ve seen you in the zone. But you said you’d be safe, flippant as you were, so I trust you.”
Thanks. Too bad you’re not in this match. I could use someone trustworthy.
“If I was in this match – and I’ve seen how hard you guys hit each other – I’d be giving up during the pre-match handshake. I’m very happy being a lover and not a fighter.”
I’m happy you are, too. Ok, I need to shower and change and get something to eat, I’ll talk to you soon.
“Heard. Have a good show. Love you.”
Love you too.
“So this is what it comes down to.”
“Two groups of individuals, one of whom claims kinship, fighting in a pair’a wrestling rings for three pieces of championship gold.”
“The Group’a Death seems ta be the obvious choice. Mike said it himself, they’re a family. They support each other and they’re better than the sum’a their parts. And while he would love to leave War Games with the High Octane World Title, what did he say? Doesn’t matter who on the Group’a Death walks out with the World Title, as long as the Group’a Death wins War Games? Is the unspoken part of it for every one’a you ‘as long as it’s me’?”
“Cecilworth might be thinking ‘please, someone beat me. I’ve proven my point, take this title away so I can go do something else.’ And we agree, he’s justified in thinking it.
“It’s the obvious choice. After all, look at my team.”
“I can’t trust Minister Max.”
“I won’t trust Little Jimmy.”
“I’m afraid to trust Andy Murray.”
“Seven other people in this match, four’a ya actively dislike me, Andy passively dislikes me, Minister Max clearly hates everyone, and Cecilworth…”
“Like I said.”
“Blip on the radar. Gone.”
“And then something happened. Something remarkable.”
“I’m twenty seven places lower on the official rankings than the next person in this match. The Top Ten rankings in High Octane are literally the rest’a the War Games field, Red ‘n Ted, and Halitosis Joe.”
“Then there’s me.”
“I shouldn’t be here. There’s no reason for me ta’ be here. Lee Best said it himself, he wanted a younger, faster Lindsay Troy. As the only other woman on the High Octane roster, it was a pretty small focus group.”
“Imagine that, my marketable skill in the year twenty – twenty is being officially half a locker room’s usage.”
“But I’m not mad, I’m not insulted, and I ain’t even angry. I’m grateful. Being ranked thirty sixth in a field’a thirty seven, I know the poop. This is gonna be my only chance at a title shot this year.”
“I somehow manage ta’ come outta this thing with the World, ICON, or LSD Championship, every loss, setback, and attempted murder from the past year gets erased in one fell swoop.”
“I don’t? I spend the rest’a the year with the HATEheads’a the world.”
“You’d think that’d be pressure, but I actually feel pretty fuckin’ liberated. I’ve got nothing ta’ lose. I’m goin’ into this match with no trust for anyone which means ain’t nobody can betray it.”
“Mike Best talks about the Group’a Death as a close-knit family that looks after its own, but literally half his team has already betrayed their friends once this year. And that ain’t me tryna’ sow discord, I’m literally lookin’ at the past ta’ extrapolate the future.”
“When it comes right down to it, the final four in this match ain’t gonna care about friendship, or family, or bond stronger than steel. When it comes ta’ the final four, someone’s gonna be sacrificed.”
“Imagine what’d happen if the Group’a Death clean swept us, and they were the final four. How d’ya decide who draws the short straw? How well do ya think the bonds’a brotherhood are gonna hold when one’a ya knows that the other three were willin’ ta’ sacrifice ya for their own greater glory?”
“Imagine what’d happen if Minister Max comes to his senses and betrays his War Games team, and he’s with the Group’a Death as the Final Five? Awkward. Tho, in that case, I’m willin’ ta bet Dan and LT would see the bonds between ‘em as bein’ anchored not quite as well as the eMpire.”
“Imagine if it comes down ta’ me, Dan, Mike, and Cecilworth. I’m the obvious target, but Dan’s the most dangerous presence. They’d go for me, but Dan Ryan would be ready ta’ go for them.”
“There are four people per side in this match, and there are three prizes. The best case scenario for the other team is betrayal, and with two clearly defined cliques’a two people each. It’ll be interesting ta’ see the lengths that hungry animals are willing ta’ go.”
“It’s almost hilarious, I think that the four’a us on Lee Best’s team actually have an advantage here.”
“No trust means no betrayal.”
“No hope means no fear.”
“The only thing we have in common with each other is hatred for everyone on the other side. I believe Andy Murray will have my back until the Group’a Death has no chance’a winnin’ War Games. I believe Minister Max’ll hone in on Mike Best and give him a really bad day. And I believe that Little Jimmy will be a meat shield for the rest of us ta’ hide behind in order ta’ accomplish our goals.”
“I don’t trust any of ‘em, but I’m willing ta’ fight side by side until we don’t need each other anymore.”
“It still blows my mind that it’s been a full year, almost. A year of victories and losses, betrayals and saves, Industries and Empires.”
“And it still blows my mind that, a year later, we’re all right back where we started.”
“And I really still wanna know, was it worth it.”
“LT and Dan joined the winning team in the Group’a Death.”
“And Dan lost an ICON Title match.”
“And LT lost an LSD Title match.”
“And they both lost a Tag Title match.”
“At this stage’a your careers, Andy Warhol had it wrong. You won’t be famous for fifteen minutes. You’ll be standing next ta’ someone famous inside that ring for fifteen minutes.”
“Just be glad Mike and Cecilworth needed someone ta’ carry their luggage.”
“Maybe I’m just talkin’ shit now, and maybe I’m about ta’ get my ass handed to me. Truth, I’m cool with that. This year, that’s meeting expectations. But I can look at myself in the mirror and know I never betrayed anyone, not once.”
“And I know that my War Games destiny is based on what I can succeed at on the day. There’s no trust, there’s no team spirit for Lee’s side’a the coin, but I think I can speak for Andy Murray at least, in saying that we’re all gon’ play to our strengths and fight as hard as we can.”
“It’s better than the alternative, the alternative being the joke that with four Group’a Death members in this match and three prizes ta’ be won, one of you is – at the very least – considered disposable by the others.”
“And if ya can’t figure out which one it is? Oh, honey.”
“You’re not gonna like the punchline.”