May 25, 2021
Unless you were an obsessed wrestling stalker, you probably missed a telling social media post.
It was a plain enough photograph, though dolled up with Mackenzie Collier’s expert use of Instagram. Selecting the Amaro filter ensured that while the charm of the aging oak tree provided decent scenery, it did not take away from the subjects who stood in front of it. But it wasn’t just the picture that made it a perfect IG post: the caption was the cherry on top.
Bubba & Danielle <3 <3 <3
#zebmartin #jennieappleseed #watsonmillkid
No five-sentence story about the whatabouts and whereabouts. Just a quick note to inform her followers that this was her brother and his new girlfriend.
Truthfully, it took Zeb’s baby sister all of about three seconds to snap the photo, choose the filter, and write the caption. She was much more concerned about the phone buzzes to follow in the quest for triple-digit “likes.” If the new couple had preferred to keep their relationship on the down low, it underestimated the power of a teenager seeking a dopamine drip.
Zeb and Danielle didn’t seem to mind, though. While they certainly weren’t displaying all of the traits of a honeymoon phase in public, their circles already assumed that they were now together. The Watson Mill Kid had become a regular fixture at Jennie Appleseed bookings. He was always the first one waiting for her when she came backstage, his arms open to accept a sweaty hug for a job well done. Most were just surprised that the two waited to make it official after they had moved into separate rentals. (Maybe it was because he’d finally decided to purchase an actual bed frame instead of sleeping on a box spring and mattress on the floor.)
While the caption left things fairly vague, one assumption was clear: Zeb had apparently wasted little time in the introduction to his family. Danielle was only the second woman that he’d ever brought to the Collier residence, and the first one he didn’t have to help sneak out through his bedroom window the next morning.
Judging by the photo, though: was it really such a big deal that the two needed to dress formally for it?
The sloppy-chic pixie bob that she normally styled was much more kempt. This was coupled with a black dress and knit fringe shawl that rested on her shoulders. A pair of taupe heels completed the look, which was totally inappropriate footwear for navigating the roots that jutted out of the tree.
Zeb himself looked equally out of place. It didn’t help matters that he’d gone the route of the old “buy some black slacks and the jacket separately,” but even Dolce & Gabbana wouldn’t have had enough talent to make him look natural in a suit. The pocket square and skinny black tie weren’t fooling anyone: every stereotype of a redneck attempting to blend into high society was front and center.
Aside from a quick selfie to reveal her own Sunday best that day, Mackenzie’s Instagram provided no additional context clues to the occasion or the events that followed. And before you can ask: no, they didn’t go to the Olive Garden for a “fancy” dinner. The plate of chicken parmesan she’d posted with the rooster-head emoji caption was from the night before.
Whatever the reason, it was important enough for Zeb to have flown halfway across the world just to be there. Only to have to turn right back around a couple of days later.
May 27, 2021
With fingers interlocked and sharing an arm rest, Danielle and Zeb shared periodic glances at the screen above, counting down the minutes to the initial boarding call for Chicago.
The conversation remained light during the ride to Hartsfield-Jackson. It was mostly dominated by his mother and step-father offering critique to every minuscule error that his oldest sister made while driving to Atlanta. Zeb of course egged it on every chance he could, questioning whether or not they should allow her to drive to school anymore. The teasing was typically responded to with a threat to break his arm in a way that it would never heal back properly, or an encouragement to Danielle to punch him as hard as she could in the testicles.
It was an emotional and drawn-out farewell, much to the dismay of the flow of traffic at the airport. As far as first meetings with the family were concerned, Danielle had aced the test with flying colors. The extra squeeze from Zeb’s mother as they hugged goodbye had especially affected her: that last gesture reinforcrd everything she needed to know about Zeb himself.
The apple of her eye did not fall far from the tree.
The only exposure that she’d had to Allison Martin Collier before this trip was her brief appearance on High Octane TV with Teddy Palmer. However, it only took a few minutes for her to feel as though she’d known her for years. Yes, she was like any welcoming host: doting on her and going out of her way to make sure she was as comfortable as possible. However, there were subtleties in her behavior that were familiar in what she experienced regularly with Zeb.
Both of their default expressions always carried a twinkle and upturned lips, as if having a perfect poker face was part of their genetic makeup. Verbally, there was very little inflection in their tone. Almost absent any sort of emotion whether they paid a compliment or gave a command. The only way to accurately read either of them was through touch: an unexpected hand landing gently on a shoulder or a playful grab of a knee, their own way of letting you know that you were loved.
Another habit that Danielle picked up on was discovered while Allison was baking a blackberry cobbler. It was a dessert that Zeb had described as “her specialty,” but the way she would meticulously read off of the recipe and measure every ingredient to the exact fraction was almost as if she’d never made it before. During the lull periods of the trip, her son engaged in similar behavior: watching match after match with only brief pauses to jot down observations on his Notes app. This was a more recent quirk of his, but it was clear that it had just been buried in his brain for the past twenty years, waiting to come out.
She knew that this would eventually be a behavior pattern that would lead to a fight once the honeymoon phase had ended. It would be a difficult one to win for her, too, considering the fact that they were in the exact same line of work. If that ended up being the worst thing about him, though, she hoped that this wouldn’t be the last time they were sharing an arm rest in an airport together.
“How’re ya feeling about everything?” Danielle asks, hesitant to break the comfortable silence.
Zeb’s eyes float over in her direction, his half-cocked smile revealing nothing in the way of answering her question. He squeezes his hand over hers: more or less what she was looking for.
“Alright I reckon. Just tryin’ to keep my mind from spinnin’ too much.”
Whether or not it was just being surrounded by a whirlwind of “y’alls” and “ain’ts” all weekend, or if the effects of Chicago life had started to worm their way into his vocal cords, Danielle noticed that his typical Southern drawl had softened a bit over the past couple of days. Maybe it was her imagination, though. Or that she was finally getting used to the language after close to a year of exposure in close quarters.
She matches his hand squeeze with a gesture of her own, leaning over to push back the long brown strands behind his ears. “Here, I’ll help,” she grins, giving a playful tug of the bill of his hat down closer to his eyes.
Zeb chuckles, slapping his thigh and slouching down into his chair. “Dang, I feel so much more relaxed now. Tuh think all this time I just needed someone to mess with my ball cap.”
Slinking all the way down to the carpet, Zeb scooches over and sits on the floor directly in front of Danielle, pulling her denim-clad legs over his shoulders as if they were backpack straps. She slips his hat off of his head to resume playing with his hair, running her fingertips through it like a pick brush. He tilts his eyes all the way back and peers up at her, sighing.
“I’m shore gonna miss you these next couple uh weeks,” he blurts.
“I’d miss me too,” Danielle responds with a wink. “Not to sound like a wet blanket or anything, but I wish you’d just come back home with me until you gotta be in Japan. We could get a later flight.”
To be honest, that was all Zeb wanted to do. His heart wasn’t even into going back to Japan at all. At present, just being near her was like being wrapped in a fleece blanket, protecting him from the frigidness of the wrestling business. Making him feel secure in the fact that no matter what the outcome was in the ring, it would never change her opinion of him. This was judgment that he’d be crossing the Pacific to face once again.
“I can’t,” he concedes, knowing that he had no choice in the matter. “Takin’ a partin’ shot to the jaw didn’t look too good goin’ into this. Not sure if it’s gonna help bein’ bunked up with everyone the next week and a half, but I’ll be derned if we lose on account of a lack uh tryin’.”
“I get it. I won’t throw a temper tantrum in public just to get you to stay, I promise,” she jokes. “But you better text me on the hour, every hour. And FaceTime me three times a day. And like and retweet everything I post.”
“You don’t even got a Twitter,” Zeb replies, pressing his thumb into her calf muscle.
“Oh yeah, I forgot! Gotta live the gimmick. No cell reception in the wilderness.”
“A true artiste,” Zeb affirms. “Though I reckon you could make the argument that pioneer women ain’t got no cell phones peri…”
“Delta would like to welcome you to Flight 1385 for service to Chicago O’Hare…”
The consistent brick to the head of any airport conversation had finally been thrown, signaling to them that it was almost time for Danielle to go. Zeb clamors up to his feet from the floor, extending both of his hands to offer his help in standing her up.
“I guess that’s me.” She purses her lower lip and mimics a stamping motion with her tennis shoe, then glances up to him with a smile. “Are you sure you don’t want to try to fit in my carry-on?”
Zeb shakes his head as his eyes start to widen. “I done ate three chili dogs from the Varsity. That’ll be liable to kill me before we even take off.”
Danielle shrugs. “I had two. And onion rings. I’m gonna cropdust first class when I get on the plane: that’ll show them a thing or two about priority boarding.”
“I’m just glad you held it in when I’s down on the floor just now,” he chuckles. “Reckon you really do like me.”
She slinks up to him, wrapping her arms around his neck and craning upward for a kiss. “I reckon I do.”
It was a tender yet not too movie-like moment for the new couple. They’d spared any type of grotesque gestures: no violent swirling of tongues, no grabbing of one another’s asses (and thankfully so, as it seemed as something might jar loose if they did.) No walking away for Zeb only to immediately rush back into her arms for a second goodbye. Just a hug and a smooch before he pulled on the adjustable lever of his roll-aboard and headed toward the international terminal.
The visit home despite the circumstances that surrounded it was a nice reprieve from the tour. But now, it was officially time to get back to business…
“I been holdin’ this in for like ten minutes, goddamn…”
…after he went to the bathroom, of course. Chili dogs tended to bark whenever they felt like it.
May 29, 2021
“Ah. Done found one.”
Fresh off a nap to shake off the jet lag and see the last couple of hours of sunshine, Zeb Martin had been thinking about this moment for the majority of the flight. He went as far as to send a pre-emptive midair text to his favorite member of the production crew, informing him to be prepared to film once he was able to rest and throw on some clean clothes.
The usual garb was all there. Relaxed Wranglers cut to fit over the clunky discount outlet boots, a black T-shirt advertising Korda Fishing Tackle on his chest, and a denim jacket to help complete the ensemble.
The only difference was the absence of either the Levi Garrett or the officially-licensed Zeb Martin trucker hat. This cap featured a Snickers Racing logo, and it fit snugly to his head, missing the mesh backing that he tended to prefer. The slight tear in the bill coupled with the fact that it appeared too small for him was an indicator that it must have been secondhand. It had certainly seen better days.
Even though he was raring to interview, it did take some time to scout out the location. Zeb was particular in what he wanted, so he’d paid close attention to the sights of the city en route to the hotel to find what he was looking for. While he’d pinpointed a site that was only about five minutes away, he wasn’t too certain of the right direction to go.
Ultimately, they’d found it. It wasn’t remarkable or easy on the eyes: it was just a twelve-story building nestled in the gridlines and surrounded by several more spectacular skyscrapers. This specific building was currently inaccessible, as it appeared as though it was undergoing a major renovation. The small grassy courtyard that surrounded the place was barricaded by a seven-foot tall chain link fence, making sure that no one would be harmed by falling debris while construction took place.
The crew member immediately understood the imagery that the Watson Mill Kid was going for. A little bit cliche, but it would certainly fit the vibe of the event to come. However, Zeb was not going to make it as easy as simply pointing and shooting. He took his time observing the fence up close, making a semi-circle all the way over to the back of the building before finally coming to a stop.
“Weak link,” he points out, lifting an index finger to the cage. While the pattern of the fence was simply a repetition of a diamond shape, this particular section had a slight kink in it: bent down to form a dip instead of a straight line to connect it.
“Weak link,” he emphasises again. “And in case y’all ain’t heard it enough? Weak link,” Zeb proclaims, now touching the diamond with his hand to create a jangle from the fence.
“I shore’ve heard it a time or two. It ain’t a jab that the Best Alliance tryin’ to put on a T-shirt or nothin’, but when them words start repeatin’ in yer own head over and over and over again, it sticks with ya.”
“Old sayin’ goes, you hear it long enough,” he continues, opting to lean against the fence with an extended arm, “you start believin’ it. Another old sayin’ applies here too. Looks like one, acts like one, maybe ‘rassles like one? It is one.”
Zeb takes a pause, turning his back to look through the fence toward the piles of concrete bags stacked near the rear fire exit of the building. He stays in this position as he continues his monologue.
“I’m the weak link. Guess for a company that’s slap full of winners, there’s gotta be losers somewhere. And lately, I reckon I’ve been prime rib to a pack of dogs. I s’pose it’d be easy for me to just be one of them folks who’ll tell you that they ain’t worried ‘bout their arm gettin’ raised ‘cause they just in it for the paycheck. Well, I may be a weak link, but one thang can’t nobody say about Zeb Martin is that I’m a liar. The glory’s just as important to all us as the money. Every trainee watchin’ this right now nursin’ pains from their first day of runnin’ ropes and takin’ chops ain’t aspirin’ to go one-and-three leadin’ into a main event. They ain’t studyin’ hours and hours of tape just to get kicked in they dang mouth and knocked out twenty seconds into a fight.”
“Naw, I didn’t come here to be a weak link,” he continues, “but I’m bent every whichaway all the same. Thang about it is though? I ain’t too proud to admit it. Lotta youngins in my position would prolly just throw in the towel. Accept that they’re just restin’ in the chum bucket for the sole purpose of attractin’ the sharks. I don’t know if all this time I done spent goin’ through old matches and makin’ tweak after tweak to my own game is gonna be what gets me outta the mud, but that there method’s had a little success here lately.”
“Thang of it is, you ain’t even gotta look back too far to find where it’s worked. Take a look over at John Sektor. Man who’s taken some lumps since March to Glory, ain’t no denyin’. John’s done forgot more headlock variations than I’ll probably ever learn, but him ‘n Jatt’s been HOW’s version uh Conan O’Brien and Andy Richter: more entertainin’ in their earlier years.”
“But a couple weeks ago? John finally got smarts about him and fired his writers, gettin’ back to what made him respected and feared by young bucks like me,” he continues, honing in on his point. “Focusin’ on the sport and exercisin’ muscles that weren’t just operatin’ his mouth. And yeah, he won one beforehand. But ain’t nobody go’n compare gettin’ a pin on our ol’ buddy Lester to gettin’ one over on Dan Ryan. Nut shot be damned, that there is a bounce back that he knew he needed, and that put him on the high threat list fer War Games.”
“But he ain’t the only Alliance member that’s done pulled himself up lately. Sektor’s got the much more respectable story ‘bout bootstraps and perseverance, though. He didn’t dig his own rectangular hole and climb down in it only tuh realize that no one was gonna come around and start shovelin’ the dirt back in it for him.”
“Not like you, CJ.”
“Who’d uh thunk it? Your spirit broke in September, and nothin’ left fer you to do but lay plum dead center in the ring and let me tap you. Reckon that ended up bein’ the funeral you wanted, ‘cause the quest to feed that ego of yours wasn’t gonna be satisfied until you became the modern version of the story of a martyr who’d been resurrected from the grave.”
“Lemme smarten you up,” he fires, the presence of emotion starting to creep into Zeb’s voice. “Jesus was a myth, but you ain’t. Helluva better story for him, though. I don’t seem to recollect Christ Almighty nailin’ his own hands to the wood, and all them years of Vacation Bible School, not once did I hear about him ascendin’ through the gates of heaven by way of a kneelift. And hell, speakin’ of that, it brings up a purty interestin’ dynamic there, too.”
“At least Jesus gets to be second fiddle to a man who considers himself a deity. You ain’t even gettin’ to fill that role. Not even for War Games, CJ. I don’t see any stars on your sleeve, and that’s ‘cause the Commander-in-Chief knows better than to send his next-ranking general on the battlefield with the rest of the grunts.”
“But I reckon Lee sewed the eagle insignia on ya and tell you what you wanna hear, knowin’ full well that he’s only spinnin’ a fantasy that you are incapable of livin’ out in real life: bein’ a leader. Everybody saw what you did with the last opportunity you were given to take charge, includin’ him. When Doozer walked out that locker room door, it got laid flat in front of you, and you had the choice. Step up, act like a man, and take charge of your family. Or, let it crack and move in with the neighbors, cause you ain’t got the work ethic or the tools to rebuild yer own house.”
“And you actually liked us, Jiles. I know you ain’t stupid enough to think that yer army’s out to protect that shiny gold belt uh yours as opposed to the man in the ivory tower in Chicago. But I do know you smart enough to know yer strengths. That despite all the ego, you can do two things real well when your own pride’s on the line: motivate and manipulate. Not exactly what I’d done been taught as bein’ good leadership skills, but it’s been real obvious since the Bandits that you’ll bend the hell out of the English language tuh shoehorn an “i” in team. That’s why the boss man’s rollin’ the dice on ya, Colonel.”
“But that’s eight other folks you gotta charm, bo. It ain’t as easy as dealin’ with yer best Jean-short wearin’ friend, a loveable goofball who’s just happy to be included, a lumberjack who only knows one word, and a biscuit-eatin’ hick who totes a fishin’ pole everywhere he goes. You got veterans who know every damn trick in the book, the son of one of the wiliest villains to ever grace a ring, and a man who literally makes a career upsellin’ Dollar Tree swag to anyone who’ll buy it. If you ain’t made too much progress yet, well…it ain’t lookin’ too good. Better spend less time playin’ with yerself this next week, ‘cause I’m gonna show you somethin’ that you might wanna consider.”
Zeb beckons the view back over to the kink in the fence, pointing it out first with his finger. He rares back and immediately strikes with repeated right and left fists, putting as much effort as possible into the punches to try and break a hole into it.
“I can do this all day. Kick it, elbow it, whatever you want. Engineerin’ bein’ what it is, though? One weak link ain’t enough to even put a hole in it, and so long as it’s attached to the others, the wall holds up purty good. And even if I took a notion to get a little more creative with it?”
Martin now clasps the link with his fingers, jerking it upward in an attempt to straighten it back out. It’s somewhat successful, but there is still an obvious deviation in it, not quite forming a straight line to connect it. He follows it up with yet another haymaker, but the fence only shakes in response. He lays into it again, this time with an open-palm thrust, causing a small gash to form on his hand.
Reaching into the breast pocket of his jacket, Zeb retrieves a cast iron flask and uncorks the top with his fingers. He turns the container up and over the wound, not even making so much as a flinch from the sting, then takes a pull from it himself for good measure. Redirecting the attention back to the fence, he traces a circle around the area and presses on it, showing that it still held firm.
“Still what you’d call a weak link, but 214 and our friends ain’t comin’ as a bunch of separate parts. And I’m here to tell ya that it don’t make a damn if it’s Lindsay, Dan, Conor, or shit…even Darin. Yer about to have your second fall from grace in a year, CJ. Watching every single one of your pretend soldiers fall one by one as they try to bring down the barricade we’ve built.”
“That championship reign is gonna be yet another past memory you’ll cling onto. But as much as a pain in the ass as it’s been for everybody to live through it, I want ya to look back on it fondly. Because after a full life of burnin’ every bridge you’ve walked across and usin’ everybody you meet for your own personal gain, memories are gonna be the only thang keeping you company.”
“When Quiy Ney’s dye job ain’t possible on six or seven little strands of hair no more, and that skin’s lookin’ like dry Georgia clay as it sags off yer brittle old bones, you ain’t gonna be able to turn to Doozer in the rockin’ chair next to you. Ol’ Bobbo won’t be around makin’ ya laugh when life’s at its bleakest. And the Best Alliance sure as shit aren’t going to show up to remind you to take your blood pressure pill. All of the backstabbin’ and grabbin’ anything in reach for you to take will leave you a sad, lonely old man. And at War Games, Jiles?”
Zeb tips the brim of his cap and gives a wink, taking a brief pause before closing things out.
“I aim to give you a preview of what it’s like to die slow and alone.”