Zeb Martin was a little nervous when the Beautiful Man from Honalee had pulled up in his driveway, laying on the horn of a baby blue LeBaron convertible until the fisherman emerged onto the stoop. All week, he had been able to sleep in due to his three other housemates taking a vacation out to the east coast. Rubbing sleep from his eyes, he was startled to find his former pimp causing a mid-morning ruckus in front of his house.
“Hey bo,” Martin greets, a tone of concern in his voice. “What’s goin’ on? Did Doozer die?”
“Not yet,” Bobby replies, tilting a pair of sunglasses down to shoot him a pointed look. “Get in, loser. We’re going shopping.”
“Huh? Man, I jus’ woke up,” he objects. “You wanna come in fer a minute ‘til I get my bearins straight? I ain’t even got no shirt on.”
Martin’s self-observation was correct. Cutoff jean-shorts, flip-flops, and his Ricky Rudd cap — it was more than likely what he fell asleep in. However, Bobby was in a god damned hurry. Without so much as a shake of his head, he responded by simply pressing both palms on the horn and holding them steady to the wheel.
“Alright alright, I’m comin’!”
Panic began to set in as Dean wheeled the artifact from Freddy Got Fingered into the lot of the strip mall. This place had become all-too familiar for them both over the last month. Despite his lack of seniority in the Bandits, Zeb felt compelled to sternly object to what appeared to be their final destination.
“Uh, Bob, I’on’t thank we need tuh go in thar again.”
(Yes, that’s about as “stern” as the Watson Mill Kid gets.)
To the left of their range of view was the now-infamous sign of the Qui Ney Phock Hair, Nail, Massage and Shrimp Salon. Like the Greek Sirens, its neon glow beckoned to the two travelers once again with false promises of spiritual awakening and the best happy ending you’ve ever had. Zeb could almost smell the alluring scent of lavender permeating from the thirty-seven lit incense sticks that burned in Qui Ney’s parlor.
“Don’t worry, bud,” Bobby reassures. “We aren’t going there. We’re going here.”
With a jaunty point of his index finger, Deaner turns Zeb’s attention to the store right next to the cursed dungeon of pleasure. Its sign is much less elaborate yet almost as tacky. Two green alien heads border the words OTHER WORLD GAMING & VAPE SHOP on a black rectangular placard.
“Ohhhhh,” Zeb realizes, completely relieved that he would not find himself in a seafood-induced Scooby-Doo style hallucination for the next week. “Wait a dang sec, though,” he directs, turning to his comrade. “Are you leadin’ us inta ‘nother cliche adventure relative to my match this week at Refueled?”
“Precisely,” Bobby affirms. “The High Octane Multiverse has spoken loud and clear, young Zebulon. And they want…nay, DEMAND more shenanigans featuring an immensely talented and incredibly humorous hero of the roster and an affable straight-man sidekick. A couple of months ago, this was a spot that you and I held tighter than Lee Best’s payroll purse strings. But now, we have a new threat on our hands. And one half of that threat just happens to be your opponent.”
Zeb nods, although he’s not too sure of the angle that the Beautiful One is trying to sell here. But, in order to try and seem smart, he takes a shot at it.
“So you dun brought me here tuh get some street learnin’ ‘bout what I kin expect goin’ against a gamin’ master tuh prepare tuh beat ‘em?”
Bobby stares off into the distance, a stoic expression on his face. He thinks about the statement for a moment before responding.
“I mean, no. I just thought it would be a good idea to come here and make fun of people who vape, because that’ll assure us a few more laughs to keep our lead on those two. But now that you mention it, that’s a pretty swell idea, too,” he says. “Glad I thought of it.”
“Uh-huh,” Zeb agrees, allowing Bobby the credit. “Done been a minute since I handled a controller, so this oughta be fun.”
“You handle a joystick every day!” Dean laughs, poking him in the ribs after the sickest fucking burn of all time. “Get it? That’s your DICK. Score another win for the HOW’s Most Beloved Team!”
“Good ‘un, Bob,” the Comer native acknowledges, humoring his rosy-cheeked buddy. “You got a shirt or sumptin’ in here I kin wear in?”
“No. Why did you not put one on before we left your house?”
Zeb refuses to acknowledge that line of questioning.
“Dang man. I don’t wanna go in thar without no shirt on,” he responds, taking a look down at his bare chest. “I’ll look like I’m some dumb hick!”
Bobby refuses to acknowledge that remark.
“Wait a second,” Dean remembers suddenly, slamming a triumphant fist on the wheel. “I do have a shirt here!”
“Awesome. Lemme have it.”
“Uh, well,” Bobby murmurs, “I have a shirt not here here. Like in this car here. I actually left a shirt in Q…”
The sound of Zeb’s hand slapping his forehead is enough to interrupt Bobby in mid-sentence, realizing exactly what Bobby was about to say.
“…ui Ney’s place.”
“I ain’t goin’ in there,” Martin proclaims. “Ain’t no way, not no how. How in the heck you remember leavin’ clothes in there anyway?”
“Oh, I was in there yesterday,” Dean reveals. “It turns out that massage was one of those hidden talents that I never knew I had! They offered me a full-time gig if I want it, but I just stay on call for them whenever they’re short-staffed. And get this: all the shrimp I can eat!”
Zeb shudders. Shrimp had quickly become the only food he’d vowed never to digest again.
“Look, if you can’t handle another tour of duty there, I’ll run in and get it for you, OK? Just hang tight in the car, and I’ll be right back.”
It had been an hour and thirty minutes since Bobby had left the Chrysler to get something for Zeb to put over his torso. There was absolutely zero chance that he would dare walk through those doors again. Not after what happened last time. The intense experience of it was one thing, but in the back of his mind, he did not want to suffer any further consequences of a repeat of Plan Z.
There was no telling how long he’d be in there. Shortly after he’d gone inside, Zeb had contemplated getting an Uber home. However, a topless man wearing denim cutoffs and a cap featuring a chewing tobacco brand did not exactly paint the picture of a safe passenger. Naturally, Bobby had not even had the common courtesy to leave the keys in the ignition: not that his pal would have stolen his car, but listening to the radio might have been a good way to pass the time.
Instead, he thought about wrestling.
He thought about his chance at redemption, and his opportunity to carry the torch on behalf of the Bandits in their first defense just after winning the tag team championships. The potential to solidify his ever-growing bond with Rick through victory.
He thought about the prior opportunity at War Games to be the one to capture those very titles, running alongside the man currently preoccupied with either a haircut, pedicure, handjob, or all three.
Not once did he think about his triumphs as a nineteen-year old kid in one of the most prestigious organizations to ever highlight competition in the squared circle. Whenever he had cast his lure when it needed to count, he’d simply reeled in an empty hook. The misses always mattered more than the lands.
Yes, it was childish to think that hanging with a bunch of die hard Twitch-streamers would somehow provide a magic bullet to put the first notch in Conor’s loss column. The hand-eye coordination that a PlayStation or XBox could help to enhance would still provide no real worth to the task at hand this Saturday. The smaller Fuse Brother had a catlike agility and a coon hound mind when it came to the ring.
If it hadn’t been for the insistence of focus on crazy ideas like the one that presently found him alone in a parking lot in Chicago, would he be in a similar position? Perhaps. If the “team-building” exercises hadn’t taken his time away from his traditional methodology of enhancing his amateur game and discovering new ways to trap his opponents, would he be here lamenting his losses?
“It don’t matter,” he proclaims aloud.
Zeb firmly believed that the bonds he’d made with this group were more important than his own individual successes. But would that lack of success make them think twice about bringing him into the fold? It was a conundrum that he felt uneasy about: if there were any questioning behind his back as to whether they’d misjudged his potential.
It was his cross to bear, though. And he might as well carry it over his shoulder to help balance the weight.
There was going to be a weird-looking pink dinosaur spitting eggs at him in a few days, and in true Bandit fashion, he’d need to intercept and throw them right back to defeat the boss.
He needed to show his friends he didn’t need a power glove to win.