Zeb Martin could recollect about thirty minutes after downing the contaminated beer on Saturday night. It was enough time to down another one while making a few pleasantries to members of the High Octane crew. He had no intention of sticking around. After a quick “good luck” to Lindsay Troy before her main event appearance against Hughie Freeman, the Watson Mill Kid fetched his keys from his pocket and had started out of the arena towards his truck.
Little did he know that he’d be taking a detour to the announce table.
Despite a show full of doing the bidding for the Best Alliance, Steve Solex had calculated the proper amount of time to swoop in for the kill and bring his plan to fruition. His reign of terror since becoming aligned with the boss did not afford anyone backstage the authority to question why a duct-taped and unconscious Zeb Martin was being wheeled out to ringside.
The cogs that made the machine operate were too fearful of the consequences to stop it from happening. And why wouldn’t they be? This organization had skirted more liability claims than a slaughterhouse. Hell, a dead wrestler and a woman being paraded around on a leash had yet to meet the ire of an attorney. A brutal beating at the hands of a military veteran certainly wouldn’t draw any attention.
Just before his collapse, Zeb was filled with a sense of accomplishment. For the first time in his career, he’d put on a pair of big boy boots and showed a little fire in front of the camera. It had all come from a place of wanting so desperately to “save” what he felt Doozer had become, but after it was all said and done? Though he’d never admit it publicly, maybe the dissolution of the eGG Bandits wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for him. It could provide him with the shine he didn’t necessarily crave, but knew could help provide a boost to his rookie season.
Maybe he’d drank a little more than he could swallow, though.
By way of good fortune, Zeb had woken up in his tiny corner of 2929 Birch Avenue. Fully clothed and caked with dried sweat to add an extra layer to his body, all vital signs appeared somewhat normal. He experienced a slight ringing sensation in his head, but nothing out of the ordinary after a long night of drinking.
As he shook off the cobwebs, however, he started to trace back the events from the night before. He’d only had two Colorado Kool-Aids. The last time he had found himself passed out without much recollection was a dangerous blend of corn liquor, cheap beer, and watermelon soaked in Everclear. The house party a few months back where he’d woken up in his bed next to a nude lumberjack.
Zeb breathed a sigh of relief as he was the only one in the room. His next instinct was to check his phone. The boys in the Bandits had taken careful measure to document the entirety of his blacked out journey from that eventful evening. Maybe someone who was there last night had the wherewithal to do the same. It would probably be good for a laugh, but there was a lingering concern that he may have said or done something completely stupid in his state of mind.
But how? How did it happen?
Growing up next to a college town, Zeb was certainly familiar with the horror stories that involved the drugging of coeds at one of Athens’ many bars. But he’d not even considered it in the realm of possibilities.
One missed call and voicemail…from his mother.
Two texts. One from his sister, with no context, simply asking if he was OK. The other from the Queen of the Ring herself.
When you get up, call me immediately. I’ll talk to your family and let them know you’re alright.
A couple of hours later, Zeb and Lindsay had found themselves sharing a booth at Stella’s Diner.
Once Zeb had called her, she strongly advised that he waited a while in order to catch the recap of the night’s events. Apparently, he’d taken her advice when she greeted him at the corner of Broadway and Barry. He seemed to be in good spirits despite a slight lingering headache.
This was reaffirmed when his eyes lit up at the menu selection when they’d finally sat down. It was the precise reaction that LT had hoped he’d have. By the time the busser dropped two glasses of water off and the server made her way over to the table for a drink order, he’d forgotten any sense of manners that he’d been taught due to his excitement.
“Uh, I reckon I’m ready tuh go ahead an’ order’f yew are, Lindz,” he’d proclaimed.
She took it with stride, however. His mood was certainly going to shift in a few more minutes when she would break the news to him as to last night’s events. It hadn’t exactly been a night to cherish for her, either. But it was better that he partake in a little comfort food first before discussing the spectacle that he’d drifted through unaware.
“Go ahead,” Lindsay replied.
Martin smiled up at the waitress, sheepishly. “I’mma have the con’try fried steak. Does them taters come with gravy on ‘em, too?”
“They absolutely do, if you want it,” the waitress responded.
“And for you?”
“Western omelette, English muffin, and coffee.”
When the food arrived, Lindsay had found it quite amusing to watch her young friend desperately toe the line between opting for a knife as opposed to just shoveling the meal directly into his face all at once and swallowing it whole. Either way, he seemed to be enjoying a small taste of home.
She found herself in a real quandary. Most of her colleagues would have been able to handle watching the humiliation that took place and took it with a grain of salt. It was a long standing tradition that “bad guys” making the “good guys” look ridiculous was just a part of the game. Zeb was a little different than most wrestlers, though. It may have been his youth and innocence, but she had a sneaking suspicion that his skin wasn’t as tough as most in this business proclaim to have. Not that sensitivity was necessarily a bad thing, but over time, it could certainly be a weakness that might drive him completely out of the sport.
Troy had to make a decision as to her best approach. Place a band aid on the wound, or tell him to sit with the discomfort. Either way, he needed to understand that this likely wouldn’t be the worst that would happen to him down the road. This was precisely the reason she had demanded that he not watch the replay until they were both together. He would need her help to get through it.
“Cain’t watch this no more.”
Zeb’s eyes drifted to the side as he laid his phone down on the table. He had only reached about a few minutes into the main event when he’d made the decision that he’d seen enough. Just after “he” had made the awful Joe Mama joke towards High Octane’s most respected staffer.
“It’s fuckin’ embarrasin’,” Zeb added.
“I know how this looks,” Lindsay interjected, trying not to wince at Zeb’s sorrowful expression, “but it’s not as bad as you think. It was a juvenile, poorly-thought out gag, and there are too many people in this company that weren’t going to let anything bad happen to you.”
Martin turned his gaze back to Troy, adjusting his cap and shaking his head.
“Naw naw naw. Not about that. It’s embarrassin’ you had tuh call my momma! I’m sorry, Ms. Troy…”
“Lindsay,” she corrected.
“…sorry, sorry! Lindsay. Reckon after ever’thang that’s dun happened with Max, I thank she’s just a lil’ paranoid ‘bout my decision tuh stay ‘round here,” Zeb explained. “I ain’t mean to drag you into no family affairs.”
She peered back at him with a quizzical expression.
“So you aren’t upset about what Solex did? Just the fact that I called your mom?”
Martin tensed up a bit, not wanting to give the wrong impression. “I mean, I really really ‘preciate you doin’ that. And ain’t no words I got that kin thank ya enough for takin’ care uh me, neither. But I ain’t none too worried ‘bout ever’thang else.”
“I…well that’s good, I guess.” She paused, tilting her head a bit. “Have to be honest, though, I wasn’t expecting you to be all that OK with it.”
He shrugged. “Jus’ like you said, wasn’t nobody go’n leave me like that. If I’dda dun that tuh him, though? He’d probably be wakin’ up this mornin’ on the loadin’ dock uh the Best Arena, ‘cause I’m purty shore Lee ain’t in a condition tuh give him a ride home. See, I don’t know if you remember, but back when I started out in H-O-Dubya?”
“I’s all set tuh go out in my trunks instead uh wearin’ jeans, but someone saw it fit tuh cut a hole in the hind end of ‘em. Left me a note that said ‘stay what yuh are.’ Real om’nus kinda stuff,” he recalled.
Lindsay tapped her index finger on the table and chuckled. “I mean, I don’t think I ever saw you in a pair of standard issue tights, but I guess it’s because I can’t picture you being Zeb Martin in traditional ring gear.”
“Me neither,” he agreed. “But I’ll tell ya, it shook me up a lil’ bit. Fer a good couple’a weeks I wasn’t able to quit thankin’ ‘bout it. But here we are today. I might notta been able tuh afford a new pair back then, but now that I kin, you still see me wearin’ them Wranglers out there, don’t ya?”
“I at least thought you might upgrade to a pair of Levi’s,” she joked.
Zeb grinned in response. “I ain’t no sellout.”
“Truth be told,” he continued, “I had tuh realize then that I’m go’n have people messin’ with me quite a dang bit while I’m here. Back then, I ain’t imagine it was gonna be Steve Solex or from someone spikin’ my drank. But here we are. I mean, lookit the bull shit we dun seein’ ‘em pull, Lindsay. I’d be a fool not tuh rule nothin’ out.”
Troy nodded. “Glad to see you’re considering all the angles. Because I promise you, neither you nor I have seen the last or the worst of it.”
“Reckon so,” Zeb agreed. “But I fig’gr you, me, and a good handful of us ought tuh be ready tuh return the favor.”
“Got that right,” Lindsay said, after glancing down at her phone and swiping on the email notification. “Because you’re gonna get your chance as early as this week.”
The Watson Mill Kid leaned over and took a look. She was right. The card for Saturday had him pitted one-on-one against his current antagonist.
“Had a feelin’ it might be sooner rather’n later,” he stated. “Hope he’s got a ride home next week.”
After their meal together, Zeb spent the next two days doing everything he possibly could to keep his mind occupied. Teetering just upon the edge of winter, he’d taken it upon himself to drive his Tacoma over to a local firewood supplier and load as much of it as he could in the back of the truck. The house would have enough for the pit for quite some time.
He was much more accustomed to chopping it himself. However, with the departure of Rick, this was impossible to do without being ticketed by the Department of Natural Resources in a state park. For whatever reason, he seemed to get a pass from them. It might very well have been that no game warden in Illinois would have had the guts to stop a giant fucking brute holding an axe from doing it.
However, the drive to and from the supplier provided idle time to dwell on the events of the past few days. Zeb’s least favorite pastime. He’d provided a fairly convincing performance to Lindsay Troy that Sunday.
While she had told him not to watch the playback until they had a chance to meet, it was the first thing he did when he hung up the phone that morning. The anticipation would have crippled him had he not taken the plunge, and he certainly didn’t want to show any negative emotions in a public space.
“Truth be told” was a common phrase out of his mouth, but this time, it was a lie.
He was shook.
But he wasn’t about to show it to anyone.
“One thang I don’t got in my family is anybody who took up arms tuh fight fer their country. My daddy ain’t amount to much of anythin’ befo’ he done died. And Pawpaw? Well, he ain’t never took a notion tuh shoot nothin’ but a buck or a squirrel ‘er two. Jus’ couldn’t come tuh terms with bein’ put in a sitch-uh-ation tuh kill a man.”
With the truck tightly maneuvered into the edge of the backyard space, his roommate Antonio stood on the bed and organized small piles while Zeb carried them several yards over near the cast iron pit. It was a motion that would have to be repeated several times in order to empty the truck.
“Fer me, the military was somethin’ that was shore on the table. Eve’r week, you’d see Army or Marines recruiters out in the high school lobby, lookin’ tuh provide a future tuh those uh us that didn’t have no direction after we graduated,” he recounts. “But reckon I made a choice. That woulda guaranteed me a stable career. Marine recruiter done told me with my ‘rasslin and football playin’, basic wouldn’t be too hard on the physical side. That wuttin’ really my concern, though.”
“Likely not go’n get much sympathy from the folks down South,” Zeb continues, “but what I done come to was that I jus’ couldn’t see myself fightin’ on behalf uh a bunch of rich folk that’s too chickenshit tuh go to war for thangs that don’t make a damn fer po’ folk like me. Don’t take that the wrong way, though. I got nothin’ but respect fer anyone with the courage tuh serve our country.
“But that don’t mean you get a free pass, Solex. And it don’t mean anybody that’s put on a uniform gets it, neither. I ain’t Jesus Christ, so jus’ cause you mighta done somethin’ good before don’t mean the thangs you do from there on out don’t count against ya. ‘Hero’ ain’t a medal tuh pin on yer chest that cain’t be taken away from ya. It’s a reputation you damn shore gotta live up to until the day you get buried in the ground.”
Pausing in mid-path back to the truck for another bundle, Martin turns to address the lens face-to-face.
“And right now, you ain’t a hero.”
With a typical brim tilt, he resumes his monologue. “I know you done got to the point where you thank you are. Yeah, you still right proud serve under a ‘Commander in Chief.’ Another one uh dem rich folks who cain’t fight his own battles — and even when he gets a notion to try, he still brings in the cava-ree with no remorse. He even does his best tuh look the part: cartin’ himself around on an aircraft carrier and barkin’ out orders to the troops. All the while butterin’ up the folks that he could care less about sheddin’ their own blood and dyin’ fer him. And when they done become just casualties on the battlefield? He’ll go’n ‘bout his business, makin’ shore the podium’s set up tuh take full credit durin’ his victory speech.
“He’s dun a dang good job of playin’ military man,” Martin sneers. “‘Cause you enlisted without so much as a signin’ bonus. Hook, line, and fuckin’ sanker.”
Zeb takes a short breath, then makes his way back toward the truck. The stockpile of kindling and fuel was quickly starting to shift from the tailgate to the ground, but there was still a few more trips left before it was finished.
“This comin’ Saturdee, ain’t go’n be no chance fer ya tuh drop a roofie in my drank. Not go’n be no sneak attacks from behind, neither,” he adds. “You ‘n me been goin’ tit fer tat fer a hot minute, but I’m ‘bout tired of it. You’d be a purty good catch fer me, but jus’ like I told Doozer — I got my sonar set on a bigger fish. Plus, I done heard a lil’ rumor that uh old friend uh mine might not ‘preciate it if there ain’t nothin’ left of ya ta eat but bones ‘n gills. Wouldn’t be right tuh do that to ‘em.”
“But jus’ like you did to me? Come Sundee when you decide tuh roll outta bed in the mornin’? You go’n feel aches and pains’, wonderin’ exactly what went wrong the night befo’. Only difference is that I didn’t spike yer Modelo Especial. I spiked yer goddamn head.”