June 2, 2021
The call came through the day before boarding the USS Octane, arguably making Jiles’ blows the second and third kicks to the jaw that week.
The advice that Russell Martin’s doctors had given him was too little, too late. Years of total neglect on his diet and his refusal to give up the cigarettes and six-dollar liquor were bound to catch up with him, the damage irreparable despite any drastic changes that he would have made.
They had transported Pawpaw from the Echo Center to the ICU with his second heart attack in less than six months. What was originally to be a four-week stay in the rehab facility had been extended, as his treating physician felt it appropriate to continue to monitor his progress. The stubbornness that he displayed when he’d first gotten to Echo was absent when informed that he’d be there a little longer than planned. The fight had been drained out of him.
Russell’s daughter was the only one who was aware of his lack of resistance, though. It was a very clear smoke signal to her that things were not looking good. She had decided last month to withhold that piece of information from her children. Kenzie and Kendra probably would not have drawn any conclusions. But Zeb was a different story, and she couldn’t risk them spilling it to him. The only other person who knew Russell Martin as well as she did was her son. And why wouldn’t he? Despite having a great relationship with her husband, Pawpaw was the predominant father figure in Zeb’s life. Therefore, she waited until he was nearing the end of his time.
“Come home, baby.”
Eventually, she’d regret not telling him she’d seen the writing on the wall weeks before it passed. She would finally confess, and Zeb would be angry, as he would have had more time to prepare himself for it had he known.
However, he’d be a hypocrite. Because Allison Collier wasn’t the only member of the family keeping a secret from people she cared about.
Zeb had rationalized sweeping his grandfather’s death under the rug until War Games was finished. Though most of his teammates had the privilege (loosely, depending on who you asked) of meeting his older sister in person, none of them had so much as even heard about Pawpaw Martin aside from the stories he’d tell about him at after-hour hangouts. To him, there was no sense in putting a dent into morale on account of the death of someone that they didn’t even know. So he kept it quiet. He’d conjured up the excuse of wanting to be there for Kenzie’s middle school graduation. It was very flimsy, especially since the 214 had only learned of the plans to fly out the day before for a Tuesday arrival: the earliest flight he could catch on such brief notice. Graduations rarely happened in the middle of the week, but they trusted him. After all, why would he need to hide anything?
If they wanted to believe that the reason he was skittish was simply because of the weak link comments from the Best Alliance, that was perfectly fine. He’d hoped that the conversation with Conor would help to ease that concern. Zeb knew he would need to power through and put on a cheerful face when hanging out with the group in order to keep up the illusion. Perhaps he would sprinkle in slight shades of doubt in conversation just so that they wouldn’t think he was faking it, giving them the opportunity to build his confidence up even further.
The irony in the lie was that all the disparagement he’d received from the other side was actually helpful. Like any young man, it was a hatchet blow to the shoulder blade that gave him renewed purpose. For all the insider talk about wrestling being a sport of psychology and mind games, it was funny how that all went out the window when competitors verbally took the low road. Zeb himself was a victim of that only two weeks ago: a lot of tough talk that was answered by two kicks to his face.
Much like his own found motivation to prove the naysayers wrong, he knew a supernova was brewing in the belly of Cancer Jiles. And it wasn’t just him: stray bullets had been fired from every angle, and they had nicked everyone in the match. The opportunities found inside that dual cage alone were plenty enough motivation for them all.
Zeb had concluded several weeks before his initial arrival in Japan that doing his homework for this match simply would not be enough. It was why he’d tucked his retractable rod and reel within his luggage. Of course, after his day trip to the docks of Benkai, he had to make a few modifications to the stock model that anyone could find at their local outdoor sports supply store. He’d replaced the standard line with a high-test synthetic fiber for added pull strength, and attached a hook onto it that was roughly the size of his hand.
There was no intention of trying his luck on a charter boat off the island’s banks in the Pacific Ocean. It was an insurance policy.
He’d tested the limits of the death match corner of this sport before, and now was the time to bring what he’d learned into practice. For the second year in a row, a sharp object would have some potential in determining the outcome of War Games. This time around, there would be two major differences in Zeb’s mind. The first was that it would find its way sunk into an orifice prior to the last bell when it really counted.
The second would be that it’d be used by someone not on Team Lee Best.
Of course, there was one minor problem with the plan of action. Sure, Zeb’s fishing pole was a gimmick staple. It wouldn’t be the first time it had made its way out to the ringside area, and it was like ugly wall decor that eventually blended into a room and went unnoticed by its inhabitants. Much like the Best Alliance’s opinion of Zeb himself, the accessory had been disregarded without a second thought.
The rod and reel had undergone a major eye-catching renovation, though. The gigantic hook wouldn’t be something that would just casually pass by the radar. However, barring that issue, there was another wrinkle in it. If he were to have been able to carry it with him to the ring, he may as well have gift-wrapped it and handed it to the likes of Steve Solex or Sutler Kael who would have grabbed it in an instant and used it to their own advantage.
Therefore, he stood outside of the staff entrance three days before War Games. With the rod tucked inside his jean jacket, there’d be no cause for suspicion, as it was completely out of sight. It was nothing out of the ordinary for the talent to want to absorb the surroundings prior to an event, and he would leverage this visit as an excuse to do so. Then, when no one was looking, he’d casually slip the pole under the ring and continue his facade for an additional thirty minutes, checking out the elasticity of the ropes and the amount of give in the mats like usual.
The weapon would not be another secret that he’d keep from the rest of the members of the 214, though. As much as it drove him to succeed on an individual level, he knew that realistically the odds were not in his favor. But this was a team effort. And if he was backstage when that advantage could come in hand, he planned to make sure that Conor, Teddy, Ray and Lindsay knew about it. As for the others, he wasn’t certain that he could completely trust their incentives going in. Yes, the shank wouldn’t be accessible to the Best Alliance, but there was no guarantee that his own team wouldn’t bury it in the back of a core member of the Local if it meant a chance at becoming World Champion.
Making his way around the bend to the back, Zeb pauses as he catches his first glimpse of the rear entrance. Back in Chicago, the Best Arena was typically accessible for any member of the roster, seeing as though the older man providing security there knew all the talent on a first-name basis. While they had been on tour, the organization had simply relied on the venue’s own staff to keep watch on the entry points.
To his surprise, there were two burly American men standing there in a stereotypical bouncer pose, both clad in black HOW golf shirts and black slacks. One had a shine reflecting off of a cleanly shaven head, and the other with shaggy black locks and a full beard, both relatively equal in stature and intimidation. There were no initial feelings of concern from Zeb. He had his badge with him anyway, assuming that he’d need to show it to the Tokyo Dome employees to get inside — these two guys would probably know who he was, so it may have been unnecessary. Just to make certain, though, he pulls out his credentials as he approaches them, flashing it up at chest-height.
“Hey fellers. Just goin’ in fer a lay of the land.”
As predicted, he didn’t need the badge. The two men knew exactly who he was.
And that was a problem.
The bald one adjusted his position closer to his counterpart, closing the gap that would grant access to the door. “Sorry, Zeb. Direct orders from Mr. Best that no one’s allowed in before show time.”
“You bullshittin’ me?” Martin asks, raising a brow.
Despite his presence, the hairless goon was at least cordial in his response. His partner took a much less tactful approach.
“You think we standin’ out here for the fresh air? Buzz off, hick,” the hairy one grimaces, pushing Zeb in the sternum with an open palm. Before Martin could react, the guard steps forward.
“Hold on a sec.”
Visual impairment aside, when Lee Best hired anyone to work for High Octane Wrestling, he trusted his operations department to be meticulous to the very last detail of a resume for staffing a top-notch crew. Whether it was a stagehand or a security guard, experience and loyalty were extremely important to him. While it may have been a coincidence that the one who pushed Zeb stood on the right-hand side, it was appropriate here. The years that the bearded man had spent prior as a bounty hunter had developed certain instincts about him: one coming into play at this very moment.
Moving quickly, the guard steps behind Zeb and applies a double chicken wing to restrain him. “Open his jacket, he’s got something in there,” he commands to the bald man, which would prove to be a little tricky as the Watson Mill Kid kicks his legs to free himself from his grasp.
“How the fuck am I supposed to do that?” he replies, pointing down to the fury of wild boots impeding his path.
“Jesus Christ,” the other shouts back. “I guess I gotta do everything myself around here.”
Zeb’s defensive instincts were to tighten his arms just enough to keep his attacker exerting plenty of energy while he kept the hold on him. As long as he could hold his partner at bay with his legs, this oaf would eventually tire out so that he could make his counter. The one thing that far separated wrestlers from security guards was endurance. And that’s exactly what he planned to use to his advantage. While this certainly ruined his initial plan, all that was on his mind was getting out of there without them retrieving the weapon. He could think of something else, but now was not the time to worry about it.
To his surprise, he felt the guard release one of his arms. Whatever the reason, it was an opening, and one that he would be stupid not to take. Which was exactly what the guard wanted.
Zeb wriggles out of the hold and immediately dives for the bald man, bringing him down to the ground with a shoulder tackle. He would have to fight both of them to get away, so it made the most sense to make it a one-on-one as quickly as he could to even the odds.
The two land with a sickening thump on the ground. The approach had worked well, effectively knocking the wind out of the friendlier guard. It was now just a matter of taming the tiger that stood behind him.
Unfortunately, he would never even get back to his feet. The feeling of reinforced steel toe against the side of a wide open jaw was the opening that the former bail bondsman needed to put Zeb on his back. He then strategically used the other parts of his boot by positioning it on the neck of his victim, applying pressure to the Adam’s apple as he leaned down to unbutton the denim coat.
“Don’t know why you need this,” he scowls, holding up the fishing rod and hook in the air as he examines it. “Nothin’s biting today.”
June 3, 2021
I’m here again. But I’m done with the comparisons about weak links, all that shit. Finally comin’ to terms with the fact that don’t nothin’ else matter but what happens inside the cage. Not what’s on it. Not what’s around it. But what’s in it.
Gotta hand it to the boss man. Every single possible angle we might take, he’s sanded it down and made it round. I’m shore the report of the lil’ ass whoopin’ I got was honey in the biscuit fer him, too. Made sure that if we were bringin’ a top hat to War Games that every rabbit in Japan was dead so we couldn’t pull one out of it. Reckon I shoulda learned a couple of card tricks as a backup plan, but there ain’t no time for that anymore.
So, back to what I’ve been tryin’ to do ever since I decided I need tuh pull my weight around here. Override the youth and the inexperience with preparation. Am I goin’ a little overboard thinkin’ I needed to break the law and come back to this here construction site?
I don’t fuckin’ know no more, truth be told.
Never been skeered about hoppin’ a gate, that’s for sure, so the trespassin’ don’t bother me. Me and Pawpaw many a time would head to any ol’ pond a couple days before fishin’ season in the middle of the night, carryin’ light tackle so he could get him a head start. They always stock them thangs about a week befo’, gettin’ them hungry and ready to bite on the first nightcrawler ‘er minner that they see. We’d land a shit ton, and he’d turn a purty good profit sellin’ ‘em to the camps. Restaurant owners didn’t particularly care that he’d show up before his competition, so wasn’t nobody squealin’ about it. As long as we ain’t get caught, everybody was happy.
A lot harder tuh get back over a fence with a bucket full of catfish, though. Them fences weren’t but usually ‘bout five or six foot high, so he used to lift it over to me when I’s little and I’d have to be real careful about lowerin’ it down and not droppin’ it. But we ended up switchin’ positions as I grew up. I got stronger every year, he’d get a little weaker in his arms and legs.
God dammit, man. Quit. War Games. Focus on yer bidness.
Gettin’ stronger every year, Zeb! Purty soon you’ll be able to punch right through! And when you done learnt every ‘rasslin hold they is to know, learnt every single pattern that every single opponent does in every single scenaria, watched every last lick uh video, run a marathon at full speed, break the world’s bench pressin’ record, and made the Olympic team fer the ten-hundred meter butterfly? Maybe then you’ll be able tuh earn the respect uh yer boss! Maybe then you’ll get tuh lift up one of them there belts without a teammate havin’ tuh hand it to ya to hold!
Maybe then you won’t hafta move BACK to COMER, GEORGIA and die with NOTHING tuh SHOW FER IT! LIKE YER POOR OL’ PAWPAW!
OR LIKE YER SORRY ASS DADDY!
Guess I better.
Oh fuck. God dammit. I know what’s been wrong this whole time. Can’t believe I even forgot about this. How STUPID can I be?
I done spent all this time bein’ a student uh the rang, and I ain’t even ONCE tried tuh improve on my weakest part! Aerials!
Well there, ol’ Watson Mill Kid. Done unlocked a buried treasure with that there revelation. Reckon there ain’t no better time to start when we got us somethin’ high right here tuh jump off.
Wait’ll they see my moonsault.
Wait’ll they see me fly.
June 4, 2021
The ringing of the hotel room’s telephone wasn’t how Zeb envisioned starting his day. Or more precisely, his afternoon.
It was a miracle that he’d actually made it into the bed, or the room. The violent battle against a fence had been fueled with some form of cheap Japanese whiskey, an error that even the most experienced drunks would never make. If god existed, he’d definitely been looking out for the kid that defied his existence to usher him back to safety.
Not without consequence, though. The bell was enough to jar him awake, accompanying the dull hum that reverberated in his skull. Glancing down at his hands, dried blood on his knuckles from the night before, was there as a reminder of his breakdown. The odor of vomit on his jacket permeated throughout the suite. He at least had the wherewithal to take it off before passing out, but it was an unpleasant pot-pourri that pounded on his nostrils.
Whomever was calling seemed unconcerned about all this. Zeb’s first instinct was to place the extra pillow over his head and attempt to drown out all the unwelcome senses. After waiting for thirty seconds, the ringing still would not stop. Groggily, he gave in, making a reach for the receiver.
“Hey man, you awake?” It was Conor. Not the subdued version from their encounter a few days before. Even with that short phrase and Zeb’s rattled state, the tone was distinguishable and honestly not the most welcome to hear right now.
“Yeah,” Zeb sighs, the agitation dripping from his Bourbon breath.
“Good. Lindsay’s room. Now,” he commands. “Emergency meeting. We’ve been trying to call your cell phone but you must have left it on mute.”
Another one of the few excellent decisions he’d made last night. “Alright. Gimme ‘bout ten minutes to get ready.”
“Okay, but make sure you…”
Sorry, Conor. Any other time there would have been a more formal goodbye, but that you were dragging him directly into a hangover state didn’t make room for pleasantries.
Thankfully, Zeb still had plenty of youth in him to be resilient, ambling his way into the bathroom and starting a powerful flow from the shower head. Smearing a blot of toothpaste onto his brush, he took a painful first look in the full-length mirror. The colorings of the bruise on his cheek had darkened from the earlier encounter at the venue, not to mention a pretty minor scrape across his forehead from the fall off of the fence.
He shakes his head and grins. Two entire days’ worth of wasted energy, all to come out with nothing but the appearance that he’d already gone through War Games. On the positive side, he seemed to feel better, albeit it was still a long road ahead to end the grieving process.
Stepping into the shower (while brushing his teeth: yes, he was that guy); he allowed the cool water to begin its work to wash away the night before. Soon, a mixture of dirt, spit, shampoo, and soap had found its way down the drain, all the while allowing Zeb some time to decide. Maybe he was still a little drunk, but whatever this team meeting ended up being about, he was going to use this opportunity to come clean. The attempt to sneak in the pole, the encounter with Lee’s security guards, and the intoxicated trespass.
And his grandfather’s death.
There was never any logic in hiding it. He realized that maybe if he hadn’t kept it a secret, the other three mishaps would have never happened. In his efforts to keep the team spirit high, he’d forgotten that he was a part of that team. And that all the bad that came to him ultimately fell onto the group. At least telling them now would afford a day or two to right the ship.
It was time to psyche himself up and prepare to rip off the bandage, but he’d given Conor only a ten-minute window. As he toweled himself off, it was almost a second off the mark when he’d heard a loud rapping at the door.
“I’ll be out in a few, man. I ain’t mean ten minutes literally,” he shouts, continuing to dry his hair.
Either Fuse didn’t hear Zeb’s response, or he didn’t care. Much like his earlier attempt to call, the man defined persistence when he wanted something done. The knocking switches from a tap to a thud. Zeb sighs, wrapping the white towel around his waist, and reaches for the handle.
“Gimme a goddang se…”
“You’re late,” Danielle remarks, breaching the doorway and walking into the hotel room. She looks her near-naked boyfriend up and down and furrows her eyebrows. “But it looks like I’m right on time.”
“Oh my gawd, what are you doin’…mmmmmmmmmmfph!”
Much like Zeb had taught Jennie Appleseed in the ring, she wastes no time in seizing the opportunity to catch him off guard, sliding close to his body and planting a kiss on his lips. It was the first attack to his face in a month that he actually enjoyed. They held together for nearly a minute, much longer than their goodbye in the Atlanta airport. Despite every ounce of her wanting to just stay right there within arm’s reach, she finally broke apart.
“For real, though. Get dressed. Conor literally started a timer and told me I had three minutes to come get you or he was coming down himself,” she says. “And I don’t want him getting any ideas about smooching ya if he sees you in that towel.”
Zeb chuckles, making his way over to his carry on as he “seductively” lets the towel fall to the floor.
“I assume it was a cold shower?” Danielle jokes.
“Hey, yer the one who stopped kissin’, not me,” Zeb responds, retrieving boxer briefs and a clean pair of jeans from his luggage. “Why didn’t you call an’ tell me you were comin’?”
“Lindsay swore me to secrecy. She wanted it to be a surprise. Zeb,” she stammers, taking a brief moment to allow him to pull up his pants. “Why didn’t you tell them what was going on?”
He stops short of rummaging through the bag to find a T-shirt to give Danielle a remorseful look. “I was way too young tuh remember my daddy dyin’, much less atall. ‘Sides maybe a dog an’ cat, Pawpaw’s the only one I ever been close to that I’ve lost. Danielle, I told a man last week on film that I hoped he died alone. I got into a fistfight with a fence. And I was plum excited about th’ chance tuh dig a fish hook into someone’s eyeball. I reckon as much as I wanna thank I’ve done become a grown up, I still ain’t able tuh deal with grown up shit. My head ain’t made no good choices since he passed, and guess not tellin’ the group was one of ‘em.”
“Do you regret the choice to invite me down to the funeral?” she asks.
“I take it back. One good choice,” he winks, slipping a forest green Jennie Appleseed T-shirt over his torso: creatively designed to mimic the Portland Trail Blazers logo.
“There’s two now,” Danielle affirms, giving him a thumbs up as he models her first piece of custom merchandise. “Let’s get upstairs.”
“I’m ready,” he states, grabbing his key card and slipping it into his back pocket. “Hey. I’m real glad you’re here.”
“Well, you can thank your friends when we get there. No way was I able to afford a ticket to Japan on such short notice,” she replies. “Listen, you don’t need to feel any guilt about what you’ve been going through. No one ever handles things perfectly when someone close to them is taken away. There are a lot of people up in that room who love you to pieces, and trust me when I say that they aren’t going to hold it against you.”
“I reckon I needed tuh hear that. What about in this room, though? Anyone in here who loves me tuh pieces?”
“That shirt definitely scores you some points,” she smiles, giving him a poke in the ribs.
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.
Zeb’s blanket had found its way to Japan. It was unexpected, but the immediate sight of her at his door was exactly what the doctors ordered. Those doctors were waiting for him on the other side of this very door. Lindsay, Conor, Ray and Teddy. The Grapplers Local 214, his family away from family.
He hadn’t bothered to ask Danielle if she’d been the one to inform them about his grandfather’s death. It was logical to assume that they’d found out somehow, and despite that, he needed to take the step himself to come out and say it directly to them. Glancing over to her, Zeb blinks and slowly taps on the door to Lindsay’s suite. There was a deep breath of anticipation as he heard the handle jiggle and the door swing open, but the air quickly bellowed out of his lungs as his jaw dropped to the floor. Moisture immediately welled up in his eyes after so many years of repression, and he could barely squeak out the greeting when he saw her.
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.
It was a chain reaction as both of the fences of Zeb Martin and Allison Collier fell to the ground. For once, the embrace that followed was no longer a necessity for them to communicate their emotions. Fortunately, this was a good thing, as Zeb quickly caught notice that she hadn’t traveled alone.
It wasn’t too much of a shock that Kenzie walked directly to him and given him a hug. Kendra was cut from the same cloth as her mother and brother. But even the grumpiest bears sometimes get caught up in the moment as she charged at him with arms outstretched, grabbing him by the neck and nearly choking him with love. While aggressive, it was far and above any affection that she would normally show anyone.
It was all a little overwhelming to Zeb, just as the members of the 214 predicted. All of them sat on a couch and a couple of chairs over to the side, simply observing the family reunion with a harmonious glow on each of their faces. Until Zeb himself looked over to them, ready to thank them but struggling to decide whether he needed to barrel out an apology for his behavior or simply express his gratitude.
“Don’t,” Lindsay stops him, making that decision for her teammate. “Don’t. We’ll see you on Sunday.”