Seven AM? Eight?
I’ve never carried a watch, so I couldn’t say for sure. But the sun is rising and it’s not too hot out yet. And sorry, not sorry, but when I was very young the bus never left without me and when I was a schoolgirl, I knew better than to let the bus leave without me.
My dad dropped me off after we landed at LaGuardia before he drove back upstate. It was three in the morning and he told me I should get a good night sleep because we were getting to work starting this afternoon.
Good night sleep. Three in the morning. Thanks, dad. Besides, I slept on the plane.
Fortunately, this is New York City, which never closes. Crossed the street to the bar and hung out with Cally until last call and beyond, helped her clean up and tried to make her laugh with some road stories.
LT? Dan? Andy Murray? You should know that Cally is very disappointed in the fact that you’re not getting along and wants you to stop being evil.
So that lifted my spirits, but eventually Cally went home. Story of my life right now. Eventually, everyone goes home while I’m doing my best to not.
Where do I fit in, where’s my place here, indeed.
So, my late night wanderings brought me here. The Terence Cooper Memorial Fitness Center. Since I don’t live anywhere near my ‘home’ Crossfit box anymore, I’ve been coming here almost daily, except of course, travel day and show day. Often enough that Knox trusted me with a key.
I’m not interested in the gym, though. Not today. Not yet, at least. Upstairs, in a storage room – slash – loft area, I run face first into my past.
My wall – sized representation of last year’s War Games remains.
To take you back, on one side we have the Industry, as we’d ultimately come to be known. Lee Best’s chosen outsiders. Me. Lindsay Troy, Dan Ryan, Eric Dane, Jack Harmen. On the other side was Mike Best’s chosen team, that I hilariously and arrogantly called The World’s Okayest Team.
Cecilworth Farthington. Max Kael. John Sektor. Scottywood. Halitosis – nowadays, Andy Murray’s bestest bud Joe.
And I pick up a can of red paint.
And I throw it as hard as I can.
Completely obscuring my own face.
“This is your mess, ya know. You fucking arrogant, pretentions, big-dick-energy bitch. You don’t know a goddamn thing.”
I turn my head. Maybe literally yelling at myself vis-a-vis a painting on a wall is a sign of madness, but damn if it doesn’t have the added benefit of making me feel small again.
“All that fucking swagger from the three on one odds, from walking outta War Games with the LSD title, how’s it been workin’ this year?”
And I spit on the paint that covers my face.
“Fuck you, Flair.”
My right hand goes palm first into the dripping paint on the wall.
“The only person on the team what believed in ya, no questions asked.”
Red handprint on Eric Dane.
“Ya let ‘em run him out and you didn’t say shit.”
Finger – painting an X over Jack Harmen.
“The other survivor, ya blamed for the Alcatraz shit. You don’t deserve him as a partner.”
I stare at the ruined mural without blinking until my eyes burn and tears start flowing.
“You don’t deserve this,” I whisper to my covered likeness. “You shouldn’t be here.”
I notice my breath getting shallow, so I lean against the wall and slide down to sitting in the most cliche way you can imagine. Not sure how long my head was cradled in my hands before I fell asleep but by the time Knox woke me up, it had been at least long enough for my neck to be killing me.
Should’a just gone home and gone to sleep. Instead, you needed to wander the streets and check out the precursor to the beginning’a the end, yeah? Take the belt, don’t be an asshole, and don’t get full of the big-shot-itis that’cha quite hypocritically called out in Mike Best for like a year prior?
Nope. Can’t even do one simple thing.
Is self – inflicted PTSD a thing? Cause if it is, I’m pretty sure I’m elbows deep in it. I really didn’t expect to have such a visceral reaction to this place, but in hindsight… Five of the eight people in this year’s War Games were part of last year’s, plus Mike was a non-com Team Captain, so… I just don’t get it, do I?
I’m the reason why Lindsay Troy and Dan Ryan are with Mike and Cecilworth. I’m the asshole that drove ‘em away. I’m the arrogant twat that made it possible for Mike Best to find the cracks in our foundation and collapse the Industry completely.
I dunno, I deserve what I got. Loss piled on loss, compounded with loss, divided by loss, with the square root’a loss dropped right on top.
You were part’a something, stupid, and ya pissed it away. What’ve you got now? Literally the only person in this entire sport that you out ‘n out hate, a guy that your friends inexplicably love who stepped in, took a look, and within five seconds zoned in on your biggest insecurity and completely fucked you with it. Twice.
And Minister Max. I just don’t know anymore.
I wanted to be part’a War Games so damn badly, I never thought about the consequences.
A year ago it was five against five.
Today it feels like four against two against one against one.
“So why don’t you get home and get some sleep, and we’ll call today a wash,” says Knox, handing me a cup of tea.
We’re sitting in the office on the ground floor of his fitness center, and he’s the picture of tact while I’m red faced as hell over the fact that he found me asleep against the wall upstairs.
“And… maybe take a shower?”
I’m also red-faced from getting paint all over my hand and then dropping down to the floor with my head down. I’ve got red paint caked in my hair and on the right side of my face…. well… if that movie Braveheart was currently casting I’d probably be a shoo-in for method.
Dude, I’m sorry, I said. I’ll fuckin’ fix it.
“I mean, we don’t really use those upstairs rooms except for storage,” he says. “If you wanted to use the space as a studio in and of itself, that’s cool.”
Huh. He didn’t even admonish my salty language. I must be pitiful.
“I mean, you left a mess so at the very least you need to repaint all the walls you just bungled,” he says. I laugh. He laughs.
“Yeah, more than a little mess, no?”
And I stop laughing.
Yeah? I said, unsure, but I mean… as I trail off, really unsure of what I’m about to say. How can you apologize for vandalizing a friend’s professional space?
“That’s really not the–”
I’ll fix it, man, no problem. I was just…
And he laughs. Long and hard. To the point that Dick Van Dyke and Ed Wynn would be expecting us on the ceiling. I at least have the presence of mind to look insulted.
“Oh, what?” he asks.
Why you laughing at me, man?
“Mariella,” he says. “You really think I care about the vandalized artwork? You really think anyone but you, me, and Cally have even been up there in the past year?”
But you just said–
“I said you left a mess,” says Knox, “I don’t care about the art.”
He taps his right index finger on the side of his head.
“You left a mess right here, my friend,” he says, “You’re all over the place. You’re gonna do what you need to, you need to center yourself.”
I laugh. Next you’re gonna suggest pilates with Cally, right?
“Why not?” he asks. “You’ve got your herbal tea, Cally’s got the zen room, it might be nice to do something different with all that core?”
Jesus fuck, this guy’s poker face has never been better. I honestly can’t tell if he’s kidding.
“Look,” continues Knox, “you’re always welcome at our place. But you’re not gonna find your answers there.
Fortunately, he lets me off the hook pretty fast.
Aight, O Wise Impulse, I say. Where am I gonna find these magical answers?
He shakes his head.
“I honestly don’t know, MJ. But I do know that if you’re trying to figure out what went wrong, you need to know when they went wrong.”
Oh, that’s easy. Things went south starting with Iconic when I came back to High Octane as a cunt on wheels.
Despite everything, I laugh.
“You sure about that,” he asks.
Why, do you know something I don’t?
“Lotta things,” he says. Arrogant ass. He’s even more arrogant when you realize he’s always right. “I don’t know exactly when things started to go bad for you, but I know Mom and I know Danno.”
I swear, I will never understand why you call her Mom.
“That’s ‘cause you’re very young,” says Knox. “and you don’t know them the way I do. Would Mom and Dan screw you over, sure. Would they do it for the flimsy rationale that you’ve been peddling? Nah.”
Aight, smart guy, I say, so why?
Knox shrugs. “Told you already, MJ – I don’t know. But you were there, so I bet you do.”
His attention suddenly splits as a few people have entered the gym.
You’ve got your ish, dude, I said – giving him an out before he has to make an excuse. I appreciate the talk and the tea.
“All tea, no shade, he says, repeating a regular catchphrase from one of my favorite television shows. “Besides, we’re family – that’s what family does.”
He’s not wrong. He and Cally were still teenagers when I was born but he’s not wrong, they’re family. And that’s what family—
And I stop.
And I grin.
“What’s up?” he asks. “You know something, you have the worst poker face in the history of faces.”
Of course I do, I say. But I really can’t talk about it.
You weren’t there.
It’s the best video resolution a cell phone can give, so cut some slack.
There’s some movement in the darkness, and MJ Flair looks like she’s stepping into view from the side/back, and she lands, cross – legged, in the cone of light. No hint of red paint on her face or hair, and she looks freshly showered and scrubbed. True to her previous word, she’s wearing a black wifebeater tank top advertising the FIVE TIME ACADEMY.
“I finally figured it out.”
“See, here’s the ish, guys. I’ve been beating myself up for months, blamin’ myself for the fact that The Industry blew up right in my face. Fact is, we’re all guilty.”
“Except for Jack. He was an innocent bystander in it, and he just got caught in the maelstrom.”
“But Andy Murray was right when he said I had a chip on my shoulder. I’ve been carrying it around so long I’m surprised I don’t have back problems. I thought it was about me. I think it’s fair to say I had the best 2019 of any member of the Industry, right up to the moment I had a bit of a breakdown and checked out.”
“Let’s be honest – I didn’t contact them to let ‘em know what’s up, and that’s on me. I came back at Iconic without letting ‘em know what’s up, and that’s on me. I was a fucking arrogant ass and my attitude needed to be adjusted.”
“Dude, that part ain’t in question. But it wasn’t until I was talking to a good friend earlier today – someone that’s friends with both me and LT and Dan Ryan, that I realized it.”
“He’s one’a those guys that refers to Lindsay Troy as ‘Mom’ – and it dawned on me.”
“Family don’t treat family like that.”
“Oh, ya fight. No question. Ya argue, ya blow up, ya make it public when it happens. But when you’re family, you don’t go into the situation with an exit strategy already plotted as your first priority.”
“What else would ya call it? Was I wrong? Fucking hell yeah I was. But your first action to call me on my shit was in the middle of the ring in an arena after you’d already made up your fucking mind.”
“And that showed me how much you cared, and it made all the times I beat myself up hurt even more.”
She looks down, as if she’s trying to steel herself for the next thing.
“But you’d called me out ta’ tell me how bad I’d fucked up the Industry, and we got interrupted by Mike and the Empire, and you joined up with him and left me and Jack in the dust, and I need ta’ hand it to you… I bought what you were sellin’ for fucking months.”
Her eyes meet the light on the camera again, but she doesn’t flinch from the brightness.
“Of course I did. I was critical of Jack for being the man ta’ get pinned at Alactraz, I was critical’a you two, LT and Dan, losing the tag belts to the Empire. Of course I deserve ta’ lose every match in the LBI.”
“Ya reap what’cha sow.”
“And of course me and Jack beat the Turn – It – Up Express for a tag team title shot. Makes sense, we have a taste’a success, only for Andy Murray and Joe Bergman to professionally shit all over both of us one on one, and then do it again for the encore.”
“Ain’t nothing like an exclamation point ta’ make ya really feel like a fluke.”
“I didn’t think the year was done fuckin’ with me, but then I’m in a War Games Qualifier against Teddy Palmer, the man that held his own with Farthington at March to Glory. Clearly it’s false hope.”
“Then I win, and end up in the War Games pool. Clearly it’s false hope.”
“Then Lee drafts me. Clearly it’s false hope.”
“What else could it be? A year ago my team for War Games was four verified legends lookin’ ta make a name in a new playground – and we were holding three fifths of the title belts after what, two months? Who’s on my team this year?”
“A man with terrible anger issues, who’s probably just as likely to attack us as he is you – and maybe more, since he’s wearin’ the face of an Empire Original.”
“A legend with a legendarily bad knee, you can see it on his face every time he steps into the ring – he’s got the ability, the experience, and the knowledge – but every time he leaves the ring without callin’ for a stretcher, he and his knee make another blood sacrifice to zombie jesus.”
“A shell of a never-was, a forty year old man-baby whose biggest contribution to this sport is a meme-worthy ‘Shake Hands Form Dynasty’ without the self – awareness that literally everyone in the world says it out of mockery, not respect.”
“Three months ago I’d say this is the team I deserve. And maybe I do – but I don’t feel like I’m alone anymore.”
“That’s what it’s about. That’s what it has to be about. Lindsay, Dan – you’re both nearing the end’a your careers. At the very least, it’s fair ta’ say there’s more years behind you than in front of ya.”
“That means time is of the essence.”
“That means every victory – every setback – counts.”
“You’re not really joiners, though. Like… I don’t know you as well as some others but I feel like you’re of the opinion that one group is as good as another if all opportunities are equal. Breakin’ in a new set’a friends, that takes time and effort. And I can tell by lookin’ at your face, Dan – you don’t wanna have t’take anymore time or effort on this sport than is necessary.”
“And LT – you don’t wanna be doin’ what you are, but’cha feel like you’re committed and can’t tap out now. Almost like ya don’t wanna be there but you’re afraid’a the consequences’a sayin’ so.”
“Tell me I’m wrong.”
“But that means that you two hooked up with the Empire to form the Group’a Death because you thought you could get something outta the transaction. Maybe ya thought ya needed ta’ throw in with a winner while ya could – maybe ya thought ya were runnin’ outta time on makin’ a mark in High Octane and thought it was a shortcut ta’ immortality.”
“I can’t speak for ya in all honesty, but I hope it’s one’a those. Cause the only other option I can think of is that ya dropped me and Jack because ya thought we were the ones holdin’ ya back from achievin’ your highest potential and it was just easier ta’ hit your friends than it’d be ta’ talk to us.”
“Really hope that’s not the case, cause being a fuckhead for the sake’a being a fuckhead is the most bullshit, stupid thing I could ever think of.”
“But even as I’m convincin’ myself that I earned every hardship I’ve hit this year ‘cause I brought ‘em on myself, I wonder if fate itself ain’t playin’ the long game.”
“What’s happened since ya broke up the Industry? Yeah, me and Jack have only won matches that gave us false hope. Losing every match that could’ve helped momentum. Failed at winning the tag belts from Andy and Joe. I got drafted to a War Games team filled with people I can’t trust while Jack wasn’t drafted at all.”
She smiles. It’s not comforting.
“Dan, ya lost the Icon title to Mike Best. You both lost the tag titles to 24K. Ya failed ta’ do anything’a note in the LBI and LT, you won our bracket only ta’ shit the bed against Max.”
“Looks ta’ me we’re all in the exact same place we were a year ago. I’m an underdog longshot with no history’a doin’ fuck all’a note, and LT and Dan are on a War Games team, tryna’ justify their presence with people that really stirred the drink here in High Octane.”
“Only thing we’re missin’ is the trust.”
She sarcastically covers her mouth.
“Did I say a naughty word? Ain’t no trust anywhere.”
“My situation is pretty fuckin’ obvious. But let’s look at the Group’a Death.”
“More specifically, let’s look at the Empire.”
“I can’t speak for Cecilworth Farthington, because I just don’t care enough ta’ look up his conversations, but Mike Best and Max Kael have both made a point ta’ say that the Empire doesn’t fight each other.”
“How’s that gel with Mike takin’ the Icon title from ya, Dan? Or Max defending the LSD against you, LT? Is that a sore spot? I hope I hurt ya.”
“Are you a team? Sure. But you ain’t family. I guarantee you, ten times outta ten, LT and Dan – if they had to, Mike and Cecilworth would sacrifice you ta’ the gods’a cliche betrayals ta’ do better at War Games.”
“Because their loyalty is to each other. You two? You’re seen as capable, competent meat shields.”
“Same way I view Little Jimmy – his purpose in this match is to catch a beating so the actual athletes can do our thing.”
“The Industry is dead, guys. But not because you killed it – because you sold it. And you sold it so fuckin’ cheap it’s past insulting. Ya sold it because ya realized time was running out and you two realized you were losin’ the ability ta’ write your own legends.”
“Ya sold it because you were willin’ ta sell me and Jack down the river for another day’a spotlight.”
Pause. Shake of the head.
“The irony is that we’re all right back where we started a year ago. War Games. Mike Best against Lee Best. We are pawns in a familial war.”
“I didn’t have to sell my soul for this shot.”