When I was a kid, sick days meant laying on the sofa in front of the television. It meant watching terrible daytime television which meant game shows. Most times I was too high on cold medicine or sleepy to really to notice what was going on but one thing always caught my attention, struck me as odd. Especially on those Nickelodeon game shows geared for kids…
The consolation prize.
Let’s just say, it was some bullshit.
Though I will say this… Those Nick game shows had some of the best consolation prizes. Man, if I had won rollerblades or a gift certificate to like, FAO Schwartz, I would have been happy as fuck. But the grown-up shows… What a fucking rip. All that hard work, all that careful gameplay, following the rules, and they can’t even give you something worth your while?
These people, these contestants, didn’t get to keep their money or the prizes they had won while in the midst of the game… No! They got a board game or - or worst of all that I had ever seen, a fucking couple packages of chips because they happened to be the sponser. What a fucking rip. I’m sure that made that person feel real good. They got to go through all that shit, the travel, the stress, played the game great but just missed that one last question or the wheel went one too many spokes on your last spin, and boom, enjoy your microwavable potatoes.
That’s the way the cookie crumbles, right?
The luck of the draw.
Same as the way it goes with so much else in this world. One thing, so small of a thing, can make or break your run. So close, yet so far. Now you have to settle with what they throw your way. I was raised to not accept second place and third place… Ha! My life was competitive gymnastics for nearly sixteen years. There is only one acceptable place to finish and that was first. You were the best or nothing. Even against your own teammates. If you placed anywhere else, enjoy the ridicule, degradation, and extra training.
There were more than a few times where I watched my placement on the leaderboard drop little by little and there was nothing I could do about it. I had to take my place and be happy about it. All because the competitor after me had done just that little extra or had landed a little more exact than me or just because the judges had the girl a little more - maybe they liked brunettes more than blondes or the song was more exciting to them. Only they knew.
But I had to climb the podium, accept my trophy, my medal, and flowers with a perky smile. Here’s your participation trophy, AJ. Cheap and plastic. A runner up. Thanks for playing. Try again next year. If you make it that long.
Inside, though, I was full of rage.
Very little has changed.
A thousand tiny taps - freezing rain being thrown against windows, clapboard, and metal by an angry wind, a sound known to me from childhood. Cold December nights deep in the Atlanta suburbs, fat Christmas lights covered in a thin layer of ice that only makes them twinkle that much brighter, blacktop streets that shine and shimmer like glitter, tree branches straining and aching under the growing weight, utility wires threatening to snap perfectly in two and bring on darkness and cold, the world around me coming to a sudden standstill, the closest thing to a snow day that I ever knew growing up. Ice, snow, anything frozen shuts down Georgia and kids relish in that. Adults, though, oof. The amount of auto accidents and first aid calls for falls that I responded to during ice storms were seemingly endless.
That same driving wind works it way to me, sending a shiver through me. The pain quickly comes after. Not pain from the cold, but the burn and ache in my shoulders and rib section. I’ve been hanging like a hooked fish for about, I dunno, twenty hours or so. It stopped being comfortable about nineteen and a half hours ago.
This shit is getting old.
I stare at the floor-to-ceiling mural of Soviet propaganda, fading, chipping, and slowly going the way of the Soviet Union. Three baby-faced white boys with carefully chiseled cheekbones and chins, broad shoulders, and strong arms - the ideal Russian man - stare back at me. At center, a green clad infantryman to represent the army, on his left a 1960s Cosmonaut for what I assume to be the air force, and to the right, a sailor clad in a Navy blue fat-collared uniform. Above them is the Soviet flag, still bright red and waving proudly. A mural to the hard working young men, brave and strong, who risk their own lives to protect the motherland. Both a tribute and a reminder to those working in this now defunct and decaying military installation.
Where it is and what it did when it did it…? My guess is worth about as much as a Soviet penny was then and is today. One minute I’m at a party in Moscow, having a good time with a boney Russian chick, then the next, I’m strung up like this, staring down at beast of a man roaring like a bear at me. Behind him, barking out orders and questions, a tall man in a heavy coat. They mostly screamed at me in harsh Russian, occasionally switching to English, but it didn’t matter because fuck ‘em. The bear whacked me with his open fists but still, fuck ‘em. He moved onto to using closed and I moved onto to fuck your mother...Or I fucked your mother, something like that.
Yob tvoyu mat!
They gave up. I passed out. For how long? God only knows. I watched as the dull light of a cloud-covered rising sun crept in under the door and leaked in through the many cracks of the crumbling concrete and weather worn wood then fell into this half-awake half-asleep dream state where giant brown bears wearing cosmonaut helmets danced with dozens of the pretty boy soldiers from the painting as hundreds of thousands of red stars shot up around them and exploded like Fourth of July fireworks. It was this odd amalgamation of the little things I had seen, heard, picked up, and had been force-fed about the Russians, the Soviet Union, and USSR during my life. Though I always wondered what life in Russia was really like, not just those grainy, blurry monochrome pictures in newspapers of markets with bare shelves, wool-clad soldiers standing in front of barb wire fences,concrete barriers, and sullen skies, grand military parades rolling through Red Square, and saggy-faced old men searching through posted bills that just might promise work, all of them always looking frozen to their core.
Even more burned upon my memory, even more impactful upon my image of the Soviet Union were those episodes of Cops filmed in Russia that aired during the 90s. Everyone was drunk all the time - the social evil! - and never seemed to care much for shirts. The gawd-awful wallpaper and rugs, the short boxy cars, the little kid knowing more about drugs than the police themselves, and those damn acid washed jeans that doesn’t look good on anyone. It just looked like such a sad, sorry place where nobody had any chance to be happy, everyone drank themselves stupid because of the cold, hopelessness, and oppressive conditions, and even the summers lacked warmth, long days, and even the slightest bit of relief. People lived in dilapidated houses and cramped apartments and had almost nothing to call their own or replace what little they did have. These poor people, through no fault of their own, were suffering and lacking the most essential things. Their oppressive government that they had no part in picking had failed and continued to fail them. Only a select, elite few had everything while everyone else suffered at their expense and could never work their way up.
It was an oft used reminder of lucky I was, am, to be living in the United States, where I am free and have freedom of choice. A democracy where I could elect my leaders and if they had failed, replace them through fair elections. I did not have to want for the essentials and I could walk into any store to find full shelves with never ending choice and I could have it all. I had the choice to follow any religion that I wanted, take any job I wanted, and go where I wanted. I could dissent and not be thrown in the gulag. I could live in a big house and decorate it at as I pleased. So long as you had the money, capital, and credit. If you didn’t, well, pull up those bootstraps and work harder. You could do that in the good ol’ U-S-of-A.
Capitalism is freedom.
If you are amongst the select, elite few.
There is the clunk and clank of the heavy metal door. The sound of my impending painful interrogation. The lumbering bear leads the way, coming in to greet me first. He laughs, which sounds more like an grunts, looks me up and down with little more than disdain, and removes his ushanka. His ringmaster steps up behind him, his big wool coat sweeping the floor, leaving a trail in the dust that coats everything, his heavy boots tracking in the snow and crushing everything in his path. He really looks just like a damn ringmaster. The door slams and the entire building shudders under its weight.
“Shit, I really missed you guys,” I say, then cough. My mouth is the Sahara and I’m on a horse with no name. It’s been about a day since I had any water and the last thing I did have to drink was alcohol and that helps nobody. At least it helps in the urine production area and I’m not reduced to pissing myself. However, the lack of urination is a telltale sign of dehydration. Most humans can go twenty-four, sometimes more, without any water - various religions practice the holy fast from sun up to sun down and have no problems - and suffer no real consequences. Given that I’m not currently in a hot, humid climate, not sweating from physical activity, and have no medical problems to speak of, I should be fine.
I just need to get out of here soon. Real soon.
No more than three days.
“The Ringmaster and his Dancing Bear,” I add. “Where’s your fiddle to play a rousing tune? I’m looking forward to the show.”
Ringmaster gives me a fake chuckle. The dancing bear punches me in the gut and grumbles something in Russian.
“Ow,” I scream through gritted teeth. “That’s a very rude way to say hello.”
“Hello,” Ringmaster says, getting right into my face.
“See, now that wasn’t so hard?” I retort.
He suddenly grabs my face, pressing my cheeks with his thumb and two fingers painfully tight, and forcing my lips into a puss.
“What do you say?” he says, his accent deep and rough.
I try to speak but that that kind of thing just doesn’t work in that situation. He begins to shake my head, pushing on my cheek hard. My brain is rattling around in my head.
"What do you say?" he spits in my face.
After a very long couple of seconds, he releases me and slaps me hard across the face with his open hand. My cheek stings and my ear fills with a high pitched ringing. Then I taste the blood. The moment drove my tooth in the soft tissue of my cheek causing a cut and the impact split my lip.
I gather all the blood and spit in my mouth, aim up, and send it flying. Ringmaster is able to back away just in time and the glob lands with a splat at his feet. Some gets on his shoes and I consider that a small victory.
He looks down at his shows and then up at me. "You will pay for that."
"Send me the bill, fucknugget," I answer.
The bill is sent immediately in the form of a hard gut punch. My legs automatically draw into my stomach and I clinch in pain. If there was anything in me to expel, it'd all come up on him but no such luck.
"You going to talk now?" he asks nicely.
"I thought I was," I say. "But, we can talk about anything you want… Did you grow up under Communism?"
After the breath comes back and the pain settles, I say, "sensitive topic, I see. Got it. Maybe the weather? Icing…"
Before I can finish, another gut punch. He takes a step back and allows the Dancing Bear to take over.
"Shut up," Dancing Bear growls.
"First you tell me to talk, now you're telling me to shut up. Y'all gotta make up yer minds here. It's very confusing…" I say.
Dancing Bear waits for his orders and with a simple wave of Ringmaster's hand, I'm treated like a punching a living punching bag.
"What are you doing here?" Ringmaster asks. I'm too consumed by pain to say anything. I'm not sure when this sort of shit was written into my contract but I need to consult my lawyer about this little caveat. If I ever have the chance to see my lawyers again. There is the very real possibility of me not getting out of here.
I've already taken survey of my restraints and surroundings and they are not good. My captors have had enough smarts to strip me of most of my clothing, including my shoes, and my things are nowhere in sight. That means my GPS is in the wind and my phone is long gone. The thick concrete walls not only block out sound, but keep all kinds of satellite signals from breaking through.
I imagine that was the point.
"Who do you work for?" he asks.
"Mostly myself, but I'm occasionally hired by companies on a contract basis," I answer, hopefully giving them just enough to back off for a second.
"Who?" he yells.
“I told y’all,” I say.
“Why are you here?” he demands.
“Y’all ever seen that Rocky movie? I can’t remember which one it was. Five, maybe? No, it was four. Because the fifth one is a train wreck,” I start. “The one where Rocky goes to Russia to fight this big honking blonde Russia dude… If he dies, he dies! The guy who killed Apollo Creed and that’s why we got those Creed movies so Slyvester Stone could keep milking money out of the Rocky vehicle even as, what, a saggy sixty-something? But, yeah, anyway, the one where Rocky basically sneaks into Communist Russia and even all the training and fancy technology couldn’t stop Rocky…”
Dancing Bear stares at me. “Drago,” he says.
“What?” I ask.
“Drago,” he says, mimicking boxing motions with his fists. He’s actually excited about it. “Drago.”
“Yeah, him,” I say. “But not the point… I wanted to see the place where it was filmed.”
Ringmaster rolls his eyes.
“Even though I don’t think it was actually filmed in Russia. It was somewhere in like, Wyoming or some shit. I remember something about Mormons. But the town where it was based. I figured, why not? I’m here, might as well make it a good time. You see, I love bad action movies. It’s a guilty pleasure of mine,” I continue. “The most relaxing thing for me is putting on, I dunno, Kickboxer or Commando, drinking some beer, and eating a pizza…”
Even I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about at this point but shit, maybe I can kill them by being annoying as possible.
“There is just something about explosions and shooting and pure violence,” I say. “The soundtracks are awesome too. Always at least one pumped up song… Like that song from Rocky four. I think it’s actually perfect… Y’all ever heard it?” I wait for an answer. It doesn’t come. “In the burning hearttttt, just about to burst. There's a quest for answers, an unquenchable thirsssstttt, in the darkest night, rising like a spir-aahhhh! In the burning heart, the unmistakable fire-aaahhhhhh!”
Dancing Bear looks at Ringmaster. Ringmaster looks at him. Another wave of the Ringmaster’s hand.
Without warning, Dancing Bear grabs my shoulder and begins to squeeze. A classic muscle pinch. Something I know so well and have used more than once now used against me. My already spent muscle begins to cramp. There's no way to escape it and nothing I can do to alleviate the pain. I let out a powerful scream.
Dancing Bear laughs. "You tell now," he says.
"Did Bigfoot buy your mother dinner first or does she fuck for free?" I spit back. He turns his head like a confused dog, his grasp of English too weak to understand that. "Your mother is a whore."
He gets his revenge by squeezing harder.
“I’d ask if - if you…” I inhale deeply. “I’d ask if you squeeze your - your cock this hard when you jerk it but you ain’t got one, you dick-less donkey.”
Just as the pain reaches its peak, Ringmaster steps up and pushes Dancing Bear away, freeing me. He shoves something in front of my face. It takes a minute to register.
My wedding ring.
I look up at my hands but can't see so I rub my fingers together in a desperate attempt to find out. The feeling is mostly gone thanks to circulation issues. There's enough there to know that my ring is gone.
"Very pretty. Your wife…” he says, his words drip disgust, “has very good taste… Not in women, but in jewelry.” He examines the ring up close, admiring the nearly hundred-year opal. The ring I’ve worn for a very long time now, the ring that Allison gave me - the most important object in my life.
“I’ll be taking that back,” I say assuredly, snarling.
“Does your wife know that you do these things? That you - you come to my country to do what? Spy? Steal things from me? I wonder what she would think if I tell her about the woman you were intimate with?” he says.
He pulls the ring away from me.
“Very pretty,” he says with lust in his voice. “I wonder what she tastes like… The sounds she makes when being touched.”
I begin to wirth and fight, shaking violently, kicking toward him. “Don’t you dare!”
“What? What are you going to do?” he says. “You can watch. You can watch me fuck her until she screams for God to kill her.” He moves in closer, his warm breath on my face.
“I’ll cut off your dick,” I shout. “If you had one.”
“Ha! Your pretty little wife will love what I have for her,” he snarks. “Oh, I bet she makes the sweetest little moans…”
“I’m going to kill you,” I snarl. “I’m going to take back my ring and kill you. I’m going to skin big bear over here and then snap your neck like a fucking it’s a damn tooth pick.”
He laughs. “Americans are always so confident, even when they are hooked like a fish.”
I can hear the blood rushing through my ears as it flies through every vein in my body at an unfathomable speed. The pain has completely gone. I can taste the rage in my mouth.
I’ve beaten you once before Zolton, what the fuck makes you think you can beat me now? Especially when I’m so full of rage and anger and determination and this - this inability to accept things as they stand. I’m going to make the very best of this shitty situation, take my consolation prize of a microwavable potatoes - sorry, a plastic bronze medal that I can trade in for - oh, lemme guess, a shot at a shot? Or maybe a shot at the Paramount title? That seems to be about what we’re dealing with now.
Trust me, I am in no mood for this bullshit anymore.
I have worked too hard and too long. I slaved and strived and bleed and went so far to have it ripped from me because the little flapper on the wheel went a little too far and I lost everything. Perhaps I didn’t lose everything, but a great deal of the progress I made has been completely erased and now, well, maybe I have a chance to get back where I was. Where I should be right fucking now. We all know that I was capable of beating Danny B. - I have in the past and this time should have been no exception but that’s the way the cookie crumbles.
Frankly, I hope he does win and takes that title. I hope that this medal up for grabs gets a Paramount Title shot because, baby, I want Danny and I want to beat him six ways to Sunday for that title. I want to make his title run so short nobody will even remember it. I want to get where I belong and we know it ain’t no runner’s up match.
But that’s where I am now and that’s what I gotta focus on. Zolton, my boy, did you put your coins in the slot and get your cousin Zoltar to read your future this time? Did it tell you that I’m going to run right through you again? I’m pretty sure it did, but if it didn’t, hey, I never said I believed in the ability to predict the future. I believe in science and math and logic. I believe in laws, tested and true. I am a new law for you, test and true. The universe might be made of chaos and sometimes unpredictable, but there is one thing I can predict, even with the assistance of laws.
I’m winning. You’re not.
I want my bullshit consolation prize. I want what I deserve. I want what I came here for and I’ll be fucked if you think you can stop me.