“What is it about her that is so goddamned special?”
― Laurell K. Hamilton, Obsidian Butterfly
Atlantic City, NJ
“You can be happy or you can be right...”
It must have been 15 years at least since she’d heard those words uttered around a campfire, half a life ago when a skinny 15 year old redhead listened to old tales of mischief and heroics alike from freaks and misfits cast from the societal eye until they became an entertaining convenience to enjoy.
Carnies, and she was one of them with her patchwork tent and pocket knife loading their lives into vans and trucks in hopes of making their money before the world remembered they were simply vagabonds and con artists with an uncanny charisma and knack for bullshit.
“...Some will tell you that you can be both, never believe those people cause they tend to be neither....”
Amber had forgotten who’d spoken it, those raspy smoke filled tones and slurs of inebriation had long since melded together as had the faces they’d belonged to- many had since passed on, the lifestyle claiming another as though a fee being paid for the continued allowance of their combined existence. Others had moved on, found ‘real’ jobs and lives in suburbia commuting on their 9 to 5’s while trying to pretend they were never something beyond the worker ant they’d allowed themselves to become.
The rest existed solely to defy, carry on a dying tradition as their children saw through the lacklustre charade. Being a carny, running the stalls and performing in the shows, somehow didn’t hold the same desire it once did- each element of the art had been taken and bettered, streamlined for consumption.
“... but no one has the right in this shitty fucking world to be both happy, and right.”
Now, 15 years on and standing in front of an empty shop window, the same redhead found those same words somehow dredged up from the inside like a distant echo she couldn’t pinpoint… except the woman staring back didn’t seem familiar and the only answers she had were ones Amber didn’t like.
“Feels like it's been awhile
Time has a way with messing with us though, everything always feels further away than what it truly is- it's been maybe 6 months since I last wrestled a match… so I could be excused if all this comes off a little rusty.
Funny thing is, as soon as we’re done with all this- no one will even remember what I said, just a hazy memory of words and insults landing flush and no recollection of the damage they’ve caused. Sometimes it's just easier to forget I guess, not because things aren’t memorable but because misery and ignorance are much easier to maintain…
See, I’m unforgettable and you’re just fucking lazy.
Even so, and I’m gonna break straight into the cliches cause that's just what we do, it seems like nothing has changed- it's like I blinked rather than stepped away cause my life had just… well it hadn’t taken some unexpected turns I just wasn’t prepared to deal with.
I’m still not, but I’ve at least accepted that fact- so I guess that's progress right?
Seriously though, I come into this and I look at the level of talent laid out in front like a damn banquet… yet it's the same people talking the same shit about the same things.
I know repetition is cool and everything, but that what dubstep techno bullshit is for- we have the ability to be original thinkers, we have the god given wherewithall to say more than ‘I don’t suck, you suck’ rinse and repeat where applicable.
I know people don’t actually say that but summaries are more fun, especially when they’re true.
So on the topic of nonsense and bullshit- lets talk new years resolutions…
I didn’t make any, seems a bit pointless when you realize there are 364 other perfectly good days when you could make significant change in your life- besides I already did mine back in October. I gave up drinking- i didn’t plaster it on social media for a virtual pat on the back and I didnt need a party thrown in my honour cause I did a thing…
I don’t need to tell people ‘this year I wanna win more matches’ or ‘be a champion this year’ cause that shouldn’t be reserved for January first, and if you fail in the first month of the year you don’t just suck for the rest of the time waiting for the new year to try again.
This business is evergreen kiddies, it's year round opportunities. You don’t need to try new gear or get a frontal lobotomy to prove you’re worth something in January, come speak to me in August when you win a few matches or March when you win a title and maybe then I’ll give you a pat on the back before I ask you to get the fuck out of my closet.
As for those who made their resolution to win the Modern Warfare tournament?
Well, it's never too early in the year to fail to anything.”
In essence the same person stared back through fingerprint streaks and rivulets of the mornings rain clinging for dear life- however Amber couldn’t ever recall the prominence of her cheekbones being so great, nor the bloodshot nature of her eyes as though she hadn’t slept in days, even the tinge of red that streaked her hair like flames seemed to have dulled with the passing months.
Nothing more, however, had suffered than the spark in her eyes, once fiercely ablaze, simmering just below a blue-green veneer.
It wasn’t the booze, she’d given that up in October. Cigarettes she was a little over two weeks past with a constant reminder in the form of a nicotine patch tugging at her forearm- even wrestling she hadn’t given herself time to contemplate in the past couple months and yet despite the lack of vices- she looked dishevelled, a husk of something more fearsome.
Once 135lbs of lean muscle, vitriol and self-loathing had waned to a 127lb sinewy shadow of what had once been- be happy or be right, even now she wasn’t sure which one she’d chosen.
Unfamiliarity made it easy to turn away, that had become apparent as she continued down the street with converses splashing and squelching slightly on the water logged pavement while others rushed on as quickly as they dared as though she might somehow be contagious.
Three and a half years earlier, give or take, a different Amber Ryan walked this same path with similar purpose- then too, she recalled vaguely, people avoided her although their expressions were more uncertainty than pity. Maybe it was the chip on her shoulder she wore, the one she carried with such weight it could have made her lopsided or the aura of disappointment and determination that radiate like a bonfire in the snow.
She’d moved to Atlantic City to prove herself in Boardwalk, to give meaning to the numerous now-defunct titles that littered her rented 5th floor apartment, now she was returning to prove… that part was where things seemed to start unravelling.
On her first day in the city, she’d come here. When there were times of indecision and uncertainty she’d come here even though she could never quite pinpoint why… Now she was coming back, still as unsure as ever as to why she was drawn here.
“Word had it that you’d fallen off the face of the Earth”
Father O’Reilly stood at the top of the church steps as though he’d expected her, his americanized irish speech pattern a little less robust since she’d last seen him. Last they’d spoke, she was preparing for a three-way TLC match for the Atlantic City title, the promotions richest prize, held by ally Terryl Fexxfield and against her ex-boyfriend Matt Meyhu.
Three days after- Boardwalk officially closed it's doors and Amber was left with only 14 stitches in her face and two cracked ribs to show for the effort, less than a week later Amber caught word that Father O’Reilly had been diagnosed with stage 3 Parkinson's.
That was late August 2017- it seemed incomprehensible as to how the world had changed since.
“If you- and everyone else- should only be so lucky”
Both of them chuckled as Amber made her way up the steps, his laugh hadn’t suffered in the same way as his health, a cold comfort tacked onto the realization that death would be more merciful to a man whose faith frowned upon the choice of suicide.
It was these kinds of moments, as she watched him pass through the gaing stone maw, that she’d barely known the man at all and yet she’d come here in confidence when she had lacked that in herself- how old was he? Did he have a family he was leaving behind? A wife tending with care knowing it would eventually be all for nought but a dying mans comfort.
How did these things never matter before?
Perspective had done a 180 in the past few months, perhaps the only good thing that Amber’s mother had left behind.
“I was saddened to hear about your mother”
“How'd you find out?"
Amber had prided herself on an intense privacy all her life, her career she’d shared only what she felt was worth sharing while bottling up whatever remained if only to fill a growing void she couldn’t satiate.
“I may be a man of the cloth but that doesn’t limit my access to news, or the internet for that matter. Did you think you could simply disappear and no one question why?”
She’d heard the rumours- those as banal as retirement and as extreme as creating her own bloodthirsty cult, faking her own death or being abducted by aliens. Of course the truth was always far less interesting- however it too, it seemed, had managed to slip through the cracks in her armour.
It had been no secret that Amber’s relationship with her mother, Miranda, had been terse for years. Disapproval of her daughter life choices was only heightened by the forced long term stay in rehab for alcohol addiction, in luxury and secrecy with the same money Amber had earned defying her mother's wishes.
Blood money she’d called it, a reference to Amber’s notoriety as a deathmatch specialist perhaps.
Being happy or being right never seemed to ring more true- and for the longest time, Amber had always chosen being right in the hopes that maybe in turn it might one day bring about happiness.
No one could answer how Miranda had gotten the bottle of Johnnie Walker black, nor the presence of two bottles of prescription sleeping pills belonging to two other residents in her room- being happy nor being right had won out in this case, just spite. Spite and misery.
Amber stopped wrestling not long after, a fractured mindset following a horrific spinal injury never brought her back to a place where she could maintain anything but self-destruction, and so she self destructed.
Several months were spent drifting in and out of sobriety- trying to balance estates and funeral arrangements between empty bottles and vomit left the redhead feeling more empty than ever. Rock bottom came and went, and eventually there was no further left to fall…
“Not so much question than care- it's not as though I gave any one much of a reason in the end.”
Late October signified the last bottle of booze, upon it's completion that would be the end… why then? Amber had as much of an answer for that as anything else at the time- perhaps she’d finally simply grown weary of the self-loathing. She couldn’t just return to wrestling though, not after all the chaos and hurt she’d caused… she’d never given much of a reason, a haze of grief and desire to fall off the edge of the Earth had fuelled the decision.
She couldn’t just stroll on back through the door like nothing had happened.
“When it comes down to it, I don’t have to continue justifying my existence.
Especially to anyone still dressed up from the last Chinese New Year…
Chalk it up to having a shitty 2018 I guess, maybe that's why I’m so goddamn bitter at the moment- as if everyone around me doesn’t already know that I’m always fucking bitter- still I find myself trying to convince people who aren’t listening that I’ve more than earned my place anywhere I choose to go.
I get it though, Red Dragon, you’re kinda new around these parts and it's easy to get overwhelmed when you’re the low man on the proverbial totem pole- just take a nice deep breath… Now hold it till I say let it go.
Thing is, I wasn’t even going to return for awhile, you know sometimes you just need to clear your head and get your shit together, sometimes it's not just as easy as turning up and expecting things to go back to the way they were even though you’d secretly love for that to be the case.
I had no intention of signing up for Modern Warfare initially- then I get a call from a very old friend of mine, he tells me he’s running this tournament and it's going to be bigger than ever.
Now at first I asked him how the fuck he sent that via smoke signals, secondly I told him to fuck off, that I wasn’t interested. See, J.Rish though… never been one to accept no for an answer, which has gotten him into strife on more than one occasion.
Gotta give him credit though cause he ducked straight past my stubborness and went straight for my pride…
Previously, I’ve won this tournament.
Granted it was 9-10 years ago now, but it was my first and we all never forget our first- no matter how ugly they might be in hindsight. Maybe I’m just sentimental but Rish reminded me of this, this all makes me feel older than necessary but Modern Warfare was the first time anyone looked at this little early 20-something redhead with anything but derision and scorn.
Modern Warfare was the first time I was looked at as something more than main event fodder, that I could go and I could hang with the best at the time… It led to my first one on one world title PPV main event to another man showing his face in this tournament… the red hot, circa 2010, Jarvis King.
Admittedly I lost, but we all have to start somewhere- and frankly?
I haven’t stopped since."
“Last time I was here, I asked you a question… Do you remember it?”
Amber rubbed her forearm subconsciously, something about nicotine patches always left her irritable, as she leaned back into the pew. Father O’Reilly paused beside her for a moment, his eyes thoughtful and contemplative.
“I take questions from many people a day, especially ones that show up more consistently than Christmas. Most ask for guidance and answers, I may be a servant to God but I am certainly not his mortal messenger... You though, I suspect you would have asked me something different.”
She didn’t expect him to remember, although the dig about showing up more often certainly rankled more than she had expected. Bleary eyed, she recalled, it was absurdly hot that day and the Church's stance against modern air conditioning hadn’t softened then or since- Amber had kneeled in silent contemplation as though she classified religion as a whole as more than a farce to fulfil a very human need for guidance and a cause to devote oneself to.
Perhaps it had been the same place she sat now, although she doubted it, back then this was where the homeless slept and on an August day the back half of the church seemed ingrained with the acrid stench of body odour and urine from those inebriated bladders that couldn’t hold quite long enough.
January though, they slept elsewhere- warmer and drier than the dank recesses of stone and sanctity and to which Amber was mildly grateful for.
“I asked you what a man has left when he has nothing left to prove.”
Somewhere else in the Church, someone dropped a phone- with the distinctive clatter followed by the the instinctive reaction to swear loudly, a hasty murmured apology to the Lord and soon the Church fell back into relative silence.
“... and what was my answer then?”
“That a man has nothing to prove but his devotion to the Lord, and to those he cares about.”
Religious overtones left an aftertaste on Amber’s tongue, convoluted and vague. Nothing about the answer had satiated her then, nor did it now- if she wanted absolution she would have bought a bible, and even then it’d simply be left out for show.
“You remembered. I’m flattered even though I know you don't believe it… so what leads you to believe my answer has changed then…”
“... because I’m not asking you as a man of religion speaking on behalf of scripture and righteousness, but as a man staring at his own upcoming mortality.
See, last time I made a mistake cause I was asking as someone with potential and opportunity ahead of me, now that's all in the past and I’m staring into the void of my own career, trying to figure out if I should look before I leap for fear I might fall in love with what I see.”
Amber slumped into her pew slightly, for years she’d always seen herself as the woman with nothing to lose- even with gold slung over her shoulders and friends at her side, somehow the mindset never changed. Nothing to lose never meant more than it did now- she’d finally pushed everyone away as though it were an achievement, while sober enough to accept it as her own created reality. She’d walked away from everything and now it was calling her back…
“I was told that death was simply the next great adventure, that the life beyond for those devoted ones would be paradise- I’m not a fool though, I have been at the side of those who have passed and I’ve yet to see paradise in their eyes. Just sadness, just emptiness- and I know that I too shall find the same. It doesn’t change my faith though, what I believe remains the same- just as you, in the same place with the same question wonder why things don’t feel different.”
“You didn’t answer the question.”
“... Because you already did. Years ago and now.”
Father O’Reilly turned away with a knowing smile, the kind Amber had seen on movies before something tragic occurred beyond the realm of the protagonists control. She’d seen death, felt it and been drawn out of it's embrace yet it never left her with a deep philosophical view of the world- just a painful realization that when you depart, it would likely be alone.
“I’ll make sure you’re invited to the funeral- at least try to wear something nice.”
“Ugly sweater, socks and sandals it is.”
A chuckle escaped him as his shuffling footsteps filled the empty space, neither of them were good at sentimentalities and goodbyes always felt so forced still Amber couldn’t help but linger a few seconds too long as though a final show of respect. He was right, she wouldn’t be back in time cause death didn’t work to a schedule and life would always make sure you were late to the party.
Still it seemed wrong to leave without saying something- short, sweet and meaningful.
“Amen, and all that shit.”
“What’s in a name?
See, we’re in this very special position where a lot of the time we choose what people address us as, the first impression perhaps to most and a summary of who we are and what we stand for at a glance, as time goes on some of us are then blessed with the names that others bestow also.
Monikers earned through the sacrifice of blood and bone… So Red Dragon, what does that say about you?
All I gather is that you have a favourite colour and you like mythological creatures, you know, like girlfriends in your case. You’re like a very elaborately wrapped present that promises something cool will be inside- except then that box is opened it's empty. Flaccid. Worthless.
We’re supposed to be impressed, perhaps even moved simply because of it's facade…
Now I’m not one to rip into luchadore culture- hell even I have translated some of what they represent into my own craft however you simply wear a cool outfit and that's about it. All flash and no substance, bare bones wrapped in a bow if you will.
It's almost a shame really that such time and effort has been so thoroughly wasted, I’d likely shed a tear if I cared enough to emote- still you’re showing up and I suppose that's worth something right?
Putting yourself out there, representing your company and whatever the fuck you think you stand for- I trust you didn’t just show up to make up the numbers, nor to get a few new faces to buy a bit of overpriced merch that will rot in their closets long after they forget who you are.
No, you wanna make a name.
We’ve all been there- looking to prove our worth to the greater community, trying to show we’re made of the ‘right’ stuff as if our pound of flesh isn’t enough.
Problem is- there is real talent in this tournament. Not all of it, just enough names that make a guy like you wanna piss all through his latex and lycra when they walk into a room. Maybe mine hasn’t brought on that kinda reaction yet, and it will, but that's okay cause sometimes ignorance is the last true bliss.
See longside this plethora of talent has to be the guys like you… the absolute nobodies, the has-beens and never-wills, wash-ups and wannabes with stars in their eyes and barely enough talent to tie their own boot laces so they invested in velcro instead.
Best part is- it really doesn’t matter what you identify as cause we’re all inclusive around here and you’ll get booted all the same.
You represent the mission statements, first impressions, main event fodder, the guys that fill the hype videos and vignettes and guys willing to take a thrashing cause it looks good on your resume to lose to someone like me.
Fuck it, put it on your resume and I’ll even be a reference and tell them just how satisfying you were to punch the stuffing out of.
Modern Warfare was my first big high in this industry- I guess it seems really apt that I’m chasing the dragon in the first round against a guy in a dragon suit who would classify his best attribute as being a nice guy.
Nothing ever beats the first high, but since when has that ever stopped anyone from trying- see I’ve done a lot of thinking and coming into this I thought I had nothing left to prove, that my legacy was watertight and bulletproof but truth is… it's a rhetoric.
Sure we all talk big, rattle off achievements cause we’ve memorized the spiel but it's just bullshit… always has been… cause a man only ever has nothing left to prove once he’s dead…
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a pulse to check and a tournament to win.”