This is it.
This is the mission.
Full disclosure after the fact: I am a fan of, and addicted to, the sport of professional wrestling.
I have nothing but contempt for the business of professional wrestling.
This includes backdoor deals. This includes hostile takeovers played out on the air. This includes athletes - regardless of whether or not they are physically capable - getting ahead based on who they know instead of what they do.
Keep that crap out of the ring, and - more importantly - away from me.
And now, I’m one win away from the mountaintop.
Who’s my opponent? Loki? Cheshire? Mia?
The question is, will it make a difference?
Oh, this is nice, says Cally, as we step outside into the rainy night.
I stop and stare.
She looks up at the sky, ignoring the raindrops hitting her in the face, MILESwide smile, brighter than the parking lot lights.
Nice, I say, with more than a touch of disbelief.
She looks at me and shrugs.
It’s twenty degrees back home; Val texted me that the back door froze shut.
Wow, I say. Yeah, I’ll take fifty degrees and raining over that.
Of course, being New Yorkers, we didn’t bring an umbrella. Of course again, being New Yorkers, neither of us drive so we had to walk around half the arena to the taxi stand.
Don’t look at me like that.
Most of the fans are gone, and fortunately Cally and I aren’t seven feet tall with thirty six inch muscles or identifying marks that anyone could pick out from the professional side of a jacket. With that, we’re able to pass through quickly and quietly.
Well, quickly, at least. Rosie, lovable Rose… fist bumps everyone in a five foot radius.
Beer must be cheap in this place; even with Cally blowing it up all over the place, nobody seems to recognize her.
Or they don’t care, and either option works for me.
I open the door for her and she slides into the back seat. There’s no bullet - proof glass between us and the driver: another oddity.
Silver Cloud Inn, I said to the driver, and we took off.
You kids have a good time at the show, he asks.
Rose and I look at each other.
I think we can say that, I said.
I been working a shift all night, says the driver, but I’ve been streamin’ the audio. I’m an old Ego Buster fan, I hope the ol’ guy can pull it out.
He’s certainly a snappy dresser, says Rosie.
I’ll say this, I said. The company could do a lot worse than Dan Ryan.
As long as everyone can live with the horrible way he treats the migrant workers in his palatial mansion, says Rosie, winking at me.
What, repeats the driver.
Never mind, I said. Bad joke.
Screen wipe. We’re checked in, we’re settled… and we’re out at a place called Steel Creek, because they’re still open.
“Good fight, Knox!”
“Cally, I love you!”
This wasn’t going to be as anonymous as the arena; I quietly told the hostess to cancel the table; we’ll get something to go and wait at the bar.
Rosie’s already there. She loves this. She’s not a celebrity type, but she loves meeting fans and talking to them. Take an unabashed extrovert, add in a dash of fame and a metric ton of complete unaffection, and you’ve got a recipe for a fanbase darling.
“So were those commentators cool after the cameras shut off? Cool like Keebs?”
Oh, I couldn’t tell you, sweetie, says Cally. We didn’t see them afterward.
“You looked great out there.”
No verbal response, but Cally sticks out her tongue and scrunches her nose. ‘Callyface,’ we call it.
“Hey,” says another guy, to me. I’m hanging out a bit on the side. After thousands of people are focused on you doing an athletic thing, it’s pretty nice to not be in the middle of things. But I’ll talk to anyone who approaches me.
Hey, I said, dropping a tip down for the bartender who handed me a beer.
“So what’s up, man,” says the guy, “you ready for this?”
Oh, heck yeah, I said. I earned this drink. And I sipped my beer.
“Naah, man,” he says, “I meant your next opponent. You win, what, you’re in the title match, right?”
That’s the plan, I said. But that’s almost incidental. You a Mel Gibson fan?
He looks confused.
What’s your name, dude, I said.
I extend my hand, he shakes it.
Well, Barry, I continued, Gibson had a movie back in the 1990s called Maverick. He was a poker player back in the nineteenth century, and it was all comedic and stuff about him trying to get to a poker tournament.
And I paused.
D’ya care about spoilers?
So, the tournament has a twenty five thousand dollar buy - in, with the winner getting a half million dollars. Pretty basic plot, but a fun movie. Anyways, predictably, the main character wins, and just a little less predictably, someone makes off with all the money.
I stop and look at him. He’s a few drinks in, but he’s hanging with me.
Anyways, I continued, the main character stops the thief from getting shot, because it’s only money, and it’s not worth a man’s life, and he found out what he wanted to anyways - that he was the best. Same thing.
So, he was hanging with me. Now he’s looking at me with dead eyes.
It’s not about the prize at the end, I explained. It’s about working as hard as you can and - if you’re lucky - you come out the other side better for it.
“Knox! Order up!”
Good to meet you, sir, I said. And I shook his hand. I took the bag from the server and collected my Cally, who was two shots deep with a group of fans.
Gentlepersons, she said to the group, this is RK, and he’s very happy to meet all of you.
And I was. I shook the hands, I took the photos, I deflected the questions about my future with the CWF.
All in a day’s work, and stuff.
Black. Screen wipe. Fade in on two masks.
One of them is a very good replica of the Loki Synn mask that my next opponent wore for a lot of months prior to Modern Warfare. The other is plain black with a green DNA-type design; it’s the mask I wore for the first eight months of my full - time career.
There’s a message in it, obvs.
Full disclosure, after the fact: I was MJ Flair’s primary trainer some years back when she was a fifteen year old wannabe that was just looking to make a mark.
So here we are.
So here we are. The Jagged Grin and the Marathon Man. I don’t mean to belittle you at all, Loki.
Or Cheshire. Or Mia. Or whoever the heck you are.
I’ll be honest with you - I don’t pay attention to the CWF’s history or legacy. I’m not fully versed on how we got here, and, to be honest, this match lost a lot of its polish the second The Shadow pinned Jarvis King for your CWF World Title.
And yet, this is still the most intriguing match of the third round.
Who gets the World Title shot in the opening moments of Modern Warfare, Cheshire? Is it you, the Dragon who slayed the Hero? Is it me, the reluctant antihero who doesn’t give a flying crap about your resume?
Far as the fans are concerned, either one’ll do.
You should hear the truth.
I’m here, wrestling in Modern Warfare, because this company deserves to have someone with no ulterior motive fighting for it. And if we look at the two of us, and the six others still in the mix… the CWF needed someone.
Dan Ryan is an ass. He’s the most likely to walk outta this entire thing with a title belt around his waist, just going by past performance. And he’ll disrespect you if he feels like it, or if he’s bored. Zach the Owen? Gamer. Happy-go-lucky. Totally unprepared.
Jack Michaels is a professional, but he’s got a problem: his entire demeanor tells me that he expects to win, because he deserves to win.
Arrogance. If your name ain’t Joey Melton, it doesn’t fit.
Ataxia? He’s a frandly fellow. Dunno what else I can say about him.
Of course, we have the CWF World Champion, The Shadow. You know him, Cheshire. You handed him the CWF World Title. Good man, weak Champion. I’ll say this for him, he’s trying his best to deserve it.
And then there’s you, Cheshire. And there’s me.
You claim this is your house, Cheshire. You claim you’re fighting for it against all of the outside forces that want to take it down.
Says the woman who had her biggest moment as a representative of Hostility.
I’m not claiming to be someone that represents and defends the CWF. I have no loyalty to this company, and I don’t feel I owe a damn thing to the place, other than to wrestle to the best of my ability.
Normally, at least.
But I’m also calling you out on your BS, Cheshire… you don’t get to claim to represent the CWF when it’s convenient to you, while ignoring the moment where you maliciously destroyed and robbed the athlete who actually did represent this company.
The Fair Weather Hero ain’t no hero at all.
Here’s the deal, Cheshire.
What this company needs is a Champion that has the CWF as their only priority. What this company needs is a Champion that can defend it against anyone, internal or external.
Is that you?
Sweetie, you are an internal and external threat to this company.
The Shadow? He’s a good man, he’s a competent wrestler… but he’s a bit soft. He’s not someone that can hold the line when the chips are down.
Now, I have no control over whether it’s The Shadow or Jimmy Allen that steps into Modern Warfare as the CWF World Champion. I do, however, have some control over whether it’s The Marathon Man or The Jagged Grin that steps into the ring against the Champ.
You’re as hollow as this mask.
And it goes back to the scene.
Be it this one, be it the other one… you hide behind a mask. You exist outside it, but you don’t seem to have the ability to shine from underneath it.
I wore my mask until I felt I’d earned enough respect to have it, no matter what face I showed to the sport of professional wrestling. You? You’re wearing the mask to avoid having to deal with the consequences of your lack of respect.
So maybe you’ll win.
But you’ll never deserve this victory.
I’ll tell you one thing, though.
Sacramento? The Quarter Finals of the Modern Warfare tournament?
This ain’t Mia Country.
And we cut.
Not only do we cut, but we move to later. Much later. We’re actually asleep, the lights are off, and the cameras are long gone.
Just go with it.
The sound of a dry heave jolts me out of my sleep.
I sit up with a start and notice that I’m alone in bed.
Rosie, I called out.
Polo, comes the response from the bathroom, followed by another round of coughing.
Damn. I knew what that sound meant.
I walked into the bathroom, and I’m greeted by an all-too-familiar sight. Rosie is sitting on the floor, hugging the bowl. T-shirt and undies on her body, and a bloody residue on her lips.
And I sit down next to her.
Is it bad, I ask.
No worse than usual, says Cally.
She spits a bloody loogie into the bowl.
Feminine, she says, ain’t I?
While I appreciate her candor, I’m also responsible for her health.
Maybe we should get you on a plane home tomorrow, I said.
No, says Rosie.
No discussion, no debate. Just… no.
We’re a team, she reminds me. You need me here. And I need you, wherever you are.
It’s not worth your health, I turn around on her. If you’re having a problem again, we should gt you home.
She drops her head into her hands and wipes the blood from her mouth, chuckling to herself.
Don’t be a silly goose, says Rosie. My health is a terrible cesspool of terribleness, and trying to appeal to my logic when my lack of health comes up is totally hexed.
Rosie gets serious and looks me dead in the eyes.
We are a team, she says, matter-of-factly. I’m going where you are, and you’re not going anywhere without me.
You can’t argue with that logic.
Okay, I said. Do you need some water, or would you like something else?
She doesn’t answer: I can see her holding a hand to her chest to keep more chunks of her lungs down. But she nods her head.
We’re a team, after all.
So this is what it comes down to.
We’re all fighting wars, every day. A lot of the time, they’re wars you’d never notice.
Sometimes, the stakes are as large as an entire wrestling company. The CWF, for example.
Sometimes, they’re a little more personal.
Maybe I’ll beat Cheshire Loki. Maybe she’ll beat me.
At the end of it, what matters is that, win or lose, Cheshire loses. Because she’s selfish. Because she lacks the strength of her own convictions.
Because, even as she’s claiming to be the defender of the CWF, she’s put the defender of the CWF on the shelf.
That’s a debt that’s coming due.
Maybe not here.