PART III: ABSENCE MAKES THE HEART GROW FEARFUL
Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall
Atlantic City, NJ
“And their opponent, weighing in at 159 lbs …”
Grandpappy told my pappy back in my day, Son, A man had to answer for the wicked that he done …
“ … From Aurora, Illinois …”
Take all the rope in Texas, find a tall oak tree, round up all of them bad boys and hang ‘em high in the streets …
“ … He is the reigning Atlantic City Champion …”
For all the people to see …
“The Gumshoe, Terryl Fexxfield!”
The crowd, warmed up to whooping and shouting by the arrivals of Edwards and Meyhu and ignited into roaring, explosive excitement by Ryan, surged. Thousands had waited all evening to finally see four top talents and two star-crossed lovers. Modern media met the oddity of professional wrestling and merged truth stranger than fiction, giving absolute strangers some strange perceived insight into a very private affair.
Reducing it to some caricature that only served to heighten the anticipation. All’s fair in love and war, after all.
Spotlights swung in in their carefully choreographed electronic dances on three-axis gimbals – sweeping across the rampway and out into the wider arena to illuminate rippling multicoloured masses of clapping and gesticulating.
The music played, lights danced. Eventually, a frown twisted the features of the Referee as he inched closer to the ropes, ducking between them towards one of the ringside officials. They exchanged confused shrugs with words drowned out by The Champion’s theme.
Gradually the unified excitement of the crowd began to break down, as time ticked on past anticipation and entered confusion. Those nearest the ramp craned their heads, willing the thick black curtains at the mouth of the entrance to billow open and admit one golden belt and an accompanying fedora. Further back, a smattering of impatient boos broke out, found a little poisoned purchase, and spread.
Holding a hand to press the speaker of his headset in close, one of the officials struggled to hear. Turning towards the Referee, he shrugged and tapped the watch on his wrist, spinning a forefinger towards the timekeeper.
The latter nodded, the music cut off abruptly and the spotlights died still pointing out over the arena. The metallic clang of a bell sounded three times.
In spite of the noise, in spite of the opportunity that was presented – Amber couldn't tear herself away from staring up the ramp. Inside she knew the real reason there was no champion, yet she still willed for something between them to fight… Even when she had failed to before.
Everything sounded distant, put through a filter and transversed underwater for a mile before it ever touched her ears.
Everything she worked for had come down to this – and for the first time, she couldn't help but wonder if all the sacrifices were really worth it.
Worth it to stand here mere feet away from everything she thought she wanted more than life itself.
Surrounded by a crowd baying for blood and gratuitous violence.
The walkway came up too fast for sluggish hands and he fell forwards, the hilt of slick palms slipping along cool metal until his cheek slammed down hard and brought it all to a dizzying halt. For a few moments, the temperature differential calmed flushed and bruised flesh and something like relief glanced around the corner, saw what was still to come and made its polite excuses to leave.
Slowly – agonisingly slowly – Fexxfield rolled his head over to rest on an aching jaw and lifted it up. Everything felt inverted, turned back-to-front. The faces baying behind the barriers should have been deafening; rictus grins frozen in delirious excitement or snarling hate as they watched blood being spilled and bayed for more in the ring. He could hardly hear them rise above some sibilant, snaking hiss. Instead the sound of his own rattling chest took up all the real estate inside a thrice-concussed-plus mind; some trembling, whole-body effort that wracked the Gumshoe in pain with each oxygen-sapped attempt.
Splayed fingers slipped in widening spirals of smeared blood but, eventually, he managed to make it to his forearms and up onto his knees. Officials began to swarm up the ramp, turning their attention away from the Championship Match and towards him.
His Championship Match.
Terryl nodded dumbly, pink-tinged spit spilled over his slack lips.
He was the Champion.
His shaking hand ran roughshod over the nearby, red-streaked faceplate of the Atlantic City title where it’d slipped from his numb fingers and clattered down to the ground. A referee came close enough for Fexxfield to see his face, lined with age and concern, and recognise him.
“Terryl?” He asked, putting a hand on the younger man’s shoulders. “Jesus Christ …”
“Earl …” Fexxfield grunted, each syllable stretched out in some baritone drone as his airways struggled to complete the dual-task of breathing and speaking. “ … Could have used him … Just now …”
He coughed, and the pink turned frothy red.
Crawling forwards and reaching out, the Gumshoe took a rough handful of Earl’s shirt and hauled himself up to standing in time to topple forwards. Two quick-thinking officials rushed in and kept him just about upright.
“Title …” Fexxfield gasped, settling on a new technique of minimising the flex in broken ribs by dividing his breaths into shallow gulps between strained words.
Pulling on a latex glove Earl frowned, reached down and hauled the Atlantic City Championship up. Where the gold unfurled and flapped down on its leather backing, blood pooling inside intricate and bejewelled metalwork splashed free.
Roughly snatching it back into his shaking hands, Terryl gently eased past the officials and took one faltering, buckling step after another towards the ring.
The crowd roared as recognition of his late appearance hit some critical mass, but he couldn’t hear them. He couldn’t see them.
He could only see her.
Something saline and clear spilled down his cheek and where it streaked down, cresting bruises and skirting cuts, it drew a furrow that made a path through all the blood and shit.
He tried to blink it away …
… But he could only see her.
She tried to call out, stopping dead in her tracks before her body could comprehend that it had ground to a startlingly painful halt. However her voice was lost long before it hit her lips, mouth flexing into something painfully guilted, the cold metal in her hands that had held so much intention clattering down at her feet.
Maybe everything wasn't lost.
Maybe forever wasn't really so far away.
Throwing herself bodily towards the ropes, her hands clasped tightly on the top as she stepped onto the bottom one – leaning over as though desperately trying to close the distance, restrained by her own selfish pride.
She couldn't just leave, and yet everything in her heart screamed silently that she needed to. If she could just say something… Anything…
Something metallic and cold struck her between the shoulder blades, voice seemingly sputtering soundlessly from her throat, the jarring pain causing her to involuntarily crumple as the leering face of her ex-boyfriend lingered overhead, lining her up for the next incomparable strike.
Matt Meyhu never gave a fuck beyond the point that his girlfriend was just as successful as he was. That her name might bolster his. Never cared though… Not in the same way that…
Amber rolled beneath the bottom rope as the metal collided with a heavy, ringing thump on the canvas, inches from where her head and neck once occupied space. Sprawling, a tangle of limbs, she crawled on aching hands and knees…
Not towards the title this time though.
The world took a trip sideways and decided it liked that feeling of being askew, so it brought Terryl along for the ride. He toppled; only a fortuitous anchor made from the junction of armpit and crowd control barrier immediately to his right kept him in anything approximating upright. Feet slapped against the concrete ineffectually – a combination of slipping on his own claret and ten-plus concussions, all lining up patiently for their chance to make neurons fire backwards.
Dragged down by its own weight, the Atlantic City Championship toppled from his limp, free hand. Fingers trembled.
Fexxfield looked up at the spinning lights and watched them for a while as they turned on vast steel trusses, bolted in fast to the arching roof. With blood-flecked teeth bared in a grunt that changed mid-expression to something sibilant and hissed in pain, he levered himself free and down onto his knees.
And he crawled, even that incremental progress slowed by the persistent need to reach back and tug that heavy gold title along for the ride.
The officials just watched, helpless, accompanying the Champion lined up on either side in some sort of pseudo-cortege as they drew a solemn and sad – and futile – route to the ring. Stood in front of the apron, creased shirt rolled up to bony elbows and tie pulled askew and down, Boardwalk’s Duty Physician waited. He didn’t need to check any vitals or assess reflexive responses to stimuli to complete this diagnosis.
Things got quieter. The much-muted thrum of the crowd dropped away to nothing, and even the scraping rasp of his own lungs creaking open under their broken ribs hushed. Fexxfield looked up, but he couldn’t really see anything. Just refracted light and blurry shapes.
And then he saw her.
Maybe his brain found something still firmly pointed in the right direction and used it to reorientate everything else, granting a little clarity for a little while. Maybe his eyes just knew how important she was and took it upon themselves to direct neural traffic. Whatever the reason pupils contracted, lenses converged, neurons fired right-way-through and she resolved into beautiful clarity.
Sitting back on his haunches, head bowed as it swam, the lights overhead that had absolutely remained fixed and immovable picked out the Atlantic City Championship in white and gold and streaked red.
Rattled but otherwise in relatively one piece, Amber dragged her way towards Fexxfield, her own facade’s snarl dissolving into something more genuine. More real. Curtains falling on the masks they'd thrown up, the Boardwalk faithful bearing witness to something far more exhilarating than any fist fight over a gold belt might fulfil.
Again, she tried to force out a sound that might let him know how she felt… That she was still capable of feeling. That she felt strongly towards him. Still nothing, just muted efforts lost in the deafening cacophony; that left her as blind as it did deafened.
At her back though, footsteps somehow slipped through the guard, the wall of sound parted just long enough for the familiar booted cadence of Matt Meyhu and the slight drag of his left foot, accompanied by the distinctive sound of metal dragging lazily across concrete.
She imagined the smirk, that knowing stupid grin that tore through her insides. However, her gaze remained on Terryl and his efforts… Her efforts…
She wouldn't let it happen again.
Kicking out behind desperately, she managed to loosen the chair in Meyhu's grasp as he stalked the pair – trying to use their moment to cement his place. Jealousy of something being more important than seething as he tightened his grip, slowly focusing down towards Amber.
Another kick and a few choice words that didn't feel like her own, another furiously desperate attempt to make right a wrong that she could never forgive herself for.
He didn’t see him. Not really – Terryl could hardly see her as whatever semblance of cooperation between the addled parts of a bruised brainpan tore up their temporary accord and all went about their separate business. He slumped onto his thigh, pawing at the clotting streaks of red drawing skewed stripes down a bruised jaw. Stepping neatly around Amber and Meyhu as if entirely disconnected from an obviously life-or-very-nearly-death struggle, the Duty Physician stooped down to his knees, frowned and waved a hand in the direction of the rampway.
Somewhere up at the crest of the stage, a silver gurney clanked and bounced on thick rubber wheels; a bright, rubberised mattress sat on top and wrapped in cotton-white sheets.
In a second the world might have ended, and in the same one it broke open into opportunity abound. As Amber staggered to her feet unsteadily, she managed to duck a wild swing of a chair towards her head, the type designed for minimal efficiency but absolutely maximum kinetic impact. Burying her boot into Meyhu's gut his grip loosened, and the chair clattered to the floor and he dropped to a knee. Amber chanced a brief glance back towards Fexxfield, before gritting her teeth a little harder. That vicious snarl returning to pride of place, if only long enough to see the smug expression left embedded in the concrete.
Taking up the chair, Amber took a step back and lined up her own baseball swing – making sure to land the chair over and through the top of Meyhu’s head before he had the opportunity to right. As the chair split open like a crimson stained flower, Meyhu fell backwards and Amber took her chance to create distance.
A stumble towards the entrance ramp left her on her knees, partially facing the commotion on the ramp and in her periphery… And empty ring. An opportunity that had seemingly kick started everything.
All she had to do was go…
… But that would only serve to prove the stranger in the mask right all along.
… However, she'd never forgive herself for not going.
… Just like she wouldn't if she didn't stay.
Hesitating, the rousing of metal on concrete as the chair was released from her bastard ex's head, triggered her back to her feet. Back to the apron as she heaved breaths uncertainly, as though even breathing seemed like a mistake.
His lips worked reflexively – but not because of something vested in the bones or the blood that pooled and spilled over to run down his chin. They anticipated words, they expected to convince.
They were ready to beg.
But the cortex declined, because she had already turned away. Consciousness was clear enough, online, comprehending. He could have said something … But what would have been more effective at the second time of pleading?
Times came along as the blue marble turned, which wrote themselves into the soul and got carried all the way until you were carried in a box to find some lonely patch of ground to look up into the sky from, and wonder. Times that transcended silly little things like life or death, times carried for all time; things which could never be unmade even if everything you were was stripped out and replaced all shining and brand new. Reborn.
Fexxfield felt something cut just such a time into the pulsing mass of muscle quivering deep inside his chest, without ever reaching through or inside. His head sank down, and just like that – after everything, after all that – it couldn’t take anymore.
And it broke.
Sinking down into the blood and sweat, Earl reached out and laid gnarled fingers on Terryl’s shoulder as he leaned in. “It’s over, son …”
Boardwalk’s Senior-most Referee squeezed gently. “That’s it …” And he gently took hold of the Atlantic City Championship with his free hand. “Time to let it go.”
Fexxfield tasted salt, delivered via the tracts being turned angry red down his cheeks, and it mixed with the iron and the shit. Slowly, he pushed the title belt forward and snapped his fingers away.
Then, he let his body sink down onto the cold metal.
Stepping clear as the gurney rattled and banged its way alongside, Earl wrapped the thick leather straps underneath heavy gold plate and stepped back towards the ring. Blood spilled free from intricately embossed shapes and inset stones and stained the blue latex of his gloves.
Each step felt like an eternity longer than the last, the seconds driven into achingly long minutes. Amber's hands shook as she ascended, the idea that this would make everything better. Make everything worthwhile kept driving her upwards.
Besides, he had promised 'no matter what' although neither had ever anticipated any of this. Forcing herself not to look, Amber dragged herself up towards the briefcase – a substitute for a title unable to be retrieved in time from a broken champion.
Amber shook her head defiantly as another step landed beneath her, fingernails digging into grooves atop the ladder as she dragged herself up and free. Everything she had done… It has been for this. For this moment. For a forever that she was promised, but didn't fucking deserve.
A shaky hand extended, fingers clasping towards a carabiner that stood between her and forever. Only the carabiner seemed to her steadily further away, regardless of how she reached, feet slipping and gravity seizing her in its cold embrace. Thrown violently sideways, a foot caught the top rope before she could course correct, and she found herself tumbling into a messy heap on the concrete floor.
Blinded by red and a sharp ringing – up and down lost meaning, directionality a myth devised by those with an equilibrium. She couldn't even breathe, air slipping out faster than it could be replaced, her lungs aching.
It wasn't supposed to be this way…
Forever wasn't supposed to be this far away.
She couldn't even bring herself to move, the neurons that told her to flail had gone on strike. Internally her synapses screamed for response, but everything seemed to fall into a crippling numbness. Time lingered for too long before the music started… Unfamiliar at first, then horrifically familiar… Painfully so.
It wasn't hers.
Everything she'd fought for…
Dragging the first true breath she could muster, her voice finally seeped from between her lips as a clear trail broke through the crimson smeared across her cheek…
"I'm sorry …"