THREE: THE BLADE
Aldous Armstrong put the finishing touches on the black, curved blade painted across his eyes and took a step back to examine himself. His eyes were intense. His hair blond and gelled into a sharp point. His torso looked cut to shreds, nearly unrecognizable from the flabby, pale body he used to see in the mirror. After spending hours a day in the gym and eating a diet consisting strictly of fish, eggs, and fruit, he’d sculpted himself into a new form, erasing the malleable weakling he could hardly stand to look at. He was Aldous “The Blade” now. Tonight, he was supposed to win the belt. Everything had led to this.
He checked his phone one last time. The message from his sister said Caroline had just picked her up. They were going to get some beer, then come check out his show. He didn’t like them breaking the law and wished she would just let him pick up beer for her. She never listened. An hour had passed since the message, and she hadn’t sent him a follow up to let him know they’d arrived safely.
His thumb hovered over the screen to type a reply, ask her if she was here. Someone knocked on the bathroom door.
“Hey, Blade,” the guy on the other side said. He didn’t recognize the voice, but Sal the promoter had new volunteers every show. “You’re up.”
“All right,” Aldous said. “Coming.”
He set down the phone and opened the door.
“What are you doing, Caroline?” Amber called from the road. “We’re gonna be late.”
Caroline ignored her, walking deeper into the woods, though the apparition had long disappeared. It was no apparition, she told herself. It’s Marybeth.
She pushed aside a flimsy branch and ducked under a sturdier one. Every step down the rocky path sent painful vibrations up her legs. She took out her phone and switched on the flashlight app. Newly illuminated, the dark woods didn’t look real. It was as if the trees themselves were ghosts, too, and not just the girl she was following.
A bird took off overhead, its wings moving with heavy grace. It sounded like an owl. Her footsteps made heavy, lonely sounds. The girls on the road, still calling after her, but not daring to give chase, sounded far away. To see how far she’d wandered, she risked a look over her shoulder. She could still see the outline of her car. Its headlights. The three dark shapes of her friends on that lonely country road.
“Caroline,” someone said.
Their voice was a whisper. Caroline shined her phone in its direction. The light reflected off of two dark eyes, looking almost like distant stars. It showed a gaunt form, hunched over in the woods. She peered into the shadows for a better look.
“It’s me,” she said, holding out her arms. “Please help.”
“And action,” the kid behind the camera said, a slight tremor in his voice.
Aldous didn’t recognize him either. Another new face. He hoped the kid knew what he was doing. Aldous was about to cut a legendary promo. He couldn’t have the footage all shaky. He paced while the camera rolled to stay in character. The interviewer, longtime friend Julie Blazer began.
“Aldous ‘The Blade’ Armstrong. Tonight’s the night. You finally get your shot at the Broken River Wrestling championship. What’s going through your mind?”
“I’ll tell you what’s going through my mind!” he hollered. “Tonight’s the night, yeah, just like you said. I’ve waited my whole life for this. The dreaming. The training. The fighting. It’s all led to this: the Blade, one on one with Trashcan Tommy for the Broken River World Title. What’s going through my mind? I’m hearing Trashcan’s words as he stood over me a month ago while I was handcuffed to the ring post, kneeling in a puddle of my own blood. He said I’ll never get a chance at his belt. He said even if I did I’d never beat him. Well, Trashcan Tommy, I’ve got my chance tonight, and you may think I can never beat you. You may think that because Black Metal Steve and Doom Dog Harris will be in your corner, but I’ve always had the odds against me. I like having the odds against me. I’m gonna take on Black Metal Steve. I’m gonna take on Doom Dog Harris. And then, what then, Trashcan Tommy? It’s gonna be just you and me, and you know that, one on one, you ain’t got a chance of holding onto your championship. It’s coming home with the Blade, yeah!”
“And, Blade, you said last week you wanted to dedicate this match to someone special. Do you want to say who it is? Are they here tonight?”
He thought of the message from Amber and how long it had been. He hoped she was in the audience tonight with her friends. If the young cameraman had everything set up correctly, this interview would be on a live feed for people in attendance.
“This match is dedicated to my sister, Amber. She’s here tonight, and she’s gonna watch me win, yeah!”
Caroline approached Marybeth with her arms outstretched. In the shadows, the other girl’s features were difficult to make out, but Caroline could tell there was something terribly wrong. Had she been buried alive? Had she been embalmed alive? No way could she have lived through the fall off the cliff, yet here she was, very much alive. She glistened with a thick liquid.
“Marybeth, what happened to you?” Caroline asked.
She almost asked if the other girl was okay, but she knew better. The reaching hands of Marybeth looked gnarled and bony, like skeletal claws. But Caroline kept approaching her. If her classmate and friend was sick or hurt, she wanted to help.
As she drew closer, an offensive odor wafted toward her. It stung her nose and made her eyes water. It reminded her of stagnant water and bad food. She realized, too late, that the smell was coming from Marybeth. The girl who’d been the love of Mason’s life was decaying at an incredibly fast rate. Clumps of skin turning into hot honey and falling like wet rags around her feet. Caroline’s bottom lip quivered. Her bladder threatened to let go. Her feet locked into place against the advice of every voice in her head.
“Please, no,” she said in a quavering whimper.
Marybeth’s melting hands grabbed fistfuls of Caroline’s hair, pulling her into a noxious kiss.
The Blade tromped to the ring, fists balled at his sides, head lowered like a bull ready to charge. Cheers filled the audience. He was old school, born in the wrong era. The wrestling business had gotten away from itself in the last few decades, becoming less and less serious, more and more winking at the camera. When he walked down the aisle, he aimed to project believability. He was an artist and as tough as a five-dollar steak.
He stopped at the bottom of the ramp and surveyed the scene. An audience of a few hundred, standing room only. They were packed into Heathenish Brewery, known for its IPA and grimy, underground hip hop shows. The wrestling fit in perfectly because the promotion treated itself like a shoot, keeping kayfabe like one of God’s commandments. It wasn’t WWE because it was real as fuck.
He looked for Amber’s face among the crowd. Tried to spot her friends, too. He didn’t see them, but maybe he’d missed them. He didn’t take more time to look. It was time to hit the ring. He leapt onto the apron and grabbed the ropes. He reared back his head and screamed his trademarked war cry. People yelled along with him. He was the babyface. People were ready to watch him win.
The lights went down. A grimy dubstep song played over the PA. Trashcan Tommy sauntered out with Black Metal Steve and Doom Dog Harris in tow. They made for an intimidating sight, like the Road Warriors of old with a twenty-first century facelift. Spiky helmets topped their heads. Their cut torsos glistened with water and sweat. As they approached, the Blade paced the ring, never taking his eyes off his opponents.
Mikey Clegg was the referee for the bout. He was a wiry kid, but Blade thought he was super-cool. Knew a lot about the business. His house was full of memorabilia from the old days. Bills from defunct promotions like Mid-South and Stampede Wrestling covered the walls of his room. He even had a replica of WCW’s big gold belt hanging above his bed. Blade liked shooting the shit with him. Now, though, it was all business. All theater. Each actor playing their part.
The trio of heels climbed onto the ring apron. Mikey stepped forward waving his hands and pointing to the back. He was yelling that he wanted Black Metal and Doom Dog to head backstage, so they wouldn’t interfere in the match.
The Blade stepped forward, putting his hand on Mikey’s shoulder.
“Let them stay,” he said. He pointed to the bejeweled belt around Trashcan’s waist. “For that, I’ll take all three of em on if I have to.”
Right on cue, Black Metal and Doom Dog slipped through the ropes, coming at Blade full steam ahead. The Blade put out both his arms for a double clothesline, dropping both heels to the canvas. Black Metal got up first. The Blade hugged him for a belly-to-belly suplex, slamming him to the mat. While he rolled out, Doom Dog swung for him. The Blade ducked the blow and grabbed Doom Dog by the nape of his neck, aiming to throw him out of the ring. Before he could, Trashcan attacked from behind, clipping the Blade’s knee.
The bell rang. Shit was on.
“Caroline, what the fuck?” Amber said. She was now standing on the edge of the woods. “You better not make me go in there after you.”
“I think you’re gonna have to,” Farrah said.
“Hey, fuck it,” Felicity said. “She wants to go exploring the woods at night, that’s her prerogative. Let’s go watch some pro ‘rasslin’!”
Amber and Farrah flashed her angry glares.
“What?” she asked. “I’m just sayin.”
“I’m not going in there unless you two come with me,” Amber said.
“Or if you’re crazy like Caroline?” Felicity said.
“What the fuck, bitch?” Farrah said. “That’s our friend.”
“And I’m your sister, so?”
“Are you two coming with me or not?” Amber asked.
The twins exchanged glances. They nodded and followed Amber into the woods.
“Caroline,” Amber called out, switching on her cell phone light.
No one answered. The others called her name, too.
“Where do you think she is?” Farrah asked.
“I wonder if a bear got her,” Felicity said.
Farrah backhanded her on the upper arm.
“There aren’t any bears around here, dipshit.”
Something crashed in the nearby shrubbery. It sounded like an old, dead tree fell over with a series of splintering cracks.
“What was that?” Farrah said.
“I’m betting a bear.”
“Shut up about the bears,” Amber said. “Caroline! Where the fuck are you? This better not be some fucked up joke.”
The woods settled in the wake of the fallen tree. The silence made Amber want to turn and run back to the car. It was the sort of calm that only preceded a storm.
“I think we should go back to the car,” she said.
“What? Why?” Farrah asked.
Felicity was already on her way back.
“Just … this doesn’t feel right,” Amber said, brushing past Farrah.
“But what about Caroline?” Farrah pleaded. “What if she’s in trouble?”
“We’ll call somebody,” Amber said. “We’ll wait by the—”
Before she could finish, Felicity’s feet lifted off the ground.
The uppercut lifted The Blade into the corner. Trashcan was a snug worker, but the Blade hardly felt a thing. He made it look good though, buckling against the corner and kicking his legs into the air. Trashcan grabbed the Blade’s throat in a mock chokehold. Mikey yelled in mock outrage, counting toward a disqualification loud enough for the jeering crowd to hear. Trashcan released the hold at nine and walked away to work the crowd while the Blade collapsed to his knees in mock weariness.
It was an Oscar-worthy performance, and he hoped Amber was there to see it.
Trashcan stomped back to the corner to resume doling out punishment, but the Blade surprised him with a single-leg takedown. The small crowd erupted as the Blade tried to transition into a leg-bar. When Trashcan squirmed to the ropes, allowing for a break, the crowd booed. They were buying in, Blade thought. They were true believers already, but him and Trashcan were just getting started.
The Blade let his opponent stand. Trashcan threw a roundhouse. Blade blocked it and countered with one of his own, spilling Trashcan to the outside. Blade hit the ropes once, twice, then went for a dive. Trashcan moved. Blade caught himself and spun back into the ring. He made a beckoning gesture at Trashcan Tommy. Trashcan gave him the finger. He went to leave the ring in pursuit, but Mikey grabbed him and yelled for him to stop. The Blade feigned outrage, gesturing at the retreating Trashcan and yelling.
The Blade backed away as Mikey began to count Trashcan out. As planned, Black Metal and Doom Dog hit the ring. Doom Dog kicked Blade in the gut. Black Metal lifted him in a fireman’s carry and dropped him for a Death Valley Driver. They subsequently rolled out of the ring, leaving Blade laying.
Outside the ropes, Trashcan spread his hands and conveniently agreed to come back inside. He slipped through the ropes and onto Blade for a quick cover. One. Two. Blade kicked out. Trashcan pulled him into a sitting position and clamped on a painful-looking, but safe headlock. It was time to build heat.
At first, no one knew what the light around the levitating Felicity was. When it began to crackle, when her screams of surprise and fear became cries of agony, Amber could tell her friend was on fire. Suspended in the air and burning like an effigy. Felicity’s screams were soon joined by her sister’s and by Amber’s, too. The woods seemed then to fill with screams. A chorus of pain and terror, far too loud and layered for three voices. Soon, Felicity stopped screaming and dropped, smoldering, to the rocky path. This brought fresh screams from her friends.
Amber backed away from the crispy corpse while Farrah drew closer.
“Don’t,” she managed to mumble.
Farrah had no reply. She just kept approaching her dead sister. Her screams had turned to whimpers. Mumbled words of grief that Amber couldn’t make out, but she imagined their meaning. She had no sisters, only her brother Aldous the Blade. She remembered the time he’d been in an awful car accident. He was sixteen and had just gotten his first car, a red Audi. Someone t-boned him at the intersection of Beacon Hill and Swamp Rd. The Audi was totaled. Aldous was almost lost, too. She remembered how scared she’d been, watching her big brother in the hospital bed, wondering when the machines would flatline to indicate the end of his life. That pain she’d imagined could not compare to what Farrah felt now. Amber’s had been imagined, her fears never realized as Aldous made a miraculous recovery, mounting a comeback like the wrestler he’d soon become. Farrah’s agony was all too real.
Amber took another step back and bumped into something. It felt human, soft and feminine. She spun.
“Caroline?” Her friend was standing there, saying nothing, wearing a blank stare. Amber’s tone sharpened with worry. “Caroline?”
Behind her, Farrah commenced pathetic wails of grief. The remains of Felicity smoked like hamburger left too long on a hot pan.
Caroline’s lips twitched. She still hadn’t spoken. Her eyes were hard and expressionless.
“Caroline, what’s going on? Where’s that girl? We have to get the fuck out of here.”
All of this spilled out of her mouth like loose M & M’s from candy machine. In response, Caroline touched Amber’s chest with two fingers. It looked like a light touch. It was a light touch. But somehow, Amber was now barreling backwards. She crashed into Farrah and the cremated remains of Felicity crunched beneath them. The girls screamed, flailing and smacking each other as they scrambled to their feet.
Farrah reached hers first and sprang for the car. Something yanked her back onto the corpse of her twin. Amber got up and ran, her friend’s screams dying behind her. She hated herself for doing this, leaving her friend to die, but she wasn’t a goddamn superhero. No way she could fight the … whatever the fuck in control of Caroline’s body.
By the time she got out of the woods, they had fallen silent. All she heard was her own ragged, rushing breath as she piled into the car and shut the door behind her.
Fuck. Caroline had the keys.
Amber looked back toward the woods. The killer in the guise of her friend stood on the edge of the road. She held the keys and jangled them tauntingly.
“NO!” she screamed. “GODDAMN IT!”
She considered leaving and running, but maybe if she kept the doors locked, she could be safe. Maybe… Caroline dropped the keys and raised her other hand. She looked as though she meant to clap.
“Oh my God, what the fuck, what the fuck?” Amber whined.
When Caroline’s hands came together, incredible crushing pain enveloped Amber.
She died before she could realize the car had collapsed on her.
It was time for the Blade to make his comeback. Trashcan Tommy whipped him into the ropes, setting up a pop-up powerbomb. Blade telegraphed the move, diving over Tommy’s head and hooking his legs under his opponent’s arms. The sunset flip drove Tommy back-first to the mat. Tommy rolled back to his feet. Blade was there to meet him with a clothesline. Tommy jumped up and met another clothesline. When Tommy got up a third time, Blade kicked him in the gut to set up the Blade Runner, which was a variation on the old Stone Cold stunner.
Before he could apply the move, Doom Dog slid into the ring. Took a swing at Blade, who ducked it and gave Doom Dog the Blade Runner meant for Trashcan. Black Metal Steve was next, attempting a tackle, which Blade sidestepped, sending Black Metal sailing out of the ring.
Trashcan had regained his bearings and wrapped his right hand in what looked like brass knuckles but was actually made of foam. Trashcan swung. Blade blocked it. Kicked Tommy in the gut and successfully hit the Blade Runner. He covered Trashcan Tommy for the one-two-three. The bell rang. New champion.
As the Blade raised the belt in the air, he scanned the audience once again and wondered where Amber was.