BK. 2, CH. 04 – Penultimate (Καλημέρα)

By: James Raven

Writing Prompt: No

Date: 15th Apr 2022

The mirror was never quite as kind to him as the lens of a camera could be.

Photos felt optimistic. His outfits were coordinated, his look was styled. There’s infinite possibility when you see him in a picture; where is he coming from, and where is he going to? Was he alone? Was there a deal in the works, or some new guest appearance that someone had coerced into his schedule? There was intrigue, and he made you feel like you were a part of it. He always knew where the paparazzi were, he was always pointing and smiling right at them like they were old friends and he was eager to catch up… there’s a warmth to him through a camera lens… he looked like a star.

The mirror was something different.

The mirror showed him nothing but blemish and imperfection, reflecting fresh wounds and a rapidly fracturing ego. He saw the creases in his brow and the silver threads spun through his hair, tiny spiderwebbed scars spiraling around his eyes and temples from a decade and a half of splintered wood and crystalline glass shards tearing through flesh and shredding his cloak of invincibility one swatch of fabric at a time. He looked like an aging man, more preoccupied with the years of his life gone by than the new ones ready to unfold before him.

He twists the faucet knob and holds his hands cupped underneath the cool stream, leaning over to splash his face and rub the remnants of sleep from his eyes. He runs dripping fingers over his head and through his hair, feeling the droplets run down the back of his neck and trickle across the vertebrae of his spine as he stands up to look at himself again. He takes a deep and steadying breath before reaching to the edge of the mirror and swinging it open, pulling a small plastic bottle of Lithobid from the medicine cabinet and unscrewing the cap. He carefully tips the bottle until three peach colored tablets lay in the palm of his hand, then he quickly reseals the bottle and places it back on the shelf and swings the mirror back into place.

He turns quietly on the tile floor, tip-toeing out of the bathroom’s shadows and back to the quiet confines of a sun soaked bedroom. Linen curtains billow softly at the edges of an open window, golden rays bursting through glass panes and falling gently across the surface of the bed.

She’s still asleep, legs intertwined in the sheets beneath the comforter as her hair spills across the pillow and her chest rises and falls softly with each peaceful breath. He inches towards her bedside cautiously, crouching down beside her and laying a tender kiss on her forehead. He lays his head next to hers on the edge of the pillow, and carefully places a hand on her stomach. She takes a deep breath, head shifting as her hand makes its way quietly to his and wraps around his fingers.

For the first time this morning, he smiles.

He kisses her gently again, standing slowly and circling carefully around the bed towards the door so as not to fully wake her yet. He eases into the hallway and pulls the door closed behind him, tossing the pills in his hand as he makes his way towards the suite’s kitchen. He can smell fresh coffee in the pot, the timer finishing the brew at the perfect time as he grabs an apple off the counter and pulls a small mug from the cupboard and quickly fills it to the brim and watches steam rise from the piping surface. He takes a sip, wincing as he scalds the surface of his tongue… worth it. The caffeine rushes through his body like a tidal wave, a surge like pumping adrenaline shaking him out of his foggy stupor. He sets the mug down on the counter, taking a large bite from the apple and chewing it down before popping the three Lithobid pills into his mouth and swallowing.

He takes a look around the kitchen. It had taken him a few days, but he was finally getting comfortable here… which probably meant they’d be on the move again soon. So much travel, so many shifting surroundings. Toronto, New York, Orlando, Greece, Arizona, California and any other town that summoned him in the name of some sort of “contractual obligation”. Apartments and hotel suites, guest rooms and stolen naps on red-eye flights.

None of it felt like home.

None of the furniture was his. None of the comforts were ones that he had chosen. For nearly four months it had felt like he was couch surfing, or on the run and looking for sanctuary. He couldn’t keep going like this.

She had made it all bearable. She had made every space feel welcoming and every crowded room feel like a burrow for just the two of them. She had done more than he could have ever hoped for without being asked and with a smile on her face, trying to make each transition seamless and comfortable. He had told her that she didn’t need to keep doing it, but he couldn’t always hide the discomfort when he looked around a host’s room and felt he couldn’t sit back and put his feet up if he wanted to.

He takes another sip of his coffee, then chews another bite of his apple thoughtfully. Soon. Soon the Gemini One tournament would be wrapped up, and FIGHT would work itself out… then he’d figure out “home”.

He makes his way from the kitchen, carrying his coffee mug with him towards a sliding glass door and stepping through the threshold to a small balcony. He settles into a wicker chair, grabbing a small laptop from the floor next to the leg and opening it. He waits patiently for the machine to fire up, another deep sip of his coffee before he punches in his password and scrolls a few new messages in his inbox.

Subject:
Betsy was the best thing that ever happened to you, piece of shit!

Subject:
How’s it feel to be the laughing stock of FIGHT, “goat”?

Subject:
I looked up to you! You killed NSQ.

He stares blankly at the screen, finger skimming the roller pad to scroll through the rows of unread messages. Terminated managers forwarding threats and podcasts links. Angry colleagues using burners to flood him with pettiness. Disappointed fans who felt entitled to an explanation, or worse, a say in how he or anyone else in his business lived their personal lives. He knows it was wishful thinking to expect anything else. There had been plenty of opportunities for people to reach out to him if they wanted to, or to respond to anything he himself had said or done. It wasn’t like there was an expectation of clemency from anyone, nothing needed to be swept under the rug or ignored or taken back… but to hear nothing but radio silence from everyone that had ever called him a friend was moderately surprising.

Considering everything he had been willing to hear out and reserve judgment on in the past, to grow from and move past for the greater good… HE was the one that had committed the unforgivable sin? He was the one that needed to be completely cut off and ostracized? He was the one not a single other person could relate to, or empathize with?

He shakes his head and takes another sip of his coffee.

He stops himself before his mind gets going and builds up too much momentum to stop.

None of that’s fair. None of it is that simple. He just wished that it was. He wished he could point his finger at people and confidently say that they weren’t being fair or reasonable, but he wasn’t stupid. He knew what he had done. He understood the situation and how it looked to so many outsiders, and he understood the anger and the distaste… but none of them knew the details, and he couldn’t try and explain things to people who weren’t interested in listening to him anymore.

He shakes his head and stops his train of thought again. He takes a few long and slow breaths to steady himself, again. He had always spent too much time worrying about how everyone else felt about him, and dedicated too much of his energy to monitoring and improving that image. It was a bad habit, an unhealthy one, and he recognized it. It was madness inducing to him, and draining to them. He couldn’t control how anyone else received him or his actions, and he couldn’t take it personally when helping him navigate choppy waters falls low on their list of priorities…

He slowly closes the laptop, placing it back on the balcony floor and sliding it underneath his chair. He had been hopeful that today of all days, there might be something other than the ordinary venom… foolish. They had all had a chance to listen, and none wanted to talk. The date on the calendar was never going to be enough to get anyone to put the issues aside and offer any gestures.

He stands up, stepping towards the balcony railing and staring out across the property. He takes another few breaths, longer and slower than before. His mind tends to snowball on him, he can get fixated on the negative and the external and spiral. It’s not always rational. It can be paranoid and masochistic.

He’s trying to see it coming these days, before he feels the tremble in his chin and the tightness in his throat. He’s trying to find the light before the shadows swallow everything around him and he has to swim his way out. It’s always been a struggle since he found out, but he’s still trying…

“Burn it down.”

The words echo in his head each night before he falls asleep, and ring in his ears each morning when he wakes. It had been a battle call for months, a mission statement that had invaded his blood from a poisoned well. It had put fire in his pupils and rage in his heart, it had made him reckless and arrogant…

“Burn it down.”

It had fed on his insecurity. It had fuelled an urge to turn every interaction into pain, and use that pain as a justification to look out for himself above all else and defend against being hurt any further. Every glance looked sideways, every word felt like shade. Silence was more deafening than a thousand jeers, and when a group is “all engines go” with their own interests there is little regard to someone still stuck back on the beach asking for a hand.

He pushed them all away. He waited for them to lash back, then acted spitefully.

The words beat in his head like a bass drum.

The power behind them grew, and became blinding. It was all he could hear, all he could focus on. The details became cloudy, the world he was living in became foggy. It was like he was watching his own life from the passenger seat at times, like he wasn’t actually in control of what he was saying or doing in some moments and just carrying out orders of some higher power.

“Burn.”

“It.”

“Down.”

He wanted the world to hurt like he did.

It consumed him. It told him it was better to set out on his own and be a man without a country than an accessory or a tool to everyone else. He could stop trying to partner with people who seemed disinterested or saddled by his company, and he didn’t have to play nice with promotions that didn’t care to promote him. Burn it down. Fuck them all. They’ll miss you more than you miss them.

He should have known he wasn’t thinking clearly. He should have known he wasn’t built to survive alone. It was like the voice driving him forward the whole time had been driving him to the rocks on purpose. Then he found a lighthouse. A beacon to guide him safely through the harbor until the storm cleared and he could see clearly again…

The sliding door opens quietly behind him, and she steps out onto the balcony and wraps a reassuring arm around his waist. He smiles and balances his mug on the railing, his hand reaching for hers and intertwining fingers. She leans forward and rests her cheek against his back, and together they stand silently in the morning sun.

She had listened to every word, coherent and well thought out or not. She had seen every perceived slight and witnessed every real grievance. She had cheered him on as he pounded his chest and threatened to take on the world, and she had held him in the darkness when he had tearfully questioned every aspect of his own value.

She held herself tall through everything. She deflected insults and hatred like arrows fired at her from a toy bow. She simply stood with him, unbothered and happy to take the bad with the good, and to hold his hand if he needed it as his head grew clearer with each passing day and each prescribed dosage.

Eventually the voices stopped.

The urge to burn everything subsided.

He wanted it all to go away, to leave him in peace and silence away from the rest of the world like he had often felt was safest for everyone… and they had. He couldn’t hold it against them.

Still she stayed. Still she told him that he was enough and showed him that even a broken toy could still bring someone joy.

She deserved better than the circumstances that surrounded the bloom of their relationship. She deserved better than the tabloid headlines or the homewrecker cheapshots, or even the man he had been the last couple of months… She deserved more attention, more focus, more drive. She deserved the man she knew before, the one that could decide the buck stops here and pull himself together again.

He turns away from the railing and into her embrace, her eyes lifting up to meet his as she smiles widely and leans her face forward again and presses into his chest. He wraps his arms around her and kisses the top of her head, making a silent vow in his head; what’s done is done, and what’s coming is what matters. He wouldn’t allow it all to pass by as he sat quietly and allowed her to make it more comfortable for him.

He loved her. He needed her more than he could express.

He always had… but the world was a complicated place…

He was a complicated mess.

He was still trying.

“Happy birthday,” she whispers softly to him.

“Thank you,” he whispers back, “Let me make you breakfast.”

Together they head back inside, to the kitchen, and for the first time in a while something feels like home.

FADE
TO
BLACK

Read the room and wave the white flag. Two fingers up, and I’m out like a ghost.