For Love of the Game

By: Sahara

Writing Prompt: Yes

Date: 14th Mar 2022

The vivacious blonde stood gazing across the New York skyline from the four-story penthouse of Thaddeus Duke II. Her husband. The slightly warped image of her reflection in the floor to ceiling windows noted a hint of an asymmetrical smile. A happy smile. But it was also a smile tinged with appreciation. Appreciation for where she now stands, but moreso, how she got from there to here…

Sometimes, life has a way of bringing you to your knees. The weight of everything crashing down all at once. It’s like they say, ‘when it rains … it pours’. And just when you feel like you’ve had enough, life finds a way to tack on a little more. It’s barely making rent and then getting one of those bullshit red-light traffic tickets you can’t afford. That’s what life is like for some. Not sometimes. All-the-times. Every. Fucking. Day. Or a lottabit allthebits as Ricky might say. It’s a continuous struggle to make ends meet in a world that seems designed to keep you down… but you do it, regardless of how hard it is. It’s called muddlin’ through.

But every so often the stars align – and when you least expect it – you get dealt aces down. A made hand. A lucky hand, most would say. But whether it be luck or fate that dealt the cards, when that happens, you don’t let the opportunity slip… you play it with fucking vigor.

That was Sahara, and this time, she was all in.

Less than a year ago, she wasn’t exactly the person you know and hate today. Mayhap hate is too strong a word. Would you prefer dislike? Whichever the case may be, however you might feel about her, there was a time she wasn’t the loud mouth you see on the FIGHT Network or in the Twitterverse, sticking her nose in everyone’s business that’ll pay her the least bit of attention. Not long ago, Sahara was just Lauren MacKay, struggling waitress at a North Chicago Applebee’s. The glitz and glamor of her stints in EWA and OPW had faded with the passing years, and with it, her shocking platinum hair had darkened to the point she was almost unrecognizable. Yeah, it was long hours for shit pay, but it was the only other job she knew how to do and it somehow paid the bills. Usually.

Some would say she was down on her luck considering her wrestling and acting career had once flourished; but she’d all but washed out of the limelight.

It may be silly to say, but no matter how hard things got, she never sold out and took the easy money, exploiting her looks or what remnants of fame she still had to turn a buck. And the offers were there. Humbled, she simply opted to return to her old life as a waitress. One might call that integrity… but knowing Sahara, she’d probably scoff and tell you that sure as hell wasn’t it.

Sahara was dead.

And all that remained was Lauren.

And before FIGHT remembered who she was, it was a daily struggle just to hang on…

CROSSFADE

Flashback
Applebee’s – North Chicago

Leaning against the outside wall of the restaurant to take some weight off her tired legs and aching feet, Lauren heaved a sigh. Her dishwater hair was tied back into a sloppy ponytail, and beads of sweat glistened on her forehead beneath the sweltering summer sun. She was beyond exhausted. This was the unofficially designated smoking area for kitchen and staff. Apparently, rules dictated you had to be a certain number of feet away from an establishment to smoke, but nobody living in the real world had time for that bureaucratic bullshit. She didn’t smoke anyway, but sometimes just needed a few minutes to breathe. To get away from it all. To will herself through the rest of the day.

Reaching into her apron pocket, she pulled out a small wad of cash tips. Mostly just singles, but a few fives and tens were mixed within. She absently counted on her fingers, seeming to estimate a few of life’s necessities, and ultimately shook her head. Dejected. She barely had enough for rent and to keep the electricity flowing, but groceries were gonna be a problem if things didn’t pick up soon.

The sounding of the back door opening snapped her out of her worries.

”You okay, Laur?” Danny, the glorified cook that was more of a microwave master asked in passing as he stepped out into the sun, sparking up a cigarette. He had short reddish hair and a beard that somewhat disgusted her, but all in all he was a decent enough guy.

She sighed.

Guys and their stupid beards these days…

She shook off the thought.

”Sometimes,” she somewhat answered his question.

He snorted, ”Yeah, well, someones gotta do it, right?”

”You know what the worst thing is? The thing I dread most?”

”What’s that,” he asked as he took a long drag. He already knew her story, but she also knew he’d listen to her complain since she was the hottest waitress working there. Fame or no fame, genetics comes with it’s privileges, after all.

”That someones gonna recognize me. It’s the look they have on their face when it happens. It’s like… the way they look at you and get that ‘Ohhh, wowwwww!’ look on their faces. She grunted, the annoyance apparent in her tone. ”Yeah, and now I’m a fucking waitress…”

Danny somewhat throated a laugh, ”Hey, it’s fifteen minutes longer than any of us had! You gotta stop feeling sorry for yourself or you’re never gonna get through this life alive.”

She forced a smile, ”I know, I know. It’s just that a bit over a year ago I had a pilot on HBO and–”

He finished her sentence, ”–and look at ‘cha now! Prettiest goddamn waitress at Applebee’s!”

At the very least, his compliments made her feel good.

Leaning back, he exhaled a puff of smoke up into the air, “What was that show again? That pilot you had?”

She sighed, ”Dream Sequence. I was this ultra secret government project that would dream actual events and feed them the intel. Like if they were looking for someone in hiding, I could find them in my dreams, and they’d really be where I dreamt them to be. Or I could even see events that haven’t happened yet. But it was more than just that,” the excitement in her voice talking about it made him smile. ”This girl was like, hidden away from society and always drugged up so they could control her, so there was this whole arc where she’d escape out into the world and realize why she cannot ever be normal. And yeah…I thought it was gonna be so fuckin’ big. My big break, yanno?!”

”Huh,” he took another drag. ”I get it though. The concept sounds pretty badass–”

”Yeah well, it bombed with test audiences before it even aired and that was it for me. And when I say bombed, I mean BOMBED. One critic actually wrote, ‘She’s gorgeous, but this is another example as to why wrestlers shouldn’t act’. I don’t think my ‘agent’ ever called back after that. Soon after, I kinda just … fizzled out and that was that–” her voice trailed.

He took drag and flicked what remained of his cigarette away, ”Well, at least you’re still alive, right? Hey, I gotta get back in, don’t be too long or the other girls are gonna take your tables!”

She heaved a sigh, ”Yeah, I know, I’ll just be a minute…”

After he left, his words continued to rattle around in her head – ‘Well, at least you’re alive, right?’

”Yeah. At least I’m alive,” she whispered softly as she rubbed a scar on her wrist. ”Prolly cuz I’m too stupid to be dead.”

She took a few moments to shake off her sadness and collect herself. Taking a deep breath, she forced a smile back onto her pretty face and went back to work. Stepping out of the kitchen area, Lauren approached a family of four, ”Welcome to Applebee’s,” her voice was suddenly warm and welcoming.

CROSSFADE

Present Day
Back In The Penthouse

Sahara’s sapphire eyes darted across the horizon as her thoughts returned to the present. In just over a year, she’d gone from that life to this. From worrying about making rent to having so much excess she wasn’t quite sure what to do with her time.

She missed this. The fame. The vanity. And the excess that came with it. From the top-shelf booze to the crazy sex to traveling in private luxury. A lot of wrestlers say the action is the juice. The feel of the fight. But that wasn’t it. Not for her. It was all the stuff that came with it.

Including the adulation of the fans.

Hearing the roar of that crowd. That was the juice. Whether they’re with you or against you? Doesn’t matter. So long as they’re not silent. And the limelight… ohhhh, the limelight.

When it’s gone, trust me, you’ll miss it. All of it. I sure did.

A rather dapper man approached from behind, his reflection giving him away in the window. He looked like something straight out of a bond movie, earpiece and all. He cleared his throat to gain her attention, as the blonde was obviously lost in thought.

”Ready to go, Mrs. Duke?”

Snapping out of her thoughts, she nodded to Mister Black, the head of her newly assigned security detail. Her husband, Thaddeus, was a bit nervous about the people she got herself involved with, and wanted to pay off her debt personally, but Sahara insisted on doing it on her own, ”I got myself into this mess, I’ll get myself out of it… with your money, of course!”

This was the compromise.

An armed security detail that was instructed to escort her to and from the meeting in question.

Of course, rather than trying to remember a bunch of new names, she simply Reservoir Dogged them all, assigning them colors in place of their names, and to make things even easier, she gave them colored handkerchiefs to stuff in their suit pockets so a quick glance would tell her who they were.

Genius.

It was much easier this way. Besides, when one of them gets fired for being an incompetent douche, she won’t have yet another name to remember because colors can always be reassigned.

”You got the money, Mr. Black?”

”We’re all set,” he nodded, motioning to a rather large duffle bag.

”Let’s go then…I got a debt to pay.”

~~~~~

It’s gone, Paul. Whatever it was, it’s gone. After all these years, I just can’t find it anymore. It makes me question everything. I wonder what the fuck it was and where the fuck it went? And why? Why’d it abandon me? Cuz I got married?! Cuz I’m… happy? What’s odd about it is I somehow feel lonely, Paul. I’m lonely without it. I had this… anger eating away at me like a cancer. An unrelenting, seething anger burning in my soul, and it was always there when I needed it. Like a trusty companion. And then, one day? It was gone.

I wish I had a better excuse, but it wasn’t there when I went looking for it for the Denzel Invitational, so I dropped out. I mean, that one shoulda’ been easy for me. A slam dunk if I’ve ever seen one! I was going up against two legends – Vhodka and Vincent Black – and your brother, Joe Montuori! I mean, c’mon, I could rip your brother from asshole to appetite in my fucking sleep and this was my chance to step into the ring against them on a world stage at one of the biggest cross-promotional events to ever take place!

Shoulda. Woulda. Coulda. When I turned on the camera to cut that promo? I had nothin’ bad to say about any of ‘em. Even your brother. I know we like to say kill ‘em with kindness around here, but let’s be honest, that’s not what the fans wanna see. I just wasn’t angry anymore. And that’s the only gear I’ve ever operated in. So I did something I’d never done before. I quit. It’s no secret that your brother and I don’t exactly see eye to eye. I’m a bitch and he’s a douche. We both know it. We both say it. Usually to each other’s faces. And we both mean it. You? I don’t know what you are. You’ve always been kinda nice to me, even if a bit peckish. The only issues you really have is your douche brother and that leech Michelle, who seems to suck the life out of anyone she’s near. And trust me, I’d know. We were BFF’s until we weren’t. Oh, and remember how much she just looooooved Brandon Moore? Until she didn’t, anyway. Now it’s Ashlynn. Until it isn’t. And then there’s you. Until there isn’t… So I don’t really know how to react to you… I don’t know whether to feel sorry for ya or just hope for the best? How about I just hope for the best this time? Maybe I’m wrong. Hopefully I’m wrong. I’ve been struggling with how to approach this. Ya see, I’ve always maintained that I wrestle for one reason and one reason alone, Paulie. To get paid. But I now find myself in a position I’ve never been in before. I don’t need the money. I used to think people that did this for the thrill of the fight were crazy. And I’m talkin’ looney tunes Bellevue crazy. I used to question why Dane, Allison, that leech Michelle… hell, even your own brother still did this. It made no sense to me. I thought it was stupid, and worse, reckless.

It ain’t fun to get your ass kicked out there, Paul. We both know it. Win or lose, this business takes its toll. Every time you wrestle you leave a piece of your life in that ring. Permanently. That’s a fact. I’ve already had multiple surgeries, stitches, staples, and scopes. And yeah, all of ‘em hurt like a bitch. But I did it because the only other thing I’m qualified to do is wait tables, and this just happens to pay better. A lot better. And for as much pain as I’m in after each and every match I have, it doesn’t measure up to the pain of not making rent. To the embarrassment of having to ask the checker at the grocery to take something off your tab cuz you ain’t got the money to pay for it. To have a birthday come up from a niece, nephew, or friend when you can’t afford to buy them anything worth a damn!

That’s real fucking pain, Paul.

It’s a pain most in this business don’t understand – or worse – they don’t remember. It’s far beyond anything I’ve ever felt in that ring, residual or otherwise. Far beyond any surgery. And the anger I had inside my soul was derived from that pain. The jealousy I felt when I saw people throw money around like it didn’t matter drove me to hate people like your brother, Michelle, and Le’Andra.

And even you. That hate defined me… It drove me to make others feel just an inkling of the pain I know so many of us feel on a daily basis when we struggle to make ends meet. And now I struggle with a new definition, in the face of a rebuilt life. Cuz now, when I look in the mirror, I see…

…a hypocrite.

~~~~~

As I enter the Peter Luger Steakhouse on Broadway in Brooklyn, my senses are immediately flooded with the scent of overpriced charred meat. And overpriced people. It wasn’t long ago that a place like this was well out of my price range. Anything over $$ on the Google Maps price scale was too rich for my wallet. And this place clocked in with $$$$. A four banger. Ain’t no way I was payin’ that much for a single fuckin’ steak, tomohawk or not. I mean, I’d let others waste their money on me…

But that was then.

I can feel the side-eye of many patrons seated at the old-fashioned oak bar as I breeze across the room. Dressed in a white leather Saint Laurent biker jacket and black jeans that gave way to all-white Marten boots, rounded out by my shock of platinum hair, I’m fully aware I stick out.

That’s by design.

And yeah, when your man – or woman – looks at me, it makes me feel good. It makes me feel even better when I know it bothers their significant other.

I smile as I push my dark tinted Maui Jim’s up into my hairline.

I want these fucks to see me comin’.

I was closely followed by my security detail, Mr. Black as well as his cohort Mr. Pink. The latter was astoundingly happy being assigned that name. I suppose Steve Buscemi made quite the impression. In either case, there was something about having an armed security detail that made me feel kinda invincible, but more so than that, it made me feel important. Of course, I’d never tell Thaddius that. He’d go on a rant about how overconfidence can be a problem and probably make me take some sorta training… and whatever else.

Mr. Black carried the duffle bag as I made my way toward the back room. A private room reserved for the rich and powerful. This was where I was instructed to meet with the man that ran this chapter of the New York underground. We’d met before, but I didn’t know his name, but I suppose that’s by design.

As I approached the closed double doors leading into the meeting room, I immediately recognized the man standing by the door. It was one of the pricks that kicked me senseless the last time I met them at that abandoned warehouse prior to Blood Money 2. I didn’t have the money to pay them back, so apparently, kicking me in the ribs repeatedly made them feel better about that.

”They have to wait out here,” he motioned to my guards.

Didn’t matter. I’d been geo-tagged and we had a panic word all sorted out prior to the meeting that if I so much as whispered, all hell would break loose.

I nodded my agreement and lifted my arms for the expected pat-down as I eye the prick groping me. I was careful not to let my eyes narrow. I didn’t want to give the smiling fuck the satisfaction. His hands slowly slid up my thighs as he continued looking up at me. He wanted to get a rise out of me, but I wasn’t about to allow that. I simply gazed forward. Of course, he wouldn’t find any weapons, so this was just another bullshit formality to make sure I understood they made the rules. He was sure to cup beneath my breasts and squeeze as part of his ‘search’, too.

That’s fine.

My expression doesn’t change.

Imma let that one go. For now.

But a day will come when this prick gets what’s coming to him.

”All clear,” he mutters, motioning through the door.

I reach back and take hold of the duffle bag prior to entering.

”Well, well, well…”, the older gentleman from the warehouse sits at a table spread lavishly with food and drink. He wipes his mouth with a napkin and carefully places it back over his lap. ”Come on in, lady in white! Look at yo–”

Boom.

I don’t even wait for him to finish his sentence before I drop the duffle bag right on the smarmy pricks table. Right on his food. Right on his glass of wine, which made a rather satisfying shattering sound as the bag landed.

I smile ever so slightly.

The man behind the table immediately held up a hand as his men began to approach from behind. He pursed his lips, but ultimately smiled. I couldn’t tell if he was impressed or pretending to be impressed. He reached forward and unzipped the bag.

”That’s all of it, in case you were wondering. One million, seven hundred and fifty thousand. Plus an extra fifty for the juice and your troubles.” I smiled. ”Oh, and your meal,” I added for good measure.

”And my wine”, he added as he reached into the bag. He pulled out two stacks. Twenty grand. He quickly fanned through them and motioned for one of his men. With a quick whisper he handed him the duffle bag along with the stacks of cash.

He finally looked back at me. ”I gotta say, I’m impressed. I really am.”

Huh?

”With what,” I asked rather inquisitively.

”That you got that billionaire playboy to settle down and marry you in a few weeks time… impressive work for a small-time Chicago street hustler. Talk about resourcefulness.”

”It’s not like that.” I could feel my brow furrow in anger.

He laughed, ”Of course it’s not, dear. I’m sure you married him for love! I mean, you’re not a degenerate gambler that swallows Oxy and washes ‘em down with vodka or anything. You’re the pinnacle of integrity, I’m sure!”

The room erupted with laughter.

”It’s. Not. Like. That.” I repeated the words very slowly. Sternly. I wanted this fuck to get the message.

”And again,” he retorted, ”Of. Course. It’s. Not. Like. That.”

He smiled.

I could feel my fucking blood boil. I had half a mind to pick up that steak knife and jam it in his fucking thorax. But I remind myself to stay calm. He was doing this on purpose to see what I’d do. To force me to make a mistake I’d regret. This is what Thad is always talking about. I let people manipulate my emotions too often…

Not this time.

I shook my head, ”We’re done now…you and I. Our business is finished. You got that?!”

Leaning back, he folded his hands over his belly and smirked at me. He let the silence linger for about twenty seconds or so, but it felt like an eternity.

”Is that how you think this works, sweetheart? You just come in here and drop money on me, ruin my meal and carry on with this blasé attitude like you fuckin’ own the place?! I want you to listen very carefully, Mrs. Duke. I know who you are, and I know who your husband is. You? You don’t know shit.”

”Yet.” I took a step forward, ”I owed you money. I paid that money. All of it plus some–”

”You also beat up a few of my guys, and that’s kind of a problem–” ”Yeah?! And those guys kicked me in the ribs until I could barely walk, so I don’t fuckin’ care how they fee–” ”You’re dismissed.”

He simply waved me off. At that very moment, I felt like diving across the table and choking the life outta that piece of shit–

I then felt a hand on my shoulder. One of his goons.

”Fuck it,” I threw my hands up. ”I know the way out.”

As I walked toward the door, I could hear him let out a laugh.

”So that’s what a billion dollar ass looks like! Tell your husband I hope he kept the receipt, because he bought up stolen goods.”

I stop walking, but don’t look back. It was enough to let him know I heard him, loud and clear.

”He can marry you all he likes, but you already belong to us. Ass and all!”

I say nothing. I simply take my leave and rejoin my security detail. Knowing my husband, he’ll be grilling me the second I get back to the car about what was said and done. And I know for a fact he’s not gonna like the part where they claimed me as property. He’s also gonna tell me ‘I told ya so, Lauren’.

Time for war–

”Everything went as expected, Mrs. Duke?” Mr. Black asked as we walked toward the front of the restaurant, knocking me free from my thoughts.

I nodded, ”Yeah. We’re all set. And stop calling me Mrs. Duke.”

”Well, what would you like to be called?”, Mr Pink chimed in.

”I uh, I dunno, like a code name?” ”Exactly like a codename…”

”Hmm,” I thought about it for a moment. ”I don’t know, come up with something cool. But stop calling me Mrs. Duke in the meantime…”

~~~~~

Greetings, Paul! You already heard my sob story about waiting tables and barely makin’ the bills, so let’s talk about that opportunity I got… the one that changed my life. Everything I have today is because of that one opportunity. Enter FIGHT New York. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was the day I found that innocuous little business card stuffed into my locker at the gym. All it said was FIGHT in big bold letters on the front, and had an address on the back. Somewhere in New York City. I sat on it for a bit, but eventually made the decision to see what the fuck FIGHT was, because until the moment I got that business card, I’d never heard of FIGHT. Not rumors. Not a damn thing. All it was, was just an idea. A sprout, if you will… that would soon become a tree that’d grow so far and so wide, you’d need a big fuckin’ building to contain it. And even that couldn’t contain it. We had no idea what we were in for. That little card represented opportunity. Nothing more. But from my vantage point, I had nothin’ to lose by checkin’ into it. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have my doubts. I contemplated leaving well enough alone. I’d dealt with enough heartbreak to last a lifetime, and I wasn’t sure I could handle failing… again. But in the end, when I looked at my life, I had nothing else. No prospects. No dignity. A mountain of bills I wasn’t gonna be able to pay…

And therein lies the rub, Paulie. People with nothing to lose – people at the end of their rope – they can be extremely dangerous. Like a starving lion on the prowl, I was weak and emaciated. I’d put food on so many tables when I could barely put any on my own. I was sick of it. Ribs showing through pallid sickly skin. My stomach was rumbling. Slowly inching my way toward that inevitable release of death. But I happened upon a King. A lion the likes of which Mufasa himself would cower. Otherworldly muscular. Stoic. Strong. A sight to behold.

And fast asleep. Fat on the land, this lion ate until his heart’s content. Took everything for himself, and left the rest of us to starve. Fearful of nothing, he sleeps with both eyes closed… because he can. But I’m desperate. Not for his seed, but for his nourishing meat. All it would take is one stroke at the jugular… and even the mightiest of Kings would fall at my feet.

In any other situation, I’d tuck tail and run… I’d probably have something to lose. A career? A house? Kids? Something. But I had none of those things, and neither the time nor the strength left to run. Not anymore. I was at the end of my rope. In a place somewhere beyond desperation.

It was a one in a million shot. I know what you’re asking, who was the lion? Well, it wasn’t one person. It was all of you. That lion was FIGHT and everyone in it.

That was when I didn’t just reach out for the brass ring, I dove off that fucking merry-go-round of life and took what was mine. I went for the killing stroke and landed it. The jugular of the King. And as his blood squirted from between my gnashing teeth, I felt the warmth of life return. I felt my strength return. I’d taken FIGHT by storm and solidified my position on the roster, much to the chagrin of many. I wasn’t just co-woman of the year. I wasn’t just co-MVP. I was also the comeback of the year. That shows that even they know it’s my time, Paul.

And here I am. In a match for the FIGHT NY Manhattan Championship.

My first title match of any kind since 2018.

And I’m nervous, Paul. I’m nervous going into a match for the first time in my life. Not because I’m afraid to lose. Not because it’s for a title. And not because it’s because I’m going up against one the best… ever. That right Paul, you are that damn good. But that’s not why I’m nervous.

I’m nervous because I’m about to uncover the truth about something I’ve been afraid to know my entire life. I spent my life in and around this business, and I’ve always said – just as I said earlier – the only reason I do this is for the money.

But deep down I always believed I also did it because I loved it. I’m nervous because I’m going to finally find out if I actually love this for the money, or for love of the game. And I’m afraid, Paul. Because if it turns out it’s for the money?

I don’t need any.

See you at Venom.

~~~~~

“In my lifetime I’ve learned; hard work pays off, dreams come true. Bad times don’t last. But bad girls do.” Thanks for everything, Scott. -Sahara