A Whisper in the Scream
© 2005 Jason Ridler
"THE IRON HORSE SALOON WELCOMES ALL-STAR WRESTLING!"
No-star is more like it, Kevin thought, reading the tattered banner above the tiny ring. The uber-giants and silicon sluts of the Mega Wrestling Association only passed by pit stops like Kingston on their way to Toronto or Ottawa. But the All-Star Traveling Wrestling Show made a habit of coming to K-Town at least once a year at Christmas.
"When are the tryouts tonight?" Kevin asked the grey-haired hippie tightening the turnbuckles. "I want to give it a shot."
The guy snickered. "What are ya, fourteen?"
"Hah. Look. Tryouts died with the last owner. New boss, new plans. Besides," he said, laughing, "it's illegal to sling midgets in Canada!"
"Freaking draft dodger," Kevin said. The hippie snorted, tightening the rope.
He grabbed a seat, three rows back from the ring, and took off his toque and gloves. The crowd was big, mostly teenagers from Massey High who stank of weed and Molson Golden. Management served anything on two legs, even at an all-ages show.
Kevin shoved a handful of Smarties into his mouth and chewed. Pain flared in a molar. "Damn!" Laughter circled him, again.
"Woah. Never heard a baby swear before!"
"You got a license to say that word?"
"Check his I.D! Security!"
Kevin sneered. Hardy har har, you jerknuts.
From his left came a different voice. "Sore tooth?"
A large man sat at the table beside him, built like a weightlifter who'd given up curls for pints thirty years ago: fat, hard, and tough. A nicotine-stained white beard covered his face. He wore a white wife-beater and a brown sports jacket an hour away from being rags. In his callused hand was a cane. Instead of a curved top, it had an animal head and on its sides were sharp wing-like antlers. Without it, he'd look right at home in the gutter.
"Yeah," Kevin said, chucking the candy on the table and rubbing his jaw. "Teacher handed these out during the Christmas party today. Been eating it like corn flakes. Feels like I chewed on a live wire."
"Holidays are bad news for teeth," the old man said, taking one of the Smarties, "but at least it keeps the tooth fairy in business." He smiled and tossed in the candy.
"I'd pass on the dollar if she'd get rid of this tooth right now."
The old man wheeze-laughed with a smile. Kevin laughed too.
The lights dimmed. The PA screeched with feedback before the familiar notes of "Eye of the Tiger" ran through the speakers. After that, it just got sad.
The intro wrestlers sucked. Some didn't look old enough to shave, and the others were so stuffed with steroids that their acne-pocked skin glistened in the spotlight. Every body slam brought the tiny ring closer to collapse. The guys ran like idiots to get the momentum to sling back to the centre of the ring from the slack ropes. The leather-clad valets stalking around the posts looked like used up porn stars, one step away from street hustling. Next to fighting in the backyard on a couple of mattresses, this was the lowest rung of the wrestling ladder.
"Tooth still sore?" asked the old man, as the wrestler who lost to Lord Vomit, freshly showered with a bucket of "puke," left the ring.
The old man leaned toward Kevin and raised a fluffy eyebrow. "Then why do you look like you just sucked on a rotten plum?"
Kevin crossed his arms. "These matches blow chunks."
"They barely know what they're doing. You can see them ... faking it."
Astonished, the old man grabbed his heart. "Wrestling is fake? Dear God!"
Kevin smiled. "Yeah, but it's fun, if it's done right. If they can make it look real. If not, well, it ruins it."
"The rest seem to be enjoying it."
"They're so stoned they'd enjoy watching a broken TV in a cave."
The old man chuckled. "So why come?"
"Cuz ... forget it."
"Oh," he said, knowingly. "You want to be a titan of the squared circle."
Kevin shrugged, wondering what gave it away. "They cancelled the tryouts. I thought I'd be able to get an in, work the road, learn the ropes, then climb to the big time. I'm better than some of these jokers. I'd make them believe."
"And that's important."
"If they don't believe, then this is nothing but a freak show."
"That's very wise," said the old man, and the bell rang. "I guess it's what they believe that makes a difference."
Something about how the old man said that made Kevin shiver.
The mid-card matches tried to be "hardcore." Faces were cut. Blood was spilt. Chairs and bats and sledgehammers all came out from under the tiny ring to take it up a notch. The crowd didn't bite. They chanted the career-killing word that every wrestler dreads:
"BOR-ING! BOR-ING BOR-ING!"
A beer bottle flew over Kevin's head and shattered on the masked steroid machine in the ring. The guy charged like a tank into the crowd, so fast that people barely jumped out of their seats before Security held him back.
Kevin wiped the suds from the back of his neck and listened to the stoned-out teens whispering.
"Drake, you're the man!"
"That was awesome!"
The PA went on.
"One more stunt like that and we hit the lights."
"Then the next match better not suck!" Drake screamed. The crowd cheered and Kevin twitched. They all had bottles in their hands, ready to follow Drake's lead.
The old man shook his head.
"You thought it was going to be classy tonight?" Kevin said.
"A lot has changed since I was in the ring."
Kevin's eyes bulged. "You're a wrestler?"
"About a million years ago. When the crowd cheered the man in the white hat, patted him on the back as he walked down the aisle, sent him cheerful letters when he was injured. I miss those the most, I think. Wrestling wasn't as good as my old job, but it wasn't bad."
"What was your wresting name? Something cool?"
"A play on my real name. A joke."
"Okay, and what's that?"
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
A man came up from the basement. He wore a dark suit with a purple shirt and sported a Fu Manchu moustache and dollar-sign sunglasses. Kevin thought he looked like a TV pimp. He took the mike from the announcer and filled the room with a thick, dark voice.
"This next match will kill you, so sit your candy asses down!"
The crowd obeyed like it had been issued an order from God himself.
"Our next match is for ten thousand dollars ... U.S."
The crowd hushed.
"It goes to the man who can beat our champion."
"Who?" the crowd demanded.
The man looked at crowd with s impish grin. "Just a guy in a clown suit. Anyone feel like punching a Bozo?"
The crowd haw-hawed.
The man said, "I'm sorry, I forgot I was in Kingston. All the real men are locked up in the Pen!"
Hate and anger swam through the beer-strained voices uttering death threats at the man with the mike. He smiled.
"Prove me wrong, children. This is your last chance for glory and cash."
Kevin looked at the old man, whose face was ghost white. "You okay?"
"That man. I know him"
The old man was on the verge of tears. "He stole my life. If it weren't for him, I'd never have lost my old job. Lost my old fans. Everything."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
He gave Kevin a sad look. "You don't recognize me."
"Hell," Kevin said, "I just met you. You look like any old man. If we were at the mall, I'd say you looked like Santa."
The old man's eyes twinkled with a golden light and his smile twitched.
"Are you nuts?" Kevin demanded. "Santa, losing his job, becoming a wrestler, ending up in freaking Kingston at the freaking Iron Horse? Mister, that's crazy talk."
The old man nodded. "If you don't believe." Then he was silent. The glimmer faded and he leaned on the cane with a sigh.
The man on the mike yelled so hard his voice distorted: "IF SOMEONE ISN'T IN THIS RING IN TEN SECONDS, I'LL VOLUNTEER ONE OF YOU JERKS!" The crowd mumbled. "Lucy, see if you can arose some interest."
A stunning blond in chaps and leather corset roamed the tables in a slow, sly walk while the countdown began.
Guilt punched Kevin's gut. "I'm sorry, but what you said didn't make any sense."
"Unlike watching a man being punched in the face with a hammer and having no broken nose? That is reality?"
"No, it's just different."
"If that were true, Kevin, I wouldn't be here. There is still some free belief around. The old belief in things unseen, a magic that doesn't radiate out of the idiot box, but that's eaten by it. There's a sliver of it out there, every year about this time, just a whisper in the scream. I heard it again and I came. I think this is my last chance to do what I was meant to do. To reclaim my old occupation."
Kevin's mouth opened to ask how he knew his name when the mixed aroma of cigarettes and sweet perfume thickened the air. Lucy stopped in front of them, pressed her hand on the table, and leaned toward the old man. Her breasts were the size of soccer balls and her eyes narrowed.
"You stubborn ass."
"Hello, Lucy. You look well."
She crossed her arms and sighed. "What the hell are you doing here?"
"Enjoying the show."
A smile crept on her lip. "Really?"
"Who doesn't like a circus?"
The smile vanished. "Bull. You're looking to get back in the saddle."
"Not with you, Lucy. You left me for him, remember? Too boring up north, needed to get hot down south."
She bit her thick, purple lip.
"I see Lou bought your contract from his brother. I guess the elder didn't reciprocate the feelings in your letters. Naughty stuff, Lucy, and not very nice."
Her face froze, and for a split second Kevin thought he saw her age a thousand years. Then it was back, that thick, full-sex beauty that doesn't entice, but conquers the senses. Kevin prayed he wouldn't have to stand up for a while.
The old man looked up, eyes heavy. "I'm sorry if I upset you, Lucy. That wasn't fair."
She closed her eyes and shook her head as if to hold back her thoughts. "You can't win, Nick," she said. "Not here. It won't work. These morons, " her eyes scanned the crowd, "they ain't kids. They're slaves. Our slaves. Besides, you look like hell. You've got no chance beating our guy." She opened her eyes and whispered loud. "No one believes in you anymore."
The old man's knuckles cracked like walnut shells in a vice. "Better to go out fighting for what I believe than feeding off my memories until they vanish. Take me to the ring, Lucy. I'll let your slaves nail my coffin shut for good. If that's what they want."
The countdown came to "three, two "
She sniffed, then bit her lip again. "You stubborn ass. Fine, I tried. Lou!" Lucy screamed. "I've got one!"
"LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, WHORES AND STUDS, JERKS OF ALL AGES: THE SHOW CAN GO ON!"
She grabbed the old man's wrist and dragged him to the ring through the cheering crowd. Kevin ignored his embarrassing trouser appendage and got up to stop him. Two hands nabbed his shoulder. He turned and saw Drake, a stoned and drunken mullet-haired freak no more threatening than a bee sting.
"Sit tight, buddy. Your grandpa's gonna give us a hell of a show!"
Kevin punched him in the knee and grabbed a stray bottle from the table. "Touch me again and you'll be eating glass."
Drake grimaced and gripped his leg. "Okay, okay, tough guy. But Gramps is already in the ring."
Kevin dropped the bottle.
The old man looked nervous, surrounded by the ropes, and leaned hard on his cane.
The owner slid between the ropes, into the ring, and adjusted his dollar-sign shades. "Now what is your name, old timer?"
"You know my name. Should I tell them yours?"
The mike snapped back to the owner. "No need, friend, no need. But you're out of uniform. Allow me to introduce you. Folks," he said with a tone of grandeur, "here in this very ring, before your very eyes, is a bona fide legend of legends. The man Whipper Billy Watson said was the greatest wrestler of his generation! Who neither Freddie Blassie nor Abdualla the Butcher could draw blood from! Who Nick Bockwinkle"
The announcer smiled high and wide. "But you know him better as that Jolly Old Elf, the gift-giver and stocking-stuffer, the Ayatollah of Missile Toe-ah! Ladies and Gentleman, Mr. X-Mas!"
The crowd busted a collective gut at the fat man shaking in the ring. Kevin fought the urge to puke up Smarties.
Lou grinned from ear to ear. "But I'm afraid we can't let you use a weapon in the ring, Mr. X-Mas. That wouldn't be fair. Lucy, take the nice man's cane."
Quicker than a blink the old man snatched the mike from Lou.
The crowd cheered.
The old man's voice took on a strange majesty, strong and clear and defiant.
"Do not confuse my age or attire with feebleness or lack of conviction. I'll fight with whatever strength is left in these frozen bones. If I lose, then my time in this world is truly past. I will accept it. But should you raise my hand in victory, you maggoty bastard, I will not take your blood money but leave it to this crowd!"
The crowd screamed. Well, Kevin thought, at least that won him fans. The owner's face bunched up like he'd smelt something rotten.
"But my cane is made from the broken antler of a friend of mine. You will not touch it. You will not have it. I shall leave it with my manager. Kevin Sore-Tooth!" And he pointed the cane like a sword right at Kevin.
"Holy," Drake said. "Get a move on buddy. Showtime!"
Kevin walked as if in a dream. He skirted through the rope like a pro, then got a close look at Lou. His skin was tanned and sweaty like a basted turkey. He stank of ten-cent cigars stubbed out on wet turds. He looked at Kevin with a sharp-toothed grin and the dollar-sign eyes began to swirl and swirl, like a galaxy of gold and black light. Kevin's head filled with a whisper:
You are on your way, Kevin. Right to the big time. You sign with us and in a year I'll hand you over to the big league. My brother runs it. You'll be a star. Your matches will be the stuff of legends. And that's not all. You like Lucy, don't you? Stick with us and she can be yours every night, and all her friends, and more. Every wet dream you've ever had will bore you to tears after the ecstasy of the road ahead of you. All you have to do is play your part. You know the drill. The old double-cross. When the match goes the old man's way, hit him with his cane right in the back of the neck. It'll launch your career to the stars and beyond. Welcome to your dreams, kiddo!
The old man's hand gripped his shoulder and the swirls left his eyes. The crowd screamed "Kev-IN! Kev-IN! Kev-IN!"
He got a gentle shake. "Kevin?"
He looked up at the old man. "Sorry, lights kinda blinded me."
The old man nodded. "I'm sure they did." He smiled sadly and handed him the cane. "Whatever happens, it was nice to have met you. Good luck with your future."
"Yeah, sure, thanks."
He took the old man's cane and left the ring. The old man took off his jacket, then did some light stretching that made the crowd howl. Kevin saw Lucy on the other side of the ring. Lou put his arm around her and she smiled at Kevin in a way no schoolgirl could.
Lou, mike in hand, spoke again. "And our champion. From Parts Unknown, weighing one hundred and sixty pounds, he is the unstoppable laughing machine ... RICTUS THE CLOWN!"
Up the stairs ran Rictus: a rail-thin, redheaded headed, six-foot clown in a maroon and yellow-striped one-piece jumper. All skin was coated in white grease paint: head, neck, hands, chest. His mouth was as bright red as his head, but his frantic smile exposed yellow and black teeth. He pulled a burger from one of his giant pockets and tore into it like a rabid dog, spraying the crowd with its meaty remains. Black circles covered his eyes and Kevin shivered at the skull-clown that laughed like a manic hyena. The crowd's boos only made him crazier.
The bell rang. Rictus darted in the ring like a cockroach avoiding lamplight, jumped on the old man's belly, and drove his meaty hands into the old man's face, laughing all the way. He jumped off and ran around the ring, beating his chest with red fists.
The old man's face was crimson. He fell into the corner and Rictus ran to crush him with his elbow. But the old man threw out a kick with dashing speed, smashing the clown's gut and stealing his wind. Rictus doubled over. The old man drove both his hands around Rictus' waist, locked them, and hoisted the clown in the air like a sack before driving him neck first to the canvas with a mighty thud.
There was not a single ass in its chair. The beer bottles stayed on the tables as the crowd raised its fists and roared.
Kevin's hands dripped sweat. The cane felt slippery and hot. This was pretend, right? They weren't hurting each other for real, right? I'll just tap the old man on the neck, not kill him. Hey, it was all an act. Why not play along? He just met the crazy old man. Who cares?
Lucy looked at him and Kevin couldn't look away. He could feel her eyes caressing his skin like soft fingers with sharp nails. Lou whispered in her ear. She smiled at Kevin, and he felt an awkward movement down below as her tongue licked her top teeth.
But it faded. Her eyes held him and for a second they twinkled gold just like the old man's had and in that sliced moment he saw in her eyes the picture of a woman, old and sad, imprisoned behind the lids. Her withered mouth trembled two words even he could read.
Then it disappeared.
Lou threw her to some attendants who dragged her downstairs.
The match rolled on, each move tearing another strip off the old man's hide. His breath came in gasps, and his muscles shook and dripped with bloodstained sweat. But he wouldn't stay down. He kept fighting, even with redness streaming down his nose.
They criss-crossed the ropes, the old man moving like a bullet in one direction, Rictus in the other, when WHAM! They rammed into each other and collapsed on the mat: the old double knockout. The ref counted to eight when Rictus maniacally laughed and picked himself up first. He ran outside the ring, climbed to the top rope, and pounded his chest again, screaming like Tarzan.
The crowd screamed "NO!"
He was in the air like a wingless bat, a hellish thing dropping knee-first at the old man's skull.
The crowd gasped.
Rictus' knee crashed into the empty canvass like an anvil. The old man had rolled out of the way and the crowd lost it!
Kevin. Lucy is waiting in the limo out back, with your contract. Now! Get in the ring!
Kevin ran into the ring, cane in hand.
The referee pretended not to see him. Rictus laughed on the floor, gripping his knee. The old man's back stood before Kevin, his white shirt stained yellow with sweat all the way to the collar, like a bull's eye. Kevin gripped the cane like a baseball bat, looked at the smiling ref, and swung for a grand slam.
The crowd screamed murder. Then silence. The cane smashed the referee's knee. He fell down like a wire-cut puppet, screaming "You little shit! Double disqualification!" The bell rang.
Kevin trembled, looking at the old man's face. The blood from his broken nose had stained his shirt chimney red. The twinkle in his black eye faded. Blood bubbles popped from his busted mouth. "Whu ... why?"
"Lucy. She showed me what it was like, outside the ring." He shrugged. "I couldn't do it. I couldn't believe this was right."
The old man nodded and a crimson tear fell. "Bless her, even if she's damned, bless her."
The sound of shattered glass filled the air as brown bottles rained into the ring. Kevin had just cost them ten grand. The old man hugged him and let his thick body shield him from the worst of it. "Thank you, Kevin," the old man said, as the air filled with razor dust. "Thank"
A roar raged through the air like a living force. The old man's arms went slack at his sides as he collapsed to the mat. His neck was turned at a horrific angle. The bottles stopped raining.
Kevin felt the twisted shadow of Rictus cover him. He turned. Burning embers embedded in the dark sockets of a red-mouthed skull smoldered at him. His red hair danced like a manic flame. Between his teeth came a horrific hiss.
Rictus smacked him so hard his sore tooth nearly popped out. Kevin hit the glass-covered mat and felt a million cuts open at once. The cane fell out of his hand, next to the motionless old man.
Thick, meaty talons wrapped around Kevin's ankle. "Wake up!" Kevin said to the old man as he was pulled from the mat. "Holy freaking crap, Santa, help me!"
The old man's eyes flicked open and the twinkle burst like a nuclear blast. He grunted, face contorted, as he kicked the cane into Kevin's reach. "Now, Kevin!" he screamed through the blood.
With glass in his fingers, Kevin grabbed the bottom of the cane. At the top, the reindeer's nose glowed red and its antlers went white hot. Then Kevin was in the air, upside down, and brought face-to-face with the clown skull, whose jaws dropped to engulf his face. Inside was black fire.
"Merry Christmas, jerknut!" Kevin yelled, and jammed the glowing head of the cane right through the clown's fleshy neck. It sizzled as it bit through the skin and went deep.
The ground smacked Kevin's back while Rictus sprinted around the ring, black blood chugging from the wound and dousing his jumper. He slipped on the blood and glass beneath his feet and crashed on a million beer-stained shards. His hissing breath died alongside the fading embers in his eyes. But the smile never left his skull.
The crowd tore the place apart. The old man and Kevin slipped out a back exit and took refuge in the alley, Kevin's sore hand still gripping the cane. The old man leaned against the wall, looking a thousand times better then he had in the ring.
"I ... thought you bought the big one," Kevin said. "Your neck looked like it was made of taffy." He handed him his cane.
The old man took it by the stem, tapped it, and the glass fell away from his body, jingling on the ground. The wounds closed like zippers then vanished. "Amazing what happens when you have something to fight for. Besides, I've hurt myself worse slipping down wee chimneys." He pulled a black handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to Kevin, who cleaned himself up. In seconds the glass pushed itself out of his skin and the cuts and bruises healed. The cloth went white.
"What was that thing in the ring?" Kevin asked, wiping his hands.
"You, if you'd accepted Lou's deal."
"Is he the devil?"
"Just one of his bastard sons." He gave Kevin a serious look. "You did a noble thing today, Kevin. I thank you for saving my life."
"Well, sure. Likewise."
The old man nodded and took a deep breath. "I'm afraid I must run along. I've a lot of work to do."
"I thought you were jobless."
"I just need one person to believe, Kevin." He smiled, "Now it's back to the toy mines." Kevin smiled back, but pain lanced his tooth and he grimaced. "Tooth still sore?"
"Yeah. That handkerchief work on teeth?"
"I'm afraid the magic is almost spent. But I've got something better for Mr. Sore-Tooth. Close your eyes and count to ten, silently."
As he did, the old man's voice grew fainter. "Goodbye, Kevin, and thanks. Don't forget to write me like last year!"
When he opened his eyes he was in his room at home staring at a girl, maybe sixteen, with short black hair. She wore black jeans and a white shirt and was about the cutest girl Kevin had ever seen. They sat on his bed.
"Kevin, right?" she asked, chewing gum as she spoke. She smelled like mint leaves.
"Uh, yeah. And you are?"
She smiled and her eyes sparkled. "What? Don't recognize me without the wings, wand and tiara?" Kevin tongue touched his sore tooth and she nodded. "Nice to meet ya. Hmm. There's more than one way to do this. But since you brought the big guy back to us, how about something special?"
And then they were tongue wrestling. Kevin felt a pop. His head hit the pillow and he gasped. There was an empty socket where the tooth had vanished, and his breath tasted like peppermint. It was over too soon. "Woah," Kevin said, still dazed.
"Not a big talker, are ya?"
"Uh, 'm more of a man of action," he said, recalling some line from English class, hoping he sounded at least sixteen.
She laughed and smacked him on the shoulder. "What a wise guy. Lay off the candies, okay?" She flipped a coin in the air and he caught it, thinking Not if it means never seeing you again.
She smiled, "Aww, I'd say that's sweet, but that would be tacky. C'mon, hero, you know the drill. Close your eyes and count to ten."
* * *
On Christmas morning he came down to the basement before anyone was awake and found an unmarked present in shiny red wrapping. Inside was a scroll and a card that said "READ THIS FIRST."Dear Kevin,
The Christmas wish in your letter was a difficult one to muster. Saving Lucy meant opening up my broken heart. I've done what I could. Enclosed is her contract with Lou. You must burn it in a fireplace on Christmas morning. That will set her free to do as she pleases. It was a noble wish, Kevin, even if it hurt me to make it come true. I thank you again for doing something so selfless.
PS: The T.F. says hi
After an hour of nagging, Kevin's dad started a fire. When no one was looking, Kevin removed the scroll from the box. He could hear it whispering ... calling him ....
Kevin jammed a chocolate almond in his mouth and launched the scroll into the fire. "Screw you, jerknut," he said to the burning paper, hoping hell could hear him on Christmas morning.