Here we have what is known in some circles as the “story problem”—the reason the protagonist can’t follow through on her entirely reasonable desire to walk away from a messy entanglement. Again, only semi-revised and untouched by my editor, and posted only in a so-far vain attempt to dredge up some personal enthusiasm for returning to the revision.
Caz placed her phone on the table by the front door and tossed her keys down beside it. The LED flashlight, tape measure, and emergency siren attached to the ring caused a resounding clatter to announce her homecoming.
Eddie rolled his head toward her as she entered the living room. “Good thing I wasn’t trying to sleep.”
“Interesting spin on getting caught staying up past bedtime on a school night.” She wilted into one of the armchairs flanking the couch. Her nephew had claimed that entire piece of furniture with the trappings of homework and a cereal bowl Caz hoped had been empty when it flipped over.
On the TV, two large men threw each other around a roped-in square. She didn’t recognize either of them. “I thought this was over at nine.”
“DVR. I thought I’d flesh out my notes while waiting for you to come home safely.” He fluttered his lashes to make it clear he was being a brat.
It had been over a year since his last anxiety attack caused by Caz not being where he thought she should be. He made light of his vulnerability now, but she couldn’t enjoy the joke.
He never tested bedtime limits when she was home on time.
If he was manipulating her ironically, so be it. She’d rather be too permissive than traumatize him. “Where’s Aunt Len?”
“Went to bed. She gave me a timer for how long I could stay up.”
“How many times have you reset it?”
“Caz.” He gave her a withering look. “There are rules.”
That was rich coming from a fan of a show in which the rules mattered only on the rare occasions the referee was paying attention.
Reading Eddie’s blog reassured her that watching men pretend to pound on each other wasn’t scarring his mind. In the infancy of his interest, he’d made a sound argument that the main difference between wrestling and a Marvel movie that received her seal of approval was special effects. Both were full of outrageous plots and violent stunts. He understood they were plots and stunts performed by professionals in a controlled environment, not behaviors to emulate in real life. He wrote thoughtfully about the storytelling, athletics, and the people behind the performance without glorifying the violence.
He made her proud, but not even his passion could convert her to fandom.
A commotion on the TV demanded attention. Professor Pain—Phin—strode across the screen, black hair falling around his shoulders, bare arms flaunting the muscles straining against taut skin.
She had to admit this show was easier on the eyes than the anime Eddie had been obsessed with last year. Pity the Professor was wearing pants and a muscle shirt instead of showing off more of his sculpted anatomy. “Why are they booing him?”
“You either love the Professor or love to hate him. The producers probably dropped a mic over a group of haters to set up turning him back into a heel.”
Wrestling’s carnival roots lived on in the lingo and use of the audience as part of the act. “Do you love him or hate him?”
“He’s my favorite.”
Dammit. She had an opportunity to get an autograph—two, for the sake of Luke’s tender feelings—but she’d been professional instead. In the grand scheme of things, that failure was probably less damaging than the days she didn’t see Eddie at all because of her schedule, but the little situations where she could have done more and didn’t added up to erode her cool-aunt rating.
“His angles as a babyface have been kind of boring, though, so I hope this means he’s heading for a fall from grace and a quest for vengeance.”
Babyface was a ludicrous term for a good guy when he looked like he’d been summoned from an enchanted scroll to crush the skulls of his enemies and ravish their women.
There certainly hadn’t been any high-pitched voices among the boos.
His fight lasted a ferocious ten minutes, during which he fulfilled the promise of power again and again, lifting and tossing his opponent as easily as a feather pillow. Caz flinched when he took an elbow to the face, but he reeled away from the blow too dramatically and then recovered too quickly for there to be any serious damage. Twice, the other guy rolled around on the mat in apparent agony, and Phin consulted the crowd like a gladiator asking the spectators how best to entertain them. When their bloodthirsty screams reached a fever pitch—likely with some help from an audio engineer—the Professor fell upon his foe and secured his predetermined victory.
A yawn threatened to unhinge Eddie’s jaw. “You must be really tired to watch this.”
The responsible thing to do would be send the not-quite-ten-year-old child to bed, but participating in his interests made her feel one percent less neglectful tonight. “I met Professor Pain.”
All evidence of fatigue deserted him. “When?”
Even though Phin wasn’t her patient, what happened at the clinic stayed at the clinic. “I can’t say.”
“So it was at work. Tonight? No, they have doctors on site to patch them up. But you would have mentioned it sooner.” He climbed onto the arm of the sofa to examine her more closely. “Did you go to the arena?”
Bless him for pursuing leads that didn’t directly involve confidential information she couldn’t discuss. “I didn’t go anywhere. I got the impression any onsite medical personnel had their hands full tonight.”
“Oh, it was a bloodbath,” he said with the kind of glee usually reserved for acing a test.
Another pair of wrestlers took the place of Phin and his opponent. Caz barely recognized Luke’s unspoiled face. From a distance, he looked like a train would bounce off him in a collision.
The other guy swung a metal folding chair. The edge of the seat connected with the center of Luke’s face. It didn’t bounce. The effect of genuine contact was swift and uncomplicated. His body stiffened and toppled straight back like a felled tree.
“He didn’t sell it on the way down. You know they’re really hurt when they forget to pretend to be hurt.”
Despite firsthand knowledge of Luke’s favorable prognosis, watching the injury occur made Caz queasy. The camera stayed on the chair swinger as he strutted around the ring basking in the audience’s attention, no indication of concern for the coworker laid out at his feet. He set an entirely different tone for the show, a self-congratulatory, vicious one she couldn’t believe was written into the script.
She recognized that mean look in his eye. He enjoyed hurting people.
Eddie’s father hadn’t been able to disguise that look, even during his trial.
“Look at this nobody acting like he’s going to have a job after he stiffed Lucky Luke in his first pro match. They won’t let him scrub toilets after this.”
“I hope you’re right. These guys take enough risks without idiots like that putting them in more danger.”
Eddie shifted on his perch. “So… what’s the Professor like?”
Quiet with a dry sense of humor and mysterious eyes was probably not the kind of scoop he was looking for about his hero. “Bigger than my first car.”
His lip curled with derision for her assessment. “He’s not even that huge for a wrestler.”
“I’m sure he looks like a runt compared to that guy who’s six-ten. From my height, he’s plenty big.” Even with a practical wedge heel adding two inches to her height, the top of her head had come no higher than Phin’s chin. “Remember, nothing about work is blog material.”
“‘Professor Pain is taller than my aunt’ isn’t the hard-hitting journalism my readers want.”
“Are you sure? Maybe you should take a poll.”
He stuck his tongue out. “I don’t suppose you got an autograph.”
The corners of her soul shriveled in preparation for disappointing him. “Sorry, Ed.”
“I know. It wouldn’t be professional.” He slid off the arm of the sofa. “He’s probably a jerk anyway.”
The urge to defend Phin Payne came on stronger than the man had. He did his job without hurting his partner. He took care of his wounded friend. He was respectful toward her as a medical provider and a woman. He ranked favorably on superficial observation. “You know these are characters, not their real personalities.”
Eddie transferred his books from the couch to the coffee table in a stab at tidying. “Guys are jerks in real life all the time.”
While Caz couldn’t dispute that in good faith, it didn’t take a psychologist to figure out it wasn’t beneficial for a future man to become entrenched in the idea that men were inherently bad.
His father had dug the trench deep during the first five years of Eddie’s life. Her father—Eddie’s grandfather—also wasn’t a paragon of exemplary human behavior, regardless of his opinion to the contrary. The men she dated didn’t meet her qualifications for involvement in her nephew’s life. If she took him to work, her office manager could set a fine example for how to commit sexual harassment.
She knew she was overdue to provide a male role model, but it was difficult when men insisted on being such jerks.
Eddie aimed the remote control at the TV, and the screen went dark. “I’ll save my write-up for tomorrow. Night, Caz.”
“Night, Ed.” She caught him around the waist when he passed her chair and gave him a hug. “I love you.”
He leaned into the embrace for a whole second before pulling away. “Love you, too. See you in the morning?”
“I have an early shift, but I’ll pick you up after school.”
He stuck up his thumb to acknowledge the plan and climbed the stairs to his room.
Caz hung her heavy head over the arm of the chair and listened to the boy above shuffle around and finally settle. She had to do something to correct his perception of manhood, and fast. She’d let this develop for five years and hadn’t recognized the symptoms. It wasn’t too late, but the more the condition spread, the harder it would be to treat.
She needed another plan.
She rolled from the chair to kneel on the floor and tore a blank sheet of paper from the back of Eddie’s notebook. Hunched over the coffee table, she wrote the problem at the top of the page: Man-to-be in need of positive male influence. She listed the previously rejected candidates on the left and walled them off with thick lines of ink. On the right, she jotted the resources currently available: superficially decent man and the seven easily remembered digits he’d supplied.
She held the pen poised above the paper for several minutes, but further inspiration declined to respond to the invitation.
Her plan was Phin Payne.
© 2018 Ren Benton. Archived for evidence, so don’t be a thieving asshole.