(First 12 pages)
Bug’s bushy, untrimmed eyebrow splits after Draxel rabbit punches him above the eye.
Everything turns red.
“Hell yeah!” some drunk asshole in the crowd screeches. “Make him bleed, Drax!”
The other drunk assholes still stumbling into their seats at the old Elks’ Lodge take up the chant. Make! Him! Bleed! Make! Him! Bleed! Make! Him! Bleed!
Bug’s not mad. Quite the opposite, he’s doing everything he can to keep the grin off his face. After all, for a guy with an average physique and a “forgettable face,” it’s the best crowd reaction he’s received in his entire pro wrestling career.
Focus on the match, focus on telling a story.
His trainer’s words echo in Bug’s mind, dredged up from the ten years passed since he started wrestling. They come from one of those rare, coherent moments where the junkie piece of shit relayed something useful to his pupil.
The match, the story…Bug knows that’s what matters, and he’s gonna do his damnedest to live up to the opportunity he’s been given.
It’s the opening match, sure. And Bug’s curtain-jerked plenty of times. But an opening bout with the champ? That’s a golden opportunity, no matter the outcome.
Holding his hands over his face, Bug thrashes on the mat like he’s in the clutches of Death itself. All the while, he’s covering for the fact he’s squeezing the busted-open flap of skin above his eye to increase the blood flow. He’s determined to give the hardcore fans and their casual tagalongs what they all came for—his blood.
The sweet, sweet serum drips down Bug’s face. It splashes in dollops like slow-motion red rain onto the canvas. When he pulls his hands away, Bug sports what old-school wrestling announcers call “the crimson mask.”
Blood’s a second skin over his face. When someone groans in disgust from the crowd, Bug knows he’s hit the mark. He tosses his limp sweat-drenched hair back and catches sight of a goatee of gore extending from his face down to his bare chest.
He makes a mental note to check with the ringside photographer after the match. He wants to get a high-res shot from her so he can make a good 8 x 10 glossy for merch sales.
The ref waits in the opposite corner of the ring with Draxel, pantomiming like he’s reading the champ the riot act for using a closed fist in a wrestling match and blah blah blah. It’s all bullshit. Everyone in the ring knows it and most of the folks outside the ring know it too. Usually, they’re talking about how much time’s left in the match. Bug wonders if Draxel’s asking the ref (His name’s Jeff. Jeff the Ref) about his wife or his kids.
Bug stomps his foot on the canvas-stretched mat, signaling he’s ready to move things along. He’s working with a couple of old pros in Draxel and Jeff the Ref, so he wastes no time between his initial signal and a full-speed charge in their direction. His arm’s extended, ready to nail a clothesline on Draxel and knock the champ’s head against the padded ring post. Jeff the Ref steps out of the way, yelling, waving his hands. But under the bluster, he mutters, “Let’s bring it home. Remember you’re here to get squashed, Bug. Quit showboating.”
I fucking hate this gimmick. Guy eats one cockroach on his cheeseburger before the match his asshole junkie trainer’s set up for his debut—and you get stuck with the worst goddamned ring name.
When he first got booked, they made Bug pretend to pull flies out of the air and dig lice from his opponent’s hair, silly theatrics. After a while, people forgot about it. After a while, most people forgot about Bug.
Draxel ducks the clothesline. As expected. Now Bug’s supposed to “let” his momentum take him to the ring post, get stunned, and walk backward on wobbly legs into a neck breaker from the champ.
There’s a phrase everyone learns to hate in the wrestling business.
This time, Bug’s bleeding face makes different plans. His sole slips against a purple pancake-batter-thick blood puddle. His blood. Acting on a mix of instinct and training, Bug shoots his arms out to the side. He grabs the top corner ring ropes. The cheap, uncovered cable-thick strands bite into his palms, hewing fresh gouges across burst-open blisters.
Someone growls behind him. It’s not a sound he’s heard a human being make before. It’s like someone let their pit bull, high off sweat and testosterone, loose inside the building. Bug listens for a rattling dog chain.
By doing so, he misses Draxel, dressed in an all-black skintight bodysuit yet free from sweat spots because his conditioning’s way better than whatever Bug’s weekend warrior wrestler ass manages. The champ flies backward to the corner with a sharp-angled elbow aimed at Bug’s exposed schnoz.
Next thing he knows, entire galaxies spin across the Elks’ Lodge’s high-beamed ceiling, drifting amid the booze-scented haze.
Bug wants to cry. Or take a nap (where if he cries in his sleep, so be it). But the show must go on and they need to get to the pinfall.
It’s time for Bug to stare at those overhead fluorescents. Time for Jeff the Ref to slap his hand against the mat three times. And then, it’s time to head back to the locker room.
Bug’s ready. With every breath producing an explosion of snot and blood that Pollocks the mat, it’s a guarantee whatever payday he gets will go straight to an urgent care visit for a broken nose.
Draxel wraps his arm around his opponent’s neck, tucking in tight under Bug’s chin.
Okay, here we go.
But the champ stops short. Bug went off-script, now it’s Draxel’s turn. The powerful man cinches his hold tighter—tighter than Bug expected. A tightness that’s more than a little unsafe.
Bug’s never known the champ to work stiff. At least not when it comes to grappling. But the bulge of his cheeks and bloody half-breaths spraying from his lips onto the champ’s forearm tells a different story. Jeff the Ref’s voice comes to Bug like the last words of a dream. “You okay, Champ?”
He’s not talking to Bug.
Draxel doesn’t use the kayfabe voice he puts on for the marks, his “Blawgh blawghh, I’m a wrestling vahmpire” schtick intended to get the crowds riled up, or the soft-spoken, “close to a whisper,” voice he uses while navigating the locker room on a show night. There’s a resonance with this new intonation, reaching into Bug’s bones. It keeps him from tapping out or otherwise signaling he’s finished. It also keeps Jeff the Ref at bay. Bug glimpses the man in the pin-striped shirt from the corner of his eye, standing stock still. Jeff’s eyes are glazed over, as though he’s the one in the chokehold.
Draxel’s faster than any opponent Bug’s faced—more than the luchadors he was booked against on a one-off trip to Tijuana. From the chokehold, the champ switches to a full nelson. His arms hook underneath Bug’s and he clasps his hands behind the smaller man’s head. Draxel wrenches back, handling his opponent like a ragdoll. “What’re you…”
Bug twists in Draxel’s grasp, trying to get a read on the man. Unease grips him inside tighter than the physical hold. Bug strains to make eye contact, to try and convey his overwhelming sense of What the fuck, dude? with a glance. Except, the eyes staring back—too close, far too close to Bug—don’t appear human. There’s the disorienting sensation of staring into twin black orbs, smooth and unbroken darkness, devoid of iris or pupil.
The same primal revulsion applies to the fangs extending from the champ’s gums, overlapping with Draxel’s human teeth. Thin, like the hypo needles some of the boys jam into their asses backstage before shows, but bone-white instead of the dull antiseptic silver. No strings or traces of tape appear in Draxel’s mouth, no subtle lines of contacts over his eyes.
It’s all real to Bug.
Then, there’s a pinching sensation on his neck, like two bee stingers stabbing into the pink of an infected sunburn.
The bite’s transcendent, its effects orgasmic. When the needle-like teeth pierce his skin, Bug’s wrenched from the moment, pulled outside of himself. He floats above the ring in the center of the Elks’ Lodge, watching as the champion David Draxel sinks his teeth into his exposed flesh.
Then, there’s Bug. The jobber. Letting the champ drink his fill.
A melancholic understanding of his place in the world settles in, replacing the serum the champ’s draining. Bug’s left numb by the whole exchange.
Wrestling for small dollars in shitty lodges and dive bars. Icing his injuries and sore muscles in a bathtub stained brown and yellow thanks to the fluids it’s absorbed from Sunday to Monday morning—his sole means of recovery. Getting his neighbor, a vet tech, to stitch up his cuts in the hallway, while he medicates with a jug of warmed-over Aristocrat. She never lingers after the work’s done. Doesn’t beg Bug to get a new hobby. She doesn’t care.
The sting of these memories rather than the numbed pain of the bite pulls Bug back to the present.
A voice in his head—Draxel—urges him to relinquish control and give in. To take the bite like a pinfall.
Instead, Bug pulls free. His skin shreds against Draxel’s bone-white needle teeth. Twin arcs of blood spray, sending droplets to splash on the front row of fans. Like a Gallagher comedy show at an infectious disease center.
The screeching asshole from before calls out again. But his exclamation’s different this time.
“Hell yeah! Get ‘im, B!”
Instead of seeing stars, Bug’s falling through a black hole.
Jeff nudges Bug awake, the tip of the referee’s black dress shoe touching the blood-slick skin of the wrestler’s exposed side. “C’mon, kid,” Jeff says, even though the bleeding man’s sure they’re both past the age where they get asked for their IDs at bars.
Something pounds inside Bug’s head. Like his brain’s on fire, slamming against the confines of his skull, trying to effect its escape. He leans on Jeff, and they inch toward the ropes from the center of the ring, following a pinfall Bug doesn’t remember. The match’s loser gets swept away by the ringside crowd’s enthusiasm—the source of the slamming, rattling cacophony filling his ears.
They’re clapping. Every single asshole in the building’s up out of their folding chairs to give Bug—a curtain-jerker working an opening squash match to set up the bad guy champ as a monstrous heel for the “real” main event challenger later—a standing fucking ovation. “Got yourself over, kid,” Jeff says.
But there’s no judgment in his words. It’s closer to respect.
“Champ wants a word with you in the back after he’s done in the main event. Says he wants you next week. Rematch. And he’s gonna talk to Sam about you and him doin’ business…”
Jeff the Ref shakes his head because, like Bug, he can’t believe it.
Sam Cassetta’s the booker and owner of DEATH CHAMPS. He’s also an asshole who’s connected through mutual friends to Bug’s trainer. Sam puts Bug on his cards now and then as a favor. Sam’s also the asshole who’d only agree to book the slim, underdeveloped wannabe wrestler if he kept his “Bug” gimmick. But Bug persisted. Living up to his namesake, he kept coming back week after week to get his ass beat over and over again.
Staring up into the lights, wiping blood off his face with one hand, Bug smiles. After all, the boys in the back share secrets, tips, and tricks to ensure no one gets screwed by management. Through the grapevine, one thing’s clear: the man with the championship strap’s the real boss.
And the strap belongs to Draxel.
Except, he’s not a man. He’s not even human.
Images from the match’s climax come fast into Bug’s memories. Draxel’s bone-needle teeth bursting through skin, tearing flesh. The blood. He’s heard of guys living their gimmicks, but…
Jeff slaps Bug hard on his back which is already sore enough for half a bottle of Advil once he gets home. “C’mon, we’re past the curtain. You can stop sellin’.”
Reality crashes down like an unprotected folding chair shot to the head. Bug grabs the black collar of Jeff’s jersey. When Bug’s eyes cross, the black and white stripes on the stretch fabric Polo blend into a gray fog across his field of vision. “My neck…Draxel. Bit my neck. I should go…I should …”
Jeff’s hands wrap around Bug’s wrists and he shoves the other man away. “You should get off me.”
He looks at Bug like he’s got no idea what the hell the wrestler’s talking about. Bug stumbles backward, hand moving to his neck. He’s afraid to move too fast, afraid of what he’ll touch.
Or what he won’t touch.
A mid-carder, an up-and-coming high-flyer wrestling under the ring name J.H. Murray, steps in and loops an arm around Bug’s mid-section to keep the disoriented man upright. He hands Bug a water bottle, the top already unscrewed.
Good kid. Talented.
Bug’s sure Murray will move to greener, more lucrative pastures before too long.
“C’mon, Ren,” Murray says, using Bug’s shoot name, “let’s get you to the showers.”