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Thanatophobia
« on: January 28, 2018, 02:57:52 AM »
The sunset was just peeking through the tree line when he finally came to.

“Are you okay, Zack?”

That was a question Zack wasn’t ready to answer. His head was spinning and a half-dozen faces were circling him, shouting. Zack tried to make sense of them all, but he recognized none.

The talking heads spat words at him with little courtesy for one another, each one speaking over the last in an effort to get their questions across, but Zack assuredly had more.

Zack winced, turning away from the glare in his eyes. Rocks jabbed into his sides as he pivoted his hip on the rocks beneath him and sat up.

“What’s your name?”

“What day is it?”

“Who do you work for?”

Zack’s mind raced. The last thing he’d remembered was driving both of his knees into Brennan Devlin’s skull, and then…

Nothing.

“Are you okay, Zack?”

Zack began to answer, but spat out blood rather than words. One of the men poured water into his mouth to help him flush out the blood.

Now back to that question. ‘Are you okay, Zack?’ His splitting headache would seem to indicate otherwise, but even though he was sure the panicked look on his face wasn’t selling it, Zack gave those gentleman a healthy thumbs up.

However, given his concussion history, Zack feared for the worst.

He knew all the symptoms. He knew the recipe. He’d been there before in 2013, and then again in early 2016 when he thought his career might be over. Then, it was his mentor Bobby Franchise who’d pulled him back from the ledge and got him the treatment he needed to make it out of the saga sane, and it was that same old man he searched for in the rocks that day.

“Bobby?”

The medic whispered to one of his colleagues, who then ran off.

“No, no, Zack, but he’ll be here shortly. Now, I’d like to ask you a few questions if that’s okay.”

With a grunt, Zack cracked his neck, draining his right ear of the water it held inside, finally restoring a bit of his hearing. Zack craned his neck behind him and marveled at the sight.

“Is that a fucking waterfall?”

“Try to focus, Zack.”

The medic shined a flashlight into Fantana’s eyes.

“Now, can you tell me your name?”

“Zack.”

He grimaced, clutching his head.

“Fantana.”

The medic nodded, which was encouraging for Fantana, even though at that moment he wasn’t certain if he’d only come up with the answer all on his own or because he’d gotten a hint.

“And what day is it?”

Zack picked up a stone with some red spatter on it and spun it in his hand. He suspected it might be the culprit for the pounding headache he had.

“The 31st?”

The doctor nodded, much to Zack’s surprise. That was a stab in the dark. Zack usually only remembered a date if it was for some sort of deadline.

“And where are we, Zack?”

Fantana shuffled backwards, propping himself up against the root of a tree, and took in all of the sights before choking an answer in an unconvincing manner.

“M-monster Island.”

“Good.”

“What?”

The medic’s answer had done more to convince Fantana that he’d suffered a concussion than anything else. The blood running down his forehead almost seemed circumstantial in comparison.

‘Good? Did he actually just say good after hearing Monster Island?’, Zack asked himself as the sound of a helicopter muffled the rest of the medic’s words. Zack thought might have, but at this point, he was the last person he’d trust for an answer.

He remembered being thrown from the helicopter. He remembered talking drones. He’d remembered Angelica Vaughn swinging from a vine and kicking him in the face. He was even beginning to piece together how Brennan Devlin caught him with that stone. But none of it made any fucking sense.

As the medics around him scrambled to secure a stretcher, Zack closed his eyes, completely spent, and fell asleep leaning up against the tree stump.

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“Are you okay?”

The barking faces returned and washed over him like cascading waves. Startled awake, Zack attempted to answer, but found his mouth flooded with salt water.

“Where are we?”

Zack thrashed in the water, paddling for his life.

“Monster Island”, he answered, though it came out garbled. “Monster Island!” By now, he was shouting.

He searched for the medic with the kind face for reassurance, but the medic wasn’t there. Nobody and, to be more precise, nothing was there. Pitch black.

‘Is this the fucking waterfall?’, questioned himself, too afraid to ask aloud, but by the time he’d stopped thrashing, he realized the water wasn’t moving. He spun in a circle, reaching for a ledge to climb to, but found nothing. As his heart rate lowered, he built up a little more confidence and ventured further, tracing his fingers across the edge of the pool he was paddling in. The edge was stout, but smoother than the rock ledge he suspected he might find.

Fantana kept going, eventually happening upon a steel grab bar. Reaching up into the air, he pushed forward, opening a hatch above him. Zack thought he could still hear the sound of the helicopter in the distance.

“Don’t leave me! I’m still here!”

Blinded by the light now shining in his face, Fantana gracelessly emerged from the pool of water, dragging himself across the threshold with his elbows only to land in a puddle on the floor.

The cold tile on his cheek was a welcome sensation at this point. Any form of solid ground would be. As he caught his breath, Zack could feel the floor reverberating next to him. He turned his head to the side to see a woman in scrubs. She shook her head in disapproval, flipped the switch on her vacuum cleaner, and then hastily stepped out of the room.

Zack blinked a few more times and sat up, discovering he was inside a sizeable bathroom. He turned to look at the pool he’d escaped from and began to laugh.

“An isolation tank. Jesus Christ.”

Exhausted from his panic attack, Fantana slithered over to the vanity and climbed to his feet, wincing at the lights shining directly in his face as he went to look in the mirror. He swatted at the light switch to dim them, allowing him to notice the soaking wet plaid pajamas he was wearing for the first time. ‘Strange’, he thought, before looking up to see an uncapped bottle of Tylenol PM and bottle of rum on the vanity.

“Okay, that tracks.”

With his pupils adjusting enough to the light to see a little more clearly, Zack looked straight into the mirror to find himself also wearing a sleeping cap that matched his plaid pajamas. He slowly slid it off of his head and it hit the vanity top with a thwap, spritzing salt water up into his face. Zack wiped brow off with a towel and saw a man who was damn near the picture of Bobby Franchise staring back at him in the mirror.

“Please tell me I’m having a fever dream.”

Ever since his first concussion in 2013 and the sleep deprivation that came with it, Zack had naturally done a ton of research to determine the best ways to shake his insomnia. Over the years, that interest grew into an obsession with lucid dreaming and distinguishing a way to trigger it. He even found ways to pay the concept homage in the ring, naming one of the most devastating wrestling maneuvers in his repertoire after it.

And so, naturally, being the man of true grit and steadfast bravado that he was, Zack Fantana’s first inclination was to bend the dream to his will and metagame it into submission.

“Again? You’re really pushing this hackneyed ‘death anxiety’ trope on me again? Real subtle, brain.

Look, I get it. I’m getting older. My body is starting to break down. The world is passing me by. But, God, fear of mortality is so passé. You can’t keep dipping back into the same well. Let’s explore something interesting, like my fear of intimacy or outie belly buttons, or maybe help me understand why I suddenly have this thing for Steffi Graf after she snubbed me. Something new.”

Zack turned to see the housekeeper observing his little monologue.

“Zup?”

She nodded.

“So how much of that did I say aloud?”

“Enough to make it weird.”

“You an outie? I didn’t mean to disrespect your tribe.”

“Please stop speaking. You only make it worse for the both of us.”

Seemingly nonplussed by Zack’s presence, the woman began to mop up the water dripping from Zack’s clothes. She moved around him as if he were just part of the decor, stopping only once to pinch the fabric just above the knee on Zack’s pajama bottoms in order to encourage him to lift his feet off the floor and allowing her to sop up the puddle underneath them.

“So…”

Zack leaned over and read the name on the housekeeper’s shirt.

“Soon-hee. Exactly how long have I been here?”

“You arrived sometime around 8 A.M. this morning smelling of liquor, tossed on a set of Mr. Francis’s pajamas, then popped two Tylenol PM and hopped into the tank.”

“Ohhh. Bobby’s house. Right.”

Zack looked closely back into the mirror and upon further inspection, discovered that the medics must have shaved off his hair in order to stitch the laceration on the top of his head.

“Any idea where my clothes might be?”

Soon-hee leaned into the closet and procured a dry cleaning bag.

Zack unzipped the bag and took a peek inside.

“This is my wrestling gear.”

“It is what you arrived in.”

“And you expect me to wear this outside of the ring like some kind of mid-carder?”

Soon-hee shrugged unapologetically before pushing the bag into Zack’s chest.

“Not my problem, fish boy.”

Having been verbally schooled by a woman twice his age, Zack grabbed a purple robe off of the door, and threw it on quickly. After tying the belt menacingly, he opened the door to leave, only to find it was a walk-in closet. Fantana smiled and turned around.

“Big closet. Nice. And this must be…”

He turned the knob on the door on the adjacent side of the room.

“Back-up closet. How many damn…”

Zack trailed off and took a jaunt across the room.

“And this must be…”

He opened another door.

“Third string closet, because why not? Soon-hee, how the hell do I get out of here?”

Soon-hee pointed toward a door obscured in Zack’s view by the sensory deprivation tank. Zack barged through the door and down the stairwell to see movers carrying a bunch of furniture out of the building.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, What’s going on here?”

One of the guys lugging an end table through the corridor stopped to answer.

“Court-ordered asset forfeiture. Seems the old coot was seriously delinquent on alimony and child support.”

Zack tapped the guy on the back, sending him on his way out the door with the end table in his hands, and then went back into the room from where the moves came.

Gone were the ornate display cases that once adorned Bobby’s trophy room. In their place were small stacks of photos and mementos that held little material value.

Bobby sat in the middle of the empty room, alone.

“Funny, huh? Both of us at rock bottom at once.”
 
“Heh. Yeah. Well, I mean, I’m doing alright for--”

“They took it all. It’s over for us, kid. Worked all of my life and this is what I have to show for it.”

Bobby sullenly flipped through a stack of photographs, leading Zack to crouch down beside him.

Even though the old man had brought it on himself, Fantana couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. He’d traded a family life a half-dozen times over for this and it appeared that, for the first time, he had buyer’s remorse.

It could happen to anybody. Well, certainly not Zack, since he was a good Christian boy who was waiting until marriage to sow his oats. But what if something happened to one of the kids’ parents at the Bobby Franchise Center? Zack was certain he’d be the man entrusted to be their legal guardian. He didn’t know how he’d react to that situation.

Fantana picked a discarded photo of Benny Stevens off of the floor, gave it a cursory glance which elicited a smile, and then tucked it away into Bobby’s breast pocket.

“Listen, you might have fucked up with your own kids and particularly Benny Stevens, but you’re the one who fronted me the money for the Bobby Franchise Center for At-Risk Youth. You’re changing lives for the better, whether you want to admit it or not.”

Lifting his head to look Zack in the eye for the first time, Bobby paused, squinting at Fantana.

“Is that my robe?”

“You mean this?”

Zack looked downward and folded his arms, concealing the embroidery which explicitly spelled out the name “Bobby Franchise” in swooping cursive lettering on the breast of the robe.

“Oh no, this, I had tucked away at the bottom of my carry-on.”

Bobby may not have bought that story, but he certainly had other things on his mind. He watched as the movers carried the last remaining cabinet out of the room.

“We’ve got to pull ourselves out of this rut.”

Zack placed a hand over Bob’s shoulder.

“Heh. Yeah, again, I can sympathize with your situation here but let’s not get hung up on this ‘we’ thing, because I’m still coming down from that whole isolation tank experience and you’re kind of starting to freak me out, man.”

“Well, I mean, you’re not doing so hot either. First of all, your head must be seriously fucked. Otherwise you wouldn’t have begged me to use that tank.”

Zack’s eyes widened. Things were beginning to add up.

“Secondly, your best friend has disappeared off the face of the planet. Remember that?”

Bobby tapped the pocket VCO in his jacket.

“A protégé, of which I have many.”

“And you’re addicted to the PM.”

“Boy, that Soon-hee is a real Chatty Cathy, huh?”

Franchise shrugged.

“But you’re right. It’s me.”

Zack nodded, patting the old man’s back.

“It’s my influence. I’ve let you down. I’ve let your career fall off the rails. I mean, I can’t recall the last gig you had that wasn’t set in some dive bar or rinky dink gymnasium. And this last one, Monster Island, Jesus Christ, that was some snake oil.”

“Look, F2W are breaking ground on a new stadi-- Um, hold on, did you just say ‘Monster Island’?”

“I did, but don’t get caught up in that web of lies. They get you all revved up for the island experience and all the accoutrements that go with it, but in the end, it’s just a dirty little peninsula, no different than Florida. Talk about a waste of a helicopter ride.”

“You’re telling me it’s real?”

“Of course it’s real, kid. Well, I mean, the location’s real. The name’s real. The sound effects? I think that was just for the ambience. I was always under the impression that they were going to add in the titular monster in post.”

“Oh, thank God.”

Bobby looked at Zack out of the corner of his eye.

“You mean to tell me that, all this time, you thought Monster Island was fake? That you’d made it all up in your head? That’s why they called me? That’s why you were freaking out so much, even after the doc said you passed concussion protocol and gave you a clean bill of health?”

Zack grinned sheepishly. He felt like an idiot, but at least he could take solace in the fact that the old man was smiling for the first time that day.

“You must feel so stupid right now.”

Scratch that.

Franchise rolled onto his back, howling with laughter. Zack stood up, stretching his legs.

“Alright, I get it. I thought I was losing it. Super funny.”

Zack extended his hand toward Bobby to offer to lift him off the floor.

“Anyway, are you coming back to Pittsburgh with me or not?”

“Are you sure that your public relations rep will go for that?”

“I don’t care. The Oh-So Equality Network is done with me. I’m not winning the PR battle with Angelica Vaughn anyway. Everybody loves her, because cats and whatnot, so it’s a punt for me at best. That means it’s going to be strictly about the grind. No preening. No virtue-signaling.”

Bobby looked skeptical.

“For an entire month.”

“Okay, now that you’ve set a little more realistic goal, I can actually tell that you’re serious.”

“That’s not what this match is about for me. Sure, Angelica’s likeable and endearing or whatever, but you and I both know that no amount of affability and charm is going to win her this match. I’ve got this. I just need someone in my corner. You can watch the show from the balcony. I don’t care. Just be a part of this with me.

I can’t lose in front of those kids.”

“You know that they hate you, right?”

That’s what I’m saying. If these little shitheel kids cheered for Brennan Devlin of all people, you know for sure that they’ll go bananas for a teenage girl. I can’t compete with that. It’s hormones.”

Bobby glared at Fantana, not caring for where this conversation was leading.

“Look, I have no connection with the youth. I don’t understand their references; they don’t understand my references. I don’t know what QQ means. I’m not on snapchat. I ghost on twitter on the regular. My credibility in the ring is all I’ve got.”

“You don’t need me for that anymore.”

“Bobby, you know that the entirety of my self-worth is built on the approval of others. I need someone in my corner. You know this, so why are you even questioning it?

I’m giving you the choice. Live and die on this hardwood floor, crying over what could have been, or pick yourself up and leave a legacy with these kids that need a little guidance.”

The old man sat up and reached for Zack’s hand.