There hadn’t been a suicide in Little Rush for at least fifty years. Maybe that tells you everything you need to know. For a few years, I’d been keenly aware that I would one day break that streak. Like the moment before you hit a deer with your car, speeding on a backroad late at night. Inevitable. Beautiful. Raw.
It’s not that I wanted the feeling of death. I never liked pain. Always avoided it, honestly. I once cut my thighs with a razorblade for about a week before I gave that up. When I realized that alcohol numbed everything more effectively, I went for that particular addiction rather than self-harm. I suppose it was the better choice, in a brutal sort of way.
Honestly, you could even say I feared death. But at the same time, I couldn’t turn away from it. Talking with Willow once, I compared it to sitting on a train track. Not tied down, just of my own free will. With every night that passed, with every panic attack or breakdown, I could feel the ground shaking under my feet. See that swift-moving beast in the distance as it hurtled closer. Yes, I knew that death was coming for me. Faster than it does for most. I felt jaw-clenching fear but wanted it so damn badly.
Little Rush. That quaint, postcard town. I felt a disconnect from it. Everybody else, they found aspects to enjoy. They had places or people that rooted them. Not me.
All those people growing old and wasting away in the same spot for years… to me, it felt like they were settling, like they could’ve achieved something greater. Who would give up the world for a life of this? Not me.
I was gonna get out. But if I had to die here, I would take care of it my-goddamn-self.
All through high school, I thought about my funeral, probably more than was healthy. Especially the playlist. A set of songs that would capture my entire life. Maybe I’d start with Bon Iver. I wondered how it would affect the old people.
Honestly, I just hoped that Mason and Willow would stick around. Those were the only two people who really cared about me. They were the only two keeping me around. Not in Little Rush. Just alive in general.
“Hudson!” my father yelled from the first floor. I could barely hear him over the low hum from my window AC unit. The wooden stairs creaked as he moved up a few steps. “Go feed those chickens!”
I ground my teeth together. I’d been laying on my bed, head resting on a pillow, wasting away the first Friday of summer. This self-pitying, casket position served me well. “Mason’ll be here any minute,” I yelled back, not rude per se but definitely not happy.
I didn’t want an argument with him. After a full day working outside, he was often on edge. There was a moment’s pause. I closed my eyes and tried to really savor those last moments of rest. We both knew what would happen now. As a kid, I fought against doing any chores but eventually tired of my phone being taken away.
“Then you best hurry,” he called back with a chuckle.
His footsteps descended those first few steps. I heard my mom arguing with him briefly, something about dirt in the house. My father made his way to what we affectionately dubbed “the mud room.” Here, he would deposit shirts, boots, jeans, anything caked in mud or grass. Then Mom would wash it, and so the cycle went. They’d kiss after this, despite their twenty-plus years of kissing. I didn’t think they ever had sex nowadays. After all, I’d remained an only child my entire life, though I would’ve liked a sister. Maybe she’d turn out less conceited.
My father seemed like a typical farmer if you barely knew him. In a lot of ways, I was the same. But I liked to imagine that we weren’t so stereotypical on the inside. Maybe it was wishful thinking. Everybody in Little Rush had a bit of country in them, some more than others. I’d say my family was about average.
With this in mind, I rose from my bed and stared out the window. There was a large field of grass in front of our house, stretching out maybe a quarter-mile to the distant road. A chicken coop stood halfway, cheap fencing circling the squat building where those stupid fowl lived. I wasn’t sure why we even kept chickens. We never had other farm animals. Never owned any pets. And sure, Mom used the eggs, but those were available at the grocery store just a few miles away. Our house wasn’t far from town.
Down the stairs and trudging through the living room, I came to the front door. Every floor in our house was carpeted, save for the kitchen. There were a few fatherly dirt footprints leading down the hallway toward the mudroom. No wonder Mom had been angry. Hopefully I wouldn’t have to scrub it clean later.
A brisk walk to the chicken’s enclosure ensued, where I just had to scoop out some feed from a large plastic bag. A cup sat in the huge container. The sides felt like they were caked in ashes. I wiped the residue off on my worn jeans and turned away. Standing in the dark shade, I peered around at the small world that enclosed me. Chickens were clucking around my ankles, and the smell of feed and bird shit wafted to my nose.
My eyes snapped to the sun like a magnet to a fridge. Sinking in the distance, it made way for that perfect time of evening. The air chilled, the wind calmed, and the trees were a blend of yellow and green. No longer did stepping outside feel like wading into a sauna. No longer did the air stick to skin like a tight sweater from an estranged aunt. When the sun died off, when darkness fell and coyotes were cackling in the distance, the countryside came alive with shapes and shadows.
I breathed deep and made my way back to the house, all thoughts of chickens and chores gone. Mason would be here in an hour, maybe less, and I needed to shower.
As I reentered the house, I didn’t look back over my shoulder, though maybe I should’ve. The gate swung open, pushed by the breeze, because I hadn’t reset the lock. The chickens were already pecking near the opening.
Mason’s sleek, red convertible probably cost five times as much as my ramshackle truck. Acknowledging Willow with a nod, I slid into his backseat and reached for my seatbelt. From the driver’s seat, he blew a kiss to my mom, who stood on the porch watching me climb in. She rolled her eyes but blushed all the same before disappearing indoors. Dad had gone into the shower just a few minutes ago, or he probably would’ve watched me all the way down the driveway.
“I hate when you do that,” I said with a touch of annoyance.
Mason glanced at me in the mirror, wearing that stupid grin on his face. “Gotta soften her up for when she finds you passed out ‘cause of our drinking.”
“Shut up,” I murmured but couldn’t help a smirk.
Willow, Mason’s girlfriend and my other close friend, scrolled through something on her phone. She wore sunglasses and an average outfit for her— long sleeved crop-top and worn jean shorts. Even though she came from a fairly poor family, she always managed to dress stylish. Mason himself wore a Nike tank top, like always, and cargo shorts. I felt a little out of place with my blue jeans and dirty Cincinnati Reds shirt, but I always did around these two. They were like something from a movie, a real star couple. Or at least they had the attitude and bodies for it.
Mason accelerated down the gravel driveway. It wound around my house from the back and then made straight to the road. Trees younger than me were planted on either side, casting long shadows on the yard. The car bounced slightly as he roared through the shaded portion. These maples gave the entrance to our property a nice vibe. It was, truthfully, a real scenic place until you saw our barn and the tractor Dad spent hours fixing, enhancing, tweaking. That piece of trash.
“What’d you get for tonight?” I asked as he turned out of my driveway onto the narrow country roads that mapped my life.
“He got Coors,” Willow answered.
“Disgusting,” I said. They weren’t that bad, but I loved to mess with Mason. “You never get good stuff.”
“Shut up. You’ll drink them, and you’ll like it.” He shot me a knowing look in the mirror, again with that cockeyed smirk and stupidly tanned features.
The two of them weren’t so helpful for my self-esteem, but friends are friends. His tanned skin in that waning sunlight, dark curly hair, with stunning Willow beside him... I couldn’t help noticing how impressively bland I’d become.
Without another word, I settled into the leather seat and leaned my head back. The wind rushed over me, throwing my stringy hair around and into my eyes. I smelled a bonfire somewhere nearby, a homely scent that carries for miles. The trees were golden, the air fresher than it had been all day. Overhead, there were no clouds in sight, just a brilliant, endless ombre of blue-to-orange-to-yellow.
The first week of June in Little Rush is the best time of the year (except for maybe October). In those first seven-to-ten days of June, the entire summer stretched before us like a cornfield beginning to bud. Little green shoots everywhere, and the dirt so soft you could almost sink in it. Each sunset more beautiful than the last, each morning a more refreshing birth. Days outside, nights by a bonfire. The occasional trip to a movie theater or bowling alley.
For teenagers like us, this summer held more promise than maybe any other. We were entering our senior year of high school, which meant we had more freedom than ever before. Everybody had their license by now, most of us knew the taste of beer almost as well as our fathers did, and the girls were the hottest they’d ever been. For someone like Mason, who already had his number-one option, that didn’t matter too much. For me, on the other hand, it was a constant thought.
The summer held so much hope. There were kids who couldn’t wait to get started in the family business, others who would work at McDonald’s their whole life. There were some who might trek off to college and explore all the possible careers waiting for them. They were maybe five years away from a real job, but only one from that slice of perfect independence called university.
And then there were people like me. I had nothing to look forward to. I wouldn’t be taking over my father’s business because we had none. I refused to follow in his well-trod footsteps, working at the local power-plant and turning hay fields into profit on the side. But I also didn’t have the money or motivation for another four years of school. I couldn’t stay in this town and work at McDonald’s for years. I had nowhere to go. No real assurance that I’d even be alive come next summer.
I thought about my funeral more than was healthy. Especially the people whose tears would moisturize my corpse. Especially the look in their eyes.
The convertible glided to a stop beside an old cabin deep in the woods. The back of it overlooked a small creek, while the front could have been an advertisement for a vacation rental. Mason grinned when he shifted into park and sighed like he always did when we arrived here. It was his father’s, but Jedidiah Cooper hardly ever had time for it. According to Mason, he hardly had time for anything but work. This cabin had become our most common drinking location about two years ago, once Mason stole a key to the place. (Technically, it was a gift, but it was also sort of robbery.)
“Haven’t been here in months,” he said, brightening as he turned to Willow and I in turn. “You guys ready?”
“Don’t get all nostalgic already,” I said, climbing out of the car and smacking him on the shoulder.
The cabin didn’t hold much inside. A large, open floor sitting area with two long sofas and a tiny television. It didn’t have cable or anything, but it did have Netflix and Wi-Fi. There was a large bedroom down the hall, a bathroom jutting out from the side. A ladder in the sitting room led to a tiny loft area overhead, complete with a bed that had been there for years. Mason and I spent plenty of nights there as children. Back when his dad didn’t work so much, and my parents were happy to let me leave anytime, as long as “Jed’s got a close eye on you hooligans.”
For us and our potentially disastrous drinking habits, the most enjoyable part of the cabin had nothing to do with inside. In the back, a spacious, furnished deck overlooked a small forest descent to the creekbed. The porch had chairs for eight people and a large table in the center, all of it wooden and smooth. We could sit there for hours, staring into the depth of trees and listening as the creek gurgled by just out of sight. The oaky smell of that porch grew heavier as the alcohol infused us with a new sense of life and loss of direction. One time, about eight beers in, I’d stumbled down to the creek bed and lounged on the rocks for a while. With my back completely soaked and eyes brighter than the moon overhead, I’d bumbled up the hill again and slept outside on the table.
This memory and many others coursed through me at the sight of the porch. It really had been forever since we’d come here last Halloween. The evening felt crisp now, and the sky had morphed into a pale shade of burgundy.
I helped them unload the trunk of Mason’s convertible. Thirty-six cans of beer —even if they were Coors— would be a good time. Along with a bottle of cheap vodka, which confused me for a moment.
“Since when did you drink vodka?” I asked, raising an eyebrow as Mason set it on the table.
He took a seat beside me. “Willow asked for it.”
“She doesn’t usually go that hard,” I commented. The two of us were lounging on the deck, and she’d gone back to the car for something, so I didn’t mind the momentary gossip.
“Me either. I’m… curious to see how wild she gets.” A smile touched his face, a scheming look with just a bit of lust. I guess it should’ve dawned on me earlier why Mason wanted her to spend the night here so badly.
Should’ve brought my ear plugs, I mused. Maybe I’d just sleep on the porch again.
Willow returned from the car and chose a chair across the table from both of us. While Mason and I carried on talking, she extracted a pink shot glass with Bob Ross on the side. Then she grasped the vodka bottle by the neck and unscrewed the cap.
“Did you tell your parents you were staying overnight?” Mason asked, cracking open his first can.
I took a pause before I answered. We ogled as Willow downed three shots in quick succession and an eager look spread over her face. Her body shuddered as the sting hit her, and she winced, laughing. The sound echoed around us for a moment.
I answered Mason’s question. “I didn’t, but it’ll be fine.” Taking a drink of my own beer and screwing up my face on purpose, I said, “Real high quality stuff, Mason.”
“You don’t have to drink any,” he said, calling my bluff. “I’ll save it for myself.”
“Whatever. Pass me another, will you?” And with that, I chugged the rest.
The minutes stretched before us. We told stories for a while, memories that we shared. Willow instigated some kind of toast to “the last good summer,” a cheesy move but also powerful in its own way. All three of us said, “We need to do this again soon” a few times, each more slurred than the previous repetition. I retold the story of my infamous tattoo, the one I’d given myself in a drunken stupor with a friend’s tattoo gun at some house party. That’d been almost a year ago, I realized. The last week before Junior year. Sloppy work, sure, but important to me.
The minutes lagged. It had been an hour, maybe two, when Willow checked her phone. I didn’t feel completely gone yet, maybe eight beers in, not yet feeling the last three. Mason, who weighed more than either of us, hadn’t even approached his wall yet. Willow had downed maybe five shots altogether, and her eyes were a bit loopy as she read whatever appeared on her screen.
“Oh my god.”
I grinned instinctively, because at that point anything made me laugh. I exchanged a glance with Mason, expecting Willow to have some funny video to share. But then she went on.
“You won’t believe this. Oh my god. You seriously won’t believe this.”
She looked up from the phone, wide eyes twinkling. She stared at us both and gripped her phone tight. The screen illuminated her face, gave it an eerie shadow, beautiful and mysterious.
“You gonna elaborate or not?” I asked, head starting to wobble. Or maybe the world was moving and not me.
“You’re gonna say I’m lying,” she said, taking a deep breath, “but I swear to god it’s the truth.”
“Jesus Christ, babe.” Mason scratched at his head, running a hand down his sharp jawline and slight scruff. “Did someone die?”
“No. The opposite.”
“Someone… was born?” I chuckled. “Not that big a deal. I’ll bet you ten bucks it’s a drug-baby if they’re from—”
“Don’t be mean. Just listen!” she said, tapping on the table. Her fingernails made a strange sound on the wood. Like one of those… those pecking birds. My eyes were drawn to the noise, but she continued. “You both know Bruce Michaels, right?”
“Pshh.” Mason leaned back and shot me a grin, rolling his eyes. “Do we know Bruce Michaels? You kidding? He’s my goddamned religion, he is.”
“Never made a bad movie,” I interjected, pointing a finger at Mason.
He nodded and pounded on the table. Then he shouted a line from our favorite Bruce movie with the accompanying accent. “Fuck you, rednecks!”
“He’s moving here,” Willow rolled her eyes. “Next week.”
I stopped thinking. Stopped drinking, talking, everything. I just stared at her in disbelief.
“Don’t do this to me right now,” Mason said, sitting forward now. He shook his head slightly, amused. “Not when I’m drunk. I don’t like jokes when—”
“I’m not kidding.” She held up the phone, blinding us both with the light. First Mason read and then me. I couldn’t stop my jaw from sliding open.
The headline read exactly as she’d said.
EXCLUSIVE: Bruce Michaels To Leave Hollywood! Moving to Nowhere, Indiana!
The short paragraph under it named the town, our town. Little Rush. I didn’t even care how they knew. Just that they did. Of course, they might be wrong. We’d know soon enough, but even the possibility...
“But…” I glanced up at them. The air felt cold all of a sudden and my mouth drier than it ever had. Their faces were unresponsive, blurred. I couldn’t focus on anything. “But… he’s…”
“Fucking Bruce Michaels.” Mason put a hand to his forehead and blew a raspberry. “Goddamn… Here? Really here? This isn’t some… fake shit?”
“He’s done acting then, yeah?” Willow kept moving her eyes between the two of us. She didn’t show the appreciation or astonishment this situation called for. “He’s… retired?”
“You think my dad’ll meet with him?” Mason drummed his knuckles on the table, now full of energy. “I bet he will. What if he comes to my house? Oh my god, what if?”
I broke out in a wild, toothy smile at that moment. “What if I have a delivery to his house? He… he eats pizza, I’m sure? I’ll get to deliver to him! That’s literally insane!”
Willow rolled her eyes, sliding us each another can of beer. “Please get more drunk so we can stop talking about this actor. I shouldn’t even have told you two.”
“Fucking Bruce Michaels!” I exclaimed one last time, thumping my chest with a fist.
I had the hangover of a lifetime that next morning, but it didn’t really matter. We went through the motions in sluggish silence, Mason and I. Throwing away the cans, checking that we hadn’t knocked over anything inside. Willow slept through all of it, but we didn’t feel like waking her. The two of us had never been so excited for anything. Ever. She didn’t really understand. She didn’t quite get Bruce Michaels like we did.
“He really retired then,” I commented at one interval. We passed by each other, one going toward the trash can and the other away. I carried two empty cans, ants crawling around the lips. “I thought that was just rumors.”
“I mean, he’s done everything,” Mason pointed out, walking by me. “He’s got nothing left to prove, you know?”
But why here? Why not a nice mansion in Los Angeles? Or a coastal home in Florida? Why Little Rush? A river town in the middle of nowhere, an hour away from any real city. Farms everywhere, a single McDonald’s, and our biggest store was an undersized Walmart. The most unique thing about this place? A winding river that made for great pictures but not much else. It’s not like anybody ever swam in the Ohio River. If anything, people avoided the water itself and spent their time on the downtown sidewalk that ran alongside it.
“Maybe he wants to farm?” Mason suggested when we’d filled up one trash bag and I was shaking loose another. “Wasn’t… wasn’t he a farmer in that movie? I think we were in middle school.”
“You’re right!” I shook my head. I opened up the new bag and its floral scent permeated the air. “Yeah, maybe that’s it.”
That whole morning passed in a drag. Willow had reported “next week” he’d be here. What did that mean? Today, Saturday, marked the end of a week. So... tomorrow? A literal seven days from now? Somewhere in between? Maybe there’d be warning signs, like streets blocked off, a flood of reporters, other oddities. Old and decrepit Little Rush now buzzing with energy. But for the time being, we could only think of how this change might affect us personally. Forget the town; we wanted a piece of Bruce Michaels for ourselves.
“Can you imagine if we get to meet him?” I asked as the two of us climbed into his convertible an hour later. My skull still suffered from a constant drumbeat, but I managed to ignore it for the most part. Bruce Michaels, the cure for any headache.
Willow remained inside, working on homework, while I took my place in the passenger seat. She’d decided to take a few online college courses this summer, which boggled my mind. As expected, they kept her pretty busy. Mason said she did schoolwork every morning for at least two hours. I didn’t even know what she was taking, nor could I relate to that dedication.
Mason planned on dropping me off and then coming back for her, probably for that round of sex he didn’t get last night. We’d been too worked up to think of anything like that. The two of us, anyways. I had no idea what Willow thought. She’d acted a bit peeved.
“Would be crazy.” Mason swerved out onto the country roads, a mere ten minutes from my house. Tapping his fingers on the steering wheel, a devilish grin broke out on his face. I didn’t know what he’d imagined, didn’t really care. A feeling welled inside. My own imagination, wild dreams.
Who would have thought that only twenty minutes later, I’d be kneeling on my bed, staring out the window with crushing despair. Intense ache, somewhere just under my heart, near that sloppy, drunken tattoo I’d given myself a long time ago.
Just take me there, it read.
From the moment Mason had turned onto the gravel driveway, sped between the trees and toward my house, this sensation had been building. The instant I’d seen their carcasses strewn across the yard, white feathers in clumps of bloody meat, I’d known I made a terrible mistake. In the middle of the yard, the gate stood wide open, leading right through the fencing around the chicken’s enclosure. Maybe the most important part of my chore, and I’d forgotten entirely.
“Oh shit,” I murmured. The convertible rattled past an area of the yard that looked particularly gruesome. “Oh man, I really…”
Mason stared wide-eyed at the brutality in front of us. He gave me a pat on the back as I struggled out of the car with heart racing. I didn’t know where this would lead. What kind of punishment would be dealt. How much did a few chickens cost? How many did we even have?
Had, I thought. Have no longer.
The door to the house creaked open as I stepped inside, hoping they would be asleep. Maybe enjoying a late-morning nap. Maybe Dad in the barn with the tractor. But no, they were seated at the kitchen table, a phone laying before them and a man’s voice droning from the speaker.
“I’ll call ya back inna bit,” my father said before abruptly hanging up.
Four eyes stared at me. Two different emotions, but neither of them pleased. I shifted uncomfortably, hoping they couldn’t smell the alcohol on my breath. That would send them over the edge.
“Stayed out, huh?” my father started, voice choking. Clearly holding back whatever he wanted to say. “But ya… ya couldn’t take time to do yer fucking chore right, huh?”
“Henry…” My mom placed a hand on his forearm, but it was no use.
He stood from the table and stepped closer. Towering over me, really. He had the look of a real man, a farmer. Broad shoulders, heavy chest. Thick, coiled arms and tanned skin. His eyes were piercing as I tried not to look away. He’d never hit me before. Would this be the moment?
“Get… get up to your room. Don’t let me see your ass down here rest o’ the day,” he snapped, stalking away into deeper realms of the house.
His massive form disappeared around the doorway. I heard him rummaging in the mudroom, pulling on boots, and then the screen door slammed as he marched outside. His therapy, I supposed. Messing with that tractor.
My mom bowed her head and shuffled past me. Scolding me in a different way.
And so, I slouched to my room and knelt on the bed for a while, staring outside. The AC unit hummed, blowing cold air on my torso, freezing my heart. The room around me felt vacant now. The record collection meant nothing. The cluttered desk, all my posters, deflated basketball. All of it nothing. Just objects that I’d give up in a heartbeat.
For a brief while, I’d escaped this town, if only in my mind. I’d dreamed of stardom, of the fame that would soon settle upon Little Rush and our baking sidewalks. But the truth couldn’t have been farther.
Even Bruce Michaels couldn’t save this town. I had no clue why he’d ever set foot here. A man who’d done real, important things. Had a life with purpose. Maybe I should’ve been jealous of that. Maybe I should’ve hated Bruce Michaels. But I couldn’t help adoring him.
My eyes focused on the trees across the road, far from my bedroom window. That forest went on as far as I could see from here, the tops reaching for a blue sky they would never touch. Could never dream of feeling.
I didn’t think of myself as a particularly messed up person. No more than your average alcoholic, undiagnosed, self-destructive teen on the verge of adulthood. But when I fell asleep soon after, I dreamed of a large cliff and of myself. In Mason’s car. Driving over the edge at ninety miles an hour.