HERO by Mike Wilson

This was not how he thought he would die. Even though he thought all the time about how he might die, it never really occurred to him that one day it would actually happen. One day he would die, of course. He would be dead as fuck. Dead, just like everyone else who had ever lived, and that day was today. Not just today but literally any minute, second, or even millisecond. Any of these thoughts could be his last thought. Oh god, he did not want any of these thoughts to be his last thought. He needed his last thought to be of his wife. Or of his wife and kids. Or of his wife and kids and parents, back before his parents died. Before his dad relapsed on the pain pills he’d been prescribed because of that stupid back injury he got when they’d chopped down that stupid dead oak tree together in his mom and dad’s stupid backyard. It shouldn’t have come to that, he thought. It shouldn’t be a life-and-death situation when you pick up a log that’s just a little too heavy. When you forget that you’re just a little bit older than you actually are and can’t quite lift things like logs the way you used to. He wanted to think of his mom before she got that unfortunate case of some disease he could never pronounce right, a disease that was so rare the town newspaper wrote a whole article about it, and after the townspeople read that article, her friends all thought that the impossible-to-pronounce-disease was contagious, even though it wasn’t. She’d died alone because no one would visit her, and his dad was long dead by then, and it was impossible to travel all the way back home as often as he needed to without bankrupting his own family, but still, he’d let her die alone, so what kind of son had he been? And now he would die alone, in this truck, listening to an a.m. country music station, playing an old artist he couldn’t even name and didn’t even like that much, but he couldn’t change the station because, as previously mentioned, he could blow up any second, and he didn’t want the last thing he did to be changing a radio station. Yes, he would be blown to smithereens any second for the tiny, stupid, simple reason being that a bearing in the wheel had gotten hot enough to ignite a tire fire on one of the outer duals of this trailer, and tire fires were tricky things because staying on the road fed air to the fire and built it up, up, up, but for whatever reason, due to some physics or chemistry he didn’t understand, when you stopped, when you pulled off the road, the flame jumped up and hugged everything it could, poof, a wave of thousand-degree heat, and your trailer was fucked, but who cares, because that shit is insured, but here was the problem — the problem was he wasn’t hauling a trailer. The problem was that he was hauling a full ass tank of ammonium nitrate. Whenever he stopped he was going to explode, there was no denying it, he could see the tire fire in his side mirror, and the thing with tire fires is that when you see them, when you know they’re there, it’s too late to do much about it, like cancer, which he’d always thought he’d get one day, some kind of cancer from working around these chemicals and breathing in diesel fumes all the time, and loading up pallets of weird chemical shit from weird chemical plants into 53 foot trailers when he wasn’t hauling 48 foot tanks, and he thought he’d get a terrible diagnosis one day which would actually be a beautiful gift because he could take stock of his life and finally let go of the fears that had always plagued him, and he could say goodbye to people and get some closure on some of the more fucked up things he’d done in his life, and he could spend his final days with his wife at his side and they could do simple things like sit out in the driveway together so that he could absorb sunlight and vital vitamin D, and maybe he’d even die like that, unexpectedly expectedly, under the bright star, holding his wife’s hand, maybe talking about something small for once instead of all the heavy things he’d always forced upon her, which he now felt really bad about, and his hand would slip out of hers and he would slip away into the ages and his last thought could be that he knew his wife would be okay because she was a strong person, she’d get through, and maybe, he hoped, she’d meet someone new, a 2.0 version of himself, someone with similar qualities but also without some of the more major faults, someone without some of the gambling and prolific involvement in pyramid schemes and the occasional foul mouth, or the lifetime of people pleasing which had always made them both so damn miserable, or the long bouts of depression that he’d let turn him into someone who was sometimes mean and yelly — oh god, he hoped he’d been good enough for her — and after he’d died in the driveway he’d wanted to be cremated because grave sites were for narcissists, and he’d wanted his family to scatter his ashes in the back yard of the home they’d lived in for twenty years and seven refinancings, and he’d wanted his wife and both of his kids to scatter of handful of his dusty former body into the ground, to return him to the earth this way, but then maybe it would be a good idea to wait a few weeks to mow the grass or else the John Deere blades were going to send him up into the wind, which scared him to think about now but was also kind of beautiful, but also wasn’t it kind of ripping of that Kansas song “Dust in the Wind”? Now there would be no ashes, at least none they could find, as he pulled the semi-truck off the highway and sped down a dirt road he did not recognize, his hazards flashing, his air horn screaming, his Jake brakes growling as he tried to make his rig seem like some ancient beast so that he could scare anyone from coming too near because he couldn’t live with himself if he blew up some innocent person with him. Now he had to get as far away from civilization as possible, away from the highway, the side roads, and the last homes outside the county. He had to escape into the wilderness to keep everyone safe from this stupid act of fate or bad luck or karma. No, not fate or bad luck or karma — from laziness, his laziness, from a piece of rubber igniting from a wheel hub he hadn’t checked the oil on because he’d just checked it the other day, and it had been fine, and today he’d had a headache, so he’d skimped on the pre-trip, and there’d been a leak in the axle, and this was it, some little crack somewhere along the steel rod was going to rob him of his peaceful future death in a lawn chair next to his favorite person. Soon there’d be nothing left of him, no evidence that he’d ever lived. But maybe it would be good in some way, this sudden death of his, maybe it would mean his son Jason would move back to town and stop chasing that stupid life as a YouTube street magician, maybe he’d settle down and find a good partner instead of that emotionally abusive prick Ryan, that serial philanderer, and maybe Jason could find someone who really made him happy, who built him up instead of criticized him, who didn’t make him cry so much, someone who he could take care of and who would take care of him, and he could get a steady job — but not as a trucker, no way, not after this — and his daughter Leah could finally find the courage to leave that soul crushing job at the bank because she hated it so much, the politics of it, the back stabbing, the volatility, and it was a shame she was so good at it, that she’d made it all the way to Vice President, and she made all that money that only made her more miserable, and she could finally quit quoting the Notorious B.I.G to him when he’d talk to her on the phone (“Mo money, mo problems,” she’d say, and she’d laugh that laugh of hers that he couldn’t tell if it was actually a laugh or really a cry), and maybe she’d finally pursue the artist life she’d always wanted, and she could do her acid-trippy sculptures that wouldn’t sell to anyone but would decorate her front yard and make her happy to create, and she could do this, it would be no problem, because she had a supportive husband, Jim, good ‘ol steady Jim, Jim who was Mr. Fix-It in every way, Jim who was such a good father that it was hard not to also hate him a little because how could anyone be that steady and perfect? Maybe this tragedy would send them all off on their own explosive propulsive new lives, he’d be their blown-up muse, and his wife could get a head start on finding that 2.0 version of her soon to be dead as fuck husband, and she was still young enough that she’d probably be married to the new husband longer than she was married to her soon to be dead husband, which might mean he’d eventually be sort of an afterthought, some old haunting presence from another life, someone who they didn’t speak of much because of the way he died, exploded in some random Kansas field, and maybe they wouldn’t even notice that he’d trucked out here to the boonies to save the strangers on the road around him, or maybe they would, but either way he was going to be dead any second, so it didn’t matter, and he found himself feeling jealous of the 2.0 version of himself, he sort of hated that guy, but also wanted to be him, and why had he run out of time, why had he not been allowed to be that 2.0 version of himself, why had it taken him until the literally last seconds of his life to realize he wanted to be that, that it was even possible, but this couldn’t be his final thought, he couldn’t allow it, he couldn’t let jealousy be the last feeling he had, or self-loathing, or self-hatred, all the things he had always been so good at feeling, no way, he couldn’t settle on that, he had to conjure up an image and hold it there, and he couldn’t let something else intrude, couldn’t allow some sudden soothing thought to come into his brain in these last moments, like boobs or something, which were a real candidate to intrude. He wanted to think of his wife, but not of her boobs, which were really great. God, they were great, but here he was, objectifying her, not even meaning to, and holy fuck, he had to stop because literally, this was it, the last few seconds of his life, because there it was, the open field and the tree line, and he was going to have to stop, to explode, to be his own personal Big Bang, right here in this field, safely away from everyone and everything, he’d done it, he’d made it, he’d saved everyone he’d just driven by, and he was a hero, and no one would ever know it, and that was cool because true heroes weren’t supposed to care about acclaim, they just did what they had to do because it was the right thing, the good thing, and here he was, the last thing he was doing was a good thing, and he closed his eyes as he slid the shifter into neutral and coasted to a stop, and he let his mind fill with all the images that had ever made him happy, and he   


Mike Wilson has had work appear in The Allegheny Review, The Adirondack Review, American Literary Review, Barrelhouse, Litro, Lost Balloon, Midwestern Gothic, Necessary Fiction, Potomac Review, Roanoke Review, The Rumpus, and on NPR. He lives in Kansas with his wife and their five children.

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower