My headlights bounced off the Welcome To Donaldsonville sign as I rolled into the sleepy little town where I grew up. Small patches of dirty snow still lingered along the curbs on Main Street, serving as a stark reminder that this was Northern Michigan, where winter storms weren’t unheard of in April.
I sighed heavily when I turned onto the tree-lined street of two-storey Colonials with wide front verandas. Nothing much had changed in the two years since I’d been home.
I pulled into my parents driveway and cut the engine, dread descending on me like a swarm of mosquitoes buzzing in my ears. I hadn’t even stepped out of the car, and I was already bored.
I was a thrill seeker with the attention span of a gnat. I’d spent the last eight years wandering aimlessly from job to job and city to city. After one year of college, I knew it wasn’t for me. I started taking pictures and selling them on the internet to make money. Next thing I knew, I landed a job as a photographer. I bought a fancy camera and before long I was raking in the dough. I took photography classes and started building my fortune doing freelance work.
When I met Holly, I thought I’d found the perfect woman for me. She loved to travel and participate in extreme sports. That’s how I met her. On a skydiving trip. We were together for two years. I thought everything was great. We were happy. Or I was. Apparently, she wasn’t. She came home one day and delivered an ultimatum. She was ready to settle down and get married. If I wasn’t onboard, then it was over.
Obviously, I was not onboard. Which is why I found myself in my parent’s driveway on that early spring evening.
I’d just slammed my truck door when my mom came flying down the porch steps
“Nathaniel!” she cried, throwing her arms around me. “I can’t believe my baby is finally home.”
“I’m not a baby, Ma,” I chuckled. “I’m twenty-seven years old.”
“You’ll always be my baby,” she said, patting me on the cheek. “No matter how old you get.”
“I know,” I sighed, wrapping my arm around her waist before we headed up the porch steps.
“Nate, my boy,” my dad said, rising from his chair and pulling me into a giant bear hug. “Good to have you home. It’s been too long.”
“I know, Dad. Sorry about that.”
“Where’s your stuff?” my mom asked, her eyes scanning the bed of my truck. “I thought you were here to stay.”
“Ellie,” my dad said quietly.
“It’s okay, Dad.” I turned to my mom who was still staring at my truck as if she hoped all my ‘stuff’ would magically appear. “Mom, I’m here until I figure out what I wanna do next. I can’t stay forever. I don’t have a lot. Just a couple suitcases and a box of keepsakes. I let Holly have most of the stuff in our apartment.”
“Oh,” she said softly. “Well, bring in whatever you brought. I’m gonna go get dinner on the table.”
The neighbourhood was quiet that night. It was too early in the spring for crickets. There was no traffic. Never was in Donaldsonville, with a population of only 4500. Not even a damn dog barking. I’d only been home for two hours and I was already itching to leave. But I had nowhere to go.
I had lots of money in the bank. That wasn’t the issue. I just didn’t know where I wanted to go. Definitely not back to LA. Two years living there was enough. Between the traffic and the smog and the superficial people, I’d had my fill. I preferred to be out in the wilderness somewhere taking pictures of wildlife, not chicks in bikinis with fake tits.
I reached for my beer, tipping the bottle back while I watched a BMW pull in the driveway next door. As soon as I saw who was in the driver’s seat, I was on my feet and across the lawn in two seconds flat.
“Hey, man!” I shouted, pulling him into a one-armed hug before accepting the handshake of my childhood best friend.
Jackson Davis and I grew up together. His parents still lived next door to mine. We’d kept in touch through social media over the years, but I couldn’t remember the last time we got together. Maybe once or twice in the two years I was in LA. Jackson was a big shot producer at a major television network.
“Good to see you, Nate,” he said. “Mom told me you were coming back to town.”
“I’m sure she did,” I chuckled. “What are you doing here? I’m guessing your life didn’t fall apart.”
He leaned against his fancy rental car, shooting me a sympathetic smile. “No. It didn’t. I’m really sorry to hear about you and Holly.”
I shrugged. “It’s no biggie. We wanted different things. It happens.”
He nodded. “So what are your plans now?”
“Well, right now I’m gonna have a beer with an old friend,” I said.
“Sounds like a plan.” He pushed off the car and followed me up to my porch. “My folks are out for dinner with some friends tonight, so I won’t get in shit from Ma if I hang out over here for a bit.”
“That’s good,” I chuckled. “I wouldn’t want you to get grounded.”
I grabbed a couple more beers from inside and we settled on the porch.
“So, how long are you home for?” I asked.
“Just a couple days. We’re heading out on the road in a few weeks for filming. I’ll be gone for four months.”
“Really? I thought you taped those shows in a month.”
Jackson was a producer for a hit tv series called Marathon of Adventure. Teams of two traveled all over the world in an elimination type race for a million dollar prize. It was one of the few tv shows I watched. I would love to be on that show someday. But the competition and audition process was unbelievable.
“We usually do,” he said, setting his beer on the table. “But this is a special edition. We’re trying something different.”
“Oh yeah? I know you can’t tell me many details, but give me some hint. You know how much I love your show.”
“I can tell you a lot about it if you sign an NDA,” he said, eyeing me nervously.
“What? A non disclosure agreement?” I shook my head. “What the fuck?”
“That’s actually why I came home this weekend, Nate. To see you.”
“Okay,” I said. “You lost me. You came all the way to Michigan to tell me about your new show?”
“I’ll be right back.” He jogged to his car and returned with a briefcase.
I narrowed my eyes, trying to read his poker face as he handed me a pen and a sheet of paper on a clipboard. After I scanned the document, I scribbled my signature at the bottom and handed it back to him.
He tucked it away in his briefcase before turning to me with excitement sparkling in his eyes. “We’re doing a road trip across America. Four months. The contestants have to drive RVs from state to state and complete challenges and scavenger hunts. Every night, they check into a campground. Whichever team arrives first, collects the passport for that state. Whatever team has the most states at the end, wins five hundred thousand dollars. There’s no eliminations. Everyone completes the entire race.”
“Why only five hundred grand? Usually it’s a million.”
“Because it’s not as intense. The contestants don’t fly anywhere or go to any foreign countries. It’s more like an adventure than a race. Kind of a cross between a race and a reality show. And the winners of each leg get a thousand dollars.”
“So five hundred? I assume that’s split between you and your partner?”
“Well yeah,” he chuckled.
“So why are you here, Jackson? I doubt you flew all the way here just to tell me about your new show.”
“This show is my baby, Nate. I came up with the idea and presented it to the big wigs. And they liked it. They made it happen. This was gonna be the turning point in my career.”
“I don’t understand,” I said, studying his face in the glow of the porch light. “Is there a problem with your show?”
He nodded and took a swig of his beer. “A huge fucking problem. We had two teams back out.”
“I thought you always had a shit ton of alternates in case that happened.”
“We did. But only one team can do the show.”
“How is that possible? I thought you always had thousands of people audition?”
“We didn’t have as many for this edition. It’s a little different asking people to leave their jobs and families for four months as opposed to one month. And the requirements narrow down the pool of eligible contestants quite a bit.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s only married couples. And they have to be newlyweds. Married less than two years.”
“Oh my God,” I laughed, shaking my head. “You’re doing the Newlywed Game.”
“Kind of. Anyways, if I don’t find another team, the whole thing is going to get cancelled. And my career will be over.”
“Why can’t they do it with nine teams?”
“I don’t know. They don’t want to. They want ten. And I can’t go back to LA until I find another team.”
“I’m really sorry, man. I wish there was something I could do to help you out.”
“You could go on the show,” he said, a sheepish grin spreading across his lips.
“I’m not married! I don’t even have a girlfriend, Jackson.”
“You have a month,” he said with a shrug. “You could get married, go on the show, then just get it annulled.”
“What?!” I stared at my friend, waiting for him to crack the smile that told me he was joking.
“You’ve wanted to be on my show forever. And think of the money if you won.”
“And wouldn’t it be a conflict of interest since you’re my friend?”
“No. I’m an assistant producer. I don’t have any control over the outcome of the race. My boss told me to find a couple. He doesn’t care who they are as long as they have a marriage certificate and a completed health assessment that says they are physically and mentally fit.”
“I’d really love to do this, man. But I can’t pull a wife out of thin air.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” he said with a sly grin. I followed his gaze to the house across the street just as a light came on in an upstairs window. A willowy figure appeared, closing the curtains.
“No way,” I laughed.
“I am not marrying Stella Crane.”
“Why not? She’s single. And I happen to know she’s had a crush on you forever. She’d definitely say yes.”
“You don’t know that, Jackson.”
“And neither do you unless you ask.”
I sighed heavily, running my fingers through my hair as I stared at the house across from mine.
Stella Crane had lived across the street from me since we were kids. Our dads were childhood best friends. Stella’s mother died when she was a baby. Her dad moved in across the road so my mom could babysit while he worked. My mom became like a substitute mother for Stella. Her dad never remarried. It was just the two of them. Stella was five years younger than me. She practically grew up in my house until she was old enough to stay home alone. By that time I was a teenager. I was too busy playing football and hockey to pay much attention to a nerdy preteen girl with acne who looked at me like I hung the fucking moon.
“I haven’t talked to Stella in years. And you want me to march over there and ask her to marry me?” I shook my head. “You’re insane, Jackson Davis.”
“Maybe you’re insane, Nathaniel Miller. I’m offering you the opportunity to do something you’ve always wanted to do, with the chance to win a lot of money. And you won’t even consider it?”
“I wanted to be on the normal version of Marathon of Adventure. Not the newlywed version.”
“Beggars can’t be choosers.”
“Even if I was actually considering this, which I’m not, Stella Crane would be my last choice for a partner. She doesn’t have an athletic bone in her body.”
“But she’s smart. Stella Crane is a fucking genius. She just finished her masters degree in business. At age twenty-two! What she lacks in brawn, she definitely makes up for in brains. And you definitely need some brainiac action on this race.”
“Why do I feel like you had this all planned out?” I asked. “You already had a wife picked out for me, didn’t you?”
“This is my career on the line, Nate.”
“She’ll never agree to this. Not in a million years.”
“Are you saying yes?!”
“I’d do anything for you, Jackson. You know that. But I can’t force Stella to marry me.”
“Leave that all up to me,” he said, rising from his chair as he rubbed his palms together. “I can be very convincing.”