By Chad Johnson
“Behold!,” Becca flourishes her hands with all the enthusiasm of an amateur magician. Her showmanship sickens me. “The Drain!,” she continues, casting her hand toward the expansive pit at our feet. I try to look away, in spite, but my eyes are curious.
We're one step from falling off a ledge at the end of town. Craggy walls funnel into a deep darkness obscured by an array of disfigured metal pipes jutting from heaping mounds of mud and garbage. The pipes resemble teeth that never knew the touch of an orthodontist. I'm looking into the mouth of a giant monster. He looks hungry.
My arms uncross and I gaze upon the sublime monstrosity. A smug glow develops on Becca's face as she reaps the intended reaction.
“I knew you'd love it.”
“What is it?”
“Teenagers call it The Drain. It's an unofficial landfill. Random crap from town rolls down into it every day.”
The Drain lies at the base of town near my apartment. It's hard to believe I overlooked the existence of a treasure so close to home. Despite the odor of decaying garbage I find something about The Drain magnetic. Becca occasionally proves to understand me.
“Here. You know you want to.”
She hands me a stone and...she's right. I fling the pebble into the mouth of the beast and it vanishes. A tiny sigh escapes my lips dismissing the hope that something magical would happen. Maybe a belch from my newly fed friend.
After a moment of silence I hear a distant twang of metal. It sounds like a clinking of teacups then echoes into something much louder. It's magnificent. A single beautiful note sung by a giant beast.
I glance at my watch. I appreciate Becca's gift, but I can't indulge her any longer.
“I have to go.”
“But I brought a picnic. And wine.”
“Sorry, but I have to go.”
“I'll tell you later.”
No I won't. I walk away and picture a staggering look of disappointment developing on her face. The imagined expression is likely much worse than the real one.
Paradise is a short drive away. A single luscious apple tree thrives atop a hill in an otherwise vacant plain of grass. Other trees are visible in the distance, but ours is the only one worth seeing. I'm late, but Ivy's still waiting for me. A bold emerald streak adorns her bangs. Long obsidian hair cascades down her slender body and ceases flow near the plaid skirt at her waist. She lounges at the base of our tree bouncing one leg off the other. So blissful. So unattached.
She turns and ignites my soul with a casual grin.
I know what happens next. It's my favorite part. Ivy floats free from her lounging position and hovers into the air. The sun is directly behind her, shining vibrance through her translucent body. She looks like an angel, but she's just a ghost.
“Sorry I'm late.”
“I'm just glad you're here.”
We approach until our noses are an inch apart. This is the moment in a movie right before the wayward couple kiss for the first time. This is the moment where I stroke her hair and whisper something simple, but romantic.
She draws in closer and whispers back.
My heart accelerates. The kiss is imminent. Only, it's not. Her lips pass right through mine. I feel a shot of cold air, but nothing more. We retreat and sigh in unison. Our disappointment is symbiotic.
Through the translucent shine of Ivy's body I spot a plump apple dangling from the highest branch of our tree. Juice escapes from the stem, slides down the curve of the apple, and glistens in the sunlight. My tongue fidgets as I imagine the cool sweet taste of perfection in that droplet of juice. Ivy discovers my intention even before I leap for the fruit.
“It's too high up.”
I prove her right as my best vertical leap falls short a few feet from the apple.
“Nothing worth having is convenient.”
I smirk and grip the bark. I've never scaled a tree before, but I manage to find sufficient footing. I pass a dozen other apples in my ascent, but none seem as plump nor as juicy as the highest apple in the tree. My imagination rampages with possibility. It assigns a smooth silk texture to the apple's skin and deems the core an endless wellspring of nectar. Soon I arrive at the highest branch and reach for my prize. Ivy giggles and I look to her adorable expression. I love the way Japanese girls laugh, placing a hand over their mouths. Suddenly my outstretched palm feels the slice of a thorny branch. A glob of blood escapes my new wound and divebombs toward Ivy. Her eyes close as my blood passes through her body and bursts against a blade of grass. Ivy sighs and stares longingly at the red-spattered earth.
With the support of my eyes, snatching the apple is a painless task. But there's something familiar about this branch. Ivy once dangled from it. Why is it always the artists that take their own lives? I bite into the apple. The taste is surprisingly bland. My palm pulsates and more blood trickles out. I should've picked an apple within reach and spared myself the injury.
I return to earth. As I chew the mediocre apple, Ivy plucks at imaginary guitar strings and bobs her head. I envision her on a grand stage flipping her obsidian hair around as she digs into the strings. The emerald streak in Ivy's bangs cracks the air like a whip. She's wearing a Japanese school-girl outfit in my mind.
“What was the name of your band again?”
Wistful yet dark.
“Indie something or other?”
“Indie Industrial Alternative Punk.”
I have no idea what that means, but it only adds to her depth. I recall her rattling off a list of bands I had never heard of and thinking the same thing. Becca listens to jock-rock almost exclusively. She fills my car with those damn Led Zeppelin albums. Maybe I'll throw them one-by-one into The Drain and let Robert Plant die beneath the bellows of a monster.
“Your air guitar skills are impressive.”
Melancholy washes over her. She makes a demonstration out of sweeping her hand back and forth through the apple tree.
“There's a guitar you can touch out there somewhere. I know it.”
My words are empty. The only object Ivy is capable of touching is her phone, but she died with that in her pocket. If only she tied a guitar to her back before she tied the noose. Then her art could continue in death.
Ivy sighs. I try to console her by brushing the emerald streak in her hair behind her ear, but my hand passes right through.
Hours later I'm having sex with Becca. Maybe as an apology. I let her be on top, hoping the illusion of dominance eclipses a desire to ask where I was earlier.
She seems amused. Eyes-closed, sifting through her own bleached blonde hair. I begin to notice how toned Becca's legs are. Years of soccer have given her thighs a strength mine will never know. They also grant her superb vertical motion.
Our humping gains new tempo. There's about 30 seconds left. Suddenly her body acquires an unusual allure. Every curve becomes a resplendent valley to be explored. Her skin glows with the sweat of enthusiastic motion. I need this. I need her warmth to remind me that I am not alone.
“I love you.”
The words fall from my mouth in a gasp.
When we finish, I feel as though a spell has been broken. Her body reveals its every pore. I see a smattering of soccer-inflicted bruises along her shins and thighs. I see tufts of hair the razor missed. Becca dismounts. We start sifting through piles of clothes on the floor to find our underwear. I reach for my boxers and Becca eyes my wounded palm.
“Did you hurt yourself?”
The bleeding has long stopped, but a scar is sure to form.
“It's nothing. Just a scratch.”
I turn my palm away to hide the evidence.
“You should put some peroxide on it. Especially if you got cut outside.”
She's fishing for my earlier whereabouts, but I don't have to respond. That wasn't a question.
“Did you get cut outside?”
“Uh, yeah. By a tree.”
Without looking I feel the fiery animosity of her glare. Like a laser beam it bores into the back of my skull. Tunneling its way to the truth. On instinct an excuse catapults through my throat and lands on my tongue.
“My parents needed help with something.”
Shit. That came out less specific than I'd hoped. It needs a dash of something else.
“They wanted to move the hummingbird feeder.”
Becca remains silent. I avoid her eyes as if the faintest glance could turn me to stone. Still, I feel her watching. Noting every frantic step and hesitated breath I take. Gathering evidence for my immediate execution. I'm not about to stick around for it.
“Well, I'm really exhausted.”
Parting words. I scramble out the door, clothing myself as I flee. This relationship is rotting.
I speed across town unnecessarily and discover Guitar Shack stays open late. Four colorful rows of bass guitars are stacked along the wall. I feel like a child choosing from the lineup in a crayon box. I flick at the strings of convenient bottom-row guitars. Their sound quality is nice, but I bet the higher rows really sing. A Fender Mustang Bass with a black and emerald finish calls to me from its top-tier perch. “749.99,” on the price tag. It's perfect, but out of reach. I have to flag down an employee with a giant hook to fetch it for me. When I get my hands on it the sound quality isn't as incredible as I'd imagined. Maybe I lack the ear for it.
As I hand the cashier my credit card, a bleached blonde head in the storefront window ducks out of view. That same bleached blonde head maintains a distance of two cars behind me on the highway. I consider choosing a decoy destination, but either way I'll have no explanation for the Fender Mustang Bass buckled in tight as my passenger. Becca's comforting warmth is boiling beneath the intensity of my lies. I don't want to feel her impending hostility, but there's no escaping it. I can't have them both anymore. I have to choose.
I approach our apple tree clutching the bass. No Ivy. Maybe she's asleep. Unsure if ghosts even sleep, I try to summon her by playing something that sounds like Indie Industrial Alternative Punk.
“Are you fucking crazy or what?”
The unmistakable irate tones of my lovely girlfriend. I turn around, but have nothing to say. Our relationship is unclean. My inability to explain the situation just adds to our accumulated filth. A cold breeze meets my lips and gives me the strength I need.
“Becca, let's break up.”
Her eyes expand to absorb the shock. But this reaction dissolves in an instant. Her skin reddens as air flees her lungs. A noise is coming. Becca screams the way I imagine apes do. Primal. Uncontrollable. With the sound loosed from her body Becca storms back to her car. Her hatred for me is apparent in every grass-obliterating stomp.
When Becca fades from sight I expect relief, but instead feel ravenous for the warmth of her body. I want to listen to Led Zeppelin. I want to take it all back, but how can I? I can't be alone right now.
Silence. I clutch the bass guitar to my chest and huddle beneath our apple tree. Sleep kidnaps me in the hours spent waiting for my love to arrive. I'm held hostage by nightmares and forced to relive the day we met. Ivy sways from a piece of rope. Her eyes bulge from their sockets in a futile attempt to escape the purple pallor of her dying flesh. I keep telling myself that this final mortal expression isn't hers. It's the interpretation of the noose.
Morning light loosens the grip of nightmares, but I am still alone. I've never known Ivy to stray from the apple tree. She must have seen Becca. Ivy's avoiding me out of spite. I've banished all the women in my life with a single sweeping failure. But I can fix this. I can go to her. I can be with Ivy in a way no one else can.
The Drain. Becca's greatest gift to me. I peer down into the mouth of the beast and strum out a staccato bass line to test the water. The sounds I produce ricochet and harmonize with one another. At this distance the effect is potent, but diminished. I grip the neck of the Fender Mustang Bass with the black and emerald finish. I take a deep breath. What if it doesn't work? What if I change my mind? A cold wind tickles my neck. Don't think. Just jump.
I blast off and go sailing into The Drain, bass in hand. Despite my moment of bravery, terror finds me. I don't know if I've lost consciousness or simply closed my eyes, but everything goes dark. I hear a sound - the twang of a bass guitar crashing against the teeth of a mighty beast. I wait for the echo, but hear nothing.