Sounds Like Forever
by Josh Rountree
We hiked into the woods, trying to find the place where you died. Gray clouds sank from the heavens, chewed away the tops of the pine trees and spat drizzle down on our heads. Thunder rumbled in the distance, but apart from that, the forest was quiet, like everything that had once lived there joined you in the afterlife. It was midday, but the forest absorbed every sliver of sun that made it through the clouds. I whispered a song lyric you wrote, the one about how death can’t live in the light, and I think I finally understood what you were trying to say.
Marcus’s older brother was a sheriff’s deputy, and he told us where to find the crash site. Marcus led the way, April a step behind him, one hand always clutching his flannel shirttail. I trailed after them in my yellow slicker and chunky boots. Marcus and April were laughing about something, but I was in no mood. You’d been dead a month, and I felt like I’d been crying ever since. For them, this was a lark, a chance to collect a salacious story to share with the other kids on Monday. But I needed to see where it happened. I needed to recapture something I’d lost.
Marcus and April, they listened to your music. I mean, pretty much everyone did, right?
But I don’t think they ever really heard it.
“Oh shit, Jen. Look at this.”
April waved me closer, and when I caught up, I thought we’d stumbled across an old logging road that had been reclaimed by undergrowth. But then I realized what I was seeing. This was the trail the plane had cut through the trees. It looked like someone had taken a giant pencil eraser and wiped a straight line through the forest for a few hundred feet. The treetops were splintered, sheared off by the wings. We followed the path of the crash, like children in a fairy tale, afraid of what we might find at the end, but unable to turn back.
As we walked, my mind traced the last seconds of your life. I hoped you were sleeping when the plane went down. But if not, if you were belted in tight to the Cessna’s window seat as the plane engine trailed smoke and the treetops began to claw at the belly of the fuselage, I hoped there were angels waiting there to carry you away. Before the wings snapped off. Before the jet fuel inferno.
I don’t believe in God, but I could still hope.
“Oh man, this is so fucking cool!” Marcus sprinted the last bit to the clearing, dragging April behind him.
The place where the plane had come to rest, the place where they’d found the wreckage, was a fire-blackened bowl carved into the world. All the trees at the periphery were charred blades stabbing at the sky. The drizzle had grown into a steady rain, and the ground was gray sludge. Nothing remained of the plane, of course. The FBI, or FAA, or whoever had already combed this place to remove all the remains, to remove the evidence, and I’d seen enough movies to know they’d probably reconstructed the plane in some warehouse, assembled it piece by piece like a dinosaur skeleton, trying to figure out what had killed it.
Not that it mattered to me. Nothing would change the fact you were dead.
“It happened right here,” said April.
“Wow, you’re a fucking genius,” said Marcus.
They’d been holding hands, and April let go. “You don’t have to always be an asshole.”
“I kind of do,” he said. “It’s my thing.”
Marcus put an arm around April and pulled her into a rough hug that I could tell she didn’t want. I wished Marcus had stayed home. April was a different person when he wasn’t around, but she was drawn to him for reasons I couldn’t understand. He was cute, sure. But the artfully messy hair and broken grin weren’t disguise enough to hide the trouble lurking inside him. I wanted to tear off that mask and show April who Marcus really was, but I suspected she already knew.
They sniped back and forth, sharp voices echoing back off the cloud cover.
I sat down on the ground, ran my fingers through the grime, wondering if this wet ash belonged to you. Everything in the clearing was burned except for an unlikely scattering of dark-bladed plants that grew in quiet defiance. A sign, maybe, that the forest had already forgotten your death, was starting to breathe again. The air was heavy, and the earth drew me close until I had my cheek pressed against the ground, and I swear I could hear your heart beating against me. No part of you remained there, not really, but I wanted so much to have you back in the world.
April noticed me on the ground, knelt, and put a hand on my shoulder. “Hey, are you okay? Let me help you sit up. You’re getting soot and stuff all over you. It’s kind of gross.”
“Holy shit, look at this!” said Marcus.
I sat up and tried wiping the muck off my hands and onto my slicker, but I mostly just smeared it around. Marcus knelt beside us, not to offer any help, but to get a closer look at the weird plants that fanned out from the place where you died.
“It’s pot,” he said. “Just growing here in the wild. Probably get you super fucked up, right?”
I fanned my palms over the tiny plants, saw the rainwater beading on their surfaces. They were shaped like marijuana leaves but weren’t the right color; these were a swarm of black and purple, limned in yellow. They reminded me of fresh bruises. Marcus picked a few handfuls, shoved them in his pockets, chattering about how he was going to make a mint selling all that shit to asshole freshmen. I know you weren’t buried there. You were somewhere else now. But it felt to me like he was stealing flowers off your grave.
On our way back out of the forest, though, I started to wonder. Did you leave those plants for us to find?
All these years later, I still don’t know.
• • •
April came to my house a few days after our trek into the woods, dug a joint out of her purse, and told me to smoke it.
“Not interested,” I said.
“Jen, for real, you need to try this.”
She held the joint out to me, revealing a trail of yellow bruises on her forearm; another one, dark and purple wrapped her wrist like a bracelet. I took it from her in a hurry so she’d lower her arm, so she could pull her jacket sleeve down and neither of us would have to acknowledge what I’d seen. She sat down on the beanbag by my bedroom window, a kind of smirk on her face, like she was daring me to start in on her again.
“Not in the mood,” I said. “I’ll save it for later.”
“As long as you promise me you’ll smoke it.”
“Why are you so concerned with getting me high? If I want pot, I know where to find it.”
“It’s not pot,” she said. “It’s graveweed.”
April grinned, her eyes half closed but shining with glee, feeling no pain.
“It’s the stuff Marcus dug up at the crash site,” she said. “He started calling it that, and the name stuck.”
Gray rain slapped the window behind April. It was late afternoon but already my bedroom was so dark that shadows webbed the distance between us. The cloud cover turned my bedroom into a sort of cave, a place where I felt safe, because, of course, I’ve always been more comfortable in gloomy places. Like you sang, the things I’m afraid of don’t hide in the dark. Yeah, that one hit me square in the chest. Still does. And usually, having my best friend lounging there with me, with the candles bleeding light up the walls and the rain battering at the roof, that would be just like heaven. Like right then, right there, everything was perfect.
Except that day, April felt off.
Less like a friend and more like an intruder in my private space.
“The name stuck?” I said. “What are you saying, he gave it a stupid name and he’s selling it?”
“Forty bucks a baggie,” said April. “This weed isn’t normal. Marcus already had to go back and get more.”
“He went out there without me? I thought he was joking about selling that stuff. What an asshole.”
“Wait, are you pissed?” she asked.
“Yeah, I’m pissed!” I said. “That’s like sacred ground now. Marcus shouldn’t be going back there to dig the place up.”
“First, he’s not digging the place up,” said April. “He’s just picking some plants, okay? Second, you don’t own the fucking death site, Jen. Get over this mood you’re in. I know you’re way into music, but it’s not like a friend of yours died.”
“It’s not that easy,” I said. “I thought you understood there was more to this than that.”
“I do,” she said.
“Then what, you don’t care?”
April stared at me with her mouth slightly ajar, like she was trying out words to make sure whatever she said next didn’t break something between us that couldn’t be fixed.
She looked so perfect with her blonde hair streaked pink, and the flannel shirt and denim jacket she wore to be stylish instead of to keep the fucking rain off her back, and I drew my hooded sweatshirt tighter around me, crossed my arms like I was trying to hide whatever it was she saw in me, but that’s okay, because it was never about her being her and me being … whoever I am, because she was the one friend who understood me.
April was the only one I ever told about how Mom and I escaped Lubbock in the middle of the night, left in just our pajamas and flip flops, and headed north in her old Bronco that smoked like a campfire. All I grabbed on the way out the door was my portable CD player and my copy of Sounds Like Forever. My hair was wet with blood and the headphones became sticky, but your music, your words, helped me push back against the memory of my dad putting my head through the glass coffee table.
Doing worse things maybe to Mom.
This was three years before you died, so I was fourteen.
Which is to say, April knew. She knew your record pretty much saved my life. And she knew what it was to need to escape someone, no matter if she was willing to admit it to herself yet or not.
“Of course I care,” she said. “I’m sorry. Can we turn down the heat a little? I just came to hang out. I didn’t mean to pick a fight. Are we okay?”
“We’re okay,” I said.
“Jen, are you crying?” she asked. “For real, I’m sorry.”
I hadn’t realized I was crying, so I wiped away the tears with my sleeve. “I’m not mad. We’re cool. I was just thinking about when we first got to Washington, Mom convinced herself we’d just be at my grandparents’ house long enough for Dad to cool off. We just sat around their kitchen table for a week, Mom chain-smoking Virginia Slims, telling me not to worry, everything was going to work out. Even with one eye still swollen shut, she kept trying to convince me Dad wasn’t really a bad person. Just fooling herself, trying to hang on to a hope that had died before I was even born. And I’ll tell you a secret. I didn’t really care. I knew he’d be glad we were gone. And I knew if she did go back, I wasn’t going with her.”
“Well, I’m glad you stayed,” said April.
“Me too.” I tossed the joint she’d given me onto my bedside table. “So, what do you mean, this isn’t normal pot?”
“Told you, it’s not pot,” she said. “It’s graveweed.”
“Yeah, graveweed. Fine. Whatever.”
“It’s gets you stoned,” she said. “But not like normal stoned. You, of all people, are gonna love it.”
“Why me of all people?” I asked.
“I kind of don’t want to say much until you try it, because I think you’ll just roll your eyes at me and toss it in the trash. Just let me know what you think?”
“I will. When I’m feeling in the mood.”
“No, tonight. So we can talk about it tomorrow.”
“If it will shut you up.”
April smiled. “It will.”
I hadn’t wanted to spend my night stoned on what was likely skunk weed that would burn my lungs and make my head spin, but I wanted even less to argue about it with my best friend when there were more important things to worry about. April stayed for another hour, and we talked about anything but graveweed and her dangerous choice in boyfriends, but when I eventually walked her to the front door, I couldn’t help but prod at that sore spot one more time.
“Anytime you need to talk, I’m here,” I said. “Some people are just not worth it. It’s hard to figure that out sometimes.”
“Let’s not start fighting again.” April stood in the doorway with her car keys in her hands, not mad, but eager to be anywhere else. My mom’s boyfriend, Hobie, watched the tension rise from his spot on the living room couch. Hobie was surly, always half drunk, and had a habit of looking at me in a way forty-something dudes shouldn’t look at teenaged girls. Mom came in from the kitchen where she was frying something for dinner, put a beer in his hand and kissed his head, but he never stopped watching us.
“I’m not fighting,” I said. “I just think you need to be careful.”
“I don’t need a sermon,” April said. “I just need you to trust me, okay?”
“Okay, just … drive safe, I guess.”
April nodded, jogged out to her car, through the drizzle. Not for the first time, I thought about how out of place she was in all this northwestern gloom. Even her name sounded like sunshine.
I stood there in the open doorway for a long time, breathing in the rain, not wanting to go back inside with the smell of hot grease and ashtrays. I mouthed a few of your song lyrics, smiled when I tripped across forever lives someplace else now, because I remembered listening to that one over and over during our escape from Texas. I didn’t understand then what you meant by those words, but I didn’t care, because on that long drive, on the run from my fucked-up life with no clue what was ahead, I understood what it meant to me.
After a time, Hobie hollered at me to close the door before I let all the fucking rain in, so I did.
Then I stalked past him on the way to my bedroom, wondering how any of us managed to survive in a world so full of predators.
• • •
I smoked the graveweed joint while sitting on my bed, schoolbooks scattered about, and one of your songs playing low from the CD player on my nightstand. Your voice whispered to me about dead angel rain and children who break like glass, and I absorbed it all, certain your songs had a supernatural hold on my life. All teenagers probably feel that way about their music, but I don’t know.
You were my rock star. You were my voice.
I felt like I didn’t know what to say without you.
Pot usually made me happy, but this shit was seriously depressing, so I took the last drag and tossed the roach into an empty soda can. I waved the smoke out the open window and lit a candle to scent the room with vanilla. I lay back on the bedspread, watched the candlelight play over the posters that covered my walls. Nine Inch Nails. Stone Temple Pilots. Nirvana and Mother Love Bone and Soundgarden. And on the ceiling over my bed, a nearly life-sized poster of you on stage, screaming at the world with only a guitar to shield you from all its horrors.
God, I loved you so fucking much.
After a time, the room started to go fuzzy around the edges, and I noticed a corner of your poster peel away from the ceiling. It kept going, like someone was rolling it up to put it back in the tube, and I saw then that the poster had been hiding a massive hole that leaked light down on my bed like honey, golden and sticky.
Your dead tattooed fingers wriggled around the edges of the hole, clawing to escape, and I listened as voices – not just a few, but hundreds, thousands, maybe every voice that ever was – sang out find me cold in death, find you on the ground, broken in tears and your words weren’t just coming from my stereo anymore, they were coming from everywhere. And when your face appeared, when you crawled down from that hole in the ceiling and stood at the foot of my bed with that light oozing down across your shoulders, tears flooded my eyes and a scream lodged in my throat.
Your eyes locked with mine, and I’m pretty sure I stopped breathing altogether.
The voices kept singing your words, and you joined them. I’m gone, long gone, but you’ll find me.
I’ve heard those lyrics a million times.
How could I have ever thought I’d lost you for good?
All these years later, I think maybe your songs were predictive. You knew what was going to happen to me, what would happen to you, before it ever did. Or maybe my brain was making connections that weren’t there, like that phenomenon, pareidolia, where the human brain wants to make sense of things, so it finds familiar faces in clouds or the image of a barking terrier in a pinewood knot.
You didn’t come any closer, but you stood right there for so long. Breathing and singing and wearing that same Scratch Acid T-shirt that you wore on the cover of Rolling Stone. When I worked up the nerve to reach out, you shimmered, drifted up like smoke, climbed back into the hole in the ceiling, and all I could think was, I’m losing you again.
The mattress squished underfoot as I stood, tried to grab on to your foot before you were out of reach. You disappeared into your hole, quick as a spider, turned back to smile at me, and reach back a hand, fingers splayed and sticky with honey light.
And your music was so loud, so true. It covered me in a way it hadn’t since your death. Like every breath and every note was for me.
The outside world, hardened, froze, and I knew it was just you and me there, listening, choosing what kind of eternity we wanted. I knew in that moment, if I took your hand and let you lift me up, I could live in your music forever.
Follow me, golden empty, find me where I lead.
I hesitated, and I still don’t know why. It would have been so easy.
You watched me lie back on my bed, grinned and shook your head as if to say you had your chance, then you were nothing but a poster on my celling again. My eyes became heavy, and the drug drew me down to sleep, but all those voices continued to echo around the room, calling on me, taunting me, begging me to climb out of my miserable life and join the mystery.
It wasn’t the worst idea I’d ever heard.
• • •
I was addicted to the music. Addicted to you. And the graveweed brought you close again, every time I smoked it. Sometimes you sat at the foot of my bed, stumming a guitar. Other times, it was just your face, wild and pulsing like a living heart, peering down from the hole in the ceiling, your backing band a chorus of unseen singers. To my mind, they were ghosts. They sang the music of the dead, songs that were written ages ago, songs too beautiful to ever be sung by the living.
The music, that’s why April had been so excited for me to smoke the graveweed. She understood me.
She knew it would blow my mind.
Marcus called them aural hallucinations, but I don’t know if that’s even a real thing. Everybody who smoked graveweed heard some kind of music, though, and everybody had a hallucinatory visit from somebody they missed. Dead grandma, or your best friend who died in elementary school. April said she saw her beagle, Sparks, that got hit by a car when she was ten. Everybody loved the shit out of it, but the difference with me was, I knew it was more than a vision. Or it was for me at least. You were real. You were dead, but you’d come back for me.
Anyway, the graveweed became popular.
Who doesn’t want to be high on music?
And those ghost songs began to rewire my brain – they made me hungry, reckless, less afraid of death. The dead, they wanted me to sing along. They wanted me to join you in the afterlife, but no matter how much I wanted that myself, I was too afraid to follow.
Still, I felt like I was working my way up to it.
I came close one night, standing on my bed, arms reaching up to see if it was even possible to climb through to you. Hobie opened my door, no knock, just walked in and saw me there with honey oozing down my arms and my eyes reflecting moonlight from the afterlife. But here’s the thing, guys like Hobie are never going to know real magic when they see it; they don’t understand how you can love something so much that it can fracture the world, change what reality means. All guys like Hobie are going to see is their girlfriend’s psycho daughter dancing on her bed and laughing at the ceiling, and that’s okay, because what I was seeing, I’d never want to share that with him.
“The fuck you doing?” he said. “Your mom has dinner ready. She’s been calling you.”
“See behind my black heart, I see behind yours.” I’m not sure if I responded to him myself, or if it was you singing through me, but I knew all the words to Black Heart like they were sewn into my soul.
“Are you high or something?” he asked.
I started humming the melody.
“Are you smoking pot?” he asked.
I shook my head. “Nope.” It was the truth.
“I don’t care what you do, but your mother wants your ass at the dinner table.”
She didn’t want me at the dinner table. She just wanted to play out her ideal of the normal family that she’d never managed to cultivate, and there was no understudy to take my place. I laughed at Hobie, nurturing that dark notion that all teenagers cling to at one time or another – maybe something will happen to me, maybe I’ll die, and then you’ll be sorry. But my laughter faded when I realized he wouldn’t be sorry. I wasn’t even sure Mom would care. If I went missing like one of these milk carton kids, would she bother to look for me? In the years since we left Texas, she’d made it clear that everything had been okay between her and my dad until I came along. Like I’d cracked open the good egg he’d been and let all the violence come pouring out. And if that meant I brought out the violence in her sometimes too, I need only look in the mirror to find who was at fault.
Lift your black heart, look underneath, is that me?
Fuck, a lyric for everything, I guess.
“What’s your deal, kid?” he asked.
“No deal.” I sung the words, like I was singing Black Heart. “Tell Mom I’m coming.”
“Snap to it,” he said, then left me alone with you.
My high was fading and the portal absorbed your soul again, sealed you away. I was out of graveweed, which meant after dinner I had to go see my least favorite drug dealer.
At the table, Mom asked probing questions about boys and drugs – I’m sure Hobie told her I was acting like a freak again – but I just hummed and chewed my macaroni casserole while they stabbed at their food and grew irritated. Afterward, none of us were in the mood to clean up. Hobie found a basketball game on the television and Mom sat across the table from me, dumping her after dinner cigarette ash into her empty plate, a ritual that always turned my stomach.
“You need to be nicer to Hobie,” she said. “He might be your stepdad soon.”
“Better than my real dad, I guess.”
“Jennifer, you’re not as funny as you think,” she said. “You’re growing up to be a little asshole, and that’s not the person you want to be.”
“What kind of person do I want to be, Mom?”
“A good one,” she said. “One that doesn’t make everyone else miserable all the time.”
“If you’re giving out tips on how to be a good person, I better grab a pen and paper,” I said. “I want to make sure and not miss a word of that wisdom.”
“That’s enough. No more out of your mouth.”
“You’re the one who wanted to talk.”
“Jen, I swear to god, you need to shut up.”
“What are you going to do?” I asked. “Hit me? Send Hobie into my room to leer while I change into my pajamas?”
“Will you two stop fucking fighting?” Hobie chimed in from the living room like either of us cared.
“You need to tell me what’s going on with you.”
What did she want me to say? That she was a shitty mom? That her job was to keep me safe, but she put her wants in front of my well-being every single time? She knew that, though we played a tug of war with her guilt, Mom trying to stash it somewhere dark and hidden, and me always probing that darkness with a flashlight. I’d given up trying with her, so maybe I deserved what I got, but she’d given up showing any genuine concern for my feelings a long time ago. Like when you died. She knew about it before I did. Heard it on the radio, told me when I got home from school in the same distracted voice she’d use to ask if I was okay with Chinese takeout, or if I had any socks I wanted to toss in with the laundry. That singer you listen to died in a plane crash outside town. So sad, isn’t it?
That’s how little she understood me.
So, yeah, what did she expect me to say?
“Nothing, Mom. I’m going out.”
“No way,” she said. “Not tonight.”
“Yes, tonight. I’m just going for a walk.”
“I’m your mother.” She spoke the words with authority, as if that simple truth was enough to compel my obedience.
“Yes, you are.” I pushed up from the table and headed for the front door, my mother howling behind me to sit my ass back in the chair. Hobie stood up like he might try to stand in my way, but we both knew it was bluster. He’d rather see me gone, and Mom was getting exactly what she wanted. A reason to draw all that misery to herself and feel put-upon. She’d been poisoned by self-importance long before I was born.
That was another difference between Mom and me.
I knew from an early age that the world would keep on turning just fine without me in it.
• • •
Marcus lived only a few blocks away, and I didn’t have a car anyway, so I drew my jacket tight against the wind coming off the bay and started walking. Night moved in, cold and creeping. The last specter of my high gave the streetlights a brittle, starburst look, and ghost music followed me up the street; all those dead voices still sang their songs, they sang your songs, and the memory of your voice was a hot whisper in my ear. I started singing along, making up any lyrics I didn’t recognize, already feeling like a full-fledged member of the afterlife chorus.
That music had its hooks in my soul.
It wanted to pull me in, and I wanted to let it.
When I reached Marcus’s house, I saw April’s white Fiero parked out front. She used to take me to school in that little two-seater before Marcus picked up a DUI and lost his license. Now his truck stayed parked at home, and I took the bus. The two of them stood by the car, faces close together and screaming. Marcus was a foot taller than April, and he leaned into her with the weight of his anger, one hand on her bicep, pulling like he was trying to keep her out of the car. I started running, Converse slapping the wet pavement, and when they saw me coming, they flew apart like magnets with the same charge.
“Leave her alone,” I said.
“It’s okay,” said April. “We aren’t fighting.”
“Bullshit,” I said. “Look at you.”
April had a bruise up one side of her neck. She’d been crying. Mascara smeared down her cheeks and she drew in every breath like she was at war with the air.
“Why are you at my house, Jennifer?” said Marcus. “You need to go the fuck away.”
“Yeah, no. Not by myself anyway. April is leaving with me.”
“For real, it’s fine,” said April.
“This is not close to fine.”
I’d moved in between April and Marcus without even realizing what I was doing. The ghost song become anxious, aggressive. I could feel the buzz of the music in my back teeth. Marcus put a hand on the car, moved in close to me, and the asshole was smiling. Face flushed red, anger in his breath, but smiling.
“April and me, we’re a couple,” he said. “Couples fight. But that’s between the two of us, and it doesn’t involve you at all, no matter how much you maybe wish it did. Do you like me, Jen? Or wait, do you like April? Is that why you’re always sticking your nose in our shit?”
“Leave her alone,” said April.
“Shut up, okay?” he said. “I asked Jennifer why she’s here.”
“I just … I came for more graveweed.”
“Oh, you came because you needed something from me.”
He wasn’t wrong. I felt so lame.
I was desperate to connect with you again. Desperate enough to stand in soggy darkness with a guy who liked to beat up my best friend, hoping he’d sell me enough graveweed to send me chasing after you for good. But I guess there’s a kind of strength to be found when you’ve decided you’re better off dying. And I wasn’t going to be my mother. I got closer to Marcus, matched his smile, enjoyed the uncertainly in his eyes. Did he grieve anyone enough for them to appear to him in his graveweed haze? Did he hear the music?
Man, I really don’t think he did.
“I don’t need shit from you,” I said. “I know where it grows. I’ll just go get some myself.”
“The fuck you will.”
Marcus shoved me into the car so hard, the passenger side window cracked.
April came alive. She grabbed me under my arms, kept me from falling over. Opened the car door and ushered me inside. My back ached, and I wondered if I’d broken a rib. I watched through the smeary windshield as April crossed in front of the car, screaming at Marcus. Words like psycho and we’re done and keep the fuck away from us. He dogged her heels, growled obscenities and threats. My adrenaline hadn’t quite caught up to the unexpected shock and I felt like I was haunting the edges of reality. The last of my high had fled, and with it, the music. There was nothing to listen to but the urgent sounds of our escape.
April got in behind the wheel, slammed the door.
Hit the LOCK button.
Marcus slapped at the window, then stalked away across his yard, still screaming. April started the car, accelerated away.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“I think so. Are you?”
April shook her head, tears streaking her face. “No, I’m really not. But I will be. You up for a drive?”
I wasn’t up for anything except maybe a trip to the emergency room, but I wasn’t about to leave April alone.
“I guess. Where are we going?”
“To the crash site. I figure if Marcus loves that place so much, we might as well burn it to the fucking ground.”
• • •
April drove us out of town and into the forest.
Both of us were hurting. April had gone over to see Marcus so he could copy her history notes, and somehow even that routine interaction had escalated into a screaming match. As for me, I felt like I’d been kicked in the back by a horse, and I wanted more than ever to escape this whole life. April was still shaking with adrenaline as she turned onto the side road that led to the crash site. She smoked cigarettes and talked hurriedly about how she was really finished with Marcus this time, how she was so sorry. I’d heard a lot of this before. She told me she was going to burn down all the graveweed, hit him where it hurts. No more steady cash in his pockets. No more of the notoriety he loved for being the only one with a connection to the stuff.
I didn’t care what she did. As long as I got enough in my pockets for one more smoke, I was out of there.
I turned on the car stereo, changed it to my favorite station. Cranked it. Band after band that I loved, but none of them sounded the same anymore. The ghost songs took inventory of my desperation. They named my pain. And they’d erased all the things I used to feel about tunes like “Say Hello 2 Heaven” and “Man of Golden Words” and “Lithium.” The ghosts had cut out the hearts of those songs and left them dead and bloodless on the ground.
Then one of your songs came on the radio.
And yeah, of course it was “Better Be Yours,” the lead track off Sounds like Forever, because it’s exactly what I needed in that moment, and you can always count on the best music to be there for you. That rapid fire snare roll that kicks off the song went colliding into your multi-tracked guitar; two, four, eight guitars all speaking the same language, coming down around us like the sky falling to crush the world. Your voice broke through the chaos, hot with rage, but eager to lift us back up again. This song wasn’t dead; this song still had a beating heart. And April, she wasn’t talking over the music anymore, she was drumming on the steering wheel with her fingers, singing along with that song that every single person from our generation knew like they knew their own name.
Even though I was stone cold sober now, I knew it was you telling me I was on the right path.
When the song ended, April parked the car and we trekked into the woods. She led us by the yellow light of the emergency flashlight she kept in her trunk. The clouds hung low and suffocating; they hid every star and held back every ounce of moonlight. But we found the place – I think you wanted us to find the place – and there was more graveweed growing than last time, a sprawling and feral patch of the stuff, spilling out from the place you died several yards in all directions. I went down to my knees, plunged my hands into the leaves and felt their warmth. Picked a handful, shoved them in my pockets
April told me to back up. She thumbed her plastic Bic lighter to life, touched the flame to one of the leaves.
Rain or not, the graveweed was eager to burn.
Those iridescent leaves that had been glistening with moisture the first time I saw them caught fire with the speed of a hardcore drumbeat, and within seconds, we had a full-on bonfire in front of us.
I stared into the flames, wondering idly if the whole state might burn down around us.
But somehow the fire stayed contained to the perimeter of the graveweed growth, as if this was no ordinary fire, but a supernatural conflagration that we’d bound with our fear and our devotion to something much larger than us. Like a summoning circle formed of our fondest desires. The fire shot ten feet in the air, and smoke billowed out thick and sweet and smelling of honey. And that’s when Marcus stumbled into the clearing, sweaty and gaping at the bonfire. That’s when the flames split down the middle and opened that now-familiar gateway to the other side. That’s when you stepped out, on fire but not burning, and held out your hand to me like a parent telling their child it’s time to leave the playground and come home.
I wasn’t surprised that Marcus had followed. Suspended license or not, I knew he’d chase us.
Maybe I’d wanted him to?
I breathed deep, took in the smoke, felt my vision blur. Welcomed the rising swell of ghost music that begged me to step through the portal, begged me to die, and promised me death was the answer to every problem I had. You still waited for me, patient and smiling, but you’d grown thin, and your eyes had retreated into your skull. Did you even have eyes? Sharp and crooked bones pressed against the underside of your skin. You looked like a heroin corpse. You kept smiling, but you looked hungry, and I wondered for the first time if this was really you.
And if it wasn’t you?
Marcus shoved me out of the way, nearly knocked me down. He mumbled under his breath, stood right before you, backlit by angry orange flames.
I have no idea what the graveweed had shown Marcus before, but he was seeing my god now. He was hearing my music. And he couldn’t resist it.
Marcus reached out, tears in his eyes, took your hand.
And you led him through the portal, slow and gentle. Introduced him to the honey light, and gave him everything I’d been dreaming about. Marcus was there and then he was gone. His body disappeared; his soul, presumably, joined that haunting forever.
The ghost song rose in volume. You reached your hand out to me again. My fingers hovered close to yours.
Everything could be so, so easy.
Then a hand on my shoulder. April. I could feel the ghost song pulling me close, but her hand kept me in place. She hollered in my ear, raising her voice above the chorus, and she talked about our friendship. She talked about the food fights we used to have in the cafeteria freshman year, and the trips we always made together into Seattle to dig through record stores and dusty used book shops. She talked about all the cool shit we’d do after graduation, like rent a car and drive down to California. We’d stop along the way and take Polaroids of ourselves standing on the cliffs, overlooking the Pacific. We’d load up with junk food and cheap beer and cartons of cigarettes. We’d have the music turned up so loud that it would still ring in our ears hours after we’d turned the stereo off.
And when April felt me still pulling away from her, she started singing “Better Be Yours” again, louder than she’d sung it in the car.
She begged me to just fucking listen.
My lips started mouthing the words. The drums became my heartbeat. Your lyrics poured out from my soul. I could hear your song, louder than fear, louder than love, your real song, and it silenced the ghosts.
You didn’t want me to die, to choose death. You told me that in your lyrics.
Life over death, pain over nothing at all.
It was all right there. You’d been showing me the truth the whole time.
I backed away. April drew me farther from the flames, farther from you. I shook my head – no, no, no. Part of me was still afraid I was letting you down.
You stepped back into the portal, peered out at me with that crooked grin that was burned into the memory of a generation.
Then you turned away from me, and you were gone.
April and I huddled together beyond the reach of the bonfire, crying. The orange flames went blue, then green, then died out altogether.
Marcus was gone. The graveweed was gone.
And the world had never seemed so quiet.
• • •
That was a long time ago.
Ask most people and they’ll say your songs have shed some of their luster and their power over the years. They’ve been filtered through car commercials and video game soundtracks, covered by top forty artists at Super Bowl halftime shows, been remastered for tenth, twentieth, thirtieth anniversary box sets. And everybody still loves them. No question. But they’re just songs to them now, nothing more. Nothing special.
For me, though? Your music resonates more than ever.
But something still gnaws at me. Was that really you, conjured up in the graveweed inferno, or was that something that looked like you, hoping to lure me to my death?
Are the dead selfish? Are the dead lonely?
God, I hope not. I hope when we die, we move beyond all that.
Because here’s the thing: some days I can still hear the ghosts. They haunt the static between radio stations, and they fill my long, sleepless hours with dark melodies. They assure me you’re waiting for me, that you’ve forgiven my betrayal, that everything I’ve ever wanted lies just on the other side of this life. I don’t want to listen to them, but I can’t help myself. And when those voices get loud, I remove the shoebox from the back of my bedroom closet, lift off the lid and touch the bruise-colored leaves within, still as fresh as the day I plucked them from the forest, still slick with thirty-year-old rain. Then I call April, forever my best friend, and she talks me down. She reminds me I have a spouse who loves me, and a pair of bright and beautiful teenagers who need me alive. So, I put the box back on the shelf, even as the ghosts sing louder, knowing that it’s always there, and understanding deep in my soul that someday I won’t have the willpower left in me to resist it.
When I was a kid, I fell in love with your music, and it broke my heart.
But I forgive you.
And one day I’m going to give us a second chance.
Copyright © 2022 by Josh Rountree