A Trip to Venus
by Michael Johnson
If you had asked Nicholas three hours earlier how to get to the bridge, he would not have been able to tell you. It had been sixteen years since the last jump, and he had tried not to think about it much since then. The urge came unexpectedly, and he fought against it. But after getting Emma to bed at 8:00 sharp, and Grace, with an early shift the next day, going down and out by nine, the bridge was all he could think about by ten. Around eleven, he gave in. It had been a long time. He changed into an old t-shirt and shorts, put on a pair of ratty flip-flops that he usually just wore around the house, grabbed his keys, and headed out to the driveway.
The porch light was on at the neighbor’s house. Carol sat on her porch, smoking. Nicholas did not know Carol well, but he fought an impulse to ask her for a cigarette. He almost did — though he hadn’t had a smoke for four years and hadn’t seriously wanted one in three. The sudden craving was strong, but the call to the bridge was stronger, and he was pretty sure that Carol didn’t like him anyway. Nicholas gave his neighbor a little wave that she did not return, then got into his car and started it up.
The bridge was in the country, about forty minutes drive out of town. It was part of a road that had been little-travelled back in ’94 and was less travelled now. Nicholas had no trouble finding it. He wondered, as he pulled up to the bridge and stopped his car by the roadside, if the kids who came out here told ghost stories about the place. Ally would have gotten a big kick out of that. He wondered whether kids still came out here at all.
He got out of his car and walked onto the bridge. It was darker than he remembered, and quieter. Of course, he was the only person there, unless there was a ghost. He walked to the center of the bridge and looked over the edge to the creek below. He felt his gut tighten. The drop to the water was about twenty feet, just as it had been fifteen years ago. Of course, Nicholas was thirty-two years old and his weight was inching towards two-thirty; twenty feet seemed like a very long drop.
And there were memories down there. And maybe a ghost.
Figuring that he had better move quickly or lose his nerve, Nicholas kicked off his flip-flops and stepped barefoot up to the edge of the bridge. He took a deep breath, stepped onto the narrow railing, counted to three out loud, and jumped.
He didn’t hear a splash, just a loud clap as his feet slapped against the surface of the warm water. After that, he was immersed; he could see only muddy blackness, and his ears filled with the soft roar of water. His feet sank a bit into the creek’s sandy bottom, but not enough to stick him. He kicked free and wriggled his way to the surface. He didn’t drift at all; the current was too mild to carry him.
When his head was above water, he heard the cheers of the kids assembled on the bridge above him. He swam to the bank of the creek and pulled himself out. David climbed out beside him. Ally did not. For a second Nick was concerned, because the three of them had jumped together, but then he looked across the creek and he could see Ally scrambling up the opposite bank.
David sprawled himself out on the bank and laughed, and coughed, and laughed some more. Nick laughed with him, then had a terrible thought and put his hand to his thigh. He felt a spongy lump through the wet denim of his shorts.
“Damn it!” Nick shouted. “I didn’t take my smokes out of my pocket!”
David laughed harder, then. Nick stood and pulled the soppy, disintegrating Marlboro box from his pocket and threw it on the ground. His too-big t-shirt hung heavy on his bony, sixteen-year-old frame, and it dripped with water that smelled like stale fish farts. David, who had stripped to his skivvies before jumping, peeled off his soaking whitey-tighties, leapt to his feet, and strutted naked up the gentle slope that led back to the dirt road with his underwear slung over his shoulder. Nick followed, wringing the fish-fart water out of his shirt.
There were about twenty kids hanging out by the cars that were parked on the dirt road by the bridge. As the two boys re-joined the group, the creek water smell was happily lost under the competing aromas of cigarette smoke and car exhaust, the sour-fruity smell of gas-station wine, and the acrid funk of cheap pot. “Son of a Preacher Man” was drifting out of the open windows of one of the cars. It seemed like the soundtrack from Pulp Fiction was all anybody was listening to that fall.
Three freshman girls giggled and blushed as David walked by them, grinning shamelessly. The rest of the party was so accustomed to David’s naked body from his frequent uninvited displays of it that his nudity was otherwise ignored.
David and Nick walked over to Wayne’s old primer-colored Impala. Carrie and Ryan sat on the hood, sharing a bottle of Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill. With no warning, David slung his wet underpants at Carrie’s head. He missed his mark, and the wet undies landed on her shoulder.
“You’re an ass, David,” Carrie said, picking the underpants off with her thumb and forefinger and dropping them on the ground.
“Just something to remember me by, babe,” said David. “To keep you warm and squishy on those cold New England nights.”
Carrie’s dad had just been transferred to New Hampshire, and she would be moving in a couple of weeks. This was the stated reason for the night’s revelries. Of course, they would have all been doing the same thing, regardless. The road party was standard operating procedure on Friday and Saturday nights when nobody’s parents were out of town, and the group had decided that the more permissive parents needed a rest. After they were done with the bridge, somebody would suggest that they all go to Victory Park, or to the creepy old water tower on Bowie street, or to the empty lots off Hampstead road where, for some enigmatic reason, everybody in Wainfield put their old couches out to pasture among the clusters of live oaks. Whatever the destination, the party would peak there and then begin to dwindle as the very drunk and stoned passed out in their cars, the very tired drove home, and the very lucky drove off to shadowy cul-de-sacs unknown with willing and receptive members of the opposite sex. A small core would remain; usually Nick, David, Carrie, Ally, Wayne, and Neil — sometimes Ryan, or Veronica, or Jamie. This small group would either make their way to the IHOP where they would fritter away the wee hours with coffee and cigarettes and silly, strange, deep conversations, or they would go to Neil’s house and crash on the couches and carpets in his Dad’s basement rec-room.
David opened the back door of Wayne’s car and pulled out the torn jeans, flannel shirt, and Chuck Taylors that he had doffed before jumping off the bridge, as well as Nick’s scuffed combat boots. David handed Nick the boots, and Nick shod himself while David dressed. David pulled a Camel from a box in his shirt pocket, lit it and looked around.
“Where the fuck is Wayne?” he said, with the cigarette clenched in his teeth.
“I think he’s in Jamie’s car,” said Ryan, pointing with the wine bottle to a white Lumina with tinted windows that was parked in the ditch about fifty yards back.
“With Jamie?” David said, shocked. Jamie was a senior; two years older than Wayne, and she had a boyfriend on the wrestling team.
“No,” said Ryan, “with Bree. They’re just using Jamie’s car.”
“Does Jamie know?” Nick asked.
“I don’t think so,” said Ryan.
“She’s about to,” said David.
“Dude,” said Nick. “Don’t be a dick.”
David clapped a hand on Nick’s shoulder, and looked him sternly in the eye.
“Nick, be honest. If the seats of your beloved carriage were about to be doused in Wayne-juice, you would want to know, wouldn’t you?”
“Nobody’s getting jobbed in Nick’s Festiva, dude, there isn’t room,” said Carrie, laughing.
“Beside the point, Caroline,” said David.
“Go,” said Nick, throwing up his hands. “Cause drama with my blessing — but give me a smoke, first.”
David solemnly put his pack of Camels and lighter into Nick’s hand, then grinned a devil grin, turned, and walked away, calling “Oh Miss Jaaaaaimeee...” in a falsetto voice. Ally was walking toward the Impala as David walked away and he gave her a little slap on the ass as they passed by each other. She flipped him the bird without looking back.
Nick smiled when he saw Ally.
“What happened to you?” he asked.
“You saw,” said Ally. “I got turned around and came out on the wrong side where all the weeds and stickers and crap are. Is anybody else going to jump?”
“Nope,” said Carrie. “Y’all were the last of the crazy ones. So, I didn’t see. Did you dive off? Or was that all a load of crap?”
“It wasn’t a load of crap,” said Ally, “until I looked at the drop and totally chickened out. I went feet first. So, are we heading elsewheres soon?”
“Veronica wants to take those freshman chicks out to Dark Tower and scare them,” said Ryan. “A lot of the guys are all for that.”
“Ugh,” said Ally. “Pass — unless you want to, Carrie, it’s your night.”
Carrie shrugged. “If that’s where everybody’s going, I’m fine with it. I mean, it’s not like I won’t get another going-away party next weekend. I think I’d rather go to the park, though.”
“Me too,” said Ryan. “Although, if the group splits up, Nick, you might want to go to Dark Tower.”
“What?” said Nick. “Why?”
Ally gave Nick a little smack on the back of the head.
“Doofus,” she said. “As soon as Veronica’s done scaring the little fish, she’s totally dragging you off into the bushes.”
“Really?” said Nick. Ally, Carrie, and Ryan all stared back at Nick as though he were King Dumbshit of Short-bus Land.
Just then, an athletic-looking blonde girl came running past them with a face full of fury. The four watched her charge to the passenger door of the white Lumina, yank it open and shriek, “Out of my car, assholes!”
Nick heard a familiar chuckle beside him.
“Wayne’s gonna fucking kill you, man,” said Nick.
“Dude, it’s totally worth it,” said David. “Now gimme back my smokes.”
As everyone else piled into the back seats of cars and the beds of pickups to move the party along, Nick climbed into the driver’s seat of his blue Festiva. He reached over to the floorboard under the passenger seat and dug around through the empty coke bottles and candy wrappers and other stuff until he found a full pack of cigarettes. He looked at the pack, and had an odd thought.
It’ll be easier if I stop now. That will be so much easier than the crap I’ll go through when I’m 27.
Nick shrugged the thought away, cracked his window, and lit a smoke. He watched the other kids piling into the cars parked in front of his. Though not exactly a stud, Nick had never had any trouble picking up girls, and he knew that Ally was right about Veronica. If he followed the train of cars to the Dark Tower, then tonight’s adventure would almost certainly have a happy ending.. Carrie was right, there would be another going-away party (or two). This was not Nick’s last chance to see her. Still, he had a feeling he could not shake.
Stay for one more jump.
A rap of knuckles against the window startled him a little. Nick looked up to see Ally looking in at him. He rolled down the window all the way.
“Hey, so, I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“Nah,” Nick said. “I’m gonna go with you guys.”
Ally narrowed her eyes, then walked to his passenger door and got in the car.
“What’s up?” she asked him.
“Bullshit and a half. Why are you deliberately blowing your shot with Veronica?”
“It’s a trip to Venus,” said Nick. Ally said nothing for a moment. Then she shrugged.
“Well, I can’t argue with that,” she said. “Hey, I’m gonna jump one more time before we go. Wanna come?”
“Sure,” Nick said. “Why not? I smell like fish-farts anyway.” He got back out of his car.
“Leave the smokes this time, stupid.”
Nick shook his head, realizing that he had put them in his pocket. He tossed the box back into his passenger seat and followed Ally to the edge of the bridge.
They took off their shoes and stood against the short railing, looking down at the creek.
“So, whaddaya think?” said Ally. “Should I dive this time?”
“Sure,” said Nick. “You’d look hot with a broken neck.”
“Fine,” said Ally. “Let’s go, pussy.”
She stepped up onto the railing. Nick stepped up after her. He took her hand.
“One,” said Ally, “two, three!”
Hand in hand, they jumped.
Nicholas didn’t hear a splash, just a loud clap as his feet slapped against the surface of the warm water. After that, he was immersed; he could see only muddy blackness, and his ears filled with the soft roar of water. His feet sank a bit into the creek’s sandy bottom, but not enough to stick him. He kicked free and wriggled his way to the surface. He didn’t drift at all; the current was too mild to carry him.
When his head was above water, he heard the crickets and night-bird cries of the empty land around him. He swam to the bank of the creek and pulled himself out. He remembered, as he tried to regain his breath, that this was much easier when he was sixteen. When his breathing returned to normal, he stood and trudged back up the hill to his car.
When he started the engine, the clock in his console said that it was 12:09. Odd. It didn’t seem to have taken that long. He did a three-point-turn on the old dirt road and headed for home. He was done. Sometimes a trip to Venus doesn’t take very long. He wondered, as he drove home, if he would ever know what the boon was.
• • •
On a Saturday afternoon, in August of 1993, two weeks after Ally had gotten her driver’s license, she invited her best friend to hang out for the day. Ally picked Nick up at his house early; around nine o’clock. The two kids told both his parents and hers that they would be going to the mall, then to a movie, then maybe someplace else, but that they would be staying off the freeway and they wouldn’t be more than a few miles from home.
They spent the whole day in the car. They drove out of Wainfield, out of the Mid-cities, out of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. They did stay off the freeway, twisting and turning down obscure country roads, seemingly at random. A couple of times during the day, Nick asked where they were going. Ally told him that she would know when they got there. Around four in the afternoon they found themselves in a small town called Venus.
“I think this is our town,” Ally said.
Ally drove them around Venus for half an hour or so before stopping at a small antique shop.
“This is it,” she said, and got out to go inside. Nick followed her.
They were in the shop for all of two minutes before Ally picked up a very bland and unremarkable coffee mug. She took it to the counter and paid three dollars for it, then left the shop with Nick at her heels.
“Okay,” Ally said, when they were back in the car. “That’ll do it. Let’s go home.”
“Hang on,” said Nick. “I’ve gone along with this all day. It’s been fun, and I’m not complaining, but will you please explain what you’re doing?”
Ally looked at the coffee mug in her lap and didn’t say anything for a minute. Her face was hard to read.
“You have to promise not to make fun of me,” she finally said, in a small voice.
“Okay,” said Nick.
“This isn’t like, religious, or anything, and I don’t want you to think I believe in witchcraft or New Age crap or anything like that — ”
“Ally, just tell me.”
“Okay,” she said. “Sometimes I get...like, urges to do things for no good reason. Not bad or dangerous things, just things that make no sense.”
“Like taking a trip to Venus to buy a coffee mug?”
“For instance,” she said, smiling a little. “And I think — I believe — that if I can, I should do these stupid things without questioning or thinking too much about it, because if I do...” she trailed off.
“What?” Nick asked.
“Don’t laugh. Please, don’t laugh.”
She sighed and said, “If I do, then the universe will grant me an unreasonable boon.”
“Unreasonable boon,” Ally said. She was blushing now, and still looking down at the coffee mug. “Look, don’t ask me to explain, or even tell you what that means. It’s just something I...” she looked, for a second at Nick, then back down at the mug. “I shouldn’t have told you. It’s stupid. Forget it.”
“I think it’s cool,” Nick said.
She looked back up at him then. For a second, he thought she was going to cry. Instead, she laughed, grabbed his shoulder, and kissed him on the forehead.
“I love you, Nicky,” she said.
“My charms are tough to resist,” Nick said, smiling back at her.
After that, they never discussed it again, but from time to time, when one thought the other was acting strangely, the explanation that it was ‘a trip to Venus’ was all that was needed.
• • •
It was close to one in the morning when Nicholas pulled into his driveway. The porch light was still on at the house next door to his, and Allison was sitting on the porch step smoking a cigarette. Nicholas walked across the lawn to her.
“Clayton will be brokenhearted,” he said. “He was bragging yesterday about how neither of you have had a cigarette in two years.”
“They’re stale,” Allison said. “Taste like shit. I had them hidden for a rainy day.”
“Trouble sleeping?” Nicholas asked.
Allison shrugged. “Don’t know. I’ve been trying to shake it off — it had something to do with water — with drowning, and a dead girl and...”
“What?” Nicholas asked.
“I don’t know,” Allison said. “I woke up with this awful feeling that everything was...new — that my life had, somehow, just begun, or...like, I had been gone for a long time and that everything in my life was fake — No, not fake, exactly, just...new. I don’t know. It’s hard to explain and I’m trying to shake it off, you know?” She took a drag on her cigarette and coughed. “Ugh — how did we do this for so long?”
Nicholas shrugged. “We used to do a lot of stupid shit. You’re a kid, you think you’re invincible.”
“Yeah,” said Allison. “Why are you wet?”
“I went to that bridge we used to jump off in high school.”
“Trip to Venus.”
“You dick,” Allison said. “Why didn’t you take me with you?”
“Because...I thought you’d be asleep.” Nicholas had a fleeting thought that this was not the true answer, but he couldn’t think why. “I’d better go in, dry off, get to bed. Night, Ally.”
He turned and started to walk back toward his own house.
“Hey Nicky,” Ally said.
“Has the universe ever given you an unreasonable boon?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “You?”
She stared off for a moment before answering him.
“This might sound stupid,” she said, “but I think that it’s better if we don’t know.”
Copyright © 2011 by Michael Johnson