CHAPTER 14: LOLLAPALOOZA


“Hello Chicago.” -ago…-ago…-ago…

Over the sound of my own panicked breathing, I heard my voice echo out over the park and decay into the distance. I froze for a moment. I was on a vast plain of a stage—as wide and flat as a Midwest prairie. Lollapalooza.

Was this a dream?

 I took a moment to get my bearings. A pre-show recording reverberated across the park, pitch-shifting and distorting as the sound engineer adjusted the levels. The faces in the front row were distorted and bored—long with apathy. The collective voice was a long low howl of disdain. They were groaning—booing. They weren’t here for us. They wanted The Temper Trap. I gripped the mic stand; afraid the growing riptide of disapproval would pull me over the monitors and into the sea of neon plastic sunglasses and boxed water.

I was naked, wasn’t I?

I glanced down at myself to check: fully dressed. Really here. Not a dream.

I was pretty sure.

I looked back out over the crowd; their eyes obscured by the flat lenses of cheap sunglasses that reflected the blue lights of the stage’s LEDs back to me like I was staring into the abyss. The abyss was staring back, challenging me to scream into the void, and reminding me that even my bottomless rage would never make the smallest difference to the infinity of space.

This is all there is. This is all there will ever be.

I closed my eyes. Beyond the crowd, I could hear the roar of the city and the ever-present ringing in my ears like the drone of a tuning fork in an off-key world. The air was dense with blistering heat and so thick with humidity it hurt to breathe. A faint shift in the atmosphere raised the hairs on my arms. My monkey brain screamed find cover. A storm was coming.

I opened my eyes.

“Storm’s comin’, Chicago!” –ago –ago—ago

I pointed to the west and the eyes of the crowd turned toward where the sky was blackening with storm clouds: an ugly bruise spreading over the skyline like a plague. “You see that sky? You see that storm on the horizon? It’s the beginning of the end. Just you wait, Chicago.”

There was a ripple of scornful laughter as I waxed bombastic, but I could feel the electricity in the air. The crowd could feel it too. A wind had picked up off the lake, the only cool breeze in the sweltering summer stillness.

“Simon says: ‘Upon the wicked shall rain a horrible tempest, thus shall be the portion of their cup’,” I proclaimed, conjuring the fire-and-brimstone preaching of Reverend Simon out of my memory.

Last chance…

“But I say bring it on! If this is the end of days, then here I am! And here you are! And we will not back down!”

From somewhere across the galaxy, I could hear Tombstone start up the intro to ‘GoatRodeo;’our mainstream hit. There was a surge of recognition that spread backward from the stage like water coming to a boil. A few distant cheers rang out.

“Here I am, Chicago. Are you with me? Do you hear the call? Lemme hear you say, ‘Here I am’!”

I pointed to the crowd.

Here I am!

“Here I am!”

Here I am!

“HERE I AM!” I bellowed, and cheers erupted as we launched into the song.

I could barely hear the music through the monitors. Tombstone and the others were miles behind me, and the voices of their instruments were sucked out into open space. But it didn’t matter. A howl rose up from deepest parts of me. My voice was gritty around the edges from a month of too much booze and not enough rehearsal, but it didn’t matter. I was alive again for the first time in weeks.

For just a single moment I broke free of the burden of my own mortality. All the blackened, filthy rage I kept coiled deep in my guts woke up and flexed its muscles. My whole body jangled with energy, exploding out of my fingertips, and spreading outward over the crowd.

The faces that had been dull with boredom only minutes before came to life with the same wild spark. The same kids who had come for the hashtags and the Likes and the sugary summer pop hits now surged forward, pressing against the security barriers, a mass of fists and bared teeth. The heat and the oncoming storm had stretched everyone’s nerves to the breaking point, and thread by thread they were beginning to snap.

In the middle of the mob, a fight broke out. The kids grabbed hair and threw punches as the music dragged them right down to their caveman roots. They were loving it. They clawed over one another like the animals they were deep down. Another fight broke out. Security struggled to push through the press of bodies. A third fight. Rain began to fall on the crowd in fat drops soaking the lithe bodies and drenching t-shirts. The steaming park churned into mud and the fights grew into brawls, wet and slipping, wild in their fury.

Overhead, thunder cracked, sending a squeal of feedback through the speakers. The tech cut off the guitar amps leaving only my amplified voice sailing out over the park. I hit the final, reverberating note and held it until the mic cut out. My voice disappeared into nothingness.

That was it. One song was all we were going to get.

The heavens opened with a vengeance and I stood on the stage staring out into the deluge. Lightning cracked overhead—huge purple bolts of it struck the antennas on the top of the Sears Tower.

Act of fucking God.

“This is a severe thunderstorm warning. Please proceed to the nearest exit,” a voice over a megaphone garbled out over the haunting moan of a choir of tornado sirens. Emergency vehicles lined the perimeter of the park to guide the exodus. Stage techs were already covering the monitors and bringing the mics in under cover. The stage’s LED screen powered down and went blank.

Tombstone unplugged his guitar and gestured to me with a jerk of his head, but still I stood on the edge of the stage watching the crowd drain away. Feelings of disappointment filled the space they left behind.

“Get off the stage, idiot.” Jojo’s voice spoke directly into my ear through the talkback mic beside her drum kit. In the charged air, a brilliant spark of static arced toward me from the mic stand, snapping me on the wrist.

I took the hint. I got off the stage.

“Sorry guys, that’s all she wrote.” If the coordinator was disappointed that we’d only played a single song, he didn’t let it show. “You’ll get your fee, but your set’s over.”

A passenger van waited beside the stage with the side door open. A burly teamster in a rain poncho struggled to separate Tombstone from his guitars until Kilroy intervened.

“Tedrick’s a beast, dude,” Kilroy assured him. He nodded toward the guitar tech, Tedrick, who was huddled beneath the shelter of the metal stage wiping down Tombstone’s signature Jackson seven-string, ‘the Blackjack’, with a microfiber cloth. “He’ll take good care of her.”

Tedrick was indeed a beast: the kind of stage-dog roadie more willing to risk standing under a giant lightning rod in an open field during an electrical storm than to put a guitar away wet.

Idiot.

We loved him.

Tedrick chose that moment to glance up and saw Tombstone’s worried face.

“I got this, bro,” he shouted over the sheeting rain. “I’ll load ‘em out when they get an all-clear. Trailer’s out back. You can get them in the morning.”

Tombstone reluctantly allowed himself to be dragged backward into the van and landed heavily on the bench seat trying to keep his eyes on the guitars until the very last minute, while the others climbed over him, wet and shivering in spite of the summer heat.

I moved to climb aboard and felt a meaty hand press against my chest.

“Where d’you think you’re goin’?”

I gestured to the van. “You evacuating or what?”

The teamster wedged himself between me and the door of the van.

“VIPs only. Talent and brass.”

I turned and looked backward at the stage. What the hell did he think I was doing five minutes ago on the stage?

“I was literally just on stage.”

“Yeah? You got a tag?” He held up a laminate.

Fuck.

I glanced over his shoulder and saw the rest of the band watching me with poorly suppressed amusement. Kilroy was biting his fist. Tombstone reached up to flick his own nametag on the front of his hat with a savage grin. They’d put him up to this.

“Yeah, dude, where’s your tag?” Gorey managed, already cracking into falsetto as his laughter seeped in around the edges. The four of them dissolved into screaming hysterics. I was never going to live down the fact I gave away my Lolla pass for a lap dance.

“Alright, alright. I’m a dumbass. It’s raining like the end of the world, you gonna worry about a nametag?” I wanted to be angry, but for the moment I was calm. Calmer than I’d been in weeks. I felt stoned. The stage-high was as good as any drug.

“Make him walk!” Jojo shouted from the back seat.

“Make him walk!” the others chanted. “Make him walk! Make him walk! Make him walk!”

Fucking savages.

Grinning, Tombstone pulled out a hundred-dollar bill, creased it in half the long way, and flicked it so it made a snapping sound. The teamster took it and slid the van door closed. Tombstone gave me the finger as the teamster thumped the side of the van and it pulled out leaving me behind.

The teamster turned to me, holding up Tombstone’s hundred-dollar bill. “You wanna make me an offer for the next van?”

“Fuck you, humbucker.”

The teamster just grinned and gestured to two of his buddies wearing t-shirts that read SECURITY through the plastic of their ponchos. “No tags,” he told them.

One of the two looked at me and I saw recognition. He looked back at his teamster buddy with his mouth open as a question.

“No tags,” the teamster reiterated. He waved the cash at them. “Drinks later?”

I wasn’t going to get any help.

            “I’m going,” I said.

I snagged a plastic poncho from a production assistant who was distributing them to the festival crew and pulled it over my head like a caul. At least no one would recognize me while I did my walk of shame.

I lurched out of the tent and into a crowd of mud-beings, already diagonal on festival booze, stumbling their way toward the city. The festival-goers were finding refuge wherever they could. I followed the crowd to the broad-shouldered bulk of the Chicago Hilton where emergency workers were heaving people into shelter as fast as they could. The ground floor lobbies were packed; the dripping mob was fouling the carpets with mud and rain, and the air in the lobby was tropical with the breath of hundreds of cramped bodies. Peeling off the gauzy plastic of the poncho, I fought my way toward the bar. The high from the performance was wearing off. I needed a drink.

I wondered if Melody was somewhere in the crowd. I didn’t want to admit to myself how much I’d thought about her seeing me perform. I wanted her to see me as something other than another drunk loser from her club.

You’re not special.

You’re wrong about me!

Am I?

No doubt she’d taken my pass and fucked off to go to see Alabama Shakes or fucking Chairlift. Maybe she hadn’t even come at all. I was stupid to think I’d ever see her again outside the club, much less in the teeming hordes of Lollapalooza. I didn’t even know her real name. She was right. I was a nobody. I stood, anonymous in the crowd, wondering if anyone would ever notice me again.

“That’s him.”

“Yeah, I got eyes on him.”

I turned to find a pair of rent-a-cops standing in the doorway that divided the bar from the hotel’s lobby.

Shit. So much for anonymity. I flinched, guiltily, wondering what I’d done wrong.

Ducking behind the bar, I slipped through the swinging door leading a service hallway. Every hotel had a backstage labyrinth of corridors that allowed the labor of hotel hospitality to take place unseen. I was familiar with the territory. It was one of life’s ironies that the more famous you got, the more often you trekked through hotel kitchens and loading docks. I scuttled upstream through the flow of hotel staff, avoiding eye contact with anybody with a walkie or a clipboard.

“Stop him!”

I heard footsteps behind me and staggered around a corner, hoping for a fire exit or another door back into the lobby, but instead found myself in a dead-end full of room service carts, loaded with grimy trays waiting to be bussed. No way forward. No way back.

“Mr. Warner—”

Fuck. It was bad. It was ‘Mister Warner’ bad. I winced and came to a halt before it could escalate to ‘Sir’. The two security drones walled me off from the crowd with broad shoulders and the crackling static of their tandem radios. I held up my hands.

“Damen Warner?” One of them asked.

“I deny everything.” I groped reflexively for my phone in case I needed to call Sam.

“We understand you’ve been missing your badge?”

Goddamnit. I was just never going to live that down, was I?

“Please come with us.”

I followed my Dishonor Guard through a series of complicated turns and jogs until we emerged into a small but plush ballroom designed by someone who listened to too much Johan Sebastian Ludwig Von Strauss. At the moment, it was closed off from the public to form a makeshift command center. A harried-looking security coordinator sat behind a folding table listening to a radio squawking out a stream of continuous updates about the ongoing chaos in the park.

“Oh good, you found him,” she said. She held out my laminate to me. “I believe you’ve been missing this?”

“Yeah, it’s mine. Where’d you find it?”

The security coordinator gave a jerk of her head toward the far corner of the room where Melody reclined on a hotel couch looking belligerent. My heart jumped in my chest. For a minute, I couldn’t breathe.

“She said you gave it to her,” the coordinator said. “Don’t know where she really got it. Stolen, probably. You want to press charges?”

“No, s’all good. You mind if I talk to her?” I gestured in Melody’s direction and the coordinator nodded, her eyes already going distant as the squawking radio once again absorbed her attention.

Melody watched me approach with a level gaze. A hint of a smile played around the corner of her mouth. Everything about her was small and dark and burning hot.

“Hey.”

“Hey, yourself.”

“You came.”

She shrugged noncommittally and the collar of her cutoff t-shirt slid off her shoulder. I stared, transfixed, at the smooth curve of her shoulder, struggling to concentrate on anything besides the urge to sink my teeth into it.

“I didn’t see you in the crowd,” I said, embarrassed to admit that I’d been looking. “Did you catch the show?”

“Did I see your one single song?” she arched an eyebrow and showed her teeth.

So, she had! I felt a surge of elation and struggled to hold it down. I couldn’t believe she was real. I couldn’t believe she was really here. I held up the laminate and dangled it in front of her face.

“What am I going to do with you?” I asked, rhetorically. “I give you an all-access badge and you still manage to get in trouble.”

Melody didn’t reach for it.

“They evacuated the park. How else was I supposed to find you?”

I glanced back at the command center and the hissing radio. She’d called and I’d come.

Game. Set. Match.

Worth it.

Reaching down, I pulled her to her feet. She stood and stared up at me through mile-long eyelashes. Even in heels, she barely came up to my chest. The warmth of her body so close to mine lit up my senses with electricity. She slid her hands around my waist like she was staking a claim. I hung my badge around her neck.

“You wanna get out of here?” I asked.

“Your place or yours?”

“Well, when you put it like that, I guess we should go to mine.”

“Good,” she said. “Let’s ghost.”

New chapters released every week. Come back and read the next chapter absolutely FREE!!

CHAPTER 15: GHOSTED will go live Monday, October 4th, 2021

Don’t want to wait? Purchase a copy of the full book here: www.amazon.com

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