by Roy D. Schmidt (email@example.com)
The stage was home. Forget the stomach butterflies she always got fifteen minutes before showtime, the vocal-register anxieties she always got four hours earlier during sound check, the electric anticipation that always kept her awake the night before. Her powerful logic always won, and kept her on her path – to the stage, to her home.
Give me the lights, precious lights…give me lights. After the first song, when her voice was warmed up and ready to ascend, the band had settled into a tight groove, and the sound tech had the mix dialed in, everything started to feel just right, and she was ready to come alive. The world was condensed down to this tiny home, on this nightly-new but familiar stage, somewhere, who knew, who cared? Aberdeen? Traverse City? Eugene? Nancy could live here, in this moment, in this place, forever now.
It really was the perfect life, for a performer anyway. Having hit it big twenty years earlier, peaked, socked away a million for retirement, and gone into decline, a band didn’t have to fall into obscurity any more, not in the social media age, not in America’s Age of Nostalgia. Fans aged, they wanted the remastered versions, they wanted the brand-new vintage t-shirts, and they wanted to hear the old hits, exactly as they sounded on record or the first time they heard them live back in ’77.
For a band like hers that had had a few Top 40s and a few gold records but had never become the Stones or the Who, nothing could be finer, now, than being regularly asked to tour as opening acts for those big names. You play your big hits for forty-five minutes to a crowd that literally loves every note, and every song, and you too, to the bone. And you and the band pocket a consistent $50k a night, practically risk free. Then you go backstage, grab a beer, and watch the headliners try, and sometimes fail, to retain the momentum you set up.
Tonight the crowd filtered in slowly. A soft rain fell, traffic moved slow and heavy, people shuffled in and found their seats, looking not quite as cheery as normal. Like many of the pavilions across the US, there were forty rows of seats in front, stadium in style, cascading down steep concrete steps, protected from rain by a high ceiling. Beyond lay a grassy dirt knoll where general-admission fans spread out and lit joints and drank too much beer and got into fights when someone stepped on a blanket, or took up too much space, or blocked someone’s view.
As much as she reminded herself that every fan was a human being, with a heart, and a life, and a story, it was easy to see them as a mass of faceless people, all different yet looking the same after a while, who all just wanted something from her. They hardly watched any of the concert, just recorded it on their phones so they could post it later. When they weren’t holding up their phones, they were screaming out for her to play the big hit, the one she had played thousands of times and could never admit she loathed, the one they ought to freaking know was going to be played, eventually. One of the biggest rock stars of all time had once infamously spit on his fans during a concert. Sometimes she really empathized.
It was rare for Nancy to lock eyes on any of her fans. Too awkward. Once you locked in, you started to feel pressured to stay connected, and it could obligate you for the whole show. Then…there might be the awkward moment at the tour bus door afterwards. She had made the mistake once, and never again, feeling obliged to invite that one fan onto the bus, and ending up having to pull over and drop her off in…Poughkeepsie?…with a thick handful of cash for taxi fare home. Nope. Never. Again.
Tonight the lights went low, the songs flowed like warm lava, and there was this girl, in her twenties, about ten rows back, who glowed. Yeah, she wore the band t-shirt and she mouthed the lyrics to every song, but she wasn’t mouthing them for show. She didn’t pump her fists, or jump and scream for the big hits, or even plead with her eyes for some contact or attention from Nancy on stage. She just jammed with the songs. She didn’t reach out like a fan begging for a connection; the way she moved invited it.
Nancy named her Annie.
Halfway through the show, the incoming flow of bodies increased, filling the seats and covering the grassy hillside. The rain quit and a ray of red sunset streamed from a hole in the western sky. Nancy sang, Annie danced, and everything in the world fell into just the right place.
Every song had a guitar solo, and this one was short, and just at the end, the pavilion lights dimmed ever so briefly, a shot of static rippled through the PA system, and Nancy felt a tingle of electricity from the mic stand. Nothing, really. These things happened.
Far to the left, a fan stumbled, likely missed one of the oversized steps, and tumbled to the concrete. Three security guards dashed down the stairs, two others ran up from below. Between verses, Nancy took in the scene. Once the security guards from below had left their posts, a handful of fans grabbed their jackets and sneaked down to the front row. Others pushed and shoved. More fans followed. Above the knoll, the red sunset faded to dull gray as the sun hid behind the trees. Darkness spread across the slope, and distant heat lightning exploded in its silence, lighting up disparate spots on the horizon. Mid-song, the amplification cut out, and the band were left playing their instruments to…no one. They kept on.
The loudspeakers boomed. “Your attention please. This is a Pine Knoll alert. Should weather conditions deteriorate, please be advised you may be asked to seek shelter. Stay alert for further announcements. Pine Knoll thanks you for you patronage. Please enjoy the show.”
The amplification returned, the band regained their groove, and Nancy hoped nothing more would happen, at least for the final twenty minutes of the set. She searched for and found Annie again. Everyone was up, but not dancing like Annie. Confusion and agitation laced their faces. People gathered up purses and jackets, tipped back their heads to gulp down their drinks.
An audible click sound accented the air, followed immediately by an incredibly loud cracking boom, followed immediately again by a bright flash of lightning that struck the looming trees at the back of the knoll. A huge elm broke in two, the upper half falling straight to the earth along with the electricity conducted down its trunk. The crowd rose, congealed, undulated, screamed, surged down toward the covered pavilion. Below, the fans pushed their way to the aisles, clambered over the seat backs, fought with each other and fought their way up toward the exits.
The band stopped. There was nothing Nancy could do. She and the band were as safe on stage as anywhere. It was covered at least.
She picked Annie out, saw her forcibly pushed, practically carried along by the wave of panicked people. With luck, she would be safe in her car in half an hour, as long as the crowd calmed down.
Again, a flash of lightning, a bolt exploding and parting the trees. Instantly the crowd screamed, turned, and flowed downward, into the pavilion, clambering over the matrix of blue seats.
A gap opened where Nancy had last spotted Annie. People stumbled over something on the floor.
Nancy turned. “Regis! Regis, someone fell. We need to help her!”
The bass player looked at her as if she was mad. He shook his head, ever so slightly, and just stood, clinging to his big blue Fender.
She scanned the rest of the group. “Anyone?” she asked in a voice too quiet to be heard. It was more of a statement of disgust. No one would be coming with her into that mob.
She turned back to the surging, chaotic, sheep-like mass, and stopped for a moment. She made certain she was going to do this foolish, stupid, unnecessary thing. She took three deep breaths and hopped down from the front of the stage.
In another world, at another time, in another setting, she would have been set upon by these sheep, Sharpies and tickets and cellphones thrust in her face, “Nancy! Nancy! Can I get your autograph? Can I take a selfie?”
Now she was pushed, punched, and kicked aside like a stray dog.
She swam with the flow as far as she could, to the right aisle, then fought her way upstream, cutting left, crawling over seat backs, to where she thought Annie might have fallen.
“Annie!” she cried, before realizing it would have no effect. A different approach came to her. Her voice was as warmed up as ever. It would be her tool.
“STOP RIGHT THERE!” she called out, clearer than Ellen Foley on that Meatloaf song. A hundred people turned their heads to look at her, some with recognition. But no one stopped pushing.
“OK, PLEASE,” she called out in her piercing voice. “Someone is down. Over here,” she pointed. “Help me find her!”
She scanned the faces. Three rows ahead and to her left, the crowd parted and a man looked down, pointed down, nodded in shame.
“PLEASE. STOP,” she voiced in his direction, and crawled over three more rows of seats. On the ground was the girl, blood seeping from her scalp.
Nancy looked up, feeling like a beaten animal. “Help me,” she screamed at the people forcing their way past her. “Get the HELL out of this row at least!”
The immediate flow stopped, and her world again condensed to a single point. She crouched between the rows and stroked Annie’s forehead softly. Just open your eyes. There was a flicker of life. Bleeding from the head might be worse than it looks, she told herself.
“Annie,” she said calmly, into the girl’s ear. “Can you tell me if you’re hurt? I know your head is bleeding, but how about the rest of you?”
The girl’s lips moved. Nancy turned her head and yanked out the in-ear monitor she still wore. She held her ear close to those lips. “I think I’m OK,” they whispered.
“Can you get up? Walk maybe?”
The girl managed a nod.
“All right, let’s get you up and out of here before one of us becomes roadkill.”
Nancy and someone from the crowd helped the girl to her feet. Slowly, painfully, Nancy guided her back through the crowd, which now parted for her, back to the stage. Two of the roadies hoisted them up.
Nancy never looked back at the crowd. They could sort themselves out.
In the tent at back, an EMT cleaned the girl’s scalp and applied bandages. “We can’t stitch up your head here, but you’re going to need it.”
Nancy led her to the tour bus. She looked up at the bus driver. “We’re going to need to make a little trip,” she said. “Let’s get Annie to an ER.”
She gazed into the girl’s eyes. “What’s your real name, anyway, honey?”
“I’m fine with Annie, actually,” she said.
Nancy gave her a careful hug, then nodded her head toward the stairs.. “All right, Dreamboat Annie, welcome to my tour bus.”