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To A Flame by T. Quinn Hurley

There is nothing quite like hurling yourself into a mass of people who are knowingly about to push back. Everyone is running in circles, jumping up and down, flailing their appendages. Sweat and beer coming together, enveloping a crowd. No matter where you are – outside at a festival ground; inside Madison Square Garden; or at Indiana’s smallest American Legion – a mosh pit smells the same, and whenever you decide to make your final exit to try and find some air or something cold to drink, you better believe that this is how you are going to smell too. At the front of the stage, people are barreling over each other to jump right back to where they stood. Blinded, deafened, encapsulated by the lights and sounds. People pumping their fists and straining their vocal cords, just so they can feel a part of something bigger. If we’re all hurting, we’re hurting together. If we’re deafened, we can interpret each other’s smiles. If we’re blinded, we’re blinded by light.

I was racing. The venue wasn’t crowded so there was space for people to spread out. Good in theory, but when everyone is trying to get away from the maniacs shoving each other, there isn’t a barrier anymore, there are just rabid punks running in a circle. Being one of those punks, I didn’t stop when the guy in front of me grabbed ahold of the overflowing trashcan and threw it down. I dodged the can, even dodged some of the trash now littered across the floor, but no one was avoiding the liquid seeping from the torn liner that glossed the entirety of the floor. Maybe it was the dramatic change in speed, or because this was the first time in over a decade of moshing I had fallen, but time seemed to move at a glacial pace as my feet left the floor. The music continued roaring. I could feel the bass in my head and my heart. A similar throbbing was felt in my left hip -- the first place on my body to meet the cold, wet, linoleum floor. The air left my lungs at once. Bodies were flying over me. Trash was getting kicked up and thrown about. Just as soon as someone fell, they were right back up and shoving with the same fervor they had been previously. I love live music. I love the intensity. The authentically furious crowd who share in that common discontent that is mutually exorcised throughout shouted choruses and bruised forearms. All while smiling.

The song ended as I rolled onto all fours, and the singer on stage was telling us that he didn’t want us to be outdone by Toledo at tomorrow night’s show. I raised my fist up in the air, teetering almost completely over. My hip hurt. I tried to stand, but as soon as I put any weight on my left side, a sharpness coursed through my chest that I had never experienced. I stayed on all fours as I failed to breathe deeply, and slowly crawled my way across the trash-strewn floor, getting side-stepped by people the whole way, until I hit the edge of the bar. I twisted myself back around to let the bar brace my back. “Watch out, motherfucker,” someone said as he nearly tripped over me, catching his balance with ease. His black denim vest almost entirely shrouded his short stature, but the few studs across the traps of his shoulders glistened in the rotating colors of the stage lights.

The band started playing again – a new song with the same tempo and four chord this time instead of three, as I felt a tap on my shoulder. Standing above me, albeit not much, was a woman of about 5’2 with dark feathered hair, muffling something in my direction. “What?” I called out to her. She muffled something I couldn’t understand again. “I can’t hear you!” I shouted back. She bent down.

“Do you need help?” she shouted directly into my eardrum.

“That is sort of a loaded question when you ask it to someone at a punk show, don’t you think?” I shouted back, far enough away to not inflict the same discomfort into her ear. And they say chivalry is dead.

“Do you want me to help you stand up or not, asshole?” she shouted without the slightest indication that she thought my last retort was as funny as I did. I nodded and raised my arm – hand in grasping position. She grabbed hold, our thumbs interlaced, cupped hands conjoined, the way Arny and Carl do in Predator; she placed her other hand under my arm, just outside the armpit, and heaved. The pain in my hip shot down my leg in perfect synchronicity with the beads of sweat down my face.

“Thanks,” I yelled as I tried to walk away, stumbling, almost falling over once more. She still had hold of my arm and kept me from going ass over teakettle. She was strong. She looked it.

“Let’s go,” she yelled, half guiding, half dragging me towards the doors leading outside to the smoking patio. It was a slow, painful walk, for which I was glad to have a crutch. The lights from the stage flickered off the strong features of her face. Her high cheek bones, vague outlines of dimples, her furrowed brow as she led me through the same chaos that brought me here – needing to be helped out of a show. I’d be embarrassed if I could be anything more than enthralled. She pushed the door open and found a chair. She held me tight as I lowered myself down.

“Thanks,” I said again, fumbling into my pocket to find my cigarettes. I pulled out the crumpled box, shook one out, and placed it between my lips. The patio glowed with the harsh white of floodlights, obfuscated by moths who had only a few weeks left to live before the Indiana cold took them all to the great lamp in the sky. “Do you think moths can tell when the weather is about to change? The way someone with collarbone surgery can tell the shift in weather?”

“What?” she said, half expecting this question to be directed at someone else. She leaned against a bar top fixed into the ground.

“I just mean that all those moths up there,” I said, waving my unlit cigarette towards the overhead lights, “do they know that here in a few weeks they won’t even have a chance of survival? Can they feel it?”

“A moth lives for a maximum of like, four weeks, dude. Those moths up there are probably entering the twilight of their lives. When a day is half a decade, do you think, even if they could, they would spend their time worrying about a season they’ll likely never see?” She said this so matter-of-fact, that what was an acroamatic question, seemed rhetorical – as if she’d asked one hundred other people before me. Stupefied, I reached back into my pocket to find my lighter, not taking my eyes off her for a second, trying to catch a glimpse of everything I could glean from the stone-grey blue of her eyes.

“Do you have a lighter? I think mine fell out when I went down,” I asked.

“Don’t smoke,” she said, not averting her gaze from the fluttering above.

“That’s probably good. I’ve heard it’s bad for you,” I said, tugging at a sleeve next to me, asking the burly guy in camo shorts for a light. He tossed me his lighter, which I nearly dropped. I lit my cigarette and reached as far as my lower back would let me to hand it back to him. “I have terrible aim. Couldn’t hit water if I jumped off the ark.” He snorted, took the lighter, and turned back to his own company.

“It’s gross,” she said.

“What’s gross?” I asked.

“Smoking. It’s gross. You shouldn’t do it,” she said.

“True,” I said exhaling a plume of grey, “but this is my microdosing suicide, so I don’t overdo it and, you know,” I made a slicing motion with my thumb across my neck and clicked my tongue to my cheek – tck. Her gaze finally fell upon me, and despite her short stature, she seemed to be towering over me in the chair to which I was bound; by the limitation of my hip or the hardening concrete of her stare, I wasn’t sure.

“Was that funnier in your head?” she asked.

“Judging by the lack of reaction on your part, yes – it was.” I said, trying not to let the humiliation I felt get the best of me.

“You ought to be more careful. Not just with that,” she motioned inside, “but with yourself entirely. You’re too young to be making mistakes that will haunt you in much greater severity a short way down the line.”

“What would you know about down the line?” I asked, flicking off the ash of my cigarette that had grown far too long.

“You know what they say about years and miles, and I’m sure I have a few of each on you,” she said. At 26, I wasn’t convinced that she could be that much older than I, but there was a self-assuredness in the way she spoke that left no doubt in my mind that she had experienced far more than I could even lie about.

“I like your shirt,” was all I could conjure up in response. Beneath a black cardigan, draping over black leggings that were tucked into black boots, was a white t-shirt that had the words Kill Your Local Pop Punk Front Man on it, all cocking slightly down and to the left – almost perfectly skewed to the point that it was nearly artistically bad. “I’m not one, just in case you’re brewing a plot to do away with me,” I said. She did not respond, keeping the sadness worn on her face as she looked at everything on the patio but me. “I play bass,” I kept on. She faintly exhaled through her nose, and the left corner of her lips turned up ever so slightly.

“That might be worse, kid,” she said as she propelled herself forward, slowly, away from the bar top. She crouched down so that, for the first time, her eyes were below mine. She looked up at me earnestly and painfully. She took the half-finished cigarette from my fingers, her face inches from mine. “Exhale,” she instructed. I did -- faint tendrils of smoke rising from the corner of my mouth. As I breathed back in, she placed her lips on mine. They were soft, and smooth as marble. My heart beat quickly as I placed my hand softly on the back of her neck, my thumb grazing the underpart of her jawbone, feeling her heartbeat in her neck pound slowly as a kickdrum’s sound check. She pulled away, stood up and crushed my cigarette butt into an ashtray nearby. “There's one song left, I’m going inside,” she said.

“Hey, wait,” I said, trying my hardest to get up, “I can’t exactly move quickly.”

“Then slow down,” she said.

“I don’t think I’m getting back in there for that last song,” I said, still struggling to raise myself out of the seat.

“Well, it was a pleasant evening all the same,” she said, starting to make her way towards the door. The faint sounds of the vocalist murmuring about how this was our last chance to really show them what we’ve got.

“At least tell me your name,” I called after her. She turned around at the threshold of the doorway.

“And ruin the encore?” she said, walking back into the void of indistinguishable light and sound. Above, the moths continued toppling over each other, trying to travel by the light, but never moving forward.

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