‘You must be a Larva.’
I turn, startled, and scan the balcony, which I thought I had to myself. There’s a pretty brunette sitting a couple rows up. She’s vaguely familiar.
‘Excuse me?’ I shout over the screeching guitar and thundering bass.
‘A Larva,’ the woman repeats. ‘That’s what they call first-timers, and you’ve got that look about you. This is your first Moth Sausage show, right?’
‘Yeah,’ I answer, looking down at the mob around the stage. ‘First and last.’
She smiles, climbing down the rows of empty seats to join me at the balcony railing. ‘Well, I’m only here because my son is partially responsible for this racket. Lead guitar. I’ve been to way too many of these things.’
I cringe. ‘Your son might be the next Hendrix but, whatever they’re doing down there, it sounds like they’re sacrificing a goat.’
‘More like a whole herd of goats.’
‘A ruthless sacrifice to the gods of, well, what is this?’
‘They call it “experimental rock”.’ She grimaces.
‘Experiment failed,’ I deadpan.
Her eyes crinkle when she laughs. ‘Our parents said the same thing about grunge back in the day.’
‘No way.’ I fold my arms. ‘Nirvana was genius. This is just…’
She shakes her head. ‘I can’t believe I’m saying this because it makes me sound ancient, but kids nowadays….’
I follow her gaze to a group of girls wearing tattered gray wings strapped to their backs. Mothlettes. Hailey told me all about them on the drive here. But somehow Hailey failed to mention that the average age at a Moth Sausage show is, like, seventeen? I suppose it didn’t occur to her. She’s only twenty-two herself.
Ah, Hailey. I should break it off.
As if on cue, she grins up at the balcony, her purple-tipped ponytail swishing as she shimmies to the so-called music. I met Hailey three weeks ago at the climbing gym. Yeah, I’m that guy who took up rock climbing after his divorce. Hi, I’m Ben Graham, and I’m a walking cliché! But I’d always been curious to try climbing and Corinne, my ex, never would have gone, not that I ever asked her to. I bought my harness and chalk bag as soon as the ink on the separation papers dried.
Hailey works the climbing gym’s reception. You could say that, technically, she saved my life: one time I was heading up the wall when she darted over and pointed out that I was clipped into my belay device backwards. After that we got to chatting (about what? I don’t even remember) and, somehow, she ended up at my apartment that night.
Below, on the dance floor, Hailey grins, gesturing at me to join her. I return her wave, but no way in hell am I going down there.
‘That’s your daughter with the purple hair?’ the woman asks. ‘Looks like she’s having a blast.’
Ouch. But she isn’t off base. Hailey is young enough to be my daughter.
Yeah, I’ll end it. Tomorrow.
I clear my throat. ‘Actually, that’s—’
‘Wait a sec,’ the woman cuts me off, ‘aren’t you Parker Graham’s father?’
My eyes go wide. ‘I am. Why?’
‘I knew I recognized you! Parker was in my robotics camp last summer. You picked him up every afternoon.’
‘Professor Gina! Of course!’ Last summer is a blur with the divorce, but I remember her now, waving from across Parker’s classroom. I extend a hand. ‘Ben Graham. Nice to see you again.’
‘Likewise.’ Gina’s green eyes shine in the frenetic light, which strobes to the bizarre melody coming from the stage. ‘How’s Parker doing? He was having a such a hard time.’
I flush. Had Parker really confided in his summer-camp instructor about his mom and me splitting up? I guess so. I run a hand through my hair. ‘Yeah. It was a tough year, but he’s doing better now.’
‘Been there, done that.’ She nods. ‘You know, I never realized he had an older sister.’
Out of nowhere something cold and soggy smacks the side of my head.
I touch my temple. To my horror my fingers come away dark and wet. Shit, blood!
Wait, no. It’s hair dye. Made for Men or some garbage. I’d dabbed it on the patches of silver in my hair earlier this afternoon, trying for less salt and more pepper. Trying to blend in with Hailey and her friends in their natural habitat.
Hoping Gina hasn’t seen, I swipe my hand on my khakis.
‘Holy crap!’ She laughs, nudging the fallen object, which looks like a hot dog, with the toe of her sneaker. ‘You got Bratwursted!’
‘I got what?’
‘They do this at every show,’ she explains. ‘I can’t believe they managed to chuck one all the way up here!’
I look down at the dance floor. Sure enough, the kids all have sausages. They’re flinging them at each other like water balloons, pretending to joust with them, twirling them like batons, holding them at crotch level like…
‘Yep.’ Gina rolls her eyes. ‘They’re really doing that.’
I scan the crowd. There’s Hailey. Some guy wearing jeans that look like they’re painted on comes up behind her with his sausage and pretends to, uh, well. I wait for her to shove him way, but she doesn’t, not even when his lips trail up the back of her neck. She closes her eyes, leans into him, then turns around and meets his kiss.
Well, that’s a gut punch.
Gina shoots me a sympathetic look. ‘Yikes. Not what any parent needs to see. You okay?’
It takes me a long second to find my voice. ‘Yeah,’ I finally manage, but I can tell Gina’s not convinced.
‘Need to go get a drink?’
I let out a breath. ‘God, yes.’
‘C’mon. I know the bartender.’ Gina winks, and I follow her down from the balcony.
We’re crossing the lobby when a voice squeals, ‘Ben!’
Before I can stop her, Hailey throws her arms around my neck and mashes her lips onto mine. She smells like that other guy, like his sweat or something, mixed with tiger-scented body spray or whatever the hell kids wear these days. My stomach turns.
‘Wait, Gina!’ I try desperately to disentangle myself from Hailey. ‘It’s not what it looks like!’ I add, even though it’s exactly what it looks like.
The ground thumps as Moth Sausage starts a new song.
‘You two kids have fun.’ Gina ducks away, eclipsed by Mothlettes beelining for the dance floor.
I shepherd Hailey to a corner where we can talk without shouting.
‘What was that back there?’ I hiss.
‘What was what?’ Hailey’s eyes are saucers.
‘That guy? And his sausage?’
I could almost laugh. Is this my life? In a club with a girl half my age trying to coax her into apologizing for letting some douchebag dry-bone her with a salami? Hailey shrugs and asks what the big deal was. I open my mouth, ready to explain why making out with some random asshole shouldn’t happen on a date, but then I stop. Something in the way Hailey’s head is tilted, her arms folded and defiant: I feel like I’m about to lecture Parker after he’s spent all night playing video games. A shiver runs through me. Hailey and I are ridiculous together. It can’t wait until tomorrow; I need to end it now. I take a deep breath, because here’s a fun fact about me: I’ve never initiated a break-up.
Corinne and I were high school sweethearts. Our relationship flowed seamlessly into college and adulthood, then parenthood. But I guess the fissures must have been there all along, because when we tried to move into middle age, we crumbled. Corinne was the driver behind our divorce. It was Corinne who forced that first painful discussion and Corinne who printed up the list of attorneys who could help us work out something amicable. She was right, of course. If it had been up to me, we’d still be trucking along, pretending to be content in this half-assed way that I hadn’t realized was miserable until it was over.
Deep down, I must have known Corinne and I were crumbling. I knew things weren’t okay but was too much of a chicken-shit to act. I can’t be a chicken-shit anymore.
‘Hailey,’ I venture, ‘I’m afraid you and I are poorly matched.’
‘I know, right?’ she says with an impatient huff. ‘I tried to talk you into wearing those other jeans.’
I put on my gentlest voice. ‘No, I mean, we’re poorly matched for each other. We shouldn’t be dating.’
She giggles. ‘Well, obviously. It’s not like we’re actually dating though!’
The fire of a million suns rages up the back of my neck. These last three weeks I’ve spent thinking I had a girlfriend. My first post-Corinne girlfriend.
With a forced laugh, I tell her I’m gonna bounce. She’ll get a ride with friends, she says. As she skips off, I realize she’s wearing a pair of those ridiculous gray wings too.
Half-dazed, I wander over to the concession stand. Gina’s in line. She’s very pretty in an understated way. How had I never noticed that during all those robotics-camp pickups? She sees me and manages a weak smile. ‘Sorry. I’m sure she’s a lovely girl.’
‘Maybe. She was never much for conversation.’ I study the floor.
The queue inches forward. I wonder if Gina actually knows the bartender.
With a sympathetic sigh she says, ‘Look, I get it. I didn’t date for a year after my ex and I split. When I did, at first it was a certified disaster.’
‘Did you ever get nailed in the face by a hunk of meat?’ I point at my temple, half-smiling.
‘Well, not with a bratwurst, technically, but…’ Gina’s face melts into a wicked grin. Her eyes are crinkling again in that way and it’s gorgeous. Sexy, even.
I chuckle, then clear my throat. ‘Anyway, Hailey and I are over. Actually, I’m not sure we were ever on.’
‘I’m really sorry, Ben.’
‘Well, she wasn’t too broken up about it. I’m sure she’ll find some Bratwurst Bro to take her home.’
Gina nods gravely. ‘She’ll find a Salami Savior.’
‘A Kielbasa King.’
‘A Liverwurst Lover.’ Gina’s eyes sparkle when she laughs.
I’ve got a Chorizo joke ready when a cacophony erupts from the theater, sending the Mothlettes hovering around the concession counter into a frenzy.
Gina’s eyes bulge. ‘We should leave.’
‘It’s Hide the Sausage. The infamous Moth Sausage encore. They don’t always play it, but when they do…’ Gina leans in, her voice low. ‘Trust me, we don’t want to be here when these little punks start that.’
As I realize what she means, a wave of revulsion washes over me. I try to imagine Parker playing in some terrible experimental rock band with a reputation for vulgar acts among its hordes of groupies. Would I attend every single show, like Gina does for her kid?
But even Gina has her limits, it seems.
‘Not what any parent needs to see,’ I say.
‘Not what anyone needs to see!’ Gina replies.
I hesitate. No more chicken shit. I hate how shaky my voice comes out when I ask, ‘You wanna go get a coffee?’
‘I’d love to. But hang on.’ She grabs a napkin from the dispenser on the counter, reaches over, then wipes my temple.
I groan at the dark smear of dye on the napkin. Goddamn Made for Men. ‘Please don’t tell me that’s been there all night.’
‘Yep. All night.’ She winks.
On our way out, some sausage-waving douchebag yells, ‘Hey! You’re missing the encore!’
‘Exactly the point, kid,’ Gina mutters.
I shake my head. ‘Larva.’
When Shelby Van Pelt isn’t feeding her flash-fiction addiction or compulsively editing her debut novel, she’s probably tripping over one of her cats whilst wrangling one of her children. Find her at www.shelbyvanpelt.com or on Twitter: @shelbyvanpelt.