Leland stood in front of a microphone inside a studio booth with a bearded drummer, a bass player with a nose ring, and a lead guitarist who shared an uncanny resemblance to Sting. He could see Brad Siegel arguing behind the control room window with the band’s lead singer, Jimmie Lockhorn. He couldn’t lip read the conversation, but the angry facial expressions and flagrant hand gestures telegraphed the verbal exchange.
He tuned the D and G strings on the cheap Kramer electric. He had as much respect for the band’s lead singer as he did for the karaoke crooners off Broadway.
He strummed the guitar and rehearsed his own song in his mind. Then he lost himself in the thought of seeing Melissa again. He felt good with her. Content. Curious. Aroused. She stirred a passion inside him the way no woman ever had before. He wanted more of her in his life.
He stopped playing when Jimmie Lockhorn reemerged from his spat with Brad Siegel and reclaimed his post at the front microphone, where he directed the band to press on.
Leland played the rhythm piece from heart. A simple chord progression that repeated itself over and over throughout the song.
Jimmie Lockhorn stepped away from his microphone and signaled for the band to stop. “No, no, no!” the angry frontman complained to Leland. “Play the notes the way they’re written.”
Leland ignored the smartass comment from the volatile prima donna in a muscle shirt with a poorly drawn heart tattoo on his shoulder and pierced ear plugs wide enough to fit a broomstick handle. “All of them.”
“You keep playing the song the way you want it to sound, not the way I wrote it. You can read music?”
“No, you sound like shit,” Jimmie pressed him. “We go live in three days. Play it the way I wrote it or find another gig.”
Leland ignored the caustic remark. He’d dealt with guys like Jimmie before. Untalented fools with the right connections and the wrong approach to everything. “Maybe we should take a break?”
“Keep it tight, Presley. A monkey could play this piece.”
Leland played the next few notes. “Is this not what you wrote?”
“Your rhythm is way off.”
Leland gave him the guitar. “You play it for me.”
“I’m a singer.”
“If that’s what you call it,” Leland mumbled under his breath.
“What was that?”
“I said you’re a dick.”
Jimmie made a fist but lacked the nerve to use it. “There’s a hundred musicians who would kill to take your place. I could bounce you off this gig…” He stopped when Brad Siegel entered the studio. “I’ve got this,” he told Brad.
Brad pointed at Leland. “Let’s talk for a second.”
* * *
Leland followed Brad to the control room like a student to the principal’s office. “If you’ve got a problem with me,” he started.
“It’s not you,” Brad explained. “Jimmie’s been under his ex-wife’s thumb more than usual, and he likes to spread the misery. He can be an asshole, but as far as this band’s concerned, he’s the leader. What he lacks in people skills, he makes up for with raw talent. He’s a prick who can sing.”
“Are we talking about the same guy?”
Brad stepped into Leland’s personal space. His breath smelled like sushi and cigarettes. “My people want to see this work as much as you do. But you need to find a way to get along or get along. You follow me?”
“Play it the way it’s written,” said Leland.
“Eighty people applied for this gig. I entertained three. Sid convinced me you’re the man. I didn’t care for your pony song, but you’ve got skills. Don’t make me regret my decision.” Brad patted Leland on the back and gave him a pair of backstage passes for the benefit concert. “Bring a date, or two. Girls love this shit.”
Leland wanted to lash out, but he’d worked too hard and sacrificed too much to squander the opportunity with Capital Country Records, no matter how menial the role. He played the music note for note in the mundane order they were written. Truth was, he didn’t care much for playing in a band at all, even one with a solid drummer and a lead guitarist who could play like Clapton.
Leland strummed his acoustic Gibson with a fury, indulging one of his favorite riffs from ELO’s “Fire on High.” Originally recorded on a twelve string guitar, he hammered the instrumental piece on his vintage axe and let the last note ring when Abby appeared outside his room in her pajamas and tousled hair. “You almost ready?”
“Do I look like I’m ready?” Abby mumbled through a yawn. “I’m too tired to go to school.”
Leland set his guitar in the stand. “I need to leave soon.”
Abby bent down to pet her cat, who vigorously rubbed his face against her leg. “Did you feed Tiger?”
“He’s your cat.”
“I have to get ready.”
“Then you better hustle. This train leaves the station in twenty minutes.”
“Twenty minutes! Why didn’t you get me up sooner?”
“I’ve been trying for half an hour.”
“Where did you put my phone?”
“I didn’t touch it.”
“I left it on the kitchen table with the charger plugged in, and now it’s gone.”
“Check your room.”
“Check it again.”
Abby sulked back to her bedroom, toting her cat sprawled over her shoulder in a helpless pose. “Don’t leave without me.”
Leland skimmed the newspaper on the table and poured himself a glass of OJ while Abby got ready for school. He read a back page story about volunteers feeding the hungry. The article highlighted four high school students who delivered warm meals to random homeless families still reeling from the lingering effects of the city’s flood. He flipped to the last page in the lifestyle section to read the concluding paragraphs. When his doorbell rang, he opened the house to find Paula outside. “What the?”
“Where were you?”
Leland looked back to check on Abby and lowered his voice. “What are you talking about? Why are you here?”
“You were supposed to be in court yesterday.”
“How did you get here?”
“I’ve been released. I’m a free bird now.”
Leland rubbed the side of his neck and grimaced. “How?”
“New meds and a better lawyer.”
“You shouldn’t be here.”
“Is Abby home?”
“She’s at school.”
“Her school doesn’t start for an hour.”
“How do you know?”
“She’s my daughter. I have a right to be involved in her life.”
Leland started to shut the door. “You should leave.”
Paula blocked the door with her foot. “I’m not going anywhere. I tried to call, but your phone kept going to voice mail.”
Leland reached in his pocket for his phone. “You need to leave.”
“I have a right to see my daughter. I know she’s here.”
“Get off my property!”
“Abigail!” Paula screamed through the partially open door. “I’m your mother!”
Leland dialed 911 as Abby emerged from the other room.
“Get back in your room,” Leland ordered Abby. “I’m calling the police.”
Paula scowled at Leland and stepped away from the house. “This isn’t over.”
“What’s going on?” Abby persisted.
Leland ended the 911 call. “Get ready for school,” he said as he shut the door on Paula.
“She called me Abigail. No one calls me Abigail but you.”
“Why did she say she’s my mom?”
“Who is she?”
“Why did she come here?”
“Is your backpack ready?”
Abby touched her stomach with a shaky hand. “You’re scaring me.”
“Then why were you calling the police?”
“You need to get ready for school.”
“You need to tell me the truth.”
“There’s nothing to tell right now.”
“I don’t believe you. Why are you lying to me?”
Leland put his phone in his pocket. He knew the day would come sooner or later, with Abby too young to understand but mature enough to question. “You know I love you very much.”
“I know you love me. Tell me who that woman was. Why did she say she’s my mother?”
Leland braced for impact. “Biologically speaking…” He took a deep breath. “She’s your mother.”
“You said Mom died in the accident.”
“I was trying to protect you.”
“By lying to me?”
Leland reached out. “By keeping you safe. There’s a lot you don’t know.”
“Why did you lie to me?”
“Does Nicole know about my mom?”
“Nicole’s not important.”
“She does, doesn’t she? You told her, but you never told me.”
“Nicole’s an adult.” Leland shrank from his own reply, wishing he could take the words back before Abby came unglued.
“Where has Mom been?”
“A mental health hospital.”
“Your mother needed help.”
Leland ran his hand through his hair. “Your mother tried to drown you in a lake when you were young. She crashed her car on purpose. She never buckled you in your car seat.”
Abby faced her dad with a wounded look in her eyes. “I remembered the accident. On the bus, when I thought I was going to drown. I remember it happened so fast.”
“You were thrown into the windshield. Your arm saved your face, but the cuts on your arm were deep. Doctors tried to save it, but they couldn’t.”
“It was an accident.”
“Your mother never fastened the car seat.”
“Maybe she forgot to.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I was waiting until you were older.”
“I am older.”
Leland followed Abby to her room. “She’s never been part of your life.”
“Because you never let her.”
“Your mother’s sick. The court placed her in a psychiatric hospital because that’s where she belongs.”
“She got better.”
“We don’t know that.”
“She’s still my mother.”
“She tried to kill you, Abby. I’m sorry. I know that sounds awful to hear. But it’s the truth.”
“I don’t believe you. The crash was an accident.” Abby snatched a pillow from her bed and cried into it. “Why would she do this to me?”
“I don’t know, Baby. Only your mom can answer that.”