Music City Madness: Chapters 50-51

Nicole examined her bare chest in the bathroom mirror, cupping both breasts in her hands to inspect the soft tissue. She stood askew and scrutinized her figure. She had a clean bill of health and no reason to dispute her tests results.

This time.

Given her family history, she worried about her future as a single woman in a new town without family or friends and an ex-boyfriend who seemed distant and unwilling to reconcile their relationship. People die alone every day, she told herself. I don’t want to be one of them.

Part of her wanted a fresh start, someplace new and exciting like Atlanta, D.C., or New York. But not without Leland in her life.

A knock at her apartment door prompted her to throw a shirt on. She checked the peephole and saw a woman in business attire with a buzz haircut and a badge hanging from a lanyard around her neck. “Whatever you’re selling,” Nicole spoke loudly through the door. “I’m not interested.”

She watched the woman hold up a plastic badge holder with a name imprinted beneath a bar code. “It’s upside down,” she said behind the door with growing trepidation toward the unexpected visitor. She grabbed her purse and discovered her pepper spray was missing.

My name is Rhonda Towson. I work for the Department of Children’s Services. I’m sorry to bother you at home, but I need to ask you a few questions.

Nicole unlocked the deadbolt and cautiously opened her apartment. “I don’t have any children,” she said, confused by the social worker’s request, not to mention her awkward demeanor, which suggested something off about her but not enough to be overly concerned. She scrutinized the photo ID sandwiched between the plastic laminate and read the name Rhonda Towson. “What is this about?”

“Are you Nicole Mason?”

“Yes.”

“Is this your primary residence?”

“Yes.”

“May I come in?”

“My roommate will be home any second. I’m not sure—”

“It won’t take long.”

Nicole hesitated before she let Rhonda in her apartment. “I’m not sure how I can help you.”

Rhonda stepped into the small foyer with an empty coat rack and a floating shelf on the adjoining wall. “I need to ask you a few questions about Abigail Presley.”

“Is she okay?”

“As far as we know.”

“Then what is this about?”

“I’ve been assigned to conduct a follow-up investigation.”

Nicole stuffed her hands in her pockets. “Of what?”

“Routine procedure when a complaint is filed.”

“A complaint? What does this have to do with me?”

Rhonda produced a pen and a memo pad from her purse. “Do you know Leland Presley?”

“He’s my boyfriend. What complaint are you talking about?”

“The details are confidential.”

“Does Leland know you’re here?” Nicole asked, still puzzled about the true nature of Rhonda Towson’s visit.

“Does he live with you?”

“He has his own place. Why are you asking—”

“But you did live together at one time? With his daughter Abigail.”

“Is this because he left her home alone during the flood?”

“What can you tell me about that?”

“Leland told her to stay home. Abby snuck out with friends and got caught in the storm. Leland’s not in trouble, is he?”

Rhonda scrawled in her note pad. “How long was Abigail left alone?”

“Leland worships Abby. He’s torn up about what happened. If he’d known a flood was coming, he never would have left her home.”

“Does he often leave her home alone?”

“He’s a single dad. A musician. He plays gigs at night. But he’s one of the good guys.”

“Does Abigail go to school?”

“Of course.”

“Which one?”

“Parkview Middle School, I think. She’s in seventh grade this year.”

“Have you seen her recently?”

“Not for a few days.”

Rhonda chewed the end of her pen. “Do you know where she is now?”

“Probably with her dad.”

“Or home alone by herself again?”

Nicole motioned toward the door. “I think you should leave now.”

Rhonda Towson gave Nicole an apathetic stare. “How long did you and Leland live together?”

“I don’t see how that’s any of your concern.”

“I’m trying to understand Mr. Presley’s level of commitment to his daughter.”

“He’s the most committed father I’ve ever known.”

“Has he ever hit his daughter?”

“Of course not!”

“Has he ever exhibited lewd or obnoxious behavior?”

“No.”

“Has he ever raised his voice to her?”

“Sure, sometimes. All parents do.”

“Does he drink alcohol?”

“Sometimes.”

“How often?”

“He’s not an alcoholic, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Does he smoke?”

“No.”

“Use drugs?”

“Hell no!”

Rhonda looked up from her notes. “How can you be certain?”

“Because I lived with him for nine months. I dated him for a year and a half.”

“You mentioned Abigail attends Parkview. Does she ride the bus?”

“Sometimes. And sometimes Leland picks her up after school. Why?”

“Has Leland ever forgotten to pick her up?”

Nicole looked up at the ceiling for a moment and wiped a strand of hair from her eyes. “No.”

“Are you sure?”

“It happened once, but it was no big deal. I came and got her.”

“Does Mr. Presley live with anyone else besides his daughter?”

“I don’t think so.”

“So what happens when he forgets to pick her up again?”

“He has my number,” Nicole replied hotly. “I really think you should leave.”

Rhonda flipped through her notes. “How well do you know Abigail?”

“She’s not my daughter.”

“Do you know how she lost her arm?”

“Some sort of accident when she was little.”

“Did she ever talk about it?”

“Not to me.”

“Did she talk about her mother?”

“She never knew her mom.”

Rhonda stopped writing. “Any problems in school?”

“No more than any other teenage girl.”

“Can you be more specific?”

“She’s a good kid. Sometimes she earns detention.”

“Why?”

“Why do you think? People tease her. She fights back.”

“Does she have behavioral issues at home?”

Nicole motioned toward the door. “I’m not answering any more questions. If you want to know about Abby, I suggest you talk to her father.”

“Would you be willing to sign a statement?”

“I’m not signing anything. Now get out of my apartment before I call the police.”

Chapter 51

Leland hooked his guitar over his shoulder and flicked the lights on and off in Abby’s room. “Rise and shine porcupine.”

Abby rolled over and covered her face with her pillow. “I’m not going back to school.”

“You like school.”

“I hate school,” Abby mumbled through her pillow.

“I made waffles.”

“I don’t like the frozen kind.”

Leland strummed his guitar slowly. Then he erupted with a mariachi rhythm. “You’ve got five minutes before I come back and start singing Elvis.”

“Dad!” Abby groaned. She took the pillow away. “You’re not funny in the morning.”

“My jokes get better as the day goes on.”

“No. They don’t. I just got out of the hospital. I shouldn’t have to go back to school already.”

Leland stopped playing. “Your doctor said you’re good to go.”

“I don’t want to go back to school.”

“It will be good for you.”

“There’s only two weeks left.”

“The time will go by quickly.” Leland plucked the strings. “Your food is getting cold.”

“It was frozen to begin with.”

“There’s always summer school,” Leland offered as he walked away. He heard a pillow hit the wall, followed by loud stomping. He rested his guitar on the stand in his room and proceeded with his shower and shave. He gave Abby’s cat some attention while he waited for Abby to get ready. Then he ushered Sleeping Beauty to his truck.

“At least I get to see my friends again,” Abby contemplated with her backpack on the truck’s floorboard. She wore her favorite top with her low cut jean shorts.

“What happened to your other shorts?” Leland asked as he backed out of the driveway.

“Which ones?”

“The ones that cover your legs.”

Abby put her hand on her thigh. “What’s wrong with my legs?”

“Nothing. I think they’re perfect, but the world doesn’t need to see so much of them. You look great in longer shorts.”

“Longer shorts are boring. Besides, you bought these for me.”

“I did?”

“And you still owe me three weeks allowance.”

Leland advanced through the winding neighborhood and merged onto an open lane. “I know.”

“Jonathan saved my life,” Abby said in a monotone voice. “I wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t freed me from the bus.”

Leland put his right arm around her shoulder. “You like him.”

“I do, but it’s not like we’re having sex.”

Leland tightened his grip on the truck’s steering wheel. “Good to know.”

“Would you rather we were having sex?”

“No.”

“Relax, Dad. He’s like a big brother to me. I think Adam’s cool too.”

Leland slowed at the next intersection and drove right to follow the winding detour toward Abby’s middle school. “Don’t forget to clean your room and Tiger’s litter box.”

“My ankle’s still sore.”

“Then use your arm to scoop the litter.”

“Dad…”

“It won’t take you very long. You need to finish unpacking your room, too.”

“I want a raise.”

Leland laughed out loud. “You can’t negotiate a raise by complaining about the work you haven’t done yet.”

“We should talk about birth control.”

“Jesus Abby… you’re killing me here. You’re only thirteen. And we already had this discussion.”

“Would you rather I get pregnant?”

“I’d rather you not think about sex at all. At least not until you’re… forty.”

“Does sex make you nervous?”

“No. Yes. Why are we even having this conversation?” Leland twisted uncomfortably in the driver’s seat. A few days ago, he wasn’t certain if Abby would ever recover. Now he couldn’t find a way to turn her off.

“Let me out here,” Abby ordered when her dad drove closer to the school property.

“I can pull around the bus line and bring you up front.”

“Please don’t. I can walk from here.”

Leland stopped the truck. “You don’t have to.”

Abby gathered her backpack. “Don’t be late when you pick me up.”

“I love you too.”

Abby opened the door to get out. “And don’t wave when you drive off. Someone might see.”

Leland kept his hands on the wheel while Abby trekked toward the crowd of students congregating out front. He slowly accelerated and made a U-turn when he saw Melissa drop her boys off. He followed the Mercedes SUV through the busy parking lot and rolled up on the passenger side with his window down. He bumped the horn. “Nice wheels,” he said when Melissa lowered her window.

“It’s a rental.”

“Can I buy you a cup of coffee?”

“My schedule’s packed this morning.”

“I know a place near here.”

“I’m really busy.”

Leland waved his arm out the window. “Follow me.”

* * *

Melissa followed the rickety pickup toward a busy intersection outside an older shopping plaza, while her inner voice kept telling her to turn around. She had her hair in a bun with her cheap clothes on and a pair of sneakers without socks—and now of all places—she found herself outside a Waffle House restaurant. “I’ve never been to one of these,” she said when she got out to meet Leland in the parking lot.

“It survived the flood.”

“So did Noah’s Ark. Doesn’t mean I want to eat there.”

Leland held the door for her and claimed a table in the back by the window. Bacon sizzled on the grill, adding to the aroma of fresh coffee, warm hash browns, and buttered toast.

Melissa used a napkin to wipe her seat. “Do you take all your girlfriends here?”

“Only the ones I want to impress,” Leland said with a smirk. “I left a message on your phone.”

Melissa took her seat and squeezed a dollop of hand sanitizer from her purse. She offered some to Leland. “About the other night…”

“No worries.”

“I was drunk and upset, and I should have known better. I shouldn’t have put you in an awkward situation.”

“It wasn’t awkward for me,” Leland reassured her. He flagged the waitress coming toward them and ordered two coffees. One with cream and one with sugar. “I think about you.”

Melissa blushed. “I heard you joined a new band,” she said in an obvious attempt to redirect the conversation.

“More like Brad Siegel’s pet project. The band’s a short term gig. They needed a warm body to play guitar.”

“They’re lucky to have you.”

Leland reached across the table to touch Melissa’s hand.

Melissa moved her arm away when her coffee arrived. “Life is crazy for me right now.”

“Me too.”

“I’m not sure I have time to be involved in a new relationship.”

“I hear you,” Leland offered. “I wrote a new song.”

“Where do you find the time?”

“The song found me. I need to work out the melody, but the lyrics are there. Like they were waiting to be discovered all along.”

Melissa sipped her coffee. “Please don’t tell me I inspired you.”

“And what if you had?”

Melissa glanced out the window to see a biker with a chain wallet dismount a matte black Harley and amble toward the restaurant. “How’s Abby?”

“She’s not thrilled about going back to school.”

Melissa slid forward on the bench seat to open her prescription under the table. “I’ll trade you my boys for Abby.”

Leland sipped his coffee, ignoring the ambient chatter from the patrons in the booth behind him. “Careful what you wish for. I might take you up on that offer.”

Melissa pinched the pain medication between her thumb and index finger. When she brought it to her mouth, she pretended to pick a tooth before she sipped her coffee again. “You must have someone in your life vying for your attention.”

“I like you,” Leland started. “You don’t pull punches. You’re not afraid to speak your mind.”

“And you don’t know when to quit.”

Leland focused on Melissa. “I know when someone’s worth fighting for.”

“I’m older than you. Ten years from now, you won’t give me a second glance.”

“Ten years from now, we could be having a very different conversation. I think you underestimate yourself.”

“Says Doctor Phil…”

Leland reached across the table to touch her hand again. “Let me take you out tonight.”

“On a date?”

“Call it what you want.”

“I have my boys.”

“So get a sitter.”

“She’s out of town.”

“I know a mutual friend…”

“I’m not leaving my boys with Sid.”

“Why not?”

“Because he’s Sid. He’d have them drinking malt liquor and surfing porn.”

“I’m sure he’s seen your boys before.”

“Only when I’m home,” Melissa pushed back gently. She liked the touch from Leland’s hand. “I’m not sure this is a good idea.”

“I want to know you better.”

“I’d say you know me pretty well.”

Leland persisted. “You want the same from me. You’re just afraid to admit it.”

“Are you always this arrogant?”

“Don’t mistake confidence for arrogance.”

Melissa wanted to kiss him, but she liked to see him squirm. “I don’t know.”

“One dinner. Somewhere quiet, where we can talk.”

“One condition,” Melissa relented. “I get to choose where we eat.”

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