Enemy Among Us: Chapters 70-71

Melissa charged inside her foyer to find Sid playing Mozart on the grand piano in her music studio. She dropped her purse on the marble end table and yanked off her heels. Out of tissues and out of patience, she wiped her eyes with the back of her hands and disrupted Sid’s live performance with a firm, “Get out!”

Sid ended the concerto abruptly. “I take it your night didn’t end well.”

“How long have you known?”

Sid closed the lid over the piano keys. “What are you talking about?”

“Leland Presley is a fake.”

“How much have you been drinking?”

“Not enough.”

Sid got up and checked the time on his Rolex. “Why don’t you rewind the tape for me.”

“Where are the boys?”

“Sleeping. Or at least pretending to be.”

“I can’t believe he lied to me.”

“Who?”

“Leland. Peter… Blankenpoop or whatever the hell his real name is or was. And don’t tell me you didn’t know about his past.”

Sid left the studio to pour two glasses of scotch from the crystal decanter in the antique cabinet outside the formal dining room.

Melissa cupped the tumbler in her hand and downed the contents in one motion. The burn took the edge off her heightened anxiety. “Leland Presley is a hoax.”

“I’ve known Leland for years.”

“Did you know he’s not from Nashville?”

“Neither are most of your peers.”

“He never graduated from Vanderbilt.”

“Neither did you.”

“I’m saying he never went to Vanderbilt. I don’t believe he ever went to college, period. He invented his past to get close to me.”

“So do most of the people in this business.”

“I don’t have sex with most people in this business!”

Sid sipped his drink. He kept his voice down when he spoke. “You’re upset. I get that. But from Leland’s perspective—”

Melissa slammed her empty drink on the counter. Her smeared mascara gave her raccoon eyes. “Whose side are you on?”

“I’m not taking sides. I’m trying to be objective.”

“Screw objective. You have a counterfeit artist about to go live in front of millions, and you don’t seem the least concerned.”

“The man can sing, Melissa. And he’s a guitar virtuoso.”

“So you knew about his past?”

Sid finished his drink and poured himself another. “What I know and what I believe to be important are mutually exclusive.”

“You sound like a politician.”

“I’m a talent agent, not a private investigator.”

“How did you find Leland, let alone agree to represent him?”

Sid brought his glass to his lips. This time he lowered it without drinking and paused to recite a Native American parable. “There’s a story about an old Cherokee grandfather who was talking with his grandson. The Indian grandfather tells the boy, ‘There is a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies, and ego. The other is Good. It is joy, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, and truth.’ The boy ponders his grandfather’s words for a moment. Then he asks him, ‘Which wolf wins?’ To which the grandfather calmly replies, ‘The one you feed.'”

“And what does that have to do with anything?”

Sid knocked back his drink and winced. “Leland’s been through some difficult times. Before, and after, his daughter was born. He chose the path of joy, love, and hope, when so many of us would rather feed our anger and resentment.”

“You never answered my question. Of all the starving artists this town devours, why do you represent him?”

“The same reason I represent you. I see the good. I see the potential. I first met Leland at a songwriters show in Memphis. When I heard him play guitar, I knew he had something special.”

“So you knew about his past?”

“Not at first. I left the bar when his set was finished. Leland was rushing to catch a bus. There was this barefoot Vietnam veteran begging for spare change outside the club. He looked ravaged like he’d been on the streets a long time. He wore one of those old Army jackets covered in patches. Probably served multiple tours. I heard Leland tell him he was broke and that he barely had bus fare to get home. I believed him.”

“So what?”

“Leland thanked the man for his service to our country and told him he had never walked a day in his shoes. Then he took off his own boots and gave them to the man right then and there. Leland told him, ‘The least I can do is let you walk in mine.'”

“Doesn’t change what he did,” Melissa protested. “Leland lied to me.”

“I’m not saying I condone his actions. I’m saying, what we do in this life defines us more than the words we speak—or the words we don’t.”

“Actions speak louder than words… I get it.”

“I’m not sure you do.” Sid followed Melissa back to her music studio. “From your perspective, I get the hell hath no fury part. But you have to understand—”

“Understand what, Sid? How the man I thought I knew has been living a lie all along? How I trusted him with my life? With my son’s life?”

“Don’t dismiss him on account of his past. Leland is a good man.”

“Stop calling him Leland. His name’s Peter Blankenbump from bumfuck Illinois. Both parents are still in prison, and you’re about to put him on stage for a benefit concert he has no business performing in.”

“One thing’s got nothing to do with the other.”

“Like hell it doesn’t. Leland Presley is a sham.”

“He doesn’t sing like one. And right now, he has the biggest gig of his life coming up. I pulled a lot of strings to make this happen. Called in a lot of favors from people who would rather see someone else get this shot.”

“So he’s all about the money for you. Is that it?”

“And my reputation in this business. And this is a business, Melissa. I know how you feel right now. I’ve been there.”

“You can’t begin to know how I feel.”

“I suppose you’re right. I’ve never been in love with another man before. I’ve been with them, but I haven’t loved them. Not the way I love this business.”

Melissa covered her face, her anger morphing into despair. An overwhelming sadness she couldn’t dismiss. “I don’t even know who he is. I feel betrayed. And lost. Where am I supposed to go from here?”

“Wherever you want. Whenever you want.” Sid hugged her. “Focus on your boys and your career.”

“He should have been honest with me.”

“People from all walks of life flock to Nashville to reinvent themselves. Most are honest, hardworking folk chasing a dream few will ever achieve. It takes a lot more than flair to carve your name in this city. Leland’s trying to do whatever he can with what he has.”

Melissa reached in her pocket for a leftover tissue to blow her nose. “You’re taking his side again.”

“Leland did what most men do when they’re scared.”

“Scared of what?”

“Commitment. Rejection. Losing you. I’m not saying he shouldn’t have told you about his past. But you have to see it from his perspective.”

“I’m not sure I can do that.”

“Then you have to let him go.”

“I’m not sure I can do that either.”

“Then sleep on it. You might see things differently in the morning.”

Melissa rubbed her eyes. “I miss Tomás so much. He would have seen this coming. I should have been more careful.”

“Don’t do this to yourself.”

“Leland was everything I’ve ever wanted. A polar opposite of Martin, at least I thought so.” She craved another drink, but more alcohol wouldn’t cure what ailed her. “I must look bat shit crazy right now. I know I sound it.”

Sid returned to the piano and played something soothing. “You’re a beautiful, intelligent woman.”

“Not today.”

“I can stay if you want me to.”

“I don’t know what I want anymore.”

Sid stopped playing. He sat up straight and rested his hands on his legs. “It’s been a long night. I should probably get going.”

“Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For listening. For putting up with me all these years. For keeping me from coming unglued. I still wish you’d told me about Leland, though.”

“There’s nothing to tell. He’s still the same man inside. The same man you fell in love with.”

“Love is a heavy word. I’m not sure I can carry the weight anymore.”

Sid left the piano to offer Melissa a parting hug. “Your festival tour starts soon. Life on the road always brings a new perspective. Everything will come together in time.”

Chapter 71

Leland rehearsed the tired lyrics he’d crooned over and over inside the Capital Country studio with the band he would lead at the benefit concert. He played the same notes systematically without passion, his thoughts scattered aimlessly while he sang into the microphone.

When the song concluded, he rested the Kramer six-string on its stand and snatched his bottled water off the floor. He owed Melissa the apology of a lifetime for destroying her trust in him, but he had no idea how to pull it off without pushing her further away.

What are you doing?” Brad Siegel’s voice bellowed through the intercom from the engineer’s control room.

Leland finished his water. “I need a break.”

Play it again.

“We’ve played it enough,” Leland replied. His band members concurred with subtle nods and drawn faces.

One more time,” Brad insisted.

Leland picked up the guitar and tuned the A string. “You heard the man,” he told the band. “From the top.”

The drummer rapped his sticks together as Leland counted, “One, two… one two three four.” And off he went, strumming the guitar as he leaned toward the ribbon microphone and belted the first line.

STOP!” Brad’s voice boomed through the intercom speaker.

Leland signaled the band. “Now what?”

I don’t like what I’m hearing.

“Maybe you should have your ears checked,” Leland mumbled to himself.

I heard that!

Leland rolled his shoulders and craned his neck to relieve the tension in his upper back. The room was hot. The guitar felt heavy. “Let’s go again,” he told the rhythm guitarist who stood beside the curvy keyboard player and the Sting doppelganger on bass.

Leland played the song as written note for note without zeal, his own indifference spilling out of him with every verse he projected in the studio. He perceived the band’s trepidation toward his troubled demeanor, and despite Brad Siegel’s leering gaze, he continued to the end with a rousing guitar solo along the way.

Take five,” Brad announced through the speaker.

The band cleared the room when Brad made his presence known. “My late grandmother could sing better than you today.”

Leland propped the guitar on its stand. “Then why don’t you invite her to join us?”

“Live is one thing. This studio is another. I need a track I can push on the radio. We’ve got thirty-six hours until the ball drops on this gig. Get your head in the game!”

Leland gestured at the control room. “My guitar sounds like shit.”

Brad pointed in the opposite direction. “The exit’s over there. If you’re not up to the challenge—”

“I’m good.”

“You don’t sound like it. And you sure as hell aren’t playing like it.”

Leland contemplated the invitation to leave and pursue a path of mutually assured destruction. “I just need some time.”

“That’s a luxury you don’t have.”

“I get it.”

“I’m not sure you do.”

Leland shifted his attention away from Brad when he caught Melissa’s image on a video monitor linked to a camera outside the control room. “I’ll be back in a second.”

* * *

Leland found Melissa in the hallway outside and stood for a moment in an awkward pose, not sure if he should reach out to her or play it safe and keep his distance. “I’m glad to see you.”

“Bad time?” Melissa asked.

“I think Brad needs a diaper change. Seriously, I’ve been thinking about you. About us.”

Melissa lowered her voice. “Can we go somewhere private?”

Leland motioned toward an isolation booth with a drum kit inside. He closed the door behind them. “I miss you.”

Melissa put her hands on his chest and gently pushed herself away. “I haven’t slept. I can’t eat. I feel like I owe you an apology for the way I acted the other night.”

“It’s not you who should be apologizing.”

“Martin can be a real jerk sometimes. I’m not sure why he did what he did, but I have my suspicions.”

Leland moved closer. “I should have been up front with you from the start. I should have never kept my past from you. I wasn’t looking for a relationship, but I never imagined how I would feel about you.”

Melissa smiled curtly. “I have this affect on men.”

“If I could rewind everything, I would,” Leland offered sincerely.

“Me too, which is what makes this so hard for me.”

“What are you saying?”

“I can’t see you anymore. I get why you kept your past from me. And I’m grateful to you for saving my son’s life. For inspiring me to ignore my critics and believe in myself. I think you are an amazing man with a God-given voice. You are a wonderful father, and Abby is so blessed to have you in her life.”

“I’m blessed to have you in my life as well.”

“You’re very sweet, but we’re very different people.”

“Which is why we complement each other.” Leland touched her arm. “We see things from different perspectives, but we make a great team.”

“You should have been up front with me. Your words, not mine. And I need to focus on my tour.”

“I don’t want our relationship to end.”

Melissa took a small step back and touched her hand to the side of her neck. “I’m sorry. The last thing I want to do is hurt you. I came here to tell you in person because I didn’t like how we left things between us.”

“After everything we’ve been through—”

Because of everything we’ve been through, Leland. We’re stronger now than we were when we met.”

“Stronger together than we are apart.”

“You’ll understand, eventually.”

“You’re wrong,” Leland countered.

“It’s not about right or wrong anymore. I have to see things for what they are, Peter Blankenbaum. I know who I am in my world. I think you still need time to sort yours out. You keep running from the past. I need to focus on the future.”

“So do I.”

“Says the married man.”

“Only on paper. My marriage ended a long time ago.” He reached for Melissa. “Rehearsal’s almost finished. We could go somewhere else and talk.”

“I can’t. But I’ll be at the concert tomorrow night to support the city.”

“Don’t leave.”

“I’m sorry, Leland. Or Peter. Or whatever your real name is.”

Leland followed her out of the isolation booth with his head down and mumbled to himself, “Look who’s running now.”

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