John smiled a little when she answered. He'd learned over the summer that she was usually in a good mood most every day. He'd seen her tired and not want to wake up, but not full-out crabby as he'd seen pretty much everyone else in the band at some point while touring. It was one of the reasons they did the hotel thing on occasion, to get out from on top of each other.
"What are you up to?"
'Oh, you know,' she said.
"No, I don't, Miss College Girl."
'Oh, well, studying.'
'I know, but I guess it's still engrained in me to get my homework done on Friday so that I don't have to do it Sunday night.'
"Your mom taught you that?"
"Your mom is pretty smart."
'You're just saying that because she's your girlfriend.'
'Hmm. I'm not sure I believe you.'
He chuckled softly. "So, no plans?"
'Not really,' she said. She sounded a little sad at that admission.
"Do you want some?"
'I'd love some.'
"Yeah? I can send a car to get you."
'Where am I going?'
"Hartford. Sorry it's nowhere glamorous."
'I'm not sleeping on the bus, am I?'
"Nope. You can bring your swimsuit even."
'Really?' She sounded pretty excited about that. She loved to swim he'd learned this summer. She also much preferred not sleeping on the bus, though she never forced him to get a room.
"Absolutely. I don't know what time you'll get back Sunday night, but you can sleep in the car on the way back."
'Okay. That's fine. Is Mom going to be there?'
"No, I hadn't asked her. I thought I'd surprise you since I didn't get to see you off and everything."
'Oh. It's okay. I understood.'
"And you wanted your mom to take you to college."
'Well, yeah,' she said quietly after a moment's hesitation.
"It's okay. I get it. Claude told me that may be the case. Stupid me didn't even think about it, but I get it. It's been you and your mom for a long time."
'You're not stupid. If you'd been able to and wanted to I wouldn't have been mad or told you not to.'
"You probably had a quieter check-in without me."
'No, don't say that.'
"Well, in any case, if I'm ever hedging in on time with your mom, please let me know."
'You weren't hedging in on time. Honest. I just wasn't devastated you couldn't make it.'
"All right. Everything going okay?"
"You like all of your classes?"
He chuckled at her enthusiasm. "You're definitely your mother's daughter, but that's good. I'm glad you're excited. Everything quiet? You're not being bothered?"
'No. I get asked stuff once in a while, but I think being all girls' helps.'
"I suppose that may be true."
'I did have one of my professors ask me if you were available.'
She laughed then.
"Oh," he said. He hadn't thought of that aspect of having a college-aged daughter. "Really?"
"Huh. Is she cute?"
"I'm just teasing, but if it would help your grade to meet her…"
'I'll let you know if I get desperate.'
"I somehow doubt that will happen, but I'll be on standby."
She laughed softly.
"What did you tell her anyway?"
'I sort of evaded the question. What am I supposed to say? You guys haven't said anything yet, no one seems to have found out. I don't want to be the one to out you.'
"You can tell them I'm involved, that's not a dishonest answer."
'Okay. I just wasn't sure.'
He thought on it for a second. They'd fielded lots of questions this summer, but oddly he couldn't recall one question about his personal life. His love life. Melissa as his daughter was his personal life and they were all about questions on that, but romantic, no. Not a one that he could recall coming up about who he was involved with or what she might think about Melissa.
"You can answer questions, Melissa. If you're really not sure. Like if they ask if I've ever been in jail or something, that's something you can be evasive about. My love life, you can answer vaguely without specifics."
"That okay with you? I mean, we're not hiding. We're just letting having you sink in and, well, sort of enjoying having our time be our time."
'So. The car?'
"Uh, yeah. I already called one, should be there in about forty minutes. That'll get you here in plenty of time. You want to play with us this weekend?"
'That's a ridiculous question.'
He chuckled. He was banking on that answer, which was why he'd already called the car. He was almost positive she wouldn't turn down the opportunity to play with them.
"All right. I'll let the guys know."
'I've missed it.'
"I've missed you."
"Yes. It's been going on nineteen years since I've spent any length of time with someone related to me. We didn't try to kill each other, so I'd say that was a pretty good first time."
'You were afraid that would happen?'
"Afraid? No, not really. Uncertain how we'd be together, a little. I wasn't sure if you'd expect things from me."
"I caught on to that pretty quickly."
'I mean, other than a roof over my head and food.'
"I know, demanding thing you are."
She laughed. 'I have to bring my books.'
"If you have to, you have to. You can't have that much a month into things."
'There are quizzes!'
"I suppose. Remember, I'm just an uneducated schmuck."
'You are not. Not going to college doesn't mean you're uneducated.'
"Don't let your grandma and grandpa hear you say that."
'I'm not my grandparents!'
"We're very lucky that's true."
"All right. I'll see you in a couple of hours."
'What would you have done if I'd said no?'
"I took for granted you'd want to play."
"On that I can say like father like daughter. I never turn down an opportunity to play."
'I can name one.'
"I changed my mind! And that wasn't me playing, that was me listening to you play."
'I know. I'm teasing.'
"Yeah, yeah. See you in a bit."
He disconnected and dialed another number.
"I'd give anything to hear your voice in person tonight."
'Mm. Maybe those few days in Nantucket were a bad idea.'
"No, just spoiled me. I want more of those days."
'Me, too,' she whispered.
"Why are you whispering?"
'I don't know. Scotty's taking a nap.'
"Wouldn't want to wake the dog."
'Well, no, because he's being quiet and leaving me alone.'
"Ah. There's a remedy for that."
"Don't have a dog!"
'I didn't want another dog after Princess died. Stu did, and here I am. This was exactly why I didn't. I knew Missy was going to college soon and it'd be just us. He wanted one. He was sick. I gave in.'
"I'm teasing you. I like Scotty even if he messes up my suit jackets."
'It was only once.'
"I know, again with the teasing you."
'How are you?'
"I'm much better now that Melissa's agreed to come see me this weekend and I'm talking to you."
'She is? Why didn't I hear about this?'
"Because I just hung up with her. It was sort of spur of the moment. I don't stop to think about how far points are from one another, but Candy or Jazmin pointed out that she was only about an hour or so from us in Hartford. So, I called a car company and called her."
'I bet she'll love that.'
"I hope so. I made sure I wasn't interrupting anything."
'I think she'd still rather go with you.'
"That's nice to think, but I bet there are things that could trump spending Friday and Saturday night with her old man."
'In a band? Are you serious?'
"Well, you know, parties."
'Not much with the partying.'
"Given anymore thought to being in Tampa for Christmas?"
'No,' she said with a sigh. 'I mean, I have, but I haven't come to a decision. I was going to talk to Missy when it got a little closer, see how she's feeling.'
"After Thanksgiving may be a good time because she'll have seen your folks. You know?"
'Yeah. Maybe so.'
"Uh oh. I know that tone. What happened with the folks?"
'Oh, Dad called again.'
"About letting her hang out with me."
'Yes. She was on the cover of Guitar Player, John!'
"I know, and that's outstanding. Maybe you don't see it that way, but that means she's getting recognized not just for writing the song."
'I know that, and I'm ecstatic for her. Really. Dad, though.'
"I can imagine."
'He asked me if I really thought there was no truth to Darcy's story.'
"I took a fucking DNA test! How much more truth can there be then the test coming up negative?"
'He's suggesting that there had to be a reason she thought it was you.'
"I swear to God, Claire, I don't know her. I was with one person after you prom weekend and it was not Darcy Whatever Her Name Is. After prom and graduation I moved into X's place and was on the couch. Not much space or privacy for having sex with anyone."
'I didn't say I was suggesting it, John. I believe you. I do. He's my father.'
"And he hates me."
"Jesus. If only he knew!"
Claire laughed softly at that.
"I'd never tell him, but Christ, he probably thinks I pressured you or something."
'I know, I'm sorry. He's just Dad.'
"No, I'm sorry. It's more than just being Dad. He's a vindictive ass who can't let the past go and doesn't want to see you or your daughter happy."
"I'm sorry. It pisses me off. Fuck. And then you'd rather spend Christmas with him."
'That's not it! I've just never not spent Christmas with them, and I'm not sure how Missy would feel about it.'
'I will, John. We've been sort of busy.'
"I know. I'm sorry. How's the designs coming?"
'Good! Sent them off last week actually.'
"You didn't tell me."
'Not intentional, just slipped my mind.'
"So they'll be in those stores by Christmas?"
'Yes, should be by Thanksgiving. The nice thing about the stores and knowing people, we can produce a small lot and see how demand goes. I can always expand from here if they sell well.'
"You have doubts they will?"
'Oh, there are always doubts. I suppose it's the same as writing a song, you're never sure what response is going to be to it.'
"I hear ya. Well, send me pictures."
'I can do that.'
"Okay. And think about Christmas. I'd like you to think about coming down for Christmas and not going back until you have to for the summer."
'I can't stay there for months.'
'I don't know.'
"You tell me what equipment you need and it'll be there for you. Need a separate phone line to conduct business on? You've got it. I assume you have a dedicated phone line there at the house."
"Well, then, have calls forwarded to my place. No one will know where you are."
'That does sound nice. No winter. No snow.'
"In bed with me every night."
'I wouldn't need you to keep me warm, though.'
He chuckled softly. "If you aren't wearing clothes any of those nights you would. It still gets chilly at night there."
'I don't remember.'
'No. You kept me plenty warm.'
'I'll think about it.'
"You call Dominic with a list of everything you'd need. He'll arrange it. Whatever it is. Don't hold back."
'I'd pay for it.'
"I'd expect no less, but you still need someone down there to make the arrangements."
"That's what I pay him for."
'I know. You're talking about a place in Boston, too.'
"Yeah, I don't foresee us living there. More a place for Missy to live if she wants to and us to stay when we visit. It just seems better than a hotel every time."
'Yes, because a condo mortgage is cheaper than a few years' worth of hotels.'
"No, of course not, but we'd be giving her a place to live, too. Maybe she'd want to stay on-campus. I don't know. She can't practice her guitar on-campus at one in the morning."
'Probably not in a condo either.'
"If we own the interior of the unit we can soundproof her room to an extent so she can."
"I mean if you'd rather buy a house there…"
'That wasn't what I was implying at all.'
"Okay. I just figured a condo would be low maintenance. We wouldn't have to worry about snow and grounds upkeep if she goes touring with us for the summers."
"What are you going to do tonight?"
'Going to a movie with Cindy's mom, actually.'
'Yeah. She called and asked.'
"Good for you. I didn't realize you were friends with her."
'We're not good friends, but we've gotten together for dinner or a glass of wine once in a while.'
"Enjoy. What movie?"
'I'm not sure. We said we'd decide when we got there.'
'I will. Kiss Missy for me.'
'Have a good weekend.'
"We will. I wish you were here."
'I know. You're going to be in Memphis, I may see about that.'
"I look forward to it, but I also know you've got stuff that you need to do so I won't hold you to it."
"Call Dominic," he said.
"Thank you. Night."
He hung up with her and dialed a third number. Neal would probably think he was hallucinating with John using the phone so much today.
"Hey Ashley, it's John Bender, is Mark there?"
'He is. One moment.'
John glanced at the clock on the nightstand, assuming the call should finish up well before Melissa got here. He'd have to text her his room number because he'd forgotten to give it to her. The car would get her right here, but not to his room.
'John. How's it going?'
'No,' he said. 'Nothing. I've sent several people to talk to her at the bar she hangs out at regularly, and she hasn't changed any habits. She hasn't mentioned anything to anyone about it, even after saying that stuff on the radio.'
'I can still pursue the slander suit. I'm happy to do it, but I think the DNA test coming out negative goes a long way to showing you didn't pay her to have an abortion.'
"Yeah, from what Claire says she doesn't have anything to go after her for anyway. I'm not out to make her life more miserable. I'd just really like to know what made her say it. Was she looking for her fifteen minutes?"
'I can keep digging. I haven't done the full-court press. I just sent some people I know to talk to her, talk to patrons. I can dig through her phone records, bank accounts, stuff like that.'
"Do it," John said. "Of all the people to make the claim, someone Claire and I went to high school with just seems fishy to me."
'I hear ya, Buddy, glad to do it. I saw the Guitar Player cover. Looking good. You didn't tell me your daughter was beautiful.'
"She looks like her mother."
'Ah. Well, you're a lucky guy.'
"I am that."
'I'll keep you posted.'
"Thanks for taking me call. Sorry to bother you on a Friday night."
'No bother. Ashley and I are in for the night so you didn't interrupt anything other than us going to bed early.'
"Is that what I have to look forward to?"
'You contemplating getting married, John?'
"I'm contemplating living with her for now. I imagine, yes, marriage would come out of the deal."
'Never thought I'd hear those words coming out of your mouth. Good luck. Might want to at least get her some hardware to know the living together is a commitment.'
'Jewelry, my friend. Commitment tokens.'
"Oh," John said. The only jewelry he'd gotten her to this point was the necklace back for Valentine's Day.
'Have a good weekend. Knock 'em dead.'
He hung up then, texting Melissa his room number. He already had an extra room key up here for her so she didn't need to bother with that.
Hardware. Jewelry. Tokens of commitment.
Things he'd never in his life thought about.
Would it be tacky or wrong to take Melissa with him to shop for something like that? Would she get the wrong idea if he did? Think he was going to propose right away or something? He had no idea what the rules were for something like that, but if he was going to get her a ring she was going to, presumably, wear on an everyday basis he wanted to know she'd like it. He wanted her to wear it on an everyday basis, and excited about wearing it.
And then another person other than Melissa occurred to him.
He glanced at his clock as he looked online to see if they had a listed number. Sure enough, they did. He wasn't sure why he was surprised by that.
He dialed the number, wondering when the last time he'd ever talked on the phone this much in a day was.
'Clark residence,' a female voice sounding much too young to be Allison said.
"Hi. Is your mom home? Allison?"
'Just a minute,' she said, setting the phone down. 'Mom! Phone's for you!'
John chuckled softly.
'Hello?' she said.
"Hi Allison. This is John Bender. I just need a few minutes of your time. Is this a bad time?"
'No, not really. What can I help you with?'
"Well, I was hoping you could do me a favor. From the sounds of it, you know Claire better than just about anyone. Right?"
'I'd like to think so.'
"If I give you my email address do you think you could email me examples of rings you think she would like."
He sighed. "Rings. You know. To wear. I haven't seen her wearing one this whole year or so. I have no idea what she'd like. I also don't want to get her something similar to what she may already have."
'Oh, yes, I suppose I could do that.'
"Don't worry about cost, it only being available locally, or anything, I'd just like a feel for a, um, setting type that she'd like. You know?"
"Okay," he said, giving her his email address. "And I'd appreciate it if we could keep this between us? I don't know when I'm going to do this, just floating the idea for now."
'Right, sure. I can do that. No problem.'
"Thanks, I appreciate it. My other option was to take Melissa, and I wasn't sure that would be too wise."
'I could see where that might not be.'
'Sure. You're welcome.'
"All right. Well," he said. Not sure what else to say. They were never friends. He knew of her, sure, but that was the extent.
'Thanks for calling.'
"Makes you feel better I'm thinking of taking it beyond living in sin?"
'Oh, no. I think living in sin would probably be a wise path for her right now.'
"Don't let her parents hear that."
She laughed softly. 'I won't.'
He hung up then, glad he thought of Allison. Taking Melissa would have just been too weird. Farrah maybe would have been a good option. She was a little more down to earth than Candy and Jazmin, but she still wasn't Claire and didn't know her.
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com