Monday, July 01, 2019

Weekly Story #52 [FINAL]: Thresholds of the Roaming Nightmare

And now we come to the final story in this whole project. This entire time I knew I wanted to write a new story with characters from my novel, Thresholds of the Grand Dream, and as week 52 came closer I decided a mini-sequel would make a perfect sendoff. One challenge was in avoiding anything that might give too much away about its predecessor. I don't think spoilers are really that important, but on the other hand, I do intend this as sort of an advertisement for the novel.

As far as future plans go, I have some novel drafts that need polishing, though I'll probably go a more traditional route with them. I have a few unpublished stories I'm trying to shop around. I definitely want to put together some illustrations for each of the weekly stories, whenever I can find time. I also want to publish collections of every story on this site.

For now, I can consider this whole thing Complete. To those who have been reading week to week, thank you. Whether a particular story was to your taste or not, I hope it was an interesting experience.

EDIT (7/3/19): Forgot to mention, but Thresholds of the Grand Dream is 50% through the month of July on Smashwords.com. Check it out if you haven't already!



THRESHOLDS OF THE ROAMING NIGHTMARE


*


AWAKE


Not many sixth graders go to school knowing what a good number of their classmates' dreams are like, but Sonia Obata did. During the day she led a more-or-less ordinary life. She went to class, hung out with friends, watched TV with her dad and his girlfriend. This morning she stood at the bus stop along with other kids from her apartment complex, as she always did.
But whenever she went to sleep, she had access to the Baku's Fang, which enabled her to leave her own dream and travel to others. Most of the time, she passed through unnoticed. The rest of the time, people tended to see her pixie cut hairdo and mistake her for a boy… but that was their problem, not hers. 
Even now, at the bus stop, she was standing next to an eighth-grader she'd just bumped into about three weeks ago, as he was giving an oral report to a classroom full of beetles. She'd used his dream as a shortcut through town while searching for a nightmare that had gotten loose and invaded other dreams. Part of her was still waiting for him to recognize her and bring it up somehow, but so far nothing. Just as well. That wasn't the conversation she'd want to have first thing in the morning with some dude she barely even knew.
The bus arrived, and Sonia got on, and as usual, sat next to Rebecca… who was looking a lot more bleary than usual. "You okay?" Sonia said. She checked a few rows back, where Rebecca's twin brother Isaac was yukking it up with his buddies. 
"Yeah, yeah, fine," Rebecca said, fiddling with her braid. "Just had the worst dream last night. Woke up at 5 AM, and couldn't get back to sleep."
"Aw, no, that's awful. Wanna tell me what happened?"
"You think you can help?" Rebecca knew all about Sonia's abilities. Sometimes Sonia brought her along into the dream world to have some fun together. "I don't remember everything."
"Anything at all." Sonia never did find that one nightmare. But surely it wouldn't have run into Rebecca, would it?
Rebecca bundled up her jacket and hunched her head over. "I was at some kind of carnival… I was supposed to go to a piano recital, but I couldn't find the booth. But then this really awful… thing… came out. It was a spider, but instead of a regular spider head, it—"
"Had three horse heads? And they all had sharp teeth?"
Rebecca stared at her. 
Sonia said, "That's the loose nightmare I've been looking for the last few weeks. Rebecca, I'm sorry. I should have killed that thing by now."
"It's not your fault. I mean, didn't you say it was really fast?"
"Yeah, and it keeps disappearing on me. I thought I had it cornered at the dam last night, but then I just… lost it. That must have been right before it found your dream."
"You think it'll still be there tonight?"
"I doubt it," Sonia said. "Nightmares like that always escape before the dream ends." And now it had wrecked one of her friends' dreams. "You wanna help me try to catch it?"
Rebecca leaned back and gazed out the window. "I guess it has been a while since we had an adventure together."
The bus dropped them off at Baker Middle School, and Sonia and Rebecca met up with Erin in the cafeteria. Erin scowled at Isaac—he knew what he did—but with Sonia and Rebecca was nothing but sunshine. "Hey, you guys! How's it going?"
"Going just fine," Sonia said.
Erin looked at Rebecca's drooping eyelids. "You sure? You don't need to see the nurse, do you, Rebecca?"
"No, I'm fine. But listen, there's some dream crap going on, and Sonia needs our help."
"Ooh, a mission." Erin grinned with shining eyes. Sonia sometimes brought her along to other dreams as well, and Erin especially enjoyed them. "What kind?"
They gathered at a table. Sonia filled her in. 
"Problem is, I have no idea where it'll go next. It's moving around constantly, and I don't have a way to detect it long-distance. If I could set a trap for it… but how?"
Erin had been deep in thought while she listened. "Is there any kinda pattern for all the places you found it?"
"No, and I could hardly tell which dreams it was going to until it got to Rebecca. The only way I have to look for it is the cloud of dreamstuff it gives off when it's outside, or hope Firecracker can catch its scent."
"Maybe if we fan out over the city," Erin said. "Whenever one of us finds that cloud, we can regroup and gang up on it."
"I like that idea," Rebecca said, resting her head on the tabletop. "Maybe Isaac can help."
"Nope. No way," Erin said. 
"Only if we need to," Sonia said.
"Oh well," Rebecca said. "I hope we find it. I like being able to punch my nightmares."
"I can't wait to get my hands on it myself," Sonia said. Normally she didn't like acting out of anger—she had too much of a history with that. But if this nightmare kept running around too long, it could turn truly monstrous and start seriously screwing around with people's minds, maybe even the whole city. She had been given the Baku's Fang specifically to prevent things like that from happening. 
It had already gotten on her last nerve.
The bell rang, and everybody scattered to their classrooms. Sonia was glad for the help, but wished she'd asked sooner. Erin and Rebecca had helped out with plenty of dream problems already, including loose nightmares, but Sonia had thought at first that this nightmare would be simple. After all, originally it was just a spider. She'd been stubborn enough to think it wasn't getting out of hand. Now she couldn't deny it. 
What would that thing turn into next?


*


DREAMING


Sonia kept her home dream in the main office of her apartment complex. When she stepped out into the night, glowing lines cross-crossed over the parking lot in bright colors. The circles marked the thresholds—the entryways into other dreams. The fringes—the outer boundaries—spread out and shifted slowly over each other. Up in the sky, beams of colored light pointed to the locations of dreams on the ground. Every dream had a real-world location, invisible when awake. Only someone with Sonia's abilities could exit their own dream and see them.
The Baku's Fang hung from her neck, shaped like an upside-down teardrop, glowing with a bright blue. Sonia raised it and spoke into it like a microphone: "Firecracker!"
Her baku appeared in front of her, wiggling his trunk, thrashing his tail, his mane shimmering with many colors. She gave him a quick rub on the forehead and hopped on his back. "Okay, who's first?" she muttered. "Rebecca or Erin?"
She closed her eyes and slowed her breathing. Focusing her mind let her draw on the Fang's powers, and right now she used them to feel around the city for Rebecca and Erin's dreams, wherever they might be. One time she gained the ability to do virtually anything, even detect any dream she wanted, in an instant. But that wore off quickly, and now she'd have to meditate like a monk all night to find an isolated dream like that. 
Fortunately she knew a workaround. She'd figured it out a month ago, and it really opened things up for her.
Finding a physical location in the real world was easy—one of the first skills she'd learned, in fact. She knew where Rebecca and Erin lived, and now felt a path through town to each of them. Not that she didn't remember the way by heart. But by detecting Rebecca and Erin, she could focus just a little further, and follow the energy of their thoughts to wherever they were sending their dreams. She even found an unrelated dream that could give her a shortcut to Erin's.
After a few minutes of concentration, she knew exactly where to find her friends' dream selves.
Rebecca was close—her dream was down the highway, next to a car dealership. Sonia rode Firecracker down there in less than a minute. The threshold took up the right lane in front of the Toyota lot. Firecracker walked over it, and the threshold flashed, and the baku faded from beneath her. He couldn't survive within a dream, so he'd wait outside. 
Sonia's feet touched soft, less-than-stable ground.
She was standing on a cloud, and in front of her stood a colossal tree, with the ground miles underneath. Rebecca was hanging on to the trunk, pulling herself up to the next vine.
Sonia ran down the cloud as well as it would let her until she was right behind Rebecca. "Hey Rebecca, I made it!"
Rebecca looked over her shoulder. "Oh, hey. Right—I thought we had something to do tonight. Um." She looked down. "Little help?"
"I gotcha." Sonia crouched and laid her hands on the ground and focused. Energy from the Fang flowed through her into the cloud. It shifted from a soft powder into a glassy clay—the original dreamstuff the cloud was made of. Now that it was unshaped, Sonia extended it toward the trunk, under Rebecca's feet, then turned it back into cloud. Rebecca stepped off and joined Sonia on the cloud. Sonia did the same thing on the other side to get to the fringe and leave the dream.
Firecracker reappeared beneath Sonia, as if she'd never stopped riding him. 
"So I guess we're looking for Erin next?" Rebecca said as Sonia helped her onto Firecracker's back.
"Yup. She's over on the other side of the ridge. Here we go!"
In the path Sonia had felt, there was a dream on Highway 58 she could use as a shortcut. Space within dreams is often distorted, so sometimes she could take a few steps inside, and when she left, wind up halfway across town. This dream put them—minus Firecracker, of course—outside an ancient Aztec temple. Sonia and Rebecca only had to run from one side to the other to find the fringe. It let them out on top of a hospital building on the west side of Missionary Ridge, just minutes from Erin's dream. Rebecca had to climb back onto Firecracker again before they rode off.
They found the threshold on the roof of a small theater. It must have been pretty artsy, because Sonia couldn't think of any other reason for the mannequin legs sticking out of the front wall. But she'd would have to figure that out later. As soon as Firecracker even got close to that building, he started acting antsy. He climbed to the top, growling the entire way, waving his trunk everywhere.
"What's wrong, boy?" Sonia said. "You smell something?" If he'd picked up a scent, then… No! "Not here! It can't be!"
"So the nightmare's close?" Rebecca said, hopping off of Firecracker's back. "He doesn't think it's…" She nodded toward the threshold of Erin's dream.
"I think so." Sonia dropped down beside Rebecca. "But how? It would have to… But…"
Sonia broke the tip off the Fang and passed it to Rebecca. She ate it, and along with it a portion of Sonia's power. "Ready?" Sonia said.
They went into the threshold.
The sky turned blue.
"A carnival?" Sonia took a few uneasy steps ahead. A ferris wheel rolled next to a tilt-a-whirl down in the west. The building the girls were standing on became the platform for a roller coaster that ran toward the ridge. Something in the air gave off a grimy unease, like when it stops raining but the sun isn't out yet. A sure sign the nightmare was here. 
"Weird, just like my dream," Rebecca said. "I don't see Erin."
"Gimme a sec." Sonia shut her eyes and focused. Soon she could feel the rules of the dream—and not all of it came from Erin. "This dream wasn't supposed to be a carnival. I… think it might have come with the nightmare."
"What about Erin?"
"Erin's in… let's see… coming down the road… On one of those boats. You know, the kind they ride in Venice?"
"Gondolas?" Rebecca peered over the edge of the platform. "Hey, you're right. There's a stream now. Which way's she coming from?"
"The way we just came. She's about to go under the roller coaster. But the nightmare…"
"I think that's her coming up! Pass me a Fang piece!"
Sonia broke off another piece and ran to Rebecca's side to hand it over. Crystalline water now rippled through the canal that had been a city street. There were gondolas anchored along the sidewalks, with people milling around in front of the game booths and vendors. One gondola drifted underneath the scaffolding of the roller coaster. Sonia could see the pilot with his oar, but not Erin. At least, not until two eyes peeked over the edge of the gondola.
Erin saw them and waved, but also stuck her finger up over her mouth. Sonia understood and waved back. They couldn't make too much noise. The nightmare might hear.
Sonia and Rebecca went down the steps to the sidewalk. Rebecca hopped into a parked gondola and jumped from there into Erin's, while Sonia looked around for some sign of the nightmare. She hadn't been able to feel where it could have gone. A spider with three horse heads shouldn't be this hard to miss.
Rebecca and Erin hopped back onto solid ground next to Sonia. Erin was holding a battle axe. "Did you just make that?" Sonia said.
"Unshaped a chunk of the boat the second I gave her the Fang piece," Rebecca said.
"Gotta be ready," Erin said. "It's still here somewhere."
"Where's the last place you saw it?"
"Back there, by the cyclone ride. Sonia, it's even worse than you said. It's—" Erin screamed.
A hideous black shape was crawling on the roller coaster, with eight legs and three horselike heads. But now it had grown an extra set of pincers, and its bulbous spider's abdomen had changed into a sharp scorpion's tail. 
The nightmare crawled down the scaffolding. 
The girls ran.
People screamed as the nightmare leaped onto the ground. Some jumped into a booth or under a platform, others into the water. Sonia checked over her shoulder and saw the nightmare rampaging behind her. "Keep going!" Sonia said. "We're almost at the fringe!" The sound of the nightmare's legs tapping on the concrete made Sonia queasy. The whole creature looked like solid living death. Those teeth already made it hard enough to get a grip on it, even with a baku. Those claws might make it impossible.
Erin stopped beside Sonia and threw the axe in a perfect arc toward the nightmare, but a simple flick of a pincer swatted it away. The axe hit the water with a dull splash. "Worth a shot!"
The fringe lay across the sidewalk just before the intersection. Sonia could hear the heads hissing.
The girls jumped over the fringe, back into the night. Sonia called Firecracker back to her. "We don't have much time," she said. "Any ideas?" Firecracker ran to Sonia's side.
"Not me," Erin said. "All I had was the axe."
"I still can't figure out why it was a carnival," Rebecca said. "Or how it found both me and Erin!"
"Well don't ask me. It would've had to—"
The nightmare appeared from over the fringe. Dreamstuff wafted off of it, slowly dissolving it—too slowly to destroy it.
Sonia sprang onto Firecracker's back, and Rebecca and Erin scattered. But the nightmare only seemed interested in Sonia. It kept advancing, and she had Firecracker keep backing up. If she could only take a moment to focus. The nightmare would only need a second to sting or slash her. It couldn't kill her, but it would hurt. And if she woke up, she'd be back to square one the next night, and by then this thing could have evolved even further. It could grow wings for all she knew.
"What are you?" It couldn't be a coincidence that it found both Rebecca and Erin. The question was how? It would have had to know that Sonia knew them, and it would have needed a way to detect their dreams. 
Rebecca and Erin both started jumping and yelling, trying to get the nightmare's attention. But only one head looked back, and it never stopped advancing toward Sonia.
It was after Sonia all along. It wanted her to find it.
"Listen!" she shouted. "I'm the one it wants! It doesn't care about you! Let me distract it while you think of something!" 
"Way ahead of you!" Rebecca called back. "Just a minute." 
The nightmare snapped its pincers, almost close enough to snag Firecracker. Sonia had him skitter back. She couldn't forgive herself if she let Firecracker get hurt.
"Hey, ugly!" It wasn't a voice she was used to hearing, but it came from the sidewalk. And there Sonia was, riding her baku, several yards away from the real Sonia. "Why're you going after her? I'm right here!"
One of the heads saw her, and the nightmare stopped.
"Not her!" Another Sonia appeared on the other side of the road. "Look, you think I need a baku to take care of you? Come on, show me what you got!"
The nightmare turned toward that Sonia. Exactly what the real Sonia needed.
She had Firecracker grab its tail.
The nightmare tried to shake her off, but Firecracker bore his weight down, out of reach of barb, claw, and teeth alike, and able to keep up with its movements. Now Sonia could focus. Her energy flowed from her hands into the baku, through its arms, into the nightmare, so she could unshape it. If she could absorb some of its memory, figure out how it got here, so much the better. Things like this were big and unruly, so they could take a minute. 
The tail began to smooth and glisten.
It broke off, and Firecracker gobbled it up immediately. That made one less thing it could stab her with. Still plenty of claws and teeth, though. And now the nightmare was no longer fooled by Rebecca and Erin's decoys. It wouldn't let Sonia out of its sights.
She'd felt its hatred for her, its desire to hunt the hunter, its craving for a final showdown. But it still didn't make sense how it detected her friends' dreams. Finding specific dreams wasn't easy, even when it was someone you know!
Still, she saw an opportunity. Without the tail, it was defenseless from behind. It wanted a showdown? She could give it one. She had Firecracker leap into the air, twist around, and land right on its abdomen. He dug his hind claws into the exoskeleton, and his front claws into the nightmare's shoulders. The nightmare bucked and rocked like a wild bull, but Sonia held on. It had gotten smarter, but maybe a little too smart for its own good.
Sonia focused her mind. Rebecca and Erin, back to their true forms, cleared back.
The nightmare began to slow down. Sonia tried to read as much of its memory as she could. Its origins were nothing special. Just a dream about a carousel with an unwelcome spider. Then the spider escaped. Then she started chasing after it.
Then it started sniffing after her.
The nightmare froze into solid dreamstuff. Finally. Sonia slid off Firecracker's back and let him feast.
Sonia and her friends gathered together, the others hooting and cheering. "That was amazing!" Erin said. "Rodeo Sonia, rustlin' up nightmares!"
"You really showed that thing who's boss!" Rebecca said. "Just wish I'd gotten a crack at it."
"Hey, you still got time," Sonia said. "Firecracker hasn't gotten to the faces yet."
"You're right!" Rebecca ran over to the crumbling nightmare and gave each face a solid right hook, bursting them into powder. Firecracker sucked the powder up into a glob.
"That thing had my scent," Sonia said to Erin. "Or not really mine. The Fang's scent. That's how it always got away. It was so sensitive it could react whenever I even got close." Rebecca came back with a broad grin. "But since I've shared the Fang with you two so much…"
"It sniffed that and tracked us down," Erin said. 
"Funny." Rebecca held up her dusty fist. "It didn't look much like a greyhound."
"I think I read once that spiders have a strong sense of smell. Sonia, any chance you can get Firecracker to do that? Save you some time every night?"
"Nah." Sonia sat down on the curb. "Firecracker only has a nose for nightmares."
Firecracker was snuffling up the last bits of the nightmare off the road.
"I should have asked you two for help sooner," Sonia said. "There's still so much I don't know about nightmares, or the Fang. If I'd thought for a second that it could find you…"
"Well, live and learn," Erin said. "Something to keep in mind for future nightmares."
"Still… We could've stopped it before it came after you."
"Sonia, you've beaten up my brother," Rebecca said. "This is the last thing I'm going to hold against you."
Sonia's head dipped down. She hated to be reminded of that incident, but she appreciated the sentiment. At least now the nightmare was over.
"So we haven't shared powers in a while," Sonia said. "What do you wanna do now?"
Rebecca and Erin looked toward the weird artsy theater. Erin said, "That carnival should still be there. How about it?"
Sonia got up. "As long nothing makes us puke in our sleep. Let's go."

Monday, June 24, 2019

Weekly Story #51: The Indigo Fender of Spectra Q

And now we come to the penultimate story, which in fact was the second story I ever wrote for this project, based on the very first improv prompt I took from can-I-get-a.com. It also has one of my favorite titles in this series. Normally, to be quite honest, I hate coming up with titles, but this one came together quite nicely, if I do say so myself.


THE INDIGO FENDER OF SPECTRA Q

After a two-and-a-half hour drive and two traffic jams, Lita and her mother arrived at Uncle Benny's mansion. Mom rolled the car up the driveway and the gate closed behind them. Lita had been looking forward to this visit for a month. They could go to the arts festival downtown, and not only have a place to stay, but a place to stay with guest rooms and a pool. 
But that wasn't the real reason Lita was excited.
As soon as Mom parked the car, Lita grabbed her suitcase and rushed to ring the doorbell. The door opened, and her uncle, Benedict Diego, swept her up in his arms. "Lita! Oh good Lord, you've gotten so tall! No way you're in high school already. Tell me it's not true."
Lita laughed as she squeezed Uncle Benny. "Started just a couple weeks ago."
"Good God." He grinned at Mom. "Better be careful, won't be long before she'll be driving herself here."
"She might never leave," Mom said and gave Uncle Benny a hug. "How are you, Ben?"
"Great as always, Wanda. I guess Harold couldn't make it?"
"Nope, you know him. Saturday night's game night with his dad. Couldn't possibly miss that."
"Of course not. Well, ladies, make yourselves at home, as always."
Lita picked her suitcase back up and carried it up the stairs. On the way, she glanced over at the door to the basement. Uncle Benny kept his most personal stuff down there, and she'd never been allowed in. "No kids allowed," he'd say, until she no longer needed him to tell her. Before this last summer, Lita had never realized what could be so important. She'd never questioned how he could afford a house like this.
But then a few months ago, she watched that movie, and heard that song, and looked up that band, and saw none other than Benedict Diego listed as the lead guitarist.
Lita tossed her suitcase onto the bed in the guest room and checked the messages on her phone. On the home screen was the cover for the self-titled debut album of Benny's band, Spectra Q. The sight of it still made her heart leap. The band members posed in front of a green VW Beetle, with Uncle Benny on the far right, holding an indigo Fender Stratocaster. The same Fender had appeared on their other album covers as well, and in their few music videos.
One of Uncle Benny's acoustic guitars rested on a stand next to the window in the guest room. Lita had strummed that guitar during previous visits, always furtively and softly, to avoid anyone noticing her. But that guitar wasn't enough this time. The indigo Fender had to be somewhere in that basement, along with God knows what other kind of mementos from her uncle's not-quite-grunge-not-quite-ska band. This weekend, she was going to find that indigo Fender and play it.
She sat through dinner with her mom and uncle, listening to them talk about friends, about family members Lita hardly knew, about Mom's job. Guitars did come up, but only in reference to Lita. "I heard you've been taking lessons lately," Uncle Benny said. 
"Not lessons, really," Lita said. "I got some self-teaching books a few months ago, learned some chords." Lita had yet to even speak about Spectra Q with her parents, so as far as Mom knew, this was just a new hobby.
"Hey, a few chords is all you need most of the time. What kind of guitar?"
"Just a plain acoustic one, like in the guest room." She hadn't even brought it with her.
"Oh yeah, I tuned that up just for you. You can get some practice in. "
Lita nearly dropped her fork. She'd always thought it was a prized antique, not something you'd just hand off to an amateur. Yet he wanted her to play with it? "Th-thank you."
"You'll have to play something for us this weekend," Mom said.
No. Absolutely not. All Lita could do was strum chords and play a few lullabies. Even when she found the Fender, she wasn't going to play it for anybody else, only herself. She couldn't bear to humiliate herself in front of a rock legend. "I'll think about it."
"And if you need any tips, just ask me," Uncle Benny said. 
And he and Mom went on talking about life as if one of them had never been a rock star. Lita had no idea how to bring it up. There was so much she wanted to know. How did Uncle Benny feel about his fame and fortune? Was he still friends with the drummer, Keith Pilking? What was Mom doing during all this? Did she like the band, or did she hate every aspect of it?
Fortunately, this house was big enough that you could wander around for a while without running into anybody, even when everyone was wide awake. So a few hours later, after texting some friends back home to catch up on everything, she headed downstairs to carry out her mission.
To reach the basement door, she first had to pass by the open archway into the kitchen without anyone seeing her. 
And there was Mom at the kitchen table, drinking some coffee, reading an issue of Time. "Oh. Evening, Sweetie."
"Hey, Mom." Lita stopped in mid-step, then changed course toward the kitchen. "Uh… Just came down for a Coke."
"We're out," Mom said. "Benny's out to get more. You're welcome to some of this." She wiggled her coffee mug.
"Sure, why not?" This was such a big house, Lita had never even heard Uncle Benny leave.
Lita poured herself a cup—she was the only one she knew who took it black. Mom seemed totally relaxed in her bathrobe and slippers. She must have just taken a bath. Lita wanted one bad—all that time in the car had left her stiff and sweaty. But all that could wait until the basement was explored. 
At a quiet moment like this, with Mom sitting nice and cozy, and Uncle Benny out of the house, it might have been a perfect time to ask about Spectra Q. Mom could tell her more about what it was and what it meant, and why no one told Lita. On the other hand, Mom might know too much—some of the trouble Uncle Benny might have gotten into. The kind that could destroy any appeal in the indigo Fender.
Lita went up to the table. "Watcha reading?"
"Oh, it's an article about one of the artists that's at the festival tomorrow. Audra Gaines. She takes photographs, puts them in the middle of the canvas, and then paints a new scene around them." Mom held up the magazine to show her.
"Cool. I'm still hyped about seeing Junya Shinkai."
"The anime artist?"
"Excuse me, he's a professional illustrator. He just happens to do the art for that one series I like."
"Of course. I saw you packed that Blu-Ray for him to sign."
"Gotta bring him something, right?"
Mom smirked.
"Anyway," Lita said, "I'm off to…" She checked toward the hall. "To the living room. I'm just gonna chill out in there for a little bit, message my friends." This was a pretty big kitchen in a pretty big house. Hopefully Mom wouldn't hear her open the basement door.
"All right. Maybe we can watch a movie when Benny gets home."
"Sure. Sounds like fun." Lita sipped a little bit of coffee on the way out. After leaving the kitchen, she peeked back in to make sure Mom's eyes were on the magazine and not the archway. 
Lita crept down the hall to the basement door. 
She turned the knob and opened the door just wide enough to fit through. It was totally dark. She switched the coffee to her other hand, flipped the switch, and drew the door closed.
She lowered her feet as slowly as possible, and managed to reach the bottom without a creak. There was a whole hallway down here, stretching from one end of the house to the other.
Lita took another sip of coffee. Now to find out what was worth hiding down here.
The first door she opened was only a supply closet. The next was a bathroom, then a laundry room. Slim pickings so far. 
On the other side of the hall, she began to hit paydirt. As soon as she opened the door and turned on the light, she found herself in the control room of a recording studio. She took a big gulp from her mug, set it on a table, and stepped in. All those buttons, all these monitors, and there, on the other side of the glass, a piano! A bass! An acoustic guitar! Drums! 
Uncle Benny was still recording! Was he starting up a solo career? Does he have his old buddies from the band over for jam sessions? Were there future hit singles lurking inside this computer at this very moment? Oh, Lita wanted to mash on that piano, bang those drums, thrash that guitar right this instant. If she were the only one in the house, she might do it, but just seeing all this was more than enough.
She shut off the lights and moved on down the hall in a daze. Maybe someday she could record something of her own in that studio.
If that studio was paydirt, the next room was the motherlode: guitar after guitar after guitar after guitar. Gibsons displayed with Les Pauls, Fenders hanging next to Rickenbackers, basses standing beside twelve-strings. Some of them were signed—Jon Bon Jovi, Eddie Van Halen, Carlos Santana, Joan Jett. There were black and red and green, oak finished and gunmetal, and one traveler's guitar that was basically a box with a neck. There was even a set of acoustic guitars along the far wall, just like the one in the guest room, except for the one guitarrĂ³n mexicano. 
The only thing Lita didn't see was the indigo Fender. She checked the room top to bottom several times, but the Fenders were the wrong colors, and the blue guitars were the wrong models.
As much as she wanted to strum every one of them, she couldn't stay. Uncle Benny might be back by now, and he and Mom might figure out she wasn't in the living room. Maybe the indigo Fender was hiding in another room.
She headed down the hall, opened the door, and turned on the lights.
It turned out to be a rather ordinary office. The desk took up most of the corner, and was surrounded by posters of classic paintings and bikini models. There was a bookcase next to the door, mostly full of crime novels. The only musical instrument in here was the lime green Les Paul leaning against the file cabinet.
Lita dropped herself into the desk chair. All this effort, all this anxiety, and no Fender to show for it. All those guitars in the other room… how was the Fender the one thing he got rid of?
Well, she came down to play something. She took up the Les Paul and strummed with her fingers the chords she knew best—the chords for "Red Heart Fire," the song that introduced her to Spectra Q. She tried to work that into a solo, but only managed to pluck a scattered set of notes with no progression. 
Lita set the guitar back into place and left the office.
No one was waiting at the top of the stairs. Lita could hear Mom chatting in the living room with Uncle Benny. Lita crossed to the next flight of stairs. Hopefully they wouldn't mind that she wasn't actually in the living room like she said she would be.
"Lita!" Mom called.
Lita doubled over halfway up the stairs. Had she been caught? 
"Lita, you still wanna watch a movie?"
A movie! Of course! Just like Mom had mentioned earlier. "In a little bit, Mom," Lita said. "I could kinda use a bath." She'd gotten so sweaty since going downstairs.
"All right. Well, don't take too long. We'll start as soon as you're ready."
Lita grabbed a towel and ran straight for the bathroom. It would be a hilarious irony if the movie turned out to be the one with the Spectra Q song. But knowing Mom and Uncle Benny, the way they were now, it was probably something like Mrs. Doubtfire
The sweat and fear washed off as soon as Lita dipped into the water. 

The sun shone bright through the window. Lita had slept snug and warm. The memories of what she had seen down in the basement flung each other around in her head. She smelled sausage and bacon, and bet herself that Mom was helping out with breakfast. She changed clothes and brushed her hair and went downstairs. And indeed, both Mom and Uncle Benny were in the kitchen, with Mom coaching him over the stove.
Today, when they were at the arts festival, Lita would ask Mom everything: about Spectra Q, and Benedict Diego, and the time when he was a celebrity. They could talk at their own pace before bringing it up with Uncle Benny.
A fresh pot of coffee waited on the counter. As she passed by the kitchen table, Lita spotted a half-empty mug.
The same mug she'd drunk from the night before. It was still half-full of cold, black coffee. But that wasn't where she'd left it. Where did she—
Oh crap. The recording studio. She never took it to the the guitar room or the office…
And now someone had brought it upstairs. Which means either Mom or Uncle Benny knew she'd gone down there.
She shuffled over to the cabinet for a mug, as casual as possible. Maybe it wasn't the big deal she thought it was. 
"Morning, Carmelita." Uncle Benny backed away from the stove. "Yo, Wanda, can you take over for a second? Gotta have a word with my niece."
Lita's spine felt like a steel rod.
"Certainly." Mom took over stirring the eggs.
Uncle Benny clapped his hand on Lita's shoulder and led her out of the kitchen, into the hall, into his sitting room.
"Uh, is there something wrong?" Lita said.
"That's up to you," Uncle Benny said. "I found your coffee downstairs. You take it black, right?"
Lita's stomach sank.
"You know that's my personal space down there," he said.
"Of course," Lita said.
"So you understand how it feels to have someone poke around in a place like that."
"Of course," Lita said. She wouldn't have wanted Uncle Benny going through her diary—him least of all. "And I'm so sorry. I just couldn't stop thinking about what might be down there. I'm never going anywhere near it again. I promise." And anyway, it wasn't as if she saw anything bad down there.
"Well, anyway, your mother says lately you've seemed interested in my old career."
"Really?" Lita said. So Mom noticed? "I guess if you mean this…" She woke up her phone and showed him her home screen. "That's you, with the Fender, right?"
A bright warmth burst out on his face. "Yup."
"So why didn't you ever tell me? Why'd you keep stuff like that studio secret? I mean, you were a rock star! That's so cool!"
"Well, yeah. Not denying that." Uncle Benny scratched the stubble on his chin. "I guess I mostly didn't want you to think of me as just a rock star. I wanted you to think of me as your uncle."
"I can do both."
"I know, and I guess you're old enough to get it. Probably been old enough for ages, really. It's just, that's an important part of my life, but it's not really my life anymore. I still play, and record, and all. But touring… Well, I didn't always get up to the most wholesome stuff back then. A lot of things I'm still working through. Not like other rock stars were doing prayer and Bible study, but still…"
"Well… whatever you did, you're still my Uncle Benny."
His head reeled, and he put his hand over his heart. "That means so much, you have no idea," he said. "You know, back when you were just a little baby, your mom and I used to talk about how we might let you in on all this. She figured you were gonna get curious eventually. Now that you have, I suppose I got nothing to hide."
"Okay, so answer me this." She showed him the home screen again. "That blue guitar there. I couldn't find it downstairs."
"Oh, of course not. I sold that in a charity auction years ago."
Lita slapped herself in the forehead. "I can't believe you! A sweet Stratocaster like that and you gave it up? I started teaching myself guitar just so I could find that guitar and play it!"
"Not like I was ever attached to that one. I've got plenty."
"Isn't this the one you did 'Red Heart Fire' with?"
"No, no no no. I did that one on a Les Paul. After you get back from that art thing, I'll take you down and show it to you."
"A… lime green Les Paul?"
"Yeah, it's in my office. You see it?"
Lita's whole body filled with red blazing fire. Her fingers crooked into chord positions. She'd touched it. She'd played on it. 
She'd found it.
"Yeah," she said. "I saw it."
"All right," Uncle Benny said. "How about, after you get back from that art thing, I take you down and show it to you?"
"Oh, Uncle Benny!" Lita threw her arms around him and kissed her uncle on the cheek.
"Easy, easy. Let's get back to the kitchen. Breakfast is almost ready. You know, your mom's got a lot of great stories from back then. You should ask her about them. She'll talk for days on end."
"No kidding?"
They crossed the front hall into the kitchen, and Lita poured herself a cup of coffee, wondering how she'd be able to stand waiting for another chance to play that Les Paul.