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?"
"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 guitarrón 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."
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.