Lex might have never found out if she hadn’t come home early after a disgruntled Frank had sent her home that day right after lunch, cutting her hours once more. What with her normally gone, Hannah and Tim at school, the baby at daycare, Becky at work, she should have known Tom kept his guilty pleasures hidden away from the rest of the family. She sent her backpack flying into the entrance before catching herself on it and shoving between coats in the hall tree. More than ever, she needed a long and good smoke, ideally a blunt, but then the therapist had told her about coping mechanisms, and she had come far enough to know better by now.
A couple of years ago, Tom had opened his door to Lex and Hannah, lent them a hand when the rest of the world wouldn’t. At first a little awkward sharing a home with the man who had been their teacher, they had quickly gotten over the unusual arrangement, so content all involved had been with the situation. He had given them a room and a semblance of a family that was starting not to feel so artificial after all. He was the one they called when the car broke down away from home, the one who taught them all the life skills their mother never had, the one they turned to when life went to shit − and how hard that had been for Lex at first, fighting the urge to handle everything just on her own. Surprising herself, she could trust him even with Hannah. There was no greater token of faith. Almost three years and a baby later, she was in no rush to move out again.
She grabbed a soda can from the kitchen − there was no alcohol in the home, not even smuggled by her own self anymore. The sun was out and bright. It was still early in the afternoon, long before closing time at Toy Zone in any case. She grunted in frustration and imagined herself throwing dart into a picture of Frank’s face. So much for her working hard to get her shit together. Maybe one of these days she should be taking Tom up on his suggestion that they start a business in carpentry together with him, as he liked to dream about. Certainly nothing could be as soul-sucking as Frank Pricely. And it would make Tom unbelievably happy, she was sure.
She had barely dropped her butt on a kitchen chair that a sound distracted her from outside through the screen of a door she now realized was slightly ajar. She was already smiling by the time she found them. Somehow, it had eluded to her that on his afternoons off from work, Tom picked up his little boy early from daycare to spend time with him − why had she even thought otherwise? She had not known about the concert either.
Tom had an old guitar he treasured and maintained well, which he had owned since childhood. The strings must have been changed countless times but the stickers of his favorite bands plastered on the sides of the instrument spoke of the rest of it coming straight out of his youth. What could only be new was the song now uttered at the young boy who was lying on a checkered blanket in the grass and eating his fingers while listening to his father, entranced. The lyrics were a little childish and cutesy, but spoke of the hopes Tom held for his son. Lex listened to it for a while before making herself known.
"Damn, dude, did you make that up on the spot?"
The song stopped abruptly and the baby looked up at her with a big smile, his little teeth only now poking through. Nicholas was an almost perfect picture of his dad, if only for the fact that he was absolutely adorable with his pretty curls and round cheeks in a way Tom could only ever dream to be. And all the whining and fussing she knew the boy was known for wasn’t for her to handle. For the first time in her life, Lex was getting to experience all the fun of being an older sister without the pressure of being a caregiver. She felt like a bit of a cool aunt.
Tom turned around to her from his lounge chair − he hadn’t seen her coming. She pushed his legs out of the way to give herself a seat on the opposite end of the long chair which had plenty of room for two and gleefully realized how embarrassed he was to have been interrupted. His face was starting to get very pink and he stumbled on his words.
"I… didn’t…" A deep frown furrowed his brow. "What are you doing here? You should be at work, right?"
"Frank sent me home early, the shop was empty as eff." There was a sticker on the guitar of a Nighthawk and a handwritten ’T&B4ever’ surrounded by hearts, all in purple gel pen. Lex could almost see right in front of her eyes a young Becky grabbing the guitar to sign the flirty note back in the days. "What do you mean, you didn’t? You have a secret kids performer career now? Thomas Houston, you are full of secrets."
"Don’t be ridiculous," he grumbled. He looked down at the guitar with fondness and strutted an empty chord. "I wrote it years ago. For, erm, for Tim."
Lex found herself trying to picture a slightly older Tom now than the flustered teenager getting his special guitar back from his crush. A young adult, a new dad making up little lyrics for his first son. It was ridiculously hard to imagine Tom in the bloom of youth. He had materialized into Lex’s life as a grown ass man with a beard and a belly and she could not imagine him having ever been youthful. When he had played his song, though, that had been the closest yet.
"Can you play it again?" She asked and passed her fingers against the strings. Hannah was the musical one, wasn’t she? And Lex had never had time for hobbies before. "It sounded cute."
Tom looked at her desperately. He seemed to be torn between his urge to refuse and his desire never to deny her anything without a strong reason. Thinking on it, Lex realized that this must have been a hobby he kept secret for a reason. If she hadn’t yet been privy to it, there was every chance Tom had meant for it to stay that way and he couldn’t have predicted Frank fucking her up. Even now, she wasn’t his daughter, after all, not really. She had no right to intrude on family tradition with his actual children.
"I… erm…" He stammered. "Look, buddy, it’s not…"
She shook her head.
"No, you’re right," she said. "It’s your thing with the guys, it’s… Don’t worry about it."
At this, Tom's eyes bulged out and he caught himself. He put the guitar carefully aside and sat all the way up straight to look at Lex right in the eyes.
"What?! No, that's not what I meant!”
He covered her hand with his.
"Look," he said, firmly but not unkindly, "You kids already think I’m lame enough. I just meant… it’s a silly kiddo song. I made it up like ten years go when Tim wouldn’t go down for his nap. You don’t wanna learn a dumb song for kids." His mouth quirked into a lopsided grin. "You’re like a super cool young woman."
The way he said it, Lex felt that whatever coolness she had possessed a moment ago had vanished into nothing, but she didn’t care one bit. She wasn’t looking to be cool, not really. She would settle for happy. Hesitantly, Tom glanced between her and the guitar.
"Do you… want me to teach you a bit?" He asked, as if self-conscious at the mere offer he was putting out. "If you’re interested…"
Lex couldn’t help a smile. He looked like his heart might break if she refused him. As if.
"Sure," she said and switched seat to the chair next to him. "Though keep an eye on the little guy while we do. He’s been eating earthworms the whole time since I’ve come out here."
"Oh, for God’s sake…"
Tom’s eyes snapped to Nicholas who, per Lex’s words, was in the middle of a very squirmy pinkish snack that made her want to gag a little. She could have expected him to shout like her mom would have a lot of the time, or to not give her shit like her mom most of the time. She did not expect the sigh of pure resolve, the sigh of a father who had seen it all already and could no longer be surprised. He got off the lounge chair and picked up his son, who sucked in the end tail of the worm before Tom could stop him.
"That’s nasty business, young man," Tom told him, shaking his head disappointedly. He turned to Lex. "Grab the blanket and the guitar, a’ight? Buddy lost his garden privilege for today."
"Won’t he choke on it?" Lex asked. "Or poison himself?"
"Eh, he’s done it before," Tom said. "And lord knows he’s got teeth to chew that crap. He’s been waking us up every night to let us know they’re pushing through his gums." He petted the boy’s soft curly hair. In the kitchen, he cleaned off his mouth and hands and gave him a sippy cup of water to rinse off the taste. "You won’t tell Beck, will you?"
Lex snorted as Nicholas was let down again and went on to waddle to his little toy trunk in the corner of the living room. Back in the days Hannah had been his age, she had been so young herself she hadn’t even registered the weirdness inherent to all babies. She was glad for the chance now. It was nice having a tiny drunk person right at home.
"Not a word," she promised. "If he gets sick, he’ll tell her all about it himself at the ER."
But the boy was already in a new world of play with a few plushies he had pulled from the box to hold against him and pet and chew and seemed to be in as perfect health as could be.
"I babyproofed the house and the garden before he even got here," he said, "But I forgot about grass." He smiled fondly at the boy who had forgotten all about the two of them at the moment. "Usually, he just listens to me play and doesn’t mess around too much."
He came back to the lesson he had offered. Lex had never particularly imagined she would be learning how to play the guitar, but she wasn’t one to refuse an opportunity either. It might even be a little fun. Maybe her girlfriend would be wooed, but then Steph was hard to impress. Once she sat, Tom placed the guitar in her arms and arranged them the proper way around it.
"Right hand forward or your wrist is gonna be stiff," he instructed. "Left thumb is flat."
"Thank you, Mr Houston," she replied teasingly.
She had not called him this in almost two years. If anything, she was thinking of making the slow switch to an even more intimate moniker than ’Tom’, but that wasn’t for today yet. Perhaps one day when the baby would speak it first.
"I don’t know everything," he said, as though she had not taunted at all. "I never took classes, I just learned a few chords so I could play some songs I liked."
"Did you like seduce Becky?" Lex asked, poking fun at him some more. "Was there a promposal?"
"No need to tell you that," he said flatly.
"I’ll ask her all about it tonight."
He taught her everything he knew about guitar which was surprisingly more than she had anticipated, with such a modest introduction. He taught her all of the basic chords she would need, then some more, and when he gave an example of them being used together in a single song, his voice was a lot softer and lovelier than she could have anticipated from the man. Becky had told her this, hadn’t she, how the world never saw the real Tom hidden at the core and how gentle he was, but that was all she could see whenever she looked at him. Today, Lex was catching a glimpse of him as well. It wasn’t a voice you’d hear at concerts and awards, but rather a voice who would tell bedtime stories and sing lullabies and fill a room with warmth. He wasn’t a young dad anymore, but when he sang he wasn’t so old at all.
"You should play with Hannah some time," she told him.
Tom batted the thought away as though it were completely silly.
"Nah, it’s just between me and the baby," he said. After a pause, he added, "And you."
When she tried her luck at a song on her own with Tom dictating her the chords to use with each lyrics, Nicholas perked up from his playing and crawled to her to come listen. Tom pulled him to his lap and the boy snuggled close into his dad’s embrace. His thumb stuck in his mouth, he was a rapt audience.
"That sounds great," Tom told her. "It’s really good. You’ve got such a gift, ya know."
Lex shrugged. She was thinking of Hannah’s little songs and how she kept playing them from childhood. Whatever gift she possessed, Hannah must have had it ten folds.
"I tried teaching Tim so many times," he said. "When he was little. He just wriggled away to go play. He’s not really a sit down kinda kid. Well, he wasn’t then."
"Before Fortnite or whatever," Lex chuckled. "Well, he doesn’t know what he’s missing."
And truly, he had not known. In the evening, Hannah and Tim hopped off the bus chatting together in a friendly way, Tim much more so than Hannah. Lex had been in the middle of playing ’Hotel California’ when they walked in and Hannah gave her the brightest smile in the world.
"Oh," she said quietly. "You play music."
"Oh my god!" Tim exclaimed, much louder. He rushed to sit next to Lex, taking up a chunk of her personal space − a notion he sometimes struggled to really grasp. "Since when do you play the guitar? That’s so cool!"
The two of them flocked around her, Tim picking up his brother to hold him in his arms as he sat there expectantly.
"Play something else!"
But Lex only smirked. She reached and poked a finger into his nose, which made him grunt, displeased.
"I only play for free for the baby, I’m sorry," she said. "Five hundred bucks and you get your own concert."
"That’s ridiculous!" Tim protested. "Can you at least teach me?"
Tom’s mouth gaped open in wonder and he stared at Tim, then at Lex in turn, incredulous. Lex bit her lip. She did not know what she should be responding. A quick look at Tom gave her the answer as he nodded encouragingly.
"Sure," she replied. "But I only know the basics of the basics…"
"Awesome!" He said.
The rest of the evening, she taught him everything Tom had passed onto her only that very same day. Hannah chimed in occasionally with sporadic help from her knowledge of the ukulele. When Becky came home from her shift much later, Tim jumped to his feet to beg her to listen to the little performance he insisted from Hannah and him. As he played one of his favorite songs, an 80s song he could only have heard Tom listen to, Hannah accompanied him on her instrument. After a few lines, Tom hummed along and the baby clapped his little hands merrily. Becky was smiling.
Lex leaned her head against Tom’s shoulder. She did not know why Tim had suddenly taken up interest in music only now that she had, too. At least Tom wasn’t jealous − that simply wasn’t in his nature. As Tim and Hannah gave a little show for the rest of them to enjoy, Lex felt at the deepest part of her a sensation she had only discovered in recent years after getting an inkling of it every time she looked at her sister. For the first time in her life, she completely understood the meaning of family and her place in it. And it was the prettiest song she had ever heard in all her days.