Bass took another spoonful of the stew, making sure to slurp as loudly as he could because he knew it annoyed Rachel.
"Were you raised in a barn Bass?" Rachel exclaimed, right on cue.
Rachel rolled her eyes, but he could hear the quiet snort from his left. He glanced, but Charlie's face was impassive. Before he could continue, hoping to elicit another response from Charlie, Aaron came barging into Gene's front room.
"We were just eating dinner. Do you want to join us?" Miles offered, probably hoping to change the subject. He knew Bass too well to know once he had a bone…
"Maybe in a bit. Look what I found Charlie? I had to run over here the moment I found it at the town market. I always look through the books, praying to God that I will find something other than another copy of 50 Shades. Today, I scored huge. It cost a pretty penny, but it was worth it."
He proffered the book to Charlie that he had been hiding behind his back. Bass noted the familiar illustrations on the cover. He remembered he owned an identical copy of the first Harry Potter book. His was in much worse condition as it went to Iraq and back, being handed around his unit. He looked at Charlie and noted her expression was anything but pleased. Her eyes were glassy and her jaw had tightened.
"Thanks Aaron, that was very sweet of you. Excuse me." Her voice was rough as she shoved her chair from the table and made a hasty exit to her room.
The four of them watched her retreating form, silence enveloping them. Aaron slumped heavily into the now vacated chair. Bass turned back to his food, but he was no longer hungry. He was about to leave when Aaron spoke quietly.
"You broke her."
Bass figured the words were flung at him, but when he looked up, he was surprised to see Aaron glaring at Miles and Rachel.
"Excuse me," Miles growled.
"You heard me. You didn't have the luxury of watching that girl grow up. She had this unmistakable energy. She wanted to see the world and meet other people. She had the belief that most people were good. Yes she was naïve, but did you really have to beat that out of her senseless?"
"Miles did what…" Rachel began.
"Don't even get me started on you. You caused all of this! From the power going out to abandoning that sweet girl, you really are no saint so stop pretending you're the judge on all of us."
"I can't believe you're blaming us for all of this."
"And you," and now Aaron's attention was on Bass. "I don't think I have to tell you of all of the ways you have fucked up as a human being."
Bass would never admit this, but at that moment, he was scared of Aaron. So he gave the right, and true, response. He nodded his head.
"Good, at least one of you three have some sense. The war has been over for two months. Haven't you noticed that Charlie isn't getting any better? She's not living. And yeah, maybe buying some dumb book isn't going to fix that, but at least I'm trying. Sometimes it feels like I'm the only one."
Aaron shook his head when he got no response from them. "For fucks sake, it's useless." He didn't bother sticking around.
Bass glanced up and took quick stock of Rachel and Miles. Miles looked dazed, as if he had no idea what was going on. Rachel was glaring. Bass could see the cogs spinning, probably thinking up the speech she would give to Aaron about how out of line he was. Bass had no patience for either of them in that moment. He got up and left without a word. Once he was out the door, he looked down the street in both directions before spotting Aaron walking. He called out to him to hold up and caught up with him.
The Aaron in front of him was deflated. The fight that was in him just a few minutes before was completely gone. "Look Monroe, I don't want to…"
"Can I buy you a drink?" Bass cut in.
Aaron looked taken aback, but after a moment nodded. They walked silently to the bar a block down the road.
"Hey Chuck," Bass greeted the bartender. "I'll have a whiskey and whatever he is having can be on my tab."
"You got it guys." Chuck quickly made up the drinks. Bass and Aaron took their drinks over to an empty table toward the back of the bar.
Bass took a big gulp before speaking. "You're wrong about one thing."
"Let me guess, you didn't cause the murder of Charlie's dad and brother. You didn't set out to kill all of us. It was all just a wacky misunderstanding."
He had to admit, he liked this version Aaron much more than the one that used to cower in front of him. "As great as that would be. No, you were wrong about being the only one that has noticed Charlie. I figured it out about a month ago. Mind you, I don't have the past version of her as a comparison. But, while the rest of us had started to settle into life, I noticed she was doing the exact opposite. Her bag is still packed in her room, she doesn't engage in conversations, and she jumps at the smallest things."
Aaron sagged. "Exactly! I'm glad I'm not the only one that sees it."
"I see it too. I've tried little things to snap her out of it. Basically. I've resorted to annoying Rachel non-stop the last two weeks, because it is the only time I see her give off any emotion."
"I've been wondering what the hell was going on. You know Rachel was this close to stabbing you when you said her vagina must have been magical to so completely ensnare both Matheson men."
"Ha, that was a good one," Bass laughed.
"But, probably not the best idea in the grand scheme of things."
"What do you suggest Stay Puft?"
Aaron slumped. "I don't know."
They were quiet for a few minutes, at an impasse, just sipping their drinks. "What was she like?" Bass asked.
"Before you and your men crashed into her life?"
Bass knew he deserved that. "Yes."
"She was funny, but less sarcastic than now. She was curious about everything. She wanted to know how things worked. She loved stories about people, always the first person to greet any newcomers to our homestead. She wanted to hear all about their life story. She craved information. She was quicker to smile, except when it came to Maggie."
"Who was Maggie?"
Aaron downed the rest of his drink, motioning to the bartender for another. He frowned slightly before looking Bass straight on. "Maggie was Charlie's stepmom basically. She and Ben had been together for years and she helped raise Charlie. When Ben was killed and Charlie went to find Danny, Maggie didn't hesitate in joining. Unfortunately she died along the way."
"One of my men?" Bass almost feared the answer.
"Surprisingly no, all bad things don't always come back to you. Anyway, Maggie and her fought a lot, like most mothers and daughters. I think it ate at Charlie that she didn't know what she had until it was gone."
Bass knew the feeling all too well. He thought of all of the words to convey his regret, but knew they would fall short anyways, sometimes simplicity was best. "You know, I'm sorry for my part in this crazy fucked up mess. For what it's worth, and it may not be much, but I'm determined to make things right with Charlie."
Aaron contemplated his words as he took a swig from his fresh drink. "Crazy as it might sound, but I believe you. That's why you and I need to come up with a plan for Charlie."
Bass emptied another drawer into a bag, not really caring about folding his clothes. It was all going to the same place after all, it didn't really matter how it got there. There was a soft knock on his half open door and he looked up to see Charlie hovering near it. She seemed hesitant about whether to come in or go.
"Hey." Bass nodded, motioning that she could come in.
She pushed the door open further, but didn't really come in.
"Are you leaving?"
"Yeah, can't take much more of watching your mom and Miles making heart eyes at each other. There is only so much a man can take."
Charlie frowned, appearing not to like his answer. "Where are you going? Back North?"
"God no, I'm just moving down the street. I'm moving into Glen's place. After he passed, his daughter wanted to sell it. She gave me a good deal on it."
Charlie's look of relief didn't escape him. "Oh that's not far."
"Nope, not going to get rid of me that easily." This time Bass hesitated. "You don't mind me hanging around in town? Since Conor went back down to Mexico, didn't really see a need of leaving."
"No I don't mind you staying. It wouldn't seem right without you." As if realizing she said too much, she inched back out of the doorway. "Well, I won't keep you. I'll see you around then."
Bass wiped his brow with his shirt, lifting himself from where he had been moving a table by himself. He came round to the door and opened it to find Charlie, hand mid-air to knock again.
"Hey," Bass greeted.
"Hi, Ruby wanted me to bring over this pie she had made as kind of a house warming gift."
She proffered the pie and he smiled as it was still warm in his hands. "Blackberry?"
Charlie gave a small smile. "She knows it's your favorite."
"Well, today just got a lot better. Your grandpa better marry Ruby, or I might just for the pies alone."
That earned an actual chuckle, and Bass glowed with pride. "Why don't you come in and have a piece?"
"Are you sure you are willing to give up a slice."
"For you, I would give up just about anything." He meant it teasing, but his voice came out too honest and she balked a little at his comment. She was so damn skittish. He mentally hit himself, breaking her gaze to go into the kitchen. Luckily she followed him.
While he was still trying to figure out what to say next, Charlie spoke, "Your house is nice, I like all of the windows."
"They're nice now that you don't have to worry about Patriots shooting them in the middle of the night."
"That's true. It's quiet too. Ruby's daughter is harvesting the field right now so her three boys have been spending a lot of time at our place. They have discovered the copy game and it is driving me insane."
"Have them play Dead Fish."
"Have them lay on the ground and be still and silent, like a dead fish. The first to move or make a noise is out."
"That is genius! How did you know about that?"
"I had two younger sisters. I know a thing or two about annoying siblings."
"Danny was never like that. He and I were a team. It was us against all of the other neighborhood kids."
Or against the maniacal dictator, Monroe thought to himself, but decided that might have been too on the nose. Before he could come up with a more appropriate response to the situation, Charlie pushed herself back from the table.
"Thanks for the piece of pie, but I should be getting back to Ruby. I promised I would help her."
Bass got up too, leading her to the door. "Feel free to stop by anytime if you need a break from the noise."
Charlie paused, halfway out the door, and actually looked him in the eyes. "Thanks. I appreciate it. And I'll let you know about Dead Fish."
"Good." Bass smiled.
And then she was gone. Bass felt a slight bit of hope that they ended on a positive note. Maybe this would all work. He just hoped Aaron was doing his part too.
He waited a week before deciding to stop by Gene's place. He brought back Ruby's pie dish and she doted on him. He had no idea how Gene found this woman, but she was amazing. She forced him to sit down at the kitchen table and served him up a heaping serving of stew, while telling him all about town gossip. She was the one person in his life that there was no dual layers with. What you see is what you get with Ruby and Bass always appreciated straight shooters.
"So I told Mrs. Bloom that everybody knew that she had stolen that recipe for her traditional family pie. Everybody knows that recipe has not been passed down for generations, unless her great-great-grandma was Betty Crocker herself."
Bass loved getting sucked into these petty town stories. It reminded him of watching daytime soaps after the Price as Right when he was stuck sick at home in his teens. "What did she say to that?"
"Well, just as she was getting herself wound up for round two, Mrs. Haggerty came by to trade some extra sugar she had and it all settled down."
"I hope you're not going to let that drop Ruby. She insulted your cooking, everybody in Willoughby knows you're the best cook in the Republic of Texas."
"Now now Bass, you don't have to butter me up if you want seconds. There is no need going that far." The grin on her face, though, gave her away. Her words didn't stop her from taking Bass' bowl and ladeling up another heaping serving.
"So where is everybody?" Bass asked casually, although, he was really only curious about one person.
"Let's see, Gene and Rachel got called out onto a house call. Little Jimmy Davis took another tumble and probably broke his wrist again. I've never seen a child more prone to accidents. Miles has the night shift tonight, so he'll be breaking up a good handful of drunken brawls I'm sure. No rest for the town sheriff. Then Charlie should be home any moment. Did you hear? She got a part time job at the school, helping out with the kids.
Good job, Stay Puft, he mentally noted. "No, I didn't. That's good."
"Yeah, Charlie seems to be liking it."
"I seem to be liking what?" Charlie asked, coming into the kitchen.
"Ah, good you're home honey. Pull up a seat and let me get you your dinner. Bass and I were just talking about your new job."
Charlie ducked her face a little as she took a seat. "It's not a big deal. It's just two days a week helping with a couple of the kids with remedial work."
"That's still something," Ruby assured. "Plus it's money. This way she can save up to move out."
"It will be a little while before I have enough saved up and can convince my family to let me out of their sight."
"Not that long. I keep telling Gene that you're a young thing that doesn't need to be cooped up with us old folks. In another life, these would be the best years of your life. Maybe you can recapture a little of that."
"It's not that big of a deal, Ruby."
"Listen to her Charlie. You have not lived until you and your friends walk along Main Street, getting kicked out of every drinking establishment along the way."
"That sounds like…fun?" Charlie hesitated.
"Believe me, it was."
Bass stepped into Gene's house, hoping that this wasn't one of Charlie work days. In the front room, Miles and Rachel pulled apart suddenly.
"Ah geez, guys. You literally have a room for that shit!" Bass exclaimed, covering his eyes.
"If you don't want to be seeing anything, maybe try knocking next time and not barging into houses you don't live in anymore."
"Whatever, is Charlie around?"
"She should be upstairs in her room."
Rachel called out to him, "What do you need with Charlie?"
Bass didn't bother answering as he was already up the stairs.
He knocked on her half open door and found her lying in her bed, staring up at the ceiling. She didn't jump, just tilted her head towards him.
"What are you doing, Charlie?"
"Actively trying not to think about how my mom and Miles are downstairs making out right now."
"I get that, I just had a front row seat to the two lovesick teenagers. Want to get out of the house for a bit?"
She raised an eyebrow in question.
"I got something I want to show you. I think you'll like it."
"Sure, it's not like I have anything much better to do."
"That's what a man likes to hear."
She didn't respond as she grabbed her jacket and he followed her downstairs.
"Where are you going honey?"
"Just for a walk mom."
"Well, don't be too long."
"Mom, I'm not a kid. I'll be fine," Charlie sighed.
Once they were outside, Bass notice Charlie take a deep breath, as if she hadn't breathed in a while. Her shoulders relaxed a little. "So where are we off to?"
"Nina's Coffee Shop."
It was a bit of a walk, all the way on the other side of town, but neither seemed in a hurry and Bass was surprised that she wasn't peppering him with questions as to why they were going. Maybe she was just so grateful to be out of the house.
When they got to the coffee shop, Bass grabbed his usual table by the window, waving over a middle aged woman over. She had on a bright red top, that contrasted with her darker skin. Her long curly hair was currently tossed up in a messy bun on top of her head.
"Hey there Bass, my favorite customer."
"I bet you say that to all of the men."
"Only the ones that bring me the best strawberries for scones."
"What's going to happen to me when strawberries aren't in season anymore?"
"I guess you're going to have to think of something," Nina teased.
"I guess so. So Nina, this is the girl I was telling you about, Charlie."
"Oh perfect. Bass here says you're looking for work and I'm in desperate need of a new waitress. My regular gal, Teri, is due to have a baby any day. Would you be interested?
Charlie looked a little shocked, but recovered quickly. "Sure, I work for the school on Monday and Tuesday, but every other day I'm free."
"That works for me. Weekends are our busiest times anyway. Do you think you can stop by tomorrow morning and I can train you up?"
"Yes, I will be here. Thank you so much for the chance."
"Thank your friend here. Bass vouched for you and his word means a lot. Let me grab you both some coffee and strawberry scones."
Charlie turned back to Bass and smiled a little. "Thanks."
"It's no big deal. I come here almost everyday and Nina has been looking more and more frazzled everyday and I figured you wouldn't mind the extra work. Nina's a fair person, she'll pay you plus I'm sure you'll get all of the coffee you want."
"That's the true bonus."
Nina returned with two mugs and a plate with two scones on it. The scone was good and it was a nice peaceful moment between them. They were quiet for a while before Charlie spoke abruptly.
"What made you pick Miles over Connor?"
Bass had no idea where her question came from, but it reminded him of his previous thought that there was probably a lot swirling around in Charlie's head that she wasn't expressing. Bass knew the day she was talking about, when he had agreed with the crazy plan to avoid full out war. He lowered his eyes for a moment, taking a long drink from his coffee, composing his answer. He was ready to spout some bullshit about how it was the only way he was going to get the Republic back or worse yet, he wanted to be one of the good guys for once. He decided on the truth because if he thought he could help Charlie, maybe in her own way, she could help him.
"Look, Miles has always been family, and really the only way I wanted the Republic back was if he was there with me to check me. When I saw it wasn't going that direction, I fell in line, it's what I do best."
"You're joking, right?" Charlie mocked, although there was no venom in her teasing.
"I know it's hard to believe, but I was never the leader. I followed Miles in everything growing up. It was his damn idea to create the Republic. But, as you very well know, Miles is an acquired taste, and he is not necessarily known for his people pleasing skills. I can sell a drowning man water, on the other hand. So I was going to be the figurehead and Miles would be more hands on. We really did start out with the best of intentions. We saw a lot of death and destruction in the first years after the blackout. And when nobody else was stepping up to the plate, we figured we could save a lot of lives by restoring law and order. We were military men, that's what we knew. But we created monsters of ourselves and those around us. Miles was the first to see it."
"So you're not biding your time until Blanchard dies and seizing the Texas Republic and then renaming it?"
And while there was a note of teasing still in her voice, her eyes were serious, measuring him up. While the question was meant to be lighthearted, Bass was pretty sure this was Charlie's way of deciding whether or not to trust him.
"No, I'm not. Do you even know what I do with my days?"
"Honestly, I just assumed you were helping Miles out with policing the town."
Bass made a mental note of how disconnected she really was to all of them. "I've been helping out old Joe Kerry down at his woodshop. He builds furniture for town. He's been teaching me everything he knows and I do a lot of the heavy lifting he can't do anymore. It's a good partnership."
"I had zero idea."
"So, I'm not waiting in the wings for my power move. I'm learning a trade, something I probably should have done years ago, and I'm trying to make a place for myself here."
Charlie was quiet for a moment assessing him. "And Danny and my dad?"
"It was never my intention for either of them to die. But they did, maybe not by my hands, but because of the actions I took. I realize that. That's why I made a promise with your mother at the tower. I told her I would help save you and somewhere along the way, that has turned into my guiding principle. Let's be honest, my moral compass is shot all to hell. But if I stay with Miles and I keep you safe, then maybe my life won't be a complete waste."
Charlie took a sip of coffee before nodding softly. A lone tear traced her cheek and she quickly swiped at it. "Thank you for the honesty. There are so many lies and half-truths being told around me. I'm tired of it. But you, you are honest with me. I appreciate it."
"I will never be anything less than honest with you."
"Good. Then maybe there is hope for you after all."
A couple days later Bass opened the door to Nina's to see that it was more crowded than normal. He couldn't have his usual table, instead he was lucky enough to snag a stool at the counter. He watched as both Nina and Charlie scrambled around the place, pouring drinks and delivering food. Eventually Nina came around and poured him a cup of coffee.
"Good day for business."
"You're telling me. Now if you could only tell my feet which are yelling at me for being in the service business. I couldn't have found a nice office job."
"You know you love it Nina. You'd be bored stiff copying down the notes of some stuff guy."
"You're right, you know me well. Anything brought you in particularly? Or should I say who?" Her eyes went to Charlie significantly.
"And you know me well. How's she doing?"
"Great, I've never had a harder worker. Don't tell Teri. There's something about her, though. She acts real tough, but I can tell she's wounded underneath all of it."
"That's why I have an eye on her. I made a promise a while back and I intend to fix things with her."
"You know you can't go around fixing people. She's hurt, but she's not broken. It's not your job to put the pieces back together."
Bass knew better than to ignore good advice when it was staring him down. "Then what should do?"
"Just be there. She will work through her problems, and there is nothing worse than doing it alone. Take it from me. You can't do the work for her, but you can lessen it a little by reminding her that she has you."
"Thanks. I already have an idea of how to help."
"Ugh, tell me again why I'm helping you?" Aaron groaned as he pushed the mattress down the hallway.
"Because you love Charlie," Bass replied easily.
"I know, I know."
Once they got the mattress into the room, they threw it atop of the metal frame that was pushed against the wall to the right. Warm light flooded into the room from the two large windows that took up much of the opposite two walls. They surveyed their work. The two of them had scrubbed the dust-coated walls down to find a pretty pale yellow underneath. Glen obviously had kept this room closed off, the guest bed in the smaller bedroom down the hall. The dark hardwood floors gleamed. In the after hours of work, he was able to sand down a huge slab of wood and attach legs. He had worked hours on it, and while it was nothing fancy to write home about, he hoped Charlie would like it.
"What do you think?"
"I think Charlie is going to love it. She needs her own space away from her parents."
"I just didn't think that would involve her shacking up with General Monroe."
"You know you can call me Bass."
"Only if you don't call me Stay Puft anymore."
"Fair enough. Can I get you a drink Aaron?"
"I would really like that, Bass."
It took a week to put it all together, and he was excited to finally show Charlie. He came into Nina's toward closing, hoping he would catch Charlie there. Sure enough, she was standing behind the counter, wiping it down with a rag, while laughing along to a story that Nina was telling her. Just the vision of Charlie laughing, was enough to give him pause. He racked his brain for any other moment when she had seemed this happy. Sure she smiled when she saw someone she cared about was safe. But, this was different. This was a moment of joy.
As he came closer, he was spotted by both women, but he kept his eyes on Charlie. He was happy to see her smile only softened at the sight of him, instead of vanishing away.
"I was hoping I could catch you before you went home. I've got something to show you at my house."
"Sure, I've got about 30 more minutes on my shift."
"Nonsense," Nina butted in. "I've just got Melanie to take care of and the cleaning. You run off."
"Are you sure?"
"Of course, sweets."
Charlie shrugged at Bass. "I guess I'm ready now." She went and hung her apron before joining Bass, who led her out.
"How was your shift?"
"It was good, a little busy, but nothing too bad. What were you up to today?"
"Mostly working on the garden. Glen had a lot of land and a lot of wild plants left over from obviously a previously well-tended garden when he was in better health."
"What kind of plants are you growing?"
"There were wild strawberries that were ripe when I got there, hence my becoming Nina's favorite customers. I recognize some wild green bean, corn, and tomato plants. I think there is a patch of raspberry and blackberry, but I won't know more until they start to bloom. I've only ever taken care of a small garden plot in my backyard as a kid, so it's learning as I go and asking Ruby a lot of questions."
"Is there anything that Ruby can't do?"
"I haven't found it yet."
They had arrived at his house and he opened the door for her.
"I forgot how close you are to Nina's. No wonder you come in almost every day."
"Yeah, it's pretty damn convenient."
"So what it is it that you needed to show me so bad?"
"Follow me upstairs." Bass almost added a joke, but this moment was important to him, no matter how much he hated to admit. When he got to the door he paused, feeling truly nervous for the first time in a long time. "I know you've been needing to get out from under the heel of your family and needing your own space. I get that you're saving up for your own place, but I thought this would help until then."
He opened the door and let her go in first. She was silent, her back to him as she studied the parts of the room. He had to admit it looked beautiful in the room, the sunset spilling in, the room awash in a golden glow. Just when his mind started to think that this was a monumental mistake, she interrupted his thoughts.
"This is for me? You did this?"
"Well, Aaron was a huge help, we both wanted to do this for you. You can use it if you just need to get away from your family for a day, or you can move in. I don't want to presume anything. You can have free reign of the house. I'll leave you alone as much as you want."
"I can't believe it," her voice wavering.
This time she turned around and he saw the tears at the corner of her eyes, ready to fall. "Nobody has ever done something like this for me. I can't believe this is mine."
"It's just a room."
"No," she responded firmly. "It's so much more. I haven't had a home since…" She trailed off, but Bass knew what she meant. The tears flowed freely and Bass did the most natural thing to do in that moment, he took two steps forward and pulled her into his arms. She sank into him, reaching around to cling to his shoulders tightly. He let her wet his tee with tears for a few minutes before pulling back a bit. He reached forward and cupped her face, brushing the tears away.
"You deserve this."
"Thank you. Now when can I move in?"
A couple of hours later, Charlie was hauling her two bags in, taking them up to her new room. Bass shouted a quick hello as he continued cooking over the stove. He was just adding the eggs to the cast iron pan when Charlie emerged.
"That smells amazing. What is it?"
"My family used to call it Hobo Breakfast. It's potatoes, sausage, and eggs scrambled over the stove."
"Do you mind if I have some?"
"There's more than enough. I usually cook more than I can eat. You being around will be good."
"Since you won't let me pay rent, will you at least let me chip in for food."
Bass considered his options, he didn't really want her money, but also, he didn't want to be condescending to her. Isn't that what he was trying to help her escape? "How about you give me your tips one day a week and that will be your part."
"Sounds good, I'll give you my Saturday tips."
"No way, Wednesday," he replied as he served up food on two plates.
"You know that's our slowest day. Friday, take it or leave it."
"Fine. We'll see if you still feel that way after tasting my cooking."
Charlie found two glasses, poured them water, and took them to the table by the kitchen. Bass followed with two steaming plates.
Charlie took her first bite and nodded appreciatively. "This is awesome."
Bass smiled. "I'm glad you like it."
They ate in silence slowly, having to let the food cool intermittently. Halfway through there was a knock on the door and Bass went out to see who it was. Opening the door, he found Aaron on the other side, holding up a bottle of brown liquid. "I thought I would bring some whiskey as Charlie's housewarming present."
Bass stepped aside letting him in. "We were just eating, do you want some food?"
"Sure, I'm starving."
Bass brought Aaron back to the kitchen, serving him up a plate as Aaron joined Charlie at the table.
"This is for you, pretty good whiskey, or at least it was what I could afford." Aaron handed over the bottle.
"You didn't have to."
"I know, but this is a big moment and had to be celebrated. Thanks." he nodded to Bass as a plate full of food was placed in front of him.
"So that was pretty quick on you finding out Charlie was over here," Bass commented.
"I stopped by to return a pie dish to Ruby when I overheard a huge fight over what was going on."
"Oh no," Charlie shrunk a little.
"No, no, it was fine. It was basically Gene and Rachel deciding what was best for you, and Ruby continuing to slip in comments that maybe it was none of their business. Miles just kept nursing his beer through the whole ordeal."
"I didn't really want to start a fight."
"It's not your fault," Bass cut in.
"Oh my God, Bass this is awesome. Why weren't you in charge of food when we were fighting the Patriots?" Bass just gave him a look in response. "Oh yeah, seriously, none of your fault Charlie. They just don't know what to do with themselves now that they don't have people to order daily. They'll figure it out."
"You need to be having fun. Remember, walking down main street, getting kicked out of every bar?" Bass teased.
"I still say that doesn't sound fun."
"Back me up, Aaron, didn't you ever visit every single bar on the main drag of a town?"
"It wasn't a true adventure unless everybody in the group did karaoke at least once."
"Oh yeah, definitely. My go to was always 'Livin' on a Prayer'."
"Why doesn't that not surprise me?"
"What was yours?"
"You're going to laugh, but it was Priscilla's favorite band from middle school and I always got bonus points for doing it."
"What was it?"
"'Bye Bye Bye' by N'Sync."
Bass howled with laughter, Aaron joining in, leading to the education of Charlie in the matter of boy bands.
Bass came into the house from working out in the garden. He saw Charlie sitting by the window in the front room, in a large chair she had practically claimed as her own. He noticed her writing in a book, it looked like it was leather.
Bass scrubbed his hands in the kitchen before getting a closer look.
Charlie jumped a little, as if she hadn't noticed him come in, even though he hadn't been trying to be particularly quiet.
"Oh, I just saw this in the market and couldn't help myself. It looked so nice."
She held up a leather book, with flap that hooked across the front with some kind of cord, the paper looked thick, and rough around the edges.
"That's cool. What are you writing?"
Charlie shrugged. "Nothing much."
He almost wanted to push it, curious about her thoughts, but decided she would talk about it when she was ready. It wasn't his place.
"Sure. Anything you want in particular for dinner tonight?"
Charlie looked at him with a dreamy smile on her face. "Dominos Pizza."
"You remember that?"
"Vaguely. I can't quite get the taste, but I remember the buttery smell from the bread."
"Well, I can't do pizza, unfortunately, but I did get some fresh bread today and can fashion up some pretty good sandwiches."
"That sounds amazing."
"Perfect, I'll get started."
He turned around to head back in the kitchen when he was stopped by her voice. "And Bass?"
He could feel the different layers in those two words. "You're welcome…Charlotte."
Charlie smiled and went back to writing.
Bass sipped his beer on the porch, enjoying a quiet evening. The nights were getting shorter. He breathed deeply from the light breeze, watching the sun set in the distant trees. He was kept entertained by the neighborhood kids running around, playing some intricate version of kick the can. He didn't quite understand it, but the "Lava Phase" that was yelled out every few minutes cracked him up as kids scrambled to get themselves off the ground any means possible. He even toasted the kid that managed to balance on his fence post.
He noticed Miles walk up the street and almost dreaded the coming conversation. He hadn't talked to him in a few weeks, since before Charlie had moved in. He had been busy getting what plants he could squared away as Fall approached and his hours in the shop were long as it seemed families were growing and in need of new furniture. Bass sighed and went in to retrieve his bottle of hard liquor and two glasses. If they were going to have this conversation, he would like a drink in his hand.
When he emerged from the house, Miles had just made it up to the porch.
"Saw you coming and thought you wouldn't mind a drink." Bass held up the bottle and two glasses.
"You know I'm never one to refuse a free drink."
Bass poured them each a generous portion before motioning Miles to take the wooden chair next to his own wickered seat he had been lounging in. They sipped for a few minutes, Bass chuckling at another round of "Lava Phase" before Miles decided to dive in.
"I think she's up in her room writing."
"Writing?" Miles asked, incredulous.
"Yup, she came home with a leather bound book a week or two back and she's been filling it with her words."
"What is she writing?"
"She doesn't say, didn't feel it my place to push it."
"Oh, so you're the good guy in this whole situation?"
"I never said that. I offered the girl a space to be herself for a while."
"And we weren't?"
"Miles think for a second, what she had been like. I only saw snapshots of her before things became worse, but she has changed. There is no denying that."
Miles slumped a little. "I know."
"You remember Tommy? How he was when we came back from our second tour?"
"You don't think Charlie has PTSD."
"I don't know. Unfortunately, we're running low on mental health professionals in this community. There is something about Charlie that reminds me of Tommy. He was always so skittish and guarded. There was never any major incident with him, no screaming or freaking out publicly. We all thought he was adjusting, then we woke up one morning and he was gone."
"I still can't believe that happened. He always had the best jokes in the unit."
"I miss him. I'm not saying that is what Charlie is going to be like, but remember how we wished we had paid more attention to the smaller signs. That's what I'm doing. I'm fulfilling my promise to Rachel, whether she realizes it or not. I'm trying to protect Charlie."
"I get it man. I can talk to Rachel."
"I know she is just worried about her daughter and she has every right to be. You know despite everything, I don't hate Rachel. But, when it comes to Charlie, she's made a lot of wrong decisions. I think she knows that and her pushing to fix it is actually making it worse. Charlie doesn't need to be smothered or fixed. Maybe my way isn't perfect, but I'm trying to provide a quiet place for Charlie to work through some of her issues without her being alonge. Aaron stops by and has dinner with us every now and again. I know she would appreciate it if you and Rachel said hi, especially to show that you're not still mad about her moving out."
"I was never mad at her. I couldn't be when she's a grown ass adult and she should be making her own decisions. I remember what we were like at that age, and I can't believe it. Charlie has been through so much. She deserves to make some of these decisions on her own and to have some space. I get it."
"Maybe you need to tell her that. I don't think she knows it."
Miles considered his word. "Maybe you're right."
Bass was sitting on the couch, near the fireplace as the weather had shifted in the last couple of days and tonight was the first crisp night, signaling it would be Fall soon. Charlie came into the front room, her hair damp from the bath. Bass watched Charlie sit down near his feet, close to the fire. She leaned forward to bring her hair closer to the heat, running her fingers through the tangles.
"What are you reading?" Charlie asked, surprising Bass because usually she did not initiate conversation.
He grinned a little sheepishly as he held up Harry Potter. "Aaron lent it to me. I haven't read Harry Potter for a long time."
"Big bad General Monroe is a Harry Potter fan?" There was no bite to Charlie's tone, though.
"In my defense, it was before I was General Monroe. I was still a private and it was before the blackout."
"You were in the military?"
"Both your Uncle Miles and I were sent overseas to Iraq."
"I didn't realize you both had been to war before. It makes sense, but I had never really thought about it before. What was war like then?"
Bass let his mind go back all of those years. "Not much different than now. There were fancier weapons, but death and destruction are the same regardless of the methods."
"Did you see a lot of battles?" Charlie's voice softened, more unsure of herself.
"Any amount of battles is too much. I was younger than you are when I was sent off."
"How old were you?"
"I was 18."
"Really? How did you deal with what you saw?"
Bass knew his answer to this question was very important. He had thought about this a lot actually since his conversation with Miles. He had thought about Tommy and tried to figure out what made him different than the other men in his unit. Why did he chosoe suicide? He had a supportive family, a sweet girlfriend, and a dream of being a doctor. He wanted to help people. Despite all of those things, Tommy was not able to cope with what they witnessed. But rather than think there was something wrong with Tommy, Bass had to wonder if there was something wrong with himself. Was there a piece of his humanity that was missing that made it easier for him to compartmentalize what had happened.
He realized he had been quiet for a long time, but Charlie was still looking at him patiently. "I wish I had an answer, but I don't know. I think having Miles helped, he was like a brother and the fact that we had been in it together, gave me somebody to talk to. He also knew when to let me be or when I just needed a distraction, and I did the same thing for him."
Charlie nodded thoughtfully, resuming her previous work of combing her hair out. Bass got an idea.
"Here, scoot over here. Let me do that."
Bass just motioned for her to get closer. She backed up toward the couch and he leaned forward, handing her his book before sweeping her hair behind her shoulders. He ran his fingers through the wet hair, trying to gently tease out the tangles. Initially, Charlie was stiff, but as he kept his movements steady and soft, she slowly relaxed into his legs some. Once her hair was sufficiently detangled, he started to part her hair in the top right corner.
"My sisters were obsessed with The Hunger Games," Bass spoke softly, not wanting to break the spell they were under. "The main character in the book had a sideways braid. It became very stylish amongst the girls. My mom was terrible with hair and my dad was too busy. I watched a video online to learn how to do it and anytime I was home on leave, my sisters would wake me up before school to do their hair."
"What happened to them?"
Bass' fingers paused briefly, caught up in the memory of his sisters. He shook his head and he nimbly started pulling hair into the braid. "My parents and them were killed by a drunk driver before the blackout."
"Sometimes I grateful that they didn't have to live through the blackout. But then maybe, if they had been around…" he let his thoughts trail off. He took one of the leather pieces from around his wrist and used it to tie off the end of her braid and placed it gently over her shoulder. When he did that, Charlie swiftly grabbed one of his hands, pulling his palm to her lips, gently kissing the flesh.
"But then you wouldn't be here with me in this moment, and that is what I need right now."
Bass contemplated that, and while he distinctly thought her life would have been better if he hadn't been General Monroe, he understood the sentiment she was trying to convey.
Charlie leaned her head against his knees and sighed. She handed the book back to him. "Will you read to me?"
Bass smiled softly, though she could not see him and flipped to the front of the book. "I'll start at the beginning."
Bass heard the front door open and shut quickly, and closely followed was Charlie wandering into the kitchen. "What are you making? It smells good."
"Fried rice…or rather the closest approximation of it I can get with what ingredients I could find in the town."
"I'll set the table," Charlie offered, grabbing two bowls from the cabinet.
"You're actually going to need to set the dining room table."
"What? Is Aaron coming over?"
"And your mom and Miles," Bass rushed to say, ripping the bandaid off.
"Why are they coming over? Was it my mom's plan? Does she want to ambush me to force me to move back in with them?"
Bass paused his cooking to raise his hands in surrender. "I don't know anything, but I doubt it. Miles came over this afternoon on his rounds and said that he and your mom wanted to come over to see you. They miss you."
"I didn't go far," Charlie spat out bitterly.
"Look, I think it is a peace offering. But you say the word and I kick them out, no questions asked.
"You would do that?" Charlie smiled.
"Anything for you Charlotte."
Charlie considered him, her eyes penetrating his and Bass felt stripped bare by them. He wanted to ask her what she saw when she looked at him like that. But before anything could be said, the moment was broken by a knock on the door.
"I'll get it," Charlie whispered, before leaning up to kiss him on the cheek. Before he could even catalogue what happened, she was out the kitchen.
An hour later, the dinner was going okay, if not awkwardly at moments. Bass had to admit that Miles and Rachel were on their best behavior, though. Bass realized that the four of them, including himself, did not know how to speak to each other when there were no battles to plan and soldiers to wrangle. Luckily, Aaron did not have this problem and easily stepped in whenever the conversation halted. Bass could see Charlie shooting appreciative looks to Aaron every time he brought the conversation back to safe territory. Miles was even able to get Charlie to laugh a few times, a welcome sound in the room.
Once the meal was over Bass stood to collect dishes and to the shock of everybody in the room, Rachel offered to help. Bass bit down the snide comments he could feel rising in him, not wanting to upset the delicate balance all of them had come to. He led the way into the kitchen. He scraped the bowls into the garbage and stacked them for him to take outside to wash later. Rachel mimicked his actions silently, and Bass wondered why she followed him in, if not to talk. But when he turned to go back into the dining room, she spoke up.
"I don't know how to talk to my own daughter."
"You're not doing half bad."
"Why does she trust you more than me? I'm her mother, she should feel safe with me."
"Maybe because I have never lied to her," Bass said, no accusation in his tone. He didn't mean it as an attack, but as a serious observation. "For all of my faults, I have been truthful with her, even when we were on opposite sides."
"I have just been trying to protect her," Rachel admitted.
"I know. I'm not saying I would have done anything better or different in your shoes. But right now, she sees me as a safe place. You made me promise to protect her, to save her, and whether you like it or not, it's the one promise I can't seem to break."
Rachel smiled at that. "Who knew? All of those years you would do the opposite of what I told you to do because you had a stubborn streak that rivaled anybody I knew."
"It's the reason I still have a scar on my palm. You said it wasn't a good idea to have a drunk knife throwing contest with Ben and Miles, who smartly refused to join, and I had to prove you wrong."
Rachel actually laughed at that. "I was so mad that I was the only sober one so I had to drive your drunk ass to the hospital to get stitches. You were such an idiot."
Bass chuckled. "Not my best moment."
"No, but there may be hope for you yet." Rachel's smile softened as she assessed him.
"I don't know how much there is left for me, but what little I have I'm channeling into Charlie now."
"I see that now and I appreciate what you're doing for her."
Later, after everybody had left, Charlie was on the couch waiting for Bass to finish cleaning up so they could continue with Harry Potter. As he walked in, the sight of her nestled up on the couch, a throw blanket on her lap, patiently waiting for him made his heart clench. He padded over and sat next to her, taking the book from her lap. Before he could crack the book open, she spoke.
"What were you and my mom talking about in the kitchen? I can't imagine it was too bad since I heard you both laugh."
Bass thought about fudging the truth some, but remembered their conversation and how he said he hasn't lied to Charlie.
"We were talking about you. Your mom is just worried about you. She doesn't understand why you're here instead of with her."
"She could have just asked me?"
"And it wouldn't have ended in a shouting match?" Bass challenged.
"I don't know. Maybe. She needs to try at some point, though."
"I can't believe I'm going to defend her, but she is trying. She was here tonight wasn't she? She played nice."
"I guess," Charlie admitted. "What did you tell her?"
"I told her my guess was that I was the only person in this mess that never kept something from you and that's why you trust me right now."
"I'm sure that went over well."
"Surprisingly yes. She didn't disagree, although she said she has always just wanted to protect you."
"I know," Charlie sighed. "That's not all of it though. The honesty is important, but it's something deeper than that. There is no pressure to be someone I am not when I'm with you. Aaron still sees me as that naive girl he helped raise. Miles wants to see that strength I had when I first met him. My mom wants her little girl. I am none of those things anymore. Not after everything that has happened. You just see me for who I am in this moment, and you don't expect anything beyond that."
"When my family died, Miles would just sit with me for hours, days, letting me be sad. It's what got me through that. I know how it feels for people just wanting you to be your old self, but that person doesn't exist anymore. They never will."
"And that's okay with you? The person I have become?"
"As long as you can accept the version of myself I am right now."
"It beats the first Monroe I met. I don't think he would do such a good Hagrid voice," Charlie teased, nudging Bass.
Bass laughed, lifting his arm to pull her to his side. He leaned down and kissed her head as he hugged her to his side. "And that secret stays in this house."
"I will take it to my grave."
Bass jolted awake. He was disoriented for a moment, not understanding what had pulled him from his sleep. Then he heard the muffled yells from Charlie's room. He jumped out of bed, grabbing the knife from under his pillow and darting to her room down the hallway. He pushed her door open to find Charlie's body tangled up in the twisted blankets, her body covered in sweat.
"Charlie, wake up," Bass commanded as he shook her shoulders.
Charlie inhaled sharply, slamming awake. She looked around the room, eyes frantic. "He's dead. He's still dead."
Bass realized that, unfortunately, she could be referring to many people. "Who?"
Charlie's eyes focused on his, shiny and wild. "Jason. I killed him."
Bass let go of the tension he had been holding in his body. He set the knife down on her bedside table and sat on the bed next to her, pulling her close to him. "Yes, you did."
She nodded against his chest, clinging tightly to his t-shirt. "There was nothing I could do. He was going to kill me."
"That's right," Bass agreed, stroking her head. "You did the only thing you could do. But, that doesn't mean it hurts any less."
Charlie sniffled and Bass felt her tears through his shirt. "Will you stay with me for a while?"
"As long as you want, Charlotte. I'm not going anywhere."
Bass watched Charlie flit around Nina's shop, chatting with locals and teasing her regulars.
Nina came over and took a seat with him by the window. "Whatever you're doing, it's working."
Bass blushed, realizing he had been caught staring like a school boy. "I am not doing anything special. I've just been around."
"That's not nothing. Did I ever tell you that my wife and child died after the blackout?"
Bass turned his full attention to Nina. "No, you never did."
"It was in the days right after it happened. My wife, Simone, and I were debating when we should take our daughter, Tabitha, out of Austin. We thought, the whole thing would be temporary. But, as the violence picked up, we realized we were in more danger being in the city than out of it. So we packed up what we could carry and headed out of the city. We came across a pack of looters and long story short, they killed Simone and Tabitha in front of me. I managed to escape, but just barely."
Bass looked down at the table briefly, lost in his own memories of losing Shelley and his baby. He always came back to that moment as when he changed for the worse. Then he heard stories from people who have experienced just as much loss as him, and he has to wonder what is deficient in him that led to such a dark path.
"I'm so sorry."
Nina smiled softly. "I'm not telling you this so you can feel sad for me. When I escaped I wandered around like a zombie for weeks. I was about to kill myself and was just figuring out how to do it when I stumbled across Taylor."
"Taylor Blake? The one that lives right outside of town on that big farm?"
"The very same. He took me into his house with his wife and children. Even though things were still tough, they shared what they had with me. I would just spend hours upon hours on his front porch, not doing a damn thing. And he would spend many of his spare moments out on that porch, just sitting with me. Sometimes he would talk with me, sometimes we just sat in silence. But, I stopped feeling alone. He didn't do anything spectacular. Him and his family just showed kindness to me. Before long, I was doing chores around the house and helping out on the farm. Slowly I branched out into town and here I am. I see that for Charlie as well. She is so different than when you first brought her here months ago."
"You think so?"
"I do and a lot of that is due to you. You are her Taylor Blake." Nina paused, giving him a slow smirk. "Or maybe more?"
Bass froze. His brain racing for a moment, trying to think of how to respond. He had noticed his own feelings shifting, but he had hoped he could keep it well-hidden. He could deny it, but somehow, he didn't think that would work with Nina. "It will never be more."
Bass glanced at Charlie who was smiling to Joey Cox, joking about something. "I care too much about her. I don't want to mess up what we have and more importantly, she deserves someone better."
Nina huffed. "That's a bunch of bullshit and you know it. She deserves somebody who respects her and that will stay loyal to her through good and bad times. Are you saying you wouldn't do that?"
"That's not what I'm saying. I'm not arguing with you about this, anyways because she doesn't have those feelings. This is a pointless conversation."
"If you say so."
Bass hated the tiny tilt to Nina's lips, as if she was in on a joke that he wasn't. Nina didn't know what she was talking about. Right? Right.
From that day forward, Bass could barely concentrate because of his and Nina's conversation. Suddenly things felt different. The air was charged in the most innocent of situations and Bass hated it. Bass was pretty sure it was just him, but every now and again he would look up and catch Charlie's eyes and he wondered if maybe there was something there. Nina seemed to think there was.
But he would force himself to always stop on that thought. Because even if Charlie did have feelings for him, it was meaningless. He suspected that if she did have feelings, they were misplaced from their time together. She had just latched onto him. Charlie deserved a bright future, with someone who didn't carry the baggage that he did. He didn't see why that couldn't happen. So he was committed to keeping his mouth shut and moving forward with their his life as if nothing had changed.
The plan was shot all to hell one night when they had been down to Chuck's for a drink. They had both worked long shifts that day and after dinner, Bass had felt restless. His mind was still trying to process his thoughts about Charlie, and he thought he could use a drink to settle his thoughts. He had told Charlie that he was going to go have a drink and she said that sounded good and invited herself out with him. He very well couldn't refuse.
They chatted about their days on the walk to Chuck's and when they got there, they sat at the bar together, both ordering beers. They were drinking in companionable silence when a young man with dark features came up to the bar to order his drink. His smooth accent tipped off Bass that he was probably a worker from Mexico passing through. The man eyed Charlie appreciatively as he waited for his drink. His eyes met Bass' assessing the situation. Bass shrugged and turned back to his drink, signaling that Charlie was not spoken for. Let her decide if she wanted to give this guy any of her time.
"Can I buy you a drink?" He spoke softly to Charlie.
Bass forced himself to stay looking at his drink, but saw Charlie stiffen out of the corner of his eye. "I'm good, thanks."
"No problem," he responded easily, his voice placating. "My name is Jonathan and if you change your mind, I'll be drinking over there for the next hour or so."
Charlie nodded and the man turned, returning to his table.
Bass glanced at the guy, and sure enough he was true to his word, he went back to his table, not seeming to give much more attention to Charlie.
Bass thought about ignoring the situation, but it nagged at him. After a minute or two of silence, he couldn't take it any further. "You can have a drink with him. I'm fine here on my own."
"Like I said, I'm good," Charlie responded easily. "I didn't reject him out of some misplaced worry over hurting your sensitive feelings."
Bass thought about dropping it, he really did, but he was a dog with a goddamn bone. "Then why did you? He seems nice enough."
This actually got a laugh out of Charlie. "Yes, you can tell so much about him from our long and scintillating conversation."
"You know what I mean."
Charlie turned fully toward him, as if challenging him. "I really don't. Why don't you explain it to me."
Bass took a deep breath. "I mean that there isn't exactly an abundance of young eligible guys in this town and this guy wasn't overtly creepy, so he might be worth pursuing."
"Still not interested." Charlie placed some gold on the counter and pushed away from the bar. Bass had one of two choices, finish his drink or continue this conversation.
He slammed a diamond on the bar and followed after her. "Are you seeing somebody then?"
Charlie rolled her eyes as she briskly walked towards their house. "Just drop it Bass."
"You are!" Bass kept his tone bright, despite his chest tightening.
"I am not and I don't want to talk about it anymore."
They kept the tense silence going all of the way home. The moment the door shut behind him, Charlie was going up the stairs calling out behind her, "I'm going to bed."
Bass didn't exactly know where he went wrong. His questions were fair, but obviously the topic was touchy to her. Maybe it was about what happened to Jason. Bass mentally slapped his head at the thought. That made sense. He knew she had had feelings for him, and maybe she didn't want to put herself back into that position. He went up the stairs and was ready to go talk to her, but her door was shut, an unspoken signal that she wanted to be alone. He resigned himself to the fact he would have to wait to apologize until tomorrow.
The next morning he found that Charlie's room was empty and she had already left for her day of work at Nina's. He considered leaving immediately to go find her, but decided that it could wait. Maybe she needed more space. He went around the house doing his morning routine. When he took his breakfast to the dining room table, he found Charlie's leather book. He went to place it in the living room, where she normally kept it, but found a small scrap of paper sticking out from the top.
Maybe if you read this, you would understand more. I don't want any secrets from you anymore. -C
Secrets? Bass put his food aside and held the journal gingerly. He considered not reading it. Not because he was afraid, but because he really didn't want to invade her privacy. He had never felt tempted to look into it before if he saw it laying around. But, this wasn't betraying her trust. She was inviting him into her head for some reason and he could never deny her anything.
He was instantly engrossed in the book. It was more than a journal. There were distant memories jotted down in between entries about what she experienced at work that day. There were short odes to the dead. She described haunting dreams in stark language. She broke up these writings with small sketches of places from her adventures.
While he was fascinated by this window into Charlie's soul, he didn't understand what secrets she was referring to until an entry from about a month ago.
I had another dream about Bass last night. This is the third time this week. I hadn't bothered documenting them, thinking they were flukes. Last night's, though, was much more vivid than any from before. We were sitting on the couch, him reading just like we do every night, nothing to distinguish it from our normal evening activities. Until he set the book down, tilted my head up toward him and kissed me slowly. I had never been kissed like that before, so tender and soft. There was no urgency, we had all the time in the world. When I woke, there was a lingering feeling of loss that I couldn't shake the rest of the day. Before, the dreams of him drifted away, but this one is as vivid as if I had just woken with the dream. What do I do?
Bass continued to read, but admits he is just now looking for any more mentions of him. Occasionally a sentence will slip through.
How long have I been asleep to not notice the changes in him?
He pulled me close while reading and I let myself believe for a while, that there was more to his feelings toward me.
When did my hatred turn into love?
What will I do if he ever finds out how I feel?
I saw Nina and him laughing at some joke and I wonder if he cares for her?
Finally he reached the final entry. One from last night.
I don't know why he had to keep pushing me about that guy at the bar. Why would I even care about some random stranger passing through town? I wonder if he is trying to set me up with someone so I won't have to stay here longer. I have worried that I am overstaying my welcome, although he always seems happy that I'm here. But that can't last forever. If I am with someone, then he can move on.
How do I tell him that that is the last thing I want. I can't imagine seeing some other woman live in our house, because God help me, that is what I have been calling it in my head, our house. I feel at home here, with him in this little world, and it can't last. I think I have to tell him somehow.
There were a couple lines of space and a few more lines written on the bottom of the page.
If you are reading this, Bass, then that means I have decided to tell you by giving you these writing. I never knew why I was writing so much in here or who I was writing to. At first I imagined I was talking to Danny or my dad. But, that didn't seem right. But, I think I was writing to you all along and this journal was always meant for you. You are the only one I trust with my thoughts. I don't know where we go from here, I guess that is up to you.
Bass set it down and let his mind run through everything he just learned. He felt like his heart was pulling him in a million different directions all at once. He wanted to run to her, but he also wanted to skip town and avoid this reality. A big part of him wanted to deny everything. There was no happiness in any of this for him, he would just bring her pain and suffering. Isn't that what had happened to every woman he had loved?
That was the thought that his mind kept stopping at. It felt true. But if it was true, why did it also feel wrong. His mind flitted back to that conversation with Nina from a couple of weeks ago. She said Charlie had the right to decide for herself what she wanted. Bass agreed with the premise, but in this instance, didn't she deserve to be protected from him? Was letting her make that decision just really selfish on his part?
Nina only knew this version of Bass. He needed somebody who would be more impartial. He quickly threw aside Rachel and Miles. No way in hell would they ever be okay with any of this. And they faltered on the same roadblock that he, himself, was struggling on. What they thought was best for Charlie didn't always match up with reality. He knew he had to see Aaron.
Bass grabbed his jacket and headed toward the school. He made sure to take the long way, not wanting to chance by Charlie at Nina's. When he got to the school, he found Aaron lecturing about some physics principle, Something, he definitely didn't know anything about. He caught Aaron's eye, who faltered.
"Class, go ahead and take your morning break a few minutes early. We will reconvene in 15 minutes."
The class of teens didn't need to be told twice before exiting the room. Bass fully entered the room and shut the open door behind him.
"Is Charlie okay?" Aaron blurted out.
"Oh thank God. Don't come in here like that. You look absolutely manic."
Bass ran his hand through his curls, probably not helping the situation. "Sorry, it's not like that. But I do need to talk to you about Charlie."
"What is it? She seems to be doing so much better."
"She is. But, that's not my concern." Bass braced for impact. "I think she has feelings for me."
Aaron looked nonplussed. "So?"
"You don't get it. She has romantic feelings for me."
"And?" Aaron gestured for him, as if he hadn't already gotten to the point.
"And I don't know what I should do."
"Do you love her back?"
"I never said anything about love."
"Look, I've known her since she was 8 and I know here better than I probably know my own brain. You came here to talk, so let's not quibble over details. Whether she has said it not, I know she loves you. Now, I will ask again. Do you love her back?"
And there it was. The question that he had to confront head on. He had come to terms with his feelings for her weeks ago. But he hadn't put a name to them and this was so much harder. It made it more real. It wasn't some silly fantasy that he would eventually shake. He took a deep breath, and let it calm his body. He raised his eyes to look Aaron straight on. "Yes, I love her."
Of all the possible responses, Bass wasn't expecting the grin that crept across Aaron's face. "Then what more is there to talk about?"
Bass sighed. "Okay, I love her. But that doesn't mean I am good for her. I can't be. She deserves better."
Aaron shrugged. "She may deserve better, but I'm not sure if there is a man that actually is good enough for her. But here is the thing. When we had that drink all of those months ago, discussing how we could help Charlie, I trusted you because you saw her. You valued her and wanted her to have a better life. Part of that better life is that she gets to make choices for herself, without having to consider what is best for anybody else. What kind of hypocrite would I be if I didn't respect her choices now? And you will be a hypocrite too."
Bass let those thoughts settle in. Aaron was right. He had to let Charlie make her own choices. And if she chose him, then he would be there for as long as she wanted him. "I guess I better go talk to her then."
Bass turned to go out the door but was stopped by Aaron's voice. "And for what it's worth, Bass, you do deserve her too."
Bass smiled. "Thanks Aaron."
He hurried down the streets of town, not wanting to wait until she was off work. He had to see her now. He had to hear those words from her own lips. He opened the door to Nina's and saw only a few patrons at the tables. Charlie was helping a customer and didn't see him. Nina caught his eyes, though, and must have seen something similar that Aaron had detected. He pointed to Charlie and Nina nodded.
As Charlie turned away from her customer, Nina called out, "Charlie, why don't you take your break?"
"But, it's only…" Charlie began to argue, but cut off as she spotted Bass.
"Can I talk to you outside, Charlie?"
Charlie's face drained of color. She nodded, slowly taking her order back to Nina. She took off her apron and hung it on one of the bar stools before following him out the door. He turned the corner into the alley behind Nina's. They stood there, staring at each other for a few seconds, assessing each other.
"Did you mean it?" Bass interrupted.
"Yes," she responded simply.
"Why do we need to breathe? Why does our heart beat?"
"Because that is what keeps us alive. Is Aaron that bad of a science teacher?" Bass teased.
Charlie laughed. "I was trying to be poetic. I never made a choice. I don't know why. I just know that I do. I might have answers eventually, but right now, I just know it as a fact. And I didn't want to tell you, because I don't want anything to change."
"But what if I want things to change?"
Charlie's shoulders lowered. "Then I can move out tonight."
"No Charlotte," Bass lowered his voice, pulling her chin up so she met his eyes again. "What if I feel the same way as you?"
"God help me, but yes, I love you. But I have to be honest, I'm scared. I have hurt every single person I have loved. When I read your journal, I wanted to run for the hills?"
"What changed your mind?"
"Aaron. He said that I should let you make your own choices about whether or not I was good enough for you."
"He's right. I can make my own choices. But I'm scared too. I'm scared about how much I love you. A lot of the people I have loved have died and I don't want to feel that loss again. But I have also gained so much in the last couple months living with you. I have gained a new home." Briefly Charlie lowered her eyes, before raising them up again, giving Bass a smile that was like a punch to the gut. "Maybe, even a family some day. Isn't that worth the risk?"
"Yes," Bass breathed. "That is everything."
He lowered his head, capturing her lips in a soft kiss. He remembered her dream, that one that had started all of this. He tried to give her that kiss, being patient and gentle with her. Letting her know that they had all the time in the world.