“Read Pooh Bear, please, ‘Bastian,” she says in her lilting little voice.
They’re both sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of her bookshelf, inspecting her impressive collection. Charlotte’s quite the bookworm for being so young. Bass supposes that comes with the territory of being an only child for several years, then having a sickly little brother who requires any spare attention her busy parents have to give. She runs her fingers caressingly along the spines like her books are much-beloved pets. She shrieks at the baby if he ever tries to grab at one of them with his clumsy, pudgy hands. She slaps Miles sharply on the knuckles every time he pretends he’s going to dog-ear a page just to mess with her.
Charlotte’s precious books are safe for the moment, though, because their tormenter is at a Bears game with his brother. They’d tried to talk Bass into going with them, but football isn’t really his thing. Now if it was a Cubs game, that’d be a different story. Besides, he had a date tonight with a woman he met when he was out for a run that morning. He really didn’t know a thing about her other than that she’s blonde and she looks amazing in skin-tight yoga pants. That’s all he really needed to know to ask her out for drinks. The only reason he remembered her name is because she’d snatched his phone out of his hands and added herself as a contact almost before the words were out of his mouth.
Miles had laughed in disbelief when he told him, saying dryly, “Bass, you do realize we’re only here for a few days?”
Bass had grinned at him. “I don’t need a few days, man.”
Miles had rolled his eyes indulgently, as he always did. Bass would never say it, but he thinks his friend is a little jealous of the ease with which he picks up women. It doesn’t help Miles’s case that he’s clearly still hung up on Rachel, but there’s a prickly element to his personality that tends to keep strangers at bay. Add that to his acerbic wit and tendency to not smile much, and it takes a certain kind of woman to be drawn to him. Bass doesn’t know exactly what it is about himself that attracts so many more women. Miles jokes that it’s his curly hair and innocent puppy-dog eyes, but Bass suspects it’s more the fact that he laughs easily and often and knows how to give compliments without sounding sarcastic. He doesn’t laugh so often these days, but his dating pool doesn’t seem to have shrunk. Maybe Miles is partially right after all.
Not that any of his charm came in very handy tonight, because he ended up ditching the hot blonde girl for reasons that still aren’t entirely clear to him. Everything had been going great. She’d been wearing a dress so short it was almost a shirt, and she kept using every excuse possible to touch him, foot brushing his leg every time she crossed and recrossed her legs, hand lingering on his upper arm every time he made her laugh. Their conversation wasn’t very interesting, but that was probably because they were both too busy flirting inanely to keep up a proper conversation. That didn’t really matter though, because she was making it abundantly clear where this night was heading. Bass wasn’t about to complain.
That is, not until his phone started vibrating noisily in his back pocket. He jerked his hand to it automatically. “Sorry, sorry,” he said, trying unsuccessfully to flip the ringer off through the thick denim of his jeans. He shifted on the bar stool, pulling his phone out, and glanced at the contact name. His finger hesitated over hitting “Ignore.” It was Rachel. That’s what stopped him. He doubted she’d be calling him unless it was important.
He gave his date an apologetic smile. “Mind if I take this? I think it’s important.”
She waved a hand in agreement and sipped at her martini. He turned half away from her as he answered the phone. “Rachel?” he asked hesitantly.
“It’s Charlie,” said the little voice on the other end.
“Charlotte?” Surprise colored his tone. He thought he saw his date frowning out of the corner of his eye. “Why’re you calling me?”
“Saw your picture on Momma’s phone.”
The things Charlotte was capable of doing at such a young age had long ago ceased to surprise him. “Not how. Why?” he asked again, trying to sound patient.
“Are you coming home?” He tried to ignore the twinge of anguish that still went through him at the word home, even all these months after the accident.
“Not right now. I’m busy.” The only response he got was heavy breathing. Hopefully she’d just called him because she was bored. “I need to go.”
“’K.” Oh no. She sounded sniffly, and he knew she didn’t have a cold. He glanced at his date again. Her previously full martini glass was empty already and she had her chin propped on her hand, expression wavering somewhere between boredom and irritation. He knew he was being rude. He sighed in defeat, then mouthed “sorry” at her. “What’s wrong, Charlotte?”
She sniffed loudly on the other end of the phone. “Danny’s sick and sad again. He’s crying lots and Momma…said she can’t put me to bed.” A hiccup interrupted her words, and then she started crying in earnest. Despite the inconvenience, Bass felt a small smile slipping onto his face at the simple things that devastated a toddler’s world. She started talking through her tears, but he could only catch a few words here and there. “Daddy…Unca Miles…can’t...not home…”
“Hey, hey, calm down,” he interrupted softly. “What do you need?”
“Can’t go to sleep!” Her little voice was tremulous. “Need someone to read!” She hiccupped again.
He knew it was her nightly ritual with Ben. Rachel didn’t do it anymore since Danny had been born, and Bass suspected that’s what this was really about. Poor Charlotte was feeling neglected, and not without some cause. She was healthy and nearly four, and her brother was a sickly baby, so it was obvious which of them got the most attention.
“You can’t go one night without?” he asked, already knowing the answer.
“No, ‘Bastian,” she answered, voice sad and muffled. “Can’t sleep.”
He brought his free hand to his forehead, then dragged it down his face in resignation. “Okay. No more crying and I’ll be back soon. Deal?”
“Okay,” he repeated. “Now put your mom’s phone away and go back to bed.”
“Okay.” She sniffled one last time, then he heard a click on the other end of the line. He turned back to his date to see she was staring at him now, a suspicious look on her face.
“Who’s Charlotte?” she asked pointedly, before he could say anything. Bass almost laughed. If only she knew she was jealous of a toddler.
He smiled. “Family friend’s kid. Some kid emergency.”
She raised a perfectly arched, skeptical eyebrow. He tried to remember if he’d said anything on the phone that would make that sound like a suspicious cover-up and came up empty.
“I think you’re hiding something,” she said neutrally. He couldn’t tell if she was joking, appalled, or intrigued.
He tried unsuccessfully to stifle a smile. “Charlotte’s four.”
She swished her martini around in the glass. “So you say.”
He gave a disbelieving chuckle. She was studying him intensely, as though he was suddenly fascinating to her. She leaned forward and placed a hand on his knee. “Want to get out of here?”
He raked a hand awkwardly through his hair, looking at her hand on his knee with regret and already mentally kicking himself for the words he knew were about to leave his mouth. “Uh, actually, I really should go. I said I would—“
She leaned forward, eyes twinkling mischievously. “I thought you said she’s four.”
“She is,” he said weakly. Their faces were mere inches apart, and he knew if he leaned in to kiss her, she’d be more than happy to reciprocate. They’d fumble their way out the door, go back to her house, have sex on the couch, on her bed, in the shower. Maybe all three. And then he could conveniently leave in the morning and never see her again if he didn’t want to.
And the words in the morning ruined the fantasy. In the morning, he’d have to return to the Matheson house and see Charlotte’s disappointed expression. He didn’t really know what it would look like, but in his mind it looked like Cynthia’s when he missed her ballet recital to go on a date with some girl whose name he didn’t even remember now, or Angela’s when he missed her birthday party to go on a road trip with some buddies instead. He could beat himself up—and he did daily—over every bit of selfishness he’d ever shown towards them, but it didn’t do any good. He couldn’t take any of it back. It was too late. He was always too late.
But he wasn’t too late for Charlotte, and it was that thought which propelled him into motion, apologizing once again to his date and thanking her for a lovely evening, hardly even feeling a sting of regret when she looked angry and told him not to bother calling her tomorrow. He walked out then, feeling a strange sort of masochistic elation at denying himself something he wanted for the sake of someone else.
Which is how he wound up here, sitting on the carpet next to Charlotte as she waves a heavy hardcover copy of Winnie-the-Pooh that’s almost bigger than her in front of his face. He rescues it from her before she can drop it on her head.
He tries to set it back on the shelf. “Why don’t we read something else?” It was one of Cynthia’s favorites. He’d rather read something with no painful memories attached to it.
Charlotte’s face scrunches up in confusion. “But I like Pooh Bear best.”
Bass gives a long-suffering sigh. If only she understood the sacrifices he’s been making for her tonight. Maybe he’ll tell her someday, when she’s old enough to understand. Get a proper “thank you” out of her. He grins at the thought, picturing her looking disgusted and calling him a “womanizing pig” or something similar instead. That seems like a much more accurate depiction of future Charlotte. “Okay, Pooh Bear it is. But you have to get in bed and at least try to get sleepy while I’m reading. It’s already way past your bedtime.” Not that Rachel’s even noticed Charlotte’s still up. Bass hasn’t seen her since he got back, since she’s closeted away in Danny’s room and he’s still screaming inconsolably.
Eager to please, no doubt so he’ll read exactly as much as she tells him to, Charlotte scurries to her bed, wriggling under the covers and patting the empty space next to her for him to join. He sits on top of her princess comforter, leaning against the wall behind her bed and opening the book on his lap.
“Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin,” he begins, and Charlotte burrows her head under his arm like a puppy, so it encircles her little shoulders and she has a better view of the pictures. The old, familiar gesture from before brings tears to his eyes, and his voice catches. She doesn’t notice, fully absorbed in the book. He’s glad of that. She doesn’t need to share his pain.
She snuggles more heavily into his chest as he keeps reading. All he can see from above is a head full of blonde curls and a tiny hand helping him turn the pages. He could almost pretend she’s one of his sisters. But that isn’t healthy. His therapist told him that after he’d confessed that he followed a couple of blonde teenage girls at the mall one time, always making sure their faces were out of his line of sight so he could keep up the illusion for longer.
Healthy or not, it’s horribly tempting, which is why he needs to fight against it. He pokes her in the stomach so she’ll tilt her head back to look up at him. “Hey. You sleepy yet?”
She gives him a mock scowl which quickly dissolves into a giggle. “No.” She swipes a little fist across her eyes.
Bass laughs at the gesture. “Liar.”
Charlotte points an imperious finger at the page. “Read, ‘Bastian.”
He pretends to look affronted. “Where are your manners, Charlotte? A ‘please’ would be nice.”
“Pleeeeeease,” she says promptly, giving him the winning smile she saves for him and Miles when she wants to get her way. She knows she has them both wrapped around her finger. Little minx.
He’s barely gotten to the “Tut-tut, it looks like rain” part when her head flops onto his chest, and she’s out like a light. He’s relieved since it spares him from singing the cloud song like his sisters always made him do. He sits still for a few minutes to make sure she stays asleep, trying not to breathe too deeply in case the movement disturbs her. When he’s certain it’s safe, he slides quietly out from under her, gently untangling her fingers from where they’re clutched onto his shirt. She sighs contentedly in her sleep as he quickly replaces the spot he just vacated under her head with a pillow and pulls her comforter up to her chin.
Bass sets the book back on the shelf and starts picking up some toys she left on the floor, loitering around on purpose. For all his earlier good-natured irritation, now that she’s asleep, the pervading, constant loneliness he feels when left by himself for even a few minutes has settled in already. He’s a grown man and he’s terrified of being alone, even more than Charlotte is. But that makes sense. He never understood the true meaning of the word enough to feel it until his whole family was taken from him.
Charlotte’s too young and innocent to understand any of that, and for that he’s thankful. He stops in the middle of his tidying, arms full of stuffed animals, to look at her. Her sweet little face is smooth and peaceful in sleep, not a trace of worry or fear. He envies her, and he pities her. It’s a fleeting state of life. Sooner or later, some of the pain that’s left its mark on him will touch her too. He hopes for her sake it’s later. Someday she’ll lose her parents. Maybe not until she has her own kids, even grandkids. Maybe tomorrow. Someday she might lose her little brother, probably before she’s ready for it, if you can ever be ready for a loss like that. He’s always been a sickly little thing. Bass doesn’t know all the details, but Miles always makes it sound like the doctors don’t even know exactly what’s wrong with him.
Even if she has her family for a long time, there will always be something lost to her sooner or later. The thought of her losing her innocent enjoyment of life, of vivacious little Charlotte becoming broken and jaded by the world like he is, brings unwelcome tears pricking at his eyes. He scrubs at them with one hand, telling himself this is unhealthy too, that he’s transferring his emotions from his absent sisters to Charlotte and that it’s irrational. But he can’t help how he feels, and he’s resigned himself to being a tenuously emotional wreck most the time anyway.
When he’s done cleaning up, he’s out of excuses to linger around, reconciled to the fact that he’ll have only his own morbid thoughts for company until Miles and Ben get home. He crouches next to the bed and brushes some stray curls out of her face. “Sweet dreams, Charlotte,” he whispers softly, then leaves her to them.