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Meeting Charlotte Matheson

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Two Years Before the Blackout (2010)

It’s Christmas. Bass refuses to go home, won’t set foot in the town, doesn’t care if Miles’s parents are still there. He tells Miles he’ll just stay on base, go to the mess for dinner, no big. Other guys will be there. It’s not like a whole base of Marines can just fuck off for the holidays. That’s not the gig they signed up for.

No way in hell Miles is leaving Bass alone for the first Christmas since his family died. Bass gets the feeling that Miles is kind of terrified of what he’d come home to, if he did.

He wants to tell him he’s not going to try that again.

He realizes he can’t really promise that.

So, Bass agrees to a compromise that makes him roll his eyes a bit and give a long-suffering sigh (that gets him punched in the shoulder and told to “play nice”), and Miles calls his folks and they all meet in Chicago instead.

There’s a warmth and brightness spilling through the house when they arrive, laughter and delight at being together, at Miles being home safe. Bass hovers on the edges, aware of the scrutiny, sympathetic as it is, aware that he’s being watched. They try to be subtle about it, but none of them are that good. They knew his family, came to the funeral. Miles’s mom tells him that she put wreaths out for them, on the graves, for the holidays. It’s meant to be a kindness, and Bass chokes out his thanks before excusing himself and stepping outside.

They’ve got a white Christmas, snow covering the ground, pretty and powdery and perfect. His mind dances around past Christmases, past snowfalls. Teaching his sisters how to make snowmen. Having snowball fights, kids against their parents. Really, it was him and his dad--his mom had horrible aim and even though the girls were getting better, they had distance issues on their throws.
No one cared.

The door opens behind him. Expecting Miles, he doesn’t turn around, doesn’t say anything.

“How come you’re out here?”

Not Miles, then.

Bass turns and regards the little blonde girl hovering in the doorway.

“Better shut the door before you let the cold in,” he tells her, almost automatically. Her lips curve in a tiny smile, and she does so, stepping out into the yard. He gives her a critical look. “You need a coat, Charlotte.”

“Nobody calls me Charlotte ‘less I’m in trouble.” Her gaze is grave, like she knows something’s up. Kids are pretty perceptive.

Or maybe that’s the tear tracks on his face.

“Well, I do. I’ve called you Charlotte since the day we met.”

Her little frown is serious as she moves toward him. “We din’t meet, b’fore.”

“Yeah, we did. But you were real little, just a baby.”

“Like Danny.”

“Littler.”

She giggles, knowing enough to know grown-ups don’t say “littler.” When she does, they tell her she’s wrong. Reaching up, she takes his hand. “Was Uncle Miles there, too?”

“He sure was.”

“I don’t ‘member him, ‘cept once a lil’ while ago,” she confides. “He was at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, but after T’anksgiving. He din’t want to play, though, an’ left before bedtime.”

“Yeah, I know.” They’d spent Thanksgiving Day on base, having asked off for Christmas. Doing both, just a month apart, was kind of pointless, they’d thought, so even though they weren’t on duty, they’d stayed and gone out for dinner at a local place, then spent the day sacked out in their room watching football and doing…other things.

They’d been in Jasper on Saturday. He still wasn’t sure how Miles had swung the impromptu leave for himself. Had a suspicion he’d told their commander he was worried about Bass.

“You wasn’t there.”

“No.” He shakes his head. “I mean, I was in town, but I didn’t come for dinner. I...had dinner with my family that night.”

“Oh.” Her fingers play with his, teasing in and out. Angela used to do that, when she was really little, and his gaze fixes on their hands. “How come you’s here, now, an’ not with them?”

His throat nearly closes, and he shakes his head. “Miles is my family now. Don’t you want me here?”

She looks up at him, eyes as blue as his, and he meets her gaze and tries to hide the tears in his.

“Maybe. Can you build a snowman?”

He laughs, and it’s about as happy as the night Miles told him he had him--necessary like air, but cold comfort in the face of the huge, gaping holes in his life. He nods, though. “Yeah. I can. Me and Miles used to build the best ones when we were kids.”

“Can we now?”

He looks inside at the adults and the warmth and the light, then down at the little girl trying not to shiver, holding tight to his hand.

“Well, we’re gonna need some charcoal. Raisins and carrots. And coats and hats and mittens.”

“For the snowman?”

“Well, one set, sure.” He tugs her back toward the door. “But rule number one of snowman building is to make sure your hands don’t freeze off, so. We probably should get ours, too.”

Inside, Charlotte runs to her mother, demanding everything Bass told her they needed. Rachel (the-lying-cheating-conniving-bitch) shoots him a look he pretends not to see, moving to get his coat.

“You okay?” Miles’ hand is warm on the cold skin at the back of his neck.

“Yeah. Kid wants to build a snowman.” His fingers flex a bit around the hat he just picked up, and he swallows, looks back at Miles, leans a little into his touch. “Come help us?”

There’s a snowball fight before they’re done, him and Charlotte against Miles, which Miles declares unfair. She can’t throw very far, but her aim is deadly, and when they come back in for hot cocoa by the fire, the smile on Bass’s lips is small but real.