Fall 2027 - Somewhere in the Plains Nation.
The wagon is parked in the shade of an old maple. Sunlight flickers through the green and golden canopy, marking the ground with shifting shadows as a gentle breeze sways the branches.
Charlie is sitting under the tree on an overturned bucket, sifting through the random debris they'd found in the bounty hunter wagon. There's already a stack of ancient issues of Penthouse and Playboy tossed to one side. She'd also found a spool of twine, a huge box of nails, a thing Monroe says is a carburetor and three slingshots (she scoffs at these initially, but in the end decides to keep one).
She pulls a newspaper out from under what looks like an old wedding dress. The paper is yellowed with age but protected by a thin plastic sleeve. Dusting off the surface, she glances up at Bass. "Look at this. It's from that terrorist attack. Aaron told us about it once."
Monroe has been digging through his own pile which mostly consists of rusted spoons, broken crockery and moldy quilts. When he hears Charlie's question, he looks up sharply. "What did you find?"
"This old newspaper." She looks closer. "Chicago Tribune from September 12, 2001." Charlie holds it up so he can see the faded image that still brings to Bass's mind a time long gone by.
The smoking rubble. The heap of twisted metal. The hope that survivors might still be found….
He takes the paper from her gingerly, his fingers trace the headline Our Nation Saw Evil and he sucks in a breath. After all these years - even after the blackout and all that's come since - the memory still rocks him to his soul. "You weren't even born yet, I guess."
"Not in 2001, nope." She chuckles, but it falls flat. Something about his posture and the way he stares at the paper...something is off. "Uh, so terrorists crashed planes into some buildings and a lot of people died. I don't really remember the rest."
"Three thousand people, Charlie."
Charlie watches him. His thoughts have taken him somewhere far away. This is obviously very important to him. She's not sure he'll listen but the silence is uncomfortable so she breaks it. "How old were you?"
"I was nineteen." He answers immediately - no hesitation. Usually if she asks someone about time before the blackout, their memories are fuzzy. They hem and haw before settling on a specific memory they can anchor to a year or an age. Not Monroe. Not about this.
He holds up the paper. "Before the blackout happened, this was the event that shaped us."
"What do you mean?"
"My parents remembered JFK's assassination. My Nana used to always talk about Pearl Harbor, but for us, this was it. That was the day when my generation first saw the evil in the world. We weren't just reading about it in a textbook. We were living it."
She can tell he has more to say, so she prods, "Were you there in New York?"
"No. Was back in Jasper, standing in line with Miles at McDonald's of all places."
"The hamburger place." She has vague memories of happy meals and more recent, grittier memories of dirty burnt out buildings under aging golden arches.
"Yeah. We used to get a late breakfast there after a night of partying."
"So, you were standing in line and?"
"And this guy ran in and started yelling about a plane crashing in New York. And it was weird. We were laughing at him because he was acting crazy and plane crashes weren't that unusual. We couldn't figure out what the big deal was."
Monroe runs a hand through his curls. "This guy could tell he wasn't getting through to us and ran over to a television. He got up on top of a table and changed the channel from Sponge Bob to the news."
"And nobody really knew what was happening but we could see one of the towers was on fire. They kept showing shots of terrified and confused people and then switching back to the smoking hole in the building. This was before the second plane had hit. Some people thought terrorism from the beginning, but a lot of us figured it was a fluke. Some dumb accident."
"But it wasn't."
"No. And we all realized it as soon as the second plane came into view. Nothing like that happens twice by accident."
"And then what?"
"The world went dark. Not like the blackout. It was a different darkness. Internal. We mourned for people we didn't even know. We banded together. We watched hours of television coverage. It was a bad time but surviving it brought out a lot of good in people."
They sit in silence for a long time. Charlie clears her throat. "So you were in McDonald's when you heard about that." She nods to the newspaper. "Where were you when the blackout happened?"
Bass is startled. "Figured you knew. I was with Miles for that too. We were in his car, driving along. Your dad had called, actually. Had warned us, but we didn't get it. Didn't understand his warning. Everything just stopped. Phone died. Car died. Everyone just got out and looked around. It was the most surreal moment I'd experienced since that morning in McDonald's."
Charlie swallows a lump in her throat at the mention of her dad.
"Where were you, Charlie?"
She exhales slowly before speaking. "I was watching cartoons and I think we ate ice cream. It was a week before I realized the lights were out for real and not just part of a game. I was so little. A lot of it is a blur." Charlie shrugs. "So the defining moment of my life is a blur."
Bass shakes his head. "Our lives are full of defining moments and they aren't the same for any two people. And maybe the real defining moment isn't the event itself but how we respond to it. We are shaped by big events but also by little ones. Your defining moment might be something nobody else even notices. It might just be a flicker of time when your outlook changes."
Charlie glances at Bass and her mind fills with the images of other faces. Miles. Her mom. Her dad. Danny. Maggie. Aaron. Nora. So many others she'd known over the years. Some lost. Some found. Each one has shown her something, taught her something.
Each has provided a defining moment.
"That's enough depressing conversation for one day." He sets the newspaper aside. "Find anything useful?"
Charlie looks at her pile in disgust. "Only if you are a slingshot wielding bride to be with a thing for porn."
Bass tilts his head back and laughs. It's one of those laughs that rocks his shoulders and crinkles the skin around his eyes. That laugh makes her feel warm. Safe.
Safe with Monroe? When did that happen? Maybe her opinion of him has shifted when she wasn't really paying attention. She remembers what he'd said about not all defining moments being big things. Sometimes they are little things, or maybe a collection of little things...
Like not shooting her when he could have and clearly kind of wanted to.
Like following her into that shitty town and watching from afar, only stepping in when she needed him most.
Like carrying her unconscious body for miles over uneven ground until he was sure they were safe.
Like sharing some of his own defining moments with her.
She shakes off this train of thought, turning to him. "Do you want to keep any of this stuff or toss it?"
He puts his hands on his hips and surveys the piles of random items. "Keep the nails and the twine. We can get rid of the rest."
She can't help but notice as they are throwing the trash into a nearby ditch that he has the newspaper tucked into his belt. He sees her looking and shrugs. "Never forget, Charlotte."
Even though they remember different things and have lived through different defining moments, she gets what he's saying. The things that shape us into who we are - good or bad - are a part of us and can't be forgotten.
Once more, her mind is filled with images of those who she loved and especially those who she's lost. "Never forget," she whispers, her words carried away by a soft autumn wind.