Beth did her best to ignore the loneliness that tried to creep in, pressing a heaviness in her chest and a tightness in her throat. It was her first official Christmas Eve alone. Maggie and Glenn were married now and it was their first Christmas as a married couple. They were spending it with Glenn's family in Michigan.
She refused to make Maggie feel the least bit guilty for leaving her alone in Georgia. Beth all but insisted they go. She promised Maggie she would be just fine, and she would be. She had plenty to do on the farm. Beau, a Great Pyrenees she purchased as a livestock dog the year before had wound her way into her heart and a spot inside the house as well as outside, sat at her feet, keeping her company. Yes, they would be fine.
No tears were to be shed this Christmas Eve, she made a promise to herself.
It had been five years since her mother died and this was only the second Christmas since Daddy had been gone. It still felt like yesterday. She should have moved on by now, but her life seemed to be stuck in perpetual grief.
Maggie had moved on. She missed their parents but not in the same way Beth did. She didn't seem to understand why Beth couldn't do the same. Couldn't understand why she hung on so tightly to the past.
Life is a series of bumps, you gotta' learn to bounce, or you'll break, her mother's loving voice sounded in her mind. She wasn't sure just how many more bounces she could take before she would in fact break. But her mother's words comforted her and she thought back to what her mother did when she was feeling down.
She baked. Pie's, cakes, cookies. The kitchen always smelled of something good, especially during the holidays. Beth loved helping her mother, though she was sure she'd made more of a mess than she helped.
Then Daddy would come in from working in the barn and ask if she made all those cookies for herself. No, Daddy, we're gonna give 'em away, she'd excitedly tell him. Oh well, in that case, can I maybe have just a couple? Beth would pick out the best ones just for him.
Her eyes burned with tears. They were tears of happiness from a happy memory. Surely, that was okay. Beth sighed and stood from where she sat in the living room. Beau trailing behind her, they went to the kitchen with a determined purpose. She retrieved the bowl of eggs from the table, got the butter from the refrigerator. In the pantry, she balanced the containers of flour and sugar, powdered sugar, carried it into the kitchen. In a cupboard, she found her mother's box of recipes and dug out the one labeled sugar cookies. Her favorite.
On her phone, she found a Christmas music playlist and got to work making the dough. Butter and sugar, the eggs, flour, and the baking powder. Soon she was pleased with herself when a ball of dough began to foam in the mixer. She turned the bowl onto the floured countertop and began working the dough with her hands. The cool, soft dough on her hands was comforting. The smell made her think of her mother and her idyllic childhood. It wasn't perfect, but it was all she could ask for. Daddy and Mama loved each other and they loved her and Maggie.
She rolled the dough out, using her mother's old wooden rolling pin that was worn smooth from years of use. It took her a few minutes of shuffling through the cabinets to find the cookie cutters, managing to find a few tucked in the back behind the Tupperware. A candy cane, a snowman as well as another shaped like a gingerbread man.
By the time she was ready to frost the cookies, she was feeling much better. The grief and guilt a shadow in her mind.
A little while later she had frosted the sugar cookies, whipped up chocolate chip cookies and peanut butter bars as well. Now she stood back and wondered what on earth she was going to do with all these cookies.
"What do you think Beau?" She asked the dog who laid on the floor. She only gave a thump of his tail.
"Well we can't eat all of them ourselves," she remarked. Then she got an idea. Her mother often baked for the neighbors and friends and family. Beth decided to do just that.
Hoping her mother would forgive her for using paper plates instead of proper Christmas tins, she loaded up the cookies onto the snowman printed plates and covered them with foil. She placed the plates carefully into a box and she and Beau loaded up into the truck.
Her first stop was Otis, their closest neighbor, and farmhand for longer than Beth had been alive. And then Abraham and Sasha on the way into town. Their three sons were very excited about the cookies. Then she stopped at Sheriff Grimes's house. His wife, Michonne insisted she come in for coffee and a chat. By the time she was heading back out of town, she was feeling grateful and festive.
As she turned the corner, heading back home there was a house set back off of the road. She hesitated only a moment before heading down the drive.
As far as she knew a man lived there by himself. She'd seen him a few times as he drove past her house, or as she drove past his. A nod of the head, a small wave was all the interaction they'd had. But it was Christmas Eve and she had one more plate of cookies, everyone should have a tiny bit of cheer on this day.
He was at the door even before she'd retrieved the cookies from the box on the floorboard of the truck, telling Beau to wait, she'd be back in a second.
"Hi," she said cheerily, climbing the steps to the door.
He said, "Hey?" A question, not necessarily a greeting. He looked confused. She hoped he wouldn't be angry or find her visit intrusive.
"I baked way too many cookies, thought maybe you'd like a plate?" She said, explaining herself, holding the plate in her outstretched hand. He took them carefully as though it was a bomb and not a plate of food.
A dog appeared at his feet, a long-haired old mutt with soft, sweet eyes. "You have a dog!" She hadn't ever noticed him before in the yard or the truck when he drove by. "What's his name?" Beth asked, kneeling down to give the dog a good rub.
"Dog," he said.
Beth looked back up, perplexed. "Dog? You named your dog Dog?"
"Well, he didn't tell me his name."
Beth laughed at that, standing again. "I'm Beth."
"Daryl," he said, holding up the cookies, motioning with them. "Thank you."
What she didn't see in their fleeting glimpses, was how blue his eyes were. Or how broad his shoulders were. Or that his hands were strong and calloused.
Beth realized she was staring and hadn't noticed Dog was now standing on his hind legs, looking through the truck window, his tail wagging at full speed. Beau seemed equally interested.
"Looks like they wanna' be friends," Beth commented, smiling.
Daryl watched her, he couldn't remember the last time someone smiled at him or brought him homemade cookies. Brought him anything for that matter, let alone a pretty and by all pretenses kind woman.
"Wanna come in?" He asked, surprising both of them.
Maggie yelled in the back of her mind, Don't you go into that stranger's house. But Beth had never met a stranger and she liked to think she read people well. She didn't get a bad feeling from him. Maybe a little sadness, maybe even loneliness. The same loneliness she felt, a sharp stab in her heart. She looked back to the truck at Beau.
"Ya can bring her in," he paused.
"Oh, her name is Beau," she supplied for him.
"It doesn't look like Dog will mind."
Why not? Its Christmas. She said, "Sure, I think we'd like that."
Letting Beau out of the truck, she immediately bolted for Dog. They chased each other around the yard a few times, stopping to sniff one another and then follow Beth and Daryl inside.
They entered through a small foyer that led to the kitchen to the right or the living room on the left and then a dark hallway straight ahead. Daryl went into the kitchen and set the plate of cookies onto a small scarred wooden table.
Pulling a chair out, he motioned for her to sit. He went to the cupboard and took down two mugs and poured coffee in each. She accepted the cup, thinking it'd be rude of her to refuse it. Combine this cup with the cup she had at Michonne's and the sugar from the cookies she ate, she'd be up well past midnight.
The house, what she could see of it, was small but tidy. A couple of clean plates were drying in the dish rack next to the sink. A pair of boots sat on a mat at the door leading to what she guessed to be a garage. A leather vest with wings imprinted on the back hung on a hook near the door. The more she noticed the little details, the more interested she became in her neighbor.
Beau went from room to room sniffing, Dog following her. A full water dish sat by the back door and a second bowl was next to it with a few kernels of dog food left behind. A comfortable-looking dog bed laid on the floor in the corner.
Daddy always said you can tell a lot by the way a man treats his dog and it looked like Dog was well taken care of.
Daryl sat and took a drink of the coffee. "So, umm," she began. She didn't mind carrying the conversation but she found his intense eyes a bit unnerving. It felt like he was the one reading her. Sizing her up - friend, foe, or nosey neighbor. "I've been meaning to stop by. Introduce myself. You've been here a few months now?"
"Six months," he corrected.
"Well, in that case, I should have stopped by a lot sooner. I hope I'm not keeping you from your Christmas plans." She mildly berated herself, why would he invite her in if he had plans?
"Na, jus' me and Dog hanging out today. I'd rather be workin'."
"Me too," Beth laughed lightly. "But there's always somethin' to do on the farm. Where do you work?"
She knew where he worked. Whenever she went into town during the day, his blue and white Ford was parked at the garage. She doubted he voluntarily spent his time there.
"The garage," he said, as she expected.
"Ya' like it there?" She knew nothing about the owner, Dwight.
"Yeah, I do."
After some time a comfortable silence settled over them. They sipped their coffee, munched on cookies. The dogs decided to take a nap, sharing Dog's bed. A song emitted from somewhere in the house. She could be wrong but thought it must have been a record guessing by it's scratchy, wobbly sound.
"That Merle Haggard?" She asked, humming to the tune.
One and only rebel child
From a family meek and mild
My mama seemed to know what lay in store
Despite all my Sunday learning
Towards the bad I kept on turning
Till Mama couldn't hold me anymore
His eyebrows raised in interest. He nodded. "It is."
"My Daddy listened to him. And Hank Williams. Willie Nelson. All of them. Long as my Mama wasn't within earshot. She didn't like anything but gospel."
"That's an interesting mix. Merle Haggard or church music," he commented.
"They were an interesting mix. My mother was a God-fearing woman and Daddy was as well but he had a bit of a wilder side when he was young."
"Was? They passed?"
Did she detect a hint of sadness in the rumble of his voice? "Yeah, both of them," she told him, taking a drink of the pitch-black coffee hoping the bitterness would wash away the lump in her throat.
"Mine too. Gone years now."
There was a moment they shared then, a synergic grief.
"Is that why you're alone on Christmas Eve?" He asked.
She nodded, surprised herself by asking, "Why does it still hurt so much? Sometimes I think it'll get easier. Someday's I'll go all day without thinking of them, then I'll walk into the house and expect Mama to making dinner or Daddy to be sitting in his Lazy Boy reading the paper."
Tears burned the back of her throat. She closed her eyes for a moment, took a deep breath, internally begging not to make a fool of herself in front of a stranger. She opened them a second later to the sound of the chair scraping on the linoleum. She watched as Daryl went to a cupboard above the refrigerator.
He brought a jar of clear liquid back to the table, opened it and looked at her briefly. She hardly thought he had a mixture of date rape drugs in a mason jar at the ready in case an unsuspecting woman stops by so she nodded her okay. He poured it into her half-empty coffee cup, filling it to the brim.
She lifted it and he clinked the glass jar to her mug. The liquid went down smoothly, burning away the emotion that clogged in her throat.
"Thought it was supposed to get easier with time," she reflected.
"I dunno 'bout that. Their lives meant something. That something doesn't go away with time."
Beth gazed at him, wondering how he put into words precisely what she needed to hear. He gave reason, purpose, to her obstinate grief. He made the way she felt okay. The grief stayed, but the guilt she felt for feeling it evaporated.