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We Gather Together

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“I can do this. I can do this. I can…” Beth repeated the mantra to herself as she sifted through a seemingly unending pile of recipes. She couldn’t trust herself on Pinterest anymore. Each time she opened the app just to check a list of ingredients, she ended up adding at least a dozen more pins to her “Turkey Day” board. As if she didn’t have enough on her plate as it was.

Plates. She still had to decide on festive paper plates or using her mama’s nice place settings.

Beth gave a long sigh as she fought once again to keep her eyes from welling up with tears. This would be the second Thanksgiving since her Mama had passed. Last year, everyone’s hearts were still broken, emotions still too raw. They all agreed to get together as a family, but had dinner catered in. While she loved being with her family (and knew that’s what the day was really all about), it just felt wrong to Beth to have the kitchen sitting empty and cold, to not have days worth of leftovers because Mama apparently only knew how to cook for a small army.

Of course Beth knew Thanksgiving wasn’t all about the food; it was about being with those you love, and Mama always showed how thankful she was for her family by pulling out all the stops as she cooked a certifiable feast for them.

And now, Beth decided to take it upon herself to carry on the tradition. Both Maggie and Shawn had missed out on the cooking gene, but that didn’t matter much. Beth had spent most of her life learning to cook by her mother’s side. Even so, she wasn’t confident enough to try to replicate all of her mother’s recipes (none of which were written down anyway), so a Pinterest-based meal it would be.

If she could pull it off.

“It’s gonna be fine,” Daryl said as he finished his bowl of cereal from his spot by the sink. Every morning it was the same: a quick bowl of Frosted Mini Wheats and a cup of black coffee. Since they started living together, Daryl argued that because Beth always insisted on fixing his lunch and dinner every day and night, he could at least pull together his own damn breakfast. (He, of course, ignored the fact that most of their meals were provided by himself, hunting in the woods surrounding his cabin, bringing back all manner of game for Beth to transform into their meals for the week.)

It was in that moment that Beth truly understood what her mama had meant all those years. This man, this wonderful man, had basically saved her life when her mother lost hers. They had just started dating when Annette had been diagnosed terminal and only given six months to live. She’d beaten everyone’s expectations by three months, but ultimately lost her fight with cancer two summers ago. 

And Daryl had been Beth’s rock through the whole ordeal, supporting her and her family in every way he could. When she was at her absolute lowest, he was there to pick her up in his strong arms until her tears had all been cried out and her heart had mended. Beth knew she would always miss her mother, but Daryl had helped her grieve and heal. Now she wanted to give him the absolute best Thanksgiving she could manage as a way of showing just how much he meant to her.

As if wearing his ring and moving in with him wasn’t enough. Still, she knew that growing up, Daryl didn’t have a loving family to share the holidays with. Now that he had become hers, she wanted to make up for lost time. This Thanksgiving had to be perfect.

Fancy plates it is. Which meant she needed to add washing said fancy plates to her growing list of things to do.

Having finished his breakfast, Daryl rinsed his bowl and mug out into the sink then came behind her to take in the jumbled mess on the table. “How many people are you planning on feeding?” he asked incredulously.

“Well, us, Maggie and Glenn, Daddy, Shawn and Rosita,” she rattled off. “And Merle,” she added with a grin as she pretended to have forgotten. She had nothing but love for Daryl’s brother, but she knew Daryl was anxious about having him join them, especially when the rest of her family was concerned. She felt him tense behind her, and looked up at him with a warm smile, trying to reassure him. “Honey, it’ll be fine. It was fine at my birthday and it’ll be fine for Thanksgiving.” 

Daryl scoffed. “Don’t know why ya have all this anyway,” he wondered out loud. “Every damn thing ya make is delicious without a recipe.”

Beth gave a heavy sigh, not because she had to explain it to her fiance, but now she had to give voice to her insecurities. “But Thanksgiving is special. Mama never had recipes. She just always knew what she needed. I always helped her cook, but it was usually her telling me what to do. I know most of how to do everything, but I don’t want to mess anything up. I want to give you a perfect Thanksgiving dinner.”

Daryl took his hands from her shoulders and moved to sit across the corner from her, careful not to disturb her piles. “Baby,” he said, his voice soft and gravelly, while reaching out to hold her hand in his, “it’s gonna be fine. And even if it don’t turn out like you think it should, it’ll still be perfect ‘cause you did it for us.” he leaned over to take her other hand, pulling her to face him fully. “You keep sayin’ how Thanksgivin’s all about family and showin’ what we’re thankful for. I’m tellin’ ya now, we could have mac an cheese out of a box and I’d be thankful for ya. Dinner ain’t gotta be perfect.”

Beth took another calming breath as she took it all in. “You’re right,” she nodded then twisted her hand to hold his and bring it to her lips, pressing a kiss to his rough knuckles. “Thank you,” she grinned sheepishly. “What would I do without you?”

He snorted a laugh, “Do all the vaccuumin’ yerself.” Daryl pushed his chair back to stand up, but leaned forward to kiss her forehead. “Quit stressin’. Everything’s gonna be fine.”

And everything was fine, at least for the most part. Maggie had the brilliant idea of having the siblings all going to lunch the weekend before the big day then grocery shopping so Beth and Daryl weren’t buying all the food for the whole family. “You’re doing all the work, let us at least contribute something.” 

Beth and Daryl went to the Greene farmhouse the evening before Thanksgiving for spaghetti with Hershel. Once they’d eaten their dinner, they dug through Annette’s antique buffet to carefully take out her good china and silverware set. Beth wanted to give everything a once over before using them. She washed while Daryl dried, neither talking much as Beth was going over her list of things to do before tomorrow for the umpteenth time. 

“AAH!” she shrieked as a loud pop cut through the air. Daryl looked over from his spot where he was drying the dishes as Hershel moved as quickly as he could from his chair in the living room to see what the commotion was about. 

Drops of blood were flowing from Beth’s palm into the dishwater. Before she could react, Daryl had her hand wrapped in his towel and was guiding her to the kitchen table, where Hershel met them and sat across from her. “I don’t know what happened. I was just washing the glass. I didn’t even drop it, it...it just broke in my hand!” Beth said in a shaky voice. “It doesn’t even hurt,” she explained.

“The big ones usually don’t,” her father commented as he carefully peeled the dishrag away to see what damage had been done to her hand. After a quick glance, he instructed Daryl to retrieve his medical kit from his office. Within minutes he was stitching the wound together while Daryl held Beth’s other hand, doing his best to keep her calm.

“How am I going to do this?” Beth worried out loud. “I can’t chop, peel, can’t even hold a spoon.” She took a shaky breath, trying to stave off the tears of frustration that were already stinging her eyes and threatening to spill down her cheeks. “Dinner is ruined, and I haven’t even chopped a single onion.” 

“Hey,” Daryl interrupted her traitorous line of thinking and pressed a kiss to her uninjured hand. “Nothing’s ruined. It’s gonna be fine.”

By that time, Hershel had finished sewing up his daughter’s hand and started cleaning up what little mess he’d made. “We’ll see how it’s doing in a week, but they’ll probably stay in for two.” He went over the basics of how to care for her wound, things to look out for to let her own doctor know about. Beth hoped Daryl was paying attention to it all because her mind was scrambling to figure out how she was going to pull off the meal she’d had her heart set on making, even with her injured hand.

It was a quiet ride home to their cabin. Beth decided it would just be best for her to go straight to bed. She couldn’t do any of her prep work anyway, and staying awake not doing anything would just make her feel worse than she already was. Her father had given her some low grade pain killers to help take the edge off her throbbing hand, and they worked wonders in helping her find sleep that night.

The next morning, the sun was shining brightly through the sheer curtains covering the bedroom window, the tantalizing aroma of coffee wafted down the hall from the kitchen. Birds were singing outside, for crying out loud. 

And Beth felt absolutely crummy. The fact that she felt so crummy on such a picture-perfect morning made the feeling compound on itself quickly. It took every ounce of strength she had to not bury herself under the comforter and just avoid the day altogether.

Until she picked up on another aroma sneaking just below the notes of coffee, something spicy and salty. Something that reminded her of…

Frantically throwing the covers off her, she hurried down the hall into the kitchen to find Daryl standing at the stove, still in his flannel pajama pants and faded t-shirt, using a spatula to break up sizzling pieces of pork sausage in a skillet. A pile of potatoes were sitting on the cutting board, next to them sat several carrots. As she took in the sight before her, she saw that nearly every surface in their little kitchen was covered with either some food to be prepared or one of the recipes Beth had printed out. 

“Mornin’,” he said with a glance over his shoulder before tapping the spatula on the side of the skillet and setting it aside then reaching for a coffee mug and pouring some of the dark, fragrant liquid into it. 

Beth took the cup from him, still looking around the kitchen wide-eyed in shock. “Daryl...I...what are you doing?”

He simply shrugged and turned back to the sausage cooking in the skillet. “Cookin’ sausage,” he grinned at her when she came beside him to lean against the counter and sip her coffee. “Figured this was the only recipe you had for dressing, so it was a safe place to start.” He turned off the burner and started to drain the grease off. 

“Leave a little of the grease in the pan for the onions,” Beth suggested, then realized what she’d done. “Guess I remember more from Mama than I thought,” she grinned sheepishly. 

“Bossin’ me around now, huh?” he teased her while taking her advice. 

Before he could do anything more, she laid her good hand on his bicep and waited for him to face her. “Thank you, Daryl.”

He kissed her forehead in response, then continued with his cooking, “Don’t thank me yet.”

Beth rolled her eyes, “No, I mean it. I know you don’t have a ton of experience cooking, so for you to do this for me -“

Daryl stopped her short with a look. “The hell you mean ‘no experience?’ Who you think made sure I had somethin’ ta eat just about every day? I’ll give you a hint, it wasn’t Merle and it sure as hell wasn’t my parents.”

Beth tried to back pedal immediately. “I...I didn’t mean...Daryl, of course not! I just wasn’t expecting…” She shook her head, shaking her head in flabbergasted confusion. “It’s just that I’ve never seen you cook, and then I walk in to see all this and…”

“Yeah, I know,” he nodded, all traces of anger vanishing as quickly as they appeared. He turned to face her fully again, wrapping his arms around her and holding her close. “I know more about food than catching and eating it. And I know a thing or two about handling a knife.”

“You’re right. I don’t know what I was thinking.” Beth pressed herself against his strong chest, relishing this quiet moment between them, hoping he could feel the vast amount of love she had for him. “You never cease to amaze me. I can’t wait to marry you,” she whispered, earning her a tight squeeze from her fiancé, followed promptly by a swat on her butt. 

“Yeah, well, we gotta survive this first,” he grumbled as he took a step back, separating them, but only slightly. “I think I got everything covered, but you know these recipes better’n me, so…” There was a twinkle in his eye that had Beth curious and not a little nervous, but she followed his lead, trusting him as she always did. 

She helped where she could in carrying everything they needed to the car, though Daryl didn’t let her do much once he saw her struggling to only use one hand to do it all. Instead, he insisted that she just supervise. Beth knew better than to argue with him. 

She didn’t realize that he’d meant to supervise for the entire day. 

When they arrived at her family’s farmhouse, the driveway was already full with cars, all of which Beth recognized as belonging to her family. She hadn’t been expecting them to be at the house this early in the day (especially Merle) when they were only scheduled to start eating much later in the evening, but was glad to find out she’d be getting to spend the entire day with everyone rather than just a few hours. 

As soon as Daryl had the truck in park and turned off the engine, Maggie and Shawn were running through the front screen door and down the porch steps. Shawn gave Beth a quick hug before meeting Daryl to help carry in the supplies they’d brought. Maggie immediately swooped in, mother-henning her little sister about her injury while escorting Beth inside, insisting that she not carry anything to avoid risking tearing out any stitches. 

Beth knew better than to argue. 

When she entered the large kitchen, she saw that Daryl, Shawn and Rosita were separating all the ingredients into the same piles Daryl had done in her own kitchen, albeit with a lot more room to work with now. Glenn was making his way to the different stations handing out “Rhee Pizzeria” aprons to everyone. “What’s going on?” Beth wondered out loud. 

Maggie smiled as she tied her apron strings around her waist. “Your man called us last night and put us on cooking detail. We figured even we can’t screw up cutting up potatoes and boiling them.” 

Beth stared wide-eyed at Daryl. “You...when?” 

“You were out like a light last night,” he said through his smirk. “Figured we can do the prep work, but you gotta keep us on track for what to do beyond that.”

Nodding slowly, taking it all in, Beth let out a slow breath. That is, until she noticed a big part of their dinner was absent. “Where’s the turkey?!” she cried out in a panic. 

“That’s my job,” Merle announced from the doorway leading to the family room. “Don’t need no apron for it, either,” he grumbled good-naturedly. 

Daryl rolled his eyes at his brothers comment. “Yeah. I cleared it with yer dad. Merle’s allowed one six-pack for the day if he keeps an eye on the turkey in the smoker.” He turned to face her at that, “That’s another thing. Ain’t gonna be a roasted bird. Didn’t see a recipe for it. Knew Merle had a smoker, so we got it all set up last night.”

Beth did her best to blink back tears, “You...you did all this...for me?”

“Well, yeah,” he shrugged. He slid his arms around her, completely unabashed by their audience, pulled her close so his lips were close to her ear. “‘M thankful for you, too, ya know.”

Beth’s arms wrapped around his neck and held on tight until Maggie interrupted their tender little moment with an overly loud clearing of her throat. “Come on, lovebirds, we’ve got cooking to do,” she reminded them.

The two pulled apart just enough to be able to look into each other’s eyes. “I love you,” she whispered to him before unwinding her arms and turning to face the rest of her family. “Alright, did everyone wash their hands?” she smiled widely. “Merle, that goes especially for you.”