Just as he's approaching the freeway on-ramp his phone app beeps with an alert. The freeway is bogged down with delays lasting from 45 minutes to as long as an hour and a half. Thank God there's plenty of time for him to avoid the mess and take the suggested alternate route. Holiday traffic is always a pain in his ass and this Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving is no exception.
He finds himself winding around on some smaller city streets and then through suburban neighborhoods. It's not a route he would ever have thought to take, but he's not complaining. The traffic is light and moving along at a steady pace and it's kind of mellow. A lot less stressful than fighting the holiday crowds.
With the exception of traffic issues he's been trying to look forward to this long holiday weekend. He's even planning to make himself a big Thanksgiving Dinner, because why the hell not? He's got a fresh turkey waiting in the fridge. He bought a box of stuffing mix you make right on the stove, that seems easy enough. He knows how to mash potatoes, he got a carton of potato salad and one of jell-o from the grocery deli, a can of gravy, a can of cranberry sauce and a pumpkin pie from the store bakery. He's set.
He's told himself over and over he's doing it up right. It's going to be a great Thanksgiving Dinner with all the trimmings, but the truth is he'll be eating alone. That's how it always is. It'll just be him and a mountain of food and he's almost managed to convince himself that's okay, it means more leftovers for him. He tries never to acknowledge that it hurts a little, but alone is alone and sometimes it just feels too damn lonely. The only time it's different is when Smithton is on his brother Merle's trucking route, then at least he's got someone around for a few hours.
It isn't that he doesn't like people, he likes people just fine. He's been told more than once he seems cold and distant but it's not like he's trying to come off that way, it's just that he's not exactly sure how to be social. He always feels so awkward and he never knows quite what to say. That's why he usually limits his conversations to the things he feels comfortable talking about. With his customers it's the work and with the guys at the supply store or in the bar, it's hunting and fishing.
As he drives through the mostly quiet neighborhoods his thoughts begin to wander and he sees her in his mind's eye, that sweet someone from a long time ago. He wanted something with her as much as he's ever wanted anything. Something real, not just some one shot deal. He'd have been happy to go for the whole shooting match with that girl. But he was too chickenshit to make his move. He tries willing himself not to think about that, it's in the past. Done. Except he's never been able to forget her.
He forces himself to focus on the now. This weekend's going to be a long one, the full four day Thanksgiving Holiday. He'd prefer to be working Friday, he's got a big tile job going that he'd like to finish because there's another one waiting. Normally he'd work the Friday after the holiday, he doesn't need two days off to eat turkey. But the homeowners don't want him around, they've got their kids coming home from college and they want to keep it to family stuff.
He's not mad about it, he gets it. Besides, how could he be mad about the lost work time when the guy was generous enough to slip him $200 cash, shake his hand and tell him, "Have yourself a little fun Daryl."
That's just what he intends to do. Friday he'll be out first thing in the morning with his bow and a shotgun, walking the woods to see what he sees. He might even decide to take his camp trailer and just stay gone until Sunday. He'll play it by ear. In the meantime he's just turning onto Crescent Street when he hears the faint sound of sirens in the distance, then up ahead he spots why. There's a house or apartment building, whatever it is doesn't matter, something's on fire up the street.
As he gets closer he sees an older lady standing near the curb looking panic-stricken and frantically waving her arms trying to flag him down. He drives just a little passed where she is before stopping, not wanting to be in the way of the fire engine when it arrives. He quickly jumps from his work truck and hurries over to her, asking, "Ya alright Ma'am?"
She sounds desperate as she points to the apartment unit with smoke billowing out the front window, "Yes, yes I'm fine, but there's a young woman who lives in that apartment, she hasn't come out."
Shit, he's no firefighter and he's damn sure no hero, but still he does what he does. He grabs for the bandana he carries in his hip pocket and as he's hurrying toward the small apartment building he quickly ties it around his face, covering his nose and mouth. He turns back to the woman and calls, "How many rooms?"
She rushes the words, "Living, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom."
He nods, decides it's now or never and hurries inside. It's dark, full of acrid smoke and the heat is the most intense he's ever experienced. It feels like every ounce of moisture has been sucked out of him, like he can feel his skin drying up.
He knows enough to crouch down low where the smoke isn't as dense, but still, every breath he takes burns his lungs and he finds himself trying not to breath at all. His eyes are dry, scratchy and burning as he quickly moves around the front room. There's no one. He's heard it's not uncommon for folks to panic and try to hide from fire, so he even looks behind the couch and in the small coat closet, nothing.
The kitchen is next and the result is the same, nothing, no one. The bedroom is empty as well, no young woman, he even checks the closet and under the bed. That leaves only the bathroom and he doesn't hesitate, he busts in.
It's dark and smokey but he sees a person; it must be the woman. She's fully-clothed and huddled in the empty tub. Her knees are up and her arms are wrapped around her legs, her head resting on her knees. He rushes to her, "C'mon girl, we gotta go!"
She doesn't look at him but she knows he's there, she hears him. Her body trembles and she shakes her head "no." He can tell she's terrified. Too scared to move. He tries convincing her, "We gotta go now. C'mon, everything's gonna be fine, c'mon I got ya."
She pleads, "No, no it'll get us." With those words he knows it's all up to him, she's not going anywhere. So he bends, picks her up in his arms and rushes out of the apartment, across the lawn and toward the paramedic's vehicle.
As he's running she keeps her face buried in his shoulder and he can hear her saying over and over, "I'm fine now. I'm fine now."
He just keeps repeating, "I know ya are. I know ya are."
By the time they've covered the short distance to the emergency vehicle they're both coughing and gasping and the paramedics get oxygen on them. Breathing becomes easier, the adrenaline starts to subside, and for the first time they take a good look at each other.
Even though he hasn't seen her in five years and her face is covered in dark sooty smudges and lined with tear streaks. Even with her hair a snarled mess and with the mask covering half her face, he'd know her anywhere. Beth.
It's not like they ever really knew each other, not in that way you know a close friend, not even in that way you know a casual friend. They only saw each other for a rushed 40 minutes every Monday through Friday for four months.
He'd gotten in on tiling contract at a big mall they were building over in Ridgeton. He was known for his expertise with terrazzo flooring and the contractor had contacted him asking if he wanted to subcontract that portion of the job. Not only was it months of guaranteed steady work, they wanted him bad enough they even offered to foot the bill for his motel room. No way he could turn it down.
He can remember it like yesterday. That first day on the job when lunch time rolled around he got in his work truck and drove the short distance to a little diner he'd passed on his way to work. Dub's Grub Hub. It was just a small stand alone place that looked like a good spot to get a burger and fries.
He walked in, sat down at the counter and that's when she walked out of the kitchen. She was carrying two platters piled high with hot beef sandwiches, but he wasn't paying attention to the food. He was too busy looking at her. She was small, slim with shiny blonde hair, pale skin, big blue eyes and a warm smile.
He remembers thinking, "Damn she's a beauty," but he made himself take his eyes off of her. He didn't want her thinking he was a weirdo so he studied the menu like he was deciding what to order, when really he'd known since breakfast he wanted a burger for lunch.
She walked over to him with the coffee pot in her hand and a smile on her face, "Hi, can I pour you a cup?"
He tried his best to smile back, "Uh, no uh, I think I'll stick with the water and a chocolate shake."
"Ooo, I like the way you think. That does sound good. I can get that for you and come back, or if you're ready I can take your order now."
"Uh, yeah, I'll have the double bacon cheeseburger and fries, and uh some a them fried pickles too, please."
"You bet. Let me call it in and then I'll get that shake for you."
He saw it while she was taking his order. It was printed on a little white badge pinned to her dress, Beth.
From that day on, for the entire time he worked the job at the Ridgeton Mall, Dub's Grub Hub was the only place he ever had lunch. He would have gone for breakfast and dinner too, but not for the food. That part was mostly just okay, but he'd have gone no matter what the food was like just to look at Beth and exchange a few words of conversation with her.
It turned out she only worked a few hours each day during the lunch rush. He found that out one day while he was enjoying the meatloaf special. Business at the diner was slow that day and they got to talking, that's when she she told him she was going to school, a college girl. He remembers how a couple of weeks later she'd gotten so excited telling him how she aced one of her exams. The funny thing was how proud he felt of her, like it had something to do with him.
He also knew from those fleeting conversations that she was only 18 years old, he was 26. Even if he had the balls to ask her out she was too young. Besides, a smart college girl like her was probably only interested in smart college guys. The kind that go on to be doctors and lawyers. Those were the reasons he never stepped up, why he never made a move. He let his chance slip by.
When he finished up the flooring contract he made one last stop for lunch at Dub's Grub Hub. He said his goodbye and she said hers, he got in his work truck and drove home to Smithton. His wallet was fat but that didn't help the sadness, anger and regret he was feeling. He cussed himself the entire drive. He shouldn't have worried about her age. He shouldn't have worried so much about being denied, he should have taken a chance.
He's stunned when after the paramedic checks their oxygen levels and removes their masks, out of nowhere she throws her arms around his neck, "Daryl, Daryl oh my gawd thank you. That was so scary, oh Daryl, thank you." Her body is trembling again like she's still afraid and at first he just sits there like a lump, then he comes to his senses. He knows how badly he screwed this up before and how his deep feelings for her have never changed. His arms wrap around her and he whispers one word, "Beth."
The firemen knock the fire down in a hurry. Daryl can hear rumblings among them that they think it started with a ceiling light. Maybe bad wiring.
The fire captain talks to him and to Beth, then some news woman talks to him and Beth and the neighbor lady. Then Beth asks the fireman, "What do I do now? Can I go in? "
The fireman explains, "I'm sorry Miss. It's going to be a long time before anyone can live here again."
"Please, I don't have anywhere else to go, I just moved to town."
He apologizes, "I'm sorry Miss but I'll tell you what. The fire's out and the structure's sound so if you want, you and I will make one trip in together. We're only going to stay five minutes so you'll have to be fast. You get what you need, medications, clothes, family photos, then we're out."
The captain is trying to be kind and helpful but there's only so much he can do. He suggests, "As for a place to stay," as he pulls a business card from his shirt pocket and hands it to her, "the local Red Cross will find you somewhere for a couple of nights, and your landlord should reimburse you for your rent."
Daryl's just been standing there the whole time listening and wondering how he can help. Then Beth asks the fireman, "Can Daryl come with me?"
"No, I'm sorry. Just the tenant. Come on, we'll make it quick."
As Daryl watches her walking away from him his mind is made up, this time it's going to be different.
It's so dark in the apartment and the smell is unbearably strong, good reasons to hurry. Beth grabs her suitcase from the small coat closet, runs to her room and throws it open on her bed. Who knows why she doesn't go for the dresses or her work things in the closet, she goes to the dresser drawers instead. Maybe it's because everything's already folded, easier to grab and stuff into the suitcase, jeans, t-shirts, sweatshirts and underwear. The only thing she takes from the closet is a pair of sneakers.
From the bedroom she rushes to the bathroom, takes the lingerie bag hanging from the back of the bathroom door and clears out the medicine cabinet, gets the shampoo, conditioner and soap from the shower and tells the fireman, "I think I've got it all."
He spots it on the coffee table, her laptop. He takes it, the mouse and the power cord and says, "You might want this too. Let's go."
When they get outside he looks at his watch, "You did good, seven minutes."
"I thought you said I only had five minutes."
He smiles and shrugs, "Let's just say it was dark and I couldn't see my watch."
"Thank you so much."
"You're welcome, and good luck to you," and it seems natural when the fireman hands Daryl her computer.
Daryl's done playing. He looks at her and he's not asking he's telling, "C'mon, let's go," his hand is on the low of her back as he starts walking, guiding her along with him.
She asks, "Go where?"
He stops, looks at her and says it like she goes there with him all the time, "My house."
He's surprised she's smiling so big when she asks, "Are you sure?"
He even manages to smile back when he gets honest, "I'm way passed being sure Beth."
He's upgraded from the old Cherokee he drove for years, these days he drives a black Tahoe, but not today. He's been working and that's what he's got, his work truck. He opens the canopy over the pickup bed and finds room for her suitcase, then as he opens the passenger door for her she sees the lettering, "Dixon's Custom Tile." Dixon. She always wondered what his last name was.
He's apologizing, "Sorry, it's a little messy. It's my work truck."
"This will be just fine with me, I grew up riding around in trucks." It's perfectly nice, just a few signs of the job. Tile dust and grout dust, all the stuff that probably gets on his clothes and shoes.
After a mostly quiet ten minute drive they pull into the driveway of a cute house in an older part of town, but the house is not so old it doesn't have an attached garage. The garage door opens and he drives the pickup in and says, "I suppose ya know we stink. I feel like I got campfire smoke inside and out. You don't need to, but I think I'ma just take most of my clothes off out here and try to keep the smell outta the house as much as I can."
He's thinking out loud, "Let's see, how can we do this? How about I go in and I'll get ya one of my flannel shirts ta put on when ya get your clothes off. Just sumthin' to get you as far as the bathroom. I'll put a robe in there for ya, I got one for Christmas a couple years ago. It's clean, I ain't ever worn it."
He sees by her look she's wondering about something and he quickly adds, "My brother was seein' this gal and she got it for me. It's pretty clear she didn't know me at all."
Now she looks happier, "Okay, well, um, then I'll just turn my back while you get your clothes off and get inside."
She'd like to sneak a peek while he undresses, but that wouldn't be right. Darn, she's wondered since the first time she saw him at Dub's what he looks like under those Dickies. Her mind is imagining all sorts of wonderful things when he says, "K, I'ma go get the shirt, be back in a minute."
She respects him too much to turn and look, it wouldn't be right. But she'd sure like to. Instead she bends and pulls her cowboy boots and socks off, slips out of the nasty gray sweater she thinks she might just throw away, and by then he's back.
"Okay," Is all he says as she turns toward him and he hands her the shirt, and holy mole! She always thought it would be good but she never could have imagined it would be this good. Except for the big fluffy white towel wrapped low around his hips, she's sure he's as naked as the day he was born. His chest, those shoulders that seem to go on forever, his arms, oh my gosh, he's so muscled. And there's something she hadn't expected, tattoos. She's seen the ones on his hand but now she sees he's got a few others she'd like to become more familiar with.
He explains, "There's two bathrooms so we can both shower up right away, maybe we can get this smell off. Lemme just get your bag of bathroom stuff and I'll take it in the hall bath. It's got a tub and shower combo thing so whatever ya like. I'll leave plenty of lights on."
"Oh, okay, thank you Daryl."
"Sure, yeah, um after we're done we can start puttin' the clothes ya brought from your place in the wash, if ya want." Then he shakes his head, "Well of course ya want. Anyway, um, I's planning on cooking up some cheeseburgers for dinner, does that good to you?"
She smiles, "Sure, that sounds great. You always did like cheeseburgers Daryl, and I like them too."
He still can't quite believe she remembers him, his name or anything else about him, "Okay, well then make yourself at home Beth."
When he turns to go that's when she sees. His back is covered in nasty scars. She doesn't say anything or utter a sound of any kind, but she wants to. She wants to scream the question, "Who did that to you!" Then go find that jackass and…and well she's not sure but she'd make whoever it was pay for hurting him.
For now she quickly removes the rest of her clothes, puts on the big flannel shirt and walks inside the home of the man she's had a big fat crush on since the first time she saw him. From the garage she enters into the kitchen and smiles. It's nice, not overly modern but really cute and she loves that it's an eat-in kitchen.
There's an oversized doorway that leads to the living room giving it an open feel and as she walks that way she sees there's a definite lack of décor, but it's roomy and the furnishings are nice. There's an overstuffed tan microfiber sofa with matching side chair and a brown leather recliner. She'd bet money the leather recliner is the only piece of furniture he ever sits on. There are two cherrywood side tables and a coffee table, and a cozy fireplace with a TV mounted above it.
Against the wall to the right of the room there's a beautiful cherrywood cabinet. The top half is all open shelving that holds some books and a nice Bose radio. There's a wing chair with a small side table next to it and she hasn't missed the fact the whole room is tidy and uncluttered. He has simple taste and she likes that about him. She smiles to herself thinking all this house needs is a bit of a woman's touch. If only that woman could be her…
All the lights are on as she walks down the hall including the one in the guest bath, the first door on the left. She takes the things she'll need out of the bag and she could swear even they smell like smoke. Once in the shower she shampoos her hair three times and washes off her body just as many times.
Then she sits down in the tub and lets the water rain down on her while she has a good cry. How could this have happened? She just got to town a week ago, she just finished getting all of her stuff put away yesterday. She's supposed to start her job at the vet clinic Monday. Now what? Where's she going to live? She realizes something else, oh no, why didn't she take her scrubs from the apartment?
She lets herself drown in her sorrows for another few minutes then whispers, "That's enough Beth. You're alive, you can explain to your boss what happened. You can get new scrubs. Count your blessings, you're ALIVE dummy. You're alive because Daryl Dixon ran into a burning building to save you."
She realizes something then, when he ran into that fire he didn't even know it was her he was after. That's just the kind of good a man he is. He would have helped anyone. She's suddenly smiling about another realization, she doesn't think he would have asked just anyone to come home with him. She remembers how he used to look at her. She imagines it was the same way she used to look at him.
She puts on the robe and softly laughs, "Oh my gosh," then takes it off and tries to roll up the sleeves as best she can, but it's thick terry cloth and she can only get a turn or two. She puts it on again and thinks it will just have to do until she gets something of hers washed.
She hears noises out in the kitchen and walks that way. There he is, the man of her dreams standing over the stove frying burger patties. He's wearing flannel sleep pants and a lose t-shirt and his damp hair is pushed back off his face. He hears her, turns to look and bursts out laughing, "Ya ain't gonna drown in that are ya?"
She tries to sound angry but she can't help laughing, "I might, and there's nothing funny about that. Did your brother's girlfriend think you were a giant?"
"I don't think so, the damn thing is too tight on me."
They both laugh and she asks, "Can I help with something?"
"I think I got it covered. The tomato is sliced, it's there on the table. Pickles, lettuce all the other stuff. Ya need anything else?"
She can't help herself, she asks, "No chocolate shake?"
"Ha. No, sorry, but I do have chocolate ice cream. I got fries too. They're just the frozen kind but they ain't too bad, they're in the oven." He's so darn sexy and cute and self-sufficient.
At dinner the conversation is pleasant, nothing heavy. She didn't realize how hungry she was or the comfort there is in sharing a meal with someone you care about, who seems to care about you.
He thinks to himself how everything is so easy with her. It's fun and he hasn't felt his usual awkwardness. Man he'd like to just scoop her up and kiss her, he wonders what she'd do if he tried.
They're tidying up the kitchen, he's standing at the sink about to start on the dishes, that's when she stops wiping up the counter and goes to him. Standing behind him she wraps her arms around his waist, and resting her head on his back she softly tells him, "Thank you Daryl, my God, you saved my life. I'm so blessed."
Her hand is on his stomach and he lays his hand over hers, gently clasping it when he says, "I think it's me who's blessed. I never thought I'd see you again and now here you are in my kitchen."
She always knew she liked him and now she likes him even more. He makes her smile and he's so thoughtful, and he makes her want to kiss him.
When the cleanup is done he suggests, "Wanna go sit in the living room maybe listen to some music and have a drink?"
"That sounds really nice."
As she watches him she's thinking this man does it up right. He begins to build a fire in the fireplace, then stops and looks at her with what feels like serious concern when he asks, "The fire ain't gonna bother you is it?"
She appreciates that he thought to ask and she assures him, "No, I think it'll be nice. Cozy."
When the small blaze begins to burn he goes to the big cherrywood cabinet and turns the radio on something easy to listen to, not too loud, just a kind of pleasant background sound. Then he opens the doors of the cabinet and lo and behold, it's a bar. He slides the shelf out, gets a bottle and a couple of rocks glasses, and pours some of the whiskey in each. He smiles as he hands her one and maybe he doesn't usually sit on the couch, but now he sits on it, right next to her.
They sip their drinks and he asks, "So what have you been up to these past five years Beth, did you finish college?"
"I did finish, I'm a vet tech. I was able to get a job for a veterinarian in Ridgeton before I even had my diploma, it was great. Then a month ago I saw there was an opportunity here in Smithton and I decided, what the heck and I applied. I'm supposed to start on Monday, and what about you Daryl?"
He shrugs his shoulders, "Well when I got back from the contract job in Ridgeton work was slow at first, it was like I had to rebuild my business. But after a couple months I started getting some good word of mouth and a couple good Yelp reviews and business has been going really good since. I'm never without all the work I wanna take on."
"That's wonderful, and gosh, you sure have a nice house."
"Ya like it? I always lived in rental houses until about two years ago. then I happened to see this place. They were having one a them open houses so I took a look around and thought, why aren't I spending my money on my own house? That's when I took the big step and bought it."
"That's great and I really like it Daryl."
"Yeah, I especially love the kitchen."
He feels proud that someone he thinks so much of likes his home and he tells her that, "Thanks, Beth. That means a lot coming from you."
Two drinks in and now the bottle is sitting on the coffee table. He pours them each another shot and moves closer to her. He takes a sip of the whiskey and stuns himself when he suddenly tells her the truth about how he feels, "I want you to know I'm real sorry about your trouble Beth. I know it was scary and I know you lost a lot, but the selfish side of me is sure happy ta have you here with me."
He goes on to admit more truth, "I've been mad at myself for a long time Beth, disappointed in myself. I shoulda taken a chance, I should have asked you out. I…I thought you were too young, or that I was too old. I thought you'd say no and maybe that would be worse than just not asking you at all. It's been a lot of years Beth, but not a day went by I didn't think of you."
She looks at him and she's done playing too, she tells him her own truth, "I never stopped thinking about you Daryl. For over five years now I've been thinking about you and what might have been. I was mad at myself for not just making the first move and asking you to go out or something, anything. But I didn't, I kept thinking if you were interested you'd ask me."
He takes her hand and softly squeezes it admitting, "I couldn't have been more interested."
His touch is the encouragement she needs to go on, "I must have thought of it a million times, just packing up and coming here to Smithton to find you, but I kept talking myself out of it. How would I ever find you when I didn't even know your last name?" Her hand slides softly along his arm and she continues, "Then I saw the ad online, that a Vet here in town was looking for a tech. I told myself it was a sign. I had to take a chance."
Her words have given him the courage to do what he's longed to do since the first time he saw her. He gently cradles her face in his hands and kisses her with all the passion he's built up over the past five years, and Beth responds with a passion that equals his.
As much as he wants it all with her it doesn't seem right. Things shouldn't happen too fast, they should take it slow, date for a while, get to know each other better. Isn't that the way it's supposed to go?
He pulls away, smiles and says, "We've had a lotta drinks Beth. We probably oughta call it a night." He kisses her forehead and adds, "And I got a Thanksgiving dinner ta cook for you tomorrow."
She's so disappointed she wants to cry, but he's probably right, "Yes, it's been a long and emotional day. A good night's sleep is a good idea."
He stands and reaches his hand out to help her up, saying, "C'mon, I'll show ya to the spare room." They pass the bathroom, and a room across from it that looks like a home office, and down at the end of the hall there's a room to the right, probably his, and a room to the left. That's where he directs her.
He reaches in, flips on the light switch and says, "Alright then, well I guess I'll see ya in the morning, ya have everything you need?"
"Yes, this is very nice, thank you Daryl."
He kisses her in a way that leaves them both wanting more, but he doesn't make a move in that direction, he just says, "Okay then, well goodnight."
"Goodnight." He goes in his room, shutting the door behind himself and she whispers under her breath, "Darn it Daryl."
He uses the bathroom, brushes his teeth, gets in the bed and cusses himself. Yeah, he was a gentleman and so what? It's not like they both didn't lay it all out on the line, hell they've been carrying these feelings around for five years. Would it have been so wrong to act on them?
She goes into the bathroom, brushes and does what she has to do, heaves a little sigh and whispers, "Oh well," and goes back to the spare room. She looks at the bed and the robe she's wearing and says, "Shoot." She's got two choices. She can crawl in bed with the huge robe on, or she can crawl in bed naked. hmm
Then she thinks of a third choice and that's the one she's taking. She goes to his door and although she knows she should knock, she doesn't. She lets herself in. He reaches over, turns on the beside lamp and she sees he's now bare chested, she likes that look on him. He seems concerned and asks, "Ya okay Beth, ya need something?"
She walks toward his bed and says, "Yes Daryl, I do need something." He's propped on one elbow, watching her as she slips the robe off her shoulders and lets it drop to the floor. He doesn't say a word, he just pulls the covers back and she crawls in with him.
He wraps his arms around her and holds her close for a moment, feeling her small body so close to his and thinking he never wants to let her go again. He teases a little, "Just what kind of guy do you think I am Beth?"
"I know exactly what kind of guy you are Daryl, my kind."
And the blessings continue.