It was a tradition that had been hung up for years; Beth had very fond memories of being a little girl and spending Christmas Eve with her family and closest friends. Caroling and then a feast of a dinner before curling up together with hot cocoa and a movie. Over time though, the group thinned out; Shawn got “too old” for it and then their mother passed away and everything seemed to fall apart. It had been five years since they’d even bothered trying to get a group together. But this year was different.
Beth had all but begged and pleaded with Maggie to help her organize it, and she had, though Beth thought it might have been just so she could drag her boyfriend Glenn along and make him somewhat miserable. Her dad had agreed (and forced Shawn into agreement as well) and Patricia and Otis too; originally she had planned on inviting Zach, but they had somehow managed to drift apart over the past few weeks. Maggie seemed sadder for her than she was for herself, but like she had told her sister, it wasn’t anything that serious to begin with. All she cared about really was having this for her family.
It was her plan to make it the best Christmas in recent history. The Greene household was filled with the scents and smells of the holiday; Maggie and Patricia worked on baking dozens upon dozens of cookies to pass out on their caroling spree while Beth attempted to teach a reluctant Glenn the songs they sang. She’d never seen the poor guy more uncomfortable as she prodded him (“Louder, Glenn! LOUDER!”) during the first verse of “O Christmas Tree”. Maggie just snickered which turned Glenn defensive, resulting in the tossing of his sheet music and the spontaneous whipping of raw cookie dough from the eldest Greene sister. It was a full-fledged food fight for oh, about 20 seconds, before Hershel came barreling in, bellowing, “What in all hell is this?” Otis came up behind him, though his reaction was less aggressive. And for that, Hershel told him he could help pick the place up.
Official practice was halted due to clean up but songs filled the air still and it warmed Beth’s core in a way that almost felt unfamiliar. It was moments like this that reminded her just how lucky she really was to have her family, to have people to share the holidays with.
The group was small but enthusiastic when they trekked outside to sing; Glenn actually wasn’t an awful singer, which surprised everyone. It took him a few houses to get into it and naturally, he had a few objections: “does anyone even carol anymore?” to the whole group and “don’t people find this annoying?” to Beth, which earned a swat of the arm from Maggie.
Beth couldn’t remember the last holiday season she had felt this good, a slight buzz draping over her like the one time over summer when Maggie snuck her beers during the Independence Day Fair. The sun had sunk and the temperature was steadily dropping; snow probably wasn’t going to fall at all tonight, but part of her still hoped for some. Just a few flurries to add to the wonder of the night, the nostalgia of it.
They had been out for almost an hour now and their seemingly endless small plates of cookies were running low, but the mood was right. It was light and happy and everyone was talking and laughing. They were so caught up in talking over each other (Otis was retelling the same story he told every holiday, when Shawn was a little boy and raided all the candy from the stockings before anyone woke up in the morning; they found him passed out in a pile of wrappers behind the couch) that they didn’t seem to realize they had strolled on past a house.
She had never really noticed the house before in all her years; it was tucked way off the road, down a winding dirt path; but even from there, she could spot a glow coming from the front window. Someone might be home.
“Hey, we missed one,” she called out, but it was futile. They were already turning down the driveway to the next house. She was half-inclined to join them but something in her gut told her the least she could do was drop off some cookies. So she reached into the bag Otis was lugging and snagged a portion of homemade cookies (‘Happy Holidays from the Greene Farm!’ taped onto each batch) before trotting down the dirt path.
It was overgrown and it wasn’t well taken care of; there were fallen branches and dead trees lining the walkway and the porch had seen better days. She wasn’t even sure what the original color of the house had been; light blue, maybe a green? Her eyes fluttered to the illuminated window, only a sheer curtain keeping the outside world out. She peered in against her better judgement; it was messy and lived in, dimly lit with no sign of any holiday decoration or flourish.
The screen door shrieked loudly as she opened it, yanking off a mitten and reaching a hand in to knock. After her hand dropped, her eye caught movement from inside, a form passing in front of the window and she waited, maybe too long, for someone to answer the door. No one did. Her stomach sank a little but she left the plate of cookies on the porch, letting the screen door snap shut. Glenn’s words rang out in her head, she didn’t want to annoy this person, whoever they were, so she quickly made her way down the porch steps and onto the dirt path.
It was the screech of the screen door opening that made her jump nearly out of her skin, feet halting under the cold ground. When she looked back over her shoulder, she saw a man, all shaggy-haired and simply dressed. He picked up the plate and inspected it, peeling back the wrap, before realizing she was still there, openly staring at him. He stared back.
“Happy holidays,” she called out, a small smile tugging at the corners of her lips. He didn’t reply as his eyes fell back to the plate and when no words were spoken, Beth turned again and trudged back to the street, her feet feeling just a little bit lighter.
She had to jog to catch up with her family, suddenly popping up beside Maggie, who seemed to be the only one who noticed she went missing.
“Where’d you disappear to?” she whispered over the singing of partridges in pear trees. Beth just slapped on a sweet smile and shrugged before opening her mouth and joining in.
Soon the cookies were gone and feet were aching. They circled back around and wandered home, all the while Glenn continued humming carols and Patricia and Otis shared a kiss. Maggie had her arms looped around Hershel and Shawn and Beth just wanted to hug all of them. It really was turning out to be a spectacular day, the kind that left her feeling warm and fuzzy inside.
As she laid in bed that night, Beth’s mind raced with thoughts of Christmas and her family, how it seemed after her mother had passed that things would never really be good again, least of all holidays. But today had proven that worry wrong and it both lit her up with joy as well as a flicker of guilt. But she knew she should embrace the happiness; she had a family still and that was something she should never take for granted, because not everyone had that. Some people spent the holidays alone; maybe that man did, with the blue-green house off the dirt road.
Morning came and Christmas was filled with the biggest breakfast she could remember ever having: bacon and eggs and Patricia’s delicious biscuits. Everyone must have over-eaten because by early afternoon, everyone was passed out around the house. Beth woke from her midday nap and quietly made her way downstairs, planning on cleaning up the mess of dishes and leftovers that nobody had put away before slipping into their respective comas. She was silently tiptoeing past the couch in the living room where Shawn laid when she spotted someone outside, hurrying away from the door.
Curiously, she cracked the door open and watched the figure, a man, wander off. “Did you need something?” she spoke loudly, before remembering her sleeping family and shutting the door behind her, taking a few steps out onto the porch. The man stopped, hesitantly, and turned; she recognized him instantly, the man from yesterday.
“Just returnin’ that. Didn’t meant t’bother ya.” His voice was soft but gruff as he motioned off to her side. Glancing down, she spotted the plate the cookies had been on, clean as a whistle. It was a cheap plastic one, not really worth returning, but the action tugged at her heart.
“Oh. You didn’t have to go to that trouble.” She wondered then how he knew where to bring it, but she supposed her father was well known enough that maybe he had recognized their name taped on the wrap.
“’s fine. Thanks. For the cookies.” He was about to take off again when Beth, forgetting the fact that she was clad in just socks, trotted down the porch steps towards him, the cold ground piercing her feet like tiny icicles.
“Hey, wait. What’s your name?” The man shifted as if uneasy and Beth was curious as to how she managed to make this older man seem so darn uncomfortable.
“Daryl,” he finally replied, almost reluctantly. Beth was now only about ten feet from him and darn her hastiness to catch up with the strange visitor because her arms broke out in goosebumps and she unwillingly shivered. It was the coldest Christmas she could remember.
“I’m Beth.” She didn’t really have anything to add and the air grew a bit awkward; she sensed he wanted to run away but wasn’t because she had bothered to hold him back. And really, she didn’t know why she had. “Have a merry Christmas, Daryl.”
He nodded at her before making his way once again, to a truck she finally spotted parked off the road. She didn’t know why but she stood there, arms wrapped tightly around her midsection, as he hopped in and took off, disappearing till his pickup was no more than a speck.
Beth all but ran back into the house, shutting the door a bit too loud and rousing her half-brother from his sleep.
“’s goin’ on?” he grumbled, his words full of sleep and hair disheveled. Beth rolled her eyes, good-heartedly, before tugging a blanket out from underneath him and wrapping it around herself.
“Get everyone up. Those presents aren’t gonna unwrap themselves.”
It was a wonderful Christmas. Things almost felt completely normal, as they had years ago. And that was really all Beth had wanted for herself and her family. The feeling seemed to linger, even as the new year approached. And while that feeling clung to her as well, she still found herself carrying a kind of sadness. For a while, she thought it was about her mother but it dawned on her suddenly, finally, that it was more about caroling and cookies and intriguing men named Daryl.
She didn’t know why the man stuck with her so, she didn’t know the first thing about him. But he still floated in her thoughts, sometimes when working outside with Maggie or curled up on the couch with her father. And sometimes she laid awake in bed, her mind drifting to his face, rugged yet handsome (admitting that made her roll hey eyes at herself), and his quaint house. It made her stomach somersault and twist in such a weird, unfamiliar way.
New Year’s Eve was different this year too. Typically it was a quiet affair, but somehow Shawn and Glenn had landed a bunch of fireworks and everyone seemed to get caught up in the excitement (they kept it pretty quiet from Hershel at first though; the girls weren’t too sure how he’d react to a small fortune in explosives being blown off on his property, by his own kin nonetheless).
While everyone was outside fretting over the fireworks, Beth snuck off on her own. It was another holiday and she still couldn’t shake Daryl from her mind, no matter how hard she tried. And while she wasn’t sure what on earth she was doing heading over to his place, something inside her just wanted to see him. Maybe he liked fireworks too.
She found the dirt trail and followed the vaguely familiar curves; it was less overgrown and it seemed like someone had cleaned up quite a bit. Maybe when she had first dropped by with cookies, it was just a rough time, he was too busy working to clean up the yard or put up a Christmas tree. There was no glow in the window this time but she recognized his truck parked off under a large oak.
“This is dumb,” she muttered to herself, but still climbed up the creaky stairs and cleared her throat as she gave a few light raps to the wooden doorframe. There was only a second before a light flickered on and there her stomach went again, knotting and making her feel almost sick.
The door groaned as he pulled it open, just enough to poke his head out at her. The screen door stood between him and a rip in the screen landed right on one of his eyes. They were blue, she noted.
“Hi,” Beth smiled, letting out a sigh a bit louder than she had intended. “Sorry to just... drop by like this.” Daryl said nothing but the way in which his eyebrows were drawn together let her know that he was clearly unsure of why she was standing on his doorstep. “But, um, we’re having a little firework show tonight, at the farm. And I just figured maybe you’d like to join us. If ya got nothin’ better to do, that is.” She silently cursed herself for asking how she did; it seemed clumsy and a bit awkward and she thought he felt the same, the way his eyes drifted down to the ground. She figured he was thinking up a polite way to decline.
“I’unno.” Her smile faltered a bit but she kept it painted on.
“Okay. Well, the offer is out there, if ya wanna.” Her hands grew tired of being idle and she picked at the handle of the screen door, accidentally opening it and letting it snap shut. Her face suddenly grew hot and she took a step back, twisting her fingers together. “Have a good night, Daryl. Happy New Year.”
Leaving his porch was a blur and she was quite a few strides away when she heard him call out to her. “Night, Beth.”
Smiling over her shoulder, she was genuinely surprised he remembered her name. And while there was still that slight poignancy hovering over her when she looked at him, when she thought of him and wondered what he looked like when he smiled, she had done all she could really do in that moment.
Things were all set up by the time she was back home. Maggie and Patricia had laid out a bunch of blankets while the men, sans their father, ran around like schoolboys. Maggie seemed to pick up on her sister’s mood, slipping an arm around her shoulders suddenly and causing Beth to jolt just a bit.
“You alright?” Beth nodded, giving her sister a smile though it didn’t fully reach her eyes. She wrapped her arms around Maggie’s torso and gave her a squeeze, a silent show of appreciation. Not just for asking how she was, but for just being there, for being her sister. Especially this time of year.
Everyone seemed to be bubbling with enthusiasm once it was a quarter to midnight, as if they had never seen fireworks before. Glenn and Shawn were in charge of the show, running about and lighting up exploding things seemed to be in their wheelhouse more than anyone else. Patricia and Otis were cuddled up on a blanket with another draped over their laps and Maggie sat beside Hershel, their arms linked. Beth took seat beside her father too, but just as the boys called out that they were about to start, a pair of headlights lit up the field. Arms were raised to shield the light from eyes, but once it passed close enough to the house that the lights from inside revealed an old beat up pickup, Beth couldn’t fight the grin from her face.
“Hang on,” she told her family before all but scrambling to her feet, dashing through the spread of fireworks.
“Beth! Be careful!” she heard Maggie yell and normally she would’ve rolled her eyes at her sister’s overprotective nature, but she was too focused on the man climbing out of the truck.
Once close enough, she slowed her pace into a walk, suddenly a bit embarrassed that she had all but run through a field of explosives to this man she hardly knew, in front of her whole family. He fiddled with the zipper on his jacket in an almost nervous manner.
“Hi,” she greeted, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear. She was beaming and while he didn’t smile in return, there was a different glint in his eye that she hadn’t noticed before.
“Hey. Did I miss it?”
“No, we were just about to start. I didn’t think you’d come.” He half-shrugged then, hands slipping into his pockets. “But I’m glad you did,” she quickly added. Not letting any awkwardness settle on them, she looped her hand around his forearm to tug him along. This time she walked around the firework set up, surprised she wasn’t more mortified that everyone was openly staring at them. “This is Daryl. I invited him to join us,” she explained. Everyone seemed to accept that answer, though Hershel’s gaze stayed on them for a longer moment, until Maggie tugged on his shirt and seemingly chided him under her breath before smirking knowingly at Beth. She could’ve hugged her sister so tightly then.
Beth let go of Daryl’s arm with the realization she was still holding onto him; she pulled back another blanket, behind all the others and smoothed it out. Taking a seat, she patted the extra space beside her and without a word, Daryl sat, keeping a good foot or so between them.
“Okay, go ahead!”
“Thanks, your highness,” Shawn prattled back and normally she would’ve shouted something back his way, but instead she just stole a peek at Daryl from the corner of her eye.
It was a spectacular show, she had to admit. She’d never sat so close to where the fireworks went off and they seemed to light up the entire sky, everything she could see. She even felt a few small sparks of debris float down and burn her skin with a tickle. It went on for only a few minutes but everyone seemed to be in awe, even Daryl. When she looked over at him once everyone started applauding Shawn and Glenn, he was a bit slack-jawed, his eyes slightly wide, and if she really stretched, she imagined there was a hint of a smile on his lips.
Patricia and Otis gathered up the extra blankets and Maggie, thankfully, tugged Hershel away, towards the boys in the field who were kicking around still hot remains from the rockets. And that left Beth and Daryl alone, sitting on their blanket, minutes away from midnight.
“So... what’d ya think?” she inquired, turning her body to face him as she folded her legs underneath her. He still seemed a bit dreamy, his head tilted back just enough so he could look up at the night sky and the remaining smoke.
“I’ve never really seen ‘em before.”
“What? Fireworks?” Her voice was a bit incredulous but he nodded once. “Really? Oh.” It was strange, something that she took for advantage, that she had seen countless times in her life, was a new experience for him. But the thought spread a warmth all over her body and she had the peculiar urge to brush his bangs off his face. She resisted. “Well, I hope you enjoyed it. Shawn and Glenn are hardly professionals... but I’d say it held up pretty good considerin’.”
“It was somethin’ else.”
There was hooting and hollering coming from the house and when Beth looked over, she saw everyone gathered around the steps of the porch, passing out cups and cheering each other. The couples kissed, Glenn and Maggie, Patricia and Otis; and Hershel hugged Shawn and didn’t let him go until he successfully ruffled his hair.
“Happy New Year, guys!” Glenn shouted out to the pair in the field, and the rest followed in their celebratory shout outs.
“People really do that? They kiss at midnight?” Daryl asked, almost sounding amused.
“Well, yeah, some. If they have somebody to kiss.”
“Thought that was maybe just a thing in movies.” Beth studied him for a moment and he appeared to squirm under her scrutiny. He didn’t seem to be too acquainted with holidays, at least from what she could infer. Maybe this was his first real New Year’s celebration, with her and her family and their silly little fireworks show and sparkling grape juice in plastic cups. And while either way, she wanted him to genuinely enjoy being here, that seemed to make it even more important.
“I’ll get us some drinks,” she told him with a small smile, moving to her knees and leaning towards him just a bit. A thought flickered through her mind, suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere and when he looked directly at her, she couldn’t help it. She tilted her head down and pressed a sweet, soft kiss to his lips and as gentle as it was, it set off something deep inside her, causing her skin to radiate and her chest to constrict.
When she pulled back, his eyes were closed and there was a similar expression etched onto his face from the one she noted after the fireworks had ended. Something like awe, like wonderment. It was then that she noticed small flecks gliding down from the sky. She thought maybe it was just firework debris but once one landed on her arm, she knew it wasn’t. It was snow. Small, wet flakes that melted on contact and surely wouldn’t stick to the ground. But it was still snow and she had wished for it just a few days ago.
“Happy New Year,” she whispered, subconsciously biting on her lower lip before going to stand. He reached up and snagged her hand in his own, giving it a squeeze.
“Happy New Year, Beth.”