Beth’s front yard was an expanse of scrubby brown grass. The rain had turned the mostly-dirt to mud, and the layers of ice only made footing all the more treacherous.
“I didn’t think it could get any worse than this morning,” Beth said.
“We can still turn around and go back. Mom will skin me alive if that sprain turns into a break because of this.” He gestured towards the yard.
“It’s a challenge, Jack. Come on, it’ll be fun.”
“Since when was slipping and falling in a big mud pit fun?”
“This ‘mud pit’ is my home, John Henry.”
Jack couldn’t help it. He began to chuckle.
“That… didn’t come out right,” she said, the corners of her mouth twitching. She giggled. The giggle grew to a laugh.
Jack stopped laughing when Beth took a careful step out into her yard.
“What are you doing? You’re going to break something!”
She held her arms out for balance, and shifted her weight, wobbling, taking another step. Ice crunched, and the mud squelched under her boot.
“It’s not that bad,” she said, looking back. “It’s not as slippery as I thought.” She checked her balance, leaning heavily to her left.
She took another step, glanced back again. “Look, if I fall, then I’ll let you carry me,” she said with a bright smile.
Jack hefted the box of Beth’s presents, then took a careful step after the girl.
“If you fall, I’m just going to drag you the rest of the way,” he said. “No sense in both of us breaking our necks in this.”
Jack stepped slowly through the muck, barely able to breathe, holding his breath with every step Beth took. His heart hammered, watching her teeter and wobble as her feet slid one way or the other with each step.
Twice, he nearly dropped the box to reach out to steady her, but she caught her balance the first time, and her foot came to a stop against a clump of grass the second, allowing her to right herself.
“See?” she said, her breath coming in short gasps. She kicked at the bottom step of the porch, knocking globs of mud from her boots. “Nothing to it.”
She glanced up at Jack’s silence. “What? You’re staring again.” The night had turned the flecks of gold in her eyes a silvery color.
“You never pick the easy way, do you, Beth?” He pointed towards the corner of the porch, which jutted out towards the hedgerow. “We could have gone along the hedge. It’s maybe two or three steps through this gunk,” he lifted his boot from the mud with a squelch, “and then a hop up and over the railing.”
* * * * *
Jack set the box down on one of the shorter stacks of boxes in Dr. Harrison’s office.
“So there you go, Beth. Your first nice, normal Christmas.”
“You didn’t have a tree.”
Jack frowned at her.
“I’m kidding! It was a lot of fun. And be sure to thank everyone again for the gifts.”
“Beth, you spent half the night doing that already. I think they get it.” He picked up the picture frame from the box. “If you want me to redo this, I can.”
Beth’s eyes went wide. “What? No, don’t do that! I told you it was beautiful.”
“It’s fine, Jack. I’ll keep it, wings and all. What? Don’t look at me like that.”
“So, you really don’t think she’s up there? Watching over you?”
“She’s gone, Jack.” She ran her fingers across the glass. “She won’t come back. She’s not waiting for me.” She looked up at Jack, and her eyes glittered with unshed tears. She gave a little hiccup of a laugh.
“What?” Jack asked. “If you’re going to cry, then something isn’t funny.”
She sniffed, blinked, tried to smile. “It’s just… Timing, I guess, that’s funny. Until you gave this to me, I’d almost forgotten what she even looked like.” She sniffled again. “Some daughter I am.”
She turned, and walked to the front door, opening it. “Goodnight, Jack,” she said with another sniffle.
He went slowly to the door, stooping to slip on his boots.
Beth put a hand on his shoulder, and kissed the top of his head.
“Thank you. Merry Christmas.”
Jack looked up, into her eyes, and then up at the mistletoe hanging above the doorway.
“Good night, Beth,” he said, giving her an awkward hug as he shimmied his other foot into the boot. “Pleasant dreams?”
She glanced up at the mistletoe, a smile quirking one corner of her mouth.