When Carol had been a youngster, she'd loved the novel, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." Her teacher had read the book over the course of a few months to the students in her Grade 4 class, and the words had left impressions in Carol's head of a fairytale realm full of fantastical woodland creatures and amazingly beautiful scenery.
As she closed the door of the cabin behind her, she almost felt like she'd crossed through the wardrobe and stepped into Narnia. The sun shone brightly on the new snow, glinting off the powdery surface like millions of diamonds. The trees were coated with hoar frost that made them look like they'd been encrusted with coarse, sparkling sugar, and the air was so cool and clean that it almost seemed like the world had been reborn. Carol breathed deeply, soaking in the purity and beauty of the scene.
She adored Judith but with a toddler in the house, silence was a rare commodity. Alone in the woods, Carol could feel herself gradually relaxing as she walked. After two days of relentless storms, getting out on her own was exactly what she needed. And it was good that Daryl had some time alone with Judith – the bond that had been forged between the two of them when Judith was still a baby grew stronger every day.
If Sophia had lived, Carol wanted to believe that Daryl would have come to care for her daughter every bit as much as he had their L'il Kicker. But that hadn't been the universe's plan for Sophia; for reasons beyond Carol's understanding, twelve years was all her daughter had been given.
There had been a point in her life that Carol was certain she'd never come to terms with losing her child. As much as she'd wanted her back, though, Carol had gradually come to accept that wishing would never make it so and that at least now, Sophia was beyond the fear and pain that had marked her final moments.
She tilted her head back and stared at the blue, cloudless sky, imagining her daughter in heaven and at peace. It had taken years but the time had come to let Sophia go. Memories would always keep part of her baby close to her but life was for the living, and Carol had to devote her love and energy towards those she still had with her.
It really was a new world, she decided, gazing around at the pristine landscape. Carol started off towards the trap line, the crunch of the snow beneath her feet the only sound breaking the silence of the forest.
Returning a few hours later, Carol heard the faint sound of childish laughter echoing through the trees and paused before she stepped out of the bush and into the clearing outside the cabin. Daryl and Judith had built a snowman, and he was holding the little girl in his arms while she reached out to put an old ball cap on its head. Leaning against a tree and watching the two together, Carol couldn't help but smile at the pride and happiness on Daryl's face. He was living the childhood he'd never had through Judith's eyes, giving her all the love and attention that he hadn't received from his own dysfunctional family.
Judith was clapping her mitted hands together when Daryl spotted Carol, and the bashful grin he gave her made her love him just that much more. "That's a pretty nice snowman," she called out, shielding her eyes as she stepped from the shadows of the woods and back into the sunlight. "Santa's going to know exactly where to land his sleigh when he sees that."
"How'd we make out?" Daryl said, carrying Judith with him as he walked towards her, meeting her halfway.
Carol tugged the sack from her shoulder and held it out triumphantly. "We got two rabbits...and best of all, a wild turkey! I could hardly believe our luck; it looks like we'll have a real Christmas dinner tomorrow after all."
"We're set for a coupla weeks anyhow." He passed Judith over to Carol and took the bagged game from her. "I'll get these cleaned up – y'all go back inside and get warmed up."
"Sounds good to me. There's something we need to work on inside anyway – don't we, Kicker?" Carol said conspiratorially to Judith, holding her finger to her lips and winking at Daryl.
Judith's eyes widened with excitement. "It's a secwet!" she whispered loudly, giggling when Daryl gave her a wildly exaggerated glare.
"Well, fine then. Off with y'all two clucking hens!" he huffed in mock annoyance. "I got manly things of my own to do."
He was turning away when Carol grabbed his sleeve and made him stop in his tracks. Daryl looked at her questioningly just as she grabbed his lapel with her gloved hand and pulled him down for a soft, lingering kiss. Determined to be part of the moment, Judith threw her arms around both of their necks and hugged them tightly, making both adults chuckle and then pull away from one another. Carol gave him one last loving look before taking Judith back into the cabin so they could work on their surprise together.
Carol had bundled up and slipped out of bed long before either Daryl or Judith were even stirring, firing up the wood stove in the kitchen so that the turkey would be ready in time for an early supper. Once the oven was hot enough and she had the bird roasting and some coffee brewing, she padded over to the living room and threw some fuel onto the glowing embers in the hearth so that the room would be comfortable when the other two woke up.
Dragging a couple of the coyote pelts out in front of the fireplace, Carol planted herself on the furs and admired the decorations on both the tree and around the room that she and Judith had crafted together. Nothing fancy, to be sure, but all in all, a little bit of red yarn and handfuls of pinecones went a long way, and the smell of the spruce spread through the cabin as the branches draped along the mantle started to get warm.
She slid a little closer to the tree and took another peek at the finished farm set Daryl had carved. He'd done an amazing job and although he was giving all the credit to Santa Claus, she knew there would come a day when Judith would be told exactly who had made the toy and how much love had gone into it. She was almost as excited for Judith to see it as she figured the child would be to receive it.
There were two wrapped packages under the tree, too, both of them unlabelled. One was the gift that Carol and Judith had worked on together for Daryl, but there was also one wrapped in a bit of silky material that she'd not seen when she'd gone to bed the night before. She peered at it curiously but before she could pick it up to investigate further, she heard a high pitched squeal from Judith's room, and an almost simultaneous groan of exhaustion from the room where she and Daryl slept.
"Chwistmas! It's CHWISTMAS! Did Santa come!?" Judith practically shrieked as she ran into the room. Carol jumped up off of the furs and rushed towards her, catching the toddler in her arms before she could see what was under the tree.
"No, no, no!" Carol scolded laughingly, hugging the squirming bundle of little girl close. "We talked about this last night, remember? Everyone has to be together beside the tree before there are any presents. Someone's still missing."
Judith scowled mightily as Carol set her down and pointed her in the opposite direction. The girl took off as quickly as her little legs could carry her, and Carol bit back her a giggle as Daryl made a sound she could only imagine was the result of someone jumping on him where he lay. As Judith attempted to coax Daryl out from beneath the covers, Carol strolled back to the kitchen and poured them each a cup of coffee to take the chill off the very early morning.
Daryl finally stumbled out of the bedroom, his hair ruffled and flat on one side as he rubbed at his eyes and clutched the blanket around his bare shoulders. Thank goodness, Carol thought, she'd had the good sense to make him wear his long johns to bed the night before, predicting that he might get exactly the sort of wake-up call that he did. Judith was propelling him forward, pushing at the back of his legs with a determined look on her face. "Told ya we shoulda given her some of that spiced rum last night," he groused, gratefully accepting the steaming mug Carol held out towards him.
"It'll all be worth it, I promise," she murmured, kissing him lightly on the cheek and smoothing his hair down before looking down at the impatient child shoving at him. "And you – yes, you, young lady. We're all together now, so you can go ahead and see what Santa left you under the tree."
Judith screamed with delight and ran over, spotting the little farm set instantly. "Look! LOOK! It's animals! An' a barn! I gonna pway...horsy! Piggy! Look!" She grabbed up as many animals as she could in her small hands and pranced in an ecstatic little circle beside her new toy.
Carol snuck a glance at Daryl and caught him glowing with happiness at Judith's reaction. "Told you," she whispered, nudging him with her elbow. "Santa done good."
Daryl grabbed her hand and kissed her knuckles, all traces of exhaustion erased. "Come on. I gotcha something, too. You know, since you were too naughty this year to earn a present from St. Nick."
"Didn't hear you complaining about my naughtiness the last couple of nights," she teased playfully as he led her over to the fireplace.
He leered at her as he crouched down beside the tree to retrieve the present wrapped in silk. "Well, Santa an' me, guess we got different standards." Daryl waited until she'd knelt beside him and tucked her legs underneath her before he handed the gift to her.
She carefully untied the short length of ribbon that held the makeshift bag closed while Daryl watched her intently and bit at his thumbnail like he did when he was nervous about something. As the edges of the material fell away, Carol's heart just about stopped in her chest.
It was a small black velvet box. Exactly the kind of box that usually held...
"Back at that fancy resort, they got a jewelry store," Daryl said quietly, cutting into her thoughts. "That's why I was so late gettin' back with that buck the other day. Took me forever to find somethin' that I figured you might like. I know we can't do a real weddin' or anythin', but I wanted you to have this...to have somethin' that makes what we got official."
Carol took in a deep, shaky breath and opened the box. Inside was a ring, a simple setting that had a stunning golden stone surrounded by tiny diamonds."Oh, Daryl...it's...it's beautiful!" she said, her voice wavering with emotion.
He plucked the ring out of the stiff velvet folds and held it up. "The sign said it was topaz. I thought it kinda looked like a little piece of a sunset. Dunno if it got any sort of special meaning like some stones do..."
"You picked it out for me," she whispered huskily. "That's what makes it special."
She held out a trembling hand but just before he slipped the ring on her, he glanced up at her with a glint of mischief in his eyes. "You ain't gonna cry, are you?"
In fact, Carol thought she was going to do exactly that up until he asked her. Which was probably exactly why he'd done so, knowing how determined she was not to give in to tears "No," she said, her cheeks warming as he slid the ring down the length of her finger. "But I am going to kiss you."
The corner of his mouth twitched with a grin. "I could go for that." He reached his hand out and slipped it around the nape of her neck, pulling her close. The kiss was chaste compared to what she might have given him if they'd been alone, but she poured every bit of love she had in her heart into the tender brush of her lips against his.
"I have to tell you," she said when they reluctantly drew apart, her fingers lingering on his jaw, "that this is almost as good as what I have to give you for Christmas. Almost."
The look of anticipation on his face just about broke her heart, and it occurred to her that Daryl had probably never been given a real Christmas present in his life. She covered his hand affectionately with hers and looked over at where Judith was completely immersed in the miniature farm world that Daryl had built for her. "Kicker, can you bring the present that we worked on together over here now? It's time."
Judith's eyes lit up and she scrambled over Daryl's legs to get her hands on the only gift left under the tree. It was wrapped in brown paper that Judith had decorated with what she'd assured Carol were reindeer but in fact looked like a series of random brown and red scribbles. Package in hand, she plopped herself down in Carol's lap and held it out towards Daryl with an ear-to-ear grin on her face.
"Go on," Carol said, cinching her arms around Judith and hugging her while she tried to keep the nerves in her stomach from getting the best of her. Daryl took it and carefully unwrapped it, slowly as though trying to prolong the experience. When he tossed the paper to the side, his brow knitted in both bewilderment and valiantly concealed disappointment at the homemade pinecone ornament in his hands.
"It's an angel!" Judith exclaimed joyfully. "See? He has wings, just wike you!"
Daryl gave her an indulgent smile, but Carol could see that he had been expecting something more after what she'd told him. "I see that, Kicker...it's real nice," he said softly, fingering the little wings they'd fashioned out of wire and gauze.
"Mama said it's cuz you're OUR angel...that's how come we made it," Judith said quizzically, clearly concerned that he hadn't been as happy about his present as she thought he should be.
"Looks like you worked real hard on..." he started before trailing off. His head snapped up and he locked gazes with Carol. "Wait...what did you say?"
"You need to read the tag, Daryl," Carol said quietly. "Please."
He looked more carefully at the angel ornament, following the loop of red yard back to the little bit of paper tied to the end. As he read it, Carol saw him swallow hard a few times and blink rapidly before he looked into her eyes again, clearly not believing what was written in a very wobbly young hand.
"You ain't gonna cry, are you?" Carol teased gently, and he chuffed out a rather choked-up laugh before shaking his head. She bent over and whispered in Judith's ear, "Sweetie, you were supposed to say something when you gave that present, remember?"
Judith gasped as she realized she'd forgotten that part of the plan and squirmed out of Carol's lap. She took a step towards Daryl and put her hands on either side of his face. "Mewwy Chwistmas, Daddy. That's what I'm supposed to call you now...cuz you and Ca-wo...Mama...are my pawents, just wike the mama and papa in the Santa book. And you'll wuv me fowever."
Tears glistened on his lashes but Daryl didn't bother even trying to hide it as he tugged Judith close and hugged her tightly. "Forever, L'il Kicker. Your daddy ain't ever gonna let anythin' bad happen to you, I swear it."
After a few seconds, Judith started to squirm out of his arms. "I wanna pway farm! Wet me go, Daddy!"
He released her and she scampered off, completely unaware of how profoundly touching the moment had been for both of the adults in her life. Taking a deep breath and wiping at his eyes, Daryl stared down at the angel in his hands. "Thank you," he rasped, tracing the letters on the little piece of paper with his fingernail. "I can't...I know it wasn't an easy thing for you, crossin' that line. It means...I don't know if...yeah. You were right, this was way better than what I gave you."
Carol's heart felt so full that she was afraid it was going to burst open. "No, boo. What you gave me is every bit as wonderful, believe me!" she said, scooting closer and resting her forehead against his. "We needed this. It was time for all of us. What Judith said, it's true – you're our angel. My angel. Have been almost since the moment we met. I don't ever want you to forget how much I love you."
Daryl wove his fingers through hers and lifted up her hand to look at the ring he'd given her. "Still not sure I deserve any of it, but I'm so goddamned glad that you'll have me. No one ever cared 'bout me like you do."
She kissed him softly but thoroughly in reply, deciding that words simply couldn't do justice to how she felt about this amazing man. Later on, once the day was done and Judith tucked back into her own bed, she would show him exactly how much he meant to her and in a way that would leave no question in his mind.