It had been a sweltering day, with the late summer sun scorching down on the red Georgia clay in such intensity, winter seemed only a tale from long ago. Even the game seemed to be hiding from the blazing heat because they were nowhere to be found.
He had taken to the woods about a month or so before. His father having fallen into another long bender and with Merle long gone at Fort Benning, Daryl reckoned it best to just lay low until school started up again. He’d already taken one too many licks this summer for simply being in the way. It wasn’t like Will Dixon was going to mind anyhow. The man had probably gone and completely forgot he even had a young adolescent son by now.
Hot, hungry, and bored, Daryl decided to try his luck with fishing instead. He’d noticed a bend in the river just a bit over yonder, where the rapids yielded into a gentle flow over a hole that seemed just deep enough to be successful.
So he trekked through the trees and over the fallen pine needles until he heard the familiar sound of rushing water in the distance. Sweaty and parched from the swampy air, he hurried toward the welcoming flow, while reaching for the leather strap of his empty canteen. It wasn’t long before he was cautiously navigating the slippery bank and pressing the warm metal to his lips.
Thirst quenched at least for the moment, the boy surveyed the surrounding ground for just the right branch. He picked up several and inspected them carefully before finally choosing something he thought might work. Suitable stick in hand, Daryl headed back toward the water and plopped himself down onto the shady bank.
Pulling an old, used-up snuff can from his pocket, he removed the lid and revealed the rudimentary fishing equipment stored inside. Unwinding the line from its tiny spool made from a scrap of cardboard, the boy carefully tied it to the end of the stick.. Then he selected just the right hook from where three of various sizes fastened onto the inside of the lid, knotting the line through its eye just as he was taught many years before. Using the now-empty base of the can as a scoop, he dug into the mud, turning the soil until finally unearthing a few wiggly brown earthworms from where they’d hidden deep into the coolness of the ground. He gathered as much worms as the can would hold – along with a bit of the dirt – and replaced the lid before baiting the hook and throwing it into the water.
The boy had just settled back to wait for a bite when out of nowhere, a blonde little girl suddenly came barreling out of the trees, down the bank, and cannonballed into the river with a gigantic splash.
Startled, Daryl jumped to his feet in surprise and frantically searched the water for the girl, hoping she could swim, while also making sure she wasn’t just a figment of his imagination. Just a moment or two later a tiny head surfaced, her little arms and legs treading the water expertly. She was facing the direction in which she’d come and was yet to notice the young teenage boy across the river.
“Come on, Leroy,” she called out with a laugh. “The water is perfect!”
Expecting another child, Daryl glanced towards the woods and was surprised to see an old Border Collie eventually emerge from the pines – slow and trotting with an arthritic limp – but obviously happy to follow the little girl to the river none-the-less.
“That’s a good boy,” the little girl giggled. “See I told you it would be worth the walk.”
If dogs could smile, that would be exactly what this one had been doing until he spotted Daryl standing across the river. As if he were Lassie, the dog let out a menacing growl alerting of the stranger and began to bark. Leroy was clearly warning that he still had teeth – even if old.
The girl whipped around and quickly spied Daryl on the opposing bank, but he was much too shocked by the sudden intrusion to move or even say anything. She looked him up and down with way too much scrutiny than seemed capable from such a small child – taking in his unruly hair, battered clothing, and worn out boots. With knitted brows, her bright blue eyes rested upon his sun-weathered face as she contemplated him intently like she was reading his very soul. Finally, her cherry-red lips curled up into a warm smile.
She swiftly turned and shushed Leroy.
For a moment, Daryl was completely mesmerized. It was almost as if this girl were an angel who had suddenly appeared in the middle of these woods out of thin air. A skinny little cherub, like the white marble statues guarding the children’s section of the cemetery where his dead mama now rested. No older than seven or eight, her damp hair seemed to radiate in the sunlight beating down upon her. Her smooth, sweaty skin shone without a single blemish or scar. He must have seen thousands of little girls her age in his lifetime but somehow, she was unique. She projected kindness and purity and a kind of innocence he was sure he’d never known. Regardless, the boy was positive nobody had ever been that happy to see him before.
“Whatcha doing?” Her curious bright eyes looked up at him naively, glancing toward the stick he was using as a fishing pole.
“What’s it look like I’m doing?” He lashed out, finally recovered and now unsettled by the interaction. “I’m trying to catch my dinner. At least I was until you and that mutt came up on me like a couple of baboons. Y’all jumping into my fishing hole like a damn mermaid or something. Now ya’ probably done went and scared all the fish away.”
Her eyes narrowed at his rudeness, obviously unhappy with the way he was talking to her. The scornfulness was so cute that he almost laughed, but somehow managed to keep a scowl upon his face. This was just some silly little girl and he was fourteen, almost fifteen-years-old. He had a reputation to keep afterall.
“His name is Leroy,” she insisted, evidently angered by Daryl calling the dog a mutt.
“So I gathered,” he responded dryly while pulling the makeshift pole from the water.
“And this spot is not your fishing hole. It’s where I swim.” She argued like she owned the damn place while slowly inching closer. Leroy still obeyed the command for silence but he’d quietly joined her in the river and was still eyeing Daryl suspiciously.
“That so?” He questioned in annoyance, uncomfortable with her lack of distance. “How you figure?”
“Because my family’s been swimming here for generations,” the girl maintained, not about to back down. She was now standing with her hand on her narrow hip in the much more shallow area near his side of the bank. “So it’s not very mannerly of you to be going around just claiming stuff.”
Daryl was slightly impressed. This child obviously knew nothing about benders or belts and hunger or survival, but she still had a fire that wasn’t to be truffled with underneath all that sugar and spice. His much larger long and lanky body being fixed in an intimidating stance didn’t do anything more to deter her than his usual Dixon-brand of aggression had. Instead, her large and rounded eyes challenged him fiercely, while at the same time seemingly searching for what he had hidden beneath. The boy didn’t know what to make of this girl but he wasn’t about to let her know any of that.
“Speaking of family,” he quipped, unnerved by the way she seemed to see right through him with some kind of X-ray vision . “Shouldn’t ya’ be making your way back home? What cha’ doing all the way out here all alone anyway? Don’t ya’ know the woods is a dangerous place for little girls?”
“This is part of my home,” she proclaimed in frustration, before pointing northward. “Just past those trees is our farm. This part of the river runs through our property.”
Well, hell. Maybe she did own the place? Or at least her family did.
“Okay, whatever.” Daryl sighed as he gathered up the pole and his compound bow off the ground. “You win.”
He turned away and started to go find another spot further downstream when her small little voice caused him to pause.
“I didn’t say you had to leave,” she offered apologetically. “Just that you needed to mind your manners a bit and be nice.”
He turned back toward the little girl and found her and the dog standing completely out of the water on his side of the bank. Her floral cotton romper dripped onto the ground creating a soggy puddle in the mud. She looked hopeful, like maybe she really wanted him to keep her company.
“I ain’t gonna catch any fish with y’all swimming anyway,” he answered with a shrug, this time a little more softly because she seemed a bit lonely and Daryl knew all too well how that felt.
“Can you really catch a fish with that thing?” She asked, apparently skeptical of the crude homemade rod but also seemingly curious. “Because my Daddy and Shawn and Otis just use regular old fishing poles.”
“Have before,” Daryl replied with another shrug, because well, it was true after all.
“That’s neat! Kinda like Huck Finn did back in the old days, huh?” The girl smiled widely at the idea of just using a line tied to a stick, like it was some trick in a book she’d read. She had no clue that sometimes this was the only way he ate.
The little angel paused for a moment like she was thinking hard about something before her face lit up like she had all the answers.
“Tell you what. How about you fish and Leroy and me just watch? I could hand you worms or something?”
“I don’t know,” Daryl responded nervously, glancing around the woods. Her family had to be close by if this was their property and all. They might find it strange to find their precious angel watching him fish. They’d be especially horrified if they learned his name and who he belonged to. They’d only been there a few months but his father had a way of making himself known around small little towns quickly. “Might not be too good of an idea.”
“Please,” she pleaded earnestly. “Nobody ever wants to do anything with me these days. Ever since my sister Maggie turned fourteen, all she cares about is makeup and that Jacob Beverly anymore. She’s not even talking to me right now because I told Daddy about her kissing him right on the lips under the Maple tree beside the barn. Now she’s blaming me for being grounded even though Maggie was the one putting her mouth in places it shouldn’t be.”
Daryl couldn’t help but to snort in amusement. He wondered if he went to school with her sister and this Jacob Beverly guy. He honestly didn’t know because his Dad had just moved him there only three weeks before school ended.
“I know. Gross, right?” The girl laminated, mistaking his snort as agreement. “And since Shawn is sixteen, all he cares about is working on his cars and football, though if you ask me, I would say he worries more about looking good to all those pretty cheerleaders than actually winning any games.”
Daryl snorted again. Sounded like most other teenage boys he’s observed. Thankfully, he hadn’t any desire for all of that yet. Seemed like a huge hassle.
“Don’t you have any friends your own age?” He couldn’t help but ask. As far as he could tell, there were plenty of other little kids around these parts. Why wasn’t she running around somewhere with one of them?
“Of course I do. Why wouldn’t I?” She seemed insulted by the mere idea, not realizing if she’d had asked him the answer would be a firm no. “I have lots of friends from church and school but they all live closer to town and in case you haven’t noticed, I’m nowhere near there.”
That made sense. She did live on a farm and it had to be a pretty rural area for their property to blend into the forest. There probably weren’t a whole lot of houses around.
“The only kid my age is that dumb ole’ Jimmy from down the road,” she continued with a frown, obviously not happy with her lone option. “Always says he’s the boss, being a boy and all. Says boys are supposed to rule over girls according to the bible. I tried to tell him that I didn’t think that’s exactly what the Lord had in mind but he never listened to anything I said until I finally hit him right in the nose. But then, he just went home crying anyway. I got in big trouble with Mama when she got that phone call. She made Daddy have a talk with me about how a good Christian should turn the other cheek. Still, between you and me, I heard Daddy laughing when Mama told him and I don’t think he was all that mad. He was just trying to keep Mama happy.”
Daryl couldn’t help but to chuckle at the little girl peering up at him with her innocent doe eyes. She was like an enigma. The embodiment of everything that was nice and good but also as brave as a lioness. Somebody who didn’t bat a single eyelash over befriending someone like him but also not afraid to punch another kid square in the face for being an ass. Who in the hell was this girl?
“What?” She looked back at him with a grimace on her face, noticing the way he was studying her closely. “Don’t think Jimmy is right, do you?”
“Nah,” Daryl replied while awkwardly diverting his attention to a random rock on the ground. He heard her exhale in relief. “I reckon that kid is probably an idiot.”
“Well, he is…” she confirmed before trailing off. “So are you going to show me how you fish with a stick or not?”
Daryl’s eyes shot back up to her hopeful face. Perhaps it would be okay to stay here with her for a little while. He normally didn’t associate really with little girls – even back when he was still little himself. Didn’t usually associate with many people, period, if he were being completely honest. But this girl was anything but normal. She made him feel comfortable somehow – even when she was being sassy. It was weird and a little disorienting but he wasn’t really in a big rush to leave.
“Okay,” he sighed, plopping back down on the bank.
The girl’s expression communicated her surprise at his agreement, but she didn’t say anything. Instead, she immediately plopped down next to him and called Leroy over to lay beside her. The dog glanced over at Daryl wearily, but seemed resigned that his owner was hellbent on staying there with him for some reason unknown to both of them.
“My name’s Beth by the way,” she offered nonchalantly. “Beth Greene. What’s yours?”
“Daryl,” he replied as he swung the line back into the water. She looked where the line floated along the current and then back to him in amazement.
“What’s your family name, Daryl?”
“Dixon,” he offered almost hesitantly. “But we are nothing like you guys. Just a bunch of no-good rednecks from the mountains.”
He felt her staring at him in contemplation and wondered what she thought about that. Whatever it was, she didn’t say and must have just let her mind wander instead.
“Did you escape into the woods like Huck Finn did?” She asked excitedly, giving this glismp into the grand adventure of his life she’d somehow conjured up in her mind.
Was that what Daryl was doing? He really didn’t know. He’d read Huck Finn before in school but never really thought about it afterwards. All the boy knew is he wanted to be as far away from the old man as he could get. Not that he was going to bother this innocent little girl by mentioning any of that.
“We are never going to catch a fish if you keep talking, Beth.” Daryl chastened in an amused voice, nodding toward the line in front of him.
And after that she really did try to be quiet, at least for a few minutes.