And just like that, it was just another day.
Layla stood shivering at the corner, waiting for Benny to come rattling down the old churt drive in his even older truck, just as angry to be up and moving as she was. She liked the beat up maroon monster. “Betsy” was cranky and vocal about it and somehow that made the indignity of getting up before the sun just to work at the local SavABunch more bearable. She could do without Ben—but then, no, that was the point, wasn’t it? She couldn’t do without Ben, or at least without someone to give her a lift the five miles into town. Benny had been giving her rides every morning since they were high school together. And before that, Benny’s dad had driven them both. Ben. It was Ben now, Layla. She had to remember that. Couldn’t risk offending him. At least, not over something so small. She had to save her battles for the bigger things, more important no’s.
The road crunched under her feet as she stomped back and forth, trying to stay warm. Ice shards stuck up in little clusters, moisture forced up out of the ground like little clumps of frozen grass, or tiny delicate flowers. Some twisted and curled, some shot straight up in proud obstinance. All of them told her it was too damned cold to be out this early, before the sun had even started to kiss the tops of the tallest trees on the tallest ridges of the holler. The sun didn’t care that it was the day after Christmas. The managers at SavABunch didn’t either.
The familiar rattle and rumble announced his arrival long before the feeble sweep of tired headlights. Layla hoisted up the garbage bag at her side, filled with cardboard and little twist-ties and scraps of plastic and gift wrap and tags that all read “To:” but none of them “From:”. There was no point in filling out that part. They all knew exactly where their meager little Christmas came from.
No matter. Another dollar, another day. She swung the bag up into the back of Benny’s truck before he could even properly put Betsy in park, let alone do something stupid like get out and try to insist he do it for her. That didn’t stop him from opening the door, but at least he did it from inside the cab. And besides, Betsy’s passenger door liked to stick lately anyways. Made sense to just let him do it.
She gave him her brightest smile, trying to push it all the way up to her eyes.
“Moma’s fine. How’s your Dad and Gran?”
“Fine. How’d Christmas treat y’all?”
“Just fine, Ben. And yours?” She busied herself with her seat belt, the crusty thing fighting with her in the cold. Her shaky fingers just couldn’t seem to make it work.
“Mighty fine, gal. Jim ran into a patch of grouse, brought a few home on his way in. We’ll bring y’all some around if he managed to scare up anymore.”
The belt finally slide home with a sticky click, and Layla settled back into her seat, burrowing down into her coat. She stared out at the tiny tunnel of light the headlights carved out of the darkness.
“That’s awful sweet of him. You tell Jimmy thanks for me if I’m not around when he stops by.”
Silence filled the empty space between them, settling into the middle seat like a third wheel. Layla was grateful for the buffer. Ben couldn’t seem to abide it.
“You get your Moma those red shoes she was yammering about?”
“No, Ben. Not this year.”
Of course she hadn’t bought her Moma any shoes, or that fancy dress, or any of the other foolish things she’d asked for. She bought her a sensible new book of puzzles, and knit her a new pair of socks over the course of many lunch breaks, and came together with the folks at church to bring her in a consignment shop recliner to replace that one that had become too much soaked with urine. The old one was still sitting out back, waiting to be burned.
“Well, maybe there’ll still be some, maybe on sale for after Christmas. I can check for you, if you like.”
“No, damn it!” She bit her lip at the terse words, then swore again as Betsy hit a pothole that bounced the corner of her elbow into the door handle. Ben murmured a word of apology, and Layla sighed in a big frosty puff.
“Ben, you know Moma doesn’t need any stupid red shoes. What’s she gonna do, stare at them from under the blanket? Click her heels together three times and wonder why nothing’s changed?”
Ben’s fingers curled and flexed against the wheel, smoothing over it as if he could smooth the snarl from the conversation. Layla’s own fingers bit into her palms deep in her coat pockets.
“You sure are grumpy this morning, Layla.”
Something relaxed in her, while something else tensed. He was willing to let the Moma thing go. But that meant his attention was back on her. Time to play nice.
“Yeah, Ben. I am. Sorry to take it out on you.”
“S’okay.” His fingers tapped a meaningless beat against the wheel. It was painful watching him try to think, waiting to see what would come out. “It’s easy to get lazy after a few days off. Betsy didn’t wanna go back to work this morning either, did ya gal?”
One morning—begrudgingly given because it wasn’t worth the cost of being open with no one in town—hardly counted as enough time to get lazy, but she would take it. If he was willing to excuse her ill behavior, she wouldn’t point out his logic was flawed.
“It was a nice change of pace, anyway,” she said lamely, knowing she had to say something.
“Don’t you worry, Layla.” His tone was bright and chipper again, pleased she was playing along, or something. She didn’t know and she didn’t care. “You’ll get another vacation here come New Year’s.”
And just like that, it was another day.