Claire Elliot stared at the crumpled-up shopping list she held in her hand. Sighing, she shoved the list into her vest and glanced down at the freezer case of turkeys, each with their plastic skin glistening in the stark overhead lights, vibrant stickers advertising the weight of the bird. For a second her hand lingered over the biggest one, but she quickly picked up the smallest size they had at the end. No use in spending all that money when it’s just me.
Looking around the store, Claire felt a pang of something heavy, hitting her like a hammer. Surrounding her all the carts were overflowing with last-minute turkeys, fresh cranberries, pounds of potatoes and canned pumpkin for tonight’s meal. The basket in her arm suddenly felt heavy, even though it only held a typical dinner’s worth of groceries. A pound of potatoes. Two cans of cranberry sauce, pre-made. Castleton Market’s pie crust, even though she wouldn’t finish a whole pie. A ten-pound turkey, the smallest available.
As Claire hurried to the line, she heard a voice, ordering, “Josie, put that yogurt down!” From the dairy aisle. That sounded vaguely familiar, thought Claire. Maybe someone from work?
“Claire, is that you?” The voice said. Claire spun around to see Amelia Hensley, an old friend from middle school, standing in front of her. She was visibly pregnant, pushing an overflowing cart and holding a toddler by the hand.
“Um, hi, Amelia Hensley, right?” asked Claire.
“It’s Amelia Fisher now, but yeah, from Stowe middle! What a coincidence! How’d you end up here in West Gorge?”
“Oh, you know, just found a job around here.”
“Really, wow! I haven’t even run into you. We’ll have to get together some time. Oh, Josie, say hi!” Josie mumbled a hello and went back to playing with the sequins on her shirt.
“So what are you doing for Thanksgiving?” asked Claire, moving forward in line.
“Well, our family’s coming over and we’re having a big dinner. And Josie’s going to help make the pies, right?” She asked playfully of Josie, who nodded shyly. “I’m sorry, she doesn’t like strangers much. But she’s very outgoing once she gets to know you. What about you? Any plans?”
“Um… just the usual. Congratulations, by the way,” added Claire, gesturing to Amelia’s belly.
“Oh, thank you! She’s number three, and Josie can’t wait to have a little sister! Right Josie?” Josie started to pull her mothers hand toward the turkey-shaped peeps a few lines down. “Anyways, call me! So nice to bump into you again, Claire! Josie, stop pulling me!”
“Bye…” Claire’s voice faded as Amelia was tugged away by Josie. Sighing heavily, she started loading her few items onto the belt.
The Vermont woods blurred by the frosted window as Claire drove on the winding road to her small farmhouse. She pulled up in the driveway and stepped out, a chilling breeze blowing through her thick winter coat. She grabbed the plastic bag from the passenger seat and headed inside to her home.
The farmhouse was located on several extensive fields edged by tangling thick woods standing like tufts of dark fur against the untouched white snow. The land had been in the Elliot family for generations, since Claire’s ancestors came from Sweden in the 19th century. She had inherited the home and land when her parents retired and left for Italy. The meadows were overrun with wildflowers and weeds in the summer but were barren and cold in the winter. It was old, in need of several renovations, with weathered wide-boarded floors and low ceilings. In the freezing Vermont winters the piles of wool blankets in the closets and fires growling in the two chimneys were never enough to heat the small house.
Claire unloaded her groceries in the kitchen and got to work, and was ready in less than two hours. After lighting a fire she was settling down at the table as a crash came from outside. The door slammed open. A gust of freezing wind punched into the dining room, rattling the china in the mahogany bureau. Claire leapt up from the table and pushed the door against the wind, struggling as it blew furiously. With a final shove the lock clicked and she leaned against the door, sighing. Likely, this storm would last all night. She could even be snowed in.
As she sat down at the empty table, she stared into the lonely fire as it whispered along the wood. Cautiously, she unlocked and opened the door a crack, shivering as the blustery wind blew at her face, and saw a man in a mailman suit, frost covering the fabric.
“I have a package for 93 Elliot Road,” his muffled voice came from beneath a scarf.
“That’s me,” said Claire, taking the Amazon box from his arms and setting it on the table. “You look freezing. Would you like some tea? Or coffee?”
“No thank you, I should be go-”
“No, really, at least have a cup of coffee before you go. I’ll take your coat. Have a seat.”
“Thank you.” Claire took his coat and hat as the postman stepped inside.
His coppery skin shone in the warm firelight as he sat down at the dining table, surveying the small affair laid before him. The fire began to melt the ice crystals frozen on his dark, curly hair.
“I’m Claire, by the way. Claire Elliot. And you are?” She said, walking back into the kitchen to make their coffees.
“So Sam,” said Claire, the Nespresso machine purring. “What brings you around to this part of the town? On a night like this?”
“Doing the nightly rounds. It’s all part of the job.” He sipped from his mug as Claire sat down.
“On Thanksgiving? Gosh,” she said.
“Yeah, you get used to it.” He laughed. “Anyway, what do you do for a living?”
“I’m a hospital nurse. Usually for us it’s either the eve or day of a holiday. Cream? Sugar?”
“Just cream, thanks. I’m sorry for intruding, by the way.”
“Oh, no, don’t worry about it at all. It’s not like I had plans.”
Sam quirked his mouth to the side.
“Um, yeah. So… would you like some food? There’s not much but I’m sure I could spare some.”
“No problem, I have this.” Sam pulled out a glass tupperware filled with turkey and mash. “Is it okay-”
“Yes of course! Go right ahead.” Sam opened the container and started eating without a word.
They had barely started on a few bites before a second crash came from outside. Claire glanced worriedly at the window.
“Don’t worry, I’ll check,” said the postman, stepping outside.
A moment later, Sam stepped in accompanied by two dark figures.
“Claire, is it alright if these people join us?” He shut the door gently.
“Oh goodness, of course! Are you both okay?” She asked, standing up. “Here, can I take your coat?”
“Thank you,” came the muffled voice from beneath a wool scarf. The figures removed their many layers of outdoor wear, peeling off coats and unbuttoning sweatshirts and unwinding scarves.
They were two young women, maybe in their twenties, one with bright red hair tied in a small, messy bun and fair, freckled skin and the other with umber skin and deep black hair that tumbled down her back in loose curls.
“Hi,” said the red-haired one awkwardly.
“Are you alright? What happened? Coffee?” Asked Claire, walking towards the kitchen.
“Um, sure, thanks. We got caught in the storm. I’m Catherine,” said the dark-haired woman.
“Niamh,” added the red haired one.
“Nice to meet you. I’m Sam, and this is Claire.” Claire waved as she plodded into the kitchen. She found herself watching them, bewildered by their situation, as she added two more Nespresso pods to the machine. She had never been one for hiking, even though she did live in the perfect area for it. She got lost once, on a hike with her father when she was a child, and had a run-in with a porcupine. She had never touched her hiking boots since. And on Thanksgiving night? During a blizzard? The thought sent shivers down her spine.
“Would you like dinner?” Claire asked, trying desperately to keep hope out of her voice. Sam glanced at her and smiled lightly, but let the newest guests answer.
“I mean, if you’re okay with it?” Said Catherine.
“Of course! Have a seat.”
“Can I like, sit by the fire?” Niamh asked, pointing at the chair there.
“Sure, sit wherever you like. Would you both like everything? You know, I’ll just bring out everything.”
“Here, let me help,” said Sam.
As Claire and Sam set out the food, Niamh and Catherine huddled in front of the fire, letting the warmth defrost their frigid hands.
“So,” said Sam, once the hikers had warmed up and joined them at the table. “What brings you here?”
“Well,” said Catherine, helping herself to turkey, “We have a tradition of hiking on Thanksgiving. Usually we do it with our other friends, but they have families now so we’re on our own.” Catherine laughed, high-fiving Niamh. “Single forever! Anyways, we were going to camp over in the woods, but it got stormy so we came down to the meadow. Then our phones died-”
“Which always happens,” Niamh added. The two chuckled.
“Yeah, I mean, you’d think we’d learn to bring a power block, but no. We couldn’t really see, but we saw the light in your home, so we figured we’d give it a shot and see if you’d let us in. Which you did, so thank you.”
“Of course, you guys would have been in serious trouble,” said Claire, smiling as she spooned gravy into her mashed potato well.
“What about you? What are your stories?” Asked Niamh, popping her chin on her hand.
“I’m an ER nurse. I wasn’t expecting anyone-”
“I came in and popped in here to give Claire a package - I’m a mailman - and the winds picked up, so she decided it would be best if I stayed,” Sam finished.
“Really? So you’re a random guest too? God, Claire, we must be so annoying,” said Catherine with a laugh.
“No, no, seriously, it’s honestly fine.”
“She’s lonely,” explained Sam bluntly, receiving a playful slap on the arm from Claire.
“Sam! No, I’m not, I just didn’t have any plans,” she said with a finalizing humph, trying her hardest to mask her smile.
Her hardest really wasn’t enough.
Not twenty minutes later Claire glanced out the window and saw a flutter of brown hair through the snow. Her forehead puckered.
“Here, I’ll see what’s up,” she said, rising and sliding on her thick winter coat and snow boots. “Be back soon.” She stepped outside into the frigid, unforgiving air and hurried down the creaky porch steps. Amidst the lamenting of the winds, she heard a faint sobbing sound coming from behind the house. She trudged through the snow, trying to keep her leggings from getting wet, and made her way across the seal of white.
She turned the corner and saw one boot poking out from next to the generator. Her pace slowed as she approached the person.
Behind the generator was a young woman about eighteen, her face in her hands, her knees pulled close to her chest, her long brown hair spilling over her face.
“Hi,” said Claire gently. The young girl looked up. Her green eyes were red from crying, and tears streamed down her flushed cheeks. “Are you okay?” She responded with a small whimper. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you.” Her eyes fell to one of her feet. One was bare, bloody, with a large swelling at the ankle. “Oh goodness, stay here. I’ll be back in a second.” She raced back into the house and Sam, Catherine, and Niamh looked up at her expectantly.
“I think the girl behind the house twisted her ankle. Sam, can you make some hot cocoa? Packets are near the coffee pods. Use the hot water from the nespresso machine.” Claire hurried upstairs to the medicine cabinet and grabbed a roll of medical tape and bacitracin, as well as aloe vera in case of mild frostbite. After collecting her items she grabbed an ice pack, and took the mug from Sam’s hand. She slipped out the back door and found the girl again.
“Here, have some hot cocoa. I’m Claire, by the way. What happened?” The teen took the mug gratefully.
“I’m Zoe. I was running on the road and I slipped and fell in a ditch,” she mumbled, sipping from her mug.
“Would you like me to fix your ankle?” Zoe nodded, quivering like a scared mouse. “Why were you out in this weather?”
“My parents were arguing again.”
“So you ran away?” Claire asked, raising her eyebrows.
“Just for the night! I’m so sick of them arguing all the time! Why don’t they just get a divorce?”
“I’m really sorry about your parents. Is there anything I can do?”
“No I’m okay, really.”
“I don’t know, why don’t you come inside?”
Zoe sighed. “Alright.” Claire helped Zoe to her feet and led her to the door. She stopped at the stoop. “Oh, I think I saw someone over by the barn.”
“Um, okay, we’ll get him in a sec. Here, come inside.” She led her up the stoop and into the warm home, where the guests were sitting on edge. Catherine was the first to leap up.
“Hi! Welcome. I’m Catherine. Are you okay? Do you want some food?” Despite her pain, she smiled.
“Sure, thanks. I’m Zoe.” Catherine led the teen to the table.
“Zoe, meet Sam and Niamh. You met Claire of course.” Each respective person waved. “So, Zoe, how’d you end up here?”
“I’m sorry, but I think I saw someone outside by the barn. I just want to make sure they’re alright. Do you think someone could check on them.”
“I’ll go see,” said Sam, slipping on his winter gear and out the back door.
“Have a seat. Food?”
“Sure. Um, well, hi, I’m Zoe. I go to the college here and I live with my parents.” Niamh handed the newcomer a plate, who took it gratefully.
“Wait, I’m sorry, am I, like, intruding on something?” Zoe asked.
“Oh, no. Funnily enough, we actually are all intruders on Claire’s night,” explained Catherine.
“Not intruders!” Claire exclaimed from down the table, provoking a laugh from everyone.
Catherine rolled her eyes jokingly. “The snow led each of us here by chance.”
Zoe nodded. “Well, my parents argue all the time and they even forgot Thanksgiving. How do you do that? I was planning on going to my friend’s house but I got lost. And then I fell in a ditch and twisted my ankle.”
The guest chatted warmly with her new friends, exchanging laughs about each of their unfortunate situations.
“No, no, you have the worst!” Exclaimed Zoe.
“You fell in a ditch, come one!”
“You were going to camp in a storm!”
“Yeah, that’s pretty stupid.”
However the laughter and conversation ceased when the back door was opened. In stepped Sam, accompanied by a boy, around Zoe’s age, his eyes wet with tears, his skin flushed red from the cold. He was only wearing a blue knit sweater and jeans crusted with snow, and Claire shivered at the thought of it.
“Hi,” he said, his voice cracking slightly. “I’m Joseph.” He wiped his eyes with his sleeve.
“So…” Joseph played with the cuff of his sweater, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
“Joseph, meet everyone - Niamh, Catherine, Zoe, and Claire, who owns this establishment.” Claire waved, smiling warmly.
“Here, come in. You can sit wherever. Would you like something to drink?” she said as Joseph stepped into the dining room, followed by Sam.
“I’ll have coffee, thanks.”
“So tell us,” said Niamh, leaning forward. “What leads you out here?”
“Um, well I got in an argument with my parents. Are you sure it’s okay if I’m here?”
“Yeah, we’re all some sort of loners who managed to find their way here,” said Zoe, laughing.
“So, how did you all get here?”
“Sam’s a mailman, Niamh and I were hiking and Zoe twisted her ankle. We all got snowed in.” Catherine pointed to each person.
“My parents are pretty old-fashioned, and I came out today, and they didn’t... really respond well... I guess.” Sam nodded emphatically.
“When I came out my parents did not respond well. Don’t worry. So, tell us about yourself,” said Sam.
A hesitant smile falteringly blossomed into being onto his face. “I go to the community college here. Wait, Zoe, you in my economics class? With Dr. Baxter?”
“I think so. Oh, yeah, you sit next to Kaitlyn Simmons right? God, she’s so annoying. Doesn’t she always smack her gum?”
“She does! It is painful!” They chuckled.
Claire watched as the guests chattered on and laughter filled the house. Glancing at her watch, she realized it had been two hours since she first sat down for dinner. A wave of heat washed over her, and she found herself pulling off her thick sweater. It’s much warmer than it was when I first stepped inside, she noticed.
She remembered how she’d felt when she watched the others in the market filling their baskets in preparation for the meal. That feeling was gone now, replaced with a sensation of belonging, amidst a collection of genuine people with only one thing in common - their loneliness. Not anymore, she thought, smiling as she watched her new friends exchange sweet memories and funny moments.
Long into the night the fire danced and the once-lonely cottage of Elliot farm twinkled with laughter. Even after the embers had died down and the mail truck’s lights disappeared through the woods, the feeling of togetherness remained.