Outside Julia’s window, flurries of snow fell. It was hard to tell by the conditions in Paradise Hills that a blizzard two hours away separated her from her family for Thanksgiving. The Montana Department of Transportation declared the pass she needed to take to get to her parents’ house unsafe for travel and closed the road. This was her first Thanksgiving away from them, and she wasn’t sure how she felt about it. It was one of the few times her family got together for food and casual fun. The dads gathered in front of the television to watch the game. The younger cousins converged in the family room to play video games. At thirty, Julia was old enough to sit around the table with the aunts. They played cards, swapped recipes, and colored the conversation with gossip. She smoothed her dark brown hair and pulled on her knit hat and gray puffy coat.
Julia wasn’t the only person stranded for the holiday. Her best friend, Jacob, had to go into work at City Hall the next morning for a holiday kick-off, so he opted to stay home before the storm committed him to a friend-filled holiday. Their mutual friend, Olive, was left behind by her parents who scheduled a cruise during the holiday. They needed someone to watch the dogs. And, thanks to the political climate, their friend Michael opted to avoid Thanksgiving with his family. Mallory didn’t want to miss out on the fun. “If all of you are staying home, we can have our own dinner.” And that is how Julia—along with her friends Olive, Michael, Jacob, and Mallory—launched their first friend Thanksgiving dinner.
“I can make green bean casserole,” Jacob offered. Jacob was roommates with Mallory. So that meant Mallory would make it and give Jacob the credit. Michael’s contribution to the menu of polish sausage and sauerkraut elicited several question marks in the group text and side chats. Nobody had the heart to tell him no. Little by little they created a dinner of turkey, polish sausage, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, corn, and pumpkin pie.
In the spirit of the occasion, they all agreed to dress up. Nothing too fancy. Just enough to add a festive air to the meal. It was Thanksgiving, after all. The plan was for them to meet at Mallory and Jacob’s two-bedroom cottage-style house at 2:00. On top of what they promised to bring, Jacob and Michael brought cases of beer. Olive waved the two bags of chips she brought along with her. “It isn’t a holiday if we aren’t snacking in front of the football game.”
Did Julia miss her family? Definitely. But if she were to be away from them for the holiday, she couldn’t think of anyone better to spend it with than her best friends. If someone would have told them when they were in sixth grade and couldn’t stand sitting beside each other for an entire day that they’d help each other through some of life’s major battles, they all would have laughed. But here they were, pulling together to make a holiday dinner.
Midway through the meal, they fell into their typical behaviors. It began with Michael, who had never really changed over the years. He wore large black-framed glasses, and no matter how hard he tried to style his hair it looked like a mop formed by brown wavy hair. He leaned back in his chair and untucked his shirt. “This didn’t turn out as bad as I imagined.” If there was someone to point out something had gone wrong, it always was Michael.
Mallory passed him a slice of pie. “We appreciate the positive outlook.”
“Something always happens when we get together,” Michael explained.
Olive grinned broadly. “But that’s what makes it so fun.”
“Thank you, Olive.” Mallory stuck her tongue out at Michael. Out of all the friends, Mallory was the perfectionist. She tried to make everything special. When things didn’t work out, she’d spend hours working through the events to map out the changes for the next time. Olive was the friend who reminded Mallory that they were friends because they always made the best of things when circumstances pointed otherwise.
“C’mon. Every time we try something new, it bombs the first time.” Jacob returned to the table with the whipped cream. The man’s playful expression even when he was serious was a deadly combination. Julia couldn’t help smiling when he sprayed enough whipped cream on his slice of pie to hide it. His plate looked like someone created a whipped cream mountain. The only thing missing was the miniature hiker to attach to the side. Julia resisted the temptation to scoop off a dollop with her finger to steal a taste.
“Like?” Mallory cut another slice of pie. She tilted her ear toward Jacob to signal she was paying attention.
“Our first friend camping trip.” He took a quick bite of pie.
“That wasn’t so bad.” Olive accepted the next piece of pie.
Michael’s voice was matter of fact when he replied, “Until Jacob’s crazy ex-girlfriend showed up in the middle of the night.”
Julia choked on her glass of water. Olive patted Julia on the back while addressing the group. “You will never let me live that down,” she complained.
Every time Julia remembered the weekend, she laughed. It was a series of unlikely events beginning with Olive’s odd idea that they needed extra protection. It wasn’t enough that they were with three hunters. Olive helped secure the campground by setting up traps around their site. As she covered the trigger line with dirt, she explained her logic: “This will ward off animals that might try to wander into our tents.”
Nobody gave it a second thought until Jacob’s then-girlfriend tried to surprise him by joining the trip. She went home with pebbles and twigs in her hair and an attitude that could freeze water. Olive grinned. “The porcupine worked. It was just on the wrong target.”
“Thank God one of us guys didn’t use a bush in the middle of the night!” Michael shoved a piece of pie into his mouth.
“I didn’t think that far ahead. And I was young.” Olive shrugged. “Besides, Harper wasn’t right for Jacob, anyway.” Once again Julia choked. While she felt bad for Harper, Julia was glad she left. She and Jacob had spent the day talking and exploring. They had found a waterfall earlier in the day and promised to go back and visit it. Harper, who was more of a hang out by the fire type of girl, would have convinced Jacob to do likewise and the excursion the friends took to the falls the next day never would have taken place.
“Well, that’s the past. We’ve grown up,” Mallory announced. “We should have a toast.”
They all held up their glasses. “I’m thankful for you. I appreciate that you’re my friends for the fun times, and I’m grateful you’re here with me through the storms.” A gust of wind blew and rattled the window. Everyone glanced at the window. All was cozy inside Mallory’s house. Outside, it was cold and windy. Julia was glad to be around a warm dining room table with her friends.
Her mind returned to Mallory’s toast. The friends had been through a lot together. They’d grown closer in the past year, when they lost Glenn to a drunk driving accident. He left to go to work and never made it home. A tourist had one too many martinis and drove on the sidewalk. Glenn pushed a woman out of the way. She was fine, but he never made it home. It didn’t surprise them. Glenn was like that. He was the friend who watched out for everyone.
The empty chair at the edge of the table served as a reminder that time wasn’t promised. Mallory, who had been dating Glenn at the time, regarded the chair as though Glenn was still in the room. “I wonder what Glenn would have said if he was here.”
“Don’t drink and drive?” Michael said. The friends threw him glares of disapproval. “Too soon?” he asked as he shrank down into his seat. He whispered to the air beside him. “Yep, it’s too soon.”
Mallory’s phone chimed a notification for a text message. “I bet it’s my mom.”
She picked up the phone, and a wide grin took over her face. She turned the screen so everyone at the table could see it. Mallory’s mother had sent a video of Mallory’s two-year-old nephew blowing kisses. He sounded like an angel when he said, “I love you, Mallree. When can we play together?”
It was as though Glenn had answered the question. Send messages of love. Julia’s heart melted. “We should send messages to tell people we care about them.”
“Great idea.” Olive disappeared into the living room. She returned with her cell phone and typed away. “I’m sending a message to my aunt.” She read aloud as she typed. “Happy Thanksgiving. I’m grateful for how close we are.” Olive tilted her head toward the ceiling and returned to the text to add. “Can we do lunch soon?”
Julia found a gif of a dancing turkey. She loved sending funny messages to her family. “I miss you. I love you all.”
As soon as she sent off the message, an incoming text from Jacob appeared. “Life’s too short. We should go out.”
It couldn’t be. Julia looked over at Jacob on the other side of the table. He grinned before setting his phone screen-side down on the table. His eyes connected with Julia’s.
Her breath caught in her throat. Since Glenn died, they had spent hours talking. One time, Julia called Glenn to ask him to share a video he made of the friends when they had a kite competition. The ‘no longer in service’ message was like a bucket of cold water over her head. In her head, she knew Glenn wasn’t there. Her heart refused to believe it. Jacob called shortly afterward. When she told him what she had done, he didn’t laugh at her. Instead, he told her to look at it differently. “Glenn was the kind of person we could call in the middle of the night. Maybe we should try to take on some of those things that made him special. It will keep him with us.” After that, Julia made herself available to her friends. Jacob was right. They never abused it.
Julia’s mind bounced back and forth while considering Jacob’s invitation. Maybe it was time for her to look closer to home for companionship. Then again, she didn’t want to jeopardize their friendship. What if they weren’t compatible? Going on a date might ruin everything. A barely audible voice from within her whispered, “It’s time to stop hiding from love.” The voice was so clear, Julia scanned the room to see if anyone else heard it. Olive and Michael were discussing the pie to whipped cream ratio, and Mallory had gone to the kitchen.
Julia tapped the screen of her phone. “Sounds like a great idea. When?”
Jacob’s phone vibrated. She watched him read the screen and smile. He responded immediately, “Tomorrow afternoon?”
Julia didn’t respond right away. Second thoughts barraged her. Was she ready to go out with Jacob? What if she was seeing something that wasn’t there? She checked to see if her mother had replied to her text. The message chain ended with Julia’s gif. Her mother probably had the phone hidden in her purse or tucked away in a drawer. Julia was the only one in the family who hadn’t made it, so her mother had a full house. The only conversation was the one between Jacob and herself.
She watched him intently. He had joined the pie conversation. Still, his eyes flickered back to his phone every once in a while. He was waiting for a response to his invitation.
Against her better judgment, Julia replied, “Sure.” Nervous about what he might say, she picked up her plate and joined Mallory in the kitchen. Mallory had lined up plastic containers on the counter ready for the friends to store their leftovers.
“You okay?” Glenn had proposed to Mallory a week before he died. In the time it took to receive a phone call, Mallory’s happiness turned to grief. Julia wondered where Mallory found her gift of still being positive.
“Yes.” Mallory’s face tightened to show she was deep in thought. She set the serving spoon on the counter. “It’s like he’s still here, watching out for us.”
“I feel that way, too.” Julia hugged her friend. “ I never understood how people could believe we can transmit messages through a phone, but they find it hard to accept that we don’t need to see a person to feel their love for us.”
“Wow.” Mallory squeezed her friend tighter. “That’s something Glenn would say.”
A sense of peace filled Julia as she thought to herself, Love knows how to surpass boundaries. She flourished her hands as though they were displaying something. “See? He is here.”
There was no doubt in her mind. Spending Thanksgiving with her friends had been an intentional moment orchestrated by life. They would heal together, and their friendship would deepen. She was thankful for each of them. They were never bored, with Olive who was always trying to come up with a hack that would make their lives easier. Then they had Michael, who spoke the truth even if it got him in trouble. Mallory kept them organized, and Jacob found the fun things for them to do together. Julia hoped that, as they got older and married, their friendships would remain strong. Maybe as life went on, the friends would have big family gatherings.
While Jacob, Olive, and Michael argued about whether to play a video game or watch a real football game, Julia hung out in the kitchen with Mallory. If she were at home she’d have been in the kitchen with her mother, washing dishes while her father and brothers watched the football game. Julia wondered what her family was doing. What game where they playing at the table?
Julia had loaded the last of the silverware into the dishwasher when Jacob came into the kitchen. “I came to see if you needed anything.” It was just like at home. Her father always asked her mother if she needed help just as she finished. Julia chuckled to herself at the similarities between Jacob and her father. She asked, “What did you want to do tomorrow?”
Jacob shifted his weight from foot to foot, like he was dancing around a problem. “Well, I kind of have plans.”
Julia’s heart froze. Maybe she’d read the message wrong. What if it read the day after tomorrow? She asked, “Did the mayor ask you to stay for the full day?”
“Nah, I asked Julie out on a date. She said yes.”
Julia’s emotions lay somewhere between disappointed and awkward. Her words left her, and she stammered, “Oh… um—” Since Julia had received the message, her mind played with the possibility that their friendship was the foundation for something bigger. The possibility that Jacob felt likewise gave her the sensation that she was walking on water. The sinking in her stomach that came with knowing it was all a mistake was almost more than she wanted to handle. Julia pulled out a drawer and pretended to return a towel that was already in there. “You sent the message to me.”
From the corner of her eye, she watched Jacob’s mouth drop open. He pulled his phone out of his pocket. “Oh, I meant to text Julie. She’s the receptionist at the insurance company.”
“You stupid girl,” rang through Julia’s brain. Why she’d believed Jacob would want to have anything to do with her beyond friendship made no sense. To avoid making eye contact, she bent down to look at something in the dishwasher. The first thing that came to her was to rearrange the silverware. She picked up a fork and set it with the others.
Julia made a mental comparison between herself and the person Jacob meant to ask out. Julie, with the perfect hair, who wore pencil skirts and still walked like a model. “That makes sense.” By this time, Julia’s mental processes had returned to full function. Her mind raced through the text. No, she hadn’t said anything flirty. So, as far as Jacob was concerned, they were still friends. There was no place for her to take the conversation. She shut the dishwasher and wiped her hands on the towel she had tucked into her waist. “Well, I should get going.” Before he said anything, Julia beelined out of the kitchen and joined her friends in the living room. Michael leaned forward on the couch and shoveled popcorn into his mouth while he listened to the commentary during a time out.
Jacob took his seat beside Michael and handed him a beer. As far as Julia could tell, the conversation in the kitchen hadn’t affected him in the least. She sighed in relief. There was no harm, no foul. Except there was. She had allowed herself to believe in the possibility of something, and the disappointment that nothing existed weighed on her. She tried to talk through the game, but her heart wasn’t in it.
Finally, she resigned herself to what she needed to do. A warm bath, a good book, and a cup of cocoa would right her world. “I’m going to head home.”
“Already?” Mallory moaned.
“It just seems like it’s late because it’s dark out,” Olive added.
“I’m going to call my family.” Julia gave herself a mental pat on the back. There was no way anybody would argue with that excuse.
“Oh, all right.” Mallory stood and held out her arms for a hug. “Thank you for spending the holiday with me. You made it special.”
“We all did.” Julia stepped into the hug. Olive stepped away from her spot on the couch and hugged Julia, too. “We’ll have to get together for lunch. Maybe Sunday?”
“That sounds like a plan.”
Michael chimed in, “Tacos at La Prima.”
“He speaks my language,” Julia replied, wishing tacos could fix all her problems.
Her house was only a five-minute drive from Mallory and Jacob’s. But it was enough time for her to hear about a contest on the radio. Kelly Clark’s smooth voice asked listeners to call in. “If any of you know the where Wylie Gustafson was born, you have the chance to win two tickets to tomorrow’s concert.” Talk about coincidence—Julia had just talked with her mother about Wylie Gustafson.
She dialed the number. By the time she reached her front door the person on the other line picked up. “This is KMON.”
“I have the answer to the question.”
The person on the other line asked for Julia’s name and where she lived. When she gave the information, they put her on hold.
Music played in the background while Julia waited to answer the question. Kelly Clark picked up the call. ”Ladies and gentlemen, we have Julia Stanton on the line. She was the first to call with the answer to our question. Julia, can you tell our listeners where Wylie Gustafson grew up?”
“Conrad, Montana,” Julia declared. “My mother went to school with him.”
“We have a winner!” Kelly announced.
They talked a little more, and the call ended with a promise that tickets would be at will call waiting for Julia. The next item on her agenda was figuring out who would go with her. Julia set her phone on the counter and went to her room to get comfortable for a long conversation with her family. Her mom would be pleased when Julia told her how she had won the tickets.
Before Julia had a chance to dial the number, her phone rang. Thankful that she’d had enough time to change into her flannel pajamas, Julia read the screen. It was Jacob! She took a breath and talked to herself in the hall mirror. “Sound light and fun.” What happened earlier wasn’t a big deal. Jacob had no clue that she liked him. With as much levity as she could muster, Julia answered the call. “Hey, what’s up?”
“Julia, I’ve been thinking.”
“What if it wasn’t an accident?”
Her heart pounded in her chest. She wanted to say “This is Julia with an ‘A’.” Instead, she replied, “I don’t follow.”
Jacob rushed his words. “We were talking about Glenn. And what he would say if he was at the table, right? I texted you. What if that was a sign that we should go out?”
Julia wanted it to be true. But she had already been disappointed once. “I’d like to believe it, but—”
“You believed it this afternoon,” Jacob said, cutting her off.
That was before Jacob had explained the mistake. “I don’t know.”
“You won tickets to a concert. We could go together. Just the two of us. It would be fun.”
She was looking for someone to go to the concert with her. “I guess that would work.” Julia wasn’t about to make assumptions again. He said, ‘go out’. He didn’t say, ‘go on a date’. Julia asked, “Where do you want to meet?”
“I’ll be at your house at five. We can stop for a bite before the concert.”
It sounded more and more like a date. Still, Julia didn’t want to get her hopes up. In spite of holding back her expectations, a smile formed on her face. “I guess that would work.”
“Good, then we have a date.” She heard a tinge of excitement in Jacob’s voice.
They ended the call and Julia set the phone on her end table. The turn of events had her mind doing somersaults. She checked her call log several times to make sure the conversation really happened. Rapid knocking on her door pulled her back to reality. Julia supposed it was one of her neighbors stopping by to check on her. She crossed the room to open the door. When she opened the door, only to see Jacob, she stood there like a statue and blinked several times.
The air around him vibrated with energy. Through a soft smile he said, “I came by to tell you I’m excited about tomorrow.” He took her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. “I think it’s going to be the beginning of something special.” The floor under Julia’s feet must have moved because her head was light and the air going into her lungs seemed thinner.
Jacob pulled Julia into a hug, and her heart turned to clay that was ready to be molded by love.
I end this story wishing you and yours a Happy Thanksgiving ❤️🦃🥧