His stupid car had broken down at work again, forcing him to undertake a twelve-block trek to get back to his house. There were only two blocks to go, but the snow attacking his face at seventy kilometres an hour had gotten unbearable.
Then he saw the parking lot filled with cars and people trickling into the community hall.
Probably some old Southern Gospel Christmas concert going on, he thought, but his desperation drove him inside anyway, if only for a few minutes to thaw a bit and catch his breath.
As he stumbled into the lobby, a tall man with a large belly and glasses passed him on his way out the door and said, "Evening, sir".
He nodded acknowledgement at the large man as he left, then turned and slowly climbed the stairs. That guy had seemed a little young for a gospel concert, he thought, but hey, different strokes for different folks...
He peeked in around the door.
The smell of hot turkey and stuffing washed over him. Laughing and talking swirled around him. A couple of kids darted past him with hardly a glance.
This was no gospel bluegrass/country concert. To be sure, he scanned the room, but there were no instruments, no old guys in tuxedos, not even a microphone on the little platform in the corner.
He took a step inside.
It looked like a family here. The more he looked around, the more he began to think so... except that no family could be this large. There had to be at least a hundred people here.
But there was no doubt that these people knew each other, he could feel it. Perhaps it was all the smiles. They all seemed so comfortable here. He'd been to office Christmas parties before, the kind where you know all the people, yet you tread so carefully to keep up the appearance you've spent years cultivating.
There was none of that stiffness here.
Their obvious familiarity awakened a little pang in him. His family, before the trial, had been all of five people. Since then they had split five ways.
He saw a cooler at the other end of the hall and suddenly realised he was thirsty. After a moment's hesitation, he straightened his shoulders and began to stroll across the room as if he belonged.
In the back of his mind he knew there was no possible way he could make it across, get his drink, and get back without somebody calling him out -- not if they were all this familiar with each other. Any moment now, someone would say 'Hey, what are you doing here?'... 'who are you, how dare you interrupt our private party, who cares how cold it is outside?'...
It came as a rather disproportionate surprise when he arrived at the jug without being questioned.
He glanced around as casually as he could to see that no one was sending disapproving glares his way, then pulled one of the disposable cups off the stack, stuck it under the hole, and pressed the button.
A sort of orange punch came out that he couldn't immediately identify. No matter... it was wet and his throat wasn't. He took a swig.
To call it liquid sugar would have been an understatement. It was like pure maple syrup straight from the tree with chemical colour and even more sugar added. The force of the sweetness nearly knocked him back a step, but he took a breath to reorient himself and drained the rest in three consecutive swallows.
Then he turned and saw the table.
A huge table of food, rich and hot -- some of it still steaming in fact. The stragglers were just finishing filling their plates.
His stomach gurgled. He hadn't eaten since eleven that morning and it was nearly six o'clock. His eyes caressed the bounty before him.
Steaming turkey slices, bowls of cranberry sauce, piles of sliced bread at the end of the table, a rolling landscape of stuffing spread between several glass bowls, a vat of mashed potatoes...
Would it be stealing to take a little -- just to energise himself before venturing out again? After all, what was dinner at his house?
Kraft dinner, most likely. Eaten in front of the computer while playing Facebook Tetris... again.
Turkey and potatoes sounded a whole lot better than mac and cheese for the thousandth time.
He hadn't seen any indication that there was a fee for dinner, but he pulled a twenty out of his wallet and slipped it through the serving window into the jar on the kitchen counter labeled 'Help us keep up our family account.'
Then he got himself a paper plate from the stack and gave himself small helpings of all the salads and cooked vegetables and turkey and potatoes... it all looked and smelled so good.
No one seemed to notice him filling his plate and no one seemed to notice when he went over to an inconspicuous corner and sat down with it.
So he began to eat. And to observe.
It had been a long time since he'd eaten around other people, never mind a crowd like this. It was kind of interesting to look around and watch them all -- the starry-eyed couple leaning against the wall by the dessert table talking as the young man stealthily slipped cookies off the plate at the edge of the table into his mouth; two grey-haired men, three younger men, and a middle-aged woman playing some kind of game with pool cues and what appeared to be wooden checkers; a kid playing a Game Boy beside a severely overweight man in a torn red t-shirt who was talking to an old wrinkled bald man in a suit; six young people playing what appeared to be a ridiculously fast-paced card game; two boys by the juice jug he'd just left having an animated conversation about what must have been weapons based on the nature of their actions; dozens and dozens of other people all seemingly enjoying each other's company.
Part of him felt acutely alone, but part of him smiled. Just being a part of a happy family put a warm feeling in his chest, even though nobody seemed to see him here.
And that was just as well. He didn't want to intrude. He'd just finish his turkey and leave.
And what good turkey it was too. Cooked to perfection, splitting perfectly as his plastic fork touched it and the gravy... oh, the gravy was heavenly. Like butter. Its warmth mixed perfectly with the cranberry sauce as they slipped down his throat hand-in-hand. And then there were the crisp Caesar salads and the smooth mashed potatoes and the tender mixed vegetables and the most delicious slightly seasoned stuffing... whoever was the mastermind behind all this should get their own cooking show.
He picked at the loaded plate for nearly twenty minutes, trying to stave off the inevitable return out into the blizzard. It was so warm and 'friendly' in here. Sure his house would be warm, but the loneliness where there once had been love and laughter was so haunting...
Usually he pushed those memories out of his mind, but now, surrounded by loving people, he wondered if he should. There had been good times... why was he trying to erase them from his mind and focus instead on the emptiness?
He pushed the memories aside again, but promised himself he would revisit them when he returned to his house that night.
He looked down at his plate. Only a few bites of stuffing remained.
He sighed. Well, all good things have to come to an end...
He poked one of the smaller lumps with the fork and brought it to his mouth. Then the next. Then the next.
Two minutes later, only the smallest crumbs remained on the plate. He was full of food, but still lacked the desire to go back out into the blizzard.
Ah well. He'd already intruded more than he should have.
He stood up and scanned the hall, looking for a trash can. As luck would have it, there was one only a few steps away rather than across the hall and past all the people again.
He dropped his paper plate and utensils into it, then began to button up his coat.
As he did he heard something -- a weak voice, almost plaintive, as if calling for something.
He glanced over his shoulder.
An old, old woman in a wheelchair sat at the opposite end of the table he'd just dined at. She had to be ninety-five, likely nearer a hundred. Her face was puffy and sagging, with age spots and wrinkles -- the sort of creases that result from decades of smiling. A plate sat in front of her, and another, half-finished, at the empty seat beside her. No cups at either setting.
The old woman was looking directly at him. She beckoned.
"Come here," she said.
He blinked. She certainly didn't look like the sort who would give him what-for for eating some of the food... and even if she did, she was obviously much too old and weak to get out of the wheelchair.
What did he have to lose? He took a few hesitant steps closer.
The old woman smiled and beckoned again. He continued and finally stood beside her.
"You're going to leave without a hug?" she said. There was a happy sort of 'twinkle' in her voice.
He had no answer.
She held out her arms. He shrugged, knelt down, and accepted the hug.
"How are you?" she asked.
"You're not really, are you?" she asked.
He blinked again. Was this woman psychic?
She continued without waiting for his answer.
"Ah well. I will talk to the Lord for you." She patted his hand.
"Merry Christmas," she said.
"Yeah... to you too." He stood; hesitated.
"Thanks," he finally said.
He turned and left.
"Mum? ...Who was that?"
The old woman smiled as her daughter placed a cup of juice in front of her.
"I don't know," she said. "But I think he needed a hug."
In memory of my great-grandmother, who passed away August 2011 at the age of 102. As far as I'm aware this story is fictional, but I think she would have given a hug to a stranger off the street.