Short Fiction: The Worst Gift

The Worst Gift
By: Erin Snyder

Edwin Thorester had given up on ever finding the best gift, or even a good gift, for that matter, long before he stepped into the For Corners Gift Emporium.  The fact of the matter was simply that a “good gift” was an adult equivalent to Saint Nicholas; namely, that it existed in the heart, that many believed in its power, but no matter how much you were willing to delude yourself, it simply wasn't real.

The problem, as he saw it, was that the alternative was a gift that was not memorable.  This was the one ideal he couldn’t bear to abandon.  He’d already purchased a dozen potential gifts.  A potential gift, as defined by Edwin Thorester, was similar to an actual gift, save that rather than being given, it resided in a state of rest.  More specifically, his potential gifts were resting in a large, cardboard box labeled, “X-Mas Decorations.”  One day, he swore, he would replace that box with a newer, better one, and label it “Christmas Gifts in Waiting,” and that the poetry of the thing would compel him to give out as many or more potential gifts each year as the number he took in, a feat he’d never once achieved in the five years since he’d conjured the theory and begun his collection.

The larger issue he now faced related to the potential recipient, Elena Jones, the Northeast Regional Manager of Distribution for Klipsin Inc., the subsidiary Edwin worked for.  What, specifically, Klipsin was a subsidiary of was a point of some contention.  Its current owner, Liir System International, which had itself purchased Klipsin not four months prior from Irksi Syrus Enterprises for slightly less than two hundred million dollars, was negotiating to sell the subsidiary to any one of three possible buyers (one of which being the aforementioned Irksi Syrus Enterprises, which, having realigned their corporate structure and rewritten both their mission statement and goals, had reassessed and reconsidered the subsidiary and was now interested in reacquiring it).

But none of that was of any importance to Edwin, who would have felt equally obsessed and anxious purchasing a gift for Elena whether she was the NRMD for a subsidiary of Irksi Syrus Enterprises, a secretary for Liir SI, the reigning dictator of a European nation state, or a line-cook at McDonalds.

For you see, Edwin Thorester deeply loved Elena Jones, which is of itself a point of very little significance, as at any given time no fewer than fifteen men and two women were in love with Ms. Jones, not including the dashing, charming, and brilliant Mr. Jones, who no one could deny had won her hand fair and square.

Elena, it should be noted, feared and despised the Christmas season and had her entire life.  A holiday whose only purpose seemed to be the opening of the floodgates for gifts from admirers she had no interest in collecting and whose affections brought her only grief and guilt, as though she were in some way responsible for their affliction.  She'd made her thoughts on the subject crystal clear, even going so far as to order custom “thank you” notes with her philosophical musings on the subject explained in some detail.

Every year, after leaving his present on her desk (or beside it, when the existing pile already occupied every inch), Edwin would wait patiently for the thank you card to appear.  These were the only things from Elena he'd ever received, other than a pen she'd given him on his first day, and he kept them in a sealed plastic bag which was, in turn, kept in a fireproof safe in his basement.  The pen he kept on his person at all times, a favor from his lady.  Well, from Mr. Jones's lady, but from a lady nonetheless.

Like any cold war, the search for a perfect gift for Elena had escalated dramatically over the years.  Three years earlier, Jonathon Karter, a receptionist from billing, had spent two weeks' pay to purchase Elena a diamond necklace.  She pawned the necklace at her first opportunity and donated every penny to charity.  For overstepping his bounds, Jonathon wasn't given so much as a “thank you” note, nor did she ever mention it in passing.  She withheld even the scolding he desired, for what could be better than her attention and emotional reaction?

The event had soured the annual competition for the rest of them.  No longer could they outdo each other through expense; now they had no choice but to seek out something thoughtful, something memorable, a gift that would embed itself in memory and withstand the ebb of time.

While the For Corners Gift Emporium had already provided several additions to Edwin's box of potential gifts, including (but not limited to) one mug advertising a Broadway show which had already closed, a die-cast replica of a New York City Cab complete with a miniature driver sticking his finger out the window, two T-shirts (one bearing the slogan “I [apple] New [heart],” the other with the image of Marilyn Monroe), and no less than three bobble head dolls – any of which might serve as gifts for superficial acquaintances – he was no nearer to finding a present suiting Elena.  The die-cast cab came closest, but even this was too trivial for unrequited love.

However, after determining that none of the snow globes were worth his time, a miraculous event occurred.  It happened in the bobble-head aisle, and it happened because Edwin had discovered a paint smudge on the bobbing nose of the Hillary Clinton doll he'd selected.  This could not stand, so he headed back to swap it out for a one without such an imperfection.  The dolls weren't in any kind of order, though, so he found himself pulling specimens off the shelf and setting them on the floor as he tried to find what he was looking for.  He came across three other Hillary Clinton bobble-heads, but they all contained the same paint error, and he began to suspect the store had procured a box of irregulars at a discount.

But Edwin wasn't one to give up, so he kept digging deeper, until his hand grasped something in the back.  Even before pulling it out, he could tell this wasn't a bobble-head.  When he got it free he nearly dropped it in disgust.  Even though he nearly lost his grip, the object, being slightly sticky, did not.  Edwin set on the floor, surrounded by the cult of bobble-heads.  He stared at it in awe and shock.

It was gaudy.  Gaudier than anything Edwin had seen in his entire life.  He'd never thought of gaudiness as a quantifiable metric before that moment, but he could see that it was gaudier than the entire remaining contents of the For Corners Gift Emporium combined.

But it wasn't just gaudy.  It was also chintzy, in that way only the cheapest trinkets are.  It radiated chintziness: the bobble-head dolls nearest seemed chintzier by far than those further away.

It even smelled funny.  A faint but detectable odor of imitation pine and cinnamon wafted off of its plastic sides and into the air.  It met Edwin's nose like caustic gas – it seemed like an imitation of an imitation, bearing no resemblance to the original at all.

It had lights and made noise.  It performed no useful purpose, nor filled any niche or need.  And yet, it reflected Christmas in its entirety.  It was the holiday, as captured in some funhouse mirror, bent and skewed almost – but not quite – beyond recognition.

It was, without a doubt, the worst gift anyone could ever give or receive.

And that made it memorable.  More memorable than a hundred diamond necklaces or Tiffany vases or cashmere sweaters.  More noticeable than a four-foot tall lit artificial Christmas tree.

He paused for a moment, trying to imagine Elena's reaction.  She would hate it.  She would hate him for getting it for her.  But then she would think of him.  She would bring him into her thoughts, hold him in her mind, if only to spite him.  Was it worth it?

He looked down at the cult of bobble-heads before him, and everyone of them nodded in agreement.

He wrapped the gift in one of the T-shirts he'd picked out so he wouldn't have to touch it again, then hurried to the register.  The clerk cocked an eyebrow as Edwin unrolled the shirt to reveal his find.

The clerk gasped.  “Did you want to buy this?” he asked, after staring for almost a minute in silence.

“Yes,” Edwin said without hesitation.

The clerk swallowed and slowly nodded his head.  “It's been here longer than I have,” he said.  “No one ever asked about it before.  Ever.”

He reached for it, but paused before touching it, investing a moment to find the least offensive way to touch it.  Finally, using his thumb and index finger and holding it at arm's length, he raised it to the scanner, which spit out a shrill screech.  The words “item not found” appeared on the register.

The clerk set the item down at once.  “I'll need to get the owner,” he said, after some consideration.  Edwin nodded, and the clerk headed into the back room, glancing back over his shoulder as though he expected Edwin to be gone.

The clerk was only gone a few seconds before reemerging with the owner, an overweight, elderly man, who walked with a limp.  He made his way to the register and looked down at the items Edwin had chosen.  “You're here to buy it,” he said.

“Yup,” Edwin replied.

“For a gift, right?” he asked, watching Edwin's face for any sign that he might be lying.

“Yup,” Edwin said again.

The old man drew a deep breath.  “I... can't just give it to you for free,” he said, sounding like he wanted to, more than anything, but some force or geas prevented him.  He thought for a moment.  “Nine ninety-nine,” he said at length.  “Yes.  It's nine dollars, ninety-nine cents.”  He stopped breathing for an instant while he waited.

“Okay,” Edwin said shrugging.  The clerk worked the register to add the other items, and the entire purchase came to fifty-four, eighty-nine (the T-shirts were two for ten dollars, and the cab was half-off; everything else was full price).

Edwin paid with three twenties, and the clerk bagged his purchases, saving the worst gift in all the world for last.  He opened a plastic bag and lowered it around the object so he wouldn't have to touch it again, then he handed it to Edwin.  His body was tense until Edwin took it, and he relaxed the instant his burden was gone.

“Thank you,” the clerk said, handing over the receipt.  “You can bring anything back within seven days with receipt for returns or exchanges.”  It was a mantra, spoken quickly and without meaning.

The owner butt in.  “Anything except....”  He didn't finish his sentence, nor did he point or lower his gaze from Edwin's eyes, but it made no difference.  The meaning was clear.

Carrying his bags, Edwin hurried out and headed to the subway.  The platform and train were crowded, but no one came near Edwin or his bags.

When he reached his apartment, he emptied his other objects into his box of potential gifts, with the exception of the T-shirt he'd used to carry it in the store – that, he threw away.  Then, laying out a newspaper on his floor, he tipped the last bag over, using it like glove to set down the worst gift.  The plastic of the bag peeled away with the sound of tape coming off a roll.  It was as though the gift didn't want to let go.

In some ways, it didn't seem as awful anymore, and Edwin wondered if perhaps he'd been swindled.  But the longer he stared at the gift, the worse it seemed.  After the first five minutes, he felt himself grow dizzy, and he almost fell.  After that, he brought a chair, so that he could sit and look at it.

It was as though the gift looked back.

Then, at last, he went to his closet and emerged with a roll of wrapping paper printed with green holly leaves.  Wrapping the gift was an endeavor.  The paper kept tearing and sticking to the present, but after four layers he managed to get it on.  The package still bore its shape, but nothing else - not even the smell – came through.  Whatever power the gift had, it was suppressed by the paper.  Finally, Edwin found a label and wrote, “To Elena, From Edwin, may you never forget me,” and he stuck it on.

He brought it with him to work the next day, but did not give it to Elena.  He could not have said why he hesitated or what he was frightened of – after all, the worst case scenarios were the best outcomes he could hope for – but, whatever the reason, he found himself hiding it in his own desk drawer for the better part of a week, all the while tokens from other admirers appeared and disappeared from the area around Elena's chair.

Finally, on the day before Christmas Eve, he came in a half hour early, took it to Elena's desk, and returned to his own.  Immediately, he ran back to her desk, made sure no one was looking, and stole it back.  This repeated six times in as many minutes, until the woman who sat next to Elena came in and turned on her computer.  For better or worse, and perhaps by the whim of fate, she'd entered while the gift rested in front of Elena's computer, and there it remained until Elena arrived herself and brushed it, along with four others which had been left late the previous day, into the large canvas bag she took to the office for just this purpose every day for two weeks before and one after Christmas.

She didn't open the gift until she got home, when her husband asked what she'd been given.  “They sure love Christmas at Klipsin,” he said, as though everyone received as many presents as she did.  He knew better of course, but he did his best to help her feel normal.  She shrugged, and pulled the paper off the first of her presents, an ornament of an angel riding a muskrat, an animal she'd once made the mistake of jokingly remarking was her favorite.  Her husband looked it over, made a note of who'd given it to her, then dropped it into one of the muskrat boxes.

Next was a set of simple holiday glasses, which her husband convinced her were decent enough to go in the kitchen and see use.  She silently resolved, then and there, never to let the giver, Fredrick Ulrich, know he given her something of use, as she was unsure how he'd react.

“Here's a weird one,” her husband chuckled, holding out a peculiarly shaped gift.  “Says it's from... Edwin.  He the one who got you the framed picture of the wolves last year?”

Elena shrugged.  She seldom kept track of such things.  She pulled at the paper and found it fighting her, as if glued down.  In the end, she wound up peeling it off like an orange, to reveal the thing within, which she quickly set down, pushing it away from her.  Neither she nor her husband said a word.  They simply sat there, staring at it.  The other gifts, both those she'd opened and those she hadn't, were entirely forgotten.

“I don't... I don't get it,” her husband said in the barest of whispers.

She didn't react or speak.  She just sat completely still, hardly blinking, until her husband covered it with extra wrapping paper and convinced her to go to bed.  The second she'd left the room, he threw it in the trash and dragged it to the curb.  As far as either of them were concerned, that should have been the end of it.

Four days passed before Elena had to be back at work.  When she returned, she discovered that Edwin was wisely keeping his distance, never approaching or even daring to look at her.  She resolved not to send him a “thank you” card, even as she realized that she'd forgotten to write any such cards up, despite the fact she'd always given those out right after the holiday.

When she returned home that evening, she noticed the trash was piling up at the curb.  She asked her husband about this, and he replied that the garbage men had forgotten to pick it up that morning, but that they'd certainly remember on Tuesday.

Of course, they didn't remember on Tuesday, and her husband swore he'd call their councilman to complain.  She stopped him and looked him in the eye.  “Would you have taken it?” she asked.  When he looked away, she nodded.  “I have a favor,” she said, immediately regretting her words.  Her husband would never refuse doing her a favor, and she'd wanted him to do this of his own freewill or not at all.  “Would you go to the curb and recover Edwin's gift for me?  I've decided....”  She'd meant to say she'd decided she wanted it or something of the sort, but she couldn't force the words past her lips.  Instead, she said, “I'll go, if you won't, but we can't leave it there.”

He nodded, knowing full well she was right.  When he reached the curb and removed the lid, he found that the garbage bag was torn open and the gift was poking through.  This didn't surprise him in the least, nor did he wonder how this had happened.  He was wearing work gloves when he picked it up, having resolved to never touch it again.  Briefly, he considered driving to the river and throwing it in, but he became convinced that, should he do so, it would somehow kill every fish on the Eastern seaboard.

Besides, Elena hadn't asked him to do this; she'd asked him to bring it to her, so he did so.  He almost stopped by the bathroom to clean it, but in the end he decided the trash had made it somehow less repulsive and presented it as is.  With her permission, he locked it in the shed before they both went to bed.

Neither of them slept a wink that night.  They merely laid in bed staring at the ceiling.

Elena went to work the next day and spent most of her time glowering at Edwin, who seemed both horrified and gratified by her reaction.  She told this to her husband in passing that evening, while they both watched the shed door through an open window, as if at any moment it would explode open.

He simply nodded when he told her this, then he went to their bedroom to recover her address book, stopped by the closet to recover his hunting rifle, and, without a word, walked to his truck.  Elena cried while she watched him go, but she couldn't bring herself to stop him.  As soon as he'd driven off, she shook off the reverie which held her and grabbed her phone.  She pressed the key marked nine and even got as far as the first one before she stopped.  By this time, she'd looked up at the closed shed door, and it seemed to hold her.  She didn't set down the phone, nor did she complete her call.  She merely remained where she was, unaware that time was passing or anything might be happening.

Meanwhile, her husband had located the address of Edwin's apartment in Brooklyn in Elena's considerably large index.  It was late at night, and there was no traffic on the road: he made the drive in less than twenty minutes.  He got out, rifle in hand, and marched to the door, well aware that someone behind him was already backing away and calling the police.

He buzzed Edwin's apartment and heard a hopeful voice say, “Hello?”

“It's Cory,” he said.  “Sorry.  I'm Elena's husband.”

“Oh,” the voice said through the intercom, sounding disappointed.  A second later, the door buzzed loudly, and the lock disengaged.  Elena's husband strolled up the stairs to Edwin's apartment and found the door unlocked.

Edwin was sitting in the center of the room.  He looked at the rifle and nodded.  He stood slowly and only said, “I'd hoped... I hoped she'd come herself.”

“I'm sorry,” Elena's husband said, not because of what he was about to do, but because she hadn't.  He shut the door behind him.  Then he shot Edwin in the chest and waited to make sure he was dead.  He walked to the kitchen next and used the wash cloth to clean his prints from the gun.  Then, deciding that was stupid, he grabbed the rifle to make sure his prints were back on it, and he used Edwin's phone to call the police.  He knew they were already on the way, but he wanted to make sure they went to the right apartment and didn't disturb anyone in the building more than they'd already been disturbed.  His constant concern for others was one of the qualities that had convinced Elena to marry him.

The police came and arrested Elena's husband with very little fanfare.  In the end, he was so helpful, polite, and direct, they forgot to handcuff him when they drove him to the station, where he explained, in some detail, why he'd killed Edwin Thorester, a man he'd never previously met.  His story baffled them, of course, as they'd never seen the gift in the question, and moreover hadn't met his wife.

His court-appointed lawyer, a man by name of Ulther Wilkins, wound up recovering the artifact from the shed.  He drove it to the courthouse himself and introduced it as evidence during the trial.  That, along with testimony from Elena, moved the jury to return a verdict of not guilty, which surprised neither the judge nor prosecuting attorney.

It should be added that Uther paid a heavy price for this victory, as he felt obliged to get rid of his car afterward, and was never able to find a buyer who'd pay anywhere near its full value (though no one could point to any flaw or reason for this).  The Joneses didn't escape unharmed, either, as the court required them to retake ownership of their property.

Elena made the decision to display the gift on their mantle, and there it would stay.  Though it continued to cause the couple grief, the gift did find some rest in its new home, and it haunted them significantly less than when they'd tucked it out of view.  In their will, they decided the gift should remain in their house, and that the house should go to whoever among their friends or family might claim it.  However, as they're still alive, there's no telling who – if anyone – might take that offer.

As for Edwin's funeral, he'd never had much in the way of friends, and he came from a small and distant family.  His father was too sick to leave Charlotte, and his brother was unable or unwilling to pull himself away from work to attend.  But the event was not without mourners: the seventeen men and women who shared his infatuation, along with dozens of others who had at one point, went in their stead, and every one of them was jealous of Edwin, who would stay in Elena's thoughts until the day she died.

None of Elena's admirers ever bought her a gift again, not out of a sense of propriety or fear, but rather because they knew it had always been a competition.  And none could doubt that, at long last, the contest had found its winner.