“What? Oh, I’m sorry! I must have been… day dreaming,” Diane said quickly, avoiding eye contact with the person towering over her. Christopher, her coworker at the marketing research company she worked for just smiled and pushed a red ceramic bowl closer to her face.
“Here pick one,” he said with an unbridled excitement that was not unattractive, to say the least.
“Oh… um what is it?” Diane said, peering over the lip of the bowl into a pool of tiny folded papers.
“Secret Santa. It’s on Friday. Gary finally approved it,” he said, grinning.
“Oh, sure, sorry. Thanks,” she said. Diane had been very much in love with him since they first started working together three years prior and had probably had the courage to talk to him about three times in total.
“Is it Friday yet,” he said and grimaced with mock agony. Diane felt one side of her mouth twitch upward in what was as close to a smile as she could muster and then scooted her chair closer to her desk as Christopher walked over to the next cubicle.
Diane was a thin, small woman, mostly due to her bad posture. She had shoulder-length light-brown hair and large dark eyes that always looked a bit frightened. She had high cheek-bones and somewhat thin lips that were always pressed tightly together. She was probably almost pretty at one time, but something had pressed the life out of her and left her looking hollow and perpetually tired even though she was only thirty-five.
Her eyes darted around the room to make sure no one was looking at her. Once she was sure of her privacy, she looked down at her hands in her lap and carefully unfolded the paper. Scrawled in the center was the name:
“Christopher,” she whispered, and then clapped her hand over her mouth. She quickly stood up to look over the wall of her cubicle to see if anyone had seen her. She was in luck. No one was staring at her, wondering about her, wondering why she had said his name out loud like that.
She sank back down into her chair and stared at her computer. Finally, after some time spent deep in thought, she began searching for ‘secret santa gifts,’ and good men’s gifts’, and just for good measure; ‘what do people buy each other for Christmas.’
As soon as five o’clock hit, Diane gathered her things and hustled out of the building. She began walking up and down Walnut Street looking in the store windows at the hustle and bustle of people buying last minute gifts. She took her time watching one man in particular. He was well-dressed, and tall like Christopher. He was shopping at a high-end men’s clothing store, looking at ties. She walked into the store, and pretended to browse through the glove selection near him.
She looked at the shoes he was wearing and guessed that they were probably size 10’s. She looked at the tie he was holding up to his neck and wondered if Christopher would like it. She found herself staring at the back of his neck, and at the little point that his hair came to there. She found it mesmerizing and imagined what kind of cologne he wore. She wondered if he smelled like Christopher did, like soap with a hint of burnt wood, maybe charcoal. She loved the way he smelled. The man turned around and gave her a strange look.
“Are you OK?” He said, looking her up and down.
“Oh, yes, yep. Sorry, just thought you were… someone else. Thanks.” she muttered as she ran out of the store.
Diane, now in the safety of her own home, struggled out of her winter garments and let them fall to the floor. She trudged over to her old comfortable couch and dropped down on her back to look up at the ceiling.
“Christopher. Chris-to-pher. Chris. Chris. It’s a good name,” she said to no one.
Her apartment was a one bed-room with minimal furniture but filled with lots of plants. They all had names and personalities, so she’d say. It was a clean apartment but the building was very old and there were cracks and stains and missing pieces that no one seemed to be able to repair, or didn’t care to.
Diane turned on the television and flipped through channel after channel until she went numb and fell asleep.
The next day at work, Diane spent the entire morning searching for gifts online. She was beginning to panic. She had two days left to find something perfect for Christopher. She couldn't find anything that would be good enough, nothing that expressed what she felt for him in just the right way.
She brought lunch that day and settled into a table at the back of the breakroom. Her back was to the door so she didn't see Christopher come in with his own bagged lunch. She probably would have jumped right out of her seat if she had known they were alone in a room together, especially with him and the gift so fresh in her mind.
"Hey there! Mind if I join you?" Christopher was beaming down at her with his brown paper bag held up like a peace offering.
"Oh! Oh. Why not, sure. Yeah, sit. Right," She fumbled to pull her lunch bag closer to her as if to make room for him at the large empty table. He smiled and sat down across from her.
"So are you ready for the holidays? Get all your shopping done?" he said. He unwrapped his lunch with quick, delicate fingers. She stared down at his neatly wrapped turkey and cheese sandwich and small bowl of fruit in a little yellow Tupperware bowl. He opened the lid and speared a piece of pineapple with his plastic fork. He popped it into his mouth and closed his eyes to relish the taste. She realized she had been staring at him during this whole process.
"Would you like a piece?" he said, realizing she was watching the fruit with interest.
"Oh! No. No thank you. I'm… full." She folded the rest of her sad looking peanut butter and jelly sandwich into her napkin and put it back in the plastic grocery bag she had brought it in. She was about to get up and scurry back to her desk, when she was seized with a vision of Christopher, opening a present from her, his eyes welling up with tears at the utter thoughtfulness of such a gift and reaching toward her with his strong arms and hugging her close and whispering quietly in her ear:
"Thank you," he said looking at her concernedly from across the table.
"What, what. Sorry. I mean, you're welcome. For what?" she stammered as she came back down to reality.
"Thanks for letting me sit here. I hate eating in my cubicle. It just makes this place that much more depressing. He smiled and it lit up the room with such warmth that she was moved to speak.
"Yes, me too. I… I haven't done all of my shopping yet. For Christmas I mean. I am pretty bad at giving… well and receiving gifts. I'm never sure what to get anyone. That is, I don't know what is appropriate to get people. Um… what is it that people want?" She laughed nervously after asking the last question.
"Oh really? I love giving gifts! It's really easy if you don't over-think it. Ok here's my advice, whoever you're buying a gift for, try to figure out what their interests are. Some people like fishing or reading or maybe even collecting things and you can find something to do with that, not even something expensive necessarily and they'll love it. It will seem personal and thoughtful."
"Yes. Thoughtful. That's what I'm looking for," she said with a rising level of intensity.
"Like for me, I like basketball, and I like movies, but that’s all pretty ordinary. What I’m really interested in and… this is going to sound really corny…. but I’m really into my old coin collection. My Dad started collecting them when he was a kid and when he passed away I inherited all of his coins. I couldn’t bear to sell them so I kept them and did some research and then started searching for more. Now I’m hooked! It makes me feel kind of connected to him. We had somewhat of a strained relationship, so it’s nice to have a common interest to remember him by.
“That’s nice,” she said, trying to contain a growing smile.
"I actually almost have a full set of one of his collections. It’s a silver dollar set and I’m just missing one last coin. They’re usually pretty easy to find, but I haven’t been putting much time into it lately. Working too much I guess,” he laughed and shrugged.
Diane was leaning slightly forward in her seat now, sure that she had found her answer. ‘A coin!’ she thought. Relief and excitement washed over her. She could see how his eyes lit up just talking about it.
“What..um… what makes the coin so special?” she asked eagerly.
“Well, they aren’t crazy expensive or anything, but I’m missing the 1986 coin and it has Adolph Weinman's Walking Liberty design on the front. It’s silly, but I want to have the complete set,” he said.
“That’s… very interesting,” she muttered and got up to leave. “I have to get back to work now… thank you.”
“Um… you're welcome,” he chuckled.
After work, Diane ran back to her apartment and went straight for the computer. She started searching for places to buy rare coins but the prices were outrageous. She started to think it was just going to be too expensive and too late to have one shipped. She tried a different spelling of the artist’s name and it came up. The first link was Craigslist. She paused before clicking the link. She assumed almost everything on Craigslist was a scam, but she was running out of time and maybe, just maybe, they could get her that coin in time.
The page came up and she saw that it was indeed the coin he had described. The heading read:
Great Price, Good Condition: Rare Coin
The woman said that she was selling it for $50. This seemed very low for the coin, but also very high for a Secret Santa gift. The woman, Karen also said she lived just outside of the city and that the coin could be picked up at any time.
Diane messaged her, hoping she would get back to her by tomorrow so that she could have it in time for the Christmas party the next day.
The next morning, Diane had a new email from Karen.
Yes, I still have the coin and you are welcome to come pick it up at any time tonight after 5pm.
I’ll be home by work then and I can show you the coin and hopefully wrap it up for you!
The address is 241 Cromwell Street
Feel free to ring the bell.
Thanks for reaching out,
Diane jumped up and down with joy! She was going to get that goddamn coin and give it to Christopher in private and maybe even tell him how she feels, no definitely! Definitely tell him how she feels about him.
She raced out of the office at 4:55 and got in her car. She drove out of the madness of the city into the suburban, tree filled road just outside of town. She turned down Cromwell street and slowed down to look at the beautiful old houses that lined the street. They all had yards and swings and they got bigger and more spread out the farther she went. Finally at the end of the street, she arrived at Karen’s address. It was a colonial style house with a huge weeping willow out front.
She parked her car out front and got out. The windows of the house were all dark and she was farther from the last house than she realized. It was isolated there and she felt stupid for coming alone. She got her pepper spray readied in her hand just in case and approached the front door. The door was slightly ajar.
“Hello?” she said tentatively to the quiet house.
She rang the bell and waited. It was utterly silent. She rang again and waited. She peeked into one of the front windows and saw a small living room with a fireplace. Beyond that, there was a dining room table and an open archway leading into another room from there. She saw there was a light on in that next room.
She wanted to turn and leave. Everything in her was telling her that she should leave. For one thing, she didn’t want this woman to see her peering into her house and for another, it was getting dark and she was getting scared to be there alone.
She turned to leave and stopped. She looked at her beat up Honda and imagined going back to her shit apartment and eating leftovers. She imagined growing old there, and dying amongst her expressionless plants. The thought of showing up empty handed to the Secret Santa party after hearing Christopher talk so passionately about his father’s coins made her stomach churn.
Suddenly she was mad. She was mad at what she had let her life become. She was mad that she didn’t have the strength to go for what she wanted; a better job, the man of her dreams, and real friendships, real connections with other people.
She turned around and opened the door and stepped in. Something had kicked in. She was determined. The house smelled old, but not unpleasant. There was the faint and comforting smell of burning wood, presumably from the old fireplace in the living room.
“Hello? Karen? Are you home? It’s Diane. From Craigslist?” No answer.
She walked further into the living room and approached the fireplace. There were framed pictures there. One was an old family photo. There was a husband, wife and young son, probably about ten years old. The parents looked severe. She wondered if this was Karen and her husband and their son. The boy had dazzling blue eyes like Christopher, but they looked much bigger than his, much too wide. She wondered what he had looked like as a boy, as a teenager, and smiled to herself.
“Hello?” she called again. She walked towards the dining room and saw a velvet box on the table. She looked nervously around, and still saw no one. She opened the box and inside was a full silver dollar coin collection. She took one out of its designated indentation and looked at it. She wondered why they wanted to sell just the one coin from this set. Maybe they just really needed the money.
Footsteps suddenly sounded from the upstairs hallway. Diane dropped the coin and whipped around to look at the staircase.
“H-hello? Karen? It’s Diane. I let myself in. I’m sorry to barge in like this.” No answer.
The footsteps stopped and Diane just stood there, eyes wide and heart racing. The footsteps descended the stairs and finally she could see a woman’s hand sliding down the wooden railing as she walked down. Finally, the woman’s full body was visible and she stopped at the bottom of the staircase beaming at Diane. She was a startlingly thin woman with wild blonde hair and eyes that were too wide and a smile that seemed stretched and painful on her face.
The woman walked towards her and Diane, frozen, just watched her approach. She was afraid to make any sudden movements. There was something almost animalistic about the woman. When she got close enough, she shook Diane’s hand and held it to her heart for a moment.
“You’re here,” she purred.
Diane pulled her hand back and started to back away. “Wha-what’s wrong with you? Are you Karen?”
“Yes, I’m Karen. I see you’ve already gotten a look at the coin, Diane.
Diane started backing away from her and hit something large behind her. She turned and saw that it was the chest of a tall man. He was wearing a long, brown mask with two thin slits for the eyes and two for the nose but no mouth. He had a long black robe on. She screamed, but he grabbed her and turned her around, pinning her arms to her sides. Karen walked over and put tape over her mouth and then kissed her forehead.
Together, they pulled her through the kitchen and opened a small door that led to the basement. They dragged her down. The man holding her top half, and Karen holding her legs. Diane was kicking and struggling as much as she could but they were very strong and she could hardly breathe as the man clutched and twisted her body down the steps.
The basement was dark and she couldn’t see anything as the man pushed her to the ground. He made her kneel as another man emerged from a dark corner. He lit a candle and she could see that he was the same height as the first man and had the same hard, wooden mask. His had two horns and a star on the forehead.
He reached his hand up above his head and he was holding a large rock and brought it down on Diane’s head. She drooped in the first man’s arms.
Diane awoke lying down on her back. Her legs and arms were tied down with rope and she was looking up at a ceiling red with some strange design. There was one giant star in a circle, drawn in red directly above her. All around it swirled drawings of horns and crosses and eyes and other things she couldn’t make out. Some of the red was so dark it looked black. Candles were glowing all around her now and she could taste blood in her mouth.
There was an altar to her left and it had red and black candles surrounding a bowl and above it was a large painting of a man in a black robe with stern dark eyes and a sickening smirk. He was holding his hand up with the pointer and middle finger raised and the palm facing out. The other hand held a skull resting in his lap. It was the same man from the family portrait upstairs.
Her wide, terrified eyes rolled back to her feet and she saw the second man, the leader, or so he seemed, crouching there, looking at her through his mask. She could feel blood seeping down her forehead towards her nose.
The man stood and walked over her. Each foot stood on either side of her waist and he looked down at her breathing heavily. She could make out the other two; Karen and the first masked man standing against the wall on either side of her. They were making strange moaning sounds and swaying back and forth.
The leader began a prayer:
domine deus meus in te speravi conlitebor
tibi domine in toto corde meo quem ad modum
desiderat cervus ad fantes aquarum. Ouver!
Chameron! Aliseon! Mandousin! Premy! Oriet!
Mayorus! Esmony! Estiot! Dumosson! Danochar!
Casmiel! Sadirno! Eparinesant! domine meus Lucifer!
The other two began to chant with him as they said the prayer over and over again. Diane, overcome with panic as the leader lowered himself toward her, began pulling her arms and legs as hard as she could, trying to get a limb free, trying with everything to save herself.
The leader straddled her and put his hands around her neck. He stopped saying the prayer as the other two got louder. His hands tightened around her throat and she knew it was the end. His grip tightened and tightened as the voice grew louder and angrier. They sounded like growls as her heart beat thudded in her ears. Her face turned red and he could feel him crushing her windpipe and she wondered what it was all for.
She wondered what Christopher would think when he heard she was dead. She thought of his beautiful blue eyes and the way he stuttered over certain words, and of his thin beautiful fingers. Suddenly, she could smell him, that clean, soapy smell, and something burnt, like cigar smoke or a long put-out fire. She closed her eyes and pretended he was here, pretended he loved her.
“Christopher,” she whispered. “I love you,” she cried, hot tears running down her cheeks.
Suddenly the pressure on her neck released and she gasped for air, drawing in the damp air of the basement with her raw throat. She looked up and saw that the man was looking at her. He made a motion with his hand to stop the chanting. They stopped and it was silent. He was looking at her through the mask, panting.
He pulled his mask off. Blue eyes looked down at her with curiosity. The man was sweating and looking at her with an animal’s hungry eyes, but it was still him. It was Christopher.
“Christopher,” she breathed.
A surge of energy shot through her and she reached her hand up and rested it on his cheek. She caressed his face slightly and smiled, with love in her eyes.
Christopher stopped and loosened his grip. He looked down at the crazy woman looking up at him with pure love and adoration in her eyes. His eyes softened and he let go of her neck and bent down and kissed her hungrily.
A YEAR LATER
Diane walked into the breakroom, with her lunch and sat down at the closest table next to Helen, her cubicle neighbor. It had been a year since the last Secret Santa and it was such a successful party, that the boss had agreed to have it every year. Diane looked better. She had more confidence and she seemed to glow from within. She even had a few friends at work.
“So, are you all ready for the holidays, Helen?”
“Oh, yeah, sure. Well… this Secret Santa thing is killing me, to be honest. I have no idea what to get him and he’s…well, I wanted it to be something really nice,” she said. Christopher walked into the breakroom and smiled at them and walked over to the vending machine. He stood in front of it pondering his options. Helen looked at Christopher, blushed deeply and looked back to Diane. Helen’s eyes widened slightly and she nodded her head towards him.
“Ohh,” Diane and said, getting the hint. Right. She smiled and winked at her. “Your secret is safe with me.”
Helen blushed still redder and smiled.
“Well, if I could give you any advice, I’d say, find out what the… person likes to do for fun, like fishing or cooking or something like that, and you can almost always find some little thing related to that that will make a really thoughtful gift,” Diane said.
Helen looked at her quickly and smiled. She started nodding her head and seemed a bit more hopeful. Christopher grabbed his chips and walked back out of the breakroom.
“I actually know something he wants,” Diane said. “It might sound silly, but I know he’s been talking to Gary about this old coin collection that he’s really into. He said he was looking for one last coin to complete the collection. Something like that would probably really make his day.”
“Oh? What kind of coin,” Helen said excitedly.
“I think he said it was a 1986 silver dollar.”
Written by Dgrady237