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The Perfect Gift: A Christmas Mystery Short Story

IN THE December 20 ISSUE

FROM THE 2012 Articles,
andMysteryrat's Maze,
andTerrific Tales
SECTIONS

by Suzanne Berube Rorhus

The Perfect Gift first appeared in Mysterical-E.

“Just buy something. Do you have to make everything such a drama?” His wife’s voice, after ten minutes, no, make that twenty-three solid years of lecturing, grated on Timothy’s nerves. He held his head and leaned against the Dillard’s necktie counter in Cordova, Tennessee. It was the Friday after Thanksgiving and the store was packed with bargain-hunting shoppers.

“This is for work, Martha,” he explained again, teeth grinding. “Mr. Magee is counting on me to choose just the right gifts for our Christmas party. He expects me to put some thought into it.”

“If he wanted decent gifts, he’d have given you more than $25 each. For that kind of money, you’ll be lucky to buy a scarf that doesn’t unravel before the party’s over.”

With effort, Timothy managed to tune out his wife’s voice. He had years of experience ignoring both her strident tones and the disembodied voices that occupied his skull whenever he neglected his medication. Those other voices weren’t a problem these days, however. Timothy was on full meds, and the constant clamor of the voices was reduced to a background murmur, as benign as waves from a white-noise machine.

Timothy had always dreaded Christmas shopping. As a child, he’d admired Santa’s ability to calmly choose just the right gift for each person on his list. Timothy did not have that same sangfroid, and the agony of shopping had driven him to distraction.

He compensated for this by giving everyone the same thing. As a boy, he’d wrapped up boxes of Tic-Tacs, each flavor carefully matched to the recipient’s taste or need. His spicy aunt Michelle received hot cinnamon; his stinky brother Devon got peppermint.

In adulthood, he switched to gift certificates, with everyone receiving fifty dollars toward the most appropriate store. His idiot son received a voucher for tutoring; his tubby mother got a gift card from Weight Watchers. His wife invariably received a Wal-Mart gift card, as did the mailman. The bickering voices in his head were satisfied with the equality of this arrangement, even if the gift recipients groused.

How ironic, then, that his job now required him to purchase gifts for each of the ten employees of his firm. As Office Manager, it was his responsibility to dress as Santa and pass out the presents while his boss basked in the gratitude. The only upside was that Timothy loved the Santa suit his boss provided. It fit him exactly, and when he wore it, he felt that he actually became Santa, cool provider of perfect gifts.

After yet another failed weekend of shopping, he dragged himself into the office Monday morning.

“Morning, Tim!” Mr. Magee bellowed, hale and hearty as ever. “Got your Christmas shopping done?” He winked broadly, as if Timothy couldn’t catch his meaning.

“Yes, sir. I mean, no sir, not quite done. Nearly there, though.”

“Hope it’s better than last year’s gift,” Mrs. Magee said sotto voice. She sat at her word processor, pounding out another romance novel for her agent to peddle. She wasn’t exactly an employee of Midtown Roofing, in that she performed no actual work for the firm, but she was nearly always present.

The bell on the door twinkled. “Greetings, my lovelies,” a voice boomed.

Timothy’s stomach lurched. The voice belonged to Vance Maddox, silent partner to the Magees. Or, as Mr. Magee said, his not-nearly-silent-enough partner. Every month, Mr. Maddox showed up to pick up a check and criticize the day-to-day operations.

“You agreed to leave this money in the firm, Maddox. You’re draining us dry,” Mr. Magee shouted. Although the Magees had rushed Mr. Maddox into the back office as soon as he appeared, their voices carried into the lobby. “At this rate, we’re going to have to fire some of the workers.”

“Lord, I wish he’d just drop dead,” Elsie said. Elsie, the firm’s only sales employee, was in the habit of wishing people dead. Timothy had heard the same fate frequently pronounced for her husband of thirty years, a paunchy drunk who’d been unemployed since the first Reagan administration.

“Careful what you wish for, Elsie,” Colin Dalby said. “Mr. Magee might grant your wish someday, then get himself locked up in jail. We’d all be without a job, right Santa?” The crew foreman nudged Timothy in the ribs.

Timothy rubbed his side. “Guess you’d better get your team moving, Colin. Did everybody show up for work today?”

“All but Andrew. That guy’s so lazy he’s hardly worth killing.” Colin stroked his mustache, then hoisted himself off the edge of Elsie’s desk and headed out.

Timothy continued to fret over his gift-buying decision after work and on weekends.
A week before the party, he complained again to Martha. “It’s just not enough money.”

“What would you buy if it were more?” his wife said. “You haven’t picked out a proper gift for as long as I’ve known you. Just take your chump change to the video store and get everyone a gift certificate like last year. Or buy lottery tickets with the money and let them see if they won.”

Timothy left the room. His wife, as usual, was less than helpful.

Upon reflection, though, he was forced to admit that there might be a nugget of gold in her sarcasm. If he bought lottery tickets, someone could win big bucks, enough to buy himself a decent gift. Of course, the other employees would be understandably jealous. In a small firm like Midtown Roofing, such jealousies could rend the company apart. No, that would never do.

The obvious solution, the one so blindingly obvious that Timothy was shocked he hadn’t conceived of it before, came to him one morning as he showered. He’d noticed before that sometimes his best ideas came to him before he took his medication. This idea was pure gold.

He’d win more money himself, by betting the entire $250 at the dog track down in Southaven. If invested prudently in a long-shot pup with a decent pay-off, he could triple, even quadruple, his gift money. Then he’d have the cash to buy spectacular gifts, something tailored to that person’s needs, something worthy of Santa. The perfect gift ideas would surely come to him once he had the necessary capital.

The following day, the Thursday before the Christmas party, he hid the Santa suit in the azaleas by the mailbox, re-entered the house to bid adieu to his wife, and set off for the bus stop as usual. He picked up the suit as he passed the mailbox, slinging the plastic bag over his shoulder as he walked. As soon as he reached the corner, he stopped at the pay phone outside the delicatessen. Covering the receiver with his handkerchief, he explained to Mr. Magee that he was ill and would not be in today.

With wife and boss satisfied as to his whereabouts, he was now free to move about uninhibited.
He breathed deeply. No manager peering down his neck at work, no harridan at home pulling him around by the nose. He should play hooky more often.

He boarded a cross-town bus and rode it all the way to the dog track. As he reclined in the torn bus seat, he allowed his mind to wander. Once he bought the perfect gifts, everything else in his life would come together. His boss would admire his Santa-like perception in selecting the gifts and would realize that Timothy was a man of untapped potential.

Mr. Magee would decide to make Timothy a partner in the roofing business. He would, of course, take it upon himself to introduce Timothy to a higher circle of society. He’d rub elbows with store managers and accountants, and other members of the intelligentsia. And, satisfied at last, the voices in his head would finally fall silent.

Lost in his reverie, Timothy missed his stop and had to walk four blocks back to the track. At the entrance, he stepped in a pile of dog droppings, recently deposited by a white poodle sporting a pink tam. Setting down his burden, he scraped his shoe on the curb and glowered at dog and mistress as they promenaded away.

Upon entering the arena, he headed straight for the men’s room to change into his Santa suit. Once his face was covered by the soft cottony beard, he relaxed. He was transformed into Santa, perfect giver of perfect gifts and invariably lucky fellow. With his costume on, he knew he could not fail to win big money at the track.

He crossed the entry to the betting counter, ignoring the drop-jaw stares of his fellow gamblers. One would think they had never seen Santa before. Really, though, shouldn’t they be at work?

At the betting counter, Timothy paused. Which dog to pick? The trick was to pick one with a decent pay-off. Betting on a sure thing wasn’t going to bring in the big bucks. But the ones with high returns were the odds-on favorites to lose. He couldn’t lose the Christmas money. Fretting with indecision, Timothy decided to visit the dogs to see which one looked determined to win.

After asking directions from the janitor, he made his way to the holding pen. The greyhounds for the first race milled around, their backs draped with numbered blankets, their snouts muzzled. He leaned over the fence and studied the animals, lifting the huge red hat off his eyebrows for a better look.

Some were mottled brown and others were pure grey, but all looked lean and muscular. How was he to tell who could win? He leaned over the fence, studying the animals closely.

Timothy glanced over his shoulder to see if he was being watched.
The track wasn’t too crowded, but clutches of people waited here and there, though none were watching him or the dogs. He slid up the pen’s latch and slipped inside. The greyhounds gathered to sniff him, and two jumped up, their paws on his chest, leaving muddy prints on the crushed red velvet of his suit. He brushed the dogs aside and looked down.

At his feet, a dog wearing a pink blanket and the number 25 sniffed his shoe, then squatted. She strained briefly, then pooped.

“Thank you, God!” he said aloud. Here was the sign he’d been waiting for. This dog was pink and pooping, just like the poodle at the entrance to the track. And her number was 25, which was the exact amount he had to spend on each gift. It was also the date of Christmas, and he was dressed as Santa. It was meant to be!

Jubilant, he left the dog pen and hurried back to the betting counter. He was delighted to learn that Holly, dog number 25, had five-to-one odds against her. When she won, he’d have $125 to spend on each employee. He placed his bet, putting all $250 on Holly to win, then selected a seat to watch the race. He was so nervous and excited, the whiskers of his glued-on beard twitched constantly.

It didn’t take long.

Within fifteen minutes, he was free to go, $250 lighter. Holly had started out eagerly enough, chasing the mechanical rabbit with her peers. A quarter of the way around the track, though, she had squatted again for another poop. The other dogs ran on, completing the race before Holly finished her bowel movement.

He left the track, still clutching his losing ticket.
At the entrance, when he again stepped in the pile of poodle droppings, he hardly noticed. He carried his work clothes in the plastic bag, not even bothering to change out of the Santa suit.

He walked to the park and plopped onto a bench. There he sat for an hour, head in hands. What was he going to do now? He didn’t have enough in his bank account to cover the Christmas money, and his boss would fire him if he showed up at the party empty-handed. He might even press charges. Timothy’s career would be ruined.

Perhaps Martha could get a job? He imagined Martha obeying the directions of her supervisor, doing as she was told without arguing. The absurd image made him chuckle and lifted him out of his doldrums.

He slapped his knees and stood up. No use moaning about a problem without making some effort to tackle it. Resolved, he boarded a bus for home.

On the journey home, he realized that he was not alone.
The voices were back, keeping him company with a litany of chastisements and instructions. He tried to recall if he had forgotten his medicine that morning in the rush to leave, but couldn’t remember. It didn’t really matter. The presence of the voices comforted him, like emissaries from childhood, and he strained to hear.

He detected the tones of one voice in particular, the voice he called “Genie” because it had always had magical suggestions for him when he was growing up. Frustrated with the cacophony, he shouted for the other voices to shut up so he could hear Genie’s advice more clearly. If he ever needed clear advice, now was the time. After a few minutes, he nodded in agreement and sat back, satisfied. Better to have a plan than to muddle through on his own. Genie had come through again.

When he arrived home, he approached the house warily. Martha was not supposed to be home, since Thursday was her day to play Mahjongg, but he was taking no chances. He stalked up to the living room windows and peeked in, then hid behind the rhododendrons and waited. There was no movement inside, so Martha must have gone to Mahjongg as scheduled.

He entered the house and ran up to the bedroom to get his gun. It was a small .22 caliber pistol, chrome with a pearl handle. He had bought it for Martha for her birthday one year, to protect her while he was at work all day. She’d scoffed.

“We don’t have anything worth stealing, Timothy. What’s the use of owning a gun? You watch, one of us will get shot with that thing, not a burglar. You just don’t think!”

He’d ignored her, tossing the gun into his bedside table drawer. You never knew when some psycho would come knocking.
Now Timothy slipped the gun in the back of the wide black Santa belt. If he twisted it sideways, it was invisible. He tossed the bag with his work clothes in the closet and left the house, locking the door behind him.

He boarded the bus again, but chose one going in the opposite direction. It wouldn’t be too smart to return to the same area, not if he wanted to remain anonymous. He relaxed in his seat and closed his eyes.

He dozed briefly, wakening only when a small hand tugged his velvet sleeve.

“Santa? Are you okay?”

He opened his eyes and sat up. A small girl, about five years old, stood next to him, peering into his eyes despite her mother’s attempt to call her back to her seat.

“Yes, I’m fine, child, ho-ho-ho,” he said. Best to play along.

“Can I have a Barbie for Christmas?” she asked, patting his sleeve.

Timothy glanced at the girl’s mother, who shook her head and called to her daughter again.

“No, no Barbie doll this year, little girl.” Thinking quickly, he blurted out the first thing that came to his mind. “Would you like a pony?”

The mother gasped and rose from her seat. She shot Timothy a ferocious look and dragged her daughter back to her seat. The girl wriggled in her mother’s grasp, trying to break free. “I want Santa! I want a pony! Santa’s going to bring me a pony!” she cried.

Genie’s voice demanded he get off the bus immediately, and he disembarked with relief.
He was glad that his own children were grown and gone. Greedy, noisy little monsters.

He trotted into the bank, got in line, and waited his turn. The bank wasn’t too crowded; that was good. He fidgeted, then rocked back and forth on his heels. A mother and her ten-year-old son were ahead of him, and an elderly couple were ahead of them. They appeared to be arguing with the teller. He began to hum.

“Are you really Santa?” the boy asked. He peered at Timothy from under a baseball cap. “Do you have to go to the bank too?”

Why wasn’t this creature in school? “Yes, I need to get money for the elves’ payroll,” he said. “Those little buggers get nasty if I miss a paycheck.”

The boy’s mother whirled to look at Timothy. Her eyes widened as she examined his outfit. Without a word, she grabbed the boy and wrestled him in front of her.

Timothy was tired of the rudeness he seemed to encounter at every turn. What was it with these stay-at-home mommies that made them so irritable? He decided not to wait in line any longer. If they could be rude to him, he’d be rude right back.

Drawing his gun, he brandished it at the teller, the elderly couple, and especially at the mother and her spawn. “Hands up! No one move!” Everyone obeyed, except the teller. Timothy saw her hand slide along her counter.

“You! Hands up!” he screamed, and the teller obeyed. For a moment there, he’d been afraid she would set off an alarm.

“Okay, fill a bag with all the money you have. And no tricks, understand?”

The teller nodded, and Timothy grinned. This was going pretty well. The Santa suit must be lucky after all.

He tapped his fingers on the glass while the teller looked for a bag to put the money in. He leaned against the counter, whistling. The elderly couple and the mother and son watched him, looking annoyed. Well, serves them right.

He would have waited in line if that housewife hadn’t given him such a nasty look. She only had herself to blame if she had to wait now. He stuck out his tongue and faced the teller again.

He was startled by a sudden yell. Before Timothy could turn around, the boy tackled him from behind. His knees buckled and he fell to the ground.

“You’re a bad Santa! You’re not supposed to rob a bank!
I’m going to tell the police on you, and Spiderman’s gonna put you in jail.” The boy pummeled Timothy with his fists. For such a little fellow, he could really pack a wallop.

“Ow! Stop it!” Timothy yelled. He was curled up with his arms wrapped around his head. “I’m not bad! I’m Santa!”

The boy continued to flail at Santa. Why did children refuse to listen to their elders? When he was a boy, he would never have hit Santa Claus. “You’re going to end up on my naughty list,” he said, raising his arms to protect himself from his diminutive attacker. “Coal and switches for you this year, my boy!”

It was no use; the little terror wouldn’t stop. Timothy shoved the boy away and jumped to his feet. He thrust his hand under the teller’s glass, trying to grab the half-filled bag of loot. She snorted and rapped his knuckles with her stapler, while the brat kicked his shins.

He ran for the door without the money, bowling over the elderly wife. Hitting the door, he burst through without pausing, gun waving in the air. Gasping for breath, he dashed to the bus stop, his beard flopping behind him. A bus was waiting, though not the right one. Timothy dashed up the steps, paid his fare, and collapsed into his seat. Behind him, he could hear sirens in the distance.

After two transfers, he arrived home barely twenty minutes before Martha. When she found him in the bedroom, he was curled up in bed, Santa suit wadded up on the floor. He closed his eyes and refused to open them, even when Martha demanded to know why he was home from work so early.

He brooded all that night and the next day. Martha had to call in sick for him on Friday; he refused to take the phone. The voices in his head, the ones that usually left him in peace, reestablished occupancy in his mind.

Their first demand was that he flush his medication down the toilet. He complied, hoping they would be satiated by a small token of obedience. Instead, the voices swirled and shrieked, deafening him with their commands. At last, the instructions coalesced into a coherent plan, and he realized that he had the perfect solution to his Christmas dilemma. He could give each recipient something they really wanted.

He began to implement his plan on Saturday. He knew very little about his co-workers when he began, so he’d have to follow them around for a while to learn what each one wanted more than anything else. Fortunately, Genie had ideas.

He and Martha never socialized with his colleagues. Timothy preferred to stay home whenever he could, relaxing in front of the TV or puttering in his workshop in the garage. On weekends, Martha stayed with him to supervise his activities and take care of the housework. She was not pleased when he informed her that he’d be working both Saturday and Sunday.

“It’s almost Christmas, Timothy. There’s a thousand things to be done. How can you disappear at a time like this?”

“Sorry, dear. Duty calls.” He left the house with a great show of regret, but his heart leapt inside. True to form, Martha had never understood his commitment to becoming the perfect Santa, but Timothy knew that if he were to have his gifts ready by the Christmas party on Monday, he’d be busy every moment.

The first roofer he considered was Kip Porter, a family man and hard worker. Kip did not talk much at work, but when he did, it was invariably about his daughter Samantha. Kip was a single dad, raising his daughter alone after the death of his wife six years ago. Kip seemed happy, though he complained about his daughter’s boyfriend.

The boyfriend was Mark, another roofer and a nineteen-year-old high school dropout. Timothy followed Mark on Saturday, spying on him from a short distance. After shooting hoops with his friends, Mark sat with them, drinking beer.

“How’s your girl?” one of his friends asked. He gestured with his hands in tribute to Samantha’s generous proportions.

Mark swigged from the bottle he held between two fingers. “Finally got her to put out,” he said. He snaked a hand into the pocket of his warm-up jacket and pulled out a pair of pale blue panties.

The group laughed.

Timothy struggled to control his temper. No sense rushing anything.

The next roofer was Peter. He lived in Millington, so Timothy borrowed Martha’s car to reach his home, arriving at eight o’clock Saturday night. He pulled to the curb and watched.

The little house was tidy, unlike its neighbors. The tiny yard was free of the drug paraphernalia and fast food wrappers that littered the rest of the street.

Timothy looked around and noticed for the first time that he was not alone. A huge cretin sauntered up to Timothy’s car.

“You buying, man?”

“What? Am I buying what?” Timothy asked. He could not imagine what this baboon could be selling. He looked around for a pushcart. Nothing, not even a lemonade stand, was in sight.

“Get out of here or I’ll call the cops again!” Timothy recognized Peter’s voice, bellowing across the street. “I’m sick of your drugs and your violence and your traffic. Go set up somewhere else, I’m calling the cops.”

“You do, and I’ll slice your neck,” the cretin hollered back.

Timothy sped away. It was obvious what Peter needed for Christmas.

Lastly came Tina, the only female roofer.
Timothy had always liked her. She was so easy-going with the men that they often forgot she was a woman. They told jokes in her presence, invited her to join them after work for drinks, and punched her shoulder to emphasize their points. She was a newlywed now, and Timothy had noticed that she no longer went out with the guys or laughed at their jokes. She had appeared at work lately with fresh bruises, and she winced when the guys bumped into her. These marks were blamed on clumsiness and a vitamin C deficiency, though Timothy had his doubts. He headed over to her house to check out the situation.

By the time he went to bed late Saturday night, his research was done.

On Sunday, Timothy set to work creating his presents. Each was prepared with dedication and even affection. He was away from home most of the day, returning only for quick showers when he thought Martha would be gone. His own gift was the last one he prepared, though in retrospect, he should have made it first.

That night he sat up late, wrapping presents. Each gift went into an identical hatbox, eighteen inches cubed. He encased each in brightly colored paper and festooned them with large floppy bows. He carefully lettered the recipients’ names on the tags.

His work done, Timothy fell into a dreamless sleep,
and awoke Monday morning eager for the Christmas party to begin.

He dressed with extra care that day, brushing his Santa suit until it shone and gluing its beard to his cheeks.

The party was as festive as an office party can be at ten o’clock in the morning. Everyone was present, except Mark and Andrew, neither of whom had bothered to call in. Mr. Magee fumed, but started the party without them.

“Okay, Timothy, I mean Santa, let’s see what you’ve got,” he said. He rubbed his hands together.

“Gather around, everyone,” Timothy said, relishing his role in the spotlight. He was looking forward to his co-workers’ reaction to his gift selections. Finally he could feel worthy of the Santa suit.

He sat in Mr. Magee’s office chair, which he had dragged into the center of the room next to the pile of gifts.

“Everyone needs to open their gifts at the same time, so the surprise isn’t spoiled for anyone. Each gift is different, and each is tailored to the recipient, but once you see one gift, you might guess what the others are.”

He directed his co-workers to surround his chair, then handed each a gaily-wrapped gift.
“You and Mrs. Magee will share a present,” he said. “I think it will be something you can both appreciate.”

He picked up his own present and settled it on his lap. He’d open his last, since he didn’t want to miss his co-workers’ expressions when they opened their gifts.

On his count, each one opened his or her box.

Some tore the paper madly, others carefully. Elsie folded her paper neatly and set it aside with the bow before pulling the lid off her gift.

Silence, stunned silence was the first reaction, a silence broken only by the sound of Elsie fainting to the floor. Then bedlam broke out, with cursing and screaming. Timothy looked around, bewildered.

“What’s the matter?” he asked Tina. She stared at him in horror, clutching the box containing her husband’s severed head resting on its little bed of cotton batting. “I gave you what you wished for. The gift of widowhood. Don’t you like it?”

His own unopened box sat on his lap.

You can find more Christmas short stories, in KRL’s Terrific Tales section.

Suzanne Berube Rorhus is a Michigan based writer of crime fiction. “The Perfect Gift” was inspired by her lifelong distrust of mall Santas. Those fellows must be hiding something under their beards! Suzanne is currently working on a police procedural novel in which the zoo vet is found murdered outside the enclosure of a genetically modified cheetah. Visit Suzanne at www.rorhus.com.

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