This short story forms part of our Tales of Christmas series. Learn about the authors and find more exclusive fiction here.
Now my wife and my mother stood in front of me, backlit by the hundreds of tiny lights encircling our Christmas tree, each of the women holding a present of approximately the same size and wrapped in the same silver paper adorned with white snowflakes. Both women were touching each other’s shoulders, and giggling, so happy to be together, on this, our first Christmas as a married couple, and, on a more tragic note, the first since my father’s passing. Also, there was the brandied eggnog, Nat King Cole crooning from the speakers, and outside, a wet, snowy squall swirling huge flakes onto the family-room window. Only seconds earlier I had handed them their presents in a flood of happiness. Let’s face it: we were high on the holidays, and, plainly speaking, tipsy. Drunk.
“Go on,” I said, flopping into an overstuffed chair. “Open them.”
My mother glanced down at her present, rolled it around in her hands, and declared, “But, darling, how do you know this one is mine? There’s no tag on it.”
My wife did likewise, examined her paper, and said, “No tag on this one either.”
Then they broke into laughter, and shared a mutual laugh at my expense. He’s just like a child! No tags on the presents! We should open them anyway! A lark! We’ll just exchange if there’s been a mix up – the odds are 50/50!
“No!” I shouted, rising from the chair, almost spilling my mug of eggnog. “Don’t!”
I had realised, only seconds earlier, that one of the packages, the one intended for my wife, had been purchased a week earlier, from an online adult-entertainment website, and contained what was described by its purveyor as an “…All-American, super-flexible toy, made from high-grade flesh-like PVC material… batteries not required… dishwasher safe…” In yet another similarly packaged present – the one I had intended to hand my wife in this moment – was a vintage watch. But I knew where that present was now: I had wrapped it earlier (candy cane wrapping paper!) before the toy, and it was somewhere on the backside of the tree. God, this was like a memory game! Why hadn’t I tagged the presents? Used an especially gaudy paper for the play-toy? My palms were slick, and my forehead glistened with the kind of nervous perspiration often witnessed by contestants puzzling out a word during the final stage of a spelling bee. The room suddenly glowed with invisible heat.
“Honey? What is it?” my wife asked. “Are you alright?”
“It’s just that…” I stuttered. “I’m so dumb. I mean, let me just have those gifts, real quick, and I can put the name tags on them, and then it’ll be a proper surprise. I totally screwed up.” I shook my head at myself, perhaps a bit over-dramatically, but then again, there was the sense that if my mother opened the wrong gift it would be akin to entering a secret portal of our sex-life: both unforgettable and potentially traumatic. Also: it would be impossible to enjoy the toy after witnessing my mother unwrap the thing, and hold it in her hands.
Both women began a kind of two-person shell-game, passing the gifts behind their backs, while I occasionally desperately reached out to snag one of the presents. But that was another problem. I really needed both presents to ensure no fiasco. I could not count on probabilities, odds.
“Oh, what’s all the hullabaloo?” my mother laughed. “I don’t think you’ve given me anything other than a candle for two decades now!”
She pressed her nose to the paper, rubbing it against her face. I cringed. My wife also sniffed away. They similarly squeezed each gift, but here I am happy to reveal that the toy was safely wrapped in a velvet drawstring bag and further surrounded by a thin cardboard box. I am sad to say that this year, stupidly, there was no candle, but rather a bottle of perfume, wrapped in cellophane, and packaged in much the same size box as the toy. How I wish I had bought something fragrant, something adorned with a bell, a box of chocolates that might have been shook like maracas, or a garment! Something soft, wrapped in gently crushable peach coloured paper. Socks, perhaps!
I tried another tack; staring knowingly into my wife’s eyes, mustering whatever latent telekinetic communication I believed to exist between us. But my efforts were for naught. I could see no recognition in her eyes. I knew she was drunk, and feeling frisky. Too bad, I thought, since Mother might end up with the toy.
They tired of their game of hot-potato, and now, titillated by my concern, held their presents in front of them, and asked if they couldn’t open their gifts.
Another unexplored angle, “Well,” I asked, “where’s my present?” I prayed they would set their gifts on the table, couch, floor, anywhere… Anything to dispossess them of this potential embarrassment. This Christmas calamity.
“It’s in my purse,” my mother said, and she moved towards the front door, where her twenty-five pound purse hung precariously from our coat-tree. She did not relinquish her grip of the present.
“I almost forgot,” my wife said, absentmindedly setting her present down on the seat of an overstuffed chair to sip her nog. Clearly, she underestimated my fear. She moved towards the tree.
I dove for her gift. She laughed, turning to leap onto me, where we grappled on the floor for control of the present.
“Let it go,” I hissed. “Stop!”
“I love wrestling you,” she whispered, licking my ear.
“My mom,” I implored, “let go!”
I held the gift away from my body, but she had the high ground, better positioning. I could hear paper ripping, the thin box tearing. I closed my eyes. In the end, I held the bottom of the box, and the wrapping paper fell over my hand, like a banana unpeeled. My wife had ceased her fighting.
My mother entered the family room and gasped. My wife released her hold and sat on the carpeting, adjusting her hair.
I said, “Right. Ha, ha. Well. Should be safe to open yours now, Mom.”
Beneath The Bonfire by Nickolas Butler (£7.99, itunes.apple.com), out now
Illustration: Hattie Stewart