Check back with us throughout the season for more bite-sized holiday horrors. Or, if you can't wait for more, check out last year's entries.
Previously on Holiday Horrors: Season's Greetings, The Man Who Loved Christmas Specials
For this week, we bring you...
From Your Secret Santa
By F.J.R. Titchenell
It wasn’t that Erica didn’t like books. Idiots didn’t like books. The problem was that people who didn’t like books also tended to assume that books were like chocolate bars, all alike and guaranteed to make her happy if they came in promisingly shiny wrappers.
Books were more like lingerie. Personal and transformative, with fickle and unpredictable ways of fitting.
No one here at work knew her well enough to buy either of those things for her. At best it would be something she’d already read, at worst, some boring or insulting knockoff of something she’d already read that the giver would expect her to give an opinion on when the thrill of keeping the name drawing secret wore off in January.
The first gift, a heavenly soft scarf with candy cane stripes, wasn’t the kind of thing Erica would ever have bought for herself, but that was exactly why she liked it so much. It was the kind of thing she would have given a passing, wanting glance as she passed it in a storefront and then told herself to stop being silly.
This one time, it was hers.
Deciding that she could always steer the conversation to how spot-on that gift had been if the giver ever asked her for a review of this one, she tore the wrapping paper back from the cover of the book and gasped.
This was perfect. Whoever had given it couldn’t possibly know how perfect it was, with the fairy on the cover, her dragonfly wings held at just the angle Erica remembered, ready to take flight.
It had been Erica’s favorite as a kid, her one loyal friend back in the bad days when everyone had avoided her, always waiting for her in the seldom-frequented middle school library, ready to whisk her away to fairyland for a stolen hour.
It was only after she’d left the school that she’d realized she didn’t know the book’s name. She could recite plenty of the passages within word for word, but that hadn’t been any help in her attempts to track down a copy of her own.
Once she’d gone so far as to go back to the school and ask to be let into the library, so she could check what combination of words she’d gotten wrong in the title. Some half-listening administrator had brushed her off with a quoted rule about who had access to the familiar old building and a small, superior smile for each admission of what this children’s book meant to her.
Erica flipped open the cover, hoping to savor a paragraph or two before anyone discovered her not working, and her excitement turned cold.
Oakville Middle School, said the label inside the flap. She turned to page twenty, where the Geranium Elf was introduced for the first time, and knew before she saw it that the little heart she’d covertly added to the margin would still be there.
This wasn’t just the same book she’d been missing for the past decade. It was the same copy.
“Don!” Erica shouted, dashing around to the boss’s office. She stopped in the doorway, book held out in front of her, deciding how to justify her panic. “I need to know who my Secret Santa is,” she said.
Don’s look of weary expectation turned to impatience. When she didn’t retract the question, he chuckled, “Did you miss the ‘secret’ part of the concept?”
“Mine is creeping me out,” said Erica. “I need to know.”
“You got something threatening?” he asked, with a small trace of concern, probably for what legal liability he might have if she said yes.
“...Not exactly,” Erica had to admit.
“Something obscene?” Don guessed.
Don relaxed into his chair, his over-gelled hair making a scratching noise against the headrest, and Erica knew she’d never recapture his attention now.
“Monica has the names,” he said with a shrug, and Erica resisted the urge to curse. Monica had called in sick that morning. “You can see if she’s willing to let you cheat tomorrow.”
“No, I can’t,” said Erica immediately. “I’m gone tomorrow.” The guardedly confrontational look on Don’s face made her suddenly nauseated. “I am gone tomorrow,” she repeated.
“Chris is gone tomorrow,” Don corrected her. “He was the first to get his plans to me.”
That was a flat-out lie, Erica knew, but knew better than to say so.
“I have a flight tomorrow,” she protested.
“I’m sorry,” said Don with more irritation than sorrow. “I’m going to need you to stick out the week, get us through the rush.”
“I don’t even know what it would cost to change my flight!” she said, beginning to approach pleading. “And that’s if I can get another flight this late before Christmas!”
Don held her gaze. “I’m sure it would cost enough to make you glad to have a job,” he said.
There was nothing for it. Erica arrived at work the next morning, fuming, at around the same time she should have been lifting off toward home. She’d brought along the book to show Monica, in the hope that it would help convince her to reveal the list, but that hardly seemed important now. She had considered taking the opportunity to give another Secret Santa gift of her own before she left, but thinking about giving Secret Santa gifts had reminded her of the bad days for some reason, so she stopped.
She was vaguely aware that she’d put in more than the expected effort already, and it was better not to give unnecessary thought to things that upset her once they were done. Even the doctors had said so.
When Erica stormed into the office, Monica was already at her desk, frozen pale and holding her phone in front of her as if undecided on what she wanted to do with it.
Erica followed her gaze to a round bundle of wrapping paper hanging from a huge Mylar balloon bouquet. Something reddish-brown and noxious-smelling was dripping from it onto the carpet.
“To: Erica. From: Your Secret Santa,” said the tag.
“Don’t touch it!” said Monica when Erica reached out.
“It’s got my name on it,” Erica said dimly, though what she meant was, It can’t be what it looks like.
But it was. Erica knew the moment her fingers tore through the paper and into stiff, over-gelled hair, before the rest of the wrapping split open and Don’s head rolled under a shrieking Monica’s chair.
“Who was my Secret Santa?” Erica asked urgently.
It still couldn’t be what it looked like. It was Don’s head, yes, but the thing from the bad days couldn’t be back. Erica had gotten rid of it, with talking and pills, and with holy water and spells, and it was gone from inside her.
“I was checking,” said Monica’s quavering voice, “but I must have made a mistake when I made the list.”
She turned her monitor, the better to crush any denial.
Chris’s name next to Jennifer’s.
Monica’s next to Lance’s.
Erica’s next to her own.