The Perfect Gift

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Greg Osadec


Mini Heart Box
Photo Credit: Arturo Fonseca

Tyler Landon rushed into the shop to protect his tan suede jacket from the sudden freezing rain. It was coming down hard at a sharp angle, not falling so much as being hurled from the dark sky, smacking against the pavement hard enough to bounce. He tried to shake his jacket dry, not caring where the globs of semi-frozen slush landed. The shop was narrow but long; the tone of the electronic door chime just reached him from somewhere deep in the back of the shop. More importantly, it was warm and dry. While he waited out the weather, Tyler decided to look for a Valentine’s Day gift for his wife.

The door sighed shut behind him and silence settled into the shop like a dog beside a fire. There was no sign of anyone else in the shop. No music played through the sound system, assuming the store had one. Not even the hum of passing traffic made it inside. As Tyler glanced out through the large display window beside the door, he noticed the glass shaking slightly in its frame. He knew this was because it was being beaten by the icy wind and rain—he could see it slapping against the window—but he couldn’t hear it at all. He expected to see the name of the shop stenciled on the glass—some kind of emporium, maybe—but the only things obscuring his view of the street were the cluttered shelves of carefully arranged knickknacks and kitschy junk crammed into the narrow alcove that framed the window. He remembered seeing a sign flapping in the wind over the door, but he’d been hunched too far forward against the rain to read it.

Rubbing at some especially dark water spots with the inside of his jacket sleeve, he browsed the shelves with growing amusement. At first glance the shop seemed to lack any kind of organization, but after scanning a few of the shelves around the alcove near the window he thought he’d figured it out: he was in the gnome section. Scores of them smiled up at him from the shelves, their image plastered on everything from keychains and travel mugs to coasters and pillows. A full-size garden gnome at the base of one display case stared cheerily at Tyler’s knees. It was somehow different from others he’d seen. After a moment, Tyler realized its eyes gleamed in the light as if they were made of glass that had been set in to its ceramic head. They gave it an eerie lifelike quality. But even more disturbing were the personalized business cards perched on the brim of its pointy red hat. If anyone ever gave Tyler a business card featuring a gnome—even if their company manufactured and sold the damn things—he’d put them out of business and consider it a mercy killing.

Coming around the corner, Tyler noticed a shift in the motif. He was now in the fairy department. A swarm of the dainty, winged figures—in the form of statuettes, dolls, ornaments and paintings—covered a series of shelves. Scanning the length of the store, Tyler began to suspect that there were more than a few things in here that Stacey might actually enjoy—not, unfortunately, as a gag gift. After almost six years of marriage he still hadn’t managed to snuff out her love of baubles. The challenge would be finding something that he could give to her without laughing… and then bear to see mixed in with the tasteful décor of their condo. He might be able to find something for Anne—at least then he wouldn’t have to see it in his home every day—but so far nothing seemed to fit her style, a fact for which he was grateful.

Passing clusters of elves and leprechauns, Tyler moved deeper into the store. At the very least he wanted something he wouldn’t have to hide whenever they had company, and the odds of finding anything here that fit the bill were starting to look pretty slim. Ready to leave, Tyler turned to check the weather, hoping it had cleared up. He was surprised to see that the door was about twenty feet away. He hadn’t thought he’d come so far into the store, but with so much merchandise stacked to the ceiling in each aisle, it was easy to get disoriented. Tyler could make out a cluster of people lined up on the sidewalk outside. Those with umbrellas held them at an angle to keep the frozen rain from lashing at their faces. The rest had turned their backs to the wind or pulled their coat collars up to try to shield their cheeks. But except for a few who shifted from one foot to the other to keep warm, none of them moved. They seemed to be waiting for something—a bus, maybe. Tyler wondered why they didn’t wait inside the shop.

Probably they know they’d feel guilty and end up buying something they don’t need, he thought as he smiled. That was good. Consumer guilt had helped him get his start. Guilt made people easy to manipulate. Eliminating guilt gave you an edge. Case in point: here he was, warm and dry, while those suckers played by the rules and froze. Still, you’d think a few of them would at least stand in the recessed entrance to get out of the rain…

He tugged at the suede jacket. He’d only worn it because the day’s forecast had promised clear skies. It had been more trouble than it was worth since day one. An extravagant Christmas gift from Anne, he’d been forced to lie about it to Stacey, saying he’d bought it for himself on a whim at a Boxing Week sale. Now it had trapped him here, because he’d catch hell from both of them if he ruined it. He should have known better than to accept it in the first place. A gift like that was never a good sign. It meant that expectations were starting to build up, and they could cause some serious damage when they came crashing down. Still, as long as he kept them from getting too high, he’d be all right.

Sidestepping between two display cases, he found the cashier’s counter nestled between two round columns. A small stack of multicoloured paper, about three inches by three inches, sat neatly beside the cash register. There was no sign of any employees. They were probably so used to people coming in to browse and leaving without buying anything that they didn’t think it was worth interrupting their game of Dungeons and Dragons to check on him.

Past the counter stood a jumble of bookshelves and display cases. Rather than aisles, they formed a sort of hedge maze overgrown with merchandise. He entered it, moving deeper into the store, and realized that he wouldn’t find any of the enchanted creatures favoured by annoying but harmless people on this side of the store. Instead, Tyler found himself surrounded by things so disturbing that he’d want a restraining order imposed on anyone who bought one. He tried to imagine what kind of business proposal the owners had presented to the bank. Our strategy is to specialize in products that will appeal to a niche market with a high level of disposable income resulting from one or more of the following factors:

  • No dependants because nobody wants to share their sad, lonely little lives
  • Minimal housing expenses due to living in their parents’ basements
  • No long-term savings goals because their cult believes the Earth will be incinerated by a flock of intergalactic dragons next year

Still, if they were making enough to cover the payments on this kind of square-footage, he might have to look into this. Though the zigzag arrangement of bookshelves and display cases limited his line of sight, he still couldn’t see the back wall of the store. Not even when he looked over them. The store hadn’t seemed this big when he first walked in. Was there really so much of a market for this stuff? Ghouls with torn flesh hanging from their mouths—a molded plastic body with shreds of some kind of canvas material standing in for the bits of flesh so it would actually dangle. Admittedly, a nice touch. Pewter reapers cloaked in a coarse woven fibre—haircloth, maybe—beckoning with one hand, scythes poised in the other. Skeletons with toothy grins perched atop gravestones. The gravestones were some kind of cheap mineral, but Tyler wasn’t sure about the skeletons. For a second he thought they might actually be ivory, but the price tag stuck under the base of the statuette eliminated that possibility. It was heavy, though. Even considering the mineral gravestone, the bones couldn’t just be plastic. It sounded solid when he tapped his fingernail against it, and it was smooth to the touch. Like it had been polished. It almost felt like bone.

Rounding the corner, he found a single book with a shelf to itself. It was propped up on a thin metal book stand, its plain tan cover dully reflecting the overhead lights. Tyler’s first thought was leather, but that wasn’t right. Not quite. It didn’t have the same shine. Running his hand along the spine, it felt… different. Tyler felt the skin on his arm tighten then break out in sudden goose bumps.

Leave it to the freaks, he thought, as he rounded one corner, then another.

“Can I help you?”

Tyler turned. He’d somehow circled back to the cashier’s counter. A man in jeans and a grey shirt was leaning on the counter. Tyler guessed he was in his early seventies, and from his thick white moustache and the tuft of white hair protruding from the collar of his shirt, it seemed that he’d only gone bald on top.

“Oh, uh, I’m just looking around, thanks,” Tyler said. “It’s easy to get lost in this place.”

The old man smiled. “Many have, in my little shop.”

“I wouldn’t call it little,” Tyler said. “Where do you get this stuff? China?”

The man’s warm laugh relaxed Tyler. “Not as much as you’d think, actually. Much of it I make myself.” The shopkeeper barely looked up from the counter where he was working on something.

“Well, sorry to interrupt,” said Tyler, turning to leave.

“Not at all. Come, look.”

The old man’s hands were large and strong. Tyler didn’t doubt the man could build things with hands like that, but he was surprised to see them making the final delicate folds in a piece of red origami paper. It formed a three-dimensional rectangle. One end was rounded, the other open and hollow.

“What is it?”

The shopkeeper picked it up and slid it over the opening of a second, larger piece that sat beside it. Together, they formed a heart. “It’s a box,” said the shopkeeper.

It tapped against Tyler’s wedding ring when the shopkeeper placed it in his open hand. At its widest point it reached the edges of Tyler’s palm, with a depth of about an inch. Its weight, though not substantial, surprised him.

Tyler gripped the lid carefully. “May I?” he asked.

“Of course! It won’t hold anything big. Or heavy. But precious things rarely are.”

Tyler smiled. Peering in, he felt that it already held Stacey’s delighted laugh. He looked back at the old man. “A pair of earrings, for example?”

“That’s a good example,” the old man chuckled.

“Do you think I could…”

“By all means, take it!”

“I’d be happy to pay…”

The shopkeeper waved away the offer. “Please, just take it. Always happy to work in love’s employ.” He grinned knowingly. “She can be a demanding boss on us fellas, and sometimes it helps to have a union to back you up.”

Tyler played along. “Well, you’re a hell of a good rep!” he laughed.

“Now, will you be needing a pair of earrings to go in that box?”

Tyler held his grin steady. “Sure. What’ve you got?” He’d rather work out a price for the origami than be pushed into buying a piece of junk jewelry, but what the hell. The old man was friendly enough and Tyler had an image to maintain. He chose a pair of gold-coloured earrings the old man suggested. On the way home he’d get a good pair. From Swarovski, maybe. This pair would go to Stacey’s niece. Let ’em turn her ears green. The earrings clattered on the countertop as the shopkeeper set them down.

“Anything else I can help you with?”

“Maybe.” Tyler hesitated.

“Am I supposed to guess?” the old man laughed.

“Well, if it’s not too much trouble, do you think you could make one more of those boxes?”

“Well, no, it’s no trouble, really,” said the old man. “But giving a woman two of these things sort of makes it half as special, don’t you think?”

“That’s true,” said Tyler, smiling. “But, giving them to two women makes it twice as special.”

“Oh,” said the old man. “Oh ho!” he said, catching on. “Well… I, yes, I suppose I could do that. Maybe you’d like to see how it’s done?”

“Sure, why not?”

The shopkeeper took two sheets of paper from the stack beside the cash register. Red on one side and white on the other, he took one sheet and started making careful, precise folds.

“Where did you learn how to do this?” asked Tyler.

“Oh, I spent some time in Japan when I was young.” He answered using the same deft care with which he made each crease. “Well, younger, at least. I’ve made all kinds of things over the years. At some point—I can’t remember when, really; maybe some rainy day like this, except not even one single soul walked in—I started to think about how much it’s like a strong marriage. I mean, you build it up from nothing.”

He folded the paper, now lined with a patchwork of creases, almost in half, then shaped it into a rectangular tunnel.

“Each part needs to fit together to make the whole thing strong.”

The long edges of the paper locked together.

“Whatever shape it takes is a result of your actions.”

A few folds sealed off one end of the tunnel, and another quick series rounded out the ridge. With the lid complete, he set it aside and started on the second sheet. He folded down one edge of the paper so it aligned with a crease he’d already made.

“And there are certain lines that you mustn’t cross.”

He firmly slid his thumb along the fold, making a solid crease.

“Uh huh,” said Tyler. “That’s interesting, really.”

Looking up from his work, the old man saw Tyler trying to get a signal on his cell phone. The old man sighed. He tried to make a narrow fold along the bottom of the paper but it slipped from his hand, once, twice. “Could you give me a hand here?” he asked. “Son?”

“Hmm?” Tyler slipped his phone into his jacket pocket.

“I need your help for a second.”

“Oh. All right.”

The shopkeeper spun the paper around to Tyler. “See this first crease along the bottom here?” he said, pointing. “I need you to fold up the bottom edge so it’s in line with that crease, then press down. It’s a narrow strip, and my hands get a little stiff when it rains.”

“Sure. I think I can handle that.”

Just as Tyler finished smoothing the crease, the old man snatched the paper out of his hands. Tyler hissed and put his thumb to his mouth. A hint of blood tinged the bottom corner of the paper.

“Oh!” said the old man. “Did you get nicked?”

He turned the paper back to him as Tyler examined the cut. The paper absorbed the blood into its ancient fibres, erasing any trace of a stain.

“It’s fine,” said Tyler. “It’s fine. Are you almost finished?”

“Almost,” said the shopkeeper, making the final folds. “Almost.”

“What kind of paper is that, anyway? It feels thick.”

“Oh, it’s stronger than it looks, certainly.” He hunched over the counter, mumbling something as he fit the lid onto the box.

“Sorry?” said Tyler. “I didn’t catch that.”

“Hmm?” said the old man, looking up. “Oh, nothing, nothing. Just talking to myself. It’s a bad habit, drives my wife crazy, but I think it’s okay as long as I don’t start answering.” Chuckling, he slid off the lid and held both pieces of the box. “That little fold you made? This is it here, right around the rim.” The old man leaned towards Tyler, tilting the open box towards him. “Take a look at your handiwork.”

Tyler leaned in. For an instant, a rapidly flowing stream of blue-white light illuminated the shopkeeper’s lined face. The old man was sliding the lid back on when the phone rang, riling the silence of the shop.

“Hello?” said the old man. The light touch of an old passion caressed his voice. “Hi hun! How was work?”

He lifted the phone’s extension cord as he walked out from behind the counter, careful not to let it catch on any of the displays, then let the coils slip from his hand as he walked to the door.

“Uh huh.”

He bolted the lock.

“Uh huh.”

Took down the Open sign.

“He did what?”

Closed the curtains.

“Hun, listen, I’ve got to put away a bunch of supplies that just came in, then I’m coming home.”

Stepped over the body.

“How about you tell me the rest then? Oh, and hun?”

Picked up the heart-shaped box.

“I’ve got a surprise for you.”

Smiled.

“It’s your favourite.”

Watched its erratic beat.

pencil

Greg Osadec was born in Niagara Falls, Ontario. He received a B.A. in Cultural Studies from McGill University in Montreal, and it only took nine years! He also backpacked around Europe and the surrounding area (one year), and received his TESL certification from the University of Toronto (eight months). He’s currently living in Toronto, Ontario and working on an M.A. in Applied Linguistics at York University (hopefully for only a year). If only he were 15 years old, he’d be a genius! Email: gosadec[at]hotmail.com

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