I was challenged to write a story without any fantasy elements, so here you have a romantic comedy of sorts. – Tiff
Keith rubbed his hands together, his fingers numb from the cold. Walking to work wasn’t such a great idea in December once the rain set in. He shivered and shuffled along with Eric, who was far too chipper for the frigid, dreary day. Of course, Eric had the longest knitted scarf in the world wrapped around his head and shoulders. How he could see was an absolute mystery. The scarf would have made the fourth doctor jealous.
“Have you got a gift for Mallory yet?” Eric asked as they trudged down the sidewalk, raindrops pattering around them.
“Nah,” huffed Keith. “Thinking about it, but haven’t come up with anything appropriate.”
“So you’re off the gag gift?”
“I’m already on her bad side. I don’t need to add fuel to the fire.”
“She’s not as bad as you make her out to be. She got me a mug for my birthday.”
“They got a pile of mugs in the managerial closet.”
“Well, I liked it. She even gave me some of that hot chocolate I like for the machine.”
“Nothing I do will make her like me. Remember the first day?” Keith slowed as they reached a stretch of the sidewalk covered with awnings. They were near Eric’s favorite coffee shop and a little early. It was a morning ritual to stop on the way to work, no matter the line extending out the door.
“You didn’t know,” said Eric.
“I should have.”
“But you didn’t.”
“I asked her for an ID and told her she had to leave the building. She-she laughed at me, and I grabbed her arm, ripped her blouse, and dumped her coffee on her skirt. I couldn’t have made a worse impression.” They reached the shop, which thankfully only had a few people standing outside.
“No,” snapped Keith, stamping his feet on the wet pavement. “Do not bring it up. That was just part of the worst day of my life.”
Eric laughed from somewhere beneath the layers of scarf. “So maybe you should buy her a really nice gift as an apology?”
“Apologize to that witch? Are you joking? She’d just laugh in my face.”
“You don’t know that. Her sister says she’s nice once she gets to know you.”
“Gets to know me? She already got to know me and made her first impression. Besides, what do I care if she likes me or not?” Keith jammed his hands into his pockets, continuing the stamping to keep his legs warm. He didn’t have a girlfriend to make him comfy sweaters or fuss over him being warm enough. A spark of jealousy flickered as Eric rocked back and forth from heel to toe, his eyes crinkled, and what he could see of his face aglow.
Must be nice.
Of course, Eric had the world’s sweetest girlfriend. How Mallory and Leia were related was yet another unanswerable mystery. Mallory was the personification of bitterness, whereas Leia was all sugar and no spice. Mallory walked around with a scowl on her face, her brows pressed into such a tight scowl her face would probably break if she smiled. Leia was sunshine and light formed into an adorable, cuddly ball of innocence.
Such a girl would have been a wonderful gift, and Keith nursed the crack in his heart. Girls like that didn’t come along often; when they did, they didn’t go for men like him. It’s okay, she’d drive me crazy anyway. Leia’s only good in small doses. Eventually, the saccharine sweetness brought on a headache. No one could really be that nice, but she was.
Eric slapped a hand on Keith’s arm, gripping it and shaking it hard. “Look, she’s been our boss for six months, and you avoid her like the plague, which is great, by the way. Six feet apart and all when there’s an uptick, but you take it too far. You have the same breaks. It’s not warm enough for you to go outside, so you’re going to have to eat in the lounge with everyone else.”
Keith’s body stiffened so fast that an ache flared in his calves. His muscles refused to respond, and he gaped. This … was a problem. A serious, life-ending problem. Since she arrived, he had been able to go outside, but spending fifteen minutes, let alone an hour, in the same room with Mallory would be torture. What had he done to deserve this?
“You didn’t think about that?” Eric’s eyes met his, bright and amused. “It’s supposed to be like this for the next couple of weeks. Cold and rainy. I think there might even be snow in the forecast. What are you going to do? You keep forgetting to buy new gloves.” Eric wriggled his fingers, showing off the calfskin gloves Leia had gifted him a month earlier for their one-year dating anniversary.
“Maybe I should get her some gloves,” Keith mused aloud. “Give her a hint that she can go outside.”
“Wouldn’t it be easier to buy new gloves?”
The line moved, and they ended up inside the store, half a dozen people joining the line behind them. Festive Christmas music filled the store, and Keith stepped out of line. “They sell gloves here. You know what I want. One of their cream cheese and strawberry danishes.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Eric tugged the front of his scarf down, loosening it. “If they’re out?”
“Blueberry.” Keith wandered away, eying the wooden baskets the store used as shelves. It was a nice store, a boutique coffee shop owned by an old couple in their sixties. One of their two shop cats purred, trotting up to Keith. He butted his head into Keith’s leg and wound around it, the purr growing louder.
Maybe I need a pet.Keith knelt to rub the cat, Butterball, between the ears and under his chin. His fur was soft and warm beneath his fingers, the purr vibrating and growing louder. Nah, I don’t have time for a pet. It’d be cruel to leave home by itself for nine hours every day. Keith stroked a hand down the cat’s back as it pressed against him, rising on its toes.
Keith forced himself away, walking to a display of scarves, jackets, woolen hats, and gloves. Anything he could want was there, all at reasonable prices. Most of the offerings were handmade by local artisans. It’d be nice to support the community. He picked over the gloves, but most were for women, and while he had long, narrow fingers, the gloves were too short. There was nothing to his liking on display, so he wandered further away, pretending he was looking for something. Standing in line wasn’t enthralling, and maybe he could find a simple gift for Mallory here.
Nothing jumped out among the baskets and shelves full of mugs, cozies, and store paraphernalia. He wandered to the other side of the store and then to the front of the store. Eric was next in line, chatting with a coworker. Keith sighed, his gaze landing on a section marked Seasonal Greetings.
They were even reasonably priced. Advent boxes of chocolates, candies, and tiny toys, gift boxes with 12 pairs of things to mark the last twelve days to Christmas. Keith smirked, eyes shifting from socks to lace underwear. This is how you get fired. But I don’t want to get fired. But imagine the look on her face if you got that for her. I’d end up in HR and out of the building within an hour. But it’d be funny.
I really do like my job.
Why did I have to draw her name?
He lingered in front of the display, studying the boxes. They increased in price, and the contents were likewise more valuable. There were even boxes of jewelry that were several hundred—far more than he wanted to spend.
“Here’s your apple cream cheese danish.” Eric bumped his arm, holding out a massive pastry. “How you eat these things without drinking anything is beyond me.”
“Practice,” said Keith, licking his lips as he took the massive treat.
“You owe me.”
“Put it on my tab.”
“I’m not a bar,” mutter Eric, sipping his latte. “You know what, if you want to make good with Mallory, why don’t you get her a box of those instant gourmet coffees? It’s expensive, but you can afford it.”
Because I don’t have a girlfriend or any other responsibilities. Keith fixed him with a glare, slowly chewing on the danish. Apple was his least favorite, but at least it wasn’t pumpkin. It’d be just like Eric to bring him a pumpkin danish. He was obsessed with pumpkin, all the way to Christmas. Pumpkin spice, pumpkin soup, pumpkin pancakes… pumpkin butter. If it had pumpkin in it, he bought it to share with Leia.
“Thirty-five.” Eric picked up a large box touting 12 days of gourmet Christmas-themed coffees. Each day was a different flavor, three of each, starting with an eggnog latte. “You know, she drinks the garbage coffee in the lounge because she’s doing the work of three people and can’t leave for lunch.”
“Why doesn’t she bring her own?” Keith took the box, studying it skeptically. Why should I get her something so nice? It’s only ten more than I was going to spend, but why?
“She’s got student loans, so she’s living frugally to get them paid off. That’s what Leia told me,” replied Eric with a shrug.
An evil plan hatched as Keith flipped the box over. Once you’ve had our seasonal gourmet blends, you’ll be stalking Santa to restock your stockings. Many of these flavors are limited editions and only available for Christmas, so stock up! Keith jerked his head toward the coffee shop’s chalkboard menu. For the gourmet blends, a cup of coffee was $3-$4. He could put one of their business cards in the box.
The shop was less than two minutes from work, and they took two free delivery orders every day, bringing pre-ordered coffee to the office. Six to eight dollars a day, thirty to forty dollars a week, and a hundred and twenty to a hundred and sixty a month would add up to thousands over a year. Not to mention she’d want it over the weekend too.
Keith cackled like a witch, clutching the box to his chest. “This is perfect, Eric. Thank you!”
“Huh, what? It’s not that special.” Eric tilted his head, his forehead wrinkling. “It’s just coffee.”
“Oh, no, it’s not just coffee,” said Keith, patting Eric on the head like he was a dog. “It’s the perfect revenge on someone who doesn’t like me for no real reason.”
“Uh, are you all right?” Eric batted his hand away. “You got a crazy twitch under your eye.”
“Never been better. Let me explain.” Keith launched into the plan as Eric’s brows peaked, doubtless out of admiration for such a dastardly gift.
The perfect gift for an evil boss witch.
The coffee shop had a gift wrap station, and he tipped one of the baristas to wrap it for him in expensive, metallic paper featuring retro ornaments. She did an excellent job, scattering sticky glitter over the top and tying it with a glittering silver bow. Keith tucked it beneath his coat, and when he arrived at work, it went under the Christmas tree in the break room.
“So, who’s your Secret Santa that you went all out to?” asked Mallory, holding a cup of coffee beneath her nose. “I expected a brown paper bag.” She smiled as though telling a joke, but it hit like a dagger. Cheap? He was frugal, not cheap, and it was a clear insult.
“Someone special,” replied Keith with a shrug. “Guess we’ll find out at the party on Friday. You?”
“Someone special,” she repeated, smirking over the rim of her mug.
Keith grumbled, hurrying off to his desk. Phone calls to make and deals to close. He didn’t need any distractions or idle chit-chat. That was for the other agents. He was best left alone, doing his job. He slid on his headset, turning on a podcast as he prepared for his first call.
Pearlescent purple eyeshadow.
Eyes outlined in smoky black.
Lashes long and thick.
Plum adorning perfect lips.
Some of the women in the office layered makeup onto their faces with a palette knife; it was so thick, but not Mallory. She wore enough makeup to accent her best features. Her hair was never as tidy as everyone else’s, adorned with a streak of purple and gold on the left side. She wore the same outfit every day, a purple pantsuit with a white dress shirt. Glittering black nail polish adorned her nails, which did little to stop her incessant nail biting.
He paid far too much attention to Mallory.
Because she was beautiful and mean. Her saving grace was that she didn’t hide it, measuring it out in regular doses with critical glares and sharp words. She walked to her office and closed the door for her first conference call of the day. Like him, she had her schedule.
Like him, she didn’t fuss about how she looked.
Like him… she was alone.
Work was her life.
Over the next three days, brightly wrapped gifts appeared beneath the tree. On Friday, small envelopes, additional gifts from management, rested on the branches. While other businesses cut back on parties and gifts, their agency had never been extravagant, but they were fair.
Except for the fat, Keith was skipped over for promotion to manager in favor of Mallory—the owner’s daughter. She hadn’t even worked there before getting the position, whereas Keith had started as an errand boy at fifteen. It was an additional sore spot among hundreds. Fair. Except when it came to family. Still, he had a good job that paid well, vacation days, and insurance.
This year, a local Italian restaurant catered their meal. Food covered every flat surface, thick meaty lasagna, massive meatballs, burrata, and a dozen different kinds of pasta and sauces. A salad bar took up a table by itself, and there was something for everyone down to the employees who couldn’t tolerate gluten or too much sugar. They even had several bowls of low-carb pasta that wasn’t just spiralized zucchini.
Keith piled his plate high with a slab of lasagna and a meatball wrapped in simple spaghetti. He avoided the tomato sauce, layering on a creamy butter sauce and a generous pile of mozzarella. The best part of the meal was there was far more food than they could eat, and there was a pile of containers they could fill to take home. The remaining leftovers would find a place in the fridge for anyone to have over the next few days. It was the week before Christmas, and most of the staff would go on vacation for a week at a time—except him.
Each year, he volunteered to stay and work while others took time off. Eric needed a few extra days for travel, which he covered. This year was especially important to his brother, as he planned to take Leia home to meet his parents and propose to her over the holidays. Eric had driven Keith to near madness going over the details of his romantic proposal and the ring, a beautiful ring in the shape of a rose that had cost three months’ salary.
Keith had bit his tongue about how crazy that amount of money was to spend on a ring.
“You didn’t get a drink,” said Mallory, leaning toward Keith as he passed the dessert table.
“I’ll get one when I’m done eating.” Keith shrugged and hurried past her.
“What would you like? I’ll bring it to you.”
He pretended not to hear, heading to his desk to eat. The couches and folding tables set up for the party were already full. Let the social people be social, there was no room for him, anyway. Besides, his cubicle was nice and quiet, with everyone in the break room and the calls having ended for the day.
Keith kicked back in his chair, shoveling lasagna into his mouth. They’d start the gift-giving without him in a few minutes. Whoever had his gift—hopefully Eric—would call for him. The odds were good it was Eric because he looked like he was up to something.
“I didn’t know what you wanted, so I brought one of everything.” Mallory appeared around the corner of his cubicle, her arms laden with canned drinks. Startled, Keith almost fell out of his chair. “Oops, sorry about that.” She smiled, more of a grimace than a smile, and held out her arms.
“Okay?” Keith regarded her suspiciously, setting his fork on the plate. What was she up to? Since when did she do anything like this to him? She’s up to something.
“I got lemonade, grape soda, half and half lemonade and tea, root beer—“
“Lemonade.” He held out his hand, and Mallory fumbled with the cans, almost dropping several. So clumsy. It’s cute. A smile played on his mouth despite his efforts to hold back. Keith stood and plucked the can from her arm, grabbing the grape soda as well to lighten her load.
“You can have them all if you want. I swear Dad bought them in bulk for the vending machine, so there’s plenty.” Mallory set the cans down hurriedly on the far corner of his desk.
“I don’t need all that soda,” mumbled Keith, popping the tab on the lemonade.
“Yeah, I noticed you’re the only person here who’s not addicted to sugar and caffeine.” She laughed, dragging her fingers over a lock of purple and gold hair.
“Thank you for the drink.” Keith tipped the can, sipping slowly and waiting for her to leave.
“Why are you eating here by yourself? There’s plenty of room in the break room and tables in the lobby too.”
“It’s quiet here,” replied Keith, rubbing his fingers over the cold, damp can. It was perfectly chilled, condensation beading on the sides. He set his eyes on hers, telling her to go away in his mind.
Mallory ran one hand over the other, her mouth twitching as though she were searching for words. It was uncharacteristic of her to look so uncertain and… shy.
“Are you happy here?”
Keith blinked, rocking his feet from toe to heel. “What?”
“Do you like your job?”
Sweat exploded over Keith’s body, an uncomfortable heat prickling through his body and mixing with a streak of ice up his spine. What did I do? I do my job and more than meet my quotas.
“I love my job,” he said, gaping at her.
“Didn’t mean it that way. I mean, you never really talk to anyone. You come in, sit at your desk, work, and leave.”
You took the job I wanted. I had my application in, and you came in out of nowhere and took my job.
Keith pursed his lips, the criticism hitting hard. “Mallory, why are you asking me this? Are you going to fire me for doing my job?”
“N-no!” She waved her hands in the air, stepping back. “What is your problem with me?” The question came out with a touch of anger and annoyance. There was the Mallory he had come to know from a distance. Impatient. To the point.
“I don’t have a problem with you.” Keith grabbed his plate and almost lost the meatball. He stabbed it with his fork and took a massive bite. It wasn’t an outright lie. Most likely, she had no idea what she had done. Her father, on the other hand…
“You’re the only person here who avoids me,” she said, and the anger faded into something more like hurt. “Why?”
“I’m here to do my job, not socialize.” Keith swiveled his chair around, so his back was to her. He held his plate over the keyboard, careful not to let anything fall off it, and stared at the screen saver. A flock of birds flying south in a V against an orange sunset provided a good distraction. He focused on the black silhouettes, counting them as he waited for her to leave.
Mallory’s reflection glared at him, and then she turned and walked away. If he wasn’t in line to be fired now, he certainly would be on the list after this moment. He relaxed once she left, setting his plate down and glowering. Nausea rose into his stomach, taking his appetite and crushing it.
Keith was on his feet and out of his cubicle before Mallory made it out of the call center. “Wait!”
Be a normal person… like Eric. No, that’s worse. Bob in accounting? Everyone likes Bob. Be like Bob. Anyone but yourself.
Mallory turned, her arms hanging loosely at her sides, expression stiff and guarded.
“It’s me, not you.” He gestured to himself emphatically. “I love working here.”
“I never thought I’d hear something like that from someone I’m not dating,” she said crossly.
Keith pinched the bridge of his nose. Why is this so hard? “Mallory, I’m sorry for coming off rude. When I’m here, it’s to work. Nothing else, okay? There’s no point in getting to know people I don’t have anything in common with other than a job.”
She dropped a hand on her hip, the other gesturing vaguely toward him as one eyebrow rose into a neat arch. “And how do you know you don’t have anything in common with anyone here if you don’t talk to them?”
“Trust me, I know. By the way”—he stepped past her, pointing to the break room—“I have something for you.” Yes, this should get her off my back. Give her the gift. Be the first one and whoever has your gift will give it to you, and you can grab your food and sneak out. Excellent idea!
Patting himself on the back, he strode into the break room and walked to the tree. Nobody had started the gift exchange, and the conversation died into whispers, eyes landing on him as he grabbed his wrapped present from the back of the pile. Mallory knelt next to him, an unusual sound coming from her. Did she giggle?Was she capable of such a sound?
Apparently, his move had pleased the beast because she had a friendly smile on her face as she held up a large package. “Against the odds, I’m your Secret Santa too.”
This-this wasn’t how this was supposed to play out. Keith stared at the box. It was wrapped in plain brown paper and bound in twine. A drawing of a cartoon dragon graced a quarter of the package, a Santa hat dangling over its head and a gift in hand. Not good. This is not good. Alarm bells flashed in his head as he held out his gift to her in one and grasped her gift to him in the other.
What else could he do?
“Merry Christmas,” he whispered, glancing at her face. It was all he could do, a volcano opening at the base of his neck, surging upward into his cheeks. Why am I so embarrassed? It’s just a stupid Secret Santa thing. She probably got me a joke gift.
Eric motioned to an empty spot next to him, saving Keith the further awkwardness of looking for a place to sit. Mallory sat near the tree, gleefully ripping the paper off his gift.
Keith tipped the gift to one side, then the other, searching for a place to start. Tearing the paper seemed like an offense. He might rip the drawing, which he intended to secret away and keep. The twine came free with a pull on one end, and the paper unfolded without a single piece of tape present. What kind of witchcraft is this?
Beneath the paper was a decorative wooden crate, a pale orange length of cloth wound around the interior. Four mason jars took up most of the room, each with a custom label on the lid, a candy cane style bit of twine wrapped around the top, and a second folded piece of paper, a note, attached to each one. They were handwritten.
Candy Cane Celebration.
Orange Chocolate Ovation.
Nestled next to them was a bag of miniature marshmallows and a pair of black fleece gloves. Keith’s chest clenched as he drew in a shallow breath.
“Thank you, Keith. I can’t wait to try these,” said Mallory, holding up the box of store-bought coffee pods for all to see. “By the way, there’s milk in the fridge anytime you want it to make your hot chocolate.”
I am the most awful person in the world.
Keith’s lip twitched, his eyes burning.
I am the worst.
“Thank you,” he said quietly, rising to his feet. “I, uh, need to go.”
He hurried out of the room, clutching the crate to his chest.
What did she do? What had he done? Mallory put together a thoughtful gift, something he would never have expected. There was a scarf in it, an actual hand-knitted scarf—a scarf he had spotted hanging from her work bag when she walked by every day for the last month.
He swore to himself, rushing back to his desk and sliding the crate next to his things. There were twelve days until Christmas.
Twelve days to fix what he had done and give Mallory a gift equal to what she had given him.
The rest will be available on Patreon as I write it or on Vella, where it is updating as a serial. – Tiff