Secret Santa: A Change of Plans

Submitted into Contest #178 in response to: Set your story at a work holiday party,... view prompt


Drama Christmas Fiction

This story contains themes or mentions of suicide or self harm.

Being invisible means nobody will notice when I’m gone. My absence will not pose a difference in anyone’s vision, because they didn’t see me in the first place. And since my dad passed away last summer, I have been invisible to everyone. I wasn’t planning on departing this mortal coil with any fanfare. Just a couple bottles of wine and a bottle of sleeping pills on Christmas day.           

           I’ve worked at Tepple & Weinstraub Property Management for five years. The office of 40 people has very little turnover, so I’ve known almost all of these people for five years. Jay Hampton (Owner & CEO) insists on having a huge gathering on the last day before we break for the holidays. I dread the party, and the rituals that go along with it, but something compelled me to go this one last time.  

           It’s never been easy for me to make friends, and in an office environment, I never made it a priority. So, forcing us into this awkward social situation is bad enough for most people. But forcing someone like me into this situation is a nightmare. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to have a few close friends. People who really know me. But I don’t. Not at work.

           I usually try to join the smallest group standing around making small talk, and end up walking away after nobody has said a word to me. For the past five years, I have walked around holding a cup of punch until Secret Santa is over, then wait for the right time to slink away unnoticed. Slinking away is never difficult. I’ve never had anyone yell across the room, begging me to stay.

           As for Secret Santa, it’s yet another awkward disappointing ritual Jay insists on. The limit has always been $40. Carol from HR walks around a week before the party with a Garrett’s Popcorn tin (popcorn has been eaten and tin has been washed) with little scraps of paper with a co-worker’s name written on it. You pick blind and well, you know how it works.

We put the gifts under a huge tree at the Christmas party upon arriving. Once everyone has arrived and is properly lubricated with their favorite brand of alcohol, Jay picks a present at random, calls the recipient up in front of everyone, and has them open it. It gets worse. Then, he has you briefly tell everyone your holiday plans. This year, I lied and said I was spending it with my dad even though he passed away. I never knew my mom, so dad was all I had left. Better than telling them the truth, that this would be the last time they’d see me.  

Last year, I got a gift card for Cheesecake Factory for $20 for my Secret Santa. It was the Secret Santa equivalent of being invisible. It’s quite a paradox being in a room full of familiar people and feeling completely alone.

           Actually, for the past three years, I received restaurant gift cards. I don’t mind, but watching everyone else open their gifts is a real eye-opener. These people really know one another. And their gifts reflect that. Last year, Katie from Accounting received matching sweaters for her and her golden retriever. She absolutely adored the gift and gushed the rest of the party. And it wasn’t just Katie. This is how it is for everyone. These people really put thought into their gifts.

           People like me could use a little extra effort to feel welcome. I know, my social anxiety is part of the problem too, but I do try to bridge the gap. However, I shut down at the slightest hint of indifference. Avoiding the embarrassment of being uninteresting trumps the possibility of forging a new friendship that will eventually expose me for the weirdo I am.

           I’ve been invisible my whole life. To classmates, co-workers, and even my small group of friends, to some extent. Even to my own mother.

           When I was two, she left us. My father and me. Dad always told me she had emotional issues and just couldn’t handle being a mom. But when I was six, I listened on the bedroom phone as he pleaded with her on the kitchen phone to finally come home. She said, “I don’t want a boy. Eli was supposed to be a girl. I can’t take care of two boys. You never grow up!”

           For my whole life, my dad took the on the role of father and mother. Christmases weren’t a big bright tree in a house full of family, countless gifts to be opened on Christmas morning, and a jubilant dinner with cousins and uncles and grandparents. But I wouldn’t trade mine for anyone else’s.  

           Dad worked at the Lever Brothers plant in Hammond, Indiana. He always took a week off during my first week of Christmas break from school so we could spend the days and nights together. I’d set up our fake Christmas tree when I got home from my last day of school before break. He would help me put the lights and ornaments and garland on it while we listened to Christmas music. He was partial to Beryl Ives.

           He would take two weeks off in the summer to hang out with me too, to coincide with the start of my summer vacation. At first, he took me to a lot of sporting events. The White Sox and even a Bears game once. We went to a few Bulls games too. But he noticed I wasn’t very into sports. He never came right out and asked, but he watched me.

I discovered my passion for drawing and painting at a young age. So, he started taking me to museums and art shows. My favorite was the art museum on Michigan Avenue. We went to plays and musicals, and I loved it. I could tell he didn’t enjoy it quite as much as a ball game, but he never once complained or tried to change my tastes.

And for Christmas, he always seemed to get me exactly what I wanted. One year he got me an easel, canvasses, and some high quality paints and brushes. I was in heaven! He saw me. He really saw me. And knew me. My dad was proud of me and celebrated our relationship. Even though it was just the two of us, I had all the family I needed.

I haven’t gotten a Christmas gift that meant anything from anyone else. Not that the gift itself matters all that much, or its value. But it’s the absence of something special from someone special that illuminates my invisibility.

           This year’s Christmas party, just a week ago, was held at Nico Osteria on Rush Street. The place was gorgeous, and the food was amazing. An open bar and delicious seafood, the boss really goes all out for these parties.   

           After nursing a glass of Killian’s Red just to have something in my hand, Jay stood up on a chair and announced it was time to start Secret Santa.

           He began as he always did, by regaling us with his plans for Christmas:

           “As you all know, I’ve got a huge family, and we love to ski! So, I rented out a fifteen bedroom log cabin at Aspen Snowmass for a week. My two brothers and their families, my parents, and of course my lovely wife Amanda’s parents will be joining us. Six days of knee-deep powder by day, the finest Scotch and Cigars by the fireplace every night. This place has its own pool, hot tub, and bar. Just minutes from the mountain, snow mobile trails, the best hills for skiing, and the best people in the exclusive resort town. It’s gonna be lit! All right, John, this first gift is yours, why don’t you come on up and tell us all what you’re doing...”

           And so it went, for the next hour. Waiting for my name to come out of Jay’s mouth was like waiting for the teacher to call on me in 6th grade to give my oral report in front of the entire class. I was unusually nervous for this casual ritual that nobody really listened to, but I had to take a deep breath after Jay called, “Eli? You’re up.”

           I grabbed my gift from Jay, and he held his hand out to guide me to turn toward the crowd of co-workers eagerly awaiting their turns. As always, I said nothing while I waited for him to ask.

           “Tell us, Eli...what are your plans for the long break?”

           I cleared my throat and said, “Nothing too exciting. I’ll just be heading over to, uh, my parents’ house. Dinner. Nothing special.”

           Acknowledging their cue, everyone clapped as I headed back toward my place behind them at the bar. As I did, I noticed Jackie from our Sales department watching me with an odd look on her face. It wasn’t the usual indifference I saw in everyone else’s eyes. She was actually watching me, closely.

           My gift was wrapped in a pretty cool wrapping paper. It was a skull pattern adorned with tiny green and red Christmas ornaments to add just a hint of color. The background was gray, just my taste. The little tag indicating who the gift was for had my name, Eli, with a circle over the “i”. Not a dot, but a circle. This detail pinged something in the back of my brain, but I glossed over it, for now, eager to see what lay beneath the wonderful wrapping. It was bigger than a gift card, so my curiosity was piqued.  

           Quietly, I peeled off the paper to reveal a box of Caran d’Ache Luminance colored pencils. A set of 100. There is no way this gift was within the limit of $40. It easily cost five times as much, maybe even more. I gasped and looked up at my co-workers. Not a hint from anyone. They all watched as Mike from Logistics droned on and on about his plans to take his kids to Graceland to see the King.

           I looked down at the box, expecting it to be empty. A gag gift perhaps? But no. It was unopened, and there were actually a hundred pencils inside. Someone knew I was an artist. Furthermore, someone knew I loved to draw. And even further still, someone knew my preferred medium was pencil. But how? And who?

           Glancing at the tag on the wrapping paper again, my eyes fell on the circle over the “i” again. I looked up and searched the crowd, finding Jackie again. I knew that little circle from all of the hand-written sales reports that came across my desk from her. She always put that little circle over the “i” in her own name too. Sure, other people could dot their i’s the same way, but what are the odds?

           I took a step toward her to thank her, then caught myself. Secret Santa was supposed to be just that, secret. Anonymous.

           A woman in black pants, a white shirt, and a smock came around with a huge garbage bag collecting the discarded wrapping paper. I crumpled mine up and tossed it into her bag. As everyone gathered in little groups, discussing their gifts, I wanted so badly to join any one of them just to show them what I had received. It could be a way in to one of these cliques.  

           But that didn’t fit the pattern. Usually at this point, I would start planning my exit. We already had drinks and dinner. Dessert wasn’t coming for at least another hour while Jay made his way around to the groups to make sure everyone was happy and on their way to being drunk.

           The nervousness made my legs wobbly and numb, but I forced myself out of my little cocoon at the back of the room. As if in a daze, I made my way over to a thankfully small group in which Jackie stood with her back to me. Somehow, that made it harder. Having to sneak up on her. I almost turned around to abort the mission when she turned and saw me.

           Instead of looking past me, she smiled. I think she even blushed a little.

           In a voice barely audible, I said, “Jackie, can I talk to you for a second?”

           The two other girls with her looked at each other, clearly stunned, then back at me while they held their appletinis inches from their mouths.

           “Sure, Eli. How’d you like your gift?”

           “Well, that’s actually what I came here to talk to you about. I know it’s supposed to be anonymous, but I think you are the one who got this for me. Am I right?”

           She blushed again slightly and looked away. Brushing at her hair, she glanced at her two friends who giggled and then walked away. She stared at them for a moment, then turned her attention back to me.

           Looking down, she said, “How did you know?”

           “The little circle over the ‘i’. It’s on every report you send me. So it was you?”

           She shrugged and finally met my gaze. “Yes. I’m sorry, I know we’re not supposed to go over the limit, but I know you’re an artist, so I just splurged a little.”

           “Oh no, you don’t have to apologize. I just wanted to thank you. I absolutely love them. But how did you know I like to draw?”

           Her eyes widened, and she said, “You kidding? You’ve got those drawings hanging up in your cubicle. They’re amazing! You are really talented.”

           It was my turn to blush.

           I muttered, “I didn’t think anyone saw those.”

           “I do. Every time I drop off a report.”

           I chuckled at this, realizing I felt relaxed around someone from work for the first time in forever.

           We stood there talking for what felt like minutes, but must have been at least an hour. She asked if I would join her at her table, and I did. We had to ask Rick from Sales to find a different seat, so he made his way over to my table where I sat for dinner with familiar strangers who said all of five words to me.

           Later, as everyone grabbed their coats and got ready to head home, Jackie said, “Hey, before you go. I want to ask you for a favor. I know you’ve already got plans with your family for Christmas, but I was wondering if you’d like to come to my place for Christmas Eve? It’s my first year hosting it, and there’s going to be nobody our age there. My cousins are all teenagers, and everyone else is my parents’ age. You know, uncles and aunts. You think you could help me out and keep me company?”

           For the second time that night, I gasped. “Really? Are you sure?”

           She nodded and smiled.

           “But, why?”

           I regretted it as soon as the words left my lips. She cocked her head to the side in confusion for a moment as she pondered the question.

           Jackie smirked.

I said, “I’m sorry. That’s not what I meant. I’m just wondering—sure, what time?”

           Laughing, she pulled out her phone and said, “Give me your phone for a second.”

           Without asking another stupid question, I handed her my iPhone. She texted herself from my phone, and then responded with her address. She even put a little heart at the end of her message. Of course, I thought about that for only the next three hours or so.

           On Christmas eve, I hugged the bottle of wine I brought, scolding myself for not bringing more, like an actual wrapped gift for her. She looked radiant as she opened the door with a huge smile. Grabbing the wine bottle from me, she hooked her arm in mine and ushered me inside where her rather large family of roughly twenty-five people all stopped talking to look at me.

           Jackie said, “Everyone! This is my guy, Eli. He is a brilliant artist. Try not to scare him away, I kinda like this one.”

December 30, 2022 19:02

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Josh T
21:46 Jan 04, 2023

I liked first person style . The pace was good. I was hooked from the beginning wondering what would happen and rooting for Eli the whole time.


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Wendy Kaminski
01:18 Dec 31, 2022

Smiling all the way, at the end there. :) Loved this romantic hopeful, and I really hope it works out for him and the very kind angel who's landed nearby. Really well-written story with great forward-moving narration and action; it flowed well and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Especially - did I mention? - the ending! :)


Dan Coglianese
06:13 Dec 31, 2022

Thank you so much for your kind words! I'm so glad you enjoyed it.


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