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Christmas Fiction

Susan clutched the soggy box in her hands as the rain beat down from on high. The colors in the cheap packaging were beginning to run together, blurring the words and the empty smile of the model on the box—a vapid white guy who looked like his top priorities in life were being right about everything and hitting their mansplaining quota before breakfast. Or maybe she was reading into his sneering smile.

After all, it was what was in the box, not on it, that was the important thing.

Although that wasn’t quite true either. The box contained a coffeemaker, a simple device, lower end (of course), not very expensive or impressive. It did what I said on the tin—made coffee.

No, what was important was what the coffeemaker represented.

“Are you sure you don’t want to turn back?” yelled the skipper. He was battling the swelling water as he rowed Susan across the surprisingly large expanse between the mainland and the tiny, rocky island that was her final destination. “It will be quicker to turn around, if we do it now!”

Susan shook her head resolutely. “No!” she yelled back. “This is important!”

“Alright, lady! I hope you can swim!”

Susan wondered what explanations the skipper was forming in his mind to explain her strange behavior. It was surely not every day that a stranger from out of town summoned you from bed to row them to the island in the middle of a storm.

At $1000 one-way, he was unlikely to argue.

It had taken Susan nearly a week to track him down; Mark, one of those ‘old family friends’ that the family couldn’t seem to shake, no matter how hard they tried. Her mom loved him, and he and his family were invited to every single family gathering. The kids were fine. The wife was too, even if she seemed a little frazzled and rundown. But Mark…

Mark was the kind of guy who would argue neuroscience with a neuroscientist, who would make one argument one moment, and the complete opposite argument the next because he didn’t care what he was saying as long as he was disagreeing with someone else. It wasn’t a devil’s advocate mentality either—he was completely allergic to being wrong or accepting responsibility. His entire identity was wrapped up in winning the hundreds of tiny, petty little fights he started each and every day, and, when he didn’t, he got sullen, and nasty, and ‘hurt,’ until you apologized to him for calling him on his bullshit. Of course, he never had to apologize for starting the fight in the first place…

And now the fucking coffeemaker.

“It’s just a coffeemaker,” her mom had said. “It’s even a fairly nice one. Can’t you just say thank you and shut up?”

But Susan knew it wasn’t just a coffeemaker.

Mark saw every single human interaction as an engagement with a clear winner and loser, and he would go to the ends of the earth to never, ever be the latter.

Like at Christmas, for example.

Mark hated receiving gifts, because he felt that they left him in a losing position, in a state of obligation, in a position where he would have to thank someone else. In Mark’s mind, gratitude was weakness.

Over the years, he had developed a special little strategy.

Mark always bought the most expensive, most ridiculous gifts so that he would ‘win.’ If the gift he gave you was deemed (by Mark) to be better than the one you gave him, then he didn’t need to say thank you, because his gift was thanks enough.

Gifts were also a great way to assert control over others.

For example, that time he’d bought Susan’s mom tickets to a show she didn’t really want to see, forcing her to go on an out-of-town vacation to attend in the city where Mark just so happened to live (and wouldn’t it be nice if you got to see the kids while you’re here, and also babysit them free of charge for three days?). Or all the times he’d rocked up at Cousin Pat’s house to watch some or other sports team lose because he’d bought Pat’s TV, which apparently meant he could use it whenever he liked.

Susan had tried not playing Mark’s game. She never bought Mark anything. Gifts for the rest of the family--sure. But not for Mark. Sometimes, Mark would leave her be. But just as often he wouldn’t.

Susan didn’t like the entitled way he bulldozed through life. She didn’t like the way he treated everyone else, the way he spoke about his children in front of them, the way he interrupted everyone, all the time. And Susan didn’t keep quiet.

Mark often ‘lost’ when Susan was around.

It’s just a coffeemaker,” Susan muttered to herself under her breath. She shivered and drew her coat closer around herself. She really wasn’t dressed for this weather. She’d thrown a few mismatched items into a bag and dashed for the airport the moment she’d discovered where he was. “Just a coffeemaker!

Her mom had told her she was being petty. It was just a coffeemaker, and Mark meant well.

But Susan knew what it really was.

Mark and his family were going to be away for the holidays. Usually, this came as a great relief to everyone except Susan’s mom, and they thought no more about it. But then, the package had arrived. Special delivery. She’d had to sign for it, after going to the post office to collect because, of course, it was delivered while she was at work.

Merry Xmas. Mark.

Not from the wife or kids—from Mark. Specifically.

Because, if Mark wasn’t at the family gathering, he wouldn’t have to undergo Susan’s calm questions about why he deliberately bought her an inappropriate gift. He would have had to field inconvenient questions like, “Why are you pretending that this gift is anything other than an attempt to control me?”

But the coward had just sent it in the mail and vanished instead.

Susan had had enough. She’d phoned every mutual friend, acquaintance, and family member she could think of until one of them, the poor soul who’d been bullied into pet sitting while they were gone, had given her the forwarding address.

Another town. Another country. A remote location—an old lighthouse-turned-Airbnb on a tiny little island, chosen, no doubt, for its cheapness and so that Mark could say, “Look, I do take you on international vacations!”

The small rowboat lurched, and Susan grabbed the side, clutching the coffee maker firmly in her other hand.

“Almost there!” called the skipper. Moments later, a wave batted them into the side of a rickety old pier and the skipper wrestled the water and his own boat to secure them. “How long will you be?”

“Oh, not long at all!” yelled Susan, over the storm. “Wait here!”

She scrambled wetly onto the pier, her progress hampered by her package, her beautiful black buckled shoes ruined before she even made it to the path.

Without looking back, Susan followed the signs for the lighthouse.

A long, winding, rickety set of stone stairs, slippery from rain and moss. She clutched the shaking handrail determinedly and made her way up, pausing only when she needed to regain her footing. It took three minutes and a thousand years to reach the top. The path from the stairs to the lighthouse had no handrails but was almost as precarious as the stairs. Susan’s progress slowed, but there was no stopping her now.

She finally made it to the door. Arranging her sodden face, plastered with soaked black hair, into a pleasant smile, she rang the doorbell, holding it down in one long wail until. . .”

“Do you have any idea what the fucking time is?” She heard him yelling before he even got to the door. “What could you possibly—”

Mark’s words vanished the moment the door burst open, banging loudly against the wall, revealing Susan on his doorstep.

“Mark!” she said, pleasantly, as if it wasn’t the middle of the night, as if she hadn’t hunted him to a remote location that she wasn’t supposed to know he was at, as if there wasn’t a crazy storm thundering above their heads. “I was in the neighborhood and thought I’d stop by.”

Then, just as he had done many times on her threshold, she pushed past him into the house without waiting for an invitation. He was a large man—it was one of the reasons he got away with so much. When an aggressive, loud, alpha male was shout-speaking inches away from your face, you often felt compelled to give in, to let him have his way.

But today Susan had the element of surprise, and Mark didn’t stop her.

The kids were on the stairs, sleepy eyed, but eager to see the show.

Good, thought Susan. This was for them, really.

“I thought I’d return this,” said Susan, shoving the coffeemaker into Mark’s hands. He took it automatically, his brain too busy searching for an insult, a backhanded compliment, anything he could use to regain the upper hand. “I can’t imagine you could have possibly meant to send it to me, correct?” When Mark didn’t answer, she continued, “Because I know you, with your magnificent brain and excellent memory, know, truly and fully, that coffee gives me migraines, terrible, horrible things, even the smell of a coffee bean can ruin my week. Right?”

What could he do? Say that his memory was anything other than perfect?

“Right,” he muttered.

“And, while I know that you find it extremely, life-threateningly inconvenient to go without coffee for a few hours at a time when visiting, I know you would never, truly, want someone to experience excruciating pain just so that you can have a hot drink, correct?”

“Hm,” grunted Mark.

“Knowing all that, I realized you must have meant the coffeemaker for someone else. So, I’m returning it for you to correct the error.”

She smiled, and waited, willing to let the silence stretch on all night if that’s what it took.

“Thank you,” muttered Mark into the void, his voice barely audible over the sound of rushing wind.

“Excellent!” said Susan, her face one enormous smile. “And, just to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” she leaned forward slightly to bring her face closer to Mark’s, “don’t get me any more gifts. Ever. They will be donated, unopened, to the nearest charity, in your name. Nor will I accept any visits from you alone or with your family,” she glanced at the stairs where everyone was gathered, watching closely, “although you are all always welcome to visit without him!” She turned back to Mark. “These are firm, unassailable boundaries that I intend to protect with every resource in my power. Any questions?”

“No,” muttered Mark, his hand clenching and unclenching, his eyes looking at a place behind Susan’s left shoulder (he never could make eye contact with her when she stood up to him).

“Wonderful!” exclaimed Susan. “Have a wonderful vacation!” Then, softly so that only Mark could hear her, she added, “I win.

Then, without waiting, she turned for the door.

November 25, 2022 21:56

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2 comments

17:20 Nov 27, 2022

That's definitely going to great lengths! I like the commitment of the character in her quest to return the coffee maker. I think it says more about her being so angry about Mark than the pettiness of Mark and the sad way he lives his existence. I could almost hear her say, "It's the principle of the matter!"

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Tamarin Butcher
16:01 Nov 28, 2022

Exactly!!! Thanks for reading <3

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