by Julie Hutchings
“Oh, that’s a terrible present. Nobody wants that.”
I’d been so happy to find this terrifyingly realistic sleeping cat figurine thing, covered in what was surely fur from some skinned rodent. It looked like it might come alive at any emotionally scarring second.
My little sister Bethany had come along for the hot, bright and loud shopping trip. She was only in third grade, and had no idea just how offensive forced Secret Santa could be in high school.
Now here it was Christmas, and she was still grilling me about it. “Why would you want to get your friend something ugly?”
Sigh. “Secret Santa is so spectacular because you can give crappy stuff to people you barely like and they have to think it’s generous. So awesome. It’s all part of Christmas magic.”
The doorbell rang, and the kid sprang to her feet to answer it, the jingle bells on her shoelaces clinking merrily.
“You know it’s just Aunt Crystal, right?” I muttered.
Crystal came in with more pomp and rose-scented-gramma-bathroom perfume than should be allowable.
“My girls!” she screeched, whipping off her gloves and smiling through a shade of lipstick only seen in The Breakfast Club. She squeezed my shoulders and one arm before I could get off the couch, not that I had any intention of it. “Look at you! You’re dress is as red as Santa’s sleigh!” she said, laying a layer of Breakfast Club on my cheek.
Yes. “Or Santa’s blood,” I said. I’d prayed someone would give me the opportunity to say that.
Crystal grimaced and left me to go to the kitchen with the rest of my extended family, all doing their best not to get drunk before noon and failing miserably.
“What did your Secret Santa get you?” Bethany asked me, plopping down next to me and throwing her feet up on the coffee table.
I thunked my head against the back of the couch, tired of this line of questioning. “A pair of crappy earrings.”
“That sounds nice.”
“I knew I’d get something like that, some perfectly reasonable gift.”
“You didn’t want something nice?”
“No, of course I didn’t! You know me, Beth, I don’t want nice things. I want a thing that nobody wants but that wants to be wanted, you know?”
She scrunched her little face all up, layers of elementary school glitter that passed for makeup falling off her cheeks. “Not really. But I think it sounds nice.”
“Well, I’m nothing if not nice.”
Like kids do, she got up and started dancing without warning , really awkwardly like she did everything, to Santa Claus is Coming to Town. I grinned, because man, that kid was cute when she was awkward.
“You’re cute, Beth. Like an onion.”
“What?” She didn’t stop dancing.
“Onions are cute because everyone likes them even though they’re off-putting. I love that.”
“What does off-putting mean?”
Crystal came out of the kitchen with my mother, the two of them laughing so hard that they both sidelined into the Christmas tree, knocking a handful of plastic ornaments to the rug.
“Martie, tell Auntie Crystal what you got for your friend at school,” she said, with a weird pride. My mom bragged about me to her friends like I was the second coming, even though I didn’t always give her reason. It made me love her more.
“Mom, you’re drunk. And it was a crappy cat thing that nobody would want, but I wanted to make someone have it.”
“She has the most unique sense of humor!” my mother yelled too loud, showing how liquored up she was. It made me smile.
“I don’t think Martie really did it to be funny,” Bethany said, gulping air after her dance-off. She picked up a glass of egg nog off the table that she’s gotten over an hour ago and guzzled it, making me wince.
“What do you mean?” Crystal said.
“I think Martie got it for that girl at school because she knew the ugly thing needed to be wanted.”
“Beth, I wasn’t being that thoughtful. I was being kind of a jerk.”
She looked at me with complete puzzlement, but that kid had a glint in her eye, that she knew more than your average kid.
“Do you hear that?” Crystal said, pushing her hairsprayed hair away from her ears and cocking her head. Bethany spit out a little egg nog through a snort, looking at me out of the corner of her eye.
Mom looked at her watch, which didn’t exist, and through a sloppy grin said, “It’s too early for Santa’s sleigh bells, right girls?”
“Wait.” Bethany turned down the music, letting Elvis take a breather. “I hear something, too.” She crossed the living room in short leaps, and opened the door. I got up, shocking myself, but I didn’t want any Christmas weirdos near my kid sister.
“There’s nobody here,” she said. “But I heard—“
“Look,” I whispered. I bent down, dipping my fingers into the fresh snow on the doorstep, and pulled out something by its creepy little ears.
“Why is that here?” Bethany said, as we both looked at the crappy cat figurine covered in matted anonymous animal fur. Crystal and my mom came up behind us to see.
I brushed the snow off it, wishing ridiculously that it wasn’t cold. And I was smiling at it.
“You always get for someone else what you really want,” Mom said in a sober voice into my ear. “You always have, since you were little.”
“I guess I just want everyone else to see things the way I do.”
Crystal kissed me on the cheek again, her perfume bringing me back to every Christmas we’d ever had together. “You see things like no one on Earth, Martie.”
“Your friend must not have wanted it,” Mom said.
“It came here by magic!” Beth said, going cross-eyed she was looking at it so close in my hands.
“She’s not my friend, and I don’t think she brought it here.” There were no tracks in the snow, and it was Christmas, for Chrissakes.
She probably didn’t even know where I lived, and wouldn’t be coming to visit if she did.
Aunt Crystal leaned into my ear, her breath hot and alcoholic. “The things we want others to see sometimes only come alive to the right eyes.”
I looked at her like I never had before, like she was more than just crazy Aunt Crystal, and more than just a fixture that comforted me and reminded me that weird was everywhere.
Then I looked back at the crappy cat thing in my hand.
“Jesus shit, I think the thing moved.”