The Perfect Gift
by Paige Duke
Under cover of darkness, a girl ran to the dumpster behind the beat-up Shell station. She looked around to be sure she was alone, but she needn’t have worried. There was no one out yet at 3 a.m., and the gas station clerk was snoozing. No one watching to see her bruises, the tear in her hoodie, or the curious thing she pulled from her bag to toss in with the other garbage. And after she was free of the thing, still no one to see her sprinting away, away, away.
Today was the day, Ted could feel it. Today he would find the perfect Christmas gift for Alison. As he walked down toward the strip of boutiques on Main Street, stuffing his hands in the pockets of his puff coat against the November chill, he saw how it would be. Christmas morning, she’d wake beside him, after a night at his place of course—she’d be staying over by then, definitely—and pester him about her present, the twelfth one, the perfect one. He had the other eleven picked out and wrapped already, sitting in a cheery pile beneath his Charlie Brown Christmas tree they’d put up together after Thanksgiving. So Christmas morning, wearing her vintage kimono robe (Day Four’s present), Alison would lean into him and beg him for her perfect gift with that way she pouted at him.
Ooh, he shivered just thinking about it. That’s where the vision stopped, though, because of course he didn’t have the perfect present yet. But he would. Today was the day; he could feel it. Something about his hair. It was the first good hair day he’d had in more than a month. The static electricity just messed with it at this time of the winter. He’d brush it, not brush it, wash it, not wash it; nothing he tried made a difference—not even his Brooklyn pomade—it would stick straight up like he’d rubbed a balloon over it. But not today. Today when he’d put the brush to it, it lay down perfectly and stayed that way.
So, his unshakable optimism led him through one store after another. He first tried the boutiques, because he’d heard Alison and her girlfriends talking about them over their long lunches. He hated how those things just dragged on, but there was usually a pretty intense make-out session at her place after, so he just powered through. But what the girls failed to mention was how damn expensive everything was in those shops. He couldn’t afford more than a comb or a nail file after all the other eleven presents. No, that was not perfect present material.
Ted tried the antique shops next, his spirits still holding. Alison loved antiques. Nothing in her apartment was from Target, except maybe a basket or something. She had a thing about baskets—organizing in general. He’d tried to start picking up his own place more, hoping that might encourage her to come over more. To stay over.
But the antique places were a bust too. They weren’t as expensive, but everything was just . . . old. Right, but not the right kind of old. Like cracked plates and dusty magazines and shit. No. That wasn’t right for the perfect present. So Ted kept walking and looking in windows, feeling his hopes draining with every step. Then it was sleeting and he felt his hair frizzing and he was about to call it quits. He must have misread the perfect-hair-day sign.
He was headed back to the car when he saw it—the old Shell station. He couldn’t believe the place was still open, it looked in such bad shape. Back in his freegan days, Ted and his buddies from the Meetup.com group would dumpster dive there for the overflow from the vegan place next door. They’d come across some good stuff there sometimes, Huck had even found an old Lomo camera once that was in perfect condition. People didn’t know what they had, just chunked that stuff. Plus, he’d met Alison at the Shell. He’d stood in line behind her, overheard her trying to buy a pack of American Spirits, but she’d left her card at home. He saw again how he’d stepped up beside her and said to the clerk, “I’ll take two packs,” as he laid a bill on the counter. She’d smiled up at him, blonde, pretty, and those full lips.
Ted found himself walking toward the dumpster. He felt stupid, sure. Dumpster diving for the perfect gift? But this was the day and he’d tried every place else, after all. He looked around to be sure no one was watching him, slipped inside the rickety fence, and peered in at the trash heap. There were boxes turning soft with the sleet, mounds of takeout wrappers, food scraps. He stretched on tiptoe to see if he could catch sight of anything else. And he did see something. A glint of metallic light, glistening with a sheen of wetness. As he strained to see further, he saw its curved shape. It looked promising. He reached in and hooked a finger around the thing, it had a kind of loop.
Ted pulled it out, feeling by its weight that it was right. The thing lying in his hand made his chest grow warm. It looked like an antique! Like a gravy boat, only fancier and with a spout on it. Its copper-colored lid had scrollwork-type decorations and foreign script on the sides. He tried to pry the top off, but it was stuck. Even when he brushed the sleet off with his flannel shirt, he couldn’t make it budge. But that didn’t matter. He felt it. He grinned and turned to go home, clutching the thing in the crook of his arm, oblivious to the unnatural heat of it against his puff coat.
It was perfect. Alison was going to love it.
Genie Not Included
by Dani Nicole
Ten years and the lamp hasn’t moved. I watch it, polish it, and leave it just like I’m supposed to. Just like the king told me to.
I still look at the entrance to the cave like some gorgeous, beautiful, breathtaking woman is going to walk through it. I would ask her on a date, but she would probably say no considering I don’t really shower anymore. The lake water in the cave is all I can use. But after I asked her on a date and she said no, I might ask her if she could watch the damn lamp and give me a break. Maybe she would feel sorry for me and say yes.
This is what my mind resorts to in the dark hours of the dark cave of the dark life of being the dark lamp watcher.
All the king’s orders are because of some stupid myth that one day, maybe, just possibly, there is a slight chance that the lamp will shiver and a big ass-genie will come popping out of it.
Holy hell, I would love to see that. I kind of wish he’d wait until the hot girl shows up and surprise the crap out of both of us, just before we were about to kiss. Then when he asked me what my three wishes were, the first one would be just another damn minute so I could finish the job. It’d be pretty awesome to show off my wooing of the ladies in front of an all-powerful genie.
But I have a feeling genies aren’t the type to cater to your every need. After all, they only give you three wishes. They’re not going to sit around until you make up your mind. So I’d have to have all three wishes ready. But I’ve only thought of one wish so far.
Ah, to hell with it. It’s not real anyways. And I’m just some stupid kid sitting on the floor of a cave covered in mold. I’m not sure if I smell like mold, or if I’ve been here so long the mold smells like me.
What I need to focus on is dinner. A rat skitters across my feet and I stab it with my blade. I used to flinch at the sight of blood, at the sound of bones crushing. Now it’s an everyday feat, and a necessity to staying alive in a cave full of rodents and fish.
I reach in my sack for the box of matches. When I pick it up I know I’m in trouble. It’s entirely too light. I slide the box open. Yep. Empty. Fantastic. Now I’ll just have to wait for the king’s lackeys to deliver more supplies in the morning.
Maybe Archibald will come. I like that guy. He always sticks around to chat. Kind of gets that whole isolation thing and how it makes you batshit crazy and whatnot.
I inhale, holding the rat carcass in my hands, letting the blood run to the ground. I really don’t like rat sushi. But I really don’t have a choice. I inhale, bring the rat to my lips, and swallow bile. I hold my breath and bite down.
What was that?
I suspend the rat carcass in mid air. It hangs in limbo as I stare at the small golden lamp, sitting beneath the light on its stone sanctuary. Nothing about the lamp looks different. It hasn’t moved. Pivoted. Broken. That means that my ass is still covered, and also that I’m seeing things.
Great just more proof that I’m batshit cra–
There it is again.
I throw the rat on the ground. Stand up. Walk to the lamp. After ten years I’ve never touched it. I’ve never dared to break the king’s rules. But suddenly I am filled with an overwhelming urge to pick up the lamp. I want to hold it. I want to trace the intricate scrolling with my fingertips.
I stop inches from it, squatting so I’m at eye level.
“Hello,” I say to it, because when you’ve been in a cave for ten years, sometimes you talk to inanimate objects.
The lamp sits there mockingly, glimmering under the light.
“To hell with this,” I say.
But just as I turn to walk away, the ancient lamp starts to shake.