(written for the [Fiction] Friday prompt on December 19, 2008: write a scene involving exactly two characters that involves a terrible holiday gift)

Tim stood there holding the package in his hands, unsure of what to do. He looked from the package to the crumpled up wrapping paper that was on the sidewalk, to the beaming, radiant smile on Debbie’s face and back again.

“I—” he started, then stopped. He cleared his throat and shifted on his feet. “I—I don’t know what to say.”

“Tell me you love it,” said Debbie, excitedly. “Tell me it is what you were hoping for. Tell me it is just what you always wanted.”

Tim opened his mouth to speak and then closed it when he found no words coming out of it. He held up the clear plastic bag that was the package and examined the items contained within it and licked his lips nervously despite the cold winter wind. He was truly at a loss for words.

He had known Debbie since they were babies, though they had not seen much of each other in the past thirteen years, since Debbie had moved away. They had certainly not exchanged Christmas gifts with each other, really ever, except for the one time that he had given her a present in the ninth grade, when the weight of the massive crush he had had on her had become too much for him to bear any longer. As if she was reading his mind, she asked, “Remember when you gave me almost this same set?”

“Yeah,” he said, half laughing, half coughing as the memory of the event came back to him.

He had been too nervous to ask her to go to the movies or the school dance or even to ask her to walk to and from school “with him” as opposed to the simply platonic walking “next to” each other that they had done for years. Yet he could not get her out of his mind, no matter what he did. All he could think of was her long blond hair flowing gently in the breeze that was generated by the forced-air heater of the cluttered classroom, her smile radiating like the sun itself, her laugh tickling his spine, her voice sounding like a choir of a million angels all singing the sweetest song of joy… He could talk to her about anything, yet when it came to the point of asking her to join him for something as simple as a soda in the school cafeteria, he couldn’t do it.

So, he decided instead to give her a Christmas present. It took him weeks to pick out just the right gift and then to wrap it and pick out the perfect time and place to give it to her. He had thought about buying her a new CD but he simply could not bring himself to support the latest boy band. He thought about buying her a movie, but he didn’t know if she had already seen the movies he could afford to buy on video cassette or not. He thought about making her a card out of construction paper but he decided that making a homemade card would seem too desperate and weird when coming from a fifteen year old boy.

After a few weeks of searching, he had settled on what he thought was the perfect gift for her, picking it up one afternoon at the mall. Tim approached the register nervously, anxiously eyeing the woman who stood behind it with the big hair, too much makeup and fake smile that everyone in the store had on them at this time of year. He quickly threw the exact change on the counter, grabbed the receipt and hid the package in the big pocket on the inside of his thick winter coat in hopes that no one would notice it. He did it all quickly so that there was no way for him to change his mind and chicken out of doing it.

On the last day of school before the Christmas holidays, Tim found himself walking home next to Debbie, not because he had asked her to join him or because it had been arranged in any way, but simply because they were next-door neighbors and they happened to be walking home at the same time and on the same sidewalk. When they arrived at the end of his driveway, Tim anxiously pulled the intricately wrapped gift out of his backpack and handed it to her. They stood there, looking at each other. Tim said, “Merry Christmas, I hope you like me… I mean… it.” And then he ran into his house and did not come out again until school started up again after the two week long winter break.

When they returned to school, Tim had hoped to learn whether or not Debbie liked the gift. He had hoped to see the pink combs or the silver barrettes pressed perfectly into her perfect hair, or to smell the soft scent of the strawberry-kiwi shampoo and conditioner radiating from her shiny, golden tresses. But instead what he saw was that her hair had been cut short over the break, nearly a buzz cut, and he felt sick and stupid for having gotten her hair accessories when she was going to get her hair chopped off. Suppressing his urge to make a joke about the resemblance to O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” which they had been reading prior to the break, Tim had stared at her nearly bald head without coming up with anything appropriate to say to her.

“Lice,” she had explained to him after seeing his stunned gaze. “My little brother’s kindergarten class has an outbreak of it and my parents… they just don’t want to deal with it so we all had to get shaved even though none of us had any.” She sounded like she was going to cry as she looked away quickly and so Tim simply let go of his curiosity about her reaction to his gift, which, as he thought about it, had gone from being “the perfect gift” to being a really terrible gift in the end. He never learned whether or not she liked or used any of the Perfect Hair Care and Accessories set he had gotten for her, for soon after returning from winter break, Debbie and her family moved across town. She was only a few minutes away but she was now in a different school and essentially that meant that she was out of Tim’s life.

But today, on a sunny and cold Christmas Eve some thirteen years later, Tim stood face to face with Debbie. They had regained contact several weeks ago when both of them tried to cut the same spruce while they were out getting a Christmas tree at the local tree farm. They had talked for a while over hot chocolate at the tree farm’s little beverage stand, with Debbie expressing surprise that Tim had bought his childhood home from his parents when they decided to move to Alaska “to find their inner peace.” She also quite enjoyed making fun of Tim’s perfectly bald, shiny head. They had been cordial at the Christmas tree farm, almost as if it had not been such a long time since they had seen each other. They each expressed surprise that the other had not run off and gotten married, each agreeing that finding the right person had proven complicated at best and disastrous at worst. They had a good time talking about the old days for a few moments, parting with the typical promises of keeping in touch but with no specific plans to see or talk to each other again.

And so it was with great surprise that Tim found Debbie standing out on the sidewalk in front of his driveway that Christmas Eve morning. Debbie was still the most stunning female Tim had ever seen, with her long blond hair and radiant smile still lighting up the whole world or at least his world. She had pulled the intricately wrapped package out of her purse and handed it to him, saying nothing. After a few moments she finally said, “Come on, Tim, open it!” and he complied.

“I hope you like… it…” she said quietly as he slowly ripped the red and green paper off of the unexpected present, dropping the paper to the ground. He stood there, confused, as he stared at a Perfect Hair Care and Accessories kit… blue and purple combs, shiny barrettes, peach-lavender shampoo and conditioner and a bonus soy-based scented candle. He turned the plastic case over in his hands and then stared at her, unsure of what to say. It was quite possibly the worst present he had ever received in his life. Worse than the bright orange and pink striped faux-llama-hair sweater his mother had knitted and mailed to him from Alaska. Worse than the collection of 1980’s nostalgia boy bands CD collection his sister had given him two years ago. Worse than the Malibu Barbie doll Santa had given him when he was eight and had asked for a GI Joe doll. This hair care kit was, in a word, terrible.

“I—” he started, then stopped. He cleared his throat and shifted on his feet. “I—I don’t know what to say.”

“Tell me you love it,” said Debbie, excitedly. “Tell me it is what you were hoping for. Tell me it is just what you always wanted.”

Tim opened his mouth to speak and then closed it without saying anything. He held up the clear plastic bag that was the package and examined the items contained within it. “Are you sure this was… for me?” he asked her after a while.

“Yes,” she said. “Why wouldn’t it be?”

“Well,” he answered, rubbing his free hand slowly against his shiny, cold skull, “for one thing, I am as bald as a cue ball, if you haven’t noticed.”

“I figured you could still… find a use for it,” she said. “I, um… I had thought about getting you a CD or a movie or something, but I didn’t know what you had. Then I thought you might… well, maybe you can share them… with someone… or whatever. I don’t know.” She was looking straight down at the sidewalk as she talked.

“Well,” he said, still searching for words. “Maybe if I had hair to wash, I could use the shampoo. Or the combs. Or… um… Look. It was very… thoughtful… of you to get me this. I mean… wow… it’s really a surprise.”

“You don’t like it,” she said, her bright smile fading slightly as she clenched up her teeth. “I’ve made you uncomfortable, I’m sorry. It was… stupid… a terrible gift. I – I just thought… I…”

Debbie turned and started to walk away quickly, heading back to her car that was parked on the street.

Tim said, “Wait!” and she stopped, not looking at him. “Do you want some coffee or something?” he asked. “I was just about to make a pot.”

She turned around, her smile radiating through her golden hair, which was being blown against her face by the cold wind. “I would… love some coffee,” she said. “If it isn’t any trouble, I mean.”

“No trouble at all,” he said. Looking at the Perfect Hair Care and Accessories bag he had just been gifted, he added, “Maybe we’ll light this candle and see what soybeans smell like when they’re burned.”

Debbie laughed and they walked toward the house, talking about all the different, weird things the world was doing with soybeans these days. As they walked, Tim noticed the faint scent of strawberry-kiwi coming from Debbie’s hair and noticed for the first time the little pink combs that were placed perfectly in her golden tresses.

He opened the door and watched as Debbie walked through it, realizing that he had been terribly mistaken about the gift he had received that morning. It was, quite possibly, the most wonderful gift he had ever received in his life.