From Your Secret Admirer
From within the shadows of his three-year-old Ford Escape, Julian gazed at the front door of his boss, Nancy York’s house with his thoughts performing summersaults and roundoffs. A debate whether to attend the Christmas party or whether to press his foot back on the accelerator raged a war inside his mind. There were often droughts of original creativity, but tonight, bouts of ideas stormed into his head. The last thing he wanted to do was sit through yet another meaningless get together with his coworkers when he could be at home writing what could possibly be the next bestseller. However, responsibilities were involved in attending the party, like making sure he did not upset his elderly boss, giving Moraine her secret Santa gift- although she would never find out who it came from because everyone agreed that this year they would keep the gifts a secret- and putting in an effort to familiarize himself with the new cute girl who worked the check-out counter.
Digging into his pocket for the pack of Marlboro cigarettes, he thought about his job at the local bookstore, a small mom and pop shop uptown. Julian liked the job enough. Not only did he get to surround himself with his passion of books, but he enjoyed talking to the customers and greeting avid readers. Lately, ever since the arrival of the new girl, he enjoyed stealing glances at her and wondering if she noticed him. Surely, she had to have noticed. Only ten people worked the bookstore, and they had talked a few times- though, it involved nothing more than a “hey” or “how’s your day?”
Julian lit the cigarette from the lighter in his cupholder and took a drag. More thoughts pounded into his head, and for a few moments, he wondered if he was having an episode of some sort. Perhaps a breakdown. Then, he realized, his racing thoughts didn’t have anything to do with the new novel idea or having a mental breakdown. The reason he wanted to go back home was because of Alice. Julian chuckled, thinking how pathetic it sounded. He was twenty-six and still nervous about talking to girls.
“You gotta be kidding me,” he said aloud. Seeing the smoke lingering in the car, he rolled down his window and fanned it out into the chilly Midwestern atmosphere. He didn’t bother to watch it disappear in the air. Instead, he kept his focus on the house. Inside the home, on the other side of the curtained windows illuminated by yellow lamplight, shadows moved around, dancing with drinks in their hands.
“You’re such a moron,” he told himself, taking his eyes off the house and turning to the rearview mirror to look at himself. “Get out of this damn car.”
He did. The faint sound of Christmas music blew in the cold breeze.
“Are you enjoying the cheese and wine?” Nancy asked as she took a seat next to him on the sofa. Nancy, an elderly woman with gray hair and plenty of wrinkles, leaned in and smiled. Julian smiled back, comforted by her warmness and faint perfume scent which reminded him of his grandmother. She talked above the quiet radio playing holiday tunes.
“Yeah, Nancy,” Julian told her, taking another bite of cheese. “I really am. I’m glad I could make it.”
“Me too, darling,” Nancy said, returning to her position. She reached down and took a slice of cheese off a plate on the glass coffee table in front of them. Julian watched, thanking God Nancy could calm his nerves.
“How’s your writing going?” a voice asked from the other side of the living room.
Julian took his eyes off his boss and stared across the living space to a chair in the corner. Don, one of his coworkers who helped stock shelves, sat looking at him.
“It’s going good,” Julian said with a nod. “I had an idea in the car before I came in. That’s why I was out there thinking for a minute before I walked up to the door.”
Don nodded and smiled. “What’s the idea?”
“I can’t say yet,” Julian chuckled. “I don’t want to jinx it.”
For a reason unknown to him, Julian glanced to his left, towards the kitchen, and saw Alice with a glass of wine in her hand. She was staring directly at him. Though he only glanced, Julian saw her every detail perfectly and could still see her in his mind’s eye when he quickly looked away and began to blush. He saw her slender hips, red lips curled into a smile, sharp jawline, and glowing makeup. His face grew warm- no, hot. He hoped nobody noticed.
“Oooo,” Don sounded. “So, it’s good?”
“I think so,” Julian responded.
“What genre is it going to be?” Nancy butted into the conversation again. “Are you still keeping up with your love of science fiction?”
Julian nodded again. “Yeah. It’s still science fiction, but after I write a couple sci-fi books, I’m going to try a different genre. I don’t want to fall into a certain category. I want to experiment a little.”
He flicked his eyes towards the kitchen and saw Alice had jumped into a conversation with some of his coworkers in the other room. Together, they were eating cookies. Mingled words in their conversation reached the living room, but Julian could not understand the topic. Instead of being nosy, he looked at Don, who opened his mouth to speak.
“Is it about aliens or other planets? Something like that?”
Julian laughed again, finding the stereotype of science fiction funny. “No. Nothing like that.”
“Does it involve cool gadgets?” Nancy asked.
Julian turned to her. “Maybe.”
“Whatever it is, I bet it will be amazing,” she told him. “You’re a great writer, Julian. I’ve read those short stories you’ve gotten published. When this new book is published, we’ll set it at the front door of the shop so all the customers will see it when they walk in.”
Julian found himself blushing again. “Thanks, Nancy. I appreciate it.”
“No problem. Ready to start secret Santa gifts?”
Julian thought about his gift for Moraine: a few DVD’s and a scratch-off lottery ticket. It was nothing much, but then again, last week when the party was planned, everyone agreed with two rules to secret Santa: no expensive gifts, and this time around, nobody confesses to each other about who gives who presents.
“Yeah,” Julian told her. “Let’s see what we got.”
Nancy curled her lips into another excited smile. Another feeling of warmness flowed into Julian’s heart at the sight. Though the nervousness about having to be around Alice still coursed through him, he was glad he ended up getting out of the car and coming into the house. He could only imagine the hurt he would cause Nancy if he didn’t show up.
“Okay,” Nancy told him. Then, a little louder for everyone in the house to hear, she said, “Okay everyone! Secret Santa time!”
Nancy, since the house belonged to her and she hosted the party, stood at the front of the small crowd and stared at her employees, which were all seated either on the sofa or on the floor around the sofa. The old woman glanced cheerfully at the crowd, and she held her hands up as if in prayer. She might’ve been praying, Julian guessed with a smile, praying everyone enjoyed the night and enjoyed their gifts. Julian sure hoped Moraine would enjoy what he got for her. He would watch her face when she opened her presents to see how she responded.
“Thank you everyone for coming to the seventh secret Santa office Christmas party!” Nancy announced to the small group. “I know it’s not much, but it’s something for the holidays, even though Christmas isn’t actually for another few days. However, I think it’s good to bond with your fellow coworkers and spread some cheer.”
Nancy stopped talking for a moment to look around at the crowd. Everyone stared back, then glanced at the wrapped presents on the table behind her. Although everyone enjoyed listening to the sweet woman speak, the Christmas gifts were louder than ever, calling their names and waiting to be opened.
“Behind me are the presents,” Nancy said and motioned towards the presents behind her. “There is one present for each of you. This year we decided to make it more fun. There will be no guessing! Nobody should tell each other who gave who a present.”
“What if they can read it on our faces?” Alice piped up, her voice soft and curious.
Julian smiled and turned to look at the girl. Her brunette hair glowed in the lamplight, and her brown eyes sparkled. He felt as if he had been tugged out of reality and put in the middle of a movie- one of those hopeless romantic movies where it seemed as if the guy was destined to be with the girl. The Christmas holiday helped bloom the feeling.
“Even if you have a horrible poker face,” their boss said with a grin, “you don’t give in.”
Alice nodded, smiling. “Okay.”
“And nobody opens their present until we all get one,” Nancy said, turning around to grab a present. “Deal?”
A murmur of agreement passed through the crowd, then Nancy began to pass out the presents, calling out name after name until everyone received a gift.
Julian received his present last, a small gift wrapped in red hearts. When he first got the gift in his hands, he overlooked the wrapping paper, only noticing the size of it, no larger than his hand. Then, turning it over and pondering what could be inside, he noticed what covered it. The paper reminded him of what couples give each other on Valentine’s Day. Julian smiled, finding the choice of wrapping paper odd but thinking it probably didn’t mean anything.
“Okay,” Nancy said once she gave Julian his present. “Everyone can now begin opening their gifts.”
A sudden storm of ripping paper sounded from the living room. Everyone, except for Julian, began tearing away like hungry savages. Julian, instead of tearing away immediately, turned the present over in his hands and stared at the red hearts. He wondered if an old box of Valentine’s chocolate could be found inside. If so, he probably would kindly accept but not eat any of the stale candy. Finally realizing everyone was almost done tearing their presents open, he began doing it too, remembering to sneak a glance at Moraine. She appeared to be smiling on the other side of the couch.
Tearing the red heart wrapping paper off, which give him the strange feeling of destroying something sacred, the first thing he noticed about the present was the word “King” written at the top of the gift. The sight caused his heart to flutter, and he tore into the present again, revealing “Stephen” over the “King.”
Though Stephen King was his favorite author of all time- one of the Father’s of Horror, as Julian often called him- he pretty much had everything King had ever written, except for the new book which had come out a couple months ago. He made a new tear, this time revealing the title The Institute. Upon seeing this, a huge smile formed on his face.
“Whoever got me this has my heart forever,” Julian said. “This is the only Stephen King book I don’t have.”
Julian glanced around the room to see if anyone had heard him, but everyone appeared to be occupied with their own gifts. Moraine stared at her DVD’s with a smile, then began to play her scratch-off lottery ticket. Julian grinned, but he moved his eyes back to his present, amazed that of all the King books, someone gave him the one he did not have yet.
The young writer took the book out of the red heart wrapping paper and flipped it over in his hands, analyzing the front and back as if he had just discovered the Holy Grail. He glanced at King’s author photo, quickly read the summary on the back, and returned to the front cover art. A warm giddy feeling started in his stomach before it spread throughout his body. He would begin reading it as soon as he got home. For now, however, he smiled and thought about how stupid he was for wanting to ditch earlier. If he had done so, he would have surely missed out.
“Dang,” Julian whispered to himself.
He stuck his thumb under the cover and opened it. For those who are fascinated with the art of novels, opening a new book can be like discovering an ancient tomb. Julian felt like an explorer as he opened the cover page and gazed at the inside of the book, but instead of finding a list of reviews like novels usually had on the opening pages, Julian found a written note just for him. On the back of the cover page, written in cursive at the top left corner, a message read: To Julian, From Your Secret Admirer, Christmas 2019.
Another feeling of deep warmness started in his gut and moved across his whole body. His face grew red, and his smile grew larger.
Nancy, of course, Julian thought.
Upon looking up, however, the only person in the room who stared at him was Alice. Her eyes sparkled, and her lips curved into a pretty smile. Then, like it had never happened, she looked away, moving her hair behind her ear as she did so.
There are certain moments in everyone’s life in which a divine presence enters and fiddles with the joysticks of time and space. These are often falsely coined “coincidences,” but those who possess a little faith and an open mind can see these moments for what they really are: fate. On the Christmas of 2019, fate, put there by the hands of God, made Nancy announce to the party that they should all watch a Christmas movie before going home for the holidays. Work, she said, would resume on January fourth, giving each of them a short break to spend time with their loved ones. Due to this unexpected announcement of a movie, Alice excused herself before the movie started to take a quick smoke break outside. Julian, unaware of Alice stepping out, excused himself a moment later for the same reason.
Julian walked to the door, a smile on his face, not only because of receiving a book he wanted to get his hands on, but because he had caught Alice staring at him twice. But even more surprising was that he was almost positive Alice had given him the book and had written “From Your Secret Admirer” on the back of the cover.
As he stepped into the cold night air belonging to the small Midwestern town, he failed to see Alice sitting in a chair on the porch. The smell of her burning cigarette did not manage to reach his nose until he closed the house door behind him and started to take the Marlboro pack out of his pocket. By the time the smell did reach him, it was too late to retreat back into the house. He found himself alone on the porch with her. She glowed in the yellow porch light just as she had glowed in the kitchen light earlier that evening.
“How’s the party going for you?” Alice asked him before he could summon words.
“I… I… it’s great,” Julian stammered, cheeks flushed.
“Did you like your present?” she asked with a smile and a drag of her cigarette.
“Yeah,” Julian said, nodding. “Thanks. I don’t know how you-”
“Who said I got you the present?”
“Well,” Julian started, “I assumed you did because when I looked up you were looking directly at me.”
“Is my poker face that bad?” she asked with a giggle. Her teeth were as white as the snow starting to fall from the sky. Her lips were as red as Julian’s blushing cheeks.
“It’s not the best I’ve seen,” Julian chuckled. “How did you know I liked King?”
“Because who doesn’t?” she said, taking another drag. “Plus, Nancy told me. She knows about the whole “From Your Secret Admirer” thing I wrote. She said that would be a way to impress you.”
“You’ve succeeded,” Julian said, realizing he still hadn’t lit a cigarette. He hung his head, grabbed one out of the pack, and put it to his lips.
“You need a light?” Alice asked. She brought a lighter out of her pocket and held it up. Suddenly a flame burst from the top of it.
“Sure,” he said, leaning over. As the flame touched the end of the cigarette, Julian realized how close he was to her. He could smell her perfume, feel her presence, and hear her gentle breathing. Along with the smoke coming from her mouth, a cloud of vapor escaped while she talked.
“It’s really impressive that you’re a writer,” she told him. “Nancy said you have some things published?”
“Yeah,” Julian nodded with a smile. “Just a couple short stories in some sci-fi magazines. Nothing too special.”
“Can I read some of them?”
“I don’t see why not,” he chuckled.
Julian took a step towards her, but just as he did so, the front door of the house swung open. Nancy stood in the doorway, a smile on her face and cookie in her hand. She glanced at Alice, then looked at Julian.
“Come on you two love birds,” she said while looking directly at Julian. Her blue eyes were wide, and her nose scrunched up. Then, looking down at Alice, she said, “The movie is about to start. Stop sucking on your cancer sticks and come in. It’s too cold out here.”
With that said, the door closed, leaving Alice and Julian in silence. Laughter came a moment later.