White Elephant Exchange

Here's another flash fiction piece published in The Florida Writer.

Brenda leaned against the yacht club’s small bar. She loathed her firm’s holiday parties. Drinking. Badly sung carols. Stories re-gifted upon hapless young associates like herself. More drinking. She took it all in, smiling at all the right times, waiting for an opportunity for a polite exit.

The clink of ice hitting the bottom of a glass tumbler drew her attention. A long pour—expensive bourbon with a splash of Diet Coke. The fizz died in a heartbeat, but she could smell the alcohol-laced effervescence. Donald Leech, the firm’s youngest partner, dropped a tip into a jar and slurred his thanks to the slack-eyed bartender. “You want anything, Brenda?”

Brenda clutched her half-empty wineglass, the chardonnay now warm. She didn’t want the drink, but it gave her an excuse to avoid Don shoving another in her face. “No, I’m fine.”

Don shrugged, slicked back his thinning hair, and knocked back another gulp. “Suit yourself.” He thumbed the platinum band on his ring finger. His eyes drifted, ogling like a frat boy at his first social with the cross-campus sorority. “But you need to lighten up. Drink more. How else are you going to make partner?”

Brenda stiffened. Their affair began after celebrating a big win. Too much booze and a bad decision. Now his subtle threat put her on high alert. If she wasn’t careful, she’d lose her track to a partnership. She forced herself to smile. “I’m having fun. Lots of fun.”

The piano belted out another rendition of Oh, Come All Ye Faithful. Their fellow co-workers crowded around the pianist, reading lyrics from faded printouts. The amateur choir’s dissonance bombarded Brenda with a phoniness deeper than the gaudy tinsel on the artificial tree.

Don raised an eyebrow. “You don’t look like you’re having fun. You used to be so . . . ,” he dropped his voice, “enthusiastic.”

“That was a mistake—one that could ruin us both.”

Don grimaced and took another sip from his drink. “My marriage sucks.”

“That doesn’t change anything.”

His clammy hand went to her bare arm—caressing with one finger. “What are you afraid of? My wife will never find out.”

She backed away. “Don’t. Touch. Me.”

He blinked and finally looked her in the eyes. They clouded with alcoholic haze.

She thumped her glass down on a bar napkin and straightened her skirt. “Excuse me. I need to use the restroom.”

Don’s eyes roamed the room, focusing on other women. “Sure, sure. But don’t take too long—we’re about to start the White Elephant Exchange.”

Heartbeats later, the bathroom’s gold faucet sluiced cold water into Brenda’s shaking hands. She splashed water on her face, taking great gasping breaths. She caught the reflection of a familiar painting in the mirror—a schooner caught in a tempest.

Did she really want to be Don’s partner in the firm? What about the rest of those bloated windbags who terrorized their associates? Did she want to become one of them? Like the King of Siam’s albino elephants gifted on disfavored courtiers, the firm’s partnership jangled before her—a set of golden shackles.

The door squeaked open. A perky college-aged woman poked her head inside and gave a sniff. What was her name? Carolyn? No, Karen. She had a hard time keeping track of the growing list of ever-changing secretaries who worked for Don.

“Mr. Leech wants everyone back to open gifts.” Karen held her hands on her hips.

“Yeah, okay.” Brenda threw the used towel into a bin and followed her escort back to the party.

The partners and their minions gathered around the tree. Don handed out numbered paper scraps. Another year, another herd of white elephant gifts. An ugly sweater. A handmade ashtray. A gift card to a popular restaurant. Same old, same old.

“Who’s got number seven?” Don’s gaze lingered on Brenda. “Lucky number seven?”

Brenda blinked and read the crumpled scrap in her fingers. “That’s me.”

Don leered. “Wonderful.” He handed over a gift bag. “I know you’ll love it.”

The sack felt heavy. She pulled green tissue paper aside—expensive wine from her favorite vineyard.

“Well?”

Brenda handed the bottle back to Don. “I quit.”


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