The Gift of the (Da)magi(ng), by Alissa Nutting

Della and Jimmy fought all the time. People often told them, “You fight like a married couple!” This joke was usually told by a mutual friend to diffuse tension, as Della and Jimmy’s fights public fights were personal and awkward. Example: tonight Della and Jimmy were out to dinner with Beth and Trevor. Looking over the menu, Trevor asked Della, What are you going to have? And Della gave Jimmy an unamused stare and said, Well I can tell you what I’m not having Trevor—orgasms. Jimmy shrugged and silently looked down at his menu, then his eyebrows lifted. It seemed like he was about to read an item of culinary interest aloud, like the description of the seared tilapia, but instead he said, That sounds like a personal problem, Della. All the electricity in the world couldn’t make a broken bulb light up. Beth kicked Trevor’s leg beneath the table. Della and Jimmy were more Trevor’s friends. She’s never liked them. Truthfully Trevor hasn’t either, but he was a little afraid of them and feared that if he declined their invitation then the venom-tipped gazes Della and Jimmy normally reserved for one another might turn outward upon him. 

So Trevor now produced a false laugh and said, You two fight like a married couple! Did you get engaged this past weekend behind everyone’s backs? He comically made a show of looking at Della’s finger for a ring. No, Della responded, I don’t think so. Unless by ‘getting engaged’ you mean did I watch my partner fail to maintain an erection for more than five minutes then excuse himself to the bathroom to check sports scores on his iPhone. Her gaze moved from Jimmy to Trevor. Is that what you meant by ‘getting engaged’?Trevor gave another weak laugh. Beth scratched at her hairline and looked at the tablecloth to see if there were any stains on it; if she were able to find one, she could play a game with herself where she’d decide which animal’s figure most closely resembled the shape of the stain. At Trevor’s parents’ house, she’d recently noticed the dining room table’s left-hand quadrant bore the faintest splotch of gravy. It was nearly invisible until she saw it, but once she had, she could even see it from across the room, and from a certain angle it looked like an egret whose beak was facing the upwards to the sky.

After Beth and Trevor abruptly left the restaurant, long before the table’s meals even arrived. I’m sorry for not mentioning it earlier, Beth had apologized, but I didn’t want to bring the two of you down—I found out this morning that my cat has to have surgery and I’m so worried. I should’ve cancelled but I didn’t want to be rude.  Trevor frowned and then nodded. Yes, he agreed, then further emphasized: yes, your cat. Jimmy raised his glass into the air. To your cat! he declared. What’s its name? He eyed the empty bottle of wine on the table. Had he accidentally drunk it all by himself? Its name, Beth repeated. Its name. Trevor stood.Thank you both for a lovely evening. 

Della sighed. I appreciate you giving the evening a try, Beth, she said. Some people won’t give anything an honest try. Except bottles of wine. Are you ready for another yet, Jimmy? Do you realize we haven’t gotten the appetizers yet? Trevor gave another nervous laugh then waved and walked very quickly toward the door to try to catch up to Beth, who had already exited the restaurant and was now walking down the street.

Trevor’s earlier words now rang in Della’s ears: like a married couple. Yes, people were always saying this. While she didn’t want to marry Jimmy, she was also a bit offended that he’d never asked her. When she said so, he responded that she’d probably love for him to ask her just so she could turn him down. You’d never have the balls to ask me, she said. Jimmy tried to suppress the burp that followed drinking an entire bottle of cabernet in fifteen minutes and was less successful than he realized. I’ll go to the courthouse right now, he said, thinking he’d called her bluff. 

But that’s what he wanted, Della knew—her to confess she wouldn’t marry him. At that point, he’d be able to declare that their entire relationship was then pointless, that it needed to be dissolved: he could instantly win his freedom. Let’s see who wimps out first, Della said. Neither of them managed to. Fifteen years later, as Christmas approached, Della asked Jimmy what he wanted as a holiday present, and he said what he always said: I’d like to never see your face again. Then he asked, And you? I think I have an insightful guess as to what would make my dear wife happy on Christmas morning. And Della stared into the kitchen at the knife block on the counter and said, Yes. My standing order hasn’t changed. It would be so thoughtful if you’d let me stab you through the heart. That night she thought about how if her wish came true, his would come true as well, and she smiled. Why not let this be the year that they both finally got what they wanted?

On Christmas Eve, before she began her nightly shower, she placed a long knife beneath her pillow and decided that tomorrow morning it would happen: her gift to him would also be a gift to herself. But when Jimmy lay down in bed, something struck him as feeling wrong. He couldn’t place it at first, but then he realized his wife was singing Christmas carols in the shower. Della, in a festive mood? It frightened him. He found himself looking over in bed at her pillow, which now appeared to be extra fluffed, placed perfectly even with the headboard. His hand shook as he reached out to it, perhaps because he knew what he would find beneath, but when he saw it, it was somehow still a shock. He glimpsed his mouth opening to scream in the reflection of the blade, and quickly lifted the pillow to his face to stifle it. In the shower, his wife belted out a string of, Fa-la-la-la-la!

His disbelief and fear quickly turned to anger. Della was getting this much happiness out of his planned murder? No, he decided, he couldn’t give her the satisfaction. He acted quickly, slitting his arms, wrists, and throat. In the shower, Della started in on verse two of “Deck the Halls.” When she came out of the bathroom fifteen minutes later, he was dead. 

Della fumed. He probably thinks this means he won, Della reasoned. She didn’t know if there was an afterlife or not, but she figured it was worth a try. If his goal was never to have to see her again, it was up to her to find him and make him look. She slit her arms and wrists and throat as well, and soon found herself sitting on the side of a busy pedestrian street in a world that had some similarities to the living world. There were many tents set up that appeared to be storefronts. She heard a burp and smelled cabernet, then turned to see Jimmy standing in front of her. Their corpses bore identical wounds. You look pale, she told Jimmy. How’d you get here already? he asked her. I just got here. Della smirked. Sorry to crash your party.

One hour till Christmas! one of the tent-owners yelled. Get your wares now! This man was missing one side of his face; a blue light radiated out of the hole. She noticed most people passing by her were spilling blue light from one fatal injury site or another. The light made everyone’s body seem flimsy and hollow, like a paper lantern cover. She looked at the tear in her own wrist and saw something inside but very far away, a distant blue light that did seem to be growing brighter. She tried to press her finger down inside the tear but somehow couldn’t, so she let it be and began looking around her. The tents seemed filled with jars upon jars of curiosities; people were bartering and yelling like mad. The excitement made Della antsy. We should get one another gifts? she offered.  Jimmy shrugged and nodded, dispersing into the crowd. Della turned and went the other way.

Nothing in the jars looked kind, and people weren’t paying with money. She watched a man with no legs exchange his tongue for a rusty razor blade. She covered her eyes when the tentkeeper drew out a long blade and sliced it from the man’s mouth, but there was no blood and no scream—instead blue light began to spill from the man’s mouth, and there was the sound of a window opening in a moving car, or the inside of a seashell. Della almost swore she felt a breeze. Was air blowing in from somewhere?

The tentkeeper saw her and nodded, handing over a curious lead cylinder filled nearly to the brim with yellow liquid. It’s acid, he said. He was chewing gum. A pink bubble began to blow out of his nostril, grew to cover half his face then popped and retreated back up his nose. If your husband doesn’t want to see you, you should burn his eyes out. Della picked up the cylinder and considered. Since it was Christmas Eve and all, the man mentioned, he would give her a deal. It would only cost her a hand.

She was left with a wrist that looked like a blue flashlight and felt invigoratingly cold, like a peppermint wind was blowing on the wound. She searched the crowd for what seemed like hours until she finally spied the back of Jimmy’s head a few yards away. Five minutes till Christmas! a voice yelled. Everyone cheered. Jimmy was moving in the opposite direction; the crowd was increasingly growing. People seemed to be flooding in all around her on all sides. She made steady progress toward him, inching through the people, carrying the sloshing cylinder in her remaining hand, but for every step she took, Jimmy seemed to take another step even farther away. When the ten-second countdown to Christmas started to be chanted out, Della grew desperate—she began pushing, clawing, calling out Jimmy’s name. When she neared him at the count of three, something went wrong; a large headless man was standing still in the crowd, immobilized. Della found she had tripped over his massive boot and hit the ground hard. The cylinder, too, had slipped from her hand and then toppled backward upon it. As the crowd became consumed with clapping and celebratory whistles, she watched the acid dissolve her fingers, saw her hand turn into a blue beam of light that matched her other wrist.

A pair of knees crouched down onto the ground near her line of sight. Jimmy. There was a knife in his hand that he extended out to her. Della? he called. Is that you? I got you this knife to stab me with. You can’t say I’m the selfish one now, can you? She looked up to see glowing light pouring from the holes in his skull where his eyes had once been; apparently he’d sold them. I can’t stab you, she replied. I don’t have any hands. Something inside her felt drawn to move her wrists toward Jimmy’s eye sockets, to merge the beams of light pouring out from her arms with the light pouring out from his eyes. When she did, they both felt something. This feeling couldn’t be described, but it struck both of them as seeming new.

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Alissa Nutting is author of the novel Tampa and the short story collection Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls. Her fiction has appeared in publications such as The Norton Introduction to Literature, Tin House, Bomb, and Conduit; her essays have appeared in Fence, the New York Times, O: The Oprah Magazine, Elle, and other venues. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at John Carroll University.

[ed. note: over the next two weeks, we’ll be catching up with characters from beloved Christmas movies, learning how their lives have turned out after the cameras stopped rolling. We’ve invited some of our favorite writers to share these stories.]