Claire both loved and hated the holiday season. She would never admit the latter, because doing so would be an invitation for her coworkers to make sassy remarks. If there was one employee at Jurassic World who was likely to be accused of being a Scrooge, it was Claire. Somehow, the image of a frigid, miserly stick in the mud seemed to be somewhat aligned with her reputation. Claire wasn't a cruel person, per se, and if she ever appeared that way, it was because she was forced into it. In her line of work, it was sometimes necessary to deliver bad news, and once in a while, she had to give things a little push to prevent impending disaster. That's why she may have appeared to be unsympathetic towards certain people. It had nothing to do with her personality.
Well, not exactly.
Claire was somewhat conflicted about where she stood in life. On one hand, she enjoyed being on top of the world, but on the other hand, it definitely came at a price. Christmas used to mean something to Claire, but after years and years of seeing how little businesses actually cared about the emotional aspect of the holiday . . . well . . . she had lost her enthusiasm. It was almost sickening how certain corporations manipulated consumers by using the idea of Christmas to toy with their emotions. Never would you see a happier portrait of family life than those painted in holiday commercials. That colorful, warm, slightly blurry reflection of reality was false to the point of being comedic. It wasn't just the sentimental ads that upset Claire: even an honest approach made her want to gag. Yesterday, she'd seen a car commercial starring Santa Claus, who traded his sleigh for a sleek model of whatever truck was being advertised. There was just something so horrendous about how a holiday that had once brought joy and light to a dismal time of year was now being used to empty people's wallets.
The more Claire thought about it, the more she hated this whole "Christmas" nonsense. She tried to fight the unpleasant feeling by blaming this trend on modern society, but that didn't change the fact that Santa Claus in his current iteration was based on a design by Coca-Cola, and plastic Christmas trees cost a hundred dollars apiece. The holiday was all about money and material goods, and yes, it was supposed to be a representation of love, but would a relationship even be worth sticking to if the only thing holding it together was the exchange of gifts? No, probably not.
Of course, thinking about this made Claire feel guilty, because she remembered that Karen had called her not too long ago asking if she could come over for the holidays. She had declined, as usual, but she couldn't make herself forget the desperation in her sister's voice. She wasn't asking for gifts at all. She just wanted them to be together for once.
But why should it matter that they spend Christmas together? It was a day like any other, and Claire knew this for certain because in Costa Rica, it was hard to tell that it was even December. There was no snow, no decorations, no nothing. Christmas was just some stupid tradition that only mattered to first world countries, and even then, not everyone celebrated it. As far as Claire was concerned, there was no reason she should have to visit Karen on Christmas, specifically. Then again, she never visited on any other day of the year, which was less excusable. But would Karen even want her over? It had come to the point where Claire was a stranger to her family, and it was very much possible that their relationship was damaged beyond repair. She'd be doing everyone a favor by staying away, really. That would be her Christmas gift.
Speaking of Christmas gifts, Claire had something unpleasant to deal with. This time of year, employees liked to spend more than they could afford on presents, and often borrowed money from the company to accomplish this. Usually, they'd ask for a loan of seventy dollars or so, and that was fine, but there were some people who took it way too far. This year, one particular employee had borrowed four hundred and eighty-three dollars, which was unheard of, given his current income. It was Claire's job to make sure that he knew what he was getting into. That's why she was on her way to his bungalow.
Now, usually she would have no trouble telling her inferiors to smarten up, but for some reason, she had been feeling kind of awkward around Owen Grady. She didn't like him when they first met, but she had since gotten used to his offbeat personality. He wasn't a friend, per se, but they didn't butt heads either. Even though she could tolerate him, he was not exactly what she'd call a model citizen. In fact, she learned everything she needed to know about his level of sophistication when she watched him try to flick a booger off of his finger for three full minutes. He was not terribly complex, which would usually mean that Claire could give him a slap on the wrist without much difficulty, but lately, she'd been trying to avoid him. It wasn't so much about him actively harming her by being present, but for a week or two, Claire had been having sporadic fantasies about him. Without intending to, she'd start imaging a scene in which they shared a passionate embrace in a wintery landscape. At first, she thought it was just a subconscious longing for Christmas, but the closer she got to Mr. Grady, the more varied her dreams became. They'd be sitting together during a thunderstorm, lying on a forest floor, climbing through snow . . . It all seemed very random, but if Claire knew anything about psychology, there was some sort of subconscious sense of want rattling around in her brain. As for why Owen Grady in particular was triggering these fantasies, Claire had to guess that it was some sort of turn-on to be around a nobody like him, kind of like when Marie Antoinette built herself a tiny village to mimic a pastoral setting. As quaint as the idea of simplicity was, in reality, peasants were diseased and poor and malnourished. It was like that with Grady: he might seem like he came straight out of a dollar store erotica, but in real life people like him would grow up to be alcoholic wife-beaters or pathetic, middle-aged sociopaths. As attractive as he was right now (and Claire did allow herself to admit that he was handsome), he wasn't the kind of guy she'd like to settle down with.
In any case, he probably had someone special in his life, because Claire could think of no other reason why a man who once wore the same shirt for three days running would suddenly spend almost five hundred dollars on a mystery item. He had probably purchased a gift for some stupid, trashy girl without thinking about the consequences. Well, now it was time to drag his head out of the clouds. If there was one thing Claire could do with maximum efficiency, it was snap people out of their delusions.
As she pulled up to his humble abode, Claire found herself glancing at her reflection in the rearview mirror. She wasn't trying to look pretty, exactly, but it would be embarrassing to show up at his doorstep with smudged mascara or something. She tucked her hair behind her ears, then decided it looked stupid and let it hang loose. After applying a new layer of lipgloss, she popped her lips and got out of the car. It was difficult walking across the uneven terrain in high heels, but she managed to stumble up to his house without breaking an ankle. She adjusted her blazer, took a deep breath, and knocked on the door.
"Just a minute!" his voice called from inside.
When he first opened the door, Owen seemed casual enough, but as soon as he recognized his visitor, he looked absolutely stunned. He stood up straight and cleared his throat, trying to soften his smile to conceal his enthusiasm.
"Well, hey! I didn't expect to see you here. I thought you'd forgotten about me," he chirped coyly.
Claire gave a tight-lipped smile.
"No, as a matter of fact, I haven't. I just received a report that you borrowed four hundred and eighty-three dollars from the company's funds, and I wanted to have a little chat about the consequences of irrational spending."
His smile disappeared.
"Oh . . . I was hoping you wouldn't find out about that until Christmas."
Well, at least he's honest.
"Mr. Grady, are you aware that taking out a loan that large might be considered irresponsible, given your current salary?"
"I- Um- Yes. But I needed to have it by Christmas. Obviously."
Claire gave him a cold, empty look.
"I know you might be tempted to spend more money around this time of year, but whatever you purchased is going to put you in serious debt."
"You- You don't know what I bought?"
"No. That's confidential."
He let out a sigh of relief.
"Oh, okay. Listen, I can pay it back. Honestly, I can. I have it all figured out. You don't need to worry about a thing."
Claire narrowed her eyes.
"You'd be surprised how many people say that exact same thing."
"Well, I don't know about anyone else, but I'm telling the truth. I'll pay back my loan by mid-January, and everything is going to be just fine."
Claire nodded patronizingly.
"I'm sure it will be. Just in case things turn sour, though, you might want to consider getting a refund."
"I can't return it, and even if I could, I wouldn't want to."
"Well, maybe think about what you're doing next time, before you impulsively borrow four hundred and eighty-three dollars."
"And seventeen cents."
"And seventeen cents."
She turned around and started heading back to her car.
"I expect you to be true to your word, Mr. Grady, because if you aren't, it's going to be hard for both of us."
He nodded and gave her a little wave.
"Okay. See you later, then."
It was odd, she thought, that he stood in his doorway watching her until she drove away.
A few days later, Claire had the mysterious dream again. As usual, she was lying on top of Owen, kissing him in the snow. She touched his cheek, feeling a forest of stubble. He pulled away from her suddenly and quirked a brow.
"Claire, you do realize that you can speak again, right?"
She woke up. What an odd bit of dialogue. Well, most dreams were odd, weren't they? Perhaps it was best to ignore the subtext of her fantasy. Yes, that would be wise, especially since she had bad news to deliver to the subject before the day was through.
She got out of bed, brushed her hair, had a coffee, and picked up her cellphone. As she flipped through the list of staff numbers, she tried to shake the remnants of her dream. She couldn't help but feel a little guilty that she was doing this to Owen after he had been so kind, which was ridiculous because he had only been kind to her in her dream . . . though he had never been particularly cruel in real life, had he? No, if anything, he was one of the nicer employees. Claire started to wonder whether or not he might even like her, and was horrified to discover that this thought was making her giddy. She wanted him to like her because she liked him, and she was only realizing it now . . . right in the middle of making a call that would end all chances of a relationship. It wasn't too late. She could hang up. She could just hang up and-
"Hello, Mr. Grady. I would like to have a word with you about your loan."
"But . . . It's Christmas Eve. You said that I had until January to pay it back."
"I never said that. You're the one who set it up that way."
"Yeah, so what's the problem?"
"Your salary has been reduced."
"It's not just you. We've had to cut back on extraneous expenses. That includes the salaries of certain staff. Unfortunately, this means that it's going to be very difficult for you to pay back your loan."
"No . . ."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Grady."
"Shit, shit, shit! What am I supposed to do?"
"Return whatever you bought."
"I told you: I can't. It was custom-made. They don't give refunds for commissioned projects."
"Well, you should have thought of that before you bought it."
There was a light rustling on the other end of the line.
"I . . . I had it all figured out . . ."
"Look, it's none of my business, but you really ought to be less impulsive. It's a bad idea to feed into this holiday nonsense."
"Do you not celebrate Christmas?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean . . . I mean what I mean. Do you celebrate Christmas or not?"
"No, I guess I don't. That's why I'm not struggling to pay back any debts, unlike you. I don't care who you're spending your money on. She- or he- isn't worth it. I can tell you right now that even they like the gift, they won't be impressed with you once Christmas is over. On December twenty-sixth, you'll go back to being the same person you always are, so why even bother trying to pretend you're something more? You're going to be flat broke because of your stupid feelings and- and-"
Claire was surprised by how riled up she was getting. She shook her head and ran her fingers through her hair in agitation.
"Look, just find a way to pay it back, okay?"
And with that, she hung up.
Claire stared down at the phone, trembling with rage. What a stupid man. He was reckless. Reckless and lonely. And below her standards. Not that she wanted him. And who was he buying a gift for, anyway? Himself, of course. There was obviously no one stupid enough to date a man like him. He probably didn't have a girlfriend. He probably didn't . . .
Say something. I love you.
Claire shook her head. She was dreaming again. But she had no reason to. Owen had no redeeming qualities. None whatsoever.
At least, that's what she thought until she opened her front door the next day to find a small package at her feet. She picked it up with confusion and read the tag. It was for her, but there were no clues as to who had sent it. Maybe it was a joke gift.
As Claire tore open the crudely-wrapped parcel, however, she realized just how wrong she was. Inside of the package was a gorgeous necklace, far too expensive-looking to be from a random stranger. Claire spun it around in her hands, then checked the bag in case she had missed a note or a card or . . . something. But no. It was anonymous. Why on Earth would someone send her such a fancy gift? It looked very expensive. It probably cost about . . . four hundred and eighty-three dollars. And seventeen cents.
Claire stumbled backwards into her living room and sat down on her couch. She felt like an idiot. She had ruined someone's Christmas for no good reason. She was a monster.
But there was still time to make things right.
Grabbing her keys, Claire rushed to her car. After about a half hour, she showed up on Owen Grady's front doorstep. She took a deep breath, lifted her chin, and knocked on the door. Owen pulled it open, and was shocked to see who was visiting him, and on Christmas, no less. Before he could open his mouth, Claire blurted out her discovery.
"You bought me a necklace."
"Uh . . ."
"I know it was you. I know it."
Owen looked away in shame.
"Yeah . . . I guess I did."
"Why? Why me?"
"Because I like you."
Claire sputtered in surprise.
"So you thought it would be a good idea to spend four hundred and eighty-three dollars-"
"And seventeen cents."
". . . and seventeen cents on a necklace for me? Why didn't you just say something?"
Owen shrugged guiltily.
"I wanted to, but every time I tried to talk to you, you'd brush me off."
Claire felt her heart quaver. It was true. She'd been ignoring him for almost a month. With a remorseful frown, she pulled out the necklace and stared at her fragmented reflection in the emerald pendant.
"You . . . You didn't sign the parcel."
"I couldn't. Not after what you said on the phone."
"So why did you give it to me?"
"I didn't think it would look good on anyone else."
Claire took a shaky breath and held it out for him to take.
"I'm giving it back. I don't deserve it."
Owen pushed her hand away.
"No, keep it. It was my decision to give it to you. You can forget about the loan. I'll find a way to pay it back before it's too late."
Claire took a deep breath.
"Actually, that won't be necessary. I pulled some strings, and you're off the hook until February. I- I also got you a coffee . . . it's French Vanilla or something. I don't know why I thought you'd want it . . . it seemed like a good idea at the time . . . I guess it's kind of a shitty gift, considering you spent four hundred and eighty-three dollars on my present."
"And seventeen cents."
"And seventeen cents."
Owen looked at Claire sadly as she bit her lip. He twiddled his fingers, then took a deep breath.
"You know . . . if you agreed to go out with me, we could call it even."
Claire looked up at him with surprise.
"You still want me? Even after everything I've done? . . ."
"Of course," he affirmed, "I wouldn't have given you the necklace if I wasn't serious."
Claire couldn't stop herself from smiling.
"When are you free?"
"Hm, I don't know . . . Does New Year's Eve sound good to you?"
"It sounds great!"
Owen smiled and took the necklace from her hand. When he'd clipped it around her neck, he smiled and ran his hand down her arm.
"I'll see you then."
"I'm looking forward to it."
Claire was telling the truth. As she skipped away from his bungalow (yes, skipped), she felt a kind of glow in her chest. She had quite possibly gone insane, because she started singing Christmas carols on the way home. She very nearly danced through the front door, and when she turned on her computer, she gave an excited scream. Her fingers were practically on fire as she typed out a perfect itinerary, somehow knowing that everything was going to be okay.
This was going to be the best date ever.