The Switched Gift

Dan’s face paled, and his mouth went dry. He placed his hand to his throat; it was constricting. He felt a warming sensation on his scalp as perspiration sprung up. With a shaky hand, he grabbed the gift and reread the tag.

To Beverly

From Dan

I hope you like the first edition.

He dropped the gift back on the buffet table, not believing what he was seeing. Dan swore he had told his cleaning lady which box to take to the post office. He was quite clear on that. Yet she took the wrong box. How could this have happened? I am going to fire Tessa! He stomped his feet, the sounds echoing in the foyer; he could hear his car keys jingling in his pocket. I need to get to work. I am late as it is.

He slammed the car door and punched the steering wheel. Squealing out of his two-door garage, Dan swerved around the cul de sac and wound his way out of his neighborhood. I will call Beverly and tell her not to open the box. He spoke to his Cadillac’s Bluetooth and stopped. I can’t do that! I would have to explain everything.

Dan had it all planned out. He had told Beverly that he wouldn’t be able to go with her to visit her family because of work. Dan was to have Tessa send the stupid book to Beverly in Nashville. Then he would give Mindi the sexy lingerie and spend Christmas night taking it off her voluptuous body…. A car horn blared behind him. He glanced up at the rearview mirror and cursed. The Cadillac pealed forward, and it slid on the snow. At another light, Dan tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. He was five minutes away from downtown Denver. He could even see the glass building from his car, where he would be sitting typing away at his keyboard fixing anomalies in the hedge fund firms network. Dan smiled. I’ll call in sick and track down Tessa. I could stop her from taking the box. Hell, I don’t have to explain much to my staff; they work for me. They’ll just have to deal with any problems. It’s five days until Christmas, how much can there be?

After calling in his absence, Dan had pulled to the side of the road to call Tessa. Beverly had put her phone number into his cell. He remembered that Tessa would be cleaning a couple of other homes before going to the post office.

“Hello!” Tessa’s loud voice boomed in his car.

“Hello? Tessa?” Dan said.

“Yeah?”

“This is Dan. Dan Speers. You had cleaned my house yesterday.”

“Yeah.” There was a yawn.

“You took a box from the buffet table, remember? I asked if you could drop it off at the post office.” Dan said.

“Box?”

“Yes.” He rolled his eyes.

“Yes, I got the box. I will take it to the post office.” Tessa said.

“No! Don’t!” He cleared his throat. “I don’t need you to do that anymore. I need the box back.”

“Ok.”

“Can I come to get it? Where are you?” Dan said.

“I’m cleaning a house right now in Cherry Creek Village.”

“That’s not that far from where I am. I can be there in three minutes. Text me the address.”

“Ok.”

Dan’s phone vibrated, and an address appeared. He glanced up and clapped his hands together.

“Thank you, Tessa; I’ll be right there.”

“Mr. Dan, it is not a good idea because – Hold on, I have another phone call.” The call went mute. What does she mean it’s not a good idea? I need that damn box. He hung up the call and turned his Cadillac around.

He entered the community of Cherry Creek Village. Slowing his car, he glanced back and forth for the house numbers. Then he saw Tessa’s beat-up Subaru Outback. He parked behind it and galloped up the steps of the two-story house. The doorbell clanged. Tessa answered the door with her typical cleaning uniform – sweatpants and a frumpy long sleeve pullover. Her light brown hair was up in a messy ponytail. He didn’t understand what Beverly saw in her. Beverly met her through a friend of hers. Tessa was the daughter of Beverly’s friend’s cleaning lady. They were a family from Ukraine and were living with other relatives somewhere in Barnum.

“Tessa, the box. I need it, please.” Dan said.

“I don’t have it here. I was going to tell you that, but you weren’t on the phone anymore.” Tessa said.

Dan ran his hand through his black, short hair and tugged at his coat.

“Where is it?”

“It’s home.”

“Can I go get it?” Dan said.

“You want to go to my home?” Tessa said, chuckling.

“Yes, I really need this box.”

“Nobody is home. Nobody will let you in.”

“We’ll go together and get it.” Dan said.

“I can’t leave! I need to finish cleaning. I have two more houses after this. If I don’t do the houses, I could get fired.” Tessa said, her nose flaring.

“Ok, ok. I’ll help you. It’d go faster if two people were doing it, right?” Dan said.

“Yeah.” Tessa said, she opened the door further, and Dan got in.

He stamped his dress shoes on the doormat and peered around. This house is much bigger than mines. Nice TV. He stared at the 75-inch TV in the cavernous living room. A wide pine tree took up a corner, decorated with garish ornaments.

“Come, this way.” Tessa said

Dan tossed his coat over a pub chair at the huge kitchen island. He also left his dress jacket and followed Tessa up the stairway to the second floor.

“There are three bathrooms up here. I’ll take two, and you take the other.” Tessa said, and she handed him a toilet scrubber and a bucket full of cleaners.

“You want me to clean the bathroom?” Dan said, stepping back from the scrubber.

“You want the box?” Tessa said.

Dan grabbed the scrubber and bucket; he headed down the hall. He found one of the bathrooms. It was wide with a walk-in shower, a hot tub, and a toilet with its own door. The double sinks were right outside the entrance. Dan groaned.

He left the toilet for last. His hands were aching from the scrubbing, and his head was dizzy from the fumes of the cleaner. How does she do this every day? He gathered the supplies and searched for Tessa. He noticed that she was dusting in one of the smaller bedrooms.

“Ok, good. You can make the bed in the master bedroom.” Tessa said; she took the scrubber and bucket from him.

Dan made his way to the master bedroom. There was clutter on the floor of shoes and clothes; he piled them up in a corner. On the wooden nightstand was a photograph of a couple. Dan picked it up. They look happy. When was the last time Beverly and I took a picture like this? He placed it back and grabbed a corner of the bed comforter. Tucking in the comforter in place, he noticed a lump under it. There must be something there. He shoved his arm under the comforter. Dan peered at what it was and dropped it. It’s a thong! He wiped his hand on his dress shirt. As he stepped back, he bumped into Tessa.

“Watch it!” Tessa said.

“Sorry.”

“Are you done here?” Tessa said as she picked up the pile of clothes from the floor.

“Yes.” Dan said, he shuddered.

Tessa placed the clothes in a laundry hamper near the walk-in closet. They headed back downstairs.

“We can go to the next house. I had done most of the work here before you showed up.” Tessa said.

Dan followed Tessa to Washington Park neighborhood. The house was a bungalow-style home, not too far from Wash Park. Tessa pulled a key out of a pot of dead chrysanthemums. It was a large home, yet not as large as the one in Cherry Creek Village. Dan sensed the warm, inviting nature of the house. It was decorated lovingly with photographs of a family and children playing with a dog. A tall pine tree stood in the corner, heavily decorated.

“Cute family, huh?” Tessa said as she displayed her cleaning supplies on the kitchen counter.

“Yes, they are.” Dan said.

“Why don’t you have one?”

“What? A family?”

“Yeah.”

Dan wasn’t sure he wanted to answer the question. He didn’t know Tessa that well to tell her something personal. Yet he found himself answering.

“Beverly and I talked about it. We just never seemed to have the time. She’s always running off on some assignment for the Post, and I’m always drowning in work at the firm.” Dan said, shrugging his shoulders.

“Seems like an excuse to me. You both are young. You can’t wait too long, you know.” Tessa said, giving Dan a duster.

“You sound like my mom.” Dan said.

“Well, she’s right. You’ll always be going to find an excuse not to do it.”

“I’m not sure if we’re even interested at all. In having children.” Dan said; he noticed Tessa look up at him.

Does she know about Mindi? Did she look at the name on the box? Dan turned his back on Tessa and began sweeping the fireplace.

“Do you have children?” Dan said.

“No. I’m only 26. I still have time. Plus, I have to find the right man.”

“Right.”

“He’s out there.” Tessa said, her voice became light.

“Uh-huh. Just know that marriage changes everything. One day you’ll be having fun, going on dates. Then the next thing you know, you get married, and things get serious.” Dan said

“Why does it have to be like that? Nothing has to change.”

“It just happens.”

“I don’t understand.” Tessa said.

Barking came from the back of the house, interrupting their conversation.

“Oh, it’s Timber. He wants his treat. Whenever I come over, I give him one.” Tessa headed towards the back.

Dan walked into the backyard, and a border collie dashed towards him. Timber licked at his hands and Dan smiled down at him. He bent down and scratched Timber behind the ears.

“I would like to get a dog, but Beverly said it wasn’t a good idea because of our hectic schedules.” Dan said.

“I would like a dog too. But my home is small, with a small backyard. We don’t really have the money either.” Tessa said; she caressed Timber’s fur.

Dan peered at her and nodded.

“We better go inside. There’s still another house.” Tessa said.

It didn’t take long to finish the bungalow. Dan realized he was enjoying himself; it was calming in a way. It was simple work compared to a shift in the office. The repetitive movements and the light chats with Tessa, weren’t enough to keep him from worrying about the box.

The last home was in South Platte. A high rise with a security gate. Dan had to park his Cadillac down the street and hitch a ride with Tessa to enter. Even with the precautionary step, the security guard asked Tessa who Dan was. They entered the lobby with their cleaning tools, passing another security desk. It was adorned with garlands and wreaths; the center point was a big tree. Tenants were putting up ornaments. Dan and Tessa waited for the elevator.

“This condo is not that big. But the tenants expect everything to be squeaky clean. They check my work every time.” Tessa said as the elevator doors opened.

“Do you think you would be doing something else? You don’t plan on doing this your whole life?” Dan said.

“No, I have plans. I’m taking my time. Once I know what I want to do, I’ll go for it.” Tessa said; her shoulders had slumped.

“Did you go to college?”

“I went to a vocational school for childcare. But I don’t know that that’s what I want to do.” Tessa said. The elevator door opened to an open-spaced condo. It had floor-to-ceiling glass walls and modern furniture. A pink pine tree leaned against one of the glass walls. Dan frowned.

“Well, what do you like to do?” Dan said, placing a bucket on the floor.

“I love drawing. I think I’m good at it.” Tessa pulled a small notebook out of the pocket of her sweatpants and handed it to Dan.

He flipped through it. Images of people’s faces in detail and landscape scenes covered the pages.

“This is great, Tessa.” Dan said, handing it back.

“Thank you.”

“You should go to an art college or maybe work at an art gallery. I know someone who runs an art gallery downtown. I can get her to call you.”

“Really? You would do that for me?” Tessa said

“Yeah, sure. Why not?”

“You usually ignore me when I clean your house. So, I thought….”

“Well, I’m usually busy. sorry.” Dan said, he blushed.

They cleaned up the condo, going from room to room, double cleaning when necessary. Dan cleaned the toilet twice, careful not to leave any streaks on the porcelain toilet seat. His back was aching, yet it didn’t bother him. Tessa dropped Dan off at his car, and they headed to Barnum. The neighborhood was a stark contrast to the ones that they had visited earlier. The houses were smaller and closer together. Many had string lights on the roofs; every so often, he saw children playing in the snow. Tessa parked on the street in front of a small house with parts of the front sidewalk damaged. There was an old Chevy Equinox parked on the driveway.

Upon entering the house, Dan could smell meat cooking and cabbage boiling. The living room was a host to a group of four people, all watching TV. It was bare walled, with a small tree hiding behind the TV. Tessa greeted them in Ukrainian, she pointed at Dan, and the others nodded at him. Dan waved.

“How do you all live here?” Dan said they walked down a hall to a bedroom.

“There is a converted basement. Three of us live down there, and three of us live up here.” Tessa said.

“There’s six of you?” Dan said.

“Yes. Tato, my dad, is at the restaurant. He co-owns a restaurant with one of my uncles.”

Tessa’s room was modest, with a twin-size bed and a small desk in the corner. She had stuffed animals on a short, wooden shelf on the wall.

“I hope it’s not too late to send this.” She said as she looked out her window. Pink and orange light mixed in the sky.

“It’s alright. If it’s late, it’s late.” Dan said; he shoved it under his arm.

Heading back to the living room, Dan and Tessa were stopped by one of her relatives.

“Please stay for dinner.” The robust woman said as she lumbered towards the kitchen.

“That’s my mother.” Tessa said. She replied to her.

“Please stay. You helped Tessa.” Tessa’s mother said.

“I’m sorry.” Tessa said

“It’s ok. I’ll stay.” Dan said and smiled at the woman.

“Are you sure?”

Dan’s smile grew bigger. Tessa turned to help her mother set up the table. As the last plate was placed on the table, someone walked in. Everyone greeted the man.

“Tato!” Tessa said. She spoke to the burly man. He was frowning at Dan, which made him shift in place.

Tessa spoke to her father and the burly man approached Dan and shook his hand.

“Welcome. Please sit.”

The six family members, which Tessa introduced the others as an uncle, an aunt, and a cousin, sat at a long wooden table with a lame leg. The chairs were mismatched, yet they were comfortable. Dinner was a generous helping of perogies, kielbasa, and a side of borscht soup. Dan couldn’t think of the last time he had such excellent home cooking. Beverly and I haven’t cooked a decent meal in a long time.

“This is quite delicious.” Dan said.

“Thank you.” Tessa’s mother said.

“Have you ever had this before?” Tessa said.

“No.” Dan said.

“These are recipes that have been passed down for generations.” Tessa said.

“That’s amazing.” Dan said as he put another piece of kielbasa in his mouth.

“Are you celebrating Christmas with wife?” Tessa’s dad said.

“No, she’s actually in Tennessee with her family.” Dan said, gulping.

“You will be alone?” Tessa’s mother said, her eyes wide.

“Um, no, I plan to see some friends. I’ll call her too.” Dan said.

“Dan, you can come here. So, you don’t be alone.” Tessa’s mother said.

“That’s nice of you. Thank you.” Dan said, wiping his mouth.

Dan helped with the dishes while everyone else headed back to the living room. Tessa’s father and mother sat outside on a bench. Her father’s arm was around her mother’s shoulder; she was leaning into him.

“How long have your parents been married?” Dan said as he peered at them.

“They got married when they were both sixteen. They are like a couple out of a Hallmark movie, awfully close and loving.” Tessa said, putting a plate on a drying mat.

“That’s wonderful. I wonder what their secret is.” Dan said.

“My mama once told me that she almost left my tato. She didn’t do it because she didn’t believe in walking away and felt that she could make it work. And she did; my mama told him what she thought was wrong. He did likewise, and they fixed it.”

Dan glanced at Tessa and smiled.

Tessa walked Dan to his car. The street was lit up with Christmas lights, and he could smell wood burning. The night was brisk, and he shoved his hands into his pockets.

“It’s not too late, you know.” Tessa said.

“Late for what?” Dan said.

“To fix it with Beverly.”

“I –.” Dan paused. “Yes.” He knew what he had to do.

He said goodbye to Tessa with a wave of his hand. The Cadillac crunched over the snowy roads as he gently touched the acceleration. He dialed a number.

“Hello.” A sweet voice came on.

“Hi, Beverly.” Dan said.

“How are you? I miss you. Everyone has been asking for you.” Beverly said.

“I’m good. Work hasn’t been as bad as I expected.” Dan said; he loosened his dress shirt collar.

“That’s great. I’m glad to hear that.” She said.

“I wish I was spending Christmas with you. I should have tried.” Dan said there was a lump in his throat

“It’s ok. You had work to handle.” Beverly said.

“No, this was important because we haven’t been as close… we’ve been so busy with our jobs.” Dan said.

“Yes, it’s true.”

Dan had to come clean about his affair with Mindi but felt that it would be best to wait until she got home. He understood that once he told her the truth, there was a big possibility that their marriage would be over.

“Beverly, I love you so much. I know I don’t say it enough.” Dan said.

“I love you too.” Beverly said, her voice breaking.

“I know it’s late over there. I will call you tomorrow.”

“Alright, talk to you tomorrow. Good night.”

“Good night.”

Dan was close to his home in Park Hill when he called another number. A female voice answered.

“Danny! I’m so glad to hear your voice.”

“Hi, Mindi. I need to see you. Can I come over?” Dan said.

“Of course.” Mindi said.

Dan did a U-turn towards Congress Park.

Dan knocked on Tessa’s door. Her father opened it frowning; he glanced at both Dan and Beverly. His eyes widened.

“Dan! Please come in.” He opened the door wider.

Dan noticed that the rest of the family were taking down the ornaments from the small tree. They waved at him. Tessa’s mother emerged from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron.

“This is my wife, Beverly.” Dan said.

They both shook Beverly’s hand. Tessa appeared behind her father, having come from the hallway.

“Hi, Dan, Beverly. This is a nice surprise.” Tessa said.

“Yes, we wanted to give you something.” Dan said as he gave her an envelope.

Tessa took it and glanced at both of them. She opened it and pulled the folded paper out of it. She scanned the document, her eyes widening slowly. Clutching it to her chest, her body shook with sobs. Her parents placed their hands on her, questioning her in Ukrainian. Her other relatives came over. Tessa explained to them what it said, and they gasped. Tessa embraced Dan as the others lined up to take turns.

“Thank you so much! I will use the money to attend CU.” Tessa said; she jumped up and down.

“You will also get a call from my friend at that art gallery I was talking to you about.” Dan said.

Tessa gasped; tears were flowing down her cheeks. She hugged Beverly and turned back to her family; they were all crying and cheering. Beverly took hold of Dan’s hand and squeezed it; they looked at each other with a smile.

“You must stay!” Tessa’s mother said.

“Are there going to be pierogis?” Dan said.

“Of course!” Tessa’s father said.

“Well then, when is dinner?” Dan said.

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