10 min read

The Gift

“Did you have a good time?”

“Yes, dear, it was lovely.” They had been on “dear” terms for a few weeks now, and it didn’t seem to bother him.

He wasn’t even lying. He did have a good time. A secluded glamping dome, the scent of spruce trees, and a few formidable outdoor shags with Martha.

Victor took his hand off the wheel and brushed it against her cheek, feeling the dimple she so often emphasized in her selfies. A mark of cuteness, one of many.

“We can go back there in November to watch the Leonids. Supposed to be good this year,” he added, fully aware of already making plans months in advance.

Martha didn’t give away her excitement, which she probably felt, alongside the warmth and coziness that swept over her when she was with Victor. Kind, thoughtful, masculine in all the good ways with none of the machismo. A keeper.

“I’d have to take a few extra days off, but I’m sure Frankie won’t mind. We rarely have much work around November anyway,” she replied.

“He won’t mind, and he knows you deserve some time off. You’re his top designer,” he complimented her, making a calculated guess.  He didn't know much about Martha; they had only started seeing each other a month ago.

The girl was a solid eight, and the car was a significant upgrade from his previous clunker. An engine that purred like a kitty, an A/C that worked, a tiny computer screen, a parking camera, and proper leather seats. Victor knew nearly nothing about cars and only got his license after turning twenty-seven, but he knew that this red Mazda was the kind of car winners drove.

They were driving through the urban sprawl, the little townships that latched onto the city like creeper vines, sending people to work on crowded buses in the morning and sucking them back in the evening – to tinker with old cars in their metal garages, to drink beer and argue with their spouses, to quarrel with neighbours over noise and trampled rhododendrons.

Victor used to live in a neighbourhood just like this. After his folks died in a freak accident, he stayed with his uncle, aunt and grandma, all sharing a damp semi-cellar apartment, with a TV in each room – a staple of working-class households. He took the bedroom which belonged to his cousin Kestas, who first went to Norway, then to prison, and then to some weird Reformist church, where he was kind of a big deal nowadays, preaching and reaping souls right above the Arctic Circle. Victor’s foster family was rarely up in his business. They took pity on him, and were hoping he would just go the same route Kestas had taken, preferably skipping the prison part and fast-forwarding to being a valued member of some community far, far away. With no interest in sports, science or socialising, Victor spent his teenage years playing online role-playing games—poor orienteering skills meant he’d always get lost in shooters—lusting over quickly maturing girls in school, and gaining weight.

The drive-by brought back all those memories of growing up without a rudder. All those sweaty moments of falling asleep in front of the telly after another black-and-white horror movie he endured in hopes of seeing boobs in a Tinto Brass movie. All those days of faking various illnesses to skip school and just mope around, reading game magazines and walkthroughs, writing shitty code that rarely compiled, watching German music channels, writing love notes and poetry filled with shapes and scents. All those memories layered on top of each other still sent shivers down his spine. That’s before the before, he thought to himself. It doesn’t really count. A bad dream that was over.

Hearing Martha’s words felt like a blessing that shooed the funk away:

“You didn’t leave anything, did you? I saw the Bluetooth speaker on the porch, but I don’t remember putting it away.”

“I’m sure we packed everything. And if anything’s missing, we’ll just ask them to post it to us. We live in a society after all,” he smiled, and she smiled back, assured by his calm and measured demeanor.

She didn't know, and thank God she didn't, that there was indeed something he had left on purpose. A gift of sorts. A gift that made all of this possible. The car, the girl, the iron-clad discipline that made him who he was today, the good manners, the good habits, everything. All depended on one little trick that helped him become the person he deserved to be.

Under the bed he made sweet, sweet love to Martha lay a giant turd. Not an accidental little dookie, but a carefully planned and carried out megaloshit. The kind of horrendous payloads that could start a cargo cult.

It all started not that long ago, this transition. He had been out of the uncle’n’aunt living situation for a few years now, living in the city, renting a one-bedroom flat, holding a steady, if not cushy job. All those years playing an obscure French RPG gave him a head-start at uni, and he was now a well-respected interpreter at a European institution that had, for some bureaucratic reason, decided to relocate to his hometown. It was a normal albeit dull life, full of little sources of frustration and discontent. He wasn’t a fat teenager any longer, but he was still pretty blobby around the midsection. You could have called them love handles, but there was no one to really put their hands on them. He wasn’t a total loner, but his friend circle was narrow with the same familiar faces that seemed to orbit him in predictable, elliptical patterns. The job was okay, but it was nothing special, and knowing all the terms for different types of fertilizer and the codes for all the agricultural subsidies didn’t seem like a superpower.

Louis Figuier, Common Badger (c 1892)

Yet, he was comfortable in his position, and like many who end up in the limbo between comfort and dissatisfaction, he went to see a shrink. Not one of those fancy high-street ones with sleek websites and diplomas. No, one of the still-in-training folk in desperate need of filling their hours, grinding to get experience, accepting walk-ins at the local crisis centre. Opening up to a woman who was probably just a few years older than him was surprisingly easy. He thought he’d feel self-conscious, but something about Sandra made him not care about what she thought of him. It could have been her absolute lack of character and her melancholic look that made him look like a bundle of joy in contrast.

After turning up a few times at the clinic during her hours, Victor became her client. He used the term patient at first, only to be corrected that a) she was not, in fact, a doctor and b) he was not ill. Paying a few tenners a session, he divulged into the grief that still followed him, the shame of growing up without any noticeable achievement, and all the grudges he held against the world and, most importantly, against himself. And after all the big stones were turned, it was time for the more mundane complaints. A smoking habit turned vaping habit he could just not kick. Timidness at the office, which meant working without getting a promotion for the last couple of years. A belly that made him look like a semi-deflated balloon when he wore his favourite pink polo.

“I’d really like to change, to be better, you know,” the same old song for the umpteenth time, him sitting with his legs spread, her inclined toward him, looking bored. She was, in fact, bored and tired, as Victor was the fifth patient (she did call them patients in her mind) of that day. A pause. He fiddled with his glasses, wiping the lenses that needed more than a simple sweep with a microfiber cloth to be clear. A pause meant he was expecting a nudge or a question.

“Is there anything stopping you from taking that first step?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think I give enough of a shit. Scrap that. I don’t give a shit at all.”

“And yet you do want to change.”

“Paradoxical, isn’t it?”

The only paradoxical thing is that you’re paying me money to rock in that chair and listen to yourself talk in that theatrical manner of yours, Sandra thought to herself.

“Sometimes I feel that there’s something sort of bad in me, a bad seed. Some insidious thing rotting inside of me, making me weak.”

“Have you tried letting it out? You know, having some sort of a valve for that bad energy.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s natural to have outlets. We tend to think of creative outlets, like music or painting but there are more ways of letting things out. Some people go to rage rooms, others buy a punching bag. And there’s also this new method, it’s becoming wildly popular in Finland. It helps you eliminate bad habits one by one, by making one habit–the lesser evil–your guilty pleasure. I’ve heard of people dropping mindless scrolling by choosing not to brush their teeth. Or of people quitting binge drinking by amping their swearing. It’s an interesting system that’s easier than CBT. Or at least that’s how they present it. And I’ve got a book that actually breaks it down nicely. ”

She stood up, took a step to the wall, and leaned towards the bottom shelf, knowing all too well that Victor wouldn’t be checking her out. The self-absorbed navel-gazing narcissist–she couldn’t technically diagnose anyone with anything, but she sure did love to do so in her head–never noticed anything about her. Not that Sandra wanted him to. She took the yellow hardcover whose back cover had more blurbs than any sane designer would advise, but in the battle for people like Victor, authors had to break all the rules of yesteryear.

“Give it a read, you might find some answers here, and we can discuss it next time.”

Only there was never a next time, as the book worked its wonders, replacing any need for therapy.

The book was called “Give a SH*T: be bad to become better”, with the asterisk somehow making the title edgier. After he got home and threw his jacket on the floor–messiness was definitely on the list of habits to be broken–Victor put on his favourite playlist, the one he compiled for the gym he never actually made an effort to visit, and got down to reading. The book was quite a page-turner–simple yet not patronizing, engaging yet backed with references to studies. Victor had read many such volumes in the years of trying to improve separate aspects of his life. All of them had tickled his curiosity and imagination but fizzled out as quickly as the incense sticks he burned to combat the general smell of his stuffy apartment.

But this book stuck. A tour de force featuring people turning their lives around by tapping into their nasty sides. The premise was as simple as Sandra had explained it. Channeling all the negative habits into one and filling the vacuum that was left by them with positive change.

A bona fide adept of the movement, Victor didn’t go through any discovery phases. On the contrary, he quickly found a vice that made all the other vices seem good. He derived it from the title of the book, only instead of giving a shit, he’d be taking it. And take shits he did.

The first crime was the most adrenaline-inducing. Equipped with toilet paper, wet wipes and even a spare pair of underwear, not to mention the balaklava, he went to a little Soviet-era monument tucked away between apartment buildings. Not too Soviet to be demolished, not too spectacular to be remembered. It was night, and the stars were out – the only five stars seen through the light pollution. Every passing car in the distance, every bark, and every sound of closing doors irked him. It felt like getting into a dentist’s chair when he was a kid. He always felt the need to brace himself. A twenty-minute wait for a twenty-second dump.

And then it became second nature. By the Xerox machine at his office. In the boxing room of his gym, which he actually started attending with the inspiration the method gave. Behind the mall. He even thought of taking a dump in a trash can by Sandra’s office, but found the idea slightly inappropriate.

The first times were awkward, and he had to remember all the lessons of stealth he learned from his two schools of life: the computer games he owed his career to and shoplifting bouts that added a pinch of excitement to the rather dull teenage years. Sneaking around, finding nooks and corridors no one ever passed, returning to the potential crime scene after everyone had left – it was all part of the fun. There was no vengeance, no malice, no anger directed at an unexpected victim destined to find or maybe even step into the landmines planted by him. Just pure power, akin to that exerted and, in this case, excreted by a mischievous trickster god. And that power drove him forward.

The method helped him lose weight, quit smoking, get a promotion, stop picking his nose in public, and that was just the tip of the iceberg. Just like the book told, channeling all the bad stuff inside him into one vile act made him a better person, fully in control of his life.

“Are you sure you don’t want to come over for coffee?” Martha asked, extracting the handle of her yellow suitcase, which Victor had gallantly taken out of the trunk.

“I’d love to, but I need to review some documents before this conference I’m interpreting tomorrow. It’s for the UN, actually.”

“Babe, that’s a huge step up!” she hugged him, not letting go for a solid couple of breaths. It felt good to share this accomplishment with her.

He watched her disappear behind the door of her apartment, her nice apartment that was off-limits to him. He never went inside as he was afraid that the urges would be too strong. He had ways of working around that, like special bags that captured not just substance but also odour he could use to collect his gifts off the floor and dispose of them. But he didn’t want to take any chances.

The evening was calm in his neat apartment. Persian takeaway, a nice little pot of mint tea, and meticulously prepared notes for tomorrow. He wanted the result of his work to be perfect, to masterfully mimic every linguistic quirk the two top dogs presenting tomorrow had. Even if no one noticed, he would.

His phone buzzed, only it was not the Pomodoro timer he hoped to hear but a message from Martha.

“Victor, I found a piece of shit  in my bag!!!”

Three dots engaged in a silent waltz. Did he? It was an eventful weekend, so forgetting something like that would be normal. But no. Of course he did. How could he have resisted? It was there, lying in the open, with all its folds and designer fabric. It came so quickly, and then Martha called him from outside, because she had spotted a deer (“just like Bambie!”) frolicking in the wheat field.

Was it all over now? The three dots kept twirling on the screen, as if stuck in a glitch. A second buzz. Finally.

“I told you there were badgers in that house!”


“And you didn’t believe me!”


“Must have been a huge badger by the looks of the… thing”

“Gonna change my review to four stars. And tell them to call pest control,” Victor texted back.


“Oh it’s nothing. We’ll have something to remember.”


“Good luck tomorrow! I love you.”

The first “I love you”. The gift kept on giving.