Disintegration by Randall Brown


This is how the end is — Easter, Arbor Day, Halloween, December. And then there I am, working at a gift-wrapping kiosk at the mall — and she’s handing me a present.

“Really?” she says. It’s too late for her to take back the present and wrap it herself. A Diesel wallet. Her family didn’t believe in exchanging gifts — not for anniversaries, holidays, birthdays, not even Jesus’s.

“What paper do you want?” I ask. Every finger has paper cuts, and they all sting.

“Do you need money?” she asks, then considers the choices of wrapping. “The gold and silver snowflakes.”

“You think I’m here for the money?” I ask. It’s semester break, the students all gone home to their families, and I don’t want to be stuck in my room, alone with myself, left with the feeling that there were words that could’ve prevented it and there those words hang like grapes, tantalizingly near.

“Then what?” She glances at her vibrating phone. “What are you here for?”

I’m not answering. Measure out the paper. She’s texting, and I slip in the note. The recipient of the present will find it — I love you — and might confront her with “You can’t say it? You have to slip it in a billfold?” Or maybe he won’t care how the message is delivered, will know how hard it must’ve been for her to even write it, will be overwhelmed with gratitude. Or maybe nothing….


Two days later, Christmas Eve, and she’s back, pushing to the front of the line, dragging a reed-like twenty-something by the elbow.

“Show him,” she says to me. “Write it.”

I do. I love you.

“See?” The kid looks carefully at my handwriting, pulls the slip out of his pocket, compares the two, and she slips away, leaving him there with me.

“Secret Santa,” the kid says as he crumples the paper into a ball. “I thought she’d written it. I thought—”

The line behind him grumbles.

“She still might,” I tell him.

He throws the paper-ball at me, misses. “What do you know about it?”


Still Christmas Eve, the final hour before closing, Santa somewhere over Africa or the ocean, and at the wrapping kiosk it’s lonely. No last minute rush. Out of that emptiness, she appears, her nose glowing red from the cold.

“On the Island of Misfit Toys, Dolly seems pretty normal, doesn’t she?” She pauses, gently puts her fingers on my arm. “Do you know why she’s there?”

“Mistaken identity?”

“Low self-esteem. She thinks no one can love her.”

“What about the cowboy riding the ostrich?”

She shuffles in place in the empty mall at my kiosk where I’ve wrapped hundreds of gifts for bosses, assistants, nieces, nephews, spouses, lovers, partners. Behind her, out the windows, snow falls in soft spirals, covering the evergreens, creating Christmas trees.

“I did, you know, love you.” She brushes away an eyelash from my cheek.

“Me too,” I say.

“It surprised me that it wasn’t enough. You, too?”

I so don’t want to cry. Not again. Not anymore. Instead I say, “That poor kid. That note broke him in half. Even his voice cracked.”

“Like an egg,” she says. “And all the King’s horses, and all the King’s men…”

“…had scrambled eggs for breakfast again.”

She’s returned to say sorry, to say what she couldn’t say before, to unwrap the words and give me the gift of an ending, of closure.

“There’s no reason to grieve,” she says.

“That poor kid,” I repeat, my own voice breaking.




Randall Brown is on the faculty of Rosemont College’s MFA in Creative Writing Program. He has been published widely, both online and in print. He earned his MFA at Vermont College.


Editor’s note: We are ONE YEAR OLD! And we could not have wished for a better way to celebrate it than with this story by one of our favourite writers. Randall Brown.


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