Secret Santa

A bit of holiday fiction

How would your Secret Santa know what you wanted?

How would your Secret Santa know what you wanted?

Illustration by Nasan Hardcastle

About the author:
Zu Vincent is a writer and educator who’s written many holiday fiction pieces for the CN&R. She is the author of the award-winning novel The Lucky Place. Read her earlier work at

With winter break coming, Ms. Savage was big on all us third-graders being Secret Santas for each other. Meaning you had to get a present for another kid and you’d get a present back. That sounded okay until Savage handed out red envelopes with the name of our kid inside.

“No peeking until you get home!” Savage liked to talk in exclamation points. Like none of us could hear her otherwise. “And keep your name a secret!”

I didn’t understand what use there was of a secret like that. How would your Secret Santa know what you wanted? But I snapped my envelope shut and shot my hand up.

“Ms. Savage, why can’t we pick who we want to give our present to our own self?”

“Get real, dumb Duncan.” Ryder tunneled his hands and squeaked his voice down the tunnel at me. “If we did that, no one would give you a present.”

Ryder was the second most annoying kid in third grade. I stuck my finger on my red envelope and twirled it around. Then went back to drawing a dragon on the inside cover of my reader.

“Vocabulary!” Savage shouted. “Now I want everyone to open your books and read for these words!” She swept up to the white board and scribbled a bunch of long words. Hanukkah, La Posadas, Winter Solstice. “Who would like to pronounce?”

Naturally, Avreet’s hand went sky high.

Ryder was the second most annoying kid in third grade, but Avreet was the first. She never stopped yanking on one ear and wrote mushy poems about rainbows and twinkly stars, without it being homework or anything. She always raised her hand to read aloud, which Savage said was wonderful participation, since Savage was some kind of sucker for anyone who said they liked reading. Great readers become great men and women! Ms. Savage liked to warble. Reading expands the mind! Knowledge is dangerous! Dare to read!

I didn’t see the value in being a great man if it had to do with reading. And I didn’t think Savage was such a great woman, either, being as how she spent her whole lunch break over a bologna sandwich and an old book. I started making fire breath for my dragon.

“Duncan!?” Ms. Savage’s exclamation point landed on me. I dropped my pencil and slunk down in my seat. Why didn’t she just let Avreet read?

“Pronounce!” Those exclamations could drill a hole in you.

I squinted at the word. “So-o-llll-st-ice,” I read. I didn’t get why we had to pick up a word and chop it into little bits like that, then try to stick it back together.

“Dumb Duncan massacred that one.” Ryder smirked.

“That’s mean.” Avreet twisted in her seat to glare at Ryder.

“Ooooh, dumb Duncan has a girlfriend!” Ryder sniggered.

I slunk so far down I almost fell off my chair. Avreet was ruining me.

“I can read the rest, Ms. Savage.” Avreet twisted back around. While she recited, I sneaked a look inside my red Secret Santa envelope. A-V-R the card said. E-E-T. Even I could read that. I was stuck with being a Secret Santa to Avreet? No way.

The thing was, Avreet was in love with me. She even tried to kiss me once. She cornered me outside the cafeteria and puckered up, but I was quicker. “I ain’t going near that!” I dodged her just in time, and ran down the hall while her face crumpled up.

But Avreet wouldn’t give up. She wrote one of her mushy notes and gave it to Mattie, to give to Izzy to give to Daniela to give to me. The note was covered with stars and asked did I love her or not.

So I couldn’t be her Secret Santa.

I flipped my envelope closed. I didn’t even feel like finishing my dragon drawing now. Ms. Savage was still chalking it up at the white board, the holiday garlands and glittery pine cones we’d strung up sagged near to the top of her head. Right above the clock, Ms. Savage had tacked a long-nosed Santa face, and below the clock a sign yelled: Time passes, will you? like Santa was in good with Savage and pointing a finger at us.

Nobody else in class seemed worried, though. Izzy was drawing a flower tattoo on her arm, and Jesus dug at his eyeball. Eli jumped up to go to the bathroom. He was the only kid in class allowed, because he had a condition. I sure wished I had a condition so I could take a hike now and then from Ryder, Avreet and Ms. Savage. But even though Eli had the desk next to mine, I hadn’t got his condition yet.

Eli had left his red Secret Santa envelope sticking out of his cubby. That gave me a brilliant idea. Eli’s envelope would be full of fresh germs. Plus he hadn’t looked at his kid’s name yet, I was sure of it. That’s how Eli was. I could switch envelopes with him, give him Avreet’s name, get another kid’s name, and maybe get his condition at the same time.

I started making fire breath for my dragon.

Illustration by Nasan Hardcastle

I glanced at Ms. Savage. She was still spelling words on the white board. Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Père Noël. I set my reader up the tall way, leaned out, slid my envelope in Eli’s cubby, and grabbed his.

Ms. Savage wheeled around. “Knowledge can be dangerous—it opens the mind!” she threatened. “Dare to read!” She was getting wound up. “Duncan! What did I just say?”

I jammed Eli’s envelope into my pocket, fast. “You said books are dangerous. Uh …” I squinted at Ryder, who was making faces at me. “’Cause they bore you to death.”

“Dummy!” Ryder mouthed. Ms. Savage scrunched her face.

“I love to read,” Avreet announced. “I can read those words, Ms. Savage.” She couldn’t even brag without yanking on her ear. She pointed at me. “Duncan hates reading, don’t you Duncan? He’s going to flunk third grade with his terrible spelling.”

Ryder made another hand tunnel and squeaked, “I guess she doesn’t love you anymore.”

“No one flunks my class!” Ms. Savage went red in the face. “Duncan, you will stay in after class and erase the board. The rest of you may go.”

Everyone jumped up and started scraping back their chairs, shoving pencils in their cubbies and slamming their books shut. “Don’t lose your Secret Santa envelopes!” Ms. Savage yelled to the retreat. “And don’t forget to read pages nine and ten!”

I hurried to the board and tried to erase fast, but Ms. Savage was faster.

“Duncan dear.” She turned on me soon as the last kid fled the room. “I want to talk to you about your reading level.”


Ms. Savage sat in one of the small chairs. She always took a small chair when she had something extra adult to say. She smiled at me. “I think you could move up to level three if you just applied yourself. Wouldn’t that be great? You could be in the reading group with Jesus, Ryder and Avreet!”

Reading level three? That was a lot of reading for one little kid. “I’m okay where I’m at, Ms. Savage. I like my level. I don’t got to read so much and waste all that time.” Ms. Savage looked like she’d been struck by lightning. “I don’t have to read so much,” she corrected. “If you do some reading over the holidays, you would be ready.”

Read for Christmas? Savage was crazy. “I got a lot to do over the break, Ms. Savage. We’re driving to Oregon to see my dad.”

She frowned. “Your dad lives in Oregon now?”

“Yeah, you know. After the divorce and everything.”

“Duncan, Duncan.” She was forgetting her exclamation points. The way her voice changed made me feel funny. Like she’d suddenly decided I’d always be sitting in a little kid chair, like she was now. And she eyed me in that disappointed way that reminded me of how Mom had looked at Dad before he left.

I went back to wiping out the vocabulary words.

I forgot all about Eli’s Secret Santa envelope when I got home. Too bad, because my sister Piper found it wadded on the floor of the laundry room. “Why do you have your own name on your Secret Santa card?” she yelped. Piper had been in Ms. Savage’s class two years ago and acted like a real expert on third grade. “You can’t be your own Santa!” If she wasn’t careful, she was going to turn into an exclamation point talker, just like Ms. Savage.

“That ain’t my card.” I grabbed it. “It’s Eli’s. He forgot it when he went to the bathroom. I was keeping it for him.” I read my name on his card. So Eli was my Secret Santa.

Piper was giving me the fish eye. “You’re not supposed to know that Eli is your Secret Santa. You need to tell Ms. Savage so she can exchange Eli’s card with somebody else’s.”

“It will mess up the whole works if Ms. Savage has to change things now. Besides, it’s all working out because I got Eli’s name, too.” This was a lie but you couldn’t tell Piper the truth if you didn’t want her to blab. “We’re gonna get things for each other that we wished we had ourselves,” I added. “So we’ll be real good Santas.”

Her fish eye wobbled. “Kids.” She groaned like she was about a hundred years old. “You’re all nuts!” She marched out of the room.

I read my name on Eli’s Secret Santa card again. What a lucky break. Now Eli was going to have to buy something for Avreet and I was my own Santa. Totally cool. I’d tell Mom I had to buy a real good present for another kid in class, and pick something nice for myself. I figured a fat bag of candy would make me happy. No, wait. That was small thinking. I could go bigger than that. Maybe I could even talk Mom into that Game of Thrones dragon I saw at Target.

On Secret Santa shopping day, Piper was doing chess club so it was just me and Mom at Target. Mom said hurry up and pick a gift, store Christmas made her itch. “It’s swamped with decorations. Don’t you get any big ideas about asking for things for yourself, either,” she warned. “Any Christmas this year is going to be strictly necessities.”

I figured a fat bag of candy would make me happy. No, wait. That was small thinking.

Illustration by Nasan Hardcastle

“What’s necessities?”

“What do you think?” She stopped for the Salvation Army bucket and flung in her change. Then she looked me over. “You need clothes.”

“Ms. Savage said I could move up a reading level.” I hadn’t planned on telling her, but it seemed like a way to get on her good side. Mom liked it when she thought I might amount to something.

“Duncan, that’s great news. Maybe you’ll turn out more like your sister after all.” Better than turning out like Dad, was what she meant.

“Ms. Savage says great readers make great men and women.”

“Well, just pass third grade first,” Mom said. But she seemed in a better mood suddenly.

I ran ahead to the toy aisle that had the Game of Thrones dragon bin. But the bin was empty. “Out of stock” a sign read. Dang, what did I want that was as good as that?

I searched around. By the time Mom showed up, I’d found the next best thing to a dragon.

“It’s a robot with a computer chip inside. Look, Mom.”

“Duncan, that’s too expensive for a school present.”

But I really wanted that robot now. “All the other kids’ parents will buy nice things for their kids to be Secret Santa,” I said.

That got Mom’s I don’t think so look fighting with her guilty over the divorce face.

I had to wait to see who won.

“All right, get it,” Mom finally said. “There are other ways we can cut back.”

I guess Eli’s condition got the best of him, because he was absent the whole week before winter break. Lucky Eli. He was probably home watching TV and playing video games while I was doomed to sit through the entire fifty minutes of every one of Savage’s reading classes, with her asking me to please pronounce! and daring us to read for dangerous knowledge. I couldn’t understand Ms. Savage. If reading books was so dangerous, how did it make you great?

We brought our Secret Santa gifts on the last day of class. Ms. Savage had us decorate a giant cardboard Christmas tree with words instead of ornaments. That was the kind of crazy she was. Then we were all supposed to put the present we brought under the cardboard word tree and find the present meant for us. It was a little tricky setting down my robot all wrapped nice thanks to Mom, then picking it up again. My stomach was kind of roily the whole time. And my ears rang like a bunch of cymbals going off.

When I got it back to my desk I stuck my robot on the floor under my feet. The whole third grade was acting excited about learning who their Secret Santa was. Everyone except Avreet, who looked glum, and went back to her desk pulling hard on her ear. That was just like her, to get all dramatic over not getting a dumb Secret Santa present. I concentrated on my drawing, which I’d made into a battle between a robot and a dragon.

“Duncan!” Ms. Savage was standing over me. I slapped my reader shut. “Your Secret Santa has been sick this week,” she said. “He wasn’t able to bring you a gift.”

“That’s okay, Ms. Savage. I—” The cymbals in my ears were banging again. I kicked my robot further under my desk.

“—It sure is. Because I have a nice present for you, right from Santa himself!” She brought a big box from behind her back.

Wow. This was my lucky day. I forgot all about my robot-dragon battle drawing. I forgot about Avreet, and the cymbals in my ears. “Thanks, Ms. Savage.” The box was wrapped better than Mom could do. I didn’t really believe in Santa anymore, but I could start up again if there was something great inside.

“You’re welcome, Duncan.” She set the present on my desk.

“No fair!” Ryder yelled. “Duncan has got two presents now.” He pointed at my feet. “Look. He’s got one under his desk, too.”

“What’s this?” Ms. Savage peered under my desk.

She straightened and looked at me funny. Then she looked around the room and spotted old gift-less Avreet, with her head down on her desk.

Mom readjusted the rearview so she could give me one of her <i>you’re just like your father </i>looks.

Illustration by Nasan Hardcastle

“Mmm.” Ms. Savage took the red Secret Santa envelope off Mom’s wrapping. She read the card inside, and put it in her pocket. “This last one must be for Avreet!” she announced.

“But Ms. Savage—” Couldn’t she read? That card didn’t say Avreet. It said Duncan.

“Now remember it’s the season, Duncan.” Ms. Savage got her big, adult-sitting-in-a-small-chair voice. “The idea of Secret Santa is to give to others.”


“And I have a really nice gift for you here. It’s very special.”

I hesitated.

“But if you’d like, you can choose between them. Pick one. It’s up to you.”

I stared at Ms. Savage’s present. Even if it wasn’t from an actual Santa, Ms. Savage no doubt had money to buy a nicer gift even than a Target robot, being a teacher and all. Or she might have even bought one of the last dragons from Target’s bin! The box was big enough. If I gave it up, my dragon would go to Avreet.

I took a breath, and slid the box out from under my desk. “Here, Ms. Savage,” I said. “You can give this one to Avreet.”

You’d think she’d be happy as a clam at how giving I was, but her face got a look like a curtain shutting. Or maybe light dawning. She turned away and gave my robot to Avreet.

Then we all got to open our presents one by one. I was in the last desk in the last row, so I was last. I watched Avreet open the robot. She pulled it out looking confused. She probably thought I would have bought her something girly she could exclaim over and write mushy poems about. But then she figured out how to make it walk across her desk and all the other kids wanted a turn at it and Avreet acted happy. I bet she didn’t know a darn thing about robots, but she made it seem the best gift ever. I sure was glad this was our last day of school so I wouldn’t have to see her swoony looks for a while.

At least I had a good present. I ripped into Ms. Savage’s wrapping. I was still counting on my dragon, or something even better. I dug through a mountain of tissue. Dug some more. Finally got to another, smaller wrapped package inside. Book-shaped. I felt around the edges. It was a book. I’d given my robot up for an old book.

“Aren’t you going to open it and see what book you got?” Ryder tunnel-talked at me. His Secret Santa had gotten him a big bag of candy, and he was all puffed up about it.

“I’m saving it for Christmas,” I said. “So I can be surprised.”

Ryder popped M&Ms into his mouth. “You look surprised now, if you ask me,” he said, crunching.

It was time to leave. Ms. Savage went to the piano and stabbed out “Twelve Days of Christmas” to celebrate our success as Secret Santas. “Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukkah! Feliz Navidad!” she cried. “See you next year!”

But I didn’t feel much like a success. I walked outside slow with my still-wrapped book. Piper was waiting for me on the playground.

“What’s wrong with you?”


“Well, you better hurry up. Mom’s got us packed. We’re on our way to Oregon.”

“Now? I thought we were going Sunday.”

“Change of plans. We’re taking Mrs. Randhawa and her kid with us. They’re going to see the kid’s grandma and they need to be there sooner. I think she’s in your class. Avreet?”

“No way.” I couldn’t ride clear to Oregon with Avreet.

“No choice. Mom is sharing the ride to save gas money. You know, because you’re an expensive kid. It’s a done deal.”

Sure enough. Avreet and her mom were already in the car.

No way. I couldn’t ride clear to Oregon with Avreet.

Illustration by Nasan Hardcastle

Piper opened the back door and called in to Avreet, “You want to sit by Duncan?”

“Okay.” Avreet moved into the middle and Piper went around. I scrunched in as close to the door as I could.

“Is that what you got from your Secret Santa?” Piper said when she stuffed in next to Avreet. “A robot?”

“I like robots.” Avreet hugged my robot and looked swoony at me.

Mom shut her car door and started adjusting mirrors. It was my last chance to jump out.

“What about you, Duncan, what’d you get?” Piper grabbed for my present but I held it away. “It looks like a book.” She laughed at me. “You don’t even know how to read.”

“I do so.”

“Then why haven’t you opened it?”

“Leave him be,” Mom yelled. “He’s got what he’s got.” She rolled her eyes for Avreet’s mom. “Welcome to a long drive,” she groaned. She moved the rearview mirror around. “What a coincidence, huh Duncan? Here we bought Avreet’s gift, and now she’s riding with us.”

Piper gave me another fish eye. “So what happened to Eli?”

“He’s sick, that’s what.”

“Eli?” Mom’s eyes had found me in the rearview.

“Duncan was supposed to be trading gifts with him,” Piper blabbed. “Even though he brought his own Secret Santa card home.”

“You mean you didn’t get my name?” Avreet yanked on her ear. “You didn’t buy this for me?”

“No, I got your name but—you know.”

“Fess up. You switched cards!” Piper said.

Mom readjusted the rearview so she could give me one of her you’re just like your father looks.

Dang, what did they expect of one third-grader? “We could trade,” I said to Avreet. “That robot for this here book.”

“Nope.” Avreet sounded like she didn’t love me so much anymore.

“Aw, why not? I thought you liked to read.”

“I do. But I love AI.” She twisted my robot’s head around. “I’m going to be a scientist when I grow up.”

“AI,” Piper said. “That’s artificial intelligence to you, Duncan.”

“I know what it means.” I stared at Avreet. She was going to be a scientist? I thought she wanted to write mushy poems about rainbows and twinkly stars.

“Mom,” Avreet said. “Can I have your cellphone? I want to look up robot schematics.”

Schematics? A weird feeling came over me when Mrs. Randhawa handed her the phone. I wasn’t sure what schematics meant, and I didn’t like it that Avreet knew, and not me.

“You can give your book to me, Duncan,” Piper said. “I need something to read on this trip.”

But it was too late. I didn’t answer. Since I was already seeing myself sitting my whole life in a little chair, disappointing Mom while kids like Avreet knew what schematics were, got to be scientists, and forgot to swoon over me. I pulled at Ms. Savage’s wrapping until some gold letters appeared. J.R.R. Tolkien across the bottom of Savage’s book—then a gold dragon above the letters.

That part was okay.

Avreet and Piper were Googling on the cellphone. Mrs. Randhawa helped Mom find some radio Christmas carols, and we left the school. I slumped down in my seat. J.R.R. Tolkien hit the floor and a card from Ms. Savage fell out. I flipped it over. Dare to read! Savage shouted.

I pulled J.R.R. Tolkien back on my lap and opened the dragon cover. Ms. Savage was right about knowledge, it was dangerous, and heavy as this old book to carry around, once you had it.