Writing Advice

Help for Authors and Writers

Prompt: Start a story with “Sarah wanted the perfect present for her friend, but what?”

This...absolutely did not go where I expected it to. This didn’t turn out to be a story about, say, a college student looking for a gift, but veered off into some very weird worldbuilding.

Sarah wanted the perfect present for her friend, but what?

There was a science to it, this business of gift-giving, she thought, or perhaps an art. A proper gift needed to be a performance, an expression of the giver’s knowledge of the receiver. The gift itself, correctly viewed, was almost irrelevant—a brush, a tool with which to paint emotions. The real artwork was the way the receiver reacted: the anticipation, the little breath as the ribbon slipped free. All of it, the packaging, the presentation, and the object itself, combined to evoke the proper mood, the careful cascade of emotional responses.

Which made this particular assignment especially vexing, because Sarah knew almost nothing about her target. She was, in a sense, a painter working blindfolded, a conductor wearing earplugs.

She grumbled to herself as she searched the endless row of shelves. The shelves, higher than her head and all painted the same institutional gray, went on forever—literally forever, not forever the way most people meant it, as a substitute for a very long time. They started out several meters apart where she stood, but converged ahead and behind her, coming ever closer together but never quite touching.

Thin mist filled the space far ahead, as the gifts these shelves held became more theoretical, more abstract. If she squinted, she could just see it receding, as the inevitable march of human cleverness brought more and more possible gifts from the land of abstract ideas to concrete reality. Traveling into the mist quickly became exhausting, and anyway there was nothing there to see, not yet. She’d heard rumors of Nameless Things crawling its farthest reaches, past the place she could go, things left over from when the Nexus had been clawed from the Formless Void, but she didn’t know if that was true or not.

She’d also heard that further on, the aisle grew dark, or would anyway if you could see through the mist, because light from that far away hadn’t had time to reach you, no matter where you were standing. She didn’t know if that was true, either.

When Sarah first started this job, in Anno Domini 1292, the entire section of the Nexus for consumer electronics had been shrouded in dense, impenetrable fog; now, it was one of the busiest parts of the Nexus, the space where every possible gift was stored. Not just tangible gifts, but intangible gifts too: gifts of attention, of time, random acts of thoughtfulness.

She could still remember the first Christmas after the introduction of the iPhone. Old-timers told her it was even busier than that one season with the frankincense and myrrh.

Sarah could barely remember the last time she’d seen anyone give myrrh. She wasn’t even entirely certain what myrrh was, only that it had been trendy for a while before it faded into obscurity.

The Nexus held countless rows of shelves just like this one, each given over to gifts designed to evoke some subtly different emotion. There were aisles for joy, for wonder, for wistful nostalgia, for fear (gifts mostly given by third-rate petty despots and kidnappers, and dominated, by and large, by a gruesome array of body parts: fingers, ears, and animal heads were all popular, but so were, for some reason, fish).

Sarah could travel to any part of the Nexus she wanted, even though it was infinitely large, by folding herself through the tiny spaces between things that existed. Planck space, she’d heard it called, or something like that. She didn’t understand how it worked, but then, she didn’t need to—that sort of thing was handled by Operations & Logistics. They were always rearranging things, muttering something about a guy named Hilbert and a hotel that he ran, or perhaps lived in, or something. The O&L folks were an odd lot, even by the standards of the Nexus. Sarah rarely spoke to them unless she had to.

Already she’d inspired a hundred and fifteen gifts this shift. She didn’t present the gifts herself, of course, but inspired people to give them, drawing upon their knowledge of the essence of the recipient to suggest the appropriate gift. The better they knew the person for whom the gift was destined, the better she could do her job. She prided herself on her inspirational ability, which is why she hated office Christmas gift exchanges.

Now, as her shift closed, she faced a conundrum, because she was giving a gift to a friend, rather than inspiring a human with the spirit of generosity, and she was drawing a complete blank. “I don’t get why this is so hard!” she grumbled aloud.

“You can do this.” The voice came from a shimmer in the air, a ripple that twisted the eye if one looked too hard at it. “Remember that thing you did with the big wooden horse and the Greeks? That was inspired! You’ve got this.”

“Thanks. It just…it feels different, you know?”

“Yeah. It’s because you like her, and you want her to like you back. You’re invested in the outcome. With humans, you can just do the assignment and move on. Whatever happens, it’s not your problem. But now…”

“I suppose.” She sighed. “How do I get her to like me? Flowers? Flowers are good, right?”

“Flowers are complicated. There are times when they’re appropriate, and times when they’re not, and the boundary between the two can get…erratic.”

“Scented candles?”

“Why are you asking me? I’m only a corner of your mind you talk to when you need someone to bounce ideas off of.”

“But what do I do?”

“I’m charming when I’m flustered. You could, I don’t know, give her the thing you’ve been saving all these years.”

“You mean—”


“Isn’t it a little early for that?”

“I think early on is the best time for it. What do you have to lose?”

“But really, aren’t scented candles better?”

“Than vulnerability? Authenticity? Genuine connection? Candles are more common, certainly. Is that what you want? A common gift, when you could offer something exceptional?”

“You’re right.”

“Of course I am. I’m a psychic manifestation of you. I can’t offer you anything that isn’t already yours to begin with.”