It was almost nine thirty on Christmas Day when Cyrus opened his eyes to find Hayden already awake, though barely. He stretched, his shirt riding up and exposing a band of bare skin for a fraction of a second. Cyrus blamed whatever sudden butterflies he was feeling on sleepiness.
“Morning,” Hayden said, smiling. “Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas,” Cyrus replied with a soft smile, running a hand through his bedraggled hair and smoothing it down. He yawned and rubbed his eyes. “Want to go to breakfast?”
Hayden glanced at the window. “It’s cold. We’ve got those cookies that Lee gave us, want to just eat those?”
“Sure,” Cyrus agreed. “Breakfast of champions.”
“Hey, on Christmas anything goes,” Hayden said, getting up to find the food in the other room. Cyrus stretched, then followed, taking a seat next to Hayden on the couch and snatching a cookie from the tin.
“We should have a tree,” Hayden said matter-of-factly.
Cyrus finished chewing, nodding seriously. “Well, there are butter knives in the dining hall, and trees down by the lake,” he said, glancing at the clock on the wall. “If you start now, you might have one cut down by nightfall, and then you could hand fashion decorations, wire up some lights… by morning, you might have it up, but then it’d be after Christmas and we’d have to take it down, of course-“
Hayden punched him in the arm, interrupting his prattling and shaking loose the laugh that he’d been trying to hold back. “Shut up,” said Hayden.
“Just kidding,” Cyrus said, grinning. “Of course we can have a tree. Here, just let me… uh…” He shoved the rest of the cookie in his mouth, then got up, glancing around the room. Walking over to his desk, Cyrus picked up his sketchpad and pack of colored pencils. He balanced the pad on his forearm and started scribbling with quick, controlled strokes. In a few minutes, he had a rough, but artistic-looking tree, topped with an angel. He grinned and ripped it out, handing it to Hayden. “There.”
Hayden took one look at the tree and burst out laughing. Cyrus had drawn the tree bending over under the weight of the angel, who was frantically flapping her wings and looking terrified. “It’s perfect,” he said, taking a thumbtack and pinning it to the center of blank white wall where the projector normally shone. “Now it feels like Christmas. Here, let me get your present,” Hayden said, hopping up and hurrying into the bedroom.
While he was gone, Cyrus pulled the envelope out of his desk drawer, along with the small package wrapped in green paper. As he held the gifts in his hands, Cyrus worried that maybe he shouldn’t have gotten the last-minute one. Would Hayden think it was out of pity? Would he be insulted?
Cyrus shook the thoughts from his mind. He was determined not to pity Hayden. It was true, Cyrus wished that he could make things right and give him the family that he deserved, but in all other respects he had decided to act the same as always. Hayden didn’t want special treatment, and Cyrus understood that.
“Here,” Hayden said, coming back into the room. he offered a slim blue box tied with a piece of string. “My wrapping kind of sucked, sorry.”
“That’s okay,” Cyrus reassured. He handed his own gifts over. “I got you two things since one was kind of…last minute.”
Cyrus thought he saw Hayden blush. “Thanks, man. You first.” They sat back down on the couch as Cyrus struggled with the knot in the string. “Dude, just slide the box out,” Hayden said, a laugh in his eyes.
Freeing the box from the string, Cyrus lifted the lid. Inside lay a gleaming silver triangle. Cyrus’s face broke into a grin. “What’s a trianglist without his triangle?” he laughed.
“And what’s a pianist without his trianglist?” Hayden added.
Laughing, Cyrus said, “Thank you, Hayden. I love it.” It wasn’t about the piece of metal sitting in the box; Cyrus knew he could get one of those at any music store. What he was really thanking Hayden for was the memories that came with this. Even if they parted at the end of the year, each going to separate colleges, this instrument would forever symbolize their friendship. The thought made him smile.
“You’re welcome. But it’s kind of a two-fold gift too… if you want it to be,” Hayden said, fidgeting a bit.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I thought that, if you want, I could teach you how to play the piano.” He added in a hurry, “I mean, I know I’m still learning myself, but I know music and-“
“That’d be awesome,” Cyrus said, cutting him off. “I’d really like that.”
“Yeah?” Hayden replied. “Awesome.”
Cyrus gestured to the gifts he had given Hayden. “Your turn.”
Hayden started with the box, ripping off the paper and turning it on its end so that the little record player device slid out. “No way!” Hayden exclaimed. “A record player like yours?”
“Yeah,” Cyrus said, grinning. “I figured I won’t always be around, so you ought to have your own.”
“Wow, thanks, man,” Hayden said, eyes sparkling. He allowed himself one last look at the shiny new toy before ripping into the envelope on his lap. Inside was a packet of papers, which he stared at for a moment before comprehension dawned. “Dude, a plane ticket to North Carolina?” he asked, looking up. “Are you serious?”
The look on Hayden’s face was worth every penny and every minute of sleep lost last night. “Yep. Totally serious.”
In a flash, Hayden surged forward and Cyrus was wrapped up in a spontaneous hug. “Thank you, Cy. You’re the best.” Cyrus generally wasn't the touchy-feely type, but he leaned into the embrace, feeling comfortable and appreciated. Hayden grasped Cyrus’s shoulders and held him at arm’s length. “Really. I don’t even have the words to… I can’t thank you enough.”
Cyrus's answering smile was wide. “You don’t have to. It’s what friends do, right?”
Hayden just about glowed. “Only the best ones. God, I can’t wait ’til spring break now!” he said, looking down at the ticket again. Slowly, his brow furrowed, and his smile faded to a frown.
“What’s wrong?” Cyrus asked. Had he not gotten the right airport? Had he mixed up the dates?
“Well, nothing… it’s just there’s only one ticket.”
Cyrus was confused. “It’s round-trip.”
“I know that; that’s not what I meant. It’s only for one person. You’re not coming?” Hayden asked, as if that was the logical assumption.
All Cyrus could do was blink at him. “Um… I didn’t think… You actually want me to come?” he asked, as if the idea was foreign to him. Which it kind of was.
“Of course,” replied Hayden. His tone was one that made it seem obvious that he would want Cyrus along. “If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be going at all. It would be fun.”
“But wouldn’t Will’s family mind?” Cyrus asked. “I mean, they don’t know you’re coming, but I figured that’d be okay, but they don’t know me at all, and uninvited-“
Hayden waved a hand. “They’re really nice. They won’t care at all. And I’m inviting you, okay? You can meet Will.”
Cyrus was still having a hard time wrapping his head around this. Hayden actually wanted him to come along. In a million years, he would have never expected this. In all fairness, though, Hayden had a way of defying expectations. “You’re sure?”
“I’m sure,” Hayden said, rolling his eyes. “Now are you going to book another ticket or not?”
“Yeah- yeah, I’ll book one,” Cyrus said quickly. Hayden's eyes lit up.
“Great!” he said. “I’m gonna go see if Will’s on Skype - tell him the good news!”
Cyrus stayed seated on the couch, staring at the Christmas tree picture hanging on the wall. Slowly, his lips formed a smile, expressing the warm, bubbly feeling he felt in his chest. It wasn’t a tangible gift, but Hayden’s acceptance of Cyrus, his preference for him, was the greatest present he could have been given.
Nothing could ruin Cyrus’s good mood, not even a call from his mother sometime in the afternoon. He and Hayden were in the middle of A Christmas Story when the phone rang. It was the land line that was hardly ever used, so they just stared at it for a minute before deciding someone should pick it up.
“I don’t know who it could be,” Cyrus said, hesitating.
“I guess we’ll find out,” Hayden said, reaching for the receiver. He pressed it to his ear and said, “Hello?”
There was a moment of silence before Hayden covered the mouthpiece and whispered, “It’s your mom.”
Cyrus cringed. Oh.
Luckily, Hayden was smooth in handling the situation. “Oh, hello, Mrs. Angeles. Merry Christmas!” he said. His easy tone was in direct contrast to the frantic motions he was making towards Cyrus. It was obvious that he was asking whether Cyrus wanted to talk or to be conveniently unavailable. With considerable reluctance, Cyrus held out his hand for the phone. “Here, I’ll put Cyrus on.”
Hayden shot Cyrus a sympathetic look as he handed the phone over. “Hello?” Cyrus asked, pressing the receiver to his ear.
There was a moment of silence. “Enjoying your Christmas?”
“Very much so,” Cyrus said.
“It is a shame that you didn’t come home this year,” she replied.
Home? Cyrus wanted to ask. Where is home anymore? He had only been to his mother’s apartment in Canada a few times. It hardly qualified. “I didn’t want to leave Hayden without company on Christmas,” Cyrus replied.
“Was that the young man on the phone just now?”
“He seemed nice.” If it was possible to make a conversational compliment sound any more stiff, Cyrus’s mother had yet to meet her match.
“Yes,” Cyrus said again, already growing tired of the conversation.
There was another awkward silence. “Have you heard from Princeton?”
Of course she would bring that up today, of all days. “Not yet, Mother.”
“Well, keep me informed. I expect to see a letter of acceptance.”
“Alright,” Cyrus replied. He waited a beat. “Well, Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas to you too, Cyrus.”
Cyrus hung up and put the phone back on the cradle. Hayden was looking at him, his eyebrows raised. Cyrus sighed. “Go ahead. Say it.”
“That was the most awkward conversation…” Hayden trailed off, shaking his head in wonder.
“Yeah. Welcome to my life,” Cyrus muttered.
Hayden gave a sympathetic smile. “Nah, she seemed like a perfectly lovely lady,” he said. “Charming, warm, funny…”
Cyrus glared at him, but couldn’t keep it up. “Ugh, let’s just get back to the movie.”
“Come on,” Hayden said as they walked back to the couch, “I bet she’s not all bad, is she? She’s still your mom.”
“Hardly,” Cyrus replied. “I haven’t spent Christmas with her since I was eleven. Come to think of it, I haven’t spent more than a week with her since I was eleven either.”
Hayden stared at him. “Really? That’s awful.”
Cyrus just shrugged, but Hayden looked genuinely disturbed. Trying to lighten the mood a bit, he said, “I guess there is one good thing, though.”
“She sends me a card and a hundred bucks every year,” Cyrus said, shrugging. Suddenly, a though sprang to mind. “Hey, I have an idea. What if I give it to you and you go out and buy a whole bunch of records with it? I’ll let you pick; get whatever you want. We can share them, build up our collection.”
Hayden took a minute to think. “Okay. But on one condition.”
“You’re coming with me.”