When Cyrus was eight, he had his last real Christmas. His mother had taken him to dinner with his relatives - people whom he could hardly remember now and certainly couldn’t name. He remembered there being a ton of presents, some of which were for him. Cyrus ate so much food and drank so much eggnog that he almost got sick, but he’d had a wonderful time.
Maybe some part of him knew that the holidays wouldn’t always be so cheerful, for Cyrus had thrown a fit upon leaving. He wanted to stay overnight with his cousins, but his mother wouldn’t hear of it. The eight-year old was pulled kicking and screaming back home to his own bed.
When Cyrus was nine, his mother got promoted to CEO of the company for which she had worked for years. Their headquarters were in Canada, but rather than move there, she simply got an apartment and took extended business trips. That was how Cyrus ended up sitting at home with a live-in nanny on Christmas Eve, writing a letter to Santa. He placed it beside the tray of cookies and milk.
“Go off to bed now,” his nanny, Mrs. Singer, had told him. “If you’re not asleep before midnight, Santa won’t come.”
Young Cyrus had believed her. He hurried off to bed, squeezing his eyes shut and hoping more than anything that he’d wake up to find his cookies eaten, his letter gone, and his single wish come true.
On Christmas morning, Cyrus had run downstairs, glancing around in excitement before his heart fell. All that was there were the presents under the tree, and his mother certainly wasn’t in one of those. Cyrus didn’t understand the sad, teary-eyed look on his elderly baby sitter’s face as he examined the tray he’d left for Santa. The cookies and letter were gone, but it didn’t matter. Santa hadn’t brought his mother home for Christmas.
That was the last year he asked Santa for anything.
When Cyrus was ten, his mother called on Christmas. He hadn’t seen her for four months; each week there would be a new meeting, or a new problem that needed worked out before she could come home, but nothing was ever really finished. Delay after delay had kept her in Canada, and now Cyrus was alone once more. He had watched the phone ring, knowing from the caller ID that it was his mother.
“Aren’t you going to get that?” Mrs. Singer asked, her voice gentle.
Cyrus waited until the ringing stopped and the answering machine picked up. “Cyrus, I just wanted to call and wish you a Merry Christmas. Call me back.” Just like everything else in her life, her message was short, clipped, and to the point.
“I don’t have anything to say to her,” Cyrus had finally answered. His voice held a cold edge that no ten year-old’s should. He had figured out by now what was going on. His mother wasn’t home for Christmas because she didn’t want to be. He didn’t call her back, and she didn’t try again.
When Cyrus was eleven, the big fight happened. His mother had come home, for once, but everyone was regretting it. Cyrus locked himself in his room, staring stubbornly out the window.
“Cyrus, open up,” his mother had said, pounding at the door. Cyrus didn’t respond. He felt the heat rising to his cheeks, and his eyes began to sting, but he didn’t open the door. “Cyrus, it’s Christmas. Please open up.” Though her words were polite, her tone reeked of impatience.
“Since when has Christmas mattered?” Cyrus whispered, half to himself.
“What was that?” she asked from the other side of the door. “I can’t hear you; please open the door.”
Cyrus stomped over to the door, ripping it open. “I said, since when has it being Christmas mattered? You never cared about it before!”
“Of course I have-“
“Then why were you never home?” he demanded, angry at the tears that threatened to spill.
His mother gave a tight smile. “I’m home now,” she said, moving forward as if to give him a hug. Cyrus turned away. “Come now, Cyrus. Don’t be ungrateful.”
Cyrus couldn’t hold back the tears anymore. “Why won’t you tell me who my dad is?” he asked.
“What?” she asked in surprise.
“Who’s my dad? Where is he? Tyler says that when he gets tired of living with his mom, he goes to his dad’s-“
Cyrus’s lip quivered. “My friend!”
“Cyrus, please-“ his mother began, her tone placating.
“Take me to my dad’s! Tell me where he is!” Cyrus practically shouted, balling his fists.
“Your father is dead!” his mother finally snapped, her face contorting in anger. “He-“ she broke off with a sigh. “You can’t go live with your dad.” She realized what she had said just in time to see her son’s face fall.
Cyrus squeezed past her, running upstairs and ignoring her calls for him to come back. The world blurred through his haze of tears, but he made it to the upstairs bathroom where he sank to the floor and cried. He was alone.
When Cyrus was twelve, he was shipped off to boarding school. Realizing there was no point in keeping the house in Ohio, his mother had sold it; moving to Canada for good. Cyrus, of course, had wanted to stay in the states, which seemed just fine with her. When Christmas came around, he had opted not to go home, for home wasn’t much of anything anymore. He figured spending a few weeks in his dorm room would be marginally better than spending them in his mother’s apartment while she was at work.
A card came from his mother a few days before Christmas. It had a snowman on the front and some cheesy Merry Christmas message. Inside was a hundred dollars. The card was addressed, “Dear Cyrus” and signed, “Love, Mom.” That was his first clue. Cyrus had always been taught to call his mother just that - “Mother.” Even when she left him a message on the phone, she would say, “It’s your mother.” Never “mom.” In addition, the handwriting didn’t look like her neat, slanted printing, but was instead cursive. It figured that she would just have her secretary send out a card. Cyrus wasn’t even surprised.
While he may have been right about it being preferable to remain at school, that didn’t mean that it was remotely enjoyable. Only a few students stayed over winter break, and they tended to keep to themselves like he did. Cyrus spent much of his time in the library, working his way through a shelf of books as the snow fell outside the window. And so he experienced his first Christmas completely alone. It wouldn’t be his last.
When Cyrus was seventeen, he spent his first Christmas with somebody he actually cared about. That year, he was attending a co-ed boarding school, and had recently begun dating a girl named Marissa. She was amazing, he thought. Cyrus could stare at her curly, chestnut hair and wide eyes for days. When Marissa invited him to Christmas dinner at her house, he hadn’t wasted a second in hopping on the nearest bus to the city to join her, stopping only to pick up a present.
Dressed in a classy sweater vest, Cyrus checked his reflection in a shop window before turning down the street on which Marissa lived. He still couldn’t believe that such a beautiful girl would go out with someone like him, but he knew he was definitely a lucky guy. His stomach fluttered with nerves as he raised his hand to ring the doorbell.
The door swung open to reveal his girlfriend, looking gorgeous in a red dress with black heels. He smiled at her, holding out the flowers he’d bought from a street vendor as well as the gift bag he held. “Merry Christmas.”
“Aw, thank you, Cyrus! Come on in,” she said, smiling like the sun.
Cyrus went inside and met her family, trying to act charming and polite. They seemed nice, and before long he felt comfortable in her home. After dinner, he finally got to see Marissa open up her gift from him - real diamond earrings that he had charged on his mother’s credit card. Through his love-filtered gaze, Cyrus could only see Marissa’s face light up as she lifted them from the box and replaced her own earrings with the new ones. He completely missed the hungry look in her eye - the greed that would become all too apparent when he looked back on it later on. Cyrus didn’t realize then that when she kissed him on the cheek, it wasn’t him that she was in love with; it was the diamonds.
Cyrus went home with only a tie as his gift, but he didn’t care. He had enjoyed that Christmas more than he could put into words. If only he could have stayed ignorant forever.
Cyrus was eighteen as he lay in bed on Christmas Eve, praying that nothing would go wrong this year. One happy Christmas spent with his best friend, was that too much to ask? Still, there was something about the holiday that set him on edge; for good reason, probably. Cyrus couldn’t sleep, so he just lay in bed, watching the clock as it ticked from 11:59 to 12:00. It was Christmas. Yay.
From the dark came a whisper, “Merry Christmas.”
“You’re awake?” Cyrus asked.
“Yeah. Call me childish, but I can never sleep on Christmas Eve,” Hayden replied, turning to face Cyrus. Cyrus could only make out his face and ruffled hair in the moonlight that drifted in from the window.
“Me neither,” Cyrus replied, though he suspected that it was for a different reason.
There was a long silence. Eventually, Hayden spoke up, his voice hesitant and unsure, “Hey, Cy? Can I tell you something? Just thought it might, you know, save questions later…”
Cyrus propped his head up on his fist. What questions? “Of course.”
Hayden swallowed loud enough for Cyrus to hear. “I…uh…don’t really have any family besides Will,” he forced out. “He and I… we’re- we’re orphans.”
“Oh,” Cyrus said eloquently.
Hayden kept talking, hesitant but determined to explain. “The school sponsors me to be here. It’s part of their outreach program. I’m their charity case,” he blurted.
“Hayden…” Cyrus said, wanting to argue, but not knowing how. There were too many questions rattling around in his head. “That’s not true. How come Will isn’t here, then?” he asked, trying to change the topic a little. The air was filled with tension and awkwardness that Cyrus didn’t know how to relieve.
“There was a social worker assigned to us when my parents died,” Hayden said. “He was an alumni here. Families willing to adopt were hard to come by at the time because everyone wanted babies and really young kids, and, I don’t know, I guess there were probably other factors he didn’t tell us… but he found a family - a really nice couple - but they could only afford one kid. I wanted Will to go. The guy said that Sharpe’s had an opening for one boy, or we could wait for another family for me or maybe us both, but there was no telling how long that would be, or where the other family might live. If we were put into two different families, there was no guarantee I’d get to see Will at all. So I volunteered to come here. Will was still really young; it was better that he got a family, and I didn’t want to risk losing him.”
Cyrus felt like his heart was breaking. He had the strong urge to get up and wrap Hayden up in a hug, but he resisted. Instead, he asked, “But you still get to see Will? It’s not like they keep you two separated, right?”
“Not intentionally, but they really can’t afford plane tickets all the time,” Hayden said, his voice distant. “I live here in the summer and work with the staff. They pay me, so I usually save up and visit at least once a year.”
And here he had been wasting his money on records. Cyrus’s stomach twisted. He didn’t deserve that. “I’m sorry.”
Hayden turned to face him with a scowl. “I didn’t tell you this to make you feel sorry for me,” he said, almost angrily. “I just thought I should explain now, on my own terms, why I won’t have any presents tomorrow.”
“You’ll have one,” Cyrus assured him with a gentle smile. “And… I’m glad you thought you could tell me. I won’t judge you; this won’t change anything, you know.”
Through the lump in his throat, Cyrus added, “Can I just say one thing, though? You’re not a charity case. You deserve everything this school’s done for you, and you deserve a family too.” He paused, swallowed. “You made me realize that I didn’t have to be alone all the time, and you don’t have to be either.” This conversation was turning emotional fast, but Cyrus didn’t regret what he said.
“I’m not alone,” Hayden replied. “I’ve got some pretty awesome friends.” His grin turned into a yawn. “I think I can probably sleep now. Goodnight, Cyrus. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, Hayden.”
Cyrus waited until Hayden’s breathing had evened out and he was certain that he was asleep before getting out of bed. He snuck into the other room and fired up his laptop. The bright screen glowed in the darkened room as Cyrus started typing. It was late, but he had some last minute Christmas shopping to do.