Five year old Gus Markus-Peterson stood on the sofa in the first floor flat that his mothers were renting in Toronto. It was the first floor of an old house that had been divided into flats. A small Christmas tree stood in a corner with many colorfully wrapped presents underneath. Most of them were for him, many from his father who had visited the week before. Gus knew many of the presents were for him, but they didn’t interest him at the moment. He had something else on his mind.
Gus pushed the curtain covering the window behind the couch aside. He looked out the window which faced onto the street. Leaning against the back of the sofa, Gus pressed his nose to the window. He stared out at the first flakes of snow that were starting to fall. This would be his first Christmas in Toronto.
“What are you doing, lambskin?” Lindsay asked as she came out of the kitchen.
“Watching the snow,” Gus said softly.
“Do you want to go out and play?” Gus shook his head. “No? Do you want a snack?” Another shake of the head. Gus continued to stare out the window. “Gus, are you feeling all right?”
Gus turned to look at his mother. “I miss daddy. I wish he could be here for Christmas. Can he, Mommy? Pleeeeeeeeeze,” Gus begged.
“Daddy was here a week ago, and he left your Christmas presents. They’re under the tree.” Gus looked over at the small tree that stood in the living room. “But Daddy’s going away over Christmas,” Lindsay explained gently. “Remember?”
“I want him to come here. I need him,” Gus said seriously.
“Gus, he can’t be here.”
“Then Christmas sucks. I hate it here!” Gus said jumping down from the sofa and running to his bedroom.
“Gus…” Lindsay called after him. Gus’ bedroom door slammed behind him. “Gus, open this door,” Lindsay ordered. When the door did not open she turned the handle only to find that the door was locked. “Gus, unlock this door.”
“You heard me, young man, unlock this door.”
“I want my daddy.”
Lindsay heaved a sigh. This was not what she wanted to be dealing with. Ever since they had come to Toronto Gus had grown more silent and unruly. He wouldn’t listen to what she and Melanie were trying to tell him. He was enrolled in kindergarten, but he didn’t have much positive to say about it, and he wasn’t doing very well either. He just generally seemed unhappy and rebellious. Lindsay couldn’t help but wonder if they had made a big mistake leaving Pittsburgh.
There seemed to be only two things that Gus enjoyed. He loved the visits from his father, and he liked his friend, Cara, whom he had met at school, and who lived just a few houses down the street. Even though Gus was very bright, his achievement in school lagged behind. Lindsay and Melanie had been in for a couple of interviews with Gus’ teacher, but so far that had not helped. Gus said he hated school. Lindsay had the feeling that if it wasn’t for the fact that Cara would be there, they would never get Gus to go to school at all.
“Gus,” Lindsay said through the door, “you know that daddy can’t come here every time you want him to.”
“I need him.”
“Need?” Lindsay asked with a frown. “What do you need daddy for?”
“I can’t tell you. I have to tell daddy.”
Shaking her head, Lindsay decided that maybe if they
called Brian, he could talk Gus out of this funk. She walked to the phone in
the living room and hit the speed dial to connect to Brian’s cell. She got a
“So, we’re all set then,” Brian said.
“Yes,” came the response.
“I’d have preferred that we fly down together.”
“I’m a big boy. I can get myself to the Bahamas,” Justin said with a laugh.
“I know but…”
“Brian, it’s fine. It doesn’t make sense for you to fly to New York, just so we can fly south together.”
“I don’t mind.”
“You’ll get to see all of me that you can stand while we’re basking on a beach in the Bahamas.”
“I’ll never get more of you than I can stand. Hell, I only see you about once a month.”
“That’s what this Christmas vacation is for,” Justin said philosophically. “We can relax and reconnect.”
“I like the reconnecting part.”
“How did I know that would be the part you liked best?” Justin laughed.
“Because you know me so well.”
“Right! I can’t wait to see you,” Justin whispered. His stint in New York was going okay, but it was awfully lonely sometimes.
“Ditto,” Brian said, before he cut the connection. He set his cell phone down. Almost two weeks together with warm sun, sandy beaches, lots of booze, no family. What more could he wish for?
The cell phone rang and interrupted his enjoyable thoughts.
“What did you forget?” Brian asked with a smile as he picked it up. He expected it to be Justin calling back to verify something about the trip.
“Brian, it’s Lindsay.”
“Hey, what’s up?”
“It’s Gus. He’s locked himself in his room. He says he needs to talk to you.”
Brian shook his head. “Couldn’t you sic Melanie on him? I bet she can straighten him out.”
“This isn’t funny.”
“Okay, what does he need to talk to me about?”
“I don’t know. He won’t tell me.”
Again Brian shook his head. “Put him on.”
“Just a minute.”
There was a long silence and then Gus’ voice came over the phone, “Daddy?”
“Yes, Sonny boy, what can I do for you?”
“Daddy, I need you to come here for Christmas.”
“I told you Justin and I are going away over Christmas. I just saw you last week.”
“I know, but…”
“There is not but, Gus. We’re leaving day after tomorrow.”
“Please, Daddy, I need you.”
Brian heard the desperation in Gus’ voice. What could he want so badly from him? “Gus, I can’t be there.”
“Yes, you can. You can do anything. You’re my daddy. I want to tell you something, Daddy,” Gus whispered. He looked at his mother. “This is private, Mommy.”
Lindsay stared at her son, but realized he wasn’t going to talk while she was there. She could find out later from Brian what this was all about. She headed for the kitchen to make dinner.
“Gus, what’s going on?” Brian asked his son.
“My friend, Cara, is really sad. Her daddy is in Abganistan, and he can’t come home for Christmas. She’s really, really sad, Daddy. Can you bring her daddy home for Christmas, please, Daddy?”
“Afghanistan? Is he a soldier?”
“I think so.”
“Then he’s there on a tour of duty. He can’t come home until that’s over.”
“What’s a tour of duty?” Gus asked.
“It’s how long a soldier has to stay where he’s been sent,” Brian explained.
“But you can bring him home anyway? Right, Daddy?”
“No, I’m sorry, Gus, but I can’t.”
Brian could hear Gus let out a long sigh. “I still need you to come here,” Gus said after a pause. “I told Cara you would try to bring her daddy home, but if you couldn’t, I said I’d share you with her for Christmas.”
“Yeah, I told her I had the bestest daddy in the whole world, and that you would help her have a good Christmas … even without her daddy.”
“That’s what you told her, was it?” Brian felt the smile spread across his face. He loved to hear Gus say things like that.
There was a long silence while Brian thought about what Gus had just told him. Brian wanted his time with Justin, but Gus seemed to really need him in Toronto.
“You’ll come, won’t you, Daddy? Pleeeez! Me and Cara need you.”
Brian rubbed his forehead as he mulled over what Gus was asking, and also what he had planned with Justin. They just weren’t compatible, but he wanted both. “Gus, I’ll see what I can do,” Brian said with resignation. There had to be a way to resolve this. “But I’m not promising anything.”
“You’re my daddy. You can do anything,” Gus replied happily.
Brian rubbed his hand across his face. How could he turn down his son when Gus felt that way about him? He had always hoped he would be the kind of father that would make his son believe he could do anything. Jack had never made Brian feel that way. And now here was Gus asking him to make his Christmas the way he wanted it to be.
“I’ll be there,” Brian finally said, making up his mind that he couldn’t turn away from what his son was asking.
“Yay!” Gus said. “Bye, Daddy, see you soon.”
Brian set the phone down. Well that was just great! Now his trip to paradise was royally fucked. With a big sigh, Brian picked the phone up again and hit the familiar number.
“Justin, there’s been a change of plans.”
“Daddy!” Gus screeched as he threw open the door of the flat. “You came.”
“Yes, I did,” Brian said as he scooped the little boy into his arms. “And I brought Justin too.”
“Hi, Justin,” Gus said but his arms stayed firmly locked around Brian’s neck.
“Thanks so much for letting my son manipulate you into coming here,” Melanie said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “You’ve just taught him that he can get whatever he wants by whining and pleading.”
Brian opened his mouth to shoot back a snarky reply, but Justin beat him to it. “To my way of thinking Brian has taught Gus that his father loves him enough to change his plans and come when Gus needs him.”
Melanie snorted and turned away. All she needed was Brian Kinney coming here to ruin Christmas with her family. Even though she was Jewish, she had learned to love this time of year, and all the festivities. Now she wouldn’t be able to enjoy any of that with Brian fucking Kinney occupying her son’s attention, and undoubtedly showing her up with his money and expensive gifts.
“Brian, you didn’t have to come,” Lindsay said, but the smile on her face indicated that she was glad he was there.
“Yes I did. My Sonny Boy needed me,” Brian said with a smirk. That garnered a glare from Melanie, and a happy smile from Gus.
“Daddy, can we go visit Cara?” Gus asked.
“Your father just got here, Gus,” Lindsay admonished.
“I told Cara I’d bring daddy as soon as he got here,” Gus said petulantly.
Brian looked at Lindsay who shrugged, then at Melanie who merely continued to glare.
“Where does Cara live?” Brian asked.
“She lives a few houses down the street,” Lindsay supplied.
“Should we call first?” Brian asked. He wasn’t sure what kind of a reception a stranger would get at this time of year.
“No, Daddy, I want to surprise Cara,” Gus told him.
“Okay,” Brian said with a shrug, “let’s go.”
“Here’s his coat and his boots are in the hall,” Lindsay informed Brian.
Brian glanced at Melanie before going to help Gus on with his things. Melanie stood with her feet planted, arms crossed on her chest and an angry pit-bull look on her face.
As Brian squatted down to do up Gus’ coat, Justin leaned over and whispered, “Can I come with you? I don’t want to stay here with…” He cocked his head in the direction of Melanie.
“Of course you can, Sunshine. I may need backup when Cara’s mother tells me to mind my own fucking business,” Brian said in a whisper. “It’s all right if Justin comes with us, isn’t it, Sonny Boy?”
“Sure,” Gus agreed readily as he walked to the door and turned the handle. “He can play with Cara too. Bye, Mommy, Mama. I’ll be back soon.”
Brian stifled a chuckle. Gus was so grown up in some ways. Lindsay said goodbye, while Melanie just looked constipated. They quickly left the house.
“Are you sure you know where Cara lives?” Brian asked as they walked down the street. He had one of Gus’ hands while Justin held the other.
“Sure I do, Daddy. I play with Cara all the time.”
“Is Cara your girlfriend?” Justin asked mischievously.
Gus looked like he was thinking hard about that question. After a long pause he said, “Yes.” Brian and Justin smiled at each other. “This is Cara’s house,” Gus told them as he started up the sidewalk to the front door of the old house.
The house had been divided into flats just like the one Lindsay and Mel were living in. Gus marched right up to the front door and opened it. Inside was a small foyer with several other doors. Brian noted all the buzzers that were on one wall.
“It’s that button,” Gus said pointing to one of the buzzers. Brian noted the name ‘Gagnon’ above it. He pressed the button.
“Yes?” came a woman’s voice after a pause.
“It’s Gus,” Gus piped up before Brian could say anything.
“Come on up, Gus,” the woman said. They could hear the buzzer indicating the release of one of the doors.
Gus opened a door and started up a flight of stairs. “Up here,” Gus informed them when Brian and Justin hesitated to follow.
They went up two flights of stairs to the top of the house. The door at the top of the stairs opened as they arrived.
“Hi, Gus,” the same woman’s voice said. “Oh, I thought it was just you and your mother,” she said when she saw the men with Gus.
“This is my daddy and Justin,” Gus said then brushed past her to find Cara.
“I’m Brian Kinney,” Brian said extending his hand. “This is my partner, Justin Taylor.”
“Hello,” the woman said shaking each hand. “I didn’t expect any company. Please excuse the way the house is. Usually Gus’ mother just drops him off.”
“Is that right?” Brian asked. There was something a little off about this whole thing.
“I’m Mary Gagnon, please come in,” the woman finally said. She stepped aside so they could enter, and then closed the door behind them. “Let me take your coats. Have a seat, please,” she said as she gathered a couple of pieces of clothing from the worn old sofa that stood against one wall.
“Thanks,” Justin said as he and Brian sat down.
“I … I can make some tea … or coffee,” Mary offered. “I don’t really have much else to give you.”
“Tea would be lovely,” Justin said.
Mary nodded and moved through a doorway into a small kitchen that they could see a piece of.
“I don’t need fucking tea. What are we doing here?” Brian asked as he looked around at the scant furnishings, all in much the same condition as the sofa. A small Charlie Brown tree stood by the window with two presents underneath it.
“Mary wanted to give us refreshments,” Justin said softly. “I just got her to make the simplest thing she offered.”
Brian looked at Justin, who never ceased to amaze him. “Okay,” was all he could say.
“Daddy, this is Cara,” Gus said as he came back into the room towing a little girl with mousy hair behind him. She looked like she would rather be anywhere else than meeting them.
“Hello, Cara,” Brian said gently. Cara did not respond. She merely stared at the floor.
“Cara’s shy,” Gus offered.
“Hi, Cara, I’m Justin,” Justin said to her. “It’s very nice to meet you.” He held out his hand which Cara finally took when she let go of Gus’ hand.
“Gus said you wanted to meet us,” Brian offered when the awkward silence continued. “Is that what you wanted?”
Cara nodded. “Gus said you could bring my daddy home,” Cara stated, her voice barely above a whisper.
“I don’t think I can do that, Cara,” Brian told her. “I would if I could, but I can’t.”
“My daddy will play with you though,” Gus interjected. “So will Justin. Right?” Gus looked at the two men for verification.
Cara’s eyes filled with tears. “I want my daddy,” she whispered.
“Um, why don’t you two get a game to play,” Justin suggested.
“Okay,” Gus agreed. “Come on, Cara. We can get Hungry, Hungry Hippos.” Gus took the little girl’s hand and they went back into the room that Cara had come from.
“I made a pot of tea,” Mary said as she carried a small tray from the kitchen. It held three mismatched mugs and an old teapot. “Do you take milk?”
Justin nodded. “Brian takes sugar.”
Mary waited while the men fixed their tea and took a sip.
“How is it?” she asked nervously.
“Fine,” Brian responded. He didn’t like tea at the best of times.
“Very nice,” Justin stated hoping to make Mary relax.
“I understand that Cara misses her father a lot,” Brian said. They might as well get this settled. He couldn’t bring Cara’s father home for the holidays.
“Very much,” Mary said with a shake of her head. “She asks about him every day.”
“It must be very difficult having him so far away,” Justin added.
“Yes, in Afghanistan,” Brian replied. He looked at her quizzically.
“Cara’s father isn’t in Afghanistan.”
“But Gus said…”
“Cara’s father is dead,” Mary said firmly. “He was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan five months ago.”
“We…We had no idea,” Brian said horrified at what he had just heard. “Gus told us…”
“What Cara told him,” Mary supplied. “She’s so young. I took her to the funeral, but she just didn’t understand that her father was in the coffin. She thinks he’s still over there, and just hasn’t come home.”
“Gus wanted me to try to bring him home for Christmas,” Brian said gently.
“I’m so sorry that you were misled. It wasn’t intentional.”
“We didn’t think it was,” Brian said bluntly. “I’m sorry we’re here under false pretenses.”
“Oh, I don’t think that…” she said quickly.
“We couldn’t find the marbles,” Gus said as he came back into the room carrying a gameboard. Cara was carrying something in her hands. “We only got seventeen marbles.”
“Seventeen?” Brian asked. “You can count to seventeen?”
“I can count to a hundred, Daddy,” Gus said proudly. “Cara can count almost that high too, can’t ya, Cara?”
Cara bobbed her head in agreement.
“Your son is very smart,” Mary said with a smile. “He teaches Cara a lot.”
Brian shook his head. According to Lindsay, Gus wasn’t doing so well at school. There was obviously something else going on.
“Play, Daddy,” Gus ordered.
Mary picked up the tea tray making room for the game on the small coffee table.
“Let me carry that,” Justin volunteered, “while Brian plays with the children.” He got a glare from Brian before carrying the tray into the kitchen closely followed by Mary.
“Set it on the counter,” Mary instructed.
“You must find it difficult without your husband,” Justin said gently.
“Yes,” Mary agreed, tears welling up in her eyes. “But it’s much harder for Cara. She doesn’t understand.”
“I wondered why you weren’t living on a military base if your husband was in the army,” Justin said.
“We did for a while after Marc was killed. But they only allow that for a couple of months then you have to make other arrangements.”
“How are you doing?” Justin asked. They could hear the sound of banging coming from the other room.
Mary proceeded to tell Justin how they had found this small apartment. She had no family to help her, and neither had Marc. She and Cara were on their own. They got a pension from the government, but it never seemed to go far enough. They were having a lot of trouble making ends meet. Mary had been looking for work as a secretary or receptionist, or some sort of office work, but in the bad economic environment, there weren’t many jobs available.
“I win, Daddy,” Gus crowed. “I got eight marbles, Cara’s got five and you only got four.”
“I see you count very well, Sonny Boy,” Brian’s voice stated. Justin could tell Brian didn’t like losing. He never liked losing at anything.
“Let’s play again,” Gus said. The banging started anew as they struck the levers behind the hippos trying to capture the marbles in the hippos’ open mouths.
“Can we help in any way?” Justin asked.
“Sure, have you got a job going?” Mary asked sarcastically.
Justin shook his head. “Is there something Cara would like for Christmas that we could get her?”
“She really wants her daddy, as you know. But she wants a Barbie doll more than anything else. I … I just can’t afford it and all the trappings that go with it.”
“Maybe we could…”
“I don’t expect you to do anything like that. You don’t know us.”
They heard Cara squeal in delight. “I won!” she crowed.
“That’s the best sound I could ask for,” Mary said with a smile. “I want her to be happy.”
“I think we better go rescue Brian,” Justin chuckled. “Playing with little kids isn’t exactly his favorite thing to do.”
“He seemed perfectly at ease with them,” Mary observed as they stepped back into the living room.
“He’s a master of disguise,” Justin bragged.
Mary laughed. “You two are the most fun I’ve had since…”
“Hold that thought,” Justin said. “Brian, I think we better go. We have some shopping to do.”
“We do?” Brian asked with a frown.
“Yes we do,” Justin stated.
“Okay,” Brian agreed getting up. He was ready to go.
“Will you come back tomorrow?” Cara asked meekly.
“Tomorrow’s Christmas Day, Cara,” Mary told her daughter. “Gus’ dad probably has someplace else to be.”
“We’ll be back,” Justin said decisively. Brian gave him a look, but merely headed towards the door.
“See ya tomorrow,” Gus said happily as Brian helped him on with his coat which he had dropped on the floor in the living room.
“Bye, Gus, Mr. Brian, Mr. Justin,” Cara said.
Mary rested her hand on her daughter’s head as the others left the apartment.
“I hope we can find a quieter game to play next time,” Brian griped as they went down the stairs. “That one gives me a headache.”
“That’s cause we beat your pants off, Daddy,” Gus said proudly.
Justin smiled at the little boy. “Let’s get Gus home. We need to go shopping.”
“Yep, I’ll explain later.”
“I had fun, Daddy,” Gus said. “So did Cara. Did you?”
“Of course,” Brian said trying to sound sarcastic, but he couldn’t resist ruffling Gus’ hair as they headed up to his house.
Later that evening they dropped off a Barbie doll and a pile of Barbie paraphernalia at Cara’s home. They made sure it was late enough that Cara would be asleep. Brian told Mary that it was from Santa. Mary was effusive in her thanks.
Justin asked again if they could visit the next day with a couple more surprises. Mary could hardly refuse.
Christmas morning, Brian and Justin arrived at Lindsay’s and Melanie’s early to watch Gus open his presents. They put aside their differences while Gus was enjoying himself. They were almost like one big family as they drank coffee and laughed and talked about their gifts. Even Jenny Rebecca seemed to enjoy her new toys.
After a brunch of scrambled eggs and toast, Brian, Justin and Gus headed for Cara’s house. They were loaded down with presents.
Mary let them in and smiled at the gifts that came with them. “Cara loves her Barbie that Santa brought,” she whispered to Justin.
They sat down and handed out the gifts, most of them from Gus to Cara, but there was one from Gus to Mary. She opened it to find a gift certificate to one of the major department stores.
“It’s so you can buy a nice outfit for an interview I’ve arranged,” Brian said.
“Interview?” Mary asked in surprise.
“Yes, at Martin and Levensol Advertising downtown.”
“But what am I interviewing for?”
“They need a secretary/receptionist. Don’t let me down, because I gave them a glowing report about you,” Brian smirked.
“You did? Thank you so much,” Mary gushed. “You should be wearing a big red suit and a beard.”
“I don’t think so,” Brian retorted. “I don’t do fat and I don’t have a beard, but I do look good in red.”
“Yes you do,” Justin agreed with a wink.
“Play Barbie with me, Mr. Brian?” Cara asked.
“Yeah, we can dress her for the beach,” Cara said pulling out one of Barbie’s outfits.
“Okay,” Brian agreed.
“That might help you to get in the spirit for our vacation,” Justin said with a grin. Brian gave him a lustful look that he hoped Cara didn’t see.
“I’ll make some coffee,” Mary said.
“I’ll help,” Justin said following her to the kitchen.
“How can I ever thank you two?” she asked.
“You don’t need to thank us, just have a great life and make that little girl happy.”
“I’m going to do my best. If I get that job, it will make such a difference in the way we live.”
“I think you’ll get it,” Justin said with a smile. “Brian knows Ken Martin very well, and he did give you a glowing report.”
Mary’s smile broadened even more.
In the living room, Brian and Cara had Barbie dressed in her swimsuit with a fashionable cover-up over top. They placed her in her pink convertible to drive to the beach.
“You play Barbie better than you play Hungry, Hungry Hippos,” Gus informed his father. He was setting up Barbie’s living room in her toy house.
“Thank you, Sonny Boy. I find fashion much more to my taste than hungry wildlife.”
Gus giggled at his father’s comment. “I need to go to the bathroom,” Gus said, getting up and heading to the appropriate room.
“Mr. Brian,” Cara said seriously when Gus was gone. “Thank you for playing with me. My daddy’s not coming back, is he?”
Brian shook his head. “Your daddy’s gone?” Brian whispered.
Cara nodded in understanding. “I didn’t want it to be true.”
“I understand. It’s hard to let people go, but you’ll always remember him.”
“I will,” Cara affirmed. “I love him a lot.”
“That’s how it should be,” Brian said softly.
“I like playing with you, Mister Brian. Thank you,” Cara said. She threw her arms around Brian’s neck.
“You’re very welcome, little lady.”
“We should be going,” Justin said looking at his watch. “Lindsay is having dinner at two. She told me to ask you and Cara to join us. There will be plenty of food.”
“If you’re sure we wouldn’t be intruding…” Mary said.
“Absolutely not,” Brian assured her. “Let’s go.”
Cara brought her Barbie to dinner, and they all had a wonderful day playing with Gus’ toys and games and playing Barbie with Cara. She couldn’t seem to put down her new doll.
Dinner was a big success. Everyone enjoyed the food Lindsay and Melanie had prepared. Even Brian had to admit it was one of the better Christmas dinners he had had, but maybe it was the company more than the food that made him think that. Gus spent a lot of his time on Brian’s knee. He couldn’t seem to get enough of his father’s attention. When he wasn’t on Brian’s knee, Cara was. Brian couldn’t remember ever having a better Christmas.
During one of his stints on Brian’s knee, Gus whispered in his father’s ear, “I love you, Daddy. Thanks for making Cara happy.”
“I love you too, Gus. How about you show your teacher at school how good you are at counting?”
“I guess I could,” Gus admitted sheepishly. “Most of the time I don’t say nothing.”
“Perhaps you could start answering questions.”
“That’s my boy.”
As Brian and Justin drove their rental car to the airport the next day, they both had a warm feeling deep inside.
“I’m glad we came here,” Justin said.
“The Bahamas will be good, but this was better.”
“Our little piece of paradise in the cold winter of Canada.”
“I felt the true meaning of Christmas.”
“Yeah, it’s a good feeling; one I never thought I’d experience,” Brian admitted. “I didn’t think there was any such thing.”
“Aw, you knew it all along. It just took my good influence to bring it out,” Justin joked.
“No shit!” Justin grinned at Brian. “I think you may be right about that. Merry Christmas, Sunshine.”
“Merry Christmas, Brian.”
Feedback for Thyme
or email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Return to the Gift Challenge