For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Caraway Carter, and I write contemporary gay romance. Beyond Letters – Brandon Needs A Tree, is a holiday short that takes place in the upcoming sequel to my book The Scarlet Lock.
If anyone knew Brandon, they’d see that he never thought things through. Isn’t that what had happened eight years ago when he’d slipped off into a rainy afternoon and up to a stranger’s room? He could have been a murderer or a rapist—anything but the one man he turned out to be. And when Brandon had found out who that man was, why’d he stay? Because Brandon never thought things through.
He locked Sasha’s pink Fiat, Pinkie, in the lot of the restaurant where the bus and horse-drawn carts stopped. The tree leaned against the bench, wrapped in a white netting that held the branches close together. It also enabled Brandon to heft the tree and lug it to the bus bench.
The horse-cart driver, Louis, arrived shaking his head. “Non, non Je ne fais que descendre.”
“I know, I’m going there too… Louis, I can’t lug this all the way back on my own.”
“Only if you set it on the top.” Louis remained in the seat.
The moment he had Louis’s agreement, Brandon fumbled the tree on top of the cart. He held onto a strap that kept everything together, so as not to lose any needles.
“Merci, oh, thank you, Louis.” Brandon sat in the back of the cart, to keep a better eye on the tree and make sure it didn’t fly off. Not that Louis would go faster than three miles an hour. Whatever, the only thing he was bringing back was the fir tree on top of the cart. Even wrapped, Brandon could see that it would be perfect for the corner of the shop.
The cart started to pick up speed as Louis mumbled something about the tide coming in. A string of cursing was heard on the wind blowing past.
“Mister, your tree is unraveling!” a voice shouted at him.
“What?” Brandon noticed that the ribbon he’d been holding was no longer up, but dragging on the ground. “OH MY GOD!”
The netting had unraveled from the tree, and it was flapping off the roof of the cart. “Louis, stop! Arrêtez! STOP.” Brandon stood up and grabbed at the tree as it began to slip off the roof. When finally, Louis stopped, they were halfway over the bridge.
Louis shook his head and in broken English, said, “Take down this tree. The tide comes, I must leave.”
Brandon wrangled the tree off the roof, barely getting out of the way before it plopped on the ground. The first bunch of needles landed at his feet while Louis and his horse cart galloped off to collect the lingering tourists at the entrance to Mont St. Michel.
Brandon unfurled the slightly mangled, though still beautiful fir tree and, in a struggle that was laughable, managed to carry it a few feet. He resorted to dragging it behind him, first holding onto the tip of the tree and finally turning it around to pull from the base.
“Of course, I just wasted all afternoon buying this tree,” Brandon shouted to anyone who got caught staring at him. “At least it’ll fit against the wall without trouble.”
On Louis’s return trip, Brandon waved, and they both had a chuckle.
Brandon kept moving. It was never a fast walk, but he could see the entrance to the city; it was close. Closer still was the water edging along the bridge. He looked over his shoulder at the last of the tourists walking slowly, keeping an eye on him and the water. It was getting closer, and when he saw the road beyond the tree, tears fell—from exhaustion and all the slaughtered branches and needles he’d left behind him.
“I’m going to get you in my shop come hell or high water.” He lifted the tree in a bear hug and hobbled the last steps to the gate, shouting, “I’m almost there, almost in.”
Two more hops and he would be inside the city. The water lapped at the side of the walkway; shallow pools had already gathered at the entrance. The first jump put him just on the edge of the sand, and he frantically glanced down at the water splashing up around his ankles. Taking a second exaggerated leap, he landed on stones…and in a puddle up to his shins. He couldn’t breathe; if he stayed in this spot, the water would be up to his shoulders in no time. The walkway sloped up, which meant he would soon be high and dry, and he wouldn’t have to worry about tourists getting in the way, but he was exhausted.
He saw through his teardrops Hubert hanging outside the shop.
Brandon lifted his phone. “Siri, tell Hubs that I’m near the entrance and could use some help.”
A moment later, he saw Hubert looking for him. Brandon struggled through the water, waving one arm till Hubert saw him and began running down the walkway, opening his arms as he neared.
“Forget about a hug,” Brandon snapped in desperation. “Grab the base and help me get this home.”
“Sure, thing… I missed you too, Hubert.” He hefted the end.
They reached the shop and Brandon dropped the tree, soon followed by Hubert. “Yes, Hubs, I missed you too, but we might have gotten it here faster and had decorations, had you come with me.”
Sasha shrieked. “Um, if you are here, where is Pinkie?”
“She’s at the restaurant near the bus stop.”
“Where am I going to stay?”
“You can sleep upstairs in our room. I fucked up, so we’ll sleep in the backroom.”
“I didn’t fuck up,” Hubert argued. “Why should I have to sleep on that cot too?”
“Fine, shack up with Sasha, I know it’s in your blood.” Brandon sat hard in the chair.
“I was joking, Bran. I only dream of you.” He smiled at Sasha. “Let’s get this place closed up and get you settled upstairs.”
“I’m sorry, Hubs.” Brandon gathered the torn-up tree in both arms and situated it in the corner of the store. “I suppose we could tie it against the wall.” He turned to take in the store with all the decorated foods. “Oh. I was… Is there any left?”
Sasha and Hubert laughed as they pulled an exhausted Brandon upstairs and fed him.
Hubert grabbed some bedding, a couple of pillows, and a couple of pairs of their pajamas. “Come on, Bran. Let her have some quiet and we’ll set up the storeroom for us.”
Brandon followed his husband down the stairs, to the shop below. “Well, the tree looks nice pressed against that wall.”
“Probably because of how you dragged it.” Hubert came up behind him and pulled the cot out from the closet in the storeroom. “The previous owner must have had this same issue in the past.”
“Maybe we should get a murphy bed if there are more mistakes like this?” Brandon laughed.
“Oh, I don’t think that’s going to happen again,” Hubert mumbled as he made the bed.
Brandon stood in the doorway looking at the tree just standing there with nothing on it; he had memories of watching Charlie Brown decorating a forlorn tree. He looked over his shoulder. “I’ll be right back,” he said and left by the front door.
In the chill air, he wandered up and down the street looking in the windows at the decorations. The souvenir shop had glass ornaments of the abbey and the island. The restaurant had little spoons and omelet bowls, and a miniature replica of the sign available. Brandon raced back to the shop and into the back kitchen, where he set out butter, brown sugar, eggs, vanilla, salt, granulated salt, and flour in one pile. On the other side of the counter, it was more of the same with a few minor changes. He’d pulled down the brown-and-black-striped ledger, tied with a thick black ribbon and a rubber band.
Upon opening the book, he flipped to the middle and sifted through a small card with recipes and page numbers. The French butter cookie was his favorite from Martha Stewart, and the sugar cookie was his mentor’s favorite. After years of begging Ben for the recipe, to be told that it was one handed down from his grandma and he couldn’t share, finally on the day of Brandon and Hubert’s wedding, Ben had confessed he’d found it in a Good Housekeeping magazine at his doctor’s office.
At midnight, the final tray was brought out to cool, and Brandon turned to find Hubert staring at him.
“Why the sudden surge of cookie baking?”
“I came up with a theme for our tree.” Brandon held up the cookies, all of which had small holes punched in the top. “The stars and hearts are butter cookies, and the abbey and the island are the more sturdy sugar cookies.” He grinned.
“Where’d you get those shapes?”
“The abbey and island shapes I bought when I first arrived, thinking I’d need to cater to the tourists, but over time, I found the cookie shapes didn’t sell as much. So I shoved them in the back drawer—they’re perfect for the holiday.”
“Let them cool and get hard, then we’ll decorate tomorrow morning.” Hubert turned Brandon away from the counter and steered him towards the backroom. “Come to bed, Bran. Cuddle with me on the cot and we can see what gets hard in there.”
Hubert walked out from the storeroom, stretching. “What are you listening to?”
“It’s Christmas music.”
“No, this is not Christmas music. This is… I don’t know what this is.”
“I grew up listening to this.” Brandon had laid out all the cookie ornaments.
“He’s talking. Who talks in Christmas carols?”
Brandon smiled and explained, “Johnny Mathis was my mom’s favorite in the seventies, and this is only the beginning of my holiday playlist. When Bree and I were kids, we used to pretend we were in the Partridge Family.”
“You were in a family, no?”
Brandon laughed. “Yes…” He switched to another song. “Maybe this will lighten the mood.”
“Yes… ‘Happy Christmas’—I know this one, but why’d he let her in?” John Lennon and Yoko Ono started singing.
“It’s love, Hubs. Sometimes love wins over all things. Like how you rescued me from the rising tides yesterday, with this tree.” Brandon handed him an abbey sugar cookie. “Hang this anywhere.”
“I will, but will the tree be able to take it?” Hubert grinned.
“The war is over,” Brandon said.
“The full song is called ‘Happy Xmas, War is Over.’ I couldn’t believe our dad let us listen to it because it was sort of a war protest.” Brandon shrugged. “He was OK.”
Hubert looked through his phone for a song. “Now this one… I love this one.” His step had a silly bounce in it as he moved the cookies to the tree, adding bows of raffia and ribbons of green and red.
“What song is that?”
“It’s Marie-Eve Janvier and Jean-Francois Breau performing ‘Danser Autour Du Vert Sapin.’”
Brandon giggled at Hubert’s dancing and clapped to the tune. “I love our big beautiful mess of a tree.”
Hubert wiggle-walked to Brandon and bowed, as he extended his hand to him. “May I have this dance?”
“You may.” Brandon took his hand and was suddenly pulled close to Hubert’s body, then with a flick of his wrist, Brandon was sent away. Dipping and weaving, they danced around the shop. Brandon was pulled under Hubert’s arms, until he wrapped his body around Brandon’s and left a kiss on his neck as the song ended.
It was Brandon’s turn again. After the bouncy beat of the tree song from Hubert, Brandon slid close to him and murmured, “Santa Baby,” hotly in Hubert’s ear.
“Ooh, I love her voice.” Hubert swayed to the song. “I approve of this one.”
“This was my dad’s favorite. He’d always make Mom sing it during the holidays. Bree and I would get grossed out and head to bed early. Now that I think of it, I wonder if it was their way of getting alone time.” He hung a cookie version of the island on a lower branch. “I thought we could make a star from one of our boxes with our logo on the front, and place it at the top of the tree.”
Hubert nodded his head, but then he laughed out loud. “Here, maybe you’ve heard this one before? It always makes me laugh.”
“That’s… ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.’” Brandon rocked to the full-voiced singer. “Sounds more beautiful in French—in America, it’s a throwaway song. A joke song. When Sasha wakes up—” Brandon stopped.
“When she wakes up?” Her cranky, tired voice echoed in the store as she descended the stairs. “How could I sleep, what with the cookies…though heavenly smelling…and the baking went on all night! And, you know, that music is kinda loud, right?”
“Sorry, can you help with the star at the top?” Brandon begged.
“A star from the star employee?” Sasha suggested with a smile.
“Well, my only employee, but yes.” Brandon held out the box and a pair of scissors; Sasha took them as Hubert placed the last ornament cookie on the tree.
Leaning against the counter, Brandon flipped through the videos on his phone till he came upon the one he wanted. “Did you know The Partridge Family?” “Jingle Bells” happily jingled from his phone.
“I’ve heard of them, but my maman didn’t like to let us watch television.”
Brandon was disappointed. “This isn’t the show, but pictures.” When David Cassidy showed up on the screen, he handed the phone to Hubert. “I had such a huge crush on him.” Brandon sighed as the song played. “Bree and I would sit in front of the TV set and live through their adventures. I begged Dad to buy a school bus we could paint and go on long, family vacations.”
Hubert laughed. “I take it that never happened.”
“No. Dad was a stick-in-the-mud, but Mom bought us the lunch boxes with that bus on the front.”
Near the end of the video Brandon was showing him, Hubert found the song he wanted to play. “Now, this was my favorite song when I was a little boy.”
Brandon smiled as the song began, but Hubert frowned and turned it off. “Why’d you do that?”
“It was the right song, but the tune is different than the usual.”
“But those are both my favorites. I always loved ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ and Ravel’s ‘Bolero.’ Please press the play button.”
“Ah, we finally agree on a song. But we call it ‘L’enfant au Tambour’ or ‘The Boy with a Drum.’” Hubert placed the phone on the counter for them to watch and listen.
“This star is almost finished.” Sasha waved it.
“Shhh,” was all that came from both of their lips.
At the end of “The Little Drummer Boy,” Brandon turned and kissed Hubert. “Thank you. I feel a little calmer now. We’ll clean up the counters, box the cookies we have left, add that amazing star that our star employee has just made for us—” he grinned at Sasha “—and I’d say we’re golden.”
“Now that you have noticed—” Sasha placed the star on the counter “—I’m going to go see if Remy is up.” She ran out of the shop.
“How’s this?” Hubert set the star at the top of the tree; the cream-colored box had been cut into the shape, with their red and blue logo at the center. It twinkled in the glow of the store’s lighting. “I’m glad you added that gold leaf around the name.”
“It was a good move. Who would have thought the decision I made when you joined me here would come in use two days before Christmas two years later?” Brandon laughed and pulled Hubert into his arms, so that their lips met, locked in place, so much like the lock that had connected them years ago.
French Butter Cookies:
Beaten Track Publishing will be releasing this story in .mobi and .epub on December 20th. Get Carried Away, my newsletter, to keep up to date on what I’m doing, the things that make me tick, WIPs, and my obsessions with Netflix and food.
I also have a Chanukah romance, The Eighth Night that just released on December 1st. If you are looking for a different way to experience the holidays, check it out. It’s available everywhere. And how Brandon & Hubert met, The Scarlet Lock, from the Anthology Love Unlocked.
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