A Christmas Void, Chapter 10- Difficult Questions

Excuse me, Miss!” A customer approached me, and I turned around trying really hard to hide my grimace. I’ll never understand why so many customers would catch me carrying an armful of clothes and think that was an appropriate time to ask a question. “What time does Peddler Pete’s close?”

“I’m sorry, I have no idea,” I replied as politely as I could.

The customer got irritated. “Well, they’re right next door!”

“Yeah, but I work here, not there!” I saw Mallory approaching, so I quickly added, “Would you like to sign up for a Pine Pass?”

The customer ogled me like I was totally insane and walked away. I thought Mallory would be proud of me, but instead, she berated me, “What did I tell you about asking for Pine Passes?”

That definitely stung me. “I did!”

“You’re supposed to ask twice,” Mallory fumed. “Did you ask her twice before you let her walk away?”

I really didn’t want to answer that question, and luckily, I didn’t have to! Isaac unexpectedly jumped in, “Yes, she did! I heard the whole thing. Tiffany definitely asked twice, and the customer said she would only do it if Millstone’s organized our shoe department so she can find the pair of shoes she wanted!” Mallory stared daggers at him, and I sat on pins and needles waiting for her to blow up at his insolence. Isaac, looking totally unfazed, added, “Hey, those were the customers words, not mine!” To my astonishment, Mallory didn’t blow up. She didn’t seem to know what to do with him and resolved herself by rolling her eyes and marching away.

“I can’t believe you’re a teacher!” I grinned.

“It’s a nice change of pace to be the troublemaker for once! And you’re welcome, by the way!” He returned my grin. He was also carrying an armful of clothes, and without actually saying it out loud, we decided to walk together as we put the clothes away. “So, how are you doing, Santa?”

I felt a little bit embarrassed about my interaction with Gryla now. I hoped he didn’t think I had been rude to her! “I guess your troublemakerness is contagious!” Luckily, Isaac laughed, but that raised a question for me, “How’d you know it was me?”

As he put a sweater on a rack, he replied, “Well, you’re the only one around here with a sense of humor!”

I hadn’t thought of that until right then. I’m glad that neither he nor she got offended by my remark. “Well, I’m glad Gryla has a sense of humor!”

Upon hearing this, Isaac lost his balance and dropped all of the clothes he was holding! I set my things down and helped him pick it up. Isaac admitted, “Actually, she’s a little high strung. When we were kids, she was playful, but that went away as soon as her dad started training her to take over the family business. So, I just rolled with it and said your full name was Santa Monica.”

I laughed, but so many questions whirled in my head. They’ve known each other since they were kids? She’s high strung and has no sense of humor? She’s going to be my dad’s future boss? It took me a minute to realize we had finished picking up the clothes he dropped and already resumed putting away our go-backs. We must have had a nice, awkward moment, so I felt obligated to break the silence. “So, did you and Gryla meet in school?”

Isaac actually seemed really uncomfortable talking about her. He answered slowly, “We met at a grief counseling center.” I suddenly regretted asking, but I wouldn’t have gone down that road if I knew it would be that personal! Isaac must’ve sensed what I was thinking because he followed with, “No, it’s okay. My dad got sent to prison for abusing my mom, and my mom is, well…”

“You don’t have to explain anything,” I assured him. He actually looked a little hurt by me saying that, so I reversed my position. “But, of course, if you want to, I’m all ears.”

He took a deep breath and revealed, “Well, she attempted suicide, and her mentality is so fragile that she’s at a mental hospital.”

“Wow!” I was stunned. Isaac was such a pleasant guy, so I never would’ve guessed he went through all that he did!

“Wow, I never told that to anyone before!” He hesitated and amended that, “Well, except Gryla. She was there because her mother died. We were both in middle school when all of this went down, so it was nice to have each other.”

My heart dropped when I heard that, and my stomach twisted into a million knots. That really sounded like he loved her! I tried not to convey my disappointment though. “No wonder you proposed!” He stopped dead in his tracks, which I found odd. His childhood friend, who helped him through the most difficult time of his life, agreed to marry him, and yet he grew stressed when he talked about her at all. Could it all have been from wedding day jitters, or was it deeper than that? “Did I cross a line?”

He didn’t answer that question. After a brief moment, he probed, “Tiffany, why are you working here?”

I felt a little blindsided by that question. Why was he asking me that now? I didn’t know how to answer it exactly. “Why am I working here? I don’t know, I needed money and they were the first place that said yes. I’m just working to survive, just like everyone else…”

Very seriously, he advised me, “You don’t belong here! You don’t deserve to sell your soul to these verbally abusive pricks! You’re wasting your talents here! Chase your dreams, don’t take no for an answer! You don’t need to be stuck in Dasher Lake! Don’t give up on your dreams!”

He had finished putting his pile of clothes away, so he walked back to his registers. I finished up with my stuff in a complete daze. At first, that random speech seemed so out context. Out of nowhere, he’s advising me to chase my dreams? He was completely right though. I got so wrapped in Millstone’s drama and just surviving out here that I sort of forgot about my passion for photography most days. But why did he choose that moment to tell me that? I mention why he proposed, and he lectures me about chasing my dreams? I started ringing up a customer when it hit me- he must be giving up something so he could marry Gryla!

The customer had to snap their fingers to get me out of my fervor. I continued working, my mind was far away from Millstone’s! At first, I was so sure that I was right, and my heart was so happy because I thought that maybe there was a chance for us, but I didn’t have complete proof. It was a solid theory, however, I couldn’t act on it until I could rule out other possible explanations for his behavior. Maybe that was on his mind for a while and he chose that moment to blurt it out. Or maybe he figured out my feelings for him and didn’t want to hurt my feelings by talking a lot about Gryla. I didn’t like the idea of him knowing how deep I cared about him and not feeling the same way about me, and that thought made my heart hurt. In a matter of minutes, I went from almost crying of happiness to almost crying from sadness! I definitely freaked out my customer, but I stopped caring about how they felt since most of them could care less about my feelings!

At the end of the night, I didn’t see him at all. I was so sure he was avoiding me now, and I felt like I deserved that. I shouldn’t have brought up such personal stuff! I wouldn’t have blamed him for never wanting to talk to me again, and for the remainder of my shift, I wallowed in depression and guilt. When they declared the store clean and everyone started to go home, I didn’t see him anywhere. I felt like an idiot for bringing up Gryla, and I really wished I had kept the conversation lighter. As I was leaving the store, I noticed that snow had started to fall. It felt like an insult to injury to have to walk home with hurt feelings and cold feet! As I stepped out onto the parking lot, it hit me- a snowball that is!

I looked over, and to my total surprise, there was Isaac! He was rolling up another one, and my inner child made me shout, “Oh no you don’t!”

We started pelting each other with snowballs and running around the parking lot like little kids. The snow didn’t fall deep enough to stay in one spot for too long, so when we ran out of ammo in the parking lot, we ended up on the sidewalk. I was already halfway home when our thirty-something year old bodies made us call it a truce. We had to use a white picket fence to collect ourselves because we were laughing so hard. I couldn’t remember the last time I had so much fun!

After we recovered, Isaac requested, “Can I walk you the rest of the way home?”

“Sure!” I gladly accepted. As we walked, I confessed, “I thought you were mad at me.”

“What? Why?” His confusion looked authentic.

I bashfully told him, “I dunno, for asking personal questions…”

“That’s silly!” he chuckled. “You can ask me personal questions if you want to. That’s what friends do!”

Ugh, he used the F word! No, not that F word. I wouldn’t have gotten my feelings hurt by hearing profanity right then! I got over it by realizing we were friends, what else could he say? Despite his invitation to ask about difficult subjects, I decided to change the subject. “So, where were you after closing?”

“I clocked out,” he replied. “I told them that if they wanted me to work longer than twelve thirty that they can schedule it, but if they didn’t, then I’m leaving at my scheduled time!” Once again, I was surprised and impressed by his gutsy behavior. He went on, “Isn’t it bad enough they have our store open for twenty four hours the whole week before Christmas?”

I totally forgot about that and cringed. “This is ridiculous! Christmas used to be about family and showing our neighbors kindness! Now it’s all about the presents! And one present isn’t good enough! You gotta buy everyone in your family multiple gifts and you gotta make sure you spend a lot of money on them too! Isn’t it hard enough for stores to hire people they don’t even want just to keep up with it all, now they gotta extend the hours too and just magnify everything? Like what poor schmuck is gonna stand in line at four a.m. ’cause he needs a stocking stuffer for his neighbor’s cat? Ugh, I just hate Christmas now! I wish I could just skip it!”

“Me too!” Isaac said without thinking.

I hesitated, but I had to ask, “Aren’t you getting married on Christmas Eve?”

It was hard to tell in the dark, but I think he was blushing. “I thought maybe if I had a wedding anniversary around the holidays that I would feel better about it all.”

“Feel better about Christmas or the wedding?” I regretted those words as soon as they came out of my mouth. I really didn’t want to ask such a personal question and make him uncomfortable. Or, at least, that’s what I told myself about how I feel. In all honesty, I was scared he would say he couldn’t wait to get married. There was just no way he was about to admit he loved me, cancel the wedding, and we’d live happily ever after. I dreaded hearing his answer!

As we got to Vine Knocks, he stopped below the staircase and philosophically stated, “Life has a funny way of delivering the unexpected.” I had no f’ing clue what that meant, but I was relieved that he didn’t give me the answer I had dreaded. He gazed into my eyes and kindly said, “I meant what I said earlier. You’re a really talented photographer! Don’t give up on that!”

“I won’t!” I promised. We held eye contact for a moment, and there was a part of me who anticipated a kiss. Instead, he pulled me in for a big, bear hug. Neither of said a word, but we both lingered. We did just have a deep conversation, and it would make anyone emotional enough to warrant a hug, but this felt like something more than that. Feeling his arms around me and our bodies standing so close together just felt so right! I could hear his heart beating wildly, and I wondered if it was for me or for her. I didn’t wanna let go, but just thought of his heart fluttering for her made me let go. I turned away, and I told him forlornly, “Good night!”

“Good night, Tiffany!” he called out as I climbed the stairs.

I watched him leave, and when he was out of sight, I bolted inside. I leaned my back against the door and just cried! He loved me like a friend, and he was set on marrying her, I thought. I felt so dumb for developing feelings for him! For a glorious week, my nightmare at Millstone’s seemed to flip into a beautiful dream. I was enjoying it there for the first time, and and I even felt like Christmas could be a little magical. But this made it worse! I slid to the floor and cried harder. Now the holidays were more painful for me knowing it would also mark their anniversary. I couldn’t stand the thought of Gryla walking down the aisle with him. Perfect Gryla with her perfect body, perfect looks, and perfect life getting the man of her dreams too! She had one struggle her whole life, losing her mother, but she will inherit a rich business and a live a life of pure happiness with a husband so full of kindness and joy! She didn’t deserve him, but she got him! Meanwhile, I would be stuck here struggling for who know how long!

I decided I needed to the the F out of Dasher Lake! I could use my photography skills to look for work in another city. If Gryla was going to get my man, I didn’t want to stick around to get tortured by seeing this every day! I was so mad that I almost zoomed up to look for jobs right then and there, but something pulled me back down. Something made me sad to leave. It wasn’t my family, I left them once before. Suddenly, I realized I was heartbroken to leave Isaac! Even if I couldn’t have him, I loved having him in my life! I loved how much fun I had with him, and I loved how he made me feel about myself. I loved what a beautiful person he was inside and out. Another lightning bolt struck my heart as I had another epiphany that revealed the biggest truth of the night. I had had fallen hopelessly and completely in love with Isaac!

A Christmas Void, Chapter 9- Gryla

Boy, this is a small town!” I tried to recover from my last outburst. I should not be allowed to interact with the public until after my morning coffee! But seriously, why was he here? Out of all the men in this town who could’ve helped me, the universe sent me him! I didn’t exactly do a good job of avoiding him at work, and now we officially formed a relationship outside of Millstone’s!

Isaac, too, looked surprised to see me, and, to my surprise, he shifted around a little guiltily! “Sorry for the wake up call! If I knew it was you, I wouldn’t have made it so early!”

He brought up a really good question to me. “Why did you make it so early? You closed last night, you couldn’t have gotten a lot of sleep!”

“I would have lost sleep either way,” he explained. “Gryla scheduled a bunch of appointments with cutlery experts.”

“Cutlery experts?” I puzzled. “So, you were gonna spend the whole day looking at forks and spoons?”

“Basically!” He shuddered at the thought, and that made me laugh. “Gryla’s dad said one of his employees daughters needed a handyman, and since he knew I was looking for extra work, he recommended me for the job. Gryla didn’t seem too pleased about it, but…” He shrugged.

I wanted to laugh again, but something occurred to me… “Wait, my dad works for Gryla’s dad?”

“Ha, yeah, I guess so!” Isaac bemused.

Inwardly, I cringed. If I did anything to upset Gryla, I worried now that my dad’s job could be at stake! “Well, I suppose you would like to get started.”

“Only if you want your wall fixed,” Isaac kidded.

He always made me laugh or smile despite my mood! I really wished he wouldn’t since I was trying hard to crush this crush. I led him to the spot where I made the hole. “It’s over here behind this picture.”

Before I could take the frame off the wall, he stopped me by holding onto the frame. “What a beautiful picture!”

“Oh, thank you!” I said humbly. I didn’t tell him how much I wanted to get rid of it because of all the bad memories associated with it.

“No, really!” he went on. “The sunlight and the shadows are angled in just the right way to make that look like a painting! These rocks are interesting too! They look like they’re kissing!”

“They’re called Kissing Camels,” I informed him. “They’re part of the Garden of the Gods National Park. I shot that when I was living in Colorado.”

You shot this?” he reacted incredulously.

“Well, yeah!” I really hoped that I wasn’t blushing. “Photography is my passion!” I picked up my phone and showed him a folder with some of my best work. In all of the recent craziness, I forgot all about it and enjoyed the excuse to talk about it.

“Wow, you’re really talented!” he complimented.

“Really? That means a lot to me!” I emoted. I meant that. Anyone who supports my dreams becomes an important person to me, and that made my heart sing! I suddenly became aware of how close he and I were, and to remove myself from temptation, I jerked myself away from him. “I gotta get ready for work. I hope you don’t mind…”

“No, not at all!” he obliged. “Do what you need to do.”

I actually to didn’t have to be at work for a while, but this handsome, kind, intelligent man who appreciated my art was alone with me in my house, and to keep his fiancee and her father happy, it was in my best interest to leave early. I did my best to stay in the back and avoid him, but eventually I ran out of excuses to stay in my bedroom. I made some coffee and poured myself a bowl of cereal, and then I beelined to the point of the couch farthest away from him. At that point, I really wished I bought a kitchen table, but I always ate there so I could watch TV. To my astonishment, Isaac was basically done! The spot in the wall stuck out a bit because it didn’t blend in with the old, peeling wallpaper, but otherwise, it looked great. I could help myself, “So, you can read, teach children, help the less fortunate, and do construction? Is there anything you’re not good at?”

Isaac laughed heartily. “Well, to be fair, I used to work in construction. I like doing it to help the less fortunate, or in this case, to earn extra cash, but other than that, I lost interest in it. I decided to follow my passion.” This made me blush, I know it! “Speaking of which…” This made my heart beat faster. He was getting closer and closer to me on the couch, and my body flooded with both excitement and panic. He held up my kissing camel photo and inquired, “Would you be willing to part with this?”

“Wait, what?” I didn’t know it was possible to get filled with relief and disappointment at the same time!

“I’ll understand if you can’t,” Isaac told me, “but I would be willing to take this as payment.”

“Sold!” I couldn’t believe it! Someone basically paid me for my work! I felt like a professional and so proud at that moment.

“Great!” He gave me a big, toothy grin. “Now I just gotta find somewhere to hide for the rest of the day!”

“You can pick up an extra shift at Millstone’s,” I joked.

“No, what if she decided to shop there?” He tried to make it sound like a joke, but I could detect a hint of truth in his voice. “Do you work tomorrow?”

“Yeah, I’m closing.”

“Me too!”

Great… I thought. A whole shift together with him would be wonderful for me, but it would come with dire consequences! “See you tomorrow then!”

“See you tomorrow!” He gave me another high five before he left.

I abandoned my cereal and began pacing. This visit just heightened my attraction to him! He was a good person outside of work, and he supported my passion! Plus, he looked really hot with that tool belt on! But, he would be married in less than a month! Gryla would kill me for ruining her wedding, and her dad could take it out on mine! A notion began to really take form now though. Was he actually happy with her? Whenever he talked about the wedding, he certainly didn’t seem very excited. Actually, I had proof he was taking steps to avoid participating in the planning of it. He hardly ever talked about Gryla. Actually, he talked about me more than her… That was too dangerous of a road to go down! What if I was wrong? Most guys don’t care about wedding details, and he was probably nervous for the actual day of. No, at this point, I would not give myself any permission to pursue this idea!

I hated working without him there! The terrible way the store got run consumed my entire thoughts at that time. I ran out of cash in my drawer, again, and as I waited for change to give to a customer at the register, the line grew long and no other cashier was around to help me. Claudia finally came over, but instead of bringing me some change, she lectured me about Pine Pass sales! Later, I had a customer who found a pair of mismatched shoes, so I paged the shoe department. It took fifteen minutes to get someone to answer and even longer for the worker there to find the shoe! When it was time for my break, after I had to scream that I needed to go to the bathroom now or I’d pee my pants (a lie), Claudia begrudgingly came over to give me a break. She gave me a death glare, but at least after working that line by herself, she finally realized that the registers needed change!

In the last hour of the day, I had a customer walk in with the air of a celebrity who constantly got pestered by paparazzi but secretly loved it. We had a lot of clients who came from money, but she made it obvious that she was wealthy. Her clothes probably costed more money than I made in a month! I knew that they must’ve been tailor-made for her because they only enhanced her already perfect figure. Her whole body was flawless, even her face! Her makeup looked like a professional prepped her for a photo shoot. And even though her hair was pulled back, everyone could tell she spent hundreds to keep it fluffy, blonde, and flawless. I expected her to act really snobby, but she surprised me with her sincere geniality. “Excuse me, can you tell me if you have this item in another store?”

She showed me a picture of an exquisite flatware set from our website. I answered honestly, “I wish I could, but I can’t even locate stuff in this store!”

“Wow, really?” she reacted perplexedly. “Your managers didn’t train you how to do that?”

“They barely gave me training on the registers!” I gushed. I always loved a chance to vent with customers who were actually listening to me.

“Ugh, that’s awful! This store really is run terribly! I was in the houseware section for an hour and no one helped me! I mean, your website said it was stocked in the store, but I couldn’t find it anywhere!” she ranted. “The houseware section is a total mess, by the way!”

“Is it as bad as our shoe department?” I laughed.

“No, but that would be hard to top! I’ve seen junkyards more organized than that!” she also laughed. She seemed like a cool person, and just when I thought I had made a new friend, she had to say, “I wouldn’t even bother with this place if it weren’t for my fiance’s discount!”

A fiancee shopping for cutlery, it couldn’t be… “Would you happen to be Gryla?”

“How did you know?” she inquired.

“I… work with Isaac.” I don’t know why I felt like I was lying. I did work with Isaac! I just didn’t tell her about any other deeper layers to our relationship. In addition to all of the other reasons that letting her know I felt more than friendship for him being a bad idea, with her standing before me now, she struck me as the type of person who would definitely lash out if threatened. If she found out, she would get insanely jealous and make Isaac quit. I couldn’t let him lose his job, and, more selfishly, I would miss him so much! Less selfishly, and most importantly, I couldn’t let this crush take away my dad’s job! I actually hoped now to remain as anonymous as possible with her just to be on the safe side!

“Oh, duh!” she responded to my last statement. “Oh hey, what’s your name?”

So much for remaining anonymous! At that moment, I realized she was basically the barrier in keeping me from pursuing Isaac romantically, and I grew an intense grudgefor her. She was so perfect, why would he want me when he can have her? But, was she so perfect? I wondered. Maybe she had been faking her niceness with me this whole time, why would he want someone like that? Plus, Isaac was very intelligent, and she had just asked me for my name while I was wearing a badge with my name in bold letters on it! I sarcastically told her, “Santa!”

“Hi, Santa, nice to meet you!” She offered to shake hands, but she held her hand in that same limp fish way that Miss Allsburg did! I despised that handshake! I unwillingly complied because I had to maintain an air of civility, especially at work. She then remarked, “Well, I got a lot of comparison shopping to do. I’m sure I’ll see you again soon!”

As I watched her leave, the resentment I had for her only grew. I couldn’t believe I had actually thought she was a cool person at first! Now she just seemed pretentious. She wasn’t so perfect looking like I had thought either, it was all fake! I’d have loved to see if she could maintain her looks if she suddenly became poor! I knew some of this came from my jealousy, but wouldn’t wouldn’t envy her? She was beautiful, rich, and had an amazing fiance, none of which she deserved! Especially Isaac, that was unforgivable! I don’t know if I would have liked her if she didn’t have her claws sunk into the man I had deep feelings for, but I couldn’t help but hate her now! I didn’t understand what Isaac even saw in her! He was really down to earth, kind, smart… and she was so opposite! I know opposites attract, but not polar opposites! Did she put on an act just to reel him in? Somehow, she got him to propose to her! Did he fall for her looks? He seemed so much deeper than that! I wasn’t paying attention to what I was doing at work at this point, I just had to get to the bottom of this! I didn’t want to become the other woman, but now I believed that she was totally wrong for him! Nothing else had changed though; he was still engaged and my dad’s job was still at stake. Heck, I still didn’t even know if he had feelings for me or not! But, I decided I had to spend more time with Isaac because I needed answers! If he wasn’t in love with her, even if he didn’t end up with me at the end, I would have to intervene! So, no more guilt trips, I had to spend more time with him so I could explore this issue further!

A Christmas Void, Chapter 8- The Handyman

Okay, deep breath!” I definitely tried, but my nerves pretty much just allowed me to wheeze. “Work isn’t for six hours,” I thought out loud. “I don’t have to think about him for six hours. It’s okay. Oh, I can’t stop! I need to do something to keep my mind distracted…” I noticed little things around the house that needed some attention, so I decided that sprucing up my new house would do well in keep my thoughts elsewhere. It didn’t always work though. I found myself having a difficult time concentrating, I had to keep stopping to give myself notes. When I was nailing down a loose floor board, I stopped hammering and said, “It’s just a crush, it’ll pass!” When I screwed in the stopper to my bathtub, I paused to say, “You’ve only known him for one day! It’s natural to run wild with what you think you know about someone! Get to know him and it’ll pass.” As I unclogged the kitchen sink, I assured myself, “You’re just a little excited because you’re a little lonely and he showed you some attention. If you just dated more, it would mean nothing! This feeling will pass!” This strategy would keep my calm for, like, a half hour tops, but longing and guilt would always swirl back.

The last task I had time for was repairing the top of this glass-pane shelf that Aunt Sabine had rooted against the wall that I shared with my neighbor in the living room. The top had this decorative trim that started to separate from the rest of the piece, so I figured that I would nail it back on real quick. I grabbed a small ladder that I borrowed from my dad, and as I climbed it, I remembered that dream I had, and I joked, “See, this is what you should’ve used to screw in that light bulb, Isaac!” As I nailed, I reminded myself, “Wait, stop thinking about him! Stop! Oh, who am I kidding? I can’t stop! That idea about just rolling with this crush isn’t going to work. If I’m going to stop thinking about him, I need to avoid him. Out of sight, out of mind!”

For a brief moment, I thought I had licked this problem, but soon, I noticed a sadness gnawing at the pit of my stomach. “No, no, no! Don’t start missing him! You don’t really know him! You can do this! You CAN do this! YOU CAN DO THIS!” As I ranted, my concentration slipped more and more. After that last statement, I missed the nail completely! I missed the entire shelf, actually! I lost my balance and fell hammer first into the wall! I literally mean into the wall- I could see pipes and everything!

I saw Miss Allsburg, who had previously been hand stitching a garment on her cushy chair, stared at the wall in shock. Once she absorbed what just happened, her beady eyes started to cloud in anger. I picked myself up and took a look at the damage. The hole was as big as my head! Pressing her eye against the wall, Miss Allsburg sneered, “Drinking in the afternoon, are we?”

I was offended at first, but I thought about it and realized that her question was totally valid since that was a really stupid thing to do. “No, ma’am! I was just trying to hurry since I have work soon, and I got distracted…”

“You met a boy?” she asked with a bit of curiosity.

“How did you know?” I answered her question with one of my own.

“I heard you saying ‘You can do this!’ Are you going to tell him how you feel?” she inquired.

“Oh, god, no! He’s married!” She gave me a look of disgust and walked away. I yelled, “No, no, no! It’s not like that!” I paused and groaned, “Yes, it is!” I could see her purposefully avoiding my gaze, sitting back in her doily-covered living room and sighed. I couldn’t keep the hole there and watch her judge me constantly. I glanced at my phone and realized I needed to start getting ready for work, but I couldn’t leave the hole there. I ran to my room and dove into this box at the foot of my bed. I had framed some of my favorite photos that I’ve taken over the years, so I grabbed the first one I saw that looked big enough to cover the hole. As I nailed it up, I noticed that I had picked a picture of a rock formation known as Kissing Camels. “Ugh, it’s a Colorado picture!” I wasn’t ready to think about Colorado right then. I didn’t want to get reminded of failure in the middle of another, but I didn’t have time to choose something else. “Oh well, it’ll have to do for now!” I ran to change for work.

I really regretted doing all of that manual labor before work because I came to my job already sore! Millstone’s wasn’t crowded when I got there, but apparently it was earlier because the go-back shelf had a high pile of stuff on it! Hanina helped the sole customer on our side of the store, so I decided to tackle the mountain of merchandise left behind from the earlier shift. I sorted through it to find stuff that all belonged in one department, which prompted Brennan to come up to me and yell, “What are you doing? Don’t just stand there! Grab a bunch and go!”

“But I-!” I wanted explain how I thought that sorting them by department would get things put away faster than bouncing around between areas, but I never got a chance to get it all out.

“How does that look to customers? Hanina is working and you’re just standing there?” He argued. Finding it thoroughly difficult to hide my annoyance, I grabbed an armful of things and started to leave until he stopped me. “Oh, Tiffany!” I turned to him, hoping that whatever he had to say wouldn’t take long because the clothes became kind of heavy in mass quantity. “Smile!” I think I smiled, but I don’t think my mood allowed me to deliver a genuine grin. I’m pretty sure it just looked like I had a toothache. Nonetheless, I got on with my task.

I never realized how large department stores actually were until I had to put away go-backs! Since I couldn’t sort anything out, I had no choice but to dart from one area to the next. For a while, I felt so exhausted and perturbed that I forgot about Isaac. It hit me when I went to the women’s department and saw him there! I stopped dead in my tracks as our eyes met. He looked just as dreamy today as he did yesterday! He smiled at me- man, he had a gorgeous smile! I had to shake myself out of this reverie and kept working.

On my break, I sat at the tables trying not to fall asleep. I nearly had a heart attack when I suddenly saw him sitting before me! “Long day?” he conversed.

“You must be psychic!” I retorted in a playfully sarcastic way.

Isaac laughed, and then he related, “Yeah, me too. I must’ve stuffed hundreds of envelopes today! Ugh, I can’t wait ’til this wedding is over!”

That last sentence intrigued me. He talked about his wedding like it was a tedious chore! Complaining about wedding planning was one thing, but I thought most people held some excitement for the actual day. After all, this is the day a person marries the love of their life! Unless someone got forced into a marriage… Could it be possible that he didn’t actually love her? I stood up. I couldn’t let myself run wild with that notion! Isaac stared at me curiously, and I realized I had to come up with a reasonable explanation for suddenly bolting out of my chair. I fibbed, “Sorry, I just remembered that I need to call…” I flipped through my phone and opened up the call list for ideas. “Dad! Excuse me!”

I dashed to the ladies room, and it occurred to me that I needed a reason to call him right now. I last spoke to him a couple of weeks ago to borrow the ladder, but I wasn’t ready to give it back yet, especially now that I had a new project at hand. I remembered falling and creating that hole right when he picked up, “Hello?”

“Hi, Dad! Listen, I gotta get off my break soon, but earlier today, I fell and made a huge hole in the wall. Could you stop by and help me fix it tomorrow?” I felt proud of coming up with that excuse under pressure.

“Sorry, Kitten!” He truly did sound sorry. “I would normally come over, but I’m out of town right now. We’re working on a project down in Angels Camp. But I’d be happy to help you find a handyman!”

“That sounds great!” That did not sound great. I wouldn’t have minded spending time with my dad, but I was not in the mood to make small talk with a stranger. But, what choice did I have? “Thanks so much! I love you!”

“Love you too!” he chimed.

I didn’t have time to sit there and dread the handyman coming because I got too busy dreading Millstone’s. Mallory scolded me for not sorting out the go-backs before putting them away, and I didn’t bother to point out the conflicting instructions that one of her supervisors gave me. Instead, I took an armful of children’s clothes, and as I arrived in that department, guess who was also there? Of course, Isaac! He held up a onesie and asked me, “Do you know where this goes?”

“Oh, all of the Bouncing Bug products are over here.” I led him over to that section, but neither of us could find the print we were looking for. “Oh well, I guess I don’t know. I still haven’t totally figured out where everything is yet.”

“Well, it appears we’re equal competitors then!” He smirked mischieviously.

“Competitors?” Whatever response I expected him to give, it wasn’t that!
“Yeah,” he embellished, “first one to finish their pile wins!” He darted off and scoured the racks like he was on a ravenous scavenger hunt. I couldn’t resist and joined in. We kept peeking our head over the racks to check each other’s progress and even jokingly smack-talked each other’s progress. Just as I was about to finish, he butted me out of the way, put a garment on the rack, and declared, “I win!”

“You probably cheated, rookie!” I pretended to sulk as I put my last piece of clothes away.

He heartily chortled, and then he told me, “Good game!” He raised his hand for a high five, and I accepted. As I walked away, I was surprised to realize that I actually had fun with a menial Millstone’s task!

I was scheduled to leave an hour before closing, and they had to let me clock out because I was about to hit my sixth hour- meaning I needed to take a lunch or clock out. At my locker, I saw that my dad had texted me, “Mister Fane will be there at eight.” I groaned, so early!

Before I headed out the door, I had to pass Isaac at the women’s side register. He pretended to become upset. “You’re leaving us here to deal with this mess?”

“Yeah, have fun, winner!” I smirked. He chuckled and said goodbye. I couldn’t motivate myself to smile when Brennan ordered me to, but I didn’t have a problem now!

I didn’t have time to think about Isaac for the rest of the night. I rushed to get home and get to bed so I could get a decent amount of sleep before Mister Fane arrived. I was so exhausted that I got knocked out all night. I slept so well that I slept through my alarm! Or did I forget to set it? I heard loud knocking at the door, and I absentmindedly stared at the clock. When I saw it was eight, I bolted out of bed. “Just a minute!” I had planned to look like a functional adult for the handyman, but at this point, Mister Fane would have to see me in my robe, which I quickly threw on as I rushed to the door. I opened the door expecting to see a man my dad’s age in grungy work clothes, but I was way off! “You’ve gotta be kidding me!” I cried out wildly. Mister Fane was none other than… Isaac!

A Christmas Void, Chapter 7- Guilty Pleasures

Come on, pick up!” I rushed straight home after work. My head was spinning and not because of weariness this time! Well, maybe I did feel a little tired, but other than that, I didn’t know how to feel, which is why I needed my best friend’s help. I was freaking out, and I really hoped Ruth could sense my mood and be there when I needed her. Finn certainly did as he watched me pace across my living room. Finally, with the background noise of a small crowd and Christmas music, Ruth finally picked up her phone. “Tiffany? I figured you were sleeping right now after-!”

“I can’t sleep!” I interrupted her. I wanted to spill my guts, but I didn’t know where to begin.

Ruth told me, “Hang on, it’s hard to hear. Let me go somewhere quiet.” Perfect timing, I ndeed to get my story straight. After what seemed like forever, she came back on. “Okay, I can hear you now.”

“Oh, are you in your car?” I hadn’t planned on asking her that. Now, I just felt so nervous and delayed telling her the truth.

“No, I went into a calendar store because there’s hardly anyone here. Why? Should I go somewhere more private? Is this your one phone call?” Ruth kidded.

For a brief moment, I forgot why I called and laughed. The moment left as quickly as it came. Ruth expected answers, so it was time to ‘fess up. I boldly revealed, “I’m a terrible person!”

“What’d you do? Slap that smirk off your supervisor?” Ruth half joked.

I took a deep breath and began, “Okay, so Millstone’s had me train this new guy at work…”

“On Black Friday? Are they crazy?” she reacted.

“Yes, but that’s not the point of this,” I went on, “Ruth, he’s gorgeous! He’s cover of a romance novel gorgeous! He also turned out to be a blast to work with! He’s laid back and really smart. Well, he’s an English teacher, so I guess he would have to be right? Anyways, he’s hilarious too. All of the supervisors who drive me crazy were just source for his material. It was the best day at Millstone’s yet! Actually, it was one of the best days I’ve ever had!”

“Why do you sound so guilty for an amazing day with an attractive man?” she probed.

This was the heart wrenching part had to get off my chest. “He’s engaged! They’re getting married on Christmas Eve, so…”

“So, it’s over?” Ruth thought for a moment and remarked, “No, you said you were a terrible person, so there’s more.” She gasped, “Did you sleep with him?”

“No!” I exclaimed. “But, maybe it’s just my imagination, but I felt sparks. I mean, I haven’t really slept much in the last couple of days, so my judgment could be totally off. Maybe he’s just a flirty guy…”

“I doubt it,” Ruth countered. “He works with kids, so he wouldn’t be in the habit of flirting, I hope not anyways! Did you see him flirt with other girls?”

I had to think back. “Actually, no. Every girl in the place flirted with him, but he brushed them off.”

“But he didn’t brush you off, did he?” I could sense she had a wry smile as she said that.

“Well, he couldn’t ignore me, I was training him.” I had a moment of doubt about my analysis. Perhaps he was just making the work situation more friendly.

“Oh, come on!” she cried out. “You said there was sparks! I want details!”

“Well, he made me laugh. Not just because he’s a jokester. Like, every time something annoying or tedious came along, he made a funny observation on it. It was like he wanted to cheer me up.”

“So, he paid a lot of attention to you?”

“Oh yeah! At first, I thought he was just being the model student, but when I put him on the register, he couldn’t remember a thing!” I paused while Ruth let out a laugh. “At lunch, he actually locked his eyes with mine when I talked. He was so glued to my story he almost missed his fiancee’s call! He asked me a lot of questions too.”

“Sounds like you caught his interest!” Ruth observed.

I added, “It was more than just interest! He smiled a lot. Not just a false works smile either. And I swear, he got close to me on purpose. I know that there isn’t much room at the registers, but he got closer than he needed to. And I could feel this heat, like it was bouncing off his aura. I mean, you know how you know when an object is gonna shock you, you feel its-”

“Electricity?” Ruth practically squealed with delight. “You felt sparks alright!”

“But that’s the bad part!” I blurted. Pangs of guilt swept ove me after hearing her confirm what I suspected. “He’s getting married! I’m supposed to fight him off. What kind of creep goes after other women when he has someone waiting for him at home? Oh, he’s not a bad person, I am! I knew he was taken, but I didn’t fight back! God, Ruth, I flirted back! I haven’t had a lot of people show me kindness since I got here, so, at first, I thought I was just desperate for positive attention, but it’s more than that! He’s passionate about his career, he’s good with kids, he does volunteer work with a cause he cares about, his personality is sexy too! I’ve got a huge crush on someone else’s man, and if I keep speninding time with him, I’m scared I’ll become a homewrecker! Honestly, if I had the opportunity, I don’t think I could resist the urge!” Finally, it was out there in the universe. It sat there like I released a dark cloud from within me, and even thought it still lingered above my head, I felt a lot better.

“Okay, first of all, breathe!” Ruth advised. “Second, you didn’t act on those urges. Everyone has their guilty pleasures. If you’re worried about ripping off all his clothes at the registers, then by all means avoid him, but if it were me, I would just roll with it. You can’t help who you’re attracted to, so don’t get so ashamed from feelings you can’t control. It’s not like anything can happen in the middle of the store, so just hang out with him and enjoy it. As long as you don’t go outside work with him, nothing bad will happen. You got some eye candy, let yourself have some fun!”

I laughed, and her advice made me feel a little less guilty about being attracted to an engaged man. “He’s too good of a guy to cheat on his fiancee, so what am I so worried about? Besides, I really don’t know for sure if he likes me like that. I mean, if he wanted to cheat on her, he has a lot of beautiful girls to pick from, why would he pick me?”
“Oh come on! You’re just as capable of conjuring up someone’s mistress fantasies!” Ruth assured me, and I laughed again.

From behind her, I heard a man shout, “Hey lady! This ain’t a phone booth! Buy something or get out!”
“Gotta go! Get some rest, okay?” she instructed as she rushed out of the store.

Now that this weight had lifted off my shoulders, I suddenly remembered how tired I felt. “Thanks Ruth!”

After she said goodbye, I sat on my couch processing all of this. Attractions don’t make you a bad person, just actions! I was so worried about committing a huge sin in the name of sisterhood, but I figured Ruth was right, what could happen in the store? It felt good to have a plan for this situation. I didn’t need to fight my feelings, I could just enjoy the fantasy! Besides, I didn’t even know if it would be a problem because I didn’t actually know if he felt the same way about me. There may be nothing to worry about…right?

I laid down on the couch and stared at the roof as if the popcorn ceiling would provide some insight. It all seemed so simple when Ruth explained it, and the logical part of my brain was satisfied, but, in the back of my stomach, something was gnawing at me. I couldn’t figure out why! I wracked my brain trying to decipher this feeling, what was it? Why did my gut twist up like that? That’s when it hit me- a gut feeling. I thought our discussion resolved my issue, but something told me it wasn’t over yet. Reason couldn’t find a solid notion as to why it wouldn’t be more than flirtation, and I kept telling me gut that it was just crush that would eventually lose its steam. Nothing more than that would happen… right?

I didn’t realize I had fallen asleep until I felt Finn crawl onto my stomach. “Oh, hi Finn! Let’s go take a nap in the bedroom.” Finn wouldn’t budge. “Oh fine, you win! I won’t make you get up. I will…” I didn’t even finish my sentence because I fell asleep again!

Suddenly, Claudia woke me up by yelling, “Tiffany! What are you doing?” I lifted my head off the register. I thought I was at home, had I really fallen asleep on the job? It shocked me for a moment, but then it kind of made sense and didn’t surprise me at all. “Wipe your drool off the machine and go help Isaac clean the fitting room!”

I noticed that the store was closed, so it made even more sense that I was tired. I figured that everyone was cleaning up so they could go home, and it seemed strange that they paired me up with him. The fitting room must have gotten pretty bad if they thought two people needed to clean it, so I suddenly felt guilty for falling asleep instead of helping Isaac. I yawned, stretched a bit, and I went to go look for him.

I found him in the intimates department changing a light bulb in one of the stalls. He turned around, grinned, and greeted me with, “Oh, hey! How many Millstone’s employees does it take to screw in a light bulb?”

I giggled, and then I noticed he was using a cushioned bench instead of a ladder. He stood on his tiptoes, and that prompted me to say, “You shouldn’t be doing it like this! It’s a total safety hazard!”

“It’s not that high up, it’ll be fine!” he assured me as he kept working.

I stood below him and reiterated, “No, really, you could fall!” I stood below him to keep him balanced and really hoped that he stayed safe.

“I’m not going to fall!” Immediately after he said that, he lost his balance! He tumbled towards me, which pushed me against the wall. The wall stopped us both in motion, but Isaac didn’t tear himself away from me. Instead, he stroked my cheek and cooed, “Well, I guess I fell after all!” Our eyes locked onto each other, and our bodies pressed against one another. He wanted me, there was no denying it! He leaned in to kiss me, and when his lips were just inches away, I turned my head away. That wasn’t easy, every impulse in my body wanted this to happen! Maybe he was forgetting about his fiancee, but I couldn’t forget he had one. I hoped so anyways. “This is wrong!” I said what I was thinking but not how I felt…

He brusquely asked me, “Then why does it feel so right?” He gently pushed my chin so I met his gaze. His eyes screamed passion, and that’s when I realized in my heart that this was more than just a crush. Feelings deeper than that flooded my body. Even if this didn’t happen tonight, the feeling wouldn’t go away, so what was the point of resisting? He leaned in close…

I bolted up from my coach, sending Finn flying across the living room! Finn gave me a reproachable glare, and I told him, “Sorry! I had a bad dream! Actually, it was very good! Naughty dreams go along with the territory, right?” I got off the couch and put on my pajamas. It was now a normal bedtime, so I decided to turn in for the night to maintain somewhat of a normal schedule. Finn watched me as I brushed my teeth, and he looked as though he were trying to figure me out. “I don’t feel guilty! It was just a dream! All part of the fun, right? Just a fantasy, pure and simple. It’s not like it’ll ever happen! I mean, what are the odds of us being alone in a tight space like that?”

As I spit out my toothpaste, it suddenly dawned on me that it wasn’t so far fetched for us to be alone in a fitting room like that. There were closets out there too. And when we clean up at the end of the night, we all spread out, so we could easily find ourselves alone! “Oh no! It’s not impossible!” I mulled it over for a moment, and I concluded, “You know what, it’s okay! I just have to avoid being alone with him like that. Piece of cake, right?” I stared at Finn as if he would actually reassure me that everything would end up all right. I put down my toothbrush and groaned. I just had a feeling that this situation was about to get a lot more complicated!

A Christmas Void, Chapter 6- The Plot Thickens

Merry Christmas!” I had to blink a couple of times to really register it. The last twenty-four hours had been hectic between the half hour I spent with my family on Thanksgiving, working the HUGE rush at the pre-Black Friday sale, the three hours of sleep I got, and coming in the next morning for another shift. Customers had been telling me “Merry Christmas” since Halloween, but it just then occurred to me that now the holiday season had arrived and it was actually appropriate to use that expression! I think I replied to the nice old man who said that to me, but I never really felt sure. I felt so tired that I basically ran on auto pilot again. The one silver lining to Millstone’s twenty-four hour sale had been that most of the crowd showed up last night, and the wee hours of the morning slowed way down. I think the customer looked disappointed about my lack of enthusiasm for the holidays. He just didn’t understand- Millstone’s took away my Thanksgiving, so how could I get excited about Christmas?

My inner monologue got interrupted when Brennan startled me by sneaking up on me and stating, “Tiffany! You’re training today!” I must have made a face because he followed with, “What? We’re a little short staffed. You don’t wanna be a team player?”

“I’ve training people before,” I refuted without sounding too argumentative. “I was just surprised that someone’s day one is on a holiday!”

Brennan’s face twisted as if he agreed but didn’t want to give me the satisfaction of getting on my level. “He’ll be here soon, so make sure you’re setting a good example.”

“Of course?” I didn’t mean to make that sound like a question, but if they didn’t trust me to do the right thing, why would they have me train someone? He opened his mouth like he meant to say something back, but he changed his mind and slunked away. I sighed and beckoned for the next customer.

A man carrying a heavy box came up to me and inquired, “You do exchanges here, right?”

“Yes, but only even exchanges,” I informed him.

“Oh good!” He dumped the box onto my counter, and it landed with a thud. “I bought this vacuum a week ago and it doesn’t work. I’d like to exchange it for a better working one.”

“Alright, sir, I’ll be happy to…” After inspecting the product, I noticed that the box couldn’t close. I peeked inside the box and found out that there wasn’t a vacuum in there, it was a cinder block! “Sir, I can’t take this. If you want to do an exchange, we need the actual product.”

“I threw it away because it was broken!” he protested. “Are you calling me a liar?”

“No, not at all! It’s just… exchange literally means you get the product you want and we take back the product you don’t want. We can’t do that in this instance because we don’t sell cinder blocks here.” I can’t believe that sentence ever needed to get uttered in this store!

The man huffed, “I know what exchanges are! Now you’re calling me stupid?”

“No, no, no! But we need the actual product to do the exchange. Otherwise anyone could dig up an empty box out of the trash and make this claim. We’d constantly lose money if we took in products that we can’t sell!” I thought I really made my point to him, but…

“So, now you’re accusing me of being a thief!” The man, now hysterical, drew everyone’s attention.

Cecil came running over and piped in with, “How can I help you, sir?”

The man exclaimed, “This woman is accusing me of being a stupid, lying thief!”

“Sorry about that, sir. If you’ll follow me to the customer service desk, I’ll issue you a refund.” Cecil offered. The man took his cinder block, shot me a dirty look and headed towards the customer service desk. Cecil leaned in and told me, “You can’t make close minded people see logic. Next time a customer gets like this, don’t risk your safety, just call a supervisor!” He smiled gently and left.

“But it’s a cinder block!” Cecil had already left, but my sleep deprived brain couldn’t hold that thought in. I thought I had talked to myself, but I got startled by Korah suddenly appearing behind me. She barked, “What happened? You really held up the line!”

I couldn’t believe that she was about to hold up the line by lecturing me about holding up the line, but, as always, I bit my tongue. I didn’t want to give an explanation, but she glared at me expectantly, so I told her, “I had a belligerent customer and had to call Cecil over to take care of the situation. I had no intention of holding up the line.”

For a moment, I thought I had won because she couldn’t seem to come up with a reason to yell at me for that story. Instead, she probed, “How many Pine Passes did you sell?”

“Uh, none,” I confessed. I hadn’t put in the effort that day because people lined up practically out the door and, despite being accused otherwise, I didn’t want to hold up the line longer than I had to. Plus, my extreme tiredness could hardly muster up the energy to talk to the customers let alone sell them Pine Passes!

Korah lectured, “You know, Mara looks at your Pine Pass quotas when she gives out hours. If you don’t start selling more Pine Passes, you will get less hours!”

As she walked away, I muttered, “Is that supposed to be a punishment?”

Warm laughter sounded out behind me. “Should I complete my first day or run for the hills?”

The man’s voice intrigued me. It had a strong timbre, yet a sense of kindness and optimism flowed out like honey. I had forgotten that I was supposed to train today, and I put on a brave face to talk to him. He sounded like a nice guy, so I didn’t want to pass my stress onto him. I turned around, and my heart stopped! How do I describe the most handsome man I’ve ever seen in my life? His olive-toned skin glided as smooth as silk. His toffee colored hair cascaded down his head like sand on a private beach. His blue eyes sparkled like moonlight dancing on a lake. He was so beautiful that I broke into poetry, for crying out loud! And that body! He wore appropriate clothing for the job, but he wore it well! And I could tell underneath it all, he had that perfect mix of clearly having strong muscles but did not overly obsessed with going to the gym. For a moment, I felt so tempted to fall into his arms and run my fingers through his hair…

At that moment, I I realized had been gawking for too long. Suddenly, I felt so self-conscious. He he was looking so gorgeous and I looked and felt like I had survived a zombie apocalypse! Every girl gets insecure when they’re around someone they’re attracted to, but that day, I had valid reasons to feel concerned about my visage! I know my eyes were red and had pronounced bags under them. My skin must have gotten a little sallow since I hadn’t slept properly in days. I wished my clothes were more flattering! I was half asleep when I threw this outfit together, and while I felt pleased that they actually matched (for a second I worried it didn’t), I regretted not wearing something that really showed off my curves a little more. Of course, out of all the times for a total hunk to show up, it had to be this day!

Up until now, my story followed the plot line of ninety percent of your typical cheesy Christmas movies: a young woman, somewhere between twenty to forty years old, is sad around the holidays when a sexy stranger shows up. I always found it obvious who the love interest ends up being because he’s way more handsome than any of the other actors on set! What happens next in these movies, the man’s presence teaches her the magic of the season, and then they fall in love, which somehow solves all of her other issues, and live happily ever after. Yes, I had fallen into a funk around Christmastime, and he was far better looking than anyone around (though it didn’t seem like a fair competition at Millstone’s), but unlike these cliché holiday classics, it didn’t seem so obvious that we would end up together. For one, he may not have had a lot of competition, but I sure did! A lot of cute ladies worked here, and gossip of a hot trainee sure traveled fast because women had already gathered to ogle him. Somehow, their weariness from the job wasn’t as evident as mine. A lot of attractive women shopped here too, and some of the girls waiting in line seemed to fight for positions that would put them at this register. I felt like I couldn’t hold a candle against all these ladies in my current state, but despite my self esteem issues of the moment, there was a much more complicated reason why we may not have gotten to that happily ever after point that I’ll reveal later on…

I apologized to him for my awkwardness, “Sorry, I’m tired. My name is Tiffany.”

“Isaac!” He extended his hand, and I shook it very willingly! His grip was strong, but his skin felt very soft, very appealing!

I took a deep breath and kept it very professional. “Okay, I’m going to be honest with you… Speaking from experience, you won’t get this all in one day. They’re gonna expect you to, but trust me, don’t put pressure on yourself to go beyond baby steps to learn it. First step to your training today, listen to what I say to the customers. Trust me, they’re big on that.”

Isaac chuckled, “Alright, let’s do this!”

I’m glad I had already turned away from him when he said that because the double entendre made me blush! “Next in line!” Much to the dismay of the anticipating women in line, a sweet old lady was next. I greeted her with, “Hi there! Did you find everything okay?”

“I always do!” She turned to Isaac and asked, “Are you in training?”

“No, just creepy!” he joked. He quickly followed with, “I’m totally kidding! Today is my first day!”

“Well, welcome, young man!” she kindly remarked. As I rang her up, she asked him, “What made you work for Millstone’s?”

He hesitated slightly, but then he answered, “It’s kind of complicated. Basically, I’m an English teacher, and I need a break from the house! I’m spending all my time, not to mention my money, on my wedding…”

I dropped the figuring she was purchasing when I heard that. Luckily, it didn’t break or get damaged. “Sorry, I’m tired!” That wasn’t a total lie; I’ve mentioned several times that I didn’t get enough sleep, but I didn’t drop her figurine because of that reason. The old lady totally understood, and she ranted about how unfair it was to make people work on Thanksgiving. I rang up the rest of the items subconsciously. He was engaged? So, I thought our love story was over before it began. I didn’t have a lot of hope of winning his heart in this state in the first place, but I had gotten so struck by him that I liked to keep the fantasy alive. I silently laughed at all the hopeful girls trying to catch his eye, they would never get his attention no matter how hard they tried! But if they didn’t have a chance, then neither did I. Although I felt bummed about losing this shot, I thought logically that I had gotten out of this situation before my feelings got me in too deep… Or so I thought! No, dear reader, once again, the story doesn’t end here. What a pointless tale that would have been! No, the complications were only just beginning…

A Christmas Void, Chapter 5- Pine Pains

Time did make it easier. A little. My second day of “training” involved a cashier who survived Millstone’s for a year. He stayed at his own register and had me call him over whenever I got stuck, which happened pretty much all the time. That day, I got scheduled for six hours, so I took a lunch. I was surprised, although I shouldn’t have been, that people hung out in the break room in silence. I had never seen anything like this because even in terrible jobs, people would make friends or make small talk at least, but everyone here just stared fixedly on their phones. Well, not everyone, a couple of people were taking naps. After that uncomfortable meal, I had a few awkwardness from trying to function with their dysfunctional system. After a while, I started to feel better. Not from gaining some valuable cashiering skills but because it was so bad that it became almost comical!

I closed for the first time that day, and after the last person in line got served, we had to put away our go-backs. I still had trouble finding where things went, but I didn’t have to deal with people anymore, so I enjoyed my last half hour. Or at least what I thought was my last half hour. I paged a supervisor to let them know I was clocking out, and apparently I broke another rule that I didn’t know about. Mara informed me that no one would get released until the whole store got cleaned. THE WHOLE STORE! It felt so disheartening to not only work past my scheduled hours, again, but to keep going for a vague amount of time drove me crazy! Plus, cleaning the store seemed like an exercise in futility, that big mess couldn’t get taken care of in one night! Eventually, I saw people hiding merchandise in back shelves and fitting rooms, and it occurred to me that the supervisors must only walk by to check for its cleanliness instead of inspecting it head to toe. That made things much easier, and Mara finally gave us the okay to leave!

I was so exhausted that it was painful! Literally! We had to do a lot of standing on our feet and walking around the store, and yet because they decided our dress code had to be business semi-formal, I couldn’t find shoes that were both functional and visually appealing. It hurt to walk at this point! I clocked out a minute before I hit the eight hour mark. They didn’t want us to go beyond that because they refused to pay us overtime, which I was actually thankful because if I worked another minute longer they’d have to call an ambulance and clock me out themselves since I wouldn’t have been able to reach the time clock! When I got to the door, I got told that I had to find a coworker to escort me out since it was dark out and they apparently had to make this requirement legally. It seemed kind of funny to only require this now because sometimes people could clock out after sunset but before closing, but, of course, I didn’t bother pointing this out. Finally, someone else came hobbling out, and I got a little energy from the adrenaline of becoming freed hostage. As I took my excruciating walk home, I couldn’t believe that day only marked day two of this job, it felt like a week!

As soon as I got home, I kicked off those stupid shoes and immediately checked to see how long an employer could legally hold employees against their will like that. I discovered they were allowed to do it as long as they paid us. Also legal- an employer didn’t have to give their workers a lot of time between two shifts. A job could give an employee a half hour between two eight hour shifts so long as they didn’t go over forty hours a week, which they could do if they wanted to so long as they paid overtime. I knew they were about to put me on the regular schedule, and I already dreaded it. The next day, it happened. Millstone’s sure made sure they didn’t have to pay any overtime, but they loved to float below the line of illegality with our hours! Often times, I would close, and since their holiday hours extended until midnight, I didn’t leave until two in the morning! I could almost stomach that if they didn’t schedule me to open at eight o’clock the next day! Well, at that point, technically it was later that morning! So, with this information, I discovered another piece of the “Why are my coworkers so grouchy?” puzzle- they didn’t get a healthy amount of sleep!

After a month of working there, I pretty much got the hang of the register. I still had questions, but so did my more senior coworkers! It took me a while to realize that most of the people who worked there didn’t have a full grasp of all of the store’s policies. For example, I had a customer ask me how long she had to return an item. I asked three other cashiers, and none of them could give me a definitive answer. Lots of customers got angry, and I couldn’t blame them sometimes! Though I knew most of their insane rules, once in a while, I still unknowingly broke one or two of them. I once got yelled at for not dealing with my go-backs, which would have been understandable except we were so busy and shorthanded that day that I didn’t have the time to leave my register and do that. I never bothered to point out any of their logical fallacies, I just took their slings and arrows for the sole purpose of leaving the store sooner. We were constantly shorthanded actually. If we had enough cashiers, they were short on people on the sales floor. Sometimes people had to cover two or three departments at a time, which explained why the store never got a chance to get properly cleaned! If the cashiers were shorthanded, we could have floor people ring people up, but we couldn’t leave them alone at the registers so we could take a break. They had this rule that only a bonafide cashier or a supervisor could get left alone at the registers, and guess how easy it was to get a supervisor to relieve me when I was the only cashier! The supervisors took ages to get over to the registers, even when it was important! One time, my register ran out of cash for two hours! I had to tell people who wanted to pay with cash to go to the other side. When Korah finally came over, she blamed me for not selling enough Pine Passes! I didn’t understand how she could think that when some people had one and still wanted to pay in cash. Or they paid their bills in cash sometime, so having money in the register seemed imperative! I didn’t bother pointing this out though. My first month there felt like a whole year!

Oh, about those freaking Pine Passes, I had no idea just how much pressure would be on us to sell those things! I knew it would become part of my job, sure, but my main job? Really! We constantly got yelled at for not selling enough of them. They expected us to sell at least three every shift, which was pretty much impossible because, no joke, ninety percent of our customers already had one. As for that ten percent who didn’t have one, half of them had already tried to get one and didn’t qualify, but we still were required to make them try! So pointless! I found it hard to sell them to the people that didn’t want one because they had a terrible shopping for a variety of different possibilities, but the supervisors never saw that. One time, Brennan scolded me because I didn’t ask a lady to sign up when she had a Pine Pass in her hand! According to him, sometimes will use a family member’s card, so we were still required to ask. Even if I was out on the sales floor with a pile of go-backs in my hand, I was still supposed to ask! If a person came into the store without purchasing anything, I still had to ask that person! The store could be a complete pig sty, but all the supervisors cared about was Pine Pass quotas! So insane!

I thought with a work environment like this that my coworkers would band together to fight our oppressors, but no one had the energy. People were too tired and hungry in their shifts to form any kind of friendships. Other than Finn at home and Ruth on the phone, I really didn’t have much of a social life. I didn’t have a regular schedule ever, so joining a club or taking a fun class was out of the question. I usually felt too sore to go exploring and meet people, and most of the people I knew before had left. Speaking of people who left, in my short time at Millstone’s, I already noticed a lot of people quitting. It complicated things because of how shorthanded we were, but it made me sad that no one formed any bonds with each other to miss one another. People still hardly talked to each other, unless you count the supervisors. They sure did like to gossip, and they were brutal! Well, except for Cecil, the warehouse supervisor. He was the only nice supervisor, but unfortunately, he wasn’t very smart. Most of the time that didn’t bother me, but it could become problematic sometimes. Like, one time we had to spend an hour after closing to help him find his glasses, and eventually he realized he didn’t wear glasses at all! At least if we weren’t in an earshot of another supervisor, he would let us vent to him. I don’t know how he lasted twenty years there when I could hardly last twenty minutes! Sometimes I met a customer who was pretty cool, but no one really stuck around long enough for me to befriend them. The people who did stick around were not people I wanted to hang around, like the fussy, upper-middle class socialites who wanted to challenge the few rules that made sense such as not accepting an expired coupon. Yeah, I would rather be lonely than try to make friends with them! I kept hoping one day I would bond with someone there because doing this job alone made everything so much worse!

Luckily for you, dear reader, this wasn’t the end of my story. I expected a couple more months of this agony, figuring they’d keep the extra hands there until after the holidays and cut a bunch of us to save expenses, but sometimes life has a funny way of throwing us a curve ball. Once in a while, Fate throws you a solution that gets disguised as more problems. For me, that was the much dreaded Black Friday. I’m sure no one in retail looks forward to that day, but considering that this Millstone’s was chaotic on a normal day, I expected a disaster of epic proportions. Never in my life did I imagine that anything good would come out of it! Black Friday became a blessing in disguise for me, a really, really good disguise! My fortune changed forever that day all thanks to one minor complication that went by the name of Isaac!

A Christmas Void, Chapter Four- Day One

As you may have already guessed, I did get offered the job, and I reluctantly accepted it. I dressed up in a really cute outfit to make a stellar first impression for the coworkers I hadn’t met yet. I didn’t know what to expect, but I played out several scenarios in my head about what to expect on day one. What I didn’t expect was silence. When I walked into that meeting room I interviewed in, four other women sat at the conference table without making eye contact with each other. I found that very strange and couldn’t explain it except that maybe the other girls were nervous. I sat beside them, and I felt slightly tempted to stir up a conversation but I didn’t know how that would get received and I didn’t want to make the situation more awkward than it already was! Finally, the lady that interviewed me came in and tepidly greeted us, “Hello again! I’m Claudia, the supervisor for women’s apparel. We have some forms for you to fill out, and then we’ll pair you up for buddy training.”

Usually, new employees pretend to get excited about boring topics that the boss brings up, but these women had the grim faces of animals going to slaughter. What did they know that I didn’t? While we filled out our paperwork, they showed orientation videos, but they were strange and barely relevant to the jobs we got hired for such as what to do if a ferocious bear enters the store and how to replace volatile chemicals. They started to show cash register procedures, but Claudia turned it off, reasoning that we were behind schedule and would get the knowledge from hands-on training. Skeptical of her theory, we followed her to the sales floor.

Claudia led us to the women’s side registers, and she read out our buddy list, “Hanina, you’re with Brennan.” She gestured to him, and I recognized him as the cashier I met at my interview. I’ll never know if he recognized me or not because he didn’t make eye contact with anyone. Claudia continued, “Leann, you’ll go with Mara at customer service.” Leann seemed confused as to why Claudia led her all the way to the other side of the store only to go back immediately, and I don’t blame her! I realized Mara was the other woman I met the day I interviewed there, and I didn’t envy Leann for training with her! Of course, poor Hanina probably wouldn’t fare much better, I thought. I felt curious who would end up training me and hoped they were the one cool person of this store. Claudia continued, “Oakleigh, you’ll go with Cecil in the warehouse. Padget, stick with me. Okay, have fun!” She paused and gazed back at me. “Oh right, Tiffany… Hmm… Oh, you’re with Korah!”

As Padget trailed after Claudia, I realized that I didn’t have a clue who Korah was or even what department she was in. Brennan appeared to be the only cashier on the women’s side, and since Oakleigh got sent to another department, I figured that I must have also been meant to go somewhere else. As I wandered past juniors, I found another set of cash registers. I found a woman with red hair frizzy enough to belong in the eighties organizing a rack close to these registers and figured she must work here. As I approached her, I noticed that while her hair may have been outdated, she wore a very stylish cashmere sweater and straight-legged slacks, so I figured she couldn’t have been a low level employee. I didn’t see anyone else around, so I timidly asked her, “Korah?”

Wrong! Based on her reaction, I couldn’t have been more wrong! She flipped out, “Can’t you read my name tag?” Her name tag said “Mallory.” Oops! “You’re supposed to be on women’s side! Why would you leave your assigned area?”

I suddenly felt a rush of guilt from breaking a rule that no one told me about. Still, she waited for an answer, so I explained, “They assigned me to Korah, but the only cashier over there was Brennan. Since Claudia already walked away, I just thought-.”

“You should have paged Korah!” Mallory upbraided. “Where’s your walkie-talkie?”

“No one mentioned anything about a walkie-talkie.” As I said that, I already felt like I gave another wrong answer.

Sure enough, Mallory groaned in a vexed manner. “You’re always supposed to have one on the floor. They went over that in orientation!” For the record, they definitely did not go over that, but it felt pointless to argue at this point. “Korah is on lunch. I’m only here because I had to cover for Brennan, who’s in charge of men’s side. He’s covering for Korah because Claudia had to cover shoes! Do you see why I need you in women’s?”

Uh, no! That made absolutely no sense to me, but I used my better judgment and didn’t press the issue. “Okay, I’ll just wait for Korah on women’s side then.”

“Here!”She thrusted a large pile of clothes on me, which made my arms buckle. “We can’t have you standing around doing nothing. Take these go-backs! That’s part of your job anyways, so just remember your tour of the store and you should be done by the time she gets back!”

I never got a tour of the store, but at that point, I needed an excuse to get away from her, so I obliged. I saw signs with brand names on it, so how hard could it be? It turned out to be a huge challenge. Not all of the brands were given wall space, and the ones that did had a bunch of similarly designed clothes with very different places, so putting the garment on the right rack was a very time consuming process. To add to the confusion, sometimes certain brands would appear in multiple sections. For example, Vala Jang had clothing in petites, plus size, regular size, and clearance. Speaking of the clearance section, what a disaster! The items there got squeezed in so tightly that the overflow ended up on the floor or heaped somewhere on the rack without a hanger. I found places for the pieces I had, but it was NOT easy! That “really quick” task Mallory gave me took over an hour, which meant Korah was back from lunch waiting for me and I was probably in trouble again!

When I went back to the cash registers, I saw an Asian woman with tawny skin and an outfit clearly younger than the age group she belonged in stared daggers at me as I arrived. I took a shot at deflecting the situation with humor, “Are you Korah, or did you steal Korah’s name tag?”

Yeah, that joke failed miserably. She scolded me, “You left me alone at the registers! Don’t ever do that again!”

“Sorry!” I wasn’t sorry, I was confused. If that was a rule, why didn’t anyone tell me? And, prior to the newbies showing up, wasn’t Brennan alone at the register? I decided not to bother pointing this out.

Luckily, Korah decided to move on. “We don’t have customers, so quickly, let’s learn this.” She showed me a screen with eight different options. “For a sale, click P.O.S. Type their Pine Points number here. Scan each item, but as you do, make sure you ask for their Pine Pass. If they don’t have one, ask them twice to get one. Fill out their application here. Not here, that’s to enroll them in the Pine Points program. Pine Points here, Pine Pass there. If you scan an item twice, click here and scan the item again. Scan Sawbucks here, and if they have a gift card, scan it but don’t apply it until you hit total. After you hit total, their Pine Pass application opens up…” She talked so quickly, and without a notebook to write all of this down, I don’t know how she expected me to memorize it! This system seemed way more complicated than any register I had ever seen! She went over important information, like how customers can pay their bill and different types of receipts, but she wouldn’t stop talking so that I could ask her to slow down and repeat this potentially vital information. Eventually I just gave up and let it all go over my head. The only button that made sense to me at this point was void- completely undoes a transaction. A standard procedure, finally!

As she went over where to put a check that got processed, a customer approached. Korah instructed me, “Watch how I do it.” In a falsely cheerful voice, she greeted the lady, “Hello, ma’am! How are you?”

“Great,” the customer replied. “I only came in for one thing!”

She gestured to her cart full of items, and Korah laughed in an overly fake manner. “Will you be paying with your Pine Pass today?”

“No, I don’t have one.” The customer hastily added, “And I don’t want one.”

“You’ll save twenty-five percent off your purchase,” Korah insisted. “It just makes sense to save yourself some money, so I’ll just sign you up.” As the customer very reluctantly agreed to this, Korah instructed me, “Bag her items. Keep the hangers on, and do it all in one sweep. Time is money.”

She made it sound so easy, but after one clumsy attempt, I gave up and bagged her items individually. Korah grew irritated, swirled everything into a ball, and shoved it into the bag. I was shocked- there was a lot of nice clothes in there that were now wrinkled by bagging in this way! I don’t know why the customer didn’t say anything, but as she walked away, she didn’t seem that happy. It surprised me that Millstone’s thought this was an example of excellent customer service! After that transaction, Korah had me watch a few more, but she also had me bag up the items as she dealt with the customers, so I didn’t get a lot of insight into how to use the registers. I couldn’t even see the registers, which I desperately wanted to because I had no idea how much time had passed. It felt like an eternity!

After a few hours of work, Korah let me take a ten minute break. It took a couple of minutes to get to the break room in the back of the store, and counting the time it would take to get back, it cut my break almost in half! I did have enough time to run to my locker and shovel a granola bar down. Did I mention that they had us put our stuff in really small lockers? My purse barely fit in there! By the time I did, I realized I needed to start heading back. I didn’t have time to use the restroom, and I knew that, for more than one reason now, the rest of my shift would be uncomfortable!

When I got back, Korah and I switched places. I must’ve looked terrified because Korah reasoned, “You’ll have to do it sometime! You won’t learn by just standing there bagging items!” I wished that she had thought of that a long time ago and cringed about the time we wasted earlier. When it came time to ring up the customers, I moved slowly, but not by choice! I tried to find a logical flow to cash register functions, but it seemed so randomly thrown together. With much resentment, Korah had to help me navigate a lot. Before I hit the six hour mark, I kind of started to memorize where the essential buttons were. Although, each time I started to feel more confident about my abilities, I had to deal with a transaction that left me clueless. Besides needing to use the bathroom, my stomach started growling, and coupling this with my frustration about this training approach, I wasn’t in a great mood. Brennan and Mara’s grouchiness started to make more sense to me now!

I was scheduled for five hours, but they didn’t want me to leave until I almost hit hour six. Mallory strolled over when it came close to that point and informed me, “You didn’t take a lunch, so you need to clock out soon!” I nodded and already planned to make a beeline for the ladies’ room when I heard Mallory ask Korah, “How’d she do? Is she ready to go on her on?”

I actually laughed pretty hard at that, thinking she made a funny joke. I didn’t think that they could seriously think anyone could learn that complicated register in one day, but the incredulous look they gave me let me know they weren’t kidding! Korah reported, “She needs another day of training.” Mallory grimaced but agreed to fit it in to the schedule. Korah curtly stated, “Tiffany, you don’t have much time! Clock out!”

Glad to finally get the chance to leave, I hurried towards the time clock, but I didn’t do so without some vexation. They made me stay longer and got made when I inadvertently broke another rule, the nerve! And yet, if I had insisted on leaving when I was scheduled to, I would’ve gotten in trouble for that too, I inwardly grumbled. After I signed out, I used the bathroom, gathered my stuff, and headed towards the exit. Walking through the store felt like a walk of shame! I questioned my retail skills- maybe they weren’t bad teachers, maybe I was just inept in this field. Still, I hadn’t heard from any other job, and I wanted to have something on my resume after several months of unemployment, so I knew I had to stick it out. Leaving their automatic doors gave me such a rush of relief! Today was a nightmare, but it was over! I hoped that, in time, it would get easier to do this job. My gut wrenched from not only hunger but the inkling of the likelihood of it getting better being slim. I tried to convince myself that my hunch was wrong, boy, did I try!

A Christmas Void, Chapter 3- Millstone’s

It didn’t take long to find work. As soon as I got internet set up in my new place, I applied for jobs everywhere in town. I only got a few interviews thought which went nowhere fast. If anyone else had offered me work, I would have taken it. I was so desperate to earn money again that I would have gone anywhere. I was running out of money, and even though I wanted a career type of job, I had bills to pay. I didn’t have a choice- I couldn’t hold out for a more glamorous job. There was one place that needed a lot of help for the holiday season, and in a small town like this, they didn’t have a lot of options in terms of who got to hire. In mutual desperation, I took a job offered to me by Millstone’s.

I never cared much for Millstone’s before, and, quite frankly, I never understood why other people were so obsessed with it. A department store with name brand merchandise doesn’t have much originality. All of their competition had similar boasts of low prices, but the prices of the merchandise all seemed the same to me. I think the only real difference with Millstone’s was their loyalty program. For every fifty dollars someone spent there, they got a ten dollar gift card (which they called Sawbucks) back to them. Also, every purchase earned them points, which they could trade in for more Sawbucks. I could see why people thought their rewards would earn them extra discounts, but I’ve always found that I saved more money by shopping somewhere else. As silly as their idea seemed to me and however little I shopped there, I was still willing to cater to their elite customers so I could finally earn a paycheck.

If I had thought more clearly, I would have turned away from them just based on my first encounter. I pushed past my instinctual warnings, thinking my nerves were just getting in the way, but I never should have given them a chance! I don’t think most people would have, but did I mention I was desperate? I walked up to a cashier, a decently good-looking guy who sort of resembled Peter Parker with Clark Kent’s glasses, and I waited for him to finish with his current customer. It didn’t occur to me then that their nearly silent exchange was sort of odd, I just concentrated on maintaining a perky demeanor in order create a positive first impression. When he finished with the customer, he listlessly inquired, “How can I help you?”

“I’m here for an interview!” I chirped.

As if I were wasting his time, he barked, “Go to customer service!” When I looked confused, he begrudgingly explained, “Just follow the aisle behind the cash registers and turn right. It’s all the way in the back.”

“Thank you,” I replied hesitantly. He ignored me and quietly attended to the next person in line. I found our interaction strange, but I figured that maybe he was the exception instead of the rule and followed his directions.

The line at the customer service desk was long, but I wasn’t there for a return. Still, I felt a bunch of stink eyes on me as I ignored the queue and went straight to the lady at the counter. She reminded me of a basketball that got overly inflated since she was very round and her clothes were so tight they almost looked like they were painted on. Her already narrow eyes looked even more narrow with her abnormally heavy use of eyeliner, and her pulled back hair fell out of its clip as her eyes furrowed on the computer screen. Since she didn’t have a customer in front of her, I politely got her attention, “Excuse me, I have an interview at eleven.”

“Then someone’ll get you at eleven!” she snapped.

Feeling a little hurt, I moved to the side and waited. I stood by the water fountain, which stood between the bathrooms. I got in people’s way a couple of times, but I chose that spot because it stood directly across from a door that read “Employees only” and I figured my interviewer would come out from there. Ten minutes went by, and that door didn’t budge. I watched the clock reach eleven, and I steeled myself up, ready to do this interview. After a few minutes of no activity, my anticipation began to wane. I decided to give them a little time since I was once the person who did all the interviews and often ran over time on my appointments. Once it turned to ten after eleven, my patience wore out. They didn’t seem very professional, and if they really wanted me, they would have came by then. If I had just walked away at that moment, our story would have ended there… The line at the customer service desk ebbed, and the lady working at the counter cheerily inquired, “May I help you dear?”

I stopped in my tracks because of the oddity of her change in attitude. Did she forget our previous interaction? I reported, “Well, I had an interview at eleven, so-.”

“I’m sorry!” she apologized. “It’s been so hectic since we’re so shorthanded. I normally do the interviewing and scheduling, but I’m stuck behind the desk today, so I’ll find someone to interview you.”

“Okay,” I agreed. I decided to feel sorry for them and their situation. I thought that if they were this bad off, maybe they were desperate and would hire me quickly, so perhaps it was worth giving them a second chance.

After a few minutes, a beautiful dark skinned girl came out of that door I had been watching. Her strong jawline gave her the air of authority, but he bright red capris and skin-tight black shirt seemed too casual for someone to be giving me interviews. To my surprise, she asked, “Tiffany?” I nodded. “Come on back!”

I followed her past two empty yet messy desks to a meeting room. An empty table with plastic chairs took up the majority of the space, but they squeezed a couple of computers at the back of the room. The side opposite of the computers had a whiteboard with sales codes written on it, and the lady immediately erased everything and pulled up a chair for me. “Have a seat,” she invited. I complied and waited expectantly. She sat down and breathed, “Okay!” She looked around the room in confusion. “Where’s everyone else?”

I had no idea they expected anyone else! Based on how they treated me, I didn’t think they expected even one person to actually show up! “I was out there for almost twenty minutes and I didn’t see anyone.”

With a frazzled expression, she noted, “We usually do group interviews. Why did they only schedule one person?”

I shrugged. “After I filled out my application, I got an email inviting me to pick a time and day to come in for an interview. I picked today at eleven, and I guess no one else did.”

“Hmm, weird.” She sighed, “Oh well! Okay, well, tell me about yourself.”

“Well,” I began, “ I grew up here in Dasher Lake, but for the last two and a half years, I managed a sales division of-.”

“You did sales?” she interrupted. “You must have been good at it to become manager.”

“I was!” I obviously wanted to highlight the glory days of that job and hoped that the turmoil at the end of it all wouldn’t come up. “I even won an award at a regional sales conference last year!”

“Wow!” Her eyes sparkled, signaling she saw an opportune possibility. “So, part of the job of a cashier is to sell our credit cards, which we call Pine Passes. A lot of cashiers left because they could enroll people for our rewards program, Pine Points, but they fell short on Pine Passes. I bet you’d be good at selling Pine Passes!”

I enjoyed the buying signs of Millstone’s hiring me that I ignored the red flag of a bunch of people left the company, so I boasted, “I can sell anything!”

“Great!” she chimed. “What’s your availability like?”

I replied, “Open to close.” A little piece of advice, if you’re applying to retail, always write down the actual store hours. I always thought open to close shielded me from any overnight shifts, but I didn’t count on the store hours changing for the holidays…

“Good!” She told me, “We need cashiers who have open availability.” I made a confused face, so she asked, “What?”

“Well,” I said cautiously, not wanting to blow my chances of getting hired, “I applied for full time shoe sales.”

“Really?” Now she looked confused. “We don’t even have sales people on the sales floor! I wonder why… Oh well, we’re hiring part time cashiers right now. Is that okay?”

“Yes,” I lied. I could afford my expenses on part time, but I preferred a full time job so I could save up more money for the future. Plus, the furniture in my living room needed to be replaced badly! Still, full time jobs were rare in Dasher Lake, so I didn’t think I had much of a choice.

“Awesome!” she responded, obviously not catching on to my lack of honesty. “I’m going to give you positive feedback to the hiring manager. You should hear from us in a few days!”

She extended her hand, and I shook it. As she led me out, I took note of how utterly short the interview went, which added to my theory about their desperation. As I walked through the store, I felt reasonably confident that they had a dire need for cashiers, and she planned on giving me a good review, so I felt pretty sure that I had just gotten the job. So, why didn’t I feel more excited? Maybe because this wasn’t my plan A; it wasn’t even my plan B or C, more like plan triple Z. I also wondered if it was a foreboding feeling of my time there, but I actually felt more depressed that I pretty much already had the job. I kept telling myself that I just had bad experiences in the past that gave me low expectations of the future. Despite that logic, I still debated whether or not I should turn down the job offer and keep trying for a more promising opportunity. Something told me that though this job would turn out to be emotionally devastating, it was something that I had to go through. I decided to go with my gut and would take the job if it got formally offered to me, but I wish I knew why and hated just how cryptic fate can be sometimes!

A Christmas Void, Chapter 2- Vine Knocks

Hi! My name is Tiffany, and this is my Christmas story. It actually started mid-October, but, to my dismay, that’s when people in Dasher Lake started putting up their Christmas decorations. I’m not sure when that started since I hadn’t lived there for five years. I really wasn’t ready to start thinking about the holidays! It just increased the pressure I already had on myself to change my financial status change from flat broke to at least mediocre. It was also the time of year where family fun time became mandatory, and don’t get me wrong, I love my family, but after the excitement of reuniting wears down, relatives grade you on how you’re doing in your life. With both of my little sisters now married , they’re extra judgmental about why I didn’t have a husband and two point five kids running around a white-picket fenced yard. Most people in this town my age had that, and this time of year really rubbed it in lonely people’s faces! So, combining all of those things made me dread it! I think most people in similar situations would believe that this time of year would bring them their Christmas miracle, but I got too jaded to think that would come my way!

We were getting closer to my new home, and for whatever reason, I felt compelled to check my appearance. It seemed kind of silly to want to impress a building, an inanimate object, but this would be the first time I’ve been back in this town for a long time, and it felt like a debut of the new me. If the spirit of the town decided to watch, I wanted to make a positive first impression. That’s not actually a thing, really, my nerves created that! I pulled a mirror out of my purse and felt a little surprised at my reflection. I knew the flight made me jet-lagged, but I didn’t expect to look like I went through such an ordeal! I didn’t want to show my depression, especially with all of the people who made the same stupid joke, “I thought blondes had more fun!” Just thinking about it made me cringe! I usually got compliments on my eyes because of its unusual golden brown hue, but I doubted anyone would compliment me that day because of all of the red blotches. I’m normally pale, but my skin was especially pale that day, of course! I pulled my shirt down because it started to roll up, which told me I probably gained some weight from the stress. I still didn’t consider myself obese or anything; I still had an hourglass figure, just with more sand than some other people! I liked my curves, but not at that moment. I didn’t have the time or the money to buy new clothes, so I made due with what I had. I slapped on some lipstick and called it a day.

My father turned into a curved driveway behind a stone sign that read “Vine Knock’s.” It just occurred to me at that moment that the ground had a light dusting of snow, and I wondered if people decided that the first snow meant that they could start celebrating the holiday season. The sign for these condos seemed fancy, but I had a hunch that they spent more money on the signs the actual building! It just looked so square- well, more of a rectangle, but still! From far away, it looked like a giant brick, but on closer inspection, it was actually made of a somewhat dilapidated wood. Even the snow couldn’t hide that they probably hadn’t renovated the place since the early nineties! I noticed numbers on the door, and the bottom floor had one through five, which meant my condo, number ten, was upstairs. The staircase didn’t seem very steady, and I felt hesitant to even set foot on them! My parents went up before me and didn’t fall through, so I followed them upstairs.

I threw my duffle bag over my shoulder as Mom and Dad took my checked bags up. As they rolled my bags to the end of the row, my mom asked me a question. It took me a moment to realize that she was talking to me, and it made me wonder if they had been talking to me this whole time. I wondered if I had unintentionally ignored them or if my autopilot kicked in and answered for me. I think it was the latter because I caught myself saying, “Yup, Merry Halloween!” To this day, I have no idea what question I had answered with that, and I’m still too embarrassed to ask! Number nine had a Christmas wreath, and even though that poor object didn’t deserve it, I vented my frustration out on it, “Really? It’s not even Halloween yet! Are we forgetting about that holiday? Does all of Dasher Lake want to celebrate Christmas for two months? Doesn’t everyone get sick of it by the time the holidays come? How about we change our name to Santa’s Village and we can just celebrate all…?”

The door opened, and the smallest old lady I’ve ever seen stood there in a dignified astonishment. Her large framed glasses covered half her face, but she could still clearly glare at me. Hoping to brush it off and forget this awkward moment, I waved cheerily. “Hi! I’m Tiffany, your new neighbor!”

I didn’t bother to extend my hand for a handshake. She surveyed me as if she was trying to detect any impropriety in my character. Eventually, she croaked, “So, you’re Sabine’s niece, huh? She spoke very highly of you.”

“Thank you?” On the surface, it seemed like a compliment, but her tone suggested otherwise. It also kind of surprised me to hear that Aunt Sabine talked to anyone outside of her apartment! She still gave me a hard look, so I tried to clean up my reply, “I mean, thank you very much, Miss…”

“Allsburg.” She very dignantly held out her hand for a limp fish handshake. As a former business woman, I got so used to strong, firm handshakes that I didn’t know how to handle this one. I let her take the lead as she quickly bobbed my hand a little. Afterwards, she commented, “Yes, Sabine always said she saw so much of herself in you.” I took a little pride in that, but then Miss Allsburg continued, “I shudder to think that might be true!”

My face fell at that. She didn’t like Aunt Sabine? What could have caused such dislike from a woman who almost never left her house? She just kept staring at me with those piercing eyes, and I thought desperately on how to end this uncomfortable interaction. Luckily, my dad called my name! “Gotta go! Talk to you later!” I felt relieved to get away, but I really wish I hadn’t said that last bit because I really didn’t want to talk to her later!

I went over to the railing across from my front door, and I glanced over to where my dad had pointed. “The movers are here! Man, we had great timing!”

“Yeah, definitely…” I sort of trailed off. Seeing the moving truck roll in made everything feel so real! I had a hard time believing that I had left a job I was at for three and a half years and that I ran out of money and came here! A place I tried to escape since graduation! I felt so grateful for my family’s help at such a desperate time, but I could hardly fathom that it had come to this point. I took a deep breath and turned around to face my new reality. A huge part of me wanted to avoid it, like I should have just turned around and ran away as far as possible. Obviously, I couldn’t do that, but seeing my new place would make my fate seem so final! I steeled myself up, grabbed the key from my purse that my parents had given me after they picked me up from the Sacramento airport, and turned the key to get it over with.

I really hoped that this would be one of those places that looked shabby on the outside but really posh on the inside, and I don’t know why I got such a shock that it didn’t! The floor and the walls were made of the same coarse wood on the outside. The living room looked so boxy and empty except for this hideous rug that Aunt Sabine had obviously gotten before I was even born. I could see the kitchen from the front door, and I wondered if these decade old appliances still functioned. I saw an antique cabinet that rested between the living room and my bedroom, and with nothing better to do, I opened it. I saw a few half drunk liquor bottles, and it actually made me sad to see that this was the only thing that had gotten updated!

Before I could really process everything, the movers started to bring in my furniture. My mother gazed at it quizzically, and I explained, “I just got things people were giving away for free. I couldn’t take the nice stuff because my roommate is still living there.”

Mom offered, “Oh, well, if you needed furniture, we could have bought…”

“No!” I interrupted her. “You guys paid for the move, it’s the least I can do!”

My parents exchanged a look but said nothing more. I know it may sound silly to have chosen worn-out furniture over brand new stuff, but this was my way of showing myself that I had the ability to take care of myself. However, as they set it down, I sort of had second thoughts about that decision. Never in a million years would I have picked this bright yellow settee on my own! I told my parents, “This will just give me incentive to find work right away. I’ll replace them when I start earning a check.”

My mom said encouragingly, “That’s right, it’s all just temporary!” I tried to smile convincingly back. Keyword- tried. My mom’s advice for hard times had always been to remind me that it was just temporary, a habit she developed from comforting her patients. People were always afraid that horrible experiences were permanent, and I was no different. I really didn’t want to feel so pessimistic, but it felt hard been tough for so long that it was hard for me to imagine it any other way.

The overs finished so quickly that it was almost embarrassing! I really didn’t come with much stuff! My dad gave the movers a tip, and as the movers left, he turned to me and remarked, “Well, if you need anything, give us a call!”

“I will!” I gave him a hug.

As I hugged my mom, she promised, “I’ll always cook an extra plate of food for dinner. Come over any time!”

“Thank you!” I could tell they were really happy I was back, but they could tell I was a little depressed. I watched them leave, and I felt a little guilty for now showing a little more gratitude. Also, watching them leave gave me a twinge of loneliness. I wanted my own place, but I didn’t expect it to make me feel so alone!

I decided to unpack the luggage in my new bedroom first. Most of my clothes were in there, and I really wanted to find my comfy clothes and just relax. As I sat on my new but old full sized bed and began to dig through my bags, I heard a loud meow! It startled me since I thought I was alone! After a mini heart attack, I registered that a cat probably wasn’t a threat! I turned around to see a skinny white cat with black spots that reminded me of a Jersey cow. It stared at me with its big, green eyes in an expectant way, so I opened the window and, figuring it was a neighbor’s cat, I gently directed it, “Go home, Kitty!” The cat didn’t move. I saw its collar said “Finn,” so I told him, “Oh, Finn. Go home, Finn!” He stayed rooted to the spot. I groaned a little because I figured I would have to help him find his owner and I really wasn’t in the mood for an errand. I turned the tag around and saw my new address! “Oh, you were Aunt Sabine’s cat!” Then it dawned on me, I just inherited a cat! I felt sorry for him being alone in the cold for all this time, but it didn’t seem like a good idea for me to take on a cat when I could barely afford to feed myself! I thought about shutting the window and letting him survive on his own, but my ungloved hands were starting to get cold. I saw the sad look on his face, and it just melted my heart! “Oh! I love you already!” I picked him up, brought him inside, and shut the window. Finn immediately curled up next to me on the bed, and as I pet him, I relished in the idea that maybe this was the first good sign of the rest of my journey here!

A Christmas Void, Chapter 1- The Prologue

Once upon a time… isn’t that how all the classics go? Hmm.. that doesn’t quite fit with my story… A long time ago in a land far away… no, no, no! I mean, sure, for some people, my hometown is far away, especially if you’re reading this outside the country! And really, it wasn’t that long ago. Let’s see… how about ’twas the night before Christmas… Yes, I know. It’s yet another holiday story, one of hundreds already out there. It’s almost become cliché, and if you’re like me, you groaned a little because these things are so corny. Bear with me! I promise to keep the cheesiness to a minimum! My story needs to be told. Now, I just need to figure out how to begin…

It all began and ended in a small town in California called Dasher Lake. You probably never heard of it, so I’ll fill you in. When most people think of California, they think of the coast and big cities like LA or San Francisco. And people think the whole state is super high tech because of Silicon Valley. It’s all true… for the western region. California can get broken down to three regions actually. I already explained the west, no need to repeat it. Next is central California, which is basically a huge collection of farms sprinkled with some mid-size, industrial towns like Sacramento. Finally, there’s the eastern half, which is basically a bunch of small towns nestled between the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Dasher Lake is one of those small towns. So, my point of bringing all of this up is to give you a clear idea what I mean when I say I moved back to California. Don’t picture sunshine in a beachside city! I moved back to a sleepy little village after trying so desperately to leave!

Why was I so desperate to leave? Think of a cozy cabin nestled deep in the woods. Now, imagine a whole town of them. People gathered around the fireplaces at night, and in the day time, neighbors smiled at each other while they say their how-do-you-do’s. The people all live off of small mom and pop shops, and the place is virtually crime free. Yeah, it’s not like that! Not anymore anyways. The closer to the coast you got, the higher your rent got. Eventually a lot of people figured out that there’s more affordable housing inland, and the population increased dramatically. The town grew enough that big corporations deemed it lucrative enough to put their chain stores there, but this place ended up having more houses than jobs. A lot of people were unemployed or underemployed, and ambitious people tended to move to larger towns to find work. That’s why I left.

When I was in high school, I had it all planned out. I went to the local community college and got my bachelors degree in photography. I thought as soon as I graduated that a nationwide newspaper, prestigious magazine, or any elite company would want someone with my kind of dedication and talent. They didn’t see all that. All they saw was a low accredited school and a young girl with no professional experience. I wasn’t going to let that stop me from chasing my dreams, but something certainly did slow me down- rent. I loved my family, but my desire for independence was too strong to stay at my parents’ house. I rented a room from a lovely old lady in a mobile home and paid for it with what I earned from a minimum retail job. That job ended up going under, and I realized that if I wanted to avoid moving back in with my parents, I needed to look for work elsewhere. So, I came up with a new plan to get out of Dasher Lake.

Luckily for me, my childhood friend, Ruth, had the same problem, but her passion was fashion. I don’t mean to sound callous, I wasn’t happy that she was stressing out too! It was lucky because she was motivated to leave and she had a car. We drove almost two hours southwest to Sacramento. It wasn’t a huge city, but it was bigger than Dasher Lake for sure. The odds of us landing a more secure job was higher, and we were excited ab out finding a job in our field. We didn’t find a job in our field though, we ended up at a call center for a cable company called Strenia, which only existed in Utah. It wasn’t glamorous work, actually, it kind of sucked. Our title was customer service, but ninety percent of our calls were complaints. But, even though the work was cumbersome, we made enough to split an apartment. We were out of Dasher Lake, we were making it on our own, and we pursued our dreams on our days off, so life was good… for a couple of years.

We were enjoying chasing our passions, but soon Ruth found a new passion- her future ex-husband! They eloped at a local church and honeymooned in New York, where his family lived. While she was there, she applied for a paid internship at a major fashion label, and she got it! She moved to New York, and I worried about paying rent for our apartment in Sacramento. That’s when Strenia announced that they had expanded into Colorado and needed to hire a bunch of people to promote it. They offered me a job as a marketing assistant, which I accepted. Why not? I like to explore, and being in a new state would guarantee independence, so I decided to give it a shot. Big mistake!

At first, everything was great. People were excited to get a new choice in internet because until Strenia came along, they only had one option. Actually, in some of the smaller towns, Strenia was the first cable service ever! After one year, I got promoted to marketing manager! I didn’t make enough to afford my own place though, but I got amazing experience that I thought would help me in the future. My roommate and I had opposite schedules, so I hardly ever saw her and it felt like I had my own place. I didn’t have much of a personal life, but I finally got my independence! Sure, it wasn’t a career in photography, but it was a start. Or, at least, I thought it was…

After the second year, things started to go downhill. Apparently, Strenia didn’t deliver great service. The lines going into people’s houses were weaker than what the installers originally projected and told the call center. The billing department constantly screwed up people’s bills, and Strenia’s competitor really stepped up their game and became very comparable to what they offered. All of those things combined in such a way that Strenia’s sales went down lower and lower. I ended up getting my hours cut to keep the business afloat. My roommate got fired from her job, and after interacting with her more, I realized I lived with a psychopath! Like, I spilled some soda and missed a spot when I cleaned it up, and she texted me at work and threatened me with dire consequences if I didn’t clean up better! The final nail in the coffin for me came during a rare conversation with a pleasant customer. I mentioned my background in photography, and he asked, “Oh, you used to be a photographer?” Used to be? That really got to me, and I realized that I needed to find a new career.

Strenia didn’t pay me enough to pay rent anyways, so quitting made more sense anyways. I borrowed money from my parents and searched for work that would pay enough for me to afford to live with a non-psychotic roommate. Any day I didn’t have an interview, I would visit beautiful sites all around Colorado to build my photography portfolio. After another month, I still didn’t have another job. It turned out that Colorado’s economy didn’t any better than California’s did. Rent was due, and I thought about borrowing more money from my parents, but I didn’t want to keep depleting their funds just so I could survive in another state. Plus, with them supporting me financially, I didn’t feel like I had my independence anyways. If they were going to keep helping me out, I thought they deserved the benefit of my presence. It wasn’t easy to admit defeat and move back to my hometown, especially at my age! I wouldn’t give up on my dreams, but I didn’t have much of a choice than to start over at the beginning, right back where I started!

On the bright side, I didn’t have to live in my parents’ house again. My reclusive aunt Sabine passed away in a condo that she hadn’t really left since the eighties. She did keep in contact with us at least and knew my position, so, in her will, she gave me her condo! All I had to do was pay for the utilities, which took a lot of pressure off of me in terms of finding a job in this town. I didn’t have to find a high paying job to survive out there this time! I packed my things in a moving truck and flew to California feeling optimistic. After dealing with all of the drama from Strenia, even a crummy retail job seemed more appealing! I didn’t know how I’d fare in Dasher Lake this time around, but one thing I knew for sure- nothing would ever be the same again!