“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!