The Curse of Dregs Hollow, Chapter 4

The man in fine clothing peered out at the lake through the brush and saw a woman in a red cloak lying down on the ground, so he rushed over to see if she was alright. When he got close, he cautiously inquired, “Miss? Miss! Are you okay?” Cally inwardly groaned. She didn’t want to hear any taunting or ridicule from a normal person right before she died and hoped that it would happen sooner so that she would not have to endure it. Once his words sunk in more, she found the strong timbre of his voice almost comforting. He sounded very kind, which sort of confused her. People so rarely worried about her well being, so this felt both refreshing and strange…

Suddenly, even though her eyes were closed, she saw a shadow hovering over her face. She opened her eyes to see a man with smooth, bronzed skin as well as deep, light blue eyes and short, wavy, dark brown hair staring at her with concern. For a moment, she enjoyed waking up to find such a handsome man at her side, but then she remembered what her own face looked like and bolted up in terror. “Stay back!” she cried out.

“I’m sorry I frightened you!” he apologized. “I just wanted to make sure you’re alright.”

“I’m fine!” she mulled it over for a moment and then corrected herself, “Actually, I’m not fine. I’m dying…”

The man gasped, “I’m so sorry! Could I give you a ride to an infirmary? Maybe they can save you!”

Although Cally refused to show him her face again, she did sense his sincerity in wanting to help her. She felt moved by his compassion, but she couldn’t understand why he would want to save her. Patrons of Camellia’s Circus had seen her get hurt and laughed about it, so she felt surprised by such an authentic care for her. She wondered if it was a trap of some sort and began to grow suspicious of him. “An infirmary won’t help me. I’ve been cursed and we don’t know what hex did it. I’ve been taking a potion twice a day since I was a baby to stay alive and I’ve just spilled it all. I don’t have much time left.”

As the words left her lips, she felt as though she were lying. Reisseck made sure she took the potion exactly on time, not one minute longer, and yet nothing seemed to be happening. Actually, she felt a little better than she did before, lighter and a little stronger, but she couldn’t explain why. The man didn’t seem to buy her claim either, but he humored her, “Well, is there a next of kin that I can inform?”

“No!” Cally didn’t like to get reminded just how alone in the universe she was, and with her hideous visage, she didn’t get why he thought anyone would miss her if she perished. Reisseck would probably miss the money she brought in and feel irritated he would have to take care of the house himself, but other than that, it hurt to think no one would have cared if she didn’t exist anymore. “I’m a mere servant, I have no one.”

“Really?” He sounded puzzled by that statement. “I have plenty of servants, but they all have families who would miss them. I would be saddened to hear if they died as well.” Cally felt a little intrigued by a man who allegedly had multiple servants and really pondered who she might have been talking to now. “Do you have a husband?”

Cally bitterly laughed at that question. “You’re mocking me now!”

“No!” the man insisted.

“You’ve seen my face!” Cally snapped. “Why would anyone want to marry me?”

The man, utterly bewildered, responded, “You’re joking right?” Cally didn’t understand his attitude and couldn’t help but turn around to see if he truly meant it. He had a look of total incomprehension and a fierce worry for her. “Why wouldn’t a man want to marry you? You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen!”

Cally didn’t think he could possibly be telling the truth with that. While she knew beauty meant something different to each person, she couldn’t see a man of his caliber actually finding her that attractive. “You’re lying! You are mocking me!”

The man, completely baffled, stood there trying to understand her perplexing behavior, but when he saw a patch of wet ground, he remembered that she had spilled potion there and suddenly, something clicked for him. “Look at your reflection in the water.”

“Why on Earth would I want to do that?” Cally spat. “Do you think I like looking at my tentacles?Or the warts?”

“You don’t have any tentacles!” the man stated firmly. “Or warts.”

“You’re lying again! You’d have to be blind not to see that my face is covered with…” She pointed to her face to and should have touched one of her tentacles, and she got completely thrown off when she didn’t! She timidly felt her forehead, and she could hardly believe to discover its total smoothness! She ran her fingers all over her face and didn’t feel any blemishes! She ran to the lake, and when she saw her reflection, she almost screamed in astonishment! She could see her eyes for the first time, and she never knew they were a stunning golden brown! The man was right about her looks, she did have a beautiful face! She always dreamed of having a face like this, and it actually made her tear up to see it.

The man smiled warmly to see her cry happily like that. “I think that potion altered your appearance.”

Cally didn’t know what to believe at that moment. For over thirty years, she never really liked Reisseck, but the one redeeming feature he had was the work he did to make her the potion that she thought she depended on to stay alive, but now it appeared as though he had lied to her! It seemed like such a crazy thing to do that it just couldn’t be real! “Why would he want to do that?”

The man conjectured, “Usually, if someone disguises themselves, they’re trying to hide something. If he disguised you, then there’s a reason he’s trying to keep you hidden from the world.”

“Why would he do that?” Cally thought that explanation made sense, but she still couldn’t think of a logical reason as to what would motivate Reissekc to pull a stunt like that.

The man contemplated this for a moment. “Hmm… It’s hard to say. How long have you known him?”

“My whole life,” Cally replied. “I’ve been with him since I was three days old, and I’ve never seen any reason why he’d do that. I mean, I never really questioned him keeping me hidden because I was so disfigured that I didn’t want to get seen, but those disfigurements aren’t real, so why would he…?” Cally’s head felt too overloaded with all this new information, making it hard for her to think. “I’m just an orphan, I’m nothing special, why would he…?”

The man jumped in, “Where were you in the first three days of your life?”

Cally shrugged. “I have no idea. Reisseck told me he found me abandoned in the woods. He had no idea who my parents could have been because no one in the world looked like me. But if he altered my face, then I guess that couldn’t be true. I suppose my parents could have abandoned me for other reasons, but then why bother to disguise me?”

“Maybe he didn’t find you abandoned in the woods,” the man theorized. “Lots of people go missing each day, and sometimes it just takes one little clue to figure out what happened to them. Your parents could have vanished, and your true identity could prove key to finding them.”

“Maybe…” Cally considered this notion. “But that would mean that Reisseck… I’ll have to ask him about it when I see him tonight.”

The man remarked, “I don’t feel comfortable letting you go to someone who could be a potential criminal. You should come with me, I’ll keep you safe.”

Cally had always dreamed of an opportunity to get away from Dregs Hollow, and she dearly wished that she could go with him, but unfortunately, she had to turn him down. “If I could get away from him, I would have done so a long time ago. But you see this?” She showed him the star on her left palm. “I’m magically bound to stay near him. If I go too far from wherever he is, I freeze up. Maybe it doesn’t matter why my parents left, either way, I’m stuck with him!”

“But maybe if we solved that mystery, we could figure out a way to break the spell,” the man pointed out. “At the very least, we could figure out who you truly are.”

“Who I truly am?” Cally echoed. “You don’t even know who I am! And I don’t know you. How do I know you didn’t do a spell to tempt me into helping you?”

The man laughed, “I think the people of Andor would have noticed if their future king could do magic!”

“No way!” Cally reacted in shock. “You’re not…!”

He half bowed to her. “Prince Derrick, at your service!”

Cally didn’t believe him and now truly thought that he was trying to trick her. “Yeah, right! The prince of Andor just happened to be in this remote area and just found me by chance?”

Derrick refuted the notion of any ill intentions on his part, “I went to Camellia’s Circus to take a break. I often come to Lacoria because Queen Avalyn often travels and King Henrick’s mind has been in and out in terms of sanity ever since his daughter died. Queen Avalyn is still in denial about it, she actually searches the world trying to find her! It’s sad really. Well, anyways, I just needed a break from my royal duties. I’ve heard good and bad things about Camellia’s Circus, so I decided to check it out for myself. I was just heading back when I heard you shout. If something foul happened to your parents, I owe it to the kingdom to find out what. When I go back to Barlock, I’ll search through the records to see if any newspapers mention you. Can I have your name?”

“No, you can’t! It’s getting late, I need to get home!” Cally turned to run away.

“Wait!” Derrick called after her. “Please, let me help you!” Cally ignored him and ran through the thick of the trees like her life depended on it. He followed her, but since she knew this area much more than he did, she was able to weave her way out faster than he did. By the time he got back to the path, she had gone completely out of sight!

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The Curse of Dregs Hollow, Chapter 3

She walked through the streets of Dregs Hollow and glanced at the buildings as she passed by them. She had spent her whole life staring at these tacky buildings and often wondered how their flimsy structure kept on standing all these years in spite of bad weather and general rough housing. They rarely tipped over though, it always stayed the same. The same was true for the rest of the town as well. Unlike other places she had visited, witches and people with overt mutations roamed freely. Even the most normal looking people had an air of dottiness to them. She thought this commonality of being outcasted would have bound the inhabitants together, but most of the people there kept to themselves. Some of them formed cliques, but it mostly stemmed from that providing the easiest way to spread gossip. She saw that unfold in front of her at that moment as she walked down the road. She wore a red cloak with a hood that covered her face, but everyone still knew it was her. She sincerely wished that more of her neighbors would form friendships and deep bonds, but she didn’t have high hopes of that happening any time soon. She would even settle for the ability to walk down the street without getting talked about, but she didn’t see that happening any time soon either.

She came to the large, wooden fence that bordered the only entrance in and out of Dregs Hollow, and the two sentries leered at her. One sentry taunted her, “Oh look, it’s Cally! Off to work at Camellia’s Circus again? Too good to get a job in Dregs Hollow?” The two sentries snickered.

Cally blinked her eyes and coolly retorted, “Camellia’s Circus is lower than the peasant village, so if they’re on a higher tier, what does that make Dregs Hollow?”

The sentries did not like that comment, and the other sentry growled, “Hey, watch it!”

“Are you going to move? Or would you like to tell Reisseck why I lost a day’s worth of wages?” Cally folded her arms and waited expectantly. They reluctantly opened the doors, and she pushed past them as she exited the gates.

The farther she got from Dregs Hollow, the prettier the forest became. The lush trees provided a nice, cool shade, and Cally could hear the echo of birds singing on the branches above her. She cleared her head and really soaked in the scenery. Between the chaos at work and the drudgery at home, the walks she took provided her a much needed sense of peace and freedom. Books did that for her too, but she struggled to find time for that sometimes. The Oreads forest had a distinctively magical quality to it, and she would find excuses to spend more time there. She didn’t have time this morning though, so she kept on walking towards her job.

The path led to a bench with a trash bin next to it, and today the bench had people waiting for their nearby carriage, so Cally cut across the grass to avoid eye contact with them. She saw the iron bars that surrounded the park, and she always thought that the dreary fence sharply contrasted the circus tents that hung over the carnival games and ride entrances. She walked along the railing to the employee entrance, which she always hated using. Their assigned tasks were always pinned to the door of the boss’s office, which was at the back of the ticket booth of the public entrance at the opposite end of the employee’s entrance! She felt disappointed when she came to the locked door. Every day, she sort of hoped that it would disappear so that she wouldn’t have to work that day! Even after fifteen years of working there, she had never gotten used to the hard work and drama that went into her job each day. She didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life, but she knew it wasn’t that. She took out her key to let herself in and sighed as she mentally prepared herself for another hectic day.

As she passed each ride, she wondered where she would be assigned today. She passed the Flying Horses first, which had eight winged stallions that were connected to a giant cylindrical structure. A large bar protruded from it, which she would push to propel the ride forward. She was glad that it had pads beneath the ride that made it easier to push it forward! Next, she passed by some carnival games, but she rarely got assigned to those because her boss gave the easier tasks to the lazier employees. He figured that it would be a waste of time putting them on the harder jobs since they wouldn’t actually do the work, and Cally really wished that he would crack the whip a little more and force everyone to do equal work. She passed by the roller coaster next, which she didn’t like much either. She had toe release a brake and pedal a bike that prompted the wheels on the track to go forward, pushing the cars up the hill with centrifugal force and gravity taking care of the rest. Most of the other rides ran on steam-powered electricity, but she hardly ever got assigned to those. She always hoped for the best but expected the worst!

When she got to the small ticket booth, she saw that most of her coworkers were gathered in the back, so she assumed that the task list hadn’t been put up yet. The majority of the people that worked there were also from Dregs Hollow, but they weren’t as disfigured as her. The townsfolk didn’t judge them for working here though, so she didn’t know why they gave her such a hard time for doing so! Everyone gave her a reproachful look, but she didn’t feel it was necessary because she knew better than to hover too close to them. She lingered a safe distance behind them and waited to see the task list last, a daily routine that never motivated her to arrive early. Finally, a man in a ringmaster’s costume stepped out of his small office and pinned a piece of parchment to the door. Everyone except for Cally got excited about what they would potentially do for that day.

When it came to Cally’s turn, she looked down the list and felt a jolt of surprise to see that she got assigned to the Ferris wheel! “Ringmaster Claude, the Ferris wheel is working again?”

Claude replied, “It’s mostly done, but it gets kind of glitchy. You’ll need to bring a tool kit.” As he handed it to her, she tried not to groan out loud. She started to head over to to it when Claude added, “Oh, Cally!” She turned around hoping he didn’t give her yet another task to do. “Don’t forget to smile!” Cally had no idea how he could tell she wasn’t smiling since she had her hood up, but she complied with his direction until he was out of sight.

If the twin steam engines weren’t so faulty, this ride would have been easy for her to operate. It would work for a little while, but then she would constantly have to close the ride for maintenance. Sometimes passengers were stuck on the top of the wheel when the ride stopped, so she felt great pressure to work quickly. Sometimes she even had to climb up the structure to oil some gears or tighten up a loose screw. The patrons liked to yell at her for these inefficiencies as if it were her fault, but if it were up to her, she would shut down such an unsafe machine! Just like any other task in her life, she had no choice but to follow orders!

By the end of the day, she could hardly move, so it took a great deal of effort to make it back to the ticket booth. Claude had already begun to hand out their daily wages, and he would to the recipient what time they were to come in the next day. Sometimes people only worked mornings or would get randomly assigned to an evening only shift. If they were lucky, he would give them the day off. Cally hardly ever got a half day or a day off, but a small part of her always hoped to hear good news. When it was finally her turn, she got disappointed when he told her that she had another full day tomorrow. She left already dreading the next day.

Cally never knew how long closing procedures would take, and today she found a bit of luck for herself in that she had a little extra time before she had to go home. When she exited Camellia’s Circus, she went in the opposite direction that she would if she had went home. After a little while, she came to a patch of trees and veered off the path. As she climbed over roots and brushed through the foliage, she saw a small lake in the distance. When she got close to the water, she pulled out her vial of potion that she took twice daily. As she pulled off the cork, she thought that she had already cleared all of the roots, so didn’t see this twig that protruded from the brush. The lace on her boot had caught onto the stick, and not only did she fall forward, but the entire contents of her vial spilled out! “No!” she cried out.

A man in very fine clothing rode his horse down the dirt road when he heard a woman yelling from the thick of the trees. Very concerned, he told his horse, “Woah!” He climbed off of the steed and quietly told it, “Wait here!” He cautiously went into the trees to investigate.

Cally’s head spun at that moment. The medicine that she depended on to survive had vanished into the ground beneath her! She panicked, she didn’t feel ready to die! She still had so much she wanted to accomplish, and she didn’t want to accept that this was it. She never had the chance to explore the world, make some friends, or fall in love, and it saddened her to think she never would. She had hoped that by the end of her lifetime that she would have done something to give her life more meaning, and she didn’t like that it had come to an end while she still felt so unimportant to the world. She wondered how much longer she had left. Reisseck had always insisted that she needed to take it right away each time, so she didn’t think she had too much time left. She considered herself lucky that at least she got to have it happen there by that beautiful lake instead of inside the ugly bowels of Dregs Hollow. She laid down on the grass and let the beautiful fall leaves surround her. She watched the sky and waited for the inevitable…

The Curse of Dregs Hollow, Chapter 2

The shadowy figure emerged from the bushes just as daylight broke. The potion he made to keep the baby asleep was starting to wear off, and as she began to stir, he knew he had to get her away from the beaten path. As he traveled through the thick of the trees, he saw a small clearing in the distance. When he got closer, he saw a small lake that stood still enough to make him think that no one had set foot in that place for years. He had a couple of things to take care of before he went home, and this seemed like the perfect spot to do it.

As the infant laid down in the soft, green grass, she gazed up at an old man with a decrepit body, a pig-like snout, and patchy, sallow skin. As he studied her with his dark, beady eyes, she began to cry. He leered, “You don’t like my appearance? Well, too bad! I’m binding you to me until the queen can no longer bear children! Then the kingdom will be all mine!” The little baby couldn’t comprehend the song and dance that he now did in front of her, but she watched him intensely. When he got towards the end, she felt a warm wind envelope her body. A star appeared on her left palm, and the man cackled, “You’re bound to me now!”

The man picked her up and verified that his spell had worked by peering at the mark on her hand. He thought out loud, “It worked! You can’t get too far away from me now!” He ogled her little face, which looked like like any other baby’s except for the golden brown eyes. “Ugh! You have your mother’s eyes! We can’t have that, can we?” He gave her another potion to transfigure her appearance, and then he covered her with a blanket and headed out.

As he walked down the dirt road with the baby concealed in his arms, he began to grow more relaxed. No one besides him seemed to be in this area. Even as he gazed off the path and to his left, he saw that an amusement park had completely motionless rides. It was early enough in the morning where most people wouldn’t even think of waking up, so no one even stood outside to wait for the park to open. Even if someone had shown up on the path he walked on to question him, he knew that they had no chance of recognizing the baby at this point. He didn’t want to risk running into the royal guard if he could help it though. The amusement park told him he was almost home, so he began to speed up his gait.

He came up to a tall fence made from sturdy, wooden logs sealed together very uniformly. The center had two large doors secured by two sentries in slightly rusty armor and non-human faces. One had purple skin and the other had green. They both had grotesque horns and warts spattered erratically on their visage. They eyed the baby suspiciously, and one of them asked, “What’s that?”

“I’m going to raise her to become my personal servant,” he answered. The guards gave him a peculiar look, so he roared, “Step aside, you fools! Do you remember who you’re talking to?”

The second guard apologized, “Sorry, Reisseck, sir!” They half bowed as they opened the gates for him.

Reisseck walked through a village with crudely built houses that stood lopsidedly, some so much so that they swayed in the wind. The wood used to build them was mismatched and thin. The most coordinated objects on them were the thick shutters and corpulent doors. Some of the houses had rotted, or broken in some cases, fences with unkempt yards. The streets were empty at the moment save for a rat here and there. At the edge of the village, they came to a large, craggy hill. The structure itself appeared to have small windows peaking out at odd places on the wall. In front of the cavern entrance stood a sign that read “Tower of Tatarus” hung haphazardly above their heads. He went inside the dark foyer, and as he got further inside, he passed by several small and somewhat splintery doors. After many twists and turns, he came to the biggest hunk of rock, which had the only halfway decent door. He mockingly told the infant, “Welcome to Dregs Hollow!”

After Reisseck lit a candle, he searched around his living room, which was small and full of a lot of clutter. So many pieces of furniture just didn’t seem to have a proper place, and none of it matched. He had several odd and deformed knick-knacks strewn all about the area as well. He combed through his things until he found a peeling apple box and a scruffy, old blanket. “There! You have a crib!” He set the baby down and trudged over to a small corner that had a rickety table and as small fire pit. He took out his wand and started a fire. He put a cauldron on top just as the baby began to wail. “I’m making you food! Don’t worry, I won’t let you starve! I need you alive for a while!”

Not long after Reisseck arrived home, the royal guards of Lacoria arrived at the entrance to the village. The two sentries blocked their path, and one of them growled, “You’re not allowed to patrol in Dregs Hollow! We’ve been over this!”

The head of the royal guard pulled out a roll of parchment that had a red wax seal with a crown on it. “We have a decree from the king to search the grounds. If you don’t comply, we’ll have you thrown in the dungeons! Or, if you prefer, we can return with a fleet of knights! Which would you prefer?” The two sentries glared at them, but they begrudgingly stepped inside.

After scouring over the whole town, the royal guards came to the Tower of Tatarus. Reisseck sat coolly on a patchy recliner when they entered his home. One knight saw a bundle resting in the apple box, and he alerted the others, “There’s a baby here!”

Reisseck lied, “If you’re looking for a missing child from your realm, you’re wasting your time in my chambers! This one belongs here!”

“We’ll see about that!” another knight responded. They unwrapped the swaddle around the infant, and when they saw her face, they gasped in disgust! She had long, almost clear red suction cups that covered her eyes and red warts all over the rest of her face! Reisseck chuckled rapturously at their reaction.

The head of the royal guard sternly directed him, “If you see anyone with the missing princess, you better tell us!”

“Why would anyone bring a human here?” Reisseck taunted them. They gave him a dirty look before they left. Reisseck smiled broadly.

As soon as she learned to walk, he began to teach her to do housework. He had a fierce temper, and she found herself walking on eggshells when he was around. Reisseck gave her the transfiguring potion each day, but she grew up believing it was medicine that she needed to live. She never questioned it because she feared that he grow angry at her mistrust and quit making something her life depended on. When she reached school age, he didn’t want to let her get an education at first, but when he realized he could teach her to do more complex chores, he decided she should learn to read and write. Although the other kids in Dregs Hollow were also disfigured, they sensed her meek nature and teased her regularly. Without friends at school or love from her only parental figure, she grew up extremely lonely. Her only solace came from reading books. The selection of the town didn’t offer a lot, but it meant the world to her! It taught her that the world offered a different lifestyle than the miserable one she led, and she dreamed that one day she could find happiness too. She didn’t know how she would do it, but she vowed to herself to find a way to live a more meaningful life!

As she grew older, Reisseck allowed her to fetch items for him in the nearby villages. She kept a hood over her face the entire time and didn’t interact with anyone unless she had to. She feared Reisseck’s wrath, but she also worried about the reaction of the townsfolk when they saw her monstrous appearance. Still, she couldn’t help but get entranced by the humble routines of normal people. She saw lovers holding hands as they walked down the streets, friends happily chatting outside of cafes, workers either enjoying their jobs or enjoying complaining about them, and so much more, and she longed to experience such things! She teared up at the thought that these people got to live the lives that she could only read about because she had no idea how she would ever have a chance to experience these things. She tried running away a couple of times, but each time she tried, she found herself frozen solid, totally unable to move. She still felt determined to achieve her dreams, but she began to lose hope of ever making it happen.

Since he had a servant that took care of him, Reisseck became pretty sedintary. Except for brewing potions, all he did was sit around the house barking orders at her. Inhabitants of the village would often come to him for advice or to help them settle disputes, which he thoroughly enjoyed and would babble on for hours. In his mind, he became Dregs Hollow royalty. The feeling only grew when he allowed his servant girl to take a job since he would take her money to buy finer things for his house and his stomach. His belly grew almost as large as his ego! He felt very complacent with his life like this, and he felt pleased that no one ever questioned him about the missing princess again. Things were good for him, but all of this was about to change…

The Curse of Dregs Hollow, Chapter 1

A horse clip-clopped across the rainy, cobblestone streets, and a shadowy figure eyed it closely. The rider had a cloak over his face, but the purple skirt around his steed let him know that he had found the right person. The shadowy figure reached his gnarly fingers into his own ratty cloak and took out a knobby, wooden wand. He pointed it at the projected path of the horse and shot out a spell. The horse suddenly stopped, which not only made the hex miss its target but it sent the man flying off his mount! He hit the wall of a house located in the middle of a row of closely built, sandy stone cottages. The shadowy figure advanced towards him but quickly retreated when the door of the house opened up. A woman with a long dress and apron shined her lantern on the fallen man and gasped. Another lady came outside to see what was going on and saw the first woman assisting the man. She ran out to help, and the man leaned on both of them as they took him inside.

The man shivered as he saw on a wooden chair in their dining area. A fire burned behind him as he sipped on some tea. Though his normally olive-toned skin had gone pale and his piercing blue eyes were overshadowed by heavy bags beneath them, he still had a very handsome and very commanding appearance. His dark brown hair laid limp on his shoulders as he fought off the shivers that plagued his body. Both women stared at him with concern. “Sire, what on Earth are you doing out in your condition?” one of them asked.

The king answered, “I heard the apothecary in this town is legendary. I hoped that she could make an elixir that would finally cure whatever is wrong with me.”

As the second woman draped a blanket around him, she gently reproached him, “You should have sent a servant to fetch it for you!”

“But he’s too right about the apothecary,” the first woman noted. “She’s a miracle worker!”

The second woman agreed, “Yes, she did wonders for Avalyn! Poor thing nearly died!”

The king inquired, “Where can I find this apothecary?”

“She hasn’t been in town for a few days,” the first woman regretfully replied.

The king grew crestfallen, so the second woman suggested, “Avalyn only needed a drop of this potion, so she probably still has some of it.”

“Where can I find this Avalyn?” the king probed.

The two women put on cloaks and walked with him across the dark, empty streets. The shadowy figure quietly groaned in disappointment of seeing the king with a couple of witnesses. Not far from the women’s cottage, the houses stood further apart from each other but were still made of the same stones and slightly dilapidated wooden beams. They approached a house with a peeling white picket fence and a small garden in the front yard. The three of them walked across the rock path and gently knocked on the door. A man inside cautiously opened up the door and shined his own lantern outside to see who was calling him in such a late hour. He looked old enough to be the women’s father, but he did not have the low energy of most people his age. He studied the figures and realized that he recognized them. “Joanne! Sasha! Is that… King Henrick?”

“May we come in?” Henrick requested.

“Of course!” he obliged. He stepped out of the doorway so that they could enter.

Joanne and Sasha helped Henrick into a nearby chair in the man’s dining area. Henrick told Joanne and Sasha, “Thank you, ladies! And to you as well, Mister…”

“Call me Solomon.” He paused and gingerly questioned, “Um, your highness, pardon me for asking, but what are you doing here?”

Henrick explained, “Well, as you know, I’ve been sick for a while, and I feel it’s of the utmost importance that I get well! I simply cannot let my kingdom fall into the hands of Duke Ferrin! His ideas for the land are dangerous and would destroy Lacoria! I read a newspaper column talking of the glorious work at the apothecary of Bohemma, so I came to find a cure. I’ve been told that your daughter still has some of her miracle potion…”

Solomon responded, “Say no more! Avalyn! Please bring your healing medicine over!”

A young woman with porcelain skin, sandy-colored hair, and golden brown eyes entered the room carrying a vial of amber liquid. “Father, its right here, what could you possibly…?”

Avalyn locked eyes with Henrick, who had a look of awe on his face! She, too, had an expression of great admiration and not solely for his position as king! He miraculously stood up, and she bashfully brought the elixir over to him. He took a sip and could feel his strength returning already. He fondly remarked to Avalyn, “If this potion works, I would like to woo you as my queen!” Avalyn smiled and blushed.

Months later, the kingdom showed up in droves to the castle Barlock buzzing about the king’s wedding. Not everyone could attend the ceremony, so those who couldn’t see it waited outside by a red carpet where Henrick would officially present Lacoria’s new queen. The shadowy figure stood in the back as two peasants excitedly chatted. One man commented, “I’m so glad we won’t have to have Duke Ferrin as king! What a nightmare that would have been!”

The shadowy figure cringed, and the other man pointed out, “We’re not totally out of the woods yet! They have to produce at least one heir or we’ll go right back to the same old drama!” This gave the shadowy figure an idea. Henrick and Avalyn came out, and while the crowd cheered and the smoke from the cameras lit up the sky like fireworks, the shadowy figure snuck off.

He disguised himself as a chef and penetrated Barlock’s kitchen without fuss. Dozens of cooks were preparing a myriad of different dishes, and the shadowy figure wondered which one was intended for Avalyn. He heard one person talk about “the queen’s favorite,” and he whipped his head in that direction. He saw the person walk away from a bowl of soup. He steathily made his way to the wheeled tray it sat on, and when no one was looking, he took a vial out of his pocket labeled “Infertility.” He put in a couple of drops and stirred the food to mix his potion in. When a woman came over with another plate of food, he quickly shot himself out of eyesight. He hid behind a pillar and watched a servant wheel the tray out of the kitchen, which made him smile mischievously.

For years, Henrick and Avalyn tried to conceive a child, and neither of them understood why they weren’t having any luck. They tried every trick they could find and still, nothing happened. One day, a kindly old sorceress visited the king and queen in the throne room and theorized that someone had slipped Avalyn an infertility potion. The antidote to it was difficult to make, but she finally produced it for them. They seemed skeptical about the concept of magic, but they thought that it was worth a shot to give it a try. The sorceress gave her a small bottle and instructed Avalyn to drink the whole thing. It would reverse the infertility effect for twenty four hours. If she needed more, she told them that she lived in a cottage in the Oreads forest, and she assured them that she lived far enough away from Dregs Hollow that they could be certain of their safety. Avalyn and Henrick thanked her for her gesture, and they promised that if it worked, they would find her cottage and reward her handsomely.

One day, as the shadowy figure walked along a dirt path surrounded by billowy trees, he noticed a newspaper in a trash bin next to a wooden bench. His eye had seen a picture of the royal couple with broad grins on their faces, and he didn’t think that anything that made them this happy could bode well for him, so he snatched up the newspaper and sincerely hoped his hunch would get proven wrong. When he read that Avalyn had conceived a child, he roared in fury. He threw the newspaper down and cursed the fact that he couldn’t use his powers to kill. He didn’t let this stifle his determination though and devised a new plan…

Shortly after the baby was born, Henrick and Avalyn brought the new princess to the throne room where reporters stood ready with their cameras on tripods and their quills ready to write. Henrick and Avalyn pleasantly answered all of their questions except for the one about the name simply because they hadn’t decided on it yet. Later on, Avalyn carried the infant into the nursery and laid her in the crib. As she tucked her in, she crooned, “Sleep well, little… Caliana!”

As the nighttime nanny entered, Avalyn stole one more loving glance at her baby before she left the room and fell asleep in her and Henrick’s chambers. After the nanny fell asleep on a chair on the other side of the nursery, the shadowy figure crept in through the window. He moved slowly and as silenly as he could so he didn’t wake the nanny. He swiftly grabbed the child and ran out of the window! The nanny heard him jump out of the window and woke with a start. When she saw that the crib was empty, she let out a blood curling scream. Henrick and Avalyn rushed in and nearly had a heart attack when they realized what just happened. While Avalyn uncontrollably sobbed, Henrick rounded up everyone in the castle and ordered them all to search for the culprit. They searched the grounds thoroughly, but no one saw the shadowy figure sneak off into the darkness!

A Christmas Void, Chapter 15- The Surprise

Thanks, Dad! Now, dear readers, keep in mind while all of that was going on, I stood in the snow alone and sad. I had no idea what was coming! I convinced the bus driver to let Finn go on the bus so he didn’t freeze, but the driver wouldn’t let any humans on until the scheduled time. A few people waited for the bus with their loved ones, who said goodbye to them, and I watched them longfully. My family had already told me their goodbyes, but there was one person I never got to say goodbye to… I tried not to think about Isaac, but I couldn’t get him out of my head. It really hurt to keep him on my mind though because I thought, at this point, he officially got married to another woman. I didn’t think I’d ever see him again, but a small part of me hoped that he would come before it was too late. My last shred of hope got dashed when the driver finally let us board, and I tried to hide my tears as I mentally prepared for my new but lonesome new life in San Francisco.

As we slowly trudged onto the bus, I heard some squealing in the distance. As it got closer, it was clear that someone was driving erratically in the snow. The driver waited, figuring someone was rushing to get on board on time. As is is the case with almost any car stunt, everyone stopped to watch as a truck barreled through the snow towards us. When it got closer, I recognized my dad’s truck, but it felt odd for him to appear right now and in such a frantic fashion. When I saw who came out of the passenger side, I could have fainted! “Isaac?”

I stood still, totally stunned, but Isaac came up to me like doctors do in emergency rooms. He wasted no time in urgently telling me, “Look, I know you probably never wanna see me again, but I couldn’t let you leave without saying goodbye!”

I looked to the bus driver, who gruffly consented, “You have five minutes.” I turned back to Isaac, totally mesmerized by his presence.

Isaac woefully confessed everything, “I didn’t get married today! I don’t wanna be with Gryla! You were right- I don’t love her! I sacrificed a lot to make her feel loved, but truthfully, she didn’t make me happy. Actually, that’s the real reason I took the job at Millstone’s; I just wanted a little bit of freedom until I gave up the rest of my life for her. I always thought of her as my best friend, but thenI met you. You let me be myself, and you make me feel good about who I am. You made me smile when I felt stressed. You listened when I needed someone to hear me. You were there for me when I felt alone. I just liked being around you, feeling the warmth of your body, holding you in my arms… I love you! I won’t keep you from your dreams, but I just thought you should know that before you go!”

With a heavy heart, he turned around to let me leave, but clearly, it devastated him to let me go. I teared up at his beautiful words, but other than that, I felt so surprised that I couldn’t move. My heart beat wildly as my love for him resurfaced. The bus was set to leave, and I couldn’t give up my dream job. Even if I tried, I knew he wouldn’t let me. I had to go, but it wasn’t like I couldn’t see him again, right? I’d come back, especially when I sold my condo… Suddenly, inspiration struck me, and I knew what I had to do. I dug in my pocket, grabbed my key, and ran after him.

I got in front of Isaac and exclaimed, “Wait!” I handed him my keys. “Here!”

He gazed at the keys feeling a little more optimistic but still confused. “What’s this?”

“The keys to my condo,” I revealed. “Or, should I say, your condo!”

“What?” He seemed pleasantly surprised but didn’t totally grasp my concept yet.

I explained, “Gryla’s going to kick you out of your house, right? Well, now you have a place to go. And I’ll have a place to go when I come back here every weekend!” I emphasized the last part to show him how much time we could still have together. “I should’ve told you this a long time ago, I’ve fallen head over heals for you! You make me happier than I’ve ever been in my life! I can’t live without you in my life! I’m all yours! Whatever you need me for, I’ll be there! I’ll spend my whole life making you happy so you know just how much you mean to me! I just love you so much!”

“You love me?” he cried out in joy. “She loves me!” He wrapped his arms around me, lifted me up, and spun me around in a fast circle! I smiled so wide it almost hurt! After a few spins, he stood still and held me close. His eyes sparkled with tears of happiness, but they still gave me that same deep, intense stare that made my knees weak. My heart pounded rapidly as he leaned in close. I couldn’t believe it was finally happening! His lips met mine, and ecstasy raced through my whole body! His lips were strong but tasted so sweet! They fit so well with mine like they belonged together all along! We got so lost in our kiss that it took us a minute to realize that everyone who witnessed our moment was clapping!

The bus driver, trying to hide the fact he was wiping his eyes too, shouted, “Both of you, on the bus!”

“Both of us?” Isaac questioned.

The bus driver grinned. “Why not? It’s Christmas!”

I glanced at my watch and reacted, “It is Christmas!”

Isaac kidded, “Still want to void Christmas?”

“Of course not!” I laughed. “Especially now that you’re spending the night with me!”

My father remarked, “Ugh! Not something a dad wants to hear!”

“I didn’t mean it like that!” I blushed.

“Sure you didn’t!” Dad rolled his eyes but smiled. As the bus driver gently hurried us along, I ran hand in hand with Issac and gave my father a hug. After a quick embraced, he directed us, “Get out of here, you two! Merry Christmas!”

“Merry Christmas!” we shouted as we ran to the bus. We sat in the seats behind where the driver put Finn, and for most of the ride, we were glued to each other like magnets! We couldn’t keep our hands to ourselves! There were no words to describe how happy we were, so we kept kissing! I got a dream career and a dream man, and I fell in love with Christmas all over again!

Epilogue

I want to finish this story with a message to you, dear readers. I wrote this book for anyone who is sad at Christmas. I went through almost twenty years of heartache and struggle. I faced failure and loneliness almost every day of the year. It hurts when you feel like you don’t belong somewhere and nothing seems to ever work out! I know how your feel- it went through it too! I know it hurts worse around the holidays too. You see a bunch of happy people and think why not me? I told you this story to show you that it’s never too late for your happily ever after. Keep chasing your dreams no matter how long it takes and no matter how hard your goals are to achieve! Even when things seem hopeless, DO NOT STOP TRYING! Sometimes good people have to wait longer for their version of happiness, but trust me, it’s worth the wait! One day could change everything! Don’t shut yourself out from the world like Aunt Sabine! Someday, if you keep working hard, you’ll make it! I didn’t think I could ever feel this happy either, and look at me now! A tip- it helps to surround yourself with people who support you. However, if no one else has said it to you today… I believe in you! Oh, and may all of your Christmas dreams come true!

Okay, fine, you twisted my arm. Eventually, Isaac moved to San Francisco and moved in with me. He works at an elementary school like he’s always wanted. He’s not a father yet, but don’t worry, it’ll happen soon! I’m finishing up this book in the parking lot of his classroom. I can see his kids holding papers behind their back, and they all look super excited. I’m almost positive they’re going to spell out “marry me,” and of course, I’m going to say yes! I’ll be sure to snap a bunch of pictures, and you’ll see the story once The Bay Area Bugle prints them! I can’t wait anymore, I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time! Thanks for reading! Bye!

The End

A Christmas Void, Chapter 14- The Big Day

Don’t worry, the story doesn’t end there! On Christmas Eve, I spent most of the day crying not only from losing Isaac but also for my loneliness around the holidays. I packed a few last minute things and stuffed Finn into a cat carrier (he did not enjoy that!), and I walked to the bus stop. Something unexpected happened at the bus stop that I never saw coming, but later on, I heard all about how everything fell into place. Instead of ending things here, I thought you’d rather hear all the events that led up to this point. For that, you’ll need to hear the story from someone else’ perspective, so I’m going to turn things over to someone who saw it all happen- my dad.

Alright! Tiffany is a better storyteller than me, but I’ll do her the best justice I can! We were all worried about Tiffany. It just wasn’t normal for her to shut herself off from the world like that! She hadn’t told us about her feelings, but, to tell the truth, we started to suspect something. Well, my wife and other two daughters did, and I just agreed with them. One minute, Millstone’s was making her miserable, then suddenly, she became a different person. She had a strange mix of optimism and nervousness to her now. Everything seemed to click for us when she suddenly decided to leave town, we knew she must have gotten her heartbroken. We had no idea who upset her until I went to my boss’s daughter’s wedding…

I had no idea this wedding would end up becoming so significant! I didn’t know that Tiffany even knew Gryla’s fiance! Dasher Lake is a small town, but it’s not tiny, so not everyone knows everything that’s going on. My wife and daughters were distraught from Tiffany’s suffering and her sudden departure, so I ended up going to the wedding by myself. I couldn’t pretend I was excited to be there because I was saddened by everything going on with my family. Plus, they were having it super late! It was set to start just before midnight, apparently the bride wanted to their first kiss as man and wife to be the first kiss of Christmas. Even though I said my goodbyes to her earlier in the day, I didn’t think I could pay attention to the ceremony because my mind would occupied on Tiffany leaving since both would happen around the same time! Nothing about this night seemed like a good idea, and I got surprised to learn I wasn’t the only one at the wedding who felt that way…

The groom and his groomsmen were standing at the entrance to the ceremony room, and attendees were offering congratulations to Isaac before they signed the guest book. Isaac looked beyond sad, he looked downright miserable! He was trying to stand straight, but he gave me the impression that his stomach was gnawing at him. He didn’t appear to have gotten much sleep, and his blank stare made me think he was in another world right then. So, when it was my turn, instead of saying congratulations, I joked, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Huh?” Isaac blinked and shook himself out of his reverie.

“You look like someone died,” I pointed out to him. “Cold feet?”

“Maybe that’s what it is…” He paused, and then he timidly asked me, “Did you… did you feel…? How did you feel when you got married? Was it really hard?”

I thought back to that day and replied, “No! Not at all! I mean, I was a little worried about reciting my vows correctly, but-.”

“The vows!” He turned to a blank page in the guest book and hastily scribbled something down.

People passed him by as they entered, but my instincts as a father pushed me to stay. I stood next to him and asked, “Alright, Son, tell when did it go wrong?”

“Did what go wrong?” he croaked. “What makes you think something’s wrong?”

“I’m psychic!” I said sarcastically. “Clearly, a greater priority made this day slip your mind.”

Isaac put the pen down and admitted, “Last week, I shouted at a friend. She didn’t realized I was mad at myself, not her! I keep replaying the incident over and over again, and I can’t get the look on her face out of my head! I think I really hurt her, and I don’t think I’ll ever get a chance to say I’m sorry!”

“What were you and your ‘friend’ arguing about?” I had to ask.

Isaac glanced both ways, leaned close to me, and whispered, “She doesn’t think I should marry Gryla. She tried to convince me that I love Gryla as a sister not a wife.” He braced himself onto the table where the guest book laid. “The thing is, she had no idea those things crossed my mind already! Those thoughts made me feel so guilty because secretly, I’m scared that they’re right! I didn’t tell her that though, and I walked out on her. Ever since I did that, I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I mean, I thought about her a lot anyways. Whenever I was with her, she made me happy. But she doesn’t want anything to do with me or the wedding, and now I’ll never see her again!”

I put a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. “You must’ve really cared about her.”

“Yeah, I…” He didn’t finish his sentence.

I really didn’t want to step into the middle of a love triangle, but I had a slight hunch who this friend of his could have been. I told him, “It’s not easy to make a decision that will hurt someone’s feelings no matter what route you decide to go, but ultimately, your happiness does matter. It doesn’t have to make sense to anyone else but you! If you find something that makes you happy , hold on to it! It’s so rare life throws us something that gives us so much joy, so when it does, you gotta seize that opportunity! Don’t let others influence your decision ’cause at the end of the day, it’s your life and you gotta decide how you wanna live it! I taught that to my daughters, and all three of them followed it! That’s why, even though we’ll miss her, we let Tiffany leave tonight…”

“Tiffany?” Isaac looked at me like I just released a ghost! He jerked up and had a high enough alert to hang on my every word.

I explained, “Yeah, she’s my oldest daughter. She got offered her dream job in San Francisco. It seemed really important to her to leave before Christmas, so even though we’re going to miss her so much, we had to let Tiffany go.”

“Did you say Tiffany?” Miss Allsburg, who had been passing by and overheard our conversation, strolled over and asked me, “Did Tiffany finally leave that condo?”

“Yeah, she’s taking the bus to San Francisco just before midnight,” I answered her sadly. “She seemed so upset, and I don’t know when I’ll see her again!”

“Don’t be sad!” Miss Allsburg instructed. “Rejoice in the fact that she didn’t become your sister. Sabine could have been a great painter, but she let one heartbreak ruin her whole life! All she did was collect cans and drink hard liquor! I really thought Tiffany would follow in her footsteps, but she proved me wrong! Tell her that the next time you see her!”

“Yeah, whenever that will be!” I lamented. As she went inside, I advised Isaac, “You have a few minutes. You should write your friend a letter, that way it’ll get out of your head and you’ll have a better idea of what to do.” I pat him on the back and headed inside.

I sat in the back since it was almost time and most of the guests had already arrived. I could still see Isaac, and I watched him find another blank page and write a lengthy letter. When the ceremony was about to start, one of his groomsmen had to fetch him. He grabbed both pieces of papers that he had written on and ran inside.

He stood at the altar looking truly scared. He didn’t even look at the wedding party as they sauntered in. When the bride entered, she beamed at him, but he made a strange face, a mix of confusion and dread. When she took her place and the music stopped, Isaac looked as though he wanted to bolt right out of there. The wedding efficient started the ceremony, “Dearly beloved, we have gathered here today to join this man and this woman in holy matrimony. The bride and groom have written their own vows, which they will read now.”

Gryla had a very filled page to read, but Isaac was supposed to go first. He pulled out one of the pages from the guest book, and Gryla stared at him suspiciously. He hesitated as he tried to control his tremendous shaking, and then he nervously read, “I take full responsibility for our argument! Hurting your feelings hurt me even more! Life without you in it…” He heard a collective murmur in the crowd, and it made him flustered. “Those aren’t my vows! That’s my letter to…” He dug into his pocket and found the other page. “Okay, here we go! You are a super friend. Thank you for doing this!” He stopped and darted his eyes between the two pieces of papers. He furrowed his brow and he began breathing heavily…

Most of the people attending were at a loss as to what was happening. Miss Allsburg, being at that age where her inhibitions had long since gone, spoke up, “Hymph! The first one sounded more like wedding vows!”

Everyone seemed shocked by her audacity, but no one argued with her point. A light bulb went off in Isaac’s head, and he suddenly got a sense of direction again. He gazed at the clock above their heads, which almost literally took his breath away! “Oh no! I hope I’m not too late!”

He ran for it, literally! He was out of the door quicker than anyone could say “What’s going on?” I stood up and told everyone, “I’ll go get him!” As I ran out, I didn’t bother to tell them that I didn’t intend to bring him back!

I drove my truck down the street and found him running through the snow. I cut him off and ordered, “Get in!”

“No!” he defied me. “I’m not going back!”

I responded, “Neither am I!” He stopped in his tracks and turned towards me, clearly surprised by my remark. I went on, “Her bus leaves in ten minutes, I’ll get you there faster!” He gave me a look of total gratitude and hopped in immediately. I peeled out of there and drove away as fast as I could!

A Christmas Void, Chapter 13- The Christmas Void

Doing the right thing shouldn’t be this hard! I kept saying that to myself over and over again. Gryla had given up on her quest to find the girl who tried to seduce her fiance, and no, she never figured out it wasn’t me. She didn’t want to stop, but it got too close to the wedding to keep spending several hours lurking in Millstone’s. Speaking of the devil, Millstone’s probably couldn’t ignore catching us in the bathroom stall together because they gave Isaac and me opposite schedules. We said hi to each other in passing, and I really thought about spouting out what I wanted to tell him right then and there just to get it over with, like ripping off a bandage, but there was always so many people around and at least one of us had the pressure of finishing a shift on time. I just didn’t think it was appropriate to do it like that anyway! This was really important, and it required more than a couple of minutes, but that’s all I seemed to get with him! Time was of the essence, and I had to do something soon! I wanted to call him, but Gryla hardly ever left him alone. I also considered texting him, but I didn’t want Gryla to get a hold of those messages. Plus, something I learned from my time as manager was that texts can easily get misinterpreted when a person can’t hear the tone or see the intention. I truly wanted to do the right thing, but I felt like the universe just wasn’t letting me!

I started to freak out after a week had gone by and I still didn’t get the chance. He was getting married in a week, and if I didn’t do it soon, it would be too late! Plus, Nicholaus Bell would contact me soon for an update, and I didn’t know what to tell him. I couldn’t make an important decision without knowing all the facts of the situation! If Isaac rejected me, it would hurt a lot, but I would at least be able to begin healing and move on. If he loved me, it would also hurt a lot to give up a chance to have a photography job, but he would be there to help me heal. Right then, the wound couldn’t heal because of all of the unknown factors keeping it from scabbing over. I needed to find out for sure either way so I could feel more sure about my decision!

I didn’t expect to see Isaac on the seventeenth, but in the middle of my shift, he showed up! With Gryla. He had his arm around her waist, and she just looked radiant. I didn’t know what I wanted more at that moment- to tear her apart or to curl on the floor and cry! I hastily spoke into the walkie-talkie that I was going on break, and without waiting for approval, I darted off towards the break room. To my dismay, I heard Gryla cry out, “Hey, Santa Monica, wait!” I cringed. What could they both want from me? I momentarily panicked because I thought that Gryla figured out my true identity. Did she really still think my name was Santa Monica or was that just sarcasm?

I got a little relief to see her smiling. I felt glad she didn’t feel angry, but I still felt the dread of impending doom of what she had to say. Plus, my heart still ached seeing him with her. I didn’t think anything they had to say to me at that moment would bode well for me. Gryla prated, “We wanted to ask you… Oh, I’m too excited! Honey-Bear, you say it!”

“No, no, it was your idea, you say it,” he responded somewhat bashfully. I couldn’t figured out why he seemed so uncomfortable. I thought maybe it was the “honey-bear” thing because that was pretty revolting, but maybe his discomfort came from something else…

“You say it!” she simpered. Her corniness almost made me vomit.

Isaac took the reins, “Well, our photographer canceled at the last minute, so we were wondering…”

“Will you be our photographer?” Gryla burst.

Gryla clearly loved the idea, but Isaac wouldn’t meet my eye. Obviously, on some level, he could sense my thoughts. I was dumbfounded. Of course, Isaac and I were friends, but it didn’t occur to me until then that I would actually get invited to the wedding! I guess I kind of thought the wedding wasn’t actually real because I convinced myself that he would cancel it to be with me, but now it didn’t feel like such a far-fetched concept. It was happening! I couldn’t stomach watching him marry her let alone photograph it! I realized I had created an awkward silence, but I didn’t know how to reject the offer without blowing my cover? I really tried to pull off the premise that I was totally cool about his engagement, but it didn’t occur to me that I’d get friend-zoned! They expected an answer, and I didn’t know what to say. Luckily, I was saved by the bell. Gryla picked up her phone and announced, “Oh, it’s the caterer. I gotta take this.” She went from sweet to screams in an instant, but thankfully, she walked away!

Finally, Isaac and I were alone! He tried to ease the tension by joking, “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure she doesn’t make the check out to Santa Monica!” He nervously laughed.

I didn’t laugh, which commanded his attention. I had no choice, this was probably my last opportunity, so it was now or never. Suddenly, my tongue felt tied. I stared at his handsome face while those beautiful eyes gazed intensely, and I wanted him so bad! I realized the only shot I had with him was to confess my feelings, but I didn’t know how to begin. Everything I rehearsed over the week had vanished, and I had to figure out something to say soon because I didn’t know how long Gryla would stay distracted. I didn’t know how to put it all into words, but the pressure of saying something became insurmountable. I decided to let out the first thing that popped into my head, “Isaac, I can’t be your photographer. I can’t even go to your wedding!”

“Why not? Did I say something wrong?” His face was full of genuine concern.

“Yes!” I exclaimed. I didn’t think about it, the words just came out. “You said you’re marrying her! You don’t belong together! She’s more like a sister to you! Yes, she came through for you when you needed her, but you don’t owe her anything! What you want is important too! You need someone more caring, someone you can have more fun with, someone who supports your dreams! I-!”

Isaac, his face full of shock and hurt, interrupted and snapped, “You think you know what I feel? You’ve known me for a minute, and you think you know what’s best for me? What, you think I can just drop everything just like that? I’ve spent years planning this! Both our families have! And you expect to say one word and have everyone drop all of it? It’s crazy! It’s irrational and irresponsible! I’m supposed to forget my duties and obligations on a whim? I just… I can’t think about this right now!”

Isaac stormed off and left me standing there, totally devastated! I couldn’t believe it! He lashed out at me! I never thought he would hurt me! He never denied what I said about not loving Gryla. In fact, he reiterated my point about going through with it only out of some moral obligation. That just didn’t sound like the Isaac I knew! Maybe he was right, we didn’t know each other that long. I thought he was smart enough only to marry for love and no other reason, but maybe then I wondered if I knew him as well as I thought I did. Maybe I fell in love with an idiot! I was so angry for getting myself into this situation, and all I could do was stand there and cry!

At that moment, Mallory stomped over to me and screamed, “What are you doing? You left the registers without a cashier! The line is wrapped around the store! How dare you! It’s the busiest time of the year, and you were hired for this reason! Get back to work! It’s Christmas!”

She struck a huge nerve! Here I was an emotional mess and she made no mention of my feelings! She expected me to instantly pick myself up and go back to work? I had my breaking point just then! Nicholaus Bell considered my feelings! He gave me time to think about what I wanted out of the job, and he admired me for my values. Millstone’s never cared about me! They only cared about getting through Christmas! I hollered, “Screw Christmas! I don’t need this! I quit!”

Millstone’s had made me angry for a long time, but my fury from Isaac still burned brightly, so they got my full wrath! They deserved it! As I stormed over to the time clock, I expected the supervisors to react to my sudden departure. I could just picture Mara or Claudia screeching that I couldn’t just quit and demanding that I go back to work. I thought Brennan would get all judgmental and talk about the irresponsibility of leaving on bad terms. Korah would shame me for leaving them stranded, and Cecil would be disappointed that I created a scene and left without saying goodbye. But no one did. The whole store seemed to have stood still as I emptied my locker. Mallory hadn’t moved at all, she just looked flabbergasted. I still brimmed with ire, so I didn’t care. As I went through the automatic door, I tore my badge off and threw it behind me. Just like that, I never set foot in Millstone’s again!

It felt great to know I would never have to deal with Millstone’s ever again1 I was really grateful that I wouldn’t have to show up and face Isaac again! That jerk! Even though my blood still boiled, I couldn’t wait to get home! My abrupt entrance scared Finn, but I didn’t have time to apologize to him. The only way I could quell my nerves was to call Nicholaus Bell immediately! I briefly wondered if he would answer and thought that I would spew fire if I had to leave a message! I needed reassurance from him that I had just made the right move! Luckily, he picked up, “Tiffany! I was just about to call you! How are you?”

“Fine!” I realized that sounded rather aggressive, and I resolved to cool my temper for a couple of minutes. “I’m fine. Actually, I called to ask for a favor…”

“Anything!” he replied jovially.

His honest response made my heart feel a little better. It satisfied the gnawing beast growing inside me, and I had a good feeling about his possible response to what I wanted to request. “Can I start work next week?”

Clearly whatever he expected me to say, it wasn’t that. “You want to start on Christmas Eve?”

“Yes!” I asserted. “I’m going to book a bus ticket to San Francisco, and I’m ready to go in right away! I’m voiding Christmas this year! I just don’t wanna think about it, so I would very much like to get started right away!” I hoped that he would let me start early this year, and every year for that matter! That day changed for me, and I knew every year it would just remind me of Isaac. I didn’t know how long it would take to get over him, and in my heart, I didn’t think I ever would!

“Oh, okay…” Clearly, Nicholaus Bell got thrown off by this, and although he seemed confused by my attitude about the holidays, I could tell he decided not to ask. He obliged, “Well, we’re closed on Christmas Eve and Christmas, but we can get you started on the twenty sixth if you want!”

“Great! Thank you so much!” I gushed. I felt so relieved to have a plan after that impromptu decision I made earlier.

“You’re welcome!” he told me. “Look, I hate to cut this conversation short, but my ride is here, so I gotta get going. Let me know when you get to San Francisco! Have a safe trip!”

“I will!” After we said goodbye and hung up, I realized I had just opened up a new chapter of my life! Millstone’s almost ruined me. The whole thing felt like such a set up, and they misled me with false promises, including Isaac! I almost gave up an awesome career for that deception! It still really hurt, but I was glad I finally had some direction and could heal.

Time didn’t heal anything though. This event just hardened my heart, and I felt nothing. I only cared about getting the heck out of Dasher Lake. I had always been miserable there, and I had to stop trying to make it work there. Once again, my sole focus became escaping it, but despite my ardent desire to leave, I actually didn’t leave my condo for days. Besides finding a furnished place to live in San Francisco and packing what little I had, all I did was lay on my couch waiting for the time I had left there to run out. I couldn’t get a ticket out of there until eleven fifty-five on Christmas Eve, but I wasn’t sad about missing out on Christmas with my family. They would probably still participate in wedding festivities that day anyway! I could tell they were worried when I announced that I would be abruptly leaving, but I didn’t care. I had to leave! I had to void Christmas! It would never feel the same to me ever again!