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 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!

A Christmas Void, Chapter 12- The Bay Area Bugle

What a rush! I couldn’t believe we almost… well, it’s hard to say. The tension could’ve been the anticipation of a tender kiss, or maybe the burning passion would’ve led to something more! Either way, I was dying to find out! I clocked out quickly and practically skipped to my locker. He was set to clock in, but I didn’t want our conversation to end! I figured maybe I could follow him as he dealt with go-backs, or maybe we could have snuck off to the fitting room to make my dream into a reality! Even if all I did was listen to him talk at the register, I’d have felt thrilled! I didn’t want to deal with customers though, so I took my name tag off before I entered the sales floor. I hadn’t even gotten past the customer service desk when a familiar female’s voice screeched, “Santa Monica!”

It took me a moment to realize she meant me. Gryla stormed over to me, and my knees buckled a little. I silently prayed that she didn’t know what just happened between Isaac and me because I really feared we’d end up in a fist fight. A part of me would have loved to slap the smirk off of her face, but I didn’t think Isaac would be too pleased if I hurt his fiancee. Plus, the fact still remained that she was my dad’s boss’s daughter, and I couldn’t risk that for anything! Gryla bellowed, “Where’s Tiffany?”

“Tiffany?” I couldn’t think of a lie quick enough. Mara, who was handling returns again, stared at me in utter confusion. Now, I DID NOT want to explain anything about my life to her or any of the other clowns at Millstone’s, so I improvised, “Oh, Tiffany! I’ll help you find her!” I grabbed Gryla’s arm and led her away from the area.

I decided to take her to the area the least occupied by employees or customers, the shoe department. It literally looked like a child had tipped over a board game in a fit of rage, so I knew we were safe. Gryla made a face as if she just smelled a very foul odor. “It’s still like that?”

“Welcome to my nightmare!” I wasn’t totally joking, but she had no idea why. “Okay, so what’s going on?”
She fumed, “That guy, Brennan, walked towards the bathroom and said he saw Tiffany run out of it! Then Cecil came out of the bathroom with my fiance saying he caught a girl ‘cleaning the stall’ he was in! She was trying to seduce my man!”

“That jezebel!” I had to put my hand over my mouth to hide the giggles.

Luckily, she interpreted my gesture as shock. “Right? Clearly she doesn’t know who I am!”

“But you know who she is!”

“That’s right!”

“Nothing gets past you!”

“No, it won’t!”

“She can’t get away with this!”

“She won’t!”

I had to stop. Even though I found this highly amusing, it would probably go on forever if I didn’t cut it off. “Well, this was the last place I saw her. Maybe she left for the day.”

I really thought she would sigh and give up, but she surprised me by saying, “She thinks she got away with it, oh no! I have a lot to shop for before the wedding, so I’ll be here EVERY DAY! No one messes with my things!”

Things? Is that how she viewed Isaac? The perfect addition to her collection of fine things? I found it hard to believe that she was the one who comforted Isaac through the most devastating part of his life! I suggested, “Well, Tiffany works in this department, so I would keep checking here!”

“Oh, I will!” she declared. As I started to walk away, Gryla told me, “Thanks, Santa Monica! You’re a good friend!”

I stopped square in my tracks. Her words stung and left an awful feeling in the pit of my stomach. That stupid girl considered me a friend? I started to feel guilty about my intentions to betray her. I could see how Isaac must feel. Here she’s been his friend for twenty years, and he was considering betraying her! His guilt must have been insurmountable! I smiled kindly at Gryla and headed out. Before I left, I saw Isaac, who waved bashfully as he stood behind the register, and I wondered if he felt worse about our moment in the men’s room or that Gryla was getting embarrassingly territorial. Nonetheless, seeing Isaac again got my heart pumping! It seemed illogical, but pursuing Isaac really felt like the right thing to do!

That was no easy feat! For the next week, Isaac and I practically had the same shifts, but as long as he got scheduled for work, Gryla got a shopping cart and patrolled the store like a lioness on the hunt. The supervisors decided to let her do it because she would buy expensive things by the end of it. Isaac definitely got embarrassed and steered clear of her when she was on the prowl. He chatted with me a lot, and we got to know each really well. The more I got to know him, the more I liked him! We even made each other confess our biggest faults, and even though some of his answers surprised me (like he’s afraid of killer whales, really!), I still loved him. I swore he felt the same way about me, but I still had no concrete proof. He didn’t do anything romantic with her around. Even when he walked me home, she trailed behind us. Once, she was yelling at someone on her phone, so he stole a quick hug. It felt so nice, and even though we weren’t officially a couple, being together made me happy enough!

One evening, after I got home from work, I sat on the couch and took off my boots. I was in a particularly good mood because Isaac brushed my hand while we walked, and right when I was reliving the moment, Ruth called. “Helllloooo!” I practically sung. “What’s up?”

“I had a problem that I wanted to talk to you about, but forget that for a moment! I know that tone!” Ruth responded with keen interest. “You met a guy, didn’t you?”

I shifted uncomfortably. I hadn’t told anyone how strong my feelings were for Isaac, and I still hesitated because it still sounded terrible. Knowing Ruth, she wouldn’t give up until I made a full confession, so I reluctantly admitted, “Oh, no, there’s nothing new. I’ve just been spending more time with that engaged guy…”

“Did you sleep with him?” she asked with the excitement of hearing juicy gossip.

“No, we haven’t even kissed!” I explained, “But, oh Ruth! The more time we spend together, the stronger my feelings get! As crazy as it sounds, I think he likes me back! If it weren’t for his fiancee, we’d be an item, I just know it!”

“Speaking of the fiancee, isn’t getting married soon?”

“In two weeks.” My heart sunk every time I thought about it. I ardently told her, “They don’t belong together! She wants to marry him to have a trophy husband, and he wants to marry her out of an emotional debt. They’re not in love!”

“And you are?” Ruth played the devil’s advocate, “Are you sure he feels the same way? Maybe he just likes the attention you give him. I mean, after you’re married, it’s nice to know you’re still wanted. My ex certainly thought that, but he went too far and cheated. Are you sure it isn’t just lust?”

“Or it could just be cold feet,” I brought up tearfully. “I know sometimes when people are nervous, they subconsciously do things to sabotage the moment. But Ruth, if you saw us together, you would know it too! He loves me, and there’s still time for him to call call off the wedding!” I paused and ruefully said, “But if I’m wrong, I could jeopardize Dad’s career. She’s his boss’s daughter.”

Ruth concluded, “If you guys have feelings for each other, you gotta talk about it. If you don’t tell him how you feel, he could walk down the aisle thinking that you don’t feel the same way!”

“I can’t do that!” I objected. “If I’m wrong, and he doesn’t love me, that spiteful witch could punish me by getting my dad fired. Plus, I would be super embarrassed! In a small town like this, everyone would know! How can I risk that?”

“If you really love him, he’s worth the risk!” Ruth exclaimed.

She was right. I couldn’t just keep living in limbo like this. I could have lost everything if I let things keep going at this pace! I sighed, “I’ll do it!”

“Yay!” she rejoiced. “So, since that’s settled, I have a problem too. There’s this guy at work who started before I did who’s competing with me for the next promotion. So, how can I-?”

“Hold on!” I didn’t want to interrupt her, especially since she was always so good about listening to my problems, but my phone was vibrating in my ear. “I think I got another call.” I peeked at the caller ID and saw the call was coming from a 415 area code. “Someone from San Francisco?”

“Answer it! I can wait,” Ruth stated.

I put her on hold and picked up the call, “Hello?”

“Is this Tiffany Clark?” His voice was strong but oddly almost lyrical.

“Yes it is.” My curiosity got stirred. Who could possibly call me from San Francisco? I didn’t know anyone from the Bay Area, although I loved it there! It had so many restaurants, events, and just so many other fun things to do there! Not to mention so many great photo opps from their skyscrapers, parks, waterfronts, and et cetera. This guy sounded a little older but very nice, and I loved the idea of associating with someone from San Francisco, so I was inclined to listen. “Whom may I ask is calling?”

The man coolly introduced himself, “This is Nicholaus Bell, chief editor from the Bay Area Bugle.” I nearly peed my pants when I heard that! With all of the drama in my chaotic love life, I forgot that I submitted my portfolio to a few newspapers last week, as Isaac suggested, but I hadn’t heard from anyone of them until right then. The Bay Area Bugle is one of the most famous newspapers in the country, so I never thought I’d hear from them. Well, maybe a rejection letter. It put me into a daze that a company that could offer me my dream career actually called me, and my whole body tingled with the possibilities that this call could bring!

Nicholaus Bell went on, “I’m calling regarding the portfolio you submitted. Your photos from Colorado are impressive! What really got my attention though is when I searched your name, I came across this article about your charity work. It really got to me! I don’t like seeing little kids suffer from heartbreak, especially around Christmas! Skilled photographers are a dime a dozen, but it’s rare to see one with a heart as big as yours! I was looking to hire a photo journalist with a soul, and I think I found one! Normally, there’s a whole interview process, but, quite frankly, I don’t need to see anymore! As far as I’m concerned, you’ve got the job!”

I almost fainted when I heard that! I dreamed to hear those words since I was a kid, and it didn’t seem real that it was actually happening at that moment! I actually had to pinch myself to see if I was dreaming! It was the first time that I felt like crying from happiness! I was so grateful that I followed Isaac’s advice and put myself out there! Speaking of Isaac, I realized that a job offer in another city would mean leaving Dasher Lake. Up until recently, that wouldn’t have been an issue, I tried to escape this place for over a decade, but Isaac gave me a joy that I never felt before. I didn’t know if I could leave him behind! It seemed like the right thing to do, but my heart pulled me back. If Isaac did love me, I would break his heart by leaving. If I did that to him, he could get so distraught that Gryla would figure out he fell for someone else and would kick him out. He wouldn’t have anywhere to go. Well, obviously, he could come with me to San Francisco, but I had no idea if he would even want to leave Dasher Lake. He talked about going on adventures, but he didn’t have the same desire to leave this town as I did. But, if I was wrong, I could be passing up my dream job only to end up in this horrible city all alone! I felt so much pressure, and I didn’t know what to tell Nicholaus Bell!

Fortunately, he had no intention of making me decide right then. “Don’t freak out! I know it’s the holidays, so I wont take you away from your family right now. I sent the formal offer to your email, so look it over. If there’s anything you want to renegotiate about it, give me a call. This is my personal cell phone, so if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask! I’ll check in with you in about a week to set you up for your first day. How does that sound?”

I felt so much relief knowing I had some time to figure it all out. I would have to have an awkward conversation with Isaac, but regardless of his answer, I would know what to do. If he still wanted to marry Gryla, I would have no restraints about taking the job and leaving Dasher Lake. If he did want to be with me, I could turn down the job offer before I got in too deep. I told the editor, “Thank you so much!”

“You’re welcome! Merry Christmas!” he chimed.

The subject of Christmas still bristled me a little, but I still chirped, “Merry Christmas!” for the sake of friendliness to a potential new boss. When I ended the call, I accidentally hung up on Ruth. I would call her back in a moment when I absorbed it all. Never in my life did I ever think I would even consider turning down a photography job, but I never thought I would feel the same kind of desire for something, or someone, else. I didn’t know what to root for, my dream job or my dream guy!

A Christmas Void, Chapter 11- The Naughty List

Knock, knock, knock! “Ugh! Why do people insist on waking me up early when I get a chance to sleep in?” I grumbled. I felt like I got hit by a freight train! I just couldn’t stop thinking about the previous night. It hurt so much to have fallen in love with someone who I thought I could never have, and I knew what I had to do- I would need to pursue my photography so I could get the heck away from him. I couldn’t stand the idea of leaving him, but my heart couldn’t take seeing him happy with Gryla. The idea that haunted me most was that until I got a job offer somewhere else, I would have to keep dealing with seeing her and hear about their upcoming marriage. I really hoped that I would get a job offer in the next three weeks so I didn’t have to go through the pain of seeing their wedding, but I didn’t think it seemed likely. I didn’t think I could ever fall for another man in the same way I fell for Isaac, but I couldn’t spend my whole life pining after him. Even though it would hurt like crazy to leave him, it was something I had to do. I figured that Isaac must have felt that way too, which is why he kept pushing me to do photography again. That really hurt, but I couldn’t think about that right then. I forced myself out of bed, pulled on my robe, and headed to the door hoping it was someone that I could dismiss quickly.

It turned out to be my mom, which disappointed me because a small part of me hoped that Isaac might have shown up to confess his love for me. I also inwardly cringed that I now had to pretend that nothing was wrong. I couldn’t tell anyone my true feelings, and I definitely didn’t want to tell my mother about the stupid situation I had gotten myself in. Okay, so I told Ruth about my crush, but no one could know how deep I fell. I noticed that my mom wore her lab coat, so I knew she must have been on her way to work, which gave me a little relief to know I would only have to fake my good mood for a little while. I had to really bring my A game too because she was my mom and mom’s always seem to figure out when you’re hiding something. “Hey, Mom!”

Mom surveyed me with suspicion, and already, I felt like I was in trouble! She handed me a box as she came in. “I did my meal preps for the week and brought you over your portions.” Before I could say thank you, she immediately asked, “What’s wrong?”

I was old enough and wise enough to know that saying nothing would prove an utter waste of time. Actually, I would make things worse because she would know I was hiding something and ask more questions. I learned the best way to approach this question was to admit to a softer offense. I complained, “I never sleep well anymore! Millstone’s is always changing my hours, so my body can’t get used to a normal sleeping pattern! I’m just dreading Christmas- a whole week of being open twenty-four hours! I just know they’ll give me the worst shifts too! They hate me on a good day, and my Pine Pass sales have been abysmal lately, so I’m sure they’ll punish me by making me work horrible hours in the middle of the night! But, I know what you’re going to say- it’s just temporary, right?”

My mom seemed to accept my explanation, especially as a medical standpoint since losing sleep was so unhealthy. “Well, it’s a seasonal job, so it really is just temporary. I didn’t think I needed to point that out. Actually, I don’t like how much Millstone’s has ruined Christmas for you!” She had no idea how true that was! If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t have met Isaac and I wouldn’t have had that heartache! But, if Isaac hadn’t been in the picture, I would still be angry about the holidays, everything I said to my mom was true! “Actually, I was going to suggest you do something more emotionally fulfilling to create more of a balance in your life. What would that be? Hmm… Oh, I know! Remember when you were younger, you used to come with me to the hospital to volunteer?”

“Oh yeah! I needed volunteer hours for Honor Society when I was in high school.”

“But you kept going even after college! You would go whenever you were lonely or just got cabin fever. Tell me you didn’t love it!”

She was right. Another passion I had forgotten about. I knew it was the right thing to do, and it was healthy to stay home and mope. Something was missing though. “Do you think they would let me snap some photos? It’s been way too long since I worked on my portfolio, and with all of the nature shoots I did, I could use some live action shots…”

“I’m sure you can find a few kids who would want to participate!” Mom looked so delighted that I liked her idea. “I have some time, I can wait while you get your camera ready and makeup done…”

“Uh, Mom, I’m not gonna take selfies!” I pointed out.

Mom offered a counterpoint, “Yes, but your lack of sleep makes you look sick.” I hadn’t thought of that. All of the stress and yes, the lack of sleep too, probably did make me look ill. It made me wonder how I could think of competing with Gryla’s perfect complexion. I didn’t have time to think about that though, so I rushed to get ready.

A little background on my family: Mom is a pediatrician, and my youngest sister, Leah, is an intern in the same wing. My other sister, Tamra, is a housewife with five children, but occasionally she too, comes to the hospital with her dog, who she trained as an emotional support animal. I told my sisters about this photography project idea, and they both loved it! I chatted with Leah until Tamra arrived, and not only did she bring her dog, but she had a wagon full of old books and toys that her kids didn’t want anymore! With mounting anticipation, we entered the first room. The little girl beamed with excitement when she saw the sweet black lab in his Santa hat, and she glowed when we handed her a book to read and a toy to play with during her stay! Her parents gave me permission to take her picture, and I got some good ones. We repeated this process six more times. Each kid reacted just as delightedly as Comet bounded into their room and they got an early holiday gift. I had so much fun that I didn’t notice one of my sisters taking my camera to get shots of me! First off, touching my camera was a cardinal sin. Generally, photographers like to take pictures and not be the subject of one, so I probably would have said no on a good day, but after everything I had been through, I would have more than likely cringed if I knew my picture was getting taken. It ended being a good thing she did though. A reporter from the our local newspaper just happened to be visiting the hospital to meet with their PR director. Of course, she caught wind of what we were doing and came over to talk to us. “Hi, ladies! I’m Lucia Whittaker from the Dasher Daily. I’m working on human interest stories, and I wondered if I could talk about your good deed here in the paper.”

“No way!” I refuted. “I did this for the sake of doing a good deed. If we make it all about us, then it looks like we just did it for the glory.”

Lucia disagreed with my viewpoint, “Girl, this ain’t vogue! We’re reaching out to people who care about Dasher Lake. I just figured that with all of the negativity in the press lately that we could run a piece about kindness, you know, show the readers that there’s still good people in the world.”

That struck a chord with me. After how awful I felt about falling for an engaged man coupled with how low Millstone’s made me feel about myself, I hadn’t felt much like a good Samaritan lately, so it warmed my heart to be considered a pillar of the community. Tamra put in, “I think you should make this more about Tiffany. If she hadn’t volunteered here first, I wouldn’t have thought to train Comet and join her!”

Leah added, “I work here, so this kind of stuff is sorta my job. Tiffany’s the hero here for donating her time to these kids! You should definitely make this story more about her.”

I had no idea my little sisters felt this way! I always thought of them as more successful than me, and so it came as a surprise to hear that they looked up to me! I’m pretty sure my face flushed a deep shade of red at this point! I humbly brought up, “But there’s not even any pictures of me in this roll!”

“Yes, there is!” Leah grinned mischievously. I immediately looked through my camera in shock and a little offense, but before I could yell at her doing that, she remarked, “There’s no point in killing me with all of this life saving equipment around!”

I couldn’t help but laugh, and I was in a good mood, so my anger ebbed pretty quickly. Plus, Leah’s shots weren’t half bad! I sat down with Lucia and told her my history with the hospital. It was kind of fun to get interviewed, especially about something I cared about! Lucia planned to use some of my shots in the physical newspaper, but she could fit more of them into their website, and I felt pleased that I could attach a link to any photography jobs I applied to! I still felt a little bruised from my heartbreak, but doing photography and volunteer work definitely lifted my spirits!

The next day, at Millstone’s, I went in hoping to get a little recognition for that hospital story from some customers or even coworkers who may have seen it online. Not like I actively sought out the attention, but it would have been a nice change to the attention I usually got. Millstone’s didn’t say a thing about the article, but they did mention my terrible Pine Pass record. None of the customers mentioned it all. No one said anything, that is until I took my last break… I saw Isaac intently reading something on his cell phone. It sort of hurt to see him knowing that we were nothing more than friends, but my heart did sing a little at his presence. I didn’t want to damper what little we had in our relationship, so I sat next to him and conversed, “Are you closing tonight?”

“Yeah…” he answered without taking his eyes off of his phone.

I didn’t think there was much point in chitchatting when he was so distracted, but it felt too awkward to sit quietly, so I may as well keep it up. “I leave in forty five minutes, but I-.”

“Tiffany, you really did this?” He pointed to his phone.

I peered over his shoulders and saw that he had been reading that article! His face got so full of admiration, and I gazed down to hide my blushing. “Well, yeah… I started doing this in high school and just fell in love with those kids!”

“Wow! Just incredible!” He gushed. “For someone to have such a big heart and to do something so selfless… I’m speechless! You’re amazing!”

Before I could let it sink in that a kind, sweet man thought such wonderful things about me, I noticed tears welling up in his eyes! Isaac hadn’t even broke down when he talked about his family’s tragedies, so to see him break down now was a little unnerving! What could have stirred up his emotions to get to that level? I couldn’t let him go out on to his shift like that, so I had to ask, “What’s wrong?”

He tried to hide his tears, but when he realized I had already seen them, he gave up. “Sorry. It’s just… I love kids so much, and now I…”

“Work with them?” I guessed.

“I work with teenagers. I can’t work with kids. It’s just… well… You gotta understand, Gryla has a huge heart, but she just doesn’t have any interest in kids. In fact, she kind of hates it when I mention them. It brings up too many bad memories for her, and I can’t blame her for not being able to stomach it. I love her, so I gave up…”

“Teaching kids,” I supplied.

He admitted, “Yes, but I also gave up the idea of being a father!” He couldn’t hide the tears anymore and ran to the men’s room. I cared about him, regardless of whether he loved me or not, so I had to run after him.

I really hoped that a man wasn’t using a urinal when I burst in, and thankfully, there wasn’t. I heard some sniffled sobs at the end of the largest stall and softly walked over to it. Isaac didn’t lock it, and I saw him sitting on the toilet (pants on) holding up a tissue. “I’m sorry,” he apologized. “I didn’t want you to see me like this!”

“Don’t apologize!” I knelt beside him and put my arm around his back. “Weddings are stressful enough, but you’re going through more than most would since you’re giving up so much! I don’t blame you for breaking down!”

He sobbed, “Because I love her, I gave up kids for her. But I really don’t want to! You don’t know how tempting it was to call of the wedding when she said that!” Now he started to get angry and threw his tissue in the trash by the stall’s exit. He missed. As he got up to throw it away, he vented, “You know, sometimes reality just sucks! I can’t give up on her, not after all she’s done for me, but what do I get out of this besides a wife? That’s it? This just isn’t how I pictured my life would go! I always thought I would fall in love with my best friend, someone to go on adventures with, create a family, and take them on adventures too. It’s not like I need a bunch of kids, but I can’t even have one? I can’t even work with them! I didn’t think I would have to give up so much for love!”

I walked towards him, and I could suppress the impulse anymore. I had to ask the question that lingered on my mind for a long time now. “Are you sure you love her?”

“Yes!” He hesitated a little before he added, “Well, I mean, that’s what love is, isn’t it? Finding someone you’re comfortable with? We’ve planned this for a long time, and now we’ll build our lives together…”

“Is that what you want?” I looked him in the eyes when I asked that. He needed to be honest with me, and I would hold him to it. Maybe I would finally get my answer. He was having serious doubts, and it would be so tempting to sway him…

“Yes…” he answered dutifully, but I could hear his conviction start to ebb. “I mean, it would’ve been nice to have had some passion. But that can’t be real love, can it? To have my future wife also be the one that makes my heart race? I wish! I wish I was marrying the woman who was so hot that I couldn’t stop thinking about her. The woman with dangerous curves that I just wanted to run my hands all over. The woman with beauty inside and out. The one who gets my adrenaline going just thinking about her. Is it even possible to get so lucky to be with the person who makes you feel like that? Sometimes, I wish I had time to figure that out…”

His eyes were tense, and I felt positive he had been talking about me. Our bodies were so close… No doubts lingered in my head, I was gonna let this happen…. Unfortunately, at that moment, Cecil burst open the stall door! I jumped away as a child would when they got caught doing something they weren’t supposed to! I expected him to ask romantic questions, but instead, he inquired, “Cleaning the bathroom?”

“Uh, yes! I sure am!” I picked up his tissue and pretended to wipe the stall down.

Cecil laughed, “Well, little lady, it’s almost your sixth hour, so you gotta clock out!”

“Oh, okay!” I darted out of the bathroom, totally embarrassed. There was no more patting myself on the back for doing a good deed yesterday. As I clocked out, I stared at a cheesy holiday poster, and I thought that if there was a Santa, based on what just happened, I would have been put on the naughty list!

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 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 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!