The Curse of Dregs Hollow, Chapter 7

As Cally walked through Dregs Hollow, she found pretending that everything was business as usual to be of the utmost difficulty because she felt elated about her endeavor with Derrick. The more she thought about it, the more she realzied that she didn’t belong there, and she couldn’t wait to figure out where she came from. She really believed that Reisseck was hiding something now, she had never really seen him nervous until she brought up her true origin. When she originally learned of this betrayl, it frightened her at first, for the world she knew fell apart in an instant. At this point, she thought that her life had never really been put together in the first place. She couldn’t wait to see what laid ahead in the next chapter of her life, so it wasn’t easy for her to pretend to have angst about going to work. She also disliked having to transfigure herself each night knowing how she looked beneath the blemishes! Just as her thoughts had drifted to that very subject, she felt the potion fading, so she hid her face as discretely as she could while trying not to draw too much attention to herself as she left the village gates.

Once she got far enough away from the prying eyes that lurked about Dregs Hollow, she took off her hood as she walked down the path. The fresh air felt good as it combined through her hair. She wore that hood so much that almost no one knew she was a brunette! Actually, she had almost forgetten what it looked like! She thought her hair had a darker hue to it, but maybe she reached that opinion simply due to the insufficient lighting of their cavern abode. Her rapture only got heightened by the thought that she could roam freely in Bohemma that day. Most of the time, if Reisseck had her run an errand there, she didn’t linger long because she feared people discovering her deformities, which was also why she never ventured there when she had time off. She realized that today she could explore the city as a completely normal human being, and that just felt incredible to her!

It felt strange to pass Camellia’s Circus and not head to the employee’s entrance, but she felt such relief as she headed away from that horrid metal fence! She began to see Derrick in the distance, and the closer she got, the more her heart fluttered! Up until now, this plan still seemed like a fantasy, but now it felt real! As she neared him, she could see his smile grow too, so she knew that this journey had a shared sense of enthusiasm for both of them. When they got into the same vicinity as each other, Derrick greeted her, “Hello there!”

“Hi!” After she had voiced that, she noticed that his horse stood behind him. “Oh, are we riding into Bohemma?”

“Well, of course, why wouldn’t…?” He trailed off as something occurred to him. “You’ve never ridden a horse before.”

“No, but I’ve always wanted to.” She had meant that, but as she got closer, she became a little intimidated. She had seen Derrick bring his steed close to the employee’s entrance of her work, but it never really registered to her just how large in size the creature had been! She always found these animals to be so beautiful, especially this one because of its snow white fur, so she never realized how much damage that these creatures could do if they really wanted to!

“Don’t feel nervous!” Derrick gently advised. “Oriane is the sweetest horse in Barlock’s stables! I always borrow her during my visits. Actually, she’s the king’s personal favorite, and since we need him in one piece, obviously she’s not vicious.” Cally softly chuckled. “Why don’t you get to know her a bit before we hop on.”

“Okay.” Cally took a deep breath and approached the horse carefully. She found it helpful to know that both King Henrick and Derrick rode this one a lot, obviously, she was very good with people. She held out her hand, and after Oriane sniffed it a bit, she bowed her head for her to pet her. Cally did so gladly, and she noted the look of serenity on the horse’s face as she savored the attention, which made Cally smile broadly. “She is really sweet!”

“Told you!” Derrick grinned. He touched the horses reins in a way that made her kneel down, and after he mounted her, he regarded Cally, “Don’t worry, she does most of the work.” He held out his hand to help Cally get on, which she did with slight trepidation at first. Once she slipped on, she noticed how close she was to Derrick and practically blushed. Derrick instructed, “Hold on to my waist.” Now she felt sure her face had gone red as she wrapped her arms around him. Derrick motioned for the horse to rise, and even though she had been a little scared, she got a little excited now that they were about to take off. It forcibly reminded her of the children at Camellia’s Circus who tried an amusement ride for the first time. Derrick announced, “And away we go!” He made a signal to Oriane, and they galloped off!
Cally couldn’t believe how much fun she had traveling by horseback! The rush of speed flew over her body as though she were flying! The fact they were quickly getting away from Dregs Hollow just enhanced the whole experience, not to mention the warmth she felt from his body! If they didn’t have such important work to do in Bohemma, she wouldn’t want the experience to end! When they neared the peasant village, Oriane slowed to a trot, and although Cally had been there quite a few times, she looked forward to observing it with fresh eyes. She remarked, “I can’t believe we’re already here!”

“It’s kind of a long walk,” Derrick commented. “I know you’re used to it, but I figured we needed as much time as we can get here.”

“True! I need to go back before supper.” Cally cringed at the thought of returning to Dregs Hollow to carry out her dull daily routine. “Unless we can break the curse before sun down!”

Derrick told her, “I’ll do my best!” as the strode into Bohemma.

A lot of people in the kingdom looked down on the peasant village, but Cally always found it quaintly charming. The sandy-colored stone walls looked so sturdy, and even the slightly dilapidated wooden beams still looked like they were in better shape than the ones in Dregs Hollow! The people who traveled this road greeted each other pleasantly as they passed by one another, something which she almost never saw in her own town! Children played together on the streets, and neighbors gathered together to converse, which made her wonder why the people of Dregs Hollow couldn’t get along like that! Cally could tell that even though the people there didn’t have a lot of money, they were really happy with the life they had in Bohemma. She pondered whether or not the inhabitants here knew just how lucky they had it!

As Derrick and Cally rode through the streets, people stopped what they were doing to watch them as they went by. At first, she worried that they somehow knew of her freakish alter ego, but then she observed that they didn’t look disgusted at her. She got so used to being the subject of gossip in Dregs Hollow and Camellia’s Circus that it took her a minute to realize that they weren’t judging them at all. Quite the contrary, actually! People gazed at them admirably, and a lot of them even smiled and waved. Cally mentioned to Derrick, “Wow, you have a lot of friends here!”

“No, I haven’t met most of the people here,” Derrick genially countered her statement. “They see we’re on a horse with a royal seal, so they know we’re someone important.”

“We?” Cally reacted incredulously. “No, they’re paying respect to you. I’m no one special!”

“First of all, that’s not true,” Derrick differed. “You’re an extraordinary lady, and don’t let anyone convince you otherwise! Second, they’re definitely talking about both of us. Listen closely!”

Cally didn’t believe him, but she did as he had suggested. She had expected to hear them talk about him since he was a prince, but she heard one woman ask her friend, “Is that a princess?”

“Oh, look!” a little boy gasped. “A princess!”

She heard more and more people call her a princess, and it made her want to cry! Derrick smirked and said, “I think they’re more excited to see you than they are to see me!” Cally actually did shed a happy tear after that!

They came across a man in a uniform with a badge, so Derrick steered the horse towards his direction and addressed him, “Excuse me, Constable!” The constable heeded his attention towards Derrick. “Where can we find your hall of records?”

“Go straight down this road and turn right at the fork. You’ll see our courthouse on the left,” the constable informed him.

“Thank you, sir!” Derrick nodded his head respectfully, and the constable did the same in return before they continued on their way.

When they turned down the street that the constable had indicated, they saw that they had a somewhat large government building amongst a row of shops and restaurants. They stopped in the front of the courthouse, and as Derrick tied Oriane to a hitching post, he asked her, “This is it, this is where we’ll get some answers! Are you excited?”

“I can’t wait to find out what he’s been hiding!” she exclaimed.

They entered the building eagerly, and they saw two stories where a large common area led to several different hallways. A couple of rooms stemmed off the main room as well as a window that had the label “Records” above it. They walked over to the clerk behind this window, and the clerk gave them a friendly greeting, “How can I help you?”

Derrick requested, “We’d like to look through the missing person files from thirty years ago.”

The clerk’s eyes grew wide, and the color disappeared from her face. “I’m sorry, this office is now closed!” She rolled a metal cover down to shut them out.

Derrick and Cally looked at each other peculiarly, and then Cally asked, “So, now what?”

The Curse of Dregs Hollow, Chapter 6

Great!” Derrick grinned broadly. “When would you be available to go?”

Cally replied, “Unfortunately, I’m not sure yet. Ringmaster Claude doesn’t let us know our schedule until after we collect our wages at the end of the night. I don’t get a lot of days off either. Hmm, this could be a problem! How will I let you know that I’m free?”

“Easy,” Derrick told her. “I’ll wait outside of the gates each night to see when you’re able to go.”

“That makes sense!” Cally responded, and then she remembered, “Oh, I’ll have to find an excuse to run an errand in Bohemma. Reisseck doesn’t let me leave whenever I want. Most of the time, if I have a day off, I end up doing chores all day. What if he doesn’t let me leave?”

Derrick suggested, “Couldn’t you lie and say you have work that day?”

“I tried that once.” Cally explained, “When I came home that night, he asked me for my wages, and when I had none, he was furious! I can’t do that again!”

“What does he do to you when he’s angry?” Derrick’s eyes were full of concern just as they had been that day by the lake.

Cally construed, “He doesn’t beat me, he usually just takes away something that gives me comfort like fresh food or one of the books.”

Derrick perked up at that last part. “Oh, you like to read?”

Cally’s eyes lit up. “I love it! They take me to another world where good always triumphs over evil and dreams actually come true! Whenever things get rough, they give me hope for a better future! Reading what happens to a character almost gives me a sense of purpose, like I have to find out what happens to them next! I couldn’t have made it this far in life if I didn’t have books!”

“Me too!” Derrick gushed, “when I fall on hard times, they renew my spirits and give me the strength to get through it.” Cally gave him an inquisitive look, so he inquired, “What?”

“Oh, it’s a bit silly,” she answered him, “But I always thought royals had it so easy since they’re at the top of the social chain. It never occurred to me that you guys had any stress at all! I mean, the way I read about kings and queens, if you become royalty you win in life. Now it seems a little illogical to believe that. You’re human, so of course you have problems too!”

“Don’t beat yourself up for thinking that,” Derrick assured her. “Most people do. And I suppose it depends on which you’re leader you’re talking to. Some monarchs just lounge around the palace and make people wait on them hand and foot, but for the rest of us, running a kingdom is difficult work! And being wealthy and well known doesn’t guarantee a healthy social life. I myself find it a bit lonely.”

Cally found this claim surprising. “But, you’re so nice and you’re around people all day, so how can you…?” When the words left her mouth, she realized something and amended her original thought, “Actually, you sound like me!”

Derrick agreed, “Exactly! It almost hurts worse this way. In my case, many people want to befriend me for my position, but not a lot of people care about me as a person. It’s very common for people in high positions. It can get depressing not having the opportunity to do things that normal people get to do like that. As a matter of fact, there’s a prince in the book I’m reading going through this. He actually trades places with a commoner just to see what it’s like to live a normal life.”

“I know how that feels!” Cally commented. Then she added, “Your book sounds fascinating!”

Derrick pulled the book out of his pocket and handed it to her. “Here, you can borrow it. When you get to the part I’m at, we can find out what happens in the end together.”

“Okay!” Cally chirped. As she took a hold of the book, she gazed at it like she was holding a piece of treasure. Dregs Hollow didn’t have a library, so she could only read the antique books that Reisseck could add to his collection. She had read them all several times too. Now she had a chance to read a new book, and it thrilled her! “Thank you!”

“You’re very welcome!” he said very cordially. He cleared his throat to prompt himself back to the original topic. “When you get a day off, tell Reisseck you’re working all day, and I’ll give you your full day’s worth of wages.”

“Deal!” Cally affirmed.

Suddenly, they heard footsteps on the carousel, and a moment later, they heard Claude’s voice ask, “Cally? How’s it going in there?”

“I’m almost done!” She swung back up to the structure and began tinkering with it as loud as she could so that Claude could hear it.

Claude reacted, “Good! When you’re finished, I have someone coming for an afternoon shift who can run the ride. The person doing the Flying Horses is leaving soon. After your break, can you go there?”

Cally cringed at that request, but she did her best to convey cheerfulness when she spoke, “No problem!” After he walked out of earshot, Cally asked Derrick, “So, what are you going to do for the rest of the day?”

Derrick pretended to think about it. “Hmm… How will I amuse myself in an amusement park?”

“Okay, wise guy!” Cally laughed, and he, too, chuckled. “I’m going to do a test run of the carousel, and afterwards, we can-.”

“Can I take a ride?” Derrick requested enthusiastically. He dialed his sentiments down a bit and added, “I’d like to see the results of your handiwork.”

“If you’re excited for the ride, you don’t got to make up excuses!” Cally remarked. Derrick sheepishly and non-verbally admitted that he wanted to go on the carousel ride, which made them both titter. “I will need a ticket though.” Derrick looked mildly surprised, so she clarified, “I’ll get in trouble if I give you a free ride.”

“Far enough!” He pulled out a small sack of coins and sifted through them. He handed Cally a gold coin and informed her, “This is the smallest denomination I have.”

“That’s enough for twenty rides.” Cally smiled as she told him, “I think Ringmaster Claude will get mad if I test the ride that many times!”

“Say no more!” Derrick stepped out of the little door, hopped onto the carousel, and surveyed the scene. He saw a small group of kids and yell to them, “Hey, who wants a free ride on the carousel?” The children looked ecstatic at the chance and ran over. He counted them as they entered and noted, “We need a few more.” He saw a few kids who were obviously from Dregs Hollow and invited them, “Would you guys like to ride?” They seemed astonished that he would even ask them. “Yeah, you guys! Come join us!” They entered the ride with a joyful disbelief, and Cally surveyed the scene beaming at Derrick admirably.

At the end of the day, Cally found Derrick outside and sadly revealed, “Sorry, I have to work all day tomorrow.”

“That’s okay!” Derrick pat her shoulder reassuringly. “I’ll check back with you tomorrow. Can I walk you home?”

Cally unwillingly had to decline. “I wish you could, but the sentries that guard the village would see you. I think it’s best for Reisseck to think all is normal so he doesn’t know much we suspect about him.”

“Good idea!” he complimented her. “Can I bring you part of the way home?”

“It’s not far from here,” she regretfully told him.

Derrick looked a little disappointed, but he didn’t manifest it in his voice. “Well then, until tomorrow, my lady!” He half bowed to her.

“Bye Derrick!” Cally found it hard to peel herself away, and Derrick hesitated as well. Eventually, they both forced themselves to and wen their separate ways.

As Cally walked through Dregs Hollow, she noticed that people were staring at her peculiarly as though they didn’t understand her, but, for the first time, she found that she didn’t care about their opinions. Her mind had so much more to think about than their vapid ideas, so she didn’t pay close attention to them. Her thoughts stayed on all of the events that took place until the green skinned woman who was at her house recently blocked her path. “You’re glowing!”

“I am?” Cally checked the skin on her hands to verify this. “Oh, I thought someone put a spell on me!”

The green skinned woman eyed her suspiciously. “Why are you in such a good mood? You’re up to something, aren’t you?”

Cally realized that she had never walked through Dregs Hollow without looking completely miserable, and she made a mental note to keep this in mind in order to maintain her cover. She lied to that woman, “Oh, calm down, Cloris! I got a new book from a customer, so I’m a little excited, that’s all.” Cloris seemed somewhat mollified by this, so Cally continued on her way.

When she got home, she did her best to portray depression for Reisseck. She brushed past Reisseck, who sat in his armchair, kept her head down, and went straight to the dining area to prepare his supper. He put down the newspaper he had been reading and gruffly asked, “How was your day?”

She tersely answered, “It was fine.”

He then cautiously followed with, “Did you have anymore questions about yesterday…?”

“No,” Cally fibbed, “Your explanation made sense.” Reisseck bought it and continued reading his newspaper.

Three more times, Derrick waited for her after work, and twice she had to tell him that she had to work all day. Each time she met with him though, they chit-chatted for quite a bit before they departed. Cally loved having something to look forward to at the end of the day, and for the first time in her life, someone wanted to hear from her and cared about what she had to say, so she savored it. She really began to enjoy Derrick’s company, and she started to grow more and more anxious to spend more time with him for their all day excursion to Bohemma. Finally, Claude shocked her when he told her to take a day off, and she practically skipped to Derrick to tell him, “I don’t work tomorrow!”

“Excellent!” Derrick reacted merrily. “Then I’ll meet you on the path by that lake in the morning!”

“Great!” Cally grinned. They were both excited, but they also felt the weight of the importance of what this journey really meant for themselves and what they could potentially discover about Lacoria’s past…

The Curse of Dregs Hollow, Chapter 5

Cally made sure to keep her hood completely over her face and kept her head as far down as she could. When she got to the gates of Dregs Hollow, she didn’t even make eye contact with the sentries guarding it. She usually got ridiculed or teased by them, and she didn’t know if it was due to her posture or an aura she gave off, but they didn’t give her a hard time that day. Perhaps they thought it wouldn’t amuse them as much to hurt someone who was already pretty far down, she had no idea because she didn’t see their faces at all as she entered into the village. She didn’t meet anyone’s eye; she went straight home because she needed answers right away!

When she got to her home, she could hear that Reisseck had company, so she kept her head down as she went inside. The room went silent when she came in, and a woman in all black and green skin sneered, “Oh, look who finally decided to come back! Did you forget that you needed to make your master’s dinner?” The other people in the room snickered.

Cally found Reisseck by his worn, brown boots and his musky stench. She stood next to him and stated, “Reisseck, I need to talk to you.”

She couldn’t see his expression, but she could tell from his tone that her remark had incensed him. He tried to maintain a cheery tone for his guests as he responded to her, “Cally, I’m a little busy, so it will have to-”

“Now!” She gazed at him so that only could see her face.

Reisseck’s eyes went wide as he stared at her smooth, unobstructed visage. He told the rest of the room, “Will you please excuse us?” They seemed confused, so he added, “I’ll explain later.” They still found the situation odd, but they complied with his wishes. He got up and from behind his door, he watched them leave the area. When they were alone, he slowly shut the door and nervously turned to Cally. “You didn’t drink your potion?”

After she jerked her hood off, she vociferated, “I tripped and spilled the entire bottle! Then I’m lying there thinking I’m going to die…” she decided to leave out the part about Prince Derrick. She didn’t know why, but she felt as though Reisseck would get made if he knew she had talked to him. If Derrick’s theory proved true, Reisseck could target him, and she didn’t want any harm to come to Derrick. Plus, she didn’t want Reisseck to blame Derrick for her suspicions. The more she thought about the situation, the more she realized that Reisseck had been hiding the truth from her, and she now felt infuriated at his lies. She didn’t want Reisseck to think others were investigating him and become defensive either, she wanted his unfiltered explanation. She thought that maybe he had a good excuse for it all, but she didn’t see how that was possible. “…Then I see my reflection in the lake and I found out what’s really been going on for thirty three years! Why would you do this to me?”

Reisseck assured her, “I didn’t do this to hurt you! When I found you, I couldn’t leave you in the forest to die, but a human child could never survive in Dregs Hollow, so I had to change your appearance for your own protection!”

His reasoning made sense, but she wasn’t totally sold yet. She flashed her palm at him and questioned, “What about this? You told me you put that binding spell on me because the king allowed knights to take the disfigured to Barlock’s dungeons for torture, life imprisonment, or even murder. But if they had captured me, they wouldn’t have given me that potion, so they would have seen my true appearance eventually! So, why did you really bind me to you?”

“So you wouldn’t run away,” he explained. “I can’t afford to buy another servant, this was the only way.”

“But, if I already depended on you for a life saving potion that no one else knows how to make, then you didn’t need to bind me to you,” Cally argued. “I would have felt bound to you no matter what! Okay, yes, I did try to run away as a kid, but I knew that if I couldn’t find a cure by the time I finished the vial, I would have had to come back. You could have hired an adult servant in the first place and traded their services for room and board, lots of people do that. An adult servant would have already known how to do all of your chores, but you decided to take a baby and slowly teach it to do your bidding? Why? And why me?”

“Fine, you want the truth?” he spat. “Your grandfather went through the land claiming that he had a daughter who could spin straw into gold. One day, a lord decided to punish him for his lies by taking his daughter to his dungeon. He told him if she couldn’t make it happen in three days, he would have her executed. I heard about this and couldn’t let an innocent woman get punished for his mistakes! I snuck into the dungeons and told her that I could help her, but the only way the magic would work is if she promised me her first born child. She agreed, and the spell work, I saved her life. When the lord came with the judge and executioner, he felt so astonished that she had actually made it happen that instead of having her killed, he married her right then and there. Not long after that, you were born, and they had no problems whatsoever with giving you up. I had no choice but to bind you to me. If I undo it, she’d die! It wouldn’t be right to let her get killed in exchange for your freedom, even if she isn’t the most morally upright person in the world!”

Cally still looked skeptical. She knew that he could perform incredible magic, but this seemed a little far fetched even for his prodigious skills. “My parents are noblemen, huh? Over what area?”

“I’d rather not tell you,” Reisseck replied. “I don’t want you to go looking for them! They don’t want you, and they would only hurt you.” Cally didn’t say anything, so he brusquely changed the subject, “Now, to keep you and your mother alive, I need to make more transfiguring potion. You’ll be at work when you have to take it in the morning, so make sure to take your break around that time.”

“Normal people work at Camellia’s Circus,” Cally brought up. “Why can’t I-?”

“People of our village work there!” Reisseck reminded her. Cally couldn’t think of any other argument at the moment, so she sat in the dining area in silence as he brewed it. She dreaded altering her appearance and sorely wished that she could find an excuse not to do it. She started thinking about his explanation for this, which prompted her to mull over all of his other stories. The more she thought about it, the less he made sense. She didn’t know where to go from here though, and until she figured it out, she supposed she would have to continue her routine as normal.

The next day, Cally looked at the task list and saw that she got assigned to the carousel, which surprised her since it was an easy ride to operate. “Alright, what’s the catch?” Claude handed her a toolbox, and she inwardly groaned.

Cally pushed past the various animals on movable poles and found a small door on the cylindrical structure that made up the middle of the machine. She went inside its core and found several places that needed to get worked on. She grabbed a couple of tools and climbed to the top of the structure. As she worked, she heard a familiar voice say, “Nice tentacles!”

She looked down and saw Derrick standing by the little door! She inquired, “How did you find me?”

Derrick explained, “Well, I knew that some disfigured people worked at Camellia’s Circus, so I started going over my entire day to see if I could recall seeing you. I remembered wanting to ride the Ferris wheel, but every time I passed by it, it was always closed for repairs. Then I realized I had seen someone in a red cloak fixing it.” Cally didn’t say anything, but he could tell she was mildly impressed. “So, did you ask Reisseck about the curse?”

As Cally climbed to another section of the carousel’s inside structure, she admitted, “You were probably telling the truth. His story didn’t seem very believable.” As she tightened up some gears, she told him, “He said my grandfather bragged that he had a daughter who could spin straw into gold, and some lord decided to punish him by throwing her in a dungeon and giving her three days to make it happen or he’d have her killed. So, Reisseck snuck into the dungeon and apparently could do it but only if she promised him her first born child. So, she agreed to it, and Reisseck made it happen before the lord came back. When he saw she had done it, he married her. Soon after that, they had me and quite gladly gave me up.”

Derrick shared her skepticism, “I see… Why would anyone marry the person ready to kill them over such a trivial matter?”

“Yes! But that’s not even the strangest part!” Cally remarked as she moved to another part of the machine that needed fixing. “He wouldn’t tell me their names or what land they presided over! He claimed he didn’t want me to go looking for them because they want nothing to do with me and meeting them would only hurt me. He never explained why they were so keen on giving up their child or why he chose my mother’s life over mine! Reisseck never does anything so selfless, so who is this woman that moved him to produce that kind of compassion? I don’t think it would be hard to narrow it down since Lacoria only has a handful of nobles. Doesn’t he realize that by not telling me who they are that it wouldn’t take long to go to all of the lords and ladies in the kingdom and figure out which one gave up a baby because of some spell?”

Derrick pointed out, “But you can’t go looking for them because you can only go a certain distance away from where he is because of the binding spell. Does he do a lot of traveling?”

“No, he doesn’t!” Cally replied. “He hardly ever leaves Dregs Hollow. The furthest I can go to is Bohemma.” Cally hung suspended in mid swing as something dawned on her. “Maybe my parents live in Bohemma!”

“Either that or they have a strong connection to the area,” Derrick agreed. He saw her facial blemishes start to disappear, and Cally noticed this focus, so she sat on a beam and pulled out the transfiguring potion. “He’s not here, you don’t have to take that.”

“People from Dregs Hollow work here,” she begrudgingly expressed. “They wouldn’t be kind to a human being living there.”

“But normal people work here too,” Derrick reasoned. “How would they even know it was you?”

Cally thought that he had a point and put the bottle back in her pocket. “He must be worried that my real parents would recognize me and I’ll know where I really come from.”

“I’d like to take you to Bohemma,” Derrick proposed. “We’ll see if anyone recognizes you, but even if they don’t, we can search through their records to see if anything strange happened around your birthday. Maybe we can re-interview some of the potential witnesses and see if we can get some new clues. If he’s proven to be telling the truth, I won’t bother you anymore. But if we find out he’s lying, we can figure out the facts and find a way to get you out of there. What do you say? Are you in?”

Cally contemplated it for a moment, and she knew couldn’t let this issue go. She’d always end up thinking about it, and she wouldn’t be satisfied until she knew the truth. She swung off the beam and landed in front of Derrick. “I’m in!”

The Curse of Dregs Hollow, Chapter 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No!” the man insisted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Curse of Dregs Hollow, Chapter 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Curse of Dregs Hollow, Chapter 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Christmas Void, Chapter 15- The Surprise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Both of us?” Isaac questioned.

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

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

Isaac kidded, “Still want to void Christmas?”

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

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

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

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

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

Epilogue

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

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

The End

A Christmas Void, Chapter 14- The Big Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Christmas Void, Chapter 13- The Christmas Void

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Will you be our photographer?” Gryla burst.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Anything!” he replied jovially.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!