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…

A Christmas Void, Chapter 13- The Christmas Void

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Will you be our photographer?” Gryla burst.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Anything!” he replied jovially.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Christmas Void, Chapter 12- The Bay Area Bugle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But you know who she is!”

“That’s right!”

“Nothing gets past you!”

“No, it won’t!”

“She can’t get away with this!”

“She won’t!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Answer it! I can wait,” Ruth stated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Christmas Void, Chapter 11- The Naughty List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Work with them?” I guessed.

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

“Teaching kids,” I supplied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Christmas Void, Chapter 10- Difficult Questions

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

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

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

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

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

That definitely stung me. “I did!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? Why?” His confusion looked authentic.

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

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

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

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

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

“Me too!” Isaac said without thinking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Christmas Void, Chapter 9- Gryla

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You shot this?” he reacted incredulously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I’m closing.”

“Me too!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How did you know?” she inquired.

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

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

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

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

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

A Christmas Void, Chapter 8- The Handyman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Love you too!” he chimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Christmas Void, Chapter 6- The Plot Thickens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Christmas Void, Chapter 3- Millstone’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dreams in Makawee, Chapter 13

Oh hi, Janet!” Stacy chirped. Outwardly, she did everything she could to convey friendliness, but inwardly, she was writhing. Despite Nick’s claim of her nice personality, she couldn’t help but dislike her. She felt as though she controlled him and kept him from pursuing his dream of music, something he had a deep passion for. Plus, she obviously had romantic feelings for Nick and envied the fact that Janet had him. Suddenly, it occurred to her what section they were in, and she worried about why Janet would need to shop for baby…”What are you doing here?”

Janet explained, “Oh, we’re having a baby shower at work, so I’m using my lunch break to shop for it.”

“Oh, won’t you be hungry?” Stacy hardly noticed what she had said to Janet; in her head, she had taken a huge sigh of relief.

Janet shrugged. “I’ll just eat my desk. Oh, just so you know, I think you did a great job on those dresses! Usually, the racks are a total mess and you can’t find anything. I don’t know why she’s complaining.”

“Maybe because she would have to start putting things back in the right spot instead of wherever she feels like,” Stacy half-joked.

Janet laughed, “Probably! People hate it when the new guy comes in and makes them look bad.” She paused and told her seriously, “Don’t let people like that push you around too much. If you’re following the rules and still get yelled at, there’s something wrong with them, not you. Don’t let them take advantage of you.”

“That’s, uh… thanks! That’s good advice.” Stacy secretly hated to admit that. She didn’t want to see evidence of Janet being a good person, but she had been very thoughtful and kind to her. She actually seemed like the kind of person she could become friends with, but she didn’t want to do that, not while she was Nick.

Janet picked up a blue onesie from the pile Stacy had worked on. “This’ll work. Would a rattle be in the toy section or the baby stuff?”

“No idea!” Stacy replied. “Apparently, they don’t tell you anything around here.”

“Not until you’ve already messed up! Well, I’m sure I’ll find it before my lunch break is over. Good luck!” Janet waved as she headed towards the infant section.

“Thanks!” Stacy watched her disappear among the racks. Janet did seem very empathetic, and she seemed to have a flair for making people feel good about themselves, so she felt puzzled as to why she would hold Nick back from his musical ambitions…

Her thought train got interrupted by a tall and very slender young man with an Emporia badge. “Hey! I’m Claude. I’m supposed to train you.” He saw her progress on refolding the onesie table and got confused. “Are you new?”

“Oh, I worked here back in sixty-nine,” Stacy clarified.

Claude remarked, “Oh, wow! I was two years old in sixty-nine!”

“Wonderful!” Stacy suddenly felt old, and it just really cemented how much time had passed between now and then. And yet, she still ended up in the same spot!

“Well, I’m gonna start folding at the other end,” he informed her. “Just find me when you’re ready to go on your fifteen.”

“Fifteen?” Stacy questioned. “I thought we got thirty minutes for lunch.”

“Nope,” Claude listlessly replied. “You have to work six and a half hours to get a lunch break.” He shuffled over to the other end of the children’s section, and Stacy groaned at the long day she faced.

Barbara and Frank watched television on the couch when Stacy burst into the house. She immediately removed her dress flats and moaned from relief. “I don’t know how I did it in high school! I wore the same kind of shoe back then, and I don’t remember it hurting so much back then!”

“Maybe next time you can wear sneakers,” Barbara suggested.

As Stacy went into the kitchen, she grumped, “We’re not allowed to wear sneakers! We have to dress business casual to maintain the store image. Like, who cares if we’re on our feet walking around the store all day!” She held her bowl of stew and circled around the kitchen before she remembered that her parents didn’t have it. “My first check, I’m buying you a microwave!”

Frank replied, “Don’t waste your money! A microwave only saves you a few minutes!”

“A significant amount of minutes!” Stacy differed as she sat down at the table to eat. “Like reheating this would take a couple of minutes versus like ten on the stove! Did you know, in a microwave, it only takes a few minutes to make a baked potato?”

“Five minutes?” Barbara reacted incredulously. “Oh, Frank, five minutes! It takes me an hour and a half sometimes!”

“That sounds so unnatural! It probably tastes way better cooked naturally in the oven!”

“Ovens are man-made,” Barbara playfully teased him. “How old fashioned do you wanna get? Do you wanna go back to cooking everything over a wood fire?”

“I would be totally comfortable with that!” Frank opinionated. “If it were up to me, we’d retire in a cabin on a distant mountain top! So quiet and peaceful!” Barbara shook her head as if he proposed a ridiculous idea. Frank chuckled and then changed the subject, “So, Stacy, once you’re done eating…” He glanced over and saw her slurping the last bit of what remained in her bowl. “Wow, that was fast!”

Stacy finished her meal and explained, “We only get fifteen minute breaks if we’re scheduled less than six and a half hours. I didn’t get to finish the lunch I brought!”

“Oh, hmm…” Frank didn’t seem to know how to react to that. “Well, I got off work early today and I wanna show you what I did.” He and Barbara led her to her old bedroom, and she saw that some of the gym equipment got pushed to one side of the room. She felt pleasantly surprised to see her old childhood bed stood in there once again! “We kept the parts in the attic, so I thought since you’ll probably be with use for a while, you should have a room to sleep in. On the weekend, I’ll move the rest of the equipment out.”

Stacy had gotten so used to sleeping on the couch that she hadn’t thought about sleeping in an actual bedroom in a long while. She felt touched by her father’s thoughtfulness, but it also made her feel a little dispirited by it. Couch surfing made her feel like she would only stay at her parents’ house temporarily, but, to her dismay, she now felt like a permanent resident. She despised working for Emporia for a pittance, and seeing this sign of it being long term thoroughly depressed her. Living with her parents, working at her old job, and sleeping in her old bed made her feel like a child. She knew that leaving Hadeon would mean she would be starting over, but she had no idea she would have to go back that far! She wondered if it would take another fifteen years to get another shot of independence!

Barbara almost seemed as though she could read Stacy’s mind because she tried to cheer her up by saying, “Don’t put too many decorations up! Soon, you’ll get a fancy new job, and when you leave, we’re turning it into a guest bedroom.”

Frank kidded, “At least this time you don’t have to hide your rock and roll records! We’ll even let you bring booze in here now!”

Stacy laughed, “Thanks! And thanks for the room it’s very nice.” Frank and Barbara gave her a smile and left the room. Stacy sat on her bed and just contemplated it all.

The next day, when Nick came out of work, he walked out and saw Stacy holding up a poster board. “You trying to start a protest against this place? I won’t stop you!”

“You wish!” Stacy retorted. Nick agreed, and they both giggled. Stacy turned the sign around, and it read, “Pay Attention by Nick Rolland, a tribute to a fallen war hero.” Stacy told him, “Just a visual way to get you noticed.”

“Is that glitter?” Nick asked, and Stacy nodded. As they walked to his truck, he remarked, “I didn’t think you’d have the time since you had to work yesterday.” They got into his truck and buckled up. “Janet told me she ran into you.”

Nick began driving, and Stacy had been so focused on all of the other drama from work that she forgot about that encounter. Now that he had brought it up, she grew curious about what Janet may have said about her. “Yeah, she was real nice to me, I was surprised!”

“Why?” Nick inquired. “Do you think I would date someone who wasn’t nice?”

Stacy’s heart lurched when she got reminded of the fact that Nick had a girlfriend that wasn’t her, but she didn’t let it show. She had to think of a valid reason of why she found Janet’s friendliness surprising. “Customers weren’t very nice to me there. They kept asking where stuff was, and they got irritated when I said I didn’t know. Then, at one point, I guess the lines where long, so they expected me to come open up another register to save them time, but I’m not trained on the registers, so I couldn’t. They did not like to hear that! ‘Course, they weren’t nearly as mean as the people I work with, whew!”

Nick chuckled, but then he told her seriously, “Thanks for not ratting me out! I know you said I should tell her about my music, but I appreciate you not telling on me when you saw her!”

The thought of telling Janet about Nick’s secret practice never even occurred to Stacy until he mentioned it just now. She assured him, “I would never do that you!”

“Thank you! It means a lot!” Nick stopped the truck as they arrived downtown. He stared at her appreciatively, and when Stacy met his gaze, the world stood still for a moment. Stacy couldn’t help but admire just how beautiful his deep, blue eyes looked! She had a strong desire to kiss him, but she broke eye contact in order to make sure that didn’t happen. She actually had no idea if Nick had that intention, but she decided to act responsibly just in case she hadn’t imagined it. She thought it was wishful thinking on her part, but she actually thought he sounded a little disappointed when he spoke, “Charlie’s memorial is a little small…”

“Maybe we can change that!” Stacy exclaimed as they got out of the truck and headed to the spot where he’d sing.