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 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 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!

A Christmas Void, Chapter 2- Vine Knocks

Hi! My name is Tiffany, and this is my Christmas story. It actually started mid-October, but, to my dismay, that’s when people in Dasher Lake started putting up their Christmas decorations. I’m not sure when that started since I hadn’t lived there for five years. I really wasn’t ready to start thinking about the holidays! It just increased the pressure I already had on myself to change my financial status change from flat broke to at least mediocre. It was also the time of year where family fun time became mandatory, and don’t get me wrong, I love my family, but after the excitement of reuniting wears down, relatives grade you on how you’re doing in your life. With both of my little sisters now married , they’re extra judgmental about why I didn’t have a husband and two point five kids running around a white-picket fenced yard. Most people in this town my age had that, and this time of year really rubbed it in lonely people’s faces! So, combining all of those things made me dread it! I think most people in similar situations would believe that this time of year would bring them their Christmas miracle, but I got too jaded to think that would come my way!

We were getting closer to my new home, and for whatever reason, I felt compelled to check my appearance. It seemed kind of silly to want to impress a building, an inanimate object, but this would be the first time I’ve been back in this town for a long time, and it felt like a debut of the new me. If the spirit of the town decided to watch, I wanted to make a positive first impression. That’s not actually a thing, really, my nerves created that! I pulled a mirror out of my purse and felt a little surprised at my reflection. I knew the flight made me jet-lagged, but I didn’t expect to look like I went through such an ordeal! I didn’t want to show my depression, especially with all of the people who made the same stupid joke, “I thought blondes had more fun!” Just thinking about it made me cringe! I usually got compliments on my eyes because of its unusual golden brown hue, but I doubted anyone would compliment me that day because of all of the red blotches. I’m normally pale, but my skin was especially pale that day, of course! I pulled my shirt down because it started to roll up, which told me I probably gained some weight from the stress. I still didn’t consider myself obese or anything; I still had an hourglass figure, just with more sand than some other people! I liked my curves, but not at that moment. I didn’t have the time or the money to buy new clothes, so I made due with what I had. I slapped on some lipstick and called it a day.

My father turned into a curved driveway behind a stone sign that read “Vine Knock’s.” It just occurred to me at that moment that the ground had a light dusting of snow, and I wondered if people decided that the first snow meant that they could start celebrating the holiday season. The sign for these condos seemed fancy, but I had a hunch that they spent more money on the signs the actual building! It just looked so square- well, more of a rectangle, but still! From far away, it looked like a giant brick, but on closer inspection, it was actually made of a somewhat dilapidated wood. Even the snow couldn’t hide that they probably hadn’t renovated the place since the early nineties! I noticed numbers on the door, and the bottom floor had one through five, which meant my condo, number ten, was upstairs. The staircase didn’t seem very steady, and I felt hesitant to even set foot on them! My parents went up before me and didn’t fall through, so I followed them upstairs.

I threw my duffle bag over my shoulder as Mom and Dad took my checked bags up. As they rolled my bags to the end of the row, my mom asked me a question. It took me a moment to realize that she was talking to me, and it made me wonder if they had been talking to me this whole time. I wondered if I had unintentionally ignored them or if my autopilot kicked in and answered for me. I think it was the latter because I caught myself saying, “Yup, Merry Halloween!” To this day, I have no idea what question I had answered with that, and I’m still too embarrassed to ask! Number nine had a Christmas wreath, and even though that poor object didn’t deserve it, I vented my frustration out on it, “Really? It’s not even Halloween yet! Are we forgetting about that holiday? Does all of Dasher Lake want to celebrate Christmas for two months? Doesn’t everyone get sick of it by the time the holidays come? How about we change our name to Santa’s Village and we can just celebrate all…?”

The door opened, and the smallest old lady I’ve ever seen stood there in a dignified astonishment. Her large framed glasses covered half her face, but she could still clearly glare at me. Hoping to brush it off and forget this awkward moment, I waved cheerily. “Hi! I’m Tiffany, your new neighbor!”

I didn’t bother to extend my hand for a handshake. She surveyed me as if she was trying to detect any impropriety in my character. Eventually, she croaked, “So, you’re Sabine’s niece, huh? She spoke very highly of you.”

“Thank you?” On the surface, it seemed like a compliment, but her tone suggested otherwise. It also kind of surprised me to hear that Aunt Sabine talked to anyone outside of her apartment! She still gave me a hard look, so I tried to clean up my reply, “I mean, thank you very much, Miss…”

“Allsburg.” She very dignantly held out her hand for a limp fish handshake. As a former business woman, I got so used to strong, firm handshakes that I didn’t know how to handle this one. I let her take the lead as she quickly bobbed my hand a little. Afterwards, she commented, “Yes, Sabine always said she saw so much of herself in you.” I took a little pride in that, but then Miss Allsburg continued, “I shudder to think that might be true!”

My face fell at that. She didn’t like Aunt Sabine? What could have caused such dislike from a woman who almost never left her house? She just kept staring at me with those piercing eyes, and I thought desperately on how to end this uncomfortable interaction. Luckily, my dad called my name! “Gotta go! Talk to you later!” I felt relieved to get away, but I really wish I hadn’t said that last bit because I really didn’t want to talk to her later!

I went over to the railing across from my front door, and I glanced over to where my dad had pointed. “The movers are here! Man, we had great timing!”

“Yeah, definitely…” I sort of trailed off. Seeing the moving truck roll in made everything feel so real! I had a hard time believing that I had left a job I was at for three and a half years and that I ran out of money and came here! A place I tried to escape since graduation! I felt so grateful for my family’s help at such a desperate time, but I could hardly fathom that it had come to this point. I took a deep breath and turned around to face my new reality. A huge part of me wanted to avoid it, like I should have just turned around and ran away as far as possible. Obviously, I couldn’t do that, but seeing my new place would make my fate seem so final! I steeled myself up, grabbed the key from my purse that my parents had given me after they picked me up from the Sacramento airport, and turned the key to get it over with.

I really hoped that this would be one of those places that looked shabby on the outside but really posh on the inside, and I don’t know why I got such a shock that it didn’t! The floor and the walls were made of the same coarse wood on the outside. The living room looked so boxy and empty except for this hideous rug that Aunt Sabine had obviously gotten before I was even born. I could see the kitchen from the front door, and I wondered if these decade old appliances still functioned. I saw an antique cabinet that rested between the living room and my bedroom, and with nothing better to do, I opened it. I saw a few half drunk liquor bottles, and it actually made me sad to see that this was the only thing that had gotten updated!

Before I could really process everything, the movers started to bring in my furniture. My mother gazed at it quizzically, and I explained, “I just got things people were giving away for free. I couldn’t take the nice stuff because my roommate is still living there.”

Mom offered, “Oh, well, if you needed furniture, we could have bought…”

“No!” I interrupted her. “You guys paid for the move, it’s the least I can do!”

My parents exchanged a look but said nothing more. I know it may sound silly to have chosen worn-out furniture over brand new stuff, but this was my way of showing myself that I had the ability to take care of myself. However, as they set it down, I sort of had second thoughts about that decision. Never in a million years would I have picked this bright yellow settee on my own! I told my parents, “This will just give me incentive to find work right away. I’ll replace them when I start earning a check.”

My mom said encouragingly, “That’s right, it’s all just temporary!” I tried to smile convincingly back. Keyword- tried. My mom’s advice for hard times had always been to remind me that it was just temporary, a habit she developed from comforting her patients. People were always afraid that horrible experiences were permanent, and I was no different. I really didn’t want to feel so pessimistic, but it felt hard been tough for so long that it was hard for me to imagine it any other way.

The overs finished so quickly that it was almost embarrassing! I really didn’t come with much stuff! My dad gave the movers a tip, and as the movers left, he turned to me and remarked, “Well, if you need anything, give us a call!”

“I will!” I gave him a hug.

As I hugged my mom, she promised, “I’ll always cook an extra plate of food for dinner. Come over any time!”

“Thank you!” I could tell they were really happy I was back, but they could tell I was a little depressed. I watched them leave, and I felt a little guilty for now showing a little more gratitude. Also, watching them leave gave me a twinge of loneliness. I wanted my own place, but I didn’t expect it to make me feel so alone!

I decided to unpack the luggage in my new bedroom first. Most of my clothes were in there, and I really wanted to find my comfy clothes and just relax. As I sat on my new but old full sized bed and began to dig through my bags, I heard a loud meow! It startled me since I thought I was alone! After a mini heart attack, I registered that a cat probably wasn’t a threat! I turned around to see a skinny white cat with black spots that reminded me of a Jersey cow. It stared at me with its big, green eyes in an expectant way, so I opened the window and, figuring it was a neighbor’s cat, I gently directed it, “Go home, Kitty!” The cat didn’t move. I saw its collar said “Finn,” so I told him, “Oh, Finn. Go home, Finn!” He stayed rooted to the spot. I groaned a little because I figured I would have to help him find his owner and I really wasn’t in the mood for an errand. I turned the tag around and saw my new address! “Oh, you were Aunt Sabine’s cat!” Then it dawned on me, I just inherited a cat! I felt sorry for him being alone in the cold for all this time, but it didn’t seem like a good idea for me to take on a cat when I could barely afford to feed myself! I thought about shutting the window and letting him survive on his own, but my ungloved hands were starting to get cold. I saw the sad look on his face, and it just melted my heart! “Oh! I love you already!” I picked him up, brought him inside, and shut the window. Finn immediately curled up next to me on the bed, and as I pet him, I relished in the idea that maybe this was the first good sign of the rest of my journey here!

Heaven’s Headquarters

“How did I get here?” Ethan, a man with silky brown hair, green eyes, and a slim physique, realized he fell asleep on an elevator. He doesn’t recognize this elevator, which has ornate, gilded walls, and he’s mystified as to how he ended up inside. Last thing he remembered, he was walking down the street. He suddenly realized that the elevator had no buttons! The elevator kept going up, and Ethan had no idea where he was going, so he started to worry. Suddenly, the elevator stopped and the elevator doors opened. Ethan stepped out cautiously.

Ethan walked into a reception area and looked around to figure out where he was. The walls and floors were cloudy white. There wasn’t much else there except a lot of doors and a pearly, circular desk at the center. A perky, blonde secretary popped up behind the desk and watched Ethan. Ethan, not knowing what else to do, went up to the secretary, who had a name plate that read: Hailey. Before Ethan could ask her anything, Hailey chirped, “Welcome to Heaven’s Headquarters! Please fill out these forms.” She slid a white clipboard with a couple of crisp papers on it to to him.

Ethan felt totally confused. He had no clue where he was, and yet this woman seemed to have been expecting him. “Forms?

Hailey simply explained, “Yes, to show us what would make your eternity the ideal level of blissfulness.”

Ethan started to think that he either got too drunk at dinner or else someone had slipped something into his drink. Either way, he thought that maybe he had blacked out and had booked some spa getaway in his haze. That didn’t seem like a smart idea, so he tried to clear this up with Hailey, “Look, I’m not sure how I got here, but I gotta leave. I got work in the morning, so-.”

Hailey interrupted him, “Work? No, you don’t work in Heaven. It’s your time to relax.”

Ethan got a little annoyed by this. He knew that companies often had their secretaries try to save their sales, but she didn’t seem to get it, he really didn’t have time for this. “Relax? I got a big presentation in the morning. So, can you-?”

“Listen,” Hailey looked him square in the eyes and talked in a very serious tone at this point. “you’re not going back to work. Or your home or anywhere else. You’re dead.”

Whatever response he had expected to hear from her, it wasn’t that! The ease he felt from what he thought was a logical conclusion to this situation had vanished, and if he hadn’t booked a luxurious hotel in a drunken haze, then he didn’t know what else would bring him here. The fact that she mentioned that he was dead now sent him to a panic. “Is that a threat? Are you holding me hostage?”

“Oh boy!” Hailey sighed. She coolly hit a pager button on her office phone and spoke into it, “Peter, can you come to the Pearly Gates please?”

A handsome man with a nice suit and a clipboard in his arm appeared next to Hailey instantly. Ethan had to blink. He couldn’t explain how the man, who he could only assume was Peter, could appear from nowhere unless it was some kind of theatrical ruse to scare and confuse him. Peter glanced at Ethan and then regarded Hailey, “Who’s this? Let’s see…ah, Ethan Miller. I told you already that he is most definitely welcome here!”

Hailey calmly revealed, “I know, but he hasn’t accepted.”

Ethan, in addition to feeling a little scared, grew frustrated by the lack of answers. He had a right to know what was happening! He spouted, “Who are you?”

Peter smiled gently and introduced himself, “On Earth, I’m known as Saint Peter.”

Ethan rolled his eyes. He didn’t believe that was his real identity, and he resented the task he now had of figuring out who these people were. He remarked to Peter, “Saint Peter, huh? What are you guys, the mob or something?”

“Wow!: Peter seemed bewildered by Ethan’s response, but he kept his composure. “You weren’t kidding about this man! Better send him to the Big Guy.”

“Who? Where are you taking me?” Ethan decided he wasn’t going to let them take him anywhere and prepared to put up a fight.

Peter snapped his fingers, and Ethan instantly disappeared! Ethan reappeared in a huge office. It seemed to be empty except for the same cloudy walls and floors and a big, wooden desk with a computer on it. Whoever “the Big Guy” was, he wasn’t in the office right now. Ethan looked all around him in utter confusion “Okay, what the hell just happened?”

At that moment, a very tall, clean shaven man with gray hair and a light gray suit walked into the room. The man reproached him gently, “Sir, we don’t swear here.” Ethan jumped at his sudden approach. The man kindly instructed, “Go ahead and have a seat.”

A cushy chair appeared before the desk right behind where Ethan stood. He reluctantly took a seat. He needed answers, and he figured that they must lie with this man. “You’re the “Big Guy?”

The man replied, “I’m known by many names. A higher power, Nirvana, Inner Peace, Mother Earth (somehow)…but you probably refer to me as God.”

“Oh, you’re God? Yeah right!” Ethan wondered what was wrong with these people. They were either giving him their nicknames or else he had come across a very delusional cult.

The man seemed unruffled by Ethan’s disposition. He probed, “What makes you doubt me?”

Ethan couldn’t believe that this guy had really believed that he was God! He had to put him in his place, “God isn’t some businessman! He has a really long beard and a robe…”

The Big Guy chuckled, “You mean like this?” He snapped his fingers and, to Ethan’s astonishment, hechanged into Ethan’s description of God. “Yes, this look was all the rage when the Bible was written, but we’ve made some updates since then.” The Big Guy snapped his fingers again and changed back into the outfit he previously wore.

Ethan still didn’t totally accept their claims that he had died or that he was speaking to God, and he didn’t want to feed into that delusion. He had to try to get home. “Look, I don’t wanna be here, in ‘Heaven,’ I want to-!”

“No?” the Big Guy remarked. “Would you rather be in Hell? It’s not as fun as rock stars make it seem. Here, have a look.”

The Big Guy turned his computer monitor around to face Ethan. An automated voice greeted him, “Welcome to Hell Dot Com! I’m Jaime, your virtual host. Let me give you a tour!” The screen changed into a red office with a blonde man in a pepper-gray business suit sitting at a dark, wooden desk. “This is Lucifer’s Chamber! He decides how cruel of an eternal punishment a sinner gets.” The screen changed into a room with some fiendish monsters standing in front of some sharp rocks. The monsters smile and wave to the camera. “This is the physical pain and torture chamber where sinners go to receive a Hell of a lot of, well, pain and torture.” The screen changed to a completely empty room with a small green couch and a wide screen television “This is the viewing room where sinners are forced to watch their worst nightmares over and over again.” The screen changed to small, run down town. “This is Sinners’ Living, the living quarters of sinners. Their homes turn into whatever they would consider the most unbearable living conditions.” The screen changed to a door with the number 666 on it. “This is Area Six Six Six, where the most evil sinners go. It is so gruesome that we cannot display it on the web.” The screen changed to a room full of what looks like operators and telemarketers. “This is the communications room where our “devils” tempt ordinary people to commit a sin.” The screen changed to a picture of an empty reception desk. “That ends our tour of Hell Dot Com. We are currently seeking a Hell Secretary if you’re interested. See you in Hell!”

The Big Guy turned the computer off and swiveled it back so it faced him. Ethan now felt very much perplexed. Ethan supposed that the Big Guy thought that this presentation would convince him that he had died, but he wasn’t buying it! “I can’t be dead! The world couldn’t go on without me!”

“You don’t think so?” The Big Guy reacted. “Well, I can show you that’s not true either. Oh Joseph!” He pushed a button on his phone to summon him. A young man with a gray suit and a white tie, black hair, muscular build entered and looked to the Big Guy to await his instructions. The Big Guy directed Joseph, “Show Ethan his world without him. I gotta go. I’m helping my son throw a party tonight! Hope to see you there!” The Big Guy winked and disappeared.

Joseph grumbled, “Thanks a lot, now I’m going to miss that party!”

Ethan could care less about this man’s desire to go to some party. He didn’t know what they wanted with him, but it seemed like he had no choice but to play their game. He scoffed, “So, who are you? Saint Joseph?”

Joseph forgot about the party and pleasantly answered Ethan, “No! My name is Joseph Love. I was a soldier in the Revolutionary War.”

Whether it was real or not, Ethan grew curious about Joseph’s back story. “Oh, you got killed in battle?”

Joseph told him, “No, after we won, my friends and I had a party and I died there.”

“How’d you die?” Ethan asked him.

“I don’t know.” Joseph shrugged.

This notion triggered a thought, and again, whether it was true or not, Ethan was owed an explanation. “Wait a minute, how’d I die?”

“No one in Heaven is supposed to know,” Joseph educated him. “If they think about their death, they’ll never stop dwelling on it. Though the last thing I remember is swimming, so I think I drowned. But who knows! Anyways, you think the world can’t survive without you, huh? Who depended on you?”

Right away, Ethan came up with, “My fiancee, Diana Shaw. She’s in love with me, so there’s no way she’ll survive without me!

Joseph’s mouth twitched, but he hid his grin. “Is that right?” He snapped his fingers, and they both disappeared.

Ethan and Joseph reappear in a gourmet restaurant that is mostly full of delighted patrons. With all of these magical entrances and exits, Ethan now thought he was in a dream or having some kind of coma vision, so he decided to stop fighting the acceptance of whether or not this was real and just rolled with it. The only way he was going to get through this was to show these people that he told the truth about the world needing him to stay around. He inquired, “Can anyone see me?”

“Nope,” Joseph answered. “Where’s Diana?”

Ethan scanned the restaurant and sees her at a table. His heart fluttered when he gazed at her beauty. She was unlike anyone he had ever met before. Her strawberry blonde hair was done up in a bun and she wore a chic red dress, which made her look even more devestatingly beautiful. For a moment, Ethan wondered what she had been doing there. It took him a while to see that Diana was sitting with a very handsome man that he could only hope was a new boss. If he wasn’t invisible to them, Ethan would have confronted the man. All he could do was stand next to her, listening to her dialogue. Diana confessed, “This the first date I’ve been on since my fiancee died three months ago.”

Ethan stared at Joseph questioningly. “Three months?”

Joseph apologized, “Sorry, Heaven doesn’t have a real concept of time.”

The man admitted to Diana, “I have to confess when I befriended you at work, I always hoped that you would break up with your fiancee. I mean, he’s the greatest guy I know, but I had such a crush on you for a long time! I only hope that I can give you as much happiness as Ethan did.”

“I think you will.” Diana told him. “I have to make another confession. I loved Ethan with all my heart, but ever since I met you, my heart was torn between two men. I know that he would’ve wanted me to move on and be happy.” Ethan wished she could have seen the cross look on his face! She went on, “I could really see myself have a future with you. I think I could be falling for you!”

The man beamed upon hearing this, but he still felt like he needed to ask, “Are you afraid of moving too fast?”

“Ethan will always be a part of my past, but you are my future!” She reached across the table and stroked his hand, smiling lovingly at this man. He held her hand and returned her sentiment.

Ethan blew up, “That bastard! This whole time he was trying to steal my woman! I’ll kill him!” Ethan tried to strangle Frank, but his hands went right through him.

Joseph stood next to him and reported, “A few things. First of all, remember you’re not supposed to swear. Second, you’re invisible, so he can’t see or feel you. And lastly, I doubt the Big Guy will let you into Heaven if you actually did kill someone. I know you’re hurting, so I’m gonna pretend I didn’t see that.”

Ethan still looked frustrated, but he knew that Joseph was right. He sighed, and then he remembered why he was there. “Okay, so maybe she’s move on, but my parents will be devastated!”

Joseph didn’t seemed convinced. “If you say so.” He snapped his fingers, and they disappeared from the restaurant.

Joseph and Ethan reappeared in his parents’ living room, a very neat and clean space with a lot of comfortable furniture. Mrs. Miller was knitting on her flowery couch with her orange cat curled up beside her and a faint smile on her face. Mr. Miller entered the front door with a broad grin. He announced, “Good news, honey! I got a huge promotion!”

“Oh really?” Mrs. Miller reacted merrily. “That’s wonderful! What’s your new position?”

Mr. Miller proudly told her, “You’re looking at the new manager of the Animal Buffet Pet Food factory!”

“Manager? Oh honey!” Mrs. Miller got up and gave her husband a huge hug. “Ethan would be so proud of you!”

Mr. Miller agreed, “Before he died, he kept trying to get me quit drinking and work harder. If only he could see his old man now! Now we can stop using his inheritance he left us to pay bills and really treat ourselves! Maybe we can visit Cally in France!”

“That would be wonderful!: Mrs. Miller rejoiced. “And instead of selling these blankets to supplement, our income, I’ll give it charity! Oh, I’m so glad we’re going to be alright! I dreaded what life would be like without him, and I’ll always miss my baby boy, but I’m so glad we will be okay without him! He is probably looking at us now, smiling.”

Ethan was frowning. “Now they don’t need me? They even said it! Ugh! My fiancee has moved on, and my parents are happier than ever with me being gone!”

Mr. Miller suggested, “Let’s go out to a nice restaurant to celebrate!”

Mrs. Miller reacted, “Wow, this will be the first time we’ve really dined out since Ethan died six months ago!”

Ethan turned to Joseph, “So, every time you snap your fingers, it’s been three months on Earth?”

“I guess,” he replied. Then he addressed Ethan seriously, “So, your fiancee and your parents can live without you. Are you ready to admit that the world doesn’t need you to go back?”

“No!” Ethan denied it. “My sister must need me! We were best friends-how could she live without me?”

Joseph laughed, “Let’s find out together, shall we?” He snapped his fingers, and they disappeared.

Joseph and Ethan appear at the end of a lecture in a large university classroom, and the professor spoke entirely in French. Joseph told Ethan, “Hold on, I can get subtitles.”

Ethan seemed a little relieved, but his mind was elsewhere. “Cally went to another country to study? She probably had trouble making friends so wanted to get a fresh start in France. She was really shy, I was trying to help her with that. She must be so lonely and miserable here!”

Joseph smirked. “Sorry to disappoint you, but she doesn’t look so sad.”

They found Cally pretty easily. She looked a lot like Ethan except she had golden brown eyes and curvy, womanly figure. She listened to the lecture with a lot of interest. After the lecture concluded, Cally gathered her things and walked out of the classroom alone. Ethan pointed out, “See, alone and miserable!”

Cally soon got joined by a handsome young, handsome blonde French man. “Bonjour Cally!” His subtitles read, “Hello Cally!”

Cally smiled big and greeted him, “Salut Jean! Ça va?” Her subtitles read, “Hey Jean! What’s up?”

The young man replied, “Oui, ça va. Et toi?” His subtitles read, “I’m good. How are you?”

Cally replied, “Oui, ça va. Où est-ce que tu vas?” Her subtitles read, “Yes, I’m good. Where are you off to?”

He shrugged, “Chez moi.” His subtitles read, “My house.”

Cally invited, “Je vais aller au café. Tu veux venir avec moi?” Her subtitles read, “I’m going to a cafe. Do you want to go with me?”

He emphatically replied, “Mais oui!” His subtitles read, “Yes, of course!”

As the young man and Cally leave the class together, Joseph pointed out to Ethan, “She asked a guy out. Sounds like she got out of her shyness!”

Ethan was flabbergasted by this development, but he wouldn’t admit defeat. “Hold on. Let’s see how well she does on this supposed date.”

They followed Cally and her date to a small bistro down the street from the college. The young man and Cally sat outside and studied a menu. Joseph sat down and lounged casually but Ethan watched them anxiously. Her date asked, “Qu’est-ce que tu veux manger?” His subtitles read, “What do you want to eat?”

Cally decided, “Un croissant et des thé.” Her subtitles read, “A croissant and some tea.”

The man laughed, “C’est toût?” His subtitles read, “That’s all?”

Cally replied, “Oui. Qu’est-ce que tu vas manger?” Her subtitles read, “Yes. What are you

going to eat?”

He told her, “Je pense que je vais manger un sandwich et un chocolât.” His subtitles read, “I think I’m going to eat a sandwich and some hot chocolate.” He motioned to the waiter. “S’il vous plaît, Monsieur!” His subtitles read: “Please, sir!”

The waiter promptly came to their table and asked, “Vous desirèz?” His subtitles read, “What would you like?”

As Jean repeated their food choices they just made, Joseph nudged Ethan. Ethan responded, “What? I’m trying to read!”

With a hint of mischievousness, he replied, “Just checking on you.” Ethan groaned and returned to reading their subtitles.

The waiter brought Cally and Jean their food, and as they happily munched, Cally inquired, “Qu’est-ce que tu faire avec ton vie?” Her subtitles read, “What do you want to do with your life?”

Her date answered, “Je suis acteur.” His subtitles read, “I’m an actor.”

Cally replied honestly, “Ah bon? C’est cool.” Her subtitles read, “Oh really? That’s cool.”

The young man asked, “Et toi?” His subtitles read, “And you?”

Cally told him, “Je veux être employée de bureau. C’est quoi mon frère a fait.” Her subtitles read, “I want to be an office worker. It’s what my brother did.”

He responded, “Qu’est-ce qu’il fait maintenant?” His subtitles read, “What does he do now?”

Cally revealed, “Il est mort.” Her subtitles read, “He is dead.”

Her date said sadly, “Je suis très desolé!” His subtitles read, “I’m so sorry!”

Cally didn’t seem upset by this. “Ne suis pas. C’est parce que de lui je suis ici.” Her subtitles read, “Not me. It’s because of him I’m here.” She paused for a moment, and then she confessed, “J’aime toi beaucoup!” Her subtitles read, “I like you a lot!”

This made the young man smile broadly. “J’aime toi aussi. Est-ce que tu es ma copine?” His subtitles read, “I like you too. Will you be my girlfriend?”

Cally gushed, “Oui, bien sûr!” Her subtitles read, “Yes, of course! Cally stood up and leaned close to her date, giving him a kiss. He gladly kissed her back.

Ethan was furious, and Joseph rubbed it in, “Wow, not only is she not shy, but she’s gutsy! She made the first move!”

“She’s using my death as a way to pick up men!” Ethan scathed. “Well, I guess she’s okay with my death too!”

“Ready to give up yet?” Joseph grinned and stared expectantly.

Ethan retorted, “No! Let’s go to my old work. They’ll miss me for sure! I just hope they didn’t move the company to somewhere that requires more subtitles!” Slightly disappointed, Joseph dully snaps his fingers, and they disappeared again.

Joseph and Ethan reappeared in a row of cubicles, and it was apparent that the office was in the middle of a huge party. People were dancing, drinking cocktails, laughing, and conversing animatedly. They wore much more formal attire than usual with the exception of nametag stickers. Joseph remarked, “Sure doesn’t look like they’re depressed!”

Ethan’s face fell. “We’ve never had an office party before! What’s going on?”

At that moment, the best dressed man there, Gregory, turned off the music. Everyone paid attention as he prepared to speak. “I just wanted to take a moment to remind you all why we’re here and we’re celebrating today. Exactly one year ago we lost a brave hero. Ethan Miller died tragically. He was certainly an asset in his life, but he proves to be an even greater influence through his death. His actions have inspired us to be the company we are today. Profits have soared higher than ever, thanksto his philosophy! So, let’s all have a toast!” He raised a champagne glass over his head. “To Ethan!”

The rest of the office raised their drinks and toasted, “To Ethan!” Gregory turned on the music back on, and everyone resumed the party. Ethan told Joseph, “Don’t even ask. I’m not ready yet. Just because the company doesn’t miss me and is more profitable than ever since I died doesn’t mean my coworkers don’t miss me.” Joseph looked skeptical but said nothing. He let Ethan listen to his coworkers chat.

A man named John commented, “I hope this party makes Ethan proud!”

“You know it does!” Gabriel replied.

A younger man named Paul inquired, “Didn’t I replace him?”

“You didn’t replace him. No one could replace what he did,” a woman named Esther put in. For a moment, Ethan got his hopes up, but then she went on, “ But essentially you took over his duties when he was gone.”

Gabriel told Paul, “You were the only one that was not intimidated by taking his old cubicle. No one thought they could fill his shoes. Lucky you did! The company is doing so well now!”

“Thanks guys!” Paul swelled with pride upon hearing this. “Hey, John! Isn’t that the girl you like over there?”

John noticeably blushed, “No!”

“Yes it is!” Esther almost shrieked with delight. “Look at Sarah standing by herself. Go ask her to dance!”

“Oh, I couldn’t!” John dismissed the idea passively. Everyone could tell he really wanted to go for it.

Gabriel urged John, “Do it dude! Or someone else will!” Although he didn’t want Gabriel to flirt with Sarah, he was still really nervous. The others kept encouraging John to go ask Sarah to dance. He hesitated, but eventually they convinced him to go for it. They watched him from a distance. When she said yes, and they all cheered. As John danced with Sarah, the group changed subjects and talked about their favorite cocktails.

Ethan looked absolutely crestfallen. Joseph put his arm around either and leveled with him, “Your fiancee moved on. Your parents are doing well. Your sister turned out fine. Your coworkers are flourishing. Is there anyone else you want to see, or can we finally go back to Heaven’s Headquarters?”

Ethan inwardly knew that he was losing this argument, but he refused to believe the whole world had moved on without him. He didn’t want to die, so he decided to fight for his life. “I’m not a quitter! Someone in this town must miss me!” Joseph groaned but snapped his fingers to take them away anyways.

Joseph and Ethan popped inside a pub where they see a group of Ethan’s friends toasting to a victory with cocktails. Ethan folded his arms in annoyance. Joseph snapped his fingers and they disappeared.

Ethan stood outside in his old neighborhood. He noted, “I see someone bought my house!” He watched a mother load her infant into a car in the driveway where he used to live. The mother waved hello to the across the street neighbor, who was dressed in a suit and obviously leaving for work. One of his next door neighbors was working on a garden while the other watered his lawn. Ethan walked down the street and saw everyone getting ready for their day. They all seemed so untroubled, which made Ethan pout. Joseph snapped his fingers and they disappeared again.

Next, Ethan and Joseph watched his dentist smiling while working on a patient. Joseph shook his head and snapped his fingers to make them disappear.

After that, Ethan walked down a street that was full of shops and restaurants, listening to several conversations. When he realized no one was talking about him and everyone seemed to be in a pleasant mood, Ethan shook his head despondently. Joseph snapped his fingers to make them disappear.

Ethan then watched as travelers at the airport. People went to baggage claim, headed towards their gates, got food and drinks at a nearby coffee stand, and waited for their friends and loved ones on vacant seats. He desperately listened, truly hoping to hear one person mention him. Finally, one traveler asked another, “Did you hear about Ethan?” Ethan looks hopeful. When the traveler said he hadn’t, the first traveler revealed, “He’s directing a new movie in L.A.” Ethan was heartbroken to hear this. Joseph snapped his fingers to make them disappear.

This time, Ethan watched as the mayor gave a speech about public safety. The crowd appeared enthused. Joseph looked at Ethan, who is walked away from the scene with his head down. Joseph quickly followed him.

Joseph caught up with Ethan at a graveyard and put a reassuring hand on his shoulder. Sniffling a little, Ethan admitted, “I get it. I guess no one misses me.”

“That’s not true!” Joseph disputed.

Before Joseph could say more, Ethan ranted, “Clearly the world is better off with me not in it!”

“Don’t say that!” Joseph reacted with complete sympathy but genuinely disagreed with him.

Ethan argued, “It’s true! If it’s not true, then you wouldn’t have shown me all this!”

Joseph assured him, “You were missed! But you needed to die! I can’t tell you why!”

Ethan didn’t believe him. “Whatever. Maybe Heaven can cheer me up.”

Joseph gently asked, “You ready to go?”

“Can I have a minute?” Ethan requested.

“Of course,” Joseph relented. A cell phone in Joseph’s pocket rang, and Joseph exclaimed, “Hey, it’s J.C.!”

“Who?” Ethan’s curiosity perked up even though he was severely depressed.

“The Big Guy’s son.” Joseph answered the call. “Hey!” He paused while J.C. spoke, and then he reported, “Yes, we’re almost done. How’s the party? George Washington did what?” As Joseph talked on the phone, Ethan gazed forlornly at the graveyard. Suddenly, something caught his eye. He can’t explain why, but he was compelled to look at a statue with a huge angel on it. He ran over to it. Joseph kept chatting, not noticing that Ethan was reading the epitaph on the grave he was drawn to. “Sounds like a great party!” He paused again when J.C. asked him something. “Yeah. I’m watching Ethan! What do you mean, where is he? He’s in the graveyard and…oh shi-! Shoot!”

It was too late. Ethan read, “Here lies Ethan Jacob Miller, who sacrificed his body to save his sister’s life. Even in death, he encourages his loved ones to live life to the fullest. God rest this brave soul!” Ethan closes his eyes, remembering.

His memory flash-backed to Cally and Ethan coming out of a restaurant, laughing and conversing pleasantly. As they strolled down the street, a man came up from behind them with a gun and pushed them into a nearby alley. Ethan and Cally are pushed to the ground by the gunman. They stand up and face him. The gunman growled, “Hand over all your money!” Ethan handed over his wallet, but Cally did not move The gun man ordered, “Gimme your money too, you dumb girl!

Frantic, Cally sputtered, “I don’t have any money, so I didn’t bring my purse! I don’t have anything!”

The robber directed, “Give me your jewelry then!”

Tears forming, Cally cried, “I don’t have any jewelry!”

“Ugh! Quit playing me, bitch!” the mugger was losing his patience.

“I don’t have anything, honest!” Cally was now in tears. The gunman let out a roar of frustration. He aimed his gun at Cally and fired. Cally winced, expecting to get hit. Ethan threw his body in front of her and took the bullet! The weight of Ethan’s body knocked Cally to the ground. Cally howled, “Ethan!”

Someone on the street yelled, “Was that a gun? Call nine one one!”

The robber ran off as witnesses poured in to see what happened. Cally turned Ethan’s body around to face her. She looked at his wound in horror and is horrified to see Ethan’s labored breathing. Cally pleaded, “No! Ethan! Don’t die! You’re gonna make it! Hang on!”

In betwenn breaths, Ethan told her, “There are some things worth dying for! I don’t want anyone to be sad for me. They’ll show me they care by having fun and achieving their potential. Tell Diana not to become an old maid! Tell Dad to quit drinking and get ahead at work! Tell everyone we know to live life to the fullest! Cally, you’ll be getting a lot of money. Use it to go to school in France like you’ve always dreamed of! Don’t cry! It’s my time! I love you, sister! Tell everyone!”

Ethan stopped breathing just as the paramedics came. As they put his body on the gurney, through thick tears, Cally swore, “I’ll tell everyone! I promise!” She cried hysterically as the paramedics took her older brother away.

Back in the graveyard, Joseph came running up to Ethan, who was in tears. Joseph asked, “Are you okay?”

Ethan nodded and wiped away some of his tears so he could speak. “You were right, I needed to die! Everyone moving on was honoring my last wishes! I inspired them! I wouldn’t change a thing!”

Breathing a sigh of relief, Joseph inquired, “Ready to go now?”

Ethan stated firmly, “Yes.” Joseph was about to snap his fingers, but Ethan stopped him. “Wait! I got an idea.”

Ethan took over the empty reception desk at the entrance to Hell. He used his office phone to call the Big Guy. Ethan conversed,“Whew! What a busy morning! A group of Somali pirates’ boat went down, that’s a lot of paperwork! No really, I’m loving this! I get a lot of satisfaction sending evil people where they deserve to go! Oh, someone is coming, gotta go! Thanks again for everything, Big Guy!” Ethan hung up the phone and waited expectantly. A portal appeared and spat out the gunman who murdered him! Ethan smiled triumphantly at him. “Ah, Mister Gun Man! Thought you could out gun the SWAT team, huh? Wow, you’re a lot more evil than just murdering me! Please go straight to Area 666!” Ethan pulled a lever and flung him away. He then put up his feet and sighed happily.