A Christmas Void, Chapter 15- The Surprise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Both of us?” Isaac questioned.

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

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

Isaac kidded, “Still want to void Christmas?”

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

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

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

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

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

Epilogue

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

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

The End

A Christmas Void, Chapter 14- The Big Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Christmas Void, Chapter 13- The Christmas Void

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Will you be our photographer?” Gryla burst.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Anything!” he replied jovially.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Christmas Void, Chapter 12- The Bay Area Bugle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But you know who she is!”

“That’s right!”

“Nothing gets past you!”

“No, it won’t!”

“She can’t get away with this!”

“She won’t!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Answer it! I can wait,” Ruth stated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 7- Guilty Pleasures

Come on, pick up!” I rushed straight home after work. My head was spinning and not because of weariness this time! Well, maybe I did feel a little tired, but other than that, I didn’t know how to feel, which is why I needed my best friend’s help. I was freaking out, and I really hoped Ruth could sense my mood and be there when I needed her. Finn certainly did as he watched me pace across my living room. Finally, with the background noise of a small crowd and Christmas music, Ruth finally picked up her phone. “Tiffany? I figured you were sleeping right now after-!”

“I can’t sleep!” I interrupted her. I wanted to spill my guts, but I didn’t know where to begin.

Ruth told me, “Hang on, it’s hard to hear. Let me go somewhere quiet.” Perfect timing, I ndeed to get my story straight. After what seemed like forever, she came back on. “Okay, I can hear you now.”

“Oh, are you in your car?” I hadn’t planned on asking her that. Now, I just felt so nervous and delayed telling her the truth.

“No, I went into a calendar store because there’s hardly anyone here. Why? Should I go somewhere more private? Is this your one phone call?” Ruth kidded.

For a brief moment, I forgot why I called and laughed. The moment left as quickly as it came. Ruth expected answers, so it was time to ‘fess up. I boldly revealed, “I’m a terrible person!”

“What’d you do? Slap that smirk off your supervisor?” Ruth half joked.

I took a deep breath and began, “Okay, so Millstone’s had me train this new guy at work…”

“On Black Friday? Are they crazy?” she reacted.

“Yes, but that’s not the point of this,” I went on, “Ruth, he’s gorgeous! He’s cover of a romance novel gorgeous! He also turned out to be a blast to work with! He’s laid back and really smart. Well, he’s an English teacher, so I guess he would have to be right? Anyways, he’s hilarious too. All of the supervisors who drive me crazy were just source for his material. It was the best day at Millstone’s yet! Actually, it was one of the best days I’ve ever had!”

“Why do you sound so guilty for an amazing day with an attractive man?” she probed.

This was the heart wrenching part had to get off my chest. “He’s engaged! They’re getting married on Christmas Eve, so…”

“So, it’s over?” Ruth thought for a moment and remarked, “No, you said you were a terrible person, so there’s more.” She gasped, “Did you sleep with him?”

“No!” I exclaimed. “But, maybe it’s just my imagination, but I felt sparks. I mean, I haven’t really slept much in the last couple of days, so my judgment could be totally off. Maybe he’s just a flirty guy…”

“I doubt it,” Ruth countered. “He works with kids, so he wouldn’t be in the habit of flirting, I hope not anyways! Did you see him flirt with other girls?”

I had to think back. “Actually, no. Every girl in the place flirted with him, but he brushed them off.”

“But he didn’t brush you off, did he?” I could sense she had a wry smile as she said that.

“Well, he couldn’t ignore me, I was training him.” I had a moment of doubt about my analysis. Perhaps he was just making the work situation more friendly.

“Oh, come on!” she cried out. “You said there was sparks! I want details!”

“Well, he made me laugh. Not just because he’s a jokester. Like, every time something annoying or tedious came along, he made a funny observation on it. It was like he wanted to cheer me up.”

“So, he paid a lot of attention to you?”

“Oh yeah! At first, I thought he was just being the model student, but when I put him on the register, he couldn’t remember a thing!” I paused while Ruth let out a laugh. “At lunch, he actually locked his eyes with mine when I talked. He was so glued to my story he almost missed his fiancee’s call! He asked me a lot of questions too.”

“Sounds like you caught his interest!” Ruth observed.

I added, “It was more than just interest! He smiled a lot. Not just a false works smile either. And I swear, he got close to me on purpose. I know that there isn’t much room at the registers, but he got closer than he needed to. And I could feel this heat, like it was bouncing off his aura. I mean, you know how you know when an object is gonna shock you, you feel its-”

“Electricity?” Ruth practically squealed with delight. “You felt sparks alright!”

“But that’s the bad part!” I blurted. Pangs of guilt swept ove me after hearing her confirm what I suspected. “He’s getting married! I’m supposed to fight him off. What kind of creep goes after other women when he has someone waiting for him at home? Oh, he’s not a bad person, I am! I knew he was taken, but I didn’t fight back! God, Ruth, I flirted back! I haven’t had a lot of people show me kindness since I got here, so, at first, I thought I was just desperate for positive attention, but it’s more than that! He’s passionate about his career, he’s good with kids, he does volunteer work with a cause he cares about, his personality is sexy too! I’ve got a huge crush on someone else’s man, and if I keep speninding time with him, I’m scared I’ll become a homewrecker! Honestly, if I had the opportunity, I don’t think I could resist the urge!” Finally, it was out there in the universe. It sat there like I released a dark cloud from within me, and even thought it still lingered above my head, I felt a lot better.

“Okay, first of all, breathe!” Ruth advised. “Second, you didn’t act on those urges. Everyone has their guilty pleasures. If you’re worried about ripping off all his clothes at the registers, then by all means avoid him, but if it were me, I would just roll with it. You can’t help who you’re attracted to, so don’t get so ashamed from feelings you can’t control. It’s not like anything can happen in the middle of the store, so just hang out with him and enjoy it. As long as you don’t go outside work with him, nothing bad will happen. You got some eye candy, let yourself have some fun!”

I laughed, and her advice made me feel a little less guilty about being attracted to an engaged man. “He’s too good of a guy to cheat on his fiancee, so what am I so worried about? Besides, I really don’t know for sure if he likes me like that. I mean, if he wanted to cheat on her, he has a lot of beautiful girls to pick from, why would he pick me?”
“Oh come on! You’re just as capable of conjuring up someone’s mistress fantasies!” Ruth assured me, and I laughed again.

From behind her, I heard a man shout, “Hey lady! This ain’t a phone booth! Buy something or get out!”
“Gotta go! Get some rest, okay?” she instructed as she rushed out of the store.

Now that this weight had lifted off my shoulders, I suddenly remembered how tired I felt. “Thanks Ruth!”

After she said goodbye, I sat on my couch processing all of this. Attractions don’t make you a bad person, just actions! I was so worried about committing a huge sin in the name of sisterhood, but I figured Ruth was right, what could happen in the store? It felt good to have a plan for this situation. I didn’t need to fight my feelings, I could just enjoy the fantasy! Besides, I didn’t even know if it would be a problem because I didn’t actually know if he felt the same way about me. There may be nothing to worry about…right?

I laid down on the couch and stared at the roof as if the popcorn ceiling would provide some insight. It all seemed so simple when Ruth explained it, and the logical part of my brain was satisfied, but, in the back of my stomach, something was gnawing at me. I couldn’t figure out why! I wracked my brain trying to decipher this feeling, what was it? Why did my gut twist up like that? That’s when it hit me- a gut feeling. I thought our discussion resolved my issue, but something told me it wasn’t over yet. Reason couldn’t find a solid notion as to why it wouldn’t be more than flirtation, and I kept telling me gut that it was just crush that would eventually lose its steam. Nothing more than that would happen… right?

I didn’t realize I had fallen asleep until I felt Finn crawl onto my stomach. “Oh, hi Finn! Let’s go take a nap in the bedroom.” Finn wouldn’t budge. “Oh fine, you win! I won’t make you get up. I will…” I didn’t even finish my sentence because I fell asleep again!

Suddenly, Claudia woke me up by yelling, “Tiffany! What are you doing?” I lifted my head off the register. I thought I was at home, had I really fallen asleep on the job? It shocked me for a moment, but then it kind of made sense and didn’t surprise me at all. “Wipe your drool off the machine and go help Isaac clean the fitting room!”

I noticed that the store was closed, so it made even more sense that I was tired. I figured that everyone was cleaning up so they could go home, and it seemed strange that they paired me up with him. The fitting room must have gotten pretty bad if they thought two people needed to clean it, so I suddenly felt guilty for falling asleep instead of helping Isaac. I yawned, stretched a bit, and I went to go look for him.

I found him in the intimates department changing a light bulb in one of the stalls. He turned around, grinned, and greeted me with, “Oh, hey! How many Millstone’s employees does it take to screw in a light bulb?”

I giggled, and then I noticed he was using a cushioned bench instead of a ladder. He stood on his tiptoes, and that prompted me to say, “You shouldn’t be doing it like this! It’s a total safety hazard!”

“It’s not that high up, it’ll be fine!” he assured me as he kept working.

I stood below him and reiterated, “No, really, you could fall!” I stood below him to keep him balanced and really hoped that he stayed safe.

“I’m not going to fall!” Immediately after he said that, he lost his balance! He tumbled towards me, which pushed me against the wall. The wall stopped us both in motion, but Isaac didn’t tear himself away from me. Instead, he stroked my cheek and cooed, “Well, I guess I fell after all!” Our eyes locked onto each other, and our bodies pressed against one another. He wanted me, there was no denying it! He leaned in to kiss me, and when his lips were just inches away, I turned my head away. That wasn’t easy, every impulse in my body wanted this to happen! Maybe he was forgetting about his fiancee, but I couldn’t forget he had one. I hoped so anyways. “This is wrong!” I said what I was thinking but not how I felt…

He brusquely asked me, “Then why does it feel so right?” He gently pushed my chin so I met his gaze. His eyes screamed passion, and that’s when I realized in my heart that this was more than just a crush. Feelings deeper than that flooded my body. Even if this didn’t happen tonight, the feeling wouldn’t go away, so what was the point of resisting? He leaned in close…

I bolted up from my coach, sending Finn flying across the living room! Finn gave me a reproachable glare, and I told him, “Sorry! I had a bad dream! Actually, it was very good! Naughty dreams go along with the territory, right?” I got off the couch and put on my pajamas. It was now a normal bedtime, so I decided to turn in for the night to maintain somewhat of a normal schedule. Finn watched me as I brushed my teeth, and he looked as though he were trying to figure me out. “I don’t feel guilty! It was just a dream! All part of the fun, right? Just a fantasy, pure and simple. It’s not like it’ll ever happen! I mean, what are the odds of us being alone in a tight space like that?”

As I spit out my toothpaste, it suddenly dawned on me that it wasn’t so far fetched for us to be alone in a fitting room like that. There were closets out there too. And when we clean up at the end of the night, we all spread out, so we could easily find ourselves alone! “Oh no! It’s not impossible!” I mulled it over for a moment, and I concluded, “You know what, it’s okay! I just have to avoid being alone with him like that. Piece of cake, right?” I stared at Finn as if he would actually reassure me that everything would end up all right. I put down my toothbrush and groaned. I just had a feeling that this situation was about to get a lot more complicated!