A Christmas Caroline by Camilla Isley
The Population Surplus
I refresh my inbox one last time, hoping to conjure a bold-font, all-caps subject line marked URGENT!!! that will give me an excuse to spend the night at the office.
But no magic salvation message materializes—only a bunch of last-minute holiday shopping offers. I click the email boxes in anger, wanting to snap the mouse in half.
All the Christmas-loving idiots must’ve stopped working hours ago. They should all be boiled in their own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through their hearts.
The clock on my desk strikes three, leaving me no escape. Almost time to go.
From my corner office in the Wilkins and Marley tower, I stare out the windows at the mist clouding the city. Bleak, biting weather aligned with my mood. The dingy cloud engulfing New York City is so dense it obscures everything: lights, buildings, and Central Park—of which I usually have an unobstructed view. But the thick fog doesn’t cover the angry sounds of the car horns blaring around Columbus Circle.
The scarce visibility must be causing all kinds of traffic jams around Manhattan.
I could use it as an excuse to stay longer and then blame traffic if I turn out to be late. But if I do, I’d probably end up stuck in the commuting madness and fully miss my family’s annual Christmas carnage.
If nothing else, I should leave early.
Gosh, I hate the holidays.
With a heavy sigh, I accept my fate. I shut my laptop, a little too forcefully perhaps, and head for the coat hanger behind the door.
“Is she ever going to leave?” Debra’s voice drifts in through the open door. My junior assistant is whispering, but not softly enough for me not to hear, especially not now I’m standing so close.
“Yeah, believe it or not, she has a family,” Annabelle, the senior assistant, replies.
“What?” Debra hisses. “She’s married?”
“No, nooo,” Annabelle says as if the mere idea were absurd. “I didn’t mean a husband.”
“Right. Does she even date?”
“She had a serious boyfriend like ages ago when we were still working at Bucknam, but nothing ever since—that I know of.”
“Really, who was the guy?”
“Sam Crawley, some kind of artist,” Annabelle says.
A wistful pang squeezes my heart. I can’t pretend that hearing Sam’s name tossed around so casually leaves me indifferent, not even after all these years.
“Was he hot?”
I have to silently agree. Looks were never a weak spot for Sam.
“And what happened?”
“I’ve no idea. One day he was on her speed dial, and the next, she instructed me to erase him from all her contacts.”
“I bet it was. Anyway, we should be off the hook soon. Every Christmas she goes to visit her sister…” Annabelle pauses before delivering the punch line. “In Jersey.”
“Are you kidding me?” Debra is rightfully shocked. “Caroline Wilkins in Jersey? I thought that if she ever crossed the Manhattan border to go anywhere other than Paris or Milan the soles of her Prada would auto combust.”
I’ve had enough. I step out of the office, making them startle.
“Good evening, ladies.”
“Good evening, Miss Wilkins,” they return the greeting, their cheeks flushing different shades of crimson. The junior assistant blushes so brightly she matches my red leather boots.
“She,” I say pointedly, “is leaving and would like her car called.”
“Of course, Miss Wilkins, right away.” Debra scrambles to grasp the receiver and pushes the garage extension with trembling fingers.
One might say it’s cruel to keep staff members so obviously terrified of their boss, but I’d respond that a little fear can go a long way in terms of efficiency.
“The car will be waiting for you downstairs, Miss Wilkins,” Debra confirms quietly.
I nod curtly, imagining how she must be sweating under her cream polyester cardigan.
“Very well,” I say. “Enjoy your holiday. And be here early on Monday,” I say, happy that Christmas comes on a Saturday this year and they won’t get any extra vacation days.
“Merry Christmas to you too, Miss Wilkins,” Debra, the most inexperienced of the two, dares to say.
Annabelle knows how much I loathe hearing the MC words; she lowers her eyes to her pleather boots, fully aware it was her responsibility to teach Debra to never wish me a merry Christmas. The mere sentence is an oxymoron.
I wince without responding and proceed to the elevator. Debra and Annabelle scramble to grab their things and follow me down the hall. When the elevator doors ding open, I step in and push the lobby button, enjoying the last glimpse of my terrorized assistants—they’ll wait for the next one.
Just before the doors close, I lock eyes with Debra, and, wiggling the point of my left boot, I say, “These are Jimmy Choos, by the way.”
After a split-second view of her jaw dropping, the doors seal me in, and the elevator begins its fifty-floor descent to the main lobby.
Nelson, my driver, is waiting for me in front of the building next to the company’s black SUV. He’s stamping his feet on the curb to keep warm, his breath pluming in the cold air. The moment he spots me pushing through the glass doors, he snaps to attention and opens the car door.
Now that is a well-behaved employee.
On my way to the car, two portly men in twin Santa costumes step into my path, blocking me. They’re holding an assortment of brochures and flyers in their leather-gloved hands.
“Good evening, ma’am,” the one on the right greets me, his fake white beard bobbing as he talks.
“Sorry, I’m in a hurry.” I try to shake off whatever sales pitch they’re about to palm off on me and sidestep them. But the two Santas mirror my movements and keep blocking the way.
“It’ll only take a minute, ma’am,” Left Santa says. “We’re promoting literacy among less fortunate children, do you have kids?”
“No, I’m trying to decrease the surplus in population,” I say ironically. I’ve seen enough friends and colleagues devolve their uteruses to those energy-sucking demons to know best.
“Well, you must have a nephew or a niece,” Right Santa encourages.
Of those I have plenty, my sister shoots one out every couple of years—she’s become more reliable than the tax man.
“I do,” I say. “In fact, you’re making me late for my visit to them.”
“Then why don’t you bring them the gift of a book?” Left Santa shoves in my face a bundle of pages that looks more like a pamphlet than a proper novel.
“Thank you, but I already bought them gifts.” Correction, my assistants did and had them delivered to my sister’s house.
“Then buy one for the poor. Christmas is such a hard time for those less fortunate.”
“Pals, with all due respect, can you read the names on that building?” I ask, pointing at the skyscraper behind my back. Above the entrance, Wilkins and Marley is prominent among the names of other firms. “Mine’s the big name on the left. I run a publishing house and I promise you I have all the books I need. Plus, we already sponsor”—I glance dubiously at the pamphlet—“legitimate programs to grow the next generation of avid readers. So, thank you, but, no thanks. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”
My tone doesn’t leave room for a reply and the Santas part to let me pass.
“Good evening, Miss Wilkins,” my driver greets me, holding the dark SUV door open for me. “Were they bothering you?”
“Nothing I couldn’t handle myself, Nelson. Thank you.”
He nods and closes the door after I’ve gotten in.
As we head down Eighth Avenue, the fog and darkness thicken around us. Even without traffic, Nelson would be forced to proceed at a walking pace. At least I won’t get to my sister’s house too early; I can’t stand to linger for more than a few hours and try to visit as sparingly as I can without creating a family feud. But Christmas Eve, like Thanksgiving, is mandatory.
Fan, my sister, bought a house two doors down from our parents’. I’d break out in hives at the mere consideration of sharing a zip code with our mother. A shudder runs down my spine as I try to absorb the warmth from the air vent. Actually, I’m not sure if it’s the cold that’s making me shiver or the idea of living in Jersey. But Fan swears that since she’s had kids, being neighbors to Mom makes everything much easier on her. I can’t imagine how.
I picture my top-floor apartment in the Upper West Side. I wouldn’t swap the glass walls, clean surfaces, and huge closets for anything in the world. Not to mention I would never trade Manhattan with the suburbs. Not a chance in hell.
As Nelson and I make our slow progress through the city, the shop windows’ lights glitter through the fog. Holly sprigs and decorations crackle in the heat behind the thick glasses and a swarm of people crowd the streets. Unreasonably cheery, last-minute shoppers who stroll around happy to throw their money at useless gadgets they’ll give and receive tomorrow and then forget all about before the year is over.
My phone rings as we leave New York behind to enter Lincoln Tunnel.
“Hello?” I answer.
“Caroline,” Yashika, one of my senior editors, says out of breath. “Glad I could reach you. I stopped by the office, but you were already gone.”
The declaration bugs me for two reasons. First, because where was she an hour ago when I was desperately searching for an excuse not to leave? And second, because I don’t like the idea, even implied, that someone could pull longer hours than me. I’m always the first in and the last out.
“Well, this is the one night of the year when I can’t escape my family. I’ve tried, believe me,” I say. “But what couldn’t wait until Monday? We had nothing urgent on our plates if I’m not mistaken?”
“Actually, we did.”
Yashika’s seniority is the only thing that allows her to contradict me.
“Really?” I watch the concrete walls blur past as we make our way through the tunnel, a flurry of cars getting out of the city before Christmas. “What?”
“The option for The Yellow Window expires tonight.”
“Yes, I’m aware. I’ve decided to pass.”
The silence stretches between us before Yashika cuts through. “You’ve passed on The Yellow Window? Why?”
“I made Kendall Hick an offer, and her agent turned it down.”
“How much did you offer?”
“Ten thousand dollars.”
“But that’s not nearly enough. That story is worth at least a six-figure advance.”
“For a debut author with no existing platform? You must’ve lost your mind, Yashika. I’ve already doubled what we offer to newbies. If Hick’s agent thinks she can get more somewhere else, they’re welcome to try their luck.”
“But, Caroline, The Yellow Window is a masterpiece. I had to bust my ass to convince the agent to give us an exclusive option, and you’re going to pass? Why? We have the money, haven’t we?”
Irritated, I spat, “Maybe you should’ve also negotiated for the agent to have realistic financial expectations. And for your information, I had to spend a considerable chunk of our acquisition budget on securing our newest memoir. With the rest, I prefer to buy twenty new books for five thousand each rather than risking it all on a nobody.”
Yashika’s line goes quiet, and for a moment I can’t tell if she hung up on me or if the poor reception in the tunnel cut her off.
Until her voice crackles back to life. “I can’t believe you’re throwing money at another ghostwritten celebrity bio instead of publishing the best book we’ve read in years.”
“Celebrity novels sell. I’m merely making a business decision.”
“It’s the wrong one. Another publishing house is going to snatch The Yellow Window and make it a number one bestseller, and we’re going to look like fools. You used not to care about profit that much. When I joined Wilkins and Marley, you were one of the best editors in the industry. You were ready to take a chance on new authors and you actually cared about the quality of the books we put out into the world.”
“Well, that was before we had to compete with streaming services that let you binge unlimited content for less than ten dollars a month. And careful, Yashika, that’s starting to sound awfully like a resignation speech.”
“Of course it isn’t,” Yashika replies in a much more subdued voice. Guess her solid principles stop at the security of a paycheck at the end of the month.
“Well, if there isn’t anything else?” I say, curt.
“No, Caroline, merr—I mean, have a good night.”
I hang up without replying and stare out the window.
On the other side of the tunnel, we’ve officially crossed into suburbia. The bustling streets of Manhattan have been replaced by tidy rows of houses lining both sides of the road, Christmas lights hanging from gutters with plastic blow-mold Santas, and snowmen snickering from their perches on the lawns. Meticulously plowed driveways split the otherwise immaculate blanket of snow down the sidewalks. In the thick fog, the houses beyond are mere phantoms, indistinct and unrecognizable. But I don’t need to see them to recognize every gate, postbox, and tree as we drive across my hometown. Until Nelson pulls up in front of yet another phantom house where the same plastic candy canes Fan has been using for years line the shoveled path to the front door.