New York, New Year, New You
First THREE Chapters FREE
If someone ever filmed my family at Christmastime, the end result would resemble a reality show where siblings are pitted against each other in a series of to-the-death competitions. Either that, or a documentary on domestic dysfunction with a delightfully festive backdrop. I can even hear the voiceover narration announcing, “The Carmichael clan competes for the Christmas crown” with exaggerated alliteration.
Observing what I’ve now dubbed the Gingerbread Gauntlet, I pop a gumdrop in my mouth, letting the copious amounts of sugar dissolve on my tongue as I regard my brother, Matt’s, pièce de résistance. He’s captured Thomas Jefferson’s historic home, the Monticello, in impressive detail down to the candy cane columns.
Beside him, my sister, Veronica, painstakingly squeezes a piping bag, adding evenly spaced frosting shingles to a fairy-tale cottage tantalizing enough to tempt Hansel and Gretel, even after their ill-fated foray into the witch’s forest.
By the end of the day, my dad will choose this year’s winner who will receive—I kid you not—a literal trophy. It’s one of those plastic statues commonly doled out at the end of a children’s soccer tournament, but still… It’s a trophy. For the best gingerbread house. Because who makes a gingerbread house just for fun?
If I sound bitter, it’s not because in all my twenty-eight years of life, I’ve never won the trophy. Or even come close. No, the slight chip on my shoulder is because, just once, I’d like to celebrate the holidays like I’m in one of those Hallmark movies with my loving family gathered around a cozy fireplace singing carols while big, fluffy snowflakes flutter outside the frosted window.
But that will never happen. Because my family can’t sing carols without turning it into a Christmas episode of The Voice. And it never snows in Los Angeles.
Veronica sets down the icing and reaches for the sifter of powdered sugar to add a dusting of saccharine snow to her creation. Her hand collides with Matt, who had the same idea.
“Excuse me, but I’m using that.” Veronica tightens her grip on the sifter.
“Correction. I’m using it.” Matt gives a little tug, eliciting a puffy white cloud.
I lean back in my chair, nibbling on a Twizzler as I watch the scene unfold. Even though they’re both in their early thirties, Veronica and Matt bicker like toddlers. Unless they’re picking on me, of course. That’s a united effort.
“No, I am.” Veronica gives the handle a hard yank, and a powdery plume explodes across the table like a sweetly scented volcanic eruption.
“Great. Look what you did.” Matt brushes the front of his cable-knit sweater, but only manages to make a bigger mess.
Watching in amusement, I drag the unchewed end of my licorice stick through the silky coating covering the plaid tablecloth, absent-mindedly tracing an outline of a snow angel.
“Me?” Veronica cries indignantly. “This is your fault! Look what you did to my gingerbread house. You buried it in an avalanche.”
“Yeah, well, mine looks like it was obliterated by a blizzard. So, I guess we’re even,” Matt huffs.
Veronica pouts for a full thirty seconds before her lips curl into a smirk. “Well, I guess it could be worse. Our gingerbread houses could look like Quincy’s. What’s it supposed to be, anyway? A replica of the Roman ruins?”
Matt snorts. “Don’t be obtuse. Can’t you tell she’s making an artistic statement?”
“Oh, right.” Veronica nods, playing up the joke. “What’s your masterpiece called?” she asks me with mock sincerity. “Deconstructed Gingerbread House?”
They share a laugh.
“Ha-ha. You two are hilarious.” I roll my eyes and take a nonchalant bite of the Twizzler, forgetting I’d just dipped it in sugar. Gross. There really is such a thing as too sweet.
I’d like to say their insults are out of jealousy, but the truth is, my gingerbread house—if you can even call it a house—would be condemned by any self-respecting building inspector. I doubt the lopsided roof could withstand a light throat-clearing from the Big Bad Wolf, let alone a full-blown huff and puff. But you want to know the truly sad part? It’s probably my best attempt to date. I am not gifted in the fine art of transforming baked goods into a home fit for the Borrowers.
I push back my chair and stand.
“Come on, Quincy. We’re only teasing. Don’t leave,” Veronica cajoles, doing her best to appear contrite. “We’ll be good. Right, Matt?”
“Scout’s honor.” He raises three fingers in the Boy Scout salute, even though he was never a member.
For a moment, I consider sitting back down. Despite the lifetime that has proven otherwise, a small part of me wants to believe in a Christmas miracle—that for once, we can enjoy a holiday together without the backhanded insults lobbed in my direction like verbal snowballs. Snowballs with hidden rocks in the center.
But before I can decide my next move, Mom sashays out of the kitchen carrying a silver platter of her infamous fruitcake. I know the iconic dessert gets a lot of flack this time of year, and the wisecracks are endless, but when it comes to my mother’s recipe, they’re all true. It’s basically concrete in loaf form, sprinkled with a few dried cranberries that, frankly, deserve better.
“Okay, kids. Time for fruitcake,” she announces in a singsong voice.
Matt and Veronica unabashedly groan, and my mother’s smile falters.
Diedre Carmichael has only one flaw. And it’s her inedible fruitcake. But despite the fact that one bite could crack the toughest of tooth enamel, she puts her heart and soul into it every year.
“Thanks, Mom.” I lift a hefty slice off the serving plate, nearly spraining my wrist. It easily weighs five pounds. “I’ve been waiting for this all night.”
Okay, so I’ve actually been anxiously awaiting it like a dental patient thumbing through a tattered copy of Highlights Magazine before their root canal, but I don’t expound on that detail.
Her face brightens. “Thank you, sweetheart.”
I follow her into the living room where my dad reclines in his wingback chair in front of the fire, both feet propped on a matching brocade ottoman. An unlit cigar dangles from between his lips. He claims he enjoys the smell and mouthfeel, but I’ve long suspected it’s simply an excuse to avoid eating Mom’s fruitcake.
I settle in the middle of the emerald-velvet Edwardian-style sofa, which I honestly don’t think was ever intended to be used as furniture, and Matt and Veronica plop down on either side of me.
Mom sets the fruitcake on the coffee table and offers me another slice. Her expression is so innocently expectant, I can’t refuse even though my stomach is still trying to figure out what to do with the first one.
Veronica snickers under her breath, but I ignore her, happy to see the glow on Mom’s face as she serves everyone eggnog before joining Dad in the twin armchair by the hearth.
The comforting sound of crackling logs mingles with the soft, melodic notes of “White Christmas” emanating from the custom built-in speakers hidden in the mantelpiece. The entire scene, from the tasteful decorations to everyone’s designer Christmas sweaters, is worthy of a greeting card. Yet, my chest constricts with a familiar foreboding, full of dread for what comes next.
“As we draw near the end of another year,” Dad says, raising his crystal-etched punch glass, “I couldn’t be prouder of all we’ve accomplished. The Carmichaels are a force to be reckoned with.”
“Hear! Hear!” Matt chants, lifting his own glass in solidarity.
As my father’s appraising gaze sweeps over us, I shrink back into the rock-hard cushions, wishing I could sink into the crevices and disappear. My dad, Charles Carmichael III, tends to have that effect on people. He expects nothing less than excellence. Of everyone. Which is probably why his advertising firm, Carmichael Creatives, has achieved such an impressive level of success. But no one feels the spine-crushing pressure more than his offspring.
“Deidre,” he says, turning to my mother, “the chest, please.”
She ceremoniously hands him an antique writing box of brass-bound mahogany, the sort of box I imagine British soldiers used to send love letters to their betrothed back home. Five scrolls lay inside, along with five gold-plated Montblanc pens.
Matt and Veronica scoot toward the edge of the couch in eager anticipation, while I retreat further back, craning my neck in search of an escape. Am I too young to fake a convincing stroke? I glance at the fruitcake. What if I nibble another bite and it conveniently lodges in my throat? Would choking to death extricate me from this unbearable situation? Or will I still be expected to participate as the paramedics wheel away my lifeless corpse on a gurney?
Probably the latter.
While I resign myself to the inevitable, Mom passes out the scrolls.
“Matthew,” Dad says, “as the eldest, you go first.”
Matt sits up straighter, pulling his shoulders so far back I can’t help but wonder if they popped out of socket. If so, he doesn’t seem to notice. “Last year,” he says with a self-gratified grin, “my Christmas Commitment was to learn Japanese. Ninmu kanryō.” He presses his palms together and bows at the waist as Mom and Veronica applaud and Dad voices his approval.
Since before I was born, my family has carried out a tradition called Christmas Commitments. Because we can’t simply make New Year’s resolutions like normal people. It’s essentially the same thing except a week earlier. And we write them down and report back each year, which is apparently all part of the “fun.”
“Veronica?” Dad prompts, beaming at her proudly.
She tosses her hair over her shoulder, whipping me in the face. Fortunately, she had her hair professionally blow-dried for the occasion, so the icy blond strands are silky soft and emit her trademark scent—strawberries and superiority.
“My Christmas Commitment was to get my master’s degree in business communications.” She pauses for dramatic effect, then draws a large swish in the air with her finger and says, “Check!”
“Well done!” This time, Dad starts the round of applause.
After she’s duly praised, the room turns eerily silent save for the melancholy rendition of “A Change at Christmas” by The Flaming Lips and the aforementioned crackling logs. I can feel the pitying glances, although I keep my eyes glued to the festive Nordic print on my fuzzy socks. The alternating pattern of tree, snowflake, tree, snowflake is quite hypnotic if you stare at it hard enough.
“Quincy?” I can hear the hesitation in my father’s voice. And something even sadder—hope. After all these years, he still thinks there’s a chance I won’t completely disappoint him.
My throat tightens. “I, uh…”
“It’s okay, honey,” Mom coos in her coddling way. The way that says All my babies are perfect, no matter what. Even you, Quincy. “You can tell us.”
“Come on.” Veronica nudges my arm. “How bad can it be?”
What she means to say is It can’t be any worse than every year prior. And she’s right. I take a deep breath, but I can’t form the words.
“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” she groans in exasperation. “I’ll do it.” Leaning over my shoulder, she reads off my scroll. “Last year, you wrote take a dance class.” She looks up, baffled. “That’s it? That’s your easiest Christmas Commitment ever. What were you so worried about? You didn’t even specify that you had to be any good at it.”
“Yeah, Quincy,” Matt adds, placing a hand on my arm. “I’m sure you were able to take a simple dance class, right?”
Heat and humiliation creep up my neck. I almost did. But when I arrived at Introduction to Swing in a 1950s rockabilly outfit only to find everyone else in street clothes, I was so embarrassed, I quickly ducked out of the room. Then I kind of… forgot about it.
When I don’t respond, my mother and father exchange a look. A look that simultaneously fills me with shame and relief as Mom chirps, “Why don’t I go next?”
For several minutes following, I barely listen as my parents take turns reporting on their accomplishments. Ever since I was five and quit ballet after one lesson, it’s become a family joke that I never follow through on anything. The adorable nickname Quincy the Quitter has been bandied about more than a few times. I’m not sure if it’s a chicken-or-egg situation and I quit things to live up to the moniker, or if I earned the title because I always quit things, but either way… The charming epithet will probably be engraved on my headstone.
“Anyway, kids,” Dad says, “that’s my big announcement.”
I blink, realizing I’ve missed something important. “What announcement?”
“Jeez, Quincy. Aren’t you paying attention?” Veronica sighs loudly. “Steve Bailcroft is retiring, and Dad wants to promote either Matt or I to marketing director. We have three months to create a campaign for our new client, Extra Energy Drink. Whoever comes up with the winning pitch, gets the promotion.”
For a moment, I’m too stunned to speak. Steve Bailcroft has been Dad’s right-hand man at Carmichael Creatives since its inception. He’s credited with more successful ad campaigns than anyone else in the company. Of course, Matt and Veronica have coveted his position since the day they were hired straight out of college, but everyone—including myself—thought Steve would keel over mid-pitch meeting before he ever retired.
Without thinking, I blurt, “What about me?”
Veronica bursts into laughter, and I can’t blame her. I have no idea what came over me. Except, I have this sudden, all-consuming urge to change the course of my life. Like Scrooge being shown his dismal fate by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, I glimpsed my own depressing future and didn’t like what I saw.
Veronica quickly sobers when I don’t recant my question. “Wait, are you serious?”
“Why not? I’ve worked there nearly as long as you have. And I’m a pretty good copywriter.”
“Sure, but…” She trails off as if her objections should be obvious, and casts a can-you-believe-her? expression in Dad’s direction.
He steeples his fingers and presses them to his chin, mulling it over.
“Daddy, please don’t tell me you’re actually considering Quincy for the position. Even if she wins, she’ll quit a day later,” Veronica voices what everyone’s thinking.
After a beat, Dad lowers his fingers and meets my gaze. “Veronica makes a valid point. How can I be assured you’ll follow through if you win?”
“Um…” I hesitate, admittedly stumped. I’d give him my word, but it doesn’t mean all that much when you consider my track record.
“I know!” Veronica cries, snatching the scroll from my hand. “What if she has to finish her Christmas Commitments? All of them?” Her eyes flash with a devious triumph, and for a moment, I marvel at how two people can look so much alike—we share the same lapis-blue eyes and blond hair, though mine is more sunny than snow queen—but be polar opposites in every other way.
As Dad ruminates over her suggestion, my pulse sputters. Maybe I could complete one or two of the items on the list, but all of them in three months? There’s no way.
“That’s not a bad idea, Veronica,” Dad says, and my heart plummets. “But not the entire list.” He turns to me. “If you want to be taken seriously in this competition, over the next three months, you’ll need to finish the last ten items on your list, including whatever you add today. Do we have a deal?”
I glance between Matt and Veronica. Matt licks his thumb and rubs the remaining powdered sugar smudge on his sweater, wholly uninterested, like he knows I’ll fail and isn’t worried about it. But Veronica… Veronica has this slightly manic glint in her eye, and her lips arch into a challenging sneer.
“I’ll do it,” I say quickly, before I can stop myself.
“Excellent!” Dad raises his glass. “Then may the best Carmichael win.”
As everyone salutes with a sip of eggnog, Veronica traces her fingertip down my list, landing on the first item I’ll need to cross off—the one I wrote ten years ago.
A slow smile spreads across her face as she leans in and whispers, “Good luck, Quincy. New York City is going to eat you alive.”
I dig my nails into the disconcertingly sticky leather seat as the cab driver swerves around a pedestrian with a death wish, wondering if Veronica was right.
This New York, with the petulant gray sky and gritty slush covering the uneven sidewalk, isn’t the magical city of Nora Ephron films. Although, it’s probably my fault. If I’d arrived in autumn rather than early January, I’d be sniffing bouquets of sharpened pencils instead of shivering in my too-thin coat, regretting my life choices.
The cabby—who’s inexplicably adverse to modern comforts like a heater and air freshener—slams on the brakes, and my forehead flies forward, colliding with the front seat headrest, which is slightly slimy for unfathomable reasons.
He hammers his fist against the horn, glaring at a stylish woman weighed down with shopping bags who’d stepped off the Fifth Avenue curb without a moment’s thought to oncoming traffic. Somehow, she manages to maneuver her packages just enough to free her hand for an offensive gesture that elicits a round of obscenities in return.
Ah, New York. The city that never sleeps. Which explains why everyone is so crabby.
I’m thrown back against the seat as the driver stomps on the gas, grumbling something about lousy tourists under his breath. I consider apologizing on behalf of myself and my fellow sojourners, but decide to keep my mouth shut, figuring anonymity is my best shot at survival. But I seriously contemplate booking a return flight as soon as I arrive at Brynn’s place. My childhood best friend would be disappointed but would ultimately understand. That’s the one perk to being dubbed Quincy the Quitter… no one bats an eye when you bail.
After all, I’d done that very thing ten years ago when I’d promised to follow her to New York after my gap year. She’d gone off to college at Columbia, and except for the one summer I’d visited—aka the worst summer of my life—I abandoned the idea of joining her. Eventually, she stopped asking me.
When I’d called out of the blue after the new year and sheepishly told her about the competition and asked to stay with her for three months—since Dad decreed it would be long enough to cross “Move to New York” off my list—I’d half-expected her to hang up before I’d finished my sentence. I hadn’t exactly done a great job keeping in touch all those years. But I should have known better. Brynn has always been the sweetest, most forgiving person on the planet, and she genuinely seems excited to see me. Which, I’m not gonna lie, adds to my guilt.
The cab lurches to a stop outside a stately brick building that looks more like a swanky hotel than an apartment complex. This is where Brynn lives?
Light snowflakes begin to fall, swirling around the black-and-white striped awning shielding the entrance and dusting the twin rows of potted conifer trees flanking the broad stone steps. A soft glow emanates from behind the glass door like a beacon of warmth welcoming me out of the cold.
My spirits are so lifted by the beautiful sight, I don’t even mind when the driver makes me haul my own humongous suitcase out of the trunk. Or when one of the wheels gets caught in a crack in the sidewalk. As freezing flakes find their way down my collar, stinging the back of my neck, I yank the handle of my suitcase, but it won’t budge. I glance at the driver, hoping he’ll take pity on my plight.
Instead, he skids off down the street, flinging ice-cold slush from his tires like a water cannon, drenching the front of my coat and jeans. To add insult to injury, my suitcase wheel chooses that exact moment to free itself from the crevice, and the momentum sends me flailing backwards into a snow-covered—and unpleasantly prickly—bush.
For a moment, I consider the pros and cons of staying put and letting the thorny branches envelop me until I freeze solid and become a permanent fixture. Con: I’d probably be a prime spot for snooty Upper East Side dogs to relieve themselves. Pro: Becoming an ice sculpture may be my best shot at sticking out the entire three months in Manhattan. That settles it. Succumb to a frosty grave and finally finish what I started.
My resolve waivers when melted snow seeps through my clothing, racking my body with a bone-shattering shiver. I clearly don’t have what it takes to be a martyr for my own moral growth, so I ungracefully liberate myself.
Sopping wet and bedraggled, I lug my suitcase into the pristine lobby, dripping water onto the white marble floor. Taking in the elegant wallpaper and expensive artwork, I feel incredibly out of place as I try to remember Brynn’s most recent text.
So sorry! I’m stuck at work. See Sharon. And don’t forget depreciation.
Her cryptic instructions don’t make much sense, and I’m pretty sure that last part—which sounds like one of her nerdy accounting terms—is a mistake and meant for someone else.