We Regret to Inform You
We heard from Amanda in sales that a gurney had been sent up to the third floor this morning. We received the email from HR after lunch.
“We regret to inform you,” the email stated, “that Mark Lawson, senior director of communications, passed away this morning. Mark has been with the company for 24 years. He will be missed. A grief therapist will be available tomorrow in the conference space next to the break room for anyone who would like her services.”
It looked just like the HR emails that reminded us of upcoming holidays and that skin cancer screenings were available on the top floor. Navy blue font, no orange exclamation point. It blended in with the rest of our inboxes. We could have missed it had we not been waiting for it.
We all went back to work. No one in the contracts department knew Mark that well. Ellison had only been at his position for three months. Yasmina had been here almost a year, the longest of us new hires. We were young and promising and ready to go over terms and clauses. The only time any of us had contacted Mark was when our boss told Julie to check with the communications department on a stipulation involving a client and a third party.
“That’s a marketing question,” Mark had replied via email.
For the rest of the day, we heard whispers about how this man we’d never met had collapsed at his desk. We gave our condolences whenever we passed anyone from the communications team in the hallways. We asked Amanda what she had seen, but she told us that she hadn’t gotten a good look at him as he was wheeled out of the building. There had been a wall of EMTs and HR representatives surrounding Mark as if he were the eye of a storm, as if they were shielding us from witnessing something unsightly.
We knew our morbid excitement over the email had marked us as immature and unprofessional to ourselves and to each other. We fidgeted at our desks and spoke in soft tones, worried that raising our voices would further our insensitivity. Amanda, meanwhile, had been with the company for seven years and was unphased by anything that happened in the office. Her heels made the same measured clack across the floor; her smile held the same welcoming broadness. At the end of the day, she told us how relieved she was to have completed a huge campaign.
She was older than us and yet young enough for us to feel comfortable inviting her to lunch, complaining to her about our department, and asking her for dating advice. Julie had taken to wearing her stringy blond hair into a top bun like Amanda’s, while Wes had adopted the same smirk Amanda used when someone asked for help on their projects.
John, in the accounts payable department next to ours, took the news harder than we did. He paced our floor and muttered to himself, his bald head sweating.
“Mark was three years from retirement,” John said. “I’m ten years younger than he was.”
“It’s so sad, John,” we said to him.
“Cardiovascular problems run in my family,” John said.
“Don’t worry, John,” we said.
“I should exercise more,” John continued. “My wife takes spin classes. We have a stability ball in storage.”
“Sounds good, John,” we said.
John replaced his chair with the stability ball the following day. When he left his cubicle to attend a meeting, we took the ball, formed a circle, and rolled it back and forth to each other.
It was a rare moment during which we had somehow scanned and duplicated each contract, updated the statuses of all our business deals, triple-checked for signatures on every line. Yasmina’s shoulders relaxed after so many months of them tense near her ears, and Randall had stopped sighing at the top of each hour. We talked about what hobbies we had, which home towns we had come from, whether we were using this job as a step toward a better company or grad school. As we let the ball travel across the floor, Axel heard us laughing and left his office to see what we were up to.
“So new here, all of you,” Axel said. He leaned against the wall and ran a hand through his gelled hair. We smiled nervously. “And so strong as a team! You’ll all need each other to stick it through. It’s hard to find a workplace that really functions as a second home.”
He looked at us one by one before heading into the boss’s office to discuss some nonstandard client agreement. We returned to our desks. As soon as we emailed Amanda to joke about how Axel’s life lessons must contribute to the department’s high turnover rate, we received two more emails from HR, one after the other.
“We regret to inform you,” the email started again.
“That Susan Shields passed away this morning.”
“That Chris Pall passed away earlier today.”
They were both in accounting. Julie asked if any of us knew the difference between accounting and accounts payable. Our boss walked by as she asked the question and frowned. None of us knew, and none of us asked John, either, when he returned from his meeting even sweatier and paler than usual.
“I’m taking the stairs now,” he said. “I’ve got to keep my health up.”
Amanda hadn’t heard how Susan or Chris died, but she did know them both and told us she wouldn’t be joining us for drinks after work that night. After our boss gave us each a new stack of assignments an hour before the end of the day, none of us went out for drinks either. We stayed until 7:30 and went home straight after.
We had moved to the city to work here, all of us young and promising contracts people. Wes’s fiancé had been living in the city two years prior to complete his master’s. Ellison’s family was on the other side of the country, and he planned to keep it that way. Sunny had an abuela in the suburbs. Our friends and mentors and older brothers had gushed about the city before the move.
“There’s energy in everything,” they had said. “So many people, so many things to do, so many adventures to have.”
Our bedrooms were the sizes of halal carts, and the rest of our apartments weren’t much larger. Our roommates were polite and out of the way, even if at night our walls were so thin we could hear each other typing on keyboards.
“Can they hear us?” we asked our partners after sex.
“Probably,” they answered. “We can hear them.”
They would go to sleep while we lay awake, listening to our roommates’ phone calls home, the foreign music of the restaurant on the ground floor, laughing groups leaving the movie theater down the block, food delivery boys flying past on their bicycles. We hoped the experience would feel less strange with time.
We tried inviting each other, us new hires, to the same clubs and festivals and parties that our friends and lovers would take us to, but we often found ourselves too tired to do much more than take the subway home and stay there.
When we arrived in the office the next day, HR had sent six more emails.
“We regret to inform you,” they began. Someone from the copywriting department, another from communications, three from production. The sixth was to let us know the elevator was under repair after its cord snapped. When we had walked in that morning, there was a single yellow band stretched across the elevator doors.
Randall complained that HR should switch up the emails a little, change the font color or add a picture or something, after he nearly forwarded one of the emails to a client awaiting approval on a rider. We nodded, as we had almost done the same thing.
A seventh email came: a memorial service would be held at the end of the month for everyone who had passed away, and a voluntary company-wide meeting would take place in the ground floor event space tomorrow morning for anyone concerned about the state of the office.
“I can’t work like this,” Mallory said. “Whatever is going on, I can’t deal with it.”
She told us she was taking a walk, but she never came back. We spent our lunch break that day waiting in line for the grief therapist.
“I don’t think it’s affecting my work, but is it bad that I’m bad at my work?” Ellison asked.
“Can we get more than ten minutes of time with you?” April asked.
“I know you’re here because you specialize in grief, but can we come to you for other non-grief-related problems?” Julie asked.
We saw Amanda in line for the therapist on our way back to our floor. Her face looked just as emotionless as ever, which we admired, and we told her we were excited to catch up with her soon. She grinned with a stiff precision that frightened us and said she wouldn’t be available for drinks again until the weekend.
While we ate lunch at our desks and filed our work, we asked each other about the loved ones we’d lost. Our lists were short, but we were young. And promising. The boss came by to ask how we were all doing, then walked back into his office. We watched him shut the door and heard him turn his lock.
“I sent my two weeks’ notice yesterday,” Victor said. “To be honest, I’m not sure I’ll even stay two weeks longer.”
Two of us nodded, having also sent our two weeks’ in. We thought about Mallory. Yasmina said she was ready to just quit with no notice, just like her. None of them had other positions lined up yet, but they were done with the company, done with the thankless work. The rest of us looked down, wondering whether what we were feeling for them was panic or jealousy.
At the company-wide meeting, we sat in a group at the back of the event space and tried not to think of how late we would have to stay that evening. Our phones buzzed with four more emails from HR. One in public outreach, three in sales. From our spot, we watched Amanda’s smooth, placid face from across the room as she checked her phone.
A row of chairs lined the right side of the stage. As the graying CEO asked the room to quiet down from his spot at the center of the stage, the chairs filled with small, nervous women in pale cardigans and paisley dresses. They introduced themselves as the HR department, saying their names down the line as if they were doing roll call in grade school. Somewhere near the front, we heard Axel let out a low whistle. After some brief remarks on the arrangements being made for the memorial service, the CEO asked if anyone wanted to voice their questions or concerns.
“Have the elevator shafts been checked? How about the fire alarms? The stairwells?”
“How does HR learn about these deaths before my department does?”
“Is it true that the building’s haunted?”
“Where do the bodies go?”
“Why do these deaths keep happening?”
As the room grew louder, the HR department stood up from their chairs quietly and filed out of the room. The last of the nervous women pulled her phone from her cardigan pocket and let out a sob as the door closed behind her. A second later, the room filled with various chimes and buzzes. Another email from communications. The room exploded with questions being shouted over those who were weeping.
“That’s it,” Yasmina said. “I quit.”
Wes, Sunny, and Adrian agreed. They walked out of the building, as did a few others from departments we’d never been in touch with. The rest of us went back up to the top floor to continue working.
The boss came by and asked if everything was alright, ignoring the empty desks. He didn’t wait for our replies, instead walking briskly into his office to lock himself in again. One by one, the HR emails began to appear in our inboxes by the hour, still bearing names of people we never met, hardly knew, and couldn’t find in ourselves to mourn. One by one, more of us got up from our desks and left, sliding letters of resignation under our boss’s door. We were down to a handful of people by the end of the day.
On our way out of the building, we ran into Amanda. She flashed a perfect smile at us and mentioned that she was on her way to celebrate another successful campaign.
“I can’t wrap my head around what’s going on,” Julie said. “How are we expected to handle this?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Amanda said, her eyes wide. “Everything is fine.”
“Everyone is dying,” we told her.
“I worked hard on this campaign,” she said. “I can’t focus on anything else.”
She turned her back on us and left, the clack of her heels echoing across the building floor. Except for Julie, who was crying, we did what Amanda had done and pretended nothing had gone wrong.
Once we had gone our separate ways, I loosened my tie. There was a park by the office that I would go to when it was a particularly nice day. It had a fountain, some men who played chess, a dog run. I sat on the lip of the fountain, watching other people file in and out of skyscrapers. I stayed there until the sun went down, looking at my office, wondering if the lights inside always stayed on or if there was ever a moment when the whole building went dark.
The next day, I was the only one who returned to the office. The boss’s door remained closed. Axel came by to ask how I was doing, what the team was up to, what it was like to be so young, so promising, with so much left to look forward to.