On her first Friday at Skye Publishing, Alyssa Martin intended to avoid making any more mistakes. But while working during her lunch hour, she couldn’t resist peeking at her emails. She spotted a subject line help from her new friend Courtney, opened the message, and read:
I feel like the stupidest here.
Please send me your words of cheer.
Obviously their boss, Mr. Bingem, had belittled Courtney. Alyssa, a recent college grad, knew how that felt. She’d cringed, and he’d roared about a terrible mistake that shut down computers. He’d snapped at typos she hadn’t noticed, and he’d growled about a few minutes of lateness. Only Courtney had given instructions patiently.
Having finished proofreading sales statistics twice, Alyssa decided she could afford a few minutes to console her friend. The hall outside her beige cubicle was quiet, no one in sight. To a passerby she might look businesslike, wearing a navy suit and button earrings, focusing on a computer screen. Only her necklace of shells looked as creative as what a higher-up wore in the editorial department she aspired to. She typed:
The boss is the stupidest here.
Feeling hungry, she bit into her peppery tuna sandwich, then continued:
He makes his staff feel like a mite
And upsets us with his sneer.
When she touched the mouse and thought, smiling, of sending Mr. Bingem up in a kite, her screen turned icy blue and warned, Your message has been sent. She jerked her hands away, letting the mouse clatter to the floor, and slid her wheeled chair back from the desk. Only Courtney should get the message, she thought, although she suspected the computer of a mischievous streak. As she rummaged in a drawer for instructions about unsending, Courtney rushed into the cubicle, wearing a cherry suit and carnation perfume, her silver earrings and ponytail swinging, stilettoes clicking.
“There’s a disaster,” Courtney announced.
“What?” Alyssa asked, her shoulders stiffening.
“I just learned from Joan, our emails went to everyone on our floor, and that includes, I’m sorry to tell you, Mr. Bingem.”
For a moment Alyssa couldn’t take in what she’d heard. “It went to Bingem?”
“Yes, do you know how to unsend? I might be able to.”
“Oh, please do.” Alyssa was surprised that her throat tensed and her voice squeaked.
Courtney tapped commands on the computer, and the screen replied, That function is not available. Alyssa phoned the tech squad, heard a nasal recorded voice, and pleaded for help fast.
“Not in? They take a long lunch. It’s probably too late to unsend.” Courtney glanced at the little, framed photos and the potted philodendron that now seemed a temporary effort at making the cubicle homey. “Don’t get so upset. Just think, you could find a job that you’ll like a lot better than this one.”
Another job — where? Alyssa had tried for four months to land anything in publishing. When she’d told her parents about the opportunity at Skye, her mom had beamed and hugged her, pleased and proud.
“My parents want to save for retirement, and I want a job where I can get promoted to children’s books, and this is the only one with even a chance. Could you try again to unsend?”
Courtney made another effort, stood back, and talked fast, bobbing her head, her earrings jingling. “If you could hack into his computer — look into his files for his password or, here’s an idea, disguise your voice and leave him a message that he’s needed immediately at home.”
The suggestions became a blur. Courtney waved a hand where her ring finger sparkled; she expected to move to another city, another company, and happiness in six months. For Alyssa a mistake could end her career hopes. No promotion to editorial, not even a job.
Needing to rally her thoughts into a plan, she said with a flicker of annoyance at the friend whose email had started this disaster, “Let’s be careful.” They must quell their panic, breathe slowly. “I’ll send an email telling people not to open our last emails.” Alyssa’s hand shook when she picked up her mouse and slid it. The cursor refused to budge on the screen. Her stomach felt like when an airplane hit turbulence. The screen showed 12:47, scant time left before Bingem’s usual time to return from lunch.
Courtney scrunched her face and chewed her lower lip. “The subject line help will get his attention, and he could’ve read our emails already, the way he goes walking around with his smartphone. You’ll need a believable excuse.”
A pain worsened in Alyssa’s stomach. “I’ll say that I didn’t mean it, it’s a jest that I messed.”
“And tell him that he’s the best, but he’s not a good sport type that’d take a joke, although he actually used to seem like a human being and he even smiled sometimes before that mean old Mr. Winters joined the company. Bingem’s in his worst moods after they’re together.”
“Do you know if Winters was on our floor today?” Alyssa asked.
“I didn’t see him yet although he usually comes prowling around on Fridays.”
“Maybe Bingem’s secretaries would delete our emails.” Hope floundered up.
“She wouldn’t dare touch anything of his unless —” Courtney’s face brightened. “She might ask his permission to remove yours because, let’s say it’s too personal about you. She’s a helpful, friendly type, so we could ask her.”
“Thank you for that idea! Let’s go now and hope she’s there.”
They found J.R. Bingem’s door locked and waited beside it, expecting his secretary to return before him. Soon other employees hurried by, returning from lunch. At 12:55 Courtney whispered, “I’ll go and explain to all our coworkers to ignore our emails.” She fled, and Alyssa thought, I made the stupidest bungle, I’m alone in a jungle. At 1 p.m. his secretary was still away. Taking a chance on who would return first, Alyssa lingered, her heart thumping. At 1:02 J.R. Bingem, a plump, balding supervisor, lumbered from around a corner, and his scowl blew her away.
In the cubicles Alyssa passed, women were already typing. As soon as she reached her desk, she phoned the tech squad, whose recording answered. While she searched in a drawer for computer instructions, her phone rang.
A woman’s voice sounded sympathetic. “Mr. Bingem said to tell you to come to his office immediately.”
“Oh, now? Uh, I’ll be there.”
Alyssa felt an urge to scoop up her pocketbook and photos from the desk and run away, rather than endure his scolding. She’d have a charge card bill to pay, her parents to soothe, and no place that she wanted to apply to; she’d exhausted her list of publishing companies. I can beg for mercy, she thought, and appeal to sympathy. She risked two minutes with her little mirror, tidying her collar, applying pink lipstick, and arranging her wavy hair to try to resemble a girl her age, probably his daughter, who smiled in a photo on his desk. Breathing fast, she left her cubicle.
When she reached his chilly outer office, the gray-suited secretary said, “I’m sorry, you’ll need to wait.”
A minute later the door swung open, and H.T. Winters, a steely-haired executive of imposing height, stalked out. His suit, his watch, and his shining shoes all looked more expensive than anything Mr. Bingem ever wore. He frowned at Alyssa, his eyes opaque like bullets.
Entering the inner office, she almost coughed on cigar smoke. The starkness of the small room was softened only by a tan carpet and family photos on a beige wall and desk. Mr. Bingem slumped in a swivel chair behind his desk, his jowls drooping.
“I read that unjustified email,” he rumbled.
“I was working during lunch hour, trying to catch any mistake I might have made, and for a moment I wasn’t thinking right. I was going to change it, I didn’t mean to send it, but the computer —”
“You should know not to write an email that you don’t want the world to see, and you should know that sending out such an insult can be a cause for a termination of your employment.”
Yes, she knew, for describing the boss as stupid, she could be on the street fast. Mr. Bingem looked displeased, remote, tired, a finger touching his throat, his glance wandering from her, perhaps undecided.
After a moment when she could not think of what to say, words rushed out. “I’ll tell everyone around here that it was my stupid mistake.”
He leaned forward and said in a softer tone, “Fortunately, I reached one of our geeks on his cell phone, and he’ll remove that mess. Because you’re new here and your work has already shown improvement, I’ll give you a chance with a warning. I’ll warn you once, don’t ever again insult anyone like that around here.” He leaned back in his swivel chair. “You were totally wrong about Herbert Winter, who we should describe as” — Bingem’s voice rose to a doubtful pitch — “intelligent.”