Darla

Darla, with her Southern charm, fresh-baked treats, and incredible efficiency, was the best thing that ever happened to our office–and also maybe the worst.

Female secretary handling multiple tasks at once. Source: Shutterstock.com/ © Lyudmyla Kharlamova

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On the Friday before Vanessa was due to return, Darla submitted her letter of resignation.

It was a thoroughly unexpected blow to our collective psyche, and we were in no way equipped to deal with it.

We don’t understand, we cried. How could you leave us? What did we do wrong?

She assured us that we had been lovely—absolute dears—but firmly insisted that her services were needed elsewhere.

Impossible! No one could need you more than we do. You have to stay! we begged.

But she would not stay, and it didn’t occur to anyone to point out that she was contractually obligated to give two weeks notice; such piddling details were so clearly beneath her. At precisely five o’clock, she breezed out the front door for the last time, leaving behind a pristine desktop and the lingering aroma of pecan bars.

*****

Vanessa had succeeded in signing both of the big clients we’d been after in China and was in very high spirits on Monday morning. The rest of us, however, were in no mood to celebrate and found her good cheer almost insulting.

In the short time Darla had been with us, we had grown used to starting each day by placing an offering of paperwork on the altar of her desk, and the realization that we would have to go back to doing all of it ourselves was a bitter pill to swallow. It might have gone down easier with a buttermilk biscuit or an oatmeal cookie, but of course those were gone, too.

As the day went on, Vanessa found it difficult to maintain her enthusiasm over the new clients while surrounded by our stony faces. By the time she walked past the restroom and overheard Gordon sobbing inside, she was feeling as bad as the rest of us, although she couldn’t have known why.

Over the next few dark and rainy days, a disturbing series of inexplicable problems began to emerge. We received notices from some of our vendors indicating that they hadn’t received our payments. A customer called to complain that she had sent three email queries about a late shipment and never gotten a single reply, nor had the shipment in question ever arrived. Most troubling of all, Gordon printed a new copy of the spreadsheet Darla had taken from him on her first day of work and discovered it still had not been updated with the correct product codes.

“Are you telling me all of these tasks were assigned to an administrative assistant whom I’ve never even met?” Vanessa asked, exasperated.

We shrugged. “We thought you hired her,” Gordon said. “She showed up right after you left.”

Vanessa walked over to Darla’s desk and switched on her computer.

We gaped at her. Darla’s desk had become a sacred place for us, and we maintained a respectful distance from it at all times.

After a few minutes, Vanessa looked up from Darla’s computer with a very peculiar expression on her face. “There’s nothing saved on here,” she said. “No documents, no spreadsheets, no files of any kind.” She tugged on the yellow Ethernet cable that snaked down through a hole in the top of Darla’s desk. It came up easily—too easily. We stared at the little transparent cube on the end, transfixed. What sorcery was this?

Vanessa reached under Darla’s desk and dragged out a large cardboard file box. It was not labeled.

Outside, there was a menacing rumble of distant thunder.

With an effort, Vanessa hoisted the box onto the desk.

We gathered around, encircling the box, desperately afraid of the secrets it contained but unable to resist their pull.

Vanessa removed the lid, and we all peered inside.

The box was filled with papers. Our papers. Every single sheet of paper we’d set on Darla’s desk over the last month was in there, unmarked and unread, taunting us with the heartbreaking truth. It was as if a great wave had suddenly come crashing over us; we could feel the sands of reality shifting beneath our feet.

What happened next was probably the result of an unpaid electric bill resting somewhere in the shadowy depths of that corrugated tomb, but it felt like a sign from the gods. As we stood there, huddled together like mourners at a graveside service and wondering how we would ever get on with our work or our lives after this hideous revelation, all the lights abruptly went out.

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