In the meeting, James Halliday announced the company was being sold and then he couldn’t stop coughing. This was bad timing—both the sale of the company and the coughing— because everyone, including Mallory, had a lot of questions about the sale and the coughing fit seemed a little too prolonged to be real, theatrically timed and thus suspect, though James was well-liked overall and thought to be a straight shooter by the kind of people who used the term straight shooter and believed in such a thing. Mallory was also sick, though she wasn’t coughing. She had multiple doctor’s appointments scheduled but she kept canceling them and coming to work instead, because she, like everyone else, knew the sale was coming and wanted to be there when the news came out. She poured James a glass of water. He drank, his eyes wild and red and teary, then said, “As I was saying—” and started coughing all over again.
Mallory exchanged glances with Simone across the table. Simone looked panicked. Technically she was second in command because a sudden string of executive departures had left her there, designated-survivor style, but she was twenty-five and had confided to Mallory in the restroom, after asking her for a tampon, that she was applying to law school.
“I think what James was saying,” said Shyama from HR, “is that we deeply value everyone’s contributions here and the company will be looking to make this transition as smooth as it possibly can be.”
There was a silence strewn with James’s continued, though quieter, coughing.
“When?” Mallory said.
“When what?” Shyama said.
“When is the smooth transition? When is the sale? When is our last day of work?”
James Halliday finally subdued his cough. “It’s today,” he said. “It’s happening. It’s now.”
Some facts about James Halliday: He was exquisitely good-looking. He had high cheekbones and green eyes with notably long eyelashes. His mother was a Peruvian human-rights activist and his father was a cardiac surgeon who had met her while volunteering in the Peace Corps and the whole family, including James, returned to Peru for a period of time each year to do good works. Everyone at the company knew this from reading media profiles of him, though he never discussed it himself. When he was in Peru doing good works with his family, he was still accessible by email. He was always accessible by email. Mallory had never known anyone to return emails faster, on a regular basis, than James. On the evening she received her diagnosis, she wrote him at 10 p.m. to say that she would be taking a couple of personal days. She didn’t say why. He replied at eleven. I hope everything is right with you and the world, his email said, a message Mallory archived immediately so she’d never have to look at it again.
James Halliday, now recovered, fielded questions. He shared that the digital-media conglomerate buying the company had some thoughts about their profit-model scalability. He said that in the interim there would be triage. Eventually, he said, new positions would become available, though he was careful not to promise they’d be available to anyone in particular. On questions about severance and benefits packages he deferred to Shyama, who passed out glossy folders containing exit surveys and 1-800 numbers. On questions about project management he deferred to Simone, who looked stricken and unable to answer them, and so James took them back and answered them himself. The meeting was over in an hour and Mallory returned to her workspace. Next to her, Bryan Das cursed softly into his cell phone. “Can we reverse the sale? I know I signed the paperwork—I want to unsign it.” To Mallory he said, “I just put a down payment on a fucking condo.”
Shyama came through the office balancing a tray on her upturned palm like a waitress. On it were wheatgrass shots in paper cups. Her HR portfolio included wellness.
“It was in the fridge,” Shyama said. “I didn’t want to waste it.”
Mallory’s phone rang. It was a client—the news was getting out. Mallory said, “In the interim there will be triage,” and hung up.
She opened the brochure. Her health insurance would be good until the end of the month, following which she would be eligible for COBRA coverage at a cost she wouldn’t be able to afford. At the end of the month she was supposed to fly to Denver for an experimental protocol that she also wouldn’t be able to afford. At least she hadn’t put a down payment on a fucking condo.
She clicked through her email, forwarding client contacts to her personal inbox. She messaged a headhunter. She posted an article about viral marketing on LinkedIn. Bryan and Simone and some others headed to the Mexican restaurant downstairs to get drunk. “I’ll be there in a few,” she promised, and Bryan said, “Just want to steal a last few office supplies?” and she said, “I’ve been coveting your Swingline stapler for months,” and he said, “If you touch my Swingline I will cut you,” and put it in his messenger bag. Everyone laughed hollowly and loud. There was a last-day-of-camp feel to things, an extravagance of emotion, hugging where hugging had not previously been condoned.
Then stillness settled. At the other end of the room someone’s computer speakers broadcasted the tinny bass of classic rock on 101.5 The Hawk. As she often did, Mallory gazed out the window at the office building across the street. She could see a whiteboard where people in meetings drew graphs and brainstormed with dry-erase markers, and she could never quite decipher what they wrote and found herself trying to, all the time, despite not really caring and knowing it wouldn’t, ultimately, be very interesting. Her preoccupation was as pure a waste of time as existed in this life, and therefore was a luxury. She walked to the window and pressed her palms to the glass. On their whiteboard an orange arrow intersected a green rectangle inside which sat a single blue word.
“It says deliverable,” James said. “Inside the box it says deliverable.”
When she turned around, he was sitting in Bryan’s ergonomic chair, looking more impeccable in his T-shirt and jeans than she did in her office-casual wear. Until she came to work at his company she hadn’t known there were expensive T-shirts tailored to look impeccable. She knew it now because James had once been photographed for a men’s fashion magazine that listed the prices of the clothes. The hoodie he wore in the picture was cashmere and cost nine hundred dollars. As head of brand management, she enclosed PDFs of the piece with their market-share reports and also framed the article and hung it in the hall by the elevator until James, who was modest, asked her to take it down.
“How do you know?” she asked now.
“I called over there and asked them,” he said. “It was driving me crazy.”
Of course he would have called and asked them. James Halliday would never have luxuriated in weeks of wondering about a word on a whiteboard.
“Not that I know what the deliverable is,” he added, and coughed.
He looked around, spotted a box of tissues at someone’s workspace, and blew his nose. Another fact about James Halliday: He suffered from lung irritation and was especially sensitive to industrial particulate. She knew this, as everyone in the office did, because Shyama had circulated an apologetic memo on his behalf explaining why they weren’t allowed to open the windows.
“You didn’t ask?” she said when he was done blowing.
“We have to keep some mystery in this life,” he said. “Also, they probably think it’s proprietary. Come sit.”
She sat down next to him, in her own ergonomic chair. He leaned toward her, tented his fingers beneath his chin.
“How are you doing? I’ve been worried about you.”
She didn’t. She didn’t know what facts, if any, James Halliday knew about her. She’d worked for him for eighteen months unrolling a content strategy for the company that had not succeeded. Because of this, she believed that the failure of the company to thrive was in large part her own. She didn’t feel that badly about it, though the loss of the job itself was catastrophic. She took hold of her ponytail and pulled at her split ends, an old habit. In a month, when she began the experimental protocol, she would lose her hair. The results of the protocol were uncertain, the doctor had said, but the hair loss was a definite outcome—a deliverable.
James Halliday studied her with rare, considered attention. He said, “I know you always thought the XFC distribution strategy was a mistake. I suppose you think I should have listened to you.”
Mallory couldn’t, for a moment, remember what the XFC distribution strategy was. Then she couldn’t believe that he thought she still cared, at one-thirty on a Tuesday afternoon on the last day of her job, as the company emptied to a shell whose constituent parts were downstairs ordering watermelon margaritas and shrimp nachos. But of course he thought that, because he still cared. A steadfast and imperturbable earnestness, an implacable refusal to acknowledge the superfluity of his company: These were keys to his success. Because if James Halliday thought the company mattered, James Halliday with his good works and his good looks and his smartness and sincerity—if he believed it, then couldn’t it be true?
Mallory said, “It doesn’t matter what I think.”
He leaned back, crossed his legs at the ankles. “No,” he said, “I guess not. Man, I hate this song.” She’d forgotten the music was playing, but he got up, strode down the row of computers until he reached the source of “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” and clicked the sound off. She thought that would be the end of it, but as she was packing her bag, he returned.
“What are you doing now?” he said.
“Putting off the inevitable drunken afternoon at Nacho Mamacita.”
“No, I mean after that.”
She didn’t say: I’m going to look for another job while pursuing an experimental protocol in Denver that will certainly lead to hair loss.
She said, “I might get a cat.”
“I’m going to Galisteo in the morning,” he said. This made sense; Galisteo, in California, was the campus headquarters of the digital-media conglomerate that had bought their company.
“Why don’t you come with me?”
“Me? What for?”
Although they’d collaborated on the company’s brand story, Mallory and James weren’t close. At the last company barbecue, they’d spoken for five minutes about their shared affinity for vinegary German potato salad. Encouraged by his agreement, Mallory had declared mayonnaise-based potato salad “a monstrosity,” at which point James excused himself from the conversation.
“I’ll be there for meetings. You can connect with Arthur—he heads things out there. You can advise us on the content strategy for the transition.”
Mallory felt, as she often did lately, light-headed. The doctor said this was not necessarily a symptom of her illness, though it could be. Eat small, frequent meals, the doctor said.
“I have the discretion to keep a few people on payroll beyond today,” James Halliday said.
Once, leaving the office, she saw James Halliday hail a cab in the rain, notice an elderly woman beside him who needed it, put her in it, and walk away, umbrella-less, with his hands in his pockets.
“Surely,” he said to her now, “the cat can wait.”
That night she skimmed some articles about the conglomerate, how they were industry disruptors altering the digital-media landscape while at the same time becoming fixtures of it. Arthur McLellan, the CEO, was the opposite of James, at least personality-wise: He was brusque, twice-divorced, with garrulous ex-wives who gave interviews about what a self-absorbed person he was. His self-absorption equated to absorption in the company he built and was therefore only a positive where stock valuation was concerned. Instead of focusing on the articles, Mallory found herself texting people from work. Bryan hadn’t managed to unsign the mortgage on the condo but after the watermelon margaritas had gone home with Dmitri from IT, a long-held goal of his, so he was in good spirits. Why didn’t you come out with us? he wrote. We did karaoke and Shyama sang Purple Rain. She’s kind of sexy in an Ann Taylor way. Then he started texting about James—He’s probably on a private jet to Lima. He’s forgotten all our names already—andMallory stopped answering.
Some other facts she knew about James Halliday, from media profiles, office documents, and general gossip: He was a Virgo. He had completed two years of a PhD program in American Studies at Brown before going into business instead. His college girlfriend was now a well-known actress making the leap from indie films to superhero movies. His current girlfriend was the executive director of a nonprofit organization that made microloans to women in Kenya. He considered himself a feminist. He didn’t eat red meat. He believed it wasn’t too late to change the world.
She landed in Sacramento to a heat wave, Northern California style: a wall of drought that prickled her skin and made the distant air crease. At the extended-stay hotel, she checked into her suite and threw up in the bathroom. Her face swam green and pale in the mirror. She threw up a lot lately, a symptom the doctor ascribed to stress related to the illness and not to the illness itself. The view from her window was a parking lot flanked by parched, spindly palm trees. Her cell beeped with a text from James, and when she got down to the lobby, he was on his phone. He paused briefly to look at her and asked, “You okay?”
When she nodded, he gestured for her to follow him outside to a rental car, and he drove them in air-conditioned suspension along freeways and up through twisting, arid canyons pockmarked with brown pines and scrub oaks until they reached the Galisteo campus, which was spread like a Spanish villa across plots of watered green lawns. Set away in the hills, off a private road, the place looked majestic and secretive, like a supervillain lair. Arthur McLellan ran company buses from Sacramento and paid his employees enormous salaries to offset the commute. She’d read that many of them shared tiny apartments that they hardly saw, because they spent all their time on the campus.
Inside, the building was hushed with special quiet, like a museum. Wherever she looked people were working, but everyone was wearing wireless headphones and not speaking. They entered a boardroom with floor-to-ceiling windows, through which Mallory could see tennis courts, a pool, a gazebo—all deserted. James murmured, “Just listen for now,” as if she might have done anything else.
The first meeting was with a Swiss executive who was there to discuss, if she understood correctly, a newly invented tool for cardiac surgery. It wasn’t clear to her if he was a doctor or a salesman for the tool or both. Cardiac surgery had never been part of the brand story at James Halliday’s company and she wasn’t sure how it connected now. She felt drowsy and useless. After this meeting was coffee with a team promoting holistic pet care. Then, a webinar titled “Next Generation Wellness.” In the late afternoon they drove back to the extended-stay hotel and separated to their rooms, and the next day went exactly the same: the drive to the villa, a sequence of meetings, Mallory politely introduced at the start and then, just as politely, ignored. She was given no instructions, was asked no questions. It was strangely exhausting to accompany James this way, though James himself seemed always bright-eyed, engaged in each meeting, often tapping on his phone, presumably returning emails at his usual pace. Despite his cheerfulness a ripple of unease snaked through her. Why was she here? She’d thought that James would have tasks for her, a project to manage, but there was only this: meetings and conversations, James and his phone, handshakes and smiles, charming his way through each day.
On the fourth day, Arthur McLellan, the CEO, returned from a trip to Dubai. Arthur, like James, was in his thirties, but looked older—balding, with protuberant, asymmetrical features, like a poorly assembled baby. She’d read that he dropped out of Berkeley to start his first company, and that he still lived like a student, caring little for material things. She’d also read he was quick to anger, and that although the Galisteo campus was set up in open-concept spaces, each floor held a curtained and soundproofed room where he could yell at people without slowing the general workflow. She hadn’t seen the yelling rooms.
At noon she and James arrived at Arthur’s office, where turkey sandwiches were laid out on a coffee table. They were plain, on whole-wheat bread; Arthur McLellan was known for food aversions. Arthur was wearing a red golf shirt, which did not look as though it had cost nine hundred dollars, and tan pants. Between him and James she could detect neither tension nor warmth. As they took their seats, the conversation sped through quick introductory chatter—the weather, the drought in Northern California, climate change in general, they all shook their heads—then James passed her a lime LaCroix and a small bag of TERRA chips.
“Okay, Mallory,” Arthur said as she held these items, “what are your thoughts?”
“My thoughts,” she echoed.
“You’ve now had a chance to be in the room,” he said. His eyes fastened onto hers, steady brown and unblinking. His TERRA chips sat untouched. He said be in the room with emphasis, as if it were a privilege, which of course it was. “What do you see? What’s the strategy? Where’s the story?”
It was the first time all week that her opinion had been solicited, and she was in no way prepared to offer one. In another version of her own story, Mallory thought, she would rise to this occasion. She would wait a beat, let the silence gather, and then issue brilliant answers to these questions. But instead she felt bile rise into her throat, hot and acidic, and she swallowed it down. She looked at James Halliday, whose expression seemed carefully neutral. She’d seen him look this way before, in meetings: It was meant to communicate your honest input is desired.
She sipped her drink, swallowed again. “I’ve been in the room for a lot of meetings,” she said, “but it was pretty high-level, I think? Pretty diffuse?”
“Diffuse,” Arthur repeated, frowning.
“I guess I don’t really understand what you guys are all about,” she said. “You know, on the ground or whatever.”
“On the ground?” Arthur asked. He glanced outside at the landscaping—by his window was a large bird-of-paradise plant, its poky orange heads dipping in the breeze—as if this was what she meant.
She felt clammy in the armpits, and at the same time feverish. “It’s a little all over the place,” she said.
“It’s called diversification,” he said. “Appetite for growth.” He looked down at his sandwich.
“Appetite isn’t just what you eat,” Mallory said, “it’s why you’re eating. That’s the story you need to tell.”
“I believe that’s yourjob,” Arthur said. He seemed repulsed—by the sandwich, by her, by the meeting. His gaze flicked over to James. “James thinks wellness is the story, isn’t that right, James? Media as medicine. Media as self-care.” His voice was edged with disdain.
“I think—” Mallory said, and then James Halliday coughed into his napkin, phlegmily and at length. Arthur’s brown eyes flicked with annoyance. She’d read he was a germaphobe who refused to shake hands with anyone. Her vision fuzzed. She couldn’t get purchase on her own thoughts. She was failing James, and also herself. She’d questioned why he’d brought her here, and now she understood: Because his company was fighting for its life. He’d thought they shared the same story—the same brand.
Arthur threw his sandwich in the trash, uneaten.
“Let’s pick this up later,” he said, dismissing them.
Mallory and James stood up, James’s green eyes shining with wet tears that looked like they came from emotion but were more likely due to his cough.
That night, she dreamed of rain. In her dream it was raining steadily and sideways, sheets pelting the glass, and she’d always slept well when it rained. When she was a child, in New Jersey, she’d open her window whenever it rained, and the sound would muffle the traffic outside, the neighbors’ shouting, her own parents’ shouting, and now she dreamed that she was a child again and opened the window, the rain soaking the sheets, warm and oddly comforting until it wasn’t, and she woke up and discovered that she’d wet the bed.
Outside it hadn’t rained at all, in fact the opposite: The dry air carried the tinge of wildfires. Nothing like this had ever happened to her before, even as a child, and she sat in her urine, perplexed. She thought of calling her doctor, but what could the doctor say? That it was a symptom of the illness and not the illness itself; the illness hid in the recesses of her body, lurking, indecipherable. She pulled the sheets off the bed and spent the rest of the night in an armchair. So in the morning she was less than wide awake when James texted that they’d be leaving in five minutes. They were going back to the Galisteo campus, though she didn’t now understand what the point would be, after the previous day’s disaster. Hadn’t she already proved how little use she was? But James greeted her with the same friendliness as ever, a friendliness she now perceived as relentless, even pointless, determination. She’d thought of James’s charm as integral to his success, but after meeting Arthur, who wasn’t the slightest bit charming and didn’t try to be, she wondered whether it was a detriment; or, what seemed somehow sadder, an irrelevance.
As he drove, the sky ahead of them brown with smoke, James took hands-free calls, and she realized that he was speaking to Simone, instructing her on the disposition of the office.
“We don’t ship personal effects,” he said. “If they didn’t leave with it, we assume it’s not wanted.” She couldn’t hear Simone’s voice but took, from his soothing tone, that she was upset.
“You found what?” he said. “Okay, stop opening drawers. Custodial will take care of it. As I said, we don’t ship.” Mallory admired the way he phrased this, as if it were a long-held policy or law and not a decision he was making in real time, while maneuvering a Nissan on a twisting highway. She could hear a bleat of protest that must have been loud in James’s ear and he grimaced. “I have to go,” he told Simone.
“What did she find?”
“You don’t want to know,” he said.
“She should never have been put in that position,” Mallory said, surprised to hear herself say it; she’d never criticized James to his face before, although he didn’t seem to mind.
“Office materials fall within her portfolio,” he said.
“I don’t mean cleaning out the office. I mean being a VP. She’s just some kid who’s going to law school.”
“Simone’s going to law school?”
“I thought she cared about sustainability. Is she going into environmental law?”
“She said corporate something.” Once, at happy hour at Nacho Mamacita, Simone, Bryan, and Mallory had discussed signs the world was about to end. Arctic ice floes melting, plastic molecules damaging fish DNA. Simone had said, “I have ten years to make enough money to see me through the apocalypse.”
Bryan said, “What use is money going to be after the apocalypse?” and Simone said, “It will buy land where I can homestead with my people.”
It wasn’t Mallory’s own plan, but she could see the logic of it.
As they drove farther into the hills the air darkened. Just last week there had been a fire that took several days to contain; firefighters were still battling the last of it. Now the smell of smoke filtered sharply into the car.
“Should you be driving out here? With your cough?”
“That’s very kind of you to ask,” James said, without answering the question. “Wildfires are actually how my lung sensitivity began. My mother was working to evacuate villages near La Merced during a fire. I was on her back, an infant. She carried me through all the smoke. There’s a strong chance I’ll be looking at a lung transplant at some point.”
His tone was not emotional; he was only stating another fact.
“I grew up on a Superfund site,” Mallory said. “Playing in a polluted river. That might be why I have…what I have now.” She could remember dipping her toes in the water as it flowed red with chemical effluviant from the paper plant—the color seemed magical to her then.
They left the main highway and took the smaller one that led to Galisteo. On either side trees spread their branches in a sharp, shadeless canopy. The sun recessed in the haze. James was coughing again and she wondered how well he could see. She offered to drive, but he shook his head. He pulled out an inhaler and used it. There was an uptick in traffic going in the opposite direction, cars, more cars, then buses. They saw helicopters in the sky, and the smell of smoke intensified. The sky grew opaque. James’s phone chimed, and he handed it to her; she read that their meetings had been canceled. The campus was being evacuated.
James pulled over to the side of the road and made a three-point turn.
“The fire is here,” he said.
They turned back in the direction they came. James’s phone was beeping constantly, a cascade of notifications, and Mallory turned the ringer off and gripped it as it vibrated again and again in her palm.
When she looked in the rearview mirror, she saw great plumes of smoke with fire entrails. The sky looked like a piece of paper being incinerated: a rim of red licking at the horizon, black ash at the center. The smoke was in the car now, and the heat was too, pressing their faces with gravid force. James began to drive faster, missing the lane boundaries, grinding against the gravel shoulder, then correcting. It was hard to see the road at all. Mallory thought of a children’s story she’d read once, where all the animals came running out of the forest in advance of a fire, because they’d sensed it coming. Nothing like that was happening now. There were no animals anywhere. Somewhere someone was speaking, a small panicked voice. At first Mallory thought it was the radio. Then she realized that it was coming from James’s phone, which she must have answered by accident, and picking it up she heard Simone’s voice saying “What should I do with—?” and she pressed End Call.
Then James braked to a halt. All around them cars were parked and burning, and people had gotten out of them and were running. The cars cluttering the road made it impossible to continue driving. Mallory unbuckled her seat belt, opened the door, and looked at James, who shook his head. His cheeks were contorted with constant coughing; he couldn’t run anywhere.
She closed the door. James was pointing furiously at her, telling her wordlessly to get out and run. She shook her head; she took his hand. She knew he wouldn’t leave her if their roles were reversed. That was a fact. James’s shoulders rippled with convulsions. She squeezed his fingers and he squeezed back. She breathed in the smoke and ash, sediment growing in her lungs. Once, as a child at the Jersey shore, she’d fallen beneath an ocean wave and swallowed water and sand, and even after she picked herself up and staggered to the beach, she felt herself weighted with everything she’d taken inside. Breathing the fire was almost like that, and then it was like nothing except itself. The fire met the horizon, wild heat and appetite for air, and it met the melting, blackened car, and at last it met the two of them where they sat, together, and gone.