Friday, July 2 marked the unofficial start of 2004’s Independence Day weekend, but even at 6:30 a.m. minivans and sport utility vehicles—loaded with bikes, beach umbrellas, and surfboards—clogged Centre Street in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood. The traffic only worsened reporter Ellen Larkin’s mood, which always plummeted after the July 1 anniversary of her father’s death in Vietnam twenty-nine years earlier. As a posthumous baby born less than a trimester after his funeral, she treasured her few pictures of Patrick Larkin, US Marine Corps, from whom she’d inherited curly black hair, blue eyes and a complexion that sunburned even on cloudy days. Every July she comforted herself with the thought that her grief was living proof that her father had lived and longed for her arrival.
Now Ellen struggled to tamp down her sadness. The deadline for the Boston Chronicle’s Sunday edition was hitting at 10:30, giving her just four hours to write her blockbuster exposé, warning Route I-93 commuters of two highway tunnels—the crown jewels of Boston’s Big Dig project—built with substandard concrete. She didn’t want to imagine all the kids who would suffer the trauma of parental loss if either of the brand-new tunnels, which ran north and south under the city’s harbor, collapsed onto rush hour traffic.
Ellen’s car—a Saturn, bought used several winters ago—lacked air conditioning, so sweat beaded on her forehead by the time she screeched into a parking spot at the Chronicle’s Dorchester headquarters. As she hurried through the lobby, she had to swerve to avoid colliding with the vice president of marketing. The woman carried a pile of framed plaques and held a cell phone to her ear with her shoulder.
“The tuition check to Boston College.” The marketing vice president’s voice was panicked. “Cancel it. Cancel it today.”
Ellen suffered a bout of acid reflux, a nervous condition—she’d suffered from it since sixth grade—that left her too thin for someone five feet nine inches tall. The rumor mill screwed up, she thought. The layoffs weren’t supposed to happen until after Labor Day.
She pulled open the newsroom door—and almost collapsed with relief. Every desk was full, and none of her colleagues packed cardboard boxes. Her best friend, Shilpa Gupta, sat at the desk behind hers, just as she’d sat for the seven years since they both were hired as newspaper stringers.
Ellen’s relief didn’t last long. The usual noisy buzz was gone, replaced by an uncomfortable silence. She weaved across the newsroom, past desk after desk with a reporter or editor hard at work—too hard. Usually on a Friday morning there’d be clusters of photographers and copywriters scattered throughout the newsroom, sipping coffee, and discussing weekend plans to go down to Martha’s Vineyard or up to Lake Winnipesaukee. Today all she could hear was the click of computer keys.
She sank into her desk chair and faced Shilpa. “How many people have been let go?”
Shilpa hadn’t even poured her morning tea yet and she’d worried a strand of her long black hair out of its ponytail. “The entire Printing Division’s been outsourced.”
At the front of the newsroom, Editor-in-Chief Schuyler Hobbes avoided eye contact with his reporters. Schuyler—a head taller and thirty-seven years older than Ellen, built like the weekend rugby player that he was, and more of a mentor to her than a boss—had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for his coverage of the South Boston busing riots, during which he’d been attacked by rock-throwing thugs—Ellen’s childhood neighbors from the Old Colony Housing Project—who couldn’t stomach a Black man setting foot in Southie. Years later, his attempts to interrogate a defendant outside a courthouse had left him with a broken right cheekbone, an incident he avoided discussing. Now Schuyler’s eyes were outlined with puffy circles, and Ellen suspected he’d already taken a few swigs from the whiskey flask he kept in his briefcase.
Ellen had survived a prior round of layoffs, so she knew the routine—management worked fast. By 8:30, each unfortunate employee would be taken to Human Resources, stripped of his or her keycard, given a handshake, and escorted to the lobby. The layoff would conclude with a staff meeting in which Henry Crowninshield, the Chronicle’s longtime publisher, reassured jittery employees.
“If you’re still here, you’re safe,” Henry would say. “The layoff is over.”
It was a good sign if you had an invitation to the post-layoff meeting in your email when you arrived in that morning. Ellen faced her computer and drummed her fingernails against the desk as she waited for the Outlook program to open.
There was no invitation. There were no new emails at all.
She swiveled around again. “Were you invited to a staff meeting?”
Shilpa wore a red bindi dot—for strength and good luck—between her eyebrows, which crinkled as her dark eyes brimmed with tears. “My inbox is empty.”
Ellen turned and yanked open her top desk drawer, ransacked it for a box of antacids, and palmed two tablets into her mouth. She reached for the cup of day-old water beside her desk phone and gulped down the antacids.
Ellen’s stomach ached like she was growing an ulcer. She took a deep, calming breath and reached into her tote for the manila envelope that Consolidated Industries foreman Buzz Callahan had smuggled out to her.
“Like Play-Doh,” the foreman had said. “The concrete in the tunnels poured like Play-Doh.”
As she opened a Word document, Henry entered the newsroom. Henry’s lined face bore a pallor that revealed he hadn’t slept the night before, and his blue seersucker suit hung off him.
Henry tapped Norbert Chang’s shoulder. Norbert sagged in his chair.
Employees watched as Norbert followed Henry to Human Resources, while Ellen pretended to write words that made sense. Every few minutes Henry slipped back into the newsroom, and again and again a colleague suffered the tap on the shoulder she dreaded. A columnist on the editorial page. A political reporter. Even Kamala T. Jamison, a rival who in 1999 had beaten Ellen to a story about the city’s plummeting murder rate. After that, Kamala insisted that her byline include her middle initial, in homage to the illustrious reporter Edward R. Murrow.
Ellen was ashamed to feel a little smug as Kamala packed up. Her eyes darted to the clock on the lower right-hand corner of her computer desktop.
“Eight o’clock,” she whispered to Shilpa. “If we make it another half-hour, we’re safe.”
Once again, Ellen toggled to her email, but all she got back was the “Send/ Receive Complete” message. She’d never hated a message more. She closed her eyes and said a silent Hail Mary prayer that she’d be one of the employees gathered in the post-layoff meeting, feeling torn between relief at retaining her job—and guilt over the good friends losing theirs.
Please, she whispered. Let Shilpa be standing right beside me.
She opened her eyes and her fingers typed fast.
A reliable source inside Consolidated Industries alleges that these payoffs were…
Henry reentered the newsroom and Ellen’s fingers started typing in a new language. The language of the terrified.
Designed to ensure yhar occiaks…
As Henry turned down her aisle, her hands shook so hard she could no longer type.
Keep walking, she thought. Oh, please don’t stop.
Henry strode past her desk without even a glance. A desk later, he did stop.
“Shilpa.” He cleared his throat. “Please join me in Human Resources.”
Ellen stifled a cry. She pressed the Delete key and retyped her sentence.
… to ensure that officials would conduct cursory inspections.
As Shilpa walked by, Ellen reached out and squeezed her hand. Her friend’s fingers were clammy, and they slid from her grip.
Ellen had to struggle not to weep and she found it impossible to follow what she was writing. All she could watch were the digits of the computer clock, crawling to safety.
The clock hit 8:14. Once more, she toggled back to her email and hit the F9 key, but once more, no invitation to the post-layoff meeting appeared. By now her story was full of typos and few of its sentences made any grammatical sense.
Then, at 8:27, she felt it. Even though her shoulder had been anticipating its sting, the tap of Henry’s finger still burned.
Eyes watering, she looked up. The anguish on Henry’s face evoked the image of a sea captain on a foundering vessel, ordering a beloved crew to abandon ship.
“Ellen,” he said. “Would you join me in Human Resources?”
In one last bow to the job she loved, she hit the Save button on her Word document before closing it. She stood up, but her knees wobbled, and the room spun around her.
Henry reached out, and she braced herself against the desk that was no longer hers. She picked up the manila envelope full of invoices and bills of lading that Callahan had given her and followed the path laid out by a dozen ashen-faced colleagues before her. The path that led away from the only job she’d ever wanted to do, with her best friend sitting right behind her.
When she reached Schuyler’s desk, she stopped. Schuyler’s eyes met hers and she slammed the envelope down on her now-former boss’s desk. She knew she could trust him with the information Callahan had given her.
“Promise me you’ll call this foreman,” she said. “He was going to bring me underground on Sunday night. People will die if you don’t investigate the tunnels.”