Frank sat at his cubicle desk and leaned back in his mid-back office chair. His computer was on and he had opened two spreadsheets, though he wasn’t paying any attention to them. Frank kept his cubicle walls blank and gray -not even a picture of his family adorned his space. Twenty-eight years at Dynamic Insurance had taught Frank that the less he let people know about himself, the less there was for them to use against him.
People guessed about him anyway. He only managed one account, and his updates at weekly meetings never seemed to make much sense or sound like everyone else’s. His co-workers often asked one another why Dynamic didn’t just get rid of Frank. They all assumed the company was afraid he would cry age discrimination.
No one knew exactly how old he was -sixty-four -but judging by his wrinkly skin and the thin wisps of white hair that clung to his mostly bald head, they figured he was easily old enough to retire. “If you didn’t really have to work here, wouldn’t you just retire?” they would ask each other. Mostly they figured that his wife couldn’t stand him. Naturally she had to have been just as disgusted as they were by his grimy clothes that were too tight for his expanding pot belly, his diet of fast food and Coca-Cola, and the way he cleared his throat. In that assumption, they were right.
It hadn’t always been that way, but no one he worked with at the moment had been around nearly long enough to have known. When he started at Dynamic, he had a full head of hair and was brimming with ideas. Lynne, his new bride, often met him for lunch since the accounting office she worked in was only a few blocks away. Lynne had given up that job once she and Frank had Glenna, their only child. He’d carried pictures of Glenna in his wallet and often showed them to his co-workers, who instantly fell in love with her blonde ringleted curls and bright smile.
On a few occasions, Frank had brought her in for “Take Your Daughter To Work Day.” Usually the office had the distinct vibe of unhappiness and paranoia, but when Glenna had been there the mood was instantly uplifted by her goofy laugh and enthusiasm for absolutely everything. He did drink soda and occasionally ate junk food, but he stayed fairly spry from afternoons and weekends spent coaching Glenna’s soccer team, running drills and keeping up with her and her friends.
He’d never enjoyed his job in those days either, tolerating it just enough to chuckle at Dynamic’s dumb TV commercials and defend the company when acquaintances at parties commented on falling stock prices and the Board of Directors’ decisions. But his family was counting on him and work was hardly his whole life.
Until the day that life was turned completely upside down. It all started with headaches. Glenna was suddenly having a lot of them. They didn’t elicit a ton of concern until the day she came home from school in so much pain that she vomited. Frank and Lynne took her to the hospital down the street, where Glenna was seen just about as quickly as patients with heart attacks and immediately given a CT scan. Frank had never seen emotion on a doctor’s face until he and Lynne were brought into a private office with the one who interpreted the results. “I don’t know how to tell the parents of a ten-year-old this,” he said, “but your daughter has a brain tumor. You need to get her to Children’s Hospital right away.”
He had to have been wrong, Lynne kept insisting. But the children’s hospital, and subsequent operation confirmed it. It was a tumor, and it was cancerous. Maybe she’d have two years, the oncologist told her parents. They never repeated that prognosis to Glenna.
Of course she spent some time in the first few weeks crying, and wondering why. But for the majority of her time on Earth afterwards, she threw herself into her soccer team and her friends, went to summer camp and even organized groups to walk in fundraising events for cancer research. Her friends, too young to fully grasp how sick she was, never treated her any differently and she kept them laughing with her zany sense of humor and contagious giggle.
She’d begged her parents for a dog and they relented, getting her a cocker spaniel for Christmas that she’d named Abby. She talked about herself as a survivor, like she’d already beaten cancer. Her hope inspired even the adults who knew better. Miracles happened after all, and who was more ripe for one than Glenna, the otherworldly girl who refused to give up?
It turned out that the miracle was simply having Glenna at all for the thirteen years the community had their arms around her. She became sicker as the tumor spread, and there was no turning back. Midway through the seventh grade, she had to stop attending school. Lynne became her primary caregiver as Glenna quickly became bedridden. Her friends visited, but she’d have no memory of their time together just hours after they left. Almost three years to the day of her diagnosis, Frank, Lynne, and Abby gathered around Glenna to hold her one last time as she passed away.
Frank’s boss and several co-workers had gone to the funeral, which was attended by almost 600 people. They were compassionate without being overbearing once he returned to work, and stayed that way for months. He’d always been a solidly middle-of-the-pack performer, but without anyone to be a father to anymore, Frank stopped meeting expectations. His bosses and co-workers came and went, as they always had in the organization, where the only thing constant was change. He found himself talking with Lynne less and less, until he found himself preferring to sleep in the guest room with Abby.
He wanted to talk about Glenna, remember her, keep her alive. In the community, it was a little different. Some parents of her friends had started a foundation in her name. It gave out small scholarships to one local high school student every year who demonstrated the same zest for life that Glenna had. Frank was involved in picking the scholarship winners, the foundation work he loved best. Finding kids like Glenna made him feel like there was still a small part of her left, something to live for.
But at home, Lynne would beg him to not as much as even say her name. They’d barely had anything approaching a conversation that went beyond smalltalk and grunts for the better part of a decade.
About two years after Glenna’s passing, his current manager sat him down. “You’ve had your day in the sun,” he told Frank. “You’re not the only one who’s lost a child.” Frank managed to outlast him, and several other bosses, by simply working just hard enough to not get fired. After a while, there was no one left on his broader team who even knew about Glenna, not that he ever talked about it.
He talked less and less to his co-workers; it grated on him that they’d exchange pleasantries with one another and then spread malicious gossip about each other when their backs were turned. When he had to speak, or just felt like he should, whether in a meeting or just in passing, Frank found himself unable to find the right words. He hated his job, and he began to feel the hate coming right back to him.
He would thank God that he was alive every morning, but he knew in his heart he didn’t mean that. Glenna had whenever she said it; she meant it more than anyone else and deserved it that much too. If she were still alive, she’d be changing the world. She already had. Frank was supposed to be her dad, the soul she could live on through, yet he just floated through life, exerting no more effort than what was absolutely needed. He felt unworthy of anything more; of clean clothes, of a healthy diet, of the affection of his wife. He deserved to spend every day at a place he’d grown to hate.
Every time Frank got a new boss, they would take away one of his accounts and give it to a younger co-worker of his, using words like “streamlining” and “reorganization.” Once he got to the point where he only had one left, he was given smaller tasks to occupy his time and justify his existence at Dynamic. Like holding onto his floor’s stash of extra keys and helping co-workers who might leave their sets at home. Sending old personnel files to HR and making sure the boxes were sealed with tamper-evident tape. He had a six-figure salary and a Masters degree and the most important line on his performance and development plan was “Special Projects.”
The reasons he came to take on more special projects were always because another teammate of his had gotten promoted out of their entry-level position and would consequently be too busy to handle these tasks. Frank was certain he could decide not to show up one day and no one would notice.
Once Abby passed away, also reaching the age of thirteen, Frank began to test that theory by working at home. All of his co-workers usually worked from home at least one day a week -technology afforded them the opportunity to make spreadsheets and save them on the team’s shared drive anywhere in the world that had an Internet connection. But they usually made it clear where they were by emailing everyone on the team about the best way to reach them. If his co-workers didn’t, then everyone else would wonder where to reach them. Soon into his transition to working straight from his bed, Frank discovered he’d been right -he never sent such emails, and no one ever asked him where he was.
A few months after Abby’s passing, Frank had confided a fraction of his troubles to a co-worker of his, a lady who’d once been demoted. She always seemed polite, asking him how Lynne was, as if he’d know any better than her. He thought she’d understand, and maybe have some advice for him. He told her about his dwindling responsibilities and fear that his absence in the office had gone unnoticed. “Make more spreadsheets,” she told Frank.
Not even two weeks after that conversation, his manager set up a 1:1 meeting with him. It was the first time she had wanted to meet with him since becoming his manager a year beforehand. “Frank, I’ve heard from several people that you’ve been feeling unmotivated in your role,” she said. “I can only imagine that’s why your work has been suffering. I don’t want you working from home anymore without my permission.” No one else on the team had that stipulation. He’d always figured the whispers from his co-workers had been true, that the company feared an age discrimination lawsuit if they fired him. But now Frank was thinking they were hoping he’d just quit, and they’d try to expedite the process by giving him problems.
Problems. Like he had problems. It was so embarrassing to him that he even thought that way, let alone every day. Glenna had stared down death every single day for the last two-and-a-half years of her life. She brushed her curly blonde hair in the mornings and never flinched when large clumps would fall out. Surgery. Chemotherapy. Poison running through her veins. Radiation. A routine that leveled most adults and she never let on that she might have been afraid. She just smiled brightly and talked with her nurses about those trashy reality TV shows, peppering in comments about how this experience was just making her stronger. Ten, eleven, twelve years old. And Frank, he couldn’t even mentally find it within himself to just put together a few spreadsheets every day, like it was so hard.
Every day, the glances from his co-workers and bosses and his wife told him what a failure he was. And he agreed with them; the prevailing thought in his mind was about what a horrible steward of Glenna’s legacy he was, how pathetic he considered himself that he couldn’t just keep his head down and bear it.
Frank would think of the students who had received the scholarships from Glenna’s foundation, the ones who he helped select. They had all gone on to great colleges. Some were even out of school and working jobs they loved -physical therapists, nurses, personal trainers. They were helping people and spreading the light that had shone in Glenna. They were all great kids, polite kids, who sent Frank hand-written notes every now and then to give him updates on their lives. “Thank you for the chance to pursue my education,” they’d write. For a brief moment, he would feel happy. But guilt would override it; none of those kids knew what he was really like.
He reached his right hand past the Styrofoam cup full of soda and clutched the Colt 45 revolver that had been sitting on his desk since the building’s lights were turned off. Frank had bought it years ago, when Glenna was first born, as a last-resort method of defending his family. Since her passing, he often thought of how the only thing she needed defending from was inside of her, ravaging her tiny, perfect body, and there was nothing he could do to save her.
Frank wondered if anyone would even be allowed on the floor once they discovered him. He figured they’d at least close the place down in the first few days, but they’d probably make everyone work from home in the meantime. They’d never noticed or appreciated him when he was there, except when they were being critical, so surely this wouldn’t bring everything to a halt. He knew they’d go to the funeral; he wondered if their grief would be sincere. Probably not, he concluded. No one would miss him. Not even Lynne. She would have left long ago if she had any kind of financial independence, Frank was certain. And if she’d left, she never would talk to him again; she hardly talked to him now.
He imagined the headlines in all the major news outlet about how the evil corporate Dynamic Insurance made their employees so miserable that one of them blew his brains out at his cubicle desk. He almost approached a smile as he pictured his manager having to answer to that; how the stock prices would fall, how the company would scramble to fix such a disaster. He’d be impossible to ignore.
His hand trembling, Frank opened his mouth and stuck the end of his revolver inside. Just one more breath and it would all be over. He would get to hold Glenna in his arms, as Abby barked at their feet. Unless he didn’t go to Heaven. They were surely there, and it wouldn’t have surprised him at all to not be good enough to go. Not that he even deserved it, Frank thought as tears ran down his face, the glow from his computer monitor illuminating them.
His thoughts were swirling: life was a gift, Glenna had deserved it so much more than he did, she impacted everyone she met and people she never knew, he’d now lived longer after her death than she’d been alive and impacted no one, he didn’t deserve to take the easy way out, but he didn’t deserve to live, he couldn’t take it one more second, he hoped she understood, Oh God you fucking failure, just do one thing right for once in your miserable existence,