BOTTOM RUNG.

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ONE.

TWO MONTHS ON THE job, you return from your first vacation to whispered news that you “really missed it” yesterday: A few people were let go. And just like that, your grasp on this world feels more tenuous. You’re overcome by residual relief at having withstood a trial you had no idea you were facing. Every passing look from your boss, or his, sets your heart racing. Should you not be laughing? Getting coffee? If a worker stays late into the night but no one’s there to see it, does the effort even count?

TWO.

Misled by the passing of time and the distraction of responsibilities, you’ve stopped thinking about that anomaly — those few people laid off months ago. You had, anyway, until J. pointed out all the office doors suddenly being closed at regular intervals. Why does your boss look so weighted down, seem too busy for the day-to-day work that ought actually to be what is weighing him down? Rumor is, “they” will do it Friday. But would they really give employees the heave-ho right before a holiday?

When J. pokes her head in your cube, your heart races. “Come with me,” she whispers, and you follow her into the hall, into the bathroom, wanting nothing more than to run the other way, avoid the impact. Does she really know something about your job?

“They just did it. If we haven’t heard anything, we’re OK. It was Larry and Beth and Sharon and a bunch of people in the other sector.”

What kind of person are you that your first feeling is of some small glee that you’re still there?

THREE.

OK, now it’s just getting ridiculous. Really.

You had a six-month interval last time, but now the whispering, the rumors, the contradictory speculations are everywhere, again, after just three months!

It’s what you and J. and you and S. and you and K. talk about at lunch, and in the bathroom, and on daring treks to Starbucks a block away…. You fight about which of you will be first to go. You weigh the odds about which day it will happen. There’s a sound argument for Tuesday, late morning — that’s when they did it last time. But there’s something so obviously right about a Friday — to let the axe fall just before the weekend, giving those left standing time to take it in, to sew their frayed nerves together one more time.

When your boss cancels the daily morning meeting, you’re convinced it means today’s the day. He couldn’t look any of you in the eye, knowing your fate as he did. When he calls an impromptu meeting — when his name pops up on your phone at all — your throat squeezes shut for just a second. It’s here, this is it.

And you’ve been this way for weeks. Everyone’s speculating, and stumbling upon a whispering two- or threesome at the printer only makes it worse. What do they know that you don’t?

When you mutter something about your fear to another colleague, she looks at you with utter surprise. “More layoffs are coming?” She clearly has not been told anything, by anyone, and you’re hit with a wave of envy. How much happier and calmer these last weeks must have been for her. When she makes you promise to keep her updated from now on, you silently doubt that you will. How is it doing someone a favor to share the paranoia?

Coming back from the bathroom, you see an editor dumping a box full of papers into the trash can. She has that air of stoic rejection you’ve come to recognize.

Eyes down, nerves tingling, you go to your desk. No voicemail messages. No email. You’re safe?

FOUR.

You believe this must be denial. Is that why you want to slap your friends at work when they nervously deliver the latest rumor?

We have no control! you want to scream. It doesn’t matter what we think we know. We are screwed one way or the other.

Instead you remark calmly, bitterly, with false brightness that the people who get laid off will be the lucky ones. They’ll have been ejected from the continuous loop of fear. They’ll know the answer. If we remain, you say, we’ll have merely lived to worry another day.

You’ve come to detest all your bosses for allowing the mood to continue. For having closed-door confabs for weeks now without letting the staff in on the outcome. They have to know that everyone is worried. Why don’t they just do it already?

But the next day all your bravado disintegrates. All signs, however microscopic, seem to be pointing to today. Your boss was strangely brief in the morning meeting. He seemed uncharacteristically unconcerned with the day’s responsibilities. And he asked the last person out to close his door.

You find yourself literally shaking in the afternoon, your heart racing as if you’re going on your very first date and it’s with a convicted killer. You are loopy, utterly delirious and unable to read a single line and comprehend it.

So you walk to the bathroom and come back. You pop into K.‘s cube but are unable to talk about anything. She sends you away, promising to go with you to Starbucks if you’ll just give her ten minutes.

So you sit back down and stare blindly at the computer screen. You long ago printed out multiple color copies of all your clips — just in case — and there’s nothing that needs finishing today, assuming you could. The site cut back on content after the last cuts, two months ago, leaving all of you in the position of having less to do just when you want to be doing the most you can to show your initiative, drive and dedication. With the exception of your near-insanity, you are, quite frankly, bored.

For the eighth time today and 25th or so this week, you fight the urge to storm into your boss’ office and demand the truth, please, the truth. When? Who? What next?!

You nag at K.‘s desk again, and she’s finally ready. Caffeine is not what you need — you’re buzzing already — but it will let you leave the building. You both wait, purses on shoulders, for J. to finish sending an email, and as you stand there, you see your boss, followed by his boss, walking in from the hall. Their eyes seem to take it all in — three girls leaving the office in mid-afternoon — and you feel the sudden need to duck, to do something to show you’re actually busy, actually working.

Don’t they understand that it’s the very limbo of your workplace that’s sending you offsite and away from your desk? That they are driving you away? That you’d give anything for a long list of duties to accomplish so that you might feel valuable and necessary?

Coming back from Starbucks, now the calm one in a trio of jitters, you feel ashamed of your weakness, sorry that you’ve infected your friends with a more potent dose of fear. Just before the elevators open on your floor, J. whispers an anxious command: “If it’s me who’s let go, I don’t want anybody being sad, OK? Don’t cry when it happens. Just be normal around me.”

And you can’t help it, it makes you laugh.

But when the news does come down, a week and a half later, you are sad. You busy yourself with printing color copies of her clips, marveling that this layoff feels different, worse than the one before. You hadn’t thought that was possible.

Around you, people are making dark comparisons between the site and Survivor.

It makes you want to puke.

FINAL.

Half the cubes in your aisle are empty, and the office is a somber, sullen place. You and the remnants do have work to do — more than ever before. You yourself have about three new job titles, without any change, of course, in pay.

When talk of “reductions” surfaces a mere six weeks later, you meet it with ambivalence. Everyone knows that the site can’t withstand the loss of many more people. Besides, all rumors indicate that these cuts will be company-wide. You picture all the people upstairs who have salaries bigger than yours and feel safe in your cube with no view.

The news comes early in the morning — someone important enough to have an office is now clearing his out. Names of other castoffs trickle in slowly, and word spreads that a shamefaced security guard is now standing watch outside the door. Then, a bit before lunch, the tech folks send a mass email reporting that the server is down — so don’t call to complain if your password doesn’t work.

Veterans of such tactics, all of you, you scoff and curse their transparent message under your breath.

So when your password doesn’t work, it doesn’t panic you as much as it might. Nobody’s is working, it seems. Still, when your phone screams and you find that it’s K., calling you because she’s scared but doesn’t want to leave her desk, you want to murder her for delivering such a false alarm. You get email from an editor in New York, a reply to your nagging request for overdue content…and a good-bye. The next second, you look behind you and realize that your neighbor across the aisle has somehow filled two long cardboard boxes already. So you sit there, unable to do anything, staring at the faux graining of your desk, tensed and waiting with every cell of your body, your mind a mess of static.

It could come as an emailed request to report to someone’s office. You could be summoned by phone. You see a figure appear out of the corner of your eye.

It’s your manager, smiling strangely, self-consciously, her face flushed. And…yes, she has a box in her hand.

“Can I talk to you for a second?”

Her, or you? What a thought! It’s you, you stupid.

As you walk to an empty office — for the requisite formality of a privacy utterly negated by your manager’s having a box for your things in her hand — you have to weave your way around stacks and stacks of other people’s things, other people’s boxes. When someone stops you to offer condolences and whatever help she can provide, her mouth moves and the sound comes a few seconds later. You see reality approaching, but it hasn’t quite arrived just…yet….

And then the hits come in quick succession: You’re embraced by relief, shaken up by exhilaration and sucker-punched by a new brand of terror.

This is it.

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samantha bornemann is a chicago-based author and editor. you can read more of her tv and film criticism at popmatters.com and in the book neptune noir.