The first time he did it, it was a joke, really. An attempt to amuse himself during his otherwise soul-crushing nine to five.
“Per our recent conversation.”
“Circling back regarding the matter discussed below.”
“I just want to make sure I’m clear on next steps.”
He wrote scores of emails every day. One hundred plus leading up to various milestones. Milestones. The term alone.
“Following up vis-à-vis the draft memo.”
“Bumping this back to the top of your inbox.”
“Please feel free to be in touch with any questions, comments, or—”
The best messages included links. Words or phrases that were more than they appeared, portals that transported the reader to a place beyond the confines of the message itself, even if their terminal was nowhere anyone really wanted to be.
“Here is the most recent completion report.”
“This article includes ten tips on running an efficient meeting.”
“The latest guidance can be found here.”
Hot, they were called. Hot links. They were always underlined, and their text was light blue rather than default black. Enough of a difference to signify their magic to the recipient but not so much to disrupt the content of the message, which was, of course, paramount, the hot links, considered in this context, a means to enhance said content and definitely not meant for anyone’s amusement. Sure, occasionally someone would push the boundaries by attaching a photo of balloons in the monthly birthday missive or an inspirational meme that featured wise words from a great thinker superimposed over a child, an animal, or a landscape, but those were attachments, not links, and they usually originated with management and were generally understood not as models to be followed but as attempts for the higher-ups to show the people below, the people like Jax, that they have a sense of humor too, despite the otherwise insurmountable evidence to the contrary.
The email that started it all began with the word “regrettably.”
“Regrettably,” it read, “I will be unable to attend this afternoon’s check-in. I have too many balls in the air at the moment and hope to rejoin when things calm down next week. I will be sure to review the notes and will be in touch if I have any questions. Yours, Jax.”
He reviewed and re-reviewed the message for typos, autocorrect, and sensitivity of language. His scrutiny was proportional to how high the recipients sat on the org chart. This one went to the tippy top and required the utmost attention. It would be read by, Prisha, the Executive Director, and Mason, her Deputy, among others. Prisha wasn’t the cause of the intense review. Given her perch, she was hardly expected to read every email, let alone one from someone like Jax. No, it was Mason who necessitated the additional reviews. Everyone knew that he not only read everything, but he read it all with an editor’s eye.
Jax read the message a third time, whispering it under his breath as he went. “RegrettablyIwillbeunabletoattendthisafternoonscheckin. Ihavetoomanyballsintheair.”
“Too many balls in the air.”
The phrase stood out to him as problematic. Too anatomical, even if it was clear that wasn’t what he meant. “Too many balls in the air.” He revised it to read instead “I am juggling too many projects at the moment.” Then he changed “Yours” to “Regards” and then “Regards” to “Best” and then “Best” back to “Yours” before settling on an en dash. He added a greeting and did some tweaking around the edges. The message then read:
“Good afternoon, everyone. Regrettably, I will not be able to attend this afternoon’s check-in. I am juggling too many projects at the moment. I hope to rejoin next week. In the meantime, I will review the notes and be in touch with any questions. – Jax”
He nodded his approval and added “This Afternoon’s Check-in” to the subject field. He reviewed it yet again, quickly this time, for anything glaring. “I am juggling too many projects at the moment.” “I am juggling….” “I am juggling….” He saved the message as a draft and then clicked to the internet and searched “juggling GIFs.” His screen immediately awash in thumbnails that met his search criteria in their own unique ways. Clowns, circuses, while riding a unicycle, while balancing on a ball, flames, bowling pins, chainsaws, cats. Jax scrolled and found one of the more innocuous images—a scene from a popular television show in which a comedic actor unsuccessfully tries to keep three raw eggs in the air—and copied the link. He highlighted “juggling too many projects at the moment” and inserted the link. The newly underlined text changed colors, as it was designed to do. He reread the message, given this new feature. It was more dynamic, that was for sure. But was it appropriate? Jax didn’t know. It wasn’t inappropriate. That much he could say. The previous reference to “balls” was arguably more objectionable, but, still, he couldn’t quite square including the GIF in a message that was otherwise strictly professional in nature. He clicked the link and the juggling man appeared. The eggs cracked 1-2-3. The juggling man started again. 1-2-3. He laughed. It was so silly, stupid even, but it brought him joy, this interruption of folly in the middle of the day. He smiled and decided that this was enough, this midday glee, but so too was it enough that it was known only to him. He highlighted the hot text and adjusted the formatting to cool it down. A few clicks later, the transporting text blended in with the rest: black, no underline. He hovered his cursor over it, and the arrow turned to a hand indicating that it was still live, even if it looked as dead as the rest. It was discoverable in this way, but people didn’t randomly run their cursor over each word of a message. They absorbed its content, replied or didn’t, and went on with their lives. He tested the link and laughed again at the juggling man. He read the email a final, final time. The trick text seamlessly integrated with the rest.
He clicked send.
Mason had a Zero Email Policy, which meant that at the end of each day he had zero unread messages in his inbox. This applied to both the “Focused” inbox, which included messages from his immediate colleagues, and the one marked “Other,” which caught those from unverified accounts from outside of his organization. This was no small feat—this Zero Email Policy—given the volume of messages he received on a daily basis. As the second in charge, he was cc’d on just about everything across the office: Meeting invites, project plans, updates to office-wide protocols. He didn’t have a direct hand in everything, but he was always in the know, and on some days the messages came in so quickly that their running tally resembled the scoreboard at a basketball game: 0, 2, 5, 9, 13, 16, 19, 21, 24, 26, 29, 32. And that was within mere minutes. He didn’t understand these people who had hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of unread messages. He knew that, in a material sense, they were not actually real—they did not stack up tower-like on his desk; they did not compete for space on the nightstand next to the bed that he slept in alone—but they did instill in him a palpable sense of clutter, which, despite its virtual origin, did have a very real effect: sweat, heart palpitations, a nagging sense that however hard he worked it would never be enough. It brought him great anxiety, the furious pace at which the messages arrived, their subject lines in that chiding bold font, signifying their “unread” status. They stacked themselves one on top of the other, pushing the early arrivals down, forcing them off the screen, below the digital sill of their window, until it was all bold, all unread, all to-dos.
Which made it even more satisfying when, at the end of the day, he worked his way through his unread email, clicking the bold font back to plain, reading the contents of each, replying to a great many of them, even the FYIs—“Sounds good!” “Looking forward!”—and watching that scoreboard steadily count backwards to zero. 32, 29, 26….
He was quite sure, in fact, that his Zero Email Policy had gotten him the Deputy Executive Director job in the first place. It had to be that, as he was under-qualified in just about every other way. His degree was unrelated to the work (Graphic Design), and, while his experience was laudable, it was in no way discerning at the highest level (three years performing comparable work for a crosstown rival). A mutual acquaintance had gotten him in the door (“So, how do you know Devin?”), but his interview could best be described as “floundering” until his email policy had come up.
“Excuse me,” Prisha had said. She had looked up from her phone—Core Competency #3: The Ability to Multitask—and lifted her glasses from her nose to her forehead to better view the strange specimen on the far side of the conference-room table. “What did you just say?”
It was almost as if she had been offended.
“I said I have a Zero Email Policy.”
“And what exactly is a ‘Zero Email Policy?’” as if something malodorous had been placed under her nose.
“A Zero Email Policy means that at the end of each day I have zero unread messages in my inbox.”
At that point the glasses had come off completely.
“That must take an extraordinary amount of time, effort, and organization.”
She had leaned back in her chair and nodded appreciatively.
And the job had been his.
The truth was that, yes, the Zero Email Policy was a lot of work, but it was work he didn’t mind doing. Quite liked it, actually. He had never been the kind of person who easily consorted with his colleagues. It wasn’t that he was standoffish or aloof. He regularly and happily attended all the office’s social gatherings—the happy hours, the retirement parties, that one time they went bowling and only half of the office even bothered to show—and, as a leader of the team, he often found himself—compelled himself, really—to be in the middle of whatever social circles formed. The issue was that he rarely felt like he had anything to contribute. The books he read were mostly about “senior leadership strategies,” with the odd mystery thrown in from time to time to mix things up. (He never guessed the killer and actually appreciated the unfamiliar feeling of being stumped.) He didn’t listen to podcasts and never went to the movies, not because he didn’t enjoy going to the movies but because he didn’t have anyone to go to them with, and when everyone was discussing a TV show they had all seen—content, they were calling TV shows content nowadays—when everyone was discussing content that he had also somehow seen it was almost as if they had watched something completely different. He couldn’t recognize a single actor as ever having been in anything other than what was on the screen in front of him at any given moment. He understood what “zeitgeist” meant but could not for the life of him understand how it applied to popular culture. And he didn’t have the foggiest idea of what anyone meant when they referred to the merits of various content being the product of “good writing.” Crime procedurals, quirky comedies, high-minded artistic fare. It all sounded the same to him.
What didn’t sound the same was email.
His inability to connect with his fellow workers in social situations was more than compensated for in his ability to get to know them through their email. For example, Wanda’s prompt but curt replies (“Got it. Thanks!”) belied a woman who took enormous pride in managing the amount of work that she regularly had on her plate. He pictured her at night rocking her newborn back to sleep while dictating a voice memo. In contrast, Carlos was less prompt with his replies but always more loquacious. “Apologies for the delayed response,” he would begin every message, even though Mason didn’t consider any reply sent within twenty-four hours of receipt as “delayed.” After apologizing, Carlos would defer and demure his way through every point: “happy to follow your lead,” “whatever you think is best,” “just let me know.” Mason decided that Carlos was the kind of person who would eat whatever the waiter brought him, even if it wasn’t what he had ordered. Then there was Montrell. Montrell was an intern who parlayed his good nature and can-do spirit into a full-time job, and based on his initial communications, Mason wasn’t sure he was going to make it.
“hey everyone u can find the most recent report attachd – m”
Where to begin? The lack of capitalization. The disregard for punctuation. That he couldn’t be bothered to spell the word “y-o-u.” Of all the affronts, however, Mason found the single-letter signature the most offensive. How presumptuous. As if “m” couldn’t possibly stand for any number of names other than “Montrell,” one of which was his very own! Mason recognized the instinct—a young man at the start of his career learning the vocabulary and eager to make an impression—however, he feared that Montrell was making the wrong impression. But Mason really did want him to succeed, and, over time, he coached Montrell to write in a way that both honored his voice and was also more appropriate for the audience—suggested PD’s, offered to review drafts—and he felt a great deal of pride when Montrell sent a message that read, in part, “this is the agreement out respective offices collaborated on earlier this year,” only to receive a correction moments later: “our respective offices,” it now read.
The most inscrutable member of the team, though, as far as emails were concerned, was Jax. (Mason happened to know that the “x” was an affectation. HR records listed his real name with the more traditional spelling and, presumably, pronunciation of “J-a-c-k.”) Jax was quiet, in a confident kind of way. He rarely spoke without being invited to do so, but when he did, Mason could tell that he had been carefully considering what he had to say. And his emails! Well, there was no other word for them: They simmered. They weren’t hostile or begrudging or condescending. Yet, Mason could tell that there was something underneath, something very close to the surface, that was suppressed by the formality of the language on top. Take the message that was in front of him at the moment, for example, the one that announced he would not be able to attend the afternoon check-in. (Mason had read it earlier in the day, of course, upon arrival, but was revisiting it before retiring for the night, as he sometimes did with Jax’s messages.)
“Good afternoon,” it began. Mason checked the time stamp. “12:04 p.m.” He continued: “Regrettably.” Regrettably! What work email begins with the word “Regrettably?” “Regrettably, I will be unable to attend this afternoon’s check-in.” Apostrophe “s”; hyphen between “check” and “in,” signifying that it is a noun and not a verb. “I am juggling too many projects at the moment. I hope to rejoin next week.” Strong, short sentences. Not a comma or a contraction between them. “In the meantime, I will review the notes and be in touch with any questions. – Jax”
He didn’t necessarily love the en-dash sign-off—flashbacks of Montrell—but Jax pulled it off. It was definitely better than “Sincerely,” which never was, or “Best,” which somewhere along the way had lost the “All” in front of it and suffered as a result. (He was strictly a “Regards” man, himself.) He reread the message, this time admiring its structure. “I will not.” “I hope to.” “In the meantime.” Beginning, middle, end. Just like God intended.
The only sentence that didn’t ring true for him was the third: “I am juggling too many projects at the moment.” He wondered about the wisdom of admitting to his supervisor that he would not meet all his demands. While that might be true, his management books noted that it was almost always up to the manager to make such a determination, not the employee. And there was something in that phrase itself: “juggling too many projects.” It was common enough around the office, but that was the problem, wasn’t it? It was just that: common. Mason wouldn’t have thought twice if Sheila would have written such a thing or Chad, that dolt. But Jax? He had come to expect more.
Mason often mentally edited his colleagues’ emails. He would skim the original and concoct a new version in his head as he read, like, he suspected, a translator. “Hello, all” sounded better in his mind as “Good morning, team!” “FYI” became “I wanted to let you know.” He had never mentally edited a Jax message but found himself doing so now. “Juggling too many projects” translated to “have too much on my plate,” but, no, that was wrong for all the same reasons. “Bit off more than I could chew.” Ugh. Even worse. And what was it with all the food metaphors? “Irons in the fire?” “Cooks in the kitchen?” That wasn’t even what he meant. He shook his head clear and decided to do away with figurative language altogether: “I will not be able to attend this afternoon’s check-in, as I am working on too many projects at the moment and need to preserve my time this afternoon for more pressing priorities.” Yes, that was taking shape. “Preserve” was a very Jax word, and the proximity to “pressing priorities” just made the whole thing pop.
The sentence still only lived in Mason’s mind, and he could not actually edit the email in question. Instead, he tantalized himself by running his cursor over where the improved line would go in Jax’s original message—“Juggling too many projects at the moment”—and when he did—oh his heart!—his cursor transformed from an arrow into a hand, unnaturally flexed, the thumb up and forefinger out as if in the shape of a gun, only held flat against the screen rather than sticking anyone up. Mason knew that the hand cursor only meant one thing: that it was hovering over a live link. But the text did not look live. Its color the same black as the rest of the message; it rested on no underline. For a second he thought it was a mistake, a glitch, but when he clicked away from and then back to this specific text the phenomenon occurred again. He checked the name of the sender. That was Jax’s account all right. There were no hallmarks of the experienced spammer that Mason couldn’t help but admire: no “0” posing as “O”; no “rn” in place of an “m.” The message was legit, and—he hovered again—so it appeared was the hot link. Mason was alone but he looked around him to see if anyone was watching, not that he didn’t want them to be but because he thought it might be nice to share this moment with someone. He didn’t know exactly what it was going to be, but he did know it was going to be special. He took a deep breath, wiggled his fingers expectantly, and then tapped his finger on the pad of his laptop, an IRL act that was mimicked on the screen when the pointing hand in turn tapped the link underneath.
And there, before Mason’s astonished eyes, a new window opened.
Between the hours of 5:00 p.m., when he logged off for the night, and 9:00 a.m., when he logged back on for the day, Jax never received any messages that were meant solely for him. He was often included on communications that went to either the full or some subset of the team, but he was never the person for whom the message was primarily intended. So, it was with great curiosity and not a little confusion that he regarded the message that had come in overnight, at 11:17 p.m., to be exact. “Good morning, Jax (or at least I hope you” was as much as he could make out in the sliver of a box that previewed the full content. He checked and double-checked the sender. Yep, it was from Mason, the Deputy Executive Director, and, nope, there was no one else in the “To” field. Though he had always been nothing but professional and courteous to Jax, Mason’s exacting reputation could not be ignored, so Jax paused forebodingly before he clicked on the full message: “Good morning, Jax (or at least I hope you aren’t reading this until the morning!). Thank you for your note indicating your inability to attend our most recent check-in. Please let me know if you have any questions once you have had a chance to review the notes. Regarding your capacity, I would be more than happy to speak with you about projects that could potentially come off your plate. Regards, Mason.” His phone number (office) and phone number (cell) and email address followed his signature, the latter of which, to Jax, had always felt unnecessary.
Jax reread the email, scrutinizing its content for anything he might have overlooked. Did it really acknowledge the missed meeting and open the possibility of moving around some work? It appeared so. He read it again, this time for tone. The parenthetical certainly stood out and the exclamation mark. They weren’t emoticons exactly, but they felt only once removed, which was one step closer than anything Jax would have expected from his Deputy ED. He looked toward Mason’s office, which was little more than a glassed-in cubicle along Leadership Row. Mason was at his desk, studying his computer screen intently. What was of such interest, Jax had no way of knowing. He did know that even though Jax was the only person on the floor at this early hour—9:00 a.m. meant 9:20 to most—Mason did not bother to acknowledge Jax’s presence. The email that had Jax so flummoxed seemed to matter very little to its sender, just one message out of many that he had undoubtedly sent at the end of yet another long day. His lowered chair enabled Jax to peer over his particle-board wall undetected. He looked toward Mason again. It must have been a chart on his screen because he had not scrolled or swiped or tended to his mouse in what seemed like minutes. His hands, in fact, were folded in front of him the way orators sometimes do when they don’t know what to do with their hands. Mason’s Earl Gray cooled. His Almond Crunch granola bar rested in its wrapper above its crumbs. Jax was so perplexed by the email that he sat there without tending to his own screen for a solid five minutes. He knew this because his screen saver automatically darkened his screen after five minutes of inactivity. If he was quick, Jax could toggle it back to life without having it fall asleep completely, which required him to re-enter his log in and password, which, while easy enough, occurred so frequently throughout the day that anytime he didn’t have to do so felt like a win. So, the instant that the screen began to fade Jax coaxed it back to life via his mouse, which caused his cursor, which had drifted off to the side of the screen thanks to a slight slope on his desk, to dart across the screen and land, like a roulette ball into the pocket of its wheel, on the words “come off of your plate” from Mason’s message. If Mason had been agog at Jax’s unexpected Easter egg the night before, imagine Jax’s astonishment at seeing his cursor transform from arrow to hand.
Jax stared at his screen.
It couldn’t have. Yet it did.
He snuck a peek back at Mason, who continued to be pretty into that chart, though Jax was also starting to wonder. On his screen, the cursor beckoned to him, like a disembodied hand enticing him down a haunted hall. He glanced at Mason, then back to the hand.
Psst, it seemed to say. Psst. Follow me.
Jax hadn’t thought that anyone would discover his hidden link, least of all Mason, whose robotic approach to his job was legend across the office. He was widely acknowledged, though not to his face, as the master of the two-words-or-less response.
Yet clearly someone had. Yet clearly Mason had. Not only had he discovered it but apparently, he had followed it—of course he had, what else was he going to do?— and followed it to where, exactly? Jax couldn’t even recall. Ahh, right. “Juggling too many projects.” That was it. The inept juggler. The GIF. The eggs in the air then on the ground. In the air, on the ground. Would Mason interpret the clip as a metaphor? A commentary on his work? It was true that he didn’t love his job—it was hardly what he was put on this earth to do—but it was a job, and he could imagine few things worse in the world than trying to find another. He was just making a joke. Not even. It was just a dumb decision. An impulse. And now he might lose his livelihood as a result.
People had started filtering into the office, the open-floor plan at this hour a maze for the walking dead. Bleary-eyed, they shuffled their feet like somehow the friction between their soles and the floor would generate the energy they needed to lift their coffee to their lips. Soon he would be surrounded. If he wanted a private moment to process whatever Mason had planted in his message, he would have to take it soon. He looked back toward the office. Mason was now on the phone. He looked back at his email. “If you need something to come off of your plate.”
Oh, what the hell, he thought. What’s the worst that could happen? A link to a termination letter? He would applaud their creativity.
He was transported not to a GIF but to a video, some three minutes long, according to the timer at the bottom of the clip. It was a school cafeteria, in grainy black and white and soundless. It was shot from a high angle. A security camera, Jax realized. At first, the scene made Jax uneasy. He felt like a voyeur, like he was watching something that he shouldn’t. Even worse, it reminded him of other school-based “reality” clips that he had seen before. School shootings. Armed assailants roaming empty halls, testing every closed door. Quick cuts down multiple corridors. What exactly was Mason—? And then he saw it, a student in the top-left corner of the screen stands up and throws something at the student sitting across from him. A milk carton, maybe. Something solid. It fails to hit the other student, but the gesture is enough that the second student retaliates by throwing something at the first. He misses his intended target and, of course, hits another unsuspecting kid—student #3—who responds by throwing wildly and initiating student #4 into the fray. Within seconds, the whole cafeteria erupts into a good old-fashioned middle-school food fight: gooey mashed potatoes, rancid mystery meat. Frisbeed pizza slices. Orange sacs thudding against tray shields. Banana peels starting out like a rocket and then parachuting down. The faculty try to intervene, but it is hopeless. The battle ends when there is no more food to be thrown. When its combatants survey their clothes for stains and wipe clean what little of their homework is salvageable. Somehow the fact that it is in black and white, captured by a single camera and silent, only adds to the charm. Like it was shot before talkies, when simple pleasures ruled. Namely, squeegeeing apple sauce from a twelve-year-old’s hair.
It was, there was no other word for it, delightful. It was a delightful way to begin the day.
He toggled back to the email: “If anything needs to come off of your plate.”
It was so obvious. Mason wasn’t mad or upset. He was replying in kind.
Mason’s office was now empty. Jax was sorry that he wasn’t there. He would like to have given him a friendly nod. A subtle acknowledgement of appreciation. Game recognizing game. Whether that would have made things less weird or more, Jax wasn’t sure. But he wanted to do it, nonetheless. He clicked the link again and reveled in the discrepancy between the staid office and the chaos on the screen.
His cubicle mate, Althea, arrived and swung her purse onto her desk.
“Good morning,” he said.
Without taking off her sunglasses, she watched the video on his screen.
When it was over, she said, “Cute.” Then she nodded toward Mason’s empty office. “You better not let Herr Mason catch you, though. Anything other than official work business, and there’ll be hell to pay.”
“This is the house I grew up in.”
“My ex-fiancé and I used to hike to this waterfall every New Year’s Day.”
“Music doesn’t get any better than the stretch in this song from 11:03 until 15:38.”
The house was via Google Maps, a tree-lined street in Racine, Wisconsin. The waterfall was from HikeNorthCarolina.gov. And the music was a YouTube stream of Miles Davis’ “In a Silent Way.”
It was six weeks after the juggling TV star/food fight in the cafeteria exchange, and their emails had dropped all pretense of being work related. They had carried on ostensibly under the cover of work for awhile, continuing to embed Easter eggs in their project-related messages to the team—“circle back” redirected to a turn-of-the-20th-century boy powering a hoop with a stick; a reference to “herding cats” linked to an image of a…puppy (“Gotcha!”)—but eventually the risk of being discovered, low that it was, just didn’t seem worth it, and, besides, a relationship built on exchanging memes that really weren’t even that cleverly connected to work was destined to only go so far, which wasn’t far enough, according to them, though neither had admitted as much even to himself and damn sure not to the other person.
“The house looks nice,” Mason had replied. “How often do you go back?”
“It was/is,” Jax had written back. “Not often enough says Mom. Too often says me. My bedroom window is the one on the top left. If you look really closely, you might be able to see my reflection burned into the glass from all of the times I sat there looking out, wondering if I would ever get away.”
“And now you are.”
“I guess. It’s complicated.”
They never used any mode of communication other than email. No desk phone, though their extensions were listed in the directory. No cell phones, personal or company issued. Not even the interoffice chat program that wasn’t Snapchat but that was designed to function exactly like it was, the messages untraceably disappearing for all time immediately after being read. Enough of his colleagues had lobbied for this functionality that Mason had to assume that it served a legitimate work purpose. For the life of him, he could not figure out what it was.
No, they were committed to email in the same way that friends from a previous generation were devoted to pen and paper, like HAM-radio evangelists believed in the primacy of their mode of communication.
“Ex-fiancée? I’m sorry to hear.”
“Probably for the best.”
“I know that’s what people say. But is that what you feel?”
“Then? No. Now? IDK.”
They treated their exchanges like snippets of an ongoing discussion, a dialogue. Whole emails would include responses that were as short as a single sentence only to be replied to seconds later with a similarly brief reply. When grouped together in "conversation" mode, which organized exchanges based on their subject matter and not, say, by time of arrival, that’s exactly what they became: conversations, connections, blocks with which something bigger was being built. They became a record of their developing relationship, to be revisited, studied, marveled at, at their leisure.
They would occasionally attend meetings together, or, rather, not together, but they would occasionally attend meetings that the other person was also attending, meetings that, as Deputy ED, Mason would preside over with an air of gravitas and that Jax, as a Project Coordinator, would attend in a speak-when-spoken-to capacity. Sometimes they would sit across from each other, sometimes even next to. When the agenda called for Jax to provide an update, he would do so, making eye contact with everyone around the table, Mason included, in a way that made him uncomfortable but that he knew was important because everyone else seemed to do it too. It was hard to not be self-conscious when looking Mason’s way, to not reveal anything by looking at him for too long or too short a time. Once, Mason was sitting right next to Jax and the intensity of the moment was compounded by the awkward angle at which he had to crane his neck to achieve eye contact, and that one time he had said that the next deliverable was due on Thursday, not Tuesday, and someone from the other side of the table had to correct him.
“Tuesday,” Jax had said. “That’s right, Tuesday. Thanks.”
And everyone moved on.
Other than that, there were no tells.
Mason would adjourn meetings with a “Nice work, everyone,” which he always said in a way that was neither heartfelt nor insincere. He would lead the group out, propping the door open on his way, both for the convenience of the exiting team and for the one that had reserved the conference room next. He would go back to his office alone, and Jax and some work friends would go to the vending machine on the second floor for raspberry-infused sparkling water and shortbread cookies.
“I listened to that song you sent. ‘In a Quiet Way.’”
“‘In a Silent Way.’”
“What did you think?”
“I liked it.”
“What did you like about it?”
“I liked trying to hear it like I thought it might sound to you.”
Every so often, Jax would scour the web for the most unreadable text he could possibly find. Arcane legal rulings. Impenetrable philosophical treatises. Personal blogs. He would copy massive blocks of text, the dense prose rendering them nearly opaque, and he would paste them into an email to Mason. The amount of content would be the equivalent of fifteen standard work emails, maybe twenty. But there would be no breaks. No salutation. No defined paragraphs. With a click Mason was able to remove all the spaces between the letters. And somewhere in there, somewhere in that wall of words, Jax would include a link. As few as five words, three. The subject line for these messages always read “Throwback,” which Mason took as a reference to their original embedded links when their relationship was hiding in plain sight if only people were attuned enough to see. Mason loved those messages. He loved scrolling through and trying to find the hidden treasure.
When he was a boy, Mason spent a lot of time at the car dealership where his mom worked. She was an accountant, which meant that she often stayed late, so she would bring him to work after school. When there were still customers, he would sit in the lounge watching game shows, the 5:00 news, and joke with the salespeople who thought it was hilarious to ask him if he took his coffee black or with cream. After hours, though, when the lot emptied, his mother would give him the keys to a floor model and let him curl up in the back of a sedan or the bed of a truck or the trunk of a minivan and allow him to finish his homework there. She provided a stack of workbooks for when he was done, which encouraged him to complete his work as quickly as possible. He loved those workbooks. Mad Libs. Riddles. Crosswords. Word finds. He would plow his way through them with more glee and attention than he ever devoted to his studies. His favorite pages, though, by far, were those that were written in invisible ink and that had to be decoded with a special pen. (Mason knew that the “pen” was just a plastic case of water with a sponge where the tip was supposed to be, but that qualified it as special to him.) The top of the page would say “How do you wrap a cloud?” but the rest of the page would be blank. “Apply special ink below to reveal the answer!” the page would prompt, and Mason would do as he was told, swabbing the page with his magic pen and watching the words and images slowly reveal themselves. He would brush ever faster, with increased anticipation as that seemingly blank space filled up, the answer finally making itself known with a crystallizing voila!
“How do you wrap a cloud?”
Why with a rainbow, of course.
Mason harkened back to those days, when even the front seat of a Ford Fusion felt like a magical place, as he sifted through Jax’s latest “Throwback” message. He had outdone himself with this one, the letters so closely packed together and the vocabulary so technical that it was barely recognizable as English. There was probably some way to do a search, to run a program, that would out the masquerading text. But that would have been cheating. Instead, Mason skimmed his middle finger across the surface of his touchpad, following his cursor with his eyes, loathe to blink lest he miss the transformation. It was as if he was reading in Braille, connecting to the words and thus to Jax with just the tips of his finger. Occasionally he would skip along too quickly and would have to remind himself to slow down. “It’s the journey, not the destination,” he had read on a million inspirational posters, and while he wasn’t completely sure that this was true, he did know that the anticipation was all. The moment before the moment was the most delicious, and since each moment could be that last one, the tension would ratchet up the further he got. He found himself slowing down, prolonging the experience ever more. And then, when he had less than a quarter of the text to go, he ran the cursor over the word “unmentionable,” and the “unme” sprung to life. “Unme.” “U-n-me.” “You and me.” Was Jax being intentional or was that just a coincidence? Mason didn’t spend more than an instant pondering the thought. He clicked on the hidden link, the invisible link, and, oh my. It was as if he had known. Of course, that was impossible. But still.
The link transported Mason to a glorious picture of a rainbow, the brilliance of the colors so clearly defined that they appeared to be the result of a painter’s brush, the arc a perfect dome that cast a protective spell beneath.
How do you wrap a cloud?
That night Mason laughed himself to sleep.
In his browser, bold font swelled the word “inbox,” signaling unread messages. Mason didn’t care. They could wait until morning.
Jax noticed the red “!” before he saw the invitation to the 9:00 a.m. meeting. He knew that, professionally speaking, the exclamation mark signified “high priority,” but he had been socially conditioned to interpret such images as warnings—construction sites, medicine bottles, ponds glassed over with ice—that he couldn’t suppress a pang of panic when he saw it. Theirs was not a histrionic office, and such signifiers were used sparingly. When he realized the sender, the pang became a wave. It was from Mason, sent not even six hours earlier, at 2:47 a.m. In the subject field were the words “heads up.”
“Hye. Just wanted to let you know that I opened my big yap but think everything is going to be ok. More inthe morning. – m.”
“Reminder: Meeting with Prisha in 5 minutes.”
Reminder? What reminder? He would have had to have been aware of it in the first place to be reminded. He clicked on the invite: “Hi, Jax. Was hoping to get your insight on a matter of team culture. Apologies for the early meet. Otherwise, chock-full. Looking forward to talking soon. Regards, Prisha.”
Mason was also included on the invite, which had been sent even more recently than the “!” message: 3:05 a.m.
2:47. 3:05. “I opened my big yap.”
Jax was thankful for the “early meet,” as it left him little time to fret. He collected his things—something to write with, on—and arrived at the meeting two minutes early.
Prisha held up a finger and said, “One minute,” as she finished an email. Mason was already there. Bloodshot and rumpled, he pointedly kept his head down. Jax thought, “Hye.”
Jax had never been in Prisha’s office before. It was nice. Pine-soly. Her shelves were dotted with tchotchkes: framed certificates, awards in Plexiglas boxes, oddities that presumably only made sense to her (a bronze ear of corn?). The photos on her desk were positioned in such a way that she, not her visitors, could see them. Jax hadn’t seen that before. He nodded his head in silent approval.
A clock chimed nine, and Prisha joined Jax and Mason at the conference table. Jax had never seen Mason in the role of subordinate, and he didn’t think it was a good look for him. Mason, especially in his all-banged-up condition, looked weak next to Prisha, who oozed control. His withering presence only increased Jax’s sympathy for him. Jax tried to catch his friend’s eye to offer an encouraging smile, but Mason kept his face averted.
The table was big enough for a game of gin rummy, and Prisha started dealing immediately.
“We had a leadership retreat after work last night,” she proffered. “Why they are called ‘retreats,’ I have no idea. When I think of retreat, I think of something you do when you are losing, and, say what you will about working around here, but I do not think that ‘loser’ is a word that readily comes to mind. But my feelings about the word do not change the fact that we had one last night, a leadership retreat, after which some of us retired to the bar, including two people currently in this room. Isn’t that right, Mason?”
Mason showed signs of life.
“All good managers know that you can learn more from your direct report in five minutes at the bar than you will ever get out of them in five years of ‘progress reports’”—her disdain for the word was palpable—“and what I got out of my five minutes with Mason here was information about the game the two of you have been playing.”
“I didn’t say game.”
More than signs of life. Some kick to it.
Prisha was as close to being taken aback as she was ever going to be.
“What did you call it, then?”
“I don’t know, but it wasn’t that.” To Jax: “I would never call it that.”
“Well, whatever it was that was the gist. Something lighthearted and playful. Not work-like at all.”
“Prisha,” Jax interrupted. He didn’t like the direction in which the conversation was going but also figured it would be best to just get there. She was, after all, “chock-full.” “I don’t know what the two of you talked about at the bar, but I do know that I never intended to distract us from our work, and I am sorry if—”
“You are sorry?” Prisha asked. “Sorry. I think you misunderstand. There is nothing to be sorry for. I have called you in here because I want to steal your idea, not punish you for it.”
Jax stared blankly, his face like a pin-wheeling cursor trying to catch up. Finally, he confessed.
“You’re right. I don’t understand.”
Prisha turned to Mason, who sighed and said, “We want to implement it office-wide.”
“You want to what?”
“We want to implement it office-wide,” Prisha said, prodding things along. “While I certainly stand by my previous contention that we are not losers around here, I always recognize that there are areas in which we could improve, and team morale is at the top of that list. What better ways to boost endorphins than by including unexpected gifts with each email? An ‘Easter egg,’ I believe you called them.” Mason, shamed, looked, away. “Yes, now that term I am quite certain of. An Easter egg. Why the thought alone puts a smile on my face. We’ll have to take care, of course, that things remain professional, that everything stays on the up and up, nothing untoward, but I am sure that the two of you can figure that out.”
“‘The two of us?’”
“Of course. When I said I wanted to steal your idea, I didn’t literally mean that I wanted to steal your idea. You originated it. You roll it out. Besides, it will look better coming from you. Bottom up and all that.” She looked at them expectantly, and when it was clear her expectations were going to go unfulfilled, she said, “That is all,” and returned to her desk. Mason beelined for the exit. He did not prop the door open on his way out.
The initiative, dubbed “Invisible (L)ink” by some overly clever underling, was a rousing success. People who had previously scanned their messages for only the most rudimentary details—who, what, when?—now combed through them fine-tooth style, running their cursors over every word in search of their prize. Throughout the day, heads gophered up from cubicle walls and bellowed across the floor.
“Nice one, Mitch!”
“You really made me work for that one, Sandra.”
“Oh, my word, Miguel. That is just too cute.”
Folks competed for the smallest amount of hot text. First two-letter words, then individual letters, and, finally, punctuation. People Googled, “How many picas in an apostrophe? An exclamation mark?”
“It depends on the size of the font, you idiot.”
“Standard size. 12-point. New Times Roman.”
A melee damn near broke out when someone dared to include the link in the signature of the message rather than body.
“I call shenanigans,” Caleb piped up.
“Nobody ever said it had to in the body,” Millie, clearly the guilty party, defended.
“It was implied,” Caleb retorted.
“What implied?” Millie again. “Show me where it is law.”
“From now on,” Jumaane announced judiciously, “all invisible links must precede the signature.”
“What about a postscript?”
“They must precede the signature.”
The room collectively groaned. But it was so.
For their part, Mason and Jax watched the office revel in the initiative without taking any joy in it themselves. They dutifully participated in emails with colleagues, but no longer did so in their message to one another. The chat-like communiqués throughout the day trickled and then ceased completely. Such brief exchanges were hard to track anyway, what with the onslaught of electronic mail coming through every hour. It was the digital equivalent of letters piling up on the other side of a mail-slotted door. After a long day of meetings, Mason returned to his desk to find 273 unread messages. A virtual mound of letters, like he was a teen idol. It took him over two hours to sift through them all. Not one of them was from Jax.
As is the case with even the most successful launches, “Invisible (L)ink” eventually petered out. It died a still-life death, slowly deteriorating over time until one day it had disintegrated completely, without anyone even noticing. Every once in a while, someone would say, “Hey, remember that time when we sent links to one another?” and someone else would say, quizzically, “Yeah…,” and a third person would chime, “That was fun. We should do it again.” But no one would. It wasn’t that people didn’t continue including hot links in their emails. It was just that the links once again led exclusively to work-related documents.
“Here is the most recent completion report.”
“This article includes 10 tips on running an efficient meeting.”
“The latest guidance can be found here.”
So, it wasn’t completely surprising that notice of Jax leaving the organization was delivered via text that was as flat as the message itself: “Please join us in wishing our colleague, Jax, well as he transitions to a new organization. Congratulations.”
Mason had been unaware.
“Those bastards,” he thought, as he ran the cursor over the word “Congratulations.” Its black font remained stubbornly so. “The least they could have done was enable confetti.”
In the weeks after Jax’s departure, Mason reflected on why he had behaved the way he did in their meeting with Prisha. It wasn’t his defensiveness that bothered him. In fact, he was quite proud of himself the way he had objected to her use of the word “game.” No, what he couldn’t stop thinking about was how he had treated Jax. Darting his eyes in every direction but his. Refusing to even acknowledge that he was in the room. And then storming out and swinging the door shut behind him. He hadn’t even propped it open. His behavior had not only been inexcusable, but it had also been inexplicable. Jax had done nothing wrong. But, then again, neither had Mason.
He had been at the happy hour, post-retreat, and he was smiling at one of Jax’s recent links—a man diving off the high dive into a water bucket—when Prisha had asked him what was so amusing. So, he had told her and then, in response to her questions, had told her some more. He didn’t know that she was going to turn it into a thing. But even when she did, there was no shame in it. “Invisible (L)ink,” which he had undertook on his own as a kind of penance, was a smash. The greatest accomplishment of his professional career. Everyone loved it. It brought people joy. At work. Which was no small feat. Then why couldn’t he shake the feeling that it had been an utter and absolute failure? Oh, yeah. Because he had lost his friend.
He hadn’t realized how joyless his life was until he had actual joy in it, and now that it was gone, he felt worse than he had before. It was cliché, he knew, but before he hadn’t known what he was missing. He responded to his freshly vacuous existence in an imminently predictable way: by throwing himself into his work, all consumingly. The problem was that it wasn’t all-consuming work. He gave 100% of himself to a job that required no more than fifty, and even that was only during peak times. So, more and more time was spent doing less and less. He passed countless hours in his office working—no one could accuse him of slacking off—but he did so at such a pace that he always ensured himself at least a couple dozen unread messages that he could read at home before lights out to keep his understimulated mind from wandering too far from the pockets that protected him from his loneliness.
And so, it was on a Tuesday night at 11:43 when he finished his final response of the night—“Are you sure about this? I think you should run the numbers one more time”—that he realized that he had one message yet unread. It was in his “Other” folder, which meant that it had come from outside his organization, and it had apparently come in while he had been drafting his previous response. His heart rippled. He clicked. His heart sank. The sender was “firstname.lastname@example.org,” and the subject read “Failure Message.” Though he couldn’t make out the full contents, it began, “Sorry, but we are unable to..."
Mason knew that such messages were kickbacks from when he sent an email to an invalid address, which he had not done. Probably spam, he thought. But oh, what the hell. He opened it. Code. Endless code. Like:
h=X-YMail-OSG:Received:X-Mailer:Message-ID:Date:From:Reply- To:Subject:To:Cc:MIME-Version:Content-Type; b=LzjbvPOmUD4ePduO 3/QSafHgiBnEK4zGoq0ak7+Jxxv4g7NDp/8LBTN07/ikTVvt3JAolAbRDN7oU N7t1g6PLdC5GJR24T7jsnb0eqRVHGpTD2rvdu0PWWS3mDgSMPpNkQ8X6q k0lpRbAmqCmMXvddjEwAI6bFyMrHp/0QOl78Q=;X-YMail-OSG: RqzxQZcVM1lcNpUMDZ19sIBffU_Ns8geJUA8pv7wXEItWP3pVfaqMW0C6bP 8_PvlE0GESvzBm1UjofLbka6xVcCFvH6fGhcTPNYuFqsTHuyFX_gRbin_J6k0Fx NDDMLGslsb.Sni2vxUvGR7zK58VeM8oAAZRWWFB.o4e3zpYce5_5nvqZBI_K SNiSKyc2JTRALjQOQyZvYlTC569vRzZp8W1rsneaJWRUiPZSIt48L5.WxMPUX d6kVGTqgp3h1wmbuX.7L3kztgs4Ei9gVIDfNMI.No6
He was sure that someone smarter than he could make out what it meant, though he certainly could not. And, anyway, whatever it was, it wasn’t from Jax. Jax’s throwback messages had always been dense, no doubt about that, but they had also always been words. They had always been a language. Mason studied the code again curiously, but without letting himself get pulled in. Then he thought, well, isn’t this a kind of language? Maybe I just need to know how to read it. So, he set to picking his way through, the cursor like a finger down the spine of a lover’s back. He ran it over every backslash and plus sign, every colon without a space on either side and every open bracket that went unpaired. The night wore on, time—and the text—seemingly without end. His eyes blurred. He rubbed them raw with the palms of his hands, and when his vision returned to where the white dots had just danced, he resolved to stop trying so hard. Instead, he started looking at blocks of text. He focused on the totality, or rather, he didn’t focus at all. He was a kid again at the car lot, and one of his workbooks featured an optical illusion. He could only ever see it when he relaxed his eyes and took in the whole thing. When he stopped looking and let it come to him. And then—pow!—there it was, as if surfacing from a great depth.
He couldn’t believe he hadn’t seen it before. It spanned a line break, sure, but, now that he saw it, it could not have been more obvious. Right there in front of him and for all the world to see: “j4lRx.4HkzSaM7uNmEO.3u3.”
He smiled, clicked, was transported.