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Our panic ratcheted up a notch when we heard the clapping.

“Conference room,” I said, grasping Jackie’s hand as we dashed down the hallway. The door was shut, but I could hear Lukas closing up the meeting.

“Do we go in?” Jackie whispered.

The door opened before I could answer, nearly knocking us on our asses. The staff filed out, each person carrying a box with their name written in bold letters on the front in black marker.

“Oh, dear God, did the company go under?” Jackie said, her voice shaking. “Is everyone fired?”

But they were smiling, talking animatedly to one another. A few gave a general nod in our direction, but whatever they were discussing was too enthralling to make time for pleasantries. Excitement was in their bright, young, cheerful faces. For some reason, that made me more fearful of what was to come.

We stood to the side until everyone passed out of earshot. With one shared look of apprehension, Jackie and I walked in to face Lukas. He sat at the head of the blindingly white conference table, thumbing through a hardcover book. Two boxes formed an odd centerpiece on the table, with Jackie scrawled on one and Paige on the other. The photo of Trey sat atop my pile.

“You’re late,” Lukas said, but he kept his tone neutral, more of a general announcement in case we hadn’t heard the news.

“It isn’t nine yet,” I managed.

“Was there an e-mail?” Jackie said hurriedly. “I didn’t get the e-mail.”

Lukas closed the book he was reading and smiled at us. “By nine o’clock you should be completely present—e-mail checked, coffee drunk, administrative tasks already completed. I called this meeting at eight thirty this morning, and everyone was present but you two.”

Jackie grimaced, her face slowly turning a shade more purple than my favorite Pantone color, a deep burgundy. Don’t do it, I told myself. Do not show any trace of guilt. I kept my mouth shut to stop the apology on the tip of my tongue and waited for him to continue.

When he realized we weren’t going to fall prostrate at his feet, Lukas pushed the book in my direction. I caught it just before it hit the floor. He reached behind him and passed another book to Jackie. “This is your new bible here at Guh. Don’t just read it, commit it to memory. Allow its ideas to marinate in your brain, soak it in, live by it.”

I cleared my throat. “So the g is pronounced . . . guh?”

“It’s a simple name change,” Lukas said tightly, pointing at the book in my hand. “Rebranding is necessary to escape a rut. Read chapter 7.”

I didn’t immediately flip open the book, but took in its cover. The Petra Principles for the New, New Creative Workplace: A Primer for More Than Success by Petra Polly. The woman on the cover was photographed as she hung upside down, her knees curled around some colorfully painted monkey bars, while artfully dressed children played in the background. Her golden braids hung straight to the pile of woodchips beneath her head. She was cute—round, thickly lashed blue eyes, flushed cheeks, a smile like a baking-show contestant. I think I’d spotted her outfit at Anthropologie. It was a half-knitted, half-silk jumpsuit in a jumble of textures, patterns, and hues, the kind of thing that could only be worn by someone young and thin. The girl was very, very thin and very, very young.

“We’re adopting the Petra Principles here at Guh,” Lukas said proudly. “Starting with one of her most important dictums, ‘Intraoffice competition will only be productive if it is both friendly and fierce.’”

“Competition?” Jackie mouthed the word slowly, as if she’d only learned English five minutes before.

I folded my arms across my chest. “Fierce like Beyoncé, or fierce like Vladimir Putin?”

“Petra doesn’t discuss humor until chapter 10, so let’s table the wit, okay?”

I nodded and pursed my lips. A reprimand from Lukas felt like a congenial threat. Apparently, “oxymoron” was the go-to word of the day. Friendly and fierce. Congenial and threat.

Lukas offered us a tight smile. “Petra believes that what is good for the human body is good for a company. Very forward thinking, wouldn’t you agree?”

Jackie and I nodded dumbly.

“The first chapter discusses cutting the fat. ‘An overweight body will harm a person’s health, both in the now and down the road,’” Lukas recited. I got the feeling he’d been listening to Petra spout her wisdom on the audiobooks he was constantly listening to while awkwardly sprinting at his treadmill desk. I wondered what she sounded like.

“You want us to drop some weight?” Jackie asked, and I was thrilled to hear a hint of rebellion in her voice. “I’m fifty-one years old. If I want to drop a pound, I have to eat four hundred calories a day. That’s only one Lean Cuisine—”

“I’m not requiring you to lose the weight,” Lukas interjected as his eyes scrolled over Jackie’s muffin top. “Our company should shed a few. To survive, and thrive, we need to be lean.”

“We can get rid of the Christmas party,” I said, my mind reeling. “And the company picnic this summer. We don’t really need kombucha delivered every Friday, do we?”

Lukas shook his head. “Staff. We need to cut two jobs.”

Your dad hired these people just over a year ago. I didn’t say it out loud. He hadn’t said which jobs, but Jackie and I were by far the highest paid, making at least one of us most likely to get the boot. I shuddered at the thought of life on the unemployment line. When your professional life is about to end, it’s not your personal history that flashes before your eyes, but your bills—mortgage, car note, tuition, utilities. I had to ask, “Were you thinking of any two people in particular?”

Jackie inhaled sharply.

Lukas tapped the book in my arms. “That’s the beauty of Petra’s philosophy. It’s completely democratic, and so will the process be of who gets let go.” He smiled as if to alert me that what he was going to say next was a gift. “Did you notice the new desk configuration?”

Pretty tough to miss, I wanted to say, but instead, I bit the inside of my mouth and simply nodded.

“Petra believes in community,” Lukas continued on enthusiastically. “All the computer terminals are now shared property. That way, we can all learn each other’s jobs, helping when appropriate, filling in when emergencies arise, sharing the workload. What if you need to take the afternoon off for a doctor’s appointment? Rhiannon can finish up your work. Or Seth or Glynnis or Byron. Petra says we shouldn’t believe in passwords, we should believe in passwork. Imagine it.”

I could imagine it all too well. Though a talented designer, Rhiannon snorted Adderall like an ’80s coke fiend on her lunch break, and Seth thought the workday should primarily consist of scrolling through inappropriate websites and choosing exactly which porn episode he’d spend quality time with later in the evening. I wondered how he would fare in this new democratic, passwordless office. Byron was all talk and swagger, marginal talent. And quiet, mousy Glynnis? She’d barely made a peep in months. Maybe Jackie and I, stalwart and reliable, had nothing to worry about.

“These principles make sense to me,” Lukas said earnestly, breaking into my thoughts. “And I hope they do to you. The next few months will be a time of sweeping change for Guh.”

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