Home > The Coworker

The Coworker
Author: Freida McFadden


Part I



Chapter One









Dawn isn’t at her desk this morning when I walk into the office, which means the world is coming to an end.

I’m joking. Obviously, the world is not coming to an end. But if you knew Dawn, you would get it.

For the last nine months, Dawn Schiff has occupied the cubicle next to mine at Vixed, the nutritional supplement company where we both work. You could set your watch by her routines. 8:45, she’s at her desk. 10:15, she takes a bathroom break. 11:45, she goes to the break room and has her lunch. 2:30 is another bathroom break. And at five o’clock sharp, she shuts down her computer and leaves for the day. If there were some sort of apocalyptic event in which all timepieces in the world were lost, we could all get back on schedule just by watching when Dawn went to the bathroom. Down to the second.

I usually arrive at work somewhere in the thirty-minute window between eight-thirty and nine. Well, nine-ish. If all the stars align, I make it by 8:30. But even though I swear I put my keys in the exact same place every day, on the table right by the front door, sometimes during the night they get up and walk away somewhere. And then I have to look for them.

Or else I hit traffic. So much traffic. Dorchester Avenue is a parking lot during rush-hour.

This morning, the lights were not in my favor, but the traffic was sparse, so at ten minutes to nine, I step into the large office space that houses Vixed. I walk through the rows of identical cubicles stuffed into the center of the room, my red heels clicking against the linoleum floor, the fluorescent lights flickering above my head. As I pass by Dawn’s cubicle on the way to my own, my hand already raised in greeting, I stop short.

The cubicle is empty.

As strange as Dawn’s schedule is, it’s even stranger that today she isn’t following it. I can’t help but think that Dawn’s absence must signify something ominous. After all, Dawn is never late. Never.

“Natalie! Hey, Nat! Guess what!”

I rip my eyes away from Dawn’s cubicle at the sound of Kim’s voice. She’s skipping down the aisle of cubicles, her tanned face glowing.

Kim Healey is my best friend at work, which sadly means that she’s my best friend in general since work has increasingly become my entire life. She got back from her honeymoon two weeks ago and has the most spectacular tan as well as highlights in her formerly dark brown hair—she even still smells slightly like sand and sunscreen. She looks fantastic and I’m so happy for her. And I’m only like ten percent jealous. Really—I genuinely wish her all the happiness in the world, as I said in my slightly drunken wedding toast.

I rake my eyes over Kim’s black and white patterned Ann Taylor dress, noting a telltale bulge. “You’re pregnant!” I gasp.

The smile instantly drops off her face. “No. I’m not pregnant. Why would you say that?” She tugs at the tie cinched above her waist. “Do you think this dress makes me look fat?”

“No! Oh, Kim, of course not!” In my defense, the way she said guess what really made it sound like she had a baby announcement. Women my age seem to be announcing pregnancies left and right lately—it seems like the only exciting news anyone has to share—and she did recently get back from her honeymoon. “Not at all. I’m so sorry I said that. I just thought…”

Kim is still tugging at her dress self-consciously. “You must have said that for a reason.”

I mentally smack myself in the head. “I didn’t—I swear. And anyway, everyone puts on a couple of pounds on their honeymoon. It totally suits you.”

But she isn’t even listening. She’s too busy craning her neck, trying to look at her own butt.

I clear my throat. “So, um, what did you want to tell me?”

“Oh.” She manages a tiny smile, her initial enthusiasm dampened. “The T-shirts came. I put them in the conference room.”

Ooh, that is good news! I follow Kim to the conference room, and sure enough, there’s a slightly dented brown cardboard box waiting in the corner. I run right over and pry open the flaps. “Did you look?”

“I sifted through. Didn’t do a full count.”

I rifle through the box stuffed with T-shirts and pull one out. It’s teal in color, and all the necessary information is there. 5K charity run. Benefiting cerebral palsy research. The shirt in my hand is a medium, and it looks about right. I was nervous about the timing—the T-shirts were supposed to arrive last week, and it’s already Tuesday. The charity run I’m organizing is on Saturday.

“They look gorgeous, Nat,” Kim breathes. She has been such an amazing cheerleader in organizing this run—I couldn’t have done it without her. “We can pass them out later in the morning, when everyone is here.”

I nod, relieved this is coming together as planned. “By the way,” I add, “do you know if Dawn called out sick?”

Kim holds a T-shirt up to her chest, smoothing it out over her abdomen, which still looks a bit like a baby bump to me. “No. Why?”

“Well, she’s not here.”

“So? She’s running late.”

“You don’t understand.” I drop the T-shirts back into the cardboard box. “Dawn is never late. Never. Not once the whole time she’s worked here. She’s always here at 8:45.”

Kim looks down at her watch and then back up at me like I’ve lost my mind. “So she’s twenty minutes late. So what?”

It’s strange behavior for Dawn. On top of that, there’s something else I haven’t shared with Kim. Yesterday afternoon, Dawn sent me an odd email asking if I could talk to her at the end of the workday about a “matter of great importance.” But I was out on a sales call most of the afternoon, and when I got back to the office, she was already gone.

A matter of great importance. I wonder if that was about…

No. Probably not.

“I hope she’s okay.” I shake my head. “Maybe she got into a car accident.”

Kim snickers. “Or maybe she was finally committed.”

“Stop it,” I murmur. “That’s mean.”

“Come on. She’s a weirdo and you know it as well as anyone. You’re the one who has to sit next to her.”

“She’s not so bad…”

“Not so bad!” Kim bursts out. “It’s like sharing the office with a robot. And what’s with her obsession with turtles? Like, who is that into turtles?”

Okay, I’m not going to say Dawn isn’t a little strange. Or even very strange. There are times when people at the company make fun of her behind her back. And yes, she does like turtles more than any fully grown adult rightfully should. But she’s a very nice person. If they got to know her a little better, they would be nicer to her.

Not that I know her very well. I always meant to ask her to dinner sometime, but I never got around to it. A couple of weeks ago as we were riding down in the elevator on Friday evening, I casually asked her if she had any plans and she looked shocked by the question. Just having dinner at home. Alone. I would have asked her to join me for dinner, but I was meeting my boyfriend, and it would have been weird if she tagged along.

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