Danielle Holmes was the first recorded disappearance. We didn’t notice right away. She had always been a quiet one, respectful, never speaking unless spoken to, never sitting at the conference table during meetings, opting instead to stand in the back. It was about a week into her disappearance, in the middle of our monthly meeting, after the team lead asked her to forward him the productivity rates for last quarter’s batches, that we waited two, three, four seconds for her soft voice to say, OK, before glancing at her usual standing spot and seeing only the wall. Maybe she left early for a dental appointment, someone said. What makes you so sure she went to the dentist? another person asked. It could’ve been the doctor’s. The rest of us thought about the last time we’d seen her, and someone narrowed it down to Thursday last week when she stood behind him in line, holding oatmeal and a cup of coffee. When Johanna Petit-Frere left work late that evening, she noticed Danielle’s Elantra in the corner of the lot, unlocked, empty Chobani yogurt containers littered on the passenger seat, a small, generic, brand-name purse lying on its side on the floor. Johanna called the police to do a wellness check. They had a few others to complete ahead of her, but when they finally checked Danielle’s house, they saw nothing amiss. Maybe, we reasoned, she went on vacation and forgot to upload her leave to the company’s Outlook calendar. But her purse? Johanna asked. No, no, no. No woman forgets her purse.
Johanna disappeared two days later. Unlike Danielle, we considered Johanna loud. Angry. She had a six-inch afro, stormed around the office in these impossible six-inch heels, clacked the keys on her keyboard, and, some of us felt, spoke a bit too loudly on conference calls, sometimes slipping into Haitian Creole when she wanted to curse. Rumor had it that when HR called her in to talk about embracing her quieter side, she demanded to know who had filed the complaint. She came to each cubicle, eyeing us, questioning us. None of us, of course, knew anything. On the day she disappeared, it took only a few hours to realize she was gone. One minute we heard her chattering on the phone, clacking on her keyboard; the next, silence. We thought her call had dropped. When Terrell Davis went by her cubicle to drop off some folders and discuss upcoming travel to Rock Island, he found a pair of stilettos, but no Johanna. He waited for a while. Later, he told us his first thought was that she had to defecate (You mean shit? one of us snickered. Terrell had a habit of being too uppity at work). Terrell’s second thought was that she’d snuck out of work early. But, Johanna, in a bathroom, without her shoes? Johanna, leaving work, without her shoes? This we could not imagine.
At home, our partners grumbled about people missing too much work; our children talked about the increased absences from their classes, their sports teams, their after-school programs.
Our bosses called meetings and gave stern lectures on no-calls, no-shows. Apparently, the lazy, as our bosses called them, had decided to stop working (we weren’t using the term disappeared yet). We were warned that if we tried something similar, if we dared show up late, we would immediately be fired. Behind their backs we checked cabinets for hidden cameras and wondered if this were some type of government conspiracy or if we were being pranked or if we were on a show like Undercover Boss.
That was until Terrell disappeared right in front of us. He’d been calling IT for days and couldn’t get through. In the midst of begging a couple of us to go across the street and up sixteen stories to convince IT to send someone over to unlock Johanna’s computer, we noticed we could see the fire alarm handle through jagged notches in his neck. It was like something was removing him in large, scrubbing circles from the bottom up with a huge #2 pencil eraser. Even after he was gone and we were left staring at the unobscured fire alarm, we heard his last words, Really, I would do it myself, but…
Those of us who saw him disappear and those of us who heard how he disappeared feared we were next. We poked our heads into cubicles to make sure we were still there. We dialed up each other’s extensions, whispered into our headsets, But can you really hear me?, and breathed sighs of relief when a voice on the other end said, Yes, yes, I hear you. We traveled to the caf in groups of four. There was no rhyme or reason to that number—it just felt safe. If one disappeared, three would still be there; two disappeared, two would still be there. We texted each other late at night R U STILL THR and bit our nails ragged waiting for replies. We expanded our groups to five, and then six, and then seven.
We kept track of those who had disappeared from our company: Danielle Holmes, Johanna Petit-Frere, Terrell Davis, Jihan Overby, D’Wayne Grady, Oba Cole, Shakur Simmons, Raida Taylor, Laverne Hamilton, Sara Herrera, Shakeemah Bankston, Ama Olabisi, Tashauna Glover, Adeola Lawal, Sarah de la Luz, Mason de la Cruz, Nafisah Muhammad, Vivienne Attys.
Couples went to sleep as couples, and one of them would wake up the next morning in a cold bed, single. One of us woke up to an empty house, both wife and children gone. Adopted children, disappeared. Those of us who still had children learned through e-mails, texts, and letters sent home that their classrooms would be condensed because of the lack of students, teachers, teachers’ aides, and janitors. We’ll get through this, they assured us, though no one could define what this was. Principals nervously stepped foot into classrooms they had abandoned decades ago. Our children gathered in smaller groups, tried to learn their lessons, tried to ignore the empty desks. Every day, they came home and asked us when their friends were coming back. Every day, they asked if they were next. We had no answers for them.
Our bosses started to hire people off the streets, unqualified individuals who didn’t understand batches, programming, productivity, QWERTY, computers. Most of us were appalled, though some did say, I like it better this way. When our garbage cans overflowed and our refrigerators stank, our bosses made us clean. We hosed our sidewalks and squeegeed our windows. IT never overcame its backlog, so we sent out what orders we could and cancelled others. When a number of our clients disappeared and our order numbers dropped, our bosses fired the unqualified individuals and required the rest of us to put in fifteen hours, eighteen hours.
The world leaders convened. Pundits punditted, discussing subjects we dared not talk about before, taboo topics that had been relegated to pop quizzes in our high school history classes, questions like “In what year was the Emancipation Proclamation signed?” and “What year did apartheid end?,” only these topics were discussed more directly, filled with details and an overload of accusatory information that made us want to turn the channel or switch off our phones, but our curiosity, our search for understanding, wouldn’t let us. From these pundits we learned it wasn’t just huge swaths of inner cities and whole towns in the South (especially in Mississippi and Alabama) that had disappeared, the world also had to contend with the disappearance of people from whole islands in the Caribbean (we never knew Hispaniola contained both Dominican Republic and Haiti until that aerial shot on CNN showed the emptiness of both sides), certain areas of London, suburbs of places like Paris and Hamburg, and most of the population of the continent of Africa. We understood there was a particular calculation to these disappearances, but not the exact calculation, the exact percentage one had to be to disappear. One pundit laughed and remarked that while these people were gone, at least those remaining had unfettered access to their islands, their beaches, and their food without conflict, without war, without fear, that perhaps we can go to those places, build, and finally establish civilization. Another pundit angrily pointed out that it was not their land and that if had not been for these people in this country, we might not have wealth, the traffic light, X-ray spectrometry, the pacemaker, open heart surgery, the HVAC keeping the other pundit so smugly comfortable in his seat, soul food, dry cleaning, rhythm, scapegoats, spices.
The leader of our nation assured us this was a large protest, a publicity stunt of magnanimous proportions. The leader urged the public to stop talking about the disappearances because that was what they wanted. Attention. Distraction. The disappearances will stop, he claimed, when they realize their tactics wouldn’t work.
We didn’t stop whispering, and the pundits didn’t stop punditting, but, in a way, he was right. The disappearances stopped. One month passed, and then four, and there weren’t any more recorded disappearances. A number was released: 18.5 percent of the world’s population was gone.
Some hoped they would come back and things would go back to normal.
Some liked them gone.
Not a day went by without them crossing everyone’s minds.
Not a day went by when we wondered if they, wherever they were, thought about us.
Some of the others left, understanding that if this happened again, they would be next. They moved far away and took with them doctors, lawyers, senators, programmers, nail aestheticians, professors, dishwashers. They didn’t go back to their native countries per se, but they grouped together and lived among each other as if something were wrong with us, as if we were the cause of the disappearances.
Good, a couple of us said.
The rest of us did not say anything.
A few of us stopped working. We withdrew our children from school and kept them home. We read books and plays to them, getting choked up when we came across a particular word, a favored picture, and realized we, too, were teaching them history, of ways of life long gone. We’d listen to our favorite song or watch our favorite movie or watch a sports classic on ESPN—understand we’ve seen and heard the last from that person—go into our bathrooms, shut the doors, and cry.
Those of us who continued to work continued our whispered discussions. Some thought we were living in a simulation, that we’d reached Level 2 in a game we couldn’t quite figure out. Some thought it was God, giving us a sign. A sign for better or for worse? We were unsure and that uncertainty made it worse. We wanted our signs to be specific, detailed, with solid metaphors and a clear delineation between good and evil. Aliens, the rest of us conjectured. It wasn’t just our children’s theories, it was ours. Aliens had taken them to outer space. What else could it be?
One night after twenty of hours of work, we grabbed our stashes of bourbon and brandy and rode the elevator to the top floor of our building. We passed around flasks. We drank. We waited. And waited. Surely, if God wanted to save people, why them? Surely, if this was all a simulation, who was trying to prove what? Surely, if aliens had come to our strange planet why would they only take them? We pummeled our chests, tilted our pale faces to the stippled sky, and bellowed, Why not us? Why didn’t you take us?