Peter makes greeting cards that are out of the ordinary. Most greeting cards say things like “Congratulations on your graduation!” or “Our thoughts are with you in this time of loss” or “Happy birthday to the best grandma ever!” But Peter doesn’t work for Hallmark. He works for a bigger company whose name nobody knows.
He used to work for SparkleCards. They were a cheery offshoot of some bigger company, and for them he wrote lines that ended up in flowing script to condole, to congratulate, to celebrate. There was nothing exceptional about them, though he was very good at his job. One day he came into his office and on his desk was a black business card. He couldn’t see anything written on it, the dull black rectangle on his desk, until he held it up and it caught the light. The glow from his overhead lamp lit up letters in white, shining against the black. It was a name and a number. He muttered, “Foolish way to advertise,” but he called the number. A secretary’s bright voice asked who he was, and his reason for calling. He said, “Peter Celsten, I found a card—“ and a long beep interrupted him. The phone rang again and a man’s brisk voice rattled off an address and a time. Peter never could resist a mystery.
The office building at the address given was hard to find, though not far. It was enmeshed in a cluster of apartments and the sprawling buildings of a hospital, but he made it up to the right floor with several minutes to spare. A small man in a neat suit ushered him in and thrust him into a chair almost before he realized what was happening. The man began the interview and it dawned on Peter that he was, in fact, interviewing for a job. He asked, nonplussed, at the end about it.
“Oh,” said the small man, surprise pitching his voice. “It’s for this company, writing cards. We’ll pay you one point five seven times what you’re earning now. Will you work for us?”
Peter didn’t know what to say, other than yes.
The office at the new company was slightly bigger than his old one. The secretaries were pretty, and his new boss was waiting for him with a sheaf of papers. The small man handed the packet to Peter and said, “Here is your first batch. Could you, hm, get them to me by the end of the week? It somewhat urgent, as you will notice.”
Peter sat at his desk, rolling the chair back and forth on the carpet. He studied the tracks that the wheels made, faint against the white plush, before turning his attention to his new work. The packet was thick, fastened with a metal clip. The first page looked like some kind of brief personal bio as he began to read. Annabelle Watkins, 76; Neurodegenerative Disorder (type 46B); Due Date/Day before Death: April 23rd (High Priority!).
Peter sprang up and into the small man’s office. The man looked up, unsurprised. Peter got out a few strangled words before his boss silenced him with an explanation. He said that cards are meant to mark occasions, and their company was tasked with marking the most momentous occasion a person could ever have in his life: the end of it. He described, in exacting steps, the process of creating and delivering the cards. He clarified the nature of the recipients, that not everybody received a card, because only those whose deaths were momentous of some sort or another warranted a personalized card. Sometimes, he said, lots of people who were dying all at once got a generic card, but there was less demand for those. People don’t want their deaths to be mass-produced.
It was a long time before anybody he knew showed up in Peter’s packet of bios. His mother’s friend Sarah was the second person he was assigned one day almost a year after he started working for the death card company. She was in her sixties, not that old, and she’d never had serious health problems that he knew about. Even so, there she was: Sarah Epstein, 64; Cardiac Arrest (sudden, first); Due Date/Three Days before Death: February 18th.
He put Sarah’s card in a red envelope. Heart disease went with liver and kidney problems or complications. They all got red envelopes. Brain-related deaths got blue; sudden accidental deaths were put in yellow envelopes; murder and suicide envelopes were brown. There were other colors but those were, he found, the most common. A few times he had put together the death cards for people who worked at the card company. They all got gray envelopes, though he wasn’t sure if it was because of working at the company regardless of cause of death or if, actually, they all died of the same thing. It wasn’t the sort of thing he asked his boss.
Peter mostly shuffled the death cards into the right piles now, one file for each color, and didn’t think much of it. He paused for a long time over Sarah’s card. He’d written a nice normal one for her, as comforting as he could make it. After he finished for the day, he called her up. They hadn’t spoken for a long time, not since Peter had been fighting with his mother. When she answered the phone he was surprised at the cracked dry voice that answered. It seemed to be a parched version of what he’d known. They had a nice chat, Peter and Sarah, and asked polite questions and got polite answers. It didn’t make him feel any better. She told him it was lovely to hear from him and hung up, thinking nothing of it probably, a little bemused and unaware still of the death waiting for her in three more days. Peter tossed the phone from hand to hand for a minute and then put it down and went on with his day.
Peter learned a sort of balance in his work. It caught him between empathy and detachment, between sorrow and practicality. It placed him precisely at the moment between life and death. Sometimes people he knew, or people he’d heard of, showed up in his packet of death assignments for the day. It always caused a twinge of unease, but Peter tried not to let it bother him too much. He knew that, one day, there would be a gray envelope in his own mail.