SPOTLIGHT: The Fermi Paradox: Flash Fiction by Courtney Clute

Jeremy in Our Heads

In the middle of a silent moment during today’s team meeting, Jeremy started hiccupping sobs and banging his fist against his forehead, his mascara leaving streaks down his cheeks. No one asked what was wrong, because we never talked about personal lives in the office.

But in our heads, we all rushed to Jeremy’s side, calmly touching his shoulders, while he told us about how his girlfriend just broke up with him or how he felt like he was failing at his job. We whispered words of encouragement, like “you deserve better,” and “you’ve been trying really hard.” We ended the meeting early and whisked him away to Paddy’s on Third pub down the street from the office.

In our heads, there was beer. Green beer, we asked for. Lots. Our tongues turned green, and we took selfies with our mouths open and posted blurry Snapchats to our stories. We bought Jeremy shots of Jameson and pulled him up on the karaoke stage, slurring “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” to a crowd of college students. They hooted and hollered until they realized we were on the stage for three songs and the karaoke guy came and kicked us off. We all walked out of the pub with green spots on our blouses and button-downs smelling like cigarette smoke. There was more crying. Jeremy’s hands were marbled with watery black from rubbing his eyes so much. We said how much we loved him. How much we wanted to see him succeed. Valued him as a coworker. A friend.

In our minds, we then dragged him into a late-night diner where we ordered strawberry milkshakes, double cheeseburgers, and steak fries. Jeremy vomited under the table. We dashed out of there before the waitress could check on us, leaving whatever fistfuls of sweaty crumpled cash we had in our pockets. Jeremy reeked of whiskey and milk, and we went into a gas station and bought him a packet of white undershirts, helping him change out of his soiled clothes. We piled into an Uber and directed the driver to Jeremy’s apartment—we had been so many times before—where we tucked him into bed, positioning him on his side. As we walked out of his place, he grunted “thank you, guys, you’re the best,” then drifted off. We walked to another bar, and all worried about Jeremy, saying how great he is, toasting shots on his behalf.

But outside of our heads, we didn’t do any of that, of course.

In real life, we sat there awkwardly at the team meeting as Jeremy’s sobs echoed off the high-ceilinged conference room, some of us shooting looks of disgust back and forth, picking skin from our nail beds because we didn’t know where to look. None of us knew of each other’s lives, our relationships or family troubles, recent engagements or pregnancies. Personal lives never slipped into office life because everyone had their own burdens and to carry coworkers’ issues—well, that was a line no one crossed. Except Jeremy. 

One of us broke the silence by ending the meeting early. We left, but Jeremy stayed, slumping his head onto the table, his back heaving up and down. Up and down.

The Note on the Back of My CVS Receipt

                I regret to inform you that this receipt is inaccurate—I stole Hubba Bubba, a stress ball, Revlon tweezers, and a travel-sized pack of Trojan condoms. The items sit in my hoodie pocket, pressing into my stomach like the hot stones they put on your back during massages. I wouldn’t know. I’ve never been to a spa.

                My boyfriend, Adam, says I don’t take enough risks. Motherfucker. Today I took two: I stole that stuff and now this confession.

But please don’t tell on me.

                I see you outside now on your break—Jacob, according to this receipt. Your box-dyed blonde hair­—did you use your employee discount on it?—almost touches the crumpled collar of your uniform. You suck on a vape pen, so young I think of the vape as your binky. Your head dissolves into a puff of smoke. I can see your lungs shrivel with every breath.  Maybe you should quit.

Do you have someone who cares for you?

                Adam says I talk too much but share too little. He says I smell like Twinkies and gasoline. He says I don’t have a high enough sex drive. I’m sure you’ve met him—tall, protruding belly, beard down to his chest, stiff as overly-starched jeans, a botched scorpion tattoo on his forearm. He’s a frequent Bud Light Lime buyer. I used his phone number at checkout, and he had $11.00 in Extra Bucks.

                When you check him out, do you wonder about his story? Did you look at me today and wonder about my story?

                Well, now you have a glimpse I suppose.

                You re-enter the store, smoke trailing behind you like a ghost.

                I’m running out of room on this receipt. If you see me again in the store, blink three times so I know you remember me, that you remember this note, that you care about me. That someone cares about me.


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