I have a scheduled meeting with Caroline, our team’s HR rep, today and I’m glad you’ll be coming with me, so I don’t have to be alone with her. There’s something cold about her I don’t like. She’s nice, sure. Just feels like the air conditioning is cranked up too high when she’s around.
Caroline isn’t the small talk type so I’m not worried by her brusque “Let’s get started, shall we?” as soon as I’m seated across from her. Not too sure what this could be about, but I’m a decent employee, so can’t be anything serious.
“Starting sounds good to me.” I smile but she’s not looking at me.
I’m surprised when she tells me that it’s you she wants to talk about, not me. The issue is you’re not supposed to be here, it sounds like.
She says you make people around the office feel uneasy.
“How so?” I want to know, but ask polite as can be. I’m offended of course but best not to get defensive.
The first time I sensed you were still nearby and not as gone as we’d all assumed was on the Wednesday after the funeral. One of the cherry tomatoes I was about to mix into my salad rolled itself right off the counter and I didn’t realize in time to miss stepping on it and splattering emerald green juice and seeds everywhere. You were forever dropping grapes and cherry tomatoes, you remember. Your grip on everything was tenuous, your touch too light and gentle. It made me wonder. I was relieved the more I felt you around, the more sure I became. Our apartment would be too big and much messier without you in it. I never wanted to live in the city without my roommate.
So many people whispered into my hair and left my neck damp and gritty with the salt of their tears in the chaotic hours after you were first found. A body, the police officer called you.
“She didn’t even like you that much,” I said to one of your acquaintances who cried the loudest, but it’s probably for the best she didn’t hear me. She will only miss you until she doesn’t anymore anyway.
I’m pretty sure you stay because I want you to. What I mean is you don’t hang around to punish me or anything. Best friends since I asked to borrow your neon pink glitter pen in fourth grade. I don’t feel afraid or even sad that you’re still here. I’d be both those things if you left. I think you know that, too. I feel bad I was your burden before and you’re still not free of carrying me around on your shoulders now.
Caroline is answering me, so I try to pay better attention. “I mean, you walk around here making it uncomfortably clear to all of us that the specter is there beside you. Following you around. For everything. Everywhere you go.” She stares like my face will change to indicate that I agree with what she’s telling me, but she’s going to be waiting a long time if she thinks that will happen. Since I don’t pipe up with what’s expected of me, she shuffles the stack of pages in her lap, expertly like a dealer with a deck of cards. “It’s strange,” she says. “To put it mildly.”
“The mild version is hot enough.” I follow this up with a too loud awkward laugh that I can still hear even after my mouth is closed again.
She doesn’t smile. “The specter cannot join us here at work anymore, I’m afraid.” Her voice is smooth and kind enough. Word choice delicate. But she is firm. “You’ll just have to leave that kind of personal baggage at home. It doesn’t have a place here.”
“Specter, is that a word people even use anymore?” I say, my cheerful tone not doing enough to mask the hurt straining to burst free and roam wild around the office. Peeking into people’s cubicles, demanding to know who has complained about you to HR, about us. Because you’re such a part of me, that you and I know it’s both of us they must have a problem with, not one or the other. We’re too intertwined now for that to even work.
She looks up and nods. “That’s the word they use here in the paperwork. Would you like to see?”
“No. I trust you.”
When I get back to my desk, one of my coworkers whose name is Joy with a personality to match is there, sitting on it. I try to pretend she isn’t and drop into my chair and swivel it away from her to face my computer.
“Caroline told you, huh?”
“About your formal complaint?” I say, willing the bright screen of my computer to shatter and rain glass shards all over Joy and everyone else, too. I picture it wedge and burrow its way deep into their skin—eyes electrified by the shock of pain—and for a second, I’m happy again, like before the meeting.
“Well, it wasn’t just me,” Joy says, hopping off my desk. She doesn’t leave though. “I’m sorry it hurts your feelings,” she adds and I can tell she means it. I am grateful for her checking in with me, but I’d much rather be alone with you right now. “That’s why it’s taken so long for anyone to even say anything to Caroline. We understand how hard this has been for you. No one’s wanted to rush your—you know—process. However long you need to move on.”
Now I’m okay with letting her know I’m a little annoyed. “Move on. That’s rude. You don’t get it. She didn’t leave. So I don’t have to move on.” My air quotes are a bit exaggerated and my words vibrate with too much sarcasm and irritation for her to ignore.
“I shouldn’t have said that then. Unfair for me to presume. You’re right. Sorry.”
Joy doesn’t seem to bother you as much as she does me. But you are the mellow, generous one out of us two. The roommate who does all the dishes if I’ve left mine to soak and throws my laundry in with yours without so much as a passive aggressive grunt or eye roll. You haven’t changed much since the fourth grade in that way. I’ve grown a little. Stopped taking advantage of your kindness as much by our late teens. The leaning on you though, letting your love prop me up—I still haven’t shaken those habits yet.
Joy’s been talking but I’m pretty confident I haven’t missed anything important. I catch the end. “I’ve talked to my therapist about your situation—how you bring her to work with you every day—and he says it’s probably you trying to cope with your surv—”
“No. It’s not that.” I cut her off. She doesn’t need to finish. We don’t need to hear the rest. You and I have both heard of survivor’s guilt before. We’re not idiots.
Sometimes we reenact that night together. We go through the steps, you and me, like parts we’ve memorized in a too familiar play that stars only us two. It always starts the same way. At the bar. I want to get going. You’re having fun.
“When you want to stay out longer and I want to go home, I don’t leave you,” you tell me. Your fingers on my arm are too timid. Perhaps you should grip me harder so I won’t leave you. What you say is true, but it doesn’t matter. I’m tired and anxious and I don’t want to be here anymore. In my mind I’ve already left. We both order rides home two hours apart on the same app. But mine drops me off at our apartment. Yours never does.
“What was she like?” Joy asks now.
“What’s she like?” I shake my head and gesture at you.
Joy doesn’t say anything. Just waits. Patient, quiet, unruffled. She reminds me of you but only for a moment.
“She’s really nice.” I stare at you instead of her and that’s how I can say it without dissolving right there in the middle of this stupid office. This lonely place full of people who don’t want you here. Who don’t understand it means they don’t want me here either. Not sure why it bothers me when I don’t even want to be here.
“I bet. Want to go down the street to the deli? Eat lunch there today maybe?” Joy half smiles. “I won’t talk. If you’d prefer.”
“Yeah okay.” My purse is already in my hands even though I can’t tell you how it got there. Maybe you should tell me. I motion for you to come with us and I dare Joy to report me to HR. Wish she would, I tell you. You don’t seem to be listening though. I’m not sure you hear me.
Anna Vangala Jones serves as Fiction Editor at Lunch Ticket and is an Editorial Assistant on the Fiction Team at Split Lip Magazine. Her stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Best of The Net Anthology, and selected for inclusion in Longform Fiction’s Best of 2018 list. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Catapult, Berkeley Fiction Review, Little Fiction, Hobart, Necessary Fiction, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, and Jellyfish Review, among others. Find her on Twitter at @anniejo_17 and online at www.annavangalajones.wordpress.com.