“My Friend Jeb” by Katie Burgess

HR asked me to put together something for Jeb, probably because I was the closest thing he had to a friend at Zoom! Wellness Emporium. See, three years ago I gave him a pound of French roast for Secret Santa. Jeb was always the first one to make coffee in the mornings, so when I drew his name that was all I could think to get him. “You require caffeine to wake up every day”—that was literally all I knew about the guy. But his face when he opened it—it was like I’d looked into his soul or something. Every day afterwards he’d tell me how he’d made some of that delicious coffee, until he used it all up, and then he’d say he tried another brand but it wasn’t as good, so he’d gone back to the one I gave him. “Zach knows coffee,” he’d tell everyone, when really I don’t like it much.

So although we’d worked together for years at the same Zoom! branch at the Green Pond Mall, I didn’t know other things about him, like how he’d joined a class for people scared of flying. That is, not until his graduation flight crashed outside Tallahassee. The obituary mentioned only that he was born in Pensacola and survived by a stepbrother there, nothing about any kind of service being held anywhere. At first no one at the store was sure what to do. But everyone remembered me and the coffee, so I was tasked with honoring his memory.

I sat up that night Googling “deceased coworker ideas” and found a lot of stuff, like poems to read, but I couldn’t tell which ones were good. I drank a beer and then another beer. I read lists of different flowers and what they meant. I ran out of beer, so I poked around the kitchen and found a bottle of coconut rum left by my ex-girlfriend, Nika. It was old but still smelled coconutty, so I figured it was fine. It tasted fine. Then I decided to call Nika.

“What is it?” she said.

“I wanted to say hey,” I said.

“Ok, you said hey.”

“Have you ever heard of candytuft? It’s a flower. Guess what it means.”

“Goodbye, Zach.”

“Wait,” I said. “I need to tell someone about Jeb. He was in a plane crash.”

“Oh my god—who?”

“Jeb. We worked together. He was an anxious flyer.”

“I don’t remember you ever mentioning a Jeb.”

“Maybe he drank too much coffee. That can exacerbate anxiety.”

“Jeb who?”

“Wilkins. I mean Wilcox. Jeb Wilcox. We were sort of friends.”

“Look, Zach, I’m sorry. But it’s late, and the kids wake up at like six.”

I’d forgotten that the guy Nika moved in with had little kids. She was probably terrific with them. “Sure,” I said. “Night.”

Monday morning I printed out a picture of Jeb from when Zoom! had its last Presidents’ Day Blowout Sale—his eyes were half closed, and he had on a Lincoln hat, but it was all anyone could find. I affixed it to some cardboard and propped it up at customer service, along with a vase of silk flowers. I’d ended up just picking flowers that looked nice, all colors, because I got confused over the different flower meanings. I made a sign saying, “A member of our Zoom! family recently passed. We invite our guests to share a few words with his loved ones,” and I left pens for people to sign the picture. HR said the stepbrother in Pensacola would be coming to pick up Jeb’s last paycheck, so I should give the picture, along with any belongings left in Jeb’s locker, to him.

I watched as customers walked past Jeb’s picture. A few stopped and made sad faces before going on to buy their yoga pants and balance balls. I tried to remember what, if anything, I’d said to Jeb the last time I saw him. Maybe some crack about our new uniforms, but that might have been to someone else. Over in vitamins, Jeb’s usual section, a trainee was explaining to customers about the different protein powders we carried, nobody knowing or caring that it should have been Jeb doing it.

At closing time the stepbrother came in to pick up Jeb’s things. He regarded the check disappointedly. I handed him a box with Jeb’s stuff—some paperbacks and a pair of reading glasses—along with the signed picture. Customers had written a few Bible verses and a heart on it. “I’m sorry for your loss,” I said. “Jeb was a terrific guy. We all loved him around here.” The stepbrother nodded and shuffled off.

As I was leaving the mall I spotted Jeb’s picture in the trash. Maybe Jeb and his stepbrother weren’t close, but I thought Jeb deserved better than to be left like that. I took the picture home.

I sat in front of the TV that night and drank the rest of the coconut rum. I called Nika again, but I got her voicemail. I tried to imagine Jeb’s last moments, when they knew the plane was going down. Did he regret getting on it? Or did he think, if only for a second, I’m flying? No telling what he might have thought, or what else I didn’t know about him.

I found an old frame I’d bought and never used, and I trimmed down the picture until it fit. I hung it up over the TV, thinking how one day people would came over and ask who that was, and I’d say, “That’s Jeb. My friend. He was a great, great man.”

Katie Burgess lives in South Carolina, where she does improv and is editor in chief of Emrys Journal.