You are reading part II of this periodical. Click here to read part I.
Tiffany D. had been the lead check girl at the Ralph’s where Fred worked. She was an aster of optimism in a garden of disgruntled weeds, a girl who smiled for every customer, made small talk with the elderly, and always found time to chat with Fred at the end of a twelve-hour shift.
Fred wanted to say so many things during these chats, things that the people on his T.V. shows might say. Bold things. True things. About how he couldn’t get her smile out of his head, how he wished he could be everything to her that she was to him. But he never said a word of these things to Tiffany. Fred’s paralysis of the tongue in all matters of the heart was complete.
One Sunday morning after one of his chats with Tiffany, Fred stumbled into his apartment, collapsed onto his corduroy couch, and began pulling at his hair. “If I don’t tell her how I feel,” he thought, “I don’t deserve to live. I can’t keep working with her. I’m such a coward! If I can’t say something… I’ll just have to write it down.”
And so, Fred’s mind was made up. Right away he got to work on a letter to express his feelings to Tiffany. But each time he read back the lines he had written, he became infuriated, tore the unsatisfactory page from his notebook and hurled it across the room. The words fell hilariously short of his true feelings. They oozed desperation. They were pathetic.
After three sleepless days of this grueling process, half mad with exhaustion and on the brink of submission, Fred decided on four simple words. He scribbled these words down on the last half of the last page in his notebook, then set his pen down. Grinning mirthlessly down on the words, Fred gave them an approving nod then fell backward onto his couch, and into a dreamless sleep.
The following day at work, Fred was conscious of the weight of the note in his pocket. It burned against his thigh, making him sweat, even as the sun set and a strange, cool breeze blew in from the east. Fred would deliver his heart to Tiffany in the form of this wrinkled scrap of paper, and there was nothing that could stop him.
“Tiffany!” said Fred, hurrying to the young woman’s side before she could leave for the night. “Do you — um — are you off already?”
Tiffany smiled up at Fred, but before she could answer, Fred’s boss, Mr. Killem, a squat, pudgy, pockmarked little man, looked up from his clipboard. “Fred,” he called out, “are you done stocking aisle four yet? It’s nearly closing and they aren’t going to stock themselves.” Killem returned to his clipboard, chuckling at his own wit.
“Fred?” Tiffany said, “did you need something?”
“Yes,” said Fred. “I mean, I don’t need anything exactly, but…” Fred began to sweat. “You know, sometimes we talk—“
“Fred,” said Killem a little louder than before, “I asked if you finished aisle four yet.”
Fred’s lips tightened and curled down at the corners. He turned to look at Killem. “I heard you. I’m nearly done with it. Just — just give me a second, alright?”
Killem narrowed his eyes at Fred, glancing between him and Tiffany a few times before beginning to erase something on his clipboard.
“What’s wrong Fred?” asked Tiffany, “you’re sweating a lot.”
“I haven’t been feeling well the past few days.”
Tiffany frowned and leaned back slightly.
“No!” said Fred, more forcefully than he meant to. “I mean, I’m not sick. Well, maybe I am. But nothing that’s catching, you know?”
Tiffany raised her eyebrows. Killem finished erasing the checkmark from his list and started walking toward Fred. Fred dug his hand into his front right pocket and squeezed the note. He muttered something unintelligible. Tiffany watched his hand, her eyebrows rising higher.
“Fred!” said Killem, laying a hand on Fred’s shoulder, “I really need you to—“
Fred whirled on Killem, slapping the hand from his shoulder with such force that a customer looked up from an end cap of cheese sauces to see what was the matter.
“I said I would finish in a second,” said Fred, his voice growing louder and more unstable as he spoke. “Can’t you see I’m in the middle of talking to Tiffany right now? Can you see that? Or can you only see what’s on that stupid little clipboard. You know what? Why don’t you and your clipboard do something useful for once and fuck off!”
Killem’s face reddened. He glanced around, seeing the man by the cheese sauce gaping at him. He clenched his jaw and rubbed his sore hand.
“You and me.” Killem said. “In the back office. Now.” Then he turned on his heel and hurried down aisle four toward the back rooms, glancing back at Tiffany with a curious anger in his eyes as he went.
Tiffany tucked in her lips as she watched Killem go. “What in the world was that about?” she asked Fred. “You just got yourself fired, you know that?”
Fred wiped his face with his palm and shook his head. He didn’t know what he was doing. He couldn’t think straight. There was too much pressure. He couldn’t look Tiffany in the face, so his gaze fell on something resting on chest, something he hadn’t seen there before, a key pendent hanging from a chain around her neck. Fred blinked dumbly. “That necklace,” he said, “is it new?”
Tiffany smiled and lowered her head. She looked sideways up at Killem just as he disappeared into the back. She looked back to Fred, rolled her eyes, twisted her torso playfully, then turned the pewter pendent in her fingers. “It was a gift,” she said. “Well, a promise really. My boyfriend says it’s — well, it’s kind of stupid — it’s supposed to be—“
“The key to your heart?” Fred finished for her, his eyes fixed on the malicious pewter pendent, wishing that it never existed.
“Well, yeah,” said Tiffany. Her smile faded as she observed Fred’s visible deflation. “I — are you okay, Fred?”
Fred stared blankly at the linoleum floor at Tiffany’s feet. Tiffany began to say other things, explaining things Fred thought, but he could not understand them over the hot blood rushing through his head.
Fred was indeed fired that night. Before he left the store, he took a bottle of Jack from the shelf and guzzled it as he hovered around Tiffany’s check stand, rubbing his fingers over her scanner, cherishing the residual warmth of her hand. He shook his head and sighed slowly. All the brightness in his soul seemed to leak out of him in that sigh. He took one last look at Tiffany’s note, crushed it in his fist, then tossed it at the trash bin under the register.
The virus which had taken over international news would find itself in the heart of Lowe the next morning, and Fred would never see Tiffany again… Not alive anyway.