Head Above Water by Kait Gilleran

Kait Gilleran's flash fiction about a cubicle worker who feels guilty for shirking work.

Tap, tap, tap. Sometimes at work I just lightly click at my keyboard, so it sounds like I'm doing something.

The real trick is trying to look busy when someone is passing by. Half of my coworkers must know by now that I'm generally browsing forums or researching my latest ailment, but I try my best to keep an important-looking document on the backburner, to click through when I hear carpet-deadened footsteps pass.

Jocelyn, neighbor to my cubby, passes me at the most inopportune moments, like when I get a pop-up with a half-naked woman. She's always working, you can tell because there's no rhythm to her typing at all, not even a hint that she's tapping out the rhythms to whatever top 40 hit is running through her head. Sometimes I think she's trying to catch me in the act, maybe she thinks she can knock out the dividing wall and make herself a nice double-cube - plenty of room for a few ferns. Who knows.

The cubicle across from mine holds the only person I've made an effort to acquaintance in the office, Jared. Primarily because it's hard to know when he's looking my way, but also because he's bonkers. I may have seen his username on a forum when he was training me. He uses the same name all over the place online, at this point I certainly know too much.

I open my file at just the right moment, two coworkers have decided to chat at the mouth of my cubicle.

"Did you see what he..." Bert says, I can tell it is him by the gruffness of the voice, I imagine his hairy arms pressed against my wall, feel his bulging brown eyes pressing into my personal confines, assessing.

"Of course! Who couldn't have?" A tinny voice cuts in. I stretch to get a look at the voice's owner. Tasha. Her beady eyes meet the slit of side-eye that I've allotted to the situation, I quickly shut it, feigning a contented stretch.

Sensing that they may have a full-blown conversation, it seems like the perfect time for a bathroom break. I can only scroll around in a document for so long before it becomes clear that I'm not actually doing anything.

"Some nerve," I hear Tasha say as I pass, jumping back into conversation. Or, I hope so.

Who did what? I turn on the faucet to wash my hands, or at the very least moisten them (there is someone else in the restroom, after all). I eye my bathroom buddy in the mirror while he washes his hands. I can't place a name on him. He hasn't looked at me once, it is absolutely pointed.

What do they know? I fall back into my chair. Jocelyn sighs deeply at the sounds of me hitting keys to bring back the light. My inbox holds a new message. One is an invitation to a meeting later today in the farthest conference room, there is no description beyond the "where." I quickly accept and can barely contain myself as the moments creep by, waiting and listening closely to all conversation in hearing-distance.

What is this about? They know, they must know. I can feel eyes on me from all sides. Spies. Is it just about the misuse of hours? Or is it... no there is no way that anyone could know. I'd made sure of that.

An email comes in from a client. Finally, I have something to do. I don't have to pretend, I don't have to pay so much attention to my surroundings, if for a moment. There are three thuds on my cubicle wall. Jocelyn. Jocelyn and that condescending smile that she seems to save just for me.

"Jon, it's time for the meeting." That smile just sits there on her face, menacingly.

"Right," I reply. She waits as I rummage through my desk for a notebook and pen; best to look ready for anything. It feels like I've been called to the principal's office. I shrink with the thought, staring up at Jocelyn with a newfound sense of pure terror. I stand and walk toward her, evening the playing field, for now.

"I guess we all know what this is about," Jocelyn says, eyes rolling.

"Err..." I reply, looking down at my loafers. Somehow even as she stares up at me with a look of pity on her face, it still feels like she is looking down on me.

"I have to pee," I say. I don't give her time to reply.

They know. They know. They know! I feel a tingle, goosebumps are raised. After all these months. They know.

I guess I'll have to find a roommate. I'll have to buy some boxers to lounge in... no one can know about my briefs. That is one indignity that I shall not allow. Why didn't I try harder?

Ten minutes have passed. Shit. I leave my piss-scented safe-zone and walk toward the conference room. Rumbling voices wait. I step in to see a large poster of my boss plastered on the wall, just beneath it sits a cake. It's already cut to just below a frosting boss-face, the same headshot that stares at me from above it. There's a barbershop quartet in the corner, and it takes me a moment to recognize the tenor. Cake-face.

Jared sidles up to me, smiling. "Dude does this every year," he nods towards the quartet.

"Absolutely shameless," Jocelyn adds, handing me a piece of cake. "What took you so long? Did you take a shower?" She gestures towards my sweat-dampened hair.

I shove a piece of cake into my mouth and smile. That appears to be enough of an answer for now.


  1. fine story. had me really wondering about Jon´s guilty secret. excellent ending.

    Mike McC

    1. Thanks for reading Mike! I am glad that you enjoyed.

  2. Minutely observed behaviour - well written and very funny. Thank you,

    1. Thank you for the read and the compliments Ceinwen! :)

  3. Strikes a familiar chord - I think many have had to try to look busy at times. I enjoyed this. Thank you, Kait.

    1. Thanks, Nancy! There's always something that we can all relate on.

  4. Amusing, entertaining and keeps the reader's interest until the very end. Well done, Kait.

    1. Hi Beryl! Thank you for the response and the compliment. :)