I followed a simple routine to survive office holiday parties: slink into an existing group conversation, nod politely, and move on before I have to participate in a meaningful exchange. I was about to slide into a riveting discussion about phone plans when Doug collided with me.
“Want to know a secret?” he whispered. My answer is always yes, but he didn’t wait for my response. “I’m always drunk at work, and no one knows.”
“Oh, no way,” I said. I didn’t have the heart to tell him—everyone knew, though our reactions varied in degrees of empathy and judgment. Until that moment, I hadn’t thought about it much. Everyone fights their own battles, and I didn’t know his circumstances. But this new information saddened me. He actually thought he was getting away with it?
I respond to human fragility in a predictable pattern: detached amusement, empathy, and paranoia. This time, the panic arrived quickly. Wait, am I getting away with it? What if everyone knows I’m not human, and they’re too embarrassed to tell me?
I knew it was probably irrational. I had shelved the concern for a decade—humans tended to be skeptical of explanations that challenge their limited understanding of the world—but Doug’s obliviousness raised a new fear. What if everyone knows, but they don’t realize they know? What if they’ve assembled the evidence but dismissed the conclusion?
I’ve forever imagined a world where it would be safe to share the truth with my friends. It bummed me out to realize that this magical moment might be quashed when they reveal that they suspected it all along. “You never convinced me that you understand what tickling feels like,” they’d say. “You just don’t sneeze like a human.”
I walked over to Joe, the only coworker I liked without a qualifying asterisk. He was standing near the staff entrance to score first rights to the shrimp puffs.
“Did you know Doug thinks he’s getting away with it?” I asked.
Joe looked over at Doug standing against a wall with his eyes closed.
“Oh no. I figured he didn’t care. This is so much worse.”
“Same. Don’t overthink this, but is there anything I’m a Doug about? Anything so obvious, you wouldn’t bother to tell me?” I knew it was ill-advised to ask him, but Doug wasn’t the only one utilizing the open bar tonight.
Joe inspected me from the head down. “You shady character. You have a secret.”
“Nope. I’m just an anxious freak,” I said.
“There’s no way you ask me that question if you’re not hiding something. Tell me. I need to know. I will combust if I don’t know.”
I attempted to diffuse it, but he was on autopilot. “It’s not a closeted sexuality thing, is it? That one would hurt my ego. If I couldn’t recognize it in the wild after my first-hand experience, Terry would never let me live it down. Is it that?”
“But it’s something.”
“No.” Intellectually, I knew he wouldn’t guess it. I didn’t expect him to connect the time I thought his box of Tic-Tacs was a pill bottle with my status as an alien fugitive. Yet, the act of guessing stirred a terror in me I hadn’t experienced in years.
“I hate you right now,” he said, smiling. “I’m stumped. Okay, you’re getting away with it. If you turn out to be a serial killer goat in a trench coat, good for you, I guess. Now tell me.”
“No.” I changed the subject to a terrible band he loved, which temporarily did the trick. I would have to deal with a couple of weeks of scrutiny from Joe, but he’d get bored and move on. The entire time we talked, I couldn’t stop thinking of Doug. I walked over to the wall he was leaning against.
“Hey, Doug. You confided in me a few minutes ago, and I appreciate that. But there’s something I wanted to tell you. A lot of people in the office know about the drinking. It’s not a big deal; no one thinks less of you for it. But I’ve heard people mention it from time to time, and I thought you should know. And no judgment, but if you ever want someone to talk to about it, I’m here.”
“Oh man,” he said. He put his arm on my shoulder. I couldn’t tell if he was expressing gratitude or leveraging me to stand. “Thanks for letting me know. I admire you, Fred. I don’t know how you keep this secret and stay sober. It’s killing me.”
About the author:
Bob McHugh is a Boston-based writer and father of two; he is immensely grateful to be both of those things. He is the semi-proud recipient of an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College. His work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Escape Pod, and several others.