I have nothing to apologize for.” Her voice broke and she hated herself for it.
“It’s okay to make a mistake, Samantha. We all do.” Terri was trying to catch her eye, probably to give her a sympathetic look, but Samantha squared her shoulders and stared through the wall. It was through sheer force of will that she wasn’t crying. Yet. She clenched her teeth.
“You’re wasting all of our time. You lost a report and now we all have to work late because of it. Stop being childish and admit you were wrong so we can get to fixing your mess already.”
Now she did look at the speaker, and as she did her courage wilted. Aaron. She couldn’t even look at him without remembering his hands all over her. Acid pooled in her stomach and suddenly she couldn’t breathe. Everyone was staring at her, concerned, confused, or pitying. But he was standing behind them all where no one but her could see his face.
And he was smiling.
She turned and ran out the door. They were probably calling after her, but she couldn’t hear them. She couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think.
The geometric patterns of the dusty carpet blurred by. She couldn’t deal with someone stopping her right now, so she kept her head down, only glancing up to occasionally catch her bearings. The seconds ticked away in her head as she tried to fill her chest with air and slowly exhale. Glancing up again, she looked past chalky gray cubicle walls and overly-decorated desks, scanning the walls for the door to the stairwell. She was grateful that, at 12:45 on a Wednesday afternoon, most of the employees were probably down the street at the popular sandwich shop. It had been a staple back when she’d first interned down on the lower floors.
She slowed as she neared the stairwell entrance. The cool metal against her hands soothed her as she pushed her way in. Shutting it gently behind her, she forced herself to stiffly walk a few more feet to the corner, away from the small glass window in the door. She slid against the wall. The rough cement scraped her clothes as she slid down, probably pulling a string loose from her expensive button-up. She pulled her knees to her chest and laid her forehead on them. Tears trailed down her cheeks and she let them fall.
She probably shouldn’t have run out of the room like that. It certainly wouldn’t convince anyone that she was a capable worker. She could only imagine what lies he was spreading about her now.
Her chest tightened as thoughts bounced around her skull. Her breathing and memories came faster and faster. Feelings of inadequacy and disappointment weighed down on her shoulders. She hugged her knees tighter and tried to hide from the shame that had made a home within her. Tears darkened her charcoal gray suit pants. She couldn’t afford to break down like this. Any minute now someone would return from lunch and wonder where she’d gone.
As if summoned from her thoughts and possibly ****, she heard the click of the door latch. She turned her head to the side and tried to still her trembling shoulders. A man’s voice tight with irritation echoed in the empty area.
“Look, I know you think this is important, but-”
Maybe he won’t notice me?
“Hey, I gotta go.”
Frick. Maybe he won’t know who-
Or maybe Murphy’s law is in full force today. Fan-freaking-tastic. She didn’t respond, and neither did he. The dingy gray walls blurred in front of her and she tried to blink away tears and even her breathing.
His footsteps reverberated through the cold, oppressive air. Her thoughts narrowed in on the sound. He stopped next to her and she tensed.
“Please go away,” she said.
He didn’t say anything for a moment, and the uncomfortableness of the situation prickled at her. Suddenly, a white piece of cloth appeared in her vision. She looked at it, confused, and he cleared his throat, wiggling it a little. When she still didn’t take it, he dropped it on her knee.
She picked it up and quickly figured out what it was. A handkerchief. A cloth handkerchief. Who even carries those anymore? She closed her fist around it and used a corner to wipe under her eyes. The fabric was soft and smooth, clearly high-quality. The feel of it between her fingers soothed her until she was ready to look him in the eye. She didn’t recognize him, for which she was grateful. He was tall with brown hair and shoulders that stretched the fabric of his navy suitcoat just a bit. His face was all hard edges, but she didn’t see any judgement in his eyes.
“Thank you,” she said.
He sat down on the floor next to her, leaving a safe amount of room between them. He didn’t say anything, just raised an eyebrow at her. She sighed.
“Aaron said that I lost an important report. I never even received it because he never gave it to me. Now he’s telling everyone how irresponsible I am, and everyone believes him. He’s probably going to demand my resignation.”
His eyebrows scrunched together in confusion. “Why would he want to do that? You’re easily the most hard-working employee on this floor.”
Her voice turned bitter, and she looked at the ceiling. “Probably because I wouldn’t sleep with him.” It felt good to finally tell someone. A week ago, she’d been terrified about the repercussions, but she had nothing to lose now, so she didn’t spare any details. “He kept asking me to work late. He’d order food and tell me to take a break and eat with him in his office. Asked me questions about myself. I thought I was going to get a promotion or something,” she laughed, but his silence said he didn’t think it was funny. Good. Neither did she.
“One day when we were working late, and everyone else was long gone, he invited me into his office. I thought we were finally done for the day, but he shut the door behind me, turned off the lights, and grabbed me.” Suddenly she didn’t want to go into the gory details after all, so she finished up quick. “Little did he know, I studied Karate all through college. I elbowed him in the side of the head, kneed him in the groin, and ran for it. I didn’t come to work for two days, and upon my return, he’s managed to turn most of the supervisors against me.” Somewhere in the course of her story, his eyebrows had lowered even more, going from concerned to angry.
“That *****. Do you want me to punch him for you?” She smiled wearily. He looked pretty serious and she let the scenario play out in her head, just for fun. It wasn’t such a bad plan up until the point where they both get fired.
She was about to tell him no when Aaron burst into the stairwell.
“There you are,” he growled. “Do you have any idea how irresponsible that was? Do you think you can just run away from your problems? Do you think you can just run away from me?”
She stiffened – partially from fear, but mostly from anger. She held on to that feeling.
The man who had never told her his name stood between them, fists clenched.
“You need to back off,” he bit out.
“You need to mind your own business.”
“You’re making it my business.” He stepped further into Aaron’s space. Aaron shoved him. The man raised his fist to punch him, but Samantha was faster. She grabbed his jacket, yanked him back, and punched Aaron so hard he stumbled back and fell.
“I’ll kill you, ******** he jumped up to attack her, but the man swooped in, pulling his arms behind him and forcing him back down.
“I’m going to call HR and report you,” she said evenly. “And then I will never have to deal with you again.”
“You think they’ll believe you?” Aaron spit at her, struggling. The man yanked his arms back until he could no longer move them, and spoke evenly when he said, “I have a feeling they might. Especially when the district manager of Human Resources backs her up.” Aaron stopped struggling. Samantha’s eyebrows crunched together.
“Who?” He smiled at her.
“Ryan Jacobsen, at your service.” He let go of Aaron, stepped in front of Samantha, and pushed Aaron to the door. “You will be at my door with a written apology and letter of resignation in one hour. Do you understand?”
Aaron still looked shocked, looking around him as if the getting walls night have an answer for him. Finding nothing, he shoved his way through the door, parting with a venomous glare.
Ryan turned back to Samantha, suddenly sheepish. “In the report, could we maybe skip the part where I almost punched him?”
She laughed. “Um, sure.”
“You don’t have to go back out there if you don’t want to. Have you eaten? I’ll treat you to a sandwich downstairs.”
She smiled. “How about a cup of coffee? My treat.”