The Apology

After Melissa’s run-in with Mitch, described in Chapter 3 of Whirlwind, she had to mend fences or lose her job (she thought). Here’s what happened after their unfortunate misunderstanding.

By the time I got back to Santa Lucia, I’d calmed down. The adrenaline had burned itself out, leaving me exhausted. I’d had enough of horses and cowboys and shit for one day; I barely made it into bed before I conked out.

When I woke up on Sunday, the full force of what I’d done hit me like an icy hammer.

Rookie Reporter Assaults Rodeo Team Captain After Record-breaking Ride. Now that’s a story.

I threw my arm over my face. I’ll never work again.

The list of should’ve’s was long, starting with “You should’ve left when the roundup was over,” and ending with “You should’ve just bought him the damn drink.” Mitch was already three sheets to the wind, one more shot and he wouldn’t have been able to walk, let alone dance. Then I would’ve been filing my story instead of composing my resignation.

“Don’t give up yet,” Dad would’ve said. He always was an optimist.

With a sigh, I sat up. Light outlined the curtains, but it wasn’t as bright as I expected. I squinted at the clock. It was barely seven o’clock.

Maybe there was a chance. Mitch was pretty drunk; his memory had to be a little fuzzy. But I couldn’t manipulate him. Not only was it unethical, there were plenty of witnesses to set him straight.

My head was buzzing with ideas—and the story I still had to write for the Daily. Even if it never went to print, I wouldn’t give Gary the satisfaction of firing me over dereliction of duty. Misconduct, maybe. But first things first: How to appease Mitch.

First I had to find a way to swallow the sour resentment still coating my mouth. No matter what Mitch’s intentions were, he deserved what he got. I refused to apologize—a woman has a right to defend herself, especially against a two-hundred-plus-pound drunk. But could I smooth things over enough that I might keep my job?

The truth was, up until he grabbed my arm, I actually liked the guy. Sober, he’d treated me with a decent amount of respect—more than Gary had given me, that was for sure. Drunk, Mitch had been scary, but not mean. He’d grabbed my arm to stop me, but he didn’t hurt me. No bruise, no foul. Considering how hard I kneed his crotch, I doubted he could say the same thing.

I got dressed slowly, glad my roommate had chosen this weekend for a visit home. If Mitch had gotten hurt in the course of wrestling a steer at the roundup, I would’ve sent him flowers or balloons and a get well card. In this case, the gifts weren’t really appropriate. But the card was a good starting point. First I had to find him.

I turned on my tiny coffeemaker and opened my laptop. Breakfast bar in one hand, I pulled up an online phonebook. Mitch had to live off campus—very few upperclassmen lived in the dorms. Unfortunately, no McAlisters were listed in Santa Lucia. The closest was in Southern California somewhere. I was sure he’d said something about where he lived yesterday…

The coffeemaker beeped, and I got up and poured myself a cup. I stirred in a spoonful of hot chocolate mix and racked my brain, trying to remember what I’d heard. No, it wasn’t Mitch who’d said something, it was Chase. He said they were roommates.

After a scalding drink of my poor man’s mocha, I typed in Chase Linwood’s name and got a hit. He lived only a few miles away, in what looked like a house, according to the satellite image. I made a couple notes, but was pretty sure I knew exactly where the house was.

As toasted as he was last night, Mitch had to still be sleeping. If I got moving, I could pick up a card and tape it to his front door before he woke. That, and a bottle of ibuprofen might actually prevent him from calling my editor.

I cleaned up my breakfast and headed to a grocery store close to his address.

As I pulled into the deserted parking lot, I remembered how early it was—and that it was Sunday. I hadn’t thought about the store not being open—almost everything was twenty-four hours back home. Luckily, the automatic doors parted when I approached, inviting me in.

Potted plants and today’s featured fruit didn’t interest me, but the greeting card aisle just beyond did. A small section of Halloween cards had been set up next to the birthday cards, neither of which would work. I scanned the rows, not exactly sure what I was looking for. Snickering, I picked up a sympathy card. “Sorry for your loss” was strangely appropriate, but I was praying I didn’t do any permanent damage to Mitch. Didn’t Hallmark have a “Hope your balls are feeling better” card?

A cartoon of a guy with an icepack on his head was another possibility, but of course the ice was in the wrong place. Wait, that’s it!

I grabbed the card and strode off in search of the frozen vegetables.

Back when I played soccer in high school, I’d had one particularly tough game that left my knee black and blue. I’d planned to ice it when I got home, but Dad stopped at the store and bought me something else: frozen peas.

“Trust me,” he’d said. “They’ll hug every curve and you’ll feel great.” He was right, of course. And that was exactly what Mitch needed—something to hug his…er…curves.

I grabbed two bags of peas and the smallest, cheapest cooler they had. Decorated with the card and a bottle of pain reliever, my make-up gift was complete.

Feeling like a spy—or a criminal—I drove through the sleeping town. When I found the right street, I didn’t see Mitch’s pickup or anything capable of towing a horse trailer around. Did he even make it home last night? Hoping he had some other secret parking place, I stopped in what I believed was Chase’s driveway and left the engine running. I toted my gift to the front door, rang the bell twice, then jumped in my car and raced back to campus.

Rather than go back to my dorm, I decided to try out my new key to the Mission Daily offices. Expecting to find the same Sunday silence inside, I was surprised by the sound of someone typing. Someone else was up early this morning.

The typing stopped when I walked in, and Pam stuck her head out of one of the few interior offices. “Did you have a good time at the rodeo?” she asked.

I smiled, but inside I was shaking. Had she heard what happened already? “Yeah,” I finally said. “I have a lot to work with.”

“You didn’t have to come in, you know. You could’ve just emailed your story.” She tilted her head, and I realized I was hugging my laptop like a teddy bear.

“I know. My dorm isn’t that great a place to work. Since I was up, I thought I’d hammer out the story and call it a day.”

Pam nodded, then walked past me to one of the office printers. “I’m an early riser too. I’ve got most of tomorrow’s edition ready to go to print.” She picked up a stack of paper. “Tell you what. You have to submit your story to Gary, of course, but since I’m here, why don’t you copy me on it when you get done. Maybe we can get this paper to bed early for a change.” She rifled through her printout and headed back into her office.

She doesn’t know about last night. “Okay. That’d be great.” While I was happy Pam seemed to be oblivious to last night’s fiasco, now the pressure was really on to get it done. “I’d better get going on it.”

I walked down to the last row of cubicles where I shared a cubby hole with the other printer and the fax machine, thanks to Gary. I wouldn’t complain, though. All I needed was an outlet and a network connection and I was good to go.

After a moment’s hesitation, I decided to lead with Mitch’s record breaking win. Considering everything that’d happened—and that this may be the first and last story I’d write for the Mission Daily—I couldn’t ignore his accomplishments, even if it meant more attention than he wanted. He couldn’t argue he wasn’t news, and I was careful to paint him in only the most favorable light. I’d never stoop to slandering Mitch, but if his buddies treated him to some extra manure, I sure wouldn’t feel bad about it.

An hour later I deemed the story finished. I’d read it so many times I could recite it, but still felt a twinge when I hit SEND. I always missed something—I just hoped it wasn’t something important.

Pam stopped me before I could escape. “Got a second before you go?” She waved me into her office.

I’d been concentrating so hard on writing…did the phone ring and I missed it? Crap.

“I read your story. Did Gary give you a copy of our style sheet?” She didn’t smile.

“Um…” Gary hadn’t given me anything other than the tiny cubicle. “I don’t think so. Is it online? I used the AP Style Guide. I’d be happy to revise—”

“No, that won’t be necessary, the two are almost the same.” Her lip curled up. “You did a good job with this. It’s a little long for the Sports Page, though.” I opened my mouth, but she shook her head. “That’s why I’m moving it up.”

“Moving it up?”

Her grin widened. “A record-breaking bulldogger shouldn’t be buried in the back. I think we might have some front page space left.”

Front page? Mitch would be swimming in manure for sure. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out.

“This doesn’t read like a freshman wrote it, to be honest.” Pam tapped her screen. “The story is concise, complete, and compelling. As an editor, I can’t ask for anything more. Are you sure you want Mel Williams as your byline?”

“Uh, yeah. That’s what the guys back home all called me.” You have to tell her what happened. Once this story is out, the ending will follow. “There’s a little more to the story you should know.”

Pam shook her head no. “Save it for the follow up. I have a feeling we’re going to get a big response to this.” She has no idea. “Now get out of here and enjoy what’s left of the weekend. Congratulations.”

She turned her attention to her computer. Subject closed.

I left her alone. Making the front page should’ve left me giddy, but I was numb. Would the follow up story of my firing be as newsworthy?

* * *

On Monday, I haunted the Daily racks, waiting for the morning delivery. It took everything I had to wait until the guy finished filling the machine before I grabbed one. I flipped the paper over, looking for my story at the bottom of the front page.

It wasn’t there.

Maybe something big happened yesterday and I got bumped.

I snapped the paper flat so I could see how far back I got bumped. That’s when I saw the photo. One of the few decent shots I took was of Mitch bringing down a steer, and it stared back at me. The headline read ENGINEER-TURNED-COWBOY BREAKS RECORD.

When Pam said front page, I had no idea she meant headline. I’d assumed I’d be below the fold. Holy crap! Mitch was going to be pissed.

He wasn’t the only one.

Mondays were class-heavy days for me, so I didn’t make it into the newspaper office until after lunch. Gary met me at the door.

“The star reporter decided to grace us with her presence, I see. Here to kiss the boss’s ass again?”

“No,” I said evenly, “I had class all morning. I posted my schedule above my desk, just like you asked me to.” I started past him. “The staff meeting isn’t for another half hour anyway.”

Gary didn’t move and spoke to the spot I’d been standing in. “It was at eleven. You missed it. I cc’d you on the email, didn’t you get it?”

So he had checked my schedule—and made sure to send the email after I’d gone to class. I didn’t bother telling him it was Pam’s idea for me to cc her on the story. This was one fight I needed to win on my own.

He wasn’t finished. “And I’m sorry to tell you that since you missed the meeting, you didn’t get any assignments this week. You might as well call it a day.” He bared his teeth, pretending to smile.

Sonofabitch. Fine, he wasn’t going to get rid of me that easily. “I understand,” I said. “I’ve got some catching up to do on the Mission Daily Style Guide.” That you neglected to give me, asshole. “I’ll be around for a while.”

Gary’s eyes narrowed, turning his wannabe grin into a grimace. “It’s pretty noisy here to get any reading done. I’d suggest the library.”

He’s sure in a hurry to get me out of here.

One of the other students walked by. “Great job on the front page, Mel.” The girl gave me a thumbs-up. “See you at the meeting?”

“Sure,” I said, then turned to Gary. “I guess the staff meeting got rescheduled again. I think I’ll check my email just to make sure.”

I expected Gary’s hair to catch fire, his face was so red. Rather than bait him any further, I waited until I got to the entrance to my little cubbyhole before I burst out laughing. I may not get any assignments today, but it wouldn’t be because I missed the staff meeting. My laughter faded away when I realized there wasn’t room for me to put my laptop down. Its spot on my desk was occupied by a bunch of daisies. Stuck to the side of the bouquet was sticky note.

I found these by the front door this morning – Pam

Uh oh. What else had she found? Surely Mitch didn’t send me flowers? Stuck in the bunch was a little white envelope with Mel written on the outside. I sat down and opened the card.

Dear Melissa,

I’m really sorry for what happened. Let me make it up to you with lunch. Meet me at the Sandwich Depot today at noon. Please?

Mitch

He’d included his phone number under his signature. Apparently I wasn’t the only one making off-hour deliveries.

I checked the time, but I knew I’d missed his lunch by a good hour. It’s for the best, I told myself. Now that we’d both done the “Surprise, I’m sorry,” thing, we could let the whole messy business go. I pushed the flowers into the corner next to the printer and flipped open my computer. ’Course, when Mitch saw the article in the paper, that would probably change. What would he say then?

At that moment my phone rang. The sound of the old-fashioned bell ringer startled me, and I dropped the phone. I dove under my desk after it, just in time to see Mitch’s name before the screen went blank.

He must’ve seen the paper.

I waited for the beep that told me there was voice mail, but it never came. What did that mean?

Resolving to be ready when he called again, I started on my homework. My phone remained silent until the staff meeting. Mom texted me her congratulations, having seen the article on the Mission Daily website just as the meeting started but no one called. Gary did give me an assignment, but the Women’s Lacrosse Club Team was even less of a hot story than the rodeo team, especially since they were off for two weeks.

I checked my phone again after the meeting. Nothing.

I finished my homework, then went to dinner. Nothing.

When I got back to my dorm room, I’d just about convinced myself to call him back, but then I heard a couple guys laughing in the stairwell.

“The guy’s pickup was full of it! You could smell it all the way across campus. My buddy said they used a skip loader to put two tons of horse shit in the bed of his truck.”

Maybe calling Mitch wasn’t the best idea…

It’s for the best, my inner voice repeated.

* * *

Mitch never did call. Instead, Linda, one of the girls I’d met at the roundup, invited me to coffee at the local doughnut shop a few days later. Although I suspected an ulterior motive, I went, more curious about her than anything else. She seemed like a genuinely nice person. I knew the shop would be very busy at that time of day, so I felt safe in meeting her—and any uninvited guests.

She was waiting at the door when I arrived, pacing nervously and peering into the parking lot. “Hi Melissa!” she called, spotting me before I’d finished parking. Her dazzling smile was hard to miss as she bounced up and down next to the newspaper rack. Linda’s dark eyes sparkled as brightly as her brilliant white teeth.

“Hi Linda. How are you?” I scanned the area, but didn’t see any one else I recognized.

“I’m fine. How are you?” She inspected me, then led me to the counter. “Mitch didn’t hurt you, did he?”

“No, not at all. I think he got the worst of it.” I paused. “Is he mad at me?”

Her eyes grew wide. “Mad at you? Why would he be mad at you?”

“Well, there was the kneeing him in the groin. And the manure in his truck—though I didn’t have anything to do with that. The senior editor put the story on the front page.” I managed to shut my mouth before the next excuse came blubbering out.

“No, he’s not mad at you. The guys were happy about him breaking the record. He just should’ve told them before the story came out, that’s all. And the article was great. No, he’s not mad.”

The barista interrupted her, and we ordered our coffees. After finding a table in the corner of the tiny shop, I took a careful sip from my cup and evaluated Linda. She stirred her drink much longer than necessary. When she realized I was watching her, she dropped the spoon and put her hand on the table, forcing it to lay flat. I barely knew her, but it was obvious that she was nervous about something. “Okay, Linda, spill. Why am I here?”

“You’re not one for small talk, are you? No wonder you’re such a good reporter. Did I mention your article was great?”

“Yes, you did.”

She took a long drink from her cup as I stared her down. “All right, Mitch is the reason I’m here—at least part of the reason. The other part is I really enjoyed getting to know you, and wanted to make sure he didn’t scare you away from us. The team can be really sweet, if they are kept out of dive bars like the one the other night. One on one, they’re all great—they just get this pack mentality when they go out drinking.” Her unpleasant experiences with them showed in her face.

“No, Linda, I didn’t get scared off. Just don’t expect me to attend any more ‘after’ parties with the guys. As for Mitch…”

I’d managed to forgive him by focusing on the polite, helpful Mitch, but the loose, drunken image would never leave me completely. My finger circled my coffee cup. As time went on, I’d started to dread the awkward moments we would have the next time we met. I couldn’t ask to be removed from the rodeo stories—that’s exactly what Gary wanted—so I’d have to face Mitch sooner or later.

Linda nodded. “Yeah, well, Mitch did ask for my help. When you blew off his lunch invitation, he finally realized how big an ass he’d been.”

“I didn’t blow him off. I didn’t get the flowers until after lunch was finished. It wasn’t my fault.”

Linda cocked her head. “Really? Huh.” She took another drink, apparently confused. The determined gleam returned to her eyes as soon as she put her cup down. “Anyway, he really wants to apologize, Melissa, face to face. You’re the first woman to get under his thick skin, you know? He’s needed someone like you for a long time to kick him back in line. None of the bimbos he runs with would ever do it. Someday he’s going to thank you for doing what you did.”

I sighed, feeling like I’d just fed a stray puppy and now he was following me around. This puppy just happened to be huge and rude. “Why can’t you or Beth slap some sense into him? You know him better than I do.”

“He doesn’t see us the way he sees you. I’m just an extension of Chase to him.” I raised my eyebrows at her. “You know what I mean! When I talk to him it’s as if Chase is talking to him, and Chase has told Mitch to dial down the Casanova act many times. Beth would never tell Mitch off; she’s still trying to get Todd to notice her. But you—”

“I’ve got nothing to lose and am just the bitch to do it,” I said with a wry smile. The truth didn’t bother me, but Linda frowned.

“No, that’s not what I meant. You’re an outsider, and he expects to hear the same drivel from you he gets from every other woman. When you stood up to him, you affected him in more ways than you might think.”

“Yeah, I affected him all right.” I thought of Mitch curled up in a ball on the ground and laughed.

After a pause, Linda soon joined me. “Can you just let him apologize, Melissa? That’s all,” she pleaded.

I’d be seeing more of Mitch in the coming month, assuming Gary didn’t assign me to cover the local snail races instead. Why put this off any longer? Better to rip this bandage of fast. “Fine. Where is he?”

Linda dropped her eyes to her coffee. “Whatever do you mean?” she asked.

“Give it up, Linda. I know you didn’t drag me all the way downtown because the coffee is so much better than the Starbucks on campus. He’s around here somewhere, and I’d bet good money Chase is with him.”

Her cheeks pinked, but she said nothing.

I sighed. “Let’s get this over with; I have class in an hour.”

She opened her mouth, but decided that it wasn’t worth arguing. “They’re up the block, on the steps of the Promenade. Mitch won’t do anything to threaten you, Melissa, I promise, and Chase and I will stay with you, if you want.”

The Promenade was an open-air mall with huge staircase at one end that led down to a below-ground movie theater. It was only a couple minutes’ walk from the coffee shop. “Fine,” I repeated.

Linda beamed at me. “You really are a great reporter, Melissa. And a great friend. Thank you.” She stood and hugged me.

“You’re welcome. I owed you for your help at the roundup. We’re even now.” I winked at her.

After finishing our coffees, Linda led me to the rendezvous, but I stopped her when we got to the stairs. Below us, Mitch and Chase sat on the concrete steps, Mitch scrubbing his short hair with one hand. Laying a finger to my lips and waving Linda behind me, I folded myself up on the step directly behind him.

“She’s not coming. It’s been too long,” Mitch said.

Chase raised a hand to smack Mitch’s shoulder and looked directly at me. I shook my head, and he winked. “Give Linda a chance, Mitch. It’s going to take more than ‘please’ to convince Melissa you’re not a complete asshole…at least most of the time.” Chase gave me a thumbs-up behind Mitch’s back—then punched him.

Mitch didn’t even flinch, finding the barren planter next to him more interesting. “Did you see the article she wrote? My picture was on the front page. Even my little brother saw it on the school’s website. She made me sound so good. How could she have done that after the way I treated her?”

“It’s called integrity, you big jerk,” I finally said. Mitch jumped up, stumbled on the edge of the planter, but caught himself before he fell in. Chase howled with laughter. “How’s your truck?” I asked.

“Melissa? How long have you been sitting there?” Mitch squealed. “My truck? It still stinks, thank you very—”

Chase threw his fist at Mitch’s shoulder again and muttered something that sounded like “Shut up and apologize.”

Mitch glared at him for a second, then took a breath. “Never mind, it doesn’t matter. Thanks for coming. I just wanted to apologize for…for…offending you on Saturday. That was really…insensitive of me,” he stammered.

I rolled my eyes. “Cut the crap, Mitch, and throw away your script. I appreciate the fact you took the time to try and butter me up with some pre-written apology, but you and I both know only one thing matters now. Are you going to do it again? Did you learn anything while you were lying there the dirt?” I stared at him, waiting for his response. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Linda pumping her fist.

Chase raised his hand to his mouth, poorly disguising his laugh as a cough.

Mitch jabbed him in the ribs and turned back to me. I hadn’t taken my eyes off him. He could squash me like a bug if he wanted to, but I refused to back down. He had to believe I wasn’t going to put up with his swine-worthy antics a second time.

Finally, Mitch pulled himself together. “Damn, Melissa, you are one hard-assed woman.” He swallowed, then leveled his dark eyes with mine. “I’m really sorry for scaring you on Sunday. I see now what I did was stupid and dangerous. I promise I won’t do it again—to you or any other woman.” He held out his hand.

“Wow, Mitch, you really mean it, don’t you?” Linda asked, sitting down next to a slack-jawed Chase.  Apparently promises weren’t something Mitch made lightly.

“See, that wasn’t so hard, was it?” I took his hand and shook it firmly. The sincerity in his eyes matched that in his words, and I hoped it would last through his next round of partying. “Apology accepted. I’m assuming that…things…are feeling better?”

Mitch automatically reached for his jeans. “Yeah, things are fine down there—now.”

Chase snorted. “Your little present was the best thing he could’ve gotten. He spent the entire morning with a bag of frozen peas between his legs.”

I started laughing then, and Mitch’s cheeks went from a sunburned pink to a blazing crimson.

“Just for the record, I really only wanted to dance with you, Melissa, nothing else,” Mitch said, his voice low and serious. “Not that other things wouldn’t have been great, too…” he added quickly, and I raised my hand.

“Stop now, Mitch, don’t ruin a perfectly good apology by putting your foot in your mouth. I think we’ve both had enough horseshit for one week.”

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