Starring Verna Zee & Cameron "Buck" Williams
Verna yawned and looked down at her watch: 9:13 pm. Time flew when you were having fun, she thought. She wished that she could have some so that it would. She wished that she weren't so swamped in work, that she could have gone home at a reasonable time like everybody else at the Chicago offices of GW had. But the deadline was approaching fast.
Before the Event, she would have berated herself for putting things off until the last minute, and if she'd been in charge back then she might have berated those working under her as well. But they had lived through what might have been--what certainly FELT like--the worst disaster in the world's history. Few of her co-workers were able to function consistently, and they weren't always able to pull themselves together quickly enough to get everything done as scheduled. She could relate. She hadn't exactly been steady as a rock herself. It was rare these days to find anybody who was. Firing anybody for anything less than egregious failure to perform their duties wasn't an option; after all, where would she find replacements without the same problems, who'd been spared the same trauma?
So here she was, working late, working her ass off to pick up the slack and make sure the issue went out on time.
Thankfully, she was almost finished.
She heard the door to the office open and close.
"Hello?" she called out.
"Oh, hi Verna," replied a familiar voice, one that she hadn't expected to hear again anytime soon. "It's me, Buck."
Great, Verna thought. Just what I didn't need.
"What are you doing back here?"
"Well, I think I left my phone here by accident. I'd be lost without it. Um, have you seen it?"
Verna relaxed a little. Williams seemed different than when she last saw him. He wasn't confrontational. He wasn't acting like he was God's gift to the world of journalism. Maybe she didn't have anything to worry about.
"I'm not sure. You could try your cubicle--well, the cubicle I'd assigned you before you made other arrangements."
As she remembered how that had happened earlier in the day, some of the resentment started to come back.
"I'll have a look," Williams said before heading to the back of the office. Verna turned her attention back to her computer, hoping to focus more on her work and a lot less on Cameron Williams.
"Yeah, it was there. Thanks Verna," Williams said as he walked back into view.
"You're welcome," she responded flatly, not looking up. Now go away.
She heard Williams take a few steps toward the door, and then stop.
God damn it, what does he want now?
"I...um...I owe you an apology."
An apology? From the allegedly legendary Buck Williams? This was something new. Verna looked up, surprised. She had no idea how to respond. After a few seconds, Williams--who looked genuinely contrite--went on.
"I've been thinking about what happened earlier today, and, um...well, you can believe this or not, but I'm trying to be a better person than I used to. And part of being a better person means that I've got to learn to admit when I've been wrong. I remember how I treated you when I had your job, telling you that you were out of line for moving into Lucinda's office. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that's where your hostility toward me comes from, and I guess maybe I deserve it. I'm sorry."
Is it really a good idea to get into this right now? Verna asked herself. Maybe this guy was more reasonable than she thought. Maybe it would feel good to get some stuff off her chest...then again, maybe talking to him about that stuff would result in an even uglier argument. And she had work to do...
Oh, screw it.
"I appreciate that," Verna said, getting out of her chair and walking around her desk to lean against it as she continued. "And you're right. Getting chewed out like that wasn't exactly the high point of my week, you know? So I admit, when I learned you'd be working under me, I was looking forward to getting even. Maybe I owe you an apology for that, because maybe I went overboard. But there's more to it than just that. Are you willing to listen?"
"I'm listening," Buck answered with a nod.
"Okay. For starters, there's the reason you were assigned here. You were supposed to be covering a story. You didn't show up to cover it. And when Stanton Bailey called you on that, you lied to him. You said that you were there despite a ton of evidence to the contrary. So you were insulting his intelligence, and you were insulting the intelligenge of everybody else you repeated that lie to, including me. I don't know what to make of that, Cameron. As you said, you had this job before me. How would you react if one of your subordinates did the same thing?"
Buck rested his chin in his hand and closed his eyes, evidently thinking it over. Finally he looked back up.
"You're right, I wouldn't take it very well either," he finally responded. "I might fire me, too."
Well, this is going better than I thought. Still...
"Can you tell me why you kept on lying? I honestly don't know what to make of it. Usually when somebody keeps repeating a lie that nobody's going to believe, it means there's something wrong with them. It means, I don't know, that they're either compulsive or delusional. I'm not calling you names," Verna quickly added as she saw Buck open his mouth. "I'm just trying to make sense of this, to understand it. A lot of people aren't 100% mentally since going through the events of that day, and maybe they won't ever recover fully. I'd be lying if I told you that I didn't have bad days myself. Will you tell me why you did it?"
A long pause, and then...
"You're right, Verna, I lied," Buck said in a resigned tone. "And yeah, I was affected by the Event. I was as shaken up as anybody. I was on a flight when everybody vanished, and you know how many planes ended up crashing. I thought that I was gonna die. Later on, somebody actually did try to kill me with a car bomb in England, and..."
Buck seemed to be struggling to figure out how to say the next part.
"And what?" Verna asked gently after ten seconds or so. "Can you talk about it?"
"Yes, it's just...embarrassing..." Buck answered. "I was under a lot of stress, obviously. So what happened in New York was that I got stuck in traffic. I didn't get to the U.N. on time. I missed the story, and when I got the call from Bailey I just...God this is so stupid...I just panicked. I said I was there, like some stupid little kid who breaks a lamp with his parents in the next room, and then lies about it because he thinks that admitting it will get him in more trouble. Even though they know he was the only one in the room and they heard the lamp break. I wasn't thinking straight, Verna. The stress finally got to me, I guess. I was afraid. I don't think you're stupid, I don't think Stanton's stupid, I just...I wasn't right. I realize now that telling the truth from the start would've been better, but..."
He trailed off.
"I believe you," Verna said with a sympathetic nod. "I mentioned that a lot of people were still feeling the effects of the Event. Sometimes they have panic attacks. Sometimes they just seem to go into a catatonic state where they can't do anything. It's a terrible time to live through."
"Yes, it is," Buck said, almost in a whisper.
"You might have thought that I was being spiteful, telling you that you weren't going to cover anything major. And that was partly true, and I ought to be better than that. Let bygones be bygones and such. But even so, there was a question of your reliability. You got demoted for a reason, and you can't expect to be treated the same as you were before. You've got to prove yourself all over again, Cameron. I understand why you screwed up, but you still screwed up, and there are consequences that go with that."
"I suppose you're right. Can you do me a favor, though? This might seem silly, but...could you please not call me Cameron?"
"I...suppose..." Verna said, wondering at why he would feel the need to bring up his nickname now. "Why does it matter?"
"I don't know, I've just always HATED the name 'Cameron' for some reason. I don't like the way it sounds. Every time I've introduced myself, it's been as 'Buck Williams', and usually nobody really makes a big deal of it, asks what my real name is, nothing like that."
"I guess I can sort of relate to that. I didn't used to like 'Verna' either."
She gave him a slight smile.
"Okay, 'Buck' it is."
"Cool. Thanks...'Ms. Zee'," he answered with a little smile of his own. "This is actually going a lot better than I thought."
"I was thinking the exact same thing! I don't mind telling you, Ca--Buck, I spent this whole day trying to put that scene between us out of my mind, and failing. You really got to me earlier. So I'm glad we're clearing the air here."
"You got to me, too. I think it'd be good for us to talk about that, but I want to think about the most tactful way to put it...can you give me a second? Oh hell, actually I guess it's not important. You were working when I came in, and I've probably held you up too much already. We don't need to talk about it. I should probably get out of your hair..."
"No, it's okay. I was just finishing up, and I want to hear what you have to say. Earlier today I couldn't stand you, but you really do seem like a different guy tonight."
"I'll take that as a compliment, I guess," Buck said. "Well, you seem to be really concerned with, um...I'll say assserting your authority, and not just with me. Your secretary Alice, for instance, seemed really worried about getting in trouble with you. And there was what you said about how you expected all of your subordinates to call you 'Ms. Zee'. Not just me, but everybody. And that word, 'subordinate'...it just rubs me the wrong way, and I bet it rubs other people the wrong way too."
"I don't think it's too much to ask that people talk to me respectfully around here," Verna answered.
"You're right, it isn't. But Verna, less than a month ago all of these people were your equals here. They used to call you 'Verna' instead of 'Ms. Zee'--or so I assume--and you used to think of them as Alice or Bob or Carol instead of 'subordinates'. Or so I assume again. By insisting on this rigid protocol...well, to be blunt, I think you're making the same mistake I did with you. You didn't like it when I reminded you that I was the boss and you were the subordinate. I don't think anybody would have liked that."
Verna had her mouth half-open to say that people didn't have to like it, before it sunk in that there actually were some similarities between the way Buck had reinforced their respective places in the GW pecking order and the way she'd done the same, not just with Buck, but with a number of others as well. And while maybe Buck had asked for it, not everybody in this office had acted like Buck Williams.
"Well, I won't pretend to be an expert on management...and like I said, I'm making some assumptions here without knowing what your working relationship with the other people here was like before your promotion...but think about what we're doing here. We're addressing the problems we've got, we agree that it's been going well. And I think a large part of the reason for that is because we're not in a pissing contest any more. Neither of us is acting as though we're better, more deserving of respect or deference, than the other. Neither of us is demanding that the other acknowledge them as the superior. As I think we both know from experience by now, that kind of thing can make the employee feel like dirt, and resent the hell out of their boss."
"True," Verna acknowledged.
"May I ask why it's so important that people here address you as 'Ms. Zee'?"
Verna paused again. Buck waited.
"I'd actually prefer not to get into that right now. Sorry."
"Don't be. It's fine. I'm sorry for prying."
"Don't worry about it. I might tell you another time. For now, I'll think about what you've said."
"Well, I'd better get going. Thanks for listening."
"Thank you for apologizing. I've heard you haven't really made a habit of it in the past, so it might not have been easy for you."
"What's got you here so late, by the way?"
Verna told him.
"...it's rare to get a full week's work out of the entire office any more, and now of all times!" she finished a minute or so later. "Readers need to know just what the hell happened, what's going to happen. Plus, I just got this job, and I don't want to lose it. Others here might go home early if they have an attack or a breakdown or whatever, but I can't. I'm responsible for this whole operation."
Verna blew out a sigh. It crossed her mind that after being up over fifteen hours, most of which had been spent working, it was nothing short of miraculous that she was able to avoid snapping at Buck through this whole conversation. She was glad she hadn't, but it was still...strange.
"The problem didn't get any easier to handle when I found myself short one reporter today," she continued, a bit icily. And then she winced. Did I just jinx myself by thinking about how civil I was being to this guy?
"Well, maybe if--" Buck began hotly, and then stopped himself.
Moments later, he started speaking again, this time calmly.
"Is there anything I can do to help?"
"As in work for me? Aren't you getting your assignments from New York now?"
"You'd be surprised at how light the workload is, now of all times like you said. I found it kind of surprising. Hell, maybe after I dropped the ball at the U.N., they don't want to trust me with anything major any more," Buck told her with a shrug.
"Hmm...well, if you don't think it'd still be a waste of your contacts and experience..."
"I don't. Like you said, I've got to work my way back up, prove myself all over again."
"It might be worth a try. How about we sleep on this and talk about it tomorrow?"
"Sounds like a plan. Have a good night, Verna."
"Good night, Buck," Verna said.
They exchanged waves as Buck headed out the door and to the elevator. Verna plopped down into her chair and stroked her chin.
Huh. Just when you think you know somebody...
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