I reach for the door handle then hesitate. Sheets of water curtain the windows. Raindrops ricochet off the car's roof. Locks on the doors keep the world at bay. Reluctantly, I pull the handle and push the door open, get out, and spring the umbrella. I duck under its cover, a poor substitute for the protective cocoon of the car.
Keys in hand, I sling my briefcase over my shoulder, tuck my hair into the collar of my coat, then slosh my way through the parking lot and follow one of the pathways through the verdant, tree-studded campus to the wide steps leading up to the psychology building. The brick building is the oldest on the campus, the original structure when PCU acquired the site.
I run up the steps and, once undercover, shake the umbrella until water puddles at my feet. I enter the building and make my way up the stairs to the second floor then down the quiet, dimly lit hallway. The scent of chalk dust, ground into every corner and crevice of the building, tickles my nose. Chalkboards were replaced with whiteboards more than a decade ago, so the lingering scent is more likely association than actuality. But the building, having been closed over the winter break, is indeed musty. I stop in front of one of the offices that line the hall and fumble with my keys until I find the right one. "Hey, Deni."
I jump, and my keys jangle as they drop to the floor. I turn from the door toward the voice, heart thumping against the cage of my chest. "Willow..."
"Sorry, I didn't mean to scare you."
"No, it's just... I didn't see you. Hi." I bend to retrieve my keys, hands trembling. "Did you enjoy your break?" I slip my hands into the pockets of my coat.
Willow, a sophomore whose slender, graceful frame lives up to her name, shrugs. "It was okay. Family drama. The usual holiday stuff."
"Ah... Makes dorm life look good, huh?"
"Were you waiting to see me?"
"No. Dr. Alister." She gestures to the office next to mine. "I'm meeting with him. I'm his TA this semester."
I point down the hallway. "Dr. Alister's office is—"
The door of the office next to mine swings open, and Ryan Alister steps into the hallway. "Thought I heard voices out here. Willow"—he glances at his watch—"you're prompt. Thank you." He turns to me, his smile warm.
Ryan looks back at his office then to me. "Over the break, remember?"
"Oh... Right." Did we talk about the move? I don't remember. We must have—Ryan wouldn't take that type of liberty. "You're lucky to have Willow this semester, Dr. Alister. She's an excellent student. She'll make a great assistant."
He raises one eyebrow and looks back to Willow. "A recommendation from the esteemed Dr. Denilyn Rossi, department chair? Impressive."
As Willow's milky complexion blooms, Ryan looks at me and winks.
"It was good to see you, Willow." I pull my keys from my pocket as Willow follows Ryan into his office. Caught in a snare of confusion, I stare at the linoleum as I try to bring up the details of Ryan's move, but they're lost to me. Throat tight, I swallow. I'm slipping. Forgetting things. Letting the stress get to me.
Stress? It's more than that. My mind is betraying me, and it stings like the betrayal of a trusted friend.
I turn back to my office. The murmur of Ryan's and Willow's voices drift out Ryan's open door. I'm grateful for the company in the still nearly empty building—actually, I'm grateful the empty office is occupied again. It was vacated midsemester when Dr. McPhee took early retirement due to ongoing medical issues. That I do remember. I find the key on my ring again and unlock and open my office door.
Before entering, I reach around the doorjamb and flip on the light switch. I stand in the doorway and take stock. Everything appears as I left it. Desktop empty except for my computer monitor and inbox. Beside the window that frames my desk, diplomas and designations hang. Shelves line another wall, stocked with books and a few decorative items, mostly mementos from students. Nothing personal.
I hold the office door ajar, take a few steps inside, and then lean in and peek around the edge of the desk. I lean back, exhaling as I do. Nothing amiss.
I leave the door open and hang the umbrella, along with my coat, on the rack in the office. I pull a nubby cardigan off the rack and drape it across the back of my desk chair, then tuck my briefcase under the desk. Once seated, I power on the computer and wait as it loads. I knead a knot in my shoulder.