The dust sloshed back and forth across the hall in crashing waves. They were slow waves, but if one watched the progress of a single mote throughout the day, as Professor Jeffrey had done on one lazy Sunday when swimming through piles of ungraded papers didn’t appeal to him, they would find that the mote moved rhythmically back and forth across the hall several times throughout the day.
It had to do with the fact that this hallway connected the chemistry wing of the building to the physics wing. The chemistry wing had an air conditioner that was always working too hard, making the entire wing roughly the temperature of the city morgue, while the one in the physics wing coughed and sputtered sometimes, but that was about the full extent of its usefulness. This made the two wings vastly different temperatures, thus, there was always a breeze rushing through the slightly slanted hall. While the bottom floor of the building got plenty of traffic, and was swept regularly, this hallway, on the second floor connected barely used labs to storage areas, and was rarely traversed by anyone other than the occasional lost student, and, of course, Professor Jeffrey.
Along the hallway there were three office doors, one was his, the other two belonged to other faculty that spent time in their research labs instead of “trekking all the way up into the wastelands” as he had heard one of them, Professor Laren, refer to it. Dr. Jeffrey, however, liked it up there. He appreciated the solitude. It was late on a Saturday afternoon, so Dr. Jeffrey was fairly certain that he had the entire building to himself, but this hallway didn’t seem much more lonely than the middle of the week. He normally worked at home on the weekends, but Jaylene’s death had him distracted and he couldn’t focus on anything at home, so had decided to come to campus to try to do some mindless grading for a bit.
Jaylene had been one of the students in his introductory mechanics class, and had died the afternoon before. She had tripped on the stairs in this very building after coming out of his lecture. He had already disappeared out the side door when it happened, eager to find his way to the sandwich waiting in his office which he hadn’t had a chance to eat for lunch. He had been nearby when it happened, and had listened to the sirens as he munched down his sandwich. He had rushed through the meal, because he didn’t like to eat in front of his students and knew that at any moment there would be a knock on his door. It would be that little freshman girl who sat in the front and usually asked questions: the girl who had forgotten her assignment in her dorm room that day. The very same student that had asked if she could turn it in late and he had said that if she hurried, and made it back to his office before he left for the evening, she would get full credit. The very same student that had been rushing down the stairs and tripped. Jaylene, the very same student that had busted open her skull on the stairs and died twitching in a pool of fluids that leaked from her head while Dr. Jeffrey enjoyed his sandwich, expecting a meek little knock on the door at any moment.
The knock never came, though, and eventually he did leave, after waiting around for a little while extra, wondering if she would show up. He gave her the extra time because he had a soft spot for the girl. She was bright, and asked questions, rather than playing on her phone and thinking that he couldn’t see it, like the rest of the class. Her assignments were usually fairly thoughtful, though not excessively so, she was an undergrad after all, but he always recognized her papers in the pile because she had a tendency to make little doodles on the edges of the page. For some reason he found it endearing. Lately, since Halloween was coming, they had been of pumpkins and ghosts.
Dr. Jeffrey had made his way downstairs and outside, when he came across a group of four or five of his students standing around outside. By then the body was gone, but looking at their faces, Dr. Jefferey had immediately known that there had been one. When he had asked, they had told him, passing the story back and forth as each one, in turn, tried and choked up.
Finally piecing together what had happened, Dr. Jeffery had sat down on the pavement. It hadn’t been a gentle crouch, or a smooth seat, it was the motion of a man that had just been punched in the stomach.
Now, Dr. Jeffrey let himself into his office, the sounds of the lock clicking open sounded loud in the cavernous space of the windy hall. His office was small, but he liked it. It had shelves on one wall, overstuffed with books that looked like they had been used hard. His desk was up against another wall, piled with papers and more books. The third wall held a whiteboard and the fourth was almost entirely the door and a framed copy of his diploma. Most offices he had been in on this campus had windows, and sometimes he thought that might be nice, but his didn’t have one and he was usually okay with it, the sunlight outside was often a distraction. After settling down in his chair, he spun back to look at the door, which had closed behind him. The building was old, and it was obvious everywhere one looked, the junction between the door jamb and the wall was no exception, and it sported a crack that ran almost the entire length of the door. He didn’t do it intentionally, but when he sat at his desk thinking, his eyes always found themselves running up the crack, exploring its twists, turns and dead ends.
Dr. Jeffrey let his eyes play Lewis and Clark on the crack now, as he thought again about Jaylene. This was his fault. She had been rushing because of him. That little light had been extinguished, why? Helpless anger started to bubble up in his chest and he sighed a long quivering breath as he wondered why he had told her to rush. He couldn’t have known, but was it really necessary? He hadn’t had anywhere he needed to be. He could have sat and enjoyed his sandwich, but no, he had decided to assert his dominance over his little student and had gotten some sick pleasure out of the thought of making her scramble to go get the paper. His eyes were starting to burn, and his jaw was clenched as he turned back to his desk and picked up the stack of assignments that had been turned in the day before, meaningless papers that a girl had died over. He started to shake. He needed to do something, he felt like something was floating through his torso up into his throat: a building pressure. He wanted to punch something, or break something. His eyes flicked around the room, as he tried to calm himself, but then his eyes landed again on the stack of pages in front of him and he settled on taking his anger out on the meaningless pieces of paper.
“DAMNIT!” he shouted as he threw the pile towards the door, trying to fling all the savagery out of his body but only feeding it. He stood and kicked the papers, which scattered across the floor. He howled with rage as he turned around and punched the back of his chair, tipping it over.
This was his fault, and for no reason.
Suddenly he saw himself and realized that he was throwing a tantrum like a small child: something he hadn’t done in many years. Suddenly, seeing how pathetic his actions were, his anger melted away into sadness. The resolve left his knees and he crumpled to the floor in sobs, the tears running down his face to land on a few of the pages that littered the floor.
After a while, his tears having stopped flowing and his breathing back under control, he picked himself up and stared at the disarray on the ground that had recently been a tidy stack of assignments. He was about to start picking them up when he noticed one over near the door. Only the top corner stuck out from beneath those on top of it, but his blood turned to ice as he recognized a small drawing of a pumpkin. He slowly bent to pick it up, his body shaking again. This time though, it was something closer to terror than anger. It could be someone else’s, of one of her other assignments, he reasoned, but he knew it wasn’t. He picked it up and looked it over. It was the right assignment and it was hers, complete with a little doodle of a pumpkin and a ghost.
Written on the opposite corner in her distinctive handwriting and blue pen was a little note that said, “Sorry it’s a little late, I’ve been a bit scatterbrained lately.”