Anna opened the clear glass door into the claustrophobic set of stairs that would take her to her first class of the day. She tentatively took hold of the railing and slowly clambered up the stairs. The mustard colored walls mirrored the nausea she felt that day.
Halfway through her trip she coughed into her hands and resumed her grip on the railing. Her germs would linger on that surface just long enough. Class would let out in a few minutes. She barely noticed, however, as her thoughts were focused on the day ahead. She had a quiz to look forward to.
Two students hastily brushed by her.
“I can’t believe he let us out early,” one student said.
“I know,” the other replied as she placed her left hand on the railing, “But I’m glad, I haven’t had breakfast yet.”
Anna grinned half-heartedly as she saw the exchange. Her head was beating out a hearty rhythm of agony but she could still appreciate someone being released from class early.
It took her seven minutes to make her way up to the sixth floor. Her fatigue had worn down her usual brisk climb. Stopping to furiously cough could have contributed to that delay as well.
In another small triumph toward her goal, she reached the doorway to her Western Civilization class. She cast a nervous glance down each hallway, just in time to lock eyes with Sean as he made his way to the classroom; her classroom.
“Anna,” Sean said as he slid past, his eyes locked on his feet. His passing gave her the resolve she needed to take those first few steps into the classroom. She would be able to make it through the day, no problem.
The classroom was sparsely populated. Professor Allcroft stood at the podium like a weathered captain steering his ship. He never missed a class and he expected his students to follow his example. Students that wanted a good grade in his class were sure to show up every day.
He had always said, “I will always arrive early to class, but know that you will not, under any circumstances, be released early.”
He locked his gaze with Anna’s. Something in the way he looked at her shocked her. His normally piercing and intense stare had softened and a wrinkled look of concern overtook his features. Anna looked down immediately and shuffled over to her seat.
She shot a quick glance toward the podium to find that he was no longer there. She looked to the right to see him meandering over to her.
“Ms. Ferguson, is everything alright?” he asked, “You look rather beleaguered today.”
She regretted coming to class and not for the first time. The fever pressed upon her. She had to tell him that everything was okay. If she didn’t he might insist that she leave class. Though she was not in any condition for any serious mental expenditure, she did not want to leave. She could not miss the quiz nor did she want to lose any participation points.
“I…” she said.
She couldn’t help but remember what had precipitated this whole awkward incident. She had stayed late after class last week. Professor Allcroft had spoken to her then too.
“Studying hard, as always,” Professor Allcroft said while he shoveled the rest of his notes into his briefcase.
“Oh no,” Anna said, “I’m just making a copy of my notes of your lecture on Frederick the Great.”
“I see,” he said.
“I noticed Sean wasn’t here today,” she said, “I thought I’d help him out.”
“Ahh yes, Mr. Olsen. He was ill today, wasn’t he?” he said. She nodded and gathered up her things.
“It’s nice to see that people are still willing to lend a hand sometimes,” he said, “Very admirable.”
She smiled, “Thanks, Professor Allcroft.”
As she left the social sciences building, goosebumps crawled up her arms and she drew them in reflexively. It felt a bit too cold for October.
A myriad of brilliant reds, oranges and yellows streaked across the landscape like a wildfire. Leaves blew to-and-fro in the chill wind. The whole spectacle belied the nature of the season and what it brought with it.
She made her way up a nearly endless set of stairs to the all guys dorm, Darwin Hall. Before she reached the main building, the double doors swung open and a group of young men herded out. One of them was Sean’s roommate, Derek. She’d seen him a couple times when she worked on projects with Sean.
He came to a quick stop and flashed a mischievous smile, “Hey Anna. Come to join us for Thirsty Thursday?”
“You know what we say around here,” another interjected, “Survival of the shit-faced.”
“I think I’ll pass. Thanks,” she said giving Derek an incredulous smirk and pointing to her book bag, “I’m just bringing some Western Civ notes to Sean.”
“Your loss,” Derek said, “When you get the plague, don’t blame me. We did offer you the nectar of the gods, after all.”
She rolled her eyes and ran her hand through her mahogany curls. “Yeah, yeah,” she said, “You better get going, you’ll miss happy hour.”
“Ahh yes,” he said, “In that case, we’re out.”
He pointed off toward the parking lot and the horde followed suit.
She turned and made her way through the now motionless double doors. Three sets of dingy stairs and a hallway that smelt of beer and stale urine later and she was at Sean’s door.
She rapped on his door and waited. Seconds later she knocked again. She was greeted with a disheartened grunt.
“Sean,” she said, “It’s me, Anna. I brought you some notes from Western Civ.”
The door creaked open and she was met by a haggard and groggy apparition. Sean had wrapped himself up in a blue blanket. He gave her a unenthusiastic smile as he swung the door wide. “Come in,” he said. She stepped over a sweater laying haphazardly on the floor and strode into his room.
She pulled out her notes and said, “We were discussing Frederick the Great and the Seven Years War.”
“Could you put the notes on my desk?” he asked.
She blushed. There she was, rambling on again.
“Sure,” she said.
She placed her notes in a neat pile on the corner of his desk. She zipped up her backpack and smiled hastily.
“I should let you get some rest,” she said.
“Anna,” he said as he swooned, “Thanks. This means a lot to me.”
He then virtually toppled over her. If not for her open arms he would have surely hit his head on his desk. She caught him in an awkward embrace. They held it for a few moments before she left, flustered. She did not yet realize what her kindness and adoration would cost her.
Back in the classroom, sweat beading on her forehead, Anna came to her senses. Professor Allcroft, the sole reason she was forced to get out of bed that morning was hovering over her.
“What’s that Ms. Ferguson?” Professor Allcroft asked.
She dazedly shook her head and looked him in the eyes.
“I’m not feeling well today Professor,” she said, “I really don’t want to miss the quiz, but I think that I need to go home.”
“That’s quite alright, you can take the quiz some other time,” he said.
“Thank you,” she said.
“I will have someone in class take notes for you today. We will be talking about the Reformation after the quiz.” he said, “Now you go home and get some rest.”
That is exactly what she did. In her dorm room she wrapped herself up in a blanket and sipped on a cup of smooth hot cocoa. She sat on her couch and thought about the morning.
She was sick and she had known it from the moment she woke up. She insisted on going to class even though she might get others sick. She was too caught up in worrying about her grades and her own feelings to think about how she might affect others. Hopefully no one would get sick because of her.
She was normally a compassionate person. Sean and Professor Allcroft helped remind her of that. A little fever and mild delirium could not change that. Thinking back, she did not regret visiting Sean.
There was a soft knock at the door. Anna slowly rose to her feet and shuffled over to greet her visitor. She cracked open the door to see Sean’s meek face, notes in hand. She smiled wider than she thought possible and let him in. Compassion was a two way street it seemed, one that she would walk down every chance she could.