"I'm sorry for your loss," said an old woman to the widow. Sean looked on from across the room. He slugged his glass of wine and turned towards the wall and it's bubbled-up wallpaper. He rubbed his eyes with the cuff of his sleeve. When he turned back the widow looked at him, glaring. Sean pushed through the crowd of mourners and out the front door into the hot summer evening.
Summer break. The idea of it filled him with dread for each of the past three years. Now it was the last. Cars packed the narrow street with their wheels angled. The professor's house was up a hill dressed with mature poplar trees. Sean walked down the hill, towards Welling Hall. There had been a storm that afternoon and the air was stultifying. Sean loosened his tie as he walked. His lungs ached and his throat was swollen. The wine dulled his brain, but not enough. He breathed hard and scratched his head intensely even though there was no itch.
The doors of Welling Hall. Sean stood in front of them, trying to still his breath. This is where he first saw the professor, standing, talking to another student, a girl dressed in a plaid mini skirt and a white polyester sweater. She batted her eyes and said something funny. The professor laughed congenially, then placed his hand on her arm and squeezed gently.
"Man, he's too old for her," said his buddy. Sean couldn't remember which friend was with him, but he remembered what was said.
"Yeah," said Sean.
"Why can't the girls go for us? Why do they always have crushes on the teachers?"
"Maybe you should become a college professor," said Sean.
"Me? You. You could do it. That'd be a laugh, wouldn't it?"
And that was it. He only admired the professor then, with his well-groomed, sage-like white beard and tan corduroy jacket with the patches at the elbows.
Sean mounted the steps and pushed through doors that were always unlocked. The hall inside was dark, lit only by exit signs reflecting on the white linoleum. His heels fell hard and reverberated against the walls. Twenty-nine steps and he was at the door he'd stepped through hundreds of times. He pressed his hand around the brass knob. He stood frozen, holding it until it was warm. Tears ran freely down his face in the privacy of the dark. He stared at the black letters on the door's window that spelled out the professor's name and position. He turned his hand.
The office. It smelled like aged paper, old coffee, dead plants, and cigarettes. The professor was a chain-smoker. It's what did him in. Two days ago he laid on the floor, grasping at his chest and grasping for air like a goldfish spilled out of its bowl. Sean stood over him, watching him writhe. The professor begged and pulled on Sean's pantleg, unable to articulate what was said urgently in his watery eyes. Sean sipped from his mug of coffee. His face was impassive. The professor thudded his feet against the carpet desperately, like a toddler pitching a fit. Sean stepped over the professor, leaned towards the door and twisted the lock. Then he crossed to the lonely window and stared out at a stream of chatty students breaking the early evening sunlight as they traversed the quad, headed towards the pubs.
"I'll...do...it," the professor wheezed in a tiny voice.
"Too late," said Sean. "The deadline has passed. I did everything you asked. Everything. And you pass me over. You've fucked up my career."
"Whatever you say, sir."
"You...want...this? A...basement...office? You...could...have a successful...career in...industry...lucrative...Urgh!"
"No, I wanted to be somebody. Like you." said Sean. He turned back to look at the professor, his left eye twitching. The professor arched his back, gurgled from the mouth, and his eyes rolled back as his fingers scratched into the carpet, pulling up tufts of wool. Then he flopped down and was still. Sean suddenly felt cold. He lost his balance and stepped back, his weight went onto the window and the glass cracked. He dropped his mug and lurched for the rotary phone on the professor's desk. He dialed zero and mumbled a stream of words to the operator. His hands shook. He dropped the handset and jumped over the professor's body--unlocked the door and ran into the hall, bumping against the far wall. He yelled out, perhaps not words. People came out of their offices. He pointed to the professor's door and started hyperventilating. Someone ran past. Help came.
The professor's office. Sean stood in the dark doorway, inches from where the professor had lain. He kneeled down and felt the area on the carpet. He put his forehead to it, feeling the scratchiness of the old wool. He smelled in the odor of death.
"I can't say it. I can't. I'm not sorry. It was wrong, but I'm not sorry. Damn you!"