The frightened rabbit’s pony tail trembled ever so slightly as she lifted her gaze.

“See me in my office after class.”

Chapter 2

At the end of the seminar, Julia Mitchell hastily tucked the folded piece of paper she’d been cradling in her lap into her Italian dictionary, under the entry asino.

“Sorry about all that. I’m Paul Norris.” The friendly man extended his large paw over the table. She shook it gently, and he marveled at how small her hand was in comparison to his. He could have bruised it just by flexing his palm.

“Hello, Paul. I’m Julia. Julia Mitchell.”

“Good to meet you, Julia. I’m sorry The Professor was such a prick. I don’t know what’s eating him.” Paul gave Emerson his preferred title with no little sarcasm.

She reddened slightly and turned back to her books.

“You’re new?” he persisted, tilting his head a little as if he was trying to catch her eye.

“Just arrived. From Saint Joseph’s University.”

He nodded as if that meant something. “And you’re here for a Master’s?”

“Yes.” She gestured to the front of the now empty seminar room. “It probably doesn’t seem like it, but I’m supposed to be studying to be a Dante specialist.”

Paul whistled through his teeth. “So you’re here for Emerson?”

She nodded, and he noticed that the veins in her neck began to pulsate slightly as her heart rate quickened. Since he couldn’t find an explanation for her reaction, he dismissed it. But he would be reminded of it later.

“He’s difficult to work with, so he doesn’t have a lot of students. I’m writing my dissertation with him, and there’s also Christa Peterson, whom you’ve already met.”

“Christa?” She gave him a questioning look.

“The tart at the front. She’s his other PhD student, but her goal is to be the future Mrs. Emerson. She just started the program, and she’s already baking him cookies, dropping by his office, leaving telephone messages. It’s unbelievable.”

Julia nodded again but said nothing.

“Christa doesn’t seem to be aware of the strict non-fraternization policy set up by the University of Toronto.” Paul rolled his eyes and was rewarded with a very pretty smile. He told himself that he would have to make Julia Mitchell smile more often. But that would need to be postponed, for now.

“You’d better go. He wanted to see you after class, and he’ll be waiting.”

Julia quickly tossed her things into a shabby L.L. Bean knapsack that she had carried since she was a freshman undergraduate. “Um, I don’t know where his office is.”

“Turn left on your way out of the seminar room, then make another left. He has the corner office at the end of the hall. Good luck, and I’ll see you next class, if not before.”

She smiled gratefully and exited the seminar room.

As she rounded the corner, she saw that The Professor’s office door was ajar. She stood in front of the opening nervously, wondering if she should knock first or peek her head around. After a moment’s deliberation, she opted for the former. Straightening her shoulders, she took a deep breath, held it, and placed her knuckles in front of the wood paneling. That’s when she heard him.

“I’m sorry I didn’t call you back. I was in my seminar!” an angry voice, all too familiar now, spat aloud. There was a brief silence before he continued.

“Because it’s the first seminar of the year, asshole, and because the last time I talked to her she said she was fine!”

Julia retreated immediately. It sounded like he was on the telephone, yelling. She didn’t want him yelling at her, and so she decided to flee and deal with the consequences later. But a heart wrenching sob tore from his throat and assaulted her ears. And from that she could not flee.

“Of course I wanted to be there! I loved her. Of course I wanted to be there.” Another sob emerged from behind the door. “I don’t know what time I’ll get there. Tell them I’m coming. I’ll go straight to the airport and hop a plane, but I don’t know what kind of flight I can get on short notice.”

He paused. “I know. Tell them I’m sorry. I’m so sorry…” His voice trailed off into a soft, shuddering cry, and Julia heard him hang up the telephone.

Without considering her actions, Julia carefully peeked around the door.

The thirty-something man held his head in his long-fingered hands, leaning his elbows on his desk and crying. She watched as his wide shoulders shook. She heard anguish and sorrow rip out of his chest. And she felt compassion.

She wanted to go to him, to offer condolences and comfort and to put her arms around his neck. She wanted to smooth his hair and tell him that she was sorry. She imagined briefly what it would be like to wipe tears away from those expressive sapphire eyes and see them look at her kindly.

She thought about giving him a gentle peck on his cheek, just to reassure him of her sympathy.

But watching him cry as if his heart was broken momentarily froze her, and so she did none of those things. When she finally realized where she was, she quickly disappeared back behind the door, blindly pulled a scrap of paper from her knapsack, and wrote:

I’m sorry.

— Julia Mitchell

Then, not quite knowing what to do, she placed the paper against the doorjamb, trapping it there as she silently pulled his office door shut.

* * *

Julia’s shyness was not her primary characteristic. Her best quality, and the one that defined her, was her compassion, a trait that she hadn’t inherited from either of her parents. Her father, who was a decent man, tended to be rigid and unyielding. Her mother, who was deceased, had not been compassionate in any way, not even to her only child.

Tom Mitchell was a man of few words, but was well-known and generally liked. He was a custodian at Susquehanna University, and the fire chief of Selinsgrove Borough, Pennsylvania. Since the fire department was entirely volunteer, he and the other fire fighters found themselves on call at all times. He inhabited his role proudly and with much dedication, which meant that he was rarely home, even when he wasn’t responding to an emergency. On the evening of Julia’s first graduate seminar he called her from the fire station, pleased that she finally decided to answer her cell phone.

“How’s it going up there, Jules?” His voice, unsentimental but comforting nevertheless, warmed her like a blanket.

She sighed. “It’s fine. The first day was…interesting, but fine.”

“Those Canadians treating you right?”

“Oh, yes. They’re all pretty nice.” It’s the Americans who are the bastards.

Well, one American.

Tom cleared his throat once or twice, and Julia caught her breath.

She knew from years of experience that he was preparing to say something serious. She wondered what it was.

“Honey, Grace Clark died today.”

Julia sat upright on her twin bed and stared into space.

“Did you hear what I said?”

“Yes. Yes, I heard.”

“Her cancer came back. They thought she was fine. But it came back, and by the time they found out, it was in her bones and her liver. Richard and the kids are pretty shaken up about it.”

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