The short hand rested peacefully over the number one while the long hand climactically crept closer to the twelve. Two laps remained. He watched intently. Before the long hand reached its destination, the doctor said, “good job today, everyone”. On this cue, the students folded their laptop computers and placed them in their bookbags.
It was a Friday. The group, consisting of eight medical students and one physician instructor, had just spent the previous two hours dissecting two clinical cases pertaining to pediatric pathology. One, acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The other, diarrhea.
He, as always, strategically sat at the head of the table to ensure that no one could see his computer screen. While engaged in the discussion, he also liked to text her under the guise of researching the topic at hand.
He often complained to her about these group activities.
As the session was dismissed, everyone packed their bags and engaged in friendly banter – weekend plans, an upcoming quiz, board exams. They would often stay in the room for five to ten minutes engaged in conversation before trickling out. He, however, left immediately. As he always did.
He paced through the hallway, walked down the stairwell, and emerged from the medical education building to the nostalgic warmth of sunlight on his face. It was one of those days, late in winter, when the sun reminds you that it has not abandoned you forever. As if to remind you spring is around the corner.
Walking outside to the sight of blue skies and sunshine in the middle of a grey midwestern winter used to signify grabbing some beers and heading to a friend’s place.
But he was in medical school preparing for his board examinations, so the weather simply meant that the view outside of his apartment windows would be mildly less depressing than usual.
It was the first day in months that he could walk outside without seeing his breath condense in front of him. The icy sting of winter air had been replaced by the earthy smell of melting snow and wet soil. Instead of snow crunching under his black boots, he tiptoed around the puddles and slush that remained as he made his way across the parking lot to his silver 2007 Toyota Corolla. The rear left hubcap was missing, but he had been too busy to replace it.
Each time he approached his vehicle, he assessed the risk and possibility that a fifteen-dollar parking ticket was nestled beneath his windshield wiper. This is because he was still using last year’s parking pass and covertly parking his car in a manner that hid the tag from the university employees, unless they were extremely diligent. Which they were not. It always worked, somehow. It was his small daily victory.
After tossing his bag on the passenger seat and starting the car, he called her. As he always did. She didn’t answer. Most likely because she was in class, but he was too aloof to remember her schedule. For option number two, he called his mom. She didn’t answer. He then called his dad. His dad didn’t answer either.
While he typically took the back roads to get home as quickly as possible, he elected to take a detour and drive down Powell Street to savor the liveliness of campus. One of those days. Got caught at a red light in the post-class traffic. Looked at the cars around him. Four girls piled into a black Jeep wrangler playing music with the windows down. Three guys doing the same in a maroon Chevy Impala to his left. Close the windows. Make inadvertent eye contact with one of the guys, returned attention to the road in front of him. Light turned green. Friday sunshine after a long, icy winter had ignited the undergraduates with zealous energy to get drunk as soon as Friday classes ended. They were taking full advantage of the oasis. The thumping of bass drums pounded through the street. Students donning their jerseys and springtime day-drinking attire spilled out of every front door and into the yards. Slick green grass sparkled in the sunlight. Beer pong tables on every porch. Red solo cups sprinkled throughout every yard. Kids drinking forties of Colt 45 on the rooftops, blue skies and few white clouds painted in the backdrop.
Before arriving at his apartment, he remembered that he hadn’t been to the grocery store in nearly two weeks. He stopped at the mom-and-pop bakery on the way home. Instead of pulling up to the more time efficient drive-thru window, he parked his car in the lot and walked inside. He did this because the employees were always jovial and greeted him warmly. The coffee wasn’t even that good. But the place had charm.
Just one medium dark roast coffee, please.
Room for cream?
No thank you.
And would you like to add a fresh donut to your order? Asked the woman at the register. The glazed twist, his favorite, stared at him like a voluptuous siren sunning herself on a Santorini beach. Sometimes when he felt a stab of unhinged hedonism, or felt that he deserved to treat himself, he’d say yes. But today was no such occasion. He decided on the honey oat bran muffin instead.
After fumbling with his keys for a moment while trying to avoid spilling his coffee, he crept into his single apartment, kicked off his boots and threw the rest of his shit on kitchen table. He sunk into the sectional couch and pulled out his phone to see if any of his loved ones had returned his calls.
He texted her asking what she was up to. He waited for a few minutes while flipping through Instagram pictures and Reddit threads.
Oh yeah, he remembered – she’s working.
Time to make the donuts. Pulled his beaten 2010 MacBook™ out of his black Jansport™ bookbag and slapped it on the table next to his coffee. He sat down and got to work. Every day, a race against time. Run and run to catch up, but never really do. Excited at the prospect of a weekend of peaceful bliss, where he could study without interruption and gain some ground.
He checked his phone again. Still no answer.
He heard a sound outside of his apartment but paid it no mind. On the weekends he usually heard the laughter of college kids drunkenly walking towards the bars. His neighbors often complained about the loud college kids, but he didn’t mind. Sometimes he’d peer through his window blinds and watch them walk just to remember the youthful joys and reminisce on the old days.
But the sound he heard on this day wasn’t the sound of undergraduate students walking outside.
It wasn’t even human.
He listened closely as he heard the sound of a dog’s bark echoing outside of his window. The bark was innocent, that of a puppy which hadn’t developed the authoritative growl of a mature canine. What really caught his attention was not the bark, but rather the sound of claws scraping against a surface. The sound was near. He crept to his door and looked through the peep hole. As if he’d be able to see a small dog at the foot of his door through a hole five feet high in the door. He was an idiot.
He cautiously opened the door, careful not to let the creature scamper into his apartment. Behold a majestic teddy bear. Four paws and a wet little black nose. Chocolate drop eyes that slowly rose to meet his own. Tail wagging in the wind.
Hey buddy, what are you doing here?
The dog barked.
You must be lost, he said.
The dog barked.
Yeah, me too.
The dog barked.
You look like you could use a friend.
The dog barked.
He stared at the pup for a moment. Calculated that he typically spent about one-hundred fifty hours each week in his apartment. All of which, aside from when she would come to visit once every few weekends, were spent completely alone. He envisioned his life with the furry companion. They could have been best pals.
Imagine. When he cooked dinner, the pup would beg him for food and he’d say no, only to give him some anyways. They could take daily walks around campus together. He needed to get out and see the sun occasionally anyways. Could have someone who loves him waiting for you every time he got home from lecture. In that moment, he looked into those puppy eyes and saw the answer to the void in his life. Of all the buildings and hundreds of apartment units, the dog had chosen to climb three flights of stairs to claw at this very door. Maybe with his canine instinct he knew that the man who lived there was in dire need of a friend.
The pup looked thirsty. He understood that feeding a stray or lost animal would mean the animal wouldn’t leave. So, he closed the door momentarily, walked to his kitchen, and filled a small disposable bowl with water. He returned and placed the bowl on the ground outside of his apartment and watched the little guy ravenously consume the water and lick the bowl until it was dry.
He sat down in his chair outside of his apartment, petting and playing with dog. It was friendly, playful, and full of energy. Gnawed on his fingers with puppy teeth. He smiled and laughed as the puppy tried to jump into his lap.
Then he heard a call from around the building: Zeus? Zeus! Where are you Zeus?
God damn it, he said.
A young couple briskly walked up the staircase to his doorstep. You found Zeus, they said.
He replied – yeah, I guess I did.
Thank you so much, the man said. We were worried about the little guy. Alright, come on now Zeus. The man picked up the puppy in his arms and carried him away.
He stood outside of his doorstep and watched the couple disappear with his ten-minute friend.
He sighed, walked back inside, sat down at his desk and began his work for the day.