Evening fell quietly upon the campus, and brought with it rain that started as a whisper and grew to a roar. The professor was sheltered behind her desk and flanked by her bookshelves. She turned her chair to face the window behind her; she watched the rain cascade down the glass like curtains descending on a stage.
The students, the actors, had since retreated to their dormitories. The faculty, stagehands, to their offices. All to prepare for the following day, for another round of performances to entertain the parents and the administration.
When she turned back to her desk, resolved to finish her work, she found the boy looking in through her ajar door. He stammered something the professor couldn't parse and then he fled. It wasn't the first time a student was overcome by anxiety before admitting to her their difficulties, or begging for an extension, or for extra credit, or for an absence to be retroactively excused.
She resumed her work and the next time she looked up the boy was there again, opening the door with unsteady hands and entering with uncertain steps.
"Rainy, isn't it?"
The professor answered, "You could say that."
A silence stretched on.
The professor continued, "You should have a seat."
The boy wrung his hands, nodded, and sat across from her. He smelled like nervous sweat. He fumbled with words and the professor returned to grading papers.
"You're my favorite professor here, Miss Jackson."
The professor focused on the papers. It wasn't unusual for a student's pleas for mercy to be preceded by flattery.
"I mean it. You've taught me a lot." The boy's voice shook in time to the storm outside. "I can't tell my parents, and I don't know who to talk to, and you're the only person I can think of. I don't have a lot of friends here."
The professor put down her pen and looked at the boy. She had nondistinct memories of his face being present for her lectures. She didn't know his name. She said, "What's wrong?"
The boy waged battle against his throat, and anxiety won. No words came out.
She went back to her work, and up again when she noticed the boy moving. The professor began to say, "Please, stay," but realized it wasn't that the boy was standing up; he was lifting up his shirt. The professor leaned to look over the desk and saw there was a labyrinth of stripes on the boy's abdomen. There were numerous light, faded stripes, that were like shadows of the darker, uglier ones. Some of them were starkly red and couldn't have been older than a few days.
Before the professor could comprehend his constellation of scars, the boy lowered his shirt and buried his face in his hands.
"I'm so sorry."
"I can't stop," the boy said. "I've tried. I've tried, but I can never stop." His voice distorted by mucus and tears. "Oh, God, please don't tell my parents."
The professor dispensed platitudes until the boy had exhausted her supply of tissues and his tears had dried. When he walked, red-eyed, out of her office, the sound of rain returned to the professor's awareness. She imagined that it was blood falling instead of water, and the image haunted her while she finished grading papers.
When she exited her office, she looked around the building for any sign of the boy and found nothing. She walked to her car under cover of an umbrella and spent the night seeing stripes of crimson painted across her ceiling.
The next morning, the hollow-eyed professor sat across a desk from the Dean of Students. That afternoon the boy sat across from the Dean, and the next day his parents sat at the same desk with him. The day after that, the boy was found in a dormitory bathroom unconscious from loss of blood. The day after that, a nurse told the boy's parents that a severed inguinal artery had caused cranial hypoxia, inflicting irreversible and catastrophic damage upon his brain.