You’re carrying the recycling bin down the hallway, the payload of soy milk and greek yogurt cartons rattling audibly, when you see a little dog. This takes a second to process, because your brain insists that there can’t be a dog in the complex. There’s a rule against it. You round the corner, nearly running down a woman. She’s graying, swaying, stooped, and dressed in seven layers of threadbare winter clothing. One hand holds the leash which should be on the dog. The other is wrapped around the golden knob of a door which she proceeds to open several inches, then immediately close. Open. Close. Open. Close. Images of zombies come to mind.

She’s blocking the way to the recycling drop-off, nothing to do but push through. Then you make fatal eye contact, red-rimmed blue eyes pleading. Do you help or do you continue on? It’s not even a choice. You speed up, brandishing the brimming bin ahead of you as if to say, “Hey, I’m saving the Earth; no time to save you.” And then you’re through. Freedom. Relief. For once you take the time to sort every item into the proper receptacle. Then you sort everything your neighbors dropped off. You try to stay occupied because you’re well aware of what Odysseus learned. It’s that return trip that gets you.

Not five minutes later, you’re making your way back down the hallway. This time she’s ready. Her gaze locks on, and she lays in with the heavy weaponry. “Will you help me?” Now, you may be many flavors of selfish asshole, but there’s nothing in you that can refuse a direct request for help. So you stop. Fear creeps in to quietly shut down every thinking part of your brain. But falsehood comes naturally. Honey-words leave your mouth, promising assistance.  “I can’t. It won’t. The door,” she croaks haltingly, like a child just learning to shape words. You were thinking blackout drunk, but now you have to consider mental disability. That’s fine, because it’s not as if you would know how to deal with either.

But you do understand problems. That, you’re very comfortable with. The door. You reach out, twist the knob, and swing open the door. Or, begin to, but it’s caught on the chain. Of course, it’s the chain. Now you’ve got to recalculate again. If this is her apartment, why would the chain be on the door? You mentally kick yourself for almost helping her break into someone’s apartment. “Are you sure this is your apartment?” you ask in your most innocent voice. She’s a little confused by the question. “I’m going to knock, and see who else is home,” you say, and then proceed to do so. Surely whoever put the chain on the door will come. It’s 10:30. They may be asleep, but that’s fine. You need rescue.

“This is my house,” the woman exclaims, utterly bewildered. “This is my house,” she repeats. And again. And Again. Now you’re really stumped. The dog starts barking, sensing he’s been forgotten. And you’re still awkwardly clutching the empty recycling bin. “Shh, Corgi.” Your name isn’t Corgi. Then you realize she’s talking to the dog. That’s even worse; he’s more like a beagle.

“What’s your name?” Caught off guard and flustered by the misleadingly named canine, you accidentally blurt out the truth. She continues, “My name’s Marlene. Will you help me?” Aren’t you already helping her? “I’m cold. I want to sleep.” Sleep? Sleep does sound wonderful. But you can only sleep when she goes away. You need to get rid of her. To a place of safety, you amend to yourself. It occurs to you that the apartment lobby has couches. She could sleep there. It’d be indoors, and it’d be cozy. You start to urge her down the hallway, promising a comfortable couch in the apartment lobby.

“This is my house,” she says again. But she follows. Corgi pads along as well. You take her around two corners, bringing you tantalizing close to the lobby and its emancipation from responsibility. At the foot of the stairs, Marlene pauses, clearly afraid. “I’m disabled,” she squeaks out.

Then your savior barges in through a side door, overladen with grocery bags. She takes in the situation through thick English-teacher glasses, frizzy gray hair pointed in every direction. You realize with a little embarrassment that you’re leaned over, arms held out, coaxing Marlene like a dog. What a first impression. Her stern voice: “Marlene, what are you doing?”

“I’m disabled,” Marlene repeats.

“She’s drunk,” your hero announces. Then she leads all three of you, Corgi bringing up the rear, back down the hall to the stubborn door from before. Marlene opens the door, catches it on the chain, and gives up. One look tells your hero all she needs to know. “Marlene, did you take the dog out the patio door? Come on, let’s go around outside. Let’s go.”

Marlene looks at you. “He was nice to me.” You weren’t nice to her. Marlene leans in for a hug. Stale beer fills your nostrils. Images of germs, the comically green mobster-like blobs on television, float through your head. Just before Marlene can get her arms around you, your right arm shoots out to hold her at bay, turning the hug into an awkward clutching. The two of you bump temples, softly. Marlene seems content with that.

Then your unnamed hero takes off, pulling Marlene and Corgi in her wake. She has a world to save.