Two faces. Two sides to the same person. That's what Harlan's English teacher was getting at. It was so obvious, he couldn't believe everyone else hadn't seen it right from the start. How could they be so blind?
"Harlan?" Mrs. Woodburn said to him from up near the blackboard. "Perhaps you'd like to enlighten the class with your opinion on the subject at hand."
"My opinion?" Harlan said, with the perfect drawl.
"Yes, your opinion."
He grinned. "My opinion is that blue is a really good color on you. It goes with your eyes."
There was a moment's silence, like the instant after you slam the gas pedal, but before the spark plugs fire and the tires squeal out.
Then they squealed. All at once, the class started laughing, just like Harlan had known they would. And Mrs. Woodburn blushed. Harlan had known she'd do that too.
But Mrs. Woodburn was more self-possessed than he'd thought. "Thank you so very much, Harlan," the teacher said, trying to keep her voice even. "I'll keep your opinion in mind when I'm dressing each morning. But I'm wondering if you have an opinion on the subject of The Scarlet Letter."
"Oh," Harlan said. "That subject at hand." The class snickered again, if only at the boldness of his banter.
"Harlan, just answer the question!" Mrs. Woodburn was getting impatient. It was, therefore, time to get serious. The difference between Harlan and the idiots who spent their afternoons in detention was that he always knew not to push things too far.
"Split personality," he said without missing
Mrs. Woodburn hesitated. "What about it?"
"That's my opinion. That's what you're getting at. It's like the characters have two different sides to themselves. Opposite faces."
"Hester, Chillingworth, Dimmesdale," Harlan said. "Pearl too, in a way. They all have public personas that are at odds with their private ones. And the challenge they have in The Scarlet Letter is whether or not they can reconcile the two conflicting natures in their souls. The characters who do -- Hester, Dimmesdale, and Pearl -- find peace. The character who can't -- Chillingworth -- doesn't. According to the author, he shrivels away like an uprooted weed that lies wilting in the sun.' "
Mrs. Woodburn stared at him. He'd struck her speechless, and he'd intended that too. Just because he was popular and athletic and good-looking, that didn't mean he wasn't smart. Why was that always so hard for people to remember?
"Thank you, Harlan," Mrs. Woodburn said simply.
Harlan leaned back in his chair and stretched his legs out under his desk. Mrs. Woodburn wouldn't be calling on him again anytime soon.
"Hel-looo?" Harlan's girlfriend, Amber, said as they stood together in the crowded school hallway. "Earth to Harlan."
"What?" he said, eyes suddenly focused on her.
"You're not listening to me, that's what."
"Then what did I just say?"
"You were talking about how you went shopping. At the mall."
Amber glared back at him. "I don't know how you do it."
It's not that hard, Harlan thought. She was always talking about shopping at the mall. Either that or her role as Guinevere in the school production of Camelot.
"You are so slick," Amber went on. "You're a -- what's the word? Rube?"
"Rake," Harlan said. "A rube is a hick. Or maybe you mean rogue'?"
"No, I'll go with rake.' That sounds right. Rhymes with snake.' "
Harlan met her grin for grin. Amber was blond and beautiful, but he was no mere planet orbiting blindly around her. No, he was the center of this solar system, not her.
"It's like what you said to Mrs. Woodburn in English today," Amber said. "How do you get away with stuff like that? That's sexual harassment, you know that?"
"No," Harlan said. "It's only sexual harassment if you're old and fat and bald. I'm seventeen and hunky, so it's just me being charming."
Amber rolled her eyes. "Where do you wanna go for lunch today?"
"What?" Harlan said, suddenly uneasy.
"Lunch?" Amber said. "Off-campus? What we do every single day at noon?"
But Harlan barely heard her. In his mind, he had been transported to a different place and time. The surroundings there were shadowy and indistinct, but one thing was very clear: in that place, Harlan was choking. In his mind's eye he struggled, gagging, trying to cough up whatever was in his throat. It wasn't working; he was suffocating, and no one was helping him. Harlan was experiencing all this, feeling the fear and anxiety of choking, even the bodily sensations -- a sharp, throbbing ache in his throat. But at the same time, he was outside the vision, watching it all from one side, engulfed by the images, as if in an IMAX theater of the mind, but unable to affect the outcome.
The experience was also silent -- completely, eerily silent. Was it a premonition of lunch that afternoon? That part still wasn't clear, but it sure felt like he was seeing the future.
"Harlan?" Amber said.
"What!" he said, jumping. Harlan was a lot of things, but he'd never been jumpy, at least not until these past few weeks.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah," Harlan said, his mouth dry as toast. "I'm fine."
The vision had gone as quickly as it had come. But the effects lingered. Harlan was flushed, his pulse pounding.
The fact is, it wasn't just the characters in The Scarlet Letter who had two faces. Lately, Harlan did too. One face was calm, cool, and collected, always steady, always in control -- one of the load-bearing social supports that kept Roosevelt High School from collapsing. That face had been elected student body president by the largest margin in school history.
But the other face of Harlan Chesterton? Not so confident -- in fact, downright fearful. And moody. And easily distracted.
There was a reason, of course. For the past few weeks, Harlan had been having these occasional premonitions of disaster -- visions of what seemed to be the future, usually of death. At least they'd started out as occasional. Now he was having them two or more times a day.