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Authors: Brent Hartinger

Grand & Humble

BOOK: Grand & Humble
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Brent Hartinger
Grand & Humble

For Michael Jensen,
who is both grand and humble
And for Steve Fraser,
who is just grand

T
WO FACES
. T
WO 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 a beat.

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.”

“Which characters?”

“Hester, Chillingworth, Dimmesdale,” Harlan said. “Pearl too, in a way. They all have public per
sonas 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.”

“Am so.”

“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.

Were they really foretelling the future? Harlan
had never had the nerve to find out. Once he had “foreseen” something, he did everything he could to avoid the time and place in which it seemed likely to occur.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Amber asked.

“What do you mean?” Harlan said, determined to keep from shaking.

“You look funny.”

“I’m
fine
.”

“Okay, okay.” Amber sighed. “So what do you say?”

“About what?”

“About what I was saying!”

But this time, when Harlan tried to guess what Amber was referring to, nothing came up. What was it that she had been talking about? Suddenly he couldn’t remember.

“Lunch!” Amber said. “Where do you want to go?”

Right then, an image of himself choking once again torpedoed through his mind. It was just as all-consuming, just as silent. And once again Harlan was forced to watch, and to feel the experience, but was unable to control or affect the outcome.

“Harlan?” Amber said.

“What!” he said, jumping again. “I’m skipping
lunch today!” he said, almost a shout. “I have to study.”

“Are you serious?”

“I’ve got to go talk to someone,” Harlan said. “I’ll see you later, okay?”

And without waiting for an answer, he turned and walked away. It felt more like running, though, and in a way, that was exactly what it was.

 

If there really were two Harlan Chestertons these days, there was still one place where they came together—the swimming pool after school during his swim team workout. And why not? Mind and body joined together while he was swimming; it seemed only right that the two Harlans should come together there too.

Harlan lived to swim. He thought of it as flying—defying gravity, breaking the bonds of earthbound existence.

He’d heard people complain before about the heaviness of water, about how it could swallow you up or about its darkness. But for Harlan, water was liquid light, and swimming was freedom itself.

He hadn’t always felt this way. He remembered the first time he’d been to a pool, when he was three years old and his mom had taken him to the golf club
for his first swimming lesson. Harlan had had a fit, had refused to even put his foot into the water. But his mom hadn’t pressured him like most of the other moms. No, she had simply brought him back to the pool, day after day, sitting with him by the pool’s edge while the other kids had their lessons. Halfway through the summer, Harlan finally decided to join them in the water. He’d loved it, of course. And by the time he was seven, he was ready for the swim team.

So he had his mother to thank for his love of swimming? That was ironic, Harlan thought, especially given his feelings for her lately.

He was halfway through the warm-up before his buddy Ricky showed up. They’d been working out together since they were nine. Ricky knew him better than anyone else in the world.

“’S’up?” Ricky asked, long and lean in his black Speedo. Ricky Loduca was Guamanian—his birth parents had been born in Guam—which basically gave him as much street cred as being black, but without all the racism.

“Hey!” Harlan said, grinning.

“Let’s do it,” Ricky said, hopping into the pool alongside Harlan. But right before they pushed off, Ricky asked, “Hey, you drive to school today?”

“Yeah,” Harlan said.

“Cool,” Ricky said. “I have to leave early.” On days that Harlan rode to school with Amber, Ricky usually drove him home.

“It’s cool,” Harlan said.

And then they were swimming side by side, in a lane all their own. As he finished his warm-up, Harlan immediately felt a connection with Ricky. People sometimes asked him if it got lonely, spending all that time underwater, alone with your thoughts. But for Harlan, swimming was the opposite of lonely. No, swimming was all about connection. It was about being totally attuned to the swimmers around you, feeling their wakes, drawing on their energy. When Harlan swam a set side by side with Ricky, they supported one another, pushing each other to swim faster, pulling each other when one fell behind. He may have been “alone” underwater, but he wasn’t really.

Hey, you drive to school today?
Suddenly, Ricky’s totally innocuous question replayed in Harlan’s brain. What did it have to do with anything? But because Harlan was thinking about driving, not focused on swimming, the connection with Ricky suddenly broke. He was still swimming side by side with him, but now Harlan was alone.

And inside his head, he was suddenly in a different place and time. A city street at night? A truck—or was it a van?—was bearing down on Harlan. He could see the expanding headlights, could watch the vehicle veering to one side as the driver tried to swerve away at the last second.

It was too late. The van still caught Harlan head-on. (Was Harlan in a car too? That part wasn’t clear.) Everything that followed seemed to happen simultaneously: the fan of flashing sparks, the shattering glass, the wrenching metal, and—overwhelming everything else—the searing, straight-to-the-core-of-his-being pain. And it was all happening in perfect silence.

Harlan was having another premonition. But in the swimming pool? That was the one place where he felt most at home in the whole world.

Not today. The same vision swept back through his mind, like the backwash from a crashing wave. The van tried to swerve, then smashed into him once again. Harlan’s heart pounded—wild, exploding pulsings that replaced the quick, even beats from the workout itself. This car crash was going to happen—Harlan
knew
it!

Harlan was coughing. Like he’d swallowed water. He wasn’t swimming forward anymore. Now he was
paddling upright in the water, but gasping for air.

A wave splashed in his face, causing him to swallow more water. Harlan began to struggle—flailing, almost.

Like he was drowning.

Which was impossible. Harlan could never drown—he
loved
the water! So why was he struggling now?

In an instant, Ricky was at his side, treading water, holding him up. The connection was back—in a way. Now they weren’t supporting each other; now it was just Ricky supporting him.

“Har? You okay?” The concern in Ricky’s eyes was obvious, even through swim goggles.

Harlan coughed. “I’m fine,” he said. “I just swallowed some water.”

Ricky stared at him. He knew that swimmers like the two of them never “swallowed water,” at least not the way Harlan had. It would be like a star baseball pitcher suddenly falling off the mound. It just didn’t happen.

Harlan pushed away, treaded water on his own. He hesitated, waiting for the premonition to come crashing back yet again. But it didn’t.

“It’s okay,” Harlan said at last. “I’m fine. Let’s just keep going, okay?”

Ricky finally nodded and they pushed off, swimming side by side again. But for Harlan, the memory of his latest premonition trailed behind him like an anchor.

BOOK: Grand & Humble
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