Harlan was a student at the local high school. Grade 11, I think. Average grades. If he worked harder he did better. But mostly he just worked hard enough to keep everyone happy and off his case. On the day our story actually starts Harlan had just been hauled into the office.
“Harlan, take a seat there until I finish this email and I’ll be right out.”
Harlan sat down. The chairs were black and soft and spacious. Two of them, side by each with the big arms touching. In the other chair was a girl, skin as dark as cocoa, bust falling out of her lowcut top. She was painting her nails, waiting too.
“So, Harley m’boy, whatcha in here for?”
Harlan shrugged. He had no idea.
She chewed her gum and smacked the bubble against the roof of her mouth. Grinned. A blob of bright orange paint fell on Harlan’s backpack. She grinned again. “That’s for good luck in there. Adams is mad about something. You musta screwed up.”
“How do you know it isn’t you she’s mad at?”
“Me? Nah. I’m Teacher’s Pet around here.”
Harlan had nothing to say to that. He shifted in his chair and closed his eyes. He hadn’t done anything weird but just sat there sifting through his day in case he missed something and really had screwed up. When he was called in he said goodbye to his seat-mate and meandered into the inner office.
“Sit down, Harlan. Over there.” Ms. Adams pointed to a chair by the round table, known by the students as the Interrogation Table. Though truthfully more kids were offered tissue there than were grilled.
“Harlan, we have you on camera taking a backpack from an open locker.”
Harlan’s eyebrows went up. He looked down at his backpack, orange nail polish drying near the zipper.
“What do you say, Harlan?”
Ms. Adams shifted in her chair and swiveled around to face him. “Harlan. You’re on camera. Say something.”
“Uh…. wasn’t me.”
“Harlan.” They stared at each other for a moment. “Want to see the footage?”
Harlan did. So Ms. Adams took him into the other room, where the cameras were rolling. The screen showed about twelve different locations in the building – entrances and bathroom doors and hallways. He had no idea. I mean, obviously he knew there were cameras. Everyone knew there were cameras but he hadn’t given it any thought. Now it dawned on him that everything he did outside the classrooms and the bathroom was all on film. All of it. This took a minute to digest.
“Here, Harlan.” She pointed to a part of the screen that showed the lockers in the hallway by the library. There was a guy in jeans and a hoodie, short dark hair, backpack just like his. The guy looked both ways, opened a locker and grabbed another backpack, then walked right under the camera and that was that. Ms. Adams pointed to another location on the screen. The guy walked into the camera, looked up for a millisecond at the camera, then pulled up his hoodie and went up the stairs. The next camera showed him heading down a hallway and into the bathroom. A few moments later he came out with only one backpack. Ms. Adams turned the screen off.
Harlan had no idea. It wasn’t him. He did see how she thought it might be him though.
“Not me. I was in class. Ask Mrs. Grant.”
“Harlan, I didn’t tell you when it happened. How do you know which class this was in?”
Oh. Harlan didn’t. He just assumed it’d just happened, like just recently. Like maybe just before lunch. He shrugged.
Ms. Adams turned in her chair and picked up her phone, punched a few buttons and then, “Mrs. Grant, was Harlan in class today? Period three?”
Harlan felt smug. He had been right. It happened just before lunch.
Ms. Adams hung up and turned back. “You were in class.” She frowned. Harlan didn’t respond. He had nothing to stay. His mind was racing: who was this guy? But on the outside he was simply quiet. They looked at each other.
“Can I go?”
“Not yet.” She got up from her desk and went into the little storage room behind her office. She came back out with his bag. Well, a bag that looked like his. “We found this in the back stall in the bathroom. It’s empty except for a few papers and pencils. Nothing left in it.” She dropped it beside his and she eyed them both up.
Harlan pointed to the orange nail polish blob on his. Brand new and probably still a little wet, but he didn’t touch it. He let her think it was old. She nodded. But otherwise they were identical. Clean, newish, black nylon with blue canvas. Harlan was thinking how he needed to take up tattooing everything he owned, like half the school, marking up their binders and backpacks with sketches and logos and sayings and hearts …. No, no hearts …. and signatures. Maybe no signatures either.
Ms. Adams stood up. “Wait here, Harlan.” And she walked out. He had no idea where she went. He poked his head out the door. The office was empty for lunch hour except for the secretary everyone called Mrs. H. because no one could pronounce her name. She was typing. He sat back down. He read all the posters on Ms. Adams’ walls. He hadn’t actually spent much time in her office, so they were new to him, but not new in general. “Be Your Best Self Today” and “No One Can Be You Like You Can Be You” and “Feelings Are Real But They Aren’t The Truth”. Stuff like that. He looked out the window at the birds on the window ledge. He checked his phone. No messages. So he leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. And waited.
She came back in. “Okay, Harlan, you can go.”
“Am I cleared? Like, you know I didn’t do it, right?”
“There’s some question for sure. But I don’t know you didn’t do it, Harlan. Not yet.” She looked at him significantly and waved him on to the door.
Harlan didn’t know what that meant but he went through the door, and into the halls. He went straight on past the staff room and turned left at the gym, turning right again at the stairs and stopped at the end of the hallway leading to the library. The locker the guy’d taken the pack from was still open. Harlan went over to it, aware that the cameras were on him. He turned and looked straight at the camera and then leaned into the locker the way the guy had. Harlan thought he was probably shorter than the other guy, but he acted out the part, looking in the locker and then turning and walking the same path – around the corner, up the stairs. He ended up outside the bathroom where they’d found the backpack. Harlan went in.
The place was empty. A square of toilet paper on the floor, which Harlan stepped over. A broken pen cap in the corner. The garbage pail was overflowing with wet and torn paper towel. Harlan eyed it up, then dumped it on the floor. Something clanked and he kicked the paper towel away. A phone case. He got a fresh paper towel and picked it up to look at it more closely. Unremarkable. Banged up. For an iPhone. Wasn’t broken though. Why would a phone owner throw away a good phone case? He wouldn’t. Probably. But if the guy took the phone out of this case and threw the case away, the phone would be easier to carry. Easier to conceal. He took a picture of it with his own phone and threw it back in the bin.
A couple of guys came in and looked at him weird. He ignored them and kicked through the towels again. A used condom. He didn’t touch that. And then something caught his eye. A fidget spinner – ridiculous trendy thing. Harlan thought they were dumb. This was a big clunky one, with brassy looking trim and some doodling in permanent marker marking up the center bit. But he took a picture of that with his phone too. Using his clean paper towel he picked up the junk, even the condom, and threw it back in the bin. He washed his hands and walked out just as the bell sounded the end of the lunch hour.
Harlan did not get called back into the office that day. He went through his afternoon classes distracted and with a growing tension in his gut. It bugged him, that someone would do something and he’d get blamed. He couldn’t be mad at the guy though. Nothing the guy did had pointed to Harlan other than they wore the same brand hoodie and had the same build and same colour hair and had the same backpack. Still, he was mad at the guy.
After the 3:30 bell rang he went back to Ms. Adams’ office and stood in her door until she looked up. Harlan didn’t move and she gestured him in. He stepped into the office but didn’t sit down. “I went through the garbage.”
“You did what?”
“I went through the garbage and found a coupla things. Took pictures. Want ‘em?”
“You rummaged through the garbage, Harlan? That’s kind of gross.”
Harlan nodded. “I washed my hands.”
She chuckled. “You got pictures of what?”
“A phone case and a fidget spinner.”
“Could be anyone’s, Harlan. But the kid whose stuff it is said a phone went missing. I didn’t ask if it was in a case.” She paused. “Can I see the pictures?”
Harlan nodded, dropped his pack onto the chair and pulled his phone out of the side zipper. He flipped a few screens and pulled up the shot.
“Can you send that to me? Adams capital A @HMCI.com” He pressed a couple of times and a whooshing sound indicated that the picture was sent. Then he flipped his finger again and held up the phone to her.
“Oh! That’s a pretty fancy fidget spinner.” She took his phone from him. “You found that in the garbage upstairs? In the bathroom?” Harlan nodded. Ms. Adams called across the office space. “Mr. Harrison, could you come here a minute?”
A man walked in. Tall, broad, casual suit. Ms. Adam held up Harlan’s phone. “Harlan says he found that in the bathroom upstairs.” Mr. Harrison’s eyes widened slightly. He looked at Ms. Adams and walked out of the office. She didn’t say anything more but pressed a few buttons and Harlan heard the whooshing sound. She handed Harlan his phone. “Thanks, Harlan.” She paused. “You know, it would be really good for you if you didn’t show those pictures to anyone. You didn’t post them online, did you?”
Harlan was shocked. It hadn’t occurred to him to post anything online. He rarely posted at all, though he knew how. It wasn’t rocket science. His face must’ve said it all because Ms. Adams nodded. “Good. Don’t. In fact, you might want to delete those.”
There was a moment of silence between them and she smiled. “Anything else?” Harlan shook his head. “Well, then. Have a good afternoon. See you tomorrow.” Harlan nodded and said, “Bye.” He walked out of the school, across the parking lot, across the street, and headed northeast towards the river and his home.