Alex drew a single red line beneath the phrase “duality of man.” He turned from his whiteboard to face his morning class and the rows of teenaged faces stared back at him dully from their desks, bored to death and half-asleep. Such a sluggish start to the semester, and it was only the first of September. It didn’t help that his first class had been pushed up from the usual nine o’clock timeslot to eight. He didn’t blame his students, who were forced to wake before six each morning, battling daily onslaughts with their natural rhythms.
Besides, no one wanted to analyze nineteenth-century British literature at eight in the morning – certainly not from so tragic a figure as a newly widowed honors English teacher. Truthfully, Alex felt even more drained than his students. In recent months, sleep had become a realm lying somewhere just beyond reach. The very idea of rest – true rest – held an almost mythical quality in his mind, like Atlantis or Tir Na Nog.
Alex picked up his teaching copy of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and began to read aloud:
“‘. . . Then I came to myself, as if out of a great sickness. There was something strange in my sensations; within, I was conscious of a heady recklessness, a current of disordered sensual images. I knew myself at the first breath of this new life to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked, sold a slave to my original evil . . . and the thought, in that moment, braced and delighted me like wine.’”
He glanced at his students occasionally as he read, to ensure they were at least vaguely paying attention. That was when he first noticed her. She didn’t see him looking – not then. She was too engrossed in the world of her phone, her long, painted fingernails a blur as they passed over the screen in rapid, rote ministrations. The girl’s name was Alison Paige, he recalled, a transfer student from – Wisconsin? Iowa? He couldn’t remember. God, but she’s gorgeous. Alex felt a sud- den, snaking shame coil blackly in his gut and forced him- self to keep his eyes on the page. He’d never looked at a student that way before. She was fifteen. The very thought was reprehensible.
“Notice how Jekyll is so keenly aware of his transformation,” Alex lectured, “even as he submits to the rising temptation of evil. The feeling is intoxicating to him, like a drug.”
A feverish chill crept up his spine, unbidden, and Alex realized he was sweating through his plaid button-down. And – for some absurd reason – his heart was racing. His vision seemed slightly diffused, almost blurred at the edges, and although he was sure he retained outward composure, he felt suddenly as though he were standing at the edge of a great precipice.
His class hadn’t seemed to notice anything was amiss. He wondered idly if this was perhaps a result of so much cumulative sleeplessness – some chemical imbalance linked to his chronic insomnia? He noticed that his students were looking at him expectantly. Alex took a deep breath and continued, stubbornly, forcing himself to refocus.
“Compare that to Jekyll’s later transformation, after he’s already committed his irreversible crime as Hyde . . . if you’ll all turn to page seventy-two?”
But the girl – Alison – kept demanding his gaze, as if via some nefarious hypnosis. There was undeniably . . . some- thing . . . about the softness of those pale, rounded shoulders, he thought weakly, so yielding and exposed and feminine . . . or was it the bright hot pinkness of the bra strap creeping up her – stop it. STOP. What the fuck is wrong with you?
Alex frowned, his gaze shifting to Benjamin Fitzgerald, who sat two seats behind Alison. Ben seemed to be struggling with his own dilemma. His furrowed brow glistened with sweat as his ample frame hunched over his open book, staring straight ahead at the object of his fixation: a neatly plaited blond ponytail belong to Tiffany Swinson, one of the more preppy sophomores at Atwood High. Alex observed Ben glancing furtively up from his book to Tiffany’s ponytail and back again, the poor kid’s eyes like Ping-Pong balls caught in some treacherous, eternal volley. Alex swallowed hard and read the passage in question:
“‘I was still cursed with this duality of purpose, and as the first edge of my penitence wore off, the lower side of me, so long indulged, so recently chained down, began to growl for license . . .’”
He snapped the book shut and looked out to his class. He felt back in control for the moment - as if some dark, unmentionable wave had finished sweeping through him. He faced his students with renewed composure, pacing slowly in front of the whiteboard as he lectured.
“So in the beginning, turning into Hyde was a liberating process, but it became a form of imprisonment. Jekyll resents Hyde, but consider the language Stephenson uses – Hyde is growling for license. He’s asserted his right to exist as an equal alongside Jekyll. Do you think Jekyll wants to merge his two personalities – his ‘duality of nature’? How truly accepting of Hyde is Jekyll? Does anyone have any thoughts on this internal struggle?”
The classroom was mostly silent, save for two students in the back of the room who were giggling at something on a barely-concealed phone. Alex felt too unmoored by his in- explicable attention – his fixation? – on Alison to reprimand them. Instead he kept gazing fixedly at his class, like a sail- or staring out to sea, searching for even the dimmest sign of response.
Jesus, I’m barely trying anymore, Alex thought dismally. There was a time when he might’ve actually challenged these kids, instead of regurgitating the same bland rhetoric and tired, open-ended questions from his teachers’ editions. He wondered – not for the first time, this past year – whether the flickering flame of his passion for teaching had finally died with Jen.
Time seemed to have stilled, and the tiny classroom felt suddenly oppressive, like a cell within a greater prison. Alex was a warden here for nearly a decade, had intimate knowledge of its harsh fluorescents and droning AC, its faint stench of mildew, its faded brown carpet and weathered, gum-encrusted desks.
Determined not to look at Alison again, his gaze fell, oddly enough, upon Ben Fitzgerald. Alex registered the pained expression on the teen’s moon-shaped face, which seemed to mirror how he himself felt at this very moment – the same bizarre, demanding tension, like a coil wrapped too tightly, barely constrained and begging to spring forth.
“Ben?” he said sharply. “What do you think? Are you with us today?”
Ben looked up suddenly from Tiffany’s ponytail. His face had turned an ashy grey color. Nearby classmates took notice, staring at him expectantly.
“Well – uh – um – some part of Jekyll enjoys being Hyde, obviously, but it’s . . . uh . . .” Ben paused. He was shaking slightly. Then he took a sharp inhalation, bit his lower lip, and appeared to cross some invisible internal threshold. The color returned slowly to his wan cheeks, and when he spoke, he sounded newly confident.
“It’s hard to know exactly how much we can even trust Jekyll as a narrator, because . . . because . . . well . . .”
Ben faltered again, and Alex would have seen his eyes lazily focusing, unabashedly, on Tiffany’s dangling ponytail once more, if not for the fact that Alex’s own gaze had shifted in that same moment, horribly and inexorably, back to Alison Paige – who was still engrossed by the world inside her phone, her expression maddeningly insouciant. It took a shocking amount of willpower to force his attention back to Ben, who now seemed on the perilous verge of total break- down, his doughy face glistening with perspiration.
“Like – like – uh,” the poor kid stammered, his words struggling to surface through some internal miasma, “is Jekyll’s awareness present when he’s Hyde – or, um, does he give up control so – so that Hyde can take over? Like uh . . . like some kind of – some kind of – oh – augggh!”
The boy let loose a sudden cry – a moan, Alex realized – that sounded impossibly urgent, as though it’d been held at bay for hours or days and could no longer be withheld. It was as if some tortured creature’s primal soul trapped within his body was finally being exorcised. Shocked gasps rippled through the classroom, followed by a wave of nervous chatter. Some gaped mutely at their classmate as he seemed to wrestle with an invisible demon, gasping mid-paroxysm, his eyes rolling back in his head in agony or rapture.
“Ben?” Alex froze in terror, unsure of what to do. Benjamin Fitzgerald fell sideways from his desk heavily onto the floor, moaning incoherently. He began to writhe and arch his back, as if pulled by invisible wires.
He’s having an epileptic fit, was Alex’s initial thought, and he rushed to help even as he dismissed the other, less rational thought which crept: he’s possessed by . . . something. Students rose excitedly to their feet, forming a huddle around Ben and Alex on the floor, seized by a giddy, mob-like fervor.
“Give him space!” yelled Alex. “I think he’s having a seizure! Ted, run and get Nurse Simmons.”
Ted Hammond, a good-natured Honor student, moved hesitantly towards the door, his eyes fixed on Ben, who was now still, his seizure-like episode apparently over. Alex exhaled a sigh of relief as Ben’s eyes fluttered open, staring directly into the concerned face of Tiffany Swinson. Her pleated ponytail swayed limply over his head. Ben sat up, dazed, looking around the classroom with slow-dawning awareness, panting as he struggled to catch his breath. The color had returned to his cheeks, and he was blushing a deep crimson.
“I’m – I’m okay. I’m . . .” The boy’s eyes glazed over with sudden realization. He inhaled sharply and said, very quietly, “shit.” He struggled to his feet, his heavy frame swaying precariously. He grasped feebly for his fallen copy of Jekyll – for anything in reach – but it was too late. The dark splotch of wetness on the crotch of Ben’s jeans grew slowly in size, like an ink splotch on a blank page. The classroom fell completely silent for a long moment that seemed to stretch into eternity – and then came the inevitable peals of teenage giggling, and pointing, and manic cries of “oh, my God!” and “look!”
Ben’s face flushed even darker and he ran, half-stumbling, out of the classroom, his hands clasped awkwardly in front of his pants. Alex could hear the boy sobbing as he ran. It was painful to witness.
Alex held up two fingers for the class to be quiet, but the giggling had evolved into outright mocking laughter, and he knew it was pointless to try and quell it. Nothing of any sub- stance would get accomplished today. There was a time, not long ago, when he might have tried harder to discipline his class, or cared even an iota more than he did. But his heart was barely in it; his heart was a badly battered thing.
“Alright,” Alex said, relenting. “Class is dismissed.”
He tried intently not to notice Alison Paige as his students filed out into the hall – but there she was, as temptingly sweet and forbidden as poisonous honey, and he had to shut his eyes as she passed. Even so, her afterimage burned in his mind’s eye like an optical tattoo. Alex bit his inner lip to quell the sudden stirring in his groin. And kept on biting until he tasted blood.