Kevin is fine, Miss Lattimore, their fifth-grade
teacher told them. Just fine. Hes had a little bit of brain damage, thats
all. She held up her hand, thumb and forefinger out, so they all saw: Just an
inch of brain damage. If he has trouble doing certain things, like talking, for
instance, or getting around, remember: inside hes just the same. She closed
her inch-measuring fingers into a fist and thunked her chest. He has exactly
the same feelings you do.
Cara and Suzette eyed each other. Suzettes fathers secretary was Kevins aunt. They already knew Kevin wasnt fine, that he used a walker and could only operate one side of his face. Drool was a problem, as was the bathroom. Kevin used to be a regular boy no one thought much about until last summer when he rode his bike helmetless down the long hill of Brewster Boulevard into the side of a Pepperidge Farm bread truck and for two days lay in a coma with a missing kidney and bleeding on the brain. Now he was more interesting.
When he appeared in the doorway for his first day back at school, Cara was ready, hands clasped in front of her, a frozen smile of welcome on her face. Weeks ago, she had decided that she would befriend Kevin upon his returnhelp him with his tray at lunch, unzip his backpack, retrieve his pencil case for him if need be. She wasnt afraid of him, the way everyone else so obviously was, watching as he inched his way into the room, silver metal walker first, his motherwearing bright red lipstick and a scarf tied over pink sponge curlersbehind. His face was exactly as Suzette had described it: half fine, half fallen like a cake, creasing in on itself, his mouth tilted in a crooked smile that didnt move as he took what felt like the whole morning to get to his seat, one row behind Cara. Miss Lattimores fist returned to her chest: Were just happy to have you here, Kevin. Very, very happy.
The coughing and paper shuffling around the room spoke volumes of denial. No one was happy to have Kevin here. He was a cautionary tale, the name all parents now used when their children headed off anywhere on a bicycle. As he moved closer, even Cara, with her Florence Nightingale dreams of rescue, was so stunned by the sight of him, and the terrible decimation one moment of bad judgment could wreak, that when he slid his squeaky walker past her, she did what she promised herself she wouldnt: lowered her eyes to the hem of her minidress, took in her good legs and working hands, tested her face by raising both eyebrows. When he finally took his seat, leaving his walker to block the aisle, Miss Lattimore returned to the lesson and a room full of children so eager to attend to anything besides Kevin that it was possible no one, except Cara, heard a kind of throat clearing that became words, garbled, full of saliva, uttered through half a mouth: I can see your panties.
Later, Suzette told her there was something wrong with her, to love a boy who would say something like that. I cant help it, Cara said. Theres something about him.
She and Suzette had been having these conversations since the second grade, when they first met and became friends. If Cara was the romantic, Suzette was the practical soul, the seer of truths, the one who eschewed popularity and all that it required. Currently, the popular-girl trend at lunchtime was weaving lanyards out of long, narrow plastic ribbons of red and black. Whore colors, one girl explained, and Cara made the mistake of rushing out to buy her own materials. She didnt understand the basic tenet of popularity: that you had to be asked, invited into it. You didnt just sit down, your brown bag of materials on the table in front of you. For years, she didnt understand the rules of social discourse; then, in a single exchange, she did: We sort of sit here, Patty Sweet told her. Like with our friends.
Excerpt from EYE CONTACT by Cammie McGovern. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from EYE CONTACT Copyright (c) Cammie McGovern, 2006
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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