Oh, Cara said, pulling her bag into her lap, scooting down the bench.
Afterward, Suzette rolled her eyes. Like those girls are so great. Please. They have nothing going for them, except theyre all skinny and have good hair. Suzette had no use for the popular girls at their school, or anyone else for that matter. She wanted to work with animals someday. Like in Africa, she said. Animals are honest. They want food, they eat you.
Though Suzette wouldnt have understood this distinction, Cara didnt long for popularity so much as an ease with people, a way to move more smoothly through the world and be like her fourth-grade teacher, Ms. Simon, who once taught a whole morning with her fly down and laughed afterward when she realized. So who heard a word I said? she joked. For Cara, a mistake like that would have clung to her for days, become an explanation for the conversations that piled up in her head, the words she never spoke to the people she spent all day watching.
In Kevins first week back, Cara watched him as much as she could. Every time she turned around on some fabricated excuse in her mindshe needed to remember where the pencil sharpener was, needed to glance at the clouds out the windowshe was staring at her, his bro-
ken face wearing the same half smile. Privately, she began to doubt the business about brain damage. When she looked into his eyes, she saw depth there, intelligence, a perfectly fine brain trapped in a half-collapsed body.
At the start of the second week, Miss Lattimore began class by whispering, I need to ask one of you to be Kevins helper this week. Though Kevin wasnt there (he still arrived at school an hour late every day), she leaned toward the class as if this were a collective secret, something they shouldnt speak of outside their room. Caras hand shot up, a lone pillar in a sea of uncertainty. To date, Cara had made no mark in this class, had distinguished herself as nothing beyond being the one person with clean fingernails the day Miss Lattimore discussed hand-to-mouth transmission of cold germs. (Im not afraid to shake hands with Cara, shed said. The rest of you, Im less sure of.) Now that would change. Miss Lattimore called her up for a private conference at the teachers desk. Try to think about things he might need, and help him before he has to ask. I think thats the nicest way. Cara nodded and planned to be the best Kevin-helper ever, so good that no one else would need to apply for the job, it would be hers for the rest of the year.
As it turned out, though, Kevin didnt need much help and hardly ever asked for anything; in fact, he hardly seemed to talk at all. Twice Miss Lattimore called on him in class, and both times everyone watched the concentrated effort that talking required. Both times he failed to get any words out, and Miss Lattimore said, Its okay, Kevin. Thanks for trying. Maybe next time. They ate lunch together as Miss Lattimore had told them to do, and Cara kept up a steady stream of chatter shed planned ahead of time to fill what would otherwise be a silent meal. She told him everything shed been thinking about recently: That she wasnt interested in having tons of friends, that shed rather be nice than popu-
lar, and sometimes, shed learned, you cant be both. To her surprise, in Kevins silent presence, words came easily, opinions, thoughts; suddenly, she had lots of them. She sounded like Suzette, who everyone knew was the smarter of the two of them. She told Kevin she was thinking about being a nurse when she grew up, or a marine biologist, based on visiting tide pools last summer and surprising everyone with the fearless way she reached in to touch the textures that couldnt be predicted ahead of time. Some anemones look squishy, and then you touch them and theyre hard as a bone. Like touching a skull, which would be weird. Whod want to do that?
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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