Excerpt: 'We Need To Talk About Kevin'

It was dreadful. She was covered in it, these massive scaly patches, red and flaking and sometimes cracked, where it scabbed. All down her arms and spindly legs, and worst of all across her face. The crinkling texture was reptilian. I'd heard that skin conditions were associated with emotional disorders; maybe I was myself susceptible to faddish presuppositions, since I couldn't help wondering if Violetta was being mistreated in some way or if her parents were undergoing a fractious divorce. In any case, every time I laid eyes on her something caved in me, and I fought the impulse to gather her in my arms. I'd never have wished vast angry blemishes on our son per se, but this was just the sort of heartbreaking affliction for which I had hankered at Dr. Foulke's: some temporary misfortune that would heal but that would meantime stir in me when faced with my own boy the same bottomless pool of sympathy that rippled whenever Violetta — a stranger's child — shuffled bashfully into view. I've only had one outbreak of eczema, on my shin, just a taste but enough to know that it itches like fury. I'd overheard her mother urging the girl murmurously not to scratch and assumed that the tube of cream that Violetta always carried, clutched shamefully in the pocket of her jumper, was an anti-itch ointment, since if it was a curative it was snake oil; I'd never seen Violetta's eczema do anything but get worse. But those antipruritics are only so effective, and her self-control was impressive. She'd trace a fingernail tantalizingly over her arm, and then grasp the offending hand with the other, as if putting it on a leash.

Anyway, when Miss Fabricant gasped, I joined her in the doorway. Kevin's back was to us, and he was whispering. When I pushed the door open a little more, he stopped and stepped back. Facing us before the washbasins was Violetta. Her face was lifted in what I can only describe as an expression of bliss. Her eyes were closed, her arms crossed sepulchrally with each hand at the opposite shoulder, her body listing in a kind of swoon. I'm sure we'd have neither begrudged this benighted little girl the ecstasy she so deserved, except for the fact that she was covered with blood.

I don't mean to be melodramatic. It soon became clear after Miss Fabricant shrieked and pushed Kevin aside for paper towels that Violetta's abrasions weren't as bad as they looked. I restrained her hands from raking her upper arms while her teacher dabbed moistened towels on her limbs and face, desperately trying to clean her up a bit before her mother arrived. I attempted to dust the dandruff of white flecks from her navy jumper, but the flakes of skin stuck to the flannel like Velcro. There clearly wasn't time to scrub the splotches of blood from the lacy rim of her anklets and the gathers of her white puffed sleeves. Most of the lacerations were shallow, but they were all over her body, and Miss Fabricant would no sooner daub a patch of eczema — flamed from sullen mauve to incandescent magenta — than it would bead again, and trickle.

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