“Mrs. Henegar? Mrs. Henegar!” She calls to me from a stroll away, two picnic tables over, where she balances a fat bag of trail mix on her palm.
I turn to look and with one finger, she pushes her glasses up on her nose, then digs ’round in the sack again. Her fingers disappear beneath hills of Cheerios and Chex, two kinds of chocolate chips. She stands up, throwing a leg over to orient her body fully in my direction, straddling the splinter-grey bench. The long, dangling ends of her shoelaces swoop up and fall swiftly back. She waddles forward in that wide stance until she’s clear of her seat, and then marches purposefully toward me, swinging one fist-clenched tight-bent arm, low ponytail bouncing against her back.
We are on a field trip. She walks away from a knot of kids in various stages of snacking. The table is littered with bags and water bottles.
“Hi,” I say as she closes in, offering her a smile. Her eyes are delicate blue, fragile.
“Mrs. Henegar, I just love, I love, I just, well, I just really love keeping an eye out for Adam.” She always presses hard on her syllables, and I don’t know if it’s determination or passion or purpose that inspires it, but right now I think maybe all three.
I have seen this sweet child crumble under pressure, seen her shatter like I can’t do this is some hurled, crashing thing bent on breaking her. I glance past her to Adam, who has taken a spot just a few feet away in the grass, somewhere he can watch us all for signs of progress. Adam isn’t one for wasting time. He shifts back and forth coolly on those long, thin legs, waving like a reed, holding an intinerary in one hand. When I look at him, he presses one eye closed and fixes the other on my face in acknowledgement. I guess he has to look into the sunlight to find me. He glances at his watch, then at the itinerary, then back at me, a series of gestures I understand as a sentence: Mom, it’s almost time for us to move on.
I nod. Yes.
Looking back at our friend, my first instinct is to relieve her of the worry. The kind of looking after Adam needs won’t much fit into the hands of a child, even a teenaged one with a flash-fire always smoldering in her soul. And she certainly doesn’t need the pressure. But she slides a hand on her hip, appraising me, jutting out her chin as if to let me know she’s up to the task. She’s a dare; a challenge; already defying the don’t need, the can’t on my mind. She’ll tell you she can’t play a game wearing a blindfold, can’t sing a song in front of people, but don’t you dare tell her she can’t look out for her friend.
I really love looking out for Adam, she’d said, as though such a thing is a get to and not a have to, as though watchfulness comes as natural to her as breathing. And I guess it does. She’s always so aware of her people. It’s something these children have in common, despite so many different challenges. They are masterful friends.
“Hello Adam,” she says, throwing the syllables, still looking right at me as if to show me. See, we’re friends.
“Hello,” Adam says quickly, loudly enough for her to hear from across the grass, in that no-nonsense tone he reserves for time duty. He’s got no time for pleasantries.
“Well,” I say, “I’m sure Adam appreciates you looking after him.”
Of course, as soon as I’ve said it, I realize this is actually untrue. I would bet money that at this moment, Adam feels indifferent, doesn’t even acknowledge her guardianship. She’s a friend, almost like another sister, but surely not a reliance. And while she most assuredly keeps an eye out for obvious distress (it’s her nature to do so), I imagine that her watchfulness usually doesn’t extend to meddling or scrutiny. It takes a fair amount of discretion to know when to take action on subtle things, and barring that, she’s learned to ask a lot of questions. So, as far as Adam’s concerned, she can watch all she wants. Even so, I’m keenly aware, standing now beneath her glass blue gaze myself, that if Adam suddenly collapsed, she’d turn that flaming purpose of hers right fully toward his rescue, tossing the names of her teachers hard forward like life rings.
And suddenly I’m glad she’s my friend and his, glad that watchful friendship is something she’s fiercely determined to offer. A blood sugar crash would not escape her notice.
“I mean, I’m glad you love looking out for Adam,” I say to her. “Thank you.”
She shrugs, turning suddenly away from me, marching again to new ground. “Well, he’s my friend.”