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The New Normal

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She doesn’t go to school the next day, or the one after.

There’s people to call, relatives to notify, hospital visits to make sure nobody is seriously hurt, government agencies to negotiate with (that have apparently been watching their home on-and-off for the past few years (!!!) in case the vanished scientist brings back valuable intelligence), health checkups by NASA to scan for radiation exposure and additional space-related damage, and by the end of it all, a media circus to navigate.

NASA had once been only too willing to write off the Murrys as delusional hacks, to insinuate that Meg’s father’s disappearance was nothing more than a man too ashamed to face his failures, finally running away. Funding for Meg’s mother’s research had dried up after her husband’s disappearance, her reputation in the scientific community had been in tatters, and NASA had stood by and let it happen.

And yet, shortly after Meg and Calvin and Charles Wallace—and most importantly, her father—land in her backyard, NASA turns up at the front door, all fake smiles and greedy eyes, with a stack of NDAs and a laundry list of reasons why Meg’s mother shouldn’t slam the door in their faces.

(She does anyways.)

Between that, and the paparazzi that start camping out in the front yard once the news that the famously missing NASA scientist had returned, a week passes before Meg goes back to school.

She thinks, foolishly, that her life might finally get back to normal.

********

The most unsettling thing is the staring.

Before, even though there were bullies who made her life miserable and teachers who berated her for not living up to her potential, she was largely a nonentity to the majority of the school population, which suited her just fine.

Now, Veronica’s just one of many throngs of students watching her every move, from her first step inside the school doors. Nobody talks to her, but she can see the whispering, can hear her name on their lips. Before, she had felt alone and adrift and like she could disappear and nobody would notice—now everyone would notice, but she doesn’t feel any less alone.

She makes her way through her morning classes, gritting her teeth more and more with each successive hour of trying to ignore the whispers and the stares and the teachers’ poor attempts at pretending they aren’t wildly curious about what has happened.

At lunch, she sits by herself, as usual, and thinks that maybe if she concentrates on her sandwich, she can ignore the whispering hordes, the stares, the sneers. She doesn’t quite manage to pull that off, but she does focus enough that she almost jumps when someone slides onto the bench next to her.

She turns to look—and of course, it’s Calvin, nudging her with his shoulder, his smile making her face feel hot and her insides squirm. “Hey, how’s your dad doing?”

Calvin is, of course, the only person in the entire school who could ask that question and she’d be willing to answer. “Better,” she says. She smiles tentatively. “Much better.”

“Good,” he says. He beams at her, and she cannot help but grin back.

She had wondered if it would be gone when they were at school, this camaraderie they’d had, the ease she felt around him that she didn’t feel around anyone else (other than family). But it’s still there. She can feel his thigh pressed against hers, his shoulder against hers, catches his eye every time he looks at her.

She wants to talk to him, wants to tell him how sometimes she wakes in the night afraid it was all a dream, wakes up from nightmares where she’s back on Camazotz, or wakes up convinced she’d abandoned Charles Wallace and never went back for him. She’s so glad to have her father back but she finds herself awkward and distant around him even though they used to be so close, finds it hard to talk with him, finds it hard to look him in the face when she can’t help thinking about how he left Charles Wallace behind, how he left his family behind, but also how much he desperately wanted to come back, how she suspects the IT did more to him than just cage him, how sometimes she wakes in the night because she can hear him screaming from his own nightmares, two doors down.

But none of that is anything she can say, here and now, when all those eyes are on her. Instead, she nudges Calvin back with her shoulder. “Wanna come over after school?” she asks.

If she’d thought he were beaming before, he has taken it to a whole new level, it’s like his face is glowing at her with his happiness. “I’d love that,” he says simply, and it makes her insides squirm again.

If she were braver, Meg thinks, she would say something to Calvin, or do something, to let him know how much she appreciates him. But she doesn’t feel brave enough for that. Instead, she looks down at her lunch tray, and says, “I’ll meet you by the front doors after school then.”

“Great, it’s a date!” Calvin says, and Meg looks up sharply at that just in time to see him flush. “I mean- that is to say- not that…”

Meg laughs at this sign that even Calvin can get flustered, and it’s like her entire body releases the tension it has been holding for a week. “I know what you mean,” she tells him, and nudges him with her shoulder again.

And she thinks that Calvin knows what she meant too, even though she didn’t say it, even though she never properly thanked him for tagging along on a life-threatening quest with a girl he barely knew. And it’s like the school—with all its staring students—fades away for a few moments so that it’s just her and her...friend.

“It’s a date.”