Chapter no 40 – Normal

Lessons in Chemistry

“I think about death a lot,” Elizabeth confessed to Wakely one chilly November evening.

“Me too,” he said.

They sat together on the back step, their voices low. Madeline was just inside watching TV.

“I don’t think it’s normal.”

“Maybe not,” he agreed. “But I’m not sure what normal is. Does science recognize normal? How would you define normal?”

“Well,” she said. “I guess normal is a little like average.”

“I’m not so sure. Normal isn’t like weather; you can’t expect normal.

You can’t even make normal. From what I can tell, normal may not exist.”

She looked at him sideways. “Strange words coming from someone who finds the Bible normal.”

“Not at all,” he said. “I can safely say there is not a single normal event in the Bible. Probably one of the reasons it’s so popular. Who wants to believe life is exactly how it seems?”

She looked at him curiously. “But you believe those stories. You preach them.”

“I believe in a few things,” he corrected. “Mostly the things about not giving up hope, not giving in to darkness. As for the word ‘preach,’ I prefer ‘relate.’ Anyway, what I believe is irrelevant. What I think is that you feel dead, so you believe you are dead. But you’re not dead. You’re very much alive. And that puts you in a difficult position.”

“What are you saying?”

“You know what I’m saying.” “You’re a strange minister.”

“No, I’m a terrible minister,” he corrected.

She hesitated. “I have a confession to make, Wakely. I’ve read your letters. The ones you and Calvin wrote to each other. I’m sure they were private, but they were in his belongings and I read them. Years ago.”

Wakely turned to look at her. “Evans kept them?” He felt a sudden longing for his old friend.

“I don’t know if you know this, but you’re the reason he took the job at Hastings.”


“You told him Commons had the best weather.” “I did?”

“You know how Calvin felt about weather. He could have gone a million other places and made a lot more money, but he came here, to Commons. ‘Best weather in the world.’ I think that’s how you phrased it.”

Wakely felt the weight of his flippant advice. Because of something he’d said, Evans had come to Commons, then died in Commons. “But the weather is only good later in the day,” he explained, as if he had to. “After the morning fog burns off. I can’t believe he moved here to row in the sun. There’s no sun—not when rowers row.”

“You don’t have to tell me that.”

“I’m responsible,” he said, horror-struck, fully recognizing the part he’d played in Calvin’s premature death. “It’s all my fault.”

“No, no.” Elizabeth sighed. “I’m the one who bought the leash.”

They sat together listening to Madeline sing along with the TV theme song playing in the background. A horse is a horse, of course, of course, and no one can talk to a horse of course, that is, of course, unless the horse is the famous Mister Ed!

With a start, Wakely remembered the secret Madeline had whispered in his ear that day in the library. My dog knows 981 words. It’d taken him by

surprise. Why would a child like Madeline, obsessed with the truth, choose to share such an obvious lie?

As for what he’d told her? It was the worst. I don’t believe in God.

She closed her eyes briefly, then cleared her throat. “I had a brother, Wakely,” she said as if confessing a sin. “He died, too.”

Wakely’s eyebrows furrowed. “A brother? I’m so sorry. When was this?

What happened?”

“It was a long time ago. I was ten. He hanged himself.”

“Good god,” Wakely said, his voice trembling. He suddenly remembered Madeline’s family tree. At the very bottom was a kid with a noose around his neck.

“I almost died once, myself,” she said. “I jumped into a quarry. I couldn’t swim. Still can’t.”


“My brother jumped in right after me. Somehow got me to the side.”

“I see,” Wakely said, slowly unraveling her guilt. “Your brother saved you—so you think you should have been able to save him. Is that it?”

She turned to looked at him, her face hollow.

“But Elizabeth, you couldn’t swim—that’s why he jumped in after you. You have to understand, suicide isn’t like that. Suicide is lot more complicated.”

“Wakely,” she said. “He didn’t know how to swim either.”

They stopped talking, Wakely despairing because he didn’t know what to say, Elizabeth depressed because she didn’t know what to do. Six-Thirty pushed through the screen door and pressed himself against Elizabeth.

“You’ve never forgiven yourself,” Wakely finally said. “But it’s him you have to forgive. What you need to do is accept.”

She made a sad sound, like a tire slowly losing air.

“You’re a scientist,” he said. “Your job is to question things—to search for answers. But sometimes—and I know this for a fact—there just aren’t

any. You know that prayer that starts ‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change’?”

She frowned.

“That’s definitely not you.” She cocked her head.

“Chemistry is change and change is the core of your belief system. Which is good because that’s what we need more of—people who refuse to accept the status quo, who aren’t afraid to take on the unacceptable. But sometimes the unacceptable—your brother’s suicide, Calvin’s death—is, in fact, permanent, Elizabeth. Things happen. They just do.”

“Sometimes I understand why my brother left,” she admitted quietly. “After everything that’s happened, sometimes I feel like I want out, too.”

“I get that,” Wakely said, thinking of how damaging the Life article was. “Believe me. But that’s not really your problem. It’s not that you want out.”

She turned to look at him, confused. “It’s that you want back in.

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