illustration of a boy walking sadly in front of a school bus
Illustration by Dave Wheeler

Back to Normal?

A boy struggles with the ways that Covid-19 has changed his life

By Lauren Tarshis
From the September 2021 Issue

Learning Objective: to write a dialogue between two characters that takes place after the story ends

Lexile: 710L

Think about how Elijah’s attitude toward Devon changes.

It's the first day of seventh grade, and I’m walking to school. Cars honk, buses rumble, bikes zip past. The sidewalk is jam-packed. I pass Freddy’s Doughnuts—still closed. Across the street is Thai Garden, with the best spring rolls in the city. It too is closed.

But today I don’t stare at the closed-up stores and used-to-be-restaurants. I barely hear the city noises. I’m thinking about Devon.

What an annoying kid!

Like the way he devours a pepperoni pizza: He stuffs it in his mouth, globs of cheese stuck in his braces, tomato sauce smeared across his face . . . trust me, it’s a disaster. And he’s always losing stuff—his soccer jersey, his bus pass, his earbuds. Good thing Devon’s head is screwed onto his neck, otherwise he’d be running around shouting, “Elijah! Have you seen my head?”

 I hear something, and I realize the noise is coming from my own mouth. I’m laughing about Devon. I’m standing out here on the sidewalk. Alone. Laughing out loud.

What’s wrong with me?

I whip my head around to see if anyone is staring, but of course they’re not. People are streaming by—three girls, arms looped together, new backpacks bouncing up and down; a woman jabbering into her phone; an old man walking a fluffy Labradoodle. Even the dog appears to be in a hurry, too busy and distracted to notice the redheaded kid laughing out loud.

Plus, it’s too noisy to hear anything anyway. A rocket could blast off the roof of the McDonald’s on the corner, and probably no one would hear it.

Not like in my grandfather’s quiet town in Wisconsin. I picture it now: Grandpa’s little brick house, the view of the silvery lake out the back windows, the trees that tower like green, leafy skyscrapers. That’s where Mom and I spent the past 16 months. We moved in with Grandpa in May of 2020, after Covid hit here.

Hit hard.

I look around, remembering what it was like in those weeks before Mom and I left, back when everything was normal. When Devon and I bought two chocolate glazed doughnuts each at Freddy’s every Friday, when masks were for Halloween and zooming was for skateboards and bikes, when pandemic and quarantine were vocabulary words I’d study and forget.

When exactly did everything change? When did I know that everything would be different?

I walk along, stretching my brain back to early 2020. I remember rumors about people getting sick in China and Italy, about crowds lined up at hospitals.

Devon’s mom, who is a nurse, was the first one who really seemed worried, who said, “It could happen here.”

“My mom worries about everything,” Devon had reminded me. Which was true—the slightest hint of rain, and she’d call us inside. “Lightning,” she’d say.

But of course, Devon’s mom had been right. School closed at the end of March. Soon I was hearing ambulances screaming through the night. And not long after that, Grandpa drove 15 hours to come get us.

“How long will we stay?” I had asked Mom as we lugged our suitcases out to his car.

“Just until things go back to normal.”

We figured two weeks.

A month passed.

Six months.

A year.

We finally came home last week, in time for me to start seventh grade in person. But are things really back to normal?

I peer behind me, half expecting Devon will be there, that he simply stopped to tie his sneaker. But no. Devon’s not there. He moved to Texas.

Like Freddy’s Doughnuts and Thai Garden—and so much else that Covid took away—my best friend is gone.

"Elijah!” a voice calls out.

I stare blankly at the tall girl with long, curly hair standing next to me.

Who is she?

I hear Devon’s voice in my mind. It’s Gia, you dope!

Gia Malone! If there was a king or queen of our grade, Gia would wear the crown. Her dad used to play for the Yankees, but that’s not why everyone wants to be her friend. It’s just . . . she’s always smiling.

 “I hear you’ve got Mr. Temple for homeroom,” Gia says with that big grin. “Room 24, right?”

I nod, wondering where she heard that. I’ve barely spoken to anyone since I’ve been back.

“Where’s your twin?” she asks, looking around.

She means Devon.

Not that Devon and I look or act anything alike. He’s tall, I’m short. I’m a quiet, in-the-background type. Devon’s a nonstop talker. If he were here, he’d be asking anyone within earshot about their summer or if they knew his latest favorite song. They’d never heard of it? No problem. Devon would sing it for them—da-da-da, da, da, DA—until someone said, “Oh, yeah!” just to get him to stop.

Devon and I could not be more different, but that’s never mattered. We met during Pee Wee basketball in kindergarten and became instant friends. Kids called us “the twins” because we were always together.

Until Covid.

“He’s still in Texas,” I tell Gia.

Devon’s dad was a chef at a fancy restaurant that shut down. So the family went back to Texas, where Devon’s mom is from. That’s why Devon is named Devon—it’s the name of the Texas city where he was born.

“When’s he coming back?” Gia asks, her smile drooping a bit.

He was supposed to be back by now—he said he would be every time we texted or FaceTimed, which was about 10 times a day. Finally, last week, my mom uncovered the truth from Devon’s mom.

“They’re staying in Texas,” I say to Gia. “His mom got a good job at a hospital there. His dad is opening a new restaurant.”

I make my voice steady and bright, like it’s fine with me that my best friend is thousands of miles away. I don’t tell Gia that I’ve decided not to speak to Devon anymore, that I’ve ignored his millions of texts and calls and DMs.

Why didn’t Devon tell me he wasn’t coming back?

Gia eyes me. She looks so different—that’s why I didn’t recognize her at first. She’s taller, and her hair’s longer and curlier. All last year I saw her on Zoom. But seeing someone in a little box on a little screen is different from seeing them right in front of you.

I bet Devon looks different. I bet I look different too.

Gia holds out her half-eaten bagel. “Have you been to the new bakery yet?” she asks. “It’s really good.”

I shake my head. Mom told me about it—it’s two doors down from Freddy’s. I haven’t gone inside.

More kids rush along the sidewalk, heading toward school. Someone calls Gia’s name.

“See you, Elijah!” Gia says as she turns and hurries away.

She likes you, Devon’s voice whispers in my mind.

What does it matter to you? I whisper back to invisible Devon. You’re gone.

I hang back on the sidewalk until nearly everyone has gone inside. Then I put on my mask and trudge up the steep stone stairs, staring up at the WELCOME BACK banner.

I push through the heavy door, and that’s when it hits me—that smell of school. That mysterious odor of floor cleaner and sweaty kids, Sharpies and French toast sticks, teachers’ coffee and bananas in lunchboxes. It’s not a bad smell. It’s just like nothing else in the world.

Something happens to me when I breathe it in. My head fills up with swirling memories—Devon and me racing across the blacktop, shooting hoops, prowling the library searching for books, doing the secret handshake we invented in third grade: thumbs hooked, hands clasped, high-fives up to the sky.

I feel dizzy. My stomach lurches. I see it now: a vision of myself puking right there all over the floor.

I stagger through the hallway and push through the first door I find. I’m in a small room, and it’s pitch-dark. I stand there with my eyes squeezed shut.

Minutes tick by.

The bell rings.

The hall outside falls silent.

Finally, I’m no longer dizzy, and I slowly open my eyes.

Where am I?

I fumble around on the wall for the light switch. I flick it on and look around . . .

Oh, no.

No, no, no.

I’d rather be in a dungeon than be in here. I turn the knob and pull the door. It won’t budge. I yank harder.


It’s the first day of seventh grade, and I’m stuck in the teachers’ bathroom.

The morning announcements come and go. I imagine Mr. Temple taking attendance, calling my name.

Elijah Sims? Elijah? Where is he?

My heart starts to pound. I’ll starve in here. They’ll find my skeleton. What a way to go, locked in the teachers’ bathroom!

I hear a sound somewhere close—laughter!—but it’s not coming from my mouth this time. It’s in my head. It’s Devon’s laugh. Did I tell you how annoying his laugh is? The kid sounds like a sick donkey.

Shhhh, I whisper.

But this is funny.

No, it’s not.

Yep, it is.

He laughs harder. I picture him doubled over, tears pouring down his laughing face. I hear another noise—I’m laughing too!—and the sound fills the teacher’s bathroom.

Try the door again, Devon says. Push, genius.

I turn the knob and push.

The door opens.

Did I tell you that Devon is really smart?

I step out and almost smash into someone—a tall lady in a bright flowered dress. It’s Mrs. Lincoln, our librarian.

“Elijah!” she says, way too loud. But not angry loud. Happy loud. “You’re home!”

She puts her hand on my shoulder. Somehow I see her gigantic smile under her mask.

“Get to class,” she says. “I’m sure everyone’s waiting. And come see me! I want to hear all about Wisconsin—oh, and wait until you see the new book I have for you!”

She pats me on the shoulder and I head down the hall, walking faster and faster. I sprint up the flight of stairs and spot Room 24. The door is open, and I see Gia and other kids. There are smiling eyes and waves.

Say hi to Gia, Devon says as I step into the room.


Call me later.

All right.

I miss you.

Writing Prompt

Write the conversation that Elijah and Devon have after Elijah’s first day at school. Optionally, have someone play the part of each character and record the conversation.

This story was originally published in the September 2021 issue.

Audio ()
Activities (8)
Quizzes (1)
Answer Key (1)
Audio ()
Activities (8)
Quizzes (1)
Answer Key (1)
Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

Close Reading, Critical Thinking, Skill Building

1. PREPARING TO READ (15 minutes)