Thud, thud, thud, thud. The sound reaches through my dreamless sleep and I struggle to open my eyes against the brightness of the windows.
“Amanda!” yells Greg through the front door. Sigh. How long has he been out there?
“Coming!” I yell back, swinging my legs over the side of the couch. The coffee table is covered in beer cans. There’s a pile of clothes on the floor; I pull them on while attempting to steady myself. I make my way to the front door while Greg knocks a few more times.
“I said I’m coming!” I yell again. I crack the door open slightly. “What is going on?” I say as Greg frowns through the opening.
“Jesus, Amanda.” He says, looking past me at the pile of cans. “It’s Tuesday.”
“So?” I say.
“Soo…nothing.” Under his rain jacket he’s wearing a sweater I bought for him last Christmas. I always liked how that collar looked on him, with his full dark beard and sharp blue eyes.
“Why are you here?” I ask. He isn’t supposed to do drop-off until Friday.
“I’ve been trying to reach you all morning,” he replies. “Work called. I’m being sent to Seattle to work on this virus. You have to take Nathan.” I blink, trying to organize my thoughts.
“Wait, the virus in China?” I ask.
“Yes, well, it’s not just in China anymore,” he says. I realize now that Nathan is standing beside Greg. He looks down at his little blue rain boots and has his preschool backpack on, filled with whatever it is four-year-olds carry to preschool.
“Hey!” I say to him, crouching down. “Good to see you, buddy!” I reach out my hand but he doesn’t move toward me. Ugh. Sitting like this makes my head swim and I’m afraid I’m going to be sick. I swallow back the feeling and slowly stand up again, looking at Greg.
“Wait, so you’re leaving now?” I groan slightly, my head too foggy to sort through what I should be saying.
“Yes. Now. I’ve packed his bag and you can take him to preschool. Can you take him to preschool?”
“Yes, I’m fine.” I say, stepping back from the door so the two can enter. I grab an armful of cans and take them with me to the kitchen. One of them is still full of beer. “Have you eaten?” I ask. I crack open the kitchen window despite the steady misty rain, throw out the cold pizza sitting on the counter top, and start the coffee machine.
“I don’t have time,” he says from the other room. I return and catch him eyeing the beer cans. I keep my distance; I’ve not brushed my teeth.
“Do you think you can do this?” he asks me. I can’t read the tone in his voice. It seems sad, maybe.
“Do I have a choice?” I respond. He nods and turns toward the door.
“How long will you be gone?” I ask, taking a step closer to him. The last time he was sent to a virus epicenter, he was away for eight months.
“I don’t know. But I’ll call you in two days when I know more about what’s going on.” He turns back and picks up Nathan, giving the boy a full-bodied squeeze. Even his eyes are closed tightly, and Nathan squeals a little from the bear hug. I feel my heart yawning in my chest and my pulse increases. I think my face is flushing now, although that might be the hangover. Greg whispers to Nathan and kisses his cheek.
“Okay.” There’s a lot more I’d like to say. “Be careful” is what I manage.
“You, too,” he says, looking again at the beer cans. I close the door after him.
He doesn’t call on Thursday. I stay up reading anything I can find about the virus, which isn’t that much. The novel coronavirus was first announced only last month. In that time, the virus has already reached us. I sip on the mostly-empty bottle of Scotch I keep near our bed. It’s okay, though, because Nathan is already tucked away in his room.
My bed, my mind corrects. You would think that a year of being apart would be enough to remember that we’re not together anymore. Sometimes, this house is just too big.
The bigness is what we loved about it. Coming up the long driveway the first time, I sighed. “This is it.” I said aloud, taking in the patio that wrapped around three sides of the house and the large picture windows that faced the water. Stepping out of the car, I was immediately in love with the massive trees on one edge of the half-acre property. The cool wind blew the smell of fish and salt under our noses, and the roar of the Pacific kept an even cadence. Here, on this peninsula, we felt on the edge of the world.
It was a good move, we hoped. Getting out of the city meant less anxiety for me. We imagined filling the rooms with dinner parties of friends and spending evenings walking on the nearby beach. Me, working on my book. Him, consulting from a distance. And eventually, babies.
I hear Nathan fussing from his room. “Dad!” He cries, still asleep. I wait. The sniffling stops. I go back to reading the article.
The next morning, I text Greg.
Are you okay?
It isn’t until after I pick up Nathan from preschool that he texts back.
I’m fine. Sorry I haven’t called. Things are really intense.
I can’t think of what else to type. I try to imagine what Greg is doing while in Seattle. Donning full PPE, interviewing people, collecting data. Crouching over his laptop at three a.m. with a thermos of coffee writing summaries of findings to share with his colleagues and department heads. The CDC must be very concerned, to pull in former disease detectives. Normally, EIS officers are doing post-doc work for a limited stint, as Greg was doing when he was sent to Guinea during the Ebola outbreak. Now he serves as a consultant to various departments and partners of the CDC. He hasn’t been in the field in years.
I don’t type anything else. I keep the phone close-by in case he does. I finish the bottle of Scotch.
“Mom?” I open my eyes and Nathan is standing next to the bed, holding his stuffy in one arm and blankie in another. How long has he been there? I wonder.
“Hey, kiddo,” I say, managing what I hope looks like a smile. “Come here.” He crawls into the bed with me and I cover him with the blanket, pulling him close. I can smell his hair, the same color as Greg’s, and I close my eyes and sigh.
“When is dad coming back?” he asks in his tiny voice.
“I’m not sure yet, Nathan.” I say. “He’s helping people in Seattle right now.”
Nathan starts sucking his fingers. It’s been a long time since we’ve lain in bed like this. I’m comforted by the feel of his small body against mine. My head hurts from all of the Scotch. We doze for much of the morning, until I can get up to make us breakfast.
A week goes by before I hear from Greg again. The daily routine of taking Nathan to preschool and picking him up has started to improve my time management, slightly. I’ve been trying to go to sleep before midnight, although some nights are easier than others. I’ve only been late taking him to preschool twice; it was my phone’s fault, because it died while I was sleeping and I’d forgotten to plug it in.
I keep meaning to start writing. Since I stopped having weekly meetings with my editor, the project I’d been working on has been slipping further and further behind. On Thursday, I only had three beers before going to sleep, and so Friday morning I feel much better after a glass of orange juice and some toast. Time to write.
Around 2 p.m. I get a message from Greg.
This thing is really scary.
What’s happening now?
Patient is really ill. Symptoms progressed quickly. We have him in the Ebola isolation ward.
Do you think it will be controlled?
Too early to say. We don’t know how many other people have carried it over.
I don’t tell him how much I worry about him. I assume he knows that, since we used to fight about it all the time. Even after he made it back from Guinea safe and sound, I could never shake the fear that his work, tracking new epidemics of the world’s most dangerous diseases, would be the end of him, and our marriage. I close my eyes and will my fingers not to type. It’s taken a long time for there to be some kind of peacefulness between us, and I want him to keep talking to me.
Be careful, I send. I shake my head. What a stupid thing to say.
On Monday, I get a call from my mother-in-law. Former mother-in-law, my mind corrects.
“How is Nathan?” she asks in a too-cheery voice.
“He’s fine,” I respond. “He misses his dad, but preschool is going well.”
“And are you….okay?” she asks. How do I even answer that?
“I’m fine, too” I say. “And I’m sure you’ll hear from Greg soon. You know he gets really busy with this kind of thing. I’m sure everything’s fine.”
I wonder how long we’re going to keep assuring one another that everything’s fine.
We’ve reached the time of year that Greg and I used to call the “constant sog.” The rain doesn’t stop; the mud along the driveway never dries; the sun doesn’t show its face. For weeks on end, the water never stops pouring from the sky in cycles of misty clouds, dense fog, and heavy rain showers. I love the rain – I really do. It’s half of the reason I wanted so much to move to the coast. But this is the saddest and most dangerous part of the year, for me. We used to get ourselves through this time by imagining past and future suns.
“Remember Hawaii?” Greg would say, taunting me with memories of our honeymoon. “The warm sand at that beach where we napped all afternoon?”
“Where I slipped on the mud?” I would say. “Ha! Yes, I remember that beach.”
I longed for that beach, now. We played footsie, lying next to one another on a straw mat, our feet caked in large grains of sand. It was too hot to lay nearer to one another, as we usually did, so we satisfied ourselves by scratching one another’s feet. It was beautiful, and so peaceful. We laughed at the chickens that raced around eating bugs, a constant feature in Kauai.
Now, outside, the wind beats more rain against the giant windows that face the cold beach.
I refrain from buying Scotch, as long as I’m solo with Nathan. I stick to cases of Wyman’s I pick up after dropping him off at preschool. I wait until I’ve started to make dinner before I crack open the first beer. We watch a Disney movie after dinner, before I give Nathan a bath and tuck him in. I try drinking a sparkly water between beers to slow down a bit. It’s been a long time since I’ve had more than two nights in a row with Nathan.
I have my first meeting with my editor in a month. I’ve started making progress on the book again, and I can tell she’s relieved. After the first two books I published went really well, we were all excited about more. The large advance I received for a third novel was meant to give me a year’s focus on the project; I’d already taken two. We worked out a new timeline.
“I like what you do, Amanda” said my editor. “But you have to meet this new timeline. You won’t get a fourth chance.”
“I know,” I said. “I’ll get it done.” I’m not sure if that’s true.
It’s been nine days since I’ve last heard from Greg. We’d had a video chat then, so Nathan could see his dad’s face and talk with him. I eavesdropped as they talked about Frozen2 and Nathan’s preschool routine. Greg has always been so good with Nathan – encouraging his playfulness and curiosity. Since then, I’ve read that the first patient has been released from the hospital and they’re trying to monitor the people he’s been in contact with. That means Greg is making home visits to people who’ve been exposed to the virus.
On Wednesday I decide to text him again.
Any news? I send.
Not good news. I get back, almost immediately.
? Is my simple reply.
I’ve tested positive for the virus. I blink a few times.
How is that possible?! I reply, too quickly. Greg is always extremely careful around new viruses.
I’m not sure, he says. I’ve been really careful.
Dropping my phone in my lap, I put my hands over my eyes. I don’t know how to respond. This man, who survived Ebola in Guinea, now has this virus?
I see that he’s typing a message, so I wait. He stops. I start typing, but then I delete the message. I can hear the kitchen clock ticking. Click, click, click, click, it sounds off the seconds. I bite my lip and look for my can of beer. It’s finished, so I get another one, pacing around the kitchen and drinking quickly.
How are you feeling? I finally send. Another dumb question.
I have a cough and a fever. It shot up yesterday. I’m in the isolation ward now. My blood thumps in my ears.
Can I talk to Nathan? He asks.
It’s late. He’s already in bed. I send back. In the morning? I add quickly.
Yes, in the morning.
I down the beer and get another. I take a hot shower and climb into bed with my laptop. I fall asleep, trying to read anything I can find about the virus that I haven’t already.
My alarm goes off at 7:00 a.m. Shortly thereafter, I get another text from Greg.
How about now? He asks.
Soon, I reply. Just woke up. Let me get Nathan. I rouse the sleepy boy, who’s wearing his dinosaur pajamas. He asked me last night if he could get Frozen2 pajamas. I need to remember to order them from Amazon.
I get Nathan into the bathroom so we can both pee and brush our teeth. I splash cold water on my face and look in the mirror. Puffy, I think, before putting my hair into a ponytail.
“Nathan, your daddy wants to talk with you this morning before school,” I say, trying to sound cheerful.
“Yay!” he says, his eyes suddenly bright. I grab the laptop and sit with Nathan on the couch. I’m so glad I’m sleeping in my bed these days, I think, opening Zoom.
There he is, in a bed, surrounded by plastic sheeting. He looks okay, but is out of breath as he and Nathan talk. He makes small talk with Nathan, his eyes crinkling at the corners as Nathan tells him about dinosaurs.
“Okay,” I interrupt after a while, “time for Nathan to get ready for school.” I close Zoom against his protestations, and start pushing him toward his room to get dressed.
“More talks with Daddy another time,” I promise him.
It’s three days before I hear from him again. On Saturday, after distracting me and Nathan with a visit to the nearby aquarium, I scour every news source while downing a half a case of Wyman’s in bed. I reach out to my friend Heather who lives in Seattle. We Zoom late one night, but I end up drunk crying about Greg and the virus, and so we call it a night.
On Sunday night my phone dings again. I’m already in bed, beer in hand, when I see it’s from Greg.
It’s getting worse, his message reads. I bite my lip.
Can you talk? I send back.
I’ll try, he says.
I open the Zoom app and check first to see how I look. The line between my eyebrows is showing itself. I try to smooth it out and fluff my hair a little before we start the call.
He’s lost weight; his normally full cheeks are sunken and he has a cannula in his nostrils. I can hear the machines beeping and clicking in time to his pulse and breathing.
“What are you still doing in the hospital?” I say, attempting some humor. He smiles softly. I fight back immediate tears.
“They won’t let me leave.” He says, stopping to suck in air after every two or three words. I’m grateful he’s making a joke. The old Greg would definitely have made jokes.
“I’m so sorry you’re there,” I say, my voice cracking. I don’t know if I can handle crying in front of him right now.
“I’m so sorry too, baby,” he says. Baby. When was the last time he called me that?
“Sorry for what?” I ask. The tears are flowing now.
“Everything” he says, looking right at me.
“Don’t say that,” I sob, shaking my head. “It was my fault.”
“Not your fault. Not only your fault, anyway” he replies. I shake my head. I can’t do this now.
“I really miss you,” I say, before I can stop myself. He closes his eyes.
“Remember Hawaii?” he says. Breathing, hard. “Napping? At that beach?”
“And all the chickens!” I laugh. “God, those chickens were amazing.”
“You loved…those chickens” he says.
“I’ll never forget that beach,” I say, trying to stop the tears. “That whole trip was great.”
We sit in silence for a moment. I can’t remember the last time we just looked at each other. The machines keep beeping and clicking steadily in the background.
“I love you, Greg.” I say, despite myself. He winces, and then slowly nods his head.
“I love. You” he says, the effort to speak becoming more difficult. I don’t know what to say, now. My nose and eyes are streaming water and I’m using the edge of my shirt to wipe them.
“I need you to get better,” I say, trying to sound brave. “Nathan needs you to be better.” I think of our little boy, asleep in his room.
“I’ll… try.” He says with a small smile. “I’ll try.”
“Okay,” I say finally. “Text me when you can.”
“I will,” he says, before leaving the room.
The next day I text Greg.
How’s today? I ask. I busy myself by cleaning up long-neglected parts of the house. I go over and over again the Zoom conversation from the night before while scrubbing the bathtub, and throw out weeks-old takeout containers from the fridge. I hear nothing back from Greg. The day seems so long. I keep checking my phone; I am sure to plug it in before going to sleep.
The next day I get a phone call from the hospital. As I reach for the phone, I notice my hands are shaking. Maybe it’s Greg.
“Amanda Campbell?” asks the voice on the other end of the line.
“Yes,” I say, my throat suddenly tight.
“I’m calling from the hospital about Greg Campbell. You’re listed as his emergency contact? I have some news about his condition.” I take a huge breath and close my eyes.
“Yes?” I say, in a voice that seems so small.
“I think you know that Greg has been working with coronavirus patients, and has been infected with the virus. He’s been in the hospital for several days. He’s now having difficulty breathing on his own, and has been intubated and is currently sedated. He’s developed a severe form of COVID-19…” the voice trails off. I try to focus, but the only thing I can do is imagine Greg, all alone, with a tube down his esophagus connected to a machine that is breathing for him.
“We will follow up when there’s a change in his condition. I’m sorry to have to tell you this over the phone,” I hear the voice say. We finish the conversation and I hang up, my hand over my mouth.
I get another call, this time from my hysterical mother-in-law. Shit, I think, I should have called her. I tell her what I know, and we talk about whether we should meet in Seattle. Remembering the Ebola protocols, I tell her, “we’re not going to be able to see him. He’s under strict quarantine. And honestly, we don’t know enough about this virus…”
“DON’T TELL ME WHAT I CAN AND CAN’T DO,” she yells, cutting me off. I say nothing; I hear her sobbing in the background.
“I’m so sorry,” I manage to say.
It’s Wednesday morning when the hospital calls again. “He passed away overnight,” the voice tells me this time. It’s been a month and a few days since I saw him last, the day he dropped Nathan off at the house without notice. Our house. Our big beautiful beach house we were going to fill with babies and dinner parties. How can this big, strong man be gone, in just a month?
Later in the afternoon I drive into town, but I can’t feel my feet on the pedals. Did I stop at the stop sign? I wonder, as I find myself in front of Nathan’s preschool. He darts out of the front door in his raincoat, hood up but buttons undone, hoping to avoid the unavoidable rain. His blue boots splash in the puddles. He pulls open the door handle and scrambles inside.
“Hey, kiddo,” I say, “how was school today?” I watch as he buckles himself in. How am I going to tell Nathan? I wonder, biting my lip. He starts to tell me all about the book they read in school today and all I can see are his bright blue eyes. His daddy’s eyes. I swallow hard and turn the wheel toward home.
Mickki Garrity (Bodewadmi) is enrolled in the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and lives on the North Coast of Oregon, spending her free time walking in the woods and puttering in the kitchen. She’s written for Denver’s Washington Park Profile and recently had her first fiction story published in ang(st).