The players:

• Me (47, vaxxed with Pfizer and boosted)
• Husband (48, vaxxed with J&J)
• 16yo (vaxxed with Pfizer)
• 13yo (vaxxed with Pfizer)

We all got COVID, one after the other. First was Dylan, who woke up one morning feeling “not right, but it’s hard to describe.” By that afternoon he was running a low fever and congested. About 2 days later John got sick, and about 2-3 days after that — after loudly and repeatedly celebrating my superior immunity, of course — I woke up with a scratchy throat and went, well sheeeeeiiiiiiiiit.

The outcome:

• Me: 4-ish days of feeling like I had a head cold, never had a fever
• J: about the same, but ran a low fever for 2 days
• D: 3-ish days of cold symptoms, cough that lingered a bit longer, had a fever for 2 days
• R: tested positive, never developed symptoms (the REAL Captain Immunity)

The worst part was the day Dylan first got sick, because of course we wanted to get him tested but there was NARY A TEST TO BE FOUND. The Omicron surge had emptied every store in town of the at-home tests, and testing centers were fully overwhelmed with zero appointments available. After a lot of running around looking for testing options (it did occur to me that ping-ponging all over town while possibly contagious wasn’t the greatest idea) we managed to get him checked at an urgent care and got the positive result we were mostly expecting.

(At this point Omicron is everywhere, but we do know where the most likely exposure happened: from one of the kids’ sports teams. Just about every player tested positive.)

I was so, so mad at myself for not having any tests on hand. I know they are imperfect (J tested negative with symptoms with one test, then positive the next day) but the fact that I had seen them in stores for months and never ONCE thought, oh hey maybe I should have a few of those? I don’t even know. I never considered the possibility that they might not be available when we needed them.

So that’s my assvice for you: if you haven’t already, get some tests.

We all obviously had very mild cases, but of course there’s no way to know that outcome with certainty at the start. There was a strange feeling of freefall to that first positive test: like all this time we’ve been slowly ratcheting our way up some stressful rollercoaster, and finally, in Pandemic Year 3, it’s time, we’re starting the drop. Where we’re all going, we can’t be sure.

(I think of COVID-19, the disease itself, being a little like that giant Plinko setup on the game show The Wall. Like if you’re young and healthy, your ball starts in a certain column and your odds look pretty good. But also that ball sometimes just goes way the fuck sideways for no reason whatsoever and you lose a million dollars/the ability to breathe without machinery?)

There is a forced letting go, I guess. And with that, an equally odd sort of relief: for once, I don’t have to worry about the thing, because the thing is happening right now.

I’ve been hugely curious about what COVID feels like (for mild cases), like is it exactly the same as a cold or is it observedly different? From my perspective, I felt very much like I had a head cold, classic congestion and general malaise, and towards the end I had a slightly juicy cough and a lot of headaches. I also felt very tired on days 2-4 but I’m not sure if that was standard cold-like fatigue or Something Different.

At one point, I decided I was feeling short of breath (oh no!) but then re-decided that what I was actually feeling was like I couldn’t breathe through my nose. There certainly was an element of being hugely fixated on every single physical sensation, which probably upped the overall discomfort factor.

My brain, for a week straight:

Anyway: hooray for miraculous life-saving vaccines, which helped our Plinko balls be in the right place. Also, god bless Instacart and the modern ability to quarantine without ever running out of Triscuits.

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I haven’t written fiction in a long while, but a story of mine is in this book: In the Words of Olympic Peninsula Authors. Are you an Olympic Peninsula Author, you might be wondering, and the answer is no but nepotism: my extremely talented and accomplished aunt is editor and magic-maker for that publishing project.

Anyway, for a change of blog pace:

TERRARIUM

I’m knuckle-deep in dirt when my mom calls. The glass jar I’m working on has layers of pebbles, charcoal, and moss, and now I’m adding potting soil, which I dust off my fingers before saying hello.

The phone in my bedroom is basically an antique because it actually has a cord, a long black spiral connecting the receiver to the heavy squat base and a thinner line that goes from the phone to the wall where we still have old-school phone service. I do have a cellphone, but there’s just something I really like about the idea of conversations traveling along wires from one person to another. It reminds me of when I was little and my dad showed me how words could shimmy their way between two baked-bean cans tied together with string.

Mom’s using her soft voice, so I know right away she’s got some not-great news. She says she ran into Meredith’s father at the store, and he told her they’ve officially got a buyer for their house. He’s going to stay here in Port Angeles for another week or so, then join Meredith and her mom in Seattle.

Seattle. Eighty-plus miles and a ferry ride from where Meredith is supposed to be living, which is one and a half blocks from where I am right now.

“I’m sorry, Sammy,” my mom says. There’s a pause. “I know you were hoping this wasn’t permanent.”

She goes on to tell me there are leftover enchiladas in the fridge, and reminds me to work on my health science project. The receiver suddenly seems impossibly heavy, as if it’s made of stone rather than plastic. Like it’s been tasked with holding all the weight of what’s happened in the last few months.

After we hang up, I decide I’ll finish the jar with Echeveria Blue Sky. One of my favorites, with its beautiful aqua-colored leaves kissed with pinkish-red. Then I’ll close the lid. Sealed shut, it will be protected. Preserved.

# # #

I first met Meredith in eighth grade. I was rooting around in my locker when a girl I didn’t recognize stopped in front of me. “Ooh, I love that series,” she said brightly, pointing to the novel sitting on my top shelf. “I think this one’s my favorite.”

She was tall and slender with delicate, pointed features. Pale freckled skin, big blue eyes with sweeping lashes, and a massive unruly explosion of brunette curls. I couldn’t tell if she was weird-looking or some sort of supermodel.

“I’m Meredith, by the way.” She gestured to a locker a few doors down. “This is me.”

“I’m Samantha,” I said, and was startled when she stuck her hand out, her arm comically extended from her body. At first all I could do was stare — who does that? — but she grinned so widely a dimple appeared in one of her freckled cheeks and I couldn’t help smiling back. She pumped my hand once, a brisk up-and-down, before stepping back and nodding.

“Well, nice to meet you, Samantha,” she said in a singsong voice. “See you later!”

I watched as she loped off, all gangly arms and legs topped by that unbelievable hair. Poking out from underneath her long peasant skirt was a pair of black and white striped tights, which she was wearing with scuffed red Converse. She passed a group of girls, the ones that travel in packs like immaculately-ponytailed wolves, and a few of them stared and giggled after her, but Meredith didn’t even seem to notice.

Two days later I was looking out the kitchen window when I spotted her walking up the street, leashed to a giant slobbering dog. Before I could stop myself, I ran to the front door and stuck my head out. “Hi!”

“Hey!” She stopped and waved, that grin spreading across her face. “You live here?”

“This is me,” I said, happily.

It turned out her family had just moved from Portland. Her dad was an IT consultant who traveled all over the Pacific Northwest, her mom sold vintage jewelry on Etsy. The dog’s name was Boris.

The more I got to know Meredith, the more I felt like I was being exposed to some exotic new language. She rolled into school in bizarre mismatched outfits that somehow worked, she flung her hands around like birds when she talked, and she never sat like other girls, tidy and pulling inward. She sprawled, her long limbs akimbo. Wherever she went, she took up space.

She was all enthusiasm and unapologetic opinions, and when we were hanging out I felt my stifling shyness retreating, soothed by her larger-than-life presence. I laughed louder and longer with her. We would spend hours talking about everything and nothing, and when she listened, she really listened.

Once when I was a kid, my mom and I drove to Hurricane Ridge on a rainy afternoon. The whole way up, winding back and forth through the forest, the clouds stubbornly clung to the trees. The overlooks were empty: nothing to see but thick gray haze. But right as we arrived at the visitor center, the sky cleared, and out of nowhere this jaw-dropping expanse of peaks and valleys came into focus. I couldn’t believe how differently the world looked. It was like I’d been handed a pair of magic glasses that changed what was right before my eyes.

That’s what being friends with Meredith was like.

# # #

In the halls and cafeteria and the backs of classrooms, What Happened to Meredith? is a game pretty much everyone is playing. It’s one thing for someone to move, it’s something else entirely for someone to disappear without a single goodbye. She was there one day and the next day she wasn’t.

Port Angeles High School is old and crumbling in places, but you can walk outside and be dazzled by the craggy Olympics on one side, and the shining Strait of Juan de Fuca on the other. Maybe there’s something about being sandwiched so closely between mountains and water that makes gossip as pervasive as the fir trees — or maybe it’s just life in a small town. Either way, Meredith dropping out halfway through her junior year is the biggest news since Samantha Reed got a minor in possession charge after throwing up in front of a police officer in Sequim.

# # #

Meredith was over at my house, stretched across my bed while I worked on a planter made from a glass fishing float. It was tricky business getting all the materials inserted through the small opening, and I was biting my lip while I used a pair of tongs to arrange the delicate roots of a maidenhair fern.

“Sam, how does anything live in there?” She pointed to my bookshelf near the window, where succulents grew in globes and jars. “Don’t they need air? Water?”

“No, that’s what’s so cool about sealed containers, they totally take care of themselves,” I said, reaching for some pebbles. “Water gets recycled from the plants and dirt, and bacteria eats up the old leaves. The charcoal helps keep things from getting too gross.”

“So it has its own ecosystem, right?” Meredith said, resting her chin on her hands, her hair a bouncy halo around her face. “That is cool. It’s like you’re making your own little planets in here.”

“And on the seventh day…” I said in a booming voice.

“…They ate Sun Chips. Seriously, can we take a break? I’m starving from all this miraculous creation.”

I gave her a houseleek that day, a single spiky rosette nestled in a mason jar.

# # #

Someone’s parents were out of town, or at least that’s what the post on Facebook had said. The house was huge, kids were disappearing into the upstairs bedrooms. Furniture had been pushed back so people could dance. A keg was set up in the kitchen, right next to the granite-topped island.

I had been telling Meredith it was time to go for over an hour. It was late and the music was loud, I was scared the neighbors would call the cops. “Not yet,” she kept saying. “Just one more song.” She was drinking from a red plastic cup and swaying to the beat.

Now,” I said.

“Okay, okay, okay!” She laughed and raised her hands in surrender. “I have to pee, but I’ll be out in a sec.”

Out by the mailbox, the party sounds were muffled. I drew my coat against the cold night air and shivered. I waited. I sent a text: “WHERE R U???” No reply.

My toes and fingers had grown numb when the front door finally opened and Meredith came out and slowly walked down the driveway. She didn’t raise her face to look at me.

“What took so long?” I asked, before I saw her red and swollen eyes. “Mer, are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she said. “Let’s go.”

“Uh, you don’t look—”

“I’m fine,” Meredith said, then said it again, more quietly: “I’m fine.”

The two of us walked the rest of the way back home in silence.

After we’d made it to Meredith’s house and crept past her parents’ bedroom to the bathroom, I sat on the edge of the tub while she washed her still-flushed face. She wiped her hands dry, then looked at me in the mirror.

“It’s not that big of a deal,” she said. “Just some drunk asshole.”

She said that after I’d left the party she’d headed up the stairs, on the search for a bathroom. Someone—she never got a good look at his face—opened the door of a darkened bedroom and pulled her inside. She was shoved up against a wall. He was breathing beer fumes on her and saying things she couldn’t really hear over the music. “Oh my god,” I said. “Why didn’t you tell me? What did you do?”

“I kneed him in the crotch and bailed,” she said, her eyes shifting away from mine. “No biggie.”

In the weeks since, I’ve re-played the missing minutes of that night over and over. I keep thinking about how long I waited for her. How loud it was in the house, loud enough to cover up almost anything. How she’d been one person before she went up those stairs, and someone else afterwards.

# # #

Meredith’s house looks the same, except for the metal FOR SALE sign posted in the front yard with a red-and-white SOLD sticker slapped on top. I peek in the garage door to make sure Meredith’s dad isn’t home, then I circle around to the backyard.

I sit in the rickety swing that squeaks with every movement and think about how weird it is that someone else will be living here. It already feels different, like a puzzle missing its most critical piece.

Everything changed after the party. Meredith barely spoke to me the next day, and didn’t show up at school the day after that. My texts and calls went unanswered, and when I knocked on her front door her mom told me Meredith was staying with a cousin in Seattle for a few days. The days stretched into weeks and every time someone asked me if I knew why she left I would shrug and hold my palms up: no idea.

Except I guess I always did know. I knew she’d only told me part of what happened in that bedroom.

I get up off the swing because something’s caught my eye: there, in the corner of the yard, a familiar circular arrangement of pointed leaves. I walk over and sure enough, it’s Meredith’s Sempervivum, the houseleek I gave her. At some point she must have taken it out of its jar and planted it.

I’m suddenly so angry I can barely breathe. Why did she do that? Why expose it to bugs, bad soil, frost? Why not keep it where it would be safe?

# # #

My dad lives in Sacramento now. He’s married to a woman named Sierra, who wears floaty dresses and has a tattoo of a dolphin on her ankle. When I stayed with them two years ago, she pressed a smooth pink stone into my hand and told me in an confiding tone that it would, like, totally open my heart chakra.

When I picture my dad, he’s got a scruffy beard and a faded plaid shirt from L.L. Bean that my mom is always threatening to throw away. He’s walking with me on the Spit as we look for sea glass and leave food for the feral cats. He’s on one end of a tin can telephone and I’m on the other, laughing at the silly noises he’s making.

But these days it’s like the string between us doesn’t work the way it used to. The shape of us changed, and we can’t ever get it back the way it was.

# # #

It’s been a week since the news about Meredith staying in Seattle and I can’t believe it when my computer chimes and I see her name in my inbox.

To: SamIAm2001
From: Merry_GoRound
Subject: …hi

sam. i’m so sorry. i didn’t know how to tell you. will you call me?

Just sixteen short words after almost three months. I don’t know what to do.

I’m thinking of my friend’s crazy-curly hair, the sunshine of her smile, the way she brought noise and color and fresh air wherever she went. I’m thinking about how someone took something from her the night of the party, something that dimmed her brightness, and I’m scared to know the whole story. I’m thinking of my dad and how everything used to be perfect and now it’s not and I don’t want that to happen again.

Here is the other thing I’m thinking about: when I gave Meredith that houseleek, I’d only put one rosette in the jar. What I saw in her yard the other day is that near the original succulent a few tiny offsets had taken root. Now that it’s outside, the plant won’t stay the same; it could be damaged, or be eaten, or wither and die.

But maybe it will keep growing. Maybe it will become stronger, outside of its sheltering glass.

I take a breath, and reach for my phone — not the old-fashioned one with the cord, the mobile one with her number at the top of my favorites. Untethered, I walk outside into the warm early evening light as I hear a familiar voice say hello.

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