This story is a collaboration between MsCherylTerra and Bebop3.
Lockdown Day 12
"So, you're going to be okay? I can drop some stuff off. Not a big deal. Honestly, I think this is going to blow over in like a week."
I shook my head slightly. "I don't know, Mark. It seems... bigger somehow. Bigger than what, I have no idea. It just seems like we're at the start of something, not at the end. But I'll be fine. It's not that different for me, you know that. Actually, I could probably get supplies for you guys and the kids. You have enough meat and produce?"
"Sure. We're good. The kids miss you and honestly? Daria's a fucking saint. I love my kids, but 24 hours a day with them makes me realize that my wife is a hell of a lot stronger than I am."
I laughed. "I've known that for years. Listen, have you ever been to Afterglow Farms? They're about 20 clicks from you. They're a co-op and they're taking new customers. I signed you guys up. You'll get a box delivered once a week. Two dozen eggs, a couple of heads of lettuce, bananas, apples, and other stuff. If you need more, you can upgrade the box for like twenty bucks."
He smiled at me through the screen. "You're a good uncle, Danny. If it was just me, you'd tell me to stock up on Ramen. How do you find these places?"
I rolled my eyes. "Um, it's what I do? For a living? To make money? Any of this ringing a bell?"
He laughed. "Okay. Listen, seriously, if you need something, let me know. I've got the mask and a box of gloves. I'll leave whatever you need outside your door. I've got two extra cans of Lysol and four bottles of hand sanitizer for you. I can stop at the pharmacy or wherever."
"Thanks. I'm good, but if things change, I'll let you know. Tell Daria and the kids I love them."
"Will do. Stay safe. Call me tomorrow."
"Okay. Love you."
He reached out and ended the video call.
It was one of those unseasonably warm days and I had the windows and sliding glass door to the balcony open. I had four cases of Big 8 diet cola stacked against the wall, a special order one of my clients made sure to bring in for me. It wasn't easy to find in Toronto, but it had become my favourite pop after a trip to Nova Scotia a few years earlier. Grabbing a glass with ice, I took a can back to my desk and started doing research and making more calls. It felt weirdly gruesome to be benefitting from the pandemic, but my website was going nuts. I'd been getting an insane amount of hits from people looking for help and from potential advertisers.
Checking my messages, I called back the first person on my list.
"Hi, this is Danny Callaway from YourOntario.com. You called this morning?"
"Mr. Callaway! This is Marcia. Thanks for calling back. We were hoping to get on your list of places doing home deliveries."
"Okay. Did you see the link on the site with the form to fill out?"
"Well, yes, but we were hoping that maybe we could tell you what we offer and..."
"Marcia, I don't mean to be rude, but there's no way I can keep up with the volume of businesses reaching out. That's why I have the form. I'll definitely call you back if I have any questions. If you fill it out today, I'll include you by tomorrow. Promise."
"Okay, sure. I'll leave my home number as well. It's just... We're a family business and... It's, um, things aren't looking so great."
"I see. Okay... why don't you tell me what you do?"
"We import Mediterranean food, mostly Greek, and sell wholesale to restaurants. We also deal with local farms for lamb and goat. With the restaurant closings and... Well, things aren't what they used to be. We're delivering directly to people's homes now. We have access to poultry and fresh milk, and of course we've got a warehouse full of our regular provisions."
"Okay, Marcia. Get me the information by this afternoon and I'll have it up by tomorrow and I'll get you a banner ad for 48 hours. No charge."
Her voice was breaking as she responded. "That... Thank you, Mr. Callaway. My parents started the company when they moved here and they..."
"I understand. You guys are doing the right thing. People need help. You're doing contactless delivery?"
"Yes, yes we are."
"Well, then I'm happy to get the word out. Get me that info, okay?"
"Absolutely. Thank you."
"Not a problem. Stay safe, Marcia."
When we hung up, I heard a loud voice coming from near the balcony.
"Is this better?"
"Yeah, I'm out on the balcony. I can't. Don't put this on me. I'm in a different country, Mom. I can't just hop in a car and drive over."
"Okay, yeah. Can you hear me? You're breaking up. What? Okay, send me the phone number. I can overnight an iPad. Maybe someone can set up something for video conferencing or something."
"Yeah, I know they're busy. I said maybe."
"I don't care, Mom! I don't give a crap about the money. Let them steal the fucking iPad! She's... She's... Look, I have to go. I'll call you tomorrow."
"I said I'll call you tomorrow! Just get me that phone number and I'll talk to someone at the facility."
"Mom, I can't deal with this right now, okay? I'm gonna go."
"Mom, I'm hanging up. I love you."
There was another pause and then the sound of sobbing.
I'd received the notice from the building's management company when she moved in. Everyone on our floor did so we'd know about the guys handling the moving and be aware that the service elevators were going to be reserved. We hadn't met yet. She wasn't here long before we entered the new world of COVID-19.
This was incredibly awkward. I sat there selfishly hoping that she'd just go back inside her apartment so that I wouldn't be faced with the question of whether I should say something or not. The crying didn't stop so I eventually went out to my balcony. It was separated from hers by a stucco wall. She seemed to have a leafy fake plant on hers and I could see some of the leaves sticking out over the railing.
"Um, hello? I, uh, we haven't met. I'm Danny Callaway, your neighbour in 14B. I, uh... Listen, are you okay? Did you want to talk or something?"
There was a short, tense pause punctuated by the occasional sniffle.
"I forgot people could hear me out here," she finally choked, and the sobbing started again.
I tapped my finger against my thigh nervously. "Look, um, I just wanted to make sure you're okay."
"You're sweet," she managed to say through her tears. "I'm fine. I... my grandma's got it."
It. I didn't need to ask what "it" was.
"I'm, um, I'm really sorry," I said, knowing as I said it how completely inadequate the words were.
"It's fine." The voice that came back was tight, pitching wildly as she fought to control it. "My mom's pissed because I can't be there."
"Why can't you be there?"
"She's in Colorado and dying grandmothers aren't considered essential cross-border travel," she replied bitterly, then laughed. "This was supposed to be the best year of my life."
I didn't really know what to say to that, but she continued without me asking.
"I got this job, right? My fucking dream job. I'm twenty-four, I got my architectural studies degree, I applied for a thousand and one jobs and somehow, someway, I got my dream job working at the biggest architecture firm in freakin' Toronto." She laughed again, a watery sound. "You know when I started?"
I didn't know if she was expecting an answer. From the length of the pause, it sounded like she was. "Um—"
"The second of March," she interrupted. "That's right, I packed up my entire life and moved to a city where I don't know anyone in a country I've never been to in order to start my dream job two weeks before the entire world shut down."
"Bad luck," I said. "But why didn't you go home before—"
"Because I'm still working!" She started sobbing again and tapered off before speaking. "I'm supposed to be working from home. And I am, I mean, I have to. It's just... this whole thing sucks so much and now my grandma... And my mom is so mad, she just... I can't even go home and she doesn't get it."
In a world that existed only weeks earlier, I would have been obligated to pat her comfortingly on the shoulder or try to hug her or some other sort of awkward physical contact to offer solace. In the new world, I couldn't even see her.
To be honest, I liked it better that way. It was easier. I could pretend I was just a normal guy, talking to a normal girl.
"Listen, um... listen," I said. "That's a rough situation, it is. I'm sorry. I don't really know what to say, but I'm sorry you're going through this."
"Thank you," came the soft reply. The leaves rustled on the fake plant. "What'd you say your name was?"
"Danny. Thank you for listening. Guess what?"
"You're my best friend in all of Toronto."
I laughed. She joined in with her own musical giggle. It was a nice sound. A warm sound. I didn't know what she looked like, but if she was half as pretty as she sounded, she would be out of my league ten times over.
"I don't even know your name," I said.
"It's Bella," she replied. "Well, actually it's Marisabel, but no one calls me that. My grandma... my grandma is Marisabel."
"Yes, in Italian."
I chuckled again. "Nice to meet you, Bella."
"You too, Danny. Thanks for being my best friend. Maybe we can meet face to face one day."
I smiled wryly, glad she couldn't see my expression. "Yeah, maybe."
Lockdown Day 15
"Just a sec, just a sec... Mom, I know, I'm sorry, I just get better reception on the balcony, just a sec."
I didn't mean to eavesdrop. I was already on the balcony, enjoying a much-needed break from the constant barrage of phone calls and emails, when Bella came back outside. I could have gone back in the apartment, I guess, but it didn't really seem reasonable to leave when it was just as much my right to be out there.
I could have also made a point of not listening to her conversation, but I did anyway.
"Okay," she said. "So they sent her to the hospital but... Okay, but what about Uncle James? He can go..."
She was silent for a long time.
"Okay, well what if I... I can get you a hotel room in Pueblo. I'll just... Mom, please." Bella's voice cracked so painfully I felt it, even through the stucco wall. "She can't be alone right now."
The tiny sob that came afterward that was just as gut-wrenching.
"I know you can't see her but you could... you can be there... Fuck the cost, I don't care! I'll find a way to... That much?... Well, okay, maybe Uncle James could pitch in..."
She fell silent for a long time.
"Okay. I love you, too. Please be safe."
I waited for her to start crying again, or maybe for the sound of her balcony door closing. It didn't come. I cleared my throat.
I could hear the sad smile in her voice. "Hey, Danny."
She sighed. "Yeah. I mean, no. But yeah. You know what I mean?"
I nodded, then remembered she couldn't see me. "Um, yeah. Except no."
I really loved the sound of her laugh, even though it was a bit more subdued than the last time I'd heard it.
"I just wish I could do something," she said. "You heard, right? My call?"
"Sorry. I didn't mean to listen in, I was just—"
"Don't apologize. You're allowed to sit on your balcony, you know."
She chuckled again. "She's in the hospital now. My grandma, I mean. My Uncle James was supposed to go up to Pueblo to be there but he's... well, he's kind of a dick. He said it was pointless because he couldn't go to the hospital to see her, except they're trying to do like... I don't know, visits through windows or something. I mean, even just knowing someone's there would probably help her."
"I imagine it would."
"My mom's in Denver. She got laid off so she can't... I said I'd get her a hotel room but they're really fucking expensive apparently."
I needed to help her. It didn't make sense. I'd met her once before and we hadn't even really met. She lived beside me, I had no idea what she looked like, and I knew nothing about her except that she was 24, an architect of some kind, and American. I didn't even know her last name, which meant providing any help to her family was going to be hard. Still, something inside me insisted that I absolutely needed to help her.
"It wouldn't be so bad if I could just do something," she continued. "I'm just restless. All I can do is sit here and worry."
I thought for a moment, grinning as I solved her problem and mine at the same time.
"You've got a phone, right?" I asked.
"Of course. It's 2020, not... I dunno, 2003. Are you asking for my number, Danny?"
I laughed. "No, I just... you like games? Like Scrabble?"
"If you're asking me if I want to play Words With Friends, absolutely, all the time, add me immediately, please."
I dug my phone out of my pocket. "What's your name?"
"Bella Trimboli. Hope you're ready to get your ass kicked, I'm fucking amazing at this game."
"I have a Masters in English," I said.
"Well then. Hope you're ready to kick my ass, even though I'm amazing at this game."
Grinning, I added her to my friends list and sent her an invitation. I had something to work with. There was a reasonable chance that her grandmother's name was Marisabel Trimboli. Even if the last name was wrong, Marisabel was pretty freaking unique. How many hospitals in Pueblo would have a COVID patient named Marisabel? I just needed to be persistent and convince someone at the hospital to answer a couple of questions.
I could do that. People love me over the phone. Plans were formulated as we played.
"Ka? Ka is so not a word!"
"We're in challenge mode. Are you challenging Ka?"
"Danny, you are cheating so hard."
"So... Is that a challenge?"
She laughed. "No, but it is an excuse to go in and warm up. Play again later?"
"What's it like? The city? I'm sort of, I dunno. Stuck, I guess. I was moving from Pueblo, and I've done that, but I never really got to move here, if that makes any sense. I don't have any sort of a feel for Toronto. Tell me your favorite place? Something with a nice memory?"
"Um." I thought for a minute. "High Park."
"Really? Tell me about it."
"When I was a kid, we didn't live in the city. For a while, we lived on my grandparent's farm and then Dad got a job as a sales rep and we moved to another house. It wasn't as big, but it was a little closer to other stuff. Stores and schools and everything. Toronto was always the promise, you know? If we were good, we could go to the city next week. That sort of thing.
"Once a year Mom would take us to High Park. I mean, we went other times, but once a year was High Park Day for us. Mom would pack up fried cold chicken. I know, it sounds gross, but it's not..."
Her voice floated on the air. "It doesn't sound gross."
Smiling, I continued. "Mom always timed it perfectly. We'd be there and have a picnic in the middle of the cherry blossoms. She looked so young and I'd be running around. It was sort of magical. I miss it. It seems silly, but I can still remember the aroma. It's one of my favorite smells. It smells clean, somehow. Like how light would smell."
"That sounds really sweet. I'm gonna go when this is all over."
"You should. They have a zoo and playgrounds and gardens and stuff."
"Thanks, Danny. I'm going to go Google it. See some photos."
I went back inside thinking of her grandmother.
Well, either I wasn't quite as charming as I thought I was or the hospitals in the US were more stringent than I thought they'd be about patient privacy. No one with the Trimboli last name was in any hospital I checked. It took forever to get anyone to answer a phone and when they did, they insisted on the need for a correct last name before checking under Marisabel.
Everyone was under a tremendous amount of pressure, so I thanked them and moved on.
Nursing homes were a lot easier. I was able to get some information on my second attempt. Her last name was Randassol, not Trimboli. The woman I was speaking with wanted to know why I was asking about Marisabel and then proceeded to tell me that it was a wonderful thing I was doing. She was working with the aged and infirmed during a global pandemic and she was praising me. I felt incredibly inadequate as I thanked her for the information and moved on.
Once I had her full name, the hospital confirmed that she was a patient but wouldn't give me any other information. That was fine, I just needed to know where she was. The St. Mary-Corwin Medical Center seemed to be in a medical district and I was hoping in downtown. They had a Courtyard by Marriott that seemed to be fairly close.
I picked up the phone again.
"Marriott International, how may I direct your call?"
"Alyssa Gardel, please. She's in press relations."
There was a pause.
"This is Alyssa."
"Hey, Alyssa. Danny Callaway. You have a minute?"
"For my favourite writer? Always."
I laughed. "I've got like a mountain of BonVoy points and I need to use some."
"Sure, I can set that up for you. Something about travelling during the pandemic?"
"No, it's actually not for an article, it's personal and it's for the US."
"Oh. Well, that wouldn't be me then, but I can get it done. We've got almost a dozen people who handle press in the US. There's only three of us for Canada. Where's the justice, Danny? Okay, what area are you talking about?"
"Colorado. A city called Pueblo."
"Got it. Tell me a bit about what you need and I'll talk to the right people."
I paused for a second. "Yeah, here's the deal. A friend of mine's grandmother had to be moved from a nursing home to a hospital. She contracted COVID-19. My friend can't get back into the US and her mother lives in Denver. She can't afford to stay in Pueblo and, well, it's not good. I was hoping that I had enough points to get her a room for a week. You have a Courtyard in downtown."
"Hmmm. You sure you don't want to make this a story, Danny?"
"I hadn't really thought about it. Maybe. I've been switching gears a bit and helping people source local farms and deliveries."
"That's great, but there's a lot out there that no one's talking about. Stories like your friend's, long-haul truckers, medical personnel that don't want to go home, and risk giving something to their family. There's a travel and lodging aspect to what's happening that someone should be covering."
"That's a good point. Let me think about it."
"Okay. In the meantime, let me look into using your points. We're all working from home and have our calls routed here. It may take some time. Can I call you back in a few hours?"
"Yeah, of course. I'm sorry, Alyssa, how are you doing? Are you good on food and stuff?"
"Yeah, we're fine. My husband stocked up the freezer. We should be good for a while."
"Great. Okay, thanks. Take your time and I'll look forward to hearing from you."
I went back to work and stopped an hour in to get another soda. When I got back to my desk I sent Bella a screenshot from the Scrabble word finder dictionary.
the spiritual self of a human being in Egyptian religion
She replied within a minute.
Totally made up. Nice photoshop.
Smiling, I went back to work. Alyssa called towards the end of the afternoon.
"Sorry it took so long. We've got you set. This isn't as crazy as it may seem. Bookings are obviously way, way down. That being said, we have two weeks for your friend's mother at the Downtown Marriott. It starts when she checks in."