I did not enjoy my residency in family medicine. I salute every saintly FP and GP around the world, but if you notice, I didn’t even write a novel set during Dr. Hope Sze’s family medicine rotation.
Instead, last year, when Kobo commissioned me to write three stories inspired by Gone Girl, I set those stories in September, when Hope gets a weekend off of her family rotation and spends her weekend fishing with her recipe-loving mom, brave little brother, long-suffering dad, and her crazy uncle Leonard who just might’ve kidnapped the racist little boy in the tent next door.
Cain and Abel, Trouble and Strife, and Butcher’s Hook are presently available on Kobo, Nook, iBookstore, Scribd, Oyster, Tolino, and Page Foundry. Free for the moment.
Except Kindle. Kindle gets a special treat on its own: the Gone Fishing stories transformed into a novella, plus behind-the-scenes details of my Kobo deal, called FAMILY MEDICINE. Free for today only.
I talk about the Family Medicine machinations in my latest SleuthSayers post here, Three Mistakes I Made as an Indie Writer.
And, for the next week, I’ll post Cain and Abel for free right here, so you don’t have to click anywhere. Because I love you, see?
CAIN AND ABEL
Gone Fishing Part 1: a Hope Sze medical mystery short story
by Melissa Yi
“What do you want for your birthday, Dad?” I said over the phone, simultaneously checking my pager to see if the hospital had called me. I figured Dad would ask me to drive the two hours from Montreal to Ottawa and take our family out to dinner. The weather should be okay—it was September, and I was on my family medicine rotation, which was easier than most—although the road construction in Montreal should have its own Google Alert.
It wasn’t just the sound of the leaves falling outside my apartment window. My ears pricked up. “Dad?”
“Don’t worry about it, Hope.”
“Don’t worry about your birthday? Of course I want to do something for you. How often do you turn 48 years old?” My father rarely complains. As a doctor (okay, a resident doctor, but I’ve got my M.D.; I just need to spend another three years in indentured slavery before I can earn any significant money), my mind immediately leaped to the worst case scenario. Was he depressed? Was he in pain? Could it be cancer? “I mean, I want to do something. What can we do?”
“He wants an egg tart!” my eight-year-old brother, Kevin, hollered. Whenever they call me, my mother, brother, and father all pick up different receivers, and we have a four-way conversation.
“Sure, fine,” said my father in the same lacklustre tone.
Oh, no. I started pacing back and forth in my living room, even though it’s only about 20 feet square and crammed with a futon and my study desk. I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Should I drive up to see you?” I had an emerg shift from four to eleven p.m., but if I headed out immediately and turned back around, I should be able to make my shift.
“Of course not,” said Dad, more brusquely, even though when I was doing medical school in London, Ontario, they would regularly drive 14 hours round trip to check on me.
I wished I could see his face, even through a webcam, but my mother was boycotting Skype. Last week, she’d accepted a chat invitation from a stranger who asked for money.
“It’s his job,” said my mom.
“Mommy!” he admonished her.
“Well, what? She should know. They’re talking about cutting jobs again. Your dad has been there over 25 years. What a world.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Dad, which just made me fret even more. I walked over to my desk and picked up Henry, the artist model doll that I use to signal my mood. I curled him up into a fetal ball on his side. And then, even though I never do this, I covered him up with a handkerchief, like I was putting him to sleep.
I couldn’t fix my dad’s job. I could finish medicine and send money to my family, but my father is Chinese Canadian. He would rather die than have his daughter support him in what was supposed to be his prime.
I squeezed my eyes shut and focused on the one thing I could do. I could give him the best birthday present ever. But what?
My ex-boyfriend, Ryan, once said that my father never did anything for himself.
“He goes fishing,” I’d told him.
“I’ve never seen him go fishing,” he’d said, which made me realize that those years of camping, of sleeping in our white van, of swatting mosquitoes and battling racoons who stole our fish…that was a long time ago.
Fine. I said it out loud. “Next weekend, I’ll take you fishing for your birthday.”
“I’m coming too!” said Kevin.
“Of course,” I said. He’s one of my favourite people in the world, and I don’t get to see him enough.
“I’ll pack some food. I made some good chung yao bing just this morning,” said Mom. “But we’ve got to bring bone soup. It’s fresh! We can’t waste it. And I have some cantaloupe that’s sweet-sweet. I just have to cut it up into cubes. We can eat it in the car. I pinned some new cantaloupe recipes on Pinterest. Kevin wants the cupcakes. Did you see them?”
Would they even be good by next weekend? From experience, I didn’t bother bringing it up. “Not yet. Thanks, Mom.”
“How far is it?” Kevin wanted to know.
“Let’s go to Calabogie,” said Dad.
Right. We’d been there a few times, but all I remembered was that a racoon ripped a hole in our tent, trying to get at the food inside, and my parents plugged the hole with a soda can.
“I’ll show you on the map. You can track it on the GPS,” said Dad to Kevin, and he already sounded a thousand times happier.
I would take a bullet for my dad. A few dozen mosquito bites, no problem.
“Grandma saw Ryan at church,” added my mom. “She said he looks good! Very handsome!”
I rolled my eyes. Ryan Wu is a gorgeous, smart engineer who speaks Cantonese better than any of us. In other words, a Chinese grandmother’s wet dream. Mine, too, to be honest. Only the long distance thing split us up. “When does Ryan not look handsome?” I said.
“Exactly!” Mom slid in, before I managed to hang up.
Just before Kevin tackled me to say hello on Friday evening, I scrutinized my dad for any changes. He’s reasonably tall for a Chinese guy, about five ten. He looks younger than his stated age, as we say in medicine. Occasionally, a stranger asks if he’s my boyfriend, which is just wrong, but I can sort of understand it. Dad’s still got black hair and hardly any wrinkles. He’s strong enough to carry Kevin upside down, which is an increasingly impressive feat, as I could attest at this very moment, although I can still (barely) dangle Kevin by his ankles.
“What?” said Dad.
“Nothing,” I said, and gently deposited the top of Kevin’s head on my feet, cushioning it, before I lowered the rest of his body to the ground. I was still trying to figure out if anything was wrong. Dad didn’t have dark circles under his eyes, but then, he never does, even though my mother regularly wakes him up for breakfast at 3 a.m. because that’s when she feels like getting up. Never mind that my dad’s the one who needs to have his brain screwed in properly for work the next morning. I suppose any circles might be partly hidden by his glasses. Dad wears them all the time, even when he’s swimming, because he’s so near-sighted. Actually, everyone except Kevin wears glasses in my family. I usually wear contact lenses because I’m vain and still wary of laser eye surgery, but not for the camping.
My father was wearing a purple striped shirt and too-loose jeans, probably both of which he’d picked up either on sale or at Costco or both. In other words, he looked pretty normal.
Kevin waved his arms at me, so I left the top part of his body on the ground and slowly pushed his feet into his face, bending him in half. He laughed, and I said to Dad, “Where’s Mom?”
My father’s lips thinned. “She’s getting Uncle Leonard out of the car.”
That was another problem.
When I said I’d take my dad fishing, the rest of my family was a given. But Uncle Leonard…I didn’t really know him. He lives in my grandparents’ basement and surfaces for meals. He helps out, doing dishes and stuff, but he hasn’t had real work since he lost his government job ten years ago.
But my mom said he got all excited about the fishing trip, and she didn’t have the heart to tell her brother no. “It’ll be good for him, to get some fresh air,” said my grandfather.
I glanced out my apartment window overlooking the street. Through the remaining leaves yellowing on the trees, I could make out Uncle Leonard’s prematurely stooped figure standing beside our family’s car, while my mother’s excited voice rose into the air. “…just have to use the bathroom. Drank too much tea this morning! Oh, don’t worry about that hole in your sandal. Come on!”
By the time we got packed up, my dad insisted on driving us to Calabogie, even though I half-heartedly offered to do the honours. He waved me away. “You already drove here from Montreal. I know where it is. We’ll just take the 417 West to Highway 508 and take Calabogie Road. It’s barely over an hour from here.”
Uncle Leonard sucked on the inside of his lips and stared at me from his spot behind the driver’s seat. He smelled like bad breath and old lemon drops. I could see the still see comb marks in his hair from this morning, but he gave off a strange vibe. Maybe it was his blank stare or the blue shirt declaring “I put the ME in AWESOME” stretched over his potbelly. The too-short, saggy brown jeans pulled up over his ankles and his albino-like feet revealed by sandals certainly didn’t help.
I didn’t want to climb into the backseat with him.
“C’mon, Hope! I can show you the way on my iPad!” Kevin piped up, sliding into the middle of the backseat, beside Uncle Leonard. “I already plotted it out and posted it on Tumblr!”
“Is that a smart thing to do?” I tried to catch my dad’s eyes in the rearview mirror. “You’re not supposed to tell people you’re going on vacation on social media.”
Dad waved his hand, disinterested.
My mom twisted around from the front seat and opened her car door to speak to me, since I was still standing in the parking lot. “But why not, Hope?”
“Because you’re telling everyone your house is empty, and thieves can come.”
“Oh, no! I better tell Aunt Lucy. She’ll have to check our house! I posted it on Facebook.” My mom fiddled with her phone.
“Why don’t you delete your post?” said Kevin, bouncing in his seat and clicking on his iPad. “That’s what I just did on Tumblr.”
“I don’t know how.”
He sighed and held his hand out for the phone, and she handed it back to him.
Plus ça change. I barely had time to update my Facebook location to Montreal, let alone invite strangers to burgle me, so I buckled myself behind my mother and slammed the door shut. When my father started the car, the first thing I did was to lower the window, so I didn’t have to smell my uncle so much anymore.
Dad pulled over to fill up at a Petro Canada station, and Uncle Leonard spoke for the first time. “Do you know what Petro Canada stands for?” he asked Kevin.
Kevin pulled the ear buds out of his ears. “What?”
Uncle Leonard’s brows furrowed. “Aren’t you listening to me?”
My back stiffened. I said, in a loud voice that could be heard over the rumble of my dad pumping gas into the tank, “I’m listening, Uncle. Why don’t you tell me?”
He ignored me and said to Kevin, who’d politely raised his head. “It’s an acronym. It stands for Pierre Elliot Trudeau Rips Off Canada.”
Kevin put his iPad down and read the red and white sign through the window, silently but visibly matching each word to each letter, including the name of our most notorious Prime Minister. “It works!”
Uncle Leonard nodded. “That’s because that’s what it stands for. Everything works if you know where it’s supposed to go. Otherwise, it’s all gone Pete Tong.”
The gas pump automatically clicked off, then hummed again while my dad pumped an extra few spurts into the tank. He always likes to get it super full.
My mother sighed. “What does that mean, Leonard?”
“It’s Cockney rhyming slang. It means that it’s all gone wrong.”
His words seemed to reverberate in the car for a second, until my dad screwed the gas lid closed and shut the gas door.
I jumped out of the car with my credit card already in hand. I couldn’t stand it any more.
Dad frowned and shook his head.
“It’s your birthday, Dad. Come on.”
He shook his head.
“You paid for the camping.”
“It’s your birthday! Come on, Dad.”
He snorted. “I pre-paid before I pumped the gas. Let’s go.”
For a second, I just stood there with my Visa between two fingers, with the cool, fall air blowing through my hair and raising goosebumps on my arms. You know how you can be a licensed doctor and catch two murderers, but still look like a noob to your parents?
“Burn,” said Kevin, when I got back in the car.
I pretended to punch him in the shoulder.
Uncle Leonard sucked his cheeks, already looking blank again, but Kevin said, “We were just talking about Cockney rhyming slang, like butcher’s hook! Do you know any, Dad?”
“What? No,” he said, signalling left to turn out of the gas station.
“Mom doesn’t, either. What about you, Hope?” he said.
“Apple and pears means stairs.”
He goggled at me. “How did you know that?”
“My friend Tucker told me.”
I flushed a little. “Just a guy in my program.”
“Huh.” He eyeballed me, and I looked out the window while he said, “Anyway, I looked it up on Mom’s phone. Apples and pears is really old school. They don’t use it any more. Not since, like, the 1960’s. They call it classic Cockney.”
“I never got that, anyway,” I said. “Why would you say apples and pears when you could just say stairs? It’s shorter.”
Kevin made a face at me.
Dad stepped on the gas and said, “Sometimes people like to talk and not have anyone else listening in.”
That was unusual, for him to speak up like that. Before I could digest it, and figure out if there were any underlying messages, Kevin lit up. “Yeah! It’s like a code! We should try and talk in Cockney while we’re camping. It’ll be awesome!”
Tucker would love that. He’s never met Kevin, but I could just imagine him putting on a plummy accent and hamming it up with my brother. I smiled a little until my uncle said, “Eat at the Cain and Abel.”
I bit my lip. My knowledge of the Bible is cursory at best, but because Ryan is seriously Christian, I’m aware that one brother slew the other. Not exactly what you want your eight-year-old brother to hear.
Kevin said, “What?”
For the first time, my uncle smiled, a slow smile that showed his uneven teeth. “Figure it out. We’ll have a picnic at the Cain and Abel.”
“The table,” I said, but not in a friendly voice.
Our uncle’s eyes stayed on Kevin, who snapped his fingers and said, “Yeah! Abel rhymes with table. Good one, Hope! How did you know all that, Uncle?”
“I know a lot of things,” he said softly.
My mother turned on the radio and pointed at a few clouds blurring the sky. “I hope it’s not going to rain.”
“I’ll check the weather on your phone,” said Kevin, which cut short the Cockney conversation. At least for now.
I’d brought a textbook and some emergency medicine podcasts, but I couldn’t concentrate. Kevin kept poking me in the ribs and saying stuff like, “Hey, Hope, you better not Naomi Campbell your fork and knife away.”
“Don’t you get it? They use Naomi Campbell for gamble. And fork and knife means life.”
“Great.” But the soft sounds my uncle’s open-mouthed breathing set me on edge.
My family didn’t talk much about Uncle Leonard. “He likes to be alone,” Mom said once. At Christmas, he mainly seemed to watch TV, chew with his mouth open, burp, and fell asleep. My cousin once told me that he’d wanted to study religion at university, which my grandparents wouldn’t tolerate, even though he’d gotten a scholarship in England. He never married and didn’t seem to date, but then again, I hadn’t paid attention. I mostly hung out with Kevin and my cousins and left my uncle with the other grown ups. I’d certainly never gone on vacation with him before.
Kevin pointed at a sign for Wabun Lake Road. “Can we go there? I heard the mountain biking is awesome.”
“Not tonight,” said Dad. “We’ve still got to set up our tents.”
I was starting to get a headache by the time my dad pressed on the brakes and signalled a left to turn on to the Domhnall Dubh Camping Grounds.
“That’s a weird name,” said Kevin.
“It’s probably the owner’s name,” Mom put in.
I’d called the owner, a soft-spoken gentleman with a Southern accent, to give him my credit card info. “Actually, I think the owner’s named Joe.”
Uncle Leonard started whistling something tuneless that made my temples throb. I gave him a look, but he closed his eyes, and whistled on, oblivious.
Dad cleared his throat. My mother said, “Leonard.”
Leonard pushed the breath out between his lips, like he was whispering a whistle. Hard to explain, but just as annoying especially when he started rocking back and forth with his eyes still clamped shut.
My father raised his voice. “So what do you think? Are we going to catch some walleye tomorrow?”
It’s his dream to catch a walleye. I’m not sure why, but I give him books about walleyes the way other girls give their dads ties. I leaned forward so I could hang my elbows on both my parents’ seats. “Maybe, Dad.”
His smile flickered in the rearview mirror before Kevin said, “Hey. I just looked it up. We’re on the Black Donald Lake. It used to be a mine that made some of the highest quality graphite in the world. But they closed the mine in 1954, and they flooded it in 1967 with a hydroelectric dam. You can dive to the bottom of the lake and see a ghost town with 60 buildings!”
“That’s neat,” I said, dropping back into my seat and reaching in my bag for some Tylenol. My brother is painfully smart.
Leonard’s eyes opened, and he held out his hand toward me, across Kevin’s chest.
“Hey,” said Kevin.
I just stared at Leonard before I thought to say, “What is it, Uncle?”
“I want some pills,” he said, in such a strange voice that I glanced toward my mother, who was eating potato salad.
Dad nudged her. She twisted around in her seat and saw me frozen with a bottle of pills in my hand while Leonard held his palms up.
“No, Leonard. We talked about this,” she said, like he was Kevin’s age instead of her brother, only three years younger than her.
He shook his cupped palm at me. “Go on, girl.”
Mom snapped the potato salad container shut and banged it on the arm rest between her and my dad. She said, “Leonard. Enough.”
He settled back into his seat, but started humming that flat tune again.
My mother said, in a high voice, “Who wants cantaloupe? Or pears? I got some nice Bosch pairs from the Independent.”
Twenty minutes later, just as the sun started dipping below the horizon, I helped my dad set up the two dome tents, one for my parents and one for me and Kevin. We had to use our grandparents’ old A-frame for Uncle, since he was a last-minute addition. The stiff metal poles were a pain to set up, and we had to brush aside rocks and fallen leaves while pounding stakes in the ground.
I noticed Dad kept glancing at my uncle, who was wandering around the edges of our area like he was marking our perimeter. My mother busied herself unpacking food and nagging Kevin about having a shower because he was probably hot from the drive.
“I’m not hot!” Kevin kept saying. “Leave me alone!”
Uncle took two steps forward and started to count. “Seven. Eight. Nine. Twenty.”
I raised my eyebrows at Dad, but he just shook his head and popped up my and Kevin’s tent in the dying rays of sunshine. “Look at that. Gorgeous, isn’t it?”
“Better than a hotel on wheels,” I said, which is what my dad calls the RV’s. Dad thinks that if you need to drive in your own kitchen, bedroom, and shower to “camp,” you might as well stay home. “Happy birthday, Dad.”
“It’s on Sunday,” he said.
“So I’m early, for once,” I said.
He grinned and tousled my hair, which was growing out past my shoulders but still doesn’t take kindly to getting messed up. I glanced at the fast-setting sun and decided to grab my polar fleece out of the car. Sometimes Septembers can be balmy, but it’s freezing after sunset.
Engines rumbled in the distance. Low, noisy engines gunning their way toward our campsite while diesel fumes swam up my nose.
ATV’s. All terrain vehicles. I’d never seen or smelled one before, but they looked like slow, squat motorcycles with multiple people dripping from each fat carcass.
The last time we went camping—well, it must’ve been before Kevin was born. At least before they allowed ATV’s in campgrounds.
“Maybe they’ll just go away,” Dad said under his breath, but of course, the first one chugged right up to our territory so that the family could gape at us. The man was a white guy tanned dark brown, clad almost entirely in facial hair, body hair, and tattoos. The woman’s equally tanned breasts spilled out of a black tank top. A little boy behind them called over the engines, “Hey, a bunch of Chinks!”
Before I could react, Uncle walked into their path and said clearly, “I see Sherman tanks.”
“What did he say?” asked the little boy.
“He’s crazy,” said his father, who he took a sip of beer and showed no signs of turning his ATV around.
“Patrick Swayze,” said Uncle.
My mother dropped a container. Cantaloupe and juice spilled on the picnic table. “Oh, no!”
Dad hurried to her side, so I joined them. That meant I was next to Kevin, but it left Uncle in front of the ATV’s, alone, so I took few steps away from the table, inching my way toward Uncle.
I ignored the ATV-ers and said to Uncle, “Would you like to come to the table for supper?”
He didn’t stir. He was watching the ATV man.
The ATV guy lit a cigarette. “Yeah. You want to go have supper like a good boy?” He barked then, a sharp imitation of an angry dog that made my body jerk before I caught myself.
“No,” said Uncle. “I want one of those.” He pointed to the cigarette.
The ATV guy snorted. “You think these come for free? Dream on, buddy.”
“I’ve got macaroni,” said Uncle. He stretched his open palm in the air, just like he’d done in the car, when he wanted some of my Tylenol. My stomach clenched in revulsion. Both at the ATV gang and at my own flesh and blood.
Dad spoke for the first time. “You want cigarettes, Leonard? We’ll go into town and get you cigarettes.”
“He’s not supposed to—” started Mom, but Dad pressed his hand on her arm, and she fell silent, for once.
“Into town?” said the ATV guy, over the cigarettes clamped between his teeth. “Hell, Joe sells them at the canteen. Just grab a pack and tell them Beck sent you. I got a tip for you, though. They like cash. They don’t take macaroni.”
Finally, Beck fired up his engine and putted past us, followed by a convoy of three ATV’s, all of them goggling at us. One little girl popped her thumb out of her mouth so she could give us the finger.
“Well!” said Mom. “I never—”
Dad gave her such a look that she quieted again and wrapped her arms around Kevin. After the last of the engine sounds died down, he said, “Let’s drive to get some cigarettes.”
“We need some supper. I want to get out the cookstove and heat up the soup,” said Mom.
Dad shook his head, and I said, “Mom. He’s right. We’d better all go together.” I was born and raised in Orleans, the ultra-safe suburb of Ottawa, where the most dangerous thing was skinning my knees if I fell off my bicycle. Suddenly, it seemed unspeakably foolish that we’d chosen to camp in the middle of nowhere, protected by only thin, nylon skins called tents.
Joe did sell us some cigarettes, and Dad bought Kevin a box of Tic Tacs to keep him happy. And to keep him from asking too many questions, I think. My brother is growing up fast.
That night, I slept terribly. Of course, the ATV-ers cranked up their music and howled along to AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.” I gave Kevin my one pair of earplugs and kept my left ear pressed to my pillow, the my right covered by my hand, to no avail. I swear I could smell pot smoke, even from the next campsite and from inside the tent. I just hoped it didn’t set off Kevin’s asthma.
Even after their music finally died down, I could feel the uneven ground through my mattress. We seemed to have set up our tent over a curve in the ground, so I was doing a banana backbend or sidebend all night long.
And I kept jerking awake to listen to Kevin’s breathing. At least twice, I curled my body around his, even though he murmured in sleepy protest.
“It’s okay,” I whispered in his ear. I’d endured a near-sleepless month on surgery. In my first two months of residency, I’d set two murderers behind bars. I could beat two nights of camping for my dad’s birthday.
I woke up at dawn. Pale light filtered through the nylon tent, but it wasn’t the light that had gotten to me. Kevin had kicked me in the thigh, shocking me awake. I yawned and realized that my jaw ached because I’d clenched my teeth all night. Ah, well. What else was new.
The tent was kind of warm and humid from our combined body heat, so I unzipped the side and bottom of the front tent flap so I could put my shoes on and go to the bathroom. Dew clung to the nylon flaps.
I hesitated, remembering Beck and his ATV gang, but figured they were probably asleep and hung over by now. Still, I should probably tell my parents I was going to the bathroom. The Sze clan sticks together.
The cool, wet morning mist made me shiver. I could hear snoring from my parents’ tent, but my uncle’s tent was strangely silent.
I tripped over a tent peg as I circled around to the front of Uncle’s tent, which faced the road. His tent flap was hanging unzipped. Strange. My dad had made a point of explaining that the extra bit of fabric at the entrance that looks like a sail is really an entryway where you can leave your shoes and, with any luck, the insects behind. Uncle had nodded and said, “I hate spiders and bugs.”
I stepped closer.
Not only was the tent flap open, but the two zippers for the tent itself yawned open, like a mouth.
His shoes were still standing neatly inside the entry, pointed toward the tent, but the tent itself stood empty.
My uncle was missing.
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