I’m thinking of buying a ticket to Saint-Sylvestre-sur-Lot, France.
Why? Shouldn’t I be staying home, working in the ER, looking after my kids, and finally finishing the fifth Hope Sze novel, Human Remains?
Well, yes. That would be the sensible thing to do.
But at one time, my overarching goal for writing was to connect to people, places, and things that excite me.
Derek Murphy of Creativindie has rented a castle in Saint-Sylvestre-sur-Lot (as one does) and is holding a contest where you could stay with him and some other hand-picked successful authors, for free, for two weeks. This would force you to write like a demon. Then, in your off-hours, you would socialize and learn from other cool people and do castle-y things. Derek has taught me about colour, design, storytelling and fonts through his blog. Imagine what a group of us could figure out in person, in two weeks!
Even if I don’t win the castle stay–and I have to admit, I already have shifts lined up October-November, and I just remembered that I have to give availabilities for one of my hospitals, so this would be tricky)–ten people will win a free course from him. So there’s really no downside except some public humiliation, and I’m used to that!
And anyway, I wanted to show you the new opening chapter for Human Remains. After the gifted writers/editors Erik Buchanan and Mark Leslie Lefebvre put it through the wringer at Can-Con 2016, it’s kick@ss now compared to the first draft. Erik told me to put the PTSD/car paralysis up front, and Mark gave me advice on reader reaction.
Thanks, Derek! And good luck to everyone.
Do you want to enter the writing contest/retreat? Go for it! Deadline is September 20, 2016. http://www.creativindie.com/writing-contests/
P.S. I’ve got to scan pics of myself at Edinburgh Castle. I’ll add them later because my family is sleeping. In the meantime, please weigh in on blue vs. red cover!
by Melissa Yi
All-New Chapter One
Even if the terrorists don’t win, they can make your life an icy hell.
An ambulance siren wailed faintly in my ears. I was sitting inside my Ford Focus, only one giant, tree-lined block away from the Ottawa Health Science Centre, but I couldn’t make myself step out of the car and into the darkness.
I watched the fog build up on my windshield. It wasn’t so cold that condensation immediately turned to frost, even though it was mid-December in Canada’s capital. Once upon a time, my boyfriend Ryan Wu and I had made out for hours in his car at a mall parking lot, steaming up the windows like this. The police had rapped on the door to ask if we were okay.
That was long before 14/11, the hostage-taking last month. Technically, it was a lone killer, not a terrorist, who’d transformed the rest of my November into a sickening blur.
Now, I felt as dead as the corpses that haunted me.
I’d told my parents that I had to check out the stem cell lab tonight. And I did. I no longer rushed everywhere a few minutes late, breathless and apologetic and smiling. I had to check every location the night before. I didn’t speak to strangers. I turned off the ringer on my phone so that my mother couldn’t tell me that fresh pineapple was on sale at T&T Supermarket.
As a medical resident, I’m perpetually locked inside a hospital. It’s dark when I wipe my muddy boots on the hospital welcome mat and it’s dark when I step into the twilight of winter solstice. I felt trapped. I felt like screaming as soon as the automatic glass doors sealed behind me. I had to ditch Montreal, even though Tucker—
My mitten-clad hands clenched on the steering wheel.
Thinking about him was a stabbing pain in my chest. Worse than Ryan.
I forced myself to breathe very slowly, in and out. I’ve gone to therapy now, you see. Sort of mandatory for PTSD people like me. I’m supposed to focus on what’s happening here and now instead of getting bound up in the clusterfunk that is John Tucker and Ryan Wu and the fact that my medical career was torpedoed a quarter of the way into my family medicine residency because just looking at a hospital makes me shake, and how am I ever going to graduate like that?
No. According to my therapist, I had to focus on “the present moment.”
Seeeeeeee the snowflakes dissolve as they hit my windshield. Feeeeeeeeel the cool air on my face. Heeeeeear my phone buzz with a new texxxxxxt.
Where are you?
My heart pounded in my throat, and for once, it wasn’t out of panic. There are only a few people in the world who still make me feel something, and one of them was texting me right now.
I pulled off my mittens. The iPhone felt cool in my hand, since I’d left it on the dashboard while I nerved myself up. I typed, I told you. I’m going to check out the stem cell lab.
Are you on Lynda Lane?
That raised a faint smile out of me. Ryan knew me so well, or at least he knew the pre 14/11 Hope Sze. Parking costs $13 a day, so while the sun shines and the clinics are open, everyone fights over the free spots on Lynda Lane, a small road south of Smythe Road. But for once, he’d miscalculated, if only because the police had set up a stop to catch drunk drivers, despite the fact that it was well before 10 p.m. No, because of the R.I.D.E. program. I took a right around the park.
Wait for me. I’ll walk with you.
Ryan drove from Nepean to the southeast end of Ottawa so that he could walk to the lab with me? I exhaled and shook my head. They probably wouldn’t let him inside. Well, I couldn’t blame him for playing bodyguard, although if I’d known he was coming, I would’ve worn my contact lenses instead of my glasses.
I flicked on my lights. Ryan’s an engineer with a lot of practical skills, but I could make it easy for him to find me while I concentrated on breeeeeathing.
A car drew into a space on the opposite side of the road. It was too far away from the streetlamp for me to figure out if it was Ryan’s black Nissan Sentra.
My breath hitched. I made sure my doors were locked, hating my own paranoia, but doing it anyway.
The driver headed for his back door. He moved like Ryan, with a long and easy stride. He looked about the right height too, but he was snapping a leash on a black dog with brown markings at the eyes and mouth.
I scrunched down in my seat. Ryan doesn’t have a dog. His parents, like a lot of Chinese immigrants, don’t care for canines. Dogs bark, they pee, they poop, they make for expensive vet bills. My dad likes dogs, but my mom fits the stereotype better, so we’ve never had one, either.
My eyes dropped to the dog. Maybe I should call it a puppy, because it seemed to have oversized paws and kept rushing all around instead of walking side to side. I smiled a bit despite myself. Puppies are funny, at least from a distance.
I watched the pair cross the road toward me, presumably heading to the park nestled between me and the hospital.
The man shielded his eyes from my headlights, shadowing his face. Closer up, he looked even more like Ryan. Those hips. That runner’s build, even hidden under a black parka.
I twisted in my seat, my heart thumping in my chest. Were there more than two guys in the world who could give me supraventricular tachycardia from ten feet away?
The man raised his hand in greeting.
The dog jumped into the air on its back legs. The guy leaned over, and the dog pounced on his legs with its muddy paws. The guy just laughed as he lifted the paws off his thighs.
I unlocked the door and popped it open. “Ryan?” I said through the crack, over the screeching protest of my car, because of my cardinal sin of leaving my headlights on.
“Hope,” he said, in his low voice, while the puppy danced around him.
This wasn’t what I was expecting. At all. I don’t like surprises since 14/11.
The dog was barking at me now. Yapping at me, really. Short, sharp barks, but it was wagging its tail. That gave me something to look at besides goggling at Ryan’s sharp-planed face and meeting his worried eyes.
I turned off the lights and slammed the door shut, locking it, which made the puppy bark some more and try to jump up on me. She was black, with floppy ears, except brown apostrophe-like markings around her eyes and chin and more brown on her underside and legs.
Ryan was watching me. He did that a lot now. Since 14/11. And maybe before then, if I were honest.
I wanted to hug Ryan and hit him at the same time. I did neither. “Who’s this monster?”
Ryan grinned at me. “Her name’s Roxy. I’m dog-sitting. My friend Rachel got her as a foster dog, so she’s making us all take turns walking and dog-sitting.”
Rachel. He never talked about anyone named Rachel before. And wasn’t that too cute for words—Ryan and Rachel and a puppy named Roxy. They all matched.
I tried to swallow down the acid and breeeeeeathe. Ryan was here with meeeeeee right now.
Plus, it’s harder to hiss with jealousy when a puppy barks, sneezes, and then barks some more.
I started to put my hand down to pet her head, and Ryan said, “You’re supposed to let her sniff you and decide if she wants to let you touch her first.”
I pulled off my mitten and let my hand hang where she could reach it. She started licking the back of my hand with her warm, wet tongue. I laughed despite myself, and Ryan’s teeth lit up the gloom as he laughed with me. “That’s the first thing she did to me, too. I thought she’d cheer you up.”
“How old is she?”
“She’ll be a year next month. She’s a Rottweiler shepherd.”
“A Rottweiler?” I snatched my hand away from her tongue. Roxy woofed and wagged her long, elegantly plumed black tail at me.
“Yeah. I looked it up. They were originally working and family dogs. They just have a bad rep. And Roxy’s cool. I wouldn’t have brought her otherwise.”
I touched the silky fur on her ears. She nudged her head against my hand, searching for more rubs. I laughed, and so did Ryan. He and I leaned together to pet her, our breath mingling in the cool air, only to bump heads hard enough that I said “Ow!”
We laughed again, me a little wryly while I massaged my head, and Roxy whuffed.
Ryan touched my forehead with his bare fingertips. “You okay?”
I nodded. “You?”
He smiled, and I blushed, which embarrassed me, so I concentrated on the silky fur between Roxy’s ears until his fingertips lifted away from my skin.
His other hand reached forward and our fingers twined together between Roxy’s ears.
Ryan’s eyes turned serious, watching me even as his body pressed forward. He was going to kiss me.
I felt numb, and not just because my naked hand was starting to cool off between Roxy-licks and the chill evening air.
Ryan’s head tipped toward me, still reading my eyes.
At the last second, he kissed the tip of my nose, just once, and lightly, like an exclamation point.
I laughed. My heart started beating again.
Ryan dropped back to pet Roxy, smiling a little.
I petted Roxy, too. “Um, I’m supposed to go to the lab. Get the lay of the land so I don’t mess up on my first day.” I left nothing to chance anymore.
But first, I grabbed Ryan’s face—one hand on each cheek, just like Hollywood—and kissed him hard, on his warm, full lips. If I died in the next five minutes, I wanted to go out knowing that I’d kissed one of the men I loved.
Ryan kissed me back so deep and so long that Roxy started trying to edge between us. She sat down, thumping her tail solidly on the gravel shoulder.
We both laughed. I said, against his chest, “How long are you keeping this dog?”
“Until Rachel picks her up tonight. But I kind of like her.” Ryan patted Roxy’s head, and I admitted, “I like her, too.”
Then I pulled my mittens out of my pockets and aimed my body north, toward the brightly-lit H of the Ottawa Health Science Centre’s Central Campus, and started walking into the park.
Parks are creepy at night. The empty swings. The blue plastic slide that could be hiding a marijuana stash, if not a guy with a knife. So I was kind of relieved when Roxy barked and Ryan fell into place beside me, our boots crunching together. He pointed east. “Don’t you want to take the road?”
I shook my head. Even here, through the meagre screen of trees bordering Lynda Lane, the police cruiser’s blue headlights flashed south of us in their bid to Reduce Impaired Driving Everywhere. There’s no proper sidewalk on the road, just cars wedged onto the shoulders, and a ditch, before the tree line.
I tried to avoid people as much as possible now. I’d rather walk past the empty climbing wall and kid-free jungle gym.
“This isn’t really a park, Hope. It’s okay during the summer because enough other people use it that they cut the grass. But in the winter time, it’s not a trail.”
“You can take the road,” I said, and when he frowned at me, I rubbed my eyes and tried to soften my tone. “I mean, if I get stuck, I’ll back track to the road. I’m not in a rush.”
Ryan sighed. But instead of arguing, he and Roxy followed me into the park.
Another siren whooped in the distance, setting my teeth on edge. As a medical student, I’d loved the sound of ambulances bringing me traumas and other fun cases to play with. That seemed like forever ago, but had been…last year. God.
Roxy drifted from side to side, testing the limits of her leash, before she sniffed a lump of snow with great interest. I glanced left, where some good-sized houses sat with their drapes drawn, maybe half a kilometre away. One of them had a TV screen flickering behind some cheap horizontal blinds.
My boots sank in the old, overgrown, dead grass and the few centimetres of snow that had accumulated on the ground. For some reason, snow that melts instantly on pavement will gather on any grassy surface and threaten to trap me. We only had to walk a kilometre—not exactly conquering the North Pole—but I paused at the foot of a half-frozen, rutted pond now blocking our path.
Clearly, municipal money didn’t stretch to maintaining off-road paths in the off-season. I didn’t want to tromp around the lab with half-frozen, muddy feet.
I turned to admit defeat to Ryan, who was already lifting his eyebrows at me, when Roxy broke away from him, jerking her leash out of his hand.
Roxy barrelled east, toward the Lynda Lane.
Towards traffic. And drivers who might not see a black dog at night.
We both ran toward her, screaming, “Roxy! Roxy!”
I skidded on the snow. My right ankle turned over, and I wobbled, pain knifing through my lateral ankle.
Ryan spun around to catch me, but I was already righting myself and yelling, “Get Roxy!”
He broke into a sprint. He’s a runner, and even after I hobbled after him, yelling at our borrowed dog, teeth gritted—it was obviously a sprain instead of a break—I marvelled at the way Ryan cut through the row of skinny trees, never missing a step, despite the darkness and the uneven, slippery ground.
I cut into the trees, stumbling after Ryan. Shadows fell on me, but so did the street lamps and a bit of moonlight, so I concentrated on tracking Ryan, who had almost caught up to Roxy.
She wagged her tail, picking her way into the ditch bordering Lynda Lane.
Ryan scooped up her leash, but his back stiffened so abruptly, I rushed to his side, gasping, “What?” as cars whooshed on the road a few feet above us.
He pointed at Roxy.
She was sniffing something that looked awfully like a dead human body.
A body with a black bag over its head.