Human Remains. The First Chapter.
At my request, my husband gave me Mighty Ugly, this cool book by Kim Werker. I was struck by the idea of Jasika Nicole and other artists’ challenges to make art *and post it* every day for 30 days. No matter what. It didn’t have to be good. It just had to be done.
It suddenly occurred to me that I could do this.
I could post excerpts from my newest novel, Human Remains.
I have been working on this book for what feels like aeons. In fact, I came across a note on my writing spreadsheet, saying “restarted Human Remains,” which means I’ve been slogging away for over a year on it. I can’t tell you how slow this is for me. I stopped and wrote a back pain book in the meantime.
I have over 158,000 words on it to date. The problem was, I kept changing the plot, the murderer, and the location. (Don’t worry, Hope Sze is still the main character. That, I didn’t change.)
All this means, I’m about twelve times as slow and unproductive as most of my writing friends. It’s like they’re running marathons and I’m like, “Um. Don’t mind me. I’m going to stretch over here, and maybe in a year or three, I’ll…walk.”
Now, art is something easy to post online. You can grasp it in a glance. Writing, not so much.
I also had conversations like this at the hospital:
Kat: So. Are you writing your new Hope book?
Me: Yes. Of course.
Kat: So when’s it coming out? I can’t wait to find out what’s happening with the two guys.
Me: Did you read the last book? I told you what was happening with the two guys.
Kat: She can’t do that forever. It doesn’t work for the guys!
Anyhoo…if I posted excerpts from my book, it would show my fans that I was, indeed, writing, instead of teaching myself hip hop on my days away from the ER (well, doing a little bit of that, too).
It didn’t have to be good.
In fact, I could issue a warning that this was raw, unformed clay.
“Rejection is like chicken. It’s either yummy or yucky. Depends how you cook it….Just ask.” —Jia Jiang, https://vimeo.com/70167462#at=1064 @17:56
by Melissa Yi
I nudged into a free parking space in front of a deserted park and opened my car door, squinting at the street lamps glowing in the night sky. Snow fluttered toward me, dotting my forehead. An ambulance siren wailed faintly in my ears, since I was only one giant, tree-lined block away from the Ottawa Hospital and the Children’s Hospital. Frosty air seared my nostrils and chilled my arms despite the bright blue parka my parents had bought for me.
I didn’t care. Inside, I felt as dead as the corpses that haunted me.
My phone buzzed with a text from Ryan.
Where are you?
For a second, I hesitated. 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’d turned off the ringer so my mother couldn’t tell me that fresh pineapple was on sale at TNT.
I climbed back in the Ford Focus and slammed the door to text him back without the snow wrecking my brand new iPhone. I told you. I’m going to check out the stem cell lab.
I hesitated. I sounded flat. But how was that a change from the past month? If Ryan couldn’t take it, so be it. I pressed send.
My breath fogged up the interior of the car. It wasn’t so cold that it immediately turned to frost, even though it was mid-December in Canada’s capital. Another sign of climate change or, as I preferred to think of it, the upcoming apocalypse.
My phone buzzed again. Are you on Lynda Lane?
That raised a faint smile out of me. Ryan Wu knew me so well, or at least he used to know the old Hope Sze, the pre-hostage-taking Hope. 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 Rd. And yet…No. The police set up a R.I.D.E. program there. Honestly, I know they want to catch drunk drivers, especially around Christmas, but 9 p.m. ridiculously early, no? And who parties around the hospitals? To be fair, this section of Smythe Road is also home to Ottawa University, but lots of students don’t even have cars. I had to battle my way through that mess just to look an officer in the eye and say, “No, sir, I didn’t drink anything but water today.” I texted, I took a right. You know, around the park?
Oh, you’re on Billings. Wait for me. I’ll walk with you.
Ryan was driving around Ottawa on a Sunday evening so that he could walk to the lab with me? He probably wouldn’t even be let 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 watched the fog build up on my windshield. Once upon a time, Ryan and I would make out for hours in his car. Once we were in a mall parking lot and the police came and rapped on the door and asked if we were okay, and I was so embarrassed that I wouldn’t look at the cop. It felt like a lifetime ago.
If I was the one looking for Ryan, I would’ve blundered around in the growing darkness, cursing and stumbling on the gravel shoulder, trying to figure out which dark car held my boyfriend. But Ryan was an engineer and I was the doctor doing my residency in family medicine. Things that I found impossible, he found easy, and vice versa.
Just to make it easier for him, though, I flicked on my lights.
A car drew smoothly into a space on the opposite side of the road, but it was too dark for me to figure out the car’s colour, except that it was dark, so it could’ve been Ryan’s black Nissan Sentra.
The driver who popped open the driver’s door was a man who moved like Ryan, with a long and easy stride. He looked about the right height too, which is five foot ten. But his head was covered by a toque, his body was obscured by a black parka, and he was snapping a leash on a black dog with brown markings at the eyes and mouth.
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.
I locked my doors and watched the pair cross the road toward me, presumably heading to the park nestled between me and the hospitals. The man shielded his eyes from my headlights, shadowing his face, and 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.
The closer the guy got, though, the more he seemed to move like Ryan. Those hips. That runner’s stride. 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?
I wished it wasn’t so dark. Winter solstice was coming, and I’m always locked inside a hospital, so it seems like it’s dark when I get in the hospital and it’s dark when I leave. That’s one reason I had to ditch Montreal, why Tucker said—
My gloved hands clenched on the steering wheel.
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 traumatic past events involving John Tucker. Seeeeeeee the snowflakes dissolving as they hit my windshield. Feeeeeeeeel the cool air on my face. Heeeeeear the guy and his dog’s footsteps crunching on the gravel shoulder…
The guy stopped in front of my car and raised his hand in greeting.
The dog jumped in the air on its back legs. The guy leaned over and get the dog to calm down. Instead, the dog pounced on the guy’s legs with its muddy paws, but the guy just laughed as he lifted the paws off his thighs. I still thought it was a puppy, but not as small as I’d first thought.
I unlocked the door and popped it open. “Ryan?” I said through the crack, over the screeching protest of my car alarm, warning me that I’d left 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, ever since my hostage-taking on 14/11. The dog was barking at me now. Yapping at me, really. Short, sharp barks, but it was wagging its tail, and it 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 o
n me. She was black, with floppy ears, except brown apostrophe-like markings around her eyes and chin and more brown on her underside.
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. Instead, I said, “Who’s this monster?”
Ryan grinned at me. “Her name’s Roxy. I’m dog-sitting. My friend Rachel has 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, too. “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 wagged her long, elegantly plumed black tail at me and woofed.
“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, only to bump heads hard enough that I said “Ow!”
We laughed again, me a little wryly, while I rubbed my head and Roxy whuffed.
Ryan touched my forehead with his bare fingertips. “You okay?”
I nodded. “You?”
He smiled, and I blushed, even which embarrassed me, so I concentrated on Roxy until his fingertips lifted away from my skin.
Our my hands bumped into each other again in the fur 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 heat 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 was leaving nothing to chance anymore. I used to run in at the last second (okay, late by a few minutes); now I had to suss out every new environment to minimize the terrorists in every corner.
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 guys I loved.
Ryan kissed me back so hard 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 shrugged and pointed north, at the H of the Ottawa Hospital’s Central Campus and started walking north, 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 at me 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, and those trees.
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. I remembered being a medical student, loving the sound of ambulances bringing me traumas and other fun cases to play with, which 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 but thankfully not opening his mouth to say “I told you so,” when Roxy broke away from him, jerking her leash out of his hand.
Roxy barrelled east, toward the Lynda Lane.
Towards traffic. And drivers that 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, a 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 hurried after him, yelling at our borrowed dog, limping, 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, muddy, snowy ground. At least the moon and the street lamps lit up the snow.
A few minutes later, I cut into the trees, stumbling after Ryan. Shadows fell on me, but so did the street lamps, so I concentrated on tracking Ryan, who was had almost caught up to Roxy as she wagged her tail, picking her way into the ditch bordering Lynda Lane.
Ryan scooped up her leash, but his body 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.