MISSING PERSON

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Chapter 24

May in Vancouver has two modes, sunny and rainy, and they occur in roughly equal measure. By late afternoon, dark clouds had crowded out the sun; by evening, a steady drizzle was falling against my window. I spent a few minutes at my computer updating the file I’d made of my findings to date, but there wasn’t much to add; all I could think to do at this juncture was wait. I fixed myself a sandwich and a helping of leftover Thai food, and spent the next few hours under the twin anesthetics of beer and daytime television.

Later, the first report from the security company arrived in my inbox; I hastily forwarded it to Jane Smith and deleted my records of the original and forwarded copies from my account. I then instructed the security company to deal with Jane as well, effective immediately, and promptly deleted that email. Logged on as Jane, I learned that my father had left home at precisely the time he did every day, stayed on campus for exactly as long as he always did, and then returned home, where no one, suspicious or otherwise, visited him. At ten-thirty, my father’s usual bedtime, the house grew dark, and the guard, per my instructions, departed for the night, under the understanding that my father’s home alarm system would take over until morning. This information had come to me for only three hundred dollars, plus tax.

I scrawled some computations on the back of an envelope, but there was no way to make the numbers add up in such a way that I could have a guard watching my father indefinitely. Without income, I could afford just a few more weeks of surveillance. A steady salary wouldn’t buy much more; and I had no idea how long it would be before this ended, whatever this was.

I headed back to the couch with a couple of cans of beer, and by the time I went to bed, I was no longer thinking about my bank account, or about anything at all.

The next morning, over a breakfast of aspirin and diluted orange juice, I was thinking about everything.

I’d forgotten to turn my ringer back on after returning from the library, and there were two messages on my phone. The first was my father touching base, expressing the usual worry – I haven’t heard from you in a few days – let me know you got this – see you tomorrow – and I realized with a jolt that it was Friday. I replied via email, preparing him for that evening’s meeting – Hi, Dad; sorry I didn’t reply; it’s been a busy week and I think I may be coming down with something. I didn’t sleep too well last night… The second message was similar in content if not in tone or intent: Manny, also touching base and expressing a different kind of worry. “Hello, Kathleen. Too bad you’re not in; I see you’ve been busy and it would have been nice to talk to you directly. But that’s not important. I asked politely that you mind your own business, and you didn’t listen. This is a courtesy call to inform you that you won’t have time for any of your usual extracurricular activities next week. Good luck in the job search.”

I stared at the phone for a few long seconds. Then I finished my orange juice and went back to bed.

By a quarter to five, the rain had stopped, and the sky had settled into a uniform grey. I felt human enough to roll out of bed and pull on a pair of faded jeans and an oversize plaid shirt; halfway into this endeavour, I even attained the presence of mind to realize that I wouldn’t have worn faded jeans and an oversize plaid shirt to work. With considerably more effort than such things are meant to take, I put on something marginally more formal, dragged a brush through my hair, and told myself that I could pass for someone who’d had a busy week and was coming down with a cold.

I passed the fifty minute ride to Maple Ridge in a state of semi-consciousness, my head down to forestall the nausea that the blur of trees and farms and houses and highway outside the window would induce. Some time later, when we had stopped, I looked up to see the familiar sign of the Maple Meadows station, and it took a few more seconds so before it registered that this was where my father was waiting, today and every other Friday for the better part of the past decade. I bolted up, and the train seemed to shift from beneath me; I stumbled over my seatmate and nearly fell onto the platform a half-second before the doors closed.

The next thing I remembered was my father taking me by my arm and leading me into the car. “I could have gone over to your place,” he said once we were on the road. He was a hesitant driver under the best of circumstances, deferring to other motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists whenever one so much as entered his line of sight; today, each of his many sudden applications of the brake pedal reverberated through my skull and sent my stomach lurching. I opened a window and forced myself to breathe deeply. “Or we could have cancelled.”

“No, it’s okay,” I replied. My voice was hoarse, twenty-four hours out of practice. “It’s been a stressful week.”

When we pulled into the driveway, I stepped out of the car, teeth chattering in defiance of my best efforts to subdue my body. My father waited at the door, studying me. “I made chicken soup.”

“That sounds good.”

“You look pale. Go lie down, I’ll bring you your dinner.”

“You sure?”

“Let your father take care of you for once.”

I didn’t argue.

“And you’ll stay the weekend, I’ll take you back Sunday.”

He’d barely finished speaking before I’d kicked off my shoes and buried myself under my blanket.

At nine, fortified with chicken soup and a few hours of rest, I found my father in the kitchen sipping tea. I poured myself a mug and joined him, and we sat in silence for a few minutes.

“You’re looking a lot better,” he said.

I nodded. “Probably a 24-hour thing.”

“Something going around at work?”

“What? – oh, I don’t know. I don’t work very closely with anyone these days.”

“What are you doing these days? I thought things were pretty slow.”

I shrugged. “I spent most of this week on the phone.”

“New client?”

“No, no. On the phone with Calgary.”

“I thought that was over.”

“So did I. But there’s always follow-up.”

He nodded, cupped his tea in both hands and raised it to his mouth.

“And what about you?” I asked. The question hung there, too late in the exchange to sound sincere.

“I…one of my students just defended. Did well; we all knew he would. He’ll be starting a postdoc at McGill in the fall.”

“That’s great.” He didn’t reply. “It’s great, isn’t it?” He stared into his tea, and the penny dropped. “How many other grad students do you have?”

“Adam was the last. I won’t be teaching in the fall.”

I waited.

“They brought in a new person. Young fellow, does what I do, studied under a former student of mine. He’ll be running the artificial intelligence and machine learning courses.”

“The ones you teach.”

He nodded. “I’ll be mentoring him for a year, tying up some loose ends in the department. And then – then, I suppose I’ll work on what I work on. I’m going to be seventy next year, Kathleen.” His words were pouring out now, a dam bursting. “I’m slowing down. I’m not able to keep up with my field the way I used to. They’re not going to get rid of me, but if I stay around, sooner or later they’ll wish they could, and I want to leave before that happens. Work on papers here and there, but not the way I do now. Make room for someone on the market, someone with a family to support.”

“Well,” I said. The word came out bright, my voice somehow outside my control. He looked up at me, the mug of tea still on the table between his hands. “That’s a big step.” My father confronting the biggest change in his life in twenty-five years; and me, reduced to platitudes.

He nodded. “We do what we have to do.” Then, looking directly at me: “All of us.”

I pondered that for a second or two before murmuring agreement. If there was any hidden meaning in his words, my father didn’t share it.

We played our game of gin the next afternoon. It was a relaxed affair, each of us lingering over our turns, hands hovering over the discard pile, then back to the stock, then back again. He won the first hand by a hair, and I took the next three; midway through the fifth, I deliberately discarded a seven that I knew he needed, and he took the hand. I won the next and gave him the following two; in the end, he beat me by ten points. “Good game,” he said, and all I could do was agree.

By Sunday I was more or less back to my usual self, whatever that was these days. I sent a quick email to the security company, asking them to resume their services on Monday morning, and then headed to the kitchen to fix some coffee and toast for myself. My father was already on the deck, a mug of coffee in one hand and a newspaper held too close to his face in the other. I joined him, and we sat for a few minutes before he set the paper down and spoke.

“You considering looking for something else?”

“What?”

“Work. You’re not happy where you are. Are you looking to see what else is out there?”

I rubbed my eyes. “Kind of,” I hedged. Manny’s good luck wish, which I’d somehow managed to forget, floated back into my consciousness. “The job market’s not what it used to be,” I babbled, trying to crowd out Manny’s voice. “I might have more luck with hardware or something else that can’t be done remotely, but I’d rather work from home.”

He looked down, studied his coffee. “Most of our graduates go into industry. And some of my colleagues may have connections. A lot of the older ones remember you. I can see if anyone has any openings.”

“That would be good, I’d appreciate that.”

He stared into his coffee. “Some of them are here in the suburbs…one in Maple Ridge, another over in Port Moody.”

“Hard to get to by transit,” I said, but I knew where this was going.

“You know you’ll always have your room here.”

“I know. And I’ll keep it in mind if I find something outside the city that looks interesting.”

He nodded and blinked a few times, and rubbed his eye. I looked away.

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