Excerpt from Mystery at Gros Morne
Chapter 1 – “Any More Room?”
The mystery began on the ferry, the ferry his family would have missed if even one more car waited ahead of them in row nine. Just one. When he thought about it later, Matt was not certain if he should consider this good luck or bad luck. Maybe it was just happenstance, his mother chimed in when he verbally expressed this thought at the dinner table one night in the weeks that followed. Or a quirk of fate, his sister Kate commented.
“And what exactly is a quirk?” Matt quickly questioned.
“Hmm, like a twist maybe?”
“Or an accident?” his mother proposed.
He shrugged. “What’s wrong with luck?”
Kate narrowed her eyes. “Luck sounds so arbitrary, like it could have happened to anybody. Fate suggests it was meant to happen to us.”
“I don’t know. Maybe.” Matt was noncommittal.
“Some people claim we make our own luck,” their mother added.
Matt considered this as he replayed the first day of the mystery and their journey to Newfoundland. Newfoundland? Prior to this summer, he could not have located Newfoundland on a map without first using a smartphone application. Who travels to Newfoundland for the summer?
Fingers and toes imaginatively crossed, Matt had perched on the front seat of his family’s truck, anxiously waiting to board the ferry. Droves of sea birds spun overhead, calling to one another above the bright blue waters of Sydney Harbour, the bay that broke into the wide expanse of Cabot Strait and the Atlantic Ocean. The sky was clear, the air warm beneath a summer Nova Scotia sun. One hundred miles across the strait lay the Canadian province of Newfoundland, accessible only by airplane or ferry. His mother had chosen the ferry, and Matt waited impatiently. His twin sister Kate sat quietly behind him in the backseat, head bobbing over a sketchpad on her lap. If she was impatient with the wait, she hid it well.
The Marine Atlantic Ferry dock at Port Sydney, Nova Scotia was a vast parking lot, long rows separated by white lines and numbered one through twelve. Matt’s truck was parked in row nine. Filling the eight rows to the left were vehicles lined bumper to bumper, motors off as passengers lounged in the afternoon sun – all with reservations that guaranteed a spot on the boat. Motorcyclists hung out in row one. Semi-trucks lined the three rows to his right, engines quiet as dockworkers began unloading the newly-arrived ferry from Newfoundland.
“This ship is mammoth!” Matt observed to his sister, pointing to the massive cargo door perched open to allow a double height of cars and trucks to drive in and out of the ship’s hold. The ferry loomed three decks above the level of the dock, the upper decks shining white and glistening in the sun, the lower hull dark blue beneath a brilliant yellow stripe.
Kate glanced up briefly from the back seat, an outline of the ferry beginning to take shape on the sketchpad in her lap. “Looks like a gigantic blue mouth opening up to swallow us whole,” she noted softly.
Matt rolled his eyes as he looked out the window once more. “A gigantic blue mouth? Are you serious?”
“Hey,” his mother turned in her seat behind the steering wheel and regarded him with a slight frown. “I happen to agree with her. It does look like this monster will swallow us whole.”
“If there is any room for us,” Matt said with a sigh as he returned to watching the vehicles lined up around them. Their truck sat in row nine, the leftover line. The waiting line. The stand-by line. The “you didn’t have a reservation?” line. Dock workers loaded vehicles from row nine last, and only if room remained on the ferry. If not, the Peters family had a six-hour wait in the parking lot before the next ship arrived.
They were traveling through eastern Canada, and already away from their home in southern Georgia for two weeks, their mother’s plan was to spend the remainder of the summer in Newfoundland. To reach the vast island, they would make the six-hour trip across one hundred miles of Atlantic Ocean that ended in Port-aux-Basques.
Although the capped bed of the truck was piled with camping equipment, backpacks, and containers of food, it was not exactly a vacation trip. His mother, Anna Peters, was a professional photographer and something of a wandering soul. On the day school ended in late May and their bus rounded the corner for home one last time, Matt and Kate found her waiting in the driveway, truck loaded, anxious to “get out of town.” They chose a direction and departed for the summer.
“And why didn’t we make a reservation?” Matt anxiously asked, a question he had already voiced at least three times that afternoon. Anna laughed. She moved along when the mood struck. Or when she had taken all the photos she desired. Or when it rained too many days in a row. Or when she “felt so inclined.”
“I believe I’ve already answered this question, eh?” Anna replied. “I didn’t know how many days we would stay in Cape Breton and only early this morning made the decision to travel on to Newfoundland. Perk up – we’ll manage whatever the outcome.”
Perk up? What a ridiculous statement, Matt considered silently. While sitting in the truck another six hours? Unlikely.
Watching the ship disgorge its long line of cars, trucks, and motor homes, Matt tried to calculate the number of departing vehicles but soon lost count as the procession wound across the parking lot toward the exit. He lowered the truck window and scrambled up to sit in the open air. It was a warm day for northern Nova Scotia, sunny with a light breeze. Many drivers and passengers had exited their cars and now mingled in small groups on the dock, chatting as they waited. Occasionally the loudspeaker at the end of the dock squawked with a voice repeating blurred announcements, many of them in French, about loading times and keeping engines off while waiting.
“We should have at least called and attempted to make a reservation,” Matt stated once more as he studied the passengers in the cars around them over the roof of the truck cab. Two rows over, a woman in a low red convertible sat upright behind the steering wheel, a snow white poodle perched stiffly on her lap, both appearing bored with the wait. An occasional passing breeze riffled her short gray hair, revealing a reed-thin neck. Absentmindedly, she stroked the tightly-wound poodle hair as she stared straight ahead.
“I wish we had a dog,” Matt muttered under his breath. This was not a new topic of conversation for their family.
Kate looked out her open window, taking in the scene at the red convertible, “Not a poodle, please. I’m allergic to them. Lots of sneezing, eyes swelling, general misery. Maybe a St. Bernard?”
“I don’t believe he could fit in the backseat with you,” their mom commented drily. “How about a Chihuahua?”
Kate laughed and Matt scowled. A Chihuahua? No thanks.
Three men in overalls and rubber boots leaned against a mud-covered truck two rows over, laughing loudly as they talked. The fragments of speech caught by Matt carried such a heavy northern Canadian accent that he had trouble following the conversation. Something about fog and cod and fishing hooks. One commercial truck driver circled his vehicle, checking the tie-down straps on his load of metal pipes. Matt was amazed the hold of the ferry was large enough to accommodate the long line of semi-trucks.
“Look at that man,” Kate pointed her chin toward the left.
“Which guy?” Matt swiveled his head around. “Which direction?”
“He’s two, no three rows away. Two cars ahead of us. He looks angry. Wonder why?”
Waving his hands in the air, a short stocky man hunched over the hood of a blue compact car, cell phone pressed to his ear, a map unfolded beneath his hand. Gusts of wind repeatedly flipped the paper edges, threatening to send it flying across the parking lot. A girl about their age with long blond hair sat quietly in the passenger seat, gazing forward, unmoving. Too far away to hear his words, he watched the man’s face turn almost as red as the hair on his head when he slammed the phone shut and slapped a hand down on the hood of the car. Matt heard the thud and thought he saw the young passenger flinch in surprise. As if aware someone was watching, the driver turned his eyes in the direction of the Peters’ waiting truck. Matt hastily drew his head back inside the cab.
He looked at his sister and shrugged. “Maybe he’s mad because they won’t deliver a lobster pizza here to the dock?” He laughed at his own wit. “Get it? A lobster pizza? In Nova Scotia?”
This time it was Kate’s turn to roll her eyes before she returned to her sketch.
When most of the arriving vehicles had departed, the cavernous hold of the ferry gaped dark and empty. Crew members in uniform walked to waiting vehicles as their shifts ended, lunch boxes in hand. Reminded of food, Matt checked his backpack for the ever present granola bars and peanut M&Ms. His stomach churned with impatience.
As the sun began to drop lower in the sky, a short siren sounded, followed by another blurred message from the loudspeaker, first made in French, then in English.
“What did they say?” Kate questioned. “I can’t understand a word of those announcements.”
Matt watched as surrounding bystanders quickly moved to return to their cars. “It must be time to board.”
Two dock workers with bright orange jackets and yellow batons walked across the parking lot to motion the strings of parked vehicles forward. A cacophony of engines roared to life as row two emptied first, the line of cars slowly snaking toward the ferry entrance. Then rows three and four and five joined the procession. The semi-trucks in rows ten, eleven and twelve joined soon after, followed by another line of cars. From row nine, Matt waited nervously as each vehicle slowly disappeared into the dark mouth of the ferry. There were so many.
“I don’t think we are going to make it,” Matt voiced his concern. “Do you?”
Kate squinted at the vanishing line of cars.
“Look at how many semi-trucks have already boarded. How can there be more room?” he ventured.
“The hold is very large,” Anna responded from behind the wheel as she stared through the windshield. “Don’t give up just yet.”
After the dock workers motioned the motorcycles from row one forward, the only vehicles remaining in the vast empty parking lot were those patiently waiting in row nine, the “stand by” line, the “we didn’t make a reservation” line. Matt held his breath as he watched the man in the orange jacket radio someone on board the ferry.
“Any more room?” The worker’s mouth formed the all-important question. He glanced at the Peters’ truck and four other waiting cars, wrinkled his brow and shook his head. One minute passed, then two. Matt’s grip on the straps of his backpack tightened as he braced himself for disappointment.
The first car shifted into gear, then the second. The dockworker quickly held up his hand as Anna reached for the ignition. Ten seconds passed, then thirty, then a minute. The dockworker turned in the light of the late afternoon sun to watch the car in front of them drive into the hold.
“How about one more?” he questioned, close enough now for Matt to hear his words through the open window. A garbled unintelligible voice responded through the speaker of the hand-held radio. Another pause and nerve-wracking wait.
Just when Matt reluctantly accepted another tedious wait for the next six hours, the dockworker in orange stepped backward, motioning them forward. Matt released a whoosh of relief as Anna put the truck in gear, and they drove toward the steep ramp leading into the lower hull of the ferry.
Kate raised her head from her drawing when they entered the dark hold and parked according to the hand directions of another ferry worker, their front bumper inches away from the back of a semi-truck that towered above them. Cars sandwiched them on either side.
“Good thing I’m not claustrophobic,” Matt whistled beneath his breath.
“What about that little episode in the lava tubes in Idaho last summer?” Kate interjected quietly from the backseat.
“Did you have to bring that up again?” Matt muttered as Anna chuckled beside him.
When Matt popped his head outside of the window to peer behind the truck, he saw only the raised steel door of the ferry’s hold and water lapping beneath the loading ramp. No more room. The air was thick with the smell of oil and gasoline, dampness and sea water.
“Gulp,” Kate spoke aloud. “We’ve been swallowed!” Shoving her sketchpad into her backpack, she grinned at Matthew. “Now let’s go explore the ship!”