Jeff and his parents left the check-in desk and walked along the wide corridor that led
to Halifax International Airport's single security gate. With cameras slung over their
shoulders and paperbacks parked under their arms, Ken and Frances Beacon looked every inch
like two people setting out to enjoy a family holiday. Walking between them, the tall
thirteen-year-old with the red brushcut looked more like a convicted prisoner being led
away for a lifetime or two of solitary confinement. His serious grey eyes held a faraway
look and the shoulders inside his denim jacket sagged with an air of defeat.
"Who owns this backpack?"
Eh? The question snapped Jeff out of his
reverie. Oh doodle. He must have walked right through the
metal-detector door without even noticing it.
"Um, it's mine." He could feel his father tense up beside him. "Why?"
"Would you open it please," said the uniformed woman behind the big, boxy X-ray machine.
Jeff felt his chest constrict. He should have seen this
coming, he'd flown enough to know the airport routine. He looked down at
the dark green backpack lying where the endless black tongue of the X-ray
machine's conveyor belt had lapped it onto a stainless steel counter.
Glancing up at the screen he saw immediately what triggered the question.
In the middle of the gray-and-white picture was a bright, white and suspicious shape.
Buddy! His face warm, Jeff's fingers felt around for the zipper
tab and pulled it open.
The security agent rummaged methodically through the contents of Jeff's pack, sliding her hand deep inside. When she pulled it out, it held a polished brass cylinder a little bit smaller than a pop can. It had a narrow neck and a screw-on lid. Jeff heard his father's intake of breath. The woman turned the curious container over to read the writing engraved on one side.
"It's my dog," Jeff said. Or at least it's what's left of him.
Even through his embarrassment he felt the hurt again and a
part of him wanted to cry. Not here nerd-face, you're at the airport! It was bad enough that people in line behind him were beginning to grumble about the hold-up.
"It's the dog's ashes." Dad's lawyer voice. The one he used to persuade juries in court. "He's a bit fixated with them." Jeff could hear the disapproval in the words.
"It's only been a couple of months," Frances Beacon broke in, apologetic. "He's having trouble getting over it. That's why we're taking this trip actually, we hope it'll take his mind off things."
"Mom!!!!" Jeez, can't she keep anything private, Jeff wondered. Like there's only about a hundred people here watching me squirm.
The guard twisted off the brass lid and peered inside. Then she held the urn to her nose and sniffed at it. Jeff knew what she would find: dry grey powder and a dusty smell.
Oh Buddy, I'm sorry! Jeff squeezed his eyes tight against
the tears. Jeez, no! They always seemed to come when he was reminded that
the white bull terrier who had been his best, closest friend since Jeff's
first birthday, was just a half-cup of grey dust now.
"Thank you folks, have a nice vacation." The guard twisted the lid back onto the brass cylinder and handed it back to Jeff.
Yeah. Right! Still upset, Jeff thrust the cannister back into his backpack and yanked the zipper shut.
"For God's sake Jeff!" His father's lecture began as they rode the escalator up to the departure lounge. "What in heaven's name persuaded you to bring that with you? How often do I have to tell you, you've got to put the past away and get on with life!"
Jeff was silent. Inside, he promised himself once again,
No way, Dad. No way am I letting go of Buddy. Ever! So get used to it, Dad..
The engines whined to full power and the big jet lumbered down the uneven runway. Jeff felt the seat back push into his own and closed his eyes to wait for the little lift that meant they were flying.
On vacation. Oh wow.
The Beacon family had moved a lot, mostly following Mom's job changes from this hospital to that one. For vacation, Ken and Frances Beacon liked to take their only son to places like Jamaica and Cuba for a week or two of all-inclusive pampering. Nice sun, nice beach, lots of swimming, usually lots of pretty good food. And perky baby-sitters pretending to be Youth Activity Counsellors. Okay. But with Buddy back home at a kennel, he'd always felt as though something were missing.
Last summer had been the exception. Buddy had come with him
to Ontario to visit his grandparents for a month. Now, that was what
a holiday should be like. Even now, Jeff found himself smiling at the memory of Buddy tearing around Grandad's big green lawn in that crazy way that made him look like a fifty pound white jackrabbit.
His heart sank. This trip will sure be different,
he thought unhappily. No dog, no lawn, no beach. Not even his computer. Lately, surfing around on the 'Net seemed about the only activity that took his mind off Buddy. When you surfed, you never knew where you might end up and you got there in no time at all. There was a new adventure down every alley. It was almost magic.
Ten days off-line, he thought. Ten days on the good ship SS Booooooring.
The cruise to Alaska had been Dr. Doucet's idea. Jeff's parents had made him see the grief counselor for some help "getting over" Buddy. Dr. Pickleface, I hate you.
Jeff stared sightlessly out the little oval window as the jet climbed up through layers of cloud. This wasn't really a holiday at all. It was more like a prescription!
Ten hours, two airplane meals and one taxi ride later, they had crossed the continent and were climbing stiffly out of the cab in front of the cruise pier in Vancouver. It was right downtown, a gleaming white building with a futuristic roof that Jeff guessed was intended to look like sails filling in the wind.
As they crossed a gangplank onto the deck of a large blue passenger liner, he could see the harbor stretching away beyond it. It was busier than Halifax's. A huge grey ship stacked with containers the size of box-cars, steamed past pretty white yachts and working boats painted in black, red and yellow. Beyond them, mountains rose almost straight up from the water, looking like a movie set painted on the sky.
Smiling crew members directed them to their cabin on the far side of the ship from the pier. The space was laid out like a compact hotel room, with two double beds and a tiny sitting area with two armchairs and a small coffee table that, Jeff noticed, was bolted to the floor. There was a washroom to one side of the door.
His heart lifted at the sight of fresh cut flowers on the table. It was almost like they knew, he thought. Avoiding his father's eyes, he pulled the brass cannister out of his backpack and placed it beside the flowers. Reaching into the pack again, he removed a framed photograph and put it beside the urn. It was a picture of him and Buddy racing each other along a beach. He put his hand in again and came out with two smaller pictures, Buddy curled in his bed and the two of them lying on the floor reading the funnies. He arranged those on the table too.
Jeff could feel Dad's glare-o-meter go up a notch with each picture. He braced himself for The Lecture on 'putting Buddy away.' But it was cut off before it could begin.
A recorded announcement boomed through the ship calling all passengers to Deck Eight for lifeboat drill. Jeff looked at Buddy's box, then shot a glance over at his father. Nah. It's only a drill.
Following the disembodied instructions, the three Beacons donned the lifejackets they found in a rack in the closet. Then they left the cabin and set out to find Deck Eight.
After the lifedrill, the boat began to pull away from the dock with three loud blasts on its horn. Jeff and his parents stayed out on deck, but removed their lifejackets. The huge vessel steamed under the lofty highway bridge that vaulted across the mouth of Vancouver Harbor, now vanishing astern. The Lion's Gate Bridge, that was it.
Now they were passing a lighthouse on a rocky point. Beyond it, the land fell away into dim blue distance where an vast inlet of the sea ran up into the mountains. Jeff saw snow on mountain peaks, colored in peach by the sinking sun. The famous Whistler ski resort must be up there somewhere, he reckoned.
Ken Beacon looked at Jeff, and then at his watch. "Time for a fast burger, then I think we should all hit the sack," he said. Jeff's body was still running four hours ahead on Atlantic Time, and he couldn't agree more. He was hungry and tired and bored. When the late August night finally closed in over the inky blue mountains going by them beyond the big windows, he was already sound asleep.
When his eyes shot open next morning it was 5:37 a.m., according to the glowing face of his father's travel alarm clock. Outside the big windows, empty squares of sea and sky had replaced the mountains. One or two bright stars still shone in the darkest arc just above the horizon. But as Jeff watched, the sky grew lighter and they twinkled out.
He felt wide awake.
Jeff tugged on his jeans and shrugged into his T-shirt and then his denim jacket. He laced up his new Nikes.
Then he shot a look at his parents' bed. Sleep in, guys, he thought. Tip-toeing past their feet, he retrieved Buddy from the table and shoved the gleaming brass cannister into his backpack.
Hey boy, let's go explore this old tub! He slung the pack over his shoulder and slipped out into the corridor.
Not many other people were up. On the level where the arcade was, the gym was silent and the entrance to the movie theatre was dark and unattended. A few crew members moved quietly around the restaurants, setting out trays of sliced fruit and pastries for people who were mostly still in bed. It's like walking through a mall on a holiday, Jeff reflected, pushing open a door that led out to the deck.
The air was cool but very fresh, and Jeff found himself squinting into the first rays of the newly risen sun. The light was almost painfully bright as he gazed across a mile of blue-green water to a heavily forested shore.
No question, he thought, the mountains here are pretty awesome. Even the ones closest to him, rising out of the sea and folding back into dark green distant valleys, were bigger than anything back home. And beyond them were more peaks, soaring summits with sheets of snow hanging on their shoulders, the gap between each set of white fangs revealing others even more distant and mysterious.
As the ship steamed steadily north, the majestic coastline unrolled like an endless postcard of green islands, deep bays and mountain valleys. Jeff imagined exploring each island with Buddy, finding new worlds on every one. Sort of like Myst, he thought, only in real-life.
"Pretty neat, eh Buddy?" He said over his shoulder to the backpack. "Just look at all those valleys! Bet we could find some adventures in there." Unlike this stupid cruise.
"Who are you talking to?"
Eh? Jeff spun around. The girl wasn't quite his height and maybe a year younger than himself. She wore a Boston Red Sox sweatshirt over baggy white pants, and had her reddish-brown hair in two long pigtails. Sort of like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz movie, Jeff thought. "Eh? I'm sorry, what'd you say?"
"I asked who you were talking to," she said. She wasn't being smart. But her polite directness startled him. She sounded like she really wanted to know. Jeff felt his cheeks burn.
"Uhh... Well, actually I.. I was talking to my dog."
The girl's face lit up. The strong morning sun danced in her large green eyes. "You have a dog in there? Oh, so cool! Is it a chihuahua?"
Now Jeff's whole head seemed to be burning up. "He's an English Bull Terrier," he said hotly. Then he realized how stupid that was going to sound.
The girl craned her neck to look past him skeptically at the backpack. "Is it a puppy? You should open that thing and let it stick its nose out. It could run out of air in there and die."
Oh jeez! Jeff looked away. "He's already dead."
"Huh?" A look of disgust began to creep over the girl's face.
"No, what I mean is," he slipped the backpack off his shoulder and fumbled it open. "It's just his ashes. He died a while ago. See?" He held up the brass cannister. In the clear morning sun, the polished brass looked like gold.
The girl's face eased a bit. Now she only looked at Jeff like he was mildly crazy. Not like I'm crazy and dangerous. She cocked her head at him and stuck out her hand. "My name's Rosemary," she said.
"Im Jeff," said Jeff, and hoped he wasn't blushing.
"You must have really loved him a lot." she said, nodding at the brass urn.
"Unh, yeh. Yeh, I did." Now what? Feeling very awkward, Jeff returned Buddy to his backpack. The silence got longer.
"There's a scavenger hunt after breakfast," the girl said at last. "Want to do it together?"
"Umm... No. I mean, no thanks," Jeff stammered. "I... I can't... I'm busy."
Her green eyes opened in surprise, then rolled in exaggerated disbelief. Good one Jeff, he thought, you total nerd.
"Okay," the girl answered airily. "Whatever." She turned and started to walk away along the deck. Over her shoulder she called back, "So, have a nice day... with your dog." She arched her eyebrows and turned away smiling.
The rest of that day seemed to Jeff to pass in a distracted blur of trying to keep busy and avoiding the girl.
By the time he returned Buddy to the Beacon's cabin, it was time for breakfast. It was a generous one, of eggs and sausage and toast, way more than Jeff had appetite for. Afterward, a Youth Hostess led a tour of the ship, from the command bridge with its dials and guages and radar screens, to the ear-splitting racket of the engine room. A crewman in overalls explained how all the ship's power came from just two deisel engines. Mind you, they're each about the size of a house trailer, Jeff thought.
It took nearly three hours to explore the huge vessel's many decks and working sections. But somehow at every turn and corridor, the tour seemed to cross paths with the scavenger hunt. Several times, the girl from that morning managed to catch his eye and smile at him, despite his best efforts to avoid her. And once, he felt himself go crimson when she called out to ask, "Where's your dog?"
Lunch was laid out on the same generous scale as breakfast. But Jeff passed on the buffet his parents tucked into, and just had a couple of hot dogs. A news-sheet at the table advertised the afternoon's Youth Events: teen karaoke, a video game tournament and something called 'scattagories.' Whatever the heck that is!
After waiting half an hour for his meal to settle, Jeff changed into swim trunks and tried to do some laps in the pool that occupied most of the ship's broad back deck. He liked to swim, and several school freestyle trophies occupied a shelf in his bedroom back in Halifax.
But this pool wasn't really big enough for laps. It got even smaller when a clutch of mothers arrived with about three million screaming little kids in tow.
Jeff gave up his workout in disgust. Dried off and dressed, he found his father one deck up from the pool at a small on-board driving range, plopping golf balls into a billowing green net with fierce concentration.
Feeling Jeff's eyes on him, Ken Beacon dug into his pocket and pulled out a $20 American bill. "Here son," he said, "If the scenery isn't doing it for you, why don't you check out that video contest?"
But the girl was there again, pigtails flying as she worked the
controls and threw herself into the action on the flickering screen. Jeff wound up back at the cabin, watching E.T. on the ship's closed-circuit TV. He'd seen it before, but he still liked it.
Dinner was even more lavish than lunch. Jeff piled his plate high, balancing roast beef and chicken on heaps of mashed potato and macaroni salad, arranging just enough green stuff artfully around the edges to discourage Mom from giving the Nutrition Speech.
But at first bite he remembered how it used to be. How Buddy used to stand under the table at home, nose pushed between Jeff's knees, waiting more or less patiently for the boy to finish eating and reward his patience with the scrap Buddy had learned to expect after every meal.
I wish I had to save something for him every single meal for the rest of my life.
The thought took away his appetite and left a tight knot in
his stomach. He saw Mom and Dad exchange worried glances as he toyed with
the food on his plate. But he didn't care. This stupid cruise wasn't my idea in the first place.
The next morning, Jeff managed to sleep in a bit later. But by the time he finished breakfast, Day Two on the Therapy Boat looked like it was going to be just as lame as Day One. The kids' events listed on the ship's news-sheet offered a choice of face-painting, balloon animals and teen tanning time. Teen tanning time?
Yeh, just a floating resort without the beach. He finished his tenth lap around the big outdoor promenade deck and leaned against the rail. They were sailing between mountains on both sides of them now. Low and green, compared to the distant white spires that lost themselves in the clouds away to the east. But bigger than anything people in Nova Scotia called a mountain.
Yep, they're impressive, alright, Jeff was thinking. But they're still just mountains. After so many hours of non-stop nature-special grandeur, one majestic vista was beginning to look an awful lot like the next.
This morning he'd left the backpack behind when he slipped out of the cabin. Buddy was back on the little table. He could feel the lonely sadness settling over him again. Some vacation!
Suddenly, a sound so loud and deep it made his lungs vibrate
blasted out from somewhere above and behind him. The ship's horn,
Jeff realized, in the long moment of near silence before his ears
began working again. ...[Continue to CHAPTER 2...]