She laughs, drawing attention in our direction.
“I think I’ll just head to my room, actually.”
“Of course. You must be knackered after your flight.” She takes hold of my arm again, and we enter a dim hallway at the back of the pub. It’s lined with three doors, two of them restrooms and one labeled employees only. At the other end is a narrow, rickety staircase. Faith stops us at the bottom and points at a plain wooden door visible from where we’re standing. “Now. Your room is right at the top of the stairs. I’d bring you up myself, but I’m in the middle of a shift and Shane’s already got his temper up. No reason to rile it any further.” She rubs a circle onto my back, and I try not to stiffen. “But no worries. I’ll be up later to give you the lay of the land.”
“Thanks,” I mumble, attempting a smile. Back in Chicago, I don’t have a lot of female friends. All right, none. When Evan would bring me around his childhood buddies, their girlfriends would include me, mostly out of curiosity than anything, but I could never quite get the conversational beats down. How to respond to a question without creating too much interest in my past in Nashville. The life I led before Ginger and I escaped to Chicago and she met—then married—the hot cop who lived across the hall. Keeping things light, making casual acquaintances, is a skill that tends to escape me. We were too busy surviving to learn skills like small talk.
“You’re welcome.” Faith smiles as if I’ve been acting completely normal this entire awkward introduction, and I wonder if maybe, just maybe, I didn’t do too badly this time around. “It’s lovely to meet you.” She starts to walk away but turns back and winks at me. “We’re going to be friends, Willa. There’s no help for you.”
I’ve showered off the layer of travel dust and thrown on faded jeans with a red thermal shirt. I’ve unpacked, if you can call dumping the contents of your suitcase into a drawer unpacking. My room is small and simply decorated. White lace everywhere. The curtains and bedspread are made of the stuff. Doilies spread carefully beneath clocks and a telephone. I’d never choose the decor for myself—I’m more of the year-round Christmas lights and murals type—but that’s kind of why I like it. As if maybe I needed to step outside my usual space to see beyond it. I want to do more of that. Now, if possible. Giving myself time to think will only set me back when I want to move forward.
It’s only early evening and looking out the window at Baggot Street, I’m desperate to get outside and immerse myself in anonymity. Dubliners walk past in groups, calling out to others across the street. Claymore’s is one of many pubs on the street and smokers congregate outside them all, their laughter reaching me through the glass. Below me, the music in the pub has grown steadily louder since five o’clock, as if the Irish equivalent of happy hour has started. Being so far from anything familiar feels like an aphrodisiac. I want to see unusual sights, taste different air, be unrecognized. I shoot a quick text to Ginger and her husband, Derek, letting them know I’ve arrived in one piece. Simultaneously, I receive one back from each of them saying, “Stay that way.”
God, I want to shake them to death I love them so much. Sometimes I think only having the ability to love a small number of people cranks up the intensity. I have no way of spreading it around, no one else to bestow it on, so it’s highly concentrated and fierce. It’s okay with Derek and Ginger, though, because they share my sickness. Derek, because he’s a homicide cop. Ginger, because she grew up trying to protect me. Love few, love hard. That’s us. My smile slips when Evan blasts through my conscious like a speeding train, honking and flashing his lights. This time it’s accompanied by a wave of pity I refuse to wallow in. Digesting the pain, I throw my messenger bag containing my Nikon, keys, and wallet over my shoulder and head out before I crawl under the white lace and forget why I came here.
When I reach the bottom of the stairs, I notice the door marked employees only is open slightly. This is where I should keep walking, but my annoying curiosity won’t let me, because just inside the door, sitting on an antique desk, I see a family photograph. I’ve never been part of one. My mother couldn’t even remember to feed me most of the time, so making arrangements to capture our likenesses would have been beyond her capabilities. While I’ve never understood the motivation to pose for such a picture—because, inevitably, you will hate your hairstyle within a year, but by then it’s nailed to a f**king wall for everyone to gawk at—they’ve always drawn me in.
Paging Willa’s shrink. Yes, the curiosity probably comes from wanting to understand something I’ve never had, but that doesn’t make me any less curious. After casting one final glance at the pub entrance, I nudge the employees-only door open with one finger, as if the less I touch it, the less offensive an intrusion this will be. At first, my attention is captured by the smiling foursome, forever frozen in time, watching me invade their privacy. Faith and Shane, both a few years younger, stand front and center in the photo, smiling. The smile looks forced on Shane’s part, but not Faith. She looks positively elated to be participating in family picture day. Behind them stands a man and woman, the man unsmiling with his chin raised proudly, the woman looking as though she’d just forgotten she left something baking in the oven.
I can’t help but laugh in the dimness, wondering why in God’s name they’d chosen this particular shot to display in a frame. They are either the least photogenic family in Ireland, or they’d been heinously ripped off by their photographer. My gaze lingers on Shane a moment before shiny objects in the corner of the room catch my attention.
Trophies, at least a dozen of them, are stuffed haphazardly inside a giant cardboard box, but I can see gold figures of cars mounted on their tops. Interest piqued, I skirt past the desk and pull one out to inspect the inscription.
Second place: 2013 Formula 1 Malaysian Grand Prix, Shane Claymore. I pull another one out. Third place: 2013 Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix, Shane Claymore.
I can feel my eyebrows inching toward my hairline. Shane is a race-car driver? A successful one, apparently. It’s the last thing I expect, and I’m not often surprised.
“Well, that explains how he got here so freaking fast,” I mutter, then sift through the box to pull out a framed, black-and-white photograph. Shane is dressed in a white racing uniform, ball cap pulled down low over his forehead. He’s sitting on the hood of a race car, all casual grace, a trophy propped on his thigh. Whoever took the picture must have said something funny, because his smile looks spontaneous. Definitely not forced, like in the family photo. I try not to study it too closely, but it’s hard. His interesting lines, the depth lurking in his eyes. He is a photographer’s dream.
Now that I’ve admitted he is good-looking, I resolve never to think about his looks again. I firmly place the picture back in the box and turn to leave, a dozen thoughts skittering around in my noggin.
What is a race car driver doing bartending in a pub?
I have this thought a split second before I hear footsteps coming down the hallway. Shit. I can’t walk out because then someone will know for sure I was snooping. I turn in a circle and ram my hip into the desk. Goddammitouch. That’s going to leave a mark. I cringe when I realize my only option is to wait by the door and hope they pass so I can slip out unnoticed.