Chapter 3
You love that story to bits, don't you?

The customs officer handed my passport back, remarking, “You picked a good time for a visit. They say it’s going to be a scorcher out there today.”

I resisted the urge to ask him if he’d looked out the window lately and continued on to the baggage claim area where most of the others awaiting their luggage announced their Irishness via an unnaturally high ratio of impossibly blue eyes and pale white skin. If I’d bothered to listen, their Irishness would’ve been audible in the indistinct hum of voices in a crowd too. That’s desperate, they’d be saying. Will ye give it over! Ta. What’re you on about? Good man yerself. Howaya. It could happen to a bishop. Are you well? Don’t be bold! Clear off! Would you ever cop on to yourself?

But I wasn’t listening; I was hoping there’d been no new disruptions in Joss’s family—no parental arguments, no bad dreams for Ruby, and no scary outbursts of guilt from Ajay—in the short hours that I’d been gone. Then my brain jumped tracks and found itself wondering whether my dad had warned his sister that I’d fought him and my mom about spending the summer in Ireland. I didn’t want to act moody with my aunt and uncle and make the next couple of months worse for myself, but I didn’t think I could convincingly fake excitement at finding myself in Dublin either. 

I flipped my hair back, slung my knapsack over my shoulder and strode over to the appropriate luggage carousel. My suitcase was heavier than it should’ve been because I’d defied my mother’s advice to pack light while she’d stood in my doorway watching me cram clothes into my suitcase. Irritated with myself for not having any euro coins to rent a luggage cart, I upended the suitcase so that it balanced on its wheels and then tugged it behind me into the arrivals hall where crowds of ashen-skinned, blue-eyed people had gathered to greet returning friends and relatives.

My parents had been in Ireland for my grandfather’s funeral three and a half years earlier, but I’d been too sick with an ear infection to fly and had instead been shuttled over to Mom’s friend’s place for looking after. As a result my memories of Aunt Kate and Uncle Frank were foggy and my eight-year-old memories of my cousins only marginally clearer. Zoey, the youngest, was a tomboy and a show-off, always in trouble for something. Since Fiona and Matt were teenagers at the time neither of them had been around a lot. Thirteen-year-old Jack had been my outright favourite because he hadn’t pulled a superiority act, instead assuming I was fully capable of mastering his video games. 

Naturally I’d seen photos of my aunt and uncle over the years, but as I scanned the arrivals hall multiple middle-aged couples registered as rough matches for the fuzzy images in my head. I stopped pulling my suitcase and paused in place, hoping they’d spot me. 

Sure enough Aunt Kate and Uncle Frank appeared quickly at my side, throwing their arms around me in turn and declaring that it was great to see me. Stronger memories of the two of them began bobbing back into my mind. Among them, Aunt Kate heating pea soup from a can. Me, trying not to make faces when I ate it and her smiling and asking if I’d prefer chicken-noodle. “I would,” Uncle Frank had said, winking at me across the kitchen table.

The man standing next to Aunt Kate at the airport was greyer than I remembered but still recognizable as the one who’d winked at me over a bowl of pea soup. “Welcome back, love,” he said. “How was your flight?” 

Uncle Frank swept my over-packed suitcase effortlessly into the air before I could reply. “What do you have in here?” he asked cheerfully. “Everything but the kitchen sink?”

Aunt Kate began guiding me through the crowd while muttering something about the weather and the feast she planned to cook me when we got home. I kept up with her and my uncle, half-listening to them and half-asleep from being up all night. As we stepped outside I noticed it had stopped raining, although ominous clouds still loomed overhead. 

My aunt and uncle wanted to know about my flight and I humoured them, making small talk in the car while staring out the window at narrow roads and row houses. Compact cars and undersized trucks hurtled by us on the lean highway as I glanced, heavy-lidded, at bookmakers, various corner stores (not one of them featuring the words “7-Eleven”) and neighbourhood pubs with names like O’Shea & Sons or The Wicked Welshman. But the thing that caught my eye again and again was the very same thing I’d noticed from the plane—how unlike the half-scorched summer grass at home the healthy deep green Irish landscape was. 

I wasn’t the least bit hungry by the time we reached the house, just so exhausted that I felt like I was already dreaming. I leant against the kitchen counter and stopped my aunt before she could begin whipping up the promised feast. 

“Your dad told us you’re vegetarian,” Aunt Kate said brightly. “I picked up soy sausages. Or maybe you’d prefer an omelet?”

I felt a sudden stab of affection for my father for having mentioned it, even though it was his fault I was miles from home when Joss needed me. “Maybe later,” I told her. “Really. I’m not that hun—”

“It’d still be the middle of the night for her,” Uncle Frank cut in with a smile. “Only half awake, are you?”

I nodded dazedly and just then my cousin Zoey burst into the kitchen in navy leggings and a long striped pullover. My aunt and uncle’s gaze zoomed towards their youngest daughter, her hair short and spiky but redder than I remembered. She was shorter than my five feet five inches now. Skinnier than me too. 

“You overslept,” Aunt Kate noted, disapproval etched into her forehead. “You missed your lift to the airport.”

“I know,” Zoey acknowledged. “Sorry, Mum. I worked to closing at the restaurant last night.” My cousin smiled as her attention swung back to me. “God, I can’t believe this. It’s a bit surreal, actually. You’d still know it was you—the eyes are exactly the same.” 

“Yours too.” Her eyes were really the only part of her that seemed familiar. “Where’s Jack?”

“He’s down unda,” Zoey drawled, mimicking an Australian accent. “Him and his mates got their Aussie work visas and took off for Melbourne indefinitely back in January. Did your parents not tell you he was away?”

“Right. They did.” Exhaustion and the unyielding desire to stay in Toronto had temporarily chased the detail from my mind, but it seemed the only cousin I’d be sharing the house with this summer was spiky Zoey with last night’s eyeliner still smudged on her skin. I took a long look at her, trying to conjure a vision of the future where we’d be friends. 

“You look knackered,” Zoey observed.

As if to prove her point I erupted into an accidental yawn, my eyelids drooping. “I didn’t sleep on the plane. I think I need to lie down for a couple of hours.” 

“Your room’s all ready,” Zoey said, glancing at her mother. “I’ll take her up.” 

My cousin led me upstairs, clutching my ton-of-bricks suitcase without complaint. “Here’s my room.” She pointed to the right. “Mum and Dad are at the end next to the bathroom. This is you here, in Jack’s.” We stepped inside a smallish, off-white room with a double bed and Zoey dropped my case on the floor before motioning to the closet. “There’s plenty of space in the wardrobe. He emptied half of it out before he left.” Zoey sat down on the bed, her toes curled under her feet. “It’ll be nice to have another vegetarian around for a bit. They seem to think they’re not having a real meal unless it includes meat.” 

“So you’re vegetarian too?” I fought a second yawn, but the yawn won.

“Absolutely. I don’t know how anyone can stand to eat anything that once had a heartbeat.”

Zoey stood up in a shot. “You’re ready to drop. Better climb in.” She drifted towards the door, stopping to glance back over her shoulder. “Give me a shout if you need anything. I’m just down the hall.”

Alone, I lay on Jack’s double bed and stared slowly around the room, my eyes catching on a montage of photos tacked up in the corner—a grown Jack and his friends in various locations, on a white sand beach, a ski lift, inside crowded bars. I rolled over on my side and struggled to get comfortable, but for the longest time I couldn’t keep my eyes shut, despite how tired I was. My mind was already back with Jocelyn and I nearly got out of bed to ask my aunt and uncle for their WiFi password so that I could check email. 

Wait a few hours, I told myself. Go to sleep. There’s nothing you can do for her from here anyway. 

Birds were chirping outside the window and they sounded just like birds from home. It made me feel like maybe I hadn’t really gone anywhere, only each time I opened my eyes there were Jack’s photos reminding me otherwise. Each time, that is, until the moment my mind finally gave in to my body and drifted into unconsciousness to the universal sound of chirping.


Later that day the rest of my extended family showed up for a shivery barbecue (so much for the scorcher the customs officer had forecast) with meat and vegetarian options. My cousin Matt had driven up from Wexford with his girlfriend and my other cousin, Fiona, and her husband Andy surprised me with a bottle of Dolce & Gabbana perfume. Everyone did their best to make me feel at home while steadfastly avoiding the topic of my parents’ unsuccessful separation. 

As the evening wore on Fiona’s young daughter, Caitlin, fell asleep curled up on the couch. Fiona and Andy’s wedding album came off the shelf, then the wedding video and some of Zoey’s old talent competitions. “Look at those sequins,” Zoey groaned as her rendition of an Abba hit rang out from the TV. She sought out my gaze from across the room. “I swear this isn’t anything like what I’m doing now. You’ll have to come and see me with The Brash Heathens, the band I’m singing with. Absolutely no twee cover tunes or gold sequins, I promise.” 

Only once my cousins had left did I get around to checking email on my laptop. There was a message each from Yanna and Kérane, but nothing from Jocelyn and I fired off an email to ask how she was doing before replying to the others. During that first week apart we emailed frequently. In the beginning she sounded reasonably okay, but by the second week she’d discovered a photo of an unconscious Melanie Cheng in a hospital bed on the desk in Ajay’s room. 

He must have found it outside after Mr. Cheng was here. He pretends to my parents that he’s doing better on his medication, but I don’t buy it. I told my mom about the photo and then she and Ajay had a fight. He said, ‘I did this. Why shouldn’t I have to look at what I’ve done?’ My mom told him, ‘You’re not running away from what you’ve done—you’re taking responsibility through the courts. But it’s not healthy to spend your time staring at this. When my dad came home it spiralled into a huge argument between the three of them and I wondered why I’d even bothered saying anything. It only made things worse.

I wrote back and said I would’ve done the exact same thing as she had, that it was better for her parents to know as much as possible—even if they didn’t act that way. I carried my concern for Jocelyn around various corners of Ireland, my aunt and uncle periodically making me forget due to the sheer force of their tour guide efforts, only to have some corner of my brain confront me with the worry all over again. 

Together Aunt Kate, Uncle Frank, and I visited Trinity College, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin Castle, and a slew of museums. I kissed the Blarney Stone in Cork, marvelled at the beauty of the Cliffs of Mohr, and strolled through Powerscourt Gardens, admiring flowers. Everywhere I looked was a reminder I was nowhere near home, from the lush hilly land to manmade structures steeped in endless amounts of history. I’d never known such cool summer days and, outside of big-city Dublin, people were so friendly that if I didn’t know better I’d have sworn we must have met before. But even in Dublin the police didn’t carry guns. They walked around in yellow slickers in the rain, armed only with collapsible batons. The vibes were different from Toronto too. Same big city unpredictability but with zero skyscrapers and a heaping dose of laid-back charm that made it difficult for me to hold a grudge against the place. 

I didn’t say all of that over the phone when my parents called to check in, but I wasn’t exactly angry with them anymore either. What Joss’s family was going through made so many other things seem unimportant in comparison. With my aunt and uncle back in work the following week I’d have plenty of time to myself, and while once that would’ve seemed like an ideal opportunity to finally start my own screenplay, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to concentrate. 

Over the past two years my love of indie movies (the kind that pissed off my friends because they didn’t have enough action sequences) had been growing ever stronger, evolving to the point that potential stories were almost constantly unfolding in my head. I had a collection of notebooks bursting with ideas, character profiles and fragments of dialogue. All of the fiction I’d written for English class felt more cinematic than literary to me and there was nothing, nothing that made me feel more alive than the idea that one day the lines I’d write would be spoken by actors, filmed by cinematographers and screened in movie theatres around the world. 

Basically, I’d been feeling as sure as a person could ever feel about something that hadn’t happened yet, that screenwriting was what I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t say any of that to my parents over the long distance line either. Mainly I just listened to each of them rave about the cruise and then get on my back about buying a cell phone (Matias had lost mine while we were going out and I’d never bothered to replace it) with some of the spending money they’d given me for the trip. 

Zoey had been leafing through the newspaper at the kitchen table during our conversation and as I hung up the cordless she peeked over the top of the paper. “You can borrow my mobile anytime if you need to,” she offered, not even bothering to pretend she hadn’t overheard my side of the conversation. “It seems like you’ve been booked solid with the sightseeing since you got here, but now that you’re done with that you should come out with us on my birthday.” She scrunched up the paper and tossed it aside. “The lot of us are going out on the tear on Monday.” 

“Your parents would let me do that?” Zoey grabbed her red shock of hair as I stared at her quizzically. The drinking age in Ireland was eighteen, but I wouldn’t even turn seventeen until August twelfth, and while my own parents condoned my presence at parties hosted by trusted friends they wouldn’t dream of allowing me to spend a night at a bar. What Ajay had done would only have strengthened their opinions on that. 

“Mmm,” Zoey hummed, her expression turning thoughtful. “I never thought of that. Better not ask them then. I’ll think of something reasonable to tell them instead.” 

The crumb of guilt I felt about having Zoey lie to Aunt Kate and Uncle Frank for me wasn’t enough to make me object. I left everything to my cousin who, the very next day, passed on that my aunt and uncle were okay with me tagging along for the first part of the night but wanted me home early. “I told them a friend of mine from the restaurant was throwing a dinner party for me and that we were just going to hang around her flat and play music or watch a film afterwards,” Zoey said, clearly annoyed. “But they’re being ridiculously conscientious.”

“Thanks for trying,” I told her. At least they hadn’t vetoed the entire night for me; I was looking forward to hanging out with people under the age of fifty. Zoey was turning nineteen and most of her friends were bound to be roughly the same age. 

“It’ll be grand,” Zoey said, trying to be cheerful about the curfew for my benefit. “The restaurant will probably be the best bit anyway and Rory can drop you home before we go on to the pub.”

Rory was Zoey’s boyfriend and The Brash Heathens’ bassist, and excitement began prickling along my skin when he came to pick us up on Monday night. Tallish and leanly muscular, with a face sporting what I estimated to be three days’ worth of stubble, Rory was so friendly and easy-going that I liked him straight away. As we climbed out of his car he said, “It’s a shame you can’t go to the pub with us later, Amira. We’ll have to bring you out some other time to make up for it.”

“Definitely!” Zoey exclaimed, draping her right arm around my shoulders.

Our soles clicked onto cobblestone streets. The air felt humid but cool. Thick with expectation too. Music was spilling out of pub doorways and a group of street musicians were shouting out that old R.E.M. tune, The End of The World as We Know It, with apocalyptic abandon. Young people were everywhere, laughing and speaking in loud voices as smells from nearby restaurants wafted into my nostrils. My head kept swivelling, taking everything in. 

“Temple Bar,” Zoey explained, motioning to the surrounding streets. “Dubliners love to hate it, but it can be good craic all the same.” She raised her hand to wave at a group of young people huddled outside a restaurant. “There’s Kevin and Darragh.” 

One of the guys jumped forward to meet us. “Happy birthday, Zoey,” he said, smacking his lips against her cheek.

“Thanks.” Zoey grabbed my arm. “Everyone, this is my cousin, Amira, from Toronto.” I glanced at the group gathered in front of us, my brain in overdrive from shooting silent snaps and drinking in the atmosphere. “Amira, this is Kevin, Darragh, Ursula, Des, and Nick.”

“Hi.” I focused on each of them in turn, mentally attaching names to faces. Nick was the one with red hair. Des reminded me of a guy from my English class and Darragh (which looks like a mouthful of a name because of its Irish spelling but sounds like dare-ahh) and Kevin were the other members of The Brash Heathens. Ursula—with windswept blond hair and sculpted cheekbones—reminded me of a slightly younger, shorter Gigi Hadid, and was welded to Darragh’s hip. 

“There’s the girls!” Zoey whooped as a second group approached, swallowing her up in a noisy mass hug that made me long for my own friends. 

As we spilled into the restaurant one of the girls asked what I thought of Dublin. With so many new people around I’d already forgotten whether she was Sarah, Roisin, Anne, Gloria, or Niamh. “I have an aunt in Edmonton,” Kevin chimed in. “Is that anywhere near you, Amira?”

“A couple of days’ drive west.” 

“Jaysus,” he muttered. “There’s nowhere in this country that far from Dublin.”

“You’ve never driven to Cork with Zoey then,” Rory joked.

Zoey shook her head and arched her brows, pretending to be angry with him. “You love that story to bits, don’t you?” She smiled wryly as her eyes met mine. “I was only learning at the time. He’s never going to let me forget it.”

Rory rolled his eyes, but he was grinning too. “Because my brakes will never forgive me.” 

“He’s only four months older than me and he reckons he’s so bloody wise.” Zoey reached down to squeeze Rory’s thigh, grinning mischievously. “I think there are a few things I’ve taught you in the past six months. Need I name them?” 

“Ooooooh,” nearly everyone hummed in unison as Rory bowed his head theatrically. Meanwhile Darragh and Ursula were whispering together intently at the far end of the tables we’d pushed together, either in the middle of a quiet argument or wrapped up in one of those special togetherness moments some couples are prone to, temporarily shutting everyone else out of their world. 

Ursula glared indignantly over at me, like I was invading their privacy, and I shifted my gaze to Kevin next to them, chatting away to him and a couple of the girls nearest me until the waitress showed up again. On impulse, I ordered a glass of red wine in celebration of Zoey’s nineteenth birthday and got lucky—the waitress didn’t ask for I.D. Soon the table was crowded with half-finished drinks, everybody laughing and finishing each other’s sentences. One of the girls knocked Kevin’s pint over with her elbow and he reached for it a second too late, disappointment pulling at his lips like a kid who’d lost a scoop of ice cream to the pavement. That look made us all laugh harder, Kevin included. 

I was really starting to get into the spirit of things when the bill arrived. “Listen, is it okay if Gloria gives you a lift home?” Zoey whispered to me. “We want to get to the pub and she’s the only completely sober one here.”

“No problem,” I lied. At least I didn’t have to worry about anyone driving drunk; I didn’t want to get any closer to the damage that could do than I already was. But it was still early—only ten o’clock—and the change in driving arrangements made me feel like the same twelve-year-old my parents had treated me like by shipping me off to Dublin in the first place.

“I’m the full-time designated driver,” Gloria volunteered as we walked to her car. “I had a bit of a drink problem a couple of years back so now I just stay on the Cokes. You really realize what an eejit everyone is watching them get steadily pissed.”

I laughed, trying to make the best of my hasty departure. “I can see how that would be a drag. I don’t really drink much either.” 

Gloria bobbed her head. “Zoey said you were half Muslim.”

“The non-drinking half,” I kidded. I’d figured the subject would come up sooner or later; my skin tone didn’t quite match my dad’s side of the family. 

In reality, neither my Muslim-born mother nor Catholic father practiced their faiths. My mom liked to call herself a secular humanist and my dad was prone to making jokes about being a recovering Catholic. We did a secular Christmas gift exchange followed by a semi-extravagant meal, but that was the sum total of our seasonal celebrations. No Easter Sundays or Eid al-Adha for us. No confessions, fasting, or pilgrimages. I’d been in churches and mosques with my parents for funerals and other events, but only as a visitor, not as someone who belonged there. I wasn’t even sure whether I believed in a higher power the way most other people defined it. 

“But it’s not a religious thing,” I added. “I just don’t see the point in getting wasted. Some people act like it’s impossible to have a good time without it, which makes me wonder why they have to get out of their heads so bad.” Shit. What was wrong with me? Gloria had just told me she used to have a problem with alcohol and now I was making it sound like drinking was some kind of psychological issue. “So have you and Zoey been friends a long time?” I asked, in a hurry to change the topic. 

“Ah, yeah,” Gloria confirmed, not appearing insulted in the least. “Ages. We were in school together. I suppose you must still be in school yourself?” 

“Just one more year of high school left. What are you doing now that you’ve graduated?”

Gloria’s nose crinkled as she grinned. “I’m still a student too, taking sociology at UCD, trying to sort out why the entire country needs to get out of its head so bad.”

I smiled, both embarrassed at my earlier statement and in admiration of her wit. 
“Except us,” I amended. 

“Except us because we’re smarter than the rest of them,” Gloria agreed. 

I nodded gratefully. “Sorry I’ve made you leave the party early. My curfew at home is later than this. I guess my aunt and uncle just didn’t want me at the pub.”

Gloria chuckled in sympathy. “Zoey said she tried to talk them into letting you stay out later but that they weren’t having it. Hopefully they’ll loosen up a little as the weeks go by. It won’t be much of a summer for you if you have to be in by ten every night, will it? You’ll be dead bored.” 

“For starters, there’s a battle of the bands gig coming up on Saturday,” Gloria continued. “You want to catch that. The band’s dead good, and I’m not just saying that because Zoey’s a mate.”

Just over a week ago I could barely remember my youngest cousin, but it doesn’t take long to get attached to someone you know a little when the rest of the country around you is populated by complete strangers. I wanted to be at the gig. 

“The show sounds cool,” I said. “I’ll have to start strategizing and figure out a way to swing it.” 

“Zoey will help you with that,” Gloria advised. “She can be downright devious, believe me.”
I did. And I was beginning to suspect—with a guilt that flipped up and down in my stomach like a dying fish—that no matter how much anxiety I felt about Jocelyn’s family, the next two and a half months had a chance of being half-decent after all.