Chasing River ONE RIVER
I weave around men and women alike with barely a pardon, struggling not to lose Aengus, nor to let on that I’m tailing him. The slick guy has done his part to make that tricky, his flinty gaze darting side-to-side as he briskly navigates the morning swell of pedestrians. Dressed in tan trousers and a plain white collared shirt, the beige tweed driver’s cap tipped low to help hide his face, he could pass for an office clerk or a salesman. Maybe a manager at one of the upscale Grafton Street stores. Someone responsible. Someone respectable.
Someone that he’s not.
It’s not even so much him that is making me suspicious. It’s that black leather satchel. The one he holds close to his body as if to protect it from being stolen or knocked by a passerby rushing to catch a bus or a streetlight.
It’s the sweat seeping through the back of his shirt, when the air this early June morning is crisp.
It’s the way he’s checked his watch three times in the span of twenty meters.
My gut churns with explanations, all of them bad.
Nothing good has come from Aengus since Portlaoise Prison spat him out four months ago. Six years inside Dublin’s maximum security walls have only fortified his connections, poisoned his convictions. Blackened his soul. They took in an ideological twenty-two-year-old Irish Republican and spat out an inspired criminal.
And here I am, thirty steps back, tracking him through the gates of St. Stephen’s Green just moments after security opened passage for the day, as if it were all perfectly timed.
Because, after all, he is still my brother.
I glance at my own watch. It’s seven thirty a.m. While they tend to open the Green earlier during summer months, this seems too early. And Aengus’s single nod toward the guard seems unusually familiar.
I haven’t been inside Dublin’s prime inner-city park in years. It hasn’t changed much. It’s still a vast expanse of winding paths and gardens—an escape nestled within a bustling city. Right now it’s serene, still waking after a night alone, free of visitors, the air misted, the pale yellow sun not yet high enough to warm the grounds. This quiet won’t last long, though.
Aengus glances over his shoulder and I dart behind the nearest bush. If he senses a shadow, he doesn’t let on, veering right at a fork ahead and disappearing around the bend. I follow cautiously, until he turns off the path and begins trudging through the open field. In a few hours, this place will be crawling with office workers and other Dubliners, lounging in the sun or reading beneath a canopy of leaves. Anything to escape their dreary day jobs and enjoy the fresh air.
Aengus checks his watch yet again as he marches briskly and purposefully toward an oak that’s cordoned off by a stream of blue-and-white tape, as if there’s a threat of the tree collapsing. Only, I notice that the perimeter reaches far past its widest branches, taking over half of the green space. Making me think that the tape has nothing to do with a hazardous tree at all.
“What the hell are you about, Aengus . . .” I mutter, touching my jaw where his knuckles landed last night, after he threw open his bedroom door and caught me eavesdropping on his phone call. I heard only bits and pieces of it—I couldn’t form even a murky guess as to the gist—but it was enough to make him throw a punch first and ask questions later.
When I shoved him into the wall—because violence is how we seem to communicate best—and reminded him that he just got out of prison, the only explanation he volunteered was that a warning needs to be delivered, no one will get hurt, and I need to keep my fucking mouth shut.
Another time check. Aengus crouches down and unzips the satchel.
I’m too engrossed in what he’s doing now to be on guard, so when his head suddenly snaps up, I can’t move fast enough. Hard eyes lock on me in an instant, freezing me where I stand.
It’s a showdown.
I shake my head, willing him to hear my thoughts. Walk away, big brother. Don’t do whatever it is you’re about to do.
His hand stalls inside the bag. For just a moment, I believe that he’s heard me. That he’s finally listening. That my presence here has derailed him from shortening that length of rope he seems so eager to slip around his own neck.
Foolish of me, really. Aengus has never been malleable to reason.
I inhale sharply, the air hissing through my gritted teeth. I watch him lay the long cylindrical tube down in the grass with careful movements and dread washes over me.
Jesus, Aengus. You’ve gone too far this time.
Hopping to his feet, he snatches up the satchel and charges toward me, his cell phone in his palm, his head revolving as he scans the emptiness around us. I square my shoulders and brace myself for a collision with his temper, as swift and nasty as a black adder’s bite.
“Are you insane?” I bark when he’s within easy earshot.
The glint in his eyes—the color of an overripe avocado, beginning to rot—would suggest exactly that.
“You said no one would get hurt.”
“Do you see anyone around to get hurt?” he snarls, continuing past me, punching keys into his phone. “You’ve got exactly sixty seconds to get the fuck out of here, River.” He takes off at a light jog, not waiting to see if I’ll follow.
Because I always have.
Oh, fuck me. A current of adrenaline shoots through my core. I glance down at my watch. One minute. Less, now. Fifty-five seconds, give or take. The muscles in my thighs twitch, ready to tear after Aengus because there’s nothing else for me to do. But a lot can happen in just sixty seconds. My conscience keeps me grounded, my wild eyes scouring the paths around me for signs of life. A jogger bobs along in the distance, so far away that I can’t be sure whether it’s male or female. Otherwise, I see no one.
I glance at my watch again, my heartbeat doing double time with each second that passes. Only forty-five remain before I look damn guilty to whoever finds me here. Unless I rat out Aengus—which will never happen—I’m as good as locked up for this.
I need to run.
Except . . . that perimeter set isn’t wide enough. If someone should come around the bend, cut across the field . . . But what can I do, really?
Thirty seconds. Beads of sweat trickle down my back. I need to get the hell out of here. Now.
I turn, intent on going back the way I came. But movement catches my eye and my stomach drops as I watch the very thing I just feared unravel before my eyes. A girl runs through the field, her attention alternating between her wrist and the unfolded map within her grip, her brow pulled tight with worry.
She’s clearly a tourist.
She’s clearly late for something.
And she’s heading directly into the blast radius of the pipe bomb that’s about to explode.
I’m out of time. I don’t have a choice.
I run. As fast as my legs can carry me, I run.
Chasing River TWO AMBER
The Fusiliers’ Arch is this way . . . I think.
I’ve always seen myself as someone with a keen sense of direction. But then I embarked on this grand adventure to find myself and, well—I’ve found myself, alright. Twisted and upside down and heading blocks in the wrong direction enough times to accept that I actually suck at reading maps. If not for the tiny charm on my bracelet that doubles as a handy compass—a gift from the sheriff, ever worried for his twenty-five-year-old daughter’s safety—I wouldn’t know which way was north half the time.
I doubt that even the compass can help me now. The tour company brochure states a seven thirty-five sharp departure and it’s now . . . I glance at my watch and my anxiety spikes. Seven thirty-three. Stupid me for booking a day trip the morning after I arrive in Ireland. Just twenty-four hours ago I was plane-hopping from Charlottetown to Toronto to Amsterdam to Dublin, going back in time one hour before jumping ahead five. Instead of sleeping, I spent the overnight flight feeding my addiction to Mad Men. By the time I stepped off the plane at three in the afternoon, I was exhausted.
Of course I figured that two years of flip-flopping between night and day shifts at the hospital would make adjusting to the time change easy for me.
Of course my alarm rang for exactly thirty-two minutes this morning before my brain actually registered the sound.
And now I’m going to miss the freaking tour.
Cutting through this park is supposed to save me a few minutes of travel time. That was one of the few pieces of wisdom my taxi driver from the airport imparted to me yesterday. But he didn’t tell me which paved path, of the countless ones that snake among gardens and forested areas, to take. So in complete desperation, I choose an unconventional diagonal route, rushing past an English garden ripe with colorful summer blooms to run across a grassy field. The morning air is crisp, leaving my legs—bare, thanks to the jean shorts I threw on in my rush, not thinking—touched by gooseflesh, even as sweat trickles down my back. It’ll be okay later, I remind myself. They’re calling for a high of 74 degrees Fahrenheit today. Well, technically, 23 degrees Celsius. Even after traveling across Canada for three and a half weeks, I still can’t seem to grasp the metric system.
Seven thirty-four. “Crap!” I scan the city map held out in my hands as I run. So distracted that I don’t notice a section of the field ahead taped off until I’m almost tearing through it. There are no construction signs or pieces of equipment lying around. Probably just freshly planted grass seed or something. Whatever the reason, it’s smack dab in the middle of my path and I’ll lose time trying to avoid it. Time I don’t have. Beyond the field, another path winds its way to a fountain and benches and more paths. A round glass dome peeks out over the tree line farther ahead. That’s the shopping center I’ve read about. And to the right of that is where my bus will be waiting.
Or not, if I don’t hurry up.
I jump over the tape with a grimace and a silent apology. I check my watch again. Maybe it’s a few minutes fast. Maybe the tour bus driver isn’t really a stickler for a prompt departure. Maybe—
He comes out of nowhere, from the left.
My only warning is the sound of his feet pounding against the grass. I turn my head just as he plows into my side, sending me sailing through the air. Pain explodes in a dozen different body parts as I hit the hard ground, my lungs grappling for oxygen.
He’s on top of me in an instant, crushing me under his weight, his thick arms roping around either side of my head, smothering me. I can’t breathe, or scream, let alone fight him off right now.
I manage just one fleeting thought—that this man, with his forehead pressed against mine and his ragged breaths assaulting my face—is about to rape me in broad daylight in a city park.
And then I’m plunged into a strange void that devours all my pain and fear.
A wave of pressure races past a split second before all of my senses are swallowed by a deafening bang that rattles my brain and the ground beneath me. Then . . . nothing at all. Only eerie silence and air.
I know that time has passed, but I can’t say whether it’s been a split second or ten minutes or an hour when I realize I’m lying on my back, staring up at a plume of white smoke, the familiar sweet metallic scent of expended gunpowder permeating my nostrils, my head stuffed with cotton. That eerie silence has given way to a high-pitched ringing and I cringe as it echoes in my eardrum. Maybe I cry out, too. If I do, I can’t hear it. I’m struggling to string together enough thoughts to understand what the hell just happened.
“Are you okay?” The question floats in from somewhere distant. And then suddenly a man hovers over me, a fringe of coppery hair like an untidy halo framing his face, staring down at me through mossy green eyes.
“What happened?” I manage to ask, though my voice sounds far away. At least I’m no longer winded.
“An explosion. A bomb.”
A bomb? A chill runs through my limbs as my brain wraps around that word, delivered in a light Irish brogue.
I sense hands slide along my thighs, over my knees, curling to the undersides, but I don’t think to deflect them. “You’ll be fine,” he mutters, a sigh of relief sailing from his lips. He shifts on his knees, making to stand.
And I seize his forearm, surprising myself with a sudden wave of strength as I hold him down. “Stay.”
His muscles tense beneath my fingertips. “I can’t. But please know that I didn’t do this.” Honest, pleading eyes implore me silently for a few heartbeats, and then he’s gone, running—albeit staggered and off-balance—before I can ask more questions. I roll my head to the side and watch him disappear into a line of trees, a dark stain blooming in the material of his vibrant green T-shirt.
Moments later, a jogger reaches me in a pant, a cell phone pressed against her ear and a panicked look on her face. Shouts sound from somewhere in the park and a chorus of sirens scream in the distance. Another jogger arrives some thirty seconds later. Next a security guard, and then a couple dressed in suits, on their way to work. Within minutes I’m encircled by people.
Despite everyone’s insistence that I stay lying down, I manage to sit up. Everything is spinning. The granola bar and orange juice that I stuffed into my mouth on my way out the front door churn and I can’t be sure I’ll keep them down. But I force myself to focus on my surroundings—the charred grass, the divots gouged in the oak tree trunk nearby, the singed leaves dangling above, their ashes floating like sooty snowflakes.
It begins to sink in.
I could be dead right now.
Had it not been for that guy, I might have been. He wasn’t trying to suffocate me. He was shielding me.
“You saved my life,” I whisper under my breath, knowing that my words will never find his ear.
Cocooned within a haze, I watch emergency vehicles and the police and bomb squad charge in, herding the spectators away from the crime scene like cattle, their radios buzzing, their notebooks and pens out and ready. Reflective yellow letters that read “Garda” stretch across bulletproof vests everywhere.
Paramedics rush over to me. I’m fine, I tell them. In shock and my hearing is still muffled, but otherwise . . .
I can’t believe I’m fine.
They help me onto a stretcher and wheel me over to the ambulance to examine me further. Again, I promise them that I know what I’m talking about. I’m a nurse, after all. The female paramedic nods and smiles, dabbing at my bottom lip with gauze. Only then do I see the blood, do I taste the copper.
I allow them to check my vitals as I watch the police dropping numbered markers all over the grass and beginning to question witnesses. I wonder how my dad would handle something like this. I’m pretty sure he’s never dealt with a bombing in Deschutes County, Oregon.
“How is she?” someone asks, pulling my attention to the left, where two police officers stand, watching.
“Only the small laceration on her bottom lip from what we can see, and her vitals are fine. Though it’ll take a while for the shock to wear off. She’s had quite the scare.” That assessment’s delivered with a wink, and then she begins packing up her kit.
“She’s awfully lucky . . .” To me, the tall, average-looking officer says, “I’m Detective Garda Garret Duffy. This is me partner, Detective Garda Paul O’Brien.” The man next to him, a pudgy middle-aged officer with a shiny, bald head, offers a tight smile. “Can we ask ya some questions?”
Despite the situation, I smile. Duffy sounds exactly like the leprechaun in the Lucky Charms cereal commercial. “Sure. Okay.”
“And would ya mind terribly if our colleagues examined your bag? This is yours, yeah?” He gestures at a man with white gloves hovering at the side.
I look down at the limp black knapsack that holds my umbrella, a couple of bottles of water, and a bag of grapes, no doubt a mess of pulp and juices now. I don’t know why they’d want to, but . . . “Go ahead.”
“Thank you,” Duffy says, smiling kindly at me, his notepad already open in his hand and waiting to be filled. “Let’s start with your name?”
“And you’re American, from the sounds of it?”
I nod but then answer, “Yes.” My dad taught me to always answer verbally, to avoid misinterpretation.
“Do ya have identification?”
“My passport. It’s in my backpack.”
“Okay.” He nods toward O’Brien. “We’ll get that. What are ya doing here in Ireland?”
“Are ya here alone?”
His forehead wrinkles in surprise. I get that reaction a lot. I guess I can understand it. It is a bit strange for a girl my age to be traveling alone. If he knew that I have thirteen other countries to visit after this, I’m sure he’d have a comment. “Do ya have friends or family, or acquaintances, in Ireland?”
“And how long have ya been in Dublin?”
“Just landed yesterday.”
He scribbles his notes down quickly. “And what were ya doing in the Green this morning, so early?”
“I was late for my tour bus and I was running through here to try to make up some time.” I guess it’s safe to say that the bus has left without me.
“So . . . ya were running across the grass.” His eyes and finger trail through the air, as if trying to get his bearings. “From which direction, exactly?”
I point across the way.
“Right. And then the bomb just exploded?” His impassive eyes remain glued to my face, waiting, as if readying my answer for a scale, to weigh its truth. Just like my dad’s eyes weigh on a person whenever he’s asking questions, whenever he’s digging for information that he thinks the person may be hiding.
My heart pounds in my chest as I begin to see this for what it really is. You don’t grow up with a father like Gabe Welles without learning what distrust feels like. And you don’t grow up with a brother like Jesse Welles without learning what questioning a person who you think is guilty of something sounds like.
Twenty-five years in the Welles family has taught me the art of suspicion well.
I summon whatever calm I can muster and look at the blast site—cordoned off with a new, bigger square of blue-and-white tape—through new eyes. A marker sits where I was found. Another one indicates where I’m guessing the bomb went off. A man is measuring the distance between the two points. Another man photographs the oak’s tree trunk, riddled with gashes, while his partner waits behind him, with plastic gloves and bags and tweezers to collect evidence.
I can see why the police might be suspicious. They’re probably wondering how I could have been that close and not earned a single shrapnel wound, when that tree has been brutalized. But what do they seriously think happened . . . that I set the bomb and decided to play victim?
My stomach drops.
Maybe that’s exactly what they’re wondering. When I replay the detective’s words about being awfully lucky from a moment ago inside my head, it doesn’t sound as sincere anymore. I can’t believe this. One day in Ireland and I’m being questioned by the police. This is something that happens to Jesse. Not to me.
“No. A man ran out of nowhere and knocked me down to the ground. Then the bomb exploded.”
It’s so slight that it’s almost imperceptible, but Duffy’s brow definitely jumps. “What did this man look like?”
“I don’t . . .” I frown, trying to picture his face. “He was young . . . Irish . . . I don’t know. He ran off right after.”
“In which direction?”
I point toward the bushes where I last saw him.
“What else can ya tell us about him?” O’Brien asks. They both stare at me, waiting, their demeanor having softened somewhat now that I’ve given them reason to suspect that maybe I’m just an American tourist who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“I didn’t get a good look at him. I was in shock.” I’m still in shock.
“Anything at all. Was he tall, short? Twelve stone, fourteen stone . . .”
Duffy smirks. “Ye Americans call it ‘pounds.’?”
“Oh.” I shake my head. “I’m . . . not sure. A hundred and eighty pounds, maybe?”
“Think hard, Amber. We need to find him,” he pushes. “You said he was Irish. How do ya know that? Did he speak to ya?”
“Yes. He said that he didn’t do this,” I whisper, hearing his voice as I repeat the words. Remembering that pleading look in his eyes.
Duffy and O’Brien share a glance.
“You think he set it, don’t you?” I ask.
“Maybe,” Duffy says.
I frown. “That doesn’t make sense. Why would he jump in front of it to save me, then?”
O’Brien shrugs. “Change of heart? He saw a pretty bird and didn’t want to be responsible for her death.”
My cheeks heat with the unwanted compliment, although I really want to roll my eyes. Sometimes people with the best intentions say the most stupid things. I mean, does it all come down to looks? If I were ugly, would the guy have run the other way and let me blow to pieces?
Duffy must see my irritation. “He ran. Innocent people don’t run.”
My eyes drift to the spot in the trees where I saw him vanish, and I start to question myself. Am I a fool for believing him the second the words came out of his mouth? I didn’t even question why he might say something like that. Maybe . . . he knew the bomb was there, lying in quiet wait in the grass. He knew exactly where it was and he must have known when it would go off, the way he ran at me. If he had nothing to do with it, how would he know those kinds of details?
Maybe a bomber’s word isn’t worth much when he’s . . . a bomber.
But he saved my life. He put himself in harm’s way to protect me. Maybe innocent people don’t run, but bombers don’t save lives.
I dismiss the detective’s suspicion. After all, five minutes ago, he was ready to accuse me.
“What else did he say?” Duffy pushes.
“He asked if I was alright,” I mumble. “And then he ran.”
Duffy scribbles it down. “Good, Amber. What else? What about hair color? Eye color?”
“Green eyes.” Rich, insistent green eyes. “And I think he was hurt.” Because he put himself in harm’s way . . . for me. Suddenly, I don’t want to tell these two officers anything else. Not until I can wrap my head around this. “That’s all I can remember. I’m sorry.”
Duffy brings his radio to his mouth and begins spouting off a series of words and numbers that I can’t identify beyond knowing it’s police code. Buzzing fills the air and several uniforms scatter, directing each other with fingers and shouts. They’ll be canvassing the park and the area beyond the walls.
I wonder if they’ll find him.
“That’s helpful, Amber. We’ll check the hospitals.” He pulls a business card out of his pocket and hands it to me. “Ya may remember more after a few hours or a few days. Give me a ring if ya do.”
“They’re going to be wanting to talk to ya.” O’Brien nods toward something in the distance. I peek out around the back doors of the ambulance that shield me from prying eyes. News crews have begun to trickle in, their mammoth black cameras sweeping over the area. Fortunately they’re held back by a wide perimeter of tape and I’m still hidden.
I can see the headline now: American Girl Saved by Irish Good Samaritan, Who Then Runs.
I’m guessing this would be a story that the media would love. It would probably go viral. It would certainly be my way of making sure my thank you reaches him.
But it would also reach my parents, and guarantee that my dad’s first trip out of America would be to Ireland, for the sole purpose of dragging his daughter back in handcuffs if need be, twenty-five years old or not.
I pull the rim of my pink baseball cap down. “Any chance we can avoid them? And keep my name and picture out of the media? My dad won’t take this too well.”
Duffy eyes the gathering crowd. “They are hounds, aren’t they? Maybe we should give ya a lift somewhere.”
“That’d be great. I’m staying at a house on Hatch Street, just off Leeson. It’s a few blocks away.”
“I know the street.” He radios for a spare jacket, and I use it to shield my face and upper body as they usher me to their car.