After twenty long minutes behind a cranky row of tour buses, Ian threw his hands up. “How about I park, and you guys get out and do your thing?”
“Don’t you want to see the castle?” I asked, craning my neck to get a glimpse. The castle managed to give off the impression of being both imperious and decrepit, a spindly old lady in a crown.
Ian stuck his head out the window. “Seen it.”
Rowan laughed. “All right, Ian. Take the wheel.” Rowan and I both jumped out, and Ian slid into the driver’s seat.
“Watch out for roundabouts,” I said.
“Ha ha, very funny. I’ll probably have moved two feet by the time you get back.” He lowered his voice, addressing me. “Keep it quick?”
Rowan and I took off together, following signs that explained the Blarney Stone’s location at the tip-top of the castle. We crammed our way inside, shoving through giant picture-taking masses to get to the swirling staircases.
I started up first, and I must have climbed fast because when I got to the top, I had to wait several minutes for Rowan to emerge. When he finally popped out of the staircase, he was breathing heavily, a light sheen of sweat on his forehead.
“It wasn’t a race, Maeve,” he said, throwing his arm around me and collapsing dramatically.
I liked hearing my new nickname again. “I’ve been conditioning this summer.” I couldn’t quite extinguish the pride in my voice. I’d missed only two workout days the entire summer. The plan was to be as ready as possible for college scouts.
“Just to be clear, you know you just ran up a hundred flights of stairs to wait in line to kiss a manky stone, right?”
“No . . . we just ran up a hundred flights of stairs to kiss a manky stone,” I corrected, enjoying the chance to try out some Irish slang. At the front of the line, a Blarney employee carefully lowered a woman backward into a stone cutout, her upper body disappearing into the hole. “Look how much fun that is. You get to hang upside down.”
“A bit of a thrill seeker, eh?” Rowan said, his gray eyes shining.
“One hundred percent.” My brothers called me a thrill junkie, which was decidedly more negative. But it was the truth. Heights, roller coasters, the bigger the better.
Rowan grimaced. “I’d expect nothing less from you. But sorry, Maeve, what I’m trying to say is that there is no ‘we’ in this enterprise. My mouth is not going anywhere near the Blarney Stone.”
“Why? Is it a height thing?” I stood on my tiptoes to see over the wall. Besides the Cliffs of Moher, the top of Blarney offered the best panoramic view I’d had so far. Down below was an ocean of subtly shifting green, people scattered like colorful confetti. It even gave me the same sensation as the cliffs—I felt free, disconnected from all the heaviness waiting for me down below.
Rowan joined me on tiptoe, even though he could see over the ledge just fine. “Heights aren’t the problem, Maeve.” He shoved his glasses up. “Look, I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but locals really mess with Blarney Stone. They pee on it, spit on it, all kinds of stuff. Trust me, you don’t want to kiss it.”
I wagged my finger at him, a breeze blasting over the top of the castle. “Do you need me to reread the guidebook entry to you? Those communal germs are the whole reason we’re here. And besides, I grew up sharing a bathroom with three brothers. Being afraid of pee is not an option.”
Rowan’s eyebrows shot up amusedly, just the way I knew they would. I liked surprising him. And besides, it was completely accurate. Once when I was in elementary school, I’d gotten so fed up with the situation that I’d drawn a bunch of arrows plus the words IN HERE on the toilet seat in permanent marker. My mom had laughed for a solid hour.
“Queen Maeve, your bravery knows no limits. If you kiss the pee stone, I kiss the pee stone. You have my undying allegiance.” Rowan swept into a low bow.
“Thank you, my lord,” I said, bowing back.
When it was finally our turn, even my daredevil instinct faltered slightly. The cutout the stone was located in was really just a hole, the long drop down to the lawn safeguarded with just three metal bars.
The worker beckoned to me. “Ready for the gift of gab, love?” He wore a cap, and his collar was pulled up against white stubbly whiskers.
“Ready,” I said resolutely, ignoring the way my stomach spiraled. Rowan gave me a reassuring smile.
I sat quickly on the ground, shimmying back until my butt was on the edge. The hole felt cavernous behind me, wind gushing up through it.
“All right, then. Lean back, hand on each bar, back, back, all the way back,” the man chanted rhythmically, like he must have done a million times before. I followed his instructions until I was completely upside down, the man’s hands firmly on my waist. Blood rushed to my head along with Guidebook Lady’s words. Because you’re a human and because you’re alive, I’m going to assume that you’ve faced your own Blarney moment. A time when you’ve put yourself out there—vulnerable, dangling—but instead of the blessed reciprocity your heart yearned for, all you got was a slimy stone.
Cubby’s face appeared, and a dart of pain traveled from my heart to the rest of my body. But instead of forcing the feelings away, I sat with them. Or dangled with them, I guess. Just like I had in Killarney. Again, none of the pain went away, but they did shift over slightly, revealing something that had been hidden. My feelings—my heartache, embarrassment, pain, all of it—weren’t me. They were something I had to go through, but they weren’t me any more than a pair of sneakers or a T-shirt was me. I was something else entirely.
“Kiss the stone, love,” the man called down patiently, breaking me out of my epiphany.
Right. I planted a quick kiss on the stone. It was, in fact, manky. And oddly empowering. I kissed it again, this time for Rowan.
“Success!” Rowan grabbed my hand to help me once I was upright. “You okay?”
“A little dizzy.” I wasn’t sure what to do with my new realization. It wasn’t like I could just throw off my heartache like a sweaty jersey. But could I look at it in a new way? As something that didn’t define me?
I looked up at Rowan. “You don’t have to kiss the stone. I did it for you.”
He grinned. “And now you have truly earned my undying allegiance.” He kept a steadying arm around my shoulders as we made our way back to the staircase.
Back on ground level, I was just about to try to put my revelation into words when a voice shot through the crowd, spearing my attention. It was the kind of voice you couldn’t ignore. Bossy. Female. American.
My feet froze to the ground. That couldn’t be . . .
“All right, people, listen up. Cameramen are going first. The rest of you? Single file. I need one good shot and then we’re moving on to the next site. We’re already behind, so I need you to make this speedy.”
“No,” I whispered.
“What?” I felt rather than saw Rowan turn toward me. I couldn’t move. Twenty feet away, just past a long steel bench, my aunt Mel stood in full camera makeup.
“No,” I said more forcefully. Aunt Mel shifted to the left, yanking at her perfectly tailored blazer, and a second heaping of panic poured over me. It was Walter. And my mom. Walter must have sensed my gaze, because suddenly he looked up, his eyes locking on mine. A single thought erupted in my brain. Run.