Jake clenched his fists. Zach was sauntering down the airplane aisle as if he were the best thing since the iPod. Everyone has an archenemy, Jake thought. Luke Skywalker has Darth Vader. Harry Potter has Voldemort. Me? I have Zach.
Zach plopped into the seat in front of Jake and poked his head around to talk.
“Hey, twerp, having a good flight?”
Just my luck. Five and a half hours to Ireland behind the goon of the eighth grade. “I’d be having a better flight if you’d test the emergency exit.”
Zach’s eyes narrowed. “Okay, Spanky, you’ll pay for that with your leg room.” He stuffed his duffle under his own seat until it infringed on Jake’s space. “Oh, wait, you’re only three feet tall, so my bag won’t bother you.” Zach chuckled and turned back around to watch a movie on his LCD television screen.
Instinctively, Jake stretched his legs to see if he could reach the duffle with his feet. Shorter than the average student, he felt like a dwarf compared to Zach’s football-player physique. He glanced at Zach’s seatmate, Julie. Why doesn’t she ever see this?
Jake’s heart pinched as Julie adjusted her position to rest her head on Zach’s shoulder. Her blonde hair lay draped between the seats, its strong berry scent sending a slight tingle through Jake’s body.
Jake and Julie had grown up together. They’d been friends from hide-and-seek to Guitar Hero, which made it the ultimate blow when she started going out with Zach. Why can’t she see him for the jerk he is? Jake kicked Zach’s bag out of anger. Good thing no one’s sitting next to me. Then, grinning, he bent forward and slowly opened the zipper.
The first thing he found was a stack of papers. A cover sheet said “The Visitors, by Zachary Maguire.” Laughing inwardly at his good fortune, Jake tucked the manuscript into the seat pocket in front of him for future retrieval. Never pass up good blackmail material.
Next, he found Zach’s security-compliant bag of liquids. Jackpot! All that bragging about being the only eighth-grader to shave is going to haunt him. He pulled out the travel-sized can of shaving cream and some dental floss and then pried the tab off his empty soda can.
He knew Julie wouldn’t approve of what he was about to do. Like a referee who flags the guy returning a punch, she had a knack for seeing only Jake’s retaliations and not Zach’s instigating offenses.
After jamming the metal tab into the tight gap behind the button, he gingerly pulled forward on the makeshift lever. Mint-scented goo dribbled out. Perfect. Next, he strategically placed a couple of airline blankets inside the duffle to hold the shaving cream can up toward the opening of the bag. He zipped it closed as far as he could, leaving just a little access for his fingers. Using a fisherman’s knot, he tied the floss to the metal tab, pulled the slack out, and tied the other end to the zipper.
He bit his lower lip as he pulled the knot tight. Probably the last time I’ll tie that knot, since we no longer have a boat. The feeling of loss that he experienced on the day his dad sold their sailboat to pay the medical bills had been monumental. He slid the duffle back under the seat and glanced up at the movie. Seen it. With his dad laid up, watching movies was about all they could do together now.
* * *
Hours later, the pilot announced their descent into Ireland. Jake finished scanning the “Trace Your Heritage” homework instructions and folded them into his backpack. He hadn’t wanted to leave New York for the entire summer, but his dad had urged him to go on this school trip, saying it would be good for him to see where their family came from.
Jake tossed his backpack onto the empty seat next to him and peered between the seats as Zach wrapped up the cords of his expensive headphones. Showtime. Pretending to sleep, Jake watched through slits in his eyes as Zach pulled out his bag.
Zach tugged at the zipper. It didn’t budge. He grunted, tightened his grip, and yanked again. A greenish geyser of minty foam erupted from the bag, lathering Zach from head to waist.
“Argh!” Zach’s arms flailed as he struggled to wipe the slime from his face. He stopped and blinked several times. Then he stood up, turned, and fixated on Jake.
Uh-oh. At ten thousand feet, options for escape were slim.
An attendant spoke into the intercom. “Sir, please sit down. We’re making our descent.”
Temporarily thwarted, Zach pointed at Jake before making a fist and smacking it into his other palm.
“Zach!” Julie scolded.
“But look at what he did!” Zach removed the cream from his face with the last dry part of his shirt.
“Well, what did you think he’d do if you put your bag there? You know he can’t resist a practical joke!”
Jake’s heart pounded. She noticed. There is hope.
“And Jake, you’ve got to stop with the pranks.” Jake looked down, not wanting to gaze into her disapproving blue eyes. She’d once confided to Jake that Zach had some insecurities and issues with his dad, but Jake didn’t think that gave him the right to be a bully.
Once the plane landed in Shannon, the group of ten students made their way through customs and baggage claim. They purchased some cookies and drinks at the café and then walked outside into the mid-morning sun to eagerly await their sponsors. Although most of the students would be going to different villages, such as Ballyferriter and Castlegregory, Jake knew that Zach, Julie, and he would be staying in the town of Dingle.
He remembered the glint in Julie’s eyes when she talked about her dad pulling strings to keep them all close to each other. She wants me to be friends with her boyfriend? No way.
Jake’s name was called. He turned to see a man in faded pants and a colorful sweater bounding toward him. The powerful energy in his trim frame was clearly evident.
“Dia dhuit, Jake. Gerald O’Connell is mo ainm,” he said, warmly extending his hand.
Zach stopped dabbing the shaving cream from his clothes. “Whoa, I thought they spoke English here.”
“We do.” A girl with long red curls and a china-white complexion stepped out from behind the man. “Hello. My name is Maggie O’Connell, and this is my ‘da,’” she said with a charming brogue.
Jake recognized her from the photo she’d sent when they exchanged introductory e-mails. He remembered she was fifteen, only a year older than he was.
Mr. O’Connell inclined his head. “Welcome to Ireland.”
Not wanting to pass up the opportunity to upstage Zach, Jake said to Maggie, “That was Irish that your dad—uh, da—was speaking, right?”
Maggie beamed. “That’s impressive. Most Americans would have called it Gaelic.”
“My dad drilled me on Irish knowledge. He didn’t want me to bring shame on the McGreevy name.”
Maggie smiled in appreciation. “Speaking of names, remember you wrote to ask if there were any McGreevys listed in our area? Well, I was able to find a few near Killorglin—just about an hour away.”
“Go raibh maith agat.” Jake hoped he’d pronounced the Irish translation for “thank you” correctly.
“’Fraid that’s all I’ve learned so far,” Jake grinned.
When Julie’s and Zach’s names were called, two well-dressed couples approached them. Jake noticed that as each person shook Zach’s hand, his or her nose twitched, probably trying to figure out where the minty smell was coming from. Jake snickered and Zach mouthed a threat at him.
In the parking lot, the O’Connells led Jake to a beat-up hatchback. Mr. O’Connell pounded on the latch to open it and began loading Jake’s bags. As Zach’s and Julie’s sponsors packed their luggage into their respective luxury cars, Zach called to Jake, “Hey, twerp. Want me to upgrade you to a donkey cart?”
Maggie squinted at Zach, as if to better understand what he’d just said.
Jake turned to her. “What’s Irish for caveman?”
She giggled, mischief sparkling in her eyes. “Try fear pluaise.”
“Catch you later, fear pluaise!”
All the sponsors laughed. And when Zach’s face deepened to a dark shade of red, Jake could barely conceal his pleasure. I am definitely going to like it here.
The car’s exterior may have been dilapidated, but its engine fired right up. Jake struggled to keep his stomach steady as Mr. O’Connell sped along the highway for the two-and-a-half-hour trip south. Their lively conversation made the time fly. It didn’t take long for Jake to get used to their accents, but much to his embarrassment, a few times he found himself unconsciously mimicking their inflections.
“When we get home, you can call your mum and da and tell them you’re here,” Maggie said.
Jake stared out the passenger window. “Just my dad. My mom died when I was young.”
Maggie twisted in her seat to reach out and touch his arm, hesitated, and then put her hand back by her side. “Tá brón orainn. I mean, I’m so sorry.”
“So this is your first time in Ireland, right, Jake?” Mr. O’Connell said, gently changing the subject.
“Yes. My dad and I have sailed to a few places on our schooner, but we’ve never made it this far.”
“Where have you been?” Maggie asked.
“Caribbean mostly. The sea down there is amazing.”
“I’ll bet. Well, my da and the other sponsors thought you might enjoy seeing a bit of scenery before settling in. We’re now on Slea Head Drive. Very soon you’ll be able to get your first glimpse of Blasket Sound, okay?”
“Of course.” Jake inched forward in his seat for a better view.
As they rounded the next corner, Maggie stretched her arm out the window and said, “Welcome to Dingle.”
Jake’s jaw dropped as the infinite ocean unfolded before him. Soaring cliffs hugged the coastline to stand guard over white-capped waves racing toward the shore like wild horses.
“It’s awesome,” Jake said, hoping he didn’t sound too corny.
“The National Geographic Traveller guidebookproclaimed it ‘the most beautiful place on earth,’” Maggie added with pride.
“I can see why.”
Thankfully, Mr. O’Connell slowed down a bit to make the curvy ride more enjoyable. Jake glanced back and saw that Zach’s and Julie’s sponsors were managing to keep pace with Mr. O’Connell. After twenty minutes, everyone pulled into a small parking lot on the western tip of the peninsula.
Several families were gathered at the overlook, all taking pictures of the breathtaking view. The sight of the water overwhelmed Jake, and he swallowed hard, suppressing memories of his father’s sailboat and better days. Maggie guided the group to the best vantage point. Unlike some of the spectacular cliffs they had passed on the way, this section of the peninsula was only fifteen feet above the ocean. The water appeared calm, but Jake recalled his dad’s many lectures on strong currents and sudden waves.
He looked around at the other tourists and caught sight of a toddler dressed in a thick pink sweater and matching pants. She tottered after a butterfly, swinging her arms in an attempt to catch it. The insect fluttered away from the throngs of people, toward the edge of the cliff, with the child still in pursuit.
Jake swiveled his head around. Nobody is paying attention to her. He took off toward the girl, screaming for somebody to stop her, but before anyone could move, the child vanished over the edge. At full speed, Jake shed his shoes and plunged off the cliff.