Off the Map by Trish Doller (Excerpt)

Chapter 1

My dad always says that the people waiting for you at the airport should never be strangers. They should be family members, overjoyed to reunite after being separated—even if it’s only been a few days. Or lovers, so impatient to see you that they sweep you into their arms and kiss you passionately in public. Or maybe even close friends, excited to create new memories and reminisce about the old.

Dad doesn’t believe in searching for cardboard signs with your name printed in black Sharpie letters or awkwardly scanning faces, wondering if that brown-haired man—the one standing beside the ugly modern art sculpture that all airports seem to have—is the person you’re seeking. And according to Biggie Black, if meeting a stranger at the airport is unavoidable, there is nowhere less inspiring than the Air Margaritaville.

So, when my plane touches down at Dublin Airport, and I switch on my phone for the first time since my layover in Philly, I’m pleased to find a text from Eamon Sullivan, asking me to meet him in a pub near the city center. Bars don’t necessarily make identifying strangers any easier, but it’s a much more interesting origin story if you eventually become friends. And if you happen to ID the wrong guy in the bar, you can always blame it on the booze.

The name of the pub is The Confession Box, which calls to mind scandalous secrets, clandestine affairs, and alcohol flowing freely enough to loosen tongues. It sounds like it might be a seedy little dive in the wrong part of town. It sounds like my kind of place. I smile to myself, wondering what this choice says about Eamon Sullivan.


My fellow passengers begin to rouse like zombies as our plane taxis toward the terminal. Biggie taught me to wait in my seat until the plane has formally arrived, out of respect for the flight crew, but also because there’s no point in launching yourself into the aisle when there’s nowhere to go. All around me, electronics are stowed. Neck pillows removed. Personal belongings moved from beneath the seat in front of them to their laps, their legs bouncing, waiting to spring up. The wheels have barely stopped moving before the overhead bins are thrown open and the aisle is clogged with people waiting to get off the plane.

Another nugget of wisdom from my dad: Why hurry up and wait when you can simply wait?

For a man who holds no specific religious beliefs, Biggie’s attitude is remarkably Zen. But after visits to thirteen countries and the lower forty-eight states, I have never known his advice to fail me. I stretch out my legs in the emergency exit row with Social Distortion pulsing through my headphones as the horde shambles past. Once the other passengers are through the jet bridge, I sling my backpack over my shoulder and disembark, thanking the crew as I go. By the time I reach the immigration queue, most of the people from my flight are now behind me in line, having rushed off the plane for a reviving cup of coffee, to use the bathroom, or to claim their luggage.

“My passport stamped and nothing of value to declare, I pause to pull a bit of cash from a nearby ATM before exiting the airport. I follow the signs down the escalator to the taxi stand, where I hail a cab and direct the driver to take me to The Confession Box.

Dublin rolls past my window—low-rise buildings in shades of brown and gray—and I think about how often people ask me if I’m afraid to travel by myself. They wonder if it’s lonely to eat in restaurants or drink in bars alone. They fear I might be robbed or kidnapped or worse. But eight years ago, Biggie Black—traveling partner, best friend, father—was diagnosed with early onset dementia. In the days following his diagnosis, he decided he didn’t want me to see him deteriorate. He forbade me from waiting around for him to forget me.

“You only get so many trips around the sun,” he said, tapping his first two fingers against his temple. “And some of us don’t even get to keep the memories until our lights go out.”

He dug his hand into the front pocket of his old baggy jeans and pulled out a set of keys. They were looped on a key chain that was a bottle opener from a craft brewery in Nashville, and I recognized them at once—the keys to his chili-pepper- red Jeep Wrangler.

Biggie had bought the Jeep brand new when I was a little girl, not long after my mom left. Eventually, he’d removed the back seat and built a wooden platform in the cargo area to create additional space for camping equipment. That summer, and every summer after, he’d taken me off-roading and overlanding across the United States, teaching me geography, history, and engine repair along the way. I loved that Jeep almost as much as I loved him. But as he folded the keys into my palm, tears welled up in my eyes and I shook my head. “Biggie, no. I can’t—”

“Listen, I’ve still got some time before the holes in my memory start getting bigger,” he said, cutting me off. “But Valentina was always gonna be yours one day. Today might as well be the day.”

I tried to imagine what it would be like to travel without him, but it was like looking into a lake so deep you couldn’t see the bottom. Unfathomable. “What are you going to do?”

“Oh, I think it’s time for me and Stella to get hitched,” he said, referring to his longtime girlfriend, whom he’d never once mentioned asking to be his wife.

I fell against him, sobbing into his shoulder. “I don’t want to lose you, Biggie.”

“You aren’t losing me,” he said, his big, thick arms wrapping around me, holding me tight. “I taught you everything you know, so I will always be with you.”

He pulled back a little and tilted my chin. I may have inherited the height gene, but I still had to look up at him. He swam in my vision. “What’s the family motto?”

Biggie had invented the family motto when I was going through my thirteen-year- old asshole phase, questioning why we had to spend yet another summer climbing over boulders and sleeping on the ground. It had been the one year in my life I wanted to do ordinary teenage things, like sleeping in on the weekend, hanging out on the beach with friends, and maybe kissing boys. But Dad had long ago decided that our lives should be extraordinary.

My laugh was thick with snot and tears, and I wiped my eyes with the heels of my hands. “Here for a good time, not for a long time.” Biggie shrugged and did that thing with his mouth that he imagined made him look like De Niro, but since he looked nothing like De Niro, it only made him look slightly constipated. “Exactly. It’s going to be okay. I’ve got no regrets, and I don’t want you to have any either. Look forward, Carla, not back.”

Now, when people ask me if I’m afraid to travel alone, I always tell them no. After all, what could possibly happen to me that’s worse than having my dad disappear, piece by tiny piece?

The Confession Box turns out to be a traditional Irish pub, but not the touristy red one with the riotous flower boxes that shows up in a lot of travel photos of Dublin. Not that there’s anything wrong with tourist attractions. They have their place. No, the exterior of The Confession Box is painted glossy black and trimmed with gold leaf paint that shines in the sun. Guinness signs hang in the front window, and a black sandwich board on the pavement claims the pub was once the favorite of Irish revolutionary Michael Collins.

I snap a quick selfie and text it to Stella so she can show Biggie. Maybe he’ll recognize me today, maybe he won’t. His memory is growing more unpredictable, and every text, every call, every video chat is a crapshoot.

I step inside the pub and realize almost at once that there’s little chance of missing Eamon Sullivan. There are only about ten seats at the bar, a handful of small tables around the perimeter, and a little upper balcony. It’s not a seedy dive, it’s simply tiny. The name makes sense in a whole different context and I’m not disappointed.

Dropping my backpack on the floor below the bar, I hoist myself onto a wooden barstool. A bank of taps to my left offers a variety of beers and ciders, but I’m in Ireland, so I order a pint of Guinness.

Every bartender worth their salt knows that a proper Guinness pour is both a science and an art. The glass needs to be held at the proper angle, and you only fill the glass three-quarters of the way before letting it rest for almost two minutes. Or 119.53 seconds, to be precise. Back home in Fort Lauderdale, I work as a bartender in a pirate-themed bar where the waitress uniforms look like the result you’d get if you googled “sexy pirate costume.” My own uniform is a black tank top that says wench across the back. Since our customers are bedazzled by boobs and legs, a proper Guinness pour is usually the last thing they care about.

As I settle in to wait for my beer and Eamon’s arrival, I text Anna to let her know I’ve arrived in Ireland.



Anna has been my best friend since our very first shift together at the bar. Maybe it’s because we’d both grown up in single-parent homes. Or because neither of us knew how it felt to be born with silver spoons in our mouths. Or because working in a tits-and- ass restaurant was a deliberate career choice and not a layover on our way to a “real” job. Most people don’t get closer than arm’s length with me, so maybe the real reason we’re friends is that neither of us expects more than the other is able to give.

Every spring, when snowbird season ends in South Florida, I pack my shit into Valentina—nicknamed after my dad’s favorite Mexican hot sauce—and head in whichever direction my internal compass points. I’ve always known that Anna would be there when I returned. After her fiancé Ben died, she took off sailing, and I understood why she had to leave.

Although she hasn’t officially returned to Florida, the last time I saw Anna, her spirit was restored, and her heart was in the hands of someone new. Someone worthy. So, when she asked me to fly to Ireland and stand beside her when she marries Keane Sullivan, the only possible answer was yes.

The barman rests a pint of Guinness on a beer mat in front of me.

“Thank you.” I stash my phone in the back pocket of my jeans and glance around the room for anyone who might resemble Eamon. Anna told me he was a few inches shorter, slightly older, and significantly less scruffy than Keane, which means Eamon will probably have dark brown hair, possibly hazel eyes, and a killer smile. No one in the pub fits that description, so I take a long swallow of beer and sigh with satisfaction. “From one bartender to another, this might be the best Guinness I’ve ever had.”

The barman gives a knowing chuckle as he nods. “You wouldn’t be the first to say it.”

The deeper I dive into my glass, the more the travel fatigue falls away. The minute hand of the clock above the bar ticks steadily past noon and The Confession Box starts drawing a crowd—well, a tiny crowd. I order a second pint as a guy wearing business casual gray pants and a white button-up shirt claims the barstool to my right. I sneak a glance from the corner of my eye, but he has ginger hair and freckles, neither of which Anna mentioned.

Not Eamon.

The guy orders a pint of Magners cider and swivels toward me. “American?”

I don’t really feel much like being chatted up by a stranger, but one of the first rules of bar etiquette is that you don’t ignore the people sitting beside you. If you want privacy, you choose a table. That doesn’t mean you have to endure hours—or even minutes—of unwanted conversation, but you should at least be polite.

“Yes.” “Welcome to Dublin.” He touches his chest. “The name’s Gavin.”


“Lovely to meet you.” His voice is slightly raspy, and his Irish accent is sexy, which bumps his attractiveness level up another notch. Not enough for me to want to change my plans and be interested, but enough to pass the time until Eamon arrives. “What part of America are you from?”

I give a short, sharp laugh. “The worst part.”

“Ah,” Gavin says, knowingly. “You must be from Florida.”

I point a finger at him. “Got it in one.”

He laughs and loosens the next button on his shirt. “What do you do there?”

“I’m a bartender. How ’bout you?”

“Tech.” Gavin takes a huge swig of cider and wipes the dribble from his chin with the back of his hand. His stock drops a few points, but I’ve seen worse from the other side of the bar. “Dublin is a center for IT.”

I’m not anti-technology. I text, email, and post my adventures on social media as much as the next person. In fact, my Instagram account has a ridiculous number of followers because I’m an attractive woman doing “dude” things in a Jeep. But the idea of sitting behind a computer all day doing . . . anything . . . sounds like a soul-sucking hell. I’d probably be drinking Magners at noon on a Monday, too.

“What brings you to Ireland?” Gavin asks.

“My best friend is getting married this weekend.”

He winks but puts too much cheek in it to be charming. “Need a plus-one?”

Before I have a chance to answer, the front door opens and a man walks into the bar who not only fits Anna’s description of Eamon, but exceeds her description, and grinds her description into fine sand. It’s like trying to stare directly at an eclipse and not go blind.

Gavin’s question hangs in the air.

Eamon Sullivan stands only a few feet away, scanning the room.

He looks directly at me without a flicker of recognition.

Before my brain has time to consider the consequences, I shoot him my most brilliant smile, catch the front of his olive-green button-up shirt in my fist, and pull him toward me. “Oh my God, babe, you’re finally here!”

His dark brows flex with momentary confusion, but when my lips brush against his, Eamon leans in to the improvisation. His fingertips land, warm and soft, against my neck. He angles his head, deepening the kiss. His thumb caresses my cheek, sending goose bumps racing across the backs of my arms. Eamon’s mouth lingers on my lower lip as he slowly breaks away, leaving me dazed and breathless. He gives me the barest hint of a grin before grazing his lips against the middle of my forehead. “Jaysus, but I’ve missed you.”

We stare at each other until Gavin’s voice penetrates the bubble. “Well, then, never mind. I reckon you’ve managed to find a plus-one all on your own.”

I laugh, bumping back to reality. “I do appreciate the offer.” 

As Gavin vacates his stool, he quickly assesses Eamon, casts a dubious eye at me, and snorts a laugh. “Sure you do.”

“Not entirely certain what just happened,” Eamon says, claiming the empty seat and indicating to the barman to set up another round. “But . . . hi, I’m Eamon. And you are?”

“I’m Carla.”

“Carla.” He blinks and realization dawns in his eyes. Green eyes, not hazel at all. “Oh. You’re—you. I expected more luggage, less . . . kissing. Also, Anna said you’d have your hair done up in a messy bun and that you’ve got a full sleeve of tattoos, so you’re not what I expected.”

I ease back the cuff of my long-sleeved T-shirt, and Eamon’s eyes fall on the collection of tiny stars that circle my wrist. My entire right arm is covered with black minimalist tattoos I’ve collected like souvenirs from the places I’ve traveled. Most of them are Sagittarius-related because if I have any faith at all, I have faith in the stars. Among them is a centaur on the back of my upper arm, inked at a shop in Barra de la Cruz, a bow made of flowers from a shop in Taos, and a stick-and- poke Sagittarius constellation that Biggie’s friend Ugly Louie did in his garage in Dania Beach when I turned eighteen.

“Anna couldn’t have known about the cooler weather,” Eamon says, at the same time as I say, “She had no idea I was getting a haircut.”

I touch the fringe at the back of my neck, still not used to the length. The stylist made me confirm several times that I really wanted a pixie cut. I’ve worn my hair in a bun for nearly a decade, hoping it might help Dad recognize me longer. But two weeks ago, during a video chat, he confused me for my mother and called me Sheryl. I realized the style of my hair doesn’t matter anymore.

“For what it’s worth, I think your hair looks lovely,” Eamon says.

The warmth of his compliment floods my cheeks and I smile at him. “Thank you. I’m sorry about that weird”—I wave my hand in his general direction—“ violation of your face. I don’t normally kiss people without their permission.”

His laugh makes it clear he’s unfazed. “I take it that bloke was annoying you.”

I hesitate. Gavin hadn’t been particularly bothersome. He didn’t have time to be persistent or make me feel uncomfortable. He wasn’t acting sketchy or threatening. And I’ve never been especially shy about telling someone I’m not interested. But how can I possibly explain to Eamon—without sounding completely unhinged—that the impulse to kiss him struck me like a Holy Roller speaking in tongues? He does resemble his brother, but Keane’s attractiveness is magnified by a giant helping of charisma, a dash of swagger, and perpetual sex hair, while Eamon’s attractiveness needs no help at all. Both Sullivan brothers won the same genetic lottery, but Eamon is like when the Powerball jackpot hits a billion.

“He was.” I throw in a nod with my big fat falsehood.

Eamon shrugs a single shoulder, and even the slightest hint of a smile makes his cheek dimple. “You’ll get no complaints from me.”

“You caught on quick.”

“I happen to be a natural actor,” he says. “At the primary school they still weep over my portrayal of Saint Joseph in the Nativity play.”

“With joy or laughter?”

He cocks his head, considering, before the dimple deepens. “Bit of both, I reckon.”

The barman has barely finished putting the next round of Guinness on the bar when Eamon grabs one of the glasses and takes a giant gulp. As his tongue slides out to lick away the pale foam clinging to his upper lip, my breath catches in my chest, and the thoughts I push out of my head are positively obscene.