"Now my curiosity is piqued." I slide my empty glass aside to make room for the next round of Guinness. "What really happened during the Nativity play?"
Eamon rests his arm along the back of my chair, bringing his body closer to mine, as if we're old friends instead of brand-new acquaintances. A tiny cynical voice inside me wonders if this is one of his signature moves, but the warmth rolling through me doesn't care. I angle toward him to listen.
"The thing to keep in mind is that at the time I was a wee lad of five," he says. "But while the children's choir was singing 'Away in a Manger,' the baby Jesus—played by Taddy Finnegan, an actual baby—started squirming and scrunching up his face."
He pauses for a quick drink.
"A moment later, the most wretched odor began creeping out of the manger," Eamon continues. "Having a younger brother, I was well versed in that smell, so I shouted, 'The baby Jesus has done a poo!'"
I let out a laugh. "Oh no."
He nods. "Oh yes. And to make matters worse, my older brother, Patrick, called back from the audience, 'You're his da. Clean it up.' Taking his advice literally, I lifted the baby, but his nappy was so loaded that it fell straight off, splattering poo all over the floor. Mrs. Finnegan rushed up onstage to rescue wee Taddy, but by then the crowd was roaring and the choir performance had fallen apart. I was banned from participating in the Nativity play, and to this day I'm not certain I'm allowed back in the building."
By the time he's finished, tears are trickling from the corners of my eyes and my sides hurt from laughing. "Between this story and some of the ones Keane has shared, your family sounds really fun."
"I haven't always seen it that way," Eamon says, his expression slipping into thoughtfulness. "But they're grand. What's your family like?"
"No siblings," I say. "But my dad is the best person I know, and he raised me by himself for most of my childhood." Before Eamon can ask about my mom, I forge on. "He was a high school history teacher, so we spent every summer traveling. He bought me a National Parks Passport and we set out to visit every park site in the contiguous United States."
"It took nearly twenty years, but we visited three hundred and ninety-two of them."
"I don't believe you," he says, except his dimple appears. Teasing me.
I lean down and scoop my backpack off the floor. It's made of whiskey-brown leather—a gift from Biggie when I turned nine, along with the National Parks Passport and his first bit of traveler's wisdom: If it doesn't fit in your backpack, you don't need it.
The Parks Passport has had a permanent home in the front pocket ever since. I unbuckle the pocket and hand over the small, worn, spiral-bound book. Some of the pages are falling out, so it's held together with a thick red rubber band.
Eamon pages carefully through the book, lingering to look at the cancellations—dated ink stamps pressed onto the pages by rangers from the various parks and monuments—and the panoramic stickers designed to look like postage stamps.
After so many years, the Passport has become an unofficial diary. My face flushes at the unexpected intimacy of it. This is a glimpse behind a curtain most people aren't allowed to see, but for reasons I can't name, Eamon Sullivan seems like someone I can trust with the doodles, chocolate smears, notes, dried tears, and bits of my heart left among the pages.
"This is amazing," he says, a note of wonder in his voice, and I'm relieved that he doesn't poke fun at something so important to me. Relieved that my trust has not been misplaced. "I had no idea there were so many national parks in America."
"There are sixty-three major parks," I explain. "Those are the famous ones like Yellowstone. Yosemite. Grand Canyon. But...the rest...yeah. So many."
Eamon smiles and it makes me want to kiss him again. "Do you have a favorite?"
"The first time my dad and I traveled outside Florida, I was five," I say. "He took me to De Soto National Forest in Mississippi. It was an eleven-hour drive, but when we got there, we found a beautiful, secluded campsite beside a creek."
I turn the pages of the Passport until I find the one with map coordinates written in the margin.
"De Soto is not in this book," I tell Eamon. "Not sure why national forests don't count as national parks, but they don't, so Biggie—my dad—wrote the coordinates for our campsite, so I'd be able to find it again someday."
Somewhere in my Instagram feed there's a photo taken during my return to De Soto—twenty years later—of me sitting on the hood of the Jeep with the muddy brown creek in the background. I consider showing him, but maybe he's more polite than interested.
This excerpt ends on page 18 of the paperback edition.
Monday we begin the book The Secret Service of Tea and Treason by India Holton.