Everly slipped walking out of the bathroom stall. She didn’t know how the other women in the bar managed. It seemed like Northern Ireland had a strict dress code: five-inch heels, miniskirts, stockings, and generously revealing sparkly tops. Every woman had painstakingly done eyebrows and tastefully exquisite contouring. Everly didn’t begrudge the women for their insistence on dressing up to go out. They all looked like elegant goddesses next to her.
Tall, curvy in the kind of way that made people glare at her for eating pizza, and still wearing her glasses from a day and a half of flying across the Atlantic, Everly Green tried to steady herself on the bathroom sink. Her drunk, out-of-focus eyes surveilled her reflection, which was dressed in a wrinkled button-up, a lacy grey camisole that was fraying on the shoulders, faded black jeans, and sported messy, black hair in desperate need of a wash.
In other words, she looked like a wasted twenty-two-year-old American who didn’t have anyone to tell her to go home. Those were her cards the first night in any new country, though.
Pushing back into the crowd, Everly tried to navigate her way to the bar for another drink. It was the night before classes started at the university, so naturally, the entirety of Belfast was there. She parted a sea of accents and laughter to finally arrive at the bartender for the eighth time that night.
Everly wasn’t keeping track, but it seemed that perhaps the bartender was.
“Sure you’re alright for another?” He frowned, wiping a glass dry as he peered at her.
“I can actually understand what you're saying now, so can’t be too bad.” Everly smiled and slid a couple of pound notes across the bar top. He shrugged and started pouring another three fingers of bourbon.
“Thanks.” Taking the first sip, Everly scanned the room for a quiet corner. A couple stood up to leave, and she made her move. Darting through the crowd, Everly got there just as an outrageously tall man reached for the same chair she did.
“Sorry,” he conceded when he saw her, but Everly shook her head.
“Not at all,” she said hurriedly. “You got here first. Go ahead.”
He smiled at her in the way people reserve for children and hospital patients who weren’t going to make it. “Please, you stay,” he said, pulling out the chair for her to take a seat. His accent was the soft, posh British accent she’d heard in movies and on television shows—a stark contrast to the harsh Belfast accent of her cab driver earlier, the bartender, and most of the patrons surrounding them. It was the kind of voice a person could get used to.
Which was probably for the best, since she would be spending the next year in Belfast for school. Not having a negative, visceral reaction every time someone spoke was a step in the right direction.
“I’m not here with anyone. You can have the table, really,” she said more forcefully than she intended. About to turn and walk away, she felt his hand on her elbow and reflexively recoiled.
“Sorry, again.” He smiled, but it didn’t reach his cheeks.
“No, it—don’t worry about it,” she said flatly. Realizing she was coming off as a classic rude American, Everly turned to fully face him, flashed a quick smirk, and reached a hand out for him to shake. “I’m weird about touching people. Hi, I’m Everly.”
“Henry.” He shook her hand with an easy firmness that felt warm but not oppressive and dropped it promptly. “I’m not here with anyone, either. Would you like to sit with me? Perhaps we can enjoy the solitude of the evening together.”
Well, look at me go. Her first night in Belfast, soaked with airplane fumes and wearing clothes that’d seen four airports in twenty-eight hours, and a stranger was already trying to sit with her. Everly wished she could say this was a unique event, but it wasn’t. People seemed drawn to her in the same way the drunkest person at the party always finds a dog, or the quiet one inevitably ends up in the library. Perhaps she emitted a sad signal for single travelers and friendless drunkards.
“That’s alright. I should get going, anyway,” she said, downing her drink and setting the empty glass on the table.
“Did you just take that drink like a shot?” He gaped.
“Yeah.” Everly inhaled deeply, her tongue gasping for something cool and wet to quell the dryness of the bourbon. “It’s the cheap stuff, though.”
“That’s not what I was thinking.” He laughed, pulling out the chair again. “Please, join me. It’s my first night in Belfast, and I’m desperate.”
Everly laughed. There it is.
“How could I possibly resist such a tempting offer,” she snarked and deposited herself into the chair. Henry sat across from her with a beer in hand.
“Get you a refill?” the waitress asked.
“Whiskey, please,” Everly said, pulling out a tenner just as Henry also offered the waitress some pounds. Blocking his hand with her own, Everly smiled at the waitress, offered a quiet, “Thanks,” and placed the money in her hand.
Henry shrugged and put his wallet away.
“So, Everly.” He leaned in. “Tell me about yourself.”
“No.” She grinned, sitting back in the chair and crossing her legs.
Henry didn’t look deterred. “Don’t like confiding in strangers?” he asked.
“I love confiding in strangers,” Everly clarified. “I just refuse to do it without a drink.”
“Tell me about yourself, instead.”
“Can’t do that,” Henry sighed.
“And why’s that?”
“I don’t believe in one-sided relationships.”
Everly fought back a snort. “In a relationship already, are we?”
“I intend to propose in a fortnight.”
“I was going to ask for that young girl’s hand across the room.” Everly frowned melodramatically. “So unfortunate that now my plans are doomed.”
Henry glanced over his shoulder. “The redhead?”
“No, the one with curly hair,” she said.
“Always go for the ones with books. They’re great at taxes.”
“Ah, so my grand plan to sweep you off your feet will be thwarted by your lesbianism.”
“I’m afraid my sexuality isn’t up for discussion,” Everly said with a bright smile but a tone of finality. She was kicking herself for even bringing it up. If she were sober, she would’ve opted for something more charmingly heterosexual. Gay marriage wasn’t legal in America in 2012, let alone Northern Ireland, and she wasn’t eager to have a label assigned to her on the very first night.
Also, Everly wasn’t a lesbian. She was, well…complicated.
Henry took the hint.
“It’s probably for the best,” he sighed. “I have a feeling you’d drink me under the table, and I’m not sure my masculinity could handle that.”
“Who needs masculinity anyway? Thanks,” Everly said, taking her drink gingerly from the waitress. “What are you drinking tonight?”
“Guinness. Do as the locals and all.” Henry made a pained face before downing another gulp. “Can’t say I get the allure.”
“Gonna be a rough year for you, man.” She took a sip of whiskey.
“Years,” he corrected her. “You only here for a year?”
“Yep, accelerated masters program in ethnic conflict,” she explained.
“Don’t know who told you there’s any ethnic conflict in Belfast, but they’ve misled you,” Henry deadpanned sarcastically.
“Oh, yes,” Everly fanned herself melodramatically. “I forgot the Troubles are all some distant, long-remedied memory.”
“British Protestant Unionists and Irish Catholic Republicans? Conflict? Here, you say?” Henry sounded almost offended.
“Surely not after the Good Friday Agreement saved us all,” Everly pointed out.
“And there’s no issue at all with the six counties that make up Northern Ireland being forever stuck in the middle, both literally and nationally.”
“Definitely not a matchbox waiting to be lit,” Everly said somberly.
Henry met her eyes as they both exchanged the dark humor of two people who knew too much to know anything was that easy. It was also the first time Everly got a proper look at Henry.
His skin was a smooth, light brown, hair perfectly poofed with some gel, and wearing jeans and a green collar shirt that matched his very tired but happy eyes. Perhaps he suffered a long day of traveling, too.
“I’m here to study what happens when things don’t end so amicably,” Everly offered. “My focus is on genocide.”
Henry nearly spat out his drink, coughing it as he swallowed. “Genocide?” he choked out.
“Someone’s got to.” She shrugged.
“That’s gotta be hard, yeah?” He looked almost concerned. “Reading about all that death.”
It was hard. Everly knew there were several bottles of liquor from the Heathrow Airport duty-free lining the windowsill of her dorm room a quarter-mile away. She even had a shot of vodka in her pocket just in case the bartender cut her off before she was drunk enough to black out. It was the only way she could avoid the screams her mind dreamed anymore.
Of course, she could’ve just quit. There was no external force demanding she continue her studies into graduate school, but there was a long, sordid reason why Everly had chosen to study something so dark and horrific as genocide further.
She didn’t feel the need to explain that to Henry, either.
“It’s not so bad,” she lied cheerfully.
She could hear the disbelief in his voice, but he didn’t press any further.
“You ready for orientation tomorrow?” she asked, trying to move the conversation along.
“Bright and early tomorrow morning. Yours?”
“Less bright, but still morning,” she sighed. The time was nearing eleven, and the haze she’d felt in the bathroom was getting thicker. It was getting more and more difficult to focus on what Henry was saying.
“Guess there isn’t too much bright to speak of in a place like this, anyway.”
“I like the dark,” she said airily.
Henry peered at her over his barely touched Guinness.
“You’re an odd one, aren’t you?”
“I don’t know, sure.” Everly shrugged and downed the rest of her drink. As much as it pained her to admit, she likely needed to leave before she forgot where she lived. In the coming weeks, she could drink much more, once her feet could lead the way home. But for now, it required a bit of effort.
“Alright, really gotta get going now.” Wobbling as she stood, Everly reached a hand out to Henry once more. “Good luck tomorrow.”
“You, too,” he said softly, but rather than abruptly let go of her hand like he had the first time, he held onto her. “Do you need any help getting home?” he offered.
Everly tilted her head, his hand starting to make hers warm and sweaty. “Do you know where I live?” She laughed.
“No, I just-” Henry hurried to explain.
“Then I’m good.” His hand still holding hers, Everly squinted and glanced down at their awkwardly interlocking limbs. “Later, Henry.”
He finally let his fingers slip away from hers. “See you around, Everly.”
Wiping her palms on her jeans, Everly ducked back into the throng of bar patrons and out into the chilly Belfast night.
The first thing she saw was her new school: Queen’s University Belfast. It was impossible to miss. With black wrought iron gates that stood at least ten feet tall, it delicately opened in the center of the block onto the path that led up to the great brick gothic-inspired school building. With spires soaring to the stuff of city skylines and looking straight out of a medieval college brochure, Queen’s was the goal she’d been working towards for years. Though she didn’t know anyone in the entire British commonwealth, Everly knew this structure. It was the milestone of her academic career—and its death knell.
But there was time to think about that tomorrow. Yanking herself away from the impressive silhouette, Everly walked the short jaunt down the road and turned onto Mount Charles. Graduate student housing lined the private street and hers was right in the middle. Turning the key, she nearly tripped onto the ragged blue carpet. It was dark and still inside. She tried to keep herself quiet as the stairs squeaked all the way up to the top floor. Located right off the landing, Everly opened her door and was confronted with a half-unpacked suitcase, books scattered on the floor, and a thin sheet spread across a latex mattress.
She was too drunk and too tired to care. Without bothering to change into pajamas, Everly closed the door, kicked off her shoes, and flopped down on the bed. Almost immediately she was snoring.
The grey morning light crept through the double-paned window. For the second day in a row, a gloomy and overcast sky dominated Belfast. Coming from the American South where it was hot and sticky no matter the season, it was a huge relief for Everly; she loved the cold.
She pulled on a fresh pair of jeans and a black and a red plaid button-up. Orientation wasn’t for another hour and she wanted to explore the neighborhood for breakfast. If that breakfast also happened to have some type of liquor accompanying it, then all the better.
It was safe to say Everly possessed a penchant for alcohol. After developing an interest in genocide studies at a young age, she threw herself into its theory and history. She took classes, pursued papers and dissertations on the UN’s positions and failures, and looked for the actions of the helpers and, occasionally, what led to their deaths.
To study genocide, she needed to find the stamina not to think too deeply about the atrocities she was reading about daily. There was therapy, certainly, but alcohol was Everly’s preferred coping mechanism.
Maybe it wasn’t the best choice, but it was the one she picked.
Stopping off at her makeshift bar, she procured the small bottle of vodka and took off for the restaurant she saw on the way to Mount Charles. The most adorable cafe was perched on the corner waiting for Everly to scooch into a window seat, order an Irish breakfast, and dump her vodka into an orange juice.
It was Everly’s first time ordering an Irish breakfast and most of it was expected: bacon, sausage, toast, eggs, hash browns. The rest of it left her baffled. Dipping her fork in something sausage-like, she touched it to the tip of her tongue and expected to recoil but found it oddly delightful?
Everly took her time investigating all the different foods and textures. She scanned the menu and was chatting with the waitress about what to order next time when the bells tolled eleven, which meant her orientation was just about to start and she was already late.
Gobbling down the rest and slinging back her ad hoc screwdriver, Everly rushed to orientation, arriving just as the speaker began.
“Welcome, Queen’s University Belfast Politics Postgraduates Class of 2013,” the speaker announced. There was a sprinkling of applause. “You’ve chosen to study at one of the best research institutions in the United Kingdom. You’ll learn the values of interdisciplinary skills by taking courses across your specialties to bolster your own. It will be incredibly difficult and trying at times, but together we will see you succeed.”
Gazing around the room, Everly found a girl leaning against the wall, arms crossed in a leather jacket with a dark red t-shirt that was just a bit too low cut. Her black jeans and leather boots coupled with the total lack of make-up told Everly everything she needed to know. Everly was about to keep scanning the crowd, but the girl’s head turned and their eyes met.
Sometimes looking at someone can instantly cement in the mind that it was destiny to meet. Nothing in the world could have prevented it and, when it finally happens, there’s a gentle clicking sound of a piece falling into place.
Looking at her made Everly sure she heard that click.
“Break into your courses to meet your classmates,” the speaker said, but neither Everly nor the girl turned away.
And that was it! The speaker left them all there, staring at one another awkwardly.
Everly’s buzz wasn’t fully in effect yet, but it was tingling enough to bolster her to say “Ethnic Conflict?” in an otherwise quiet room.
The leather jacket girl started moving towards her. Others heading her way included a redhead, a blonde with long hair and curves all the way down to there (which wasn’t very far), and a girl with long dark locks.
“Hiya!” the blonde and shortest among them proclaimed cheerfully, clearly from the American Midwest. “I’m Michelle.”
“Everly.” She smiled back.
“Zoe,” said the leather jacket girl, her accent straight from a BBC documentary.
“Bianca,” said a Mediterranean goddess, her accent sounding American, too.
“I’m Hannah,” the redhead proclaimed also in a very American-sounding way. At this point, the girls were all looking at each other reproachfully.
“Are most of us American?” Bianca sounded unsure. Everly, Michelle, and Hannah all nodded and she burst out laughing. “Are you kidding me?!”
“What are the fucking odds of that.” Everly’s eyes went wide at the thought. “Half of us in a UK program are tea-in-the-harbor yanks.”
“None of you are allowed around my tea cupboard,” Zoe declared immediately and the rest of them chuckled.
“Do we want to meet up tonight and grab a drink?” Everly proposed hopefully, and instantly she was met with the eager faces of five friendless twenty-somethings.