She can’t stop shivering.
Nile blindly reaches out for the blanket that she kicked away while sleeping, but when she reaches out, she’s not in bed. She’s standing in front of a wooden stage. That can’t be right, she thinks. She looks around and she’s surrounded by dozens of men. Uniformed men. Some of them are holding guns. Some of them have swords dangling from their hips.
And yet none of them seem to notice her.
Where the hell am I? She checks out her surroundings and something about this looks scarily familiar. She starts walking forward, tilting her head at the man who has a rope around his neck.
She stops suddenly when she realizes this man is about to be hanged.
It feels like her heart stops beating, and yet she’s running. She’s running as fast as she can, and no one is stopping her. She runs up the rickety, wooden steps coming to a stop in front of the man--
“Booker,” she says, tearfully. “Oh my god.”
Booker looks right through her, staring defiantly out at the crowd of men gathered.
“Lâche!” One of the men yells, and then there’s a chorus of the word being thrown at Booker.
Nile tears up watching Booker’s face. She knows this face, it’s the one where he’s trying to pretend not to care. But judging by the look on his face, being called a coward is a low blow.
The rope around his neck begins to tighten and Nile can’t do anything.
“No,” she whispers. Her hands grab at nothing. “No!”
She’s screaming at nothing, tears falling freely now.
“Oh my god,” her voice begging whatever this is to stop. “I can’t watch you die.” Nile shakes her head, squeezing her eyes shut. “Please wake up,” she begs herself.
“Lâche! Lâche! Lâche!”
Nile covers her eyes, shaking her head, crying harder now.
Everything goes black the moment the bottom drops out.
Nile sits up in bed, screaming.
There are three pairs of thundering footsteps running towards her room.
Andy gets to her first and Nile can’t stop screaming.
Joe and Nicky are close by, waiting to see how they can help.
Nile finally stops screaming and now she’s having a panic attack. She’s holding on to Andy’s shoulders all while Andy tries to get her to focus on her voice.
“Listen to me, Nile. You are okay. I’m right here.”
Nile closes her eyes, taking quick breaths, the word coward shouting over and over in her mind.
After an excruciating long time, Nile inhales and exhales slowly, still holding on to Andy’s shoulders. Nicky’s impatience gets the better of him and he’s sitting on the bed, giving Nile’s shoulder a comforting squeeze. Nile looks up at Joe and she hiccoughs, bursting into tears.
Joe walks over, kneeling on the floor beside the bed.
“What happened?” Joe asks.
His gentle tone has Nile focusing on Joe now.
“I saw him--” Nile can barely get the words out. “I saw him die.”
Joe looks at Nicky then back to Nile.
Nile let’s go of Andy, grabbing hold of Joe’s hands, trying to make him understand.
“I was so cold.” Nile’s body shivers at the memory. “They were calling him a coward, and it hurt him. It hurt him, Joe. His face,” she croaks miserably. “He was trying to be brave, but it didn’t matter because he was going to hang anyway.”
Joe swallows, his attention rapt as he listens to Nile.
She must keep going or she’ll start crying again.
“I couldn’t do anything. It was so fucking cold, and I couldn’t do anything. He couldn’t do anything.” Nile can feel the tears coming, and Joe’s arms come around her. She feels Nicky’s hand on her back, letting her know he’s with her. “Their yelling got louder. I saw the rope tighten, and he fucking died in front of me.”
Nile cries until there’s no tears left. She cries until she’s physically exhausted and starts to fall asleep. But she doesn’t want to sleep.
“Don’t let me sleep,” Nile begs Joe.
“I will stay with you. I promise.”
“Please don’t let me sleep. I can’t go back there. I can’t.”
Nile curls into his chest and Joe holds on to her. She can feel Nicky behind her, and he’s got an arm around her, fingertips touching Joe’s hip.
“Where’s Andy?” Nile looks around for her.
“Right here.” Andy squeezes Nile’s wrist. She’s curled up behind Nicky, chin resting on his shoulder. “We’re all right here.”
“Don’t let me fall asleep, Joe,” Nile whispers, eyelids fluttering.
Wake up, you bastard! Wake the fuck up! You’re alive!
Nile startles awake, clutching Joe’s shirt.
“I’m here, I’m here.” Joe takes hold of Nile’s hand. “I am here, Nile.”
Nile’s body sags into the bed, head resting against Joe’s chest.
“Did you dream again?”
“No. Not like last time. I just… heard Booker’s voice this time.” Nile looks up at him. “I thought the dreams stopped after we met each other. Why is this happening?”
“I do not have the answer you want.” Joe hugs her close. “I’m so sorry you had to witness that.”
In the morning, Nile takes a long shower, letting the hot water blitz her skin until she feels numb everywhere. She stares at her reflection for a long time. She thinks she can still feel the stinging, cold air on her skin. Digging like claws into her bones.
She walks out and finds everyone eating breakfast.
She doesn’t know she’s zoned out until Nicky is saying her name.
“I need to see Booker.”
Andy looks at Joe.
Joe looks at Andy.
Nicky looks at Joe.
Joe looks at Nicky.
They all look at Nile.
She’s got a plane ticket for France thanks to Andy’s help. Andy hands her a slip of paper with an address for Paris.
“He has a lot of safe houses, but he stays at the one in Paris more than the rest.”
Andy gives her more than enough money for taxi fare, and anything else she might need for her trip. Nile doesn’t know where to begin to thank any of them. It’s only been a year since Booker’s exile started, so she knows this is a big deal.
Joe offers to drive her to the airport.
Nile has been rather surprised by his understanding in all of this.
“I know you hate him now--”
“Nile, I do not hate Booker.” He adjusts his sunglasses. “I do not take betrayal lightly.”
Nile nods understandingly. Before she realizes it, she’s stepping into the safety of Joe’s arms, holding on to him as tight as she can.
“You call any of us, and we will come to you immediately.”
Nile uses the back of her hand to wipe away her tears. She laughs.
“I’m a fucking mess.”
Joe grips her shoulders, letting his forehead rest against Nile’s. She takes a slow breath in and out, holding on to his forearms.
“I hope you find some peace of mind, habibi.”
Nile’s heart tugs at the endearment.
“I thought you and Nicky only--”
“We love you, Nile.” Joe smiles. “Okay?”
Nile nods quickly, giving him a reassuring smile. She walks away before she starts crying again. Her nerves are completely shot, but she’s still walking confidently.
The flight isn’t a long one, but she’s emotionally exhausted. She feels groggy as she makes her way through Charles de Gaulle airport. She catches a taxi quickly, telling the driver the address Andy gave her. Thankfully, it’s a quiet drive. Nile lets her head rest against the cold window, buildings flying by in her vision. She can hardly take anything in, but everything looks beautiful.
The taxi stops outside a building that looks abandoned, but he promises her this is the right address.
And then Booker is walking out to greet her.
They look at one another for a long, long minute. Nile knows it must be longer.
“Andy called me.”
“I dreamt about you dying.”
Nile’s throat does this thing, and she makes a sound like a sob.
“Your first death,” she clarifies.
Booker holds out a hand to her, and when Nile steps forward it's like her body gives out. Booker catches her, holding on as tight as he can while Nile begins to cry.
“I watched you die. I watched the rope tighten around your neck as they yelled--”
“They were calling you a coward.” Nile pulls back. Her eyes burn from crying so hard. “I saw your face, Booker. I saw your face.”
Booker glances away.
Nile drops her bag and her hands grab hold of his face.
“I know you want them to think you don’t care, but I saw your face.”
“Stop this, Nile.” Booker takes her hands into his, squeezing. “Let’s get inside, yeah?”
After they get themselves inside and situated, Booker’s bringing her a warm cup of tea. Nile’s curled up on his couch, a crocheted blanket tucked around her.
“I couldn’t do anything” She stares at her tea. “It was so fucking awful.”
Nile finally looks at Booker, trying to gauge his reaction.
Booker takes a drink from his flask.
“I remember how cold it was,” he says very quietly.
“How long until you… came back to life?”
Booker shakes his head.
“Long, long time.” Booker takes a long drink from his flask. “Did you see the others?”
“When they hang you, you lose your bowels.” Booker clears his throat. “The smell was terrible. I struggled for hours to get myself free. I kept passing out.”
Nile is hanging on his every word.
“My wrists were bloody by the time I got them free. Had to--” Booker makes a motion like he’s climbing a rope. “Hoist myself up so I could swing my feet on the platform.”
Booker sighs heavily, rubbing a hand down his face.
Nile tries to process all of this, but then Booker keeps going.
“I finally laid on the ground and, just, cried like a fucking baby.” Booker glances at Nile. “I buried the others.”
“You showed them mercy, Booker.”
“I suppose so.”
Later, Nile wakes up in a cold sweat. She remembers where she’s at and breathes in and out slowly. She really doesn’t want to have a panic attack right now. She slides out Booker’s bed, opening the door as quietly as she can.
Booker’s slouched at one corner of the couch.
Nile feels uncomfortable looking at him.
He must sense her presence because his eyes open slowly, staring at her.
“What’s wrong?” Booker rasps.
“I don’t want to be alone.”
Booker stands up slowly, motioning for Nile to lead the way.
Nile buries herself back under the blankets while Booker sits comfortably against the headboard, ankles crossed, eyes closed.
“Go to sleep, ma soeur.”
When she wakes up again, Nile is met with sunshine. Booker must have opened the curtains before he left. Nile pulls on a pair of socks, opening the door to Booker sitting at his kitchen table, reading something on his laptop.
“We are taking a trip,” Booker says.
Nile sits across from him, squinting suspiciously.
“And where exactly are we going?”
“Calanques National Park. It’s near Marseille.”
“I’ve heard of it.” Nile tilts her head at him. “Why are we going?”
Booker just smiles.
“That does not answer my question.”
“Did you know I’m from Marseille?” Booker asks, standing up to get Nile a drink. “I do not know why you dreamt of me, Nile. When we meet the dreams stop. If I had an answer for you, you know I would tell you.”
Nile takes the glass of water with a thanks.
“Marseille is beautiful. Maybe you need to ease your mind. See something beautiful.”
So, they take a train to Marseille.
Using some of the money Andy gave her, Nile treats her and Booker to a nice meal on the train. Booker shares a few stories with her of past times with Andy, Joe, and Nicky. It’s bittersweet, judging by the longing look on Booker’s face when he talks about Andy.
One hundred years is a long time with your own thoughts, Nile thinks to herself later, watching Booker sleep.
Calanques National Park is unlike anything Nile has seen, and she hasn’t lived a long life like Booker. Like the others. Even when she was a Marine, she didn’t see anything like this. Booker hangs back while she stands on a rocky path right at the cliff’s edge. When she looks down the water is a color of turquoise she’s never seen. Massive rock walls surround them on either side, and standing here among all these rocks, and the turquoise cove below, Nile feels an odd sense of peace.
Booker comes to stand beside her.
“Let’s walk down,” he suggests.
Once again, Booker hangs back to let Nile roam around at her leisure.
Nile takes off her shoes and socks, watching her toes wiggle in the water.
If someone asked her to describe this exact moment, Nile wouldn’t be able to find the right words. A light breeze starts blowing across the water and Nile holds her arms out wide. The wind feels good on her skin, and when she lifts her face to the sun it feels like a kiss.
She doesn’t notice Booker taking a photo of her with his phone.
Nile looks over her shoulder at him and they share a smile. She waves Booker over and he reluctantly, still with a smile on his face, comes walking towards her.
“Thank you for sharing this with me.”
Nile can’t see Booker’s eyes behind his sunglasses so it’s hard to gauge his reaction. But it’s easy to figure it out in the way he lays an arm across her shoulders.
“When I would have nightmares, I would come here.”
Nile hugs him, looking out at the water.
“It wasn’t so much coming home as it was… coming to find peace. Reminding myself that I wasn’t a lost cause.”
Nile doesn’t know what to say.
“You do not need to say anything.” Booker squeezes her shoulder. “Let us share this moment of peace together.”
“I’d be happy to, mon frère.”