Leo Melikian, a smart but naïve 25-year old stuck in a lowly white-collar job in the South of France, finds himself living each day twice. His Day As are spent travelling, his Day Bs on his career – but a visit to Poland finally opens his eyes on the bigger picture, and how bad the situation in France has become.
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Read on for the chapter!
Chapter 14: Southern Flames
When the South burst into flames on the 1st of July 2019, I was busy having fun in Athens.
I had spent the whole day hitting up all the touristic spots. I had witnessed the change of the guard in front of the massive Parliament building, made of pinkish limestone with classic Greek columns framing the entrance. It was exactly like the change of the guards in front of London’s Buckingham Palace, except that instead of furry black hats, it was furry black pompoms worn on the ends of the soldiers’ shoes.
I had tried to ignore the protesters massed around the main plaza brandishing anti-EU signs and walked all the way to The Acropolis, located at the top of Athens’ tallest hill. It had been awe-inspiring, a testament to the resilience of the human race, having endured millennia of war after war.
Around 6:30 p.m., I had finally settled down in a little kebab shop in a back alley. The décor was minimalistic: white walls with flaking paint, orange plastic stools arranged around foldable tables, and a small hole in the wall through which the large Greek owner barked out orders to the kitchen.
I loved Greek kebabs in France, and I was excited to try the real thing. But just like the Italian panini, it was nothing like I had expected. Instead of a pita bread sliced in half, loaded with slices of grilled lamb meat, lettuce and white sauce, I ended up with four gigantic meat skewers with greasy balls of grilled lamb. It was delicious, but I was pretty sure it was going to make me sick.
Not that getting sick was a problem. In Romania, after a hearty meal of cabbage rolls and vodka, I had ended up in a hotel bathroom retching into the toilet for an hour. I chose to blame the rolls, even though the vodka was the likelier culprit. When I had finally fallen asleep, I had woken up in Day B feeling fit as ever. The advantages of my superpower were incredible sometimes.
While I ate, the news blared on a small cathode TV in a corner. I couldn’t understand anything. Usually, looking at the scrawling text, I was able to make out key words that were similar to French or English, but Greece used Cyrillic, a completely different alphabet. I might as well have been trying to read Chinese characters.
An image suddenly caught my attention. The news report was showing yet another city erupting in riots: men with covered faces, brandishing smoke bombs and baseball bats, setting fire to cars and breaking shop display windows. I assumed it was in the Middle East, until the grainy amateur footage panned out and I immediately recognized the place. It was Place Masséna. Nice’s biggest square.
“Can you turn up the sound?” I urgently asked the owner.
“Tí?” he answered, “Den miloún angliká.”
He didn’t speak English. Just my luck. I rushed to the TV and turned the volume knob up, but couldn’t understand a word that poured out. Except one, repeated over and over again: Gallía. The Greek version of France’s old name, Gaulle. This was really happening. Images of Nice flashed past. Shopping avenues filled with looters hooting and running over broken glass. Panned shots from the heights showing plumes of smoke rising left and right.
I immediately took out my phone and turned it on. As it connected to OTE’s 4G, which I assumed was the local telecom operator, only one message popped up on my Whatsapp. It was from Thierry: ‘Are you ok? Stay home. Dangerous.‘.
I frantically dialed my parent’s number, but was met with a robotic voice informing me that due to high traffic, your call cannot be connected. I tried Hanaa, Cedric, and Lara. It failed to connect every time.
The TV kept displaying image after image of the South of France turning to ash and fire. Cellphone footage showed civilians running away with bloodied faces, squares covered in erupting red smoke, and the CRS, our elite domestic riot control force, being deployed en masse.
I dropped a fifty-euro note on the table and ran out of the restaurant. I took a left on the cobbled street and dashed to the closest major intersection, where I desperately tried to flag down a taxi. I kept frantically dialing my parents’ number, only to be disconnected time and time again.
One of Athens’ yellow taxis finally came to a stop in front of me and I jumped in.
“Airport!” I said urgently. I needed to get back to Nice as fast as possible. I had to figure out what was going on.
“Tí?” the driver asked.
“THE AIRPORT,” I yelled in frustration. “Fwooooom,” I said, making the motion of a plane taking off.
“Ach! Aerodrómio!” said the driver, putting the car into gear.
“YES! Sí! Da!” I was mixing up all my languages.
We got onto the highway and into slow-moving traffic. My legs were shaking violently from stress and fear.
I opened up Whatsapp and texted Cedric, Hanaa and Lara. ‘Are you ok? Get to safety! WTF is going on?’ If I couldn’t reach them by phone, I hoped Internet might work. My parents weren’t on Whatsapp so I kept trying their mobiles and the landline. It never connected.
Fifteen minutes later, my phone buzzed. It was Hanaa on Whatsapp. ‘They’re evacuating the uni. What’s happening?’ it read. I dashed out a response: ‘Riots. Get to safety.’ I checked the time: 7:38 p.m.
I followed up immediately with: ‘Let me know when you’re safe’ and waited for an answer. None came.
The taxi pulled up to the airport, a white concrete building with blue windows. On the way in I had chuckled at the fact that even their airport was in the colors of Greece’s blue and white flag. This time I threw a green hundred-euro bill to the driver to cover the forty euro fare, jumped out, and ran into the airport as fast as I could.
I dashed to the central sales counter. I was in a state of complete panic, heavy beads of sweat tumbling down my face and back, but everyone around me looked calm and happy. Whatever was happening was 1,500 kilometers away; here, no one cared.
“Hi,” I said to the sales clerk, who looked surprised as I heaved and panted, “I need a ticket to Nice, leaving as soon as possible.”
“Tí?” she asked, confused. GODDAMMIT! the voice roared in my head, If I hear that fucking ‘Tí’ one more time I’m going to kill someone! I took a deep breath and tried again.
“I need a ticket. Nice. Gallía. Leaving now,” I said, stabbing my finger onto the counter.
“Ach! Gallía. Opou sti Gallía tha thélate na páte?” she asked.
I understood the gist of it. Where in France did I want to go? I was about to pop open Google Translate on my phone when I remembered the concert hall I passed in front of every day on my way to work, the Palais Nikaïa, Nikaïa Palace.
“Nikaïa,” I said. She nodded and began typing away on her computer. I immediately saw her smile fade and turn into a look of confusion.
“No,” she said with a heavy accent, “Kahn-ze-led.”
“What?” I asked. She turned her screen so it faced me, and I saw all three available flights were highlighted in red. Cancelled. I took a step back. What should I do? I paced forward. I need to get to Nice. I checked my phone. No messages. I tried calling my parents and got disconnected once again.
I didn’t know what to do. I walked out of the airport and lit a cigarette to try and calm myself down. I sat down on the dirty curb and unlocked my phone.
If I couldn’t get in touch with anyone, I might as well try to find out what was going on. I loaded Le Figaro’s homepage, my go-to French newspaper. ‘Anarchy’ read the first article title, followed by ‘Racial Revolts’ and ‘The South Burns’. I checked my watch. It was 8:15 p.m.
Le Monde said much the same. As did Libération. I scanned through a few articles diagonally, trying to understand what was happening. The situation became a bit clearer: the FN idiots that had been protesting on Place Masséna because of the fake news articles had decided to up their game. They had built a bonfire in which they had started to throw copies of the Koran. It was the worst possible insult to anyone of the Islamic faith. They were burning the holy book.
A few passers-by had filmed it on their phones, uploaded the videos to social media sites, and the result had immediately gone viral. In barely an hour, the videos had garnered 10 million views. Outraged, the Muslim population of l’Ariane burst into Nice intent on screaming their anger with violence, fire, and broken FN heads.
I tried sending another Whatsapp message to Cedric, Hanaa and Lara. Still no answer. Hanaa’s silence was the most worrisome. Cedric and his anti-technology stance meant that he often left his phone out of sight, and my sister wasn’t allowed access to her phone while she worked. But Hanaa was usually glued to hers.
I feared for the worst, but quickly calmed down when I came to an important realization. Whatever was happening, I was still able to get everyone to safety before it even happened. I just needed to wait until Day B. In the meantime, I needed to fully understand what was going on. I needed information.
I opened up the local newspaper of our region: Nice-Matin, and was relieved to see that there was a live twitter feed at the top of the page dedicated to the riots. I opened it and scrolled down as far as I could go.
The FN bonfire had started at 4:30 p.m. Around 5 p.m., as the videos started to gain traction online, isolated incidents of broken windows started to be reported around Nice’s suburbs. In barely two hours, it had grown to a full riot, centered on Place Masséna, where the FN supporters who had remained on site were literally lynched. There was even a picture of a body. I felt the kebab rush back up my throat when I realized that where its head should be was nothing but a smashed mass of gore and blood.
I quickly kept scrolling. As I went through the newer cellphone pictures, I started to notice that most of the riots in Nice were taking place in the high-end areas, west of Place Masséna, but not in the poorer Old Nice. Suddenly, an image popped up. Valbonne was burning too. Literally burning. Taken from the city center, it showed the suburbs up in flames. My parents’ house wasn’t in the frame, but it was barely a kilometer away. I tried to call them again, to no avail.
Over the next four hours, the frequency of new posts on Nice Matin’s Twitter feed fell dramatically. Telephone lines and towers were being pulled down, and the automated message when I tried to call changed to ‘Your call cannot be connected‘. I switched back to the major news websites.
At 3 a.m., I finally lay down on a bench in the airport. No one had gotten back to me. The latest news from France was that they were pulling in police from nearby regions to assist, as the local forces were simply overwhelmed. I would have to act fast tomorrow. I closed my eyes and fell asleep.
I woke up with a jolt of adrenaline. I was in my bed in Nice. From the window streamed in the faint light of the sunrise, and I could hear the nearby bell towers ringing out softly. I checked the digital alarm clock next to my bed: 5:30 a.m., 1st of July, 2019.
I jumped out of bed. My mom left for work at 8, my dad at 8:30. I needed to reach them before 7:30 just to be safe. I got into the shower and as the hot water streamed over my face and body, I went over the plan I had come up with last night while I was stuck in Athens.
At first, I had thought of leaving for another city, either in Italy or up north in the Alps. But the reality was that I had no idea what the situation would be like over there, nor whether we would even make it without getting stuck on the road and ending up trapped. Not to mention that I had more people to care about than I could fit in my car.
Going over all the images I could find until 3 a.m., I had realized that my apartment in the Old Nice was safer than most. I had seen no fires and no pictures of looters or hooligans around my area. It was mostly made up of small shops selling touristic trinkets and solidly middle class housing. The riots had aimed for the high-end part of town, with the luxury shops and the premium condos.
As an added bonus, my apartment was on the fourth floor, with a thick metal door that could only be opened with a six-pin circular Abloy key. There was no way anyone could break in.
I quickly put on jeans and a simple blue t-shirt, and took the uneven stone stairs two by two to the ground floor. I ran to the parking lot, jumped into my Benz, and checked the time as I turned it on: 6:14 a.m.
This early in the morning, the Prom’ was empty. I stuck to the speed limit, fully aware that nothing would make this situation worse than losing precious time dealing with the police. My windshield darkened to adjust to the luminosity of the rising sun. I called up my phone’s contacts on the dashboard, and selected my sister’s number. She picked up on the fifth ring.
“Allo?” she asked, her voice heavy with sleep.
“Lara, good, you’re home. Has Florian left yet?”
“What?” she asked drowsily, confused, “No… he’s next to me. Why?”
“Look, this is important. I need you to go to mom and dad’s place as fast as possible. Do NOT go to work ok?”
“What? But I have two shifts today,” she said.
“LISTEN TO ME,” I shouted, “Call in sick. Get to mom and dad’s. I’m waiting for you there. Bring Florian.”
Lara could probably feel the terror and panic in my voice because she eventually agreed. I tried to call Cedric, Hanaa and Thierry, but none of them picked up. It was probably still too early.
I drove up the Route de Nice, but instead of focusing on the beautiful green slopes, my eyes were glued to the speedometer. I needed to go as fast as possible. I slammed the breaks in front of my parent’s home and parked my car diagonally next to my dad’s.
I let myself in with my key and heard them in the kitchen. My mom was pouring herself a cup of tea while my dad was dipping tartines into his coffee.
“Leo?” she asked, looking up with a smile, “What are you doing here?”
“Hi mom,” I said, trying not to let the panic show and greeting her with a bise, “Something terrible is happening. Riots are about to break out everywhere.”
“What?” asked my dad.
“Look, it’s hard to explain but we’re not safe here. You need to call in sick and follow me back to Nice. Lara is on her way.”
They looked at each other as if I had gone crazy.
“Please,” I said, “Trust me. Call in sick and come with me.”
I remembered the moment with Chiara. They were giving me that same exact look. Hesitant, but unconvinced. I needed them to believe me, but I had no idea how to do it. At that moment, I thought about coming clean and telling them everything, about Day A and Day B, the lottery and the crazy 2 and a half months I had just gone through. I shook my head. That would only have made it worse.
I looked at them with desperation. “Please,” I said again, “Trust me.”
My dad took off his glasses and pinched his nose like he always did when he was thinking. “I’ll take a day off,” he finally said, “Where are we going?”
I exhaled a giant sigh of relief. If my dad was on-board, my mom would follow.
“To my apartment. It’s the safest place I can think of.”
“OK,” he said, and went back to peacefully dipping his tartine in his coffee. The conversation was over. I looked over to my mom. “Thank you…” I said. I didn’t know what else to add.
I grabbed two of the six-packs of bottled water that my mother kept under the kitchen table, and carried them outside, putting them in the boot of my car. I checked the time: 7:12 a.m. I called my sister again, who told me she had just gotten up and would be on her way shortly. I urged her to hurry. I tried Cedric and Hanaa, but neither picked up. I got through to Thierry, and told him to stay home with Adrienne and Alina. His house was in a gated community, which should be safe enough. I asked him to trust me and he reluctantly agreed. That was all I needed. I didn’t care if he thought I was crazy, I would be proven right before sundown.
My sister arrived at 10:15 a.m. I had called her a total of twelve times. Florian, her boyfriend, walked out of her car sleepily, rubbing his eyes. He was a software developer and worked late into the night. She had probably had to drag him out of bed.
I explained the situation to them as best I could, and although they gave me dubious looks, they agreed to follow me to Nice. It might have been partly out of curiosity as they still hadn’t seen my new place, but at this point, as long as they were coming with me, I simply didn’t care.
I packed the car with water and as many dry foods as I could find, and convinced everyone to pile in, with my dad in the passenger seat. I drove off straight back to Nice. As I hit the highway under the Route de Nice, I tried calling Cedric again.
“Woah! You have an AR display?” asked Florian as he saw me turn it on. He was tall and gangly, with a splatter of teenage acne still left on his face.
“Yeah, my company gave me the budget for it, so I didn’t say no,” I answered non-committally.
The line rang twice, and Cedric finally picked up.
“Yo,” he said, “What’s up?”
“Cedric!” I exclaimed in relief, “Can you make it to my place ASAP?”
“I have three classes to give this afternoon,” he muttered.
“Call in sick. Trust me, it’s important,” I said.
“Sure,” he said, “Not as if I wanted to go anyways. I’ll call in sick. Be there around 2.”
“Cool,” I said.
“By the way,” I added, suddenly remembering, “Where are your folks?”
“They’re in the Alps with my little sister and bro,” he said, “Fuckers. I don’t even get a vacation.”
“Ok good,” I said.
“Never mind. See you at 2. Don’t be late.” I hung up.
My dad looked at me strangely. “Leo, what’s really going on?” he asked.
“I told you. Riots are about to break out.”
“Look,” I added, “Cedric is going to be easier to convince if he thinks we’re going to be playing hooky from work and drinking beers. I don’t care what it takes, I need to get you all to my apartment.”
He didn’t answer.
“It’s the only place I can think of that’s safe,” I said slowly, and focused on the road.
We hit rush hour on the Prom’ and advanced at a snail’s pace. I tapped my fingers anxiously on the wheel. I honestly considered just ditching the Benz and running to my place, but forced myself to stay calm. I still had loads of time before all hell broke loose.
By the time we finally arrived and moved everything in the trunk to my place, it was nearing noon. I took Florian and my Dad down to the little Monoprix supermarket down the street, right on the corner of Gambetta square, and they watched me disbelievingly as I piled my cart high with dry goods, batteries, flashlights and little Bunsen burners. My dad looked at me incredulously as I swiped my card on over 600 euros worth of goods.
“Can you really afford that?” he asked.
“No time dad, I’m sorry. It’s not important right now.”
We laboriously carried everything up the four flights of stone steps, where my mom and sister opened the door. They ordered pizza for everyone while I tried yet again to call Hanaa. It was quarter past one, and I was running out of time before things started to spiral out of control. I breathed an immense sigh of relief when she finally picked up.
“WHAT DO YOU WANT? I’m in class you dick!” she barked angrily. I had never felt so happy to hear her yell at me.
“Where are you?” I asked.
“In Darfur. Saving little kids,” she said sarcastically, “Where do you think? I’m at uni.”
“Can you come over to my place? Like, now?”
“Of course not!” she answered, “You know it’s the last two weeks of the year. I can’t miss these.”
“Skip it for today. Please. Some bad stuff’s about to happen.”
I heard her breathe out a sigh of exasperation.
“You’re a pain in the ass. I’ll be there at 4. I’ll just pass on EU Financial Regulations. The professor’s a perv anyways.”
“You’re the best. Be on time. Please.”
“Like I’m ever late,” she snapped and hung up.
Everyone was accounted for. I exhaled deeply. For the next few hours we sat in the living room. We ate pizza and then Florian jumped on MarioKart and challenged my sister to a race while my mom and dad sat in the couches reading. They looked at me questioningly from time to time, but by now they were sufficiently committed to my craziness to wait it out. Cedric finally arrived, grabbed a remote and proceeded to kick the shit out of my sister’s boyfriend. I continually checked my watch. The only one who was still missing was Hanaa.
4 p.m. came and went. I forced them to turn off the game station and switch to BFM News. Around 4:45, we heard a siren off in the distance. I jumped to the window, trying to see if I could see smoke from the FN bonfire, but there was nothing. Everyone in the room looked at me as if I had gone crazy.
I kept trying to call Hanaa. She was usually so punctual that it didn’t make sense. I told myself she had probably stopped for a chat with some of her friends. Figures, I thought, the one time I need her to be punctual is the one time she won’t be. I started to pace back and forth.
At 5:30, BFM finally caught on to the viral videos and started to report on small gangs rampaging through the shops around l’Ariane. Everyone in the room turned to me warily. I said nothing, picked up my phone and tried to call Hanaa again. It went straight to voicemail.
For the next hour, more and more reports streamed in. Violence and vandalism were spreading in the north of Nice. The news was attributing it to small-time criminals looking to cause trouble, but still advised Nice’s residents to stay indoors. I had called Hanaa a total of 15 times, and I was starting to panic.
At 6:43 I finally received a text from her. ‘I went to class. I finish at 8, ill come then.’
“FUCK!” I yelled, “Fuck fuck fuck.”
I remembered her text yesterday. At 7:38 p.m., her uni was evacuated. Then nothing. Something had happened to her. She was in trouble.
“What’s wrong?” asked Cedric.
I needed to do something.
“Hanaa. We’re going to go get her.”
“She fucking went to class!” I yelled out, “Put on your shoes, we’re going!”
My parents and sister looked at me worriedly.
“You’re going out?” my mom asked. The news had been steadily growing worse. We could hear car alarms going off in the distance.
“I have to,” I said. I poured out the contents of my travel bag on the floor, the Barquettes de Lu and sunglasses skidding across the tiles to the other side of the room. “Florian, I’m taking these,” I said, grabbing the tennis shoes he had kicked off near the door and throwing them into the backpack. I slung it onto my shoulders and took my keys out of my jeans’ back pocket.
I took off the key to the entrance and handed it to my mom, keeping the one for the wooden door on the first floor.
“Don’t open the door for anyone besides us ok? Anyone.” I looked at my dad. “I don’t care if they’re screaming for help, you don’t open for anyone.”
Before he could answer, I opened the door and dashed down the stairs, Cedric hard on my heels. I stepped out into the street. The air was heavy with tension. I could faintly smell smoke. I checked my watch. It was 6:52 p.m.
“Where are we heading?” asked Cedric.
“Are we taking your car?”
“No time, and the roads might already be fucked. We run.”
Hanaa’s university, the University of Law and Political Science of Nice, was halfway between my place and l’Ariane. We were heading in the most dangerous direction. I took a deep breath, and we took off.
We ran north. I whispered a quiet prayer of thanks that I had quit smoking on Day Bs. I was panting hard but we were making good time. As soon as we got out of the Old Nice, we ran up the Boulevard de Cimiez, a giant avenue lined with shops. Strangely, it was completely empty of cars and people. The news were clearly having an effect and keeping people home. That, and the sirens we could hear going off in the streets around us.
The Boulevard was straight uphill. It was tough going but we powered on. The muscles in my legs ached with every stride and my heart pounded so hard I could hear it. Cedric had taken the lead. I was about to ask him to slow down when he suddenly stopped and held me back with a hand on my chest.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. He pointed. A hundred meters ahead, where the road curved slightly, had appeared a group of thirty figures clad in black, hoods up and bandanas wrapped around their faces. A few with baseball bats were busy breaking the windows of shop after shop. With each crash of glass the group roared in approval.
“Follow me,” said Cedric, and we darted down a side alley to the right, then immediately turned left and ran parallel to the Boulevard. The acrid smell of smoke grew stronger, and I could see telltale wisps rise from behind the buildings around us.
It was 7:25 when we made it to the university. We were met with absolute pandemonium. The large forged iron gates were wide open, and hundreds of students were pouring out. Each looked more bewildered than the next. Some were desperately trying to use their phones, others broke off running, while the rest just stood in shock, not knowing where to go. They had no idea what was going on.
“Can you see Hanaa?” I desperately asked Cedric. I took out my phone and was urgently typing out a Whatsapp message to her, when he shouted out. “She’s there!”
To her credit, in the absolute chaos of hundreds of milling students, Hanaa stood out as a figure of perfect calm. Her Louis Vuitton bag hanging on her shoulder, she coolly walked out the gates, a neatly trimmed eyebrow raised at the panic around her.
“Hanaa!” I shouted with relief and ran towards her.
“Leo? What the hell are you doing here?” she asked, for once caught completely off-guard. I pulled the bag off my shoulders and opened it.
“Take your heels off and put these on,” I said, handing her Florian’s tennis shoes. She opened her mouth to protest, but Cedric jumped in. “Shut up. We need to run. Do as he says.”
She sat down on the curb and pulled off her heels. “What the hell is happening?”
“Riots.” I said, “Everywhere.”
“It’s bad,” added Cedric, short and curt, as if it was the only explanation she needed to hear.
I threw her heels into my backpack and we took off at an all-out run. I noticed the sky had begun to darken, but it wasn’t past eight yet. Smoke, I thought, Nice is burning.
We took the Boulevard downhill this time, but the going was somehow even tougher. Shattered glass crunched underfoot. We ran around smashed TVs that lay on the sidewalk in front of an electronics store. As much as we could, we stuck to the shadows on the side. When we reached the halfway point, where the Boulevard reached the Old Nice outskirts, we saw a bunch of hooded figures bearing down on us from Voie Mathis, on our right.
“Get them!” one yelled and they broke into a run.
“RUN!” yelled Cedric, grabbing Hanaa by the arm to pull her along. I brought up the rear. I could hear the pounding of feet on the pavement behind us. The Boulevard bended in a U-turn at the intersection, and Cedric dove down a small alley, straight into the Old Nice and its labyrinth of small roads crisscrossing in every direction. We banked hard to the left, ran up a steep alley to the right, sprinted across a tiny plaza with a fountain and a car with shattered windows, and leapt right and left into so many side-streets that I lost count.
Finally he stopped. Both Hanaa and I buckled over, hands on our knees. Hanaa started to hack and cough while I wheezed and panted like a dog.
“I think we lost them,” said Cedric, looking back, “But I have no idea where we are.”
I looked around. We were just under the Castle. It was a five-minute jog from here to my place, all of it downhill.
“We’re not far,” I said, “Hanaa, are you ok?”
Still bent over and facing the ground, she raised a hand in the air to indicate she was going to be fine.
“We need to get moving,” said Cedric with authority, “Leo, lead the way, I’ll take care of Hanaa.”
We ran down alley after alley, trying our best not to trip on the crooked cobblestones. My legs hurt with every step. I wiped off the sweat dripping from my brow.
Finally, I saw the entrance to my little street. I took a hard right, and skidded to a stop. Cedric bumped into me from behind. Barely twenty meters away, halfway between where we were and the salvation of my front door, were eight people.
Just like the ones we had seen, they were dressed in black hoodies and slacks. Bright red and green bandanas covered everything except their eyes, but their eyes said it all. They burnt with anger, violence and a sadistic glint of happiness. They spoke French with the Arabic-inspired slang of the banlieue, France’s ghetto.
They slowly walked towards us. Three of them advanced, scraping the baseball bats they held along the walls with each step. The one in front played with a butterfly knife, swinging it open and closed as he approached.
I looked behind us. We had no way of escaping. We were exhausted and panting, while they were fresh and rested. If we ran, they would catch up with us in seconds.
Fighting wasn’t really an option either. Cedric might know Viet Vo Dao, but I wouldn’t be able to do anything to help. Hanaa was probably a better fighter than I was. There was no way we could take on eight of them. Any way I looked at it, we were screwed.
“Kahba,” the one with the knife spat at Hanaa, “What the fuck are you doing with these two kelab?”
Hanaa stood tall and proud. “Shut the fuck up asshole and learn to speak Arabic,” she said with a sneer.
“Whore!” he shouted, “You’re betraying your race!”
“Go eat your dead you fuck,” Hanaa cursed.
He yelled out and suddenly threw himself towards us, knife first.
That was all that Cedric needed. He jumped forward, pushed the arm holding the knife out of the way with his left hand and smashed his right fist into the attacker’s ribcage.
The attacker doubled over with a cry, but before anyone could react, Cedric grabbed his head, and slammed it down with full force on his knee. I heard the crunch of bone. His body spasmed, and went limp. He fell to the floor, but Cedric didn’t stop. He violently kicked him in the stomach with sledgehammer blows, again, and again, and again.
No one moved. All remaining seven were deathly still. Cedric stopped, panting, and slowly turned to face them.
“WHICH ONE OF YOU FUCKERS IS NEXT?” he roared, arms spread wide.
They hesitated. The first rank took a step back, then another, and before I knew it they were running away from us down the street. My hands were shaking like never before, and my heart was a runaway train bashing against my chest.
“Cedric…” I said, reaching out to him. He violently turned and hit my hand away.
“Sorry,” he shook his head, regaining his senses. “Let’s go, fast,” he panted.
We ran to the wooden door. I fumbled with the keys, got it open and slammed it closed behind us. We all sat down on the stone stairs, in shock. Cedric was staring blankly ahead and shaking. Hanaa was sobbing silently, her face in her hands and her shoulders heaving up and down.
After a few minutes, I broke the silence. “We need to go up,” I said. We climbed the stairs one by one, slowly and painfully. Every single one of our muscles ached, but we barely felt the sting anymore. Our wounds were much deeper.
I knocked on the metal door. “Mom,” I said with a broken voice, “Mom it’s me, open the door.”
The door flung open and before I knew it I was in my mother’s arms. My dad hugged Hanaa, which at any other moment would have been the most surprising thing of the month.
“Lara,” I said, “Can you look at Cedric’s hand?” It was dripping with blood.
My parents sat all three of us down on the couch. Just from the sight of our white, blood-drained faces, they knew not to ask what had happened. My dad grabbed three blankets upstairs and laid them across our shoulders. My mom brought us three boiling hot cups of tea that we held without drinking. The TV was still on, showing horrifying images of violence: cars burning, tear-gas canisters thrown at the CRS, and curled up civilians being kicked on all sides by groups of hooded hooligans. It was too much. I reached over and switched off the TV. We sat silently, shivering.
A few hours later, I went up to the roof to smoke a cigarette. The window creaked open barely a minute later, and Hanaa and Cedric both wiggled out of the small opening and sat beside me.
Hanaa reached out and took my cigarette. I lit another one, and handed it to Cedric. He hesitated, and then grabbed it as well. We sat in silence, looking over Nice. In the distance, the sky was red from smoke and flames, rising from the Place Masséna and beyond.
“What happens if the flames reach here?” asked Hanaa.
I inhaled smoke and blew it out slowly. “I thought about it,” I said, “We wake everybody up and we go over the roofs, all the way over there,” I pointed with a finger. “There’s a place where the roof is barely two meters above the street. We jump down and run hide at the Castle.”
“What if the Castle’s not safe?”
I didn’t answer.
Barely a month had passed since my party. It had seemed so simple and carefree then. It was anything but now.
“I think I killed him,” Cedric said in a cold, dead voice. It was the first time he had spoken since we had made it to safety. He looked straight ahead, unable to meet any of our gazes.
“You saved me,” said Hanaa. She scooted closer to him and rested her head on his shoulder, “You saved us. Thank you.”
“If they had rushed us we were dead,” said Cedric, still staring into nothingness, “I had to. I had to scare them. I had to scare them so bad they would run away.”
“You had to,” I nodded soberly.
“I know,” he said. He crushed his cigarette on the terracotta tiles. “It just doesn’t make it any easier.”
We climbed back into the apartment. I made sure to lock the window as I closed it. My parents were sleeping in my room, my sister and Florian in the smaller one. We walked down to the couch, and lay down on it all together. Hanaa had her head on Cedric’s stomach and her feet on mine. Without a word, we fell asleep as one.
~ End of Chapter 14 ~
Final chapter of Book One next week! Stay tuned on my Facebook page here!
Thanks for reading!