There was a sandstorm coming in.
Nikki saw it coming with an odd calmness. They’d checked the weather reports. It wasn’t the season for them. And yet there it was, and they couldn’t have more than a minute or so before it hit.
Looking over at her colleagues, she saw the panic in their faces before she felt it herself. Watching Christian cover his face with a scarf, she hurried to do the same, making sure her entire face was covered. Sandstorms weren’t vital as long as you kept the sand out of your lungs, and the important thing to remember was to stay calm.
Except the closer the storm got, the harder it became to remember what she’d once read in a textbook.
And then it hit, and Nikki was blind.
She’d meant to stay put. She’d meant to make sure she didn’t get lost as that could mean death in the desert, but she might as well have been a puppet trying to ignore her strings. She felt herself being pushed around, occasionally lifted off the ground for half a terrifying second, before being thrown down once again. Then she felt something tug at her hand that was definitely not the sandstorm and she was being pulled downwards.
She couldn’t see, but she could feel the ground under her give in, and suddenly she was not being pushed around, was not being used as a toy of the storm.
Reaching up to brush the sand away from her goggles, she found herself in something caught between being a cave and being a mere hole in the ground.
Looking up she could see the sandstorm raging on above them, but she was protected from the worst of it. Or they were, she corrected her own thoughts, as she saw the man who’d helped her.
He wasn’t dressed like any of her colleagues, and she felt relatively sure that she didn’t know him, though it was hard to tell with his face covered in goggles and a scarf.
“Are you okay?” he asked, his voice muffled by the scarf.
“Yes. Thank you.”
“Follow me.” He began walking without waiting for an answer, and for a second it looked like he’d walked through the wall. Then she realised that there was a small hallway, and as she followed him she found herself in what could only be described as a cave.
The man pushed the googles up, and Nikki saw the dark eyes and chocolate skin of a local.
“I’m Tarek,” he introduced himself.
He nodded thoughtfully. “Only an American would go into the desert when there’s a storm coming.”
“The weather reports didn’t say anything about a storm,” she defended herself.
He snorted. “What do they know? You should have asked the locals.”
“I’ll remember that for the next time,” she said curtly, sitting down on the ground. She couldn’t remember ever having been this tired.
“Water?” he asked, offering her a bottle, and her annoyance with him faded away.
“Thank you,” she said, taking a couple of long gulps, before she realised that he might just have been offering her a sip. He might be thirsty too. Embarrassed she handed the bottle back. Silence stretched out between them.
“I hope the others are okay,” she said.
“There were others?”
“Yeah, my colleagues.”
“You were here on a job?” For the first time he sounded interested.
“Yes, I’m an archaeologist. Well, at least I hope to be one. I suppose it’s safer to say that I’m currently the intern for an archaeologist. We were on our way to a dig.”
Pulling out her phone, she quickly wrote a text to Christian.
“That won’t work here.”
“What?” she looked up.
“That thing won’t work here.” He almost sounded smug. “You really are American.”
Feeling annoyed once again, she hit sent, smiling triumphantly when the tiny bleep indicated that she’d succeeded. “Guess we Americans are good for something,” she said, painstakingly casual. “These things will work in a blizzard. Borrowed them for the job.”
A bleep indicated that she’d gotten a text in return and she glanced down, relieved to find a text from Christian telling her that they’d found shelter as well.
Speaking of which, she really did need to find a way to get back together with them. If she could just get back to civilization, she’d be able to pay for a trip back to the hotel.
“Is the nearest city within walking distance?” she asked.
He shook his head. “No, but I can take you there,” he offered.
“Thank you. I’ll pay of course.”
She’d expected him to demurely refuse her offer, but he merely nodded.
“Thirty dollars,” he said.
She nodded willingly enough. Thirty dollars to be returned to civilization was more than fair.
Not sure what else to say, she fidgeted awkwardly. Silence stretched out between them.
Tarek didn’t appear particularly uncomfortable, but Nikki was, and not knowing what else to do, she began to talk.
She didn’t give much thought to what she said. She talked about her studies back home, her friends, and the boyfriend who’d dumped her when he found out she’d planned to leave for three months.
She talked about her mother, who seemed to only have grandchildren in her mind, and her father who’d wanted a boy. She talked until she realised that she was getting much too personal, and that even silence was better than Tarek’s complete lack of reaction to anything she said.
“Why didn’t your parents try for another child then?” he asked her, and Nikki lifted her eyebrow in surprise over this proof that he actually had been paying attention.
She shrugged. “The birth was pretty rough for mom. She was told that her body wouldn’t be able to handle another.”
He frowned. “They could have adopted,” he said. “Did you ever wish you had a younger sibling?”
“Constantly. Do you have any siblings?”
He nodded. “I have four younger sisters.”
“Four? Wow. Did you ever wish you had a brother?”
“No. I have a good friend. He’s like a brother.”
“That’s nice,” she mused, wishing she had someone like that in her life. “Were you always friends?”
“No.” He sounded amused. “We hated each other at first.”
“What changed that?”
He looked at her, and Nikki suddenly wondered if he was going to refuse to answer her.
“Do you really want to know or are you just making small talk?” he asked.
He laughed at that. “Well, he saved me from drowning,” he said. “And after a while we also realised our reasons for hating each other were all stupid.” He shrugged. “I suppose you can say that we grew up.”
“I used to have a friend who was like a sister,” Nikki said. How long had it been since she’d thought about Rose? Five years? Ten?
“Yeah. We grew apart, I suppose you can say. Got different interests. Too bad, really, when I think about it. She was nice. The kindest person I know.”
He nodded thoughtfully. “You have to be careful,” he said calmly. “It’s surprisingly easy to lose friends without meaning to.”
Nikki smiled. “Some local wisdom of the desert people,” she joked.
“No. Just common sense. Though I suppose it’s a new concept for you Americans.”
Ready to step up and defend her nationality, Nikki suddenly saw the glint in his eyes. He was teasing her, she realised.
Leaning back against the stone wall, she looked up, wondering if the storm was still raging on outside their little safe zone.
“Tell me about your friend?” she requested.
He seemed more than willing to do so, before moving on to his sisters, and then his jobs. It seemed like Tarek liked to switch work at least twice a year.
“I like trying new things,” he said, shrugging. “New challenges.”
“Sometimes. But it’s not boring, and I hate being bored.”
“My parents used to say that being bored is healthy.”
“Then I’ll die a very young man.”
Nikki laughed. “I hope not,” she said. “I quite like you.”
“I quite like me too.” He smiled at her. “And perhaps you aren’t so bad yourself, American girl.”
“I have a name, you know.”
“I do know. Nikki. It’s a very pretty one too.”
She could hear the laughter in his voice. Then he was scooting over until he was right next to her, and he pushed down the scarf still wrapped around the lower part of his face.
It was a very attractive face, even if his nose was a bit too big, and this was all Nikki had time to think before he was kissing her. Too surprised to either push him away or kiss him back, Nikki merely let it happen.
The kiss lasted only for a couple of heartbeats, and was merely the softest touch against her lips. Nikki could only stare at the man who was both a stranger and not.
“I think I would have waited those three months,” Tarek said, before brushing his lips against hers once again. Then he stood up.
“I’ll check outside,” he told her.
“The sandstorm. It should be over by now, and we can return to civilization.”
Would it be terrible to stay in the cave anyway?
He smiled at her, and Nikki suddenly had the feeling that he could read her mind. She looked down, listening to the sound of him leaving their little haven.
When he came back and told her that it was safe to come up, she tried her best to ignore the sharp little sting that she felt inside.
The trip to the city was taken in silence.
There didn’t seem to be anything to say.
She felt that there should be things to say, some unspoken words between them, but she didn’t know what they were.
All too sudden, she was handing him his thirty dollars, and she realised that she was never going to see this man again.
And of course it didn’t really matter, because they lived on opposite sides of the world anyway, but somehow it still did matter. And how would it feel to go back to America, having said nothing?
“These jobs of yours,” she began. “Have any of them ever included being a guide for a senseless American?”
He smiled. “Not yet.”
“Would you be interested in trying something new then?”
He grinned. “Always,” he said, before leaning over and kissing her again, and one of these days his kisses really needed to last longer than those few seconds. Or maybe then the next time she could kiss him.
Blushing, Nikki quickly scribbled down her number on a scrap of paper.
“Call me,” she said, the words sounding awfully banal spoken out loud.
Reaching up, she kissed him to make up for them.
They weren’t going to last. It was too improbable, too insensible, and Nikki had never understood people naïve enough to believe that distance or cultural differences didn’t matter.
But perhaps Tarek was right.
There really was something about trying new things.