At first, Booker believes the letters to be another part of his punishment. They arrive every few years, starting soon after Quỳnh returns to the family. He wonders how the small envelopes find their way to him, it’s not as though he tells anyone where he lives or when he moves. Perhaps Copley has something to do with it.
The first envelope arrives five years into his exile. He hasn’t seen his family in a year and a half, hasn’t spoken to them in closer to three. There had been a brief moment when Quỳnh had miraculously appeared in his apartment that Booker had thought maybe, just maybe, his exile might be shortened. But no, it had been made very clear that it was only a temporary alignment of interests, that helping Quỳnh was the topmost priority and all had not been forgiven. As soon as she had readjusted and begun processing her trauma with the help and support of the others, Booker had been shown the door.
So now here he sits, the tiny kitchen quiet around him, the brown envelope staring accusingly from the table. He takes a drink from his flask to bolster his courage and rips the envelope open, shaking the contents out. Inside is a short letter and a single photograph. He picks the photo up first, squinting to make it out in the haze of light coming in from the streetlamp outside.
It’s his family.
A group shot of the five of them, sitting around a dining table. The angle is a bit off, like it was taken on a phone propped up on a counter, but Booker can still see the smiling faces, the food on the table, the tealights scattered between plates. Nile is the closest, turned around in her seat to face the camera, waving. Behind her are Nicky and Joe, the reserved smile on Nicky’s face countered by the unrestrained grin on Joe’s. Lastly, on the far right of the frame and Andy and Quỳnh. Andy is turned away, reaching for a serving spoon, but Booker can see the happy crinkles by her eyes. Her arm is around Quỳnh, who’s caught mid laugh.
Booker’s hand starts to shake. The photo hurts, a reminder of what he had had and failed to appreciate. It slips from his fingers and he gets up to search the cabinets of this shitty flat for a way to forget.
The morning light is struggling through the grimy window when Booker finally rolls off the worn couch the next day. He staggers to the kitchen sink for a glass of water, a hand trailing over the table as he drinks. His fingers brush paper, and he picks up the letter, forgotten from last night.
It’s short, written in tidy printing that he recognizes as belonging to Nile.
We are well. The others won’t say it, but we all miss you.
Please stop drinking so much.
Booker crumples up the letter. He didn’t think Nile went in for punishment via guilt, but here it is. He hurls the paper across the room and goes hunting for the bottle from last night.
The letter and photo are wrapped safely in a wax cotton pouch with Booker’s most treasured possessions.
The next envelope arrives two years later. Booker hasn’t seen his family in three months, his decision to stick to Europe to avoid them backfiring spectacularly when he’d almost run into Nicky at a tiny corner shop one rainy afternoon in Spain. After that he had caught a flight out to South America as soon as he could. Now as he opens the door to the tiny rundown apartment he currently stays in, he spots a corner of creased brown paper. Booker shifts his bag of groceries to his other hand, bottles clinking as he does so, and stoops to pick up the envelope, the door creaking shut behind him.
He throws it onto the table and takes his time putting away the shopping. But there is only so long he can avoid it, and so drink in hand, he sits in the single rickety chair and slices open the paper with a butter knife. Inside is a note and two photographs. He slides them out and glances over the note.
A picture says a thousand words.
Maybe consider green tea.
At the bottom is a cartoonish doodle of Nile holding a steaming mug of tea. Booker wonders if this is the work of Joe, but immediately dismisses the thought. This was all Nile. He didn’t know she could draw.
He puts the note aside and shifts his attention to the photos. One is a blurry shot of the group sitting around a campfire, the faces glowing orange. Nile isn’t in there, so Booker assumes she must have been the one to take the picture. The other is a… a self? No, selfie, that’s what people call these kinds of photos. It is a selfie of Nile sitting outdoors, her eyes scrunched up and tongue sticking out. Flowers are woven into her hair, and behind her sits Joe adding more to the ends of her braids. Nicky is a blur in the top corner holding out more flowers for Joe.
They look so happy.
Booker puts his head on the table and cries.
In the next fifteen years Booker receives four more envelopes. He’s not sure how Nile finds his addresses, but every few years one of those brown envelopes will appear. They all contain a short note, a few words on the family or a reminder to ease up on the booze, and two or three photos. He always keeps everything he receives, treasures them. Realistically he knows he should burn the photos, but he just can’t bring himself to. At some point Booker realizes that Nile isn’t sending them as a punishment, although God knows he deserves it, but rather as a reminder. We are your family the photos say. We are safe and we are waiting for you.
He sits on the floor of the latest shitty apartment in a long line of shitty apartments and spreads his horde out on the threadbare rug in front of him. There are several group shots of the whole family, Nile almost always sends one, gathered around tables or fires, and on one spectacular occasion, one of them gathered around a table on fire. There’s a photo of Joe looking smug wearing nothing but combat boots and a kilt slung low around his hips with Quỳnh in full tac gear doubled over laughing next to him. One of Nicky and Nile placing a birthday cake covered in candles in front of a sulking Andy. Joe and Nicky kissing under new year’s fireworks (Booker knows it’s new year because Joe is wearing a glittery cardboard crown that proclaims ‘Frohes Neues Jahr 2041’). Andy and Quỳnh sleeping in the backseat of a car, foreheads touching, a stained coat thrown over them. These tiny snapshots of his family radiate love and joy, but sometimes just looking at them is heart-breaking. Booker knows that when his hundred years are up his family will not be the same. Andy, the oldest, their leader, and the only person who understood the grief that Booker felt every day, would be gone. He wishes it were him instead. Andy still has so much to live for, and him? He has nothing.
Booker is forty-six years into his exile. He hasn’t seen his family in two years, not since he’d walked right into Quỳnh coming out of a small pub in the highlands of Scotland. They had stared at each other before Booker had bolted at the sight of the others rounding the corner from the train station. After that he had left for one of his nicer safehouses in Québec City, and two years later is still there. The world had become a much smaller place and avoiding the family had become much harder, but so far they had not appeared. Much as he would give anything to see them, Booker is relieved. He likes Québec City; it has an old charm to it not to mention the French spoken here is so much closer to what he knew as a boy. He tries to return to the apartment he owns here at least once a decade. Maybe it had been a predictable move, but it had still made Booker smile when he’d found one of the brown envelopes waiting on the doormat on the day he had first returned. The note inside had simply read you looked well, and he had known that at least Nile had seen him that day in Scotland.
Now he smiles at the memory as he returns to the flat after buying some fresh vegetables. The sun beats down and he squints up at the screen on the corner of the block that runs the news as he crosses the street. Sometimes he tries to guess if his family was involved in the latest news bulletins. Today seems like a slow news day, and he’s about to look away when his eye is caught by the date. He stops dead in his tracks and only the loud honk of an oncoming bus gets him moving again. Today is Joe’s 1000th birthday. The fact boggles his mind. Not for the first time he wishes he could send a message to the others; wishes he could congratulate Joe on this truly impressive birthday. Nicky would be 1000 soon too, an event merely three years away. He wonders what they are doing to celebrate the occasion.
Booker is still pondering this when he unlocks the door to his flat and slips on the doormat. He can’t quite catch himself in time and cracks his head hard on the small marble table that lives on the entryway. The vegetables fall and roll out of the bag with only a slight bruising. He can’t say the same for his head, which briefly throbs when he gasps back to life. On the one hand, it’s good to know he’s still got it. On the other, this incident will be added to the list of deaths No One Can Know About.
He sits up with a groan to inspect the damage. The table is fine, and there isn’t much blood. The door has mostly closed and the mat has slid near his hand, the culprit of his fall staring up at him in the form of a brown envelope. He’s never received more than one at the same address. Maybe he has stayed here too long? But no, he thinks as he carefully gets up. He likes this place and can remain for at least a few more years before his age or lack thereof starts to become suspicious. More importantly, he hasn’t crossed paths with his family since he came here.
He picks up the fallen vegetables and the deadly envelope and heads to the sunny kitchen/dining room. The veggies are chucked into the fridge, a glass of water collected, and Booker feels like he’s finally ready. He crosses back through the hallway into the living room, and sits heavily in the old armchair by the window. The water is set down and at last he tears open the envelope. The note inside is short as usual, Nile writing that she has been spending the last few years traveling but has just returned to the family. There are two photos, the first of which is a beautiful sunset with Nicky, Joe, and Quỳnh silhouetted against the blazing sky. The second photo is of Andy, caught unaware but looking almost directly at the camera, the wind lifting her dark hair and a glint in her eye. It seems that someone has finally convinced her to wear a bulletproof vest. Booker shakes his head, laughing quietly to himself. It only took a mere forty-six years.
For the second time that day he freezes, staring into space. Andy looks almost exactly as he remembers, but it can’t be, she’s been mortal for over forty years. Booker had never asked how old she was at her First Death, Andy herself may not have even known, but he’d always guessed she was somewhere in her late thirties or early forties. All things considered she should look like an old woman by now…
He held up the photo to the light, peering closely. Did she have a few more wrinkles? Some grey hairs? Was this even a recent picture? He had always assumed that Nile sent the latest photos. He scrambles out of the chair, the empty envelope fluttering to the ground, and dashes to the loose floorboard where his treasured bundle of memories lays hidden. Maybe it’s just an old photo of Andy? With shaking hands, he unwraps the wax cotton, photos spilling to across the floor. He spreads them out, trying to keep the order they had arrived in. He sifts out any photo with Andy and at least one of the others, doubles back for any group shot. None of them are dated, one last protection in case they were ever lost, but he knows roughly when they were taken. The passage of time can be marked through changing hair and fashion. There is when both Nile and Joe had had rows of braids. When Nicky had grown a beard (a look he has returned to frequently in the past few decades). When Quỳnh had shaved her head and the following decade it took her to grow her hair down to her hips before chopping it all off again. Although he can see bruises and cuts slowly healing, faint scars appearing, through it all Andy herself is barely changing. How had he never noticed before? As he sits amid the mess on the floor Booker wants his family more than anything, not just to see them, but to truly talk to them, to ask how all this can be possible. As he stares at the frozen moments of time spread around him and the faces of the people he loves staring back, he feels, for the first time in decades, hope.
He's not sure where to go next. On the one hand Booker likes Québec, but on the other he has a better chance of running into his family if he moves on. God knows it’s happened enough times by now. They really should have laid out some ground rules before going their separate ways. In the end he packs his bag and takes off on a whirlwind tour of his favorite safe houses. Now that he is actually looking for his family he sees them everywhere and nowhere. A sandy haired man at the bakery is Nicky, an Asian woman in the park is Quỳnh. He saw more of his family when he was actively avoiding them. He goes four years with no contact, one of the longest stretches since his exile began. Then, one day, it arrives.
Booker is staying at a small townhouse he owns in Hamburg, Germany when he hears the mail slot rattle. He leans into the hallway to see a brown envelope fall to the floor. Heart suddenly pounding, he leaps down the hall and wrenches the door open. A startled Deutsche Post mailman stares back at him, frozen with his hand hovering above the front gate. Booker raises a hand apologetically and closes the door carefully. So much for that theory.
He picks up the envelope. Over the years the name it is addressed to has changed regularly, running through various aliases and terrible puns. Today it is made out to a B. O. Oker. He wonders if Nile comes up with all of these herself or if she takes suggestions. The envelope itself feels thicker than normal in his hands, and he blindly grabs his keys from the hall table to tear the paper open on his way back to the front room. There he carefully shakes the contents out onto the coffee table. A card falls out amid a sprinkle of pink glitter. He turns it over and oh…
It’s a birthday card.
He thinks it’s even in French, but things suddenly seem a bit blurry, so it’s hard to tell. Blinking hard, he opens it up. Inside are photos and greetings from his whole family.
Happy birthday Book – Andy
Happy 300! I hope this reaches you in time! (Quỳnh stole your gift from a museum exhibition) Hugs, Nile :)
Que tu profites encore de nombreuses années! – Joe + Nicky
I hope we can celebrate together soon – Quỳnh
Nile has doodled in the empty spaces, and the bright cheer continues in the photos. Two are of celebrations from Nicky and Joe’s 1000th birthdays, one and four years ago respectively. Andy is in the background of both, and Booker scrutinizes every dot of color that makes up her face. She looks tired but happy, still the same as he remembers her. He is halfway through his exile, and he starts to think that he may just see his family all together again after all.
Then he shuffles to the last photo and his heart stops. It’s old, so old that he feels nervous just holding it, the paper flaky and delicate. The black and white image is a little blurry and faded with time, but he can still see the subject as clear as day. He covers his mouth with a shaking hand, tears welling up, and gazes at the faces he had almost forgotten but would always recognize. His sons, all three of them together again regard him solemnly. His sons who he thought he would never see again.
The photo flutters onto the table, joining the newer, joyous shots filled with color and life. They are so different yet so very alike. As his shoulders heave with 300 years’ worth of pent up emotion, Booker sees what his gift truly is. These photos, these reminders of his family. He will always love his sons and his wife more than anything else in the world, and he will still feel the pain of their loss, but he is not alone, and in truth he never has been. As he comes to realize once the tears have dried, perhaps it is time he let his grief fade and embrace the family he still has. One day he will die, and so will they, but that day is far into a future that he knows he will not have to face alone.
Booker is seventy-eight years into his exile and last saw his family over the weekend. He has been living in a small safe house he owns on the outskirts of Paris for the last seven years. Sometimes he thinks about moving, but he has another few years before the neighbours start to notice anything, and he realized he didn’t need to run anymore. At first he had been running to avoid his family, a tactic which had never worked well as the world rapidly became smaller, then he had been running to find his family. Now though, now he is content to remain in one place. The family passes through Paris once in a while, and Booker happened to cross paths with them. They hadn’t acknowledged him directly, but Joe had given the slightest of nods and Nile had looked him square in the eye with a smile on her face last time.
For the first time in literal centuries he is content. He is back in the country of his birth and life is comfortable. Herbs grow on the windowsill and photos decorate the fridge. On the table two tablet computers quietly hum as they work through the task of checking backgrounds and finances of local governments and politicians. Later he will start the process of reappropriating ill-gotten funds to charities and public services in the form of anonymous donations, just as he has done in so many other places he has lived in. It’s not much compared to what his family has done, but it’s something.
He opens a pack of magnets to put up some new additions. The letter arrived yesterday and as always contained happy moments. The fridge is full of happy moments. He has a copy of the precious photo of his sons tucked between what he calls the birthday series (Joe and Nicky’s 1000th, Nile’s 100th, and Andy and Quỳnh’s God-knows-what).
The small clicks of the magnets snapping into place ring through the kitchen.
A photo of Nile and Nicky playfully brandishing swords at Joe, who is behind the camera, his own scimitar pointed at them in response
Andy and Quỳnh lit up gold by the light of the setting sun, locked in a passionate kiss at what is clearly their wedding
A group photo of his family dressed to the nines at Andy and Quỳnh’s wedding, all of them smiling deliriously
Booker wishes he could have been there to celebrate with them, but if Nicky and Joe are anything to go by, he knows that this is not Andy and Quỳnh’s first wedding, nor will it be the last. He has twenty-two years left in his exile, and for the first time in his unnaturally long life he looks forward to the future.
The sun is shining.
Booker stands on the thin gravel beach, shifting from foot to foot. He’s early, but he couldn’t stand to be in his hotel room any longer. Before him the Thames laps sluggishly at the shore. It looks so much cleaner than it had all those years ago, multiple environmental initiatives finally starting to pay off. He wonders if his family had anything to do with it.
From behind him he hears the old wooden stairs creaking. Gravel crunches as several sets of feet pick their way down the beach. 100 years they said.
“Booker!” a familiar voice calls.
They kept their word.
He turns around.