CW: Mentions of murder and crime (but not much)
You hold the hilt of the dagger in your hands, its metal pressing against your frostbitten arm. You've never held a weapon before, and wielding one makes you feel strong. Powerful. You take a deep breath and run the blade through the rope, slitting it into two with a snap that makes your blood run cold.
"Go," you say in a voice so hoarse you can't believe it's yours.
The ten-year-old girl, the one you've just freed, looks up at you with large eyes, as if she can't believe you're letting her go. She doesn't move a muscle, as if she suspects this is a trick.
"Run," you say again, "before the police find out I've let you escape." You signal at the silvery blade that glistens under dim moonlight and at the splintered ends of rope, but the girl sits frozen, like a statue. You try to read her expression, but her face is a painted canvas of turbulent emotions, none of which you've seen before. She isn't like any kid you know. She hasn't said a word since they accused her of the crime. But her eyes - those glimmering orbs of blue - speak it all.
* * *
The first time you saw this girl was at the camp your country set up for homeless children. The children there went to a school located in the camp, and did some extra chores. They were all loquacious with a few soft-spoken kids, but then there was this girl. Never a smile, never a word, only her eyes eternally on flames. The other children bullied her and made her do all their chores, but she never complained, never spoke up. It was almost as if she could vanish any moment.
"She's difficult." The people at the camp said when you asked them about her, "Lost her parents in an accident when she was six, has no other family, and was sent here to study and help with the cleaning and stuff, like the others. No one knows her name, but the kids call her the 'weird one'. Stay away from her. Did you see her eyes?"
Yes, of course you saw her eyes. They were the most noticeable you'd ever seen on a person, and they made you shiver sometimes.
No one really liked that girl at camp, but no one bothered her either. They tried to keep away from her as much as possible, and that was how things went for a long time.
Until the fire.
Someone broke into the mayor's house one Sunday afternoon, and set fire to it. There was no one in there but the mayor himself and a few helpers, but it was too late for them to escape. The fire raged without mercy and it took several hours for the firemen to extinguish the flames.
The doer of the deed? They slipped away and left no traces. The entire police force was up and about searching for the perpetrator and although it took weeks, no one was any the smarter. They didn't know anyone who could be guilty of the crime, but they had their suspects.
The kids had been taken to their biannual excursion at the meadows on it the exact day of the fire. They were quite close to the site of the incident, and their caretakers, or teachers, accounted for each one of them, except one ten-year-old girl.
You still can't understand how they could accuse a little kid like her for such a egregious crime, but that's maybe because you've always had a soft spot for children. You still keel over with rage when you remember what the officers said:
"It can only be her."
"She was the only one missing from the group of kids."
"And her eyes? See her eyes? She was a troublemaker from the start."
And that was it. No clues, no chance at justice for the young girl. Only a court hearing that lasted barely two minutes where everyone spoke against her, and then the dark, foreboding prison cell.
No one listened to you, when you tried to make them see sense. The girl didn't utter a word, either. She stood with her head bent and her hands entwined with one another, when they passed judgement. Even when they took her to her cell, she walked like a shadow and settled on the icy iron floors of the prison.
You didn't know why you felt so strongly for her. Maybe she reminded you of your best friend, or maybe she kinda looked like your favorite niece. Whatever it was, you weren't going to let things pass without doing your best to let her escape, even though it meant going against the law.
"Get away from here," you tell her, the dagger feeling heavy in your hands, "save yourself."
She looks up at you, her gaze unwavering, and shudder goes down your spine. You think she's not gonna take the chance to flee, but then she moves up, the ropes sliding from her wrists. Her eyes are still trained on you, as if they're gauging your true intentions, and you try to stand as normally as possible. Now she's up across from you, coming barely to your elbows.
"Don't go to the camp." You say, because you know they'll hand her over to the police again, "Run, just run from here. From this city." Maybe you're a little crazy to think that a kid will be able to fend for herself all alone, but the fire in her eyes tells you she can do it.
She pauses for a moment, then nods. Something flashes in her eyes again, but it's gone before you can recognize what it is. Then she opens her mouth and says something for the first time since you've seen her.
"Ildri." Her voice is like the rustling of leaves, and it takes you a moment to realize what she means.
In the distance, you hear the deep hum of sirens, and that makes you hurry her along faster. Within moments, she's jumped out into the open through a window, and your heart is in your throat. You fling the dagger into the darkness because you don't want to be traced even though you're wearing gloves. The sirens get louder, and you scoot for escape. You still have an eye on the girl, who is crouching by the windowsill. Her eyes are glowing like a cat's, and you motion at her to go, before breaking through to the exit yourself.
As you sprint to safety, you hear only one word echoing in your mind like voices in a hollow cave:
Her name was Ildri
* * *
You don't hear anything about the girl anymore. Months pass, then years, then a couple of decades. You get caught up in your own life and work fills the minutes of your day. You can only stop to rest in the dead of night after the city has gone to sleep. You want calm and peace, but thoughts override your mind and take over. Especially of what happened all those years ago. Of Ildri, the girl with fire in her eyes. You think you've forgotten about her, but sometimes, you still wonder about her. You hope she wasn’t caught again, although you never heard news of that sort.
You count off the numbers on your fingers, and they add up to thirty-four.
Ildri is thirty-four today.
You fall asleep, weary with thoughts. That's what makes you enter the land of dreams everyday (not that you have many dreams lately). The thought. The probing question, which asks you whether you should have helped her or not.
The next day, you get up and arrive early at work. There are hardly a dozen people there, and you settle down at your desk with your laptop booting up in front of you. You don't really enjoy your job, nor do you dislike it. It's more neutral - it's grown on you.
Something is going on at your building today. There's a large poster hung up near the entrance, that you notice only now. You make your way across to it and read what it says:
'Author of Five Novels Shares Her Life Experience at 5pm today'
You don't look at it twice. You're too busy to go listening to conferences and guest speeches. You also notice, with growing suspicion, that nowhere does the poster contain the word 'Bestselling'.
A few of your colleagues are talking about this conference and they look a little disappointed when you tell them you're not going. You wonder why they're so excited for this. It isn't like this author is very famous, or anything, right? And why did she need to come to your office, out of everywhere else in the country?
You don't think many people are going to attend it, but you notice that your floor is getting emptier and emptier as five o'clock creeps in. At five minutes past five, you reluctantly admit that you're the only one left working.
You decide to pour yourself some coffee from the lobby and have a stroll outside. Your neck hurts from staining at the screen so long, and your eyes are pleading for some rest. Maybe you deserve a short break.
With a cup of steaming dark coffee swirling inside your cup, you head to the campus grounds, your shoes making light plodding noises on the paved ground, and the breeze fanning your face. With days like this, you can't help but question how on Earth you landed in that corporate job inside a stuffy office.
The entire campus is shrouded with deep silence, and you see no one. They're all probably at that author's discourse, you tell yourself, a small frown dancing on your forehead. You don't see what the big deal is.
You delve deep into your own thoughts for a while, and it feels nice to be with yourself alone for a few minutes. You think of all those good days with your family and friends, and all the fun you had when you were younger.
Then your thoughts creep back to Ildri. You mentally replay the whole scene, and although it's been nearly twenty-five years, the memory is still fresh in your mind, like newly lain snow on previously dry soil. And what makes you regard this with alacrity, is that you don't know what happened to her.
A voice calling out your name shatters your reminiscing. You see a young client weaving their way towards you.
"You're needed." They say, out of breath, "At the guest conference."
"Me?" You say, "Why do they need me?"
"The guest author wants to talk to you." They say, "They even said your name."
You frown and walk towards the hall where they're holding the conference. The moment you enter, the sheer number of people there makes you draw in your breath. But they're all leaving - the conference has ended. You spot the author standing at the front of the hall, rustling through a sheaf of papers.
"Hello." She's several feet away, and her head is bent, but you know she's addressing you and no one else.
"Hi," you head towards her and drive straight to point, "Did you ask for me?"
"Yes," her voice betrays no emotion. It is smooth and calm, "I did."
"Um - okay." You struggle to form the right words, "How was your conference?" You add that because you don't want to sound rude.
"It went well, thank you. I have a lot of people to thank."
You nod, still not getting what this author meant.
"Especially when I was a kid." She goes on, "I was lonely and I had no one to confide in. Maybe that's why I never really spoke a lot. But," she traces her fingers over the table, "I always loved writing. The feeling of pouring thoughts onto paper and letting them take tangible form. In fact, I wouldn't have been an author today if it weren't for someone who helped me out of hardship. It changed my entire life." Her voice trails away, and she seems to recede into a valley of thoughts.
You still don't get why this stranger here is telling you her life story, but you seize up at something in her words. Maybe it's in her voice. The familiarity.
"Do you know who that person is?" She looks straight up and you notice her face for the first time. Her expressions are smooth but a little stormy, but it's not that which makes you freeze in place.
It's her eyes.
Her eyes that look like they're set on flames.
You're so shocked you don't know what to say. Beads of sweat form on your forehead.
And you know right then, that Ildri never committed that crime.
"Thank you," she says, "thank you so much."