I'd rather not say that these past years have been years of sadness. They were lonely years, mind you. They were the loneliest years that I've ever lived, but that's to be expected. I've lost all friends about myself, though. This will be the story of a little girl, one with bright hazel eyes and hair the colour of sunrise.
Back before we met I worked as a travelling salesman. Others called me a con artist, a swindler, a cheat, a liar, an equivocator. Looking back on my life, I was all those things and more.
It was that line of work that brought me to Bankview, a town too small to be found on most maps. Those were always the best places to make a few pennies; little connection to the outside world meant they were generally ignorant of the possibility of scams. It also meant that, if they threw me out, word of my ill deeds wouldn't travel very fast.
In the town there was only one place to stay; The Rosie Cheeks Inn. It was far nicer than many places I'd stayed before, although it would be fair to say that the largest portion of its income came from its bar and not its lodging service. Considering that the entire establishment was run by a middle-age woman and her young daughter, I was impressed.
However, I was in the town for business and not festivities. The moment I entered the inn, I paid my fee and took to my room.
Just as I started unpacking my things, however, a child burst into the room and quietly shut the door behind her. With eyes like polished bronze and a smile that you could only ever see on someone so young, she pressed her fingers against her lips and held back laughter that was crawling its way up her belly.
"Shhhhhh, I'm hiding!" She said in as loud a whisper as was possible for her.
As soon as her words dwindled into silence the monster she was hiding from let out a terrifying wail.
"Sweetheart!" Shouted the monster, her mother, searching every room that her child could be in, "Where are you!?"
Luckily, my room was far enough down the hall that the child had time to react, and with a confidence all her own she ran at me and gazed upwards with a smile on her face.
"Mister, Mister!" She said, bouncing with excitement "I'm going to hide under the bed! If mommy asks where I am, don't tell her, okay?"
And with that she was off like a wisp of flame, disappearing beneath a shroud of blankets before I had any chance to react.
Moments later her mother entered with a look on her face that told me this had happened many times before.
"Have you seen a little girl?" She said, "Red hair, just over 3 feet tall, cute as a button but troublesome as a leprechaun."
I admit that I was probably blushing here; at the very least I was trying my best not to smile while at the same time stopping myself from looking anywhere near the bed. Even with my years as a con artist, helping a little girl have some fun was probably the most difficult lie I've ever had to pull off.
"Nope. I haven't seen a soul since I got here." I said. My words were as calm and resolute as ever.
"You sure?" The mother said, clearly disappointed, "Well, if you see her, could you bring her to me?"
I nodded, and if I was working alone it would have been the perfect crime. But, alas, there's always a weak link, and today it came in the form of a mischievous little girl.
Moments before the mother closed the door and left, moments before we would have been free of our crime, the cutest laughter I'd ever heard started trickling out from beneath the bed.
The door stopped moving. The laughter stopped, too, when the child realized what she had done.
"What was that sound?" the mother said.
"It was me!" the bed seemed to shout, "I was squeaking!"
With that, our fate was sealed. The mother calmly walked over to the side of the bed and crossed her arms with a huff.
"You can come out now, Angela" She said, "I know you're under there."
It was only a few seconds before Angela popped her head out from beneath the covers; her body still concealed, she looked like a severed visage of childish glee and innocence.
That was the first time I had felt happiness in a long while. Of course, it ended the moment Angela snapped her crooked finger in my direction and shouted "He told me to hide under the bed!"
The mother gave me a look of anger.
"Haven't seen a soul, was it?" She said.
"I swear!" I responded with my hands high as if I were being arrested, "I have absolutely no idea how she got there!"
Angela giggled again.
"Come on, sweetheart." The mother said, pulling her child out from under the bed, "You have to help clean dishes or else no one's gonna want to drink here."
With a pout and a stomp Angela dusted herself off and made her way towards the door. She stopped at the doorframe, spun back towards me and waved, "G'bye mister!"
The mother sighed, "She's only this happy when someone new is in town." She said before she left, "I don't mean to be a bother, and I'm sure you wouldn't understand, but would you mind keeping her entertained? Tell her stories, play some games with her, you know. It's just so nice to see her smile."
I couldn't believe that she trusted a stranger, but I agreed and began doing what the mother asked.
The days passed rather quickly. Originally, I had only planned on staying there for a day or two, pending angry customers, but when I told Angela about my leaving she let loose so many tears that I just couldn't go, so I decided to stay for one more day.
Perhaps it was destiny. See, there was a tragedy on that final day. Just before nightfall, while I was roaming the town, I saw smoke gathering on the horizon. It was the inn, somehow it had caught flame.
I ran as quickly as I could to see what was happening, there was already a crowd gathering around the place upon my arrival. However, even in such a large crowd, no one seemed to hear what I was hearing. There were cries for help from inside the building, cries of a mother and daughter just audible over the cracking flames. Those cries, along with a strange image of a a family in pain, drew me into the flames.
Up to that point, it was the worst thing I'd ever experienced. Everything you put your hand on left you in pain, the flames tore at your flesh and the smoke felt like jagged splinters in your lungs, but I pressed on.
'If I couldn't do it by force,'
'I would have to con my way through.'
The cries grew closer but my head was teaming with confusion. My old self would never have done such a thing. In fact, he would probably have left a child and mother behind to save his own life. Nothing in my life added up to this point, but something in me said it was what I should be doing.
Looking back, that was the moment I changed from a coward to a man.
Eventually I found the two; Angela was unconscious and her mother, body trapped beneath a heavy beam, held her tight.
Moments before she stopped screaming for help, moments before she had given up hope for a savior, I stepped into the room. Me, a stranger and a con without a single good deed in his past, fought through hell to save a few people that I had known for less than a week. Seeing those flames must have changed something in me.
The time, however, was not a time for reminiscing about my life; it was a time to save the lives of others.
I acted as quickly as I could to save them both. I burned the palms of my hand trying to lift the beam from Angela's mother, but it was no use.
After several failed attempts at rescue, the mother, with a look of desperation, placed Angela into my arms and spoke her final words to me.
"Take her and go."
We both understood the situation. The chivalrous thing to do would have been trying and trying over and over to pry the beams away, risking all our lives in the process, but sometimes chivalry comes second. All I could do was nod and force a smile. She returned to me a similar expression and handed me her daughter.
There was no hesitation, the moment I had Angela in my arms I ran for the exit, only looking back once to see a smile on the mother's face. The flames seemed less powerful than before and arriving at the building's exit seemed like it took far shorter a time than it took to get in.
When I stepped outside the sky was deep blue, the flames behind me shone in the night and had attracted almost every soul in the town to flock around them. A whisper grew to a light cheer as I walked from the building with a child in hand. As I placed her on the ground it seemed as if the entire town crowded around to congratulate a savior and bless a rescued child.
None of them knew the mother was lost.
Angela was just barely breathing; her eyes held a terrible sadness and burns covered her face. In my mind there was a desperate hope, a hope that her mother found a way out of the flames. Maybe there was a back door or a basement she could go to, I thought of anything to keep the image of her pain from my imagination.
It was then I remembered a conversation that Angela and I had the night before the fire.
"You know, mommy really loves me." She said, I was sitting on the bed and she was playing with some old toys that I always carried with me.
"Really?" I said, she looked up and smiled her innocent smile.
"Yep! She tells me she loves me every time I wake up in the morning!" Her movement slowed as if she had fallen into memory, "That I'm the only one she has left."
Angela was right, but the situation had twisted what she said. Just as she was all her mother had left, without her mother, she was alone.
There was nothing else I could do. I spent every cent earned on my travels to buy a small house at the edge of town. The local grocer, seeming to sympathize with my position, offered me a job. Taking that job was my last step towards settling down. Aside from myself, many of the townsfolk would come by every so often with gifts of food and kind words.
"For a stranger such as yourself to take care of that sweet little girl when she has nowhere else to go!" They'd say, "Bless your soul!"
Time passed quickly in the village; I grew older and weaker, Angela grew stronger, more mature, but she would never smile after the fire. Every time I tried to make her laugh, she'd tell me that it hurt her scars to do so.
Seeing what she had become, I often wondered if saving her was the right choice.
Before I knew it, thirty years had passed. Angela had grown into a woman; aside from her scars, she was one of the most beautiful women I'd ever seen, which is why her death came as such a great tragedy to me.
It happened only eight days ago, I was woken in the middle of the night by the smell of smoke. Next door, the house was ablaze, down the hall, Angela was nowhere to be found.
I clawed my way out of bed and took a firm grip of my cane before moving to the window to see the commotion.
The front door opened and shut and through the window I could see Angela walking towards the flames. Hastily, I found my way to the door and called out for her.
She turned around, smiling, and waved to me. "There's a family in that building and no one else seems to want to help them!"
I pleaded her not to go, but she seemed to think it was her life's purpose.
"Listen, you saved my life." She said, "I'm returning the favour, so don't try to stop me."
Tears began falling down her face, wrapping her scars "I'm going to see mother now!" She shouted over the cracking flames.
Smile now as large as the day I met her, she said her last words before walking into the burning building.
I never saw her again
Years ago, I saved a child's life, and in turn she saved the lives of an entire family. I took a small handful of ash from the remains of the building where she died, when I look at the container where they sit, the image of her smiling face, both young and old, is all that I can see, and all that I will ever see until the end of my life.