Shadows in Fire
"You’re a hero, Samantha. I’m proud of you!" A man hugged his only daughter at his chest, his hands constantly grasping at her small frame as if afraid to lose her once again as he almost did that horrid afternoon.
"I was so worried, but you’re safe now. You’re alright," he reassured the nine year-old girl between sobs. Samantha hugged him back a bit overwhelmed by his vulnerable state, not knowing her permanently stern father could break down like that in front of her or anyone else, for that matter; her deed had attracted quite a crowd, groups of people exhaling rounds of reliefs and praises as if she were the savior of all, when in fact, all she did, was pull out her younger friend Jamie from the collapsing structure of his family’s burning house. A fire had issued as she was taken to Jamie’s home to play under the careful watch of the babysitter and while the teenage supervisor had hurried to usher her out of the flames hoping to save at least one, Samantha released herself from her grasp to jump right back into the house and save her friend. She had found him hiding in the closet like he always did when he was scared and had offered him a chance at salvation by grabbing his arm and running out through the back door just in time to see the firefighters arrive and their parents grabbing them in their protective embrace.
Samantha gently pulled away to inspect her father’s worried face, her plump fingers drawing traces of soot on his wet cheeks. He was a wreck and so was her mother and she could not see why. It was no big deal. Clearly, she was the only one who thought so because the next day, newspapers were flooding pages with detailed descriptions of her act of heroism and proof of selflessness. Accurately named the ‘The Little Hero’, Samantha was allowed a few days off from school after proper medical care was given to her and had experienced a long period of acclaim as her act of courage was deemed to be the supreme token of heroism. For a mere child to disregard her own safety and lunge into the claws of danger to save her friend – that was incredible and the news and neighbors made sure to prolong that miracle for as long as they could. She grew up protected and admired, the amount of attention bestowed on her leaving no more room for mistakes.
It was wonderful, really. She just wanted to save her friend and apparently, that was awe-inspiring in everyone’s view. The entire neighborhood loved her.
After a while, it got tiresome. The kindest girl in the city was not allowed to do anything wrong. Everything about her had to be perfect. Her school grades, her speech and behavior-all had to be worthy of her precocious heroism. What else was there about Samantha Miller than her one and only instinct to lend a hand to anyone in need? There was nothing other than that to serve as her identity and even if it were, her past would not allow to replace what was already there. At 25 years old, she was still that ´Little Hero´, and Jamie, who had eventually become her fiancé, enjoyed reminding her of that on a daily basis.
It was suffocating, really. No one was seeing who she really was, they were all still staring at a headline. And so, in order to cope, she started doing small things of mischief. She shoplifted. She disregarded driving rules. She turned a blind eye to little grannies that needed help with their bags. Little by little, she tainted that title of perfection. Samantha was now a deserter, someone who wanted to be associated with normalcy guidelines without having to be held under a microscope all the time. She no longer wanted to hear statements such as ´Samantha would never do that, she’s the kindest girl you’ve ever seen!´ or ´Samantha would never stand for that, she’s the ally of justice!´. No. She was human too. She was not flawless, she made mistakes. Why wouldn’t anyone understand that? She could see that so why not them?
Samantha pondered on that question for the hundredth time that day, grasping the knife she kept at her chest tighter. Today, she left work earlier. She simply got out of the office and headed to her car, just like that, no questions asked. No one called to reprimand her and she was sure they thought something must of happened because sweet Samantha would never be so irresponsible. If that was so, she would skip work tomorrow. And the day after tomorrow. Until they would see Samantha was a person with good and bad parts as well. When she got home, she noticed Jamie’s bag was still there on a working day. Something in the way it stood slouching on the wooden table in the hallway gave her second thoughts about coming home earlier. Half-way through the stairs, she heard grunts and strange noises and while she already intuited what waited for her between the crack of their bedroom doors, she could not help but peek to see her fiancé and female friend on top of each other, dirtying the white of her sheets. Samantha stood there for a second, trying to understand. When she could not, she detached herself from the door frame and went downstairs. As she returned from the kitchen with the sharpest knife she could find, she decided she could not barge into the bedroom and kill them both as she had originally intended which is why she settled to wait outside the room, leaning on the wall, waiting for the first unlucky one to get out. She thought everyone loved her and therefore, no one would cause her suffering. Apparently, even perfect people got hurt. It was supposed to be a relief but all she could feel was scorching anger tearing at her gut that soon died out as her husband loudly released his seed in the adjacent room. Silence followed and afterwards, light footsteps made their way to the door; oh how she wished it was him but she knew better. It was her friend who spotted her right after closing the door. Samantha had expected her to scream but she did not. Whether it was the paleness of her face, the empty look in her eyes or maybe even the way she held the knife like a sacred candle, her friend remained speechless. She was naked in all her glory, wavy hair resting on her bony shoulders-it was too easy to cut that string of life of hers.
"He doesn’t love, you," her friend eventually murmured, unable to withstand the silence any longer. "He’s marrying you because you saved his life and he believes he owes it to you, but he doesn’t love you. Who would want such a goody two-shoes like you?"
Her friend’s momentary braveness faded as she realized what she had said, understanding herself that perhaps she had crossed the line. Samantha’s expression did not waver though; she came closer to her friend, cornering her against a wall, the blade of the knife pressing right in between her breasts. From the superficial cut, drops of blood started pouring all the way down to the woman’s belly, Samantha’s words being the true weapon of execution:
"I know," she whispered and let the knife fall from between her fingers. She glanced a last time at her bedroom door, her tone poison:
"Should have let you burn," she said and left just as silently as she had arrived. Who knew everyone was going to get away from this safe and sound? She clearly didn’t.
Half an hour later she was on a bus leaving for good, telling no one. She had no idea where she was going, she simply chose her destinations at random. Three buses were probably changed, dozing off at least once in the final station. Samantha eventually made it to a small fisherman’s village, where time rolled away with the winds. The burning sand, the crashing waves and dead legends murmuring against the tide convinced her this was the place to be at. She looked around, about to take the sea’s invitation when she spotted an old man from the corner of her eye, crouched above buckets filled with water and oysters. He took each and with his nifty knife pried them open. He left many unopened, placing them in different containers. The young woman advanced towards him, leaving behind her previous thoughts.
"I’m looking for a job," she said. The man did not look up at her.
"What can you do?"
"I can save people,", she found herself telling him, unable to take her eyes off his busy hands. "But I won’t. Instead, I’ll scrub your buckets clean."
"That’s a good start," the old man replied and finally graced her with his gaze. His eyes were black, mucky even against the white of his long hair. "You’ll find brushes and a wash cloth in my shed."
Samantha nodded and went straight to work. The same happened the next day. And the next. Until she could not remember the days. Why bother though? They were all the same; work was tedious, wages were small and talk was poor but at least she had found a small hut to live in and food was provided for her by her employer. With him she never had to prove anything, just do her job well. He did not know who she was and did not care. All that mattered to him was the sea. And all that mattered to her was that peace that came along with it. She had forgotten herself about her past only to be reminded by it one day when she cleaned the shed along with the old man. She had just finished dusting the shelves when a stack of decaying newspapers caught her attention, an article in particular hypnotizing her. Upon noticing her reaction, the old man came behind her, staring over her shoulder at the headline that had destroyed her life.
"Hero, hmm?" Samantha heard him mumble as he went back to polishing his fishing tools.
She was intrigued; his tone was that of someone who was not impressed.
"She saved that boy. Isn’t it heroic?" she asked him, truly curious about his thoughts.
"It’s strange. A human’s first instinct is to run and save their lives. A child’s especially is to cry and be disoriented. This is unnatural."
"It was brave of her, she risked her life!" Samantha insisted, suddenly wishing to speak in favor of that little girl smiling from within the article picture. Why was he not in awe at her courage? No one ever disregarded her act, no one questioned it and yet this ignorant man viewed it with suspicion.
"There is something wrong with her."
"How can you say that?" she demanded, wondering what was going through his head to claim such facts.
"I don’t trust her," he emphasized, "just like I don’t trust you."
She slowly blinked at him, opening her mouth in disbelief, the words failing to get out.
"You lit that match, didn’t you?"
She instantly took a step back, her hand gripping at her chest. That simple question transported her back in time, in the middle of those flames. No one had paid her any attention when she was little, no one except James, her childhood friend. And she wanted to keep that attention for the rest of her life, be the center of his universe if possible. He loved heroes…so she would become one. She locked him in the closet and set the house on fire. It was easy, all it took was one match. And then she released him, leading him away from the flaming disaster, the shock causing him to forget who had put him there in the first place. She only did it for her benefit but she had miscalculated the parameters of his heart. As you grow up, heroes fade away. She faded away…
That man in front of her knew. How did he know? Did he read it in the discarded shells? In the way she crumpled the newspaper? In the striking resemblance between her and the girl in the article photo?
"Why do you think I haven’t given you the key to my shed after all this time? Can’t risk you setting it on fire," he revealed as he made his way out, her feet carrying her after him only to stop suddenly at the sight of the overwhelming sea. It was angry with her and it would not receive her to rot at the bottom of its womb anymore.
"I would never…" she whispered, denying the man’s previous statement.
would never…" Samantha repeated hopelessly. The tide came in the moment
she fell to her knees in the wet sand, her heart darkening with the sky. She
looked up, greeting the first drops of rain and reached out to her right side,
her fingers tracing the sharp contour of the match box she always kept in her
pocket. Ever since that day. Ever since that fire, her fingers were still itching.