For this week, I was allowed to write what I chose. Alas, only so much of a story can be confined within a few pages. I have given you a setting, some characters, and part of a plot. The rest, dear reader, I shall leave up to you.
One hour and thirty minutes left.
The motley figure of a girl darted through the drab streets, ignoring the frigid air biting at the end of her nose and her fingertips. Slush splattered with every step she took, seeping into the boots that had worn thin years ago. Esa kept her eyes fixed on the ground’s mundane blanket of grey. Please. Please. Please, she thought with every footfall. There was so much at risk, her life being the least of her concerns.
After several sharp turns in the maze of dark alleys, she gave in to the intense curiosity gnawing away in her. Reaching into her threadbare slate colored coat, she pulled out a circular golden watch, unconsciously caressing the swirled script engraved on its back. It was her name—her full name—Esperance. Still running full stride, Esa glanced down at the watch’s face. Good. There was still time, though it was well past curfew. If the soldiers found her now, she was as good as dead.
The walls on either side of the street were painted over with propaganda, pictures of the Father smiling at Esa from all sides. They were all labeled with some slogan. A brighter tomorrow. The Father will take care of you. An equal future for all. Did Esa believe them? Not a one. If they were true, there would be no risking her life every day for information. There would be no smuggling innocent prisoners. There would be none of this.
Esa quickened her pace. If Roland’s maps were correct, the soldiers would be coming this way soon—and Roland’s maps were always correct. Roland. She couldn’t afford to think about him, yet his name painfully resonated in her every thought. Esa blinked, and she was caught in another time, only a few days ago.
“Nice one Es,” Roland said with his usual quirked grin. The one that always appeared cheerful in even the most dismal times.
She hid her smile. “You say that like I just scored a soccer goal rather than found a route to smuggle the prisoners.”
“Honestly Es, I’d be more surprised to hear you scored a goal than to hear you’d brought down the Father and his entire armies.”
Esa was abruptly brought out of her daydream by the sound of pounding footsteps. She cursed herself for her carelessness. Those were soldiers’ footsteps if she’d ever heard them, and there was nowhere to hide. With nothing else to do, Esa threw herself into the shadows and curled herself up as small as she could.
She could just make out the faint ticking of her watch. Tick tock tick tock. Counting down the time left. But Esa was not going to die yet. She knew how to handle the soldiers if they found her. And if they wouldn’t listen, well… Esa reached for the knife hidden in the folds of her coat. If it came to it, she would go down fighting.
One by one, the soldiers mechanically marched past, staring straight ahead. Good. Don’t look. Just do your job. I’m not here, she silently pleaded. There were only a handful left now. A few seconds and they would be gone from view. Ten, nine, eight, seven… a soldier stumbled and dropped his light, casting strange shadows down Esa’s alley. There had to be one.
“Oi! What’s that there!” he called.
And that would be my cue to leave, Esa thought, springing up and taking off faster than a jackrabbit. She recklessly wove through the alleys and backstreets until she was sure she had lost anyone who could be on her trail. Heaving a sigh of relief, she leaned against the wall to catch her breath. With luck, they would think she was only a stray dog. Esa looked at the watch again.
One hour left.
After the detour, she would have to move twice as quickly if she was going to make it. Yet she would do it. She had to. Without further ado, Esa resumed her quest just as puffy white snowflakes started falling from the sky. Just my luck, she thought. It hasn’t snowed in months, and now a storm is brewing.
By the time Esa stumbled to her destination, there was a full blown blizzard. She could scarcely see her hand when she put it to her face, let alone see if anyone had arrived before her. To no avail, she searched the area and called his name. She was alone. With a shaking red hand, Esa pulled out her watch.
Ten minutes left.
“Maybe he just isn’t here yet,” she muttered to herself, pulling her scruffy coat tighter around her. Esa closed her eyes and once again entered the past, this time to only a few hours before.
“You have to go, Es.” Roland stared intensely into her eyes, not a hint of his usual playfulness there. This was life or death.
Esa squeezed his hand to the point of pain. “There has to be a better way.”
“If we don’t split, both of us will die. This way…”
“Don’t talk that way, Roland. Don’t. We’ll both live. Promise me.”
He nodded slowly. “In three hours’ time, we’ll meet at that tree—the one at the edge of the city. If I’m not there, you know I was either captured or killed. Same for you.”
“Okay,” she agreed, reluctantly pulling away. It wasn’t much, but it was all she had to hang on to.
Esa forced her eyes open, staring out into the grey world. She had done her part now. She had lived and run to the tree. Only time would tell if Roland could do the same. Time is the cruelest of masters, she thought. With nothing else to do, Esa stared at the face of her watch, feeling part of herself ebb away with every ticking second. Tick tock tick tock.
Finally she clicked the watch shut and stored it away. Never in her life had she felt so small, yet never in her life had she felt so determined not to give up. Roland’s words echoed relentlessly in her mind. In three hours’ time, we’ll meet at that tree—the one at the edge of the city. If I’m not there, you’ll know I was either captured or killed.
Because that was what he’d promised her. Two hours and fifty nine minutes ago.