Author : D. Magliola

Ron was sprawled on a park bench. His dirty hands were tucked into the kangaroo pouch of his salvaged Nike hoodie. He exhaled a cloud of vapor and wheezed with his next breath. A single tear ran down his cheek and was absorbed in the dust mask that protected his mouth and nose. Everything had gone to hell since the day before. The scene that previous evening had been different. She had been there.

People had been fighting over things for longer than anyone could remember. First it was for oil. Then it was bombs. Then it was freedom, then food, and finally people just fought for themselves. All around the filthy world, people had stolen shotguns from WalMarts and fought for their lives. Later, people lost hope even in themselves. There was no reason to go on, death was easier than fighting.

Then, in the broken cement jungle of Chicago, a small group of scavengers found the girl. She was small, soft, and autistic. It was as if her fractured mind had turned down the volume of the fighting. She was the only one who hadn’t lost hope. She shared it with those who found her. They became the Protectors. The group of men and women, only a few dozen strong, defended their little bubble of hope for years. She was the last beautiful thing. In a world of horror, she was the only relief. The Protectors risked their lives to steal her food. When she became ill with typhoid, they tore apart every abandoned supermarket and pharmacy in Chicago until they found penicillin that hadn’t dried up and become like chalk. She could play the piano, so the Protectors stole her one. While a handful of them stood night watch in the entrance of their decrepit subway station, she had played beautiful music. Wonderful random little notes would tinkle through the frigid night air and help people forget their dead families and hunger. Sometimes she’d sing.

Then one night some freakoids came through in a minivan. They had all the seats taken out and a .50 caliber M-2 Browning bolted to the interior. They hit the guards and crashed down the stairwell, throwing the passenger door open and filling the depot with hot lead before Ron could blow the bastards away.

She had been sitting on the bucket next to the piano with her head on the keys. Her torn dress was an off shade of muddy red, the puddle beneath her matched.

Ron took another ragged breath through his mask. The world had ended that night. There was nothing left to fight for. What would he do? Maybe he’d join the other Protectors, at the bottom of the Sears Tower. Their broken bodies felt no pain. Why go on living in a world with nothing beautiful?

Ron removed his mask and took another breath. He hawked a pint of warm red relief, his scarred lungs liberated of life by the razor dust. If she couldn’t come to him, he’d go to her. Ron closed his eyes and departed to find the last beautiful thing.

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