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Paper Hearts

The little girl holds the delicate tissue paper carefully between thin, soot-stained fingers. The scissors are old and dull, handles missing their plastic covers. Blisters have formed on her hands where they've pinched, though she barely notices. Pain is an old friend now, and besides, she doesn't mind the company.
She works slowly, deliberately, tracing the shapes with the stub of a burned pencil before cutting them into small, wrinkled hearts. The translucent scraps pile around her feet like snow, and she smiles at the memory of winter.
It was Valentine's Day when the world burned, when the paper hearts they'd been cutting were abandoned as the teachers screamed at them to crawl beneath the desks. Months now since she'd emerged, coughing and vomiting, from the burned-out hulk of the school, of the life she'd known before. No one at home, and no home to speak of: only the endless wandering, the hunger, the thirst.
And then today she'd found the school again, and she knew it must be Valentine's Day, because lying there on the blackened floor was the bright softness of the tissue paper, clean like fresh snow, good as new--as if it had been waiting, patiently, for her return.
And so she'd smiled and begun to cut out the hearts, one for each of them: Mommy, Daddy, Miss Emma, Abby, Jayla, and the rest.
Quiet and determined, she continues as the moon rises, shining bright through the cold rubble of the splintered roof.
Until the ghosts return, gathering around her, falling like snow, or fire, or paper hearts.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, August 17th, 2017

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