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Ruins of Grandeur This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

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Two small, charcoal-colored legs dangled from the height of the bridge, the rest of the body holding itself up on a thick rod of rusted metal. The bars made creaking noises and threatened to collapse on themselves, but they held the little girl up, as she was light enough now to carry. A pair of glowing eyes on the blackened face stared down a hundred-something feet to a tower of rubble and pieces of old buildings, then flicked across the landscape and to the bar beneath her. The rough texture of the rust made her legs hurt after a while, so she scooted her way along to the edge, and pulled her body off and onto the semi-stable tower. Sharp pits of metal protruded from the inner walls that had many-a-time before cut through her midnight skin and left a trail of white blood dripping down her forearms, though she hardly noticed. Her tired feet carried her down the steps to the ground, now just a mess of stone a few ripped slates of iron, or some broken glass from a high-up window.

The child gazed around the piles of destruction and wished she had the power to speak, so she might sing herself a song to pass the time, or call out for help. Maybe if she had a voice, she might find a radio of some sort, some way to contact the outside world, and let them know that she was okay. That she was alone and terrified and desperately wanted to leave this awful place. That she wasn't a monster. Only, she was. The girl was a lost cause, and even she knew it, even if she wouldn't directly address it with the voice in her head. The child made up a voice for herself, since she had never heard her own. She imagined she must have sounded beautiful, like the subconscious memory of her mother did. She imagined that her voice was eloquent and gently, soft yet strong and wise. She wasn't wise. As the little girl hopped over shards too sharp to step on, she began to snap her fingers quietly, making a rhythm to walk along with. Each beat was a footstep, and sometimes, she kicked a pebble with her bare foot and somehow fit in the sound of it bouncing with her song. She put words to it and sang it over and over in her head, wishing she knew how to smile.

It was always hard to recognize what part of the city she was in, but she kept track with a mental map, the large, corroded bridge being the center of it, and the way she remembered where everything was. Depending on the distance a place was from the steel bridge, she would make a note and keep it in a photo album up in her brain. Now, as she scanned her surrounding, she counted two right turns and a left, and concluded that she was about one left turn from shelter. The child continued on, taking a left and walking straight for a minute or two, then widening her eyes as she caught sight of something familiar. There was a cave a few feet ahead, a hollowed-out tunnel of rocks and pieces of some sort of building or house, the entrance just big enough for a person of her size to crawl through. There was a larger slab of what must've been granite that appeared to be like a door; something to block the small hole to keep the bugs and pests and tiny monsters away. Outside, the moon was just starting to come up. The moon looked different from Grandeur. Somehow, she knew that. There had to be other places, like the one that made this city a wreck, and there had to be more out there. They must be beautiful, just as she pictured them in her dreams and fantasies. There must be beautiful girls in nice, not-ripped clothing who don't turn into big scary monsters, but stay always pretty. She yearned to be like them. To see a pretty moon and not a drowned-out symbol of lost hope.

The child crawled on all fours into the fort after moving the barrier rock and replacing it behind her afterwards. The place was nearly pitch-dark, but a small gap in the rocks at the top of the igloo-style shelter let in a little dim light. Some of the bright red from her eyes illuminated the dark, and if she opened her mouth, she could see a little better, too. There were sounds from outside as she huddled into her favorite corner, making her tense up and look about for signs of roaming beasts and scary things. She knew that if she slept now, they might find her, and she might have nightmares, but the latter wasn't much of a problem to her anymore. The nightmares came frequently, fueled by everyday terrors, and were not much different than the life she lived out for nine years. Her hands reached out to grab a soft plush, it's fur matted down now and clothing torn, just like hers. She held it close, and in her mind whispered words to it.

"Avis," it said, looking at her even though it was missing its beaded eyes. "Don't be scared."
"I'm not all that scared, bear. Are you scared?"
"Sometimes, said the teddy."
"It's okay to be afraid sometimes."
"I know."
"...I lied to you. I'm sorry."
"It's okay, Avis. Everyone tells fibs."
"I really am frightened."
"We can be frightened together, child."
"Okay...what will keep the monsters away, bear?"

She pulled the plush tighter against her and took a finger to its head, petting back it's dirty, greasy fur in admiration of its bravery. He was a fine creature, she thought. He could be like one of those beautiful women in the better places that she imagined so often. He could be like them, in her mind. The image of her sweet bear in a dress made her feel something weird in her throat, a giggle that couldn't come out.

"Courage."
"Courage?"
"We have to be brave, together. If we do that, the monsters will see how brave we are and leave us alone."
"Oh...I didn't know that. I thought the monsters ate little girls like me for supper."
"Sometimes. But they don't like to eat brave little girls, because they respect them."
"Respect?"
"They see brave little girls and don't want to eat them because they are such good girls."
"Oh...Does that mean the monsters can be nice?"
"Some of them. You're nice."
"But I'm not really I monster. I just look like one sometimes..."
"Everyone is a monster here."
"You're not a monster."
"No, Avis, I am a monster. I just don't look like a real monster."
"How are you one then?"
"I'm your monster."
"What do you mean?"

After that, the teddy stayed silent, and Avis shook it violently, demanding an answer and mouthing the words she screamed with her mind, causing the light it bled to go dimmer and brighter, dimmer and brighter. Finally, the girl gave up and dropped the bear into it's stack of crumpled papers. She refused to look at it until her grudge couldn't last any longer and she took it again in her arms, squeezing it tightly against her chest. She silently hummed a dissonant tune and rocked with the stuffed bear, stroking him affectionately and listening to the constant movement of rubble and a distant roar.




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