The carcass stood before her, decaying slowly in the late autumn sun. Opportunistic organisms were making themselves comfortable in the bones, sending tendrils creeping into gaps and cracks, bringing life back to the dead hulk even as they destroyed it.
Mora shivered in her light jacket.
Dead or not, the building still watched her with its empty, broken eyes.
The fire had been an incompetent assassin; so much was ash but too many memories remained untouched. A painting hung on a blackened wall, the colors as bright and falsely cheerful as they'd been the first day she'd stared at it from a cold metal chair in the hallway.
Mora stepped closer to a gaping window. Avocado carpet had melted into black tar but somehow she could still smell the mildew the janitors had never been able to get rid of. Every footfall on that carpet had become whispered secrets traveling up and down too-silent corridors, rebounding off locked doors.
As a child, tossed on the doorstep by the capricious whims of a faceless system, she'd walked through the heavy metal doors expecting the usual collection of worn social workers and kids with a laundry list of issues that were mostly ignored. Six years of these kinds of places, off and on, while her mom hopped on and off the wagon.
This had been the last. For all of them.
The weight of seventy-two silenced children pressed down, buckling her knees. Her gloved hand slapped down on the charred sill; she fought to stay in the present, in the safe reality of a burned out building and shards of glass cutting into her palm through wool.
Mora had ended here, too.
Her heart still beat, breath still lifted her chest, but she'd died with the others. Her life, or what it might have been, had been consumed in the flames that night.
A breeze stirred the tall grass along the steps behind her. She turned, eyes blind to the golden stalks, and watched the shades of twelve men and women walk away, implacable members of an ersatz jury. No face turned, no back bent, no hand shook.
Scorching fury beat at her back, ice-cold indifference buffeted her face, and she stood in the middle.
Always in the middle.
Not quite a survivor, never a victim.
A breath, drawing in the fire and the frost.
Time to go.
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