Vultures

The flashlight’s beam rested on the white painted wall. Juan gripped wooden hammer of the sledgehammer. The visor on his gas mask impaired his peripheral vision, so he turned to make sure he was clear to swing. The hammer smashed through the wall, and a plume of dust dispersed through the air. Juan struck several more blows until the hole had turned into a man-sized gash. The flashlight illuminated the rift revealing a hub of piping and wires.
“Hey Juan we need your help down here man!” the radio crackled
Places die in much the same way as the people who compose them. Growth stalls and begins to give way to decline then all that’s left is to wait for the physical remains to erode into dust under the pressure of times ceaseless and steady current.
The place was a town called villa park a place that at its peak supported between thirty-five and forty thousand inhabitants, but Villa Park’s death hadn’t been a gradual process outlined recognizable milestones it had occurred suddenly and unexpectedly. It left a corpse far too large and inconveniently placed just to let it decompose. The body had to be scraped off the road as quickly as possible. The defunct municipality had nowhere near the amount in the treasury to pay for containment and clean up, fortunately for them there was a company that could work something out.
The corporate vultures endeavored to pick the carcass clean. Crews in white hazmat suits and gasmasks systematically scavenged neighborhood. Every business, home, and even the schools were to be stripped of every valuable material in its composition. The faceless crews worked day and night as personified agents of disintegration as they physically gutted the standing structures and hauled away the entrails of copper wiring.
Juan was a day laborer, migrating around the country with millions of others following the mirage of prosperity over any horizon it might take shape. This latest gig promised to be the really long term, but after being issued hazmat gear and loaded in the back of a truck, Juan had second thoughts.
Juan went down to the basement and saw two of his crew members standing by a large sectional sofa that sat in front of a home entertainment system.
“What’s up?” Asked Juan
“We uh got a couple of bodies,” one of the wheezed through his mask.
Juan walked over to the couch. There were three of them sitting there as if they were still watching tv. Juan shined the light on their faces.  They were each cocooned in a blanket. Thier heads slumped down as if they had just peacefully nodded out. There was a woman’s body leaning against a man roughly the same age and next to them was a little girl probably no older than eight or nine. Thier colorless skin and receding lips were the early signs of human decomposition
“At least it looks like it was quick,” muttered Juan.
“We can’t get the ring off her finger,” stammered the shaken crewman as he pointed a flashlight down at the hand of the woman. Her ring finger stiffened by rigor mortis was upturned and fractured.
“We tried getting it off but then we heard a crunch, and we think it broke,” stammered the other crewman.
Juan guessed it was her wedding ring and from one look at it he could tell it was valuable.
“It’s gotta be cut off,” said Juan.
He turned and glanced at the crewmen who were steadily backing away. Juan inhaled deeply and pulled out a steel cutting tool.
“Well come help me,” he ordered. Reluctantly the two crewmen approached each one trying to let the other walk ahead.
“Hold her arm,” ordered Juan.
Reluctantly one man took hold of her arm. “Hold her wrist,” Juan said to the other letting him know he wasn’t off the hook.
Gloved hands closed around her wrist, and Juan put her finger between the blades. His stomach clenched when he squeezed the handle. The sharpened steel went through the flesh quickly, but then it gnashed against her finger bone. Juan could feel the acidic vomit working its way up his throat, but he held it back and squeezed hard. There was a snap, and the severed finger hit the floor with a dull thud.
Juan wheeled his crew’s haul to one of the dump trucks idling on the street between the rows of abandoned cars. It was a clear morning; light saucer shaped clouds drifted through a sky of ocean blue. It was idyllic late spring weather, but there was a morbid stillness in the air. No birds sang, no insects flew in the air or hopped from the grass. There were only the mechanical rumblings of diesel engines and the whirling blades of helicopters passing overhead on their way to the disaster zone, an enigmatic compound where a cluster of buildings surrounded a smoldering tower that occasionally belched clouds of acrid black smoke.
“I’m going to drop the ring off at the special collection's point,” Juan said.
The special collection points were folding tables with metal bucks on top. The buckets were filled with earrings, necklaces, and rings. Juan couldn’t help but notice all the rings. Many of them stained with faded red drops. He dropped the ring in the bucket and quickly walked away, again trying to force back the surging sickness.
The ground lightly trembled and there was the yawning sound of collapsing steel. Black smoked poured from the disaster site. The choking smog quickly swept across the neighborhood like a tsunami. There was an airburst that pierced Juan’s ears. He recoiled from the pain of the rupturing air. A forked tongue of fire lashed up at the sky. The saturated air turned a dusty crimson. Juan could feel his flesh start to boil. He looked down and could see the black air eating away his protective gear. The thin layer of protection quickly dissolved and the ebony vapors engulfed him. The very air had become as corrosive as acid. His flesh unglued itself from his bones and feel off in bleeding strips. His eyes dissolved and fell back to his skull. There was absolute darkness only the pain, and the screams reminded him he was still alive. It was a quick plunge into hell before his brain stem liquified and relieved him of the pain.

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