MARIA... I LOVE YOU.
It felt like the devil was crawling up his spine to his head, forcing his hands to cover his ears to dull the noise. He dragged one faltering foot in front of the other until he heard the rippling of running water as it permeated the silence of the ink-colored sky. Virginio followed the sound to a rail bridge over a shallow creek on a bed of limestone. He entered the arched tunnel, and the last trickle of moonlight snaked away as he trudged on. Virginio took refuge in a safe, dry corner where he sank his tired bones back against the cold stone wall.
Food had been scarce for days, and although hunger was a vicious and ruthless companion, he fought to ignore the gnawing pain in his stomach. Virginio's last provision was a piece of stale bread buried in his pant pocket. Pulling his legs close for warmth, he dropped his head to his knees and wept.
“Yesterday, I was fighting with the Germans, and tonight, I’m running for my goddamned life.”
At that moment, Virginio's solemn face turned towards the sound of something rustling on the gravel next to him. He looked down to see a lean, grey rat scurrying around his leg. Virginio pulled out the bread from his pocket, and with his cramped, stiff fingers, ripped a piece off to offer it to the scrawny rat.
“Here,” he said feebly, his words barely forming a sound. “You deserve to live just as much as I do.”
Despite his weak condition, Virginio couldn’t help but smile at the little creature. His smile became a grimace as pain shot through his lungs. He gradually quieted his breath and gave in to exhaustion. His arms went limp. He released his fingers and watched the bread roll away. His head lolled left, right, and then down. As the rat nibbled on the generous offering, one sentence escaped Virginio’s parched lips: “Maria… I love you.” And then, he drifted into an abyss of sleep.