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Another flash story inspired by one of Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenges. The theme? Life in hell. I’ve had a few false starts, but always started with a literalist confusion about the Sartre quotation. I ground this out today, start to finish, including edits.

Z to A

When I was little my uncle told me, “Hell is other people.” He read it in a book but it can’t be true. If hell is other people, I must be in heaven, and that can’t be true, either.

I stopped reading a long time ago. Now I move from fort to fort, visiting all my caches of water and ammunition and food, taking my regular route around the region of my birth, avoiding the poisoned wastelands and keeping an eye out for wolves when I hunt and forage. I used to clutch a rifle and a pistol close, worrying about meeting other people. Then I started to wish I’d meet someone. Anyone.

Other people got sick and died when they got hurt or diseased or aged. Not me. Whole sections of moldy libraries are dedicated to the science of healing but it’s useless to me. Maybe I’m useless to healing. Since becoming alone I occasionally fall ill and can’t look for food. When building a fort I once crushed my foot under a hardened bag of cement. My foot didn’t get better for months. The pain and hunger and thirst were terrible while it was swollen and broken. I should have died, but I didn’t.

I don’t cross rivers very often. Most of the bridges are gone so I have been dabbling with boats. In the beginning I counted the days with small marks on the walls of my caches. I don’t count the small marks any more, I only mark the spring now. Floods are more dangerous than just about anything.

I’ve begun making my own boats from lumber I make myself. The lightweight plastic and cloth of boats left in the sun have all crumbled away.

Ammunition has been getting very unreliable. Long ago there were occasional misfires and I began carrying two automatics as well as a rifle. Now I only carry revolvers.

I have twelve libraries now. I began collecting them when I realized I was forgetting how to read, but there are so few books fit to read any more. I began making paper and ink. Now I copy old books into new ones.

I’ve begun making so many things from wood, making tools from carefully stored supplies of raw steel, making forges from bricks I’ve found or made, fueling them from coke I’ve cooked in smaller, earlier kilns. I’ve been making nitrocellulose and mercury primer so I can handload old rifle cartridges. I’ve been restoring machine shops near my favorite caches. I spent several winter seasons wiring coils and machining bearings and cutting shafts and brewing fuel. I made whole vehicles and even an airplane from alloy I found at an old factory. I’ve been using chemistry and the sun to etch a circuit on glass. I just finished placing twelve hundred slivers of silicon into the circuit under a microscope to make something like a computer. And I can’t show it to anyone.

It’s so much easier to make bows, arrows, and traps for game. Scraping skins and salting meat is something I always go back to. Anything more complicated doesn’t make sense with no one to share.

The buildings of civilization are almost all gone except the forts and caches I maintain. For a while I was breaking down the last of the old buildings myself, helping the forests reclaim the junk of the old world, letting them pull the steel and gravel and concrete lumps down into the earth beneath their roots.

Every year I move my territory a few miles eastward, across seas when necessary, and a few springs ago I finished another great ring around the world and returned to my first land, where I first became alone. The books I copied and saved in my caches would be unreadable if anyone could remember how to read. The cans of looted food are no more than flaking piles of rot and rust. All the ammunition is sprouting chemical crystals from the dull ragged brass. The kerosene in the drums full of guns has dribbled out and is long evaporated. What’s left of my machine shops are wet lumps under rubble and humus. I made quite a world before I gave time a chance.

Seeing snow on summer hilltops inspires me. The elephants have been getting more shaggy in this millennium. Their herds travel up and down the valleys, across the plains and even the seas, multiplying. And I follow. I have things to teach them.