Last One Standing

On Fridays, Chuck Wendig sets a flash fiction challenge on his blog.  (If you’re interested in writing, by the way, Chuck has some awesome advice, so his blog is definitely worth following.)

Here’s the challenge: Chuck selects ten words and you choose five of these and incorporate them into a single piece of flash fiction (1k words).  This week’s ten words are: whalebone; foxglove; djinn; orphan; lollipop; casket; hermit; hound; acid; and topaz.

I figured this was a great opportunity for me to pop my blogger cherry and so here’s my effort.  I used whalebone, foxglove, orphan, hermit and acid, in 968 words ..

Last One Standing

Nobody knows when the last whale died.  We were way beyond donations and celebrity campaigns by then.  I think people were just too preoccupied with surviving to Wastelandcare about the extinction of yet another species and so the last whale probably died lonely and afraid, like we all do in the end.

I’d found the whalebone on the beach, almost four feet of curved wickedness with a shred of unidentifiable gristle still attached.  I spent a good few minutes gnawing it off the bone before I set off again with a new sturdy walking staff to add to my meagre possessions.  I had a feeling it would be useful as a weapon.  Nothing like the end of the world to make a pacifist look kindly upon the Americans’ love of guns.  I would have killed for a gun.  Literally.  Less brutal and calorie-intensive than beating someone to death with a whalebone.

I hadn’t seen another living person for months, though.  Plenty of dead people.  Even this far out from the city the stench never really left your clothes and hair, as if  the sheer volume of all those rotting corpses had somehow permanently changed the molecular structure of the air.  I used to complain about the smell of tobacco, but I would’ve killed for a cigarette to mask the greater stink even for a moment.  Besides, I was already breathing in death, what difference would it make?  And maybe I could pretend, just for a few puffs, that none of this had happened and I was sitting in a pub garden somewhere with a pint of Adnams.  But there were no more pubs.  And no more cigarettes, that I could find anyway.  It made a kind of sense that of all the things I craved it was the one thing I’d never tried.

I made my way back through the pine trees, following a convoluted path through the woods to the hermit shack I’d discovered back when I was a kid and the world was a bright and hopeful playground filled with sea shells and rock pools and fish and chips.  Thirty years later, it was barely a structure at all, just a few planks of wood leaning against each other like drunk friends after a stag night.  But it provided shelter from the frequent downpours of acid rain.  And it protected my stash.

My eyes fell of their own accord onto the foxgloves laid out on the dirt floor of the shack.  The insides of their trumpet blooms cast a seductive allusion to blood spatters in the gloom.  I emptied the contents of my back pack and laid them out on the dirt next to the foxgloves, a ritual I performed every time I returned to the shack and repeated in reverse every time I left it.  One tin cup.  One army canteen.  One camping stove with enough gas for one more cup of tea.  A jar with five olives.  A box of matches.  A sleeping bag.  A wind-up radio.  The only thing that changed was the number of olives in the jar.  Tomorrow, there would be four.

I climbed into the sleeping bag and spent some time aligning the other objects on the floor until their arrangement pleased me; I moved the tin cup so its edge caught the moonlight and reflected it onto the jar, limning the fruit with silver, honouring their preciousness.  I didn’t bother winding up the radio.  The airwaves had been dead for months.  I had no books.  Most dissolved or crumbled the moment you picked them up, as if the words within were too fragile to hold themselves together, their sentences unravelling like the world, so I’d stopped scavenging for them a long time ago.  It was too painful.  Instead, I stared at my collection until the last thought dripped out of my leaky mind and I could sleep.

When there were no more olives in the jar, I boiled the foxgloves and made the tea with the last of the water I’d collected.  I let it steep for another day, just to be sure.  But when I tried to leave the drunken planks, a terror struck me, more brutal than the time I’d smashed the man’s head in for the olives.  I was so weak it took me all of the afternoon to cockroach through the pines to the beach.

I drank from the canteen as the sun began to set.  Its glorious rays transformed the dead sea into an adamantine lake and the bereft land into a bas-relief of polished bronze.  For the first time in a very long time, the world was beautiful again.  I lay back and closed my eyes.  Years ago, I’d scavenged an old Triumph motorcycle, and my hands curled around the whalebone, imagining it was the handlebars and my stuttering heartbeat was the bike’s temperamental engine.

I heard a voice and shivered against the vibrations of footfalls in the sand.  And then a papery hand settled on my cheek.  Even the poison seemed powerless against the shock of being touched by another living thing after so long.  My eyes snapped open.  The person gazing down at me was filthy, so skeletal it was impossible to tell if it was male or female, and it was angry.  A fury utterly beautiful in its purity burned from that ravaged face and I wanted to form the words but my mouth had stopped working.

I understood the rage.  Of course I did.  I was leaving it alone, an orphan in an empty world.  I wanted to be sorry, but death gives birth to truth, and I wasn’t.  I thought about that last whale, how lonely it must have been at the end, and so I pushed the canteen into those paper-thin hands and closed my eyes.


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