The Burning

Short Story by Lee Conrad

A cast iron stove sits in the middle of the library. Off to one side, the checkout counter holds the burning for the day. Paraffin lamps sit on tables that once held computers, useless now that electricity ceased to exist.

Most of the collection of newspapers had already met the flames, their thin content rapidly consumed. Yesterday’s news, screaming headlines, unimportant now.

The library’s meeting rooms were converted to sleeping quarters. The Hemingway room is a playground for the children, who, in their young bliss, see this as a new adventure. The Jefferson room down the hall holds the dwindling supply of food. The Edison room, fittingly, is the final resting place of a technological past with cell phones, iPads, and various laptops in heaps of debris.

Darkness at two in the afternoon on a July day, the temperature down to 20 degrees Fahrenheit. A time that before would have had people outside enjoying the sun in the town square among leaf-laden oak trees now dead in the perpetual twilight awaiting the axe.

Before the nuclear winter.

Before the ash and leaden skies blocked out the sun.


When the town and its 219 souls looked forward to the annual July 4th celebration.


When a war in a faraway country didn’t worry them. Sanctions, outrage, and public proclamations would be enough to halt the moves of a madman.

The madman didn’t listen except to the words in his head.

Some said it was inevitable. Push comes to shove.

And madmen shoved back.

In the small library, a young woman takes a book off the counter and sits down in front of the fire. People huddle around to keep warm and listen. It has become a ritual. She reads a few chapters from the book. People nod, hoping they will remember the lines from it and the scores of other books fed to the flames.

She tosses it into the fire. Someone sobs.

An old man, thin and emaciated, stares out the library window with desperate eyes as snow falls on a summer day.

Lee Conrad lives in upstate New York and started writing late in life. While most of his stories are historical, a few are dystopian tales.

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