A Pail of Air by Fritz Leiber. With a claim like that, it better be incredibly good. It is. Written in 1951, the story begins with a startling premise: Earth has been ripped away from the sun by a ‘dark star’, the atmosphere lies in frozen layers on the ground, and everyone is dead. Well, not quite everyone. The tale’s narrator is a young boy who survives with his small family in a hand-built refuge, valiantly staving off human extinction. The story owes its title to one of the boy’s daily chores: donning a suit, going outside, and retrieving a pail of frozen air. As the fire inside warms the air, it turns to gas and thus sustains the family.
Why is this one the best short story ever? Because, the family’s situation is utterly hopeless, but the characters maintain hope anyway and fight on. It is this quirk of the human spirit that makes every post-apocalyptic story so compelling; it is this quirk that inspires me. Stories like this one initially drew me to the genre and keep me coming back.
You can read the story for free at the following link posted by the original publisher.
The page begins with a short introduction, so just skip to the first line “Pa had sent me out to get an extra pail of air.” Yep – still gives me chills. No pun intended.