Image Credit: Sgt. Emmanuel Ramos
The old man looked down at the young girl, perhaps six, maybe seven, with dark curly hair haphazardly tied back with a blue ribbon that was coming loose. Her bike was pink, and dirty, and a pink balloon was tied to the handle. The man blinked, and she was still there.
“What’s that thing?”
The old man turned away from her and sighed. The most sophisticated technology in the entire world and they couldn’t keep a little girl out of the line. He stood tall on the massive machine, long brush in his hand, moving it up and down, toward himself, then toward the sky, as high as he could reach, as he wiped the glue paper down onto its panel, light pinks and oranges and yellows drifting across.
He didn’t answer her.
“Hey, mister!” she called, louder, as if she was sure he was just deaf and not ignoring her on purpose. That self centeredness of childhood, that assumption that children have that everything they do is always the thing everyone else will be interested in, is probably one of the main reasons humanity managed to propagate itself instead of eating their young. How do you kill something that self assured?
“What’s that?” she called again.
He sighed and finished the panel. Clouds drifted backward into the third dimension and merged with the other panels he’d already finished. He prepared the next sheet.
“What’s what?” he yelled down, not watching her.
“That thing you’re standing on.”
He touched a lever with his foot and the machine inched forward, then stopped. He applied the glue and began, again, for the millionth time, wiping the panel up, up, up, toward the sky, sticking it down.
“A tank,” he said, wishing she’d go away.
“What’s a tank?” she asked.
He could hear the wheels on her bike creaking forward, inch by inch. She wasn’t leaving. He glanced at his watch. He only had twenty minutes until sunrise, and still eight panels left to do.
“I’m busy,” he called.
“What’s a tank?” she asked, louder.
“It’s a big car they used to kill people,” he said. Maybe if he answered her questions, she’d go away.
“What do you mean, why?”
“Why’d they want to kill people?”
“Oh, who knows,” he said, cursing under his breath as a bit of glue squeezed out of a seam. He wrestled with the scraper and got it off before a cloud got stuck. “They wanted something, they were mad. People was always killin’ people.”
“Well, yes. Before the monsters came.”
She didn’t speak again for a minute, and the man was giddy with the thought that his story may have scared her off, but when he went to get another panel, and moved the tank forward another few inches, he saw her still standing there.
“What monsters?” she asked.
“Oh, you know the monsters, girl.” Now she was just being annoying, or stupid. Maybe she was stupid. You should never be mean to people who are stupid and can’t help it, he knew this at least. He sighed again, and resolved to explain.
“The monsters, child. The monsters that came and ate the sky.”
“What monsters?” she said again.
Yes. She was definitely stupid.
“A long, long time ago,” he said, grunting with every strained syllable as he pushed the broom higher and higher, made the panel stick as far up as he could reach, “before I was born, and before my father was born, and before his father was born, monsters came. They came and they were hungry and they ate the whole sky. Lots of people died, and that’s why I have to come, every morning, and put the sky back on. Because they ate it.”
“What do they look like?” she asked, pushing her bike closer to the massive machine. “Were they very big?”
“Oh, no, girl, no, not at all. They were very small. So small that you would never see them coming.”
“Did they have big teeth?”
“No, not particularly.”
“Were their teeth sharp?”
“I don’t believe they even had teeth at all.”
“Well…what did they look like?”
He stopped brushing for a moment, and cocked his head as if trying to remember. One stops paying attention to stories such as these when one is old. One forgets the details.
“I don’t know,” he finally admitted. “But I don’t think they were particularly scary. Just small, and very hungry. They ate the whole sky, and then they all left, and lots of people died.”
“But it’s better now,” the girl said.
“Oh, yes.” He finished the panel, and scooted forward, and grabbed the next one, and began to roll it out. He looked at his watch. Only eight minutes left, but only two panels. Plenty of time. “Much better now. Now we glue the morning sky on every morning, and the night sky on every night, and it’s better.”
“And they are all gone?”
“If you don’t know what they look like, how do you know they are all gone?”
He glanced down at her. She was just below him now, almost too close to the tank. He didn’t like her questions. He didn’t care if she was stupid, he wanted her to go away. He finished his panel, and scooted forward, and began the next one.
“Because we just know,” he said. She didn’t say much for a minute, and he finished gluing the last strip onto his section of the sky. He stepped back and admired his work. The sunrise was beautiful, and clouds floated listlessly in and out of the treeline. He put his hands on his hips and smiled. He would get down from the tank and have a cup of coffee and watch the sunrise, then begin to prepare for the night maintenance, and the strips of sky that were deep and dark and sprinkled with the little white dots of burning gas far, far away.
“It’s beautiful,” the girl said, and he looked down, and she was smiling a little smile.
He smiled back.
“Thank you, dear,” he said.
“No,” she said, and opened her mouth wide, and wider, and wider, and he saw that she had no teeth. “Thank you.”
And she took one delicious bite, and ate his sky.