This short story is brought to you, in part, by the following image prompt from /r/WritingPrompts/:
I sat on the bonnet of Grandpas old, blue Ford Anglia – a relic from a time before the power went out. Penfold, our stupid but loyal dog, sat by me and gazed out at the spot in the sky where I was looking. My eyes followed something black that was circling the head of The Sky Gazer in the distance. ‘Gabe’, we call him. Mum said the name came from Gabriel, which was a spirit character from Millennial Christianity, but I don’t really know anything about those stories.
“Is it an eagle?” asked an excited voice from behind me. I turned around to see my little brother looking to the same spot above Gabe’s head as where I was looking . He never broke eye-contact with that spot, even as he scrambled onto the Anglia’s roof whilst fighting off Penfold, who was trying to get at the stick Eric was holding.
“Y’know, Eric…” I said to my brother, “I think it might just be an eagle. There aren’t many field birds that circle like that, and especially not that high in an August sky.”
“I wish we had a photographer,” said Eric, tapping his stick on the car roof.
“You mean a camera.”
“What’s the difference?”
“A camera was the machine that took photographs, like the ones of Grandpa and Ethel on the pantry door.” I explained. “A photographer was the person that used the camera.”
“Right,” said Eric. “Well I wish we had both. Eagles are super-rare. I wish I could see one up close.”
“Yeah, me too. Photography would have made a better hobby than darning your clothes, eh squirt?”
Eric laughed and punched my arm playfully. Penfold barked – violence, no matter how subtle, made him nervous. He didn’t know what to do when humans made sudden contact, so he tried to be protective; he just got a little confused when the two people making contact were the two people he wanted to protect most. I looked at his white fur in the sun. The small lumps on his right leg were untreatable, according to Dad. I was going to miss this dog.
“How did we get here?” asked Eric, suddenly.
“Say what now?” I asked, confused at the sudden break in the silent, warm day. The whispers in the wheat field past our fences made me drowsy in this heat.
“How did we get here?” Eric repeated.
“Oh hell, I’m not going to have that talk wi-”
“Shut up! Eww! Gross! I know how we got here…got here,” said Eric, going red. “I want to know how people got here.” At the look of bewilderment on my face (which wasn’t helped by the fading horror that I might have to explain the birds and the bees to my nine-year old brother), Eric continued, “I just mean, if we had photographers and other machines -”
“Cameras – whatever – and cars and power and stuff, then why don’t we have them any more? Why is everything so crappy?”
“Mind your language!” I scalded. Penfold barked as if to back me up, but I realised that he was barking at Gabe; the great guardian had started to turn his head, creaking metal roaring throughout the sky – this action which wasn’t a good sign if our father was to be believed.
“Are there nukes coming?” asked Eric, panic evident in his voice.
“I doubt there are any left. Not after everything that happened.”
“But what did happen? How did we get here?” Eric asked again, innocence exaggerated in his tone. I looked at him – he certainly was being suspiciously persistent, then it dawned on me why.
“You’ve asked Dad haven’t you?” I said, looking him in the eyes, challenging him to try to hide the fact, but Eric just nodded his affirmation.
“He refused to tell you, didn’t he?”
Eric nodded again and looked at his lap, but not before hope had danced in his eyes that his attempt at deception would go unpunished. His curiosity had left him nearly fearless of consequence, just as my own had at that age. I felt a pang of pity for him, and for myself at that age. Father did not break easily.
I had asked my father such questions many times with no success, but one day our mother had told me about Gabe’s arrival.
“Gabe was sent to watch over us, darling girl,” she had told me, a look of wonder and adoration in her eyes as we had leant on the fence at the edge of our land, snow up to our knees. We had looked out at Gabe, and she explained that he was there to raise the alarm if ever the nukes came to our land. Apparently the were Gabes up and down this land, but some had failed. Our Gabe moved his head more in those days.
When I pressed her, she had told me about how this land was once part of a united kingdom and how it used to be colder when it was called Lanarkshire, before we ruined the zone layer in the sky. The diesels that used to power vehicles like Grandpa’s Ford Anglia had left a horrid stink in the sky, and that let more of the sun in, which caused illnesses like Mum’s and Penfold’s to happen more.
She told me about the men that led us, and the few women that were allowed to lead, too. They had ruled over a time of great greed, where people fought over meaningless things, and people were divided over money. Mum had explained that when her mother and father, who died before I was alive, were young, the world was very rich, and that (apparently) even the poorest people in our lands had access to clean water, working sewage and other wonders. She once told me, late one night, that you could talk to people on the other side of the world instantly through machines, though I’m not sure that this isn’t where Mum started transforming history into fairytale. Dad says its true. But that was before the power went out, which happened a lifetime before my own.
No matter how much of our history Mum relayed to me, or how accurately, she always used to end up talking about Gabe like he was something magical that protected us from the sounds in the night that used to scare me. Dad, on the other hand, has since explained Gabe’s true nature. Dad thought that I was old enough; that I needed to know after Mum went and Eric needed another mother.
He explained how Sky Gazers were assembled to forewarn us of incoming nukes, which could have been sent by one of many enemies this land had made. Some even looked different to us, and had darker flesh or different eyes. According to both Mum and Dad, this land had many enemies, but so did other lands, too. We didn’t have the most, Mum would say, proudly, so there was that.
The one time that I had dared to ask Dad what nukes actually were, he explained them as being like poisonous fires that kill all life that they touch. He said that nothing can live for hundreds of years in a place where a nuke has been. Some landed far, far south of here, he told me, but he has since assured me we’re safe many times. Funnily enough, I’ve never asked for such assurance – I just think it makes him feel better to tell me that.
When asked what he remembers from that time, Dad just tells me that he was too young to take any of it in. He never looks happy to talk about it though. I think Grandma was lost in that time, to those horrible occurrences, because Grandpa would never talk of them either. At least he had Ethel though. Old people need someone to bicker with, and Grandpa and Ethel were mostly at peace when they could bicker with each other.
I opened my mouth to begin telling Eric the stories I had been told, and my mind skipped to the time when Dad had found out that Mum had answered my questions against his wishes. They had fought like hell afterwards, with Grandpa and Ethel interjecting, and Eric cried in his cot at the noise. Dad only wanted to protect me, I know now, because he was scared that I would lose hope and faith in a world ruined by us. By people.
He was wrong, my mother had reminded him just days before she died. She reminded him of his fears for me, that I would crumble into despair. Mum pointed to how beautiful I was in my thoughts and my face and told him that stories couldn’t ruin me, and that love would set us free. Mum told Dad that she was in me and that she would never leave as long as we loved each other. That’s what Dad told me she said, anyway; he laughs through tears when he tells me of those words, and he always tells me how much my mother loved me. That I was her reason for being, above anything, until Eric came to share that mantle.
I turned to that little boy, sitting next to me, and choked back tears for Mum. Eric was oblivious; he just sat, gazing, hitting his stick against the rusting, blue roof of the Ford Anglia, hoping that the circling bird in the sky was proof that one of nature’s beautiful creatures had survived nature’s own worst enemy. It had been a minute or so since Eric had asked his question of me, and I wondered if he even remembered asking me.
“I can’t remember most of it, to be honest, Eric,” I said, a slight hint of a quaver in my voice. “Dad will tell you all of it when he’s ready.” Eric must have heard something in my voice as the words came out, because he didn’t argue.
“Okay,” he said, simply, and continued tapping his stick on the roof of the car, lost in his hopeful gazing toward the black spot circling the sentinel’s head.
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Thanks for reading!