Jim extinguished the fire, even though the children grumbled.
“Please, Papa Jim,” said a boy with dark circles around his eyes. “Just five more minutes. I’m awful cold.” He wrapped his arms around his knobbled knees and shivered as if to punctuate his point. Several of the others nodded and mumbled their concurrences.
Jim sighed. His eyes darted to the ruined city skyline. Nothing but rubble and rebar. “Now, Boy—” he didn’t name them, it made it too difficult when they died “—you know I can’t do that. The spiders are attracted to the light at night, and the dark is fast approaching. I don’t want to be eaten in my sleep, and I’m sure neither do you.” Jim lowered his voice. “You know full well they digest us from the inside out. Drain us dry.”
The children looked over their shoulders at the shadows that encroached. A few stretched and patted the backs of their necks, to ensure nothing crawled there. They all scooched closer together, nearer to the orange embers of the fire. Nobody had forgotten the tortured fate of Girl, only a week or so prior.
“How about a story, before we all settle in for the night? I’ll even take first watch. An extra long one, so you all can get some nice shut-eye.”
Boy curled up on the dirt, his head atop a smooth boulder. He smiled at Jim, eyelids heavy with sleep. “Tell us again, Papa Jim, about how the world used to be.”
“Yeah!” said Girl. And then, at his look of admonishment, quieter: “Yeah.” Almost a whisper. “Tell us about the munny and the burds. Tell us about the blue skies.”
“Tell us about the nice rain and the treez,” said another Boy.
Papa Jim nodded and grinned. A tried and true classic. The Way Things Used to Be. “All right, all right, shh. Settle down, we don’t want them to hear us, do we?” The kids shook their heads — they did not want that. “Okay, I’ll tell you about how things were. What the world was like back when I was a boy.”
Another Girl raised her hand. Jim acknowledged her question. “Is this story real, Papa Jim? Only, Boy told me—” Jim glanced at the few different Boys “—that it’s all made up. A magic world. A fantasy. For little kids. It is real, isn’t it?” Her eyes pled. “Papa Jim?”
He flashed them a dangerous glare. “No, it’s not made up. It’s all real, and it all definitely happened. I wouldn’t lie to you, now, would I?” The children glanced at each other then shook their heads in denial. “Now, my memory isn’t what it used to be, and I might get a few things wrong. But — to the best of my recollections — everything I’ve told you about how things were, back in the day, is true.”
Girl sat back, satisfied that he’d spin no lies.
“Now, let us first start with the sky. Settle down, children. Cuddle up, ready for the night. Get close, so the spiders don’t get you.” Boys and Girls obeyed. Jim did a quick headcount, to make sure they hadn’t taken one when he’d turned his back.
“Back when I was a boy, before the world was aflame, the sky was a deep, deep blue.”
“Blue?” asked one of the Boys. He frowned at the darkened firmament. If it hadn’t been night, the child would have gazed up into a dusty rust-coloured murk. “No way was it ever blue!”
“No, no, I promise you, it was! As blue as the ocean. I swear on my—”
“Papa Jim?” A Girl.
“What’s an oh-shun?”
“Oh, um. Ah. It’s—okay. It’s a giant place filled with water. You know how sometimes, after it rains, we see puddles on the ground?”
“That we try and get drinking water from?”
“Yes, exactly. Well, it’s like that, only huge.” Jim extended his arms. “Massive. Bigger than the whole of this desert.”
The children stared at him agape. “Full of water? To drink?”
“Well, no, not exactly. It was full of salt water, so you couldn’t drink it.”
Boy guffawed. “Don’t try foolin’ me, Papa Jim! No way was there ever such a place.”
Jim grinned at Boy. “There sure was.” He placed a hand over his heart. “No foolin’.” The closest thing they had to an oath. “And it was full of these creatures called fish. Some were tiny.” Jim pinched his thumb and forefinger together. “And some were—” he widened his hands “—ginormous! We called the big ones whales.”
“Fish,” said Girl. She rolled it around her mouth, to get the full texture of the word. “Fishhhhhh.” She looked at him and giggled. “Fishhhhhh.”
“So,” Boy continued to frown, “how did all this water get in these oh-shuns?”
“Well, we had a rain cycle. I’m not quite sure how it all worked, but, water evaporated from the land. You know how those puddles disappear by midmorning? Then, they got taken up by clouds. You know how grey our sky is? Well, back then, they were split up — called clouds. And they weren’t always there. Sometimes, the sky was clear. Every now and then, when there was a cloud, it’d rain. The water would trickle into the oceans, replenishing them.”
“How did these fish survive in the water?”
“Ah. Yes, I see the issue. Well, back when I was a boy, rain didn’t hurt. In fact, it was nice. It was clean. So, the oceans were fine to swim in.”
“It didn’t hurt?” Boy grinned. “You’re making a joke, Papa Jim!”
“I’m not — honest. In fact, the clouds were so nice back then, we had these creatures called birds. They flew through the skies. They had feathers and beaks, and soared through the heavens.”
The children craned their necks to the sky above. Some looked enraptured. Others looked perplexed. One or two looked downright sceptical. “Nah, nothing could fly up there. It would fall down!” Boy picked a rock up and dropped it. It clattered to the ground, and Jim winced at the sound. “See?”
“I don’t quite know how they did it, but they did do it. It think it was their wings.” Jim waggled his elbows. “They fluttered and flapped them like this, and somehow they flew. They were delicious. There were chickens and turkeys, and we ate them all. Much nicer than spiders’ legs.” They all looked at the flensed legs, thick as cacti — with thorned bristles to match — and repressed a shudder. “We enjoyed eating, back then. It wasn’t just something we did to stay alive. I miss birds. Did you know, they made made nests in trees?” Jim nodded at the incredulous faces. “No webs, no trapdoors beneath the earth. Nests.”
“Treez?” A younger Girl yawned. “Like the things we get wood from?”
“Yes, but also very different. Back when I was young, they were beautiful and brown, and stretched up into the sky. They had these green things called leaves, and sometimes they blossomed with flowers. All sorts of colours. Some even made fruit — a sweet type of food that grew from their branches. Very different to the twisted little skeletal things we have nowadays.”
“Well, what happened to them?”
“So, you see, back before all this.” Jim gestured across the tenebrous landscape. “Everyone was concerned with money.”
A Girl threw a fist into the air. “I love hearing about munny!” She laughed. It sounded like the tinkle of a Christmas bell. “It’s so funny.”
“Yes, money. These little numbers — sometimes represented by little metal coins, or sheets of paper. The more numbers you had, the more things you could get.”
Boy put his hand up. “You traded numbers for things?”
“Yes, we called that buying. Everyone did it.”
He looked at Jim with quizzical eyes. “And how did you get these numbers?”
“We worked for them. In offices, on building sites, on farms. We did all sorts of things for those numbers. The more you had, the better you life was. Some people had almost no numbers at all. And they were poor.” Jim wrinkled his nose. “And some had millions. Billions even. Those people were very special.”
“All right.” Jim could tell the kid didn’t quite believe him. “So, how did those numbers make the rain burn?”
“Okay. So. To make money, we had to hurt the planet.” Jim shrugged. “It’s just how things were. It’s how it worked, nobody could stop it. Nobody’s fault, really. Just how it was. More people wanted to make more money, so the planet got more and more hurt. Especially when people wanted billions of the numbers. Eventually, it came to a head. And everything kinda—” he looked out at the desolation “—exploded into flames. Some said capitalism was to blame. Said the cockroaches of society bled us dry. Ate us from the inside out. But…“ He raised his clenched fists to the scorched skies. “But at least we weren’t no damn socialists.”
“Damn socialism,” said most of the children in unison. They knew to echo this chant whenever Jim uttered the magic words. Those who hadn’t repeated it were the younger ones. A few Boys and several Girls had closed their eyes. Heavy breaths and soft snores. All curled up together, pups in a litter. Safety in numbers. Safety from spiders.
Jim smiled at his charges, proud. “That’s right. But—” he stretched and yawned and kicked some sand over the last of the embers “—I think that’s all for tonight. Get some sleep, Boys and Girls. Long day tomorrow, the huntsman mutations are close by.”
“Night, Papa Jim.”
“Guh-night, Papa Jim.”
“Sweet dreams, children. And remember, if you hear the scuttling in the night, raise the alarm. Can’t let those spiders sneak up on us. At first it’ll just be one, but before you know it, we’ll be overrun.”
They all confirmed they would, between yawns and sighs.
“Won’t let no insects get the better of us, will we now?”