Sunset Bonfire

Disclaimer: When we started this line over three years ago, we had no idea we’d soon enough be in a real pandemic. This series is meant as a fun, silly, lighthearted take on the traditional zombie apocalypse narrative. Enjoy! (Make sure to read the other chapters before starting this one. Order of chapters before this one: Pumpkin Spice Pandemic, Spiked Cider, Smoke and Decay, Blood Orange.)

Scent Notes: A pile of burning maple leaves in a sun warmed meadow at dusk.

The helicopter was flying towards their encampment on autopilot. She breathed a sigh of relief. Kevin started telling jokes to make them laugh, though Mallory was still lying down in the backseat. “Do you think the zombies will follow us? Because they’re dead set on catching us.” She rolled her eyes and scoffed. “But it’s okay,” he continued, “We’ve got a lot of good brains in this helicopter. We can flesh out a plan. It’ll take them a while to get to us, since they all live on dead-end streets.” She started laughing almost without meaning to because of the absurdity of the situation and just how awful the jokes were. “What were the odds that we’d find ourselves in this situation? This is absurd. A zombie apocalypse caused by pumpkin spice. Who wrote this up? I blame them entirely.” “As you should,” Kevin said. “It’s probably marketing material, too. People love Halloween and zombies for entertainment purposes. They go crazy for this stuff starting in, like, July every year. They’re crazy for autumn and anything to do with it, like falling leaves and pumpkins of all sorts. That’s how we got into this mess in the first place: pumpkin spice. Actually putting people into these situations is horrible.” They both sighed and stayed quiet. The others scrunched in the back had been silent since they left the hospital. “Wait a minute, have either of us been flying this thing?” she asked. “I did for a minute, but, it’s Google-powered. It knows where we live.” “But our cell phones died a long time ago!” she said. “Doesn’t matter; they still know. We’re nearly back at our camp now anyway; we’ve started our descent,” Kevin answered. 

Mallory was still lying down in the backseat. They seemed to have forgotten about her. Good, that’s what she was hoping for. Ever since her first near-escape during the early days of the pandemic, living as a semi-zombie had been a very … interesting experience. There were days when she felt like an entirely normal human being. Other days, she had horrible cravings for lattes and pie and human flesh. After just escaping from the hospital and a new swarm of orange-colored zombies hellbent on making her fully one of them, she was exhausted. Her girlfriend, their camp leader and current helicopter pilot, had been so excited when she found out there was a ZomBeGone pill. Mallory had taken the first dose right before they fled the hospital, and it felt like acid coursing through her body. She supposed that meant it was fighting off whatever had made her a zombie in the first place, but it felt like a different kind of death. Her wounds were still bleeding, dripping off of her, onto the floor, and leaking out the helicopter doors. Combined with the residual blood on everyone else and the blood on the helicopter itself from the zombie hoard, they were leaving a slow, steady trickle falling from the sky, leading directly to the encampment. Mallory noticed this; the windows on this helicopter went very low, and her head was right next to the window. From her vantage point, she could see the blood falling, and a small but growing pack of zombies beginning to follow them. She was just too weak to say or do anything about it. She made one half-hearted attempt to wave and be noticed, but everyone was half-laughing at a terrible joke about zombies that Kevin had said, which caused her to roll her eyes and fall asleep. She wasn’t certain she’d wake up, and she didn’t want anyone worrying about her now when they certainly were not out of danger from an imminent zombie attack and horrible zombie jokes.

A few minutes later, the Start button was pressed again and the helicopter landed softly in the middle of the encampment, close to the fire pit. They used it for cooking, of course, but weekly-or-so bonfires to burn trash and the occasional dead body had become a weird kind of ritual, a type of group therapy, for the survivors. It was comforting to have a space for people to decompress after days and nights of vigilance. Living through a zombie apocalypse has been, well, pretty fucking awful for the survivors. Random zombie attacks are terrifying, of course, but so is watching your fellow campmate survivors get sick and die from other diseases, or from hunger, or after they somehow get turned into a zombie when they go on a trip to get supplies for the camp. Knowing that you’re literally living day-to-day, hour-to-hour was a grueling, lonely experience. Knowing that any of your campmates could be next was even harder to bear. They were all slogging through, experiencing the moments of joy they could find, but mostly just surviving. They’d become a different kind of zombie: people struggling to navigate through the intense grief and suffering of their daily lives. Through that, they were able to form a community. It was an imperfect, evolving community, but it was better than being totally alone during something so terrifying. It wasn’t the most lighthearted and fun time to be alive, but, they were indeed alive. 

But you’re not here for this extremely relatable content; back to the fun, lighthearted zombie story!

The rest of the camp had heard the chopper and came out to watch it land. They were all applauding the safe return and helicopter-flying skills she apparently had that nobody knew about. She wasn’t going to tell anyone it was just pushing a couple of buttons; that’d ruin the story. She and Kevin climbed out of the front, and the others piled out carrying bags of supplies. 

She walked up and stroked Mallory’s sweaty, sticky head. “Honey, just relax,” she said. “I’m going to clean out your wound some more and give you another dose of ZomBeGone and some other antibiotics now.” She opened up a bag near Mallory’s feet, gave her penicillin and more ZomBeGone. Mallory shuddered as the pills went down; her face was pale. Her wound looked better, though it was still bleeding. She took some gauze and rubbing alcohol and did her best to clean the wound. Mallory flinched, but stayed still. “Now you just keep lying down here; don’t try to move. I’m going to leave this bag of medication here with you. I’m going to put these clothes on the fire and wash this pumpkin goop off of me, then I’ll come back and give you some stitches to hopefully close this wound up for good,” she said to Mallory. (This is in no way a Chekhov’s gun situation. Or is it? It is.) With that, she ripped off part of her stained shirt and lovingly tied Mallory’s arm to the headrest. “Just in case,” she said with a smile. Mallory grimaced, but didn’t attempt to move or do anything. Neither of them knew if the ZomBeGone had started to take effect yet, and while Mallory didn’t look like much of a threat now as she was pale and sweaty and practically immobile in the back of the helicopter, she still could be part zombie, and having her loose in the campsite could be a bad idea.

She left Mallory in the back, and walked over to her fellow campers. “Okay, everyone that went on the mission: we’re burning these clothes in the bonfire now. We’re covered in the stench and we can’t have it lingering. We should start a small fire now for cooking anyway. Strip down and we’ll make a burn pile and then wash up.” There was no room for modesty during a zombie apocalypse; they all stripped down and threw the clothes into the fire pit. Someone else got some kindling, dry leaves, and a fresh box of matches from the supply run. The clothes would burn quickly; pumpkin spice blood was extremely flammable, as they’d found out over the past few years. Whenever they’d had to burn a zombie, or a body before it had turned completely zombified, the fire was outrageous. It popped and crackled and sparked like mad. The weirdest part was that the smoke was actually … kind of a pleasant scent? By all accounts it should not have been, this strange blend of twigs and leaves and bodies and whatever else had to be burnt. But somehow the combination morphed into a bonfire like a lot of them had as kids, the kind where after a long day of raking leaves and jumping into the piles, your family would gather around at sunset and burn the leaves while drinking tea and eating maple candy. That kind of weirdly comforting, familiar scent memory is what was brought to mind by the scent to a lot of the campers. How pumpkin spice turned maple-y when combined with leaves and burnt, she didn’t know, but it made the whole process a lot easier to deal with psychologically. Huh, maybe that’s how perfume works? 

The group of survivors went back to their respective camp areas to clean themselves off and put on whatever type of clothing they (or other people) had available. Clothing was another thing that wasn’t exactly super accessible, though they’d built up a decent store after two years’ worth of people had been to the camp. She rifled through her makeshift closet, aka an old trash bag, and pulled out a fresh pair of cargo shorts and some random t-shirt left behind from someone who made it to the camp but didn’t last long once they arrived. She’d lost so much weight and become so muscular she didn’t even need to wear a bra anymore. Plus, who wants to bother with a bra when there are literal zombies running amok? Who wants to bother with a bra ever?

She’d gone on a huge supply run, had to deal with the largest hoard of zombies while protecting her part-zombie girlfriend, and she’d made it back with everyone in one piece. Well, Mallory was still technically in one piece; she just needed some extra care and attention and she’d be absolutely fine. She hoped that the ZomBeGone would work and then maybe they’d be able to cure this pandemic, if not worldwide, then at least in her general area. Less attacks and adrenaline rushes would probably be good for the health of everyone in her camp, at least. These were the things she thought about as she walked to the stream near the campsite. As humans do, they were sure to build their space near clean, running water so they’d be able to stay hydrated and bathe with ease. The other mission-goers were downstream a bit, washing off the thick blood from their bodies. She preferred to bathe alone. She didn’t want to relive the day; she didn’t want to talk about how close they were to not making it; she didn’t want to think about anything for just a few seconds. She was carrying the camp on her shoulders, and sometimes she just needed a damn break. She could at least clean herself and get five minutes of peace, right? Maybe? That’s all she was asking for. She smelled the smoke of their burning clothing wafting through the trees toward the stream. Weirdly comforting as usual. At least the clothes were burnt. The supplies would be unloaded and distributed; they had more food and medical supplies to last them at least a few weeks, and now they conveniently had a helicopter, which surely will make life easier and probably add to the future plot of this chapter and subsequent chapters to come. You’ll just have to keep reading.

She finished her bath, got up, and shook herself off. She’d dry off, get dressed, then go attend to Mallory. She wasn’t exactly sure how many doses it took ZomBeGone to work, and she hoped that the side effects Mallory appeared to be exhibiting (the sweating, the pale skin, the lethargy) were temporary and signs that the medicine was working and not making things worse. Had the penicillin slowed the progress enough for two years that this would be knocked out easily? She got up and put on the borrowed clothes that fit awkwardly, not that anybody really cared about fit or fashion anymore. At least she had clothing. That’s when she heard yelling, and someone burst through the trees and came running for her. “Bad news,” he said. She was pretty sure his name was Matt. “I was on watch duty, and it looks like we have a large zombie hoard heading straight for us now.” “What?! How?!” she asked, completely flabbergasted. “Well, it looks like there was so much blood dripping off of everyone and the helicopter that it formed a trail leading the zombies straight to our camp,” he said, swallowing hard. “I, uh, I’m sure nobody noticed since you were trying to get back to us and bring supplies, and I’m sure you didn’t have time to clean or anything, but … well, they’re on their way here now.” “Go tell everyone to prepare, get their supplies together, and get their weapons ready.” He nodded and ran off. 

She ran over to where the helicopter was still sitting, wondering if she’d have to charter people in groups over to the redoubt they’d prepared as an emergency fallback. It was safeguarded and hard to access, which was the point, but it would take extra time to land and get people situated. And only a few could fit in the helicopter at a time. She’d have to figure out some order of importance: any doctors or pharmacists would go in the first group…. 

She was attempting to make a full ranking order in her head when she reached the helicopter and came to a dead stop. Mallory wasn’t there. The cloth for her arm was just hanging there limply. It took every bit of her willpower not to scream out of fear and frustration. How could Mallory be gone? Where would she go? And why right now, with a hoard of zombies imminently arriving? She took several deep breaths. She had to have faith that things were okay with her, because right now, she didn’t have the energy to worry about Mallory specifically. She had a whole camp of people to look after.

She ran to the main lookout post, up on the hill at the edge of camp. Kevin was there already, looking absolutely confused. “The zombies have been diverted,” he said to her. “Uh … what the hell does that mean?” she asked. “Look for yourself,” he said, handing her binoculars. She took them and gazed out. Sure enough, she saw about a hundred or so zombies following the trail she had made, until they were suddenly being diverted into a large ravine several hundred feet below the encampment. It was a struggle to get into, and basically impossible to get out of. They were bumping into each other, attempting to climb but not going anywhere due to limbs falling off, and the sheer un-scalability of the ravine. They were starting to attack each other, when she felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned to see Mallory, who was looking … normal. Incredibly normal. She couldn’t stop herself; she threw her arms around Mallory and started crying. “You’re okay!’ she said. “What happened? Where did you go?”

Mallory’s eyes were sparkling. “I heard about the zombies coming, and I had an idea. I could tell the ZomBeGone was working, or killing me, so I figured I needed to get out of the camp either way. I wanted to create a diversion. I was still bleeding heavily, and I went down to the trail just ahead of the zombies. I used my blood to throw them off the trail and into the ravine. My blood was fresher than the weird mix of coagulated stuff that came off the helicopter.”

“Well, that’s all well and good, and I’m glad you’re okay, but what are we supposed to do with a bunch of zombies in a ravine right underneath our camp? They’ll figure out how to get up here eventually,” Kevin interjected. “Well, when I was back in the helicopter, I found out that there are aerosol cans and liquid bottles of ZomBeGone in addition to the pills. I was thinking we could fly the helicopter and dump the liquid and spray the cans on all of them and see what happens. Maybe we could start fixing the zombies? Turn them back into normal people? Because right as I was coming back up from the ravine, I stopped bleeding. My wounds started healing, and I felt like a normal human again. Because I am. A heavily scarred, freaked out, formerly zombie human, but a human nonetheless. Let’s see if we can cure some other people.” She leaned forward and kissed Mallory. No hint of pumpkin spice on Mallory’s breath. It was incredible. ZomBeGone worked! 

Kevin nodded. “This could work. Let’s do this.” She stopped kissing Mallory and said, “I agree, but let’s make sure we save a couple bottles. If this really works, we’ll need to know how to make more. Even in a zombie apocalypse story, there aren’t unlimited bottles of the antidote. I know we have chemists and doctors here; we can do another supply run to get the ingredients to make more. Maybe we really can fix this pandemic ourselves.” Kevin went to go spread the news and enlist some fellow campers to hop into the helicopter and make it rain on the zombies. She and Mallory kissed again before following him. Unsurprisingly, several people opted in to help. The fire was in full swing, and it smelled amazing. The sense of excitement and joy was palpable throughout the camp. The idea of eradicating zombies entirely seemed too good to be true, but as everyone saw Mallory’s miraculous recovery, there was a feeling of hope that hadn’t been felt … possibly ever in the camp. She and Mallory walked to the helicopter hand-in-hand, where Mallory gleefully showed off the bag full of different forms of ZomBeGone. “See!?” Mallory said excitedly. “We can do this! There’s hope! And we’ll have a big celebratory bonfire tonight.” It was all working out. Everyone was so excited. What they didn’t know was that not all the zombies were led into the ravine; some had still followed after Mallory as she came back to the camp after making the path and sneaking through the woods. They didn’t know they’d already lost a few campers who were foraging, unaware of what was going on, and that they'd be arriving in the camp in moments.

Scent Notes: A pile of burning maple leaves in a sun warmed meadow at dusk.