Mom and James and I go hiking through a sparse wood, making our way between broken birches, careful to avoid snapping twigs beneath our feet. We walk in a line, me in the middle because I’m the youngest. Mom comes to a stop up ahead, signaling for us to do the same. James half raises his rifle, alert, my hand hovers over the pistol at my side, but then Mom gives the OK and we continue walking. This is all we can do, keep moving on. It is almost the fall and there are dead leaves on the ground, there are dead bodies in the river, the stench and screech of the undead all around us.
When we reach the shallow part of the creek, we find a deposit of half-eaten bodies. The flesh and the innards is what they eat, leaving the rest behind for us to pick through. We descend on the scene like vultures, ravenous for anything we can get our hands on, the shock of death having long been lost on us. There isn’t much to scavenge from this lot, no tools or weapons, no materials save for a few shoelaces, a leather belt, some buttons from their torn and bloodied shirts. Things we can use to mend or replace our own tattered clothes. Mom stands watch on the edge of the riverbed.
As I dredge myself up from the shallows, a brightly colored, cardboard object catches my eye from beneath the wet leaves. A soiled box of cigarettes reveals itself to me, red and white and black lettering. I quickly pocket the sad trinket before mom or James takes notice of my loitering. We make our way again through the woods at a brisk gait, making as little noise as possible. None of us says a word.
We find our way back to a wooden shack, half-hidden by broken branches and moss cover, built and abandoned by someone else. It has been our camp for the last couple of weeks, but not for much longer. We were grateful to find it, and lucky that it was uninhabited. Luck has been a great asset to our survival, and we never ask for more than we receive.
Marnie runs up to James and throws her arms around his waist, just as she does every time he returns to camp, and he ruffles her hair in reply. Of everyone, these two have been with mom and I the longest. James found Marnie while searching a deteriorated house for supplies, starving and trapped there, so he unquestioningly took her into his care. The pair had traveled together for a long time before joining my mom and our small group of survivors.
Marnie is the closest to my age, so we’re best friends. I flash her the cigarette box as we reunite and she gives me a discreet high-five. There’s only one in there that isn’t too damaged to smoke, so we agree to share it tonight when we take first watch. Mom and James and the others usually let us take first watch because we’re teenagers, or we just go right to sleep. Sometimes I sleep with my boots on. We must always be ready to run.
When we can’t sleep at night, which happens to be much of the time, Marnie and I whisper to each other about our hopes, the little things we know we need to carry with us in order to survive. She tells me she hopes we find an apple tree so she can taste the sweet sensation of biting into the hard skin of a fresh fruit, her favorite from a former lifetime. I tell her I hope we find a dog to travel with us.
One night she says she had always wanted to try a cigarette, just once, she says, maybe. Me too, I say, and tell her that my mom would probably kill me, but maybe it wouldn’t matter to her anymore. My father couldn’t live without them, but luckily for him, he never had to. She thinks for a minute and decides James would be unhappy about it too, and then we are silent, gazing up at the stars, breathing out clouds of fake smoke in the cold night air.
Now the summer is almost over and some of the leaves are withering and falling, but tonight is warm and comfortable. We are giddy through dinner, trying to hide our smiles while digging our teeth into the flesh of a scorched trout. Currently, there is an even number of people in our group so everyone eats two to a meal. Marnie and I share a fish. Mom and James share too, ceremoniously handing it back and forth as they each take one bite at a time.
Night falls and we hear the screeching wail of the undead rise from the furthest reaches of the forest like a rooster at daybreak. Marnie and I assume our duty on watch as the others huddle in the shed before it’s their turn to take guard. Mom stays behind to stoke the fire a little longer, reluctant to leave us two alone out here, but I reassure her that we’re ok. She warns me not to stray too far before finally turning in.
We sit side by side against a tree near the campfire. I slide the slim, white, paper prize from within my shirtsleeve. Marnie produces a pack of matches, a resource she’d always collected on her travels. Only a few beat-up matches remain, but the sacrifice feels worth it as we strike it into flame. We watch the satisfying glow of the ember garnish the end of the cigarette as I inhale, breathing the smoke out of my lungs, up into the night sky.
We pass it back and forth, becoming light-headed, feeling the sudden and unaccustomed rush of nicotine as it enters our brains for the first time. We try to blow smoke rings but don’t even come close. At first the stale smoke isn’t too harsh, but then Marnie starts to cough, hacking and wheezing uncontrollably. I try to help her breathe it out, quiet down, but she is unable to stop it.
We hear something move. A loud rustling alarmingly nearby. Marnie covers her mouth with one hand, draws her pistol with the other. The undead have come for us, just as they always have. My gun is in my hand before I know it. The noise approaches at a hastened gait, aggravating bushes closeby, about to tear through the darkness in a hungry fervor. I stand to meet it, raising my weapon with both hands. It emerges, a dark, wild shape. I pull the trigger.
Marnie lets out a yelp as the body of a deer collides with the ground at my feet. My arms and legs are shaking visibly. Mom soon appears, weapon drawn, eyes on fire. She sees me first, then the deer, then me again, then erupts into a hushed rage. She reminds me that the noise of a gunshot will only attract more attention. This was not a life for death situation, she points out. Marnie is beside me, her hand holding mine. We stand before her dumbfounded, too startled to speak, still buzzing with nicotine.
Mom then embraces us both, telling us how grateful she is that we’re ok. She hesitates before pulling away, a puzzled look on her face. Have you two been smoking? She asks, but doesn’t allow space for a rebuttal, dismissing the thought as she remembers the deer. We share a look of triumph as we turn to head inside.
Marnie and I are in an elated state, so we stay up all night retelling each other the story, feeling empowered by our small accomplishment. We laugh until there are tears in our eyes, already reminiscing about the night we had together.