The Campfire Project

by Matthew Downing

“Oh, Calipari! The sun isn’t even out yet,” Mary groaned like a teenager asked to do their chores.

Calipari pressed his cold snout under her chin. Pushing the whimpering bulldog off her face, she scooted to the end of the bed and crawled over Allen’s purple, gouty toes. Allen’s snoring stopped; Mary shook him to make sure his sleep apnea hadn’t stopped his breathing again.

His eyes still shut, he whispered, “toss some cheese in my eggs, babe.”

Mary smelt the bourbon Allen had tossed back the night before. Calipari scratched the bedroom door like he could dig a hole through the warped wood.

“Alright, alright, I’m coming, you big baby.”

Bumping her way across the dark living room, Mary slid open the patio door. Calipari sprinted through the morning mist and into the hardwood forest that covered the backyard. It’d been Allen’s idea to adopt Calipari from the pound, but Mary wasn’t surprised she was the only one that took care of him. Had she given Allen a baby sometime in the last ten years, she wouldn’t be up at five in the morning watching her puppy take a piss in the woods.

The rising, orange sun glistened between gaps in skinny trees. The smell of wet leaves blew into the living room as Mary listened to a pair of cardinals perform a high-pitch duet. She wondered how far she’d get if she ran into the mist and never looked back. Would Allen finally find the birth control she hid in her panty drawer? Would her sister tell him about the trip they took the Lexington nine months after the honeymoon?

A distant buzz from the heart of the forest swarmed toward the house like a cloud of bees. Mary stepped out to greet them.

“You start the eggs? Don’t forget I’m working a double today, so stop by the house and let Calipari out during your lunch break.”

Allen’s deep voice startled Mary. Blinking, she looked up to see the bees, but she was standing in the kitchen with a frying pan in her hand. Allen walked up behind her and kissed the back of her neck. She could feel his tighty-whities brush against her lower back as his jiggling gut pushed her closer to the stove. Dazed, she tried to remember when she’d changed into her scrubs.

“I have my community outreach thing this morning, so I don’t know if I’ll get a lunch,” she said, trying to sound as casual as a coffee date.

Taking a seat at the kitchen table, Allen furiously scratched his red beard with one hand and Calipari’s belly with the other.

Cracking four eggs above the frying pan, Mary waited for Allen to explode. Instead, he poured himself a tall glass of milk and stared at Mary like she was a witch in Salem.

“You really going to that climate-hoax, Chinese propaganda, hippy-dippy, Gen Z commune?” he growled.

“They’re just people trying to live sustainably,” Mary said.

She’d been mentally preparing for this battle for weeks. Ever since the commune moved to the edge of town last March, people like Allen have been telling everyone to shoot the members on sight. Of course, no one had actually seen the commune: the members never came into town, and the sheriff still hadn’t found their plot of land in the woods. The only reason people knew they existed was the Tik Tok videos their leader posted, encouraging people from all over the world to join the eco-revolution in Midway, Kentucky.

Handing Allen his eggs, Mary forced a smile as she met his disgruntled stare.

“It’s not like I want to go, honey,” she reminded him. “Since Dr. Evans got that big supply of vaccines, he’s been lobbying for me to go out there and get high-risk people treated. You don’t know how many elderly folks they probably got crammed together in those woods.”

The truth was it’d been Mary’s idea to vaccinate the commune: she’d been fascinated by the mystery of these strangers ever since they arrived.

Allen swallowed a spoonful of cheesy eggs; he looked like he was about to punch a hole through a wall.

“Ah, don’t start on that shit in my house; it’s bad enough I got to wear that mask at the warehouse. We used to have freedom in this country.”

Mary kissed the top of Allen’s balding forehead.

“Well, I’ll put Calipari on the backyard chain and set him up with some water before I go; okay, dear?

But Allen wasn’t listening.

“Democrats trying to inject me with a microchip of 5G wave bullshit,” he muttered to himself.

Sensing a short window, Mary put Calipari back in the woods and rushed off to her car before Allen could do anything drastic.

***

Mary shoved the vaccine coolers into the trunk of her green, 2004 Ford Taurus.

“Look at the crazy stuff they’ve been posting on social,” warned her coworker, Lizzy.

Lizzy was a blonde former high school cheerleader whom Mary had known since they were in diapers. She was simple and bland but inexplicably Mary’s best friend. Now, looking into Lizzy’s blue, Bambi eyes, Mary started having doubts. What did she really know about these people?

Lizzy shoved her phone under Mary’s nose; it played a Tik Tok filmed at the commune. A large crowd of giggling, shirtless people danced wildly around a blazing bonfire. Swatting the phone away, Mary climbed into the front seat.

“It’ll be fine, Lizzy: you know I’m always careful.”

But Lizzy was persistent.“

Maybelle Hawk swears three of the topless gals in this video stole her cat, dragged him into the woods, and ate him raw.”

Mary smirked.

“Maybelle Hawk also swears her cousin was abducted by a UFO last year.”

“Well, maybe he was!”

Starting the car, Mary grabbed one of Lizzy’s gesticulating hands, kissed it, and rolled up the window.

“Please, be careful, Mary,” Lizzy shouted as Mary zipped out of the parking lot. “There’s something different about these people.

Blasting “We Didn’t Start the Fire” on her radio, Mary felt excitement vibrating up her torso. She watched a tearful Lizzy fade away in her rearview mirror.

“Don’t get eaten!” Lizzy cried.

Speeding down Main Street, Mary took a sharp right turn onto the dirt road just before the highway exit. The road snaked through the same hilly forest as the one that covered her backyard. She’d assured Dr. Evans she could easily find the commune and that the sheriff only missed it because he didn’t want to deal with the paperwork. All of their videos had promised anyone seeking enlightenment would hear them, so long as they followed the dirt road into the woods.

But the further Mary went into the forest, the narrower her path became. She had to get out of the car twice to move logs off the bumpy road. Covered in dirt and sweat, she cursed each time she heard the sharp scratch of an overhanging branch rubbing the passenger door. After an hour, she started to worry if she had enough gas to make it back home.

“This still can’t be the road,” she thought.

She slammed on the brake: a distant buzzing, like the hum of a generator, echoed from the top of the hill. She parked the car and ran up the winding path. Near the top, faded blue paint covered a worn sign hammered into a dead tree stump.

“Welcome to The Campfire Project,” Mary read.

Wheezing from the climb, she followed an even smaller path cut through the thicket that grew behind the sign. Running downhill, Mary passed more signs. She read each of them like they were clues to a riddle she was desperate to solve. The buzzing grew louder.

“Private Property”

“No Cops, only Love”

“We are Armed against the Terrors of Capital”

A hundred feet further, the path ended, and the buzzing stopped. Mary had an uneasy feeling, like someone was breathing on the back of her neck.

“Helllooo?” she cried, her voice echoing off a nearby pile of large stones. “My name is Mary Abbott; I’m a nurse here to offer you all vaccines.”

She waited, but only the wind answered. Fighting her way forward, she moved through a cluster of thorny bushes that scratched her arms worse than Freddy Kreuger. The forest’s canopy covered the sun, leaving her in the dark. Her dripping elbows left a thick trail of blood on the black thorns. Woozy, she thought about turning back, but she was in too deep now.

Closing her eyes, she leaped through the last thorns and rolled out into the sunlight. Slowly standing, she found herself in a large clearing cut in the heart of the woods. Across the clearing, six run-down school buses had been converted into tight living quarters. Each bus had enough cots to hold 50 people. Next to the buses, three dilapidated shacks stood beside a chicken coup and a garden filled with rows of corn and soybeans. In the center of the field, a white, colonial-style house with chipped paint and solar panels on the roof stood in front of a deep trench filled with firewood.

“Helllooo?” Mary shouted again. “I need some help!”

Hugging herself, she pressed her arms together and stopped the bleeding as she walked toward the white house. She was halfway there when a pale, shirtless man appeared behind her and tapped her on the shoulder.

“Sweet Joseph!” Mary shouted, swirling around as she backed away from the man.

“Welcome to The Campfire Project. I’m John,” said the man.

John was a scruffy, twenty-something, redhead with grass-green eyes and tattoos of naked women around his neck. He carried a small green book bound by Scotch Tape. His ear-to-ear smile made Mary’s tailbone shiver. Her heart was running faster than a greyhound at the racetrack; she weakly returned his grin.

“I’m so sorry to barge in like this, but do you happen to have any bandages? I cut my arms up pretty badly.”

John chuckled as he pulled a first aid kit out of his satchel. Moving slower than molasses, he hummed what sounded like gospel music as he fixed Mary up.

“You just carry these around with you?” Mary asked.

“Of course, but I never thought I’d have to bandage a nurse.”

Mary raised her eyebrow.

“How did you know—”

“Your scrubs, Mary,” John reminded her.

“Right, right, I don’t know where my head is at today. I came to see if anyone needed vaccines, but I left them in my car at the bottom of the hill.”

Blinking, she realized she and John had been walking for a few minutes. John’s hand pressed against her shoulder, guiding her toward one of the shacks.

“Don’t worry about all that,” he assured her. “We don’t make any decisions here without a group vote; next council is tonight if you’re able to stick around.”

Mary heard the rhythm of bongo drums from underneath the shack’s half-hinged door. She stopped, staring hesitantly at her muddy Sketchers. She felt as drawn to John as she had to the woods, but there was no way she could leave Calipari by himself until after dark. What if Allen beat her home?

John ran his hand under her chin and lifted her head. His smile hadn’t moved an inch since she met him.

“Come on, let me at least give you the tour before you decide.”

He tucked a strand of Mary’s frizzy, brown hair behind her ear. The pain in her arms disappeared.

“Yeah, I’d love a tour,” she said.

“Well, you’ve seen the buses, and over there is where we practice our sustainable farming,” John said, pointing at the garden. “We use the chickens for eggs and the charge from the house’s solar panels for any minor electronics. We’ve got fireplaces in every structure for wintertime and enough water collected from the nearby stream to drown an elephant. But the real magic happens in the shacks.”

John opened the shack door. Inside, forty people sat on a mud floor. They were a mix of young and old; Black, white, Hispanic, and Asian. All of them were smiling. Their clanking knives carved furniture out of chopped-down trees. As they worked, the group hummed the same song John had been humming earlier.

Mary felt infected by their radiating joy; she wanted nothing more than to sit and whittle without a single attachment to the world she left behind.

“We have a work requirement of ten hours a day,” John shouted, leaning close so Mary could hear him over the pounding of the drums by the stick-bug-looking kid with coke-bottle glasses. “You wouldn’t believe what this furniture sells for on eBay. It’s a great way to spread the word of the revolution.”

“So, are you like the founder of this place?” Mary asked.

John and the rest of the shack performed synchronized chuckles. “We have no founder, no leader,” John explained.

“We’re all connected to the soil around us. All decisions are made at council with love and unanimous consent.”

“Unanimous? Mary gasped. “How could anything be unanimous with this many people? Allen and I can’t even agree on what to watch on Netflix.”

The drums stopped beating. Mary thought she saw the stick bug twitch, but John blew past her mistake as smoothly as a figure skater on ice.

“On my travels, I met an herb man that taught me about the holy Kentucky plant, hidden deep in the woods. See Mary? We all followed the buzzing just like you, and it brought us all to the great, white house. Come on, let me show you what you’ve been looking for.”

The men, women, and children in the shack smiled and nodded as John led Mary out the back door. They circled back to the white house, walking around the trench to reach the front door. A large-breasted, young, naked woman with berry juice painted on her lips opened the door and welcomed them inside. Giggling, she kissed John on the lips as he squeezed past her.

“Feeling good today, Alice?” he asked.

“You know it!” Alice squealed, extending her arms out and twirling like a helicopter making a landing.

The house was filled with young women like Alice lounging on dozens of leather couches and scrolling through their iPhones. Each room had a plasma television, crystal chandelier, and golden plates hung across the walls.

“Were these girls called by the buzzing too?” Mary asked.

John didn’t answer. Taking Mary’s hand, he brought her up the grand staircase and into his bedroom, which was small and decorated like a college dorm. Curious, Mary peeked inside the half-open closet; it was full of shotguns.

“If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him,” John whispered.

Mary turned around; John was naked. His dick waved aggressively near Mary’s hand.

“So, what do you think? Pretty great, huh?”

But Mary didn’t hear the buzzing anymore. Frozen, her attraction to John turned into a sudden repulsion. Blinking hard, she felt like she was in the kitchen again, having just woken up from a deep trance.

“Yeah, this place is a miracle, really, but I really got to get going,” she stuttered, scrambling toward the door.

But John was quicker than her. Slamming his hand against the door, he held it closed. His green eyes had turned red, and his smile curled like a cartoon villain.

“What about the vaccines? Don’t you want to wait for us to vote on the issue?”

“It’s fine,” Mary said. “I can come back tomorrow after you all have voted.”

“Or you could stay,” John whispered, leaning in for a kiss.

Adrenaline cleared Mary’s mind; she kicked John’s groin and twisted his arm. Throwing open the door, she sprinted down the stairs and screamed for help. None of the girls were around.

Running outside, she found herself under a full moon. Had she been in the house all day?

“Is anybody out here? Please, I need help!”

But nobody answered. For the first time since she turned on the dirt road, she remembered she had a cell phone. Shacking, she dug the phone out of her front pocket.

“Please, God, please,” she whispered.

One of her bandages had come loose. Blood dripped down her fingers, covering the screen as she typed her pass code. She tried to call Allen, but she had no service. Certain that any second John would come out of the house and catch her, she ran for the car. Tears blurring her vision, she sprinted through the pain of the thorns, not stopping until she reached the sign in the tree stump.

“Welcome to The Campfire Project.”

“Where is it? Where is it?”

Panting, Mary sprinted up and down the path, but the car was gone. Defeated, Mary collapsed in front of

“Help! Help me, somebody! Lizzy! Allen!”

“Allen’s not coming,” a voice giggled in the darkness.

Alice flipped over the stump.

“Hurry up, Kevin.”

The stick bug boy followed her, accepting her berry-stained kiss on his cheek. Still naked, a chuckling John appeared last. Mary tried to struggle, but their grip was too strong.

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” said John.

Mary screamed until her throat was numb. Alice and Kevin dragged her back to the clearing. In front of the white house, an inferno blazed out of the trench. Hundreds of shirtless men and women gathered around the fire, each of them held a green book bound by Scotch Tape. A black cauldron boiled over the fire. The crowd parted, bowing at John as he, Alice, Kevin, and a sobbing Mary made their way to the cauldron.

The fire buzzed so loudly Mary could feel it screaming inside of her. She couldn’t think; she couldn’t breathe.

“Brothers and sisters,” John shouted.

Smiling, the crowd hummed.

“Tonight, we vote on Sister Mary, seeker of adventure and lover of the soil. Shall she forever join us here at The Campfire Project?”

“The fire commands it,” the crowd chanted in unison.

Mary made a final effort to break free, but Alice pushed her knees on Mary’s wrists as Kevin twisted her ankles until she felt them pop. Chanting a mysterious language from his green book, John scooped a ladle full of stew from the cauldron. Alice forced open Mary’s jaw; John plugged her nose and poured until she swallowed. The stew was a thick as tar. It burned Mary’s guts; frothing, she started to seize at the same frequency of the buzzing.

Then, her mind turned black, and her body went numb.

***

“John, we have to get the sheriff!” Lizzy cried.

She’d been crying ever since Allen had picked her up.

“Then call him! I know where she is, and I’m not leaving her with those pedophile freaks for another second,” Allen snapped.

A slither of moonlight crept through the forest’s dense canopy. One of Allen’s headlights was broken; the other dim light followed tire tracks up a quickly narrowing path. Allen pressed down harder on the gas. Thunder boomed, the wind howled, and it started to pour.

Lizzy dialed 911, but before she could hit “call,” a notification appeared on her phone.

“It’s Mary!”

Lizzy held her phone up for Allen to see. He took his eyes off the road as the car’s dim headlight flashed across a fallen tree. The high-velocity crash was fatal. Lizzy’s phone flew into the back seat; the Tik Tok continued to play as the car flipped through the air.

Mary was dancing topless around a giant campfire.

“And how do you feel about The Campfire Project?” asked an attractive, redheaded man.

“It’s changed my life,” Mary giggled. “I’m finally free.”

(Bio: Matthew Downing is a graduate student in Chicago. He lives with his partner, Caroline, and their puppy, Ripley. He has been published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, The Bangalore Review, and elsewhere.  His website can be found here.)

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