Shambling in a Winter Wonderland is a serial adventure story from Karina Fabian, one of Liberty Island’s favorite authors. The story features her badass character Neeta Lyffe, whose earlier adventures can be found in novels Neeta Lyffe, Zombie Exterminator and I Left My Brains in San Francisco. Shambling follows Neeta and her fiance as they take what is supposed to be a vacation to a Utah ski resort, but zombies, a blizzard, and a startling revelation about Neeta’s past all converge to make this trip anything but relaxing…
Olivia Darnell eased her snowmobile to a gentle stop several yards from the snow pit. Rebar held up a line of blue barrier tape. A few yards over, skis and snowboards jammed straight up in the snow marked the memorial for the ski/snowboard team that had died there in last year’s avalanche. Someone must have returned early in the season to fix up the shrine, but the forlorn wind-damaged decorations indicated it had been months since anyone had come to pay their respects. Just as well. The gray sky warned of the impending storm, but at least there wasn’t any wind yet. The snow on the ground was pristine save for the occasional animal track. She resisted the temptation to throw herself flat and make a snow angel.
Her partner Mason Whitaker was taking measurements of the different layers of snow with a laser imager. Once he set the instrument aside, she cleared her throat. "Time to pack up. Weather service says there’s a storm coming."
Mason chuckled without humor. "This the same weather service that sent us here to see if last year’s avalanche was caused by Global Fattening*?"
Olivia crossed her arms and stepped back from the edge. She didn’t trust the stability of the snow despite Mason’s assurances. The rebar should have been installed further from the edge, but the Weather Service insisted they use only the roll of barrier tape it provided, and the congressionally mandated amount for this type of research wouldn’t make a bigger circle. She tried to explain, but the Weather Service guy accused her of being "pro-plastics" and of wanting to waste taxpayer dollars. The thought still made her angry, especially since she couldn’t tell which he thought was the worse insult.
She shrugged. "Hey, they’re paying the university."
"Well, I hope they’re okay paying for my answer. There’s your avalanche." He pointed to a narrow horizontal band of roughly packed snow slicing through the smoother layers. "Weakened layer destabilized by last year’s heavy snowfall. As for inciting factor, my money is on the Slay Bells."
"Sleigh bells?"
"Yeah, that ski/snowboarding team that disappeared last year? They came up here despite the warning markers; I’m betting they made too much noise at the wrong time and fwoom! No survivors."
Olivia shivered and scanned the barren mountainside again. It suddenly looked a lot less inviting. "They never did recover the bodies, did they?"
"Of course not. Why do you think I brought these with me?" He hefted out a Smith and Wesson "Unnatural Selection" Compensated Hunter pistol with laser scope from the blanket beside him. An equally impressive rifle lay waiting, along with some of the biggest bullets she’d ever seen.
She tsked and shook her head, but the weapons reassured her. "I should have known! You and your firepower. You read too many of those zombie hunter books. Utah’s clear–only a dozen sightings in what, the last decade?"
"It’s Monster Hunters International. Besides, this is just a precaution. Trust me, I’d rather leave zombie hunting to the professionals, like my cousin Brook."
"I think they call it ‘extermination.’ Anyway, let’s get out of here. Monsters, zombies, or whatever, there’s still a storm on the way. You can’t shoot that."
Mason scanned gray sky on the horizon with the laser scope. "So much for the warm winter. Good conditions for the ski and snowboard contest, anyway."
He handed up his rifle, then the equipment. Olivia carefully gave him a hand as he pulled himself out of the pit. He paused. "What was that?"
Olivia listened, but all she heard was a distant shuffling. "Probably some animal preparing a shelter. Let’s just get out of here." She slung his rifle over her shoulder, grabbed up the blanket and started off to the snowmobile before he could protest. After a moment, she heard the snow crunch under his boots as he followed.
As their snowmobiles roared down the mountain, the snow on the uphill side of Mason’s pit began to darken, and then crumble. Just below the avalanche strata, a gloved hand clawed its way out.
There were many times when Neeta felt snarky about Ted driving her van. Today was not one of them.
"Are you sure we don’t need chains?" Despite its width, the snow-covered two-lane highway twisted and curved as it rose. Steep mountains rose to the left and sharp drops plummeted on the right. The clouds threatened snow, cut visibility, and made the evergreens look dark and bleak. She shivered despite the efficiency of her car’s heater.
Ted reached over to squeeze her knee. "Take it easy, babe. We’ve got plenty of traction. Chains are for ice. This is nothing. I can’t believe you haven’t seen snow before, with all the traveling you did with your mom."
She resisted the urge to lean forward to see the road over the hood of her HumVan. He was right. She could hear the slush being kicked up by the tires. They’d just replaced them a couple of months ago–running over zombies and the subsequent decontamination played merry havoc with the rubber. The bumper, too–she’d only had the car two years and was on her third front bumper. Spud had suggested she succumb to the inevitable and attach a cowcatcher. The idea tempted her.
Mind off work, Neeta, and relax. We’re on vacation. She turned her attention back to the conversation. "We did, but Mom was on business. We flew into the closest airport, got driven to whatever exterminator conference or zombie regulations rally she was speaking at, and then we went home. I stopped going when I got to high school, anyway."
He gave her knee one last squeeze before returning his hand to the steering wheel. "Your mom was all about work."
"Well, the zombie syndrome was just becoming known–and there was so much misinformation then. Someone had to spread the message that zombies are pests, not people, and that they needed to be exterminated."
Ted lifted his fingers off the wheel in a shrug without actually letting go. "Oh, I know it was important work, but she could have taken an extra day or two with you to see the sights. I mean, who goes to London without seeing Big Ben? Or to DC without spending a day at the Smithsonian?"
"Or Utah without skiing?"
"Don’t forget the Salt Lake. I’m not into the Great Salt Lake, although when we have kids, we have to go. My cousin Jordan took us when I was a kid, and we stuck our T-shirts in the lake and then let them dry standing up. It was awesome. They crackled and everything. But the point is, you Lyffe women are too much about work. That’s gonna change now that you’re the future Mrs. Lyffe-Hacker."
"I love that thought." Warmed now by something better than the car heater, she inhaled deeply and did a yoga stretch to release the tension in her shoulders.
"Me, too. This vacation is going to be great. Plus, it’ll be nice to do something non-extermination related. Who’d have thought you’d get a public appearance in Utah?"
"HumVans of Park City requested us–me–so for once, it’s all about the car." Some days, she regretted the deal she’d made with HumVans to advertise its vehicles in exchange for one outfitted for her zombie extermination business. She felt like she’d sold out somehow. However, she did enjoy the perks.
Ahead of them, an electric sports car strained to keep speed on the steep grade. The GovMo Poise’s red paint job and white racing stripe boasted power it obviously did not have. The van was gaining on it. "Uh, Ted?"
Ted had warmed to his topic. "That’s just awesome–and even better, when you’re posing in front of the van at the HotDogger competition, you can talk about that instead of you-know-what’s." Her partner and fiance said the last in a hushed voice. They’d agreed before they left that mentioning zombies might curse the trip, and that they would avoid the topic at all costs. "Plus, with HumVans footing the bill, we’ll have plenty of time and money for snowboarding. I can’t wait to get my gnarl on!"
As usual, when Ted got excited, his foot got heavy on the accelerator. "Slow down."
He turned to grin at her. "Oh, come on, how hard can it be? Hey, maybe I’ll enter the contest, show them what a California surfer can do on their snow–"
"Poser," she warned.
"What? Don’t you think I can?"
"No, Poser!" Neeta pointed at the car in front of them. The oversized back end, patterned after the muscle cars of the twenty-teens, grew bigger as they gained. The license plate proudly declared "PR0GRES."
"Whoops!" Ted swerved into the other lane, hit the gas and swung back as an oncoming car flashed its brights, earning him angry honks from both the other drivers.
"Poser!" Ted shouted at the car receding in the rear-view mirror, adding a few swear words for good measure. "Leave it to Government Motors*** to make a sports car with a wimpy engine. I don’t care how fuel efficient it is. It’s just missing the point!"
Neeta rested her head in her hands.
Ted spoke softly. "Sorry, babe. I’ll keep my eyes on the road and my head off the slopes until we get there."
She willed her heart to stop pounding. "I’d like us to live long enough to have children."
"Gotcha, boss. We have to think about the children! Eyes on the road, no taking out Posers…no jumping bridges?" His voice took a teasing tone.
"Definitely no bridges. Jumping this van over the San Francisco Bay was bad enough." If they hadn’t been rushing to help against a major zombie infestation, she’d have killed Ted.
"Only a hundred and two feet of it. Besides, traffic on the working bridge was backed up. I had to take the Broken Bay Bridge."****
She glared at him from the corner of her eye. He didn’t acknowledge her look, but kept his eyes forward and his face composed in innocent concentration until she couldn’t take it any longer and snickered. He did make the job fun, even if she did want to strangle him for his antics sometimes.
"No jumps. If you have to be reckless, just do it because we’re going after undead, okay?"
"Sh!" he hissed. "Don’t mention the you-know-whats. You’ll jinx it. This is a vacation. You, me, a couple of boards…"
"We do that in LA."
"Snuggling with hot cocoa before a warm fire in the fireplace?"
He smiled at her, his brows raised, and she got the jelly-legs feeling only he ever gave her. She savored it for a moment before chiding with a smile, "Eyes on the road."
"You got it, Boss. Hey, look. It’s starting to snow."
Neeta turned her attention to the window, where large, fluffy flakes drifted down, and the world suddenly seemed peaceful and lovely.
Meanwhile, miles away from the road, but not far from where Mason and Olivia had dug their pit in the name of research, a woman screamed.
*In 2013, a joint Australian-German research team led by Curtin University’s Dr. Christian Hirt created the highest-resolution maps of Earth’s gravity field to date–showing gravitational variations up to 40 percent larger than previously assumed. The study was heralded in the press as mildly interesting before returning to the real crisis of Global Warming. As Global Warming led to Climate Change led to Global Cooling, a new angle for blaming the weather on mankind was needed. The old study was dusted off, new satellites commissioned, and the theory of Global Fattening was born, fed by the Hank Johnson Institute for Global Science and Weight Management.** Trending Science has this to say about Global Fattening: At last, a comprehensive tie between runaway overpopulation and the environment. It’s more nefarious than we thought. Never mind drought, crop failure and poverty. We have caused the Earth to change its gravitational integrity!

**Hank Johnson (D) was a senator who in a congressional hearing about expanding the military base on Guam protested because the influx of people might make the island tip over.
*** After the second government bailout of an auto industry, Congress passed the "You Break It, We Buy It" Act. From then on, rather than subsidizing dying companies, it simply bought them outright and ran them itself. This move was heralded in the press as the next logical step in compassionate support of American capitalism.
Government Motors was the first success story; after 20 years, it has come out with its own line of cars: the economy Compact Refund; the luxury SUV Entitlement, and the muscular car Poise. It’s working on a truck, the Crapmaster, which runs on manure-based fuels. Check out the commercial here.
****In I Left My Brains in San Francisco, Ted avoided a traffic jam by taking a shortcut over the Broken Bay Bridge, an incomplete project that had been abandoned and used for jumping competitions. Here’s what it says about the bridge in I Left My Brains in San Francisco:
"The Broken Bridge was started in 2037, a joint cooperative between the State of California and the Cities of San Francisco and Richmond. Federal highway monies were allocated to the state, which in turn divided it between the cities. Each city hired its own contractor to complete its half of the bridge. Part of the Commission of Highway Expenditures And Programs Initiative, the plan would have saved the governments hundreds of thousands of dollars, except that fifteen months into construction, it was discovered that the two halves of the bridge would not meet, but in fact miss each other at a height difference of over sixty feet. Two months later, an agreement was reached with the Roadbuilder’s Union to halt construction with only one hundred and two feet of linear distance left to connect the two halves.
"Currently, the Supreme Court is trying to unravel the myriad of suits and counter-suits as both cities, the state, the companies, and the Roadbuilder’s Union, plus the Association for the Prevention of Stupid Government Spending, sue each other over the errors. In the meantime, the bridge has become an important cultural and events center, with the cities of Richmond and San Francisco renting out their respective halves of the bridge in order to recoup some of their financial losses and legal fees.
"Designed to withstand even a 9.8 earthquake, the Broken Bridge would have been a marvel of engineering, had it been completed. It is visible to east-bound traffic on I-80, as well as accessible for westbound traffic in San Francisco. We hope you will return later to admire this testimony to the Ingenuity of Man."
Thanks for reading Shambling in a Winter Wonderland! If you enjoyed this, you may want to check out Liberty Island’s other Fabian zombie story, "Josie’s Last Straw."