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…

Read previous episodes: Episode One, Episode Two, Episode Three.

Ted planted the back of his snowboard into the snow and regarded the bunny slope with a sour face.
"I am so done with shredding with toddlers."
Neeta smacked his arm with the back of her gloved hand. "Don’t be like that. Look!" She placed a finger under his chin, directing him toward the horizon.
Last night’s storm had coated the area in pristine white, unbroken save for the ski tracks. The evergreens drooped under their snowy burdens, the green of the boughs rich in contrast with the white. Even the bare brown branches of scrubby bushes had a certain charm under the pillows of snow. Farther into the distance, the greens transformed to a blue-gray, and the mountains cut a stark outline against the clear blue of the sky.
"I didn’t think anything could be as beautiful as the ocean," Neeta said.
"Oh, I can think of something."
Neeta met Ted’s blue eyes, blushed, and leaned into him. He put his arm around her. She loved that he said that kind of stuff now, loved hearing it more than she had any other time in her life. Funny how much getting engaged had changed them.
"Bet I know where the view’s even better…" he sing-songed.
He twisted so that they both looked behind them, up the hill. The very steep hill. Neeta’s heart jumped just thinking about it.
"I’m not ready for that. We’ve only had the one beginner lesson."
"Right–so you know the basics. The rest is just practice, and we should do it on a more challenging slope. The sun’s almost overhead; the lighting will change if we wait. Come on, look at that kid–he’s what, six, maybe eight, and he’s doing fine."
The boy in a red-and-green snowsuit and helmet headed toward them, tracing a gentle serpentine trail in the snow. Arms at his side and relaxed, he did make it look easy–and fun.
"All right!" Neeta laughed. "Let’s go before I change my mind."
They snatched up their boards and headed to the lift. Ted paused at the glass-encased map attached to a pole. He traced a green line.
"See? If we keep to our left, we can take ‘Cupcake.’ How hard can Cupcake be?"
"Fine. I guess I can handle Cupcake."
On the lift, however, Neeta felt her doubts resurface.
"Future Mrs. Lyffe-Hacker, you’re not afraid of heights, are you?" Ted asked after she’d puffed out a huge breath for the second time, hoping he wouldn’t notice. He draped his arm across the back of the seat and caressed her shoulder.
"No. Maybe, a little. Hope my knee is up to all this." It twinged, bringing the memory of hanging off a catwalk, her ligaments torn, contemplating a fifteen foot drop onto hard cement and a horde of radical environmentalist zombies. She scooted a little deeper into the seat.
Ted hugged her closer. "Doc said your knee is good as new. Is that really it? You had another nightmare last night, didn’t you?"
She looked toward a hotdogger taking a mogul-riddled slope in tight, energetic turns, but her mind had returned to the nightmare: bleachers full of avid skiing fans who were all shouting, "Murderer!" Bergie’s severed head inside that trophy, asking her "Why?" She’d rather fall fifteen feet into zombies than face that.
"You know, I talk about it enough to Dr. Rose," she snapped at Ted.
Ted took his arm from around her. "Okay, Boss. But I’m here if you want a different perspective. For now, maybe we should put our minds to getting off the lift?"
They winced as the seat ahead of them booted a skier dismounting too slowly, sending him tumbling.
With one foot strapped to their snowboards and one free, they managed to exit the lift and get to the staging area without incident. Neeta made sure her board was perpendicular to the slope, then set her foot in the other straps.
"Hey, babe. Think we should apply a little surfer tradition and bow to the mountain?"
"I’m not sure that’s a good idea." Neeta straightened just as Ted yelped in surprise, and she saw him speeding backward, to the right, on a blue marked slope called "Slippery Lip."
"Ted!" Without thinking, she twisted to see him better, and then she was sliding down Slippery Lip herself.
The cold wind bit at her face, making her regret pulling off the ski mask. Her feet, still used to working a surfboard, twitched inside the boots. She shifted her weight and teetered. With a jerk, she caught her balance, overcompensated, and caught it again.
Ted meanwhile, whooped and hollered as he sped down the mountain, bouncing over moguls, barely missing other skiers, and managing to conquer the slope without knowing what he was doing.
Some days, she hated the charmed life he led.
She blew air out of puffed cheeks and forced her mind to the lesson: neutral stance, feet under body, small movements. She resisted the urge to press the edge of her board against the snow, despite the fact that trees, bumps, and other skiers flashed past her. She would catch up with Ted. Still, she kept her center of mass on the board as she turned; no way would she match Ted’s dynamic and showy turns. If she didn’t know he hardly had any idea what he was doing, she’d have accused him of showing off.
Actually, no–he was showing off. She just hoped he didn’t kill himself in the process.
"Ted! Ramp!" She pointed toward the snowy incline on his path. In her inattention, she hit a mogul that bumped her into the air. She squealed as the board landed, jarring her knees.
He gave her a thumbs up.
"No! Ted!"
Too late. With a skid that sent snow spraying, he angled himself up the ramp. He hit it fast, soared… He grabbed his board…spun…
…lost his center of gravity…
…and landed on his back with a thud she could hear.
Neeta dug the edge of her board into the snow as she got to him, causing her to topple over beside him. Snow got under her collar and sent cold spikes down her back, but that was nothing compared to chill of seeing her fiance groaning on the ground, arms splayed, the edge of the board partly dug into the snow. She sat up and tried to scoot herself closer. "Ted, babe, are you okay?"
He twisted his head toward her, grinning. "Okay, so no bowing to the mountain–but you have got to try that ramp! I felt like a snowbird." He spread his arms and made cooing sounds.
"You!" She grabbed a handful of snow and hurled it at him. "Seriously, are you all right?"
"Sure." He grunted as he lifted his legs, freeing the board, and sat up. "A little winded, but I know how to take a fall. I was a stuntman for three years, you know."
"Thought that was cars."
"I wasn’t that good with cars."
"What? But my van! The Broken Bay Bridge!"
He kept talking as if putting their lives in danger in a stunt jump last summer had been an audition. "I know, right? I usually don’t do that well with cars, but falls! Love a good tumble." He set his gloved hand on hers. "As for you, future Mrs. Lyffe-Hacker, not bad for your first day on the slopes."
He jerked his head up the mountain. She gasped as she looked up the slope that seemed more a steep bumpy incline with no discernible easy path. She gulped. "I’m so glad I was not thinking about that on the way down."
Ted worked at his strap to free one foot and stood. "Yeah, well, don’t think too hard the rest of the way down, then, and you’ll be awesome."
Neeta glanced down a hill just as a snowboarder collided with a skier, sending poles flying. "Great." She plastered a smile on her face and held out her hand for Ted to pull her up.
He accepted her hand, but not her facade. "You know, for someone who owns her own chainsaw workout gear and is so awesome on the waves, you’re awfully shy about trying a new sport."
"I grew up exterminating. Mom taught me to defend myself against you-know-whats when I was seven. But I had to beg for surfing lessons."
"Well, our kids won’t have to beg. I’m all about new things. You going to be okay with that?"
She suddenly had a vision of him taking their 16-year-old son to some test track for a driving lesson. It’s just a little ramp, babe… The mad glee on their boy’s face would match his father’s. "Actually, that’s one of the things I love about you, future Mr. Lyffe-Hacker. Besides, we have to think of the children."
He grinned. "So, down to the lift and try Cupcake this time?"
He was so cute, with mischief sparking in his eyes and his snow-damp hair sticking out at all angles from his helmet–and her back was freezing from the snow that had gotten under her coat. "How about back to my room for hot cocoa and a fire, then we take an advanced lesson?"
His grin widened, making her heart skip. Just then, a skier in the red parka of the ski patrol stopped beside them. "You guys really shouldn’t stop below the ramp," he chided. "Hey, wait a minute–are you Neeta Lyffe and Ted Hacker, the zombie exterminators?"
"Does that get us out of trouble?" Ted quipped, but the man had pulled out his walkie-talkie.
"This is Mark on Slippery Lip. I found them. We’ll be there in ten." He stuck the walkie-talkie back into his fanny pack, waved someone to go around the jump, and grasped his pole. He dug the tips into the ground a couple of times, twisting the baskets into the snow, a nervous gesture to Neeta’s eyes. "We’ve been looking for you for an hour. Would you follow me, please? There are some folks in the lodge that need to see you."
She couldn’t fake the same confidence for Mark as she had for Ted. "I’d like to follow, but I’m not sure how well I’ll follow. This is our first day. We hit this slope by accident.""You’ve done the worst of it. Just take it easy and slow and you’ll do fine. If we get separated, we’ll meet at the green doors." He pushed off then, but skied in slow, easy curves.
"Come on! Bet there’s a camera crew wanting to interview you!" With a whoop, Ted leaned in and sped down the hill.
From the worried look on the ski patrolman’s face, however, Neeta had her doubts that anything good waited inside the green doors.
Mark led Neeta and Ted in silence to the manager’s office on the third floor of the lodge. The small paneled room had just enough space for some shelves, a desk, a couple of file cabinets, and two chairs. With the manager, the sheriff, and a large, unkempt man who could not hold still, there was hardly enough room for Neeta and Ted to squeeze in. Mark accepted the manager’s thanks and left, closing the door behind him.
The manager reached across the table to shake their hands. "Burton Witherspoon. This is Sheriff Rourke Buttuns and Gunther Zwelleger. A pleasure to meet you–or it would be, under different circumstances." He offered her a chair, causing the large man to huff impatiently. That was enough to tell Neeta what the manager hadn’t gotten the nerve to say. She bit back a sigh and waved off the chair. So much for vacation.
"Where did you see them–and how many zombies are we dealing with?"
The sheriff set his LawDroid on the desk and pulled up a map of the area. "At least two, maybe as many as eight. We’re not sure. We have positive identification on a severed arm, and some fresh blood and flesh–sorry, Gunther–here." He circled an area a couple of miles uphill from the ski resort. "We’re still running DNA tests, but the arm most likely belonged to a Flip Johnson, a snowboarder who died in an avalanche last year. The blood…well, we’re not sure…"
The large man pushed between them. "Look, my daughter is out there. You guys are the experts at this! We need to get you out there, chopping these things down and finding her! Now let’s go!"
"Gunther, calm down," the sheriff said, but Gunther didn’t listen. Neeta got the feeling the sheriff had had to say those words more than once to the distraught father.
"What do you need? Just tell me what you need and let’s get out there!"
"Easy!" Neeta set her hand on his bicep. "Easy. First, we need some information–that way we don’t just charge around blindly, okay? Zombies are essentially mindless, but they always have some residual thought processes that can help us predict what they might do. Anything you can tell us about their personalities or habits in life will help us predict their possible actions in death."
"We have all our equipment in the van," Ted added as he studied the map, "but I don’t see any roads."
"Nah, it’ll be snowmobiles," the sheriff replied.
"Okay, so we need backpacks and some way to carry our boards. Neeta, you get the intel while Gunther and I prep?"
She nodded, schooling her face into professional neutrality. She loved how Ted jumped in to give Gunther something constructive to focus on other than his daughter. Ted could be so good with people!
"Grab me a dry shirt." The snow had melted under her jacket, and she was damp and distinctly uncomfortable. When the door closed, she turned back to the map. "What are the chances his daughter’s been bitten?"
"We found her coat near the scene, but it was clean. She went missing last night. I was going to stay and look for her, but Gunther wouldn’t leave to get help, so we came together. We were just here to commandeer some gas for the snowmobiles and ask around on the off-chance she might have come here last night, when Burt told us you were here. I’ve got a couple of deputies en route and SLC Z-Mat is on their way."
"There’s hope then, but if she’s bit, she’s dead by now. She’ll have to be re-killed. Gunther cannot be part of the search." She hated saying it, but she hated the thought of a father confronting his zombiefied daughter even worse. She knew the horror of killing someone she cared about. "You said eight possible?"
Sheriff Buttuns eyed the door, chewing on his mustache as if thinking about how he was going to keep the determined father from the search.
Burton answered. "Flip was part of a group of seven competitors, the Slay Bells. They were here for last year’s Ute2/Operation Homefront Hot Dogger competition and decided to do some extreme night skiing in a restricted area. There was an avalanche. We never found the bodies–until Gunter’s dog came home with Flip’s arm, anyway. Oh, man! Should we put Hambone to sleep?"
Neeta shook her head. "The pathogen doesn’t spread to animals–only humans. So possible six skiers, the girl and…a boyfriend?" It followed cliche.
The sheriff nodded. "Ethan Pike, 17. Busted a few times for petty theft, driving under the influence. My guess is that the blood is his. If he saw a zombie, he’d be too high to notice."
"The girl, too?" Neeta asked. The sheriff shrugged. "Okay, we might be able to draw them out with some smoke, loud music, a hibachi. In the meantime, send Gunther home to get his wife and any other family out of the house. Have someone guard the place, just in case. Someone armed for zombies. Most teen zombies head home–after that, boyfriend’s, best friend’s, or places they frequent often. Schools, sometimes. Get a list and have Gunther warn folks if you think he’s up to it. It’ll give him something constructive to do. Tell me about the skiers–local boys?"
The manager shook his head. "Flip’s from Salt Lake; Tom and Muchelle Spars, Colorado; Morton Bellringer, Montreal somewhere; and Crown Spillanger, Montana. Pender Byways was from Vegas, but spent most of the winter here. Flannelette Sewenge…no one really knows; she just rode the circuit, disappeared in summer, and marked her home as ‘Boardertown," B-O-A-R-D. They didn’t have a particular hangout or anything, just came together for the contest," Burton said.
"That means they’ll be heading for the slopes. How heavy is the snow up there? It might slow them down."
The sheriff sighed and crossed his arms. "They had skis."
"Zombies? On skis?" Ted’s squeal came loud and clear over her helmet as they followed the sheriff on snowmobiles up to the accident scene. "If it weren’t so dangerous, it’d be core awesome!"
"Apparently, there was some kind of shrine set up with skis and snowboards. This won’t be easy. They were already fearless and skilled. Now they’re mindless, fearless and skilled–and the only thing they have connection to the area is that ski contest." Neeta spoke through chattering teeth. "Are you sure you want to marry me? I’m cursed."
Even with all the layers she could pile on under her HazMat suit and her ski mask making her helmet uncomfortably tight, the cold air cut through her. Ahead, Sheriff Buttuns swerved to avoid a root that arched out of the snow, and she followed. She heard a thump, and guessed that Ted chose to jump the branch instead.
"Nah. You’re interesting. I love that. Come on. If it weren’t for your so-called curse, we wouldn’t be snowmobiling in restricted territory right now. How fuze is that? Just go with it. ‘Embrace the suck,’ as Gordon used to say."
Gordon had been a Marine. He’d been discharged for too much enthusiasm. "I’m not a Marine."
"Your mom was. Doesn’t any of that rub off?"
"Shrapnel shredded her arm. She was medically discharged before I was born."
"You need to get into the spirit of this. Sing with me: Oh, the zombies outside are frightful/but the napalm’s so delightful…"
"You’re insane! I’m marrying a crazy man." But she couldn’t keep the smile out of her voice. He did make the job fun.
"As long as you love me so…"
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."