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…

Ted’s heart pounded as he watched his fiance let go of the ski lift with one hand, raise her knees despite over a hundred pounds of corpse clinging to her legs, and swing Buffy. How could he feel so terrified and so turned on at the same time?
With a wordless shriek, the zombie plummeted to the slopes before him, and his woman scrambled to the seat, embracing it like he wanted to embrace her.
"I’m okay," she called, her voice breathy but strong. "But you have to take the kids bungee jumping."
One minute she’s taking on a zombie midair, the next she’s talking kids–oh, how he loved that woman! It was like marrying a superhero–minus the tawdry costumes. In public, anyway.
As he decapitated her disarmed zombie, he made a mental note to use that line sometime with her.
"Ted! Behind you!" she called as a zombie whizzed past.
"We see it!" he reported. "So, Cap’, if I get ahead, do you think you can herd it my way?"
"Head for the bottom of the jump," the captain said. They lowered their faceplates. As they started downhill, he explained. "That’s Crown Spillanger. I used to follow his career. He loved jumps and never backs down from a challenge. He’ll take the ramp to the picnic table. That’ll slow him."
"Awesome! How hard is it to land on a picnic table?" As they neared the corpse of Spillanger, Ted whooped and waved to get its attention.
"You nuts? I’ll choke on the ramp, back off, and let it get all the glory–then you take it out. I’ll follow."
"Just make sure you choke, then. I’ll have sword out and ready. I’ll probably take it out at the legs first. Don’t want to knee-capitate you instead."
Before Lars could reply, Ted put on some speed to get to the table first.
"Be ready–this thing’s fast!" Lars called as Ted twisted to a backside stop beside the table and pulled out his sword. He freed one foot from the board to steady himself. His heart pounded with the adrenalin rush. He wished Neeta were on the other side of the bench to share this moment with him. "Bring it boys! Wooo!"
"On the ramp now. I–What the–!" He gave a cry of surprise.
Ted heard a crash and looked up.
Zombie and captain were flying toward him.
He switched off the sword just as they crashed into him. One of the boards splintered itself on his helmet. They tumbled down the hill, both men flailing in an effort to knock the zombie off them but only succeeding in smacking each other. He thought he heard Neeta shout. Pain lanced through his pinkie finger.
They slid, partway down the hill before a mogul halted their progress. The captain rolled away, choking and cussing. The zombie lay broken beside Ted, but when it saw him, it crawled forward, groaning, "Shaaaame!"
Ted activated the sword and took off the top half of his head. It gave a last strangled gasp and fell still.
Ted flopped his head back on the snow and took inventory. Legs twisted, but okay. His head rung. Bruised rib, maybe broken–and wow, his hand…
He raised his arm and saw the pinkie of his ski glove covered in blood.
"Shit!" He sat up, ignoring the vertigo, and wiped the glove off in the clean snow away from the zombie. He winced. It felt broken. It looked like the tip had been torn off.
Or bitten.
He didn’t bother to think. Thinking would mean hesitation, and if he hesitated, he’d lose his nerve, and maybe his life–and he had way too much to live for. He set his hand on the cold snow, pinkie extended and the others curled, and activated his sword
The electrified blade slashed through his finger. He screamed.
When Neeta got to the scene, the captain was dragging Ted away from the zombie spoor. She couldn’t see Ted’s face, but his strangled gasps and the way he kept a death grip on his hand made her heart catch in her throat. "Ted?"
"I got the corpsicle," he managed to choke out. "No worries!"
The captain looked up. "Fill your helmet with snow, now!"
She kicked free of her board, ignoring it as it slid downhill, and yanked off her helmet, filling it with the freshest snow she could find. She ran to where he had set Ted against a tree and was pulling off Ted’s helmet. Ted snatched her helmet and shoved his hand into the snow before she could see the damage. She crouched beside him and stroked back his sweaty hair. She’d never seen his face so pale. It almost matched the snow. "What happened?"
Ted’s smile was mostly grimace. "I gave the zombie the finger."
"What?" She spun to the remains of the creature and saw among some melted and re-freezing snow a bloody, glove-covered finger. "Ted!" She rose to retrieve it, but he lashed out and grabbed her arm.
"Leave it." He gasped. "Might have been bit. Could have been a board. My sword. Figured, better safe. Oh, if I die, don’t put that on my tombstone!"
"You’re not going to die!" Nonetheless, she started running through the signs of zombieism as she set her hand on his forehead. She hoped he’d think she was being reassuring rather than checking for fever.
He forced a strained laugh. "Everybody dies, babe. How about ‘Safe was sorry’?"
"How about dying after you tell this story to our grandkids?" Cool forehead. Probably shock setting in. He must have used his sword to cut off his own finger. It would have cauterized the wound. At least he wouldn’t bleed to death. She blinked back tears as she pulled off her jacket to wrap him up. She didn’t care if that got contaminated. She’d add it to Brown’s account.
"Then I need a fuzing nickname. Grandpa Nine Fingers?" His eyelids drooped.
She had to keep him talking. "How about ‘Pinky’?"
"Pinky? You’re killing me, babe."
He managed a snort.
They traded nicknames and lame one-liners for his tombstone as the ski patrol strapped him into a sled and sped him to a waiting ambulance.
Two nurses and the emergency room doctor met the ambulance at the door. They hustled him through the emergency room doors, the doctor calling out for a second IV bag and checking the dressings while the nurses made sure he was securely strapped down.
"We have a room ready," the doctor said. "Mr. Hacker, can you hear me? Are you in pain? Would you like more morphine?"
Ted gave the doctor a dopey smile. "Morphine good! Hey, will I be able to play the piano?"
Neeta hustled along with the rest, her hand on Ted’s leg so he’d know she was with him. No one objected as she followed them into the tiny, bare room. Sheriff Rourke waited at the door with Deputy Benjy.
Rourke followed her in. "Neeta."
She gave Ted a reassuring smile before following Rourke to a corner of the room.
He jerked his head toward Ted, who was telling the nurse taking his blood that he didn’t know how to play the piano. "I’m so sorry about this," Rourke said.
Neeta swallowed hard and tensed against the desire to tremble. "Risks of the job. We still don’t know if he was bitten or just injured. He didn’t wait to find out–and even if he has been bit, his fast action might have saved him. Kind of like cutting off a finger to prevent a snake bite poison–except zombie contagion moves more slowly."
"If it doesn’t work, though… Can you?"
An eerie calm settled over her. She met his eyes. "Yes. I’m an exterminator. Part of the job."
He nodded, one professional to another. "’Kay, then. Benjy will be outside, though. Just in case."
Again, he gave her a nod and left.
The nurse had set Ted up with a second IV drip to start when the first one finished, and hooked him up to an EKG. Other than that, the room held nothing but a chair. Ted snored in morphine-induced slumber, a raucous accompaniment to the steady beep of the EKG.
The nurse took a blood sample from Neeta, too, just in case, while the doctor pointed to the EKG and told her, "That way, you’ll have some warning if he expires when your attention’s elsewhere. You look chilled. I’ll have an orderly bring you something warm from the cafeteria."
The doctor hurried to follow the nurses out. Neeta grabbed his arm and spun him back to face her.
"Wait a minute! That’s it? What about his hand?"
"His hand? He may have been bitten by a zombie, and you’re worried about his hand?" The doctor looked at her as if she were daft. He’d already written her man off as a shambler in waiting!
He pulled toward the door as he spoke. She tightened her grip on his arm to hold him still. He might outweigh her by a hundred pounds, but years on her job made had given her muscles of steel while his more resembled jelly.
"Or he may not have been bit. We don’t know. You’re not even going to clean the wound? What about cell stimulation? You’re just going to leave him like that? He’s not even in a real hospital bed!"
The doctor gritted his teeth, then spoke in clipped tones. "Look, he’s a potential bite victim. You, of all people, should know how this works. Under the zombie rider of the Better Health Care for All Americans Act, in case of suspected bites, hospitals must first ensure the safety of staff by isolating the victim and keeping him under guard. As for care, we’re required to provide only basic comfort until a blood screening removes any doubt of infection. He’s comfortable, he has access to plenty of morphine, and he won’t die from the injury, so unless you have additional insurance than the Government Standard that his card indicates?"
Neeta released his arm before she squeezed bruises into it. "When will the blood test come back?"
"Tomorrow morning."
"The mail has gone out, and we don’t have the authorized funds for something like this. If he’s infected, a few more hours won’t mean anything."
"And if he’s not, what will that mean for his hand?"
Just as he started to edge toward the door while blustering again about priorities and regulations tying his hands, a gentle knock sounded on the door. Mandy Brown poked her head in.
Neeta gaped. "What do you want?"
Many smiled at the doctor. "May I come in, Carlton? It’s just, I thought Neeta might want some family to comfort her in this time…"
Carlton brightened at the change of subject. "I didn’t realize."
"Half-sisters, actually, and it was kind of a surprise," Mandy kept her simpering smile trained on the doctor, ignoring Neeta’s glower. "How are Vicki and the kids?"
Carlton turned his back on Neeta and stepped toward Mandy, his need to leave suddenly forgotten."Fine, fine. And Tim?"
She lowered her head, tsking. "So stressed about the resort and the contest. I mean, what horrid luck that zombies should arise now."
"You should have dug those skiers up last year," Neeta cut in. "Why don’t you continue your chat outside?" She gripped her sword, wishing it were her chainsaw. It was so much more satisfying to threaten people with a chainsaw.
Mandy spoke over her. "You know what would really cheer Tim up? A chance to fly his helicopter. He adores that thing. He brought me down from Ute2, but you know how short a trip that is. Now, I couldn’t help but overhear, and I know it’s a bit irregular, but what if he were to fly those blood samples to the CDC in Salt Lake? Free of charge, of course. Neeta is family, and it would settle Tim’s nerves so."
What? Neeta slumped while the doctor shifted his weight from one foot to another and made squeaky sounds. Over his shoulder, Mandy gave Neeta a quick wink.
"He’ll have to take an orderly," he said at last.
"Of course. I’ll stay with Neeta, if that’s all right."
The doctor gave her an alarmed look. "But the zombie!"
"Potential!" Neeta snarled.
Mandy held up placating hands. "Neeta is the consummate professional. I’m completely confident in her. So you’ll make the arrangements? Oh, God bless you, Carlton, God bless you!" She slipped her arm though his and led him the couple of steps to the door. She even gave him a little wave before shutting the door and leaning against it. She raised her eyes to the ceiling, though Neeta couldn’t tell if she was expressing exasperation or seeking strength from a Higher Power.
"Phew! You’ll have to forgive Carlton. He’s one of my flock. He lost his private practice for providing ‘unwarranted and unauthorized care’ to an elderly patient; the hospital hired him for the emergency room, but they’ve made it clear he’s not to cross the line. He’s really a very good surgeon. It won’t take half an hour to get that blood work to Salt Lake. We’ll find out in a couple of hours. Oh, Neeta!"
The shakes Neeta had been fighting since seeing Ted lying in the snow–since the zombie attacked her on the lift–finally asserted themselves. Mandy threw her arms around Neeta, supporting her as she led her to the chair by Ted’s gurney. She settled her there and placed one of Neeta’s hands on Ted’s shoulder. "Now, you just sit. I’m going to get us some hot coffee–do you like it with cream? Black? All right. I’ll get us some coffee, and we’ll wait together. You don’t even need to talk to me."
"I…" Neeta swallowed the lump in her throat. "Thank you."
"Not at all. It’s the least I could do after making such a botch of our meeting. I always imagined what it would be like to meet as sisters–but never did I imagine you didn’t know… Oh, that’s not important now! Coffee. I’ll be right back."
Neeta watched her go, feeling cold and numb. What had just happened? Snarky Mandy Culvert being nice? Maybe she was a parson, after all.
Ted stirred, and she rose and stepped back, just in case. His eyes fluttered open–normal, clear, the eyes she loved to gaze into. She felt a hot tear escape and rubbed her cheek fast before he noticed. "The piano joke, really?"
"Blame the morphine," he whispered. He pulled weakly at the restraints holding his wrists.
She set her hand over his good one. "Just until the blood tests get back."
He nodded, and then seemed to go away for a minute. She caressed his hand and waited. He was getting his color back. Although not definite, it was a good sign.
"Is this a bad time to say you look good enough to eat?" he asked.
Tears blurred her vision. She blinked them away. "That’s not funny!"
"Was in San Francisco."
"That’s when we thought I was infected."* She sniffled. Now, she had a glimmer of how he must have felt as they’d waited for her blood work to come back that day. Of course, she’d been conscious, and he’d put all his energy into distracting her with lame jokes.
Just like now. "Ah, double standard then. You know, if this were a movie, we’d have to have a romantic, bittersweet wedding right here and now."
Despite herself, she laughed. "How about the song? Parson Brown will be back with coffee in a couple of minutes. She can do the job."
"Honeymoon could be a problem." He pulled at the straps, directing her attention to them. "Unless you’re into this sort of thing."
She sniffled again and scrubbed her eyes. "I don’t know about the honeymoon, but there’s a certain appeal to you not being able to get into trouble."
His eyelids began to droop. She kissed his head. "Get some sleep. It’ll be okay."
"You don’t know that." His voice was as serious as she’d ever heard.
She answered with all her steel. "I refuse to believe otherwise."
"Neeta, if it isn’t… If I… Can you?"
She pulled out her sword so he could see it. He smiled.
"Good. I want it to be someone I trust."
He sighed and gave himself to sleep while Neeta gave herself to a few tears before her half-sister returned.
*In I Left My Brains in San Francisco, they had a scare when they thought Neeta might have gotten infected while battling zombies on the beach, wearing a raincoat and old sweats as her only protection against the undead. This is why she checked her van–twice–to be sure it was fully packed. When it comes to her HazMat suit, she won’t leave home without it.
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."