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…

Neeta paused on the seat of her snowmobile and took a slow breath, trying unsuccessfully to clear her mind of guilt. What had she been thinking, calling Min right before an extermination? Uncle Jerry had died on the job, bitten by a zombie, then returned four months later to terrorize his family. Min had cried every time she knew Neeta’s mom was going after the undead–and now, she was probably crying again.
And praying. Min always prays. Neeta scanned the snow-laden forest, trying to see through the trees for any sign of a zombie, but all she saw were dark trunks, like sentinels, protecting anything that might be shambling within. I’m a city girl. Even in the parks, we try to flush them out. Maybe it was a good thing I called. I’ll need Min’s prayers.
"Ms. Lyffe?"
Neeta blinked away from her dark thoughts.
The SLC Z-Mat officer wore a thick HazMat suit with SCAM stenciled over the pocket. She had a rifle with a powerful targeting scope in her hand and a pistol holstered in the belt of her suit. Neeta hadn’t seen many guns in her life, but she was pretty sure most didn’t have a barrel that big. Did it work in close quarters, though?
The woman held out her hand.
"I’m Brooklyn Bridges–hence, the nickname." She motioned at the pocket. "Call me ‘Brook.’ It’s an honor to be working with you–and a little bit of a relief, to be frank. The only experience I’ve had with actual undead has been under controlled conditions–but we do train! Hard," she added hastily.
Neeta put on her most confident smile and shook the woman’s hand. "Nice to meet you, Brook. Did you train in the woods? Good, because I’m used to back alleys and warehouses. You do have more than just the guns, right?"
Brook released Neeta’s hand and turned hers over so Neeta could see the tubing and nozzle strapped to her wrist. "Antifreeze. We find it works just about as good as bleach. And in the pockets, I have some ski magazines, cans of Bottum’sUp Extreme, and a couple of joints, just in case we run into Ethan. And…" With some pride, she pulled out a large ax. "I know, I know, but my parents were big Walking Dead fans and as a woman in this line of work, I felt I needed something more–I don’t know–tough, I guess. Besides, I like the feel of it when I swing it around."
Neeta nodded, impressed. "I feel the same way about chainsaws. We’re going to get along just fine."
Brook returned her ax to its back sheath with a practiced motion, then pulled something else off her belt and strapped it to her wrist. "Motion detector and GPS. Limited range, but it should give us some warning. We’re here. " She pointed to two yellow blips, and traced her finger along the map. "And here is where you had to call off the search yesterday because of the storm. There’s another one on the way, incidentally. The wind gusts are giving the chopper a hard time. On the bright side, they had to shut down some of the upper lifts at the resort. Oh, and your partner said he’s getting a lot of awesome recordings of extreme zombie skiing."
"Fuze core." Neeta dismounted and loaded herself up with her own arsenal. Together, they headed into the woods.
Ted leaned slightly out over the helicopter and laughed. They’d attached a short cable to him to connect him to one side of the chopper so that he didn’t sway too much and get into the sharpshooter’s way. "I love my job! Turbulence is awesome."
Despite the thumping of the rotors, he heard someone mutter, "Maniac," over the headset before the sharpshooter spoke. "Well, I for one am glad it’s over. No way was I going to line up a headshot with all that bouncing around."
"If anyone can do this, it’s you," the pilot cut in. "Looks like luck favors us now, though. Wind’s dying down. We can make a couple of runs, get their attention, then go for the rekill–but you’ll need to be fast."
"Fast is my middle name." Nonetheless, he took his time hefting himself out of his seat and lying on the floor of the chopper. Tall as well as portly, he took up a lot of the floor. Ted scooted to give him some room. The others strapped him down as he got his rifle into position. Ted did not envy him; his feet were already getting numb from the cold and the vibration.
"Stay out of my line of fire," he warned Ted. "Even with nanotechnology assisting the targeting, this is not going to be easy. I need to get a good steady lock, and you need to be out of the way."
"Roger," Ted replied, his voice firm and serious as his mind turned to business.
As soon as they got close to the zombies, however, Ted whooped and hollered out, "Yeah! Show me what you’ve got!" as he panned the area with his camera. Again, he heard someone mutter, "Maniac," over the headset, and he laughed.
Below, the zombies responded as any publicity-hound extreme sportsman might. Two put on more speed; a third chose to do some showy dynamic turns that sprayed a cloud of powder that obscured it. One was using an ice-covered ravine as a half-pipe, and the one that had been carrying its board back up the hill jumped on and was speeding down before their shooter could get a target. He swore and called another target.
The boarding zombie with a missing arm took a natural ramp. If flipped in the air, its board describing a perfect circle around its still head. Suddenly, its skull exploded and it flopped awkwardly to the ground.
"Gotcha! Line me another!"
"Can you get lower and in front of them?" Ted asked the pilot. "Maybe they’ll stay still for a smile-and-wave."
The chopper swooped ahead of two skiers that had decided to show their skills by skiing together to trace a neat double-helix of tracks in the snow. As it lowered to a hover, the skiers made a synchronized stop and indeed raised their hands in a wave.
"Yeah, smile for the camera," the sharpshooter muttered.
Before he could fire, however, one of the zombies jerked and fell, its back bloody with shotgun holes. The other zombie shrieked and sped off as another gunshot kicked up snow in its wake.
"Double tap!" Ted yelled, but it was too late. The helicopter pilot had jerked the stick in surprise. By the time he got them righted, the wounded zombie had disappeared.
"Where are they?" Ted called to the others. "Maybe we can distract them."
"Too late!" One of the team on the other side pointed and Ted saw tracks that disappeared into the woods. A little farther down, he saw two snowmobiles.
Swearing the Korean profanities Neeta had taught him, he fumbled with his phone to call her.
Despite her earlier misgivings about the forest, instincts took over and Neeta made her stealthy way down the narrow trail. It was actually a little easier than tracking a zombie in a warehouse. Very few undead climbed trees–not that she thought the thin and winter-dry branches would bear the weight if any tried. Thus, she only needed to concern herself with one level, whereas in a warehouse, she’d have to keep checking the walkways above and below. Plus the snow made a soft crunching under their boots. With only the occasional plop of snow falling from a heavy-laden branch, they would be able to hear a zombie coming from way off–if Brook stopped talking.
"Still no motion…except for that doe we passed. Wasn’t she beautiful? Bet there’s a herd nearby. So have you and Ted set a date yet? It’s just, we’re all big fans of Zombie Death Extreme back in Salt Lake. How come you’re not hosting anymore?"
"I didn’t want to leave LA. I have clients." Neeta had taken the lead and had found broken branches and torn clothing that told of someone’s hasty escape and another’s pursuit. If only the snow hadn’t covered the footprints.
"Wow. People really hire you to exterminate zombies?" Neeta heard her shuffling as she did a sweep behind them. Brook might babble, but she did know her job.
"It’s an option in my contract. Mostly, I take care of ants, termites, the usual."
Brook snorted. "You make it sound pedantic."
"I wish." Her phone sang out with Ted’s ringtone. She answered, "Whuppa-whuppa-whuppa."
"Get off the trail!" Ted’s voice held no humor. "Some idiot with a shotgun spooked the corpsicles."
"Neeta…" Uncertainty made Brook drag out the name. "I have motion…"
"Babe, they’re in the forest, heading your way!"
"Neeta! Lots of motion, coming this way, fast!"
"It’s them. Back against a tree!" Without bothering to hang up, she shoved her phone back into her pocket. She traced a line in the trail in front of herself with her squirt gun as she put her back to a tree. Brook did the same without being told, and tossed a ski magazine on the trail for good measure. Neeta’s confidence rose. Brook was sharp and well trained. If the zombies were coming the way they had, and on skis, they might be able to take them out as it passed.
On the opposite side of the trail, Brook had picked up her intention fast and held her ax drawn and ready. Already they heard the rustle of trees and the frantic plop-plop-plop of snow being shaken from branches. A pounding thunder grew louder. That couldn’t be the zombies, so what…?
Small white mounds bounded toward them, and then a half dozen snow bunnies brushed past, scattering her protective circle and shredding the magazine. A small fox overtook the rabbits, interested only in escape. It ran right over her boot, distracting her momentarily from the fast-approaching deer and–
"Moose!" The two flung themselves off the trail as the huge, terrified creature galloped past, its antlers narrowly missing Neeta’s helmet.
Swish! In its wake, a zombie skied past so fast that, by the time Neeta re-activated her sword, it was out of her range.
With a grunt of effort, Brook threw her ax.
It caught the zombie squarely in the back, surprising it enough that it ran head first into a tree. Its arms and legs flung out before it, and it slid down the trunk to a sitting position. There it stayed, groaning.*
The thunder settled back to quiet but for the zombie groaning into the tree trunk.
"That looks familiar." Neeta walked up to the corpsicle and removed its head with a clean slice. With one foot against the corpse’s back she grabbed the ax handle and pulled it out, presenting the gory thing to Brook. "Good work, Brook. Come on; call in this location, then let’s see if we can catch another one."
"I did it," Brook whispered, then squealed and did a little dance in the stampede-trodden trail. "I did it! I rekilled a zombie–with Neeta Lyffe!"
After the thrill of Brook’s first re-kill, they had no luck at all finding any traces of the other zombies. They’d backtracked the trail in hopes of discovering ski tracks or some spoor from the one who had been shot, but the fleeing animals had wiped out all traces of the other skiers. With a new storm moving in, they decided to bag the zombies they’d killed, along with as much of the contaminated snow and debris they could. It was a long haul to get the bags to the helicopter, which took them to a biohazard handling facility. She let Ted drive the snowmobile, but even snuggled against his back, she was freezing by the time they returned.
Neeta trudged into the lodge, her mind on a long hot soak and dinner in her room with a fire burning, wrapped up in warm blankets–and maybe snuggling Ted, if she could keep her eyes open. Usually, she had a rush after taking out the undead, but today, she just wanted to lie down and sleep. Who knew cold could be so exhausting?
Naturally, she entered her room to find an urgent request from the contest organizer, Eric Peterson. The lodge’s dining/shopping area was full of skiers stuck indoors from the storm, and would she please, please, please spend an hour or two at a table he’d arranged on the dining level, signing autographs and talking up the contest and Operation Homefront? She moaned.
Ted kissed her head. "A hot shower will help, and I’ll bring a big pot of coffee to your table."
She leaned against his chest. "All right, but only for an hour or so. I’m starving. I want hot soup, followed by a hot entree, with hot tea and hot chocolate for dessert. I may never be warm again!"
The shower took the edge off the cold, but she still dressed in layers, topped with the bulky sweater Ted had bought her their first night there. She went to the booth feeling like a potato. Ted brought her a pot of coffee as promised, and then left to wander the hallways with brochures that boasted HumVan’s support of Operation Homefront ( On the first page of the slick trifold brochure bore a photo of Neeta posing in front of her custom HumVan while holding a photo of her mom. The interior pages explained the charity and had testimonies and donation instructions. He directed people to the table, where she signed autographs and told stories Operation Homefronthad given her about folks they’d helped in Utah, as well as how they had helped her mother with two years’ interest-free mortgage.
Fifty minutes later, when the coffee was burning a hole in her empty stomach rather than warming her and the flow of autograph-seekers had slowed to less than a trickle, Ted returned to the table. He held their tablets in one hand and gestured at her in courtly fashion with the other. "My lady, our reservation is in five minutes."
The hostess led them to a back booth where they could talk without being overheard. They sat side by side so they could look at their Slates together over a pot of herbal tea. Ted snuggled in closer, setting his chin on her shoulder as she called up a color-coded calendar.
"This isn’t going to be easy," Ted said.
"Nothing in my life is–nothing worthwhile, anyway." In addition to their work schedule and their friends’ special occasions, she’d put in the dates of important political rallies and primaries for California and the neighboring states–high risk times for zombie sightings. Ted’s pad held the calendars of his mom and many "cousins" as well as big music concerts and special events within a 50-mile radius of Inglewood that might also attract the undead. Somewhere in there, they needed to find two free weeks for a wedding and honeymoon.
Neeta leaned back to give him a quick kiss. "We don’t leave here tonight without a plan." They bumped fists on it.
Altimeter Brown walked to their table and peered down at them. Mandy stood beside him, her arm tucked into his. They dressed in matching turtlenecks and jeans. "I hope those are battle plans to protect my resort."
"Wedding plans, actually," Neeta said with a smile and her most closed voice. "And we’d appre–"
"Wedding!" Mandy exclaimed and slid into the booth seat opposite them. "So you were kissing your fiance at the helicopter? I’m so embarrassed, after the comment I made earlier."
"What comment?" The words were out of her mouth before she realized she was speaking them. Naturally, Altimeter took that as permission to join them. Neeta kicked herself. In the corner of her eye, she saw Ted watching Mandy with puzzled intensity. What did he see?
Mandy set her hands on the table entreatingly. "The comment about you having commitment issues. I just assumed, given your family background…"
Ted typed something one handed on her pad. Rabid fan?
Neeta replied with a shrug emoticon.
Ted leaned forward and held out his hand. "Ted Hacker–Neeta’s fiance. You are…?"
Mandy smiled and introduced herself as Parson Amanda Brown. "But I’m sure Neeta’s told you about me." Her smile faded as she took in Ted’s apologetic look and Neeta’s confused one. "But I thought… I mean, I told Tim everything about us."
"Us? What ‘us’?" Again, the word slipped from her mouth. Maybe this woman was crazy.
"Hey, you guys have the same scowl brow," Ted said.
Mandy sat back, hands up in surrender. "No, it’s fine. I just thought, you know, with Dad gone, that as sisters, we could…"
Neeta had chainsawed her way through hoards of zombies that were less oppressive than this woman’s attempt to guilt her, and she was not going to give in to her manipulations now. She leaned forward on her elbows, pushing her cup of tea to the side. "Listen, I’m sorry for your loss, but that does not make us sisters."
"Uh, babe…"
She glanced at Altimeter and Ted, including them in the conversation. "Look, Mandy. The only time we met was when I was twelve years old. Your mother showed up at our door, and she and Mom argued for two days straight. I was assigned to entertain you, but all you did was go on and on about how your daddy loved you and chose you. Which, you know, good for you, but I still don’t get why you rubbed my nose in it. That’s all the contact we’ve ever had. You’re not a sister. You’re not a friend. You’re barely an acquaintance. So if you don’t mind…"
"She never told you." Mandy’s jaw dropped open and she covered it with one hand before speaking again. "I can’t believe she never told you."
This time, Neeta clamped her mouth shut before she got dragged into more drama. Ted, however, leaned forward and also spoke softly. "Neeta doesn’t know anything about her father."
Neeta rested her head in one hand and tried to rub away her scowl brow. What had happened to the romantic dinner while picking a wedding date? At least she wasn’t cold anymore. "So?"
"Babe, I don’t think the parson means you’re her sister ‘in Christ.’"
Neeta peeked under her hand at Ted, then Mandy. Mandy had turned her face toward the wall as she wiped a tear from her cheek.
"Your mother never said anything?" she asked in a small voice.
Mandy? My sister? Meaning her dad…Neeta dropped her hand slowly. "She told me. She was in the Marines. She had a one-night lapse in judgment. They both knew it was a bad idea. She didn’t even know she was pregnant until she got injured. She fell in love with Duncan McCain, the physical therapist who helped her learn to use her new arm. He would have been my dad, but he got deployed and was killed before I was born. She decided to accept an honorable discharge on disability, bought the house in Inglewood and started a new life. As far as I know, she never thought of my biodad after that one night."
Mandy shook her head, mouth twisted in an expression of pity. "My mom told me everything–she always believed in honesty, especially after what Dad did. Your mom got the house with the help of Operation Homefront because Dad recommended her for it. And he gave her $25,000 to get herself started. He never told Mom about any of it, until she found files on his computer of you with your mom–public appearances for zombie laws, lobbies, articles… You winning some school award. So she confronted him. She made him delete everything, and confess to us all and reassure us that he loved us and chose us over you. Then, she went to California to get back the money he had lent your mother."
Mandy suddenly leaned forward, almost pleading. "She didn’t want anything to tie him to her or you. You have to understand; her marriage was in peril."
"What money?" But even as she said it, she realized. Her mother had told her stories of how, when she was recovering from her last surgery and was coherent enough to be wondering how she was going to forge a future, she’d been looking at her online account and found a payment of $25,000. No record of who sent it to her; just a thank you note. She’d always thought it was the family of someone she’d saved the day she lost her arm.
And her Mom didn’t know the truth until Mandy’s mother pounded on their door demanding it back. She closed her eyes, remembering: Her mother telling the woman she was crazy until she said some man’s name. She’d turned to Neeta, and her face had been so pale, Neeta didn’t even argue when she told her to go play outside with the woman’s daughter.
Mandy was still deep into her confession. "All that money we took from you, and we just wasted it. It’s not like we were destitute. Mom said we needed to ‘reunite as a family.’ We spent two weeks in Florida that year, took a Disney cruise… It wasn’t until I found Christ that I gave any thought to how we must have impoverished your family. It’s plagued me, which is why when we had the chance to hire you…"
So we were a pity hire? Somehow, that hit Neeta harder than this strange news about a biodad she never thought about. Neeta’s hands curled into fists. She forced them to relax. She had a wedding date to set and zombies to decapitate, and she wasn’t going to get either done if her newfound half-sister kept showing up with her passive-aggressive guilt trip and romanticized version of Poor Orphan Neeta.
"Let me put you at ease. My mom never told me who you were or why you visited. I’m going to take a guess it’s because your mom didn’t want me busting in on your family’s unity, and that was just fine by mine. Your dad was never a part of my life."
"But your mom must have said something! I mean, we both have Dad’s eyes."
Neeta pressed her fingers to her temples, hiding her eyes. What was Mandy told?
Under the table, Ted squeezed her knee. She didn’t know if he was trying to reassure her or just remind her of his presence.
She should probably pick her words carefully, but she was never good at tact. Besides, it’s not like there was a Miss Manners guide for this…or was there?**
"Mandy, Mom was on leave after some heavy battles. She got drunk and had a one-night stand. I don’t think there was any romantic eye-gazing. I’m not even sure she looked at his eyes long enough to know what color they were. She was stupid–her words.
"There was no choosing between her and your mom. There were no ties. She wasn’t interested in your–our–father. She never contacted him. As for the money–she never knew who gave it to her. She got an anonymous transfer into her PayPal with the note, ‘Thank you for your sacrifice.’ She always thought that meant on the battlefield. I know, because she had a screenshot of it with her military citations.
"She did take out a second mortgage that year. I guess she paid your mom. I never knew what it was about, and I never asked. I figured it was for the business. She bought some new equipment, expanded her advertising–and got me my first surfboard. If it weren’t for that stupid lawsuit I’ve been slapped with, I’d have paid off the house by now. So you can put any guilty fantasies you have of us eating out of garbage cans and wearing rags out of your mind."
"But surely, you must have wondered, especially now, getting married?" Mandy’s earnestness only made Neeta more obstinate.
"No, I did not. I had my mom. Uncle Jerry, her business partner, was like a father to me. Incidentally…" She shut her mouth on her words. Mandy’s mother had stormed their door the morning after her Uncle Jerry’s funeral, only minutes before they were going to Min’s house. So instead of grieving with her best friend, she’d put up with Mandy all weekend. But it wasn’t Mandy’s fault, and there wasn’t any sense nuking her about it. That was a long time in the past.
Still, she wasn’t done being angry about the present. "As far as hiring us–we came here at the invitation of the contest organizers and the request of HumVans. It’s in my contract, and I’m glad to help the charity. Plus, we thought it would be a nice place to relax and make some wedding plans. After all, Utah doesn’t have zombies, right?" She threw up her hands and barely missed whacking her fiance on the nose. "But, now that you have an infestation, Ted and I are offering our expertise, for which we will bill you our standard rate, and which services you have the option to refuse. We can deal with your zombies, but I will not deal with your personal family issues. If that’s why we were brought here, pay us for our work so far, and we’ll be gone tomorrow, HumVans be damned."
She gave Ted a tight smile. "How about Phoenix, babe? It’s warm in Phoenix, right?"
His fingers played on his tablet. "Eighty-two tomorrow! Some great galleries, too, plus a They Mite B Robots concert day after tomorrow."
She pinned Altimeter with a challenging glare. His lodge; his decision. She didn’t care if Mandy gave her "permission" or not.
Altimeter leaned back with a sigh. After a moment, he asked, "Are they on my resort?"
"We’re not sure," Ted answered. "That hunter spooked them. We’re meeting with Z-Mat tomorrow morning."
Altimeter regarded his wife, who sat, quiet and ashen-faced, her eyes downcast. When she did not move, he asked Neeta, "Can you handle this discreetly?"
"That depends on the corpsicles," Neeta replied, "but we have years of experience dealing with undead in everything from concerts to voting booths."
"We’ve already got contracts to keep the dead from voting in four state primaries," Ted added. "And from attending the Grateful Dead Two concert in LA. Gotta love the irony."
"Which is why we’re trying to find a time next year to get married. So if you’ll excuse us…"
Altimeter cleared his throat and tapped his still-dazed wife on the hand. She jerked and followed him out of the seat, giving Neeta one indecipherable look as they left.
Neeta sighed and flopped back, resting her head against the seat.
"That was intense," Ted opined.
She shut her eyes. "Let’s think about it after we set a date and take out some corpsicles."
"You’re so hot when you talk about marriage and rekilling," he kidded, then his voice gentled. "You all right?"
She did an internal inventory, and found that she was. Okay, discovering that #8 on her People I Wish I Could Rekill list was her half-sister would take some processing, and they had a half-dozen zombies to worry about, but otherwise she felt fine. Maybe even better than when she’d first sat down at the table. Finally, the adrenalin spike she’d hoped for!
No, if Mandy expected her to feel loss over a man she never knew, she was going to be disappointed. There had been fathers in her life–Uncle Jerry, and then Jason Hollerman. In fact, Jason had already told her he was walking her down the aisle when she married Ted.
Ted. Now there was Dad material! She grinned at her fiance, warming as his face mirrored her expression. Behind him, the waitress cleared her throat. She held two soup bowls in her hands. Apparently, she’d been waiting to serve them for awhile. "So…are we ready?"
"You know what?" Neeta told her. "I think we’d like to get those to take up to my room."
*Readers will recall that when Ted and Neeta approached the Ute2 lodge, they saw a statue of a skier smashed face first into a pole. As it turns out, Pender Byways had an affinity for that statue–if "affinity" can be defined as spray painting "LooZer" on it each year when he came to ski, and once urinating on it while drunk. It’s just more evidence that karma is cruel and the universe has a warped sense of humor.
**In fact, Dear Zoe, a popular advice blogger of the 2030s wrote a best-selling book, How to Tell Your Best Friend You Saw Her Mother Making Out with an Older Woman and Other Awkward Conversations. Chapter Seventeen dealt with meeting unknown siblings from illicit affairs. It’s too bad Mandy’s mother never bought a copy of that book from Bellerophon***. She might have had a more congenial meeting with Neeta’s mother.
***Like in the Greek legends, Bellerophon defeated Amazon–and without government intervention, too!
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."