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…


*
Brook Bridges hammered in a pole on her side of the slope’s picnic table, then fastened razor wire to it and handed the spool to the captain. Around them, members of the ski patrol were booby-trapping ski jumps and other obstacles.
"I think you and Ted had the right idea, but the execution proved too tricky," she told the captain. "This way, we let the wire take out the zombies at the shins, while we stand back and hack them after they’ve toppled."
Lars shook his head, impressed. With three zombies left on the slopes and a possible fourth–the boyfriend–at large, and their experienced exterminators out of the picture for awhile, he hadn’t been sure how his Z-Mat team would be able to take them all out. Yet after seeing Ted off in the ambulance, he’d come back to find Brook hard at work directing the ski patrol in trap-setting while the Z-Mat team searched the slopes. If the traps worked, Brook would have significantly cut their danger level. "You’re getting a commendation for this."
"Really? Thanks! I know it’s kind of sick, but this has been a dream day, you know? All that training, and I didn’t think I’d ever get to go up against an undead."
He grunted and concentrated on tying the wire to hide his guilt. Twice she’d volunteered for exterminator duty in Afghanistan, and twice he’d refused to send her. He hadn’t thought Brook could cut it. Guess I misjudged her. Not such a scam after all. We need to change her nickname. Hack? Edge? Slice!
A shout of warming from above made them both hustle away from the table as a zombie approached at high speed–Flanelette. It jumped, pulling its knees up to lift the board, and hit the table at a half spin that led it to a horizontal slide just as its legs came to the razor wire.
Instead of knocking it flat however, the super-sharp wire sliced through suit, flesh and all. The zombie pinwheeled its arms, as its legless body flipped. It landed downslope of the table with a thunk and a small cloud of snow. Afterward, it lay there, moaning, "Faaaail!"
Lars examined the label on the spool he held: Wire by Ginsu. Caution: edges lined with nanofiber. Handle with specialized gloves. Able to cut a tin can and still slice your tomatoes! NOT A TOY. He cringed and checked his hands to be sure he had all his fingers.
Meanwhile, Brook hurried forward, pulling her ax from its sheath. Lars shook his head, bemused, as she used both hands to slice through its neck. Yeah. "Slice" was the right name.
"Look!" Brook pointed down the hill to where the legs were still moving, guiding the snowboard until it tried to take on another obstacle and, lacking knees*, it plopped over, twitching as the feet tried to right the board.
"That’s what I call muscle memory!"
*
"I can’t believe your mother said you were a mistake."
Neeta sighed. Despite Mandy’s promise to sit quietly with her, she only seemed able to hold her silence for a few minutes before bringing up their past–and always with the worst possible spin. The "couple of hours" had stretched into three, and she had twice heard Benjy sending away some nosy reporter looking for an interview; or maybe a photographer hoping to snap a pic of her decapitating her fiance. She wouldn’t put it past them. She knew she would have to explain why she hadn’t done that in the first place. Someone would bring up Bergie; they always did.
She just wanted time to think, to steel herself for the worst. But no, Parson Mandy Brown wanted to "support her dear half-sister," and for some reason, Neeta could not turn her away.
"She didn’t say that," Neeta answered with asperity. "She said being with my–our–father was a mistake. I was the fortunate consequence of a rash action. Look, Mandy, you’ve got this tragic, depressing life story all thought up for me, but you’re wrong, okay? I never pined for a father. My mom was happy with just us and her career, and I was, too. I had Uncle Jerry and Aunt XaXa and their kids were my brothers and sisters. I didn’t want your family. I never even thought about your family."
"But you seemed so sad and, well, angry when we showed up."
Sudden anger, old and new, flashed through Neeta, and only Ted snoring in his gurney kept her from jumping up and shouting. "Yes! Because you showed up two days after we buried Uncle Jerry. I wanted to be with my best friend Min, and instead I was ordered to entertain you while our mothers fought–and all you wanted to do was go on about your daddy loving you best."
"But you never said!"
"It was none of your business. Besides, it was splattered all over the news. I’d already had to deal with strangers I didn’t want, and then you took me away from my friends."
Ted tried to roll over in his sleep, making the leather and Velcro of the straps creak. Neeta got up and turned her back on Mandy to stroke his hair and check again for signs of fever.
Mandy asked in a small voice. "Am I taking you from Ted now?"
Neeta closed her eyes, the better to concentrate on the silkiness of Ted’s hair before answering. "No. Maybe, but in this case, I’d probably just be worrying, anyway. It’s fine. But as soon as Ted wakes up…"
"I’m out of here. No problem. But what if he…?"
Neeta caressed her sleeping fiance’s hair. "Then you run, and tell Deputy Benjy to get ready with a double tap in case I fail."
*
After another hour, even Mandy’s nonstop conversation had dribbled into silence. She sat still in the cheap chair, hands folded–praying, Neeta guessed. What would it be like to pray that easily?
She wished she could have that kind of peace. Still, who knew how Mandy would be acting if their roles were reversed, and she sat beside her husband on what could be a death watch-and-rekill op?
Neeta resisted the urge to remove the wrappings on Ted’s bandaged hand to search for decay. The EMTs had wrapped it, but no one had touched it since. Had they taken his glove off? She couldn’t remember, but apparently, it wasn’t enough to worry about until they knew if he was infected or not. She grit her teeth. Where were those lab results?
She wet a napkin with some water from the carafe Mandy had gotten along with the second chair and wiped his brow. A thin sheen of sweat covered his face, and he grimaced in his sleep. Pain, or the first effects of the contagion? What if he’d only gotten a little infected, and his body was fighting it? She’d never heard of anyone surviving a bite, but Ted was stubborn and crazy enough to be the first.
I should call the Zombie Institute. If he’s infected, they’d want to study the transformation–and they’d probably treat his hand, regardless.
But they’d probably medevac him to one of their labs in Vegas, and she’d have to go back to the slopes. If he reanimated, and she wasn’t there…
He’d asked her to do it, to end it for him. It might be his last request.
What was taking so long?
To hell with it; I’m taking off the bandages and checking myself. Besides, then they’ll have to put on fresh dressings, if nothing else. She laid the napkin flat on his head. "Hey, Mandy."
Mandy jumped. "Is he?"
"No, no! I just need you to get a nurse."
A knock on the door interrupted her, and both ladies froze, watching it open with hope and expectation.
A sad-eyed man in a cheap business suit and a bulky tablet years out of date stepped in and closed the door behind him. He looked at Neeta and smiled the most piteous smile she’d seen since… A vision of a funeral flashed over her mind and she felt her stomach clench.
Basset Eyes held out his hand. "Neeta Lyffe! I’m a big fan, a big fan."
She blinked, her train of thought derailed–a relief, but confusing, nonetheless. "Excuse me? Did you sneak in here for an autograph?"
"No. I’m sorry. I’m just a bit of a fanboy of ZDE, I suppose." He made it sound like a death knell. "I’m Roderick Nips, your court-appointed grief counselor."
"My what?" Behind Nips’ shoulder, Mandy gave a little wave and pointed at the door. As she turned to leave, Neeta felt the sudden urge to call her back. She closed her eyes, collected her wits, and walked around the bed to shake his proffered hand. "My grief counselor? But…"
"Oh, I know you didn’t qualify when your mother died, but it turns out with the lawsuit draining your funds, you qualify financially for government assistance during this time of emotional need." He gave her a tragic, sympathetic grin that would have made babies cry, then turned his attention to his tablet. "Now, there are several programs that–"
"But Ted–" Neeta interrupted.
He held up a hand. "I realize you aren’t married, but with the ‘What’s Marriage Compared to Love’ Act almost passed, I’m sure we can work something out. As I was saying, there are some forms."
"He’s not dead yet!"
He stopped, blinking as she had only moments before, then squinted first at Ted, then at her. "Oh, well, I’d just assumed that after what you did to Bergie…"
Six hours ago, she’d been hanging from a ski lift, holding on for dear life while trying to kick a zombie off her leg. That was now looking like the highlight of her day. Ted’s pained face, Mandy’s poetic fantasy for her life, the waiting, the hospital… Something snapped, and before she knew it, she had Nips pinned against the wall, her forearm against his throat. His pad slipped from his hands and hit the floor with a heavy thunk.
"Now you listen to me, Mr. Big Fan, because I’m only saying this once, understand?" she growled. It felt good.
He nodded, his droopy eyes now the size of saucers.
"Maybe you didn’t notice, or maybe you were too busy enjoying the show to care, but Donald Eidelberg was biter buffet before we could do anything about it. There was no doubt of his infection. Ted took every precaution–even slicing off his own gorram finger!–to avoid contagion. Got that?"
Nips made a strangled gurgle. She took that as yes.
"Look around you? Do you see a swarm about to overtake us if we wait?"
"Nggh."
"Do you see a bunch of half-trained plebes ready to bolt and make themselves next on the menu?"
He wheezed.
"What I did on that show saved the lives of seven plebes and two cameramen. Maybe you thought I got a kick out of beheading a friend?"
"He begged for mercy," Nips croaked.
"And I gave it to him."
She jerked away, and he buckled over, gasping more from fright than the need for air. She knew her strength and hadn’t been holding him that hard, not that she’d ever tell him that. "I don’t need your services. You want help, Big Fan, then you tell a nurse to get in here with new dressings and an extra pair of gloves. Now, go!"
He gathered up his pad and ran. She glared at the door, daring Deputy Benjy to come in and ask what happened.
From behind her, a voice croaked, "Did that feel as good to do as it did to watch?"
"Ted!" She spun and hurried to his side. She poured some water in the bottle and held the straw to his lips so he could sip. Her hands trembled as she set the bottle down on the table by his head, but treated him to a smile she hoped didn’t look as tragic as Nips’ had. "How are you feeling?"
"Hand’s burning. I could use some morphine–though your little show was quite distracting. I was waking up as he came in. You’re so hot when you get feisty. You know, I had thought about groaning, ‘Braaaains,’ to see if I could get him to wet his pants, but I think you did that." Pain in his eyes belied the humor in his voice.
She giggled. Tears burned her eyes and nose but didn’t spill over. "Good thing you didn’t; I’d have probably spun around and beheaded you on the spot."
"All grace and lethal ballet." His attempt at a lusty grin ended in a grimace.
"I’ll get Benjy to fetch the nurse."
She opened the door. Nips was talking to Deputy Benjy, his arms waving in animated yet somehow, depressed motions. Further down the hallway, however, the doctor hurried toward her with a nurse and an orderly pushing a cart. Mandy trotted beside them and when she saw Neeta, she waved.
"The tests were negative, Neeta! He’s all right!"
Neeta sagged against the threshold. Thank you, Lord. Thank you.
*
LinnAnn Pike settled more comfortably in her wheelchair and re-adjusted the blanket covering her knees. She hadn’t wanted to come outside, but as soon as she’d seen that cop enter the lodge, asking for her, she’d told Kevin to handle it and hightailed it to the porch. Guns made her nervous, especially when worn by cismale authority figures. They’d legalized marijuana. How had could it be to make guns illegal?
Well, Kevin will take care of it for me, and I won’t have to know a thing about it. He knows my old heart can’t take any kind of shock. Besides, idiot will forget three minutes after the conversation ends.
She thought longingly of her youth, when she wore a bikini and brought in customers to the medical marijuana tents of Venice Beach. Those had been the days–hanging out on the boardwalk, suggesting to passersby that she had the cure for their stress, long evenings on the beach, learning the mysteries of weed and how it could be claimed on government insurance forms. They always made so much more sense after some heavy toking. But no, she had to fall in love with a hard-core skier, and now she spent her winters hanging out at the lodge where he ran his ski shop. Her bikini days were long gone; the locals called her "Grandma" now.
Speaking of, where was that no-good grandson of hers, anyway? Usually, he made a stop on Fridays to get a supply of good stuff, but she hadn’t seen him since she told him he needed to start paying. Probably off with that tramp of a girlfriend… Ah well, young love–and it is turning out to be a nice day for it.
The wind still held a bite to it, but the sun has come out and the air had warmed–enough, even, to melt the snowman, she noticed. She regarded the sculpture thoughtfully, snickering because the power bar had run down its face, leaving a chocolate stripe and settling somewhere suggestive and obscene. Water dripped off its outstretched hands. Whoever had built it had done a fantastic job, but she had to wonder why he hadn’t come to take credit.
Maybe the zombie scare drove him off. After the ambulance carted that guy away, the resort officials couldn’t hide it any longer. Some people had left; others were scrambling to find good viewing spots in hopes of catching a shambler on their camera phones–apparently, the Zomblog was offering free T-shirts and other prizes for video of the skiing and snowboarding zombies. Still others, however, hung around, hoping that the Z-Mat team and those California exterminators could clear the slopes in time for the contest tomorrow. Naturally, plenty of those people were feeling the stress. Thanks to the national legalization of marijuana, she had the cure, no medical excuse necessary but insurance gladly charged, and everyone trusted Grandma for the best.
She leaned forward and took her blunt from the ashtray. It was a hassle to sit outside to smoke, but it was her best advertising, even if most people preferred the sanitized pill form. Philistines. So worried about lung damage**. Didn’t they know that was tobacco? She paused to hack up some phlegm–getting old stunk!–and drew in a long pull from her joint, smiling at the people walking by on the porch. A few glanced at her sandwich-board sign, but otherwise the only reaction she got was the not-so-polite cough-cough of a prissy nonsmoker. Her grin widened, and she opened her mouth as she inhaled through her nose, pulling the smoke out of her mouth and into her nostrils, just like she’d seen in the old movies her mother loved. She thought of it as recycling; it always turned her husband Hank on, but at the moment, she enjoyed a spark of glee to see the disgusted look on Prissy Nonsmoker’s face. Reminded her of her daughter-in-law–well, ex daughter-in-law. Best part of that divorce was she never had to talk to her again, especially after she found out LinnAnn was covering for her grandson. In fact, she had a special ringtone just to warn her should that little witch ever get the urge to call.
She followed Miss Prissy with her gaze, keeping up the trick and enjoying her reaction, until the couple passed by the snowman. Surprise made her gasp. The smoke tried to enter and exit both her nostrils and throat at the same time, making her cough.
Did she just see its hand move?
Maybe too much recycling… She blinked to clear her vision and focused. Wait. Yes. Maybe. She called her assistant to watch the "shop" while she wheeled herself down the ramp to investigate. At the bottom of the ramp, tied to framework with a bike chain, waited her walker. She pointed her fob at it, and with a click and a beep, the chain fell away.
Stupid faulty sense of balance, she grumbled as she stood, folded her wheelchair and tied it with the chain. She set the walker into the ground with a firm push. Hank had had it specially made for her with tiny spikes to dig into the snow and ice so she wouldn’t slip. The handles had pads against the cold. She still didn’t like needing it. But it did accord her certain deferences, like now, as two handsome young boarders approached to see if she needed help.
"Would you escort me to the snowman, please?" She batted her eyes and gave her sweet grandma look. "I don’t need help, really, but I’d so appreciate your company." After all, she may be a married septuagenarian, but she wasn’t dead, yet.
It was only a few dozen yards to the snowman, but she took her time. The boys paced her patiently enough–one of the things she liked about Utah, real respect for their elders here–and when they arrived at the snowman, politely excused themselves to go check their boards.
"Wait!" she grabbed one’s arm, not because she wanted his company, but because she was right–the hand had moved! Or rather, the fingers trapped inside the ice had wiggled. She studied the fingers, hand, arm, taking in hints of motion. She wanted to be sure before she asked the boys to verify what she saw. She didn’t want to seem crazy after all–that’s bad for business, her business, especially. Still, she thought she heard a low moaning: aaaaay…
She took a step closer, rubbed some of the snow off the snowman’s face with her gloved hand–and saw the mouth move. Even worse, she saw recognized the face!
"Quick! Get help! That’s my grandson in there!"
*
*Torso, brain… Ah, but it’s all in the knees, isn’t it?
**http://www.lung.org/associations/states/colorado/tobacco/marijuana.html Pot smokers are breathing in unfiltered tar and carcinogens. Just sayin’.
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."