Do They Know It’s Christmas?

For 2022, I’ve been wanting to write more ‘creature features’ and generally improve my short story writing. My partner got me a Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual for my birthday so I came up with the idea of writing a story every week based on a different creature from that – All There in the (Monster) Manual. Hope you enjoy!

This Week’s Inspiration: Zombie

One year after the zombie apocalypse, Carter faces the possibility of spending Christmas all alone… except for the company of a horde of half-frozen, decaying, flesh-eating ghouls.

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Carter saw the Christmas tree first, and then the body. Soon as he’d stepped into the house he’d smelled the decay permeating the walls. But his nose and mouth were covered, and he was used to worse smells. His crowbar dangled from one hand, flashlight in the other, in case the source of the stench was ambulatory. So far, everything remained silent as he explored. Not a creature stirring, not even a mouse.

Given the infection started in late November of the previous year, before Thanksgiving, the family in this house must have gotten their Christmas decorations up early. Carter had seen plenty of other houses with trees and decorations but few that were so complete. Lights and tinsel and baubles twinkled as Carter’s flashlight fell on them. The tree, artificial of course, looked lush and green. Its base was almost hidden behind a fortress of presents, never opened, probably never to be opened, gathering dust in the cold room. There was even a little railroad with a Christmas-themed train that looped around the tree and presents, and stockings hung with care on a nearby cabinet.

Sensing a human shape, Carter turned quickly. The body, and source of at least some of the smell, slumped in an armchair in the opposite corner of the room. The corpse was at least a year old. Rot stained the chair black. A man once, withering inside a thick dressing gown and pyjamas like a mummy. The corpse cradled a shotgun in its lap, one clawed hand on the trigger and most of its head was gone. Well, not gone. Still present on the wall and ceiling, and on the back of the chair, albeit rotted to almost nothing. Attached to the neck was only a bottom jaw lined with broken teeth, part of the back of a skull, maybe an ear. The sight didn’t affect Carter. He’d seen worse. He’d inflicted worse. He didn’t much like the story the tableau told though. A man who saw no other way out, no path forward in this new world, maybe surrounded, maybe infected. He’d sat down to stare at the tree and the presents and think of one last happy memory. And when he was ready he’d placed the barrel of the shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

Carter left and searched the rest of the house. He wasn’t surprised but still felt depressed when he checked the bedrooms. Master bedroom, and two childrens’ rooms. Their beds were unmade and lumpish, covers shredded by shotgun blasts, black with rot and old blood. He found no threats so he returned to the lower floor.

Going through the kitchen, Carter stuffed what he could find into the gym bag swinging off his shoulder. He found no suggestion that the family gave up because they were starving. Canned tuna and soup and apple pie filling lined the cupboards. Some crackers that were probably stale but edible, some pasta. Actually a pretty worthwhile haul. He left the refrigerator closed, too likely to be toxic. After the kitchen he checked the main bathroom and found some toothpaste, soap, and even better some antibiotics. He considered taking one of the presents from under the tree, just one, chosen at random, so that at least one of them would fulfil their purpose and be opened by someone. He decided against it though, figuring it would be like stealing from some kind of memorial.

Sunshine glared off fallen snow as Carter left the house, on the lawns and streets, on trees and surrounding houses. He slipped his sunglasses back on and, as always, looked around carefully before stepping outside. Rattling a can of spray paint, Carter sketched a question mark next to the broken front door. A reminder to himself that he’d already explored the house but there might be more supplies inside if he got desperate. He put a red ‘X’ on houses he was convinced would never be worth a second look.

Utter silence blanketed the street. The day was clear and there was no real breeze. Nothing moved. Carter felt like the crunch of his boots carried for blocks. He walked carefully as the snow, uncleared, had thawed and frozen, thawed and frozen, too many times. Underneath the fresh blanket of powder hid hard and slippery ice.

Wearing a grey jacket and snowpants with jeans and boots underneath, Carter waddled to the next house, and the next. He wore motorcycle gloves with reinforced knuckles rather than winter mittens. A scarf protected his neck, nose and mouth. Belted around his waist, he kept a pistol with extra magazines and an ice axe. He carried another gun as backup and more ammunition in his gym bag. Carter didn’t find much of value in the next couple of houses. Fortunately, he didn’t find any bodies or dangers either.

Fearing sunset, Carter headed for home with plenty of time. He could have lived anywhere but he’d kept their family home, although he’d transformed and reinforced it considerably over time. Getting closer, he heard wind chimes and clicking sounds coming from his traps. Scattered around the street in front of his house sat four spiked pillars. Long metal pipes, their ends sharpened, radiated from central hubs. In the hubs were wind chimes, brightly coloured flags, and glittery whirligigs that fluttered and clicked in the slightest breeze. As he rounded the corner, Carter spotted a single thin, grey, shambling figure pinned to one of the pillars. One of the infected. A zombie.

Carter hurried to reach the creature before it noticed him, keeping his eyes open for other zombies. They often travelled in packs. The zombie didn’t sense him, too distracted as it batted at the colourful whirligigs in the centre of the trap. Zombies were attracted to sound and movement if not actively locked on a potential victim. Attracted by the sound of wind chimes, when they tried to get at the colourful flags or noisemakers Carter used to bait his traps they would impale themselves on the metal spikes. Pain did nothing to deter them, they just kept going and going as long as their brains were intact and their bodies held together, but the spikes made them easy to pick off.

Rather than risk using his pistol and drawing more of them, Carter slid the ice axe from his belt. Truth be told, there weren’t many zombies left in the immediate area. Carter had destroyed most of them while time did the rest. Caution had gotten him this far, however. He approached the zombie like he would a rabid dog, even if in its current condition the zombie posed almost zero threat to him. He deliberately wore motorcycle gloves and layers of clothing as protection against bites or scratches.

Finally sensing him, the zombie turned and let out a gasping groan. Decay had withered the creature, its face and chest hollow, its arms like broomsticks. Its flesh was grey and riddled with the black of burst and frozen blood vessels. After over a year of continuous wear, its clothes were little more than scraps. With a sucking sound, it started to retreat off the sharpened pole stuck in its chest. The zombie’s movements were achingly slow. In the middle of its face were nothing but puckered sockets, the zombie’s eyes rotted away or eaten by birds. Its nose and ears were slits. Somehow, zombies maintained an eerie sense for warm flesh no matter how damaged they were though. And as the zombie’s mouth opened, Carter could see its jaws were still lined with poison teeth. If it found a bare patch of skin or got through his clothing somehow, one bite would be all it took to spread the infection into his body.

Cleanly, efficiently, Carter planted the curved head of his ice axe into the middle of the zombie’s forehead. Bone crunched, and the zombie died instantly. Slipping backward, it tumbled free from the spiked pillar. Carter ripped the axe loose. With arms stiffly splayed, the zombie fell into the snow like it was attempting to make a snow angel. Carter looked around again to make sure they were still alone before wiping his ice axe’s blade in the snow. Picking the zombie up under the arms, he dragged it into the yard directly opposite his own to dispose of later. Wind chimes dinged and rattled emptily. No other sound disturbed the quiet of the street as he returned to the house.

Carter’s home originally looked much like most of the other houses in his neighbourhood. One of the suburb’s five basic designs. Two stories, coral, solid but inviting. Their HOA would not have approved the changes he’d made since the infection struck. Spiked barricades lined the yard. A living human wouldn’t find them much of a deterrent but for zombies they would be enough to slow them down, confuse them, and break apart any large packs. All the windows on the house’s lower floor were boarded up and further reinforced with metal shutters. He’d replaced the front door with an industrial metal one with a slit that opened and closed around eye level.

Carter let himself in and barred the door behind him. In the front hallway, he doused his gloves and clothing with sanitising spray before stripping off the outer layers. The house was cold enough that he left on his jeans and a thick sweater.

The living room on the first floor he used as a kind of armoury. Guns and ammunition, even some military grade stuff he’d liberated from an abandoned checkpoint, lined folding tables in neatly organised rows. Every kind of handheld weapon he’d been able to lay his hands on as well as sporting equipment and tools covered the couches and armchairs or sat in boxes on the floor. Having his reliable favourites, Carter didn’t get a lot of use out of all the variety but he’d felt compelled to amass as much as he could. He dropped the head of his ice axe in a bucket of soapy water and unloaded his guns before placing them in their assigned spaces.

Supplies filled the dining room and kitchen, adjacent to the living room. Boxes and piles of bottled water and sports drinks, canned goods and cereal boxes and bags of rice, and everything else he’d found raiding stores and houses. Carter unpacked the day’s takings into appropriate sections. Between the weapons and the supplies, Carter was set to fight a small army of ghouls or survive a siege for months.

Upstairs was a different story from the utilitarian storage on the first floor. Carter had kept both of his kids’ rooms untouched, preserved. He didn’t even enter the bathroom the two of them had shared, with its row of rubber ducks above the bath and toothpaste flecks they’d left behind on the mirror. Carter spent most of his time in the master bedroom. He’d moved a desk and chair, and an armchair, over to the windows. Even placed a table with a camping hotplate and some simple meals in the corner. Combined with his ensuite, it was like he’d reduced the room down to a small apartment, with the rest of the house as either museum or storage.

As soon as Carter entered the room he crossed to the desk and the framed photograph on top of it. His fingertips brushed the glass. The photo was of all four of them, coincidentally taken the last Christmas before the infection. Before the Christmas that never was. He, Thomas, and their two adopted children, Eric and Becky, all four of them wearing big, cheesy Christmas sweaters and big, cheesy grins against a backdrop of fake snow and tinsel. The kids, Eric ten in the photo and Becky seven, would be a full two years older now. Eric almost a teenager. A stack of albums rested beside the framed photo.

The divorce was amicable enough, although it hadn’t been completed. He and Thomas had realised that what was keeping them together more than anything, more than even the kids, was simply momentum. They weren’t happy. Every little thing about the other seemed to drive them crazy, leading to constant sniping and fighting. He should have fought for their relationship, Carter realised now. Fought to negotiate, fought for counselling, but at the time separation seemed like the only path to happiness and that was what they were all about back then, instant gratification.

Carter’s husband never liked that they’d moved here, to this ‘Suburban Heckscape’, for Carter’s job. Heckscape because it wasn’t even enough to elicit a ‘Hell’, it was too bland for that. So he’d taken the kids a couple of states away to move back with his parents, to get some space while they figured out the details of what came next. Carter hadn’t even been sorry to see them go. He loved his kids, absolutely he did, he’d proven that since the infection began. But between the stress of work, the stress of their relationship breakdown, the stress of Thomas’ regimented weekend ‘fun’ activities or obsession with coffee blends or even just the way he picked his teeth in front of the bathroom mirror, selfishly Carter looked forward to having the house to himself for a little while. Just to eat what he wanted to eat and be able to have a beer when he wanted and to catch up on a bunch of movies he’d been meaning to watch forever but couldn’t when the kids were around.

They’d been planning on coming home for Christmas, all three of them. Carter and Thomas would play at being a happy family for the kids’ sake. Who knows, maybe they would have figured out how to be a happy family again for real? Carter bought stacks of lights and decorations, fake snowmen and singing reindeer that all lit up and played music. He even had a Santa suit with a hat and fake beard. And the first thing he was going to do was put it on and ask Eric and Becky to help him decorate the house, however they wanted.

Carter had the house to himself when the infection began. They called it the infection but truthly no one really knew what it was, at least as far as he was aware. Suddenly, all across the country, all across the world, the dead began rising. First in hospitals and morgues, and then on the streets as people the zombies bit and killed turned as well.

The last contact Carter had with his husband was a panicked phone call when he was already on the freeway, racing toward them. He’d told Thomas to stay where he was, with Eric and Becky and his parents. Soon, however, the phone networks died. In all the chaos of those first days, it took Carter over a week to reach Thomas’ mom and dad’s place. By that point, they were gone. The house had been ransacked but Carter didn’t find any blood, and there were signs they’d had time to pack before leaving. For the next two months, as the country spasmed and tore itself apart, Carter searched. He searched hospitals and refugee camps, schools, and the houses of other relatives. He came close to dying more than hundred times, more times than he could count. He never found a sign of them. Eventually, he was seized with absolute conviction that he would find them back at home so he’d returned. Unfortunately, it was as empty as everywhere else. This time though, Carter stayed, convinced that if Thomas and the kids were alive that this was where they would come. He’d begun reinforcing the house so that it would be safe when they arrived, and started amassing weapons and food.

Taking the framed Christmas photo, Carter settled into the armchair by the window. He kept one eye on the snowy street. A hunting rifle rested by the chair but there was nothing to aim at. Fresh powder had already begun to bury the corpse he’d dumped across the road. Most of the surrounding area was empty, partly through luck, partly through Carter’s efforts to cleanse it of all zombie life. Their suburb was just off the highway in a small bowl of a valley, separated from the surrounding townships. When Carter returned after two months of movements he’d found the area relatively underpopulated as most survivors, and zombies in search of food, had moved on. Still, the area originally had a population of over ten thousand so there’d been hundreds and hundreds of ghouls lurking about. Using some tricks he’d learned on the road, Carter managed to lure, trap, and exterminate a great many of them without too much risk to himself. The occasional zombie turned up stuck inside houses or just hanging around, or wandered in off the freeway though. Enough that he had to stay wary. Carter hadn’t seen any living people in over six months. Half a year, alone except for the occasional zombie. Carter didn’t know exactly how long, he’d lost track of the days during that first two months of insanity and never bothered to reevaluate. For all he knew, given the weather, it was already Christmas today.

Carter stayed in the seat as darkness fell. Once night settled, the world outside his window was complete and utter blackness. Not a single source of light showed for miles and miles and miles.

xXx

The mall had been pretty thoroughly looted of food and medication. But some things, like construction materials, Carter could only reliably find there. He was constantly making improvements to the defences around his home and to his traps.

Taking a large sled, Carter dragged it behind him through the snow. Along the way, he stopped at the garage where he’d been keeping ‘The Project’. He’d always wanted to work on cars but never found the time to pick it up as a hobby. In addition to reinforcing his house and collecting supplies, he’d been reinforcing a vehicle in case he and his family one day needed to escape in a hurry. He couldn’t fit it at home though, plus the mechanic’s garage where he’d been working on it had all the tools he needed. He left The Project where it was and continued to the mall on foot.

Humps of fresh snow marked abandoned cars cluttering the mall parking lot. Carter threaded past them to the massive glass arch of the mall’s entrance. The sliding doors sat broken and pried open. Trash and several bodies littered the windblown entryway.

Inside was dark and draughty and smelled like death. Carter’s sled scraped across the linoleum. Cautious, he scanned the main hallway. In the centre of the mall, under its enormous skylight, sprawled a Christmas village. Not one but two towering trees strung with oversized lights and baubles and tinsel flanked a raised stage. More strings of lights trailed from the trees to the balcony of the second level. Santa’s Workshop occupied the stage, facades of a miniature elf village along with oversized presents and a candy-striped throne. Ranks of velvet ropes marked where children and parents would have waited for photos with Santa. The infection had come before Thanksgiving but the Christmas village had been set up since something like September of that year.

Bodies tended to show up at random in any direction Carter travelled around the mall. Shot through their heads, or with skulls bashed in, or decapitated. No zombies came for him while he looked around, however. He loaded what he needed onto the sled and left quickly, ignoring the Christmas village. The giant trees and presents put him in the mind of the suicide he’d seen the day before, and what their last sight must have been.

Naturally, the loaded sled was a good deal heavier and slower as Carter dragged it back across the mall parking lot. Something felt off. He didn’t know what it was, it was almost like he sensed he was being watched. A slight breeze stirred the air and maybe it carried a sound or a smell just beyond his conscious notice that just made him feel wrong. And then, suddenly, something hissed into the slate grey sky. It was distant, silent until it exploded into a coruscate of red light. An emergency flare, shot straight up into the air from somewhere in the direction of the nearby freeway. A flare could only mean living people. Living people who might be in trouble.

Carter dropped the ropes attached to his sled, knowing he could easily come back to it later. Moving as fast as he could across the deep snow and frozen ground, he took off in the direction of the flare. Another glow sizzled into the air and exploded with a faraway crack before falling back to earth. People, he hadn’t seen people in months. He hadn’t had news of the outside world. The thought that Thomas and the kids might be somehow with them, or they might have some kind of news of them, inevitably bubbled to the back of Carter’s mind. A cruel hope, destined to be dashed. But hope, being hope, wouldn’t go away no matter how he tried to push it down.

The on-ramp to the freeway wasn’t far from the mall. Only a few blocks away, abandoned gas stations and fast food restaurants lined the roadside. Carter stumbled and fell several times, coating his gloves and coat in powder. As he got closer, he began to hear something. It hummed like a high tension wire in a stiff breeze. Carter worried he recognised the sound and didn’t like what it suggested but he pushed his concern back until he could be sure. It was probably the sound, heard unconsciously, that made him feel something was off when he left the mall.

Two ramps led onto the highway. One to reach the nearest lanes and one connecting to an overpass that joined the far side of the highway. After a moment of hesitation, Carter slogged through the snow to the overpass. As he climbed, he heard gunshots in the same direction as the flares. What sounded like a pistol, it cracked half a dozen times and then stopped. Running in the snow was hard work and Carter could feel himself sweating. Less snow covered the onramp but it remained slippery in places. He climbed to the top, to the bridge crossing six lanes of highway, and hurried to the railing looking out in the direction of the flares and gunshots. What he saw made his breath catch in his throat.

A vast river of undead moved down both sides of the highway, shoving and thrusting and crawling through the unswept snow. The highway moved in a long, gentle curve, Carter could see a good couple of miles before it disappeared behind the hills. Hundreds of zombies, hundreds upon hundreds, there had to be well over a thousand, swarmed like an army of ants. The noise Carter heard, what at first sounded like a high tension humming, as he’d suspected came from them. Those that could still make noise all moaning hungrily as one, the sound blending together into a single meaningless note that carried for miles. At their shambling pace, the head of the long horde was only five minutes away.

Wondering where the hell they’d appeared from, Carter remembered the flares. Those hadn’t come from the zombies. He scanned the face of the horde and saw several knots of activity. Instead of staggering endlessly forward, three groups of zombies circled and battled to rip whatever they had apart. Beyond them, now half-buried in the horde, was a large truck with treads instead of wheels. Carter didn’t see any living people but concluded the truck, and whoever was in it, must have been leading the horde for some purpose. In all likelihood they were probably drawing them away from some settlement further down the highway. But they’d pushed their luck too far and the truck had broken down or gotten stuck. They’d fired off the flares, looking for help, but no help was coming. The knots of fighting zombies were almost certainly surrounding whoever had been in the truck, caught and torn apart when they tried to escape.

Carter’s brain stalled as he wondered what to do. Would the zombies close in and blanket his little town, undoing all his hard work to clear it out? Or would they stumble by? In drawing the zombies away from their own settlement, the people in the truck had dumped them right on his doorstep. If he had more time to plan, he could have kept them moving but now he wasn’t so sure. Zombies tended to wander with a kind of endless momentum unless something diverted their attention but they also seemed to have a sense that population centres or buildings, houses, schools, malls, represented their best chance of finding survivors to prey on.

Something broke free from the front of the horde. It shoved and climbed hard through the snow and Carter felt a surge of hope. The figure was faster than the rotted zombies, moving like a person, and not grey and covered in ice. A survivor. But just as quickly as he’d had the thought, Carter realised it wasn’t a survivor at all. The human figure was mangled and covered in a slick of fresh blood. One arm was missing, half their face torn free. It had been a long time since Carter had seen a fresh zombie and he’d forgotten how fast they were. A fresh zombie was every bit as fast and strong, stronger really, than a living human being. It was only through wear and decay, or freezing weather, that they slowed down until they were nothing more than shambling ghouls. The fresh zombie was one of the people from the truck. Somehow, they hadn’t been ripped completely apart by the horde before they turned. The newly made creature joined the others but used its speed to surge ahead. All that strength and speed dedicated to the same singular purpose, to find food and spread the infection. Even though they were still some distance away, Carter saw the creature spot him. The zombie’s single remaining eye locked on his gaze and a gurgling cry rose from its shredded throat.

Carter didn’t want to be caught up on the bridge with zombies closing in from both sides. He headed back the way he’d come. As he did so, he feared he might be leading the fresher zombie, and the rest of the horde, back into town, but he didn’t have any other options.

Snow crunching, Carter hurried down the ramp. He slipped and fell on his back. In spite of the cold, the smell of the horde began to waft over him. Spoiled meat, decay. As it got closer, he risked gagging on it. Reaching the bottom of the ramp, he could still see them coming. Mostly heads bobbing along the highway in his direction. He breathed heavily, fogging the air. The humming groan got closer, the desperate, mindless, hungry notes becoming more individual.

Carter needed to get back to his home, his fortress. With its safe walls, supplies, guns, and ammo, he could make a plan or simply bunker down until the horde moved on or spread out. Maybe he’d have to get to work exterminating them all again but he could do so with a plan, as safely as possible.

Slogging through the snow, tripping, stumbling, Carter kept glancing over his shoulder. It wasn’t long until he saw a single bloody figure at the top of the other ramp. The fresh zombie, the man from the truck. Without hesitation, the zombie hurtled after him. That was what was good and bad about zombies. They didn’t plan, didn’t stategise, they just fixed on a target and kept coming. In the snow, Carter could move fast enough to stay ahead of the decayed zombies but the fresh one came at him almost like a chimp. Even with only one arm, it clawed and clambered over the drifts, ignoring what would have been painful or debilitating falls if it were human. The blood covering its clothes and skin was still hot enough that it steamed in the cold air, giving the impression of some unstoppable, merciless machine.

Carter fell against the side of a buried car, knocking snow off one of its windows. He wasn’t going to be able to outrun the fresh zombie, he had to kill it. If he kept running, he’d just be more tired when the zombie caught up. But gunfire would absolutely direct the rest of the horde to him, and bring them down on his previously safe township like a tidal wave. He held onto some hope the horde would keep moving forward down the highway. Turning to face the fresh zombie, Carter unlimbered the ice axe from his belt.

Those knots of feeding zombies on the highway probably pulled most of the people from the truck to pieces. The one following Carter now though was a man, tall, white, blonde, in what looked like hiking clothes. Half its face was just gone, leaving a torn sheet of red, along with most of its scalp. Only one eye remained. Its left shoulder ended in a gnarled nub of bone and thick sections of flesh were missing from its chest and legs. Human teeth weren’t that effective at ripping and tearing flesh but get enough of them together and they could inflict serious damage. Regardless of that, the zombie raced through the snow.

Legs spread, Carter braced and readied himself. The zombie, guileless, came right at him. He’d performed the manoeuvre with the ice axe at least a hundred times, a swift, almost effortless execution. But Carter hadn’t faced a fresh zombie in almost a year, and in those early days being forced to kill hand to hand was always a last resort, frenetic and chaotic, desperate and disorganised. As he brought the ice axe up and around, he realised he’d misjudged and mistimed his swing. He realised too late he should have accepted the inevitable and simply used his pistol instead. Carter hammered the sharp point of his axe down in a chopping motion but it glanced off the hard plate of bone, scraping sideways and tearing through what remained of the zombie’s scalp rather than penetrating into the brain.

The zombie slammed into Carter, knocking the breath out of his lungs. The ice axe’s handle slipped out of his gloved hand. Together, they fell into the snow. Carter almost found himself buried as the zombie’s weight drove them both down. The zombie snarled and leaked blood onto Carter’s clothes. Its one hand clawed at his throat. Teeth snapped at Carter’s face. One bite, one scratch, and the infection would work its way into his system.

Fighting his instincts, Carter pushed the zombie’s head away and then wedged his left hand into the zombie’s mouth. He felt the pressure of the zombie’s jaws bearing down, grinding, but they failed to penetrate his armoured motorcycle glove. Carter pushed back with all his strength. Even one-armed and maimed, however, the fresh zombie was incredibly strong. Limiters that kept living people from tearing their muscles or dislocating their limbs didn’t apply to zombies.

Groaning, the opening ranks of the zombie horde filled the onramp exiting the highway. They shambled shoulder to shoulder. Most of them were naked, their skin grey and shrivelled and riddled with frozen veins. They came in every size, from every background. Of those still wearing clothing, there were scraps of every kind, suits or jeans and hoodies or bits of uniforms. A few animals mixed in with the closest ranks of the horde. Zombie dogs and, breaching the crowd, the head and shoulders of a zombie horse. Seeing the thrashing movement of Carter under the fresh zombie, they picked up an extra burst of speed. If Carter didn’t finish this, the horde would be on top of him as well.

Left hand jammed between the zombie’s jaws, pushing its head backward, Carter groped for his pistol with his right hand. He unbuckled the holster and pulled its polymer grip into his palm. Driving his elbow into the snow, he pulled his arm up and fired twice into the zombie’s side to try and knock it sideways. Blood, burning twists of soiled cloth, and tatters of flesh splattered the barrel. The impacts did nothing to shift the zombie but Carter twisted and pushed, grunting with the effort. His gloved hand remained wedged in the ghoul’s mouth. Shoving the pistol against its temple, Carter fired again. Through his glove, he felt the heat of the muzzle on the backs of his fingers. The other side of the zombie’s head burst, killing it instantly and splattering the snow with hot brains.

Going boneless, the twice-dead zombie tried to fall on top of Carter. He gave it one last shove and dropped it sideways. The corpse tumbled into a fresh trench in the snow. Gore from its ruptured skull steamed and melted the fresh powder.

Gun clutched in his fist, Carter struggled to his feet. The gunshots, he knew, would draw the horde given that everything else was still and silent. Zombies now filled the street in the direction of the highway. More poured down the onramp. More and more and more, over a thousand at their backs. The noise and smell gained strength exponentially with each passing minute. Spotting Carter, a few zombies broke away from the forward rank. On all fours, a couple of undead dogs pushed through the snow toward him.

Carter forced his hands to steady, gripping the bloodied pistol in both hands, aimed, and fired. The side of one zombie dog’s head exploded. Going wooden, it tipped sideways with an oddly undramatic stiffness into the snow. He tried to ignore the backdrop of dozens more shambling bodies, only aiming for those closest. Carter blasted two more human zombies, both dropping backward into the snow like mannequins, and then a second dog, an undead German Shepherd. The zombie horse stayed back amongst the horde in spite of its size, dragging its rear legs.

While Carter may have knocked out a few creatures that otherwise might have caught him from behind, with each passing second the horde as a whole rumbled closer. More ghouls than he had bullets. Carter turned and broke away. Stepping high through the snow, he slogged back down the road. The mall, and his abandoned sled, were forgotten. Every few moments he glanced over his shoulder to make sure none of the zombies, any that might be fresher or more limber, were gaining.

Through the snow, Carter wasn’t much faster than the frozen horde. His breathing rattled in his chest. Muscles burned as he was forced to keep lifting his legs. But over the course of the next five minutes, then ten, he did gain a safe distance from the zombies without needing to stop and shoot any more of them. From what he could see though, the entire horde now flooded into his little town. The place he’d worked so hard to make safe.

Carter didn’t want to lead the zombies straight to his house so he ran until he was out of sight then took a sudden right turn. Fortunately, the zombies weren’t smart enough to follow the trail of deep footprints he left behind. Once they lost him, they’d disseminate throughout the suburbs. Carter headed home where he could lock himself inside and come up with some kind of plan.

The traps outside Carter’s home had been a good idea when his surroundings were largely unpopulated. Now, he worried the chimes and flags would draw too many for the spikes to catch. Arriving back on his street, he stripped the wind chimes, the whirligigs, and the flags out of the traps. The actual traps he left, the zombies wouldn’t notice anything strange about them or the barricades surrounding his house. Wrapped in his arms, he carried the bits of ‘bait’ inside.

Once inside, Carter barred and barricaded the door behind him. Streaks of blood and melting snow covered his gloves and coat. He stripped off his layers of clothing and dumped them in a plastic crate he kept in the hallway for disposal. The pistol went into the crate as well, bloodied as it was. Dousing himself in sanitiser, he cleansed his hands, arms, and face. Ignoring the cold, Carter padded into the armoury and then his dining room as if to check on his weapons and food supplies. Months, he could survive months if he needed to without going outside. He just needed to keep the doors and windows barricaded, keep the curtains closed, stay silent, and eat and sleep and live in darkness.

But as Carter thought about it, his indignation grew. He’d worked hard to carve out a safe place in a dangerous new world. A space where he could walk around in relative safety. More importantly, a place where his children could live in relative safety if and when they returned. A terror colder than the unheated house gripped him.

When he’d seen those flares, he’d hoped against all logic that it might mean Thomas, Eric and Becky were coming home. Even though he’d searched and searched and found no sign of them, he held onto the hope they were alive. Thomas was smart, capable, outdoorsy and fit. The kids were smart too, and brave. Thomas could have kept them alive even on his own. And travelling was no longer as easy as it once was but he’d know to bring them back home, back to where they’d been a family, eventually.

But whoever those people were out on the highway, they’d brought a new horde down on Carter’s safe place. The zombies were despoiling it. What terrified him was the thought of Thomas and the kids coming back and finding the horde waiting for them. What if he hid away for the next few months, until the snow thawed, and they returned to find the town infested? It wasn’t necessarily logical but Carter imagined them wandering in, expecting it to be the safe place that Carter had made it, and being torn apart. Or perhaps they would see the zombies, figure it was too unsafe to make it to the house, and move on. Either way, he would never see them again and he would never know what had happened.

Steely resolve filled Carter. No, he wouldn’t let the horde take his home. He wouldn’t let them stay one single day to hurt or keep him from his family. A plan began to form. Crazy, maybe. Definitely dangerous. Pulling it off would be a Christmas miracle.

Grabbing new clothes, Carter dressed in jeans and snowpants, a shirt and sweater under a thick jacket, and another pair of biker gloves. He armed himself. Given the size of the horde and what he had planned, he no longer feared making too much noise. He loaded and holstered two identical 9mm pistols, and filled his pockets with spare magazines. The strap of a chromed Mossberg shotgun went over his right shoulder and he carried a hunting rifle on his left. Bandoliers filled with shells and bullets crossed his chest and dangled off his left hip.

Carter headed to the other side of the house. He rarely entered that half of the ground floor anymore, not because he was preserving it like the kids’ rooms but simply because he had little use for it. On that side were the laundry and downstairs bathroom, neither of which were any use with no water supply, and their guest bedroom. It was the bedroom that he threw open now. Dark and musty, its windows had been barricaded shut so it hadn’t seen fresh air or sunlight in months.

Boxes and boxes of Christmas decorations covered the guestroom’s double bed and carpet. All the Christmas decorations Carter had bought and been saving for when Thomas brought the kids home for that Christmas that never was. Lights and snowmen and a full sled with light-up reindeer he’d planned to put together with them, as a family.

Carrying as much as he could, Carter left and took the decorations down the street to the garage where he usually worked on The Project. On the first trip there and back, he saw no zombies but heard their groans carried on the wind. He made two more trips, using a spare sled to pull boxes of decorations behind him. Each time, more zombies began to appear on the street. The horde had broken apart but they were spreading through Carter’s previously silent suburb. The second trip, he managed to keep his distance and keep moving. Spotting him, the zombies closed in but they were still too slow and spread out to be much of a threat. On the third and final trip to the garage, however, Carter pulled his sled with one hand and carried one of his handguns with the other. He waited until a few of the zombies got almost within reach before firing. The gunshots drew them, as he knew they would, and he saw them begin to mass on side streets and to either end of the main avenue. Carter let himself into the garage and locked himself inside. Fortunately, the garage, with its solid concrete walls, windows high off the ground and metal doors, was well suited to withstanding a siege. It would take a while for the horde to build to a large enough size to batter down the roller door on the front of the building.

As Carter went to work inside, zombies formed a barrier around the building. Those that had seen Carter disappear inside battered their frozen hands and gnawed stumps against the doors and walls. Some found their way to the roller door and drummed on it, making a loud, hollow noise that carried a long distance. The noise and hunger in their moans, the knowledge that there was food inside, drew more and more of the wandering horde.

The afternoon shortened and quickly sank toward the horizon. By that time, the horde outside the garage numbered well over a hundred and more gathered by the minute. If the creatures listened, they could hear Carter working. As night fell, strange lights filled the windows of the garage too high for them to reach. The zombies were slow, stiff, unable to build up much momentum in their swings, but the sheer number of them began to bend and seriously rattle the large roller door at the front of the garage. It creaked, bowing inward, as the creatures massed against it like spectators at a dangerously overcrowded concert.

A guttural roar came from inside the garage. An engine turned over and then settled into a rumble still loud enough to rattle the windows. The zombies almost appeared to hesitate as their rotted brains processed the new stimuli. After a few seconds, they began driving themselves against the roller door and other entrances even harder. Threaded amongst the noise of the engine was something that could have almost been music. Strange lights filled the windows again and this time continued strobing and flashing.

From inside, the engine gunned and suddenly, with a tremendous crunch, the garage’s roller door ripped off its hinges. Splitting and falling outward, the door collapsed on top of the zombie horde and knocked dozens to the ground. A monster of a vehicle rolled through the exit, crushing the door and the zombies caught directly underneath it. Truck wheels as tall as many of the zombies themselves came down with terrific weight. A huge, flat blade, like a bulldozer blade but tilted at a crooked angle, protruded from the front of the vehicle and battered zombies out of the way.

Carter’s ‘Project’ had started life as a snowplow the local government used to use out on the highway during winter. Carter found it and had been armouring and arming the snowplow to turn it into a tank that he and his family could use if they ever needed to escape onto the open road, whether in winter or any other season. Metal plates covered any vulnerable points of the hulking, bright red vehicle and surrounded the cabin along with long spikes like those he used for his traps. The plow slammed its way through the horde and swung onto the snowy street. Lights flashed around the vehicle’s sides like an alien spacecraft. Taking the Christmas decorations, Carter had covered the snowplow in strings of blinking lights, glowing reindeer, and strobing snowmen. It looked like a Christmas sleigh from hell. All the reindeer, snowmen, and the jolly Santa mounted in front of the cabin both lit up and played music from inbuilt speakers. So in addition to the sound of the snowplow’s engine, the decorations unleashed a cacophony of Christmas jingles, all different, all attempting to drown one another out simultaneously.

Carter laid on the snowplow’s wheel. The big vehicle’s horn was designed to send a serious warning in what could be whiteout conditions. It bellowed, hollering into the night. The horn and music carried across the surrounding streets, shattering the silence. Zombies swarmed toward the truck. Those caught in front of it bounced off the blade or fell beneath the giant wheels, being flattened into half-frozen pulp, but they kept coming. All the zombies saw was colour and movement, or they heard the noise. They were incapable of recognising the danger it represented to them, only seeing prey.

Carter pulled a lever to lower the plow and picked up speed. The plow chewed into the snow, picking it up and hurling it sideways. Zombies on the sidewalk were knocked flying and buried in white powder. The snowplow’s tyres gripped the road, and it was heavy enough that it didn’t lose momentum.

Carter glanced into the rearview mirror. In the glow behind the snowplow, brake lights and Christmas lights reflecting off the snow, he could see the horde collecting and tailing him. He slowed down and sped up until he found the right medium, travelling no faster than a slow jog. He didn’t want to outrun the zombies, he wanted to draw them in.

Reaching the end of the street, Carter turned hard and circled to the next block. More zombies massed on the next street, trying to get to the source of all the noise but unable to find their way past fences and houses. As soon as they saw the snowplow they staggered after it, following in its wake. Christmas music blaring, lights flashing, Carter went street to street. He felt like the Pied Piper with zombies instead of rats. Even with the plow, he had to be careful not to run into too many abandoned cars buried along the sidewalks or in the middle of the street. He hit them at just the right speed to knock them sideways so he didn’t get caught pushing them and jammed up.

Hundreds of undead followed the snowplow by the time Carter reached the centre of town. They packed together in a shambling single mass again, like on the highway. Glancing back, Carter wondered when he could say he’d collected enough of them. In spite of the makeshift armour and spikes surrounding the cabin, Carter knew if the snowplow broke down or got caught up then the horde would eventually get inside and tear him apart. Or, despite all his guns and ammunition, they would trap him inside until he froze or starved. Rattling around in the back of the snowplow, in a large tray behind the cabin, were half a dozen barrels of gasoline. In addition to adding the armour and spikes, Carter had made sure he’d found and stored plenty of fuel for the vehicle. The Project may have been conceived as an escape vehicle but now it and its fuel would serve a different purpose.

Carter pulled around near the highway onramps, relieved to see that no more zombies were pouring down off the road. Behind him though, of the giant horde, at least five hundred of the wretched creatures followed. Their collective moan was now so loud it carried over the sounds of the engine and Christmas music into Carter’s cabin. Their shuffling stampeded the snow to mush in the wake of the snowplow.

Having pushed his luck far enough, Carter steered the snowplow toward the mall. He raised the plow and drove straight over the gutter and sidewalk into the parking lot. Pressing down on the gas pedal, he picked up speed. He knew he needed some distance from the zombies for the next part of the plan to work. As it trundled across the lot, the snowplow shunted buried vehicles aside. Windows imploded and panels collapsed as the plow rocked them.

The huge, dark arch of the mall’s entryway loomed ahead as Carter continued to pick up speed. The plow’s big tyres bounded over the pavement. Carter couldn’t help but shield his face as the plow smashed into the mall’s automatic doors. Aluminium frames buckled and broke, shrieking, and panels of glass shattered. Above the doors was more glass. Those panels also cracked and collapsed, breaking apart as they rained down on the snowplow. Debris crackled under the plow’s wheels. Once inside, Carter glanced back and laid on the horn. Sound echoed through the chasm of the abandoned mall. Rainbow lights glittered off empty storefronts.

Ahead of Carter lay the Christmas village and Santa’s throne. Carter slowed, wheels squealing on linoleum. The plow crashed into the rows and rows of velvet ropes. He swerved toward one side of the stage. The angled blade of the plow carved into one corner. Giant presents crumpled and bits of Santa’s workshop collapsed with the impact. Carter came to a stop as he slammed into one of the two enormous trees flanking the stage. Creaking, the tree tipped, shedding tinsel and oversized baubles, and came down with a tremendous crash as strings of lights and support wires snapped.

The snowplow’s engine continued grumbling and overlapping Christmas tunes filled the previously silent mall. Lights and reindeer blinked on and off. Carter climbed out of the cabin carrying the guns he’d brought from home. Among the boxes of decorations he’d taken from the guest room was a Santa suit he’d bought to wear that Christmas that never happened. Instead, he wore it now. Red and trimmed in white, the pants and jacket draped off of him. A Santa hat sat at a jaunty angle on his head and he’d even put on the white beard so it dangled at his throat. The whole night was a fit of madness as it was, Carter had decided just to go with it. Bandoliers of ammunition still hung around his chest and waist, magazines filling his pockets. Under the suit, he wore jeans and enough layers to protect himself from zombie bites.

Climbing around the side of the cabin, Carter reached the drums of gasoline. Opening one, he struggled to lift it and tip it sideways. It rolled down the side of the snowplow and crashed to the ground, rolling through the destruction Carter had left behind him. He opened another drum and did the same. A third barrel, he knocked over and sent fuel running down the side of the vehicle.

Moaning, the horde began to file through the shattered entry of the mall. Again moving shoulder to shoulder, they followed the path of ruin to where Carter had come to a stop. Carter climbed down the side of the snowplow and onto the stage. He made his way around the debris of collapsed presents and Santa’s workshop. A single set of stairs led from the lines of velvet ropes to the stage. Carter went to the throne where Santa would have sat and taken photos. Shoving and pulling, he managed to tip it over at the top of the stairs to partially block them.

Zombies surged toward the Christmas village, grey and naked or in rags. Hungry faces rose toward Carter in the reflected glow of the decorations covering his makeshift sleigh. Taking his shotgun, Carter aimed and fired wildly into the face of the oncoming horde. Meanwhile, underfoot, the drums he’d knocked off the snowplow gushed pools of gasoline that spread between the debris and the zombies. The one Carter had tipped over on top of the plow sent a waterfall down its side.

Two zombies sought a path around the chair that Carter had managed to tip over. Shotgun raised, Carter fired, worked the pump action, and fired. Heads ruptured, spilling frozen brains and gore. They fell backward into a sea of raised hands, seeking and snatching. Carter emptied the shotgun and hurried to reload. His hands worked quickly but confidently, smoothly, ignoring the horde pressing down on him. He aimed and blasted at them, trying to clog the path around the throne with bodies. Starving, angry groans echoed off the mall’s ceiling.

Something ripped its way through the undead crowd. At first glance, Carter thought it was the zombie horse he’d seen earlier. Its hairy bulk pushed through the human zombies on four legs. Then he spotted a pair of antlers, like broken branches, sprouting above the zombie animal’s head. A deer, a reindeer? Carter was never certain what the difference was. It stomped over the fallen corpses and made its way around the overturned throne. Slavering jaws open wide, eyes nothing but boiled, white orbs, the deer was a herbivore but once infected it had become just as vicious and hungry for flesh as every zombie and infected animal.

Levelling the shotgun, Carter squeezed the trigger at the approaching creature. Both of its eyes were put out by the blast, fur and flesh flayed off its face as the shotgun boomed, but it didn’t slow down. Carter ratcheted the pump action and fired again. The second blast shattered the deer’s skull, one antler breaking free and clattering to the stage. The deer fell, slouching stiffly to the ground, its flesh and joints too decayed and frozen to give it any grace in death.

Wave after wave of zombies slammed into the stage, each one crushing against the last. The mad Christmas chorus continued to play, decorations strobing and blinking. Carter let his empty shotgun fall against his side and drew one of his 9mm pistols. He fired it almost blindly into the horde. Hundreds of zombies filled the mall in front of Santa’s village, with more pouring through the entryway behind them.

Carter reached into the pocket of his red suit and pulled out a road flare. He’d found a box of them at the garage where he’d worked on the snowplow. He ripped the cap off the top of the flare and it flamed to life, a phosphorus glow illuminating the side of his face as he held it aloft.

“Merry Christmas,” Carter said, voice cracking.

Carter pitched the flare over the zombies’ heads, flipping over and over the horde. It left a glowing trail in the air. Bouncing off a couple of shoulders, the flare tumbled between the tightly packed bodies. The second it hit the gasoline pooling across the floor there was a whooshing sound, like a sudden gust. Fuel ignited and moved outward, an expanding ball of orange and gas flame blue. It seethed between bodies and began to climb them, igniting rags of clothing and dried out skin.

Carter ran for the back of the stage. Within seconds, a blaze filled the area in front of the Christmas village. It climbed and leapt from ghoul to ghoul. Their corpses were frozen but dried out, husks of their former selves. Hungry flames took to them like kindling. The orange glow filled the cavernous space and oily smoke began to haze the air. Fire surrounded the snowplow and began to climb the fuel coating its side.

Slowing, Carter considered just letting it take him. Letting the zombies or the blaze, or both, overcome him. Let making the town safe again be his final act. More zombies massed into the mall, crashing into those already burning. Flames rushed the stage and began to catch on some of the debris. The fallen tree was consumed, going up in a rapid blaze. But Carter remembered that brief moment of hope earlier in the day when he saw the flares and wondered if they might be linked to Thomas and the kids. Where there was a sliver of hope, there was life. After this got rid of most of the horde, he could go back to clearing the town. He could do repairs, gather supplies, and continue to wait.

Carter ran to the second giant Christmas tree, the one still standing. All the fuel had been spilled on the other side of the stage so the fire hadn’t reached this tree yet. He forced his way past the outer portions of the artificial branches, the tinsel and baubles, until he found sections strong enough to climb on. Hand over hand, he began to make his way up the tree.

Blazing zombies invaded the stage. Fires spread amongst the ruins of Santa’s workshop. The reindeer and snowmen on the snowplow melted in the heat. Once he’d made the decision to live, Carter climbed desperately. He shouldered and shoved his way up between the branches until he reached the cables securing the tree to the mall’s upper level. Smoke stung his eyes and worked its way into his lungs. Below, zombies burned and spread and reached for the sky as if to get at him.

Hand over hand, Carter pulled free of the tree and moved along the cable. Even with his gloves, it soon felt like the cable was cutting into his hands. His body weight and the weight of his guns pulled him down and the cable threatened to break but it held all the way to the mall’s balcony. He struggled to pull himself up. Beyond the cable was the railing. He grabbed for it and climbed, pulling and lifting himself over.

Behind Carter, flames engulfed the red snowplow. The Christmas music coming from the glowing decorations distorted and took on a manic edge over the crackle of flames. Fire spread to the drum Carter had overturned and suddenly it split open, exploding. Flaming shrapnel carved apart the other drums and they joined the conflagration with a couple of thunderous claps. Shockwaves ripped through the abandoned mall. Oily, orange fireballs consumed the snowplow, cracking it open, sweeping across the stage. Santa’s village and the fallen tree were incinerated. Flames flashed across the tree that Carter had climbed. As the blaze mushroomed toward the ceiling, burning fuel rained down to ignite more of the zombies. Dozens were blown backward, blown apart, and burned. Brains boiled and died. More and more of the creatures collapsed into pyres. And yet those behind them kept coming, throwing themselves into the fire as if desperate for its warmth at long last. Soon, hundreds were burning, turning black, withering and dying a second, final death.

Staggering into the darkness, Carter reached into his Santa suit and pulled out a second flare. He used it to light the way as he made his way deeper into the mall’s second level, away from the flames and smoke. Trash and dropped clothing and skeletal bodies scattered across the upper level, but no zombies. With his other hand, he carried one of his pistols.

It would be a long night yet. Carter had to circle free of the horde and get back across town if he wanted to get home. In the dark, he thought he might be better off finding a safe spot in a nearby building and waiting until morning. The mall would continue burning, hopefully taking most of the zombies with it. In the morning, he could return home and start to rebuild.

Carter couldn’t help imagining returning home to find his family waiting for him. Food on the table, presents under the tree. As long as there was life, there was hope. As he left the mall via a side exit, snow drifted from the stark sky. It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

======

Sean: Originally I conceived this story as a perfect one to end All There in the (Monster) Manual. For one, ‘Zombies’ is the last entry in the main body of the Monster Manual. For me it also harkens back to when I started writing for more of an audience as my first self-published novel Wave of Mutilation was a zombie story. I knew I’d end up writing something with zombies in it this year because I still love them but didn’t want to write just anything. And of course, I figured a Christmas story would be appropriate to end the year on. But when I saw how close the second-last Friday was to Christmas I figured I’d better make this one the penultimate story instead. I have something much shorter and… uh, I don’t know if you’d call it sweeter, for next Friday, and I think it’s still a very appropriate creature to end on. It’s actually the shortest story I’ve written all year, by a pretty considerable margin, so almost more of a postscript.

Telling a whole story with one character and no dialogue was a real challenge. I find dialogue the absolute easiest way to establish characterisation and if you read a lot of my other stories where the protagonist is alone for long stretches, they still tend to talk to themselves a lot. In fairness, this is true to life for me as I talk to myself a lot when alone. In fact, as I was telling my wife not long ago, I tend to drive myself fucking insane by talking and singing to myself too much when I’m alone. But that was a little additional challenge in this one to (almost) see out the year.

Next Week’s Inspiration: Halfling

One thought on “Do They Know It’s Christmas?

  1. Pingback: The Little People | Sean E. Britten

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