Those who know me well enough (or pay attention to my bloggy ramblings) know by now that this time of year is a mixed bag for me. I don’t necessarily like the cynical part of myself or the part that gets beaten down by emotion from time to time, but it exists. Thankfully, the part that will gnaw off a metaphorical limb to keep going and the part that is determined to see a bit of light in everything also exists. Therefore, stories like this aren’t really out of the norm for me. I’ll warn you, this is not a pleasant holiday story, and it’s not the full story, but an excerpt. The full story can be found in Lost in the Shadows. One of these days I’m hoping to do a collection of dark holiday fiction, because these ideas come easily and they admittedly fascinate me. I like the dichotomy of things falling apart during a time that’s supposed to be a celebration and very well put together. It’s an amplified examination of holiday stress in some ways. Also, bizarrely, the only zombie fiction ideas I ever have are Christmas themed.
If it was any other Christmas, the candles would have been purple, pink, and white. As it was, Jamie had been lucky to find extra candles at all.
“This Christmas sucks. No turkey, no presents. We don’t even get a tree,” Tony whined from his seat in the shed’s corner. Jamie bit her lip against the sudden urge to cry. Of all the horrors they’d seen lately, it was her thirteen-year-old that was making her break down. The worst part was that he was right. Celebrating was a stupid idea that just made it all worse. She couldn’t save her family, or even give them a proper holiday. What kind of a mother am I?
“We have a lot of things,” Grant reminded him. There he was, coming to her aid once again. Every time they ran out of food, every time Tony or her five-year-old Andy got sick, every time the undead got riled and tried to charge their hiding spot of the moment, he was there with an answer. He gave her a tight smile over her oldest’s head. He looked as ragged as the rest of them did, but his drawn face didn’t look bad on him. His sandy brown hair didn’t show the light blond in it unless she looked really hard, and they hadn’t been alone enough lately for her to have a chance to look. His grey eyes were reassuring, though there was exhaustion in them, too. It was the same fatigue they all felt, the thing that chased them more than the zombies. It gnawed at them daily, made every little task an ordeal, dragged them lower and lower into submission to the new way of things. “We have a place to sleep. We have food for a few days. We have each other,” he urged. His eyes danced just a little, for her sake.
She echoed his smile, though she had to work to make her mouth move. She hadn’t felt a reason to really smile in so long; even the good moments were quickly overshadowed by another death, another problem, another strange shadow cast on the wall, another night filled with unearthly moaning, another attack. “That’s all we need,” Jaime agreed and wrapped both boys in her shivering arms. How long before I lose them? How long before I lose myself? Grant carefully struck one of their last matches and lit the candles in the Advent wreath made from barbed wire. His large fingers almost hid the match, but they couldn’t hide the tiny, beautiful spark.
“The first candle symbolizes hope.” The tiny blue flame struggled to stay alive. Jamie ran a hand through her dark, tangled hair and wiped it on her stained jeans to rid her hand of the oil. There hadn’t been a good time to wash it lately, especially with the cold weather. Tony and Andy weren’t particularly put out by not being able to take a bath, but it was a little comfort she missed.
Hope. It’s hard to have hope when Amanda was ripped apart by monsters, she thought, shuddering. She closed her eyes and pushed the thought of her baby away. She replayed the scene in her head constantly: how she’d gone to the nursery to check on her, how she’d found the screen knocked out of the open window, how three ugly corpses had been fighting over the infant’s remains. She’d only escaped because her husband Jason had dragged her away, forcing her to take Tony and Andy with her. She hadn’t seen his fate, but his screams had suddenly stopped when they’d reached the front door. The only reason she’d kept on running was because of her boys. That had been in June.
The only hope I have is that Grant found us, she sighed, and tried to focus on his rugged face and not the determined memory of her husband. Guilt came in bucketfulls when one had nothing else to think about besides surviving and the past.
“The second candle is preparation,” Grant continued, gently talking to the boys as he guided his hands to the next candle, his free hand guarding the little flame. Jamie chewed the inside of her lip and curled the dirty blanket she’d found tighter around her. Who can prepare for something like this? Decades of horror movies, of thinking about the most awful things, and there was still nothing we could all do to prepare for this. She glanced to the gun in her hands, stroked the barrel idly. They were down to their last three bullets unless they could find more. The heavy snowstorm three days ago had deterred the hordes that had been quickly giving chase to anything they considered worth eating, but it also made going on supply runs difficult.
She didn’t even know where they were now, except that they had been heading north towards Canada, where the hordes were supposed to be minimal thanks to the cold. They’d raided the empty downtown area of a small town a few weeks ago, and ended up in an abandoned shack on some abandoned plot of land. There wasn’t much cover so she was always sitting there, waiting for the final attack to come, but the weather had helped, at least. None of it, though, was anything anyone could prepare for. It had just happened. As of yet no one even knew how it had started, or if they did they weren’t sharing. Couldn’t share, more likely. Everyone was so cut off from each other, electricity and phone lines were rare, never mind a wireless signal.
“Joy,” Grant narrated, lighting the next candle, moving the match away at the last minute when Andy reached for it.
“I wanna help!” he complained.
“You’re just gonna ruin it or cut yourself again!” Tony grumbled and hunkered deeper into the hooded sweatshirt that was at least four sizes too big for him. “Butthead.”
Grant grabbed Andy’s arm away before he cut it on the barbed wire of the wreath. “C’mere, you, let’s do it this way,” he chuckled and shook the match out. Jaime watched as he helped her youngest get hold of one of the lit candles, carefully guiding the boy’s movements with his giant hand over the tiny one. “There we go…joy.”
“Joy, joy, joy!” Andy sing-songed. He was always doing that, making up little tunes from something one of them said. It had been cute when they’d lived in a nice house and had only the usual things to worry about. The last time he’d done it he’d alerted a shuffling corpse that had gone off on its own for some reason, though that wasn’t usually part of zombie behavior.
No. You know why that thing was on its own. She cleared her throat and blushed when Tony rolled his eyes. He knew how she covered her emotions all too well. You didn’t cover them up then, did you? You ran out and saw your little boy about to meet the same fate as your baby girl. You did what any mother would have done. She shivered and wrapped the blanket tighter. It was so hard to get warm when she’d lost so much weight and her clothes hung on her. You rushed right out, Grant’s advice be damned, and tore that bastard apart limb from limb. She could still feel the blood oozing over her hands, the cold flesh soft and slimy in her grip and smearing dirt on her clothes. It was only once she’d taken the head and gone to retrieve the pieces for burning that she thought to look at the face.
Jason. The thing after her son was half-eaten and had suffered more decay than any living thing had a right to, but it had been Jason. It was hard to feel joy after that.
It’s Christmas, she reminded herself. You’re still alive. You have most of your family. You have Grant. You have more than a lot of people do. Besides, it’s the season of magic and miracles. Maybe a cure will be found. Maybe the weather will kill the rest of them. Maybe everything will all go away over the winter. When she was ten, she’d finally found out the truth about Santa. Her mother had sat her down and explained the facts, but allowed her to be part of the magic from the other side, putting stockings and special gifts together for her little sister who was six years younger. She had done so, always the good and obedient older daughter, but it wasn’t enough. Christmas was about the impossible, the magical. When she’d been alone at night, tucked in her bed, she’d convince herself that her parents were wrong, that somewhere, somehow, there really was a Santa Claus. He just hadn’t been discovered yet, and his legend was so big that he was able to hide behind it, delivering his presents in a way that no one would be able to catch him at. She’d always been good at convincing herself the impossible was possible. Unfortunately, her belief system was running on empty lately.