In the wintertime, when the infected were few and slow, we would walk outside among them, employing clubs and axes at our pleasure. Watching the kids from the safe house joining in, I could imagine this becoming a Christmas tradition in a few years like caroling or standing in line outside the mall at daybreak on December 26th to take advantage of great sales with newly minted gift cards. Crack. Snap. Rip. It was like the sound of church or jingle bells. Our Christmas presents? Laughter. Exercise. Fresh air.
Jennifer managed to put a pair of those stupid foam antlers and a green wreath on one of the big ones. He was the closest Eater we could find to Santa. In the sub-freezing temperature, he moved like he was swimming through pudding. Most of the wrinkled and withered corpses just froze. The fresh ones from autumn or the ones that died with meat still on them were still active until the snows fell and the temps dropped below freezing for more than a day or so. Fat Santa had a red suit – bloody coveralls – and a big smile – he had chewed off his own lips like most Eaters – and his belly jiggled with rotten, liquid organs and whatever sludge that made it down his bloated, blackened neck.
After a few minutes of watching it step and pause, turn and pause, lurch and pause, the novelty wore off and I crushed his fat head with a tire iron. Cheers rose from the circle of children gathered near the safe house fire door. I imagined a generation from now, when this is over and we start rebuilding, maybe children will gather out in some wide open back yard, laughing and taking sticks to a cartoon paper zombie that spills candy from its ruptured skull instead of greasy, yellow gore.
When the wolves howled from the edge of the woods we knew it was time to go back inside. Jennifer gathered the children and looked back at me from the shadow of the fire door. I could see the eyes of hungry predators shining in the reflection of sun off the forest snow. Unchallenged by the Eaters and unafraid of humans, they reminded us that there were more things to fear in this new world than flesh-eating monsters.
As I reached the fire door, they had closed half the distance between the tree line and our safe house. Thin, dirty and crazed from hunger, they showed no sign of weakness or mercy. I closed and latched the door. Jennifer and the kids had already marched to the far end of the hallway and into the communal safe house, sharing their Christmas morning stories with the other families in front of our great hearth. I waited at the door until I heard the dogs scratching against the steel, slamming into the metal with enough force that I’m sure they shattered bone. They wouldn’t get in. The door was thick enough to keep out a horde of roaming Eaters in summer.
Above me, from a window just above the door, my son Michael leaned out and fired six careful shots. Six yelps. Silence. I heard the signal and opened the door.