by Aeryn Rudel
Deepak and Julia, the ringleaders in our little post-apocalyptic circus, stand in front of the fire pit in the old ski lodge reading from a list of names. It’s time to hunt snowmen, and they’re pairing us up. I glance over at one of the newcomers. I think her name is Olivia. Her black eye, split lip, and crooked nose are probably courtesy of the burly dude she came in with. I think his name is Ted. He is conspicuously absent.
“Kevin,” Deepak calls out. His dark eyes find mine in the small crowd of people. “You’re with Olivia. Show her how it’s done.”
Olivia’s injuries summon up the ghost of old pain, and I’d rather be paired with anyone else, but I don’t argue. We all voted for Deepak and Julia to lead us, and we follow their orders. He’s a former Army Ranger, and she was a logistics manager for a local lumber company. They know their shit, and they’ve kept almost forty of us alive up here in these freezing mountains for twenty-eight months.
I give Olivia an appraising look. I’m not completely disappointed. She’s in solid shape from two years of post-apocalyptic survival. I mean, we all are to some degree. I wouldn’t call us healthy, exactly, but the end of the world definitely toughens you up.
I motion Olivia over, and she somehow manages to make it all the way to my side of the lodge without looking up from the floor. “I’m Kevin,” I say. “You ready for this?”
“I don’t know what this is,” Olivia says softly, her voice gravelly, like she hasn’t spoken in a while. “What’s a snowman?”
It’s a fair question. “Most of the dead stay in Fairbanks,” I explain. “More food down there, but a few wander up the Elliot Highway—just like you did—to our neck of the woods and freeze overnight. We look for them in the morning before they can thaw and cause trouble. Someone thought it was funny to call them snowmen and it stuck.”
“Is it always that cold here?” Oliva asks.
I nod. “Cold as death.”
* * *
When we leave, it’s about nine in the morning and a balmy negative twelve degrees. Close up, the damage to Olivia’s face is worse than I thought. Ted’s a big dude, and it looks like he’s got a hell of a right hook. I’ve seen this kind of damage before, of course, staring back at me in the mirror. I had a husband, once. He seemed like a good man, a kind man. That good, kind man beat the shit out of me on the regular, and put me in the hospital right before the world ended. It is my enduring hope he ended up zombie chow shortly thereafter.
“So where’s Ted?” I ask as we set off into the woods.
“I don’t know,” Olivia replies. “But I saw him drinking with the other men last night.”
“He did that, I assume.” I gesture at her face.
To her credit, she doesn’t lie. “Yes, but what am I supposed to do? It’s not like I can run to a women’s shelter. Plus, he keeps me alive and fed.”
“Look, I get it. More than you know.”
“Will you kick us out? Because of Ted?” The fear in Olivia’s voice is razor sharp.
“That’s up to Deepak and Julia,” I say. “But you need to understand, no one is going to tolerate Ted putting his hands on you. That shit doesn’t fly here.” I briefly touch the butt of the old revolver holstered on my hip.
She looks at the ground and nods. “I understand.”
“Good. Let’s find some snowmen.”
* * *
We find our first zombie-sickle about a mile from the lodge. He looks like one of the originals, his face more skull than skin. The morning sun has thawed his eyes, and they roll in their sockets hungrily as we approach.
“I’ll do the first one. Show you how, then you do the next. Cool?”
I pull the awl and hammer from my belt and step up behind the snowman. “You gotta put the awl at the base of the skull. That’s where the cerebellum is. It’s the only part of the brain these dead fuckers use.” I dig the point into the bone a little, like setting a nail. “Hit it hard. One good whack.”
I hit the end of the awl with the hammer and six inches of steel penetrates bone and brain with a soft popping noise.
The snowman is too thoroughly frozen to go limp or anything so obvious, but I see his eyes have stopped moving when I step around to look. “Okay, this one’s done. Let’s keep looking.”
We find our next target not too far from the first. He’s face down in the snow, shirtless. I immediately see it’s not right. The skin is pink. Even fresh zombies are a kind of grayish color. We approach, and I recognize the crossed swords tattoo on the right arm. Ted was showing it off to Deepak last night. Our leader was not impressed.
I kneel and see that Ted’s probably been out here a few hours. There’s frostbite on his fingers and face, but the whiskey he drank before stumbling out into the snow has saved him from the worst of it. He’ll survive if we get him inside immediately.
I look up and see Olivia standing over me. She holds her hands out, frozen tears on her cheeks. “My turn, right?”
She says nothing, but her hands don’t shake, and I can see the muscles in her jaw bunch and jump as she clenches her teeth.
“Remember what I showed you. Base of the skull.”
“Will it hurt?” she asks.
I give her the hammer and awl. “As far as I know, the dead don’t feel anything.”
Aeryn Rudel is a writer from Tacoma, Washington. He is the author of the Acts of War novels published by Privateer Press, and his short fiction has appeared in The Arcanist, On Spec, and Pseudopod, among others. He occasionally offers dubious advice on writing and rejection (mostly rejection) at rejectomancy.com or on Twitter @Aeryn_Rudel.