From the author: Previously published in JAY LAKE: INTELLIGENTLY REDESIGNED (2008). A limited edition anthology edited by J.K. Richard, written by friends of Jay Lake for Jay after his first bout with colon cancer. One of my very few zombie stories, written during my hardcore ski bum days while teaching special education classes at Welches Middle School. Several of my students advised me on the appropriate jargon for the era. Ah, Jay. You left us far too soon. Thanks for the inspiration.
It was one of those paradoxically clear, sunny February days that caused the snow to dazzle on Mt. Hood. By all rights, even though it was the midweek before President’s Day, Highway 35 should have been crowded with skiers and snowboarders making their way to Mount Hood Meadows. Instead, it was strangely quiet, with not even the faint sound of snowmelt water gurgling down the pavement that was, for once, clear of snow and ice, a faint ribbon of concrete between two huge walls of packed snow. No wind whispered through the white pines and Douglas fir that lined the highway, no ravens croaked nor did the faint whoosh of their wings stir the still air, no tell-tale “whump” of clumps of snow from the latest storm falling off the heavy-laden tree branches sounded. The forest, and the road, were preternaturally still and quiet.
Except for one thing. That one thing moved along the road, staggering along in the northbound lane. It looked vaguely human, even with the way its arms hung at its sides, the shards of a pink and brown plaid snowpants and parka ensemble dangling from its body. Blood dripped down the arms of the humanoid creature and off of its fingertips onto the road in tiny droplets, the driblets slowing as it walked. Long blond hair with blue and purple dye peeked from under a blue wool hat, and the remnants of earbud cords dangled from her ears, with no sign of whatever she’d been listening to. But she, too, was preternaturally quiet, no groans escaping her lips, the only sound coming from the soft squish, squish of her snowboard boots as she walked—or, rather, stumbled and staggered monotonously on her way north.
A faint noise began to echo from behind her, the distant roar of a car slowing as it approached the curves in the road above her. At first, she didn’t seem to react, until the car sounds came closer. Then she began to look around jerkily, eyes scanning the snowbanks taller than her head, looking for an escape route. Finding none, she threw herself at one snowbank, clawing and tearing at it in an attempt to pull herself up.
Her efforts failed, and she fell back onto the pavement, still silent, as a red convertible with the license plate GENRE rounded the corner and screeched to a stop just six feet short of her.
“Oh, shit,” the driver swore as he climbed out of the car, throwing back his long graying hair. “Are you all right?”
The woman flinched back from him, eyes staring as she tried to frantically scramble away. She fell back down to the pavement.
“Fine—I’m fine, I’m fine,” she mumbled. “Just fine.”
The man rolled his eyes. “No. You’re not fine. Come on. I’ll take you to help. The ski resort is just back there.”
“No!” she screamed, finding her feet and starting to run away.
The man groaned and followed her at an easy jog, overtaking her and standing in her way.
“Look,” he said. “There’s medical help back up at the ski resort.”
“No!” she insisted, trying to push past him. He grabbed her arms gently and carefully.
“It’s a long ways to Hood River,” he cautioned. “You can get help faster back there. What happened? Did you get lost?”
“No ski area,” she whispered, still straining against his hands. “They’re there.”
“Zombies,” she breathed, still staring wide-eyed at him. “Ski bum zombies.”
The man heaved a giant sigh, and began to coax her back to his car.
“Shit,” he said again, tiredly. “I wonder just who the hell set me up for this one? Got my suspicions about this.”
He eased her into the passenger seat of the car. She held herself stiffly, and he noticed she was starting to tremble. Muttering to himself, he went around to his trunk and returned with a blanket. He took note of the drying blood on her arms, the scratches and gouges that just avoided the big blood vessels of her arms and legs, and hesitated.
“No,” he said aloud. “They’re clotting. Won’t mess with that.”
He inclined the seat back as far as it would go before wrapping the woman—girl, he decided to himself, noting the lineless face—in the blanket and fastening the seat belt over her. He couldn’t elevate her feet any higher in the limited space of the front seat and he decided firmly she shouldn’t be in the back seat, where he couldn’t see what she was doing. That’s straight out of a cheap monster movie. I want her where I can see her—not just for her own safety but for mine.
“Just my luck I’m driving to Radcon on my own this time,” he growled to himself, as he started up the car, thinking about what he knew of this route to Hood River. He glanced over at the girl in the passenger seat. “Hold on, we’ll be there as fast as I can get you there.”
She didn’t answer, huddling deep inside the blanket. The man drove on, thinking through the possibilities.
Zombies, he thought. Zombie ski bums.
Despite his knowledge of the genre, he hadn’t the faintest clue what to do about that particular zombie manifestation.
Too bad I don’t have a ski pole or two handy.
Then again, maybe incantations would be called for. He didn’t know any of those—yet—but he could certainly think up a few.
Let’s see. What are some of the big phrases those ski bum types use?
Given who and what he was, any chance he’d have against an attack of ski bum zombies would have to come from his command of words.
Three turns later, he stomped on the brakes as a ragged line of staring, dull-eyed people in tattered ski clothes spread across the road. The girl shrank back in her seat.
“It’s them,” she moaned. “All of them.”
The man hesitated, until the people started moving in the characteristic, stiff-legged, zombie shuffle. Then he revved up the engine, and floorboarded the gas pedal. As he’d expected, the zombies held their position, and he simply mowed down the ones in his way. Splatters of blood and rotting flesh covered his car, and he winced as something hit the convertible’s soft-top, but it held firm and whatever body part it was bounced off.
Damn, that’s gonna be a big mess to clean up, he thought. But at least it doesn’t appear that any of them hitched a ride.
So was escaping the zombies going to be as easy as this?
He didn’t think so. Not even Hollywood would cut him that much slack.
Besides, the growing feverish glaze in the eyes of the girl in the passenger seat was beginning to worry him.
If it fits a classic plot structure, I’ve got two more obstacles to overcome before I’m home free. And one of them might be her.
“What’s your name?” he asked. Best to keep her talking.
“K-Katie,” she stammered.
“I’m Jay. Jay Lake. Where are you from, Katie?”
“The Mountain,” she said, so firmly that he could hear the capital M in Mountain.
Jay nodded to himself. Yeah, he’d heard that usage before, from the woman who’d told him this was a nice drive. I am so going to get her at Radcon.
That is, if she hadn’t already fallen prey to the zombies. She wasn’t leaving for the Tri-Cities yet, due to her work at a school up on the other side of the Mountain. At this point, he realized that he was considering the threat to be real rather than a very elaborate practical joke. That particular possibility had passed when he’d accepted that the line of people marching toward him were, in fact, the genuine zombie article.
On the other hand, this could be one hell of a dream. If it were, they’d really improved the post-surgery meds—but no, he was pretty damned sure this wasn’t a dream, the surgery had been almost nine months ago. Not a dream, then.
“What the—?” he began as they rounded yet another corner to encounter a somewhat smaller line of zombies.
The second attack. True to form. He wasn’t sure, but it seemed as if this was the same crew as the first group, only smaller in number due to the ones he’d taken out with his car. Well, a car had taken out one group; it could take out more of these guys. He accelerated, then jerked the car into a turn as he spotted the beater pickup parked crossways in the road, managing to spin his own car around and missing the stalled pickup by inches.
Fortunately, he also managed to miss the snowbanks, and ended up with the front end of his car pointed in the other direction. He gunned it and spun out, heading back the way they came, thinking hard.
They’re learning and thinking too damned fast.
He was not up against the typical Hollywood zombie.
How are they managing to transport themselves so fast? Where did that truck come from?
The girl yelped and shrank away from the side of the car. He glanced over where she was pointing, on top of the snowbank next to the car. He could see rippling motion, as a flotilla of skiers and snowboarders paralleled his car’s movements. The zombies. He glanced to his other side, and saw the pickup—ghostly in form, he realized now—roaring along on top of the snowbank as well, the zombies gesturing at him from it.
This is so not real. He accelerated, but the rusty pickup matched his speed, then put on another burst, and popped off of the snowbank and onto the road in front of him.
Violation of story rules, he thought. Shouldn’t be having more than one element to suspend disbelief. Zombies were bad enough, but the behavior of this pickup?
As he half-expected, the truck skidded sideways to block him. This time he had to stop, and his car stalled. Before he could start the car and turn around, the zombies surrounded them. Jay tried to start the car again but it growled at him, then sighed. Nothing. Jay yielded to fate and climbed out of the car, knowing it was a stupid plot trick thing to do. On the other hand, he didn’t want to be stuck in the car when the zombies got closer, and he didn’t have time to check out what was wrong with it.
“Give her to us,” a tall blond zombie droned. “Katie is ours.”
“You dudes are really sick,” Jay growled back.
The zombies laughed at him. Katie scowled at him.
“Dude, you are such a gaper,” she sneered.
Gaper didn’t sound that good, he decided. What else could he use as a weapon? These—things—might be zombies, but they had clearly been athletic and fit when they were still human. Weapons. Weapons. Don’t have any guns, of course. No baseball bat. No tire iron—gotta use something from my own weaponry. Okay. What props do I have on hand for Radcon?
He wasn’t wearing any of his Hawaiian shirts, though he didn’t think they’d have an effect on this crowd, anyway.
Books. He had books. How many of this crowd ever read much in the first place, much less any of his slipstream science fiction and fantasy writings? He reached sideways into the back seat to grab the Advance Reading Copy of Green.
“This ARC,” he intoned, “has power over you.”
“A book, man,” someone drawled. “He’s got a book against us.”
“Ah yes,” Jay said, “but it’s a book you haven’t read yet. A long book.”
“So?” the tall blond snarled.
Fire. Fire worked against zombies. And he had books, plenty of books in the back seat. And matches—oh yeah, someone’d left a lighter in the car. Wincing, Jay tore a chunk off of the ARC, hefty enough to throw. He ducked into the car and found the lighter in the central console. Held the flame to the book until it ignited—then threw it.
Score. The zombie hit by the book went up in flames. It managed to ignite a couple of more as it ran around. Jay ripped off another chunk and lit it. Another zombie flared up like a torch, taking away some more. Another chunk.
This one landed in the pickup, which caught in flames, then whooshed out of existence, along with the rest of the zombies. Jay looked around, breathing heavily, one last chunk of the ARC in his hand.
“Now that was anticlimactic,” he commented. “Interesting plot device, but almost too easy.”
Unless—He still had one chunk of book left. He looked inside the car. Where was Katie?
The faint swish-swish of snowboard boots on the pavement warned him. Jay whirled, spotted Katie approaching him stiff-legged, the zombie glaze in her eyes. Slowly, carefully, he lit the last chunk of the ARC. Katie stopped at the sight of the flame in his hand. Sighing, Jay tossed it at her.
Katie went up in flames, then winked out.
Jay stood alone. He could hear the faint stir of wind in the trees around him, and then a raven cawed. He sighed, and went back to the car. It started up just fine this time, of course. He let it run for a moment while he checked the passenger seat for any odd traces of Katie. Nothing. Then he turned the car around, heading back north, musing.
Should he turn back and check things out at the ski resort?
Best to leave things alone for now, and see what’s what when I get to Hood River.
As he drove, the world seemed to come back to life around him. By the time he got to Parkdale, he’d met other cars going the other direction, and had been passed by a couple more. Hood River looked normal, and there appeared to be no zombie characteristics about the gas station attendants or cashiers there—or at least no more dull, blank glances than he’d expect.
“Have you heard about anything—uh—weird—happening up on Hood or around the ski resorts today?” he asked the blank-faced cashier chomping on her gum as he paid her.
She shrugged. “Skiers and snowboarders. They’re all weird. Not as weird as the climbers, but they’re all weird, anyway. Haven’t heard anything out of the usual.”
He gave the girl a careful look, but she had already turned away and was talking eagerly on the phone with someone else, the blank look gone as they talked about plans for that night.
Jay walked out of the gas station’s convenience store, scratching his head.
I wonder just what the hell it was that happened to me?
Whatever it was, he was for certain going to so get that person who’d sent him that route. He climbed into the Genre car, and headed out, now even more eager to get to Pasco and the sanity of Radcon.
The nukes ought to keep any zombies at bay there.
This story originally appeared in Intelligently Redesigned.