Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Hail Britannia!

Okay, so it is no secret that I am a fan of all things British. The humor, their drama...Dr. Who. All amazing. However, I have yet to really may my splash on the other side of the pond. 

To that end, I want to give two individuals from the UK my ENTIRE audio book collection. That is 23 books...easily a couple of hundred pounds. (Sorry, can't find the funny shaped "L" that symbolizes pounds, so I had to write it out.

What am I talking about when it comes to my ENTIRE audio collection? Well, there are 8 books in the DEAD series, 3 special editions, 4 That Ghoul Ava books, 6 Zomblogs, a short, a zombie redux of 20 or so Grimm's Fairy Tales, and my non-horror book, Dakota.

I get it. Audio books can be a scary idea. But think back to when your parents read you a bed time story. Or, do like me. I have the Audible app on my phone. I plug in my ear phones or turn on my Bluetooth and tune out the world. 

No more listening to bratty children whine in the checkout aisle about wanting candy. When I clean house or work in the yard, I get to be whisked away to something else as I listen to my growing audio book collection. I know it is not for everybody...but what do you have to lose?

So if you want this New Year's prize package, all you need to do is email me at twbrown.maydecpub@gmail.com. Put "I am a fan from the UK" in the subject. And get this, I am selecting TWO winners. You will be notified on New Year's Day. Start 2015 off as a winner! Email me now!

Monday, December 29, 2014

In the cups

No...not like you think
When I was younger, I started collecting sports cards. Then I went on a bit of a KISS bender. Pez dispensers, Potato Heads, a fountain, a lava lamp, all sorts of things. Honestly, my office needs a display case at this point. However, my new thing is coffee mugs. And for Christmas this year, one of my highlights (and there were many) just happened to be a few new mugs. My wife knows me well, and the mugs display that clearly.

Beep! Beep! Bloop!
There were Star Wars mugs, Snoopy, and even the Grinch (my favorite cartoon!) emerged from one box. That is the beauty of being with somebody who knows you and what you love. Gift giving can be such a mine field. I like to think that I am easy. I have often said that if it has to do with KISS, zombies, Dr. Who, Star Wars, Cookie Monster, or the Seattle Seahawks...you simply can't go wrong.

Yep...it's bigger on the inside.
After this most recent Christmas, I have a new studio to record in, and a bunch of coffee mugs to sip from as I look out my window and watch the sun rise. Life is good, and it really is the simple things. So, care to share the view from my living room with me over a cup of coffee?

Friday, December 26, 2014

Zombies attack Egypt!

What if the court magician's of Pharaoh's retinue got in over their heads? When you mess with life and death...it never turns out well.

A graphic novel is coming...stay tuned!
“My Lord, the Hebrews have gone,” Haran-ka prostrated himself at Pharaoh’s back.
Pharaoh said nothing; He stood before the enormous statues of Isis and Osiris. The gleaming white marble reflected the blazing Egyptian sun onto the tiny figure nestled atop the joined arms of the silent gods.
The Pharaoh’s son was dead. The screams of last night’s horrors still echoed in the ears of all those who had survived. Haran-ka felt his own eyes well with bitter tears. Only…he did not weep for the son of Pharaoh. Instead, his tears were for his oldest brother, Isto-Ra, who, at this very moment, lay on the death altar in his parents’ home.
Throughout the land families mourned. The death of the firstborn had come in the night just as The Hebrew promised. These past weeks had been one nightmare after another. The heads of all the royal magicians still adorned the staffs that had once been symbols of their office.
Well…all heads but one.
“Ready the men. Prepare my forces. We march within the hour. I will see this Moses on the end of my spear.” Pharaoh rose slowly, head still bowed over the lifeless body of his son. “And tell Neraphatte to come at once. He will be given the same chance his nine brethren were given.” The venom of anger displaced the sorrow in his voice.
Haran-ka could feel the Pharaoh’s eyes bore into the back of his head as he left the chamber.


Neraphatte gripped his staff so that his knees would not buckle. Why could he not have been called to rid the waters of blood or banish the frogs?
“You will undo what Moses has done or your head shall join the others and your body shall be cast into the endless sands for the scorpions and serpents.” Pharaoh stood in his full battle dress, his spear leveled at Neraphatte’s chest.
 “By Isis and Osiris, I shall do as my Pharaoh demands.” Neraphatte’s eyes dared not drift up from the point on the floor he fixed them to the moment Pharaoh entered the chamber.
“When I return, my son shall greet me…” Pharaoh gripped Neraphatte’s chin, tilting his head up. He locked eyes with his last remaining court magician and his gaze turned ever colder. “Otherwise, your head shall rest on that staff your fist clenches so tightly.”
With that, the pharaoh and his men left. The sounds of an army thirsty for vengeance filled the morning air. Eventually the roar faded as the might of Egypt raced after those responsible for the smell of death that already hung over the city like a lingering cloud.


Neraphatte’s quarters were dark and cluttered. Scrolls lay on tables, benches, and the floor. Still curled up in a corner was the lifeless body of his favorite assistant, Kherfin. Like so many others, his face was locked in that visage of pure terror. Perhaps he had seen this Angel of Death sent by the God of Moses just as he took that last breath.
“I know it is here,” He snatched up one scroll after another. Scanned its contents, and discarded it. How long would it take Pharaoh’s men to deal with the Hebrew slaves? Perhaps two days at best.
Wading through the mess he had added to in his urgency, Neraphatte rushed to the door. A thought came as the sour smell of death tickled the back of his throat. He had no idea if this ritual was worth the papyrus it was written on. If he did some elaborate ritual on the Pharaoh’s son in the palace and it failed…


He laid Kherfin on the long wooden table, brushing everything to the floor with no regard for the many scrolls he spilled the day-old pitcher of wine on. If this failed, none of his belongings would be joining him in the afterlife. He would be killed and never granted the Rites of Death that would allow his life to be weighed before the gods.
Hastily he scrambled about the chamber. Neraphatte rummaged through bins and ransacked his shelves as he gathered all of the oils and other associated items needed for the ceremony. Satisfied that everything was in order, he began to pour fine white sand in the forms of the symbols called for. With oil, he traced still more symbols on the cold, stiff body stretched out before him. He only became aware of how profusely he began to sweat when stinging drops trickled into his eyes.
Calling out to Osiris, and singing the words on the scroll, Neraphatte began to feel a coldness fill the room. It was like that chill on a night where no clouds masked moon or stars; where each star blazed, and skin pebbled up as the air kissed it. His eyes followed the markings as he sang each line. He watched the ink fade into the scroll and vanish! Something tugged deep inside. For a moment, it felt as if the spirit was too large for his mortal body. With tremendous effort, he spoke the final word. He stared perplexed at the scroll; all that remained in his hands was a blank sheet of age-browned papyrus.
A moment of uncertainty mixed with fear struck him like an invisible fist that sent him staggering back from the table. Then…relief. The words remained in his head! Neraphatte had no doubt that he could recall them at will. Every symbol traced on the body seemed to vibrate at the ends of his finger tips. His arms felt strangely limber, and could easily repeat the intricate patterns they wove with shaky effort just moments before when they had spilled the fine white sand around the prone and rigid figure on the table. But, was there any reason to repeat the ritual? So far Kherfin lay still. Cold. Dead.


The sun had just vanished behind distant hills leaving the sky tinged in reddish hues. Several hours passed in agonizing slowness and still nothing had changed in the condition of his acolyte. Neraphatte paced back and forth. His mind was cluttered and full of unsettling images. He was haunted now by the smiling, laughing severed heads of his fellow court magicians. In his visions, they laughed and called him “Fool!” How could he think to wield the power of a god? How could he expect to defeat Death?
A low moan filled the room.
Neraphatte froze. His eyes locked on the body stretched out on the table as one hand clenched slowly into a fist. Moving closer, he felt a rush of triumph as he witnessed Kherfin’s eyelids fluttering open.
Not waiting for another moment to waste, Neraphatte scooped the small urns and jars he would need into his arms and rushed to the door. The Pharaoh would have his son, and he, Neraphatte, the last of Pharaoh’s court magician, would keep his head right where it belonged...firmly atop his shoulders.
“Meet me at the palace as soon as you’re able,” he yelled over his shoulder not waiting for his acolyte to gain his feet. He dashed through the door and down the street.
Kherfin rose.
In a slow, awkward series of movements, feet swung off the edge of the table and landed heavily on the floor. Vacant eyes sought for something. Only one need filled the being that was…but was not…Kherfin.


Queen Meraseti sat on the floor cradling the body of her dead son in her arms. The magician had pleaded that she not disturb the body until the magic took hold and returned him to life. The moment his hand had flinched, she had shoved the frail, sickly looking excuse for a man aside and grabbed her son.
The young prince’s body convulsed violently against her once and stopped. Then, in fits and starts, she felt him move against her. His hands flexed and closed on her arms. She felt his head shift slightly and nuzzle into her. Memories of how she, Queen Meraseti, had nursed her son flooded her mind. She had refused to allow a slave the privilege of tending to the needs of the beautiful boy who had broken free from her womb. Now, it was as if this re-birth brought with it the desire to nurse. She knew that there would be no milk, but she could not stop what was happening for fear that just as suddenly as life had returned, it would vanish again.
Cold lips touched the bare skin at the curve of her left breast. With a defiant gaze, she looked up to see the magician staring with mouth and eyes wide. She dared him to speak a word in protest. For giving her back her son she would not kill him, simply remove his tongue. That would prevent him from spreading any sort of gossip.
A sudden jolt of pain caused Queen Meraseti to cry out. She looked down in time to see her beloved son pull away with a mouthful of her breast. Blood gushed from the jagged and ugly wound, turning her white dress crimson. She looked into blank, white-filmed eyes that displayed no emotion or recognition as her precious son’s blood-soaked face came forward...mouth opening wide. Teeth closed on the tender flesh of her throat and tore.
Queen Meraseti wanted to scream, but nothing came forth except a froth of hot blood. She watched in frozen terror as a thin stream of it shot several feet, splattering the sandals of the magician who still continued to stare…unable to turn away. Darkness began to narrow her vision. Before total blackness fell, she saw her husband’s final remaining royal magician turn and flee like the coward she knew him to be. She thought she heard him whimper something just before he left. Had she lived but a moment longer, she would have heard him shout a name that would echo throughout the empty palace corridors.


Down the dark streets Kherfin wandered. A sudden noise made him turn his head. Something was coming closer. The hunger rose and the painful coldness that filled the thing that had once been Kherfin sought the warmth filling this source nearby.


Ulina sat in the doorway sniffling. Her parents were still praying over the shrouded body of her big brother, Nepara. All the food that had been prepared for today’s feast sat untouched. Nobody wanted to celebrate her eleventh year when so many had died in just one night. Knees pulled up under her chin, she watched the stars reveal themselves in the total blackness above.
A sound caused her to jump just a bit. Somebody stood at the end of the path that led up to her family’s house. None of the lanterns had been lit that would allow a visitor to see clearly up to the door. It also kept Ulina from seeing exactly who stood waiting to be invited up.
Perhaps it was somebody who had remembered that today was her special day! She unfolded her coltish legs and stood. A glance over her shoulder revealed that nobody was moving inside the house. She considered calling out, but did not want to disturb her parents. Besides, they might send whoever it was away, saying that it is a bad time for visitors.
First walking fast, then breaking into a run, Ulina rushed to greet the visitor. Just as she got within arms’ reach, she noticed something that made her halt with a slide in the still warm sand of the walkway. This person smelled like her brother. It was definitely a man, and he had that same sourness that made her stomach churn and had caused her to be out on the steps in the first place.
She thought she recognized something about the man. He worked a couple houses away at the home of one of the Pharaoh’s magicians!
“Acolyte Kherfin?”
Without warning, hands lunged forward, grabbing her shoulders and jerking her off her feet. She thought to scream, but before any sound left her mouth, something clamped down on her tiny throat. White-hot pain seized Ulina, and in a total state of shock, her body coped with the fright and sudden pain the only way it knew how…she fainted.


The warmth filled him. Tearing into his prize, Kherfin immersed himself in the heat that rose like a fountain, pouring forth from the figure in his clutches, and seeping into his coldest places.
For just a moment, the warmth sent a flicker in a part of the mind that had been the living Kherfin. In the horror, during that brief flash of conscientiousness, he dropped the body. Then, just that quickly, the coldness returned in a rush, tightening its grip. That tiny spark was gone forever.
He looked down at the body sprawled near his feet. Much of the warmth he craved was gone, but deep inside he could sense something pulsing faintly. Each pulsation sent a ripple of that much desired heat throughout the tiny figure.
Once again, Kherfin tore into the unmoving form. Finally, he found the prize he sought. Burying his face in the waning warmth that remained, he fed until the coldness completely filled the body he fed from.
A moment later he stumbled down the narrow street in search of new warmth. There was another source nearby and Kherfin was once again so very, very cold.


Neraphatte burst through the wide-open doorway and raced to the room he first performed the ceremony on the cold, dead body of his assistant. Empty! No sign of Kherfin anywhere. Fearing it was useless he still dashed from room to room. Equally useless. He stepped out onto the balcony. “Kher-fin!” he cried out to a strangely quiet city.
The warm night breeze wrapped around him. The stench of death was growing stronger. Looking out into the darkness, past the city, he thought he could spy a faint glow on the horizon. Not the sort you would expect from a large encampment. Instead, this glow seemed to reach up to the heavens. On any other night he would think to investigate…but not now. Now he must find Kherfin.


Side-by-side, but oblivious to one another, Queen Meraseti and her son Prince Haru-Tanis moved haltingly along the smoothly polished stone floor. The wide passage allowed for them to be several feet apart. Yet, they felt drawn close to one another even though neither had any idea why.
Through a gauzy curtain warmth awaited. A large, open sleeping area for the servants who tended to Prince Haru-Tanis directly sat at the end of this long corridor. A few lanterns burned along the way casting a soft glow over everything.
Together they stumbled into the curtains; neither one slowing nor bothering to push them aside with their hands. Queen and Prince staggered into the circular room. Some of the servants awoke, looking up from their beds at the two dark shadows that stood outlined in the entryway.
Moments later, there was screaming. Trained since birth to endure whatever royal punishment was given, all thirty-two of the servants died at the hands and mouths of their master and his mother.


Making unsteady progress down the stairs, the gore-soaked girl paused on the path that led to the street. Stepping out onto the small landing from the darkness of the house to join her were a man and a woman. Dressed in black gowns of mourning, it was impossible to see the bloody holes torn in both of them in the darkness of night.
The woman moved first to join her daughter. The husband tried to follow, but toppled from the small rise and landed with a splatter. Slowly climbing to his feet, he set off down the path after the other two figures. A long, ropy strand uncoiled from his stomach to lie on the ground like a nest of serpents. He continued to walk away oblivious, only pausing slightly as something tugged just for a moment before tearing away.
Animals of all sorts crawled from the shadows to investigate. None of them fed on the vile strand. Not even the rats.


Neraphatte reached the palace for the second time that night. He heard screams of anguish and fear as he climbed the many stairs that led to the Grand Entry.
He had searched frantically, but found no sign of Kherfin near the house. He could be any place in the city by now. He must see to the prince.
The main door remained ajar. Just as he had left it when he had run from the Queen and her son. The child had been like an animal, tearing into the flesh of his mother. So much blood. There must have been something he had done wrong.
He stood in the middle of the hall thinking. This had been where Pharaoh had given his edict. Well…he had obeyed. Hadn’t he? The son of Pharaoh was…alive?
Now that was the predicament. Neraphatte had not stayed once the boy had torn into his mother’s throat. Perhaps that had been some instinctive reaction, like how the body shudders when exposed to cold air after being submerged into a tub of hot water.
He must find the boy. That was all he could do. Of course, the screams he heard as he approached the palace cast doubts. Deep down, the feeling that he was only fooling himself did a poor job of hiding.
His gaze paused on the nine stakes with the impaled heads of his fellow court magicians. Each face seemed caught in between an expression of pain and peace. Perhaps death was not such a terrible thing.


The trio had grown. All down the street there were more stumbling out of doorways. Somewhere, there would be warmth. They could sense it as they passed darkened houses. Each time they would enter in search of it. Yet, when they left they were once again unsatisfied and cold. Each instance they found the opportunity to bathe in that warmth, the satisfaction from it was more brief.
In ones…twos…packs…they converged on random houses. There seemed no reason or pattern as the blood-soaked horde added to the woes of an already demoralized Egypt. Numb from the previous night’s terror, people ignored the screams and wails of their neighbors until it was too late. Those that did answer did so alone and fell easy prey.


Kherfin turned. Nothing that was his former self remained. Yet, he was driven to seek out that one source. It called to him. With no control of his actions, he walked on. It was closer now. He did not understand the flickering signals in the small part in his brain that remained. He simply allowed them to lead him.
As the sun began to crest the distant hills of sand, he arrived. His feet stopped and, for just a moment, Kherfin stood unmoving. The head turned first, then the body followed. Step by grueling step he climbed. The coldness in his body seemed to reach out for that warmth.
Behind him, the streets were dotted with more just like him. Some walked, some crawled having lost one, both, or parts of their legs. A low moan had begun. First it was like a buzz heard when that swarm of locusts had arrived. Many of the living who remained had shut up their houses fearing, perhaps, their return. Any who saw the true source of that horrible noise that had grown as the numbers swelled, as they all converged on that one focal point, also barred their doors. Many began to pray; some even to the mysterious God of Moses.


Neraphatte opened his eyes. He found the pale and drawn face of Queen Meraseti only inches from his own. The stench of death poured from her, filling his nostrils with a smell so thick it was as if he were breathing through sand.
The gaping hole in her throat that still oozed dark fluid gurgled slightly as she opened her mouth. A cold hand brushed his face and many others clutched at his clothing, but none of them did anything more. They all stood…waiting.
He had run down empty palace corridors in search of the Pharaoh’s wife and son. When he found them, it was as if his mind refused to accept what it saw.
Neraphatte had fainted.
When he awoke, and that alone had been a surprise after the bloody carnage he had walked into, he had found a sea of legs on all sides. Looking up he saw the queen, the prince, and several of the royal servants. Each torn, mutated and covered with blood and gore. There were smells that were worse than death.
Yet, he was whole.
He climbed slowly to his feet, knowing that at any moment they would fall on him and tear him open in the manner done to them. His heart thundered as all who surrounded him turned almost in unison toward him. At first, none of them moved.
Neraphatte held his breath. Partially to avoid breathing in what could only be the most pure essence of what was death. But also, because he was so frightened that he momentarily forgot how. Finally, he gasped and sucked in a lungful. This made him gag. A shuffling sound of several feet moving had caused him to close his eyes in preparation for the violent death sure to come.
That was when he had opened his eyes. They crowded in, but none of them attacked him. There were no teeth ripping into his flesh, no hands tearing him open to feast on his innards as had clearly happened to some who stood close by.
Blood, sticky and cool, smeared his face, arms, and robe as more and more they seemed to push at one another in an effort to be close to him…to touch. For several moments, Neraphatte stood in the center of the room. Finally he had to move. Either they would fall on him and kill him or they would not. No matter what, he could no longer stand still.
He waded through the bodies. Their hands continued to reach out and grasp, but then, as he continued to walk, they would let go. They would follow.


Kherfin reached the top stair. Below him, a hundred or more just like him were climbing up. As a whole, they could sense that what they sought was very near. Their moans seemed to grow louder. Throughout the city, the smell of fear began to mask the stench of death.


Neraphatte glanced at the heads of those he had once called brothers. Only he remained of the Pharaoh’s magicians. He had done what each of them had failed to do.
He, Neraphatte, had overcome the final and most devastating plague of the God of Moses. The Pharaoh would have no choice but to acknowledge his power. Perhaps he would be granted his own temple, or even better, a city.
He reached the large double doors that led out of the palace. Behind him, the queen, the prince, and all those servants, still followed. Pulling the doors open, the golden light of the sun flooded in. Light and warmth rushed to meet his face.
And Kherfin.
Standing before him was his favorite assistant. Blank eyes stared out of a face empty of any sort of recognition. For a moment, Neraphatte once again feared for his life as cold hands reached out and grasped his arms. Looking past Kherfin, he saw perhaps a couple hundred more on the stairs and in the main street that led to the palace.
A low moan grew for just a moment, then faded in a sigh from the throng that sought him. Neraphatte smiled. Yes, the Pharaoh would indeed be grateful.
Or else.


The dust cloud grew nearer. It seemed very small if it were indeed Pharaoh and his army. Neraphatte stood at the gates the Pharaoh would enter, victorious from destroying the rebel Moses and his Hebrews.
Finally, the individual chariots could be made out. Something was very peculiar indeed. There were so few. Perhaps things had not gone as smoothly as expected. Perhaps this Moses and his god had more tricks at the ready.
Oh well, at least he, Neraphatte, royal magician, had succeeded. At his side, the small figure seemed to grow restless. The prince began to pull away. As the Pharaoh’s chariots drew to a halt in a cloud of dust, Neraphatte let go his hold on the young prince’s shoulders.

Over the din of the pounding on the gates at his back, Neraphatte announced, “I present your son, my Pharaoh!” 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A horrific Christmas Story.

As the season pounces on us...I want to wish you all the very best. Over the year I have met some wonderful people and made a few REAL friends. So, as I will not be here for the next few days in order to spend the holidays with my family, I leave you this little story...

Yes, Rindy, There is a Santa Clause
By TW Brown

Rindy Farmer peeked out from the shadowy doorway. This house had been a good find, sitting all by itself on a hill looking out over a vastness that everyone was pretty sure must be somewhere in Wyoming. A steady rain continued to fall, adding to the gloom felt by everybody the past few days. Nobody could be absolutely certain, but the general consensus placed it to be sometime in December. This would be the third Christmas since them. Most folks called them zombies, not Rindy. That was the nickname she had given her little brother Zimbalist—named after some long dead television star that her dad liked when he was little.
When her parents brought him home the first day and told her the name they had picked, she wrinkled her nose in distaste. From that day, he’d been ‘Baby Zombie’ to her. He was dead now.
Both times.
Same as her parents.
At age twelve, Rindy Farmer had been trapped in a bathroom while her mom, dad, and little brother clawed at the door. Then, the soldier came. His name was Morgan, and he had shot each of them in the head.
He saved Rindy.
Over the next two years, she traveled with Corporal Morgan. He taught her to shoot. He also taught her not to shoot. Noise always brought more of them. That was why he also taught her how to use a knife, a spear—for jabbing, not throwing—and a bow and arrow. He showed her how to search a room and then secure it after ensuring an escape route existed.
He taught her other stuff, too. He taught her how to tell if a can of food was bad, how to make fire with a flint and the blade of her machete. And he taught her how to hide.
“Never trust anybody,” Corporal Morgan said time and again. “Especially men.”
“You’re a man.” Rindy had pointed out the obvious the first time.
“Yep,” Corporal Morgan agreed. “And my daughter was about half your age.”
They got her?”
The corporal nodded. “But not everybody had daughters. Some men will see you differently.”
Rindy knew what Corporal Morgan wasn’t saying…was too embarrassed to say. The past few years, she had seen gruesome examples of exactly why he had given that warning.
Two hundred and thirteen days ago, Corporal Morgan died. Then, he sat back up. Rindy put him down. Then, unlike with her brother and parents, Rindy was able to take the time to bury him. Afterwards, she had been alone for almost a month. Just like when she travelled with Corporal Morgan, sometimes there were others; sometimes not. One morning, twenty-six days after she buried Corporal Morgan, Rindy discovered a motel all by itself on an empty stretch of what was left of a highway. That wasn’t a very big deal. The big deal was finding Marjorie, Brad, and Amber.
Marjorie was only a few years older than Rindy. She was Brad and Angie’s big sister. She was also very pregnant. She and her brother and sister didn’t have a Corporal Morgan. They had found out the hard way that they couldn’t just trust anybody. Especially men.
Brad, age nine, and Amber, age seven, didn’t talk anymore. Marjorie told Rindy that they had seen things. Rindy didn’t ask. She didn’t want to know. The four of them lived in one motel room together for a week. Rindy didn’t like staying in one place too long.
One morning, she woke up, ready to say farewell to Marjorie, Amber, and Brad. Only, Marjorie wasn’t there. She checked in the bathroom…empty. She went outside, peering through the dusty plastic blinds first just like she’d been taught.
In the room just to the left, the door was open. Rindy peeked inside, finding Marjorie on the bed. Something was sticking out between her legs. It looked like tiny feet. Marjorie was dead…she didn’t have a Corporal Morgan. Rindy covered Marjorie with a blanket and left the room closing the door behind her.
Just leaving the two little ones wasn’t a choice. After all, where would she be if Corporal Morgan had just left her behind? So, she went into the room and woke up Brad and Amber. After breakfast—the last can of beef stew—Rindy explained what happened and held them as they cried. It was okay to cry, Corporal Morgan said. Holding everything in wasn’t good for you. When things happened that upset her, he always told her, “One good cry…get it all out and move on. It ain’t like the old day when you had time to let one tiny problem own you for weeks.”
Rindy let them cry. It was obvious that they needed it, because they cried for a long time. Then something strange happened, Brad stood up and asked, “Can we leave? I don’t want to stay where my sister died.” 
Little Amber got up next to her brother and wiped her red, runny nose with her sleeve and sniffled. “Me, too.”
Rindy helped them gather their few belongings and they began walking up the long, empty road. Two days later they met Ryan and Penny; they were both twenty-five. Ryan was a cook and Penny was a dancer. Rindy tried not to giggle when Amber asked if Penny could teach her to dance.
The two had met at a FEMA evacuation center. One night the soldiers in charge simply up and left. Ryan said it got bad fast. A couple of men were ‘hurting’ Penny when he found them. He had a .22 pistol and shot one of the men. The other man walked away. That night Ryan and Penny left the FEMA center. They’d been on the road ever since.
The five of them travelled together. Twice they thought they’d found a place to hold up through the winter. Once, a large gang rolled into the area. Nobody wanted to wait to find out if they were friendly, and they slipped out under the cover of night.
The second place, a non-descript house in a partially burned down development seemed perfect. Even though many of the houses had burnt down, the whole community was behind a waist-high wall. A stone’s throw away, a river swept past. Ryan said it was the Platte River. The blessing became a curse when a terrible storm thundred through. For three days they watched as the river flowed over its banks, creeping just as slowly and steadily across the flat plain as any zombie. Every hour it came closer to the houses. Eventually, water began flowing down the razor-straight grid of streets.
They travelled for two more weeks when they found the biggest, most amazing house Rindy had ever seen. It sat on a hill looking over a valley that stretched off to the east and west. The valley was bordered by enormous rocky cliffs to the north and the south.
Unlike many houses these days, this one still had most of its windows intact. It stood three stories high and had a huge fireplace inside that seemed bigger than Rindy’s bedroom in her old house with mom, dad, and ‘baby zombie’. The only disappointment proved to be the pantry. Easily the size of a small apartment, it was full of bags and bins. These people had obviously not believed in food out of a can. Not a single box of macaroni and cheese. There were a variety of herbs and spices…all rotten and useless.
Looking around, they found a large plot that Ryan said was a garden. Of course it was dead and full of weeds, but Ryan said it held promise. It looked like they had found not just their winter home, but maybe a place that they could stay. At least that’s what Ryan and Penny kept saying. Rindy wasn’t so sure. She didn’t like staying any place too long.
The days grew shorter, colder, and gloomy. Rindy continued to teach Brad and Amber the things Corporal Morgan taught her. Sometimes Ryan and Penny watched, whispering back and forth. For some reason, watching her, Brad, and Amber train seemed to make them sad.
One morning, Rindy was out early before the sun came up. She’d made herself a breakfast; roasting a chunk of pumpkin and eating it with her fish that Penny caught and smoked a few days before. She liked going out early by herself. The first day, she’d come back with three rabbits. That had been quite a feast. She hadn’t been out twenty minutes when she saw it: an enormous deer.
An hour later, she, Ryan, and Penny were hauling the field-stripped carcass back to the house. While Rindy and Penny went to work cutting it up, Ryan and Brad went foraging for some editable winter greens. Ryan was really good at identifying plants.
Late that afternoon, Ryan and Brad returned. Ryan was very excited. The two had gone off searching for some greens and hopefully a few herbs he could use to spruce up the night’s meal. They found a road, mostly washed out. Curiosity getting the better of them, they’d followed it. It was Brad who found the sign: Elkhart 2 mi. A town was a mere two miles away!
“You know what that means?” Ryan asked.
“That we’ll need to be more careful and keep our eyes open for roamers and stragglers,” Rindy said.
“Gloomy much?” Penny snorted.
“It means that we might be able to salvage some useful stuff,” Ryan ignored Rindy.
“It will be like a shopping spree,” Penny said, sounding like she’d just won the grand prize on a game show.
That night, everybody sat around the fire, eating venison, a bitter salad that Amber took one taste of and refused to take another, cups of steaming hot water from the creek nearby, and the big surprise that Ryan had kept hidden and sent Brad for once dinner was done…apples!  One of the houses on the outskirt of the newly discovered town had a pair of apple trees in the yard. They were kinda shriveled, but everybody snacked away with ear-to-ear grins.
“You went into town?” Penny asked.
“Naw,” Ryan shook his head, “just this one house on the outskirts.”
That night, the rest of the talk centered on the possibilities of what they might find. The next day, Ryan and Penny left early with empty backpacks. They were gone all that day and night. The next day, they came back with full packs and huge smiles.
“We got the makings of a regular feast,” Ryan crowed. “Just in time for Thanksgiving.”

“Did you find turkey?” Amber climbed up onto a stool next to the counter as Ryan and Penny unloaded their packs.
“Nope, but we got venison, just like the pilgrims ate, and…” He produced two bottles carefully wrapped. “I found corn syrup.”
“Ohhhkay,” Rindy raised an eyebrow.
“The perfect sweetener, along with some cinnamon and ginger I found. I think I can make something close to pumpkin pie. Just without the crust,” Ryan explained.
This made everybody smile. The next day, while she was out in the morning, Rindy bagged five quail. To make things even better, she found a nest with seven newly hatched eggs. She bundled up the chicks and returned to the house.
“You’re lethal with that bow and arrow,” Ryan said. Rindy scowled and Ryan raised his hands. “Young lady…sorry.”
“That’s pretty close to turkey,” Penny offered. “But what’s with the little peepers?” she asked, tilting her head at the cluster of chicks Rindy arranged carefully in the empty kitchen sink, nestled in a ratty sweatshirt.
“Maybe we can raise ‘em and use their eggs,” Rindy shrugged.
“That’s not a bad idea at all,” Ryan admitted.
That night, they decided it was close enough to Thanksgiving. The meal was great, and everybody loved Ryan’s pumpkin custard. None of them could remember being that full—that satisfied—in a long time.
“All we need is the Detroit and the Dallas games and it would be just like old times,” Ryan said as he undid the button on his pants and stretched out on the couch.
“You were into that?” Penny scoffed.
“I’m a guy aren’t I?”
“I miss the Black Friday shopping with my sister and a few friends,” Penny admitted sheepishly.
“You are one of those people?” Ryan sat up so that Penny could sit at the other end of the couch. Amber had taken to following the woman everywhere and climbed up to nestle under her arm.
“And I suppose you were the type that did all his Christmas shopping on Christmas Eve.”
“Christmas?”  Amber’s head popped up. “With Santa Claus?”
Everybody looked at each other, hoping they would speak. Rindy watched Ryan and Penny raise eyebrows at each other and shrug.
“Well…” Ryan began, drawing that first word out. “Now that we have a house to live in…I don’t see why not.”
Rindy felt her mouth fall open. What could he be thinking?  Her eyes burned into the side of his head until he finally glanced her way. What? Ryan mouthed. Rindy’s eyes flash from Amber and back.
“Won’t the monsters get him?” Amber looked up at Penny with the sincere concern that only a child seemed so adept at expressing with just their eyes and their hands clasped delicately under their chin.
“Ummm…well…no,” Penny answered, caught off-guard. “His reindeer are too quick, and will protect Santa.”
Rindy stormed out of the room, heading upstairs. She heard more talking followed by squeals of laughter from Amber as she stalked into the room that she’d claimed. It caught the rising sun in the morning—when it wasn’t obscured by clouds. It helped her remember something that Corporal Morgan used to say a lot. “If you see the sun come up, then you’ve made it through the hardest part.”
Laying on her bed, the food in her stomach suddenly felt like a lead ball. It didn’t matter that Ryan and Penny were older; Brad and Amber were her responsibility. She couldn’t have little Amber’s hopes riding on some imaginary character from a world that was long since dead. Those days were gone. If this were that old world, Amber would be at about the age when Santa ceased to exist.
“Hey,” Ryan stuck his head inside the door. Rindy rolled onto her stomach, turning her face away from him. She had started crying for some stupid reason.
“What’s so wrong with letting Amber have a little piece of childhood?” Ryan asked. He sat down at the foot of Rindy’s bed. “It can’t hurt.”
“Yes,” Rindy insisted. “It most certainly can.”
“When none of her Christmas wishes are there on whatever day you decided is Christmas Day…”
“You know what she asked her?”
“What?” Rindy rolled over, curious.
“Candy and a Barbie.” Ryan laughed.
“In case you haven’t noticed, nobody makes that stuff anymore.”
“Actually,” Ryan smiled. “I found a bunch of hard candy in the grocery store. I’m pretty sure that some of it might still be edible.”
“After over three years?”
“It’s not like hard candy spoils. As long as no holes were made in the package, it should still be okay. And after this long…even if it’s stale, who’d notice?”
“And the Barbie?” Rindy prodded.
“A bit more difficult,” Ryan conceded. “But there has to be one in that town, if not in the store. We may have to wash it up a bit, but that is no biggy.”
“I still don’t like it.” Rindy scowled.
“Keep up that attitude and Santa won’t bring you anything.” Ryan laughed again and left.
Rindy laid on her back staring up at the ceiling. There’s no such thing as Santa Claus, Rindy thought. Still, she couldn’t help but let her mind wonder a bit. Had it really been over a decade since she sat on Santa’s lap?  She’d been six—only a year younger than Amber is now—and it would be the last year that she believed. All thanks to Richard Gulley…the stupid boy that sat in front of her in Miss Miller’s class.
A dress she thought. How wonderful would it be to wear girl’s clothes again?  And strawberries. Take that, Santa. Rindy drifted off thinking of pretty dresses and bowls of red, ripe strawberries. As she slept, she smiled.
The next morning, Ryan was gone. He must have gotten up awfully early. Rindy was awake an hour before sunrise and already fitted out to do some hunting. Penny was a whiz at curing and drying meat. It would be wise to stock up now. Better too much than not enough. Corporal Morgan taught her that.
When she came back from hunting, nobody was outside. That wasn’t such a big deal considering that it had been raining all day. Rindy was soaked and couldn’t wait to warm up in front of the fire.
As soon as she opened the door, she went on her guard. It was silent. Drawing her machete, she crept down the entry hall. She could see the flickering glow of the fireplace and hear the occasional pop of burning wood.
Reaching the end of the hall, she paused and took a deep breath. She couldn’t smell anything. At least not anything dead. Cautiously, from a crouch well below eye level just like Corporal Morgan taught, she peeked around the corner.
“Surprise!” Penny, Amber, and Brad yelled.
In the corner, a huge pine tree reached almost up to the twenty foot high vaulted ceiling. Sparkling decorations of all kind glittered in the light of the fire. Underneath it was a dozen packages wrapped in…
“We found some fancy dresses in a box. Fortunately, the woman must have been huge, so there was plenty of material,” Penny laughed.
“Penny said that a Christmas tree would help Santa Claus find us, “Amber squealed with delight.
Rindy glanced at Penny and Brad who stood behind the excited little girl with dopey grins on their faces. She slid the machete back in its sheath and walked the rest of the way into the room. “It’s really nice, Amber,” she said, trying her best to sound enthusiastic.
As soon as she was able to pry herself away from the happy little girl, she went to the kitchen to clean the two rabbits she’d bagged. She was just finishing wrapping up the waste and cleaning the area when she heard Penny scream.
Drawing her blade, Rindy rushed towards the commotion. She heard Amber’s crying above everything else and it wrapped around her stomach like an icy fist. Reaching the door, she skidded to a stop. “Step away from him,” Rindy said, surprised at the calm in her voice.
Everyone was gathered around Ryan. He looked up at her, the knowledge already in his eyes. His face was waxy and covered in sweat. Rindy only glanced briefly at the left arm wrapped in bloody rags.
Penny was verging on hysterics, which in turn amplified the stress to both Amber and Brad. Rindy took a deep breath, the smell of death tickling her nostrils, fouling her mouth with its rank familiarity. She walked down the stairs, and as she reached Brad, she guided him over next to his sister. Then, with a gentle nudge, she sent Penny to stand beside the children. With very little effort, she’d managed to get the three in a group and place herself between them and Ryan.
“You shouldn’t have gone alone,” Rindy whispered. Then, louder, she said, “Everybody go back inside.”
“What are you going to do?” Penny sniffled.
“Inside,” Rindy repeated, keeping her eyes on Ryan.
“Go!” Ryan added, looking past Rindy.
The two waited, Rindy never taking her eyes off Ryan until the door closed with a loud, ominous click. Once they were alone, he unslung the pack from his shoulders and held it out to Rindy.
“Found a couple of Barbies and a surprising amount of candy that wasn’t ruined,” Ryan said, then coughed. “Also, found a little .22 pistol that you could probably teach Brad to shoot, earrings for Penny…she said she’d never owned diamonds before, so I figured—”
“You shouldn’t have gone alone,” Rindy snapped, cutting him off. “Is this supposed to make Christmas better?  You going off and getting yourself killed to bring us things?”
Ryan hung his head, instantly taking the steam out of her anger. “I just wanted everybody to have something special,” Ryan rasped.
“And so your present to me is…what?” Rindy waved her machete in the air and pointed it at his injured arm. “I get to watch you die, then put you down?”
“Jesus, kid.” Ryan looked up.
“I’m not a kid,” Rindy snapped back.
“Well maybe you should try it every once in a while,” Ryan said with a warm smile. “That’s why I did this.” He shook the pack that Rindy still hadn’t taken from him. “It makes me sad to see somebody so young…who never had the chance to be a teenager…act like a freakin’ soldier. And the way Amber looks up to you…well…I just wanted her to have a moment of childhood before you turn her into a Rindy action figure.
“I just wanted to give her a Christmas morning, one last visit from Santa Claus before she’s drafted into your army.”  Ryan slumped and the pack fell from his hand.
He seemed to melt as he slowly sunk to the ground. He lay still for a moment. Rindy grabbed the pack and removed it from between her and Ryan. Her eyes stayed fixed on the prone figure in the mud at her feet. The first sign came from the left hand: it twitched once…twice…then curled into a claw, digging furrows in the saturated earth. The head began to rise; the familiar, dry, rattling moan escaped its lips. The face that looked up at Rindy was a lifeless, slack caricature of Ryan.
With one swing, she brought the machete down smashing through the crown of the skull with hand-numbing finality. The body collapsed to the ground as she wrenched the blade free. “There is no such thing as Santa Claus,” Rindy whispered.
That afternoon they stood over the grave that Rindy dug by herself. She’d also dragged the body, dumped it into the hole, and covered it alone. When she was done, she went inside and gathered everybody. Penny had found a bible, and read Psalms 23. Then, each of them said something nice about Ryan and returned inside.
That night, she and Penny wrapped the items they had found in the pack. Together, they agreed to wait a week to celebrate Christmas. It just didn’t seem right to skip it after Ryan had gone through so much to make it happen.
The night they declared as Christmas Eve, Penny recited as much as she could recall of T’was the Night Before Christmas. She and Rindy tucked Amber in, then went downstairs and set out the rest of the presents. Penny went to bed, leaving Rindy alone in front of the tree. She sat for a while listening to the rain. With a yawn, she got up ready for a little sleep before Amber woke the house.
Rindy Farmer peeked out from the shadowy doorway. This house had been a good find sitting all by itself on a hill looking out over a vastness that everyone was pretty sure had to be somewhere in Wyoming. A steady rain continued to fall adding to the gloom felt by everybody the past few days.
Maybe tomorrow would help pull them out of it. Before closing the door, her eyes tried to find the outline of the marker where she buried Ryan. “Merry Christmas,” she whispered into the darkness. As expected, Amber woke everybody bright and early. Rindy rolled over, the chill in the room cold enough to turn her exasperated exhale to a visible fog.
“Rindy!” Amber burst into the room, a ball of child-generated electricity. “Santa came!  Come look!” Then the child dashed out. The sound of another door being flung open was followed by “Penny! Santa came! He came!”
Brad stumbled into Rindy’s room. “We’d better go downstairs before she explodes,” he yawned.
Rindy sat up and threw the covers aside. Instantly her body was pebbled with goose bumps. She looked out her window, but it was so fogged over that she couldn’t see. All that she could tell was that the sun hadn’t risen yet. The faintest hint of light was barely discernable.
As quickly as possible, she pulled on a few layers of clothes. Finally satisfied she went out into the hallway. Amber stood at the head of the stairs dancing excitedly from one foot to the other. She was barefoot, and wearing the long flannel shirt she normally slept in.
“C’mon, Rindy!” she pleaded, darting to her and grabbing her hand.
Penny and Brad came in their wake as they headed down the stairs. Rindy was already trying to figure out how to get this done as quickly as possible in order to get in some hunting. Christmas or not, they needed to continue stocking up on food.
Reaching the landing halfway down the stairs, Rindy froze. She could see outside through the giant picture window. The ground was covered in a blanket of pure white. A wave of warmth hit her, drawing her attention to the fireplace where, mysteriously, a raging fire roared. But that was only the first surprise.
Spilled out across the floor were brightly wrapped packages complete with bows and dangling tags. Three red stockings hung from the mantle above the fireplace, giant candy canes poking from each one. Rubbing her eyes, Rindy continued down the stairs in slow, halting steps. She glanced back at Penny who was wide-eyed and open-mouthed. Brad scooted past, joining Amber in the final dash towards the sea of presents.
As Rindy reached the final steps, Amber hurried back to her, a Barbie clutched in one hand. The other hand shot out holding an envelope. “This has your name on it!” she giggled, then ran back to join her brother who was wading into the pile.
Rindy looked down at the tiny, waxy envelope in her hand. Her name was written elaborately across the top. A picture emblazoned on the front showed a cluster of bright red strawberries. She shook the envelope, hearing the whispering rattles of the tiny seeds inside.
“This one’s for you, too!” Brad came up to her with a package wrapped in blue foil with a silver bow. The tag that dangled from it was in the same script with her name.
Sitting on the stairs, she opened the package to discover a beautiful black dress. Her eyes began to water a bit. She blinked to clear them and noticed something written on the back of the tag. She picked it up and read: Yes, Rindy, there is a Santa Claus.