A Story by Jay Wilburn
He had to brace his boot against the mailman’s face to get the blade of the ax to come loose from its skull. He was careful to hold the tool as he had been taught in Boy Scouts a lifetime ago, with his finger’s along the metal side so that he didn’t accidentally chop his leg and infect himself with the mailman’s blood. The Scout Master had not mentioned mailmen’s blood or infection, but the concept was the same.
He stood still in the woods a moment longer, straddling the body and holding the ax, as he listened to see if anyone else had been alerted to the sound of mailman murder. The leaves lay silent and the animals were on their way to other places. He kicked the postman’s body before going to retrieve the firewood. He couldn’t be sure if this was the one that had killed Leo. Judging the distance from where his son had died to this remote mountainside, it seemed unlikely, but one never could tell. If he killed enough mailmen, he might get the right one someday.
He grabbed up the rope noosed around the cut logs next to the scarred stump and dragged a path through the leaves toward his cabin. If any police or curious hikers followed the trail, he’d be ready for them too. He was far beyond burying the bodies now.
The end of the wrapped logs caught the dead man’s shoe, causing the whole corpse to shudder in the bed of crisp leaves. He paused again, looking back to be sure the victim hadn’t decided to get up again for some more fall fun. He smiled as the blank eyes stared up at him from both sides of the divided forehead.
“You know where to find me, if you change your mind, brother,” he told the body, as he dragged his firewood down the slope.
He had to use the ax on three more skulls once he got back to the cabin. None of them were mailmen and they probably had not been hikers either. The woman still wore one high heel dress shoe strapped tightly around her broken ankle.
He drove the blade of the gory ax into the block in front of the cabin. He almost never split his wood around the cabin anymore, as it always seemed to bring the hungry dead around in an endless parade. He would put the ax away later. Today was going to be busy.
This close to the cabin, he decided to drag the bodies to the cliff on the edge of the property and dump them over. He peered over the edge at the pile. The infected decayed a bit faster once their brains were stirred up a little, but they still decomposed slowly. Even bacteria didn’t want anything to do with them. If they weren’t skeletons by spring, he would burn them at the base of the cliff.
Back in the cabin, he pulled the last of the Dutch ovens out of the broad mouth of the fireplace. Most of his gear he stole from stores and other cabins, but his best pots had come off the walls of a Country themed restaurant three exits up on the highway. They were from the 19th century and were being used as decorations.
He scooped out the cornbread and put it on the table next to the beans, corn, mashed potatoes, gravy, and sweet potato casserole. The food was framed in the middle of seven complete settings of good china, crystal glasses, and real silver utensils polished clean the night before.
Lastly, he returned to the fireplace with a platter and worked the goose off the spit. The skin was seared black on one side, but he knew from experience that the meat underneath would be sweet and delicious.
Turkey would have been more traditional for Thanksgiving and there were plenty of them in the woods. He had turkey several times during the year. Sometimes, they walked right by the cabin in slow moving flocks. He would draw back his bow and down one right from his bedroom window. Today, he wanted a bird with more meat on its frame.
He missed cranberry sauce this year. He used his last can last year and the nearest fresh cranberries were probably on unpicked bushes a few hundred miles away.
He pulled out his chair at the head of the table and poured himself a glass of well water. The familiar scratching at the door started again. The sound of the passionless, broken nails against the wood did not terrify him anymore like it once did. Before Thanksgiving lunch was over, it would turn to the padding of blue and grey palms. Then, it would be the pounding of dozens of dead fists before the meal was over. He would have to get up at least once to stoke the fire and shoot the zombies before he finished eating.
He folded his hands to pray, but before the blessing he looked around at the six empty chairs at the table. The chair next to him would have been Leo’s, but his youngest son never sat in it. They were packing to escape the plague when Leo broke away from his mother’s grip as the garage door opened. The mailman was not there to deliver letters that day. He had several dry bite marks around his face and neck. He had lifted little Leo to his mouth before the family could get to him. By the time he had fumbled the shovel off the wall and got outside, Caleb, their oldest son, had shoved the zombie down the driveway. It had gotten up and started after another neighbor who was running from her house, holding her throat.
Leo was gone, but would wake up and come after his mother soon enough. It took him and all four of his remaining children to keep Leo’s mom from running right into his snapping teeth. She never forgave him for using the shovel on Leo and not the mailman.
He looked at the chair on his right, which also never had an occupant. It had never occurred to him until that moment that his surviving family had always sat on the other end of the table from him. On the way to the cabin, the car had been pinned in by zombies in a traffic jam. The wheels had spun in both directions, but the dead weight had held them in their metal coffin. Caleb had been the one to take action again. He had bailed out of the sunroof with Jackson’s baseball bat. Jackson had tried to follow Caleb, but their mom had wrapped herself around their second oldest son and kept him from leaving. Jackson would eventually forgive her for that.
Caleb had beat them away from the front of the car and ran ahead, drawing them off the sides of the car and out of the open lane. With his wife still screaming, he had moved the car forward through the space his son had opened and stopped.
Caleb had made it halfway back to the car before the mob brought him down. He had jumped out with no weapon to go after his son and then froze as he watched the zombies crawl over one another. They were like ants as pieces of his son were pulled out bit by bit. Jackson had pulled his father back to the car.
He had celebrated the first Thanksgiving and Christmas after the world ended in the cabin with his wife and three surviving children.
He looked back at another empty chair on the left. Jackson had been bitten pulling his father out of the arms of a bloated zombie in hunter-orange coveralls. He had landed hard on the gravel knocking all the wind out of his lungs while Jackson had continued the struggle. The time he had taken to drag himself back to his feet would cost his family dearly. He had removed the fat monster’s head about ten seconds too late. Jackson had told his father to let his mother know that he forgave her for not letting him go after Caleb and that she should forgive dad for Leo and now Jackson himself. She wouldn’t. She would cry herself to sleep every night for the rest of her life, starting the day he came back from the supply run alone with Jackson’s message. He never told her that he couldn’t bring himself to kill Jackson. His son had to do the job himself. There would be more opportunity to practice later.
He looked back and forth between the two chairs on the far corners of the table. After two weeks, following the day Jackson killed himself, Karen and Marty snuck out of the cabin to play. Their mother had forbidden them to set foot outside ever again and he had not fought her on it. He forgave the last two kids for finally escaping their prison, but he would not forgive himself for letting Elizabeth make them feel like they had to escape to see the sunshine again.
He had come back from chopping wood to Elizabeth calling his name for the first time in two weeks. He had her stay at the cabin, while he tried to pick up their trail. He had found it and followed it to Marty walking around, holding his sister’s bloody sweater in his one remaining arm. He had put down his last remaining son and followed the trail of more than one walker in a wide curve back to the cabin.
A swarm of zombies had gathered around the door of the family cabin, pounding on it. Two of them had fresh blood on their mouths. He had lured them away from the cabin so that he could get clean shots off without accidentally sending a bullet into the home.
He had to call Elizabeth for a half hour before she would finally let him back inside. Karen had been there and was already unconscious from the sickness in her wounds. Elizabeth had slapped him twice, before saying, “Please, finish it outside the cabin. Do it quick before she turns. Bury them, but do it where I will never see the graves. Never!”
He had. He still walked out there once a year to lay out wild flowers. Karen and Marty were the last two bodies he ever buried.
He looked at the empty chair across from him at the end of the table. Shadows floated over the floor and walls through the shaft of sunlight from the window behind him. Shuffling feet made their way up the front steps of the cabin.
When he came back from burying the children, the cabin had been empty. He had looked around until dark and had stood watch through the first night in case Elizabeth came back.
The next morning, he had startled awake, in the very chair he sat in for Thanksgiving, to the sound of pounding fists at the door. He had jumped up and nearly threw open the door before he realized there were zombies on the other side and not his wife. Once he had blasted their heads and started dragging the first one toward the cliff, he had spotted Elizabeth hanging by her neck from a rope tossed over a limb above the edge of the drop off. She had apparently hung there through the night. Two more zombies had been standing at the edge, reaching for her. One had fallen off in the attempt before he got there and he had pushed the other over after the first. Without a word, he had cut the line and let his wife’s body fall to the growing pile of bodies below and then rolled the zombie he had been dragging off on top of her. Then, he had put his knife away and went to get another body.
The following spring, he had gone around to the base of the cliff and found that his wife had been the only skeleton in the pile of dispatched zombies. He had set the pile on fire and went back to start another fire for his dinner. The second Thanksgiving in the cabin and every one after that had been a table for one.
Finally, he closed his eyes and said, “Dear Lord, thank you for your many blessings. I thank you that, in your mysterious and awful wisdom, you have seen fit to allow me, your unworthy servant, to live for another holiday season. Thank you again that you allowed my dear wife to die without becoming a zombie like our children. Forgive her for taking her life in the same manner as Judas. Forgive me for not having the courage to kill Jackson when he asked me to thereby forcing him to do it himself. Please allow them to sit together around your Great Table this Thanksgiving Day. Thank you that I have far more food on my table than I could ever eat. Forgive me for coveting cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and ice. Thank you that I only have one plate and glass to wash.”
“Thank you that I was able to learn how to make my own bullets. Again, bless this food and forgive me for having to yell over those dead souls banging on my door. Thank you that my grandfather used oak and my father replaced the hardware with steel.”
“Thank you for your Son that died for me and was resurrected. I know how hard that was for you, Lord. I had five children die with two sons ‘resurrected,’ but who’s counting? Amen and Amen.”
He filled his plate before getting up and walking around to the door. He fished through the umbrella holder next to his father’s steel hinges. There was an assault rifle, a sawed off shotgun, a .22 rifle, and an umbrella. He had other guns on racks around the house, but these were his doorstep weapons.
He picked up the assault rifle and rested it on his shoulder. He reached up to the metal plate he had installed at eye level in the door. He teasingly referred to it as the mail slot. Only the mailmen didn’t deliver in this slot; he delivered out. He slid it open as dead fingers clawed through the narrow slit. He pushed the barrel of the rifle through at the heads that were too inhuman to know to duck and he declared, “Sorry, brothers, this is a family event. I didn’t send out any extra invitations this year.”
He dragged the decorations out of the storage shed on a tarp around to the front of the house. Decorating Day always made him wish the cabin had an attic. He hoisted the warped box with the pieces of the eight-foot tree in it. It had lights attached, but the generator had been bone dry for years. He hadn’t even bothered to remove the light bulbs in the cabin sockets. There were hundreds of pines around the area that could have served as a live tree, but he hated to sweep up the needles. As he tried to get the tree straight in the base in the front window by the remains of Thanksgiving dinner, he heard a dead visitor shamble through the open door.
He was getting sloppy. He decided to hurry and tighten the last screw in the base. The zombie woman grabbed his ankles and slid him out from under it like an oversized present. She opened her maw and ducked toward the meaty side of his calf. He managed to hook the tree skirt and throw it over her head just in time. She moved from side to side trying to get free, but held tight to his leg. He got hold of the small section for the top of the tree and drove it up into the general direction of the concealed head. The hollow aluminum shaft made a “pong” sound as it popped through. There was a pause before the veiled zombie crumpled into the floor. Thank goodness the skirt was already red although the spreading stain around the treetop was more black than red.
By the time he got up, another zombie in a soiled tuxedo entered the dining room. He lifted the star out of the box and shook it to test its weight. He was tempted to fling it at the skull just above the crooked bowtie, but decided against it. He looked at the silver forks on the table as the formal zombie came around the half wall by the door. Lastly, he pulled the treetop out of the first visitor. Stick with what works, he thought.
“Merry Christmas, brother.”
He had trouble getting the wire loops over the nails outside, hanging the wreaths, even when zombies weren’t shaking his ladder. He left the nails up all year, but he had a hammer on top of the ladder anyway. He hoisted the hammer after he took another moment to straighten the ribbon on the bedroom window’s wreath. As his ladder shook, he regretted how high the windows were in the cabin. When he finally looked down at the hands that couldn’t quite reach the sill, he was thankful again. He then started raining down hammer blows on the dead dirty ladder shakers.
Then, after three attempts, he managed to get the nativity scene up without the zombies stomping through the middle of it.
Next, before putting up the rest of the garland, he stacked the bodies on the tarp and dragged them slowly down toward the cliff.
He finally drove the last plastic candy cane into the ground just before sunset. As he stepped back to admire his work, he realized he had been humming “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” for quite some time. He stopped and mentally added, “Still able to hum Christmas Carols” to his list of things for which he was thankful. He nodded with satisfaction in the dying light just as he heard the gravel at the end of the drive crunch under approaching feet.
When he turned around, he swore he was looking at Caleb’s scarred body coming after him in the long shadows of the trees. Then, he realized it was another mailman. This one was wearing the wide brimmed hat, the heavy mail sack over his shoulder, and had a Christmas card gripped and crumpled in its veined hand. He blinked in shock and the illusion was gone. The lone creature was wearing a blue coat, but the mailbag, the hat, and the Christmas card were gone. He blinked a couple more times, but the mailbag never came back. He flexed his hands inside his work gloves and jerked the ax free of the block. He started down the driveway with the ax over his shoulder. He called out as he went, “Save yourself the trouble, brother. I’ll meet you at the mailbox to deliver your Holiday Cheer!”
Jay Wilburn is a full-time writer of horror and speculative fiction. His Dead Song Legend series follows music collectors during the zombie apocalypse. The Great Interruption follows and apocalypse of a different sort. He has coauthored The Enemy Held Near and A Yard Full of Bones with Armand Rosamilia. Follow his many dark thoughts at his website, his YouTube channel, and on Twitter.