Chapter 15

A MOMENTARY FLASH OF MOLLY

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"By the purple horn of Nigoth, I command thee to boil!" screeched the Warrior Babe. What good was a higher power, after all, if he wouldn't help you cook your ramen noodles? Molly stood over the stove, naked, except for a wide sash from which was slung the scabbard for her broadsword at the center of her back, giving the impression that she had won honors in the Miss Nude Random Violence Pageant. Her skin was slick with sweat, not because she'd been working out, but because she'd chopped up the coffee table with her broken broadsword and burned it, along with two chairs from the dining-room set, in the fireplace. The cabin was sweltering. The power hadn't gone out yet, but it would soon, and the Warrior Babe of the Outland dropped into survival mode a little sooner than most people. It was in her job description.

"It's Christmas Eve," said the Narrator. "Shouldn't we eat something more festive? Eggnog? How about sugar cookies in the shape of Nigoth? Do you have purple sprinkles?"

"You'll get nothing and like it! You are but a soulless ghost that vexes me and stirs in my mind like spiders. When my check arrives on the fifth, you shall be banished to the abyss forever."

"I'm just saying, hacking up the coffee table? Screaming at the soup? I think you could channel your energies in a more positive way. Something in the holiday spirit."

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In a momentary flash of Molly, the Warrior Babe realized that there was a line she could cross, when the Narrator actually became the voice of reason, as opposed to a niggling voice trying to get her to act out. She turned the burner down to medium and went to the bedroom.

She pulled a stool over to the closet and climbed up on it so she could reach to the back shelf. The problem with marrying a guy who was six foot six, is you often find yourself scaling the counters to get to stuff that he placed there for convenience. That, and you needed a riding steam iron in order to press one of his shirts. Not that she did that very often, but if you try to get a crease straight in a forty-inch sleeve once, you're as likely as not to give up ironing altogether. She was nuts already, she didn't need help from trying to perform frustrating tasks

After feeling around on the top shelf, brushing over the spare holster for Theo's Glock, her hand closed on a velvet-wrapped bundle. She climbed down from the stool and took the long bundle to the couch, where she sat down and slowly unwrapped it.

The scabbard was made of wood. Somehow it had been laminated with layers of black silk, so that it appeared to drink the light out of the room. The handle was wrapped in black silk cord and there was a cast bronze hand guard with a filigreed dragon design. The ivory head of a dragon protruded from the pommel. When she pulled the sword from the scabbard, her breath caught in her throat. She knew immediately that it was real, it was ancient, and it had to have been exorbitantly expensive. It was the finest blade she had ever seen in person, and a tashi, not a katana. Theo knew she would want the longer, heavier sword for working out, that she would spend hours training with this valuable antique, not lock it in a glass case to be looked at.

Tears welled up in her eyes and the blade turned to a silver blur in her vision. He had risked his freedom and his pride to buy her this, to acknowledge that part of her that everyone else seemed to want to get rid of.

"Your soup is boiling over," said the Narrator, "you sentimental sissy-girl "

And it was. She could hear the hiss of the water hitting the hot burner. Molly leaped to her feet and looked around for a place to set the sword. The coffee table had long since gone to ash in the fireplace. She looked to the bookshelf under the front window, and in that second there was a deafening snap as the trunk of a big pine gave way outside, followed by lighter crackles and snaps as it took out branches and smaller trees on the way to the ground. Sparks lit up the night outside, and the lights went out as the entire cabin shook with the impact of the tree hitting in the front yard. Molly could see the downed power lines out by the road arcing orange and blue through the night. Silhouetted in the window was a tall dark figure, standing there,just looking at her.

Although a lot of single people attended, the Lonesome Christmas party was never supposed to have been a pickup scene, an extension of the holiday musical chairs that went on at the Head of the Slug. People did occasionally meet there, become lovers, mates, but that wasn't the purpose. Originally it was just a get-together for people who had no family or friends in the area with whom to spend Christmas, and who didn't want to spend it alone, or in an alcohol-induced coma, or both. Over the years it had become somewhat more  -  an anticipated event that people actually chose to attend instead of more traditional gatherings with friends and family.

"I can't imagine a more heinous horror show than spending the holidays with my family," said Tucker Case as Theo rejoined the group. "How about you, Theo?"

There was another guy standing with Tuck and Gabe, a balding blond guy who looked like an athlete gone to fat, wearing a red Star Fleet Command shirt and dress slacks. Theo recognized him as Joshua Barker's stepfather/mom's boyfriend/whatever, Brian Henderson.

"Brian," Theo said, remembering the guy's name at the last second and offering his hand. "How are you? Are Emily and Josh here?"

"Uh, yeah, but not with me," Brian said. "We sort of had a falling-out."

Tucker Case stepped in. "He told the kid that there was no Santa Claus and that Christmas was just a brilliant scheme cooked up by retailers to sell more stuff. What else was it? Oh yeah, that Saint Nicholas was originally famous because he brought back to life some children who'd been dismembered and stuffed into a pickle jar. The kid's mom threw him out."

"Oh, sorry," Theo said.

Brian nodded. "We hadn't been getting along that well."

"He sort of fits right in with us," Gabe said. "Check out the cool shirt."

Brian shrugged, a little embarrassed. "It's red. I thought it would be Christmasy. Now I feel  - »

"Ha," Gabe interrupted. "Don't worry about it. The guys in the red shirts never make it to the second commercial break." He punched Brian gently in the arm in a gesture of nerd solidarity.

"Well, I'm going to run out to the car and grab another shirt," said Brian. "I feel silly. I have all my clothes in the Jetta. Everything I own, really."

As Brian walked toward the door, Theo suddenly remembered. "Oh, Gabe, I forgot. Skinner got out of the car. He's rolling in something foul out there in the mud. Maybe you should go with Brian and see if you can get him back in the car."

"He's a water dog. He'll be fine. He can stay out until the party is over. Maybe he'll jump up on Val with muddy paws. Oh, I hope, I hope, I hope."

"Wow, that's kinda bitter," Tuck said.

"That's because I'm a bitter little man," Gabe said. "In my spare time, I mean. Not all the time. My work keeps me pretty busy."

Brian had skulked away in his Star Trek shirt. As he opened one side of the double doors, the wind caught the door and whipped it back against the outside church wall with a gunshot report. Everyone turned to watch the big man shrug sheepishly, and Skinner, muddy and wet to the core, came trotting in, carrying something in his jaws.

"Wow, he's really tracking in a mess," Tuck said. "I never realized the perks of having a flying mammal as a pet before."

"What's that he's carrying in his mouth?" asked Theo.

"Probably a pinecone," Gabe said without looking. Then he looked "Or not."

There was a scream, a long protracted one, that started with Valerie Riordan and sort of passed through all the women near the buffet. Skinner had presented his prize to Val, dropped it on her foot, in fact, thinking that because she was standing near food, and she was still the Food Guy's female (for who could think of food without thinking of the Food Guy?), she would, therefore, appreciate it, and perhaps reward him. She didn't.

"Grab him!" Gabe yelled to Val, who looked up at him with the most articulate glare he had ever seen. Perhaps it was the weight of her M D. that gave it eloquence, but without a word, it said: You have got to be out of your fucking mind.

"Or not," Gabe said.

Theo crossed the room and made a grab for Skinner's collar, but at the last second the Lab grabbed the arm, threw a head fake, then ducked out of Theo's reach. The three men started to give chase, and Skinner frisked back and forth across the pine floor, his head high and proud as a Lippizaner stallion, pausing occasionally to shake a spray of mud onto the horrified onlookers.

"Tell me it's not moving," shouted Tuck, trying to cut Skinner off at the buffet table. "That hand is not moving."

"Just the kinetic energy of the dog moving through the arm," said Gabe, having gone into a sort of wrestling stance. He was used to catching animals in the wild and knew that you had to be nimble and keep your center of gravity low and use a lot of profanity. "Goddammit, Skinner, come here. Bad dog, bad dog!"

Well, there it was. Tragedy. A thousand trips to the vet, a grass-eating nausea, a flea you will never, ever reach. Bad dog. For the love of Dog! He was a bad dog. Skinner dropped his prize and assumed the tail-tucked posture of absolute humility, shame, remorse, and overt sadness He whimpered and ventured a look at the Food Guy, a sideways glance, pained but ready, should another BD come his way. But the Food Guy wasn't even looking at him. No one was even looking at him. Everything was fine. He was good. Were those sausages he smelled over by that table? Sausages are good.

"That thing is moving," Tuck said.

"No, it's not. Oh, yes it is," said Gabe.

There was another series of screams, this time a couple of man-screams among the women and children. The hand was trying to crawl away, dragging the arm along behind it.

"How fresh does that have to be to do that?" Tuck asked.

"That's not fresh," said Joshua Barker, one of the few kids in the room.

"Hi, Josh," said Theo Crowe. "I didn't see you come in."

"You were out in your car hitting a bong when we got here," Josh said cheerfully. "Merry Christmas, Constable Crowe."

" 'Kay," Theo said. Thinking fast, or what seemed like it was fast, Theo took off his Gore-Tex cop coat and threw it over the twitching arm. "Folks, it's okay. I have a little confession to make. I should have told you all before, but I couldn't believe my own observations. It's time I was honest with you all." Theo had gotten very good at telling embarrassing things about himself at Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and confession seemed to be coming even easier since he was a little baked. "A few days ago I ran into a man, or what I thought was a man, but was actually some kind of indestructible cybernetic robot. I hit him doing about fifty in my Volvo, and he didn't even seem to notice."

"The Terminator?" asked Mavis Sand. "I'd fuck him."

"Don't ask me how he got here, or what he really is. I think we've all learned over the years that the sooner we accept the simple explanation for the unexplained, the better chance we have of surviving a crisis. Anyway, I think that this arm may be part of that machine."

"Bullshit!" came a shout from outside the front doors.

Just then the doors flew open, the wind whipped into the room carrying with it a horrid stench. Standing there, framed in the cathedral doorway, stood Santa Claus, holding Brian Henderson in his red Star Trek shirt, by the throat. A group of dark figures were moving behind them, moaning something about IKEA, as Santa pressed a .38 snub-nose revolver to Brian's temple and pulled the trigger. Blood splattered across the front wall and Santa threw the body back to Marty in the Morning, who began to suck the brains out of dead Brian's exit wound.

"Merry Christmas, you doomed sons a' bitches!" said Santa.

Chapter 16

SO

So that sucked.

Chapter 17

HE KNOWS IF YOU'VE BEEN BAD OR GOOD...

While she was horrified by what was going on in the doorway of the chapel, with the gunfire and brain-sucking and the threats, Lena Marquez couldn't help but think: Oh, this is so awkward  -  both my exes are here. Dale was standing there in a Santa suit, mud and gore dripping onto the floor while he roared with anger, and Tucker Case had immediately headed to the back of the room and dived under one of the folding buffet tables.

There was screaming and a lot of running, but mostly people stood there, paralyzed by the shock. And Tucker Case, of course, was acting the consummate coward. She was so ashamed.

"You, bitch!" dead Dale Pearson shouted, pointing at her with the snub-nose .38. "You're lunch!" He started across the open pine floor.

"Look out, Lena," came a shout from behind her. She turned just in time to sidestep as the buffet table behind her rose, spilling chafing dishes full of lasagna onto the floor. The alcohol burners beneath the pans spilled blue flame across the tabletops and onto the floor as Tucker Case stood up with the table in front of him and let out a war cry.

Theo Crowe saw what was happening and pulled an armload of people aside as Tuck barreled through the room, the tabletop in front of him, toward the throng of undead. Dale Pearson fired at the tabletop as it approached, getting off three shots before Tuck impacted with him.

"Crowe, get the door, get the door," Tuck shouted, driving Dale and his undead followers back out into the rain. The blue alcohol flame climbed up Dale's white beard, as well as spilling down Tuck's legs as he pushed out into the darkness. Theo loped across the room and reached outside to catch the edge of the door. A one-armed corpse in a leather jacket ducked around the edge of Tuck's buffet-table barrier and grabbed at Theo, who put a foot on the corpse's chest and drove him back down the steps. Theo pulled the door shut, then reached around and grabbed the other one. He hesitated.

"Close the damned door!" Tuck screamed, his legs pumping, losing momentum against the undead as he reached the bottom of the steps. Theo could see decayed hands clawing at Tuck over the edge of the table; a man whose lower jaw flapped on a slip of skin was screeching at the pilot and trying to drive his upper teeth into Tuck's hand.

The last thing Theo saw as he pulled the door shut was Tucker Case's legs burning blue and steaming in the rain.

"Bring one of those tables over here," Theo shouted. "Brace this door. Jam the table under the handles."

There was a second of peace, just the sound of the wind and rain and Emily Barker, who had just seen her ex-boyfriend shot and brain-sucked, sobbing.

"What was that?" shouted Ignacio Nuñez, a rotund Hispanic who owned the village nursery. "What in the hell was that?"

Lena Marquez had instinctively gone to Emily Barker, and knelt with her arm around the bereft woman. She looked to Theo. "Tucker is out there. He's out there."

Theo Crowe realized that everyone was looking at him. He was having trouble catching his breath and he could feel his pulse pounding in his ears. He really wanted to look to someone else for the answers, but as he scanned the room  -  some forty terrified faces  -  he saw all the responsibility reflected back to him.

"Oh fuck," he said, his hand falling to his hip where his holster was usually clipped.

"It's on the table at my house," Gabe Fenton said. Gabe was holding the buffet table that was braced sideways under the double latches of the church doors.

"Pull the table," Theo said, thinking, I don't even like the guy. He helped Gabe pull the table aside and crouched in a sprinter's stance, ready to go, as Gabe manned the latches.

"Close it behind me. When you hear me scream, 'Let me in, well  - »

Just then there was a crash behind them and something came flying through one of the high, stained-glass windows  -  throwing glass out into the middle of the room. Tucker Case, wet, charred, and covered with blood, pushed himself up from the floor where he had landed and said, "I don't know who parked under that window, but you'd better move your car, because if those things climb on it, they'll be coming through that window behind me."

Theo looked at the line of stained-glass windows running down the sides of the chapel, eight on each side, each about eight feet off the ground and about two feet across. When the chapel had been built, stained glass was at a premium and the community poor, thus the small, high windows, which were going to be an asset in defending this place. There was only one large window in the whole building  -  behind where the altar used to stand, but where now stood Molly's thirty-foot Christmas tree  -  a six-by-ten-foot large cathedral-shaped stained-glass depiction of Saint Rose, patron saint of interior decorators, presenting a throw pillow to the Blessed Virgin.

"Nacho," Theo barked to Ignacio Nuñez, "see if you can find something in the basement to board up that window."

As if on cue, two muddy, decaying faces appeared at the opening through which Tuck had just dived, moaning and trying to get purchase on the windowsill with their skeletal hands to climb in.

"Shoot them!" Tuck screamed from the floor. "Shoot those fucking things, Theo!"

Theo shrugged, shook his head. No gun.

Something flashed by Theo and he spun to see Gabe Fenton running hell-bent-for-leather at the window, holding before him a long stainless-steel pan full of lasagna, evidently intent upon diving through the window in a pastafarian act of self-sacrifice. Theo caught the biologist by the collar, stopping him like a running dog at the end of his leash. His arms and legs flew out before him and he managed to hang on to the pan, but nearly eight pounds of steaming cheesy goodness sailed on through the window, scorching the attackers and Pollocking the wall around the window with red sauce.

"That's it, throw snacks at them, that'll slow them up," shouted Tuck. "Fire a salvo of garlic bread next!"

Gabe regained his feet and jumped right up in Theo's face, or he would have if he had been a foot or so taller. "I was trying to save us," he said sternly to Theo's sternum.

Before Theo could answer, Ignacio Nunez and Ben Miller, a tall, ex-track star in his early thirties, called for them to clear the way. The two men were coming to the broken window with another of the buffet tables. Gabe and Theo helped Ben hold the table against the wall while Nacho nailed the table to the wall. "I found some tools in the basement," Nacho said between hammer blows. Animated dead fingernails clawed at the tabletop as they worked.

"I hate cheese!" screamed the corpse, who had enough equipment to still scream. "It binds me up."

The rest of the undead mob began pounding on the walls around them.

"I need to think," Theo said. "I just need a second to think."

Lena was dressing Tucker Case's wounds with gauze and antibiotic ointment from the chapel's first-aid kit. The burns on his legs and torso were superficial, most of the alcohol fire having been put out by the rain before it could penetrate his clothing, and while his leather bomber jacket had protected him somewhat from his dive through the window, there was a deep cut on his forehead and another on his thigh. One of the bullets that Dale had fired through the table had grazed Tuck's ribs, leaving a gash four inches long and a half inch wide.

"That was the bravest thing I've ever seen," Lena said.

"You know, I'm a pilot," said Tuck, like he did this sort of thing every day. "I couldn't let them hurt you."

"Really?" Lena said, pausing for a moment to look into his eyes. "I'm sorry I was  -  you were  - »

"Actually, you probably couldn't tell, but that thing with the table? Just a really badly executed escape attempt."

Tuck winced as she fastened the bandage over his ribs with some tape.

"You're going to need stitches," Lena said. "Any place I missed?"

Tuck held up his right hand  -  there were tooth marks on the back of it welling up with blood.

"Oh my God!" Lena said.

"You're going to have to cut his head off," said Joshua Barker, who was standing by watching.

"Whose?" Tuck said. "The guy in the Santa suit, right?"

"No, I mean your head," said Josh. "They're going to have to cut off your head or you'll turn into one of them."

Most everyone in the chapel had stopped what they were doing and gathered around Tuck and Lena, seemingly grateful for a point of focus. The pounding on the walls had ceased, and with the exception of the occasional rattling of the door handles, there was only the sound of the wind and rain. The Lonesome Christmas crowd was stunned.

"Go away, kid," said Tuck. "This is no time to be a kid."

"What should we use?" asked Mavis Sand. "This okay, kid?" She held a serrated knife that they'd been using to cut garlic bread.

"That is not acceptable," Tuck said.

"If you don't cut his head off," said Joshua, "he'll turn into one of them and let them in."

"What an imagination this kid has," said Tuck, flashing a grin from face to face, looking for an ally. "It's Christmas! Ah, Christmas, the time when all good people go about not decapitating each other."

Theo Crowe came out of the back room, where he'd been looking for something they could use as a weapon. "Phone lines are down. We'll lose power any minute. Is anyone's cell phone working?"

No one answered. They were all looking at Tuck and Lena.

"We're going to cut off his head, Theo," Mavis said, holding out the bread knife, handle first. "Since you're the law, I think you should do it."

"No, no, no, no, no, no," said Tuck. "And furthermore, no."

"No," said Lena, in support of her man.

"You guys have something you want to tell me?" Theo said. He took the bread knife from Mavis and shoved it down the back of his belt.

"I think you were onto something with that killer-robot thing," Tuck said.

Lena stood up and put herself between Theo and Tuck. "It was an accident, Theo. I was digging Christmas trees like I do every year and Dale came by drunk and angry. I'm not sure how it happened. One minute he was going to shoot me and the next the shovel was sticking out of his neck. Tucker didn't have anything to do with it. He just happened along and was trying to help."

Theo looked at Tuck. "So you buried him with his gun?

Tuck climbed painfully to his feet and stood behind Lena. "I was supposed to see this coming? I was supposed to anticipate that he might come back from the grave all angry and brain hungry, so I should hide his gun from him? This is your town, Constable, you explain it. Usually when you bury a body they don't come back and try to eat your brains the next day."

"Brains! Brains! Brains!" chanted the undead from outside the chapel. The pounding on the walls started again.

"Shut up!" screamed Tucker Case, and to everyone's amazement, they did. Tuck grinned at Theo. "So, I fucked up."

"Ya think?" Theo said. "How many?"

"You should cut his head off over the sink," said Joshua Barker. "That way it won't make as big a mess."

Without a word, Theo reached down and picked Josh up by the biceps, then walked over and handed him to his mother, who looked as if she were going into the first stages of shock. Theo touched his finger to Josh's lips in a shush gesture. Theo looked more serious, more intimidating, more in control than anyone had ever seen him. The boy hid his face in his mother's breasts.

Theo turned to Tuck. "How many?" Theo repeated. "I saw maybe thirty, forty?"

"About that," Tuck said. "They're in different states of decay. Some of them just look like there's little more than bone, others look relatively fresh, and pretty well preserved. None of them seems particularly fast or strong. Dale maybe, some of the fresher ones. It's like they're learning to walk again or something."

There was a loud snap from outside and everyone jumped  -  one woman literally leaping into a man's arms with a shriek. They all fell into a crouch, listening to a tree falling through branches, expecting the trunk to come crashing through the ceiling beams. The lights went out and the whole church shook with the impact of the big pine hitting the forest floor.

Without missing a beat, Theo snapped on a flashlight he'd had in his back pocket in anticipation of a power outage. Small emergency lamps ignited above the front door, casting everyone in a deep-shadowed directional light.

"Those should last about an hour," Theo said. "There should be some flashlights in the basement, too. Go on. What else did you see, Tuck?"

"Well, they're pissed off and they're hungry. I was kind of busy trying not to get my brains eaten. They seemed pretty adamant about the brain-eating thing. Then they're going to IKEA, I guess."

"This is ridiculous," said Val Riordan, the elegantly coiffed psychiatrist, speaking up for the first time since the whole thing had started. "There's no such thing as a zombie. I don't know what you think is happening here, but you don't have a crowd of brain-eating zombies."

"I'd have to agree with Val," Gabe Fenton said, stepping up beside her. "There's no scientific basis for zombieism  -  except for some experiments in the Caribbean with blowfish toxins that put people in a state of near death with almost imperceptible respiration and pulse, but there was no actual, you know, raising of the dead."

"Yeah?" said Theo, giving them an eloquent deadpan stare. "Brains!" he shouted.

"Brains! Brains! Brains!" came the responding chant from outside; the pounding on the walls resumed.

"Shut up!" Tuck shouted. The dead did.

Theo looked at Val and Gabe and raised an eyebrow. Well?

"Okay," Gabe said. "We may need more data."

"No, this can't be happening," said Valerie Riordan. "This is impossible."

"Dr. Val," Theo said. "We know what's happening here. We don't know why, and we don't know how, but we haven't lived in a vacuum all our lives, have we? In this case, denial ain't just a river in Egypt, denial will kill you."

Just then a brick came crashing through one of the windows and thumped into the middle of the chapel floor. Two clawlike hands caught the window ledge and a beat-up male face appeared at the window. The zombie pulled up enough so that he could hook one elbow inside the window, then shouted: "Val Riordan went down on the pimply kid who bags groceries at the Thrifty-Mart!"

A second later, Ben Miller picked up the brick and hurled it back through the window, taking out the zombie face with a sickening squish.

As Ben and Theo lifted the last of the buffet tables into place to be nailed over the window, Gabe Fenton stepped away from Valerie Riordan and looked at her like she'd been dipped in radioactive marmot spittle. "You said you were allergic!"

"We were almost broken up at the time," said Val.

"Almost! Almost! I have third-degree electrical burns on my scrotum because of you!"

Across the room, into Lena Marquez's ear, Tucker Case whispered, "I don't feel so bad about hiding the body now, how 'bout you?" She turned and kissed him hard enough to make him forget for a second that he'd just been shot, set on fire, beaten up, and bitten.

For years the dead had listened, and the dead knew. They knew who was cheating with whom, who was stealing what, and where the bodies were hidden, as it were. Besides the passive listening  -  those sneaking out for a smoke, sideline conversations at funerals, the walking and talking in the woods, and the sex and scare-yourself activities some of the living indulged in in the graveyard  -  there were also those among the living who used a tombstone as some sort of confessional, sharing their deepest secrets with someone who they thought could never talk, saying things they could never say in life.

There were some things that people thought no one else, the living or the dead, could possibly know, but they did.

"Gabe Fenton watches squirrel porn!" screeched Bess Leander, her dead cheek pressed against the wet clapboard siding of the chapel.

"That is not porn, that's my work," Gabe explained to his fellow partyers.

"He doesn't wear pants! Squirrels, doing it, in slow motion. Pantsless."

"Just that one time. Besides, you have to watch in slow motion," Gabe said. "They're squirrels." Everyone turned their flashlights on something else, like they really weren't looking at Gabe.

"Ignacio Nuñez voted for Carter," came a call from outside. The staunch Republican nursery owner was caught like a deer in the flashlights as everyone looked at him. "I was only in this country a year. I'd just become a citizen. I didn't even speak English very well. He said he wanted to help the poor. I was poor."

Theo Crowe reached over and patted Nacho's shoulder.

"Ben Miller used steroids in high school. His gonads are the size of BBs!"

"That is not true," exclaimed the track star. "My testicles are perfectly normal size."

"Yeah, if you were seven inches tall," said Marty in the Morning, all dead, all the time.

Ben turned to Theo. "We've got to do something about this."

The others in the room were looking from one to the other, each with a look on his or her face that was much more horrified than when they'd been only facing the prospect of an undead mob eating their brains. These zombies had secrets.

"Theo Crowe's wife thinks she's some kind of warrior mutant killer!" shouted a rotted woman who had once been a psych nurse at the county hospital.

Everybody in the chapel sort of looked at one another and nodded, shrugged, let out a sigh of relief.

"We knew that," yelled Mavis. "Everybody knows that. That's not news."

"Oh, sorry," said the dead nurse. There was a pause; then, "Okay, then. Wally Beerbinder is addicted to painkillers."

"Wally's not here," said Mavis. "He's spending Christmas with his daughter in L.A."

"I got nothing," said the nurse. "Someone else go."

"Tucker Case thinks his bat can talk," shouted Arthur Tannbeau, the dead citrus farmer.

"Who wants to sing Christmas carols?" said Tuck. "I'll start. 'Deck the halls..."

And so they sang, loud enough to drown out the secrets of the undead. They sang with great Christmas spirit, loud and off-key, until the battering ram hit the front doors.

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