Chapter 21

AVENGING ANGEL

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Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, Theo thought. He twisted his ankle when he hit the ground; pain shot up his leg like liquid fire. He fell and rolled onto his back in the mud. He'd pushed the remote button that unlocked the Range Rover too soon the vehicle had chirped and the lights had blinked, alerting the undead. He'd made the jump blind, and missed. They were coming for him.

He pushed himself up and started hopping toward the Range Rover the car key ready in his right hand, his flashlight lost behind him in the mud.

Grab him, you rotting fucks," screamed Dale Pearson.

Theo fell forward as his good foot slipped out from under him, but he rolled back to his feet, a bolt of pain shooting white-hot across his shin. He caught himself on the back window of the black Range Rover, snatching at the rear wiper for balance. He risked a glance back toward his pursuers and heard a loud thump by his head followed by a deafening screech. He turned just in time to see a skeletal woman sliding across the roof of the Range Rover, leading with her teeth. He ducked, but not before he felt fingernails raking his neck, teeth thumping into his scalp. She rode him to the ground and he could feel a grating pain in his head as the zombie tried to bite through his skull. His face was pushed into the mud. His nostrils and mouth filled with water, and amid a flashing whiteness of terror he thought, I'm so sorry, Molly.

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"Yuck! That's hideous!" said Bess Leander, spitting a couple of teeth on the back of Theo's head.

Marty in the Morning grabbed Theo by the head and licked the teeth marks that Bess had left. "That's horrible. He's stoned. I'm not eating stoned brains."

The undead moaned in disappointment.

"Get him up," said Dale.

Theo inhaled a great spray of mud along with his first breath and he went into a coughing fit as the undead lifted him up and held him against the back window of the Range Rover. Someone wiped the mud out of his eyes, and a stench that made him gag filled his nostrils. He could see the dead but animated face of Dale Pearson only inches from his own. The corpse's foul breath overwhelmed him. Theo tried to twist away from the evil Santa, but decaying hands held his head fast.

"Hey, hippie," said Dale. He held Theo's flashlight down by his Santa beard to illuminate his face from below. There were two stripes of bloody drool running down either side of the beard. "You're not thinking that your pot-smoking ways are going to save you, are you? Don't." He pulled a snub-nose revolver out of the pocket of his red coat and shoved it under Theo's chin. "We'll have plenty to eat. We can afford to waste you." Dale ripped open the Velcro fasteners of Theo's jacket and started feeling around his waist. "No gun? You suck as a lawman, hippie." He went to the pockets of Theo's cop shirt. "But this! The one thing you can be depended on for."

Dale held up Theo's lighter, then reached in, tore the whole pocket off the cop shirt, and wrapped the dry fabric around the lighter. "Marty, try this. Keep it dry." Dale gave the lighter to a rotting guy with a wet Ziggy Stardust red mullet, who slogged back to the pile of debris at the side of the chapel.

Theo watched as Marty in the Morning bent over the pile of plywood, pine branches, two-by-fours, cardboard, and the torn-up body of Ben Miller. The wind was still whipping, the rain less intense now, but even so the drops stung Theo's face when they hit.

Don't light, don't light, don't light, Theo chanted in his head, but then his hope drained away when he saw the orange flame catch on the debris, and Marty in the Morning pull away with his sleeve on fire.

Dale Pearson stepped aside so Theo could see the fire whipping up the side of the building, then put the .38 against Theo's temple. "Take a good look at our little barbecue fire, hippie. It's the last thing you're going to see. We're gonna eat your crazy wife's brains char-broiled."

Theo smiled, happy that Molly wasn't inside, wouldn't be part of the massacre.

"I didn't hear 'Shave and a Haircut, " said Ignacio Nunez. "Did you hear 'Shave and a Haircut'?"

Tuck panned his flashlight across a dozen frightened faces, then one whole side of the chapel went orange with the light from the fire outside the windows. One woman screamed, others stared in horror as smoke started to snake in around the window frames.

"Change of plan," Tuck said. "We go now. Guys in front of your groups. Give the car keys to the next person back."

"They'll be waiting for us," said Val Riordan.

"Fine, you burn up," Tuck said. "Guys, knock over whatever gets in your way, everyone behind just keep going for the cars."

All the barricades and braces had been removed from the chapel doors. Tuck put his shoulder against one door, Gabe Fenton was on the other. "Ready. One, two, three!"

They threw their shoulders against the doors and bounced back into the others. The doors had only opened a couple of inches. Someone shone a flashlight through the gap to reveal a huge pine-tree trunk braced against one of the doors.

"New plan," shouted Tuck.

Theo tried to look at the fire, but he couldn't see beyond the undead eyes of Dale Pearson. Thought had fled. There was just fear and anger and the pressure of the gun barrel against his temple.

He heard a whooshing sound and a thump by his ear and the gun barrel was gone. Dale Pearson was stepping away from him, holding a dark stump where his gun hand had just been. Dale opened his mouth to shout something, but in that second a thin line appeared across his face at nostril level and half of his head slid to the ground. He slumped in a pile at Theo's feet. The hands that were holding Theo let go.

"Brains!" screamed one of the undead. "Crazy-woman brains!"

Theo fell on top of Dale's rekilled body, then spun around to see what was happening.

"Hi, honey," Molly said. She stood on the roof of the Range Rover, grinning, wearing a leather jacket, sweatpants, and her red Converse All Stars, holding the ancient Japanese sword in Hasso No Kamae before her, the blade gleaming orange in the light from the burning church. There was a dark swath across the blade where it had hewn the head of the zombie Santa. Theo had never been a religious man, but he thought in that instant that this must be what it was like to look on the face of an avenging angel.

The zombies who had been holding Theo reached for Molly's legs, and in a single motion she stepped back and brought the sword around in a low arc that sent a rain of severed hands flying into the mud. The undead wailed around her, and tried to claw their way onto the SUV with their stumps. Bess Leander tried to replicate the move she had used on Theo, stepping up the hood behind Molly and diving across the roof of the Range Rover. Molly spun and sidestepped, making a low swing with her sword that would have not looked out of place on a golf course. Bess's head rolled off the top of the Land Rover into Theo's lap. He pushed it aside and got to his feet.

"Honey, you might want to go let everyone out of the chapel before they burn up," said Molly. "I'm not sure you want to watch this."

" 'Kay," said Theo.

The undead had left their stations at the front and back doors of the chapel, where they had been waiting to ambush the escaping partyers, and charged Molly. Three fell headless while Molly stood on the Land Rover, but as they surrounded her, she ran and leaped over the heads of the mob, landing behind them.

Theo ran for the front doors of the chapel, his vision blurred from the rain and the blood running into his eyes from the bite wound on his head. He looked back for a second and saw Molly sailing over the top of her attackers.

He nearly ran into two great pine logs that had been braced against the chapel doors. He looked back a second and caught a glimpse of Molly mowing down two more zombies, one split down the middle from the crown of his head to his sternum, then he turned and tried to get his back under one of the logs.

"Theo, is that you?" Gabe Fenton had his face pressed in an inch-wide gap between the doors.

"Yeah. There are logs against the doors," Theo said. "I'm going to try to move them."

Theo took three deep breaths and lifted for all he was worth, feeling as if veins would explode in his temples. The wound on his head throbbed with every heartbeat.

But the tree trunk moved a couple of inches. He could do this.

"Is it working?" yelled Gabe.

"Yeah, yeah," said Theo. "Give me a second."

"It's filling up with smoke in here, Theo."

"Right." Theo strained again and the log moved another two inches to the right. Another foot and they'd be able to get the door open.

"Hurry, Theo," said Jenny Masterson. "It's  -  " She went into a coughing fit and couldn't finish what she was saying. Theo could hear everyone coughing inside. Wails of rage and pain were coming from the side of the chapel where Molly was fighting. She must be okay, they were still yelling about eating her brain.

Another lift, another two inches. Gray smoke was streaming out the crack between the doors. Theo fell to his knees with the effort and almost passed out. He shook himself back into consciousness, and as he prepared to put his back into another effort, hoping it wouldn't be his last, he noticed that the screaming had stopped at the side of the chapel. Rain, wind, the coughing of the trapped, and the crackle of the fire. That was all he heard.

"Oh my God. Molly!" he screamed.

A hand on his cheek, a voice at his ear. "Hey, sailor, need a little hand getting your church door open, if you know what I mean?"

Sirens sounded in the distance. Someone had seen the burning chapel through the storm and had somehow gotten through to the volunteer fire department. The Lonesome Christmas survivors were gathered in the middle of the parking lot, illuminated by headlights. The heat from the fire had driven them nearly seventy-five yards to the street.

Even this far away, Theo could feel the heat on his cheek from the fire as Lena Marquez bandaged his head. Others sat in the open hatchbacks of SUVs, trying to catch their breath after being exposed to the smoke, drinking bottled water or just lying there dazed.

Around the burning chapel the wet pine forest steamed, a great white cloud rising into the sky. Down the left side of the chapel: carnage  -  a rekilling ground of the undead, where Molly had hacked them into submission, even chasing down the last few in the woods and decapitating them after she and Theo had let the partyers out of the chapel.

Molly sat beside Theo, under the open hatchback of someone's Expedition.

"How did you know?" he asked. "How could you possibly have known?"

"The bat told me," Molly said.

"You mean he showed up and you said, 'What's wrong, boy, is Timmy trapped down a well? and he barked to tell you that's what was wrong? Like that?"

"No," Molly said. "It was like, 'Your husband and a bunch of other people have barricaded themselves in the chapel against a horde of brain-eating zombies and you need to go save them. Like that. He has some kind of accent. Sounds Spanish."

"I for one am glad that you went off your meds," said Tucker Case, who was standing next to Lena as she bandaged Theo's head. "A few hallucinations are a small price to pay, if you ask me."

Molly held up her hand for him to be quiet. She stood and brushed the pilot aside, looking back toward the burning church. A tall dark figure in a long coat was coming toward them through the killing field.

"Oh no," said Theo. "Everyone get in the cars and lock them."

"No," Molly said, dismissing Theo's instructions with a distracted backward wave. "We're okay." She met the angel in the middle of the parking lot.

"Merry Christmas," said the angel.

"Yeah, you, too," said Molly.

"Have you seen the child? Joshua?" asked Raziel.

"There's a kid over there with the others," said Molly. "That's probably him."

"Take me to him."

"That's him," Theo said. "That's the robot guy."

"Shhhhhh," Molly shushed.

Raziel walked to where Emily Barker was holding her son, Joshua, sitting on the back of Molly's Honda.

"Mom," wailed Joshua. He hid his face in his mother's chest.

But Emily was still stunned by witnessing her mate's death, and she didn't react at all except to hold the boy tighter.

Raziel put his hand on the boy's head. "Fear not," he said. "For I bring you tidings of great joy. Behold, your Christmas wish has been granted." The angel waved toward the fire and the carnage and the exhausted and terrified survivors as if he were a game-show hostess presenting a washer/dryer set. "Not what I would have wished for," the angel said, "but I am but a lowly messenger."

Josh rolled in his mother's arms and faced the angel. "I didn't ask for this. This isn't what I wished for."

"Sure it is," said Raziel. "You wished that the Santa you saw killed be brought back to life."

"No, I didn't."

"That's what you said. You said you wanted him brought back to life."

"That's not what I meant," said Joshua. "I'm a kid. I don't always get stuff right."

"I'll vouch for that," said Tucker Case, stepping up behind the angel. "He is a kid, and he is wrong most of the time."

"We still should cut your head off," said Josh.

"See," said Tuck. "Always wrong."

"Well, if you didn't mean you wanted him brought back to life, what did you mean?" asked Raziel.

"I didn't mean I wanted Santa to be a zombie and kill big, dumb Brian and everything. I wanted everything to be okay. Like it never happened. So it would be a good Christmas."

"That's not what you said," said Raziel.

"That's what I wanted," said Joshua.

"Oh," said the angel. "Sorry."

"So he's an angel?" Theo said to Molly. "Like a real angel?"

Molly nodded, smiling.

"Not a killer robot?"

Molly shook her head. "He's here to grant a Christmas wish, to one child."

"Like it never happened?" the angel asked Joshua.

"Yeah!" said Josh.

"Oops," said the angel.

Molly stepped over and put her hand on the angel's shoulder. "Raziel, you fucked up. Fix it?"

The angel looked at her and grinned. Perfect teeth, if a little sharp.

"So be it," he said. "Glory to God in the highest, peace on Earth, goodwill toward men."

    

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