“Oh, sweet baby Jesus,” Sarah says over and over to herself, teeth chattering. Her husband’s, Travis’s, old pickup truck didn’t insulate the heat well enough, in spite of the blankets they jammed throughout the interior, covering the windshield entirely. She looked out of the little peephole in the passenger side window, but there was no sign of Travis. Travis said he’d be back by sunrise. By sunrise, everything would be better again.
Her husband took the rifle but they kept a pistol in the glove compartment that he had taught her how to use. “Oh, sweet baby Jesus,” she repeated, huddled up in the old quilt her mother had made her when she was a child. It had animals painstakingly sewn into the fabric. She shivered. “Travis. Please be okay out there.”
Nights are the worst. Sarah sees creatures in the shadows, ones that are there as often as not. She usually never knows for sure until she can see the creatures well enough to hear their hooves crunch through the snow. One time, a squirrel jumped onto the windshield and tried to gnaw through it to get to them. Sarah thought, in a situation like that, that she would have screamed hysterically. But she just sat there, gun pointed at the squirrel, heart hammering against her ribs. Travis never woke up and she never told him about the incident, either. There’s enough terror in the daytime without Travis hearing about the sound the owls make when they’re dead. When undead birds sing, there’s no music in it. There’s just a low, long whistle. Sarah thinks that the owls sound deeper and sadder than anything she’s ever known. Nights are the worst, but Sarah chooses them. She’d rather stay awake through the horror than never wake up.
“Where are you, Travis?” the warm air leaves her mouth like a ghost. She huddles up in her animal blanket, hiding from the creatures in the night. Sarah feels warm in her mother’s patchwork. If the zombie outbreak had never occurred, she and Travis would be celebrating Christmas at her parents’ house in Michigan. They’d be eating ham and watching the wild turkeys hobble by outside the glass sliding window. One of their family traditions was to roast up chestnuts and eat them by the fireplace. She would always fall asleep there, feet toasty warm. Sarah dreamed sweet dreams back then…
* * *
It’s still night, but Sarah is following a star, almost as bright as the sun. It looks pale and lonely in spite of its light. She finds a barn where she can take refuge. There are people and animals inside. They’re all standing still, looking at something. Sarah has their pistol out; they’re quiet but they all look alive.
“What are you all looking at?” Sarah asks. No answer. She leans forward to see Joseph and Mary sitting over their child, looking every bit like the ones in her parents’ nativity set. “He’s our Lord and savior,” says one of the wise men. They’re all standing still and staring like in a painting. Sarah leans forward to look at the tiny child in the manger. Its jaw hangs loose. Its eyes are gray and dead. It reaches out to touch Sarah and she backs off. Mary’s neck is broken. Joseph’s jaw is missing. His tongue hangs loose onto his robes. One of the wise men, eye holes bleeding, lunges at her and she backs into a llama with filmy eyes and crooked teeth. It hisses and bites her.
* * *
“Sarah! Open up!”
She pulls out the pistol and points it at his head.
“Christ! Sarah!” he ducks. “I’m not a zombie yet! Put the gun down!”
She looks through the peephole. The sunlight is barely grazing over the trees, making the tops look yellow.
“It was a little farther than I remembered. But look!” He holds up the gas can. “It’s a Christmas miracle!
Sarah says nothing. “I think we have as much as three gallons, but the stations just tapped out now. We’re lucky that there was anything at all. People probably just haven’t used this one because of how far away from civilization it is.”
Sarah remembers her parents’ home, walking in and seeing the glass door broken, a corpse strewn out on the kitchen floor. Red entrails stretched out on white linoleum. She couldn’t even recognize it as her mother, or maybe she didn’t want to believe it at the time. Travis looks into Sarah’s glazed over eyes. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah…” she says, shaking her head. Those memories won’t do her any good. She has Travis and that’s all that matters now.
Her husband runs his hand through her hair and puts his lips to her head. “Check me for bite marks,” he whispers to her forhead. She shrinks back from his touch.
“God dammit, Travis! I don’t care if you’re turning or not.”
“Don’t say that.”
“No! No!” she swats away an arm aimed at comforting her. “It’s not like we can help it! I’d rather die too!”
“Sarah. This is important. It would kill me if I…”
“You’d already be dead. Just drop it.”
“All right. I just…”
They sit for a minute, looking out at the growing light outside. It’s a silent morning.
“I’m sorry,” Sarah says.
“For what?” Travis asks. Sarah has never apologized after these arguments, but then she wasn’t apologizing about the fight anyway. She made up her mind that she would stick with him when they got married, before she even knew that the dead could get up and walk again.
“I was asleep when you got back. I had… I had a bad dream.”
“Sarah, I’ve been thinking about something,” Travis says, clutching his gas can. “I don’t think we can do this anymore. We need to make good use of this last gasoline that we were given. We may be able to get close to the coast on just a few gallons. I don’t know why I thought we could hide out forever, but maybe immigration has settled down a bit. I mean, the initial scare is over, so I don’t think they’d shoot us unless we were the undead. Sarah?”
“Sarah. What do you think?”
Sarah wraps her mother’s quilt around them both. “I think… I want to sleep together without taking shifts. I don’t care what happens today. I just want to sleep her with you.” She rests her head on his stomach.
“Merry Christmas,” she whispers.
“Merry Christmas,” he replies, setting the gas can at his feet.
Outside the window, the sunrise gives the snow a reddish hue. Just this one time, he pulls the quilt over both their heads and they dream sweet dreams.