Runes in the Snow

The Wilks family Range Rover made its way ponderously through the snow and down the mountain. It was the kind of road trip that the whole family looked forward to, and then on the drive back, universally agreed was a terrible idea. (Bucky World was not at all worth the 500 mile trip, and the mascots, in particular Ruffy the Rabbit, made Savannah cry rivers.)

After thirty miles of nothing but dead landscape and white noise, Savannah pointed out the window. “Look mommy, a sign!” The small sign she pointed to was a weathered wooden board with letters burned in: What’s stronger than five mules? After they drove past, Savannah’s mother Holly idly mused, “I wonder what that’s for.” The father, Luke, dismissed it. “Probably nothing.”

A few tenths of a mile later, and another sign cropped up out of the snow: What’s more loyal than a golden retriever? A picture of a cartoonish dog dragging an oversized newspaper accompanied this sign. Savannah giggled. Even Luke grinned — but then he caught himself, and returned to his road trip scowl.

The final sign – much larger this time, like a billboard – came after a few more tenths of a mile. Zombies Unlimited! it said. (And boiled peanuts), it said in smaller text. This sign marked a small settlement just off the shoulder of the mountain road. “Honey, let’s pull over here,” said Holly. Luke obliged reluctantly.

The billboard dwarfed the snow-covered lean-to and trailer that comprised the little store. An older man, probably in his sixties, hustled out as fast as he could with a collie at his side. The man had the look of an eternally hurried person; his all-black suit was poorly tailored and wrinkled, and his black hair was matted and overgrown. Still, his smile was warm and his face was soft. “Welcome folks, welcome! My name’s Max – and this little fella here is Edric – and I’ve got the perfect solution to everything you need!” he exclaimed. The way he talked made Savannah think of old-time cartoon characters.

“Well, what exactly is it you have?” asked Holly, with a brilliant smile.

“Zombies, my lady! Strong, able zombies, ready to travel on home with you today,” said Max. He strode over at the lean-to, and removed a tarp to reveal half a dozen gray zombies standing at attention, their gazes drifting to nowhere in particular. Holly looked over and nearly jumped. Savannah let out a shriek. However, despite the word “zombies” being used to characterize them, they were surprisingly whole. Their skin was gray, and their eyes were mindless, but they were none worse for the wear. There were three women and three men, all dressed in white dress shirts and jeans. They were abnormally tall, muscular creatures; perhaps, they were chosen because of these qualities. Their hair kept life’s luster, and that, along with the various shades of gray skin, served to distinguish the zombies from one another.

“My word, that’s terrifying! Do you just leave them out like that, out here in the cold?” said Luke. The scowl was back.

Max held out his hands. “Now, now, you’ve got nothing to fret. These fellas don’t need much in the way of food or lodging, and they sure are great in a pinch. Had old Cecil over there help me haul some mulch at my ranch down in Pen-see-cola Florida just the other week! Did it without a word of complaint.”

“But they’re…dead,” said Savannah.

“Dead in the mind, yes, and maybe their hearts don’t beat, but look at this, little lady. Jonathan!” said Max, and a seven-foot tall zombie came up. Max uttered some words in a language the Wilks didn’t understand, and the Jonathan flexed his powerful muscles, lifting up Savannah on his shoulders. Savannah shrieked again, but then laughed. And Jonathan laughed too, a deep, hearty bellow.

“See? As friendly as a puppy and as harmless as a lamb,” said Max, his smile beaming. He then used that foreign language to order the zombie he called Cecil to start chopping at a nearby tree. Before long, the tree was down, and Cecil carried the whole thing over himself. “Such amazing strength,” said Holly.

Luke fished around in his pocket and looked up boldly. “How much for the lot?”

Max put on this strained look. “Well, all figured, you’ve got six zombies…see, I’m a whole-number kinda person…what do you reckon, 200 dollars? Plus I’ll throw in this-a-here dictionary which’ll surely help you talk at them.”

Holly smiled. “Well, 200 dollars would be a steal!” Luke nodded in agreement. “We’ll take them!”

Jonathan carried Savannah over to the Range Rover, and let her down gently in the car. A few zombies piled in and sat down, while a few had to be stacked in the trunk like firewood. “They don’t mind it at all,” Max reassured, “not at all, not at all.” The Wilks loaded up their zombie cargo, and then they drove away with the satisfaction that their whole road trip was saved by this chance encounter.

After he could no longer hear the engine or see the vehicle, Max took out an ice scraper and scratched away some markings on the frozen ground. Then, he struck down the lean-to and set it on fire. It was dangerous to leave such powerful magic unattended, and he had no way to control the zombies’ urges now that they were away.

“We did it Ed,” Max said to his collie. Tears welled up in his eyes, and he smiled a sad smile. “We’re finally free of them.”

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Lynchpin

A firm knock is the lynchpin to success when meeting your fiancée’s parents. Knowing that, Stephen knocked, and a few moments later, he heard the rattle of a chain and the slide of a deadbolt. “Hello?” a voice challenged.

“Mr. Bloom?” Stephen asked hopefully.
“Stephen! It’s nice to finally meet you,” said Mr. Bloom.

“Oh, and you as well. I’ve been looking forward to having dinner with you.”

“Well, we’re out back, so why don’t you come in.”

Stephen followed Mr. Bloom through dimly lit hallways and a sliding glass door. Moonlight, a few candles, and the glow of a charcoal grill greeted him.

“Lauren’s getting changed. Have a seat. Let’s have a talk.” Mr. Bloom gestured towards two ornate chairs on the deck. Stephen took his pick.

“Well, I wish this weather would make up its mind,” said Mr. Bloom, wistfully.
“Yes, it’s cold one day, hot the next,” said Stephen.
“Lord knows when summer will finally, really hit. Y’know, I have some ATV’s. You ever ride one of those?”
“Actually yes. My parents in Lubbock owned a couple.”
“That’s living. Bet you had better land to ride on.”

Mr. Bloom got up to tend to the coals on the grill. Some kind of mask, balanced on a pole, caught Stephen’s eye – black, with shiny, pink feathers adorning the crest. It reminded him of something he’d seen on the History Channel.

“Do you follow much Russian history, Stephen?” asked Mr. Bloom, as he poked at the coals on the grill.

“Not really,” said Stephen.

“Well, it’s a strange place, particularly under Stalin and the Soviets. I’ve been reading a book lately – The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Do you know how terrified those people were of their own leader? You could be arrested without even speaking a word. And you get sent to horrible, horrible places…”

Mr. Bloom started stacking firewood around the empty chair. “Give me a hand, will you Stephen?”

“Solzhenitsyn wrote about the different arrests under Stalin. One in particular caught my eye. There was a communist convention, and at the end, the chairman called for a tribute to Stalin. Applause filled the auditorium, and it turned into a standing ovation. Well, nearly three minutes went by, and everyone was still clapping. Because, why stop? What would it look like to the secret police if you were the first to stop clapping? But eventually, you have to stop. There were many old men in the crowd – how long could they stand there exerting themselves until they collapsed? Ten minutes went by, and then finally, the owner of a paper mill sat down very business-like and stopped clapping. Then, everyone else stopped.

“Well, the secret police came by and arrested the paper mill owner later that evening. Typically, when convicts ask the Soviet secret police why they’re arrested, they don’t get an answer. But the interrogator said slyly, ‘You should know not to stop clapping first!’”

Stephen smiled nervously. His eyes were fixed on Mr. Bloom, who was spraying the two bundles of wood around each chair with lighter fluid.

Lauren came out, with her mother by her side. And while she was nearly pristine in her white dress, her face was streaked with mascara and tears. Her mother comforted her wordlessly, a grave expression across her face. Mr. Bloom held a burning torch in his hand, and gestured for his child and would-be son-in-law to each take a seat.

And nobody said a word.