Hi, I’m Tonia Thompson, writer and creator of NIGHTLIGHT: The Black Horror podcast. If you’re a regular listener of the podcast, you know that I’m a huge fan of zombie stories with a new twist. So I was excited to find this story by Sean Demory in the submissions inbox. His story, South Central Rain, is one best served without summary, so let’s get to it. Here’s South Central Rain by Sean Demory.
South Central Rain
by Sean Demory
“Shit, man! Motherfuck!”
The shout was louder than the shot. The Old Man ducked at the shot, shied back at the shout. He hit the ground fast as the bullet whizzed past his head, hands splayed. Footsteps moved quickly through the underbrush.
“Shit fire, man! Thought you was one of ‘em.” The Hermit helped the Old Man stand and brushed him off, a rough pat-down that the Old Man knew far too well. Check for weapons, check for blood, check for bites. The Hermit was younger, loose-limbed and leisurely, but his eyes scanned the tree line constantly. “Folks come, they usually raise a holler or trip the alarms, draw ‘em off a bit. You’re a lucky goddamned fella. You see the air horns?”
“I saw.” The Old Man had walked past wind chimes made from old oars, trip lines and brightly-painted air horns on his walk up the mountain. “Didn’t want to bother you.”
The Hermit looked him up and down, eyes narrow under a tangle of hair.
“I know you?” He nodded slowly, grinning. “Yeah, you played ball for County, right?”
“That was me.”
“You were a beast, man.” The Hermit chuckled, watching the trees. “All y’all. Tore us up, every time. You eat yet?”
The Old Man took a deep breath. “Got a truck. You want it? I’m goin’ home and I don’t want it to just sit.”
The Old Man stopped. He heard the ragged sigh that they gave off before the whispering started and drew a pistol. The Hermit held his hand up and unslung his rifle, aimed and fired into the treeline in one fluid motion.
The dead man lurched out of the woods. It was unsteady at first. The Hermit’s bullet had hit it in the right shoulder, knocking its arm off and leaving it off-balance. It moved from a swaying shamble to a broken, lurching half-gallop. The dead man muttered “Where’s Mom?” as it ran.
The Old Man watched the dead man fall. He didn’t remember shooting it, but his hand buzzed from recoil so he must have done it.
“Nice shot, man!” The Hermit peered at him again through narrowed eyes. “Goin’ home? You…sick?”
The Hermit nodded.
“Come on up to the house, get some food in you. Least I can do.”
Dinner was rabbit and biscuits, stretched by mixing the rabbit with rice and stewed pokeweed. The Hermit bowed his head, eyes closed, then waited for the Old Man to take his turn while he kept watch.
The Old Man had seen hungry people caught with cramps from undercooked pokeweed, but the Hermit ate with enough gusto that the he figured he knew how to handle it. The Old Man told what news he knew, where he’d seen a sounder of wild pigs a day ago and who he’d met on the road before eating. The Hermit listened, taking note silently.
“So, why you wanna check out?” The Hermit frowned for a second, then he grinned. “Leave all this behind?”
“Been a long stretch,” the Old Man said. “I was on my way to Warsaw when it started. Mean to head out there.”
“Shit, man! Warsaw’s just down the road! We can drive out there in the morning, see whatever you need to see!”
“Dead folks.” The Old Man chewed. “Dead folks is about it, now.”
The Hermit nodded. The two men ate in silence.
“Thought about goin’ home, right after it started,” the Hermit said as he scooped up the stew with a biscuit. “I lived down around Watha back then. In town. Kept my head down when it started, couldn’t find nobody. Figured I’d go out dancin’.”
The Old Man nodded and ate, staring at the table.
“Well, not dancin’,” the Hermit said. “Once things died down a bit, I went to this place out on the county line. Some a’ them boys used to go out there, get away and blow off some steam if they couldn’t get out Fayetteville way. Figured the world was over, may as well catch up and see if we got caught or if the Lord figured we were lukewarm and spat us out like my folks said.
“So, I get there and I hear horns,” the Hermit said, taking a long drink of tepid tea. “Over and over, horns blowin’ and all of them talkin’, you know how they do. It was early yet, so they hadn’t rotted away too much to hear. Remember that? You’d be out on a run and hear that whisperin’. What’s that? Didja hear that? Or Keep Jenny safe. Get her upstairs.”
“I’m sorry,” the Old Man said “I’m sorry. I remember, yeah.”
“Yeah. Dozens of those whispers, then a horn. Then a shot. By the time I get to the parking lot, I see ‘em. Three, four dozen of ‘em all scratchin’ at the wall, reachin’ for the roof. You remember ol’ Gary Rollins? The choir director down at Pilgrim Baptist? You go to Pilgrim?”
“No, Union Hill,” the Old Man said. “But I remember him. Tall fella.”
“Yeah.” The Hermit paused for a while. “So, there he was. Up on the roof. Had a shotgun, jug a’ water and that air horn. Flag we had behind the bar over his shoulders. He sees me and starts wavin’ the flag and hollerin’. Too far to know that it was me, and they always kept the place pretty dark. Guess he figured that there wasn’t no cause to keep it down low, now that the world was over and all.”
“Did he make it? Gary Rollins from Pilgrim?”
“Dunno. Hope so. I come up on a bike, so I raised a holler and tried to draw ‘em off. Time I get back, he wasn’t there. Hope he made it.” The Hermit chuckled. “Ol’ Gary Rollins. He had a voice, didn’t he? Sure had a voice.”
“Probably made it.” The two men sat, listening to the night. “How far’s that truck?” The Hermit frowned, looking outside.
“I can make you up a bed, if you want. Check my snares in the mornin’, head on out there and get you up to Warsaw while the light’s still good. If you ain’t in a rush.”
“I can wait. You want me to take first watch?” The Hermit grinned.
“If you want,” he said. “Best if you go home rested.”
The two men hiked out to the truck the next morning, after the Hermit checked his rabbit snares and noisemakers. The two men came across a few dead as they made their way through the forest, each of the creatures following the clattering of wood panels and sheet metal in the trees. They worked quickly, bearing each one down before a quick blow to the head.
By the time they reached the Old Man’s place, the two men had taken down four dead and bagged six rabbits. They walked in companionable silence, scanning the trees until they reached the perimeter.
The place used to be a maintenance depot, back before everything stopped. The Old Man had dug trenches around the place, stuck sharpened fence-posts into the ground and hunkered down. The trenches hissed and whispered.
“I used to burn ‘em out once a week,” the Old Man said, motioning down to the pits and the dead. “The motion draws ‘em aside.”
“Lotta space,” the Hermit said, slowing down. He saw chains bolted to a hitching post. “You sure it’s just you here?”
“Just me, now.” The Old Man turned, looking back. “You think I mean you harm?”
“Crossed my mind.”
“Ain’t much in it, if I were that man,” the Old Man said. “And I’m not that man. I’m just lookin’ for a ride.”
“Sorry, man,” the Hermit said, looking sheepish. “Bad world brings out the worst in some.”
“It does,” the Old Man said as he opened the garage door. The edges of a two-ton truck were barely visible underneath a sloping, bolted-on plate with spikes. A plow blade on the front of the truck was marked with dark streaks and white graffiti that read: “BORN TO LOSE. THIS SIDE TOWARD ENEMY”.
“Burns corn just fine,” the Old Man said. “Good and strong.
Still’s on a trailer, so’s you can pull it back to yours. Or you can set up here, you want.”
“I don’t,” the Hermit said quickly. He raised his hands. “You’re set up, don’t get me wrong, but I do for myself. Wouldn’t want anyone to think I’d taken it or nothin’”.
“You couldn’t,” the Old Man said, standing taller. “Take it.
Anyway, anyone who thought you did wouldn’t care. As you like.”
The two worked silently, getting the truck ready. The Old Man ran through maintenance and they loaded the truck with tools, rifles ,boxes of ammunition and emergency rations that had been stacked in the back of the garage. The Hermit saw pintle mounts on the raised bed and heavy D-rings welded to the back. He didn’t mention them.
The sky had started to get dark by the time they finished work.
The Old Man walked to a bunkhouse near the garage. The Hermit saw a row of bullet holes on the side of the bunkhouse and a burn pit big enough to fit a few bodies. He didn’t mention those either.
“I know you,” the Hermit said. The Old Man had started a fire in the grill outside of the bunkhouse and had two rabbits spit-roasting. “Yeah. You were with them boys outta Wilmington, killin’ folks and that.”
“I was.” The Old Man turned the rabbits over on the grill, watching the fire.
“You boys burned out the Wal-Mart, out around Tin City.” The Hermit sat at a rusted picnic table and looked at the ground. “I rode with some boys out east. Over in Croatan. Didn’t last.”
“Never does,” the Old Man said as he took the meat off of the fire. The men ate silently, listening to the trenches.
“I had a woman in Warsaw, back before it started,” the Old Man said, gnawing at a bone. “Kid too. Little girl. They died. Didn’t make it home to ‘em. Had a woman after, when I was down around Wilmington. Saw her die. Wasn’t any better.”
The Old Man stood. He slung a rifle over his shoulder and began to walk away.
“I’ll take watch,” he said. “You’re company.”
The drive got rough ten miles south of Warsaw.
The Hermit stuck to county roads as much as he could. They drove in silence, keeping an eye out for wrecks or the dead and not thinking about the end of the drive.
The dead had collected in knots at the sides of the road, swaying with the breeze and muttering to each other. They started to follow the truck, loping along with arms out and jaws working vacantly.
There had been an attack maybe, or a group of travelers who’d stopped too long and got too loud. The dead filled the road, heads flung back as they swayed and twitched. Their heads jerked forward as one and flung themselves at the truck.
The Hermit started to downshift, ready to drive through the crowd, but the Old Man’s hand closed over his.
“Lock her down,” the Old Man said. His jaw twitched. “Let’s clear it out.”
The Hermit looked at the dead amassing in front of the truck. They were still spread out enough that he’d be able to push through them without so much as a bump.
He locked the truck down.
The cab opened up into the truck bed. The Hermit crab-walked into the back of the truck and started loading magazines.
He jumped at the first blast of the truck’s horn, then kept loading as the Old Man kept going long enough to draw them out.
The Old Man took a rifle from the pile they’d made the day before. He loaded it slowly, watching the tree line as the dead began to congeal around the truck. The Old Man nodded, sighed and began to fire.
The smell of leaf mold and roadkill whined in the air, pushed down by the familiar sour tang of gunfire. The Hermit hadn’t shot a group for a while, but he knew the drill. Fast, but not as fast as with living folks. Shoot, breathe, shoot. Remember your count, remember your partner. Hear, don’t listen.
The truck was a perfect redoubt, high enough so that the dead couldn’t reach, heavy enough that they couldn’t push it over. The Hermit fired, reloaded and fired again until his eyes began to water and he started to feel frantic. He secured his rifle, moved slowly into the Old Man’s field of fire and motioned down. The Old Man nodded and kept firing. The Hermit sat on the bed of the truck, pulled his knees to his chest and screamed until his throat felt like it would tear open. He stood, took a few deep breaths and went back to the line.
The two men killed for what felt like hours, the air filled with smoke and the roar of gunfire. The Old Man sat heavily on the bed of the truck and began to clean his rifle. The Hermit stopped to breathe, waiting for the knot below his heart to loosen enough to let him speak.
“Knew a guy, rode with me for a while.” the Old Man said, “He used to shut down like that. He’d been overseas before. Marine.”
The Hermit carefully set his rifle next to the Old Man. He picked up a baseball bat.
“Not me,” he said with a grin as he moved to the side of the truck. “I’m just sensitive, ‘s all.”
A handful of dead pawed at the side of the truck, mumbling to themselves. Mama, no one said while another moaned Not like this, not like this. The Hermit closed his eyes, took a deep breath and finished them off. Get ‘em upstairs and What was that were drowned out under the steady crack of the bat, Why and Keep away cut short as he swung.
“Knew another fella, seemed like he was born to it,” the Old Man said. “He’d been stockin’ up before. Planned on doin’…something.
“Nothin’ good. From what he said, he’d prayed on it. Drank on it. Whored on it. Couldn’t get free of the anger and the fear and…all of it. Figured the only thing to do was to go get hisself shot. Maybe take out a few other folks on the way.”
The Old Man listened to the quiet afternoon. He looked out over the dead, piled haphazardly around the truck, pointed the rifle and whispered Bang.
“This fella loaded up, went over to the outlet mall over in Clinton and got ready to cash it in. Saw folks runnin’ out, saw others runnin’ after and bringing ‘em down. By the time the fella figured out what was goin’ on, it was almost too late.”
The Old Man released the bolt. The harsh clank made both men jump.
“Wasn’t too late. The fella figured that God had delivered.
Figured it wasn’t worth it to go home, so he didn’t.”
The Hermit turned, the baseball bat loose in his hands. The bat was dark with blood.
“What you want, man?”
The Old Man looked up at him.
“I want to go home. Just to make sure.”
The two men drove in silence, the Old Man navigating them from county roads to hard-packed dirt paths past abandoned farmhouses.
They saw a few dead staggering up the road, but the Hermit clipped them with the plow blade and sent them split and flying to the side. The Old Man stayed silent, watching the road.
“That’s me,” the Old Man said quietly, pointing at a gravel driveway leading to a farmhouse. The windows were broken and a frayed rope hung from an oak tree in the front yard.
The Hermit let the truck idle at the end of the drive.
“You sure?” He looked at the Old Man, who’d drawn a revolver. He unloaded it, then loaded two bullets. “I mean, who’d wanna leave all this behind?”
“Me,” the Old Man said, opening the door. He started to step down from the truck and stopped, looking at the house.
“Look, I know what you done, some of it.” The Hermit spoke quickly, words tumbling over each other. “It’s a hard road, but it ain’t on you. Whatever you done, I done twice as bad out in Croatan. Twice as bad.”
The Hermit reached out. He’d knew the name for this feeling, but he had forgotten where it lived. Hope, maybe. Despair. Somewhere around there.
“How’s about we head on back? You drop me at my place, come on by whenever you need. Sunday dinners, cards on payday.”
The Old Man looked away from the house. The Hermit knew where the expression on his face lived, but he’d forgotten the name.
Regret, maybe. Doubt. Somewhere around there.
“I’m overdue,” the Old Man said, setting four bullets on the seat as he stepped down. He didn’t turn to look back. “Good luck. Thanks for the ride.”
“Hey, I’ll hold here,” the Hermit said. “It’s late. I’ll head out at first light. Change your mind, you know where to find me.”
The Old Man kept walking. After a few steps, he broke into a run.
The Hermit watched the stars from the back of the truck and listened to leaves rustle in the cool night air. He’d heard one shot break the long silence a few hours ago.
Go in at first light, bury him, head home, the Hermit thought. Sort of thing people do for their neighbors. Sort of thing decent folks do.
The Hermit saw motion from the house. The Old Man walked up the drive, moving slowly.
The Hermit sighed and drew his pistol. He knew what was coming but hoped it wouldn’t.
“Change your mind, then?” The Hermit waited to hear something different. An intake of breath, maybe. A cough or a moan like he’d been crying. A laugh.
The Old Man drew a long, shuddering breath and let out a long, ragged sigh.
The Hermit knew the drill. Fast, but not as fast as with living folks. Shoot, breathe, shoot. Remember your count, remember your partner. Hear, don’t listen.
The Hermit listened.
Stayed, the dead man whispered. You stayed. Stayed.
“Lucky fella,” the Hermit said. He aimed and fired in one smooth, fluid motion.
It’s rare for a story to have the perfect ending, yet still catch me by surprise, but Sean managed to do that in this story. You’re definitely going to want to keep listening to hear his interview and get a little peek into his brilliant mind.
I’d like to thank Sean for submitting his zombie story with feelings to NIGHTLIGHT, and encourage more Black writers to do the same. This podcast can’t exist without your stories, so don’t self-reject; send us your worst.
I’d also like to thank Jen of the Skiffy and Fanty podcast for the sound production on this episode and Patrick Bazile for his narration. Thanks to our patrons, who make it possible for us to pay Black writers like Sean, and keep our little horror podcast from having to take that long road home. Remember that you can become a member of the NIGHTLIGHT Legion for as little as $1 per month. Go to patreon.com/nightlightpod to join us on our mission to bring more stories by Black horror writers to life.
And now, our interview with Sean Demory.
Interview with Sean Demory: Transcription coming soon
Thanks again for listening. We’ll be back next week with another story.
Zombies that whisper. Memories that haunt. Sean Demory gives us a zombie story with so many feels.
Check out Sean’s publishing company: Pine Float Press
Read or listen to The Ballad of Black Tom
Read or listen to Lovecraft Country