Hi! I’m Tonia Thompson—horror writer and creator of NIGHTLIGHT: The Black Horror Podcast. This week we celebrate our very first full episode with a new story from Justina Ireland, bestselling author of Dread Nation. If you haven’t read Dread Nation yet, you’re missing out on my favorite read of this year. Today’s story gives us a little taste of the Dread Nation world—one overrun with zombies in post-Civil War America. But don’t worry, this is a standalone story, so if you haven’t read Dread Nation, you’ll be able to fall right in and won’t hear any spoilers. And if you have read Dread Nation, well, you’ll get your fix for Black girls trained in skilled combat against the undead to hold you over until the sequel comes out.
So without further ado, here’s Letters from Home, by Justina Ireland.
Letters From Home
By Justina Ireland
Sue lay in her bed and examined the letter in her hands. She’d swiped it off of Miss Preston’s desk earlier in the day on a whim, and now she didn’t have a clue what to do with it. She didn’t know what it said. She’d never learned to read, and Miss Preston’s School of Combat for Negro Girls didn’t include reading in the curriculum. Killing the dead? Yes. Learning to set a fine dinner table? Most certainly. But reading?
What Negro girl needed to learn her letters?
But Sue, Big Sue to the rest of the girls at Miss Preston’s on account of her size, had seen letters like the one she held. Back when Jane McKeene had been a student she’d always carried letters from home like the one in Sue’s hand. Sometimes, she’d read them aloud. Sue liked to listen to Jane read and tell stories about her mama back at Rose Hill. Sue’s own mother was long gone, taken by the dead when Sue was too young to remember, and Jane’s own mother seemed as good a replacement as any.
Sue was considering asking one of the uppity Northern girls to read the letter for her in the morning when the screaming started.
Sue rolled out of bed of bed, hitting the floor in a low crouch. Her nightshirt tangled around her legs, and the echoing slap of bare feet hitting wood planks filled the room as the rest of the girls did the same as they woke.
“Shamblers,” one of them whispered.
“In the school?” another asked with a quaver in her voice.
“Seems like,” answered Sue, her voice deep and low. She wasn’t known for being chatty, and this really wasn’t the time to get into a lengthy dialogue about the likelihood of the dead, known as shamblers because of their lumbering walk, being inside of the combat school. Truth was, Sue knew this was going to happen, sooner or later. The dead always found a way.
When the dead began to walk at the battle of Gettysburg everything had changed, and here on seventeen years later it was the combat schools, decreed by law and enforced by white folks, that were supposed to keep everyone safe. So it was a keen irony indeed that the dead roamed the halls of the very place established to kill them.
Sue was a girl who could appreciate a fine bit of irony.
“What do we do?” asked another girl. Sue didn’t know the voice. It was hard to tell what was happening in the gloom of their room, but most of the girls were younger and less experienced than Sue, who was due to graduate any day now.
“We fight,” Sue said. “Get dressed, quickly. Boots, bloomers, leggings. Leave off the modesty corset, we ain’t got time, and get ready to move. We got to get to the arms room and get our weapons.”
The silence erupted in a hurried shuffling as the girls, nearly twenty in all, dressed quickly. Sue ditched her sleep shirt and pulled on a dress and leggings, quickly tying the stays and tucking the letter away for later. The mystery of it pulled at her, and she’d keep it for now.
While the rest of the girls dressed, Sue approached the closed door and pressed her ear to the wood. The mournful howls of the dead grew louder as they drew closer. If the girls didn’t move soon there would be no hope of snagging a bladed weapon.
And wasn’t a body alive that wanted to face a shambler bare-handed.
Once most of the girls were dressed Sue found the second eldest girl, a light-skinned girl by the name of Sarah. Sarah’s people were from up North and Sue didn’t much care for her. Sarah was very proud of the fact that her people had been free since the Revolutionary War, as though that had mattered when it came time to round up Negroes for the combat schools.
“We need to break up into two groups,” Sue said.
Sarah sniffed. “You do what you want. I’m going it alone. I’m not going to waste my time trying to herd cats.” A look at a couple of the younger girls made her point abundantly clear.
Sue turned back to the other girls, ignoring Sarah. She knew a lost cause when she saw one, and if she had to get everyone to safety herself she would. Folks might think Sue was dumb because she was so big and rarely spoke, but she knew more about fighting the dead than just about anyone else there. She’d learned long ago that the best way to get things done was to just get it done.
“Okay, listen up,” she said to the girls huddled up around her. “We need to move fast. Some of those folks out there might be people you know, but you can’t let that stop you. You hesitate, you’re dead, you hear?” A few of the girls had started to cry, but most of them nodded, their dark faces cast into deep shadow by the light filtering in through the windows.
“Are we going out there?” asked one of the girls.
“Of course we’re going out there,” Sarah said. “Otherwise we—”
The sound of the dead crashing through the door swallowed the rest of whatever she was about to say and quickly ended the argument.
The undead poured into the room, their anguished moans sending a chill through Sue. For a single heartbeat she was back on her family’s farm, hiding in the woods as the dead over ran the house, biting her fist to keep from crying out in fear.
And in the next moment she was reaching for a chair, slamming it into the ground hard enough to pull off the leg. Sue pushed a few of the smaller girls behind her and dashed forward, swinging the club down in a high arc, catching the nearest shambler in the temple. The makeshift weapon staved in the creature’s head, and it had barely hit the floor before Sue was on to the next one.
“Stay with me!” Sue yelled as she cleared a path through the dead trying to crowd into the room. Their fingers tangled in Sue’s sleeves and her skirt, their grasping hands and gaping mouths desperate for a taste of her.
Sue was determined that they would stay hungry.
“On your left,” came a call, and the shambler nearest to Sue fell to the ground, his body cleaved in half diagonally from shoulder to hip by a scythe. The woman holding the weapon drew up short, halting the swing that would’ve next come for Sue’s own neck. “Susan, very good improvisation,” the woman said.
“Thank you, Miss Duncan,” said Sue. “You got another one of those?”
The woman tossed the scythe to Sue, who caught it easily, dropping the club. “Take this one. There might be another, but we would be hard-pressed to get to the armory. The dead are thick in the building, and Miss Preston is gone, and along with her the keys to the armory. Our best bet is to see if we can get to the weapons shed outdoors. Clear a path for us to work, dear?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Sue turned, swinging the scythe and clearing the dead. There was something satisfying about the way a head separated from a body, the skin tearing, the vertebrate parting. Sue was no stranger to killing the dead and it wasn’t work that she sought out. But when it did present itself she was of a mind to take pride in the task.
It was something her mama would’ve wanted.
Sue made her way out of the room and down toward the end of the hall, swinging the scythe in a wide arc. She was tall and her reach was long, and in no time her hands were covered in the black, sticky blood of the dead and the hall was mostly clear.
The girls came out of their sleeping quarters, some sobbing, others looking around warily, and Miss Duncan adjusted her weaponry. “Girls, those of you who have passed your first practicum, come get a weapon.” Even though she’d handed Sue the scythe, the handle long and smooth and the curved blade wicked sharp, Miss Duncan still had an arsenal strapped to her body. Sickles, several knives, two six shooters, a rifle, and two swords. Just the sight of her made Sue grin. Things were starting to look up.
“What’s the plan, Miss Duncan?” Sarah asked, taking one of the swords.
“Out of the house, head for the city. The rail line will help us navigate our way to Baltimore,” Miss Duncan said, handing weapons to the girls strong enough and experienced enough to wield them.
There weren’t nearly enough girls or weapons.
“Where’s everyone else?” one of the girls, a first year girl Sue didn’t recognize, asked.
Miss Duncan cleared her throat. “Let’s keep moving. And let’s avoid the south end of the building.”
It was answer enough. The dead were merciless.
Sue took up the lead without anyone asking. She was eldest, lead girl now that all the others were gone. First Jane McKeene and Katherine Deveraux, gone after getting hired out at the Mayor’s house, and now nearly half the school. She should be sad, but the restless dead didn’t leave much space for regrets, not when Sue was much more worried about surviving the night.
Their motley crew, most completely unarmed and little more than children, made their way down the hallway and through the kitchen. But when Sue made to open the door, she hesitated. From the other side of the door came a scrabbling and a chorus of moans that seemed like more than the handful of dead that had been in the hallway. The dead on the other side of the door pushed against it, and the wood groaned from their weight.
It wouldn’t hold for long.
“Miss Duncan, we got to go back the other way. Through the windows in the sleeping quarters.” Sue stood before the door, and a powerful fear took hold of her. She gripped the scythe so hard that her hand ached. This was no usual pack of dead, lost and opportunistic. This was something more, and Sue had a feeling that if they were to open the door, their end would be written in the gnashing of teeth and their lifeblood spilled upon the fine wood of the hallway.
“Understood, Sue. Let’s backtrack, ladies. Back toward the sleeping quarters,” Miss Duncan said, turning and ushering girls back the way they’d come.
That should have been the end of it. They should have retraced their steps and headed back to the safety of the bedroom, removing the bars and scampering out to freedom.
But a low, echoing growl came down the hallway. There, blocking their forward progress, was the headmistress, Miss Preston. Miss Preston had been a massive woman in life, and in death she was just as imposing. Her pale skin caught the small bit of light that filtered in from the windows, the moonlight reflecting off of her teeth. The front of the woman’s nightshirt was stained with blood, testifying that she, too, had been caught unawares. But beyond being obviously dead there was something fundamentally wrong with Miss Preston. It took Sue a moment to realize what she was seeing, but once she did a powerful revulsion rippled through her, leaving nausea in its wake.
Half of Miss Preston’s face was missing, the skull picked clean.
Behind Miss Preston were the girls from the other room down the hall. Sue backpedaled at seeing so many of her friends, their steps uneven and awkward, a shambler’s low moan coming out of their mouths.
But there was no time to panic. They were caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
“This way,” came a small voice, and Sue looked to see Ruthie, the youngest girl at Miss Preston’s, waving them toward a side door propped open with just her foot. She held an overly large knife and the thick black blood of the dead coated her nightclothes. “We can go out through the French doors.”
“Go,” Sue said, waving the girls without weapons toward little Ruthie.
They didn’t need to be told twice. The girls scrambled past Ruthie and out the door, which led to the cellar. Sue didn’t know how they’d make it out of that room, but there were few people who knew the layout of Miss Preston’s better than Ruthie.
Miss Duncan didn’t run, instead she moved forward toward the dead, swinging sickles with a patient and practiced arm. There wasn’t enough room for more than one person to work in the hallway, so Sue let Miss Duncan get to work while the rest of the girls hurried past Ruthie.
Sarah had just slipped through the doorway, her expression making it clear that she had no intention of helping, when the wood of the kitchen door gave way at the far end of the hallway, letting in a mass of shamblers from the kitchens.
“Miss Duncan, we gotta move,” Sue said, swinging the scythe in a wide arc and backing up towards the door. She took off the head of three of the dead with a single swing, lifting the scythe up and around her head and circling it back around for the new shamblers that appeared in their wake. Beyond them were so many dead, more than Sue had ever seen in her life, and for a moment raw panic threatened to overwhelm her.
They couldn’t survive against these odds. They had to run.
Sue grabbed the side door and the back of Miss Duncan’s dress as the instructor backed up, trying to keep the dead at arm’s length.
“We gotta run, Miss Duncan,” Sue said, ducking through the door. Miss Duncan followed, as well as a number of the dead, their grasping hands reaching through the space between the door and the jamb. Sue dropped her scythe and put all of her weight behind closing the door, grunting with effort. Miss Duncan cut the hands off of a few of the dead, removing them from the gap so that Sue could fully close the door.
They’d just managed to get the door shut, lodging a chair under the knob so that the dead would have a harder time following, when screams echoed from the far end of the basement, and the room the lay at the top of another set of stairs.
“If we survive this night it will be a miracle, “ Miss Duncan said. She pushed back a few loose tendrils of hair, leaving a smear of shambler blood on her forehead.
Sue ignored Miss Duncan and headed toward the sound of the scream. Now that they were out of the cellar and in the room Sue could see that it was what her friend Jane always called the ballroom. Not that there had ever been any balls at Miss Preston’s. But sometimes in the winter they did their combat drills inside when it snowed.
“What happened?” Sue asked as she approached. A few of the girls were crying, and even little Ruthie, who clearly had already been through an ordeal, looked shaken.
“Look,” Ruthie said, pointing out to the grass beyond the windows.
Moonlight painted the grounds with silvery light. The ballroom windows didn’t have curtains and the glass stretched floor to ceiling, so it was impossible to miss what lay just beyond the glass.
The dead. At least a hundred, maybe more, shambling toward the school.
“I thought Baltimore County was free of the dead?” one of the girls whispered, her voice heavy with disbelief.
“Looks like that ain’t true,” Sue said. For a moment she bitterly wished her friend Jane were there. Jane would know what to do. Jane always had a plan, no matter what.
But Jane wasn’t at Miss Preston’s, and it was up to Big Sue to find a way out of the school.
“What do we do?” one of the girls whispered.
“We run,” Sue said. She reached down and pulled her dress back, and then up and back around, tying the material up so it wouldn’t tangle up in her legs. “Everyone, tie up your skirts like so. All of us with weapons will go first, clear as many dead as we can. The rest of you follow, keeping pace. You fall back, you get left.”
“Sue is correct,” Miss Duncan said, her jaw set. “The longer we wait, the more the horde will build. We’ll run out toward the road and set a course away from Baltimore. If there are this many dead here, the city will be surrounded.”
A few of the girls sniffled, but the tears from earlier weren’t to be found. They could see what was at stake in the weaving, drunken shapes crossing the lawn in the moonlight.
It was time to run for their lives.
“Wedge formation, with the unarmed girls in the center,” Miss Duncan said. “Sue, you have the best reach, so you take point. Guide us right to the road. We go quickly, but carefully. Mind your intervals, and remember your training.”
A few of the girls nodded, but not much else was said. No one wanted to state the obvious: not all of them would make it across the grass. In fact, none of them might make it across the grass.
The girls tied up their skirts, and once everyone was ready to go Sue turned to Miss Duncan.
“You ready, Miss?”
Miss Duncan nodded. “Lead the way, Sue.”
Sue squared her shoulders and held her head high. Then, with much care, she broke the glass and knocked out the loose pieces before vaulting out of the window.
The grass was only a few feet below the sill, so Sue didn’t have far to fall. Which was a good thing. The dead scented her immediately, running over, their moans loud and hungry.
Sue didn’t give them a chance to reach her.
She began to swing, up and across, trying to separate as many heads from the dead as she could. The key to the scythe was to get the rhythm down. The weapon was meant for clearing, not necessarily killing the dead, although at Sue’s height she was able to easily separate heads from bodies.
The dead gathered closer but Sue only focused on the ones directly within her reach, letting the girls to the left and right of her take care of the rest. Sarah was on the left, and Sue saw her swing her sword with ruthless efficacy. Miss Preston’s girls were the best at killing the dead, even the hard-headed ones.
For a moment it seemed like things were finally going right, that escaping Miss Preston’s would be as easy as just swinging a scythe, but that was before Sarah let out a bloodcurdling scream, and Sue saw her go down.
Later, Sue would remember Sarah’s insistence that she wasn’t there to herd cats, and that she could get there faster by herself. Sue didn’t know what had happened, but one moment Sarah was running along with the rest of the group, and the next she was veering toward the trees, swinging her sword one-handed and abandoning the rest of the girls to the mercy of the dead.
Only, the dead are never so easy to avoid.
Shamblers chased Sarah as she sprinted headlong for the tree line on the edge of the property. The barrier fences there should’ve kept the dead out, but at some point in the night they’d come down. But it didn’t matter.
Halfway to the trees Sarah tripped. And the dead never tolerate such a mistake.
A chorus of dismayed cries went up as the girls watched the dead swarm Sarah, burying her beneath their weight. The sounds of their feeding echoed loudly across the yard, drowning out everything else.
“Keeping swinging,” Sue called, her voice rising over all else. There was no time to grieve, to lose heart. They would mourn the loss later. If they survived. “To the road, to the road!”
The other girls took up the call. And inch by inch, foot by foot, they slaughtered the dead, severing necks and clearing the way until they made their way to the edge of the grounds and to the road beyond.
The way was mostly clear, although a few dead stumbled toward them from the direction of Baltimore. Miss Duncan gained the road, little Ruthie behind her. The rest of the girls followed, some of them clinging to knives and revolvers most likely salvaged from the fallen dead.
“Something must have happened in Baltimore,” Miss Duncan said in between deep heaving breaths. “We have to stay ahead of the horde. We go South, toward the rail lines. With some luck, there will be a train. Sue, please lead the way. Let’s go, girls.”
Sue hefted her scythe and made her way to front of the line. As they walked, the letter tucked inside of her shirt crinkled. Sue decided that she quite liked the sound.
It was a good reminder that she was still alive.
I don’t know about y’all, but that story makes me want more short stories in the Dread Nation universe. Give @justinaireland a holla on twitter if you enjoyed the story and make sure you buy the novel or request it from your local library. You can support Justina by purchasing her book Dread Nation. The link is in the show notes.
On a slightly more personal note, I want to thank all of you who supported our IndieGoGo campaign. We couldn’t do this without you. And thanks to Justina, who offered to write this story for us AND give a story critique away to a lucky contributor.
Don’t forget—we want to secure a second season of NIGHTLIGHT, so we can feature more black horror and pay more black authors. If you’re able, we would greatly appreciate you becoming a patron on Patreon at patreon.com/nightlightpod. And if you can’t contribute financially, we appreciate every tweet, like, share, and especially reviews on iTunes. Thanks so much for your support. We’ll be back next week with a new episode.