This is Issue #13 of Step by Step. This is the first issue of Volume Three.
Amanda was walking down the hallway, which stretched into the gymnasium. She felt like shit. Her chest rose and fell rapidly. Stomach was all twisted. Growled like a poked bear. Didn't help that Frank was next to her and staring, actually giving a damn. She ignored her partner, her heels clapping on the floor. She didn't understand why Brock wanted them to rinse through the hallway. Once every thirty minutes, he had said. Take a stroll around.
"Whew, what a workout." Frank looked at Amanda and then surveyed her. Realized she had the body a man would pay good money for. He was packing some intense firepower, one assault rifle that Malcolm said was a spare. Of course there were spares. More guns than soldiers to use them.
Paranoid sonofabuck, she thought.
"You want to take a break here?" Amanda gazed at the gymnasium, hearing voices pour out. Had started to give her a headache. But it beat hearing to the constant thudding of fists from outside. Occasionally, she'd come across one of the infected at a window. Either head-butted or scratched the glass with their yellowed teeth.
"You wish," said Frank.
"I wish? You're the one huffing and puffing."
"Oh you'll see, darling."
Amanda scoffed and folded her arms. "Eyes up, Frank."
"To be frank," said Frank, "My eyes were nowhere near–"
"Never said they were." Amanda had some additional heat, too. It was a standard issue M16, slung over her shoulder and fresh with a magazine. She had her hand gun placed tightly in her holster. She guessed it was just for show. No one was going to get shot. Or leave the school until they were evacuated. Maybe they wouldn't be rescued? "How long do you think we'll be here?"
"Long 'nough for my caffiene to run out, that's for sure." Frank curled his lip, idealizing the last soda beverage Nolan had passed him. The vending machine had run out, Frank having kicked out its guts the night before. He swore if that Nolan guy didn't give him his hit, he'd make the fucker pay. "You smoke?"
"No, not really."
"Y'sure? You don't want me to get you some?"
"Mornin'." Alexander stood at the end of the hall, about five feet from the others. His brown hair had grown unkempt, all ruffled up. He shivered as a brisk wave of cold air breezed by. Guarding doors was sure a waste. He could think of a bajillion more things to be doing. Had himself a nice Playboy, courtesy of Lyle Jackson. But now Alexander's eyes were graying, burning from nonstop watching over the deadfucks outside.
He put his rifle around his shoulder and rubbed his hands, a cold chill running down his back. Boy, he thought, the Lord must have some damned powerful patience to watch over things. Alexander was watching outside a window in the hall, stretching a view across the battlefield that Brock had left for dead. His grip tightened around the M16 carbine propped in his hands. There were smudges of blood still on it, but Brock didn't mind since he'd been the one to slam the gun into Alexander's arms.
"Jesus, y'all see this?" He watched a pack of crazies shamble past the fences. Then more and more came. Were coming for breakfast. It seemed like an enternity had passed since he'd been outside. Out in that fresh air. Roasting like Pa's hotdogs. Alexander had been fishing the last time he saw his family, right before deployment.
Pa had sure been proud that his son had caught the town's biggest silver fish of the year. Whoo. Pat on the back and a basket full of whiskey.
"See what, sonny?" Frank said.
"Oh my God." Amanda watched, intrigued as a young man raced through the streets. He was followed by a blonde woman, but at a distance she looked dark-haired. Both looked exhausted, and were running from something, which could have been anything from the dead folk, the darkness itself, or even some stray dogs. The man jumped over the same fence that had been flattened by the crazies, grabbing the woman's hand.
Alexander just watched. Couldn't do nothing. He licked his lips, feeling as if he was watching a horror flick. He scanned the playing field. Four more packs were sliding out from the school's sides, moaning. Daylight hadn't even broken out. Alexander's Rolex watch beamed out the time: three-thirty in the effin' morning.
"We have to call up the other guards," said Amanda.
"You crazy," said Frank. "They're goners. Look at how many of 'em there are. By the time the first few get here, it'd be too late."
"Hold yer fuckin' tongues, people!" Alexander put a hand on the window, fingers wrapping around two wooden planks on it. A fat, bearded crazie had taken notice of the window. Had begun to stumble towards it with his belly flopping about. As he got closer, Alexander could see the telltale signs that he was a fast food worker, a striped tie slung over a large gash on his shoulder.
"The hell is that?" Alexander said to himself, pulling his face closer to the window. Just the sight of the burly man scared Alexander. But he held himself, staring back. Unblinking. The fat man did blink, and was close enough for Alexander to see a thick wad of pus slicker out the man's eye. Alexander banged his rifle on the glass. "You can't get us in here."
But the same couldn't be said for the two outside. They were gone within the minute. Both of them. The man and the woman struggled at first, but were pillowed by the crazies. It seemed like forever, but then a hand surfaced. Three heads instantly went to it, taking quick chunks out of it. The hand crumbled back inside the deep moans, leaving the fat man to Alexander.
"Don't take the shot." Amanda said. She left in a hurry, racing past Alexander and into the gymnasium. "I'll be back with patrol."
Alexander traced backwards, slinging his rifle over his back. He covered his nose in disgust, the smelly rot of the man outside reaching him through the window cracks. The man had his whole chest covered in blood, or was it ketchup? He couldn't tell. But the man wasn't alone. Three figures reached the window as well, dragging their hands across the bricks. Moaning in unison as the wet snapping of flesh behind them grew.
He could tell what he was going to do. His hands were already going in position. Finger to trigger. Stock to shoulder. Hopefully he wouldn't attract more. Hope is a strong thing, the farmboy thought. Right, Pa?
"Stand back, Frank." Alexander backed up, and then everything else played out.
Nolan's eyes were open at half-mast. His head was a tumbling crock of shit. Hadn't gotten the best Zzzz's the past week. Was it even a week? Didn't feel like it. He rolled over in his cot, trembling from the cold. He wrestled around, grasping the wet cloth rag on his forehead. Cold sweat.
Bet you it's a Monday.
He slid off the damp rag, rubbing his head. Nolan was having a bad day already. Ever since that near-death experience, he'd been on edge. Drank the last of the soda pop he had. Wolfed down those Twizzlers. Strawberry wasn't his type, so he threw some Lyle's way.
"Sup, crackass." Lyle was standing to the left of the cot, clapping his hands. "Guess we some nocturnal bitches, now."
"Yeah." Nolan said. He straightened himself, cracking his neck. They were in the gymnasium. The cafeteria's cots were all over like chocolate on a cookie. People snoring and yawning. All worried beyond their imagination. But now they couldn't show it. At least in the verbal sense. Most of the people tossed and turned in their sleep. Some were huddled together, trying to keep warm.
"Well, I was chillin' a bit, y'know," Lyle clicked his tongue, pointing at a burly man in the distance. "Mofucka's been standing there for hours waiting for me to crack an eye."
Lyle slammed palms with Nolan, helping him to his feet. "What he said was creepier."
Nolan looked back at the man. He'd recognize that beard any day of the week. Bet it's Monday. Wayne started walking to them, sliding a long stick into his hand. Instinctively, Nolan got on the defensive. But his muscles throbbed and ached so much he broke out into a twisted shape.
"Head up, kiddo." Wayne smiled, producing what he held to them both. "Just a candybar, no shame in it."
"Great to see you too," said Nolan.
"Yeah, you look like a basket full of daisies, Nolan."
Lyle grinned. "Wayne over here knows all 'bout you. You and Dennis. Told me how he bailed Dennis's ass out." Lyle stopped, remembering how the city had been dried out by the military. He felt weak now, but Lyle still had his steel attitude. Could bent, break, or adapt when needed. If needed. "Ran outta time to fetch you. All in all, he's the man with the answers."
"My bad," Wayne said. "Life's not all hugs and rainbows." Wayne scratched his face. He would kill for a shave, but the beard did more good than harm. "I'm ya friendly neighbor motorcycilist. No Devil's Angels shit. I come from Empire State, at your service. And—correction—my bail money didn't go through for Nolan. It got stalled and by the time it went through, buster here was long gone."
"Yeah, where'd Dennis go then, you know?" Nolan felt nervous. He and DJ had been close friends. Dennis had been a down-to-earth guy, always telling Nolan that he was alright. No drugs for me, yes siree, no more nose candy for ol' Dennis. "You send him off packing?"
Wayne bit down on his gums. He took out a bite of the candy bar. Didn't care if it was some cheap kind, but it'd pass. The boys in green had let him pass into the school easily. A little Payday wouldn't hurt. "Hell no, he'd be arrested for some random shit alone. I gave him some cash and told him to go to my motel and doze off. But he was mumblin to me about some guy, Scarface. You know 'em?"
"Yes, yes." Lyle smacked his teeth. "Derek Fucking Woods. Helped me and Nolan with that Big E shit. Pull it off, I mean." Lyle looked at the boarded-up doors which led outside, same ones where Gordon had burst through. Rain had seemed to speed up, striking the door like an aircraft bomber. "He could've gone to Scar, slipped off the grid."
"Chi-Town, man." It all made sense now. It was definitely a fucking monkey. Monday, not monkey. Boy, was Nolan exhausted. All worked up over DJ. Felt like he himself had stabbed his arm with one of DJ's needles. Nolan snapped his fingers, "Or he went back to Chicago. He has family there."
"Aren't they separated? And what were they's names?" Lyle brought back his eyes to the others. "Ringing a bell, he had a girl and little one."
"Elizabeth and Anna."
Lyle smiled for a moment. "Ahh, that's why. Some white royalty names."
"Makes sense that he would," Wayne said. "No business with Derek anymore, so he bolts."
Nolan got ready to speak, but heard the three-round crack of a rifle. From the hallway. "Sound the alarm," he said.
Wayne backed off and started for his cot again. "Brock's gonna come here soon. I suggest y'all settle it."
Lyle shot his eyes at Wayne. "Yo," he said, keeping a raised whisper. "You don't tell anyone about this. No one's got to know about Big E, you straight? Not a peep."
Wayne nodded, turning his back to them. "Mhm."
Nolan and Lyle exchanged looks. For a second, it felt like life was alright. That they weren't trapped inside a school's gymnasium. That they were in the eye of the huge storm brewing outside. All peaceful. But soon that second had become spent like those shell casings that Alexander had cracked in a moment of stress and a feeling that no one could be helped.
Most definitely, it was a Monday.
Carter Jameson felt like a pile of shit. His chest heaved. He was in the male bathroom. Locked in. All to himself. He was shirtless, his green pants and shoes still on. Nothing there hurt. Every above did. His throat itched like sandpiper. Sandpaper, Carter thought, can't even think right. He was massaging over his left breast, heart thumping like a jackhammer on sun-soaked stone.
"Make it stop..." His wrist, the one where that mother had been so kind enough as to bite, was a swollen mess. He had it flopped onto the sink, dousing it with cold water. But the hot pain didn't cease. He'd give the world for it to stop. Just a second of relief from the hell he felt. Sweet Mary and Joseph. Heh, Joseph. That made him chuckle. His good friend was off in the dumps, didn't feel fit to fight anymore.
Maybe he'd talk to Joey later. Tell him all about how he was infected. One of the crazed fuckers. You hear that, you crazy rat bastards? Carter gave up, splashing some of the water on his face. He was cooking now. Frying at night. He looked at himself in the bathroom mirror. Through the cloudy steam was his boiling face. He was still Carter. No one could change that. His face was dripping wet. And in the cold of the school, he quivered about like a sweating ice cube. Carter gazed at the reflection of a bloody garbage bin behind him. "Fuck this, it burns..." He was going to hurl. Quickly he grabbed his stomach with his good hand. He was better now. A better Carter.
He swiped up his bloodied hand, cradling it with the good one. Out with the bad. In with the good. Out with the bad. In with the good. Like old times. Carter faced himself in the mirror again, staring back. He ran his fingers through his hair, groaning and cursing. All that training and for what? All leading up to this? Who would have thought that Carter, same fucker who had taken down lunatics with high-powered rifles. Saved lives. Police Officer of the Month.
Wasn't that what he was doing now? No. He slipped, tripped, and washed up. Maybe what Susie Brown was doing was right. Getting everyone together with faith. For what she called Judgement Day. Carter ought to know how he was going to be judged. He looked at the gloves in his pocket. He didn't know if he had the balls to do it. Would it be best to turn himself in?
No way in hell. He'd rather go back to trying to find a job in law. Go back to those long ass waiting lines. Become a lawyer, they had said. Yeah, well, Carter guessed they hadn't seen the lawyers outside chewing on every forsaken soul in sight. Heh, they were all the same. Carter chuckled, grinned. Lawyers and these walking stiffs were alike. And so was Carter.
Carter looked at the gloves once more. Then he looked at the pistol on the bathroom counter. He went for it slowly, his good hand wrapping around the gun's grip. Carter made one more side glance to his dangling, scabby hand. Skin had begun to flake and shed, the rash marching upwards.
Only gonna get worse.
Then he heard Brock Menster call him from outside. And that pretty much sealed the deal.
|Step by Step: Act One|
|Voltage ☢ Precautions ☢ In With The Dead ☢ Shutdown ☢ Priority Over Option ☢ Alarm|
|Step by Step: Act Two|
|Sublimation ☢ Dead Alive ☢ Stalemate ☢ Not The Light ☢ Through The Walls ☢ Fission|
|Step by Step: Act Three|
|Soon ☢ Vacancy ☢ 30 Silvers ☢ Trenched In ☢ Burning Skies ☢ Empty Omens|
|Step by Step: Act Four|
|The Hole ☢ Limestone and The Rest ☢ Straight Below ☢ Potter's Ground ☢ Depiction ☢ South Pass|