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This is Issue #17 of Step by Step. This is the fifth issue of Volume Three.

Burning SkiesEdit

Carter got within a foot of Lyle. There was a scream. It was from Lyle. The next thing that Carter saw was a flash of light before hitting the floor. “No!” Lyle slipped away, dragging himself across the tiles. The crowd of people shuffled, yelping, and turned into a mean mob. Some people screamed. Others watched in awe, waiting to see what would happen.

He saw a couple soldiers lift up their guns. A firing squad.

Cut it out!” Joseph shouted, trying to put his hands on a soldier's gun trying to lower it down. “We don't have to do this.”

“Get up, Carter,” Brock growled, hissing through his teeth. He turned to Joseph. “You, Joseph, are you shitting me? Grab a rifle.”

Joseph curled his fingers into fists. “No,” he said, “you can't make me do that.”

Brock pouted, holding his ground. He passed by Carter, who had gotten up from the ground. Carter's eyes were messed up, all red with purple, bruised lines in them. He had put on black gloves that went to his elbow. He wouldn't let anyone know why. His forearm was itching like someone had set fire to it. Come to think of it, his brain was starting to hurt. Was it the fall? Whatever, now, he was a mess. It hurt just to think. Stop thinking, why haven't you stopped? His brain was thinking over itself, and Carter was unsure what he was even thinking himself.

“Carter, help me out, man.” Joseph had known Carter since they both were playing cards and what not in the barracks of their military base. Those were the days. Carter had seemed so relaxed and barely got mad. But now he looked like a raging bull on a full stampede.

“Don't know if I can,” said Carter.

“Oh c'mon,” said Joseph. “You can do this. We can't do this. Please, man, don't send him out. You're basically killing him.”

Carter gritted his teeth, clapping his hands to the sides of his head in pain. “Joseph,” He grunted, “Do what he said; grab a damn rifle.”

“Carter,” Amanda said, standing behind Joseph. She hadn't seen him that angry since she first met him in the cafeteria. Oh the cafeteria. Marvin and Carter had argued. And where was Marvin now? Dead and wrapped up in bed sheets. She hoped his family was okay, maybe they had made it out of Indianapolis in time. But the question was, would they go with Marvin Chevrolet–their father, husband, and brother.

“Settle,” she said. “This is the last thing we need. You got everyone scared, more than they already are.”

“Cut the act, Shirley Temple,” the soldier from before said. He was a grumpy man, not much taller than five and a half feet, with a big, fat nose. If you looked at him, you'd think he was a walking badger. His forehead was dabbed with sweat, and his lips flapping like the wind. “If 'Fresh Prince' wants us to throw this thug out, then we do. He's nothing but a no good robber, don't belong here.”

“They don't sentence people to death for theft,” Lyle said, still on the floor, as he bit down his lip. It hurt just to talk, and breath too. The so-called soldiers had roughed him up. Beat him like a dog. No, no one even kicks a dog in their ribcage and threatens to break their arm.

“It ain't death,” Brock snapped, craning his head to Lyle. “You were killing us by stealing from me. Do you know how hungry we were?”

“I still got rights.” Lyle grinned. “In case you forgot.”

Brock remained standing, unblinking. His stare was on the verge of blankness, fixated on Lyle. The young man had ruined his leg. And when he lost his leg, he lost any chance to find his family and get them in the shelter with him. Most importantly he had lost whatever hope he had put into the school.

Before Brock could do anything, there was a cheer from the sidelines. It was Eugene, the lanky smart aleck. His hair was in brown, curly clumps. Some drooped over his ears making him look more hobbit than human.

“These military dudes at it again?” He folded his arms just as his sister, Caroline, came to him. “Did I miss the show or are we on commercial?”

Carter wiped his face, dusting off the dust. He thought he cracked a molar, but he couldn't tell. He shifted his jaw and started to go for Lyle again. “Get outta here, kid.”

“Back off,” said Lyle who retreated back, hitting the wall. “Carter, step off!”

There was a cracking sound and someone cried out before thudding against the floor.

Mostly everyone ducked down, and even Lyle flinched. The windows of the hallway collapsed, shattering into crystals on the floor. Lyle felt the vapor from outside blast him in the face. And then came to moans of the undead.

But this time, there were people. Shouting.

“What's dat?” said the big-nosed soldier.

“Zombies don't talk, retard,” said Eugene. “Obviously people.”

“They aren't zombies,” said Caroline.

Brock and Malcolm were the only ones who had been left standing. He was leaned against the stone walls, the ones that were painted a dark green, near the window sill. He could see no one. Not that he wanted to. Whatever had busted the glass pane had a gun because gun smoke had started to float into the hallway.

And they were close.

Brock looked at the other people. There were men, women, and a couple children. Some of the kids could have been his sons' age. Malcolm was there. He saw the kids too, afraid and scared. Brock snapped his eyes to Malcolm, both of them nodding to each other.

As soon as they did so there was a rattling of metal outside. Tip-tip-clack-clack-clack.

Brock noticed something the size of two men, no it was two men, walking through the afternoon mist. The pale fog was a baby powder shade. Not too white, but still white enough that Brock could make out the subtle difference between the olive skin of a man dragging his feet against the pavement.

Another emerged from the mist. He was about a foot thicker in length than the others. Had graying hair probably, but it was hard to tell from the distance. Ha dark brown beard that crested from his cheeks to neck. Had a slender nose and thin legs, not to miss the fact his arms were too big for his height.

For a moment Brock may have pissed himself. Imagined what would happen. What could happen. But then the olive skinned man pulled his gun away, directed at the other. One gunshot. Boom. The man—not a man, a crazie—crumbled to his knees. The monster moaned, reaching for his throat as blood spurted out.

Randy admired the work, tilting his head to the side. "Look over here, Jacob. Look at the fucker." Randy shook Jacob, turning him to view the dying crazie. The crazie was weak now, patting his neck in a fruitless attempt to stop the bleeding. Randy smiled, kicking the man off his knees.

"Watch 'em squirm, Jacob." The crazie continued to wriggle on the pavement. Randy thought it was a game. He was insane, crazy, and a damn psycho. Grabbed Jacob and pushed him down to get a close-up view of the crazed man. Thought it was a game. Wasn't it a game, all of this? But the fun ended, Randy pulled back Jacob, knowing that he was in a clear shot for the guards inside the school.

Brock watched in fury, unable to help the man. A father. “He's armed.”

Randy had a gun. Brock could only guess what was going on outside. How many looters, muggers,  and murderers had been spawned? It was small pistol, a gout of stinking smoke left the tip. He was the man who had shot upon the school. Threatened him. Brock didn't want to die, as much as his leg urged him to. He sighed, cocking his chin at the window.

The pavement was still a sucker for crazies. Wherever there wasn't a pocket of fog, there would be a diseased freak scraping across the ground.

Tip-tip-clack-clack-clack.

“I s'pose you can see me,” said Randy. He let go of Jacob, letting him fall to the pads of his knees. “Guess you can't be assed to come out of there, yeah?”

“Not the right time,” shouted Malcolm. “We got no time for you.”

“Ah, but time's running out.” Randy tapped his fingers against his hand gun. The crazies were nearing them. They were slow, mindless and sick shits. Didn't much bother him. Randy was better than them. They were annoying pests to him.

But sooner or later they would be on him.

“You gone deaf in there?” Randy raised his arms, his lips creating a cold smile. “Bastards'll be here in a minute or two, so you got a limited edition offer on your hands!”

Brock slid under the window sill. He was sure the man hadn't spotted him. He wouldn't risk letting even an inch pass above the sill. Get shot and die. Not on Brock's watch.

Tip-tip-clack-clack-clack.

“Got any plans?” Brock whispered to Malcolm.

Malcolm pouted. He looked anxious and nervous. His palms were sweaty when they touched, clasping hand to hand. His gun dangled on his back. He wouldn't make any moves for it. Not to risk a shot. “What'd think he want?”

“Doesn't seem like he wants something,” said Brock. “If he wanted food he would’ve taken it from the trucks and dipped.”

“Passed all those things? Are you crazy?”

“He has weapons.”

Malcolm's eyes narrowed. “We do too.”

“Speak for yourself,” said Lyle.

“Oh shut up,” Brock hissed. "You're the last person we need help from, so why don't you just zip it? We aren't done with you yet, in case you forgot."

“You're fucked up,” said Lyle, sliding his back into the border where the wall and floors met. “You fucked everyone in here up, didn't so much as say a 'you're welcome', either.”

Carter cursed, laying on his stomach. He slid against the tiles, trying to get to Lyle again. He eased his gloves upwards, pointing a finger at Lyle. “Shut up, you fucker.”

“I'm not listening to you,” said Lyle. He kicked his foot at him. Kept him at bay. “Dumb ass, putting more gas to the fire.”

Another gunshot rang out. It was a loud pop that ripped through the fog. Something fell out of the wispy air and onto the cement walkway. Brock swore. What was he to do? The gears in his head croaked, the blood pounding in his head.

That's my dad!” Kerry shouted. "Please, let me get him!"

Brock flashed his eyes to her. Didn't recognize her at first. He knew she was a paramedic, but she must have been a volunteer or something. Mary had been a volunteer nurse when they had met. Oh Mary. Where the hell was she now?

“Yo,” Lyle hissed. “Get down, girl!”

Kerry slouched over, hands glued to her face in horror. The color from her face turned as white as the fog outside. She fell down to her belly. Landed right beside Lilian and Gordon. She glided to them, huddling in fright with them.

“They have him,” she mumbled. “My dad.” Her dad had always been there for her. But now he wasn't. Seemed like he was on the other side of the earth than the tens of feet from her. She had seen him being hit with the rainwater. Surrounded by the three men.

“Your mom,” Lilian said. “Is she out there too?”

Kerry gasped, on the verge of tears. She covered her eyes, sobbing into her palms. Her mom wasn't out there. She gulped, realizing the possibilities of what could have happened. Not Mom, no, not her Mom. She shot back up, gazing outside. Fell back on her knees in defeat.

“Got any bright ideas?” Lyle said to Malcolm.

Malcolm hesitated, his teeth chewing on his gums. “No, not really. We go out, we risk it.”

“You said it yourself, y'all got guns.”

“And dozens of civilians.”

“So?” Lyle said, moving along the wall to where Malcolm was. He felt the rain water fall onto his bare neck, drenching his back. He could smell the lightning outside. That burning smell of fire. “People die all the time.”

Malcolm gazed at Lyle. He was talking to a suspect. Shit, what had those police dramas taught him? Sharon had always nagged him about them. Whodunnit types of shows. She was addicted that sort of stuff. Danny was too. Maybe Malcolm had caught the same fever. “Changing the subject,” he said. “No people are going to die.”

Sshh!” Brock peeped out of the window. “Put the gun down!”

He saw the man still there, grabbing Jacob's shoulder. Shaking him. Pointing his gun at the back of his head. Randy didn't know much about guns, only that they killed quickly. Sometimes slowly and painful. Not a hundred percent chance. But at point blank range, Brock knew Jacob couldn't survive that.

"You follow my lead, alright? I don't want you playing any bullshit with me." Randy switched fingers on the gun, leveling it at Jacob's head. "We do this quick and you get to be back with your family, 'kay?"

Jacob could barely keep his head up, subconsciously dodging the gun's aim. "My son," he muttered, "Ethan."

"Man, did that beating wreck your memory?"

Jacob tried to turn his head, but pained at the thought. "What do you mean?"

Randy lifted up Jacob, leading him to the shoulder. He shoved the man. “Just follow my lead, dickwad.”

“Don't shoot me,” muttered Jacob. “They'll shoot back.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, with what ammo?” Randy smiled, but so faintly it was lost in the blinding rain. “I'm not dumb, you see, dickwad? I watch and act, like lions and shit.” Randy dug the handgun into Jacob's back, stabbing into his spine.

“You're going to die,” Jacob said. “One way or another, cowards like you always die.”

Randy pushed him forward, thrusting him towards the window pane with broken glass. He nodded to himself. Without another word he sent Jacob over the window sill. He pushed him harder than expected, but that was all right. Randy had received worse shoves in the past.

“Hold up,” Brock said. He slowly reeled up his handgun, keeping it at his hip and pointed at Randy. Brock noticed Randy was wearing a mask, much like the one Gordon had described.

“Well,” Randy looked mildly shocked, but still entertained. He nodded to Jacob who was regaining himself and his feet, soaking wet, slipping down to the tiles. “There's my part of the bargain.”

“Bargain?” Malcolm glanced at Brock and the two men. “What are you implying?”

“Slow down on the big words, amigo,” Randy looked at the two soldiers sternly. “Y'know, a bargain. We give you the big guy, and you pass me some stuff. Ammo and guns. Basics, hear me? You probably got a stockpile in there from all those dead boys behind me.”

“We don't have any to spare,” said Brock.

Biggest fucking lie I've ever heard!” Randy shouted so loudly, the moans of the crazies didn't blur it out. “You're the damn army, you got guns, and food. Now, all I want are the weapons. Basic effin' shit.”

“No.”

Randy cocked his chin, biting down on his bottom lip. He edged his head around, watching the crazies heading towards them. They were inside the fog, invisible to his eyes. But he could hear their disgusting snarls.

It would be another minute before he saw them shamble out, one by one.

“Heh, I'll make you a deal.” Randy scanned the inside of the school. “You should get this fixed, yeah? That'll take a while. So in the meantime you can have another day or two to rethink my offer. Sound fair, right?”

A brown-haired man rose up behind Brock. He was crazy eyed, wearing thick black gloves around his hands. Carter gritted his teeth until they hurt. “Back off and leave, motherfucker.”

“Taking that as a yes?” Randy said. He lifted up his free hand, two fingers up. Middle finger and index. “For that foul mouth, you lose a day.” Randy dropped his index finger, leaving his middle finger up to Carter.

Carter's eyes flared with anger. A vein in his forehead popped out from under. He spit out the window. "Fucker."

Randy said nothing, facing Brock as he walked backwards. The pale air covered Randy like fingers as he left. Staring at Brock. He would take his time with these hotheads. Always had, back in the day. Patience was key. Surely it would be. Randy ducked into the fog, his face smoldered by the haze. "One day," he said. "Before I bash your heads in."

Brock moved a worm. He was slow at first, but then something ticked in him. Must've been adrenaline. He glanced once at his handgun and saw hand jerk up with the gun. Pulled the trigger. Heard some people near him scream. Felt gunshot residue splash over his face, blinking as a piece of the ash hit his eye.

For a moment he stopped. Couldn't believe he'd done it. Someone had to do it. Brock wouldn't let some punk ruin his day. Consequences or not, he wouldn't. It was his time to shine. Show the people of Indiana his skill to lead. Forget the pain in his leg.

Forget that he was infected with the birdshit flu.

And that he was a dying mess.

He held out the gun with his right hand, firing two clean shots at the criminal. He saw Randy scramble to the ground, making Brock shoot into the window sill. He cursed, using his left hand to clear away the gun smoke. He caught some of the smoke in his throat, his eyes tearing up.

Brock heard the man's footsteps as they galloped away. His heart sank. He'd failed to show his platoon what he was capable of. Was being a detective enough? No, think again.

"Well, Brock really thinks out of the box." Lyle was up on his feet, laughing to himself in the midst of the chaos. Didn't really care what happened next. As long as he was still breathing, he was racking up bonus points. Brock took a long sideglance at Lyle. His face was coolly, creepy and sleek. Cold enough to bring winter to hell. He didn't break his stare. Mary would be proud of how long he held out. But what about his boys? They would've thought he was a monster out of a horror movie. He imagined what his face looked like. A cheap, plastic ghoul mask.

"Whatcha looking at?" Lyle smirked, limped one step forward. "Yeah, what's got you going?" Lyle reckoned it was his pain that was kicking him. Felt the need to humiliate the man in front of him. Ten years ago, no doubt, Lyle would have been busy pissen himself. But now, he was alone and facing Brock like that one soldier. Stonewall Jackson.

Then he saw Brock unsheathe his handgun from the side. He paused, but then lifted up the gun in rage. He cried out, pulling back the gun. Didn't recognize it as the same one Lyle had used to save him. Shameful. He fired like Annie Oakley. More or less. But all that came were clicks. Brock came to his senses. His fingers shook, face wide in disbelief. Gritted his teeth, was just his luck. Felt the urge to laugh. No time for kid's play, Brock, now be a good boy and pull that trigger again. Should fire, those sounds were just imaginary.

The gun clicked empty. Drier than the Sahara. Was all a mistake, right? No way. Brock was shocked. Total shock as his lip hanged low and his cheeks danced in rage. Click.

"Bullshit."

Issues

Step by Step: Act One
VoltagePrecautionsIn With The DeadShutdownPriority Over OptionAlarm
Step by Step: Act Two
SublimationDead AliveStalemateNot The LightThrough The WallsFission
Step by Step: Act Three
SoonVacancy30 SilversTrenched InBurning SkiesEmpty Omens
Step by Step: Act Four
The HoleLimestone and The RestStraight BelowPotter's GroundDepictionSouth Pass
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