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This is Issue #18 of Step by Step. This is the sixth and final issue of Volume Three.

Empty OmensEdit

When a deer jumps in front of a speeding car at night, you can imagine the immediate tension. Picture it. Nolan as the deer. Brock as the speeding car. With a tire popped, Nolan thought. Nolan had seen the movies where the secret agent that goes undercover faces their enemy, face to face.

By now Brock had turned around. Staring at Nolan. Beady, fierce eyes.

His face was a mix of confusion and uncertainty. For a second Brock tried to keep his weak leg stable. It looked like it would just snap off if it kept wobbling from side to side. But instead Brock didn't lose a thing. Gained the strength to stick his finger at Nolan.

Brock had shouted something, but to Nolan it seemed like a growl of anger. Whatever had happened was just like when a car crashes after nearly running over a doe. “Get him,” Brock shouted. “Drag his ass over here!”

Nolan kicked into gear. He fell out of the crowd of people. He had hoped no one would see him. Before it had only been Lyle who had seen him. More or less a glimpse. Confusion. But now he was in full view as the crowd separated. He saw the crowd gasp, unsure of what to do. They had just seen a bastard beat up a city local. What were they to do? They're weak too, Nolan thought. Maybe Brock had been right. Carter was right too. They were all suffering. Were they even better off hungry and stuck in the school or outside where they had a chance? Nolan wondered if there were more military folk near the school, coming to save him and the rest of the people.

Nolan's gaze fell on an aged officer making a move towards him. It was Frank, up and at it, snatching Nolan's arm. “Don't touch me, man,” said Nolan.

“Fuckin' hell, Nolan, stay still.” Frank grabbed Nolan by the bare neck, squeezing his fingers into the boy's neck below his brown hair. Frank reeled him in, positioning Nolan in front of him at an awkward arc. He shoved Nolan forward twice, jabbing his elbow into Nolan's back.

Nolan hit the wall pretty quick, banging the side of his head against something red. Fireworks popped into his eyes. He grabbed his head with his hand, trying to keep himself up. He was sure that he'd bit his tongue. Stung like a bitch. Felt like that one time when Nolan had taken up a date with a sweet and shiny Cadillac. Mmm, just the thought of that baby swerving down the highway.

With the wind pushing back his hair, and his back resting on the babe's fine leather seats, nothing could go wrong. It did, Nolan remembered, couldn't believe a man's face could get so red it'd make a tomato look pale. So what if he had taken a joyride? Saying goes that you remember moments, not days.

Nolan felt his scalp. Kilimanjaro had begun to form where he had hit his head. He stumbled over his feet, the wall grabbing his back. His eyes fluttered, hurting from the blow. But all the pain disappeared when Frank snapped him back into reality with a grab of the wrist.

"Hold up, Nolan," said Frank, wrapping Nolan's arms behind him. "You move one more time, I'll be on you like damn ants."

“This is enough,” said Joseph, who was crouched down by Lyle. He checked his wounds. Lyle had cracked lips, raw with blood. “We got enough trouble now,” Joseph pushed up his friend's undershirt which was smeared with blood. He quickly saw the nasty purple shades of bruises on Lyle's chest.

“Ain't good,” said Lyle. “Feeling like shit now.”

Joseph leaned forward and whispered into his ear. “Can you stand up?”

“Got legs on me."

Joseph heaved up Lyle, wrapping his hands under Lyle's arms. They both took a long breath of air and shot up into the air. They got barely a foot up. Joseph looked at the crowd of refugees, face uneasy. He saw Amanda.

"Let me help,” said Amanda.

Joseph bent his neck. “I got him.”

“Really, let me help.” She repeated. “Let's get him to a nurse, sticks and stones broke some bones in him.”

“Don't you dare.” Brock motioned to Carter and Fat Nose, flapping a hand. He wouldn't let no one help the thugs. Filthy thugs they were. No good freeloaders only causing trouble.

“I'm not sure,” Carter said. He scratched his face, writhing back. He glanced out the broken window where fog had started to spill in along with the December freeze. “We got bigger things to worry about.”

“We have time,” said Brock.

“No we don't.” said Malcolm, drawing towards Brock.

“Yes we do,” said Brock. “Yes we do!

Malcolm was about a foot or two taller than Brock. He looked down at the crippled soldier. Brock was trying to preserve his reputation. Malcolm got that. He really did. But not with violence, Malcolm thought. They weren't animals.

“If he keeps to his word...”

“I heard every word that troublemaker said,” said Brock, face-to-face with Malcolm.

Malcolm bit his upper lip. He looked down the hallway. It was desolate for the most part. The walls were decorated with fliers, some that the Caroline kid had made with her dad. This was it. Tens of people left in the school.

“We gotta pay a visit to an old friend,” said Malcolm. He looked to Fat Nose. “Got a key on you?”

Fat Nose mumbled. “Yeah, yeah.” Malcolm gulped. He would fix the situation. Be the boss. Top dog, was that what Danny had called it? Danny had liked basketball and he had told his father how he was the top dog amongst friends. Malcolm held back the guilt in his stomach.

“Let's go see Pacino.”

“That lunatic?” Eugene leaned out of the window, peering into the dense fog. “He isn't worth your time.”

“Did I ask you, kid?”

“No,” said Eugene. He put both hands on the window pane. Didn't care about the glass cutting into his fingertips. He saw something moving. One of the zombies. They were zombies, weren't they? Like from the movies.

But this one stood out. It was a man, brown haired and shambling along the collapsed fence. The fog had started to clear up when Eugene noticed the man's blistered face. He walked weakly and tripped over his own feet, groaning. He was a tall and showed signs of middle age. But the disease was eating him from the inside. In a couple more days, he'd look like the other zombies.

“But I still have freedom of speech.”

“Eugene, is it?” Nolan switched a look at the boy. “You're a chip off the—" Nolan felt his breath blow right out of him like he had landed on his back from a fall. He realized his arm went up and bashed on something that cracked like a tree branch.

He found himself walking backwards as the thing he had hit fell. Nolan quickly breathed in, his vision blurry from pain. He couldn't see what he had hit. But it soon came to him that no one was holding him.

Frank's body had hit the floor pretty quick, landing against the lockers sprawled against the drywall. Nolan saw Frank's head swaying from side to side like a tree branch. His eyes were wide open, horrified. They gave off a sense of murder. But the man had died faster than Nolan could blink.

And murder it was.

“Holy shit...” Nolan backed away, bile rising in his throat. He hadn't meant to do it. Hadn't even thought it was possible. He looked at the crowd. He saw shock. Then he looked at Lyle and Joseph. Both of them were good people. Hell, Lyle even knew what Nolan was capable of. But they were surprised with mouths agape.

“You murderer!” shouted Brock. His face was full of anger and disbelief. But then it set in. What if this was a blessing? A necessary evil to finally get a perfect reason to cop Nolan. Filthy bastard had lost. And Brock had won. “I want him dead!”

Nolan swore. He spun around, bolting through the hallway like a hot bullet. His legs pumped into the ground. His sneakers which had begun to lose their filling weren't cooperating. The bellies of his feet slapped hard against the hard floor, but Nolan didn't care. He'd use to run all the time. Father had taught him a lot back in the day. How to run, jump, hunt, and roll blunts. Maybe not the last part, but in the country parts, the backwoods, there was no telling how much fun you could have.

Sure, in the city there would always be a diner or two to spend your day. Listening to Les Paul-jukebox tunes. Nolan felt like laughing because he was such a big idiot. He didn't. Lungs ached like a bitch, though. His legs were filled lactic acid. Ache, ache, ache. He passed the shoulder of the hallway, swinging to the right. He caught himself, lunging across the new hallway. Nolan ran past the ajar front door of the main office, his urge to vomit coming back. He saw a blood stain on the wall behind the door.

Must have been from a guard or something. Or a refugee. There were a lot less of them now. Most had fled, some turned up in bits and pieces every now and then. Nolan thought about slipping in the main office, but he thought that as his death warrant. Closed in like prey under a snare. He backed up, catching his breath. The guards were after him. Nolan quickly scanned the remaining stretch of hallway. The couple of dim lights that remained after the power died out reflected off the waxed tiles, a stream of stepping stones.

This was uncharted territory. Nolan had played a few video games with creepy monsters. At first he'd slip in the game disc, but never expected the gory creatures in the games. They seemed to be lurking in the dark. The monsters outside were inside. He'd seen The Blob, and like it he was unstoppable. Nolan looked at the first crazie, a woman. Her eyes were tiny slits, surrounded by growing boils. She passed under one of the lights, baring her spoiled teeth. It gave Nolan the chills to look at her. She was leading them, pushing the six others in her pack through the hallway.

The others seemed dumber. They were a mix of races and age, but all had the same disease. The woman groaned, arms sprouted at Nolan. Nolan heard the shouting of the guards. Their feet stomping behind him. Nolan had no choice but to throw up. He recollected himself, grabbing his chest. He slid along the left side of the hall, parallel to the crazies. The woman reached for him, her greasy hands smearing Nolan's shirt with oily liquid. He shoved her backwards, disgusted. Nolan fell out of the hallway, snapping his head behind him to the left where light poured out from outside.

The school exit was open.

Nolan walked to the exit, his chest heaving. His mouth tasted like shit. Nolan picked up on the guards who had begun to fire at the crazies. Thud, thud, thud. Fell dead and in sync like an orchestra. Nolan put a hand on his throat, wiping away sweat.

He drifted out of the school, embracing the chilly air and the moonlight above. He didn't care why the exit wasn't locked. Didn't think. Nolan placed a hand on the door and pushed it back into place. After the door had been shut Nolan made a dash through the alley he was in.

It was the same one where he and Lyle had met the week before. The red bricks were still there, with bodies dressing the floor. Nolan gulped as he trudged out and tripped over his left shoe. He could have gotten up, but he didn't. He was just so tired. Threw himself against the school's wall where trash and cans had settled. The ash in the air made his skin itch, but Nolan didn't mind. He closed his eyes, resting his back on the cold wall.

Nolan saw a couple figures loom about. Moved like humans, not in the shuffling way that the dead things did. Nolan didn't mind them a bit. Papa had taught him to not dwell too much on things. But had he ever thought his son would kill an Hoosier called Frank? A couple crazies came on from the other side of the alley. Nolan remembered how Frank had looked like on the floor, dead. Nolan looked up with tired eyes. No there were four of them. Five. Six. All of them struggling to get to the school's exit. Once the first ones got to the door, they rasped their hands against the door. Beating at it like monkeys.

“Useless,” Nolan muttered. He was angry, feeling the need to punch the wall. But he couldn't. He dug a nest in the trash remains, his eyes stinging at the sulfur smell. They would never find him. Nolan rested on the pile of trash, pushing up more trash to cover up his face.

And then he escaped into his dreams.


Brock Menster walked through the the door of the main office, his prescense seemingly unknown as he checked around with ease. There was the nurse, Bible in hand, scouting about. He had told Fat Nose to round up Hector Pacino. The gunslinger was in the same room as him. Thank God he didn't have a gun. Brock took a short breath, closing the door behind him as Malcolm came in.

“This gonna take a while?”

“Guess so,” said Malcolm. “Never done this interrogation shit before, you?”

Brock nodded to two people sitting at the main office's front desk. The clerks sat chatting, barely realizing the presence of Brock and Malcolm. Nothing had to be said. Brock knew they were all in deep shit. Ever since day one everything was going south.

“No, but he must have,” said Brock. “We'll take our time with him. He's done hundreds of these. He's got the upper hand.”

Malcolm sighed. He found the fat-nosed soldier standing by a room on the right side of the main office. His face was sweaty and red like a pig. He was sitting down on a bench, a bench where kids like Danny would sit awaiting detention from their principal.

But Danny was a good kid. A great son. He would never drink alcohol, do drugs, and all that crazy stuff. Malcolm had drunk beer in the past. Miller Lite had been his favorite, not too much power. Sometimes he'd hit up some stronger stuff, said to be heavier than vodka. Sharon and he had done all that before Danny. Then Danny came and a new Malcolm was born. He had suspected some things about Danny, like that mary jane on him. Malcolm's chest pained at the thought.

“Yeah, he's in there!” The soldier looked like he would pass out, exasperated. “Jackass is kicking and screaming like the donkey he is.”

Malcolm nodded weakly, twisting the door knob. It cracked open the lock, revealing Hector. The officer was sitting in a chain, left foot cuffed to the chair leg. Looked stern-faced in the dark. Hector didn't bother to look up.

Brock stopped, about a meter away. “How y'doing, Pacino?”

Hector said nothing. He played with his hands, flattening his palms together. He had all the time in the world still. Days upon days to think about Blake. Played back that scene as if it was the beginning of Pulp Fiction. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. All five shots. Hector cupped his hands. Blood had dried on his face and neck. His boots were covered in the gory muck, too. It reminded him about that pool of blood forming underneath, and around, Blake.

“Listen up, fucker,” Brock raised his voice. He leaned forward. “Eyes up here!

“Get the hell out of my face.” Hector Pacino looked up, face sunken. Hadn't eaten in days. His brown overcoat looked a couple sizes bigger. There was a momentary flare of anger in Hector's face.

“Christ,” said Malcolm, nervously raising a hand to his mouth.

'"I've never felt better, sergeant.” Hector grimaced, wetting his lips. “Never in my life have I been put in quite the predicament where my own boys turned against me.”

Brock and Malcolm had nothing to say. Malcolm leaned against the door, closing it with his back. “Look at me,” Hector demanded, “Am I the murderer they tell you I am? Look at me, dammit, look at me. I am not a monster.”

Brock came face-to-face with Hector, getting the sense his eyes would crawl back into his skull. Hector looked like the devil, or a starved person from a third-world country. Hell, Indiana had turned into a third-world country is less than a week's time. He sensed the rain pounding, slightly, against the roof. The rain front had begun to move. It was a behemoth and was now taking itself somewhere south of the city to die out. Brock felt that since it was December, the temperatures would begin to drop for the winter season.

There was a lot in store.

Hector thrashed in his seat, the cuffs jingling as his legs pounded the floor. He shot his arms up from his lap, grabbing Brock by the arm. “You take a look at me and see if my skin is starting to peel. If I've become mindless, bloodthirsty or one of those things out there. I am not the monster.“

Brock moved away from Hector, sighing. He retreated, stiffening up. His leg didn't give him the same posture he had before, but it'd do. But nothing would ever be the same. Brock had ordered Lyle checked up by a nurse, get those bruises checked out. Yes, you're friendly neighborhood detective.

“I'm sorry for what I had to do, but my choices were limited to what was going on and every second that flew by shot down another one of my choices." Hector bit down on his bottom lip, shaking his head. He kicked his legs another time, letting his breath leave him like the bullets he had fired into poor Blake's body.

He wet his lips again, eyes filling with light. He rose a brow. “Yeah,” he mumbled. “Okay.”

“What's that?”

“I said okay,” Hector repeated. “Now if you can please do me a good-ass favor and get me out of this room–maybe if the day's well–a glass of water, that'd make my day. Don't expect me to beg..”

Hector leaned his head back, grinning. “Anything I should know about?”

Malcolm told Hector about all that had happened. The storm, which Hector had heard because of the thunder. Malcolm left out his rescue of everyone, humbly. Malcolm told him about Lyle and Nolan. And then about Frank. Plus the two criminals awaiting their delivery for whatever weaponry the school had. Hector took a moment to recollect himself, recover his breath. “Where did you put the bodies?”

“What bodies?” Brock asked.

“Don't bullshit me, one-leg. The bodies.”

Brock exchanged eyes with Malcolm. “The basement.”

Hector cursed. He swore about five times before doing anything otherwise. “Y'gotta party beneath us,” he said. “In other words, the whole basement is stockpiled with shitbird zombies.”

Brock's heart stabbed into his chest. Hector was wrong. Wrong about all that reanimation stuff. Brock hadn't died, came back as one of the dead. Neither had Carter.

"Y'know what I've been calling those people now?" Hector weakly chuckled. "Crazies. None of that infected bullshit on the news, or victims. Guess if you call one of those things a victim, you haven't been close to one, huh?"

"We don't have any television, radio's piss broke, too." Malcolm looked depressed, forlorn like he had just witnessed a car accident. Maybe he had with all those car wrecks piling up the streets. Dead bodies strewn everywhere. Some of the bodies getting back up on both feet. The minds of feral animals. But Malcolm knew. He knew Brock had been attacked and had the flesh torn from his calf. Brock would become one of them. Surely he would. The disease would eat him from the inside. Boil his brains. Turn his heart into ash. Hijack him.

Brock hadn't gone crazy. Not with all this grief and worry shot at him. No, he was okay. Was going to be okay. Wished he could just leave the school and get out of this hell hole to his family.His house was well-kept that last time he had been in it. He remembered it still. Wait. His wife. Her name. Maria? No, Mary. Yeah, yeah. He still had it in him. The memories. Oh, but God his leg pounded with hurt. Throbbing pain. He hoped she remembered about his service revolver, located in the living room, locked in a drawer.

The door opened behind Malcolm, the fat-nosed soldier peering in. He had a handkerchief in his hand, dabbing his forehead. “Y'all good?”

It would be okay. Brock wasn't the monster Hector had mentioned. He was full of cotton candy and sweet candy, right? Made a flower girl look like the devil. If Carter hadn't died and came back as one of the things, than Brock would either.

“Yeah,” said Malcolm. He glanced at Brock. “Yeah?”

Fat Nose opened the door and gathered himself inside the small room. He bent down, plucking a key from his belt. The handcuff on Hector's leg sprang off. Fat Nose nodded, placing the handcuffs on the counter.

Brock clasped his hands, breathing into them. His boys had always said that their science teacher told him that everything had free will. Wayne, the guy mopping Blake's remains from the floor, had said those two words. Yeah, free will would make for a great dinner at the moment, considering the sun outside had begun to drop out of the sky.

Roasted turkey. Mmm. Brock wished for Mary's special. Wished he'd get to take a bite out of that happiness. Brock looked out into the main office. A sore sight for sore eyes. School looked like it had been deserted for summer. Heh, Summercreek.

"I'm gonna go."

"For what?" Malcolm said.

Brock passed a side glance to Malcolm, stopping outside of the room. His lungs gripped, chest tightened. Then the pressure released itself. But now his thigh had begun to hurt. Guts started to rumble inside. "I'm going to go."

Malcolm narrowed down. "And I'm asking for what, sergeant?"

"Don't call me that."

"Sergeant?"

Brock made his way out of the room, feet clapping with the floor. "I'll be with Carter, by the gymnasium. Have to clear out some stuff before, y'know?"

"Yeah," said Malcolm. "I'll go ahead and put everyone on their A-game and shit. Hoping that guy doesn't come back, maybe get sidetracked in the weather."

"Weather's getting better." Brock passed out into the main office. "Things are changing."

Malcolm paused. He sighed, looking gloom. "Things aren't changing, Brock. You got all these people, sealed off from what's outside. We have no radio, no television, nothing to get updates from outside. Plus these people, all of us really, have family out there."

Brock tensed, trying to keep a straight face. He said nothing. Didn't have the energy to.

"Right, Brock? Family." Malcolm continued. "Family gives us hope, the news give us hope. Do the math, we ain't got any hope."

"You don't know that," said Brock. "This will blow over, the storm. Once it clears, we're getting the fuck out of here. We'll load up the trucks with every person who can still walk, and get the hell out of dodge."

"Have you seen those things out there? Open your eyes, dammit." Malcolm pointed a hand to the nearest window in the offices, one that had become tainted with smeared blood and mucus. Rainwater didn't help. Malcolm took a second to see the papers scattered on the office floor, several of the waiting chairs turned over and thrown about like they were in a blender. But outside, it was worse. Several rotted arms were dragging across the glass, their owners moaning and groaning.

"They're congregating. Grouping up. Do you see it now, Brock? They are forming a wall 'round this place. As I see it, we're fucked. They got us stuck in here like cattle."

Brock gazed at the window, watching more arms sprout up like grass blades. When on leave, whenever the hell it came, Brock had spent it outside with his boys. Watched them smile, jump, and laugh. Danced out in the front yard to one of those upbeat songs, one that you could boogie to. No more boogie now, just the boogeymen outside. Waiting. The stiffs outside were impatient, now there fists were beating louder against the window. Thud, thud, thud.

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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