This is Issue #19 of Step by Step. This is the first issue of Volume Four.
“My dad's been in every damn war there ever was, yeah? Grandpa too, rest his soul. Two great guys, I tell you. But then we got the rest of my bloodline in wars; both World Wars, was kicking it back in the Civil one, and some wars I can't remember their names cause they're so damn old.”
Eugene looked at Alexander, the scrawny brown haired soldier who was peering out of one of the school's windows. Eugene liked the guy and all, but Alexander was quite the blabber mouth. Alex had gone yapped on to about the sixteenth president's time before it had gone quiet. The two were in the outer reaches of the school. Eugene felt better near Alex, talking away the woes of life. He'd still feel better if he could leave the school. Be in the fresh air. Out in the sun. That would never come. The skies outside were graying like the hairs on Caroline's father's head.
“Basically, it was all cool as cheddar.” Alexander finished, cracking his neck. Popped it. He heard a rumbling noise behind them, turned around—started to spin at a 180 degree angle—and dropped his jaw. What he saw was Joseph carrying a great yellow flashlight.
The flashlight gave off a white ball of fire, glaring at the two. Alexander grinned, his white teeth stabbing through the darkness of the highway. “Wassup, home dog?”
“Oh, hey, Alex.” Joseph dropped near the two. He shined the light at their faces, dragging it past them. Alexander was in his usual camouflage uniform—light green, but looked dark in the hallway—without his over shirt. Replacing it was a white T-shirt, something he plucked from some of the clothing in his 'personal' bag.
Eugene was drowning in gear. The vest he wore was about four sizes too big, only being held up by a few nylon strings. And oh my Lord if the rest of the officers weren't covering up the school and waiting for that one thug to pop up, the boy would have never been picked for the detective work. Joseph guessed it could be a sort of hide and seek game, but a game where the thing hiding is a nest of diseased lamebrains waiting to get a chunk of bloody flesh in between their teeth.
Joseph gave him a brief look, noticing the pistol attached to the boy's belt. Fucking Brock. It was his fault they were risking their lives. If Joseph had the choice he would have been in a sewer or something. Both sewers and this basement they were going in stunk like shit, but at least sewers didn't have the living dead sleeping in them. Maybe they did, Joseph had no clue. He hadn't the slightest answer to his questions, nor an answer to even why a middle-aged person could just come back from the dead. Maybe he heard Jay Leno was retiring. Joseph went to facing the two dimwits. Too soon?
"Malcolm gave me these." Joseph indicated three medical masks in his hand. He passed one to both of them, strapping his on as well. "We're gonna find the school's basement. I want you guys to be prepared. Could be a bloodbath in there with all those bodies we threw in. Don't hesitate to shoot, got me?" Joseph adjusted a police radio linked to his shoulder. It wasn't the best, in Alexander's terms, but it'd beat a Walkman any day of the week. "If we get outnumbered, I'll call for backup with this. We're not too far away from the nearest Guard."
He had never been a violent guy, even though he was in the Guards, Joseph wondered what Brock would do if Joseph served him a punch to the face. With a side of salt and pepper. Whacked all the hair off his face. Joseph grinned, making Alexander drop his.
“Thinking it's time for a little hide and seek?”
“They aren't hiding,” Joseph said. “And we aren't seeking.”
Eugene folded his arms. “Do you even know where this holy basement is?”
“Yeah, I do.”
“Where's your blueprint then, your map. You ought to have one.”
Joseph ignored the boy. If this was the worst thing he had to suffer, then so be it. He wouldn't let some snotty kid with his panties in a knot mess him up. Joseph shined the light down the hallway, “That way.”
There was a gloomy sense to it. The highways, lockers abroad, had once been filled with students. But now there was no gossiping, no jocks, no nerds left—with the exception of Eugene. Joseph bent the light to the floor, something skittered on the floor. It was a rat. A damned fat, brown one.
Eugene snickered to himself.
“Holy smokes,” Alexander said, “who invited that thing?”
Joseph, back now to the two, eyed the beast. It had thick fur, and from where he stood he could see the finest details of leftover food clinging to its whiskers. “Don't move,” he said. “None of you.”
“What are you gonna do with it?” Alexander looked intently at the rat. One quick snap of its neck and it'd be dead. He suggested about eating the rodent, but Joseph quickly disagreed.
“You sure, Joe?” Eugene chimed in. “Ain't up for a little Mickey Mouse?”
“Bite your tongue, kiddo,” said Joseph.
The rat squealed, its lips parted to show off some yellow teeth. Damned ugly ones. It hissed, tail clapping against the floor. Instead of scurrying off, it held its ground. Joseph wanted to wait for the pack rat to get on with its business and go, but that would never happen.
A barrage of squeaking came.
“Mother...” Joseph watched them pour out in the dozens. Fat and burly. He heard Eugene retch, but Alexander was the one who hurled. The rodents dragged themselves pass the width of the hallway, looking like black pebbles skipping through the light.
“We should keep it going, dudes.” Eugene clutched his stomach, seeing the rodents spread out like game pieces... “Keep the light up!”
The flashlight's glow sprang up, Joseph cocking an eyebrow. He blasted a ray of light down the hall. “I got a plan.”
Alexander wiped spittle from his mouth. “What sorta plan?”
Joseph turned his head. He dropped the flashlight's head, focusing it on the pack of sniffling, nasty rodents. The crazed people, zombies as Eugene called them, ate just about anything with flesh. No matter how much they stank because the pack rats had surely ripened themselves for harvest after scavenging food from the gymnasium.
He smiled a little. “Can't say they didn't have a last meal.”
Deja vu. That's what Lyle smelled. Strange words, wicked stuff. Isn't it French? Sanders–his spirit mentor–would've known. Lyle turned his head, groggy eyes peering around. It was the clinic. How long had it been? He groaned, feeling his muscles tear or bend from ache as he moved in the bed he was in. Once to his senses, he realized that time had barely skipped by. Lyle covered his head with his hands, still hurt and covered in bruises from the pig called Brock. Then he remembered the shit he had gone through. All that humiliation.
But Lyle didn't care. Could care less. Didn't show it as he cocked his head to the side, spotting a group of people huddled together near the reception desk. He was about to jerk back, thinking they were some of those crazy people, but he blinked and saw it was just Susie Brown.
The nurse was whispering to the others and grasping a thick, leather book. Lyle knew it as the Bible. Same thing that had helped Lyle keep his morals. But revenge was wrong, right? You wish. Lyle watched her glance at him, then continued whispering.
He counted at least five men and women. Lyle was about to go back to observing where he was, but something caught his eye. It was that girl. Caroline, Eugene's sister. What the hell was she doing? She seemed pretty into the discussion, her voice was sharp and distinct among the group.
“Bible nuts,” a voice spoke.
Lyle moved with a start. Damn Nolan nearly gave him a heart attack. Lyle looked again at the man. Yeah, it was Nolan. “Recognize that hair from anywhere.”
“Where's the love, CJ?” Nolan was covered in filth and sweat, sitting upright next to him in another cot. His denim shirt had its fabric twisted and spilling out. He had an infected scab on the side of his face. A bloody ear. His eyes were bloodshot as if he hadn't slept for days. Lyle held out his palm, waiting for Nolan to slap it (it had been their cue to action for God knows how long). But Nolan couldn't. He was handcuffed to the bed railings, and his wrists were burnt red from struggling.
For a moment, Lyle forgot about everything that had happened. He and Nolan were back with Dennis at Denny's. Hearing the music blaring in the background while chugging down that last sweet Cola. “Shit...”
“Yeah, they got me.” Nolan fell back, seeking comfort for his sprained back. “I tried making a run for it, but then they's things came. No place to go, so I slipped into the trash. Would've worked, but, as I expected, Brock and his pals stormed right on out.”
Nolan coughed, holding his chest. “Still, they didn't find me. Took five seconds and they finished sweeping the place, y'know, where we met for the deal last week.”
“A week?” Lyle smiled. “Shit, can't remember most of what happened before I wound up here.”
“Ah, you'll remember. Anyways, the boys were about to dip. But then this janky Hispanic dude decided to run at the soldiers, shouting for them to help his ass. Tripped over my leg. Next thing I know, got five rifles aimed at my chest.”
“All that?” Lyle couldn't believe it. If it wasn't for whatshisfuckface, Nolan could have gotten out, fast as he was on his feet. Lyle would have found a way out of the school somehow. But now they were back to square one. “We're sitting ducks here for Brock. God knows how long we got until he shows his ugly ass around here.”
“Gotta agree. Brock and Malcolm walked past here not too long ago, and guess who was next to em–Hector Fucking Pacino.”
“Who?” Lyle rubbed his head. Probably got beat up so bad he'd become dumber than a turkey. Oh well.
“Insane cop, the one that shot this man... Blake.” Nolan nodded his head to Susie Brown and her cult. “They're protesting. Saying that we're all doomed. That we're not gonna getting rescued. Never.”
“Well this fugging blows.” Lyle looked around again, finding a window to his right. The sun may as well have said it was afternoon. “We still got daylight.”
“You planning some whack shit?” Nolan scoffed. “Lay off it, Lyle. They put me in cuffs and you're too beat up to even lift so much a finger.”
“I know what I'm doing.” Lyle lied, but he could tell today was the day. He could feel it in his bones, no matter how much they hurt. Lyle tried to scoot his leg over, keeping his eyes on the nurse. He dropped one leg out, but then his hip exploded in pain. “Might as well be in handcuffs myself.”
Suddenly the nurse blew up, figuratively. Lyle wanted her to leave. Scared the living piss out of him. She was yelling and cursing. Then Susie broke out into a fast walk over to the door exit. Following her were the others, chanting.
The six of them tore into the hallway, and Lyle got a glimpse of what they were after. It was the cop, Hector, standing in their line of fire.
“Told ya,” said Lyle. Finally he was up, though wobbly on his first steps. He took a deep, curling breath and stopped, almost hesitant. “You killed Frank, yeah?”
Nolan closed his eyes, opened them and glanced away, ashamed in what he'd done, but not feeling guilty. “Yeah.”
Lyle grinned. He started back again. Nolan's first actual hit on someone. A one-hit knockout. Self-defense, right? Same excuse Brock had probably used to get Hector back on the job. The desperate self-proclaimed 'hero' was running low on boots. Lyle looked at his feet, realizing he had no shoes on himself.
Hector slammed his back to the wall. Started to breath heavily. Gritted his teeth when the nurse came right ah him and smacked him. Damn bitch. He tried not to make eye contact with them. But eye contact was key. That's the tool he used to pressure the mayor and his associates. But now that wasn't a good option.
“Get away from me for god's sake.” Hector had just left his cell, fearing the backlash from outside. And surrounding him was his answer. They hated him for what he did. Blasted a man to smithereens with bullets. Or should Hector say 'saved everyone from a terrorist trying to unleash the wrath of a hundred undead bastards'?
“You wouldn't know God if He stared you in the face!” Susie Brown was full of electricity. For days now, no, for the past month she had been in the shadows. Always in her school nurse uniform and held hostage in her office.
Her closest thing to peace had been the Bible she held in her grip at the moment. And now, there were others just like her. Caroline, the sweet girl she had always been, told her that she'd been worried her father was dead. Susie had done the one thing she could do. Tell the girl that her nightmares were correct. Straight up to her face.
“Alright, what the hell's up?” Malcolm raced to them. A few minutes before he had finished giving the Joseph kid a heads-up on what to look for. Just the simple stuff, look for some groaning, diseased bodies that can walk and want to take a chunk out of you. Really simple.
“Someone gave these guys the crazy pill.” Hector fell behind Malcolm.
“He's a bastard,” Susie shouted. “And you are too for letting him live.”
Malcolm raised his hands, trying to calm her down. But her followers didn't stop. All this noise nearly made Malcolm deaf. “Ma'am, explain to me your problem.”
“She's got issues,” Hector said. “Crazy bitch!”
Susie threw up her Bible, right in Malcolm face. “It's a sin,” she shouted. “For him to keep living.”
“Ma'am,” Malcolm said, “please calm down. I need you all to go back to—“
“No.” Caroline split away from the group. “No, we won't. You can't keep avoiding us. We want answers.”
Malcolm bit his tongue. Maybe it would be great to give the people some info. Tell them that they were running out of supplies. The power was going out. Basically shit had hit the fan and they were covered in it.
He was about to speak, but became aware of the noise of feet stomping against the ground. He turned. It was Brock, all suited up with three soldiers behind him. Malcolm could always count on the man to save the day. Loosen up on the sarcasm. But why was Brock all up in arms? They were supposed to work as partners to handle the situation. Right.
Brock, obviously, wasn't running. His leg wasn't set for it. Instead he balanced himself on a cane, although it didn't do much to help. Kind of added insult to injury. “Good afternoon, people.” Brock stopped, nodding to Malcolm and smiling.
And just like that, all problem was gone in Brockville. A bright blue day for the capital of Indiana. “Ms. Brown, these men will escort you and your friends back to...” Brock stammered, for a second stricken by fear from the nasty glare of Susie's group. “The clinic? Isn't that where you came from?”
Susie was about to respond, but then one of the soldiers grabbed her and smothered the group entirely. She was up to her wits. Pointed a finger at Brock's nose, growling. “You are hiding things. You are killing us. Why are we still in here? And don't give me any radio bullshit!”
“Miss, calm down.” Brock raised his hands, trying to appeal to her. “If you want answers, you'll get them. We're running dry on boys to rely on to guard this place until evac shows up. Got me? You haven't seen the worst of it.”
“I saw enough.” Susie shoved away one of the soldiers trying to grab her. “I saw the innocent people of this city bleeding on floors. These floors that we're on. You're telling me to forget about what happened. What is happening, sergeant?” Susie walked forward, clenching the pine of her book. “And to make matters worse for us, you have that bastard parading around with a gun.”
Hector grinned. Was just a game for him. He knew Brock and Malcolm needed him. They'd lost nearly all of their marksmen the week before. Hector would take advantage of this. Knew he had to or the two would throw the book at him.
He smiled, chuckling. “Hey, Brown, you've lost your marbles already?”
“Oh to hell with you!” Susie Brown had had enough. She glanced at Caroline, noticing her saddened eyes. “This beautiful young girl has had to suffer under you both.” The nurse shot a sharp eye at Malcolm and Brock. “She lost her father, didn't you, dear?”
“My dad isn't dead.” Caroline didn't quite feel up to it. Lately she had been down in the dumps. Sometimes she'd back away from her brother, Eugene. Always they would make up, but Caroline was pulling her last straw. “I just want you all to stop fighting and do something about this.”
“We are,” Malcolm said, his emotions slipping out. “Trust us. Put some trust into us.”
“That's right, we have.” Susie ripped open the Bible as if she had bookmarked a page. “Here,” She shoved the Bible into Malcolm's face, placing her edgy finger on one of the verses. “Read this out loud.”
Malcolm pursed his lips, looking at Brock who just shrugged his shoulders. “I don't see why this is relevant.”
Malcolm squinted and read.
Hector stared at Malcolm now, his brow quivering. "Alright, alright. Happy now? Got the man to read your fancy book." Hector looked at Susie, noticing her blank gaze at the Bible. He saw Malcolm back away, his eyes widening. Everything and everyone in the hallway was silent. "You know what?" He turned to Brock. "I'm going."
"Gonna make my way to the shoulder of the school," Hector replied. "Catch up and see how many of those crazed shits are there." Hector looked at Susie and dragged his eyes past the group of radicals. Call it ironic, already. Hector had ran his mouth to the higher-ups, and now he was receiving the same exchange. "As if there aren't any crazies in here."
Brock looked away. He wasn't in the mood, but no one in the school was. They were all exhausted and starving. Brock's back hurt too. His thigh hurt worst of all. Forget about your little injury on the playing field, Brock? Brock shoved himself back, focusing on the window near them. "Yeah, you do that. Report to me and Malcolm later."
Susie smiled, joy blinking in her pupils. “Deuteronomy, chapter fifteen, verse eleven.” She paused. “Read that first day you all came in.” She felt accomplished, looking at the soldier who tried to grab her before. "You can take me back, son. While we're still breathing.”
Hector had begun to leave when he spun around, pointing a finger at Susie. "She get to just walk off like that?"
"Speak for yourself," Caroline muttered.
"Um, no." Hector crossed his arms. "It doesn't swing like that, sweetheart."
"We have a right to rally, Mr. Pacino." Susie Brown lowered her book, concealing it under her arm. She nudged one man in her group who was grabbing his arm, visibly pale from hunger. Susie herself hadn't had an adequate breakfast yet, unless you count the bread she'd been given earlier.
"Yeah, and I have a right to tell you to shut up."
"The thing is, we are shutting up. For now, we will agree to the sergeant's orders, isn't that right?"
Brock stiffened. "Yeah, that'd make my day, ma'am."
Susie Brown tilted her chin with pride. "Caroline, can you run back to my office and grab me my purse and meet us in the gym?"
"Okay!" Caroline shouted, visibly relieved that she could finally leave.
Hector watched her move back to the main office and Susie and her cult disperse, leaving him standing with Brock and Malcolm. Hector popped his back once, turning to go as well. "So, yeah, I'll go now."
"You do that." Malcolm gulped. He looked at Brock, noticing the man was apparently appearing worse and worse. "You okay, Brock?"
"Yeah, I'm fine." Brock and Malcolm had been at a distance for these past months. Both had been to The Sandbox and back. Plain and simple. They'd came back with their limbs intact, that was good. Brock's leg pained him again, jerking his hand to grab it. He fumbled to hold his cane. "Been thinking a lot, lately."
"Everything." Brock paced back, landing his back on the wall. "You told me those things back there, made me realize I'm losing control of myself."
"We all do that, Brock."
"Yeah, but I see my fear. I can feel it. I'm afraid, Malcolm. Scared that I won't get to see my boys. My wife. Can't even imagine how they feel."
"My son, Danny." Malcolm placed a hand on his head. Had gotten rid of the gas mask he'd been wearing. Didn't need it. "Left him with the neighbors in our apartment. Gave them practically my life right there, y'know? My wife, um, she passed. Thought she caught the flu, but ended up getting sent to the doc. I went to visit her, alone, before I came here. Was covered in blood and I was covered in tears. Wasn't the flu, was this damn disease. Except she didn't come back as one of those things."
Brock leaned his head down, looking at the window beside him. A fresh couple of crazies had begun to scrape the glass. They were ugly and horrible. One of them could have been his wife if her hair wasn't all mangled. Scaredy-cat. That's what Mike and Kyle would've said. He had to make an effort.
"I'll talk to you later, Malcolm." Brock wobbled forward, nodding to Malcolm. Brock hobbled down the hallway, towards the gymnasium. He glanced back once. Saw Susie's group and her were still outside the clinic, chatting away. Brock grimaced, using the cane to move.
Bloomington. He repeated the words again in his thoughts. That was where his family was. He remembered Todd, too. Cramped up in his house, no signs of his family. And then Todd had been eaten. Was he? Definitely. Brock had heard the man try to fight back and heard the flesh torn from his bones. His fingers bitten off his hands. Hands and arms dug into by the crazies.
He laughed. The only thing blooming around Summercreek was the crazies. Them and their blood lust. But Brock didn't mind them. Had other things to worry about. Ought to carve out an example of Lyle and Nolan. Brock's face strained for a moment, then his eyes fell on Amanda Olson.
She was standing tall. Near the gym. Tall and stern. She'd been serious-looking for the past few hours. Seemed like a minute ago her partner had been knocked out dead. Brock couldn't wait to knock the kid who did it up a bit. One punch in the gut would set the punk right.
"Amanda." Brock waved his cane, grabbing her attention.
Amanda moved with a start. Her rifle juggled, but remained in her locked hands. "Hey, Brock." She fumbled with the carbine, setting herself back into her guard stance.
"You good here?"
"Yeah." Amanda wasn't up to it either. Physically, she was awake. Aware with her head up. She'd been staring down the hall for a while. Wasn't tired at all. Could've ran fifty miles and not have spent one inch of sweat. Just didn't want to talk with the man who had ruined the school.
"Has anyone told you yet?" She gazed at one of the windows near the gym. "About a hundred of them, Brock. Soon there'll be another hundred around us."
"I don't get what you mean, Olson."
"Boxed in." Amanda said scornfully. "We're being boxed in and you're not doing anything except arresting people while others are dying."
Brock curved his lip in anger, trying not to show how much he hated people reminding him of something he already knew about.
"You're the military, right, Brock?" Amanda's eyes were suddenly filled rage. "Then do your job and go back out there. Have you ever thought about that? We have the resources to pack everyone into those trucks of yours. But you don't want to, right?"
"It's none of your business. Your business belongs to what's happening in this hall."
"I don't trust you," she muttered.
"Say again?" Brock slouched. "Do you know who you are talking to? I'm your savior, if I have to remind you or anyone in this building. You have zero influence on me, lady."
"You're so called leadership is holding us back." It was a given that she was fuming with anger. "I don't trust you. Never did. And if you forgot—I'm the one with a gun so big it will make you a new eye. So, don't tell me to just back off."
Brock was about ready to explode with anger. Pop like one of the new blisters that had begun to rise on his leg. Filled with pus. Yeah, he'd been checking. From then on it'd only gotten worse. But then Brock remembered his boys. Smiling. Then his rage faded back into the caves of his head.
He smiled. "You know what? I'm just going to forget this happen, mmkay? Go meet up with Gordon, dirty blond guy, a little more attractive than me by your standards, by the cafeteria. And he's got this fancy hole in his thigh. Can't miss 'em. Gonna have you question this new guy, Jose. Should be fun."
Amanda chewed on her tongue, holding back her rage. She'd be so sweet and gentle and to herself before. And what had that done? Got Marvin and Frank dead. "Okay," she said firmly. "You have any family, sergeant?"
"Yeah, I did." Brock turned to leave, "until they died." Brock stopped, letting the words sink into him. He nudged his head to Malcolm. "Mind doing me and him a favor?"
Amanda nodded, slightly, but still maintained rife seriousness.
"Ask this new guy if, well, if there's anything we should know. Of course there is, but I need some news to give to everyone. Something to clear up all this grim shit we got going on."
"Grim shit? Like beating up Lyle Jackson and getting Frank killed?"
"Yeah, grim shit. I'm kind of regretting it, but," Brock smiled. "I'm not the one who needs hope because first thing that happens when we get out of this mess is the army putting the whole damn city under quarantine." He took the cane and hit his limp leg with it. "You get the picture, honey. That includes you and me and everyone still breathing in this school. Once we do get out of here and get picked up, hell will be waiting for us at the other end."
Amanda looked into Brock's face, examined it. She saw his features for the first time up close. It was a horror. Gray hairs sprinkled his once jet black hair, the color she noticed when he dropped off one of the military vans. His eyes were flat and soulless, caved in by webs of crimson veins.
She backed away. "Yeah." And then she was quickly turned around and sped straight off.
|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|