This is Issue #21 of Step by Step. This is the third issue of Volume Four.

Straight BelowEdit

Caroline was dead.

There was no doubt on Carter's face. He had gone through the routine for four whole minutes, and he was now kneeling on Susie Brown's office floor with warm blood trickling down his hands. The blood, it wasn't Carter's–there were still the purple fingertip imprints branded on her neck, courtesy of Carter's good hand crushing her throat like one of the many beer cans he felt like he'd drunk. It had been much of a blur to Carter, and he might never know he had done such a foul act if you asked him.

Would've been faster, he thought, if only you had stayed still, Carol...

But there was still the two inside the clinic. He had minded them with not much attention–he remembered them as Nolan and Lyle, the Bad meets the Evil–so he just let them flutter off like two fish in a pond. Carter was the big fish, always was. Had the guts to do what was good, things that were needed. If no one had done what he had did, choke the fuck out of Caroline, then she would've likely sprouted her seeds of evil with Ms. Brown and keep on doing what the radicals were planning.

They were all the trouble, Caroline and her damn troupe of radicals. They had brainwashed her, shredded her mind with lies about him. Big fish, that's you, Carter. Maybe if the bitch had shut her mouth, things would have been different, but no. Noooo. She just had to call him out when all he had wanted was some pills. The basics, like what that masked fucker had talked about.

Carter gazed at his hands, sweaty after prying the gloves off them. Bloody germs. He had to work out the bugs, keep himself in order. Wasn't supposed to go down like this, but it was all on Susie Brown. No, it was all Broooock's fault. Got him to trust the man, work with him to give Lyle a fine-polished beating before flushing the thug out into the open.

Open season. It was kill or be killed. And Carter would rather use that motto than Susie's absolute bull of prayer. It was his turn now, Carter's, to make sure this wouldn't hurt his record. How damn humiliating. Carter imagined the gates of Shawshank Penitentiary slamming in his face. RENOWNED POLICE OFFICER CHARGED WITH MURDER, AMIDST CHAOS. Carter found a chuckle, but he slapped it away and went to admiring the growing boils on his infected wrist. Lovely.

He was Gloveless Carter Jameson, and a tip of the hat to you. Nothing was getting better in the school, but the blisters had shown improvement in spreading. Spreading like a wildfire in Arizona. His forearm itched a sickly goo, oozing down to his hands which were cropped to the floor like seeds. Damn seeds of evil, they got to you too.

There was a time where Carter could of found an escape. Indiana, he thought, out of all places. Could have been in California, kicking it with the hot, sun-tanning babes. Out of all girls in the state, he'd only found one to make it through boot camp. And if that girl had been a tick tock over the legal, he would've been set and ate his law degree right in front of Frank, and now that Carter thought over it maybe Nolan had done some good by making Frank bite the dust.

He knew the man, and he knew the other fucker, Hector Pacino, though it had taken some time to process the man. Five fuckin years. Hector was a replacement, Carter's replacement, who had the chance take over Carter's squad car. Cut him off from the force, right in time for Carter to luck out and get sent off with the Guard. In one day, you learn two thousand years. Yeah, well bullshit to that. China was in the past now, and Joseph was one of the last loose ends.

Scrambled eggs, scrambled brain. What's up with you, Carter? Frozen up, like a dick in the wind. Wasn't his brain that had done the killing, must have been his infected, pus-oozing arm. The damn phantom hand. Carter mumbled something, and started to thrash his head against the wall, though however numerous the thuds were against the wall, no one from the outside could hear him.

The boys were out there, shooting and shooting. Earning Brock his new medal. On the other hand–Carter chuckled again, smiling weakly as he found escape against the wall–Lyle and Nolan were up and trying to get out of the clinic. Out of the hellhole. Patience was key, patience was key, patience is key. Just wait a while longer, Carter would be new. A new Carter. A better Carter.

Carter felt drowsy, and he considered the thought going into deep sleep. Gone for good. Instead he looked at Caroline, her face blotchy and still in shock. Carter made the effort to crawl towards her and close her eyes, eyes still filled with shock. He brushed his right hand on her face, clearing away the locks of brown hair on her. What the hell did I do?

"Noooo," Carter bellowed, and trail of pain sweeped into his mashed potato brain. He looked, sullen and his head looking more like a skull than a face. He brought himself up, finding his spine working more like a stick than a log, and stumbled to a sink on the wall. It had been longer than expected, Caroline's demise. Had seemed so fast and furious in the movies, but to strangle the life out of Eugene's sister had been tough work.

Carter dribbled his hand on the sink handle, groaning when he turned it and only more emptiness came out. Soon, he'd have enough of empty to fill an empty box–a box where he should have gotten the opportunity to place awards in which had cheated from him. "Noooo," Carter rested his head in the sink, rubbing his hand in the sink and using whatever moisture there was to wash the filth off him.

But it never came, and Carter bellowed once more before slipping his gloves back on. He heard the last of the bullets sound off, and guessed it was time for the afterparty, so he fitted his pistol in its holster and glanced back at Caroline. Then he realized what an idiot he'd been for not copping her quickly–with the gun, of course–instead of putting so much effort into being the insecticide for the seed of evil.

"Damn," Carter said. "Dammit."

He took to grabbing his pistol, emptied the magazine and its contents onto the nurse's desk, and counted. The solids jingled on the oak, and Carter fumbled with them, but ultimately counted eight rounds. But it wasn't how many rounds you fed the handgun because it only takes one to take a life. Maybe he'd fire one into Brock's chest himself. All the man did was double-cross Malcolm and double-cross everyone else. Rinse and repeat.

Carter practically lunged to the other side of the desk. He remembered what he came for, the pills. Antibiotics. The basics. He drew out the drawers all at once, as if he had telepathic powers, and fished through the dust. Damn, it really did burn! Carter glanced at his left arm, hung low to the side. It wasn't even logical to call it an arm anymore since everything below, to his upper arm where he spotted a red rash growing, felt like damn agony.

So far, he was on a roll. Whatever shit was cooking outside had blown up, right in Brock's face, and Carter figured no body would find him. Or Caroline, for that matter. Antibiotics were running dry, probably, and that was the reason why Caroline had her fit with him. All he needed was one pill of sweet Advil.

"Hell yeah." Carter found a sweet painkiller, didn't care to read the label, and unscrewed the cap. He must have taken two pills before throwing the bottle back into the drawer. Felt like there were two hands around his windpipe, but then the pills passed. He felt a bit better. It beat the time he dished out a night in Penn state with some narcotic-filled friends. Crazy shit.

Carter dropped to the floor, in a state of relief. His back kissed the wall, and for the first time he laughed. Fall asleep for a while and it'd be all over. Zzzzz. That's what he needed, some Z's. He blinked once, eyes set on Caroline's still body, and then dozed off with one last coherent thought. I'm on a roll.

Joseph was indeed in the middle of the hall, watching the ranks of dead with a look of horror. Complete horror. He shuddered, finding his way back to his gun, and raised it to chest-level. He had his sights centered on one of them, a man no older than twenty, when he felt a tug on his back. His spine trembled, rushing out a quick prayer in his head, and fell to his ass.

"Hey, shitlint," Hector Pacino said, growling. "You get told to fall back, you fall back."

Before Joseph could say Well, it turns out gunshots are loud, he was being pulled down to hall. Hector was dragging him with both hands, cupping over a twisted piece of uniform. The blood rushed into his face quickly, his nose bandage slipping off. He looked more ugly than handsome now, and if Hector had a mirror he could see his septum pointing to the west like a crooked finger.

There were bright flashes from every angle. The soldiers were together in a straight line, and Malcolm was to the side barking into his radio. He looked suppressed, trying to keep his anger to an inch. To the minimum. Brock had told him, not several minutes before, that he was going to chat with the refugees. Get them all huddled up and tell them the truth. Nothing but the truth, that the city was in a worse situation than a desert-stuck cowboy.

His fingers were tight around the radio, yanking it basically, and he was shouting into it.

"Brock, you hearing me?" Malcolm covered his ear, descending his gas mask. The damn man was in the gymnasium, and for Christ's sake, they were in the hallway that linked into the gymnasium.

Joseph was back on his feet, rounding around the soldier's phalanx formation, and veering off to the side. He was breathing heavily, ripping the medical mask off, and placing his head on the wall. His lungs burned, as if he had just breathed in a fifty-pound cigarette. Marlboros. Joseph hadn't known exactly what he'd seen, or if he'd seen Lyle, Nolan, and Carter at all.

But it had felt so real. Now that he had caught his breath, he could think. He looked around, taking note that Hector was had slipped from view (fallen back, if you will), but figured the man had ducked into the gymnasium while there was still time. A guess was all it was since Joseph's thoughts were all on the incoming, relentless crazies.

A figure, a man in fatigues, came out from the door leading into the gymnasium. Joseph knew him as Brock, but a much older and physically weaker Brock.

"There you are!" Malcolm said, waving over the line of soldiers. He urged a brief look at the playing field, but it turned in a stare and he saw the crazies reach the men. Whoops. He saw a soldier, skinny and more bone than flesh, topple over with a pack of crazies on him. On him wasn't the right term, they were more like flooding him.

Brock fell out of view, and before Malcolm could think otherwise, he had the wind sucked out of him. He hit the floor with a deep thud, but he himself only heard the thick, raspy sound of a diseased man. And if he had been paying attention, instead of kissing Brock's ass, he would have noticed it was the man Joseph had tried to take a shot at.

Malcolm dug his hands into the man's chest, fingernails cutting through skin. Luckily the man, whose brain was more milkshake than solid, bit the gas mask. A rush of energy, and Malcolm headbutted the man, then scrambled for his rifle. It was caught in its roping, and if Malcolm had a penny for how long it took to unwind it...

Then he remembered the young man, who by then had recovered with a little headache.

Someone had shouted, and then something had exploded–Malcolm was too busy aiming and prepping the gun–and then glass scattered. By the time he got the shot off, the man was down with a bullet wedged in his head from the crossfire. Malcolm looked around, noticing that the windows were open, and the soldiers were fleeing.

He looked around, trying to get up when he felt glass tear into his knee, but he double checked and realized it was triangle-shaped piece, stuck deep into his kneecap.

"Don't fuckin move!"

Malcolm, dazed and grabbing his chest, didn't plan on it. He was on his back again, heart thumping and vibrating his ribs. He hadn't the slightest idea of what the hell had happened, but if he had to guess it was just an hallucination. The stress, sleeping less and less–he had gotten scored three hours the day before, and the majority had been from naps in between.

He saw a soldier fly by him. Alexander, not the stockiest but definitely a fast cat, was running, but to what? Malcolm saw the boy land flat on the ground, his head bouncing like '64 Chevy, and caught sight of a tangerine-shirt wearing fool–

"I said, don't fuckin move!"

Jose kicked the boy, getting a good thump on Alexander's shoulder. He then inched away, looking at one of the soldiers who'd stuck around.

"I'll shoot you," Joseph said, "won't hesitate."

Instead, Jose backtracked as the crowd of dead dispersed outside, hopping out the window like sloppy birds. Where the hell was Randy? He raced at Joseph, ripping the rifle from him. He examined the rifle, pulled away, and held it at Joseph.

Jose wondered how many, if he could make it through this, shots the gun had. Of course, if he made the boy on the floor and then Joseph eat a bullet each, then one to that cocksucker on the floor, he would be set. As long as he could pass clean through the crazies, which were about five feet from Malcolm, and out that window...

A dark figure came out from Jose's side, knocking him back with enough force to power the basement gennie. Brock said nothing, and swung again at the shoe-licker, but missed and hit the dark air instead. Brock prepared for the worst, inhaling deeply before patting his chest. He stood no more than a foot next to Alexander, who had begun to awaken with a murmur.

He made the choice quickly, Jose did, and struck the man in the chest with the rifle's butt. The metal stopped Brock's heart for a moment, but it was enough time for Jose to get the upper hand and knee Brock in the gut. By then, they were face to face and Brock was trying to push the shoe-licker off. Jose made room for his arms, and the hands at the end of those arms closed around his throat.

All he needed was time, just a minute at the most, to crush the man's windpipe. Jose was pressing hard, and harder he pressed as time counted on, but it wasn't enough. Brock socked him in the face and then Jose socked him in the face. He meant to hit the man's nose, which was a clear option, but missed and mashed Jose's lips back against his teeth.

In all the madness, Jose still managed to keep himself conscious. He saw that the refugees were pouring out from the gym, some following the soldiers out yonder window, but some like Wayne and Jacob Davis–both red-faced and beating the staggering dead folk–stayed behind.

Jose had the chance to register one more thing before grabbing the rifle again, and that was Amanda Olson. He remembered her from that discussion. It was obvious to him that they knew he was at fault. Had been his mistake, his slip on car names, and he knew it. Jose almost figured that the woman, well she was a cop, wouldn't fire, but he saw her unsling something from her back–a rifle.

He had five seconds between finally pulling up the rifle and her shooting, as much time as he would get. It was, unfortunately for Jose, a perfect shot. The slug hit dead-on, and blood flew in a spray. A vast sheet of white light filled his head soon after, and he let all grip on the rifle go. Jose felt no immediate pain, so he stood still for a moment, oblivious that the side of his head was a mushy pulp. His hand slipped upwards, covering the wound that was gushing red with blood, and his fingers touched it, and then they were gone–inside his head. Jose gulped, dropping to his knees with the air in his lungs leaving with a hiss. His mouth was agape like an unhinged gate; his fingers stopped dead in the remains of his head, then so did their owner.


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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