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This is Issue #22 of Step by Step. This is the fourth issue of Volume Four.

Potter's GroundEdit

Sunlight came through the soot on the window, more brown than bright. The infirmary had two moving souls in it, with Nolan standing to the corner and messing with his wrists. Unlike Carter, who had gloves on his hands for which Nolan recalled were for the ugliness of his infection, Nolan had his cuffs dangling off his right hand. It didn't matter much, since everything except for pumping the python had, for the better part of his life, relied on his left. He looked at the ceiling, then to the floor, thinking that Carter had either gone mute, deaf, or both. Though, the fine folks from where which Nolan had been birthed and raised would have sided for the word retard. But, Nolan knew the man was not that. Maybe a bit strange, but he seemed smart–if not for Carter siding with Brock.

Those were the least of his problems, for now. Nolan continued his study, halting and turning to a wall sided to him. It had started to peel, and underneath the dermis was a beige sheet of cement. He went to the wall, ran a finger down it, and stopped to scratch out some dust and grime, freeing a spew of particles into the room.

"Damn," he noted, "Eugene was right."

Lyle was opposite to Nolan, rummaging through drawers of the reception's desk. He doesn't respond at first, one of his ears felt like it'd been stuffed with cotton, and the rest of him pretty much ached too much to give a damn. He took a look at the inside of one drawer, looking for anything useful, and pondered the idea of how much damage could a stapler do.

"About what?"

"The army." Nolan said, still thinking about Carter. Then at the idea, thought about Caroline, the girl who had sped into the place (thankfully, Lyle was still in bed and no business had been carried out). The thought was brisk, leaving him as the constant booms of assault rifles rang out in the hallway. "Brock's prob'ly thinking that after whatever shit's blowing up outside is over, he'll burn us a campfire and sing a song while this school crumbles like a sandcastle at high tide."

Lyle agreed. The building was elderly, and its generator had gone out fast. Along with the herd of crazies outside, the school didn't stand a chance. Lyle shut the drawer, walking to the center of the room. It was an enormous school. The clinic was a bitter link of chains in the main office, with rooms ranging from a personal W.C. to a teacher's lounge to which had been used for the previous week by Susie Brown. "Nothing," he said, taking his time look around. He swore he saw a familiar face, Joseph's, breeze by outside. Lyle thought about helping him, to save the sane man and not let an insane man end his life, but then Lyle remembered where he was and who he was. A low life, according to Brock, that deserved nothing but a beat down and to get his head smashed against a locker.

Never had he been the pushee, he'd always been the pusher. Unless you counted the events with Big Earl, though some might have called it a feud. He looked, around and around, seemingly deadpan to the gunfire outside. "Strange."

"Is something wrong?"

Lyle turned to face the man, then looked nurse's office. He pressed his lips into a line. He shook his head, taking a deep breath and putting up a lax smile. "No. No... it just seems so strange. Not sure how exactly we'll get outta here, it's giving me a weird sense."

"I was about to say. Cause we're in the thickest shit that shit comes in."

Lyle nodded, and then the booms settled, or more or less got quieter. He closed his eyes, racking his brain for any advice. Then they opened, rings darkening his eyes. It would be better to wait until it ended. Then relax til Brock came in, strapped them both in handcuffs again, but Lyle wasn't going to have any of it.

The two met eyes, each thinking the same thing: the coast was clear. Nolan went first, leaning to get a clean look out the door. He hesitated, and without any other thoughts to tell him otherwise, he put his hands on the metal. Then he heard shouting, violent shouts. The anxiety grew in him, tingled his spine, and made him freeze.

Boom. One last final breather kicked the bucket.

At that moment, Nolan pulled out of the room and spilled into the hallway. He nearly tripped over a body, one which eerily had army fatigues, and looked around, dazed. It was like the same body had clones, dead clones. Nolan swore, ripping his shirt upwards to cover his mouth. To no avail his eyes watered, and his nose took the worst of it.

Not to speak ill of the dead, but what Nolan smelled was a stoner's worst nightmare; a rusty pipe indulged with rotten meat, beshitted sewage, and just plain shit. He could barely hold himself, much less process anything, yet he came to reality once Lyle bumped into him. They together caught sight of Malcolm, who was wrestling to stand up, and then of Joseph helping up Alexander.

Nolan finished rubbing his eyes when he saw–as good as seeing through tears went–that janky Hispanic dude. The face was a clear memory, though much couldn't be said for the missing side of his head. The man's face was bloodied, blood gushing through a hand linked to his head. Then Jose collapsed to the side, and surprisingly to Nolan, moaned and writhed on the tiles.

"Oh my God."

Amanda slowly lowered the firearm, where she expected to see her warning shot pay off, but was met with horror. Instant shock. She breathed heavily, raspy at first but with time she handled herself. She was surprised to see Lyle and Nolan, out of the blue, but didn't have the strength to do much else. Amanda wondered, that just maybe, she was having an illusion, but there was no fooling a perfect slug to the head.

Behind her, a group gathered around the gymnasium entrance. Most, if not all, were refugees. People clamored to get a look at the man, who if you only glanced at would say he was done for. Policemen, as few as were left, held off the crowd. At their lead, Hector Pacino made his way to Amanda.

Amanda expected an ambulance siren like from the past, or at least someone to help Jose, but only got a hand on her shoulder. She was still in shock, frozen and speechless, but her heart turned bittersweet when she noticed it was Hector's hand. "He was," she said, "going to kill them."

"I get it, Olson," Hector said, checking out the scene. He caught sight of Wayne, the bearded biker, shove a crazie. The crazie was a man of the same height, six feet, and stood amongst the string of dozens of corpses in the hallway and out the broken window. They were really going at it. Wayne swung at the man, his flailing fist connecting with the crazie's already-bloodied face, and tossed the man to an opposite brawler, Jacob Davis, who did the same performance as Wayne.

The two then, simultaneously, stomped the violent bastard.

"Putrid," Jacob Davis said, sighing and going to his daughter, Kerry, who stood amongst the group.

Wayne backed up, huffing and puffing. "Damn putrid." He flashed a glance at Lyle and Nolan, his face showing agitation. Then he gritted his teeth, but relaxed them once he found Jose sprawled on the hallway. Out the window, he saw soldiers being chased around by the remnants of the crazies, including the hundred or so patient ones that had grown over the days.

"In the gymnasium," Brock said, standing next to Malcolm. "I want everyone who's here to go in there, this minute."

Susie Brown, out to the side of the group, began to walk towards Brock. Her radicals followed in suit, and Hector noticed she was missing that one teenage girl. Eugene, the brother, was yelling in the back of the group while one police officer held him at bay. Susie turned around, looked briskly at Eugene who was screaming for his sister, then walked past the scene and into the main office with her radicals, crouching for a moment to pick up the rifle next to Jose.

"What exactly do you think we can do here, Brock?" Malcolm had his rifle in hand, using it to point outside. By then, several of the dead things had begun to drift, with whatever senses they could muster, to the window. They had the coordination to get into the school from the window, and they very well had the strength to kill them all. Besides, all that were left of any security were Hector and his two police officers (and Amanda Olson), plus Malcolm and Brock–also, if you counted Joseph, Alexander, and Gordon. Useless.

Brock pestered through his thoughts, looking around. He'd noticed Nolan and Lyle, mildly surprised they hadn't taken off yet, but they weren't the problem. Maybe if, well the crazies were definitely going to get into the school, just if they got in, they'd go for the two of them first. Give Brock some more time to focus, but unfortunately he spoke too soon.

The cracks of gunfire, much to everyone's surprise, came first from the main office. If there had been no more gunfire, the people in the hallway would have certainly heard the numerous thuds of bodies thereafter. Instead, one of the police officers sounded a shot first, which made Brock jerk and see crazies shamble to the window from both flanks of the school.

It was a horror show. Left and right, bodies dropped and bullets, however many were left in the rifles, jingled on the floor. Joseph saw nearly all the refugees in the group rush into the gym, and he would have gone too but felt a tug on his shoulder. It was Lyle, telling him to go. But where? Then Joseph saw some familiar faces speed past the two of them. He nodded, and started to run alongside Nolan with the assumption that Lyle would follow.

Lyle did not. He stayed behind, realizing Malcolm had gone to follow Joseph's route under the threat of several dozen crazies. He then saw Brock, in disbelief and the only other person with a pair of balls in the hallway, stay put. It was Lyle's first intention to tackle the man, but to his side he heard the crazies heading for them both. So, instead, he turned and swung at the closest crazie, who turned out to be the most unluckiest one. His knuckles cracked on impact, sending the crazie flying to the wall, and revealed three more crazies. In order, one female and the others men, they each grabbed at Lyle. He lost track of Brock, but his life was on the line, so he himself grabbed one of the men by the collar. He met with the crazed man's eyes, only seeing milky white irises, and threw the man at the others in disgust.

He made a scramble for some breathing room, but then the three were back up, and Lyle had spun around only to fall on his ass. The three devoured his vision, masking him in the blind struggle until he felt his fist hit one against the head. But before he could get to his feet, a glob of spittle slashed his eyes with pain. The damn bastards had spit on him. When he opened them, his pupils twinkled.

Petals of ember danced in the high afternoon sky, starting by the pavement and licking the grass like a hungry kitten with a saucer of milk, playful, gentle at first, fire flickered, flared, leaped, and showered with sparks where the school road T'd off into the avenue, and wrapped itself around the assembly of military trucks and rubble. It devoured everything in its path, blazing out of control, ash dotting the clouded skies until the clouds too were choked by the noxious inferno.

Its flames rose in excitement, and Lyle feared they were come closer, but then another spout of flames grew into the air, and then another. Specks of glass sprinkled the ground, as Lyle saw from standing up. Plumes of black, grey smoke arose from the ground and streamed together with the other flames, twinkling in the sky like distanced stars, but this was all too close.

Then he heard a roar, which came from either of the three crazies, so he bolted to the gymnasium, although this was clearly a mistake. Along with the new crazies that were in the gym, he saw two people screaming in the center of it. From the angle he was at, it was easy to mistake them for crazies, but they were very well Gordon and Lilian, the paramedic.

Lyle, walking alongside the wall, saw more people running around, but these two had caught his eye. He shouted at them, inching towards them, but had to backtrack whenever one of the dead folk swung at him. Out to the side, where the gym entrance turned into hallway, Lyle heard another person shout. He looked, spotting a familiar face and a familiar mask.

It was the thug. Randy.

The man didn't linger for long, and left a damn going-away present. It took a moment to see the thing, which was in fact a Molotov cocktail, but it was much easier to see what it did. Almost as soon as the glass bottle shattered, the gym became an illuminated world. The fire devoured the gasoline in a flash of flame, treading fast across the gymnasium. Thick, smoke fumes sprouted into the air, choking Lyle's lungs. The fire alarm stood useless on the wall, with no power to operate the sprinklers, so the gym turned into the sweaty furnace it was.

"God dammit!"

The two, Gordon and Lilian, were dashing to Lyle when a fierce string of ember swallowed the air next to them. Their faces were ashy, and both looked to be working a sweat. Both of them ran past Lyle, as he was out of view and consumed by a web of blinding smoke. He was literally choking, hacking, making his lungs feel like he'd breathed in dirt. He thought about his Marlboros, and then the Zippo lighter in his pants.

He looked down, finding his socks to be covered in the cindery grit when all of a sudden they disappeared under the ash cloud. Lyle gritted his teeth, wondering how he had find himself in such grim shit. The flames had grown, trailing around the gymnasium like gold wires, blazing hot. Bit by bit, the bleachers trembled and shook until they fell onto the crackling flames.

Damn mirages, he thought, it was all just a big damn mirage.

A moment later, torrential ashes swirled, blending against the setting of black, as the inferno set alight all it touched. It was warmer than Hell, and Lyle figured it'd be okay now to give up, but he didn't, as the flames beat him back against the wall and saved him from the intense heat cooking his very lungs. Now he saw an escape, his chance to live.

He saw figures, in the cascading embers, move about. It was too hard to tell at first, given with every detail scorched beyond recognition, but the moans gave Lyle his cue to run. The floor, whatever floor he could see, dropped underneath from sight when he began to run. His lungs, aching and begging to him, were working hard to puff while his throat, oh his throat, stiffened and grew sore from the burnt taste in the air.

Sweat rolled down his face in thick, salty beads. His skin felt like it was roasting, the humidity sticky against his face. The run wore him out quickly, so he settled to jogging, but that as well did not work. He settled to stumbling, and was barely aware of reality anymore, much less the stinging in his legs. He was exhausted by the time he stumbled out the gym, reaching the hall floor on his knees. He didn't care about the bodies surrounding him, or the fact that Randy had gone to care to his fallen friend, but instead tried to catch his breath.

His lungs threatened to burst. Lyle's fingers scrambled for his neck; his inhales came in bringing momentary sweetness to his lungs, only to be ripped from him as he exhaled in ugly sputtering. His undershirt, daubed with exasperation, clung to his skin. So stupid, he thought, but that same thought totally escaped his mind in the next inhale. He felt like a million bucks, the flames crackling behind him like giggling, so he got up on hesitant legs and lit one cigarette, and it left him in a blissful breeze of ash.

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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