This is Issue #40 of Step by Step. This the fourth issue of Volume Seven.
Bad times. Bad times—who hasn't had bad times? The four underneath the Police Department aren't. Lyle and Nolan are inside the cell. The cell is open. Derek and Dennis are already outside.
"You see this?"
"It's a miracle," said Dennis.
"Hell yeah," Derek said. "Jesus, this is good. Good thing that cop showed up when he did. He was so sleepy, or something, seems like it was the drugs he took—heroin or coke."
"He left the door open."
"On purpose, you think?"
"No one can be that dumb."
"He's probably upstairs with his gun aimed at the door."
"He ain't gonna kill us."
"You heard him. He was going to kill Nolan!"
Lyle Jackson went for his Marlboros, where he had left them before. His pocket was flat when he touched it. It was empty when he put his hand in it. He waited for it and it never came. A dark hand clenched his right lung and he bumped into the bars.
"You feeling good, Lyle?"
"Yeah, Nolan. How about yourself?"
"Nearly died a moment ago."
"Nonetheless, you good?"
"Of course. Just gotta walk off this bullet in my ass."
Lyle offered Nolan a hand and the two walked out of the cell. If Carter was indeed waiting for them upstairs, then so be it. They would die free men, not from old age because of piss-poor charges. Old age, he thought. He was in his late twenties, near thirty years on this earth, and had the lungs of a runner. A tired runner, though.
"We are taking that chance," Nolan said.
"Straight up," Lyle said, patting his great friend of his Nolan on the shoulder. "There ain't a difference between dying with a bullet in your chest or a bullet between your eyes."
"That's right," Dennis said. "But it's a risk."
Lyle looked at Dennis for a moment. Had they made it this far to die? It could be that God was playing with them. A test. He gulped. The hairs on his back stood up and cold sweat slid down his face, thinking, or perhaps toying with the idea that they, all four of them, had brought this all upon themselves, and maybe He was laughing at them, or maybe watching to see how they would act, separating those of good will from those with deadly true colors.
He saw three faces—he looked over his shoulder, to the jail cell. Was it the anticipation? The worry? Or the guilt of knowing that he killed people, those mentioned along with Tom and his friends, may they rest in peace? Lyle sighed, lo, and feared for a moment that their souls, full of torment for what he and Nolan had done, were now haunting them. He inhaled, and fear was upon his voice. "After the Towers fell, when I was about seventeen, I realized something. I knew something was bad—something was wrong. I wasn't in the streets because I wanted to be in the streets. I was in the streets because I was weak. Then you know what? I was like Joe, that Joseph guy. A young guy. When I was eighteen in December of 2001, I tried to be a soldier. I applied; nobody talked to me after I checked off I'd been arrested that same year. Never was put in front of a jury, but still got rejected. Joseph, with a damn bullet in his shoulder, is someone who I want to be like. He took risks."
"We all took risks," Dennis said.
"And that school got burned to hell and back," said Nolan.
"And you killed that cop, ain't you forget?" Derek interrupted.
"Hey, shut up with that!" Nolan said. "What the hell are you trying to say, man? So what, it was a damn mistake, a fool's mistake. Quit blaming me, you sonofabitch."
"I'm a son of a bitch?" Derek said, scoffing as he did.
"What's waiting for us out there, Lyle?" Dennis said.
"That cop and his gun," said Derek. "I'm telling you."
"The door's open," Nolan said. He was at the base of the stairs. "The door's open and I can see someone, Lyle."
"Wayne. It's Wayne."
"The same Wayne?" Dennis asked.
Nolan started walking up the stairs.
"It's Wayne. He's with Eugene. Eugene's leaving, though."
As Derek and Dennis followed Nolan, Lyle held back. The anticipation was there, the thrill was back. He breathed in through his nose.
"Let's go," he managed to say.
"Where? Where can we go after this?" Dennis said.
"I know someone," Lyle said, without hesitating. "I know a bunch of people in this town."
"Rockefeller, the mayor," Nolan interrupted . "He can help guys like us."
"What makes you sure?" Dennis pressed.
"He gave us the money to kill Tom Gallenger."
Lyle walked to the base of the stairs. Nolan was peeping through the hole in the door, his hand on a bloody handprint that Carter had left.
"Carter's not here. Looks like Wayne's going to leave."
"Let's go," Derek said, and then Lyle grabbed him by the arm.
"Nobody gets hurt."
"Can't promise that. But what can a liar do?"
"If we're going, I think we ought to go now," Dennis said.
"You ready, Dennis?" Lyle asked.
"I'm scared, man," Dennis quiped, with a narrow smile. "Wayne, it's just Wayne. He tried to help us, man."
"He's a leech, ain't I already told you?"
"Being scared doesn't kill you. And risks don't kill you. Mistakes do."
The four ran up the stairway, knocking the door flat on the wall. Derek and Dennis went to the sides, Nolan went for a fire axe on the wall. Wayne looked, saw Lyle, let go of his broomstick—
"How's it going, Wayne?"
"Please, don't kill me."
"Nobody is talking about that. We just wanna get out of here."
Nolan wrenched the axe from the wall.
"What did I ever do to you?"
"You tell me, Wayne."
"I didn't do nothing!"
"That's the point." Lyle closed in on Wayne, backing the liar into the entrance door. "You did something, and if you were on our side 'fore this, you ain't now. You're a traitor."
"A traitor. And why are there no cops here?"
"Me and and some guy were finishing up here."
Lyle gritted his teeth. He knew why there were no police here. Carter had planned on coming back to finish them off, maybe with the help of some friends, Hector included.
"Where did Carter go?"
"He left this place hardly ten minutes ago."
"Are you sure?"
"He could be lying again," Nolan said. "Carter told you he was going to return?"
"No. He just left."
Derek and Dennis walked to the door. Wayne inched away, sliding along the wall, Lyle following him with a mean glare. "I forgive you, Wayne," he said. "After Summercreek, you had some good luck. You're still alive. Keep it that way."
The other three waited for Lyle at the door.
"Dennis?" Wayne pleaded, holding his eyes upon the three men. "Nolan, Woods?"
The three men remained silent and Wayne slowly looked back at Lyle. "I'm sorry, man." Wayne said, trying to hold his stature strongly in front of Lyle. "But how was I going to know that Carter and Brock were gonna beat the shit out of you?"
"You didn't. You thought that you'd get a reward."
"I was wrong."
"So it is."
"Where are you going?"
"Out of this place. Any place but here. Wanna know why? Carter Jameson is a damn killer. He probably killed Lilian, and that boy's sister. Just thought you should know." Lyle Jackson thought about telling Wayne that he should leave, but his anger was too hot.
"Most of the people here haven't seen what's outside those walls. Have never seen those things that ate Alexander."
"But we have, ain't you forget? Goodbye, Wayne. I wish you the best."
Lyle Jackson turned his back, walked to the door, and slammed through it.
The other three followed in suit.
Then Wayne was alone.
A hellishly red moon is out tonight. The lost man sees it—it's a deadly glance. How long has it been? How are things going for a man like he?
Carter Jameson, clutching the underside of his left chest, is walking down the sidewalk of Blacktop Diner. He can see a small street in the distance. It seems like a cul-de-sac. He doesn't want to go there. He knows somethings there, waiting for him, lingering in the shadows. That's why the moon is so red. Carter's face is red, hellishly also. It's burning—he's the burning man. He is the burning man. And this man has a pistol. It's got a full magazine. Red Smith had given him a fresh refill.
But something troubles Carter. What could it be? What can it be? Pain. He's in pain.
He asks himself—Carter takes hold of his bad arm, putting it in front of his face. He cried out. His heart was beating, fast and fast. He let go of the bloody stump, daring not to look at the thing.
He kept walking, later stopped. He looked to see where he was. He was under a street light. Three blocks ahead, he saw a man walking in the other direction. To a neighborhood.
Does Carter know him?
He turned and inspected the diner. A sign on the window said that here one can buy anything from coffee to hand-tossed pizza. Does Carter like pizza? Need to know, he thought. He walked to the door, pulled it open, and walked inside. The place wasn't full and wasn't that noisy, and going by the smell, he figured that there were never many people here at night.
The cash register was a close five feet from the entrance.
"Good evening, mister."
Carter looked up, completely dazed.
"Where are the people?"
"Do you have the time?"
The bartender, a little lady that could be twenty years old, suddenly had a look on her face that Carter did not like. It was a face in disgust.
"What happened to you?"
"It's past your bedtime, Carter."
Carter turned to his left. There was Hector Pacino, a cigarette in his mouth.
"Where you been, pal?" He said.
"And you don't look like yourself."
"What are you trying to say?"
"Come on, sit down. Eat a burger. This place is open from day to night."
"Olson, Olson? She, she found me outside in the cold. Told me to sit down. Chill."
"Went to talk with Malcolm."
"Where are the others?"
Hector put his hand on Carter's shoulder. "You don't look so hot."
"I don't feel so hot."
"What happened to your face?"
Carter took Hector's hand, ripping up his hand. These are Marlboro cigarettes. "Where did you find these?"
"Let go of my hand!"
"Lyle Jackson! You smell just like him!"
Instead of letting him go, Carter pushed Hector to the side where he landed on a table, threateningly glaring at Hector as he groaned and slid onto the floor. The better Carter, feeling refreshed, then left him alone there moaning with back pain. He had no intention of taking out his gun. He backed, very slowly, to the entrance.
He looked at the bartender for one last time.
Carter realized he was smiling like the devil.
Then he ran out. The fresh air greeted him like it always did. He ran, but where to? He had nowhere to go. He felt a new sense emerge. Maybe it was courage?
A new sense of danger.
He saw a payphone on the diner's sidewall. He was limping to the payphone the next second, aggressively searching for loose change in his right pocket. Who is he going to call? Can he call the police? What if the police was after him? Had they staged this? Was this job, a fake job? He had been played. Carter looked both ways, slammed his quarter into the hole, and rested his head on the wall. He felt something in his head now—the shearing stab of a migraine.
He punched in a random number. He didn't think about the who, but what? What would happen? He held the phone to his ear, deeply breathing.
Out of service. He let go of the phone and let it hang.
"This can't be."
A tumor of fear swelled in his throat. He was backing away from the payphone when he realized how scared he was. He turned around. He ran a hand through his sweat-bathed hair. Carter gulped, looked around. No place to go.
It was oddly quiet. There was a surge of pain when he tried to walk again. There was a inferno in his lungs, a hot barbecue flame burning between his lungs, so hot his breath was on fire. His stomach was in a knot, so tight he was about to throw up. But what did he eat?
He was hungry. He glanced down the street once more, then nevermore, with only one thought on his mind—the food waiting for him underneath the Police Department. He started sprinting at first, slowed down to a jog when the pain caught up in his chest, then looked back. Don't you dare look back again. He kept running, sweat continued to pour down his bloody hot face, and he started to take out his gun.
There was a man leaving the station.
It was getting late. Soon, Carter would need to lay down and rest. But where?
Wayne stopped for a second in front of the station. He was thinking too—what should I do? What can I do? Where are the police?
Lyle Jackson left the station, probably guessing that Wayne would leave after them to call the police. But he also hadn't bothered to ask, where was the police? As Wayne gathered his thoughts outside the station, he had another question, just like the Carter had, yet couldn't formulate it.
When he turned his back to walk away, for what Carter appeared to be escaping, Carter doubled his speed. He landed on the sidewalks, under the black dirt of night. The sidewalks near and in Town Hall were totally empty, and sometimes birds would fly off trees, and the night seemed increasingly dead.
He was within ten feet of Wayne when he stopped.
"What are you still doing here?"
"I was just leaving."
"He's gone—waiting for me at the diner. You been there? I heard your friends are there, Hector Pacino and Officer Olson."
"They aren't my friends now."
"You all right, Carter?"
"I'm fine. Did you lock the station?"
"Just like Mr. Smith told me."
"I'm going to need you to open it again."
Carter saw the fear swelling in Wayne's throat.
"I was told to do my job and leave."
"Now I'm telling you different, bud."
"Are you here to see Lyle—?"
"Give me the keys."
Carter raised the gun. He was about to shoot—then Wayne bolted.
Before Carter realized it, Wayne was running down the alley between the station and the nearby book store. He wasn't ready to call this shit off, he had a promise to keep.
Carter ran after him.
The alley was wide and narrow.
When Wayne had a distance between him and Carter, he for some reason stopped dead. Carter stopped as well, heaving hoarsely and staggering with each breath, when he saw that it was a dead end, a fence.
"Why didn't you give me the keys, Wayne?"
Wayne was grabbing onto the metal of the fence.
"This didn't need to happen," Carter said, holding the pistol downward at his side.
"Turn to face me, Wayne."
Wayne didn't move, and instead looked beyond the face. "You came here to shoot them, right?"
"Who left, Wayne?"
"Are you alone on this?"
"Answer my question."
"Who put you up to this?"
"That's a crock of shit."
"And Amanda. And Joe."
Wayne turned around, breathing heavily, hyperventilating.
"This ain't you, Carter."
"I know who I am."
"Everyone's fine now, Carter. After what happened in the city, nobody deserves—"
"I'm not Carter," said the man. "I'm the better Carter. And I'm fine, you're right. But you?"
"What about me?"
"And those niggers and nigger-lovers?"
"They're miles from here now."
"You five don't deserve to be better than me. Thank you, Wayne. Because of you, I got to beat the shit out of Lyle. Hopefully, later, I have that pleasure again."
Carter raised his weapon—Wayne screamed.
The blood was pulsing in his ears. Was something in his head chirping? That didn't sound right. Something in the distance was making that noise. Was it the police on the way? Did Red Smith send them? Were they for Carter or because Red expected the four to be dead now?
Nonetheless, Carter held his breath in and fired three shots.
All three shots punched into Wayne's chest.
The liar's white eyes exploded into the darkness and he crashed into the fence. Carter watched this all happen, the corner of his mouth sinisterly up.
Before leaving, Carter reminded himself that he had at least nine shots.
|Step by Step: Act Five|
|Way Back ☢ Echo, Echo ☢ Banshee ☢ Balls-Up ☢ Not Day ☢ Midnight's King|
|Step by Step: Act Six|
|Only Dream ☢ Awake ☢ Sleeper ☢ All Cloud ☢ Under Skin ☢ Bates|
|Step by Step: Act Seven|
|Lay Under ☢ Raw ☢ Lost ☢ Bad Moon ☢ Monsters ☢ Prayers|
|Step by Step: Act Eight|
|Get ☢ Hit It ☢ Fast Lane ☢ Monday ☢ Passover ☢ Be-All and End-All|