This is Issue #41 of Step by Step. This the fifth issue of Volume Seven.
Fighting for each breath, with nowhere to call home, Carter Jameson hauled himself out of the alley. He would walk two more steps, couldn't and stumbled into the wall, and rested for a while.
Carter looked up to the sky, his throat howling in pain, dripping with mad sweat, and his arms at least felt better in the cool air. But they were all he had left. Without his hands, how could he work?
I can tell you who is stealing.
Carter flipped himself over, back on the wall of the police station. Where could the four have gone? He would need to inform Red Smith, as soon as possible.
He inspected the streets—nobody in sight, odd. Dark buildings. Owless trees. Starless night sky.
I can tell you who is hurting us.
He inched his head to the side, peered off the wall, and looked at Wayne's body. He had died. Three shots to the chest have that type of insurance.
"Who hurt me?"
He was in a deserted town.
A chill ran down his spine.
He started walking back down the street, straight towards the Town Hall. By the time he reached the stairs to walk inside, the pain in his throat was unbearable—a deep stabbing, throbbing lump of fear and exhaustion. Was he scared? It would be deathly wrong to disagree.
It's those two. Lyle and Nolan.
Another throb of pain.
"Are you sure, Wayne?"
"Who said that?"
Like before when he looked around, there was nobody. How strange, no police. And the people? Where were the people? Had everyone in this town just went to bed after he nearly shot Lyle Jackson dead?
"We're here for you, Carter."
He turned around, a hotness aching under his chin, so much he wrapped a hand over it.
"Who goes there?"
"Who's me? First name basis, please."
He heard a siren approaching. Then there was a man in front of him, on the other side of the sidewalk. Was it Lyle? Carter dropped down from the stairs, walked through the sidewalk, and into the road. His head was on fire, and along with his eyesight now in double vision, he instinctively pulled out his sidearm.
Another voice. Carter looked left and there was a woman.
"Where did you come from?"
"Hey, hey, pal. Look at me, not her. You got to get that thing looked at."
"Nolan. Is that Nolan?"
The man shut up.
"There's someone with the sickness, listen to me."
"Listen, lady. Who are you and what have you seen?"
"You're sick, Carter."
Carter raised the gun, just like he did with Wayne. "You don't know me. I don't know you."
"It's nothing, really," said the man.
"He's sick," said the woman.
"It's just a scratch, nothing more."
"You think I should go to see a doctor?"
"What do you think, lady?"
"It's too late."
Then he saw a car with blinking sirens behind the woman. Without another thought, he fired a shot at the woman—the projectile ripped straight through her and punched into the hood of the police car.
When he looked again, the man was still there.
The woman had disappeared—was she even there to start with?
"You need to get that thing looked at."
"It'd be in your best interest to shut up, whatever you are."
Then he ran down the street, past the police station, knowing that Red Smith had this game rigged from the start. The only question he had left was, how long did he have left?
Just then, the town siren began to whistle.
Walking through the streets, at twelve-thirty when the night is strongest, was a gang of four unfortunates who had survived through much, but now can't say for sure where they're going.
The streets were quiet and they were walking past a small residential street.
Lyle Jackson, with hot sweat drawing down his face, was a fugitive. Whether he liked it or not, he knew something was up.
"We can't run forever," Dennis said.
"I'm looking into that."
"Midnight's always good to me," said Derek. "It's king."
"What do you mean, Woods?"
"Ten minutes or so have passed, and no cops in sight."
"What do you think, Jacky?"
"It's probably nothing," Nolan said.
"No," Lyle said. "Stop, guys. Look around, what do you see?"
The four stopped on the corner of 9th and looked—the houses in the neighborhood had no lights. Every house, every commercial building was dark.
"You guys see it now."
"I feel sick," said Dennis.
"What could be happening?" Nolan said.
"I don't know, but something bad is coming," Lyle said. He pointed behind them, coughed. "That's a mile. We got a mile's distance between us and them.
With his arm and hand still pointing, Lyle used his other hand to clean his face. For a moment, the sweet sense called exhaustion eased him throughout, and everything paled. He had grown desperate for a smoke, another Marlboro. But he couldn't listen to that voice, he had to be like Dennis who hadn't touched nose candy for days and more.
He lowered his arm—then a gunshot ran through the street.
He gulped, feeling something else when he heard two more shots explode out of nothing.
"Where?" Nolan asked.
Nolan looked at Lyle—they were in a pyramid, Lyle at the point. He had the same kind of exhaustion, the same sweat running down his face, and he knew exactly what was waiting for them in this town.
Outside? All four had survived that problem before.
In here? Can Lyle trust a man like Rockefeller?
He had to think about these kinds of things. It would be hard to, the adrenaline coursing through his veins screaming to run, but he had to. Either, Carter had really gone mad this time—or had he been told to go to the police station to carry out their executions. But who told him, that was the question from hell.
Rockefeller, Red Smith.
The man who had the money to afford Tom Gallenger's death.
But so what?
Now they had no home.
The night ahead would offer them coldness.
"Like I said, we're leaving."
"But where to?"
"I don't know anymore."
"You said you have a friend here," said Derek.
"I don't know what to tell you, Woods. You can call it a change of plans."
"Rockefeller," Nolan said. "He's with us, man."
"He never was."
"He used us. Now we're in here with him. Carter? He hired Carter just like he did with me and you."
"To remove the evidence?"
"Us. The evidence."
"Ain't that a sorry bitch."
"So now what can we do?" Dennis asked.
Lyle once more looked at the street. If he was right, and he knew he was right, then this was terrible. Terrible for Dennis, who now isn't going to be with his family. Terrible for he and Nolan, two men who were now strangers, branded as killers and shivering in fear. Terrible for Derek as well, who now realizes what type of situation he's walking in.
Then he heard a siren.
Behind the three, far down the street.
"A girlfriend? A relative? You must know someone else here, Jacky."
"Listen, Woods. I do."
"Who can it be? I'm talking about old man Jenkins."
Lyle turned his back, stared at the sign that said 9th Street. The fear still had him. He had run out of ideas, and he knew that they had escaped one jail to now be in a bigger jail—this town.
God help him, then he heard another gunshot.
Then the town siren.
Could it be—the police were coming.
"That was four shots," Dennis reported.
They would have to hide in the woods.
Lyle pointed to the treeline where the road turned to the neighborhood.
"Run that way."
"Lyle, what were those gunshots for?"
"I know what happened, and you don't want to."
"I'm not going with you then."
"That was Carter. I'm sure of it."
"And he shot Wayne?"
"See, you didn't need me to tell you."
Three shots, maybe four guaranteed a kill. Dennis knew that—he ran for the treeline.
"Let's go, Nolan and Woods."
"For how long?" That was Derek.
"No questions. We got a lot of ground to cover till we see some place to lie down."
Carter had no way to tell the time. No way to tell how long he'd been walking fast down the street.
But he had hunger.
And his sense of smell.
He was still trying to wrap his head around who those two people were. Could they have seen him while he shot Wayne? Chased him? Trapped him in that alley?
Or perhaps, they weren't even there.
Was he seeing things? Is that what it's come to?
Behind him, the vanishing siren of that police car.
Eight shots. He had eight rounds for that other ghost.
Or for Jackson.
He suddenly burst into a run.
One, two. One, two.
He stopped, looked behind—complete night.
His diaphragm was on fire, his lungs were close to bursting, and his ribs were breaking.
He looked up. A green sign.
That was all he took in. His sense of taste was gone. He was too dehydrated. His sense of touch going numb, too much aching.
"Carter. Carter Jameson? Thank God, I came as soon as I heard the gunshots."
He could barely hear.
It must be that ghost again.
No, can't be. Carter can smell him.
"It's me, Sheriff Donovan Smith. I believe you met my brother."
"I haven't done my job yet, so wait."
"I know. That's why I'm here. But I arrived too late, it seems."
"They escaped. Wayne busted them out."
"That's why you shot him?"
"And shot at the police car."
"The gun misfired. I don't feel like myself, man."
"My son was in that car."
Carter didn't respond—was it the shock, had Don gotten him by surprise?
He turned around.
"Don't I get a thank-you?"
"A thank-you. For trying my best."
"Jameson, listen please. We want you to give me that gun."
Behind Donovan, Carter saw a lot of figures moving. With guns. And they weren't on his side.
A moment of realization—Carter raised the gun at Donovan.
He didn't hesitate and fired once.
Donovan's chest exploded.
A voice from behind—"What the hell?"
Then his sense of hearing went to Hell and never came back.
The street exploded with the light of gunfire.
We're monsters, Carter. After this, we're monsters.
You're right, Brock.
Carter ran for the treeline, never having been so frightened in his life.
He told himself he wouldn't do it.
He prayed he wouldn't do it.
Red Smith, sitting in his seat, faced the grandfather clock. It was twelve twenty-five and a couple seconds. He could barely see it, let alone read it correctly. He took another draw of his cigar, thick like a Cuban cigar, but half the cost.
He was aware that something was off. His brother, Donovan was out. His nephew was with the other police, patiently waiting to the side. If something was wrong, they were there. Was it Carter? Had it been an error, a grave mistake hiring the man?
If Carter, that insane man who now had a gun, had injured anyone, it would be Red's ass. Or not? Red Smith had seen Carter leave the Blacktop Diner not too long ago. For some odd reason, the man had used the payphone. Then he had turned, unconsciously looking like a rabid animal, and started to run for the police station.
Then he had heard a noise—three gunshots cutting through the night.
A lot of running.
Was it really time?
Red Smith, fearing the worst, forced a grin.
He would need to call for the Band. He laid the cigar on the desk, went for the telephone, and it rung.
Surprise? The surprise killed the smile on his face.
"Who's this, at such late an hour?"
"Good evening, Mayor. I'm sorry for calling so late."
"Who am I talking to?"
"Malcolm. Sergeant Malcolm Grant."
"I believe you came into town just today."
"Yes, that's true."
"I'm very sorry for the inconvenience."
"Oh, nothing. So what's the call for?"
A pause, silent. A voice in the back.
"I've spent the past hours writing letters, to the families of those who died. I'm writing Alexander's now, the one to his family. But I can't make any outgoing calls."
"Calls to where? Who?"
"Alexander's parents, or grandparents."
"That won't be needed, Mr. Grant."
"For now, no. But it's like the whole service is down."
"I tried calling five times. No luck."
"The Internet? Can you send them an e-mail?"
"It's probably just a problem with the motel, Mr. Grant."
"I tried a payphone. I went to the library, no luck."
"Mr. Grant, what seems to be the problem?"
"I think there's a problem with your town, Mayor. Televisions don't work either."
Red Smith gulped, needing another swig of wine.
Another gunshot in the distance.
"It's worse than I thought."
"Jesus. Did you hear that?"
"Fourth one tonight."
"Mr. Grant, for now stay in your room. Tell your friends that, too."
"We actually met before midnight. It was only me, Olson, Mr. Jacob Davis and his daughter. The Privates are at the doctor, I suppose. Olson's with me now. She left Hector in the diner."
"Wayne and Eugene, two civilians are unaccounted for."
Four gunshots—either Carter had shot them, or what?
"I have no idea where those two are, damn!"
"Excuse my language, Mr. Grant. It's embarrassing."
"Can you fix this problem soon?"
"I can make some calls later."
"Good night, Sergeant."
"I have a lot of things to get to, you understand Malcolm."
He hung up.
Punched in some numbers—he was calling the next second.
"Red, why so late?"
"It's about Carter. Remember, I told you?"
"I need you to call for the band."
A pause, then an inviting laugh.
"It's about time."
The dead band song is playing.
"Shut up, Dennis."
"Shut up, Woods. And listen."
The four are trudging through the trees, thick bushes collapsing under their feet. Lyle walked on, grabbed the trunk of a tree, looked back, and saw. He saw lights.
He kept looking—then more lights came.
"Keep running, I said."
Nolan turned and saw. "Those lights are in the distance."
"But they must be headlights. Cars can catch up to us."
"The question is, are they after him or us?"
"Look." Dennis said. "A house."
Lyle and Nolan turned their backs on the lights and saw what was in front of them—a wooden cabin that was more than twenty feet away.
It was a miracle. Did Lyle believe in miracles? Sometimes.
Lyle patted Nolan's back, walked past the other two, and emerged into a clearing. He looked around. The complete perimeter of the cabin was clear grass and dirt.
A sensation touched him.
"Hide in there."
"This house is going to be the first place they see." Derek said.
"It's going to be the place they check first."
"We can't keep walking," Nolan said. "Lyle's right. Or they find us one by one trying to walk through the trees."
"Let's go," Dennis said.
"Exactly what I'm trying to say." Lyle walked towards the house, holding his ribs. Had something broken?
There was no time—someone was screaming behind them.
"Carter, is that Carter?"
"Dennis, just move!"
The four ran for the house, each collectively running up the stairs and into the house—Lyle looked over his shoulder and saw something.
Far in the distance.
Trees were moving as if a monster were crashing through them.
Lyle shut the door behind him—"That's definitely someone."
The town was miles behind them. There were trees all around town. This cabin, it was simply a miracle that they had found it. Tired, all four breathing hard, now had the chance to die under a roof.
"What now?" Nolan said.
Hide? Could they hide?
"First, where are we?"
"A hunting cabin. Seems like it."
"Find supplies, anything useful."
"A rifle, something. Let's go."
The cabin was a one level house—three rooms. First came the living room, and a red carpet led to a kitchen that was to the right. The last room was the bedroom, of course.
The three split off into the other rooms. Lyle stayed still, unmoving. Watching through the kitchen's window.
His heartbeat had slowed significantly.
He inched closer to the window.
There was a stillness in the air.
No more lights.
No more movement.
He breathed out.
"I can hardly see a shit," Derek said.
"Lyle can give you his ligher. Lyle, can you let Derek borrow that lighter of yours?"
Lyle could feel something was wrong. He had to know—he put both hands on the kitchen counter, peering outside—and then one of the trees moved. Was that normal? Had the tree gone with the wind?
Two more trees moved.
Several lights flashed in the distance—bright orbs of white.
An endless number of engines roared to life.
Lyle stumbled back, backing away from the window. A bullet tore through the window and hit the wall behind Lyle. A man, the monster—with a bloodied face, a pistol in his hand—emerged from the treeline, running towards the house. The man was confused, bloody confused, struggling to compose another thought—where to turn, where to go?
Carter stopped in front of the house.
He saw Lyle—a volley of shots tore past the trees. Carter ducked and ran for the house, running with instincts. His insides were on fire, his kidneys pumping adrenaline.
He was so close. So close to the door.
Get that axe ready.
But he stopped, dead in front of the house.
Lyle saw four trucks drive outside of the woods, speeding at forty miles per hour it seemed. Carter Jameson, running while they drove after him, was looking angry. Looking mean. This wasn't confusion now—it was pure frustration. He was angry about something, like a disturbed wasp flying after a stranger.
Carter was mad. Very mad. He broke into a dash for the door. He ran up the stairs, tightening his hold on the gun with eight bullets.
"One, two. Carter's coming for you."
Lyle Jackson looked from the window to the door.
"Three, four. Carter's at the door."
Carter started to kick the door.
The sound of wood breaking.
Lyle gulped—he looked at Nolan, who was standing in the living room with the axe raised.
Yellow light exploded into the dark living room.
Carter had opened a hole in the door.
"Nolan, is that you?"
"Carter, don't do this. You don't want to do this."
"Because I don't want to kill you."
An explosion in the background. Something large had struck the cabin. A bullet of a huge caliber.
"Get down from there, Jameson!"
Carter looked at Nolan one last time, teeth really popping out in the sudden clarity. He turned around, consciously putting one finger on the gun's trigger.
"You don't want to do that."
"Drake Wilson—" Carter said, as if recognizing the name from earlier in the day had significance.
Carter walked down the stairs. He looked around—throughout the grass there were four trucks and all had their motors running. No infected, either. No crazies.
"Where's Joe, officer?" Carter pleaded. "Where's my friend, Joe?"
"He's at the hospital, Jameson."
"Why do you have that rifle aimed at me?"
"Carter, we're not going to take you in."
"That's strange. Why?"
"It's for your own good, Carter."
Carter was left in a moment of silence, a moment of killing desperation. Then he saw four flags standing in each bed of the trucks—Lyle Jackson and the others saw too.
Black and red-stained flags.
It was a nightmare, a sweaty nightmare. One of the kinds that Nolan had in summer camp. This couldn't be, said the look on Carter's face. Even though he was deranged and he was cooking hot inside, he still could think. This couldn't be, he thought. A bullet cut through the air and struck Carter's gut. Carter jerked back, shoulders flat.
Another hit him—nothing. A second bullet struck him—he took a step forward.
Raised the pistol that had killed Wayne and—
"Die, traitor!" was shouted.
A third shot, one of high caliber, struck Carter dead in the gut. Lyle saw someone behind Drake Wilson. It was Cleon Smith, Donovan's son. The beam of light from the cars was perfect on Carter. He lurched forward, the pistol dropping to the ground. Nolan, watching through the hole in the door, saw Carter look down at what remained of his belly.
Carter Jameson fell to his knees.
Nolan looked away.
One last bullet from Drake's rifle ripped through the air and out the back of Carter's chest. The damage was like a stake being stabbed through a vampire's heart.
He was dead before he hit the ground on his side.
|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|