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This is Issue #43 of Step by Step. This the first issue of Volume Eight.

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Nolan's heartbeat was like the soul of a man—exploding and moving in his chest, shattering his ribs and vibrating his brain. At one-thirty in the morning, he was standing behind a Dumpster in the cold with Derek behind him. At that same time, he saw a familiar truck stop near the town's police station. Two men, unsuspected killers of the new day, had gotten out.

The Anarchist flag, a charcoal black stained with red, waved. It was still there.

The look on Nolan's face drew contempt. He instantly remembered why he was here, freezing in the cold with Derek. And why he left Lyle and Dennis. It was that which gave him no bliss—they were game. And it was open season.

The two were between a laundromat and the Blacktop diner. Nolan had been here before, and for some reason, that relaxed him. It gave him a sense of calm, a breath of fresh peace. A piece of peace, all too uncommon now. The diner was closed, but the town was closed also. And a few men had broken that peace. And it was Carter's fault, too. Listening to the conversation between the three men near the police station's alley, Nolan renewed his fear.

"We should go," Derek said. He isn't the same now—his forehead is sweaty, his words are jangled, and he's rubbing the feeling out of his hands.

"In a few minutes."

"Let's go."

"Go ahead. I'm looking to see what's in that truck."

"A damn flag."

"They have Carter Jameson in that bed."

Nolan showed him. While the two men returned to the truck, the two cowering fugitives saw a stiff body in the bed looking at them. Carter's face was slack and blood from the third bullet to his chest had stained it. He was sitting there, watching them. The motor of the truck roared to life. The truck's bed bounced and Carter's head rolled. Even dead, his presence was scary. But as the night grew longer, Nolan would come to see that Carter was very alive well.

"These boys are giving me a real good fright," Nolan said. He tightened his grip on the axe.

"You're crazy."

"We're busting into this diner."

"You're crazy."

"Really, Derek." said Nolan. He got up and walked past the scared man. "I don't want to sleep in a laundromat."

"Do you think I want to sleep in this town with those men searching for us?"

"So, no laundromat?" He continued walking, walking towards the back of the restaurant. The fright and the cold have made Nolan willing, able to do anything now. It's a strong feeling. His heartbeat relaxed when he reached the end of the tunnel and turned the corner. He saw the back door—rusted orange, stained with graffiti. It looked like a junkyard door.

"You're crazy!"

"Keep your voice down, Derek."

Breathing easy, Nolan stopped two feet in front of the door. He calmed down. Breathed in. Exhaled through his nose. Was Lyle really dead? He breathed in through his nose. Nolan raised the axe, let it kiss the heavens, and opened a hole in the center of the door. He grunted, pulled it out, and kept bringing the axe down. When the hole was bigger, he put his arm through the hole and twisted the knob.

The door opened. It was the kitchen, the bottom of Blacktop. He went inside, trying to search for peace again. It was a miracle—and sometimes, Nolan recognized miracles as gold. He saw a basket of bread on the counter above a line of stoves and ovens that separated the eaters and the cooks. Nolan took one loaf of bread from the basket, his mouth so dry, left the axe resting against the wall, and ate.

When Derek arrived at the door, Nolan was finishing the loaf.

"Do you see this, Woods?"

"That basket of bread?"

"Yes. Sweet Jesus," Nolan said, eating. "Thank you, thank you."

"You're hungry?"

"It's been more than a day since I ate something." Nolan ate the bread completely. "Wayne, and Lilian, oh poor Lilian—they asked me if I wanted to eat some canned peas they'd found in the church. In King's. Oh, I've never been hungrier."

"Leave some for me, man."

"Oh," Nolan said, his face paling as if the bread had been poisoned. "Oh," he said. "You don't understand, Derek. This isn't just a miracle. I'm a dead man."

"With a basket full of bread."

"You don't understand," Nolan continued. "I was shot in the ass! I killed an officer of the law! I don't deserve this. It's a warning, Derek. The last warning I'll get. In Summercreek, I survived. When Summercreek was on fire, I lived. I knew the end was near, man. Then after what that devil, Carter, did, I knew the end was near. After all this, I know that I'm a condemned man."

"What are you trying to say?"

"Working with Lyle takes a toll on the body," the desperate man said. The terror in his voice was true. "I helped him and you with the death of one man—and I killed that police officer, for y'all. And now with tonight, I'm charged with multiple deaths? Deaths that happened because of a man that died almost an hour ago."

"Take it easy, man."

"I'm so dead, Woods." Nolan shuddered suddenly. "I'm a scared fool, Derek. I try hard not to be, but I grew up being scared. Now that I've left my footprint in the world, I'm dying. And Fate won't be kind to me. This bread is just here to tell me that I'm going to die with a full stomach, out of shame and that I somehow deserve this—this last meal."

"I like you more than Jackson. And I'm not gonna let you die."

"Oh, and Lyle." Nolan said. "We left him to bleed to death. A bullet in the belly is a bad way to die—blood loss, and if he's still alive, his stomach filth is gonna cause an infection." Nolan looked through the basket for another piece of bread, looking for cheese or ham. "And if you were a priest, I'd ask you for my last rites."

"I'm not Catholic."

"And I'm a Protestant," Nolan said. He moaned and groaned. He got on the counter and sat there, gobbling down the bread in his hand. Something pressed up against the back of his neck. It was strange, two holes digging into his head. It was just the nerves, after being exhausted, now fed.

"Oh hell," Derek said.

"What?"

A woman's voice—"Move and I kill you."

A man's voice—"Nolan, better not move."

Out of fear and pure shock, Nolan dropped the bread. He blinked, watching Derek. He leaned back, stretching his back a little. He felt something hard and cylinder.

"What're doing here, Nolan?" The man said.

"How do you know me?"

"That's a double-barrel shotgun," Derek said.

"What are you doing here, Nolan," the woman said.

The man's voice had sounded familiar.

"It's Malcolm," the man said.

The woman scoffed.

"Please don't kill me, miss."

"Tell me why you're here."

"Lyle Jackson's been murdered."

"What?" Malcolm said. Shocked.

"How's Joe and the others?"

"What happened to Jackson?"

"I'm fine, sergeant. And how's your man, Carter?"

"I'd like to know why I saw him in that truck."

"You saw the truck with the flag."

"That flag represents the band's adrenaline," the lady said.

"Carter killed Wayne," Derek said.

"Nolan, you better explain to me why I don't let the lady blow your head in two."

"Please, don't me kill me." Nolan stopped, saw his breath was racing, and that it'd be best to talk. He started with them escaping the confines of the police station, leaving Wayne alone, and the gunshots. He breathed—he told them about Carter chasing them thereafter, the four trucks chasing Carter, and them killing Carter with three bullets—he exhaled. He paused and said that Carter had framed them with two deaths. The deaths of Lilian and Caroline, Eugene's strangled sister.

"And then that bloody sheriff fought Lyle. Some kid shot him in the gut."

"I spoke with the mayor an hour or so ago." Malcolm said. "Wayne was with Eugene. The kid's missing. I was with the others in a motel room they gave us. I came here after that—Olson, Pacino, and the Davis family are in the other room. And now you tell me, Carter killed Wayne?"

"Could be that Wayne pissed Carter off."

"And he tried to kill you four again?"

"I'm afraid so." Nolan said. "And I believe he was hired this time."

"With who's money?"

"Lyle didn't think about that. But this Rockefeller guy paid him with something—"

"Rockefeller?" Amelia asked. "You're talking about Red Smith?"

"Yeah."

"Well, why did the mayor tell Carter to kill you four?" Malcolm asked.

A moment of anxiety took Nolan by the throat. He was still watching Derek. Derek saw the axe resting on the wall. The moment passed and Nolan breathed. "I dunno. Maybe to get rid of some criminals he hasn't got the time for?"

"You're the Trouble Quartet—they were talking about you guys before the signal died."

"On the news?"

"It's nobody's fault but mine that Wayne died." Malcolm said. "And Carter? I knew something was wrong with him. The panic I had when those things took us by surprise was too much—Carter killed Lilian and that poor girl. But why?"

"I don't know."

"You're asking a killer too many questions," Amelia said. "These two are killers, after all."

"Killers or not, they're staying here." Malcolm said.

"I agree," said the lady and pushed Nolan off the counter.

"Why? Why are you helping us?"

"But I'm not," said the lady. "And because this idiot Nolan broke my door, Sheriff Donovan will certainly come by in the morning. After the band is finished—and I assume they're hunting you four still. The Band goes out every night to take care of problems. You're tonight's problem, and the reason they killed Carter is because he was a problem also."

"Where are we, miss?"

"Smiths Ferry."

"More like a nightmare," said Derek.

"I can't let you fools leave," the lady repeated. "Just helping Mr. Grant and his friends inside was trouble. And, killers or not, I don't want to go to sleep tonight knowing I killed two men. Trust me, if you leave, they'll kill you. And if anyone leaves during their investigation, bothers them, someone'll tell the Sheriff that we bothered them. And then I'll be arrested. Last night, the same thing happened here—the band rode into town and two men disappeared."

"And the mayor just allows this? He has that power?"

"Everybody in this town is a witness," she said. "I'm the minority. The worker at the Blacktop diner—the stomach of the town. They don't suspect me. This is a small town, and everyone here is a part of the Band."

"Wait, I'm sorry. But where is everyone?"

Derek scoffed. "Shut up, Nolan!"

"That's the last question?" she said.

"Being outside at night so late is suspicious."

Malcolm, obviously stressed, sighed. "I never thought I'd say it, but it's good to have you here, Nolan Brackenbury."

"And Assfunk?"'

"Who's that?"

"Nolan," Derek said. "I'm so scared now because of those men looking for us trying to kill us that I don't care what you say, what you call me."

The lady walked to the other side of the room, entering the kitchen. The shotgun was up, and as she took the axe off the floor, she saw that Nolan understood. Looking down the ominous, dark holes of the shotgun's barrels, Nolan felt at peace now.

He smiled—whether this was all lie and they were going to kill him didn't matter. He just knew that he was still lucky and that he'd rather die under a roof than outside and hungry.

"And," the lady said. "If, and I do mean if, Red hired Carter to kill Wayne too, then it's best if you all stay here."

"That's absurd," Malcolm said. "The mayor can't lay a hand on me and the others—we're guests."

"Mister," Amelia said. "If you aren't blind, you must have noticed that the dead are walking. There's no connection to the outside world as of tonight. One of your soldiers killed a man. Caused a disturbance. And the mayor is behind all of this—he and this entire town are like puppets being controlled by the Devil. They've killed before. It's a small town, and this is too much to think about—so we're gonna wait it out."

"See what happens," Nolan said.

There was then an ominous knock at the front door of the diner.

See what happens.


The evening hours of this new day, while dawn breaks, shows no red sky. When the clock touched thirty minutes before two in the morning, a dying Lyle Jackson sat next to an attic window, slowly losing the desire to breath. His face had started to pallor, his blood running slowly through his chest, aiding his beating heart. It was jumping to the rhythm. Absolutely exhausted, and burning up in the nightly cold, the dying Lyle felt that he no longer was hungry. He did not seem to be thirsty, or starving with no meal in his stomach. He was relaxed. His senses and feelings of a healthy man had disappeared.

Although he was a man of nearly thirty years, Lyle Jackson was dying. He became distressed soon. He blinked. He thought about food, and soup, but he was purely tired. If he continued like this through this night, he was sure he'd die. He started to pray, unable to speak, and tried to scream in his thoughts for Dennis to return. Then, only after he saw the sun in the distance, he prayed to God.

"Pain!" the man yelled. "Fate!"

"Why? What's the matter?" Dennis bellowed from the first floor.

"What took you so long?"

When Dennis climbed up the ladder he said, "I saw something horrible."

"What now? What could it be?"

"It's one of those sick people. Horrible."

"Horrible!" Lyle said. "Are you playing with me again?"

"No!" Dennis shouted as if his soul was going to be taken. "It's real—come and see!"

The dying man, with energy in his arms, took the bottle of water and drank more. When he said he simply didn't have the energy to walk, Dennis came to him and took him to the hole in the middle of the floor. When Dennis saw that the man couldn't walk on his own, he put Lyle's arm around his neck. With the his feet dragging across the floor, Lyle saw that the new room separated to two others rooms—to a little living room with some couches and a television and to a garage.

"He was moaning," said Dennis, "and screaming. It was so ugly. I couldn't watch it for another second. He looked dead, and he should be dead. I never had the chance to see one of them that close."

"It's true," Lyle said. "I'm afraid of them, also."

"I knew it."

"But it's just that," he said. "I'm afraid to even think now. I was in pain up there, drowning in my thoughts. Every thought, whether it be about this resurrection of the dead or my crimes, is like a knife in my heart."

"That's purely guilt."

"And the aftermath of sin," he said. "When I was a little boy, the same thing applied. But I grew up, smoking and gambling my life like a pair of dice. Now after killing enough men to get the death penalty, I see what I did."

"How are you feeling about the injury?"

"After this, and only after this," he said, "if I continue living like a drunk, then I deserve what they give me. The fault will be mine, only."

"Have you ever thought of kids, Jackson?"

"You're gonna be the perfect father, Dennis."

"You?"

"Me?" Lyle answered, leaving Dennis to think that the man was delirious. "If a man like me has a child, the world will call him Mistake."

"No, Jackson," Dennis said. "I'm sorry, but life is too beautiful to be wasted. That's why there are second chances—that's why I want to return to my family. I have my Elizabeth and daughter, the loves of my life. Before I left Chicago, when Anna was six, I gave her a little notebook and told her to write inside all her thoughts, her life. I don't regret it."

"But we aren't going to die, friend." Lyle stretched and coughed, letting go of Dennis, for he had renewed his strength. He looked to the garage. "You want to know why, Johnson?"

"Why?"

"It's my sin," Lyle said, walking to the garage, and holding his belly. "The fault is mine—everything from Earl's death to Malik's. I'm going to present myself in front of the police, hands up, and I'm going to say that I am the true killer—me!"

"They won't trust you. They'll kill you."

"Me! Hello, directors of the law. I'm here in front of you, wounded and needing help. Why am I here alone—well, I'm so brash I killed the other three. The fame is mine!"

"You wouldn't dare."

"Don't be scared," Lyle said. "By the time I'm in front of the police cars, I want to see you escaping out of this town with the other two."

"That's like saying you want them to smother you with a pillow in your sleep."

"When the governor sends his best men to fetch me, it'll be too late to find your bodies. Yes, I'm taking the fall."

"You're a foolish man, Jackson."

Lyle Jackson, with a smile upon his lips, feigned a face of realization and sadness. "It'd be best my way, Dennis." And looking at the door of the garage, he pushed it open and drew a fast breath. The garage was almost empty, with a quantity of spiderwebs on the walls. Where the garage door was, some five feet away, there was a lightbulb palpitating. Near the door, he saw a man chained to the wall—the crazie. The crazie was a mere five and a half feet tall, and when he saw the two men, he lifted up his chest and snarled. In front of him, there were some blood stains and pieces of meat, and it looked like animal meat.

"Oh man, it's disgusting."

"Where's the owner of this house?" the headman asked.

"I never saw him."

"I don't think this is a house."

"We're about ten minutes out of town, by car."

"When I say that I don't think this is a house, I want to say that this looks like a hideout—a place to hide things. Are you sure that you don't know the owner?"

"I think I saw a name in the mailbox."

"You opened the mailbox?"

"There was mail for one Gary Beekman."

Lyle Jackson remained in a paralyzed state, thinking. "We're leaving, now."

"To where?"

"To the town. If God's good, we'll find Nolan and Woods on our way back. If we have luck, we'll find a car. Something that can help us escape."

"Can I pray first?"

"You may," he answered. "I learned after so many years that a person is more willing to pray for their soul in the face of death. In the face of darkness, right?"

"A man like me would like to think that He has pity for us criminals."

Lyle Jackson, no longer weak, left the garage with Dennis Johnson. The crazie stayed behind, snapping his teeth in a rather furious manner. At two o'clock in the morning, Johnson closed the door and asked shamelessly for any blessing that could be bestowed upon a man with a wicked life as he.


IssuesEdit

Step by Step: Act Five
Way BackEcho, EchoBansheeBalls-UpNot DayMidnight's King
Step by Step: Act Six
Only DreamAwakeSleeperAll CloudUnder SkinBates
Step by Step: Act Seven
Lay UnderRawLostBad MoonMonstersPrayers
Step by Step: Act Eight
GetHit ItFast LaneMondayPassoverBe-All and End-All
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