The Grinners
Part One
By: Walter G. Esselman

16 years prior to the events in the novel "SuperhorrorMax" (Out March 9th, 2021 on Amazon)

Max swaggered towards the grocery store, confident that his electric blue hair rocked!

The automatic double doors swung open for the fifteen-year old, and when he stepped into the grocery store, all eyes turned towards him. He almost stopped to pose, but he was on an urgent mission of a caffeinated nature.

Passing the first register to angle towards the Mountain Dew, he suddenly noticed that everyone was still looking at the door. Slowing, Max glanced back and suddenly stopped dead in his tracks. Outside, someone was shambling towards the double doors.

"Is…is that Buck?" asked Mr. Henderson, who owned the store. The old man peeled off his reading glasses to see better.

"Can't be," replied Lionel, Mr. Henderson's fifty-year old stock boy.

As the automatic doors opened again, Max took a better look at the figure. The man, at least Max was pretty sure that it was a man, was partly hunched over.

"Tell me that Buck didn't fall off the wagon again?" asked Mrs. Smith-Back, with a voice like candied razor wire. Enthusiastically, her chubby hands pawed at her purse to get to her phone.

"He can't be," replied Lionel, but he did not sound so sure.

"Kinda looks like Buck," suggested Mr. Henderson.

"But I thought Buck was out hunting this week with Luc?" suggested Lionel to his boss.

"Hunting beers," said Mrs. Smith-Back with a sneer.

The automatic doors swished open and the hunched man stepped into the store. Immediately, all talk died away.

Max's mind raced to understand what he was seeing. It was Buck. Max was sure of it now. But the last time he'd seen the bank manager, he hadn't been covered in weird blisters.

At least, that's what they looked like to Max. Blisters the size of his palm, which made the man's hair and beard look like roadkill. Buck's shirt hung open, and Max could see that the blisters went all the way down to his belt buckle. The boy stopped looking at that point, not wanting to know more.

Concerned, Lionel moved forward. "Buck? Buck, is that you? What happened? Where's Luc?"

Shoppers began to gather around, to see the spectacle. But Max backed up. One part of him felt like he should go and help Buck, but something deep down told him to run, fast.

"Who the hell is that?" asked a voice by the boy's ear. Max jumped and saw a little old lady, Mrs. Rice, glaring myopically past him towards Buck.

"Um, something's really wrong with Buck," said Max softly, as if loud words would cause the situation to spin wildly out of control. While Lionel was careful not to touch Buck, the fifty-year old stock boy tried to talk to the man.

"What did you say?" asked Lionel as he leaned closely. "Did you say 'rabid opossum'?"

Buck made a keening noise. He walked farther into the store. Lionel tried to keep him in place and pulled on the back of Buck's shirt. Walking forward, Buck pulled out of his open shirt revealing all the blisters. The harsh fluorescent light highlighted them as pale blue. For a second, Max thought he could see movement in the blister on Buck's cheek.

"We gotta get out of here," said Max. Urgently, he tugged at Mrs. Rice's sleeve.

"Don't tug!" snapped Mrs. Rice, pulling her sweater away from Max. "I gotta see this."

Mrs. Rice wobbled forward with her shopping basket of milk, bread and Jim Beam.

Buck stopped not ten steps inside the store. Everyone else stood around him with concern, curiosity or contempt. Mrs. Smith-Back was typing animatedly on her phone. Several others had taken out their phones to take pictures.

But Max stepped back, almost to the freezer aisle.

"Give'em some room folks," rumbled Mr. Henderson as he gently elbowed through the crowd. The old man just made it through the tightening knot of people when Buck let out a cry and shook violently. Everyone took a small step back, but they were too curious to run. Mr. Henderson stood beside Lionel and looked down at Buck.

"Buck? Can you hear me?" asked Mr. Henderson.

Buck seized up and the blisters appeared to pulse for a moment.

"What's happened to you?" asked Mr. Henderson again.

"Probably passed out drunk in poison ivy, or something," chortled Mrs. Smith-Back with a loud whisper. Mr. Henderson moved in front of her to get a better look at Buck and she scowled at this back.

Mr. Henderson reached out.

Buck straightened, bolt upright. His eyes opened so wide that Max could see the whites of them from the mouth of the freezer aisle. The boy began moving as Buck shrieked.

Max dove down the aisle, out of sight.

There was a series of pops, like meaty fireworks going off. Something arched over the freezer aisle and clattered onto the floor leaving a small trail of bluish liquid. Max looked closer at a solid black piece, which looked like a small, barbed peach pit.

Then, in the front of the store, came the sound of people falling. There was a strangled cry, and then no other sounds. Max darted around the corner and his mind was overwhelmed. He stumbled to a halt at the edge of the grocery shoppers.

They lay on the floor in a tight circle around Buck. The smell hit him first as the people's bowels began emptying. But his mind could not process it all, so he looked at the nearest person.

Mrs. Rice was lying on her back. Bloodied gashes, as long as Max's pinky, covered her older thin frame from head to shin. Mrs. Rice opened her mouth awkwardly, but no noise came out. But her eyes darted around with intelligence and terror. They fixed on Max and she looked up pleadingly.

"I'm going to get help!" said the boy, quickly and fearfully. He did not know what to do, but he remembered one thing. He moved around the circle of fallen bodies to the phone at the front desk.

Before he could reach it, a hand snagged the hem of his jeans. He looked down at Mrs. Smith-Back, who had been standing partly behind Mr. Henderson.

"Terrorists?" asked Mrs. Smith-Back whose left arm and face were clear of injuries, but her right arm and legs had gashes in them. She tugged more with her left hand. "Can't move…what?"

"I don't know," said Max. "I'm going to call 911 now."

Mrs. Smith-Back was about to say something when her gaze sharpened on Max's head.

"What did you do to your hair?" growled Mrs. Smith-Back.

"Gotta call 911," said Max and he pulled his pants leg free. He hopped over to the phone and dialed.

"State your name and emergency," said the operator.

"Max Boone, and I'm in Mr. Henderson's store, but something's happened," said the boy, a little breathlessly.

"Maximilian?" asked the operator, with obvious relief.

"Hi Grandma," said Max, relieved to hear her voice as well. "I was hoping that it would be you. We need…" Max stopped and looked behind him at all the people laying down. Something seemed to be bubbling up from the bloody gashes, a clear viscous fluid.

"Are you hurt?" asked his Grandma quickly.

"Me? No, I'm fine," said Max. "But something…"

"What're you seeing?" asked Max's Grandma in a professional voice.

"People laying on the floor," said Max almost on automatic.

"How many?" asked his Grandma.

"I don't know…lots," said Max. "Lionel, Mr. Henderson, Mrs. Rice, Mrs. Smith-Back…"

Max's Grandma cut in. "That's okay. Are they breathing?"

"I think…," started Max and he looked around to verify. "Yes, they are."

"Is there any danger now?" asked Max's Grandma.

Max looked over at Buck. The fifteen-year old boy had been avoiding that. While the rest were laying on the ground, Buck had crumpled to his knees covered in burst, oozing blisters. He looked pretty dead.

"I don't think so," said Max. "I think Buck's…well, dead."

"Buck? Okay Maximilian," said his Grandma, after faltering for a second. "I need to put you on hold to call an ambulance. Can you hold?"

"Sure."

And while Max waited, he looked away from the people on the ground. Instead, he read Mr. Henderson's list of bad check writers. His friend's dad was on the list.

"Maximilian?" said his Grandma. "The ambulance is coming now. A deputy may be there too. Can you stay there and help them?"

"Yeah, sure."

"I'm also going to call your Dad, so he knows…," said his Grandma, but she paused in thought. When she continued, she spoke urgently. "I need to wait there until I, or your Mom or Dad, arrive. It's important! Even if it gets late. Can you do that?"

"Um, sure," said Max uncertainly.

"Do you want me to stay on the phone while you wait for the ambulance?"

"No, I'll be fine," said the fifteen-year old with false bravado.

"I love you," said his Grandma.

"See you soon," said Max swiftly. He couldn't admit such things as familial love, not at his age. But he thought it fervently.

After the call ended, Max looked down at the people on the ground. Eyes turned toward him with a desperate pleading. He started to walk around the edge of the fallen people.

"Um, I called 911," said Max, and he felt a little silly talking to them like this.

"Help?" asked Smith-Back hopefully.

"They're sending an ambulance," said Max. "And a deputy."

"Need doc…tor," said Mrs. Smith-Back, whose speech was getting worse.

"I guess the ambulance can call more ambulances," suggested Max hopefully, and then he looked closer at a wound on Mrs. Smith-Back's leg. While he had been talking, a blister had formed over the wound.  It was blueish like Buck's blisters.

Suddenly, Mrs. Smith-Back stiffened. "Owwwww."

The woman moaned as the only part of her body that could move thrashed about.

"What's wrong?" asked Max as he knelt near her.

"Hurts!" cried the woman.

"What hurts?" asked the boy.

"All…all hurts…right side….legs…arm," gasped Mrs. Smith-Back.

The woman reached out and Max instinctively took her hand. Mrs. Smith-Back had a surprisingly firm grip for someone who looked like they lived a really soft life. Looking over the others, he noticed that their eyes were now darting about madly.

"Are you also in pain?" he asked the group.

All eyes focused on Max looking wild and fevered.

"I'll take that as a yes."

Max heard a vehicle in the parking lot and tried to pull away, but Mrs. Smith-Back would not let go. He looked down at her. "I have to see if that's the ambulance, or the deputy," explained the boy, and then he realized something. "An' make sure no one else comes in."

"'K…," allowed Smith-Back and she let go of him. As he stood, he looked at her and the rest.

"I'm not going anywhere, just outside the door," said Max to the fallen people.

The boy went through the automatic doors just as the paramedic was getting out of the ambulance. The paramedic was a lean woman with a thin face and hair so blond that it was almost white.

"Are you Maximilian?" asked the Paramedic as he ran up to the ambulance.

"Max," corrected the boy swiftly. "Just Max!"

The Paramedic gave a kind smile. "Okay, 'Just Max'. I'm Rikke."

Max glanced around the ambulance. "Um, is it only you?"

"Yeah," replied Rikke. "Budget cuts. Now tell me what's happening in there."

"I don't know."

"Okay," tried Rikke patiently. "What has happened?"

Max told her about Buck first coming in, and then all the people on the ground.

"And it's pretty smelly in there too," whispered Max with a gentle warning. "Everyone is…well, I don't think they have control of their bladders and um…everything else down there."

"And they can't move," said Rikke, almost to herself. "Definitely sounds like they've been paralyzed, but they are breathing, right?"

Max nodded, but then he piped up sadly. "Except for Buck." He had not really interacted with Buck in the past, but the man had always been nice to Max at the bank.

"Well, I'll look at him too," said Rikke kindly.

The Paramedic went into the back of the ambulance and took out a bag of supplies and a clear plastic face shield. She stepped into a one-piece bunny suit that fit over her Royal Blue uniform and put on some latex gloves.

Mask on, she marched towards the automatic double doors, but faltered when they opened. Inside, she saw the ring of fallen people around the crumpled Buck. Then her training kicked in and she moved efficiently.

"I'm going to need you to call the hospital," said Rikke as she opened her plastic bunny suit long enough to take out her iPhone. "It's in Favorites."

While Rikke knelt near Lionel to begin her examination, Max unlocked the phone. Underneath the app icons was a picture of Rikke and some guy with a majestic beard. Max re-focused on his task and soon rang the 'Hospital'.

A voice answered. "St. Agnes Hospital."

"Hi, I'm calling from Henderson's Grocery for…," started Max uncertainly.

"Oh! Let me get you to Dr. Ross," chirped the voice quickly, and the phone went on hold. Max saw that Rikke was examining Mrs. Smith-Back and talking softly to the woman. The boy's eyes were drawn to Smith-Back's legs and he could see that the blisters were now the size of his palm.

"This is Dr. Ross," came an official sounding voice. "Who is this?"

"Um, this is Max Boone," said the boy with an uncertain tone.

"Is Rikke there?" asked Dr. Ross.

The Paramedic piped up. "If that's Dr. Ross, tell him we need more ambulances, and a secure place at the hospital."

"Um, Ms. Rikke says we need ambulances and a place at the hospital, a secure one," said Max, though he was not quite sure what that last part meant.

"Blood pressure is racing," said Rikke, almost to herself.

"What did she say?" demanded Dr. Ross.

Max hit the speaker button. "You're on speaker Dr. Ross."

"Rikke? What's happening there?"

And then Max stopped being able to follow. He recognized some words like blood pressure and heart rate, but then the words started just going right over his head. At least until they mentioned the word 'quarantine'. He saw the eyes of the fallen widen in surprise.

"Um, quarantine," said Max. "As in…"

"Folks, this is Dr. Ross of St. Agnes," said the doctor over the speakerphone. "We are trying to get more ambulances to you, but there's a small…emergency going on. In the meantime, Rikke, who is one of our best paramedics that we have,…"

"One of the only," muttered Rikke darkly, but only Max seemed to hear.

"…She will take care of you until we can bring more medical help to you," continued Dr. Ross through the phone. "So, what we need…"

Max and Rikke turned their heads to see a police car driving up.

"The deputy," whispered the Paramedic urgently.

"What?" asked Dr. Ross from the phone.

"The deputy just pulled up," reported Rikke.

"Lock the door boy!" ordered Dr. Ross. Vaguely, Max was wondering who the doctor was talking about. Clearing his throat, Dr. Ross spoke louder. "Is the boy still there?"

"Max!" hissed Rikke, but not unkindly, and he looked at her in surprise. "Lock the front door!"

"But the deputy…," started Max.

"Lock him out, NOW!" demanded Dr. Ross.

Max found himself running. The deputy was just getting out of his car. The automatic doors started opening, but Max remembered Mr. Henderson doing something on top of the door. He saw a switch and flipped it. The deputy noticed the doors sliding shut.

"Hey! What're you doing?" asked the deputy. He began to run across the blacktop, but the doors had already closed. Max turned the deadbolt. The deputy nearly collided with the door and snapped. "Hey! Open the damn door!"

"I'm not supposed to," said Max, apologetically.

"Put me up to the glass near him," said Dr. Ross. The deputy looked suspiciously at the iPhone, but then the doctor identified himself.

"Is this a put-on?" asked the deputy, who did not seem much older to Max than himself.

"Who is this?" asked Dr. Ross.

"Deputy McAdam," replied the deputy in a cautious tone.

"Deputy McAdam," repeated Dr. Ross. "We need your help. There is a medical emergency in here."

The Deputy looked at the fallen people. "No shit."

"I'm going to call the sheriff too," continued Dr. Ross, ignoring the curse-word. "But, we need your help to keep others away."

"Why don't we just take'em to the hospital?" asked the Deputy.

"Can you form a barrier, to prevent anyone from getting in?" asked Dr. Ross, ignoring the question. "This area is now under quarantine."

McAdam took a step back unconsciously. "Um, sure, we can do that. I can put my car across the parking lot entrance."

The deputy quickly went to his car and drove across the parking lot.

"Did the deputy keep going?" asked Dr. Ross from the phone. "Or did he stop at the mouth of the parking lot."

"He stopped," reported Max, after the deputy had parked his car across the entrance.

"Then I'll have to recommend him for a commendation for that alone," murmured Dr. Ross, who sounded surprised that the deputy had not rabbited. Then the doctor returned to his normal voice. "Tell me what happened boy, before I call anyone else."

Max was getting annoyed at being called 'boy', but he told his story anyhow. Dr. Ross, for his part, peppered him with insistent questions.

"So, you didn't actually see the…event?" Dr. Ross. "How were you unaffected?"

"Um, I kinda ran," said Max softly.

"Ran?" asked Dr. Ross neutrally.

Embarrassed words poured rapidly out of Max. "Something weird was going on with Buck. With those blisters! So, when something seemed like it was going to happen, I backed up. I tried to get Mrs. Rice to come with me, but she wanted a closer look, so I dove down the freezer aisle just as…well, whatever it was that happened, happened." Max took a deep breath and felt a little drained. "I'm sorry. I should have…"

"Run for the hills," cut in Dr. Ross.

"What?" asked Max in surprise.

"If you hadn't run," added Rikke. "Who knows when these people here would've been found."

"Agreed," said Dr. Ross. "Probably saved…"

Mrs. Smith-Back let out a rending shriek. Max let go of the phone and had to grab it in mid-air. He fumbled with it as Dr. Ross demanded answers and Rikke moved over to Smith-Back.

"What's happening? What's happening?" demanded Dr. Ross.

"Hurt!" cried out Smith-Back.

"Where?" asked the paramedic. Rikke was looking over blisters on Smith-Back's legs and they appeared to have grown more solid and rounded. The skin around the blisters was an angry red, but she could not see what was inside. The liquid inside the blisters was still a milky blue.

"Legs. Arm. Like…burning me," said Smith-Back. Her good arm tried to clumsily touch the other, but it just flopped about, like she was seriously drunk.

"Best not to mess with it," instructed Rikke as she gently pushed the good arm to the ground.

"Look!" said Max who noticed that the others were in pain, eyes wide with panic.

"Tell me what's happening!" snapped Dr. Ross over the phone.

"They're in pain," called out Rikke.

"What is causing it?" asked Dr. Ross.

"It must be the blisters," said Rikke. "They're almost as big as my hand now and still blue."

"Let's step aside, so that we can consult," said Dr. Ross. "Boy, take me away from the patients and please come with us Rikke."

Max narrowed his eyes at the 'boy'. Rikke gave him a sympathetic look and nodded towards the freezer aisle. With a sour look, Max followed Rikke. She held her gloved hands out, so as not to touch anything.

"We're in a quiet area," said Rikke.

"What do you have for painkillers?" asked Dr. Ross in a quieter voice.

"I have two Fentanyl and one Midazolam," replied Rikke.

"That's it?" asked Dr. Ross sharply. "Shouldn't you have more?"

"I should," said Rikke with patient frustration. "But the pharmacy was having trouble dispensing more."

"They didn't have it?"

"Oh no," said Rikke with clenched teeth. "They had it, but they couldn't give it to me. They're nervous about a new track and trace law for prescription drugs, the Drug Supply Chain something something."

Dr. Ross actually made a 'harumph' noise. "I'll talk to them."

"It wouldn't matter anyway."

"Why not?"

"There are ten people here. I don't carry that many painkillers on a normal day."

"So we need to get them some pain medication," mused Dr. Ross.

"Tylenol," said Max suddenly.

"What?" asked Rikke.

"They've got to have Tylenol here," replied Max. "Why don't we grind some up and put it in water."

"Why water?" asked Dr. Ross curiously.

"I doubt they can swallow pills very easily," suggested Max. "And that's how Grandma gave it to grandpa when he was sick…" But then his voice trailed off, uncertainly.

The Paramedic smiled at Max. "Good idea."

"Since it's over the counter Tylenol, let's start with four capsules each," said Dr. Ross.

Rikke looked at the phone. "We need to pop those blisters."

"No," replied Dr. Ross immediately. "Popping them could lead to a serious infection."

The Paramedic sighed. "And we don't have a sterile environment." She looked at the grocery store floor covered in bodies, excrement and whatever was there before this all happened. "Still…"

"Besides, we don't know what's in them," said Dr. Ross.

"That's what I'm worried about," muttered Rikke.

"Leave it be for now," ordered Dr. Ross leaving no room for argument. "In the meantime, I'm going to need you both to take care of these people. And I need to call the CDC."

"CDC?" asked Max.

"The Center for Disease Control," said Dr. Ross kindly.

"And the Tylenol is not going to last that long," insisted Rikke.

"We'll get some proper painkillers to you, even if I have to bring them myself," said Dr. Ross, and he hung up.

"I guess he's done," said Rikke softly. She looked at Max. "You okay?"

Max shrugged. "I guess we need some Tylenol and water."

"Can you take care of that?" asked Rikke.

"Sure," nodded Max, and then he started to hand her phone back, but she was still all buttoned up. "Why don't you hold onto it," said Rikke behind her face shield. Max was about to go to aisle 2 when he saw the small, barbed piece, which had flown by him earlier.

"Wait!" said Max, and he pointed towards the barbed piece. "When Buck…well, when Buck exploded that flew by."

Rikke knelt near it, but did not touch it. "What's this?"

"You don't recognize it?" asked Max nervously.

But Rikke did not answer, instead she stood and turned to Max.

"You grab the Tylenol, I'm going to get something to hold this," said Rikke.

"It didn't look so fragile when it landed near me," suggested Max peering at it. "Now it looks…crumbly."

So Rikke had Max describe exactly what it looked like when it first landed.

"Maybe it's drying out now?" suggested Rikke, but she was also watching her patients with one eye. "Okay, let's worry about that later. Patients first, then research."

"Right!" said Max and he ran to get a big box of Tylenol.

To conclude in the March issue of "The World of Myth".

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