The Grinners
Part Two
By: Walter G. Esselman

16 years prior to the events in the novel "SuperhorrorMax" (Now on sale at Amazon!). Max is the only one left standing after the rest of the grocery store is infected with something. Large blisters now cover their bodies, but luckily Max has the help of a paramedic named Rikke.

Max disappeared into the stockroom with a 12 pack of bottled water, only to return with each one partially filled. Before he got too close to the fallen people, Rikki, the paramedic, jumped in his way.

"Gloves and mask," she said.

"What?" asked the boy as he screeched to a halt. In minutes, Max wore latex gloves and a mask. He sat outside the circle of fallen people. The boy noticed them looking at him, and he became self-conscious.

"Um, I'm going to give you some Tylenol," explained Max to the people. "For the pain." And he winced inwardly because he felt stupid for adding that.

Rikke was checking vitals again when Max delivered the bottles to her. She took one and inspected it critically. The bottle was only a quarter full of clear water. She turned to Max.

"Not the whole bottle?" asked Rikke.

"Um, grandpa couldn't drink a lot of water, so I thought…um…," began Max before he trailed off awkwardly.

But Rikke nodded swiftly. "Good idea."

With half the bottles, Max first knelt on a clean patch of floor beside Mrs. Smith-Back. She eyed him wearily.

"Tylenol. This should help with the pain," explained Max. Gently, he lifted her head up and held the bottle to her lips. She made a face at first. "Sorry. It probably tastes bad."

Bottle empty, he went to the next person, apologizing for the taste. After the last person had gotten the Tylenol, Max and Rikke stood back and surveyed the fallen. Max's eyes went to the people's legs, which were laying in a drying pool of liquefied excrement.

Rikke followed his gaze.

"Um, is that bad?" asked Max.

"Since we're not moving them right away, we better work on that next," sighed Rikke. She looked at the glass doors, but outside, she only saw the deputy relieving himself by his car. She turned to Max. "Sorry."

"I wouldn't want my legs laying in sh…I mean poop," shrugged Max.

Rikke looked at the young man thoughtfully.

Under her gaze, Max nervously muttered. "What?"

"Why didn't you run?" asked Rikke.

"Um, what…?" started Max. He turned to aisle 3 with the cleaning supplies. "Um…WE need to get them cleaned up."

The young man quickly dove down aisle 3, suddenly said the F-bomb to himself and turned around. Rikke was about to ask why when Max stopped where the grocery store owner could see him.

"Um, Mr. Henderson, sorry. I forgot to ask earlier about the Tylenol, but we're going to need to use some of your stuff," said the young man. "Sorry."

Mr. Henderson, while he could not move his head, blinked his eyes at Max once. The young man took that to mean 'yes' and returned to aisle 3, however he went straight through. He came back after a few minutes with an empty bucket on wheels and a mop. Opening a plastic package, in aisle 3, Max armed himself with yellow plastic gloves that went all the way up to his elbow. Latex gloves just weren't going to cut it. And he tied some big garbage bags around his legs as well.

Mopping up the worst of the liquefied excrement, he came back with the bucket, sloshing with clean-ish water. Rikke kept monitoring the fallen while Max turned to paper towels next. The paramedic smiled quietly to herself as the young man apologized to the fallen people for touching their legs while toweling them off. And the young man only went to just below the knee.

Carefully removing the gloves and garbage bags, Max put them in another garbage bag with the paper towels. He looked up and saw Rikke looking out the glass doors again. He put the bag aside and picked up a bottle of Purell from the grocery counter. He was rubbing his hands in their latex gloves when he stopped by the Paramedic. His eyes were just above her shoulder.

Outside, the deputy was sitting in his car looking bored.

"What's wrong?" whispered Max.

"There're no other cars," said Rikke uncertainly. "I just thought there would be…someone. You know, customers." She looked at the young man and gave a brave smile. "Can you try the hospital? Let's see if there is any word from Dr. Ross. And here's a new pair of gloves."

Changing gloves, Max took out the Rikke's phone and put the phone on speaker.

"St Agnes," said a nurse's chipper voice.

"This is Rikke Hansen at Henderson's grocery store," said Rikke. "Is Dr. Ross there?"

"I need to check," said the nurse and the phone went on hold.

"Maybe he's busy," murmured Max.

"Maybe," admitted Rikke noncommittally.

The nurse came back on. "Hey hon, he's not available right now. Can I put you through to his voicemail?"

"Do you know when he'll be available?" asked Rikke. "It's really important."

"I know hon," said the nurse. "But…"

There was a sudden uproar in the background.

"What's that?" asked the nurse.

Another voice came over breathlessly. "Luc just walked in. He's just …you got to come and see this."

"Luc?" whispered Max, mind racing. "Lionel said that Luc was supposed to be out with Buck this morning."

The nurse said quickly. "I gotta go, but I'll send you to Dr. Ross' voicemail."

In the background, Dr. Anderson's voice came from the emergency room.

"Luc? Can you tell me what happened to you?" asked the doctor.

"Wait!" cried Rikke. "Does he have blisters?"

"What?" asked the nurse.

"Nurse Collins!" bellowed Dr. Anderson.

"I gotta go," said the nurse.

"Wait! Luc may be dangerous! Don't get to…," started Rikke.

The phone clicked and then said. "This is Dr. Ross. I'm not available, but if you leave a message, I'll get right back to you."

As the phone beeped, Max turned it off. He looked at Rikke.

"Call them back," said Rikke, keeping a neutral voice.

Max did so, but the phone just kept ringing. Ending the call, Max stared at the phone.

"Was Dr. Ross there?" asked Max slowly.

"It didn't sound like it," said Rikke. "That was Dr. Anderson in the background."

"What if…," started Max, and then his voice trailed off.

Rikke squared her shoulders. "Our job hasn't changed. We have to take care of our patients until help arrives."

And then she noticed that Max's attention was looking down and past her.

"What?" she asked turning to follow his gaze to the fallen people.

"Um, should they be sweating like that?" asked Max.

Rikke did not even answer. She took out a digital thermometer and checked Mrs. Smith-Back' forehead. It blinked 103 degrees.

"That's bad, isn't it?" asked Max uncertainly. He looked around and saw that the others were also sweating profusely.

Rikke bounced up. "Follow me!" She led Max to the freezer aisle. "We need peas."

"What?" asked Max in confusion.

Speaking softly, but urgently, "If their temperature hits 108 degrees, their brains will boil in their skull," explained Rikke. "So, we're going to pack bags of frozen vegetables around them to try and bring down their temperature."

"I can do that," nodded Max.

Rikke loaded up the young man's arms with frozen plastic bags of peas, carrots and stir fry oriental. Max moved as carefully as he could and put them down the near Mr. Henderson.

"Um, Mr. Henderson, we need to borrow some frozen bags of veggies too to bring down your temperatures," said Max, but Mr. Henderson's eyes had grown unfocused. He didn't seem to even notice the young man.

"Hurry," said Rikke urgently as she came over and instructed him where to pack the frozen products. Max soon realized that it was not just Mr. Henderson, but others were looking at the ceiling blankly.

Running back and forth to the frozen section, they finally got enough cold products for the fallen people. Rikke hovered over the people for another two hours taking their temperature before she finally stood up.

The paramedic sighed with relief. "I think they're going to be okay."

"Has their fever's gone down?" asked Max.

"No, but it hasn't gone any higher," started Rikke. "However…"

There was a banging at the glass doors and both the young man and paramedic jumped. They looked over to see the deputy looking in sheepishly.

"I was wondering if you'd heard anything?" asked the deputy through the doors.

"No," responded Rikke. "You?"

"Nothing," shrugged the deputy. "Last the sheriff said was to cover this door, but that was hours ago."

Rikke looked at Max. "Can you call the hospital again?"

Max tried, but no answer. The young man ended the call. All three of them looked at the phone a moment longer before Rikke looked up at the deputy.

"Have you seen any ambulances?" asked Rikke but with little hope.

"Actually, I haven't seen even one car for hours," said the deputy hesitantly. He looked at the fallen people. "How're they doing?"

"Not great, but not bad either," said Rikke.

The deputy looked past them to a display of cookies. Rikke followed the gaze and then looked back at him.

"I'd offer you food," said Rikke kindly. "But possible contamination."

The deputy sighed. "Yeah…that makes sense." Then he gave them a brave smile. "Well, back to my post."

As the deputy walked back across the parking lot, Rikke turned to Max.

"Try 911," suggested the paramedic.

Max did so, but a recorded message said that the phone lines were busy. His face grew ragged with worry. It took Rikke a second before she realized why the young man was worried.

"Your Grandma's probably just fine," said Rikke quickly. "It could just be a phone problem, or too many calls at once."

Max relaxed at that. "True. So, what now?"

Rikke looked out at her ambulance. "I can only carry a few people in the ambulance unless we stack them like firewood. And we may be either spreading the infection or killing them in the process."

Rikke bent over at the waist to look at a big blister on Mrs. Smith-Back that was milky blue. But it had not grown, in fact it looked like it had shrunk a little.

She came to a decision and looked back at Max decisively. "We keep tending our patients."

Dusk was falling as Max helped a disoriented Mr. Henderson take a sip of Tylenol water. Then, out of the corner of Max's eye, Rikke bounced into view with her hands behind her back. She had changed into a clean bunny suit and was nodding towards the frozen aisle. Max made sure that there was no water dribbles and stepped carefully around the fallen. Before he approached her, she had him drop his latex gloves into a garbage bag and douse his hands with Purell.

Rikke led him down the frozen aisle, but she kept one arm out of sight until they stopped. Max looked at the EMT wearily, but not afraid.

"What now?" asked the boy.

Rikke's face split into a grin and she held up two spoons.

Max blinked at them for a moment, and then Rikke looked meaningfully at the ice cream in the freezers.

"I thought we deserved something fun," smiled Rikke.

"Really?" asked Max.

"My treat. We'll keep what we eat aside, and I'll pay up after," said Rikke and she pushed the spoons toward Max. "Grab one and then help yourself."

Max took a spoon and looked over the array of icy desserts. His stomach suddenly bounded in joy.

"I am hungry," he admitted. Then he looked at the spoon cautiously. It looked clean.

"I just took the spoons out of a box of new ones in aisle 5," said Rikke. "And I cleaned them in Purell soooooo, the first taste might be a little funny."

"But you didn't want the deputy to eat," said Max, despite his grumbling stomach.

"Only because he was outside," she said. "We've been here all day." She opened up the glass door as the cold air wafted out. "I'm grabbing some Ben & Jerry's."

"I've never had Ben & Jerry's," said Max absently.

Rikke gave a look of mock horror. "What kind of rock have you been living under?"

"Dad usually buys the cheapest brand," shrugged Max.

"Then you need an education in ice cream," declared Rikke.

Grabbing several cartons, including 'Americone Dream' and 'Phish Food', Rikke took them to the end of the frozen aisle. There they sat on the floor with their back to an empty piece of wall. This afforded them a view of their patients, but also a chance to rest.

"Have some of this first," ordered the Paramedic. "Fruits and vegetables are important to a person your age."

Cautiously, he tried some 'Cherry Garcia'.

"This is really good," muttered Max. Soon, they were soon passing cartons back and forth and they devoured a lot of ice cream. It was full dark outside, but grocery store was still lit.

"I don't know if we're going to get help," said Rikke softly after a long pause. Max turned to her in surprise. She sighed. "There's still no word from the hospital and the phones are spotty at best, so no way to reach 911…so, we're on our own."

Max let that sink in. Then he gave a little smile. "But at least you came." He waved toward the fallen. "If it were just me…I'd probably have messed this all up."

Rikke fixed the boy with a hard stare. "You didn't run! And you've been a great help. So, thank you! Thank you for helping me today."

"I really wasn't…," started Max uncertainly, but the Paramedic interrupted him.

"You're supposed to say, 'You're Welcome'," insisted Rikke with determination. "When you're thanked for working hard, and have no reasons to doubt the effort, you say 'You're Welcome' because you deserve the praise."

"Um…you're welcome."

"Better." Her grin returned. "Much better." She looked at him with an appraising glance.

"What?" asked Max nervously.

Rikke nodded. "I've decided that I like the blue hair."

Max looked up as if he could see his own hair. "Really?"

"I mean you already had on a Ramone's shirt, so that was a good starting point," shrugged Rikke.

Max found himself looking at the fallen. "If no help is coming, what do we do with them? Do we pop those blisters?"

That caused Rikke to give a big sigh. "I don't know. But Dr. Ross was right. Popped blisters can get infected more easily. And this place is definitely not sterile."

"I tried to get up as much shi…I mean, poop as I could…," said Max.

"And you did great," said Rikke quickly. "But it's more than that. We need to be in hospital, so that we can get off those dirty clothes. Make sure the area around the blister is clean. If we did it in a place with blood, feces…and whatever is normally on the floor of a grocery store." She pondered this for a moment, and then grumbled with frustration. "No, we can't chance it…damn it!"

"Maybe by the morning we'll get some help," said Max softly, but he did not sound confident.

Rikke sighed. "We'll take care of them the best we can."

Max leaned his head back against the wall. He was going to say something, but now he could not remember what it was. His eyes closed of their own accord. Just for a moment, he thought.

Rikke shook his shoulder urgently.

"What?" he growled. "I was just closing my eyes for…"

"Shhh, be quiet," said Rikke urgently.

Max blinked crusty eyes.

"Wha…," he mumbled.

"You fell asleep," explained Rikke with a low voice, and then he saw the worried look on her face.

"Oh, I'm sorry," said Max urgently with a whisper. He rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hands. That seemed to get rid of some of the tiredness. "What's the matter?"

"The matter is that I feel asleep too," replied Rikke worriedly.

Max looked at his dollar-store watch which read: 3:07 am.

"It is three," he suggested gently.

"Something just ran by my legs," said Rikke urgently. "That's what woke me up."

"What did?"

"I didn't see it."

Max looked up at the lights, which were half off.

"I turned off some of the lights because we did not need that much light at night, and you were sleeping," explained Rikke. "Now I wish I hadn't."

Max squinted at the fallen, still lying on the floor. "Um, something's wrong."

"I know," said Rikke. "It's…I must have had my eyes closed for less than a half hour though."

"Rats?" asked Max, not that he had ever seen a rat outside of a cage.

"Quietly, let's get up," she said, and the Paramedic stood up slowly, watching the fallen. She stepped over the pints of melted ice cream. Max got up and followed, looking up and down the freezer aisle, but it was empty.

"What the…," hissed Rikke. The fallen were still in a patch of light and Max's eyes were drawn to Mrs. Smith-Back. Her terrified eyes were fogged over with death. Max had never seen a dead person, except for his grandfather, and he had been lying calmly in a casket. This was not calm.

"The blisters!" hissed Rikke.

Max looked and saw that they had burst open on Smith-Back's legs and arms. The odd blue viscous substance inside the blisters had splattered everywhere. After pushing a pair of gloves at the boy, Rikke pulled on a pair herself. She knelt and touched the edge of the skin flap, which had been over the blister.

"It looks like it burst open," she muttered.

"Or something burst out," said Max, but he did not know why he said that.

"Holy shit," said Rikke. Max saw her reach into the blister on Smith-Back's upper thigh.

"Um, is that a…?" asked the boy.

"That is a femur," replied Rikke.

"Um, shouldn't bones be more…you know, solid?" asked Max uncertainly.

"The bone looks like it's been pitted with acid," said Rikke. "And where's the muscle on top, or the skin for that matter. What the…"

Rikke stopped when Mr. Henderson made an odd squeaking noise. The Paramedic was up like a shot and knelt by his side. The older man stared up at her, past the huge blister, which covered his entire left cheek. Henderson's eyes were once more lucid and terrified.

"What's…?" started Rikke when something caught her eye. She looked up past the fallen people. Max followed her gaze to register 2. Perched on top was a creature, watching them.

Only a bit bigger than a kitten, the creature looked like a lizard covered in red and black scales. But it was the mouth that caught their attention.

The creature's mouth curved up into a rictus of a grin, showing lots of teeth. Its pale blue eyes flitted over the scene and then the grinning creature focused on Mr. Henderson.

Rikke looked down as the large blister on Mr. Henderson's left cheek pulsed. And she was barefaced. She started to turn to have Max grab her face shield.

The blister exploded like water dropped into boiling oil.

Viscous blue fluid burst and splattered Rikke's face and eyes. Max saw something fly out like a black and red softball and thump against the Paramedic's chest.

Rikke cried out reaching for her eyes as she tipped over backwards. But as Max stepped forward, he saw more blisters pulsing on the fallen. Turning away, he heard the blisters beginning to burst.

Stumbling away from the spray, the young man was helpless as more black and red shapes burst out of the blisters. These shapes fell back upon the fallen and Rikke.

One of the shapes immediately shook itself sending a miniature spray of viscous fluid and revealed another creature like the grinning lizard. Rikke was trying to get up on her hands and knees.

"Max!" cried Rikke as she reached out blindly.

"I'm coming," replied Max as he tried to reach her. But a grinning lizard jumped up, mouth packed with teeth.

The grinner clamped down on two of Rikke's fingers. The paramedic reared up shaking her hand and the grinner spun away, into the air. But the rest of the grinners, fresh from the blisters, swarmed towards her and quickly covered the Paramedic as their teeth sawed through clothes and flesh.

Rikke cried out and Max realized that he had come to a stop. The young man leapt towards Rikke and kicked one of the grinners. As the creature went tumbling away, Max knocked off another one with his hand. Some tried to hold on to her with their clawed hands and screeched at him. But Max batted them all off and grabbed Rikke's shoulders.

Tugging, Max pulled the Paramedic onto her back and away from the fallen. Past the dead, he dragged her towards the front door. Rikke pawed at her bloody legs when Max noticed that there was a lot of blood trailing behind her.

Suddenly, Rikke looked up and her eyes looked burned.

"…scratched an artery…?…," said Rikke, who was having trouble focusing, but then she collected herself. Even without eyes, she focused on the boy's face. "Why stay?"

The Paramedic's head slumped to the side, against his hand, as he tugged her.

"Rikke?" asked Max in a lost voice. "Rikke?"

There was a gentle noise, like a susurrus. It started as a whine and then became a loud growl. Max looked up to see the grinners starting to gather just past Rikke's legs. There were dozens of them. One creature's blue tongue licked at the trail of her blood. Max's back bumped into the glass door. Without looking at the creatures, he reached up behind, fumbling.

The grinners just watched the two of them. Max found the switch to re-activate the doors but waited. He saw that the blood was pooling near the inside of Rikke's upper legs. He pushed aside his doubt that they would ever make it to the ambulance. He had to get Rikke inside the emergency vehicle and learn how to drive, really quick-like.

Max flipped the switch. The glass doors started to open.

The lead grinner let out a screech, almost like an owl. It leapt onto Rikke's leg. The Paramedic's bloody hand grabbed Max's.

"Now! You Run!" she growled and then pitched herself forward. Max lost his grip on her as she grabbed the creature on her leg. As she tipped forward, Rikke smacked the monster into the ground, with a noise like dry twigs snapping.

The grinners surged, but on some level, Max already knew that Rikke was gone. He turned and bolted away as they crawled over the former paramedic.

Max ran past the ambulance to the deputy's car.

As he ran forward, he shouted. "Help! Deputy!"

The door was partially open, and the deputy was sitting in the driver's seat. Max could only see his brown pants and gun belt. But the deputy did not move. Slowing down, Max veered to walk towards the front of the car. As he passed the open door, he saw that the deputy was staring with blank, dead eyes. However, something was wrong with his midsection. It looked leathery and glistening.

Suddenly, it twitched.

A grinner, but one the size of a big cat, looked up from the deputy's mid-section. It appeared to grin even more so than usual. It bunched up its hindquarters.

Max kicked the door close which slammed shut just as the grinner leapt. The thing hit the glass, which spiderwebbed from the impact, and the grinner dropped out of sight.

But Max was already running. He tore out into the street sprinting full out when headlights lit him up. A car screeched to a halt, just touching Max's blue jeans. Someone stuck their head out the driver's window.

"Get in!" cried the driver and then they disappeared inside the car. A second later, the passenger door was weakly pushed open from the inside.

Max took a quick glance back at the grocery store and then dove around and inside the car. Between them was a Ziploc with prescription bottles. The moment Max's door closed; the car took off.

"You Maximilian?" asked the older man, who was driving. He glanced at the boy's blue hair but did not say anything.

"Max!" corrected the young man automatically.

"Max. I'm Dr. Ross," said the older man. "Is there anyone else?"

Max just looked back at the grocery with a haunted look.

"Damn," said Dr. Ross, softly and sadly. "Well, buckle your seatbelt, your Grandma's waiting at the police station."

"There's…creatures…at the grocery store," said Max tentatively, but he felt stupid saying it. Suddenly he remembered something. "We were talking with the hospital when…" He paused. "Then we couldn't get through."

But Dr. Ross would not answer the unspoken question.

"Let's just get you to safety," he said somberly.


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