Brown steel doors rumbled and split open as George entered the grocery store to buy avocados.
His wife’s words emerged on the glowing screen: “Get organic or don’t come home.”
He removed a plastic basket from the tower by the door as recirculated air carried a perfume of decaying fruit, cardboard, and bleach into his nose. Reflections from a hundred fluorescent lights bounced off the dirty tile floor while the soothing rhythm of Toto’s “Africa” flowed from speakers embedded in the stained ceiling tiles.
George examined the avocados. He poked the mesh sacks of lumpy gray-green fruit piled haphazardly in a cardboard box. He grabbed a bag and noticed the yellow label: CONVENTIONAL
What do unconventional avocados look like?
A tall, lanky kid in a black apron was mechanically building a pyramid of apples on the other side of the aisle. George interrupted construction of the red monument. “Hi, do you have any organic avocados?”
“Sorry, we’re all out.”
“Really? Are you sure? Do you think you could check in the back?”
“Sorry, we’re all out,” he repeated.
“Yeah, you just said that.” George put on the best fake smile in his collection and prodded the teen again. “I’d really appreciate it if you could check for me. My wife’s pretty particular about her fruits and vegetables, and I’ve already had a rough day.”
The stock boy stared for a moment, then pointed behind him. “You should talk to customer service.”
George looked toward the service desk and caught a glimpse of something behind the two-way mirror along the upper wall. A shadowy, amorphous form gyrated and lurched behind the silver glass. As he observed the silhouette, pain like hot pins stabbed into his eyes. His vision blurred a kaleidoscope of yellows and greens, and what looked like tentacles lashed at his brain.
“What the hell was that?” George winced, still staggered from the pain.
“You should talk to customer service.” The boy’s voice warbled into a dull slur like a worn-out cassette tape. “You should… talk…” His teeth burst from his mouth like enameled popcorn. “to… customer… service.” His skin melted like candle wax, splattering as his face dripped onto the floor.
George fled toward the exit. When he looked back, he saw the remaining half of the clerk dissolve and pool across the tiles and felt cold metal against his body as he crashed into a woman pushing her toddler in a shopping cart.
“Ma’am, I’m so sorry.” He braced his hands across the edge of the cart. “You and your kid have to get out of here. Something weird is going on!”
A hiss like a punctured tire came from the carriage as the child, with a deformed serpentine head, struck out. Pearl fangs dripped saliva and a forked tongue flicked in a wild corkscrew.
“Holy shit!” He withdrew his arm just as its jaws snapped shut with a clop.
George wheeled around, clutching the bag of avocados, and ran in the opposite direction. He splashed through a puddle of stock clerk, staining the cuffs of his pants with fetid ooze as his shoes slid, barely keeping traction. The stench of brine and raw fish blasted his nostrils as he hurtled past the seafood aisle. Another employee melted behind the glass display case— dissolving into a gibbering, wax-faced mess—as boiling water erupted in the lobster tank next to him. Green crustaceans writhed and crawled over one another, turning red as their Plexiglas universe became a deadly cauldron.
He ducked into the breakfast isle and slowed; the sound of his own breath filled his head as he stared down a tunnel of neon boxes. Anthropomorphic toucans and friendly cavemen put on brave smiles from behind bowls of sugared corn. At the end of the aisle, an elderly woman struggled to reach a jar. Clods of loose skin sloughed back, welling up around her armpits as she strained at the top shelf. George approached cautiously, footsteps catching her attention. She waved and beckoned him.
“Excuse me, young man. Would you please get me that jar of Sanka? I can’t reach it.”
“Um, sure,” George grabbed the coffee and felt fingers like small rolls of crepe paper clasp around his other wrist.
“They watch everything,” the old woman whispered. “You’re awake now, so try not to act strangely. You don’t want to draw their attention.”
George handed her the jar. “Here you go, lady.”
“Why thank you, young man,” she pronounced, returning to her carriage.
George took a deep breath. His lungs burned like lit matches in his chest as he rounded the corner.
A cacophony of beeps and flashing lights announced the checkout lines as George approached the “12 Items or Less” lane. A pudgy teenage boy swiped cans of dog food over a red laser while a girl with blue barrettes in her hair stashed them into white plastic bags.
George’s hand trembled as he placed the bag of conventional avocados on the conveyor belt. He wanted to scream at everyone to “wake up.” His body shook so badly that his guts were twisting into knots. He feared his skeleton would burst from his skin and escape without him.
“Good afternoon sir. How are you today?” The boy’s braces gave him a slight lisp. George sensed he was on edge. “H-hi sir. Sir? How are you today?”
George mouthed the words, “Help me.”
A single bead of sweat trickled from the boy’s hairline to his eyebrow, and he smudged it away with a meaty wrist.
George silently implored him again. Help me.
The checkout attendant glanced at the bagger girl, who bit her lower lip and shook her head. His attention returned to George, staring at him with a look of exhausted affirmation. George felt a sweaty, chubby finger press against his lips, and the boy shushed him like a mother consoling a frightened child. He wiped his finger down George’s face, folding open his lower lip and scraping his gums with a dirty fingernail.
“Don’t make guacamole for dinner,” the boy whispered.
The floor shook, and then the walls. An otherworldly, droning chant emanated from somewhere beyond. The security camera on the ceiling sloshed as a massive purple eye within the glass dome rolled and hunted in a bath of viscous fluid. It focused on the cashier, and the droning suddenly stopped.
The boy closed his eyes and exploded.
A tide of blood and viscera washed over the aisle. The taste of iron and salt crept between George’s lips, and he fought against the sour heat rising in the back of his throat. He felt the damp stickiness soak through his shirt and cling to his chest. The girl came out from behind the carousel of gore-soaked plastic bags and tried to stay composed as she stepped in the remains of her former co-worker. “Sir, did you bring your store card?”
George heard an audible sigh from behind. A woman stared at him, hands on her hips. A jagged shard of the cashier’s skull protruded from her cheek like a piece of shattered porcelain. “This is the express lane, isn’t it?” She pursed her lips. “You’re not one of those coupon people, are you?”
He paused, staring at the frightened bagger girl.
“No. I forgot it,” he replied. A tingling sensation grew in his ankles as a shock wave reverberated through the floor. The moist undulations of the eye returned along with the rising mantra.
“It’s okay. I can use the store card for you if you’d like,” the girl said, fumbling the bloody piece of plastic over the reader.
George felt a wet heat ring his eyelids as tears welled up. “Yes. Thank you.”
She swiped the tiny card and the unearthly sounds ceased. She took a deep breath, rang up the conventional avocados, and placed them in the cleanest bag she could find. “Sir, there’s a survey at the bottom of your receipt. If you tell us about your experience today you could win a ten dollar gift card.”
George crumpled the stained paper into his pocket and turned to the exit, avocados in hand. The doors pried open and his misty eyes beheld an orange sky. The setting sun burned a red ellipse on the horizon as purple clouds encroached. He stepped onto the sidewalk, wiping tears and drying blood from his face. They spattered off his hand in crimson droplets against the concrete.
As George walked toward his car through the crowded parking lot, he decided he would plant a garden.
This was originally published in Fall 2017 edition of The Helix.