Chapter 16 - Grand Opening

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When Johnny’s two weeks of punishment finally ended, he paid Grandma Stella a surprise visit on Saturday afternoon, riding across town on his skateboard to her house. She’d been trying to schedule a poker game that night to mark his return to freedom. She got a hold of Millie quickly, but couldn’t reach Elmer or Vince.

“It’s strange I haven’t heard from Vince or Elmer in a couple weeks. They usually return my messages right away. Let’s go pay them a visit at the supermarket. They usually work the afternoon shift. Besides, I want to pick up some of Vince’s hot sausage. And I need to see Elmer about a special order of Helixin.”

When they reached the supermarket, they saw that the old Caruso’s sign had been replaced by the Great American logo. Two enormous uniformed security guards stood at the entrance, on either side of the glass sliding doors. They had two-way radio phones, clubs, and semiautomatic pistols strapped to their belts. Johnny noticed the names Riggs and Perez stitched on their uniforms. “There’s a rule about not smoking this close to a building,” Stella muttered. But the guards either didn’t know or didn’t care.

Once inside, Johnny and Stella noticed a new electric sensor system, and felt a gust of air-conditioning blow down like an Arctic wind. A huge Grand Opening Sale sign dangled over bargain display islands that surrounded the checkout lanes and the main aisles of the store.

“How can I serve you today?” a young female clerk in a red, white, and blue uniform asked them in a monotone. Stella and Johnny had stepped too close and the girl blurted out the greeting like a triggered, automatic response. Stella raised a skeptical eyebrow and kept walking. She saw her friend and co-worker, Silvia, scanning items at the front of a long line of grand-opening customers.

Beyond her was a short, balding man in the old manager’s station. Stella guessed this must be Lowry, the new boss from Great American. He came out from the alcove, carrying a small portable computer. Passing from aisle to aisle, he entered notes into the machine’s touch screen. He walked over to a uniformed stock boy unpacking bottles of salad dressing and scolded him for putting them on the wrong shelf.

“OK, let’s get our sausage and medicine and get out of here,” Stella said in a low voice. “This place is feeling kind of weird.”

They arrived in the back of the store to find it utterly changed. Vince’s butcher counter was replaced by an expanded refrigerated section, with Freon-cooled shelves of prepackaged pork chops, prime rib, ground chuck, poultry, and fish lining the walls.

“What’d they do to the fresh meat and fish corner? They just gutted the whole operation?” She and Johnny scanned the cases. “No Italian sausage! Good grief! I’m going to have to come up with something else for dinner. Poor Vince.”

Another teenager in a Great American uniform shuffled randomly by and Stella caught his attention. “How can I serve you today?” the teenager barked promptly.

“Never mind,” Stella sighed, and the boy rambled off as purposelessly as he’d arrived. Stella and Johnny headed for the pharmacy. “Something really creepy is going on in this place, Johnny,” Stella said in a low voice.

“I know what you mean, Grandma,” said Johnny. “Something terrible has happened, but no one is ready to come out and admit it. They’re acting like everything’s normal. It’s like that movie where the aliens take over and turn into pod people. Nobody knows who the real people are and who the pod people are.”

When they finally reached the drug counter in the south wing of the supermarket, Lowry hovered behind Marco and Tiffany, pointing at figures on his electronic tablet, giving the young technicians some sort of instruction. There was no sign of Elmer.

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