Meet Me at the Supermarket – Benjamin Welton

Julian raced through the final hour of work. The excitement bubbling up in his stomach was too much to handle, and he couldn’t get a lick of work done. All he could think about was his planned date with Amy.
At five o’clock, Julian jumped out of his seat, left his cubicle without saying goodbye to either Jack or Khadija, and ran down the stairs to his car waiting in the parking lot. He had to stop and count to twenty and practice some breathing exercises in order to calm himself down. He couldn’t risk an accident, he thought. Not any day, but especially not today.
Julian greeted his doorman Raul and kneeled down to pet Mrs. Sherman’s chow chow. He took the stairs up to the fourth floor and entered his apartment with a strut. Clean first and then shower, he thought. No point in getting clean before getting sweaty. Julian swept and put the clean dishes away. He used a sponge and soap to clean his Formica countertop in the kitchen, and he bent down and scrubbed the wooden floors with Murphy’s Original Oil Soap. He finished it all off by running the vacuum over everything. When he finished he stripped naked, briefly admired his physique in a floor-length mirror, and then jumped into a hot shower. He did not notice his erection until he started toweling off.
A series of rings came from his living room. My phone, he said aloud. A text from Amy.
“Meet me at the supermarket.”
Julian did not need to bother asking which one. Both he and Amy preferred to do their shopping at the nearby Whole Foods.
More rings.
“Not the Whole Foods. I’m at Food Lion. You know the one on Parkland?”
Julian did know it, but he did not know why Amy was there.
“Yeah. Would never normally be caught dead in one of these, but it turns out that they stock my favorite Belgian beer. Weird, I know,” Amy texted.
Julian sent her several different emojis. Amy sent a gif back.
They agreed to meet at 7:30.
Because of his nervousness and uncontrolled sexual energy, Julian left his apartment way too early, and therefore showed up at the supermarket with time to kill. He pulled his car into a spot far away from the entrance. At first he sat with the radio on. It was a Top 40s station playing short, repetitive songs that bored Julian to tears. When he got sick of it, he shut the car off and decided to go into the supermarket and surprise Amy.
The Food Lion looked like a million others. It was a well-ordered temple to antiseptic white tiles scrubbed clean almost to a shine. The rows of food were evenly divided, with signs indicating the contents everywhere you looked. For reasons he could never articulate, Julian loved supermarkets. He loved how clean and neat they were. He loved the options which sort of taunted people, reminding them that they’ll never have enough time or money to enjoy everything offered in the store.
Most of all, Julian loved supermarkets because they provided ample opportunity to people watch—Julian’s favorite hobby. He walked over to the gift cards and magazine aisle, pulled down a Men’s Health issue, and began leafing through it so that people wouldn’t get suspicious. In reality, he was more concerned about observing the wildlife.
An obese hippopotamus in a blond wig shopped for donuts while a pair of equally fat twins chased each other around the metal shopping cart.
An elderly couple dressed in Sunday finery strolled through the meat counter, paying special attention to the sale on chicken breasts. Julian congratulated the pair on their healthy and frugal choice.
Three teenagers carrying skateboards and backpacks walked up and down the soda aisle while occasionally looking across towards the refrigerators housing beer.
A battered white van, crawling more than driving, pulled up to the front of the building. Three men—one thin man dressed in a hoodie and jeans, one silver-haired rogue in a bandana and blue jeans, and one giant wearing all black—got out of the van before disappearing into the early twilight. Julian tried to follow the men, then gave up for a lack of interest. He instead re-checked his cell phone and found the time to be 7:26 PM. He put the magazine back and began walking towards the beer aisle. He filled his head with cheap practice lines to use on
Amy. He couldn’t find a good one, so he just cleared his head.
“No, I’m not a fan of that,” said one man responding to a raised bottle of domestic lager.
Julian got a kick out of the other man’s face, which looked awash in disappointment.
A loud series of pops broke Julian’s thought patterns. The two men arguing about lager instinctively crouched behind the wall of warm beer bottles. All three men looked at each other.
“Holy shit. What was that?”
“I don’t know. Fireworks?”
“Dude, that’s what everyone says after a mass shooting. You think that maybe…”
The pops started up again, and this time they were followed up by deep and bellowing booms. Guns. It’s clearly guns, Julian thought.
The other two men froze in position and began huddling close together. Julian, who once had to sit through active shooter training at the office, remembered the first rule: find a way out of the situation. He maintained his crouch and began walking towards the nearest exit. That just happened to be the front entrance, otherwise known as the entry point of the gunmen.
The guns kept getting closer and the smell of cordite kept getting stronger. The other sounds and smells included the crash of soups cans hitting the floor, the veritable thunder of running feet, and the strong and strange smell of fear. Until that moment, Julian had no idea that fear had a smell. It smelled like the commingling of sweat, urine, and hundreds of disparate fluids, sauces, and varying permutations of high fructose corn syrup. Julian found it nauseating.
But the absolute worst thing was the laughing. Julian could hear one of the gunmen laughing in between rounds. A series of sharp cracks and then a high-pitched cackle. Without evidence, Julian saw the laugher as belonging to the thin man from the van. No giant or geriatric could laugh like that. It was the laugh of the aggrieved, of someone convinced that every personal slight was another example of a hidden conspiracy.
Julian found himself at the end of the beer aisle, between the meat counter and a display of breakfast cereal on sale. His tunnel vision forced him to fixate on the cereal’s brand name: Crispix. Octagons of brown, processed wheat danced before Julian’s eyes. He imagined a bowl full of Crispix and milk. It was heavenly.
Another loud boom. A shotgun.
This time Julian saw the result. The evidence of the weapon’s power lay several aisles down. An average looking man in a nondescript jacket and t-shirt was on his back and bent at an odd angle. His face, or what had been his face, was a ground up mass of red pulp. The blood made an awful halo around the remaining wisps of dark hair.
A pair of heavy work boots moved passed the dead man’s head. Julian looked up from his hiding spot and saw the giant in black. He wore a simple black balaclava and black leather gloves. The giant was followed by the old man, who carried a pistol in his right hand. The third man, the laughing killer, walked with the skill of a predator. The rifle in his hands jumped when he shot the dead man once more. He laughed as he watched the blood ooze from the dead man’s stomach.
Julian watched the three men walk towards a new aisle. Their slow pace worried him. They clearly were not in a hurry, nor were they concerned about the fact that shoppers were fleeing the store in droves. Their footfalls made the floor shake a little.
“A few more tours, and then we’ll double back for the registers,” the old man said.
The giant and the laughing killer both made strange noises in agreement. A series of chills stabbed Julian’s spine because he recognized the old man’s voice. He did not know how or from where, but the voice was familiar.
Julian watched the three men walk away. With their backs turned, Julian tried to shuffle along as quietly as possible towards the dead body. Once there he figured that he could run all-out and reach the exit before the bullets could find him. Julian walked on raised toes and felt the sweat pouring off of him. His heart was poised to rip through his chest and, like a jackhammer, dig its way to China with its strong palpitations. A mental litany and prayer could not calm him down.
A series of loud rings cut through the panic. Julian recognized the sound of his cell phone. If he had looked at its screen, he would have seen two text messages from Amy.
“Hey,” said the first one.
“Sorry but I’ll be late b/c of traffic.”
Julian never got the chance to read the texts. The dings alerted the laughing killer, who had enough time to raise his rifle towards the sound and laugh.
As for Julian, he was not as fast of a runner as he thought.