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Fiction Horror Suspense

PIZZA BOX MESSAGE

“We’re running out of time.”

Same man in the same clothes in the same locations shouting the same words holding the same pizza box message echoing the same sentiment: “We’re running out of time.”

Martin is on his way to work. His palms are sweating and he’s gripping the steering wheel a little too tightly. Martin will admit to himself only that he is angry, not that he is nervous, maybe even scared. He is grinding his teeth. This will be the fourth morning since Martin first encountered the homeless man, standing at the intersection of Hodges Avenue and Violet Street, shouting his message of supposed impending doom: “We’re running out of time.” And this morning, Martin’s nightmare would come to an end.  Martin has resolved to confront his tormentor.

The first time Martin saw the homeless man, it was not a particularly notable event. Martin barely noticed him. Just a corner-of-the-eye type of acknowledgement. He may have had the briefest of thoughts along the lines of, “Great, now the homeless are moving out here.” And he probably had the same thought when he pulled into his parking space at work and noticed another homeless man standing next to the road just outside the fence that surrounded the parking lot. This man was holding a cardboard sign that Martin didn’t read. By the time Martin sat down at his desk, he had completely forgotten both men, and the homeless in general.

The next morning, the experience was much more remarkable. Martin had to sit through two cycles of the stoplight at Hodges and Violet, so he had more time to observe the homeless man standing in the intersection’s median. This man was wearing a yellow t-shirt and rumpled khakis. He was holding an old pizza box just under his chin that had the words “were running out of time” written on it in all black capital letters. Martin, a stickler for proper grammar, noted that the word “were” was probably supposed to be “we’re,” and the man had left out the apostrophe. Martin grunted, “Typical.”  He saw the light turn red ahead of him. As the cars crept forward, Martin realized he would probably be forced to stop about one car length away from this man, which is the awkward zone with the homeless looking for donations. Martin made every effort not to make eye contact, but he had the distinct impression this man was looking directly at him, almost like the man’s gaze was creating a physical pressure against Martin’s forehead. As Martin’s car came to a stop, he heard the man shout his pizza box message, “We’re running out of time.” The man wasn’t frantic, just loudly stating a fact. Martin was unexpectedly unnerved by this encounter. He kept his eyes on the traffic light. He told himself, if the man were in this spot tomorrow, he would call the police and report a homeless man causing a traffic hazard. About that time, the traffic light turned green, and Martin felt a sense of relief as he drove away.

His relief was short-lived. Ten minutes later, as Martin turned onto the road that led to his parking lot, he blurted, “What the . . . ,” but didn’t finish the sentence out loud. There was the homeless man. He was almost positive it was the same man. Same height, same build, same hair length and color. He was wearing the same yellow t-shirt and khakis. As Martin drove by him, Martin saw the man pivot to track his vehicle. He shouted, “We’re running out of time” just as Martin came up parallel to him. Martin pretended not to notice, but he couldn’t ignore the little sliver of fear poking at his gut. Martin parked in his spot, and as he got out of his car, he stole a quick glance in the direction of the man. He was maybe 50 feet away, holding his pizza box with the grammatically incorrect message under his chin. He was looking directly at Martin. He was clearly speaking to Martin when he shouted again, “We’re running out of time.” Martin feigned nonchalance, closed his car door, and walked on wobbly legs into his building.

Martin was alone in the elevator up to his office. His eyes darted about as his brain desperately scrambled for logical explanations, drawing on limited personal experience and movie stereotypes. He told himself homeless people tend to resemble on another. They wear the same type clothing and carry cardboard signs with apocalyptic messages, right? And they frequently use old pizza boxes to deliver those messages, right? “Were” instead of “we’re.”  That’s a common mistake. Or maybe the apostrophe was just too small to see.

Martin’s almost-convincing train of thought was interrupted when the elevator doors opened just as an office runner dropped an armload of files right in front of the doors. Papers scattered everywhere. The office runner was standing with his hands flapping uselessly murmuring, “shit shit shit.” Martin’s exit was littered with potentially important documents. He carefully picked his way through them until he could hop to clear floor. When Martin turned toward his office, he was confronted by a harried co-worker who told him the boss had called a meeting in 15 minutes to address the concerns of some particularly bothersome clients. This sequence of events ended any further consideration Martin might have given to the matter of identical homeless men.

The next morning, Martin was pouring coffee into his travel mug when a vision of these homeless men with their pizza boxes popped into his head. Yesterday’s chaos, a couple of glasses of good bourbon with dinner, and a decent night’s sleep had erased any same-guy nonsense. Martin chuckled as he screwed the lid onto his mug. He grabbed a handful of change from the bowl on the corner of his kitchen counter, just in case he decided to humor these hapless homeless men, and headed out the door.  

As Martin got closer to the intersection of Hodges and Violet, he could see homeless man number one standing in the same spot and staring in Martin’s direction. When Martin was about eight car lengths away, the homeless man unfolded his pizza box message and placed it under his chin. Odd that the homeless man did this seemingly just as he spotted Martin’s car. Martin started to feel prickles of unease tease at the back of his neck. At this distance, he knew he’d get caught by the next red light, and he’d likely wind up stopped very near the homeless man. Martin reached for the pile of change in the center console. As the line of vehicles crept forward and Martin got closer to the homeless man, Martin averted his eyes. He wasn’t going to acknowledge him until he got close enough to give him the change. Martin saw the light turn red, and the line of cars slowly rolled forward until Martin was right next to the homeless man. Then, as fate would have it, traffic stopped. Martin felt a trickle of sweat roll down his back, but he wasn’t sure why. The homeless man had turned to face Martin’s car. He remained standing straight up, but he had dropped his pizza box from under his chin to his belly, so that it was exactly even with Martin’s driver’s side window. WERE RUNNING OUT OF TIME. The prickles on Martin’s neck spread over his shoulders and down his arms, like ants. Martin pressed the button to roll down his window, not all the way, just enough to toss out the change. Martin looked at the red light. He thought it seemed to be taking longer than usual. Then the homeless man’s face slid into Martin’s line of sight. Martin inhaled sharply and the prickles of ants shot into his brain, making it shudder into high alert. “We’re running out of time,” the homeless man said just loudly enough for Martin to hear him over the hum and honks of traffic. Martin suddenly caught a whiff of old, rotting garbage and sour sweat. He was simultaneously horrified and repulsed. Was that his breath Martin tossed his handful of change out the window and fumbled to close it. Almost on cue, the light turned green. Martin got right up on the bumper of the car in front of him and drove as quickly as he could away from that homeless man.

As Martin drove on, he struggled to calm himself. He kept asking himself why he was reacting so childishly to such a mundane event. Homeless people are everywhere. Sometimes you see them, sometimes you don’t. When Martin turned onto the road that led to his parking lot, he pulled over to allow time for his rational brain kick in. He put the car in park, but left it running. This is all just a weird coincidence playing on his already stressed-out mind, he told himselfThat second homeless man probably won’t even be there.  But so what if he is? It’s a good spot, shady, busy enough to make money, and a bus stop nearby. Frankly, it’s surprising more homeless people don’t gather there.  

Cautiously comforted by these rational observations, Martin put his car in gear and continued on to work. He didn’t realize he was driving more slowly than usual, a subconscious reaction to the suppressed dread of seeing the second homeless man. He rolled his window down a bit and grabbed a handful of change. Martin decided, if that second homeless man was there, he was just going to toss the change out his window as he drove by and not even slow down. He was a busy man and didn’t have time for this crap.

Martin was getting close to his parking lot. He realized how slowly he was moving and sped up. Suddenly, the second homeless man came into view, his pizza box with its misspelled message under his chin. Yellow shirt. Khakis. As he got up close to the homeless man, he tossed his change out the window and drove even faster, almost too fast to make the turn into his parking lot.  His tires squealed and his car fishtailed just a bit as he turned into the lot. He quickly parked and got out. It was all he could do not to run for the building’s entrance, but his rational brain hung on, telling him this was stupid. No need to run. He would look silly. But, then he heard it: “We’re running out of time.” Martin ran. He didn’t wait for the elevator. He dashed up the stairs. By the time he got to the sixth floor, he was winded. His rational brain scolded him. He couldn’t let his coworkers see him like this. Martin stopped on the landing to his floor. He wouldn’t run to his office like a scared rabbit. He was an adult. He had to get it together. At this moment, Martin realized he didn’t have his briefcase. Worse, he didn’t have his coffee. He leaned against the cool cement of the stairwell wall.  He just couldn’t wrap his brain around what was happening, but he couldn’t let anyone see that he was . . . what? Confused?  Frustrated? Scared? Martin shook his head and breathed deeply. He would go down a flight of stairs and take the elevator up to his floor. That way, it might look like he was just coming from a meeting or the restroom or something. Martin focused on just getting to his office so he could make himself some coffee and sit down to think.

The elevator door opened and Martin stepped out, speaking to no one. When he got to his office, he closed his door and walked to his desk. A window with closed blinds was behind his office chair. He sat down, rotated his chair toward the window and stared at the blinds. It had to be done. He lifted a slat just enough to peer through. The homeless man wasn’t there. Martin slowly turned back to his desk. He muttered, “This is ridiculous. It’s fine. I’m fine.” There was a knock at his door. A coworker poked her head in, and the least productive day of Martin’s working life began.

When Martin got home, he didn’t eat any dinner, but he did finish that bottle of bourbon. As his work day trudged on, Martin slowly accepted that this was one homeless man who, for some awful, unknown reason, had decided to torment him. The only way to resolve this was to confront him. As Martin sat in his leather recliner with the last bit of bourbon in his glass, he put together a plan. He would take a different route to the road to his parking lot.  This way, Martin wouldn’t pass Homeless Man at the intersection, so he wouldn’t know Martin was coming. And this alternate route would mean he would come from the opposite direction of the road that led to his parking lot. So, Martin would catch Homeless Man totally off guard. He might even be able to turn into the lot and park before Homeless Man saw him. But that didn’t matter. Martin would be on his home turf in his parking lot. And he would have a fence between him and Homeless Man. Martin was going to walk right up to Homeless Man on the other side of that fence and demand an explanation. Or maybe just tell him to got to hell.

Satisfaction with his plan and numbness from the bourbon brought sleep. The now empty glass fell from Martin’s hand and he drifted into dreamlessness right there in his leather recliner.

Martin pours coffee into his travel mug and heads out his door.  He’s starting out earlier than usual because his alternate route will take a little longer. When he gets in his driver’s seat, he puts his coffee mug in the cup holder. With disgust, he takes the bit of change left from yesterday and tosses it inside the console. He grips the steering wheel with determination. He decides music would be a great accompaniment to the task at hand. He flips on his radio and presses the button to his favorite station. It’s all-Beatles-all-day Friday. “Tomorrow Never Knows” is playing.  

As Martin drives his alternate route, he distracts himself by feigning interest in the new surroundings, unkempt homes with cars parked in the yard, buildings painted with illegible graffiti. Now Martin remembers why he doesn’t come this direction. It’s ugly and potentially dangerous. But it’s just temporary. He’s not going to have to come this way again. He ignores his sweaty palms, his slightly too tight grip on the steering wheel, the fear masquerading as anger and determination. He’s going to take care of the situation. 

Martin turns onto the road to his parking lot. He laughs a little wickedly when he sees Homeless Man. His plan has worked.  Homeless Man is facing away from Martin in the direction that Martin would usually be traveling. Martin continues toward the parking lot at a normal speed. Just as he reaches the turn into the lot, Homeless Man slowly pivots to face him. Perfectly normal response, Martin tells himself. Then Homeless Man opens his pizza box and holds it under his chin, staring directly at Martin. Martin feels the urge to speed by Homeless Man and go home. Call in sick, maybe. But he won’t let himself give in to this irrational fear. Martin turns in to his lot and parks. He turns off his car and peels his hands from the steering wheel. He stays in the car for just a moment. If he waits too long, he won’t follow through. He tells himself to get moving. He steps out of his car and closes the door. Martin sees his reflection in the driver’s side window. His reflection doesn’t reveal the fact that his face has gone pale, but Martin feels himself taking shallower breaths. He’s grinding his teeth. He makes himself stop.  This must end.

Martin turns toward Homeless Man. By now, Homeless Man is facing Martin, his pizza box still under his chin. Martin moves forward. It feels like he’s moving through molasses. At about 40 feet away, Martin thinks he sees Homeless Man’s head tilt slightly.  Maybe he’s surprised by Martin’s approach. This thought encourages Martin a bit and his stride becomes a little quicker and more confident. He’s about 20 feet away, when Homeless Man folds up his pizza box and places it under his left arm, all without taking his eyes off Martin’s face. This act unsettles Martin for some reason, but he keeps moving forward. At about five feet away, Martin stops.  “Who are you? What are you doing?” Martin bellows loudly, betraying his anger and fear. Homeless Man tilts his head the other direction. Martin can’t stand it. He steps right up to the fence. He pauses just long enough to notice Homeless Man has tears in his eyes. Martin hisses, “What is this all about?” Homeless Man steps forward, his face just inches from Martin’s. He whispers, “We’ve run out of time.”

Right at that moment, Martin hears a horrible screeching of tires and grinding metal. He turns his head to the right and sees a semi-truck sliding on its side toward him. Its trailer cracks open, and with an earth-shattering roar, it bursts into flame. Just as the flames and shards of metal reach Martin, he understands. He and Homeless Man have run out of time.

July 15, 2022 21:27

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1 comment

VJ Hamilton
21:57 Jul 29, 2022

Whoa! Great story! A fresh and unusual take. LoL, I empathized with Martin, "a stickler for proper grammar." I totally enjoyed the worsening atmosphere and the sense of unreality. Suggestion: go to the Sliced Up Press website (before July 31) and consider submitting this story. They are putting together an anthology of "bloodless" horror.

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