He could kill everyone on this train. He’s strong enough. The old man in the row over, reading a paper. The tween girls in the row behind him, chattering to each other. They’re nothing to him. All it would take would be a word from his festering mouth and they would all crumble into dust. But, as long as he stays trapped in this box, everything will be fine. It’s carved out of a single piece of ash wood. Curses and spells are scratched on the inside. A threefold cord is wrapped around the outside. The sign on the back of the seat in front of me says, “Forget your troubles and enjoy the peace of the train.” If they only knew.
I got him from a witch. Where else? I have a tumor in my brain, about half the size of my fist. Just saying it feels like walking out of an airlock. What doctors can do these days would be called miracles by anyone alive when I was a kid. And still, they can’t do a damn thing about the tumor, growing like mold on my cerebellum. All the people on this train look right through me and have no idea that the very cells in my body are killing me. Slowly, steadily, and inevitably killing me.
The train passed under a tunnel and all the lights went out. The feeble traces of day that invaded the darkness outlined the forms of passengers. The white noise of the crowd fell silent, and I could hear the hum of the engine and the click-clack of the wheels running over steel rails. It was maybe only a few seconds. As we came out of it, I could see the passengers all look straight ahead, with uneasy expressions. They all looked like they saw something. Or someone. Then all at once, they returned to their chatter, like nothing was wrong.
The doctor wanted to try chemo. I watched my dad go through it. I heard him vomit from down the hall when his stomach wrung out its contents. I cleaned up the mess when he couldn’t hold his bowels long enough to make it to the bathroom. And I pretended like it was no big deal when he started bleeding from his nose and gums. In the end, he lost his fight. All of it was for nothing. He still died. I told him that when he got better, we’d jump on a boat to the Caribbean and hit on girls that were way too young for us. And he still died. After all that. The doctor wanted to try chemo with me. Hell no.
That’s when I went to Mrs. Lovett. At least, that was the name on the sign on the front lawn of her house. She told me that she was a witch. I told her that I was dying, and she sold me this box made from a solid piece of ash wood. I’d be embarrassed to tell you how much I paid for it. But I’ll try anything. That thing in my head will kill me and not give the first shit about how much money I have. And it doesn’t care how stupid I feel, either. I have to take this box to where I was born and bury it. She said not to open it, or he’ll get out and kill everyone. She said this little thing, no bigger than a shoebox has the god of death, all locked up. The first one. That’s what she told me. And he’s resting on my lap on a train to Montana. Before the Grim Reaper, before Satan, Thanatos, Hades, Anubis, Hel, or anyone else, there was Namtar from Mesopotamia. A country that hasn’t existed for thousands of years. That’s who’s locked up on my lap if you can believe it. That’s what she said, anyway. I know it sounds stupid. Like I said, I’ll try anything.
As we passed into another tunnel, the light fell away along with the commotion of a train car full of commuters. Only this time the remaining ambient light didn’t outline the form of anyone. I shot to my feet in a start and looked around for anyone. The man. The girls. Anyone. The light edging its way in was dim, but I could see the outline of the benches. The empty seats with no one in them.
Then as if pulling back a curtain, the light flooded in as we came out of the tunnel. The benches were full of people again and they all stared at me, standing in front of my seat and holding my wooden box with a face drained of color. I told myself that what I saw wasn’t real, that I’m just imagining things, that I don’t really have the god of death in a box and I’m just being stupid.
I just need some water on my face. That’s all. The little kid in the opposite row stared at me as he held on to his mother’s sleeve. She looked over at me with this face like I’m Jack the Ripper. I wanted to scream at her what I had in the box and she should thank me for not opening it. Instead, I pretended not to notice and smiled politely at them. Then walked to the back of the car, toward the bathroom. I took the box with me because I could just imagine some kid opening it, just to see what’s inside. They probably wouldn’t even mean any harm when they release the god that murders everyone. You know kids.
What they called a bathroom on the train was barely a room. It was about the size of a broom closet, with just enough room to stand in front of the sink. Looking at myself in the mirror felt like I was invading someone’s personal space. “Relax,” I said, looking myself in the eye. “Your own anxiety will kill you, long before any god.” I turned on the faucet and splashed the cold water on my face. It did feel good and did calm me down. I took a long deep breath and slowly let it out. “See? Everything is fine. You’re just getting upset about things that’ll never happen.”
I could hear the distinct sound of the train going through another tunnel. The engine has a way of echoing off the smooth, curved rock walls. But the overhead lights in the bathroom stayed on, as a small comfort. “See? Everything is fine.”
And then the light flickered, probably for less than a second. The room went black for the length of time that it takes to blink your eyes. And then I could see him standing behind me in a room no bigger than what’s needed to turn around. His eyes were nothing but sunken, empty pits of shadow. His skin was ashen leather that clung to the bone of his face. His lips were missing, exposing his teeth in a permanent madman’s smile. His icy breath curled in the air and fell onto my neck, chilling me to the core.
I instinctively froze in place, afraid he would turn me into shredded pork with the slightest movement. Then he put a hand on my shoulder, and I felt the prickly grip of frostbite. I screamed at the agony of my own flesh decaying, under his touch.
The lights flickered again, and he was gone. Not even a wisp of frost remained to mark where he stood. I pulled my shirt down past my shoulder to see black necrotic skin where he touched me. He was supposed to stay in the box. She said the box would trap him. The spells scratched on the inside. The threefold rope in the outside. Damn her. None of them meant anything, did they? She just took my money and sent me away. What did she care if I died? Dead people can’t ask for a refund. Now, I was trapped on a train with a death god. I suddenly felt my stomach twist and I heaved its contents in the toilet, beside me.
Then the answer came to me in a flash of genius. I could throw it over the side, between cars. It was as easy as that. I’d stand in between the train cars and chuck him over. He’d be someone else’s problem. I could go back to the existential dread of brain cancer and someone else could worry about the god of death, himself. I forced a swallow, picked up his box, and slid open the door to the bathroom. As I carried it to the back of the car, I did my best to not sweat the bullets of a terrorist carrying a bomb.
I passed some guy with his girlfriend. While she had her earbuds in and focused on whatever was on her phone, he looked up at me like the crazy man that I must’ve looked like. He locked his eyes on me and I could see his jaw muscles tense. I pretended like I didn’t have a murderer with me and smiled as walked passed him.
“Hey, buddy,” he barked at me in a voice of testosterone and protein shakes. “What’s in the box?”
Not now, not now, not now. “It’s nothing,” I told him. “Excuse me.”
“Why do you look so nervous?” He asked, accusingly. His leg slid out and he was on his feet before I could turn around to face him. He stood like an ogre, snarling his lip. “Is it a bomb?”
I could hear gasps from the other passengers when they heard him say the word. They all turned around and watched us.
“No. It’s not. Excuse me, please,” I said as I turned to make my way to the door.
He grabbed my arm with iron fingers and demanded, “How do I know? Open the box and show me what’s in it.”
“Leave me alone. Please!” I pleaded with him.
“Show me what’s in the box!”
I tried to pull away from him, but he pulled on my arm. My god, I dropped the box. He had no idea what he was doing. I dropped the box and it hit the floor on the corner. I could hear the crack run from one end to the other. When the lid fell open, a grey stone figure no bigger than the palm of my hand, tumbled out. My heart stopped, waiting for something to happen.
“Is that all it is?” asked the ogre, still holding my arm in his iron grip. He let go and added, “You should’ve just told me what it was. I’m not paying for that.” Then he resumed his seat beside his girlfriend, who never noticed him get up.
I knelt down and picked up the little stone god. The features were worn like it’d been left out in the weather. The mouth had been smoothed over to almost nothing. But the eyes were sunken pits, just like the figure in the bathroom. A chill walked down the length of my spine when I realized that this was the same creature as the one that destroyed the flesh of my shoulder with just a touch.
Then we went through another tunnel and the light vanished. I could feel the cold of his body standing behind me. And I could hear his shaking breath. He slowly, lazily reached down for me like he had all the time in the world. But before he could touch me with his icy fingers, I ran out the door to the next car and the next. He was always right behind me like it didn’t matter. I don’t even think he chased me. He was just there. He was always there.
I stopped in the baggage car and found a heavy metal bar, laying on the floor. I put the little stone figure down on the floor and raised the pipe over my head, ready to smash it to pieces.
“Stay back!” I demanded, unable to stop the tears from streaming down my face. “Stay back or I’ll pulverize this thing. This is you, isn’t it? If I destroy it, then you die, right? I can’t let you kill all these people. They don’t know about you. They didn’t know.”
He stood over me, as solid as the statue that I threatened. Saliva ran down the bare teeth of his lipless mouth and he looked at me without eyes. He didn’t try to stop me. He wasn’t even worried. What the hell was I doing?
“James Eugene Brighton,” he called in a booming voice that seemed to come from everywhere. “I was never here for them. I’m here for you.” That cursed voice sounded like fire.
“Then, stay away! Or I’ll destroy this thing!” I raised the metal bar high over my head.
“I don’t need to, James Eugene Brighton. I’m already inside you. You can feel my fingers wrap around your brain stem, can’t you? The world is starting to seem farther and farther away, isn’t it? Everything seems dimmer and quieter, doesn’t it? That’s me, James Eugene Brighton. I’ve been with you since the beginning. And you can’t run from me.” He laughed at the idea and somehow seemed to smile with a lipless face.
“No. No, I don’t believe you. I can kill you.” I brought the metal bar down with all my strength and smashed the little stone god. Pieces of it flew across the baggage car and into oblivion. But he didn’t disappear. He didn’t even wince in pain. He stood there, where he was the whole time. And he looked at me without eyes and smiled without lips. What have I done?
Then all at once, we came out of the tunnel and the light flooded back in. He had vanished, just like he had before. But when I walked into the next car, all the people were gone. Daylight was spilling into the car and I could clearly see that all the people were gone. Gone! I ran to the next car to find the same. All the benches were empty. The noisy, crowded train that was to take me to salvation was empty.
A flickering light got my attention as it fell across the empty seats. And I completely understood what had happened when I looked out the window. The picturesque green trees of the mid-west had been replaced with the burning fires in the vast desertscape of Hell. And it was beautiful.