“The numbers tick, you know. When it is time.” Russell giggled and stared at the strangely carved box on the table. “Rows of numbers etched on nameless faces. All tucked away in the box.” He ran a finger along an edge of the container. “They are always there, standing on the edges of my dreams. Until…” Russell shivered and withdrew his hand, sliding it into his lap. “Then comes the ticking. Like a pocket watch or a clock. Counting down the minutes, the seconds. Waiting for me.” He giggled again, a manic sound, giving his hysteria voice.
“Don’t say things like that!” Across the room, Robert, Russell’s brother, could no longer contain his emotion. He fumbled for a cigarette in his pocket, adding, “Such talk is insanity. You must stop this odd obsession of yours. Rid yourself of the box and be done with it.”
Finding a cigarette, Russell lit it, the match lending a soft glow to his face before he blew out the flame. Smoke encircled his head as he puffed and continued. “The assertion is preposterous, there aren’t even numbers on the damned box.”
Russell sighed. “The numbers aren’t on the box. Haven’t you been listening? They’re in my mind.” He tapped his forehead.” And I can’t simply stop. Or rid myself of the box. I’ve come too far already. It’s too much a part of me.” Russell frowned and then shivered again. “Fear drives me now.”
He watched his brother’s reaction. Robert took a drag of his cigarette, pity flitting across his face. Russell placed his hand back on the tabletop, drumming his fingers lightly. “Perhaps that is true madness. Too much fear.”
Robert grunted. “Fear can be conquered. You always did lack a spine.” He sighed. “I’m only trying to help before Father makes good on his promise and commits you to an asylum.”
Russell suddenly scowled, his fingers curling into a fist. “Father? You put him up to that. You know you did.” Russell laughed at the surprised look on his brother’s face. “Yes, I knew it was you. You are not as clever as you think.” Then he smiled. “But I forgive you. Come and sit. Look at the box. Let me show you. If you still feel I need to rid myself of it after I explain, then I’ll agree.”
Robert shrugged, but joined Russell at the table, settling into a chair. “What do you want to show me?”
“That there’s a demon in the box.” Russell laughed again at Robert incredulous expression. “I know it sounds mad, but it’s true.”
“You need help, brother. Let me help you.” The smoke of Robert’s cigarette wafted between them. Russell smiled. He moved his hand to the lid of the box and carefully stroked part of the carving, a small horned figure. Then he withdrew his fingers.
“Yes, you can help me. I didn’t want it to come to this, and I could just let it end, let the demon take me. But I’m afraid to die. Afraid of what’s inside the box.” Russell took a breath, his eyes focusing on his brother’s glowing cigarette. “I’m so sorry, but it needs a name.” He paused, for a heartbeat.
Inside Russell’s head the ticking stopped and the lid of the box opened wide on its own. Russell kept his eyes on Robert’s glowing cigarette as it fell, scorching a burn mark into the table. He ignored his brother’s screams until the lid of the box clicked shut.
Then he stared at the empty chair across from him. He reached over and stubbed the cigarette out on the wood tabletop. “It was you or me, brother. I chose me.” Russell rose and picked up the box.
“I’ll see you in my dreams.”
~ A. F. Stewart
© Copyright 2018 A. F. Stewart. All Rights Reserved.