The first thing Nikki noticed about the man sitting across the aisle was the purple hatbox resting in his lap. He would look down at it every couple of seconds, stare at its felt-covered lid, then force his gaze upward, away.
As she watched him, she heard the cell phone chime in the pocket of her leather jacket. Rory had texted again, this time a simple question rather than the usual justifications or pleas: Are you coming home? She imagined the words spoken in his rough, quiet voice, pictured the concern and terrifying expectation that would flash in his brown eyes as he said them. She closed the phone, dropped it in her purse and returned her gaze to the man. The Peculiar Man, she thought, liking the feel of it.
As the train drove on through the Wisconsin countryside, his tangible anxiety infected her. She began to wonder what might be hidden inside the box. In her experience, people kept photos in hatboxes, perhaps a few keepsakes or souvenirs, but nothing to elicit such fascination and worry. At one point, the train passed through a patch of bright August sun and Nikki swore she saw trails of salt caked around her fellow passenger’s eyes, as if he’d recently wept.
Never one to conquer curiosity, she leaned toward him and asked, “Sorry to bother you, but what’s in the box?”
He snapped his face towards hers, eyes bulging. “What?” He seemed confused, distant.
“What’s in the box?” she repeated, her voice lower, softer. “You seem so nervous.”
The man composed himself, then leveled his eyes with hers, assessing. He rubbed his gaunt chin between a wrinkled index finger and thumb.
“I suppose,” he said, “there’s no harm in showing you. No rules against it, really. In fact, it might do me a great deal of good.” He leaned his body into the aisle, balancing the box between them on an open palm, and removed the lid with a quivering hand.
Nikki leaned toward it and saw, inside, a widget of some sort, asymmetrical and made of a dull metal. It reminded her of something from one of the H.R. Giger books on Rory’s shelf. A switch, the press-in kind one finds on a lamp, created the default center of the thing.
“What is it?” she whispered, struck by the device’s delirious shape.
He grinned. “It’s the switch that turns off the world.”
Nikki slumped back in her seat, annoyed. “You’re joking.”
“I’m not, my dear. One push of this switch, and the world turns off.”
She rolled her eyes. “It ends the world?”
“Turns it off,” he corrected. “At least that’s what I was told when it was entrusted to my care.”
“When was that?”
He glanced at his watch. “Thirty-seven years, three months, nineteen days, seven hours and three minutes ago, more or less.”
“You’ve never pressed it?”
“Of course not,” he said, his Adam’s apple rustling the folds of skin that curtained his neck.
“Why not?” she asked, shrugging. “Don’t you want to know what it would be like?”
He grinned, revealing twin rows of short, blunted teeth, filed by years of grinding. “Of course. But that’s not my place.”
“Whose is it then?”
The man chuckled. “Yours. At the moment.”
“Has anyone ever pushed it?”
He shrugged. “I simply could not say.”
Nikki wondered at the idea of an “off” world. In a world turned off, would everything freeze? Would it vanish? If this world was on, then would an off world simply be it’s opposite? She thought of the rooms in the house she shared with Rory, familiar and predictable in the light, and the sudden exhilaration that filled her when those lights went out, casting everything in the terror and darkness.
Her finger crept toward the switch, the peculiar man’s guttural sigh harmonizing with her cell phone’s chime, and the clack of steel against its track.
Josh Webster’s work has appeared in Everyday Weirdness, Trailer Park Quarterly and Rougarou. He lives, writes, works and tells jokes into a microphone for the purpose of amusing strangers in Fargo, North Dakota.