Letters from Unsung Heroes: The Train – Johnathan Sandow

My Darling Katherine,

I apologize for my delay. The train which I have boarded seems to have broken down in a tunnel which no light can penetrate. It’s been very quiet and I’ve kept to myself as to not create a disturbance. Most here, at least of those from my car, seem to have the same idea. It’s been quite scary to say the least. I believe a man a few rows down from me passed away and the man next to him somehow didn’t seem to notice. What nerves of iron he must have to remain so calm in such a situation. He should be an inspiration to all of us. He was very well prepared too as seems to have an endless supply of matches which he lights whenever he wants to look at something. Or perhaps it is simply to cover the stench of the deceased next to him. A foul odor has been growing about the car and it is a relief every time he sparks one; I can only imagine what the smell must be like next to him.

On a more pleasant note, a sweet old lady sitting a few rows behind came over to me earlier today with an oil lamp strangely enough. She sat down beside me and we exchanged pleasantries. And then, out of the blue, she started talking to me about the Bible. I was so glad too, as I was feeling quite uncomfortable and squeamish. We talked at great length about Sodom and Gomorrah and had an absolutely wonderful discussion on 1 Corinthians 6:9. You should have seen her face, Katherine. She seemed so elated to have someone to discuss scripture with. I suspect she must get shut-down about it often as our conversation really seemed to make her day. We exchanged address and telephone numbers so that we can perhaps have a Bible study sometime. Until then, if we are to remain here for longer, perhaps I shall offer her some company and we can discuss some of the finer points of Origen and his writings

Anyhow, my darling. I hope to see you in Church this weekend. I pray that the Lord shall see us all safely off this train and into the embrace of our loved ones.

Yours in Christ

Johnathan Sandow

Where We Put Our Faith

Matthew sat alone at his desk in the living room, the only light coming from the computer monitor in front of him and the kitchen through the doorway. Smoke rose up from the cigarette between his fingers as he stared at the bright screen. It had been a particularly miserable day and he felt completely drained. He scrolled down the screen until he found the numbers he was looking for and compared them to the piece of paper in his hand.

“Fuck,” he muttered under his breath. Not a single number matched. He wouldn’t even be getting his two dollars back. Matthew crumpled up the lottery ticket and threw it into the small can by his desk.

Picking up the 24 oz can of Milwaukee’s Best Ice on his desk, he gave it a shake. Save for a few warm drops, it was empty. Matthew put his cigarette down and headed for the refrigerator. It was time for beer number three. He reached in, opened the next can and took a swig. Closing the door to the refrigerator, he nearly choked on the beer as turned around.

Standing outside the kitchen door was a somewhat short but slim Asian man. The porch light was off, so Matthew wouldn’t have seen him if he hadn’t been standing so close. The man was older, probably in his fifties, and sported a dark gray wiry goatee with streaks of silver running through it. A black bowler hat sat upon the man’s head as he simply grinned a thin smile at Matthew, just enough to show a row of perfectly straight and white teeth.

Matthew reluctantly opened the door part way to find out what the man wanted.

“Can I help y…?”

Before Matthew could finish, the Asian man took the opportunity to pull the door all the way open and push his way inside. He was very well dressed in a suit that looked custom-made in the fashion of 19th century attire. Black jacket, vest, tie, and shoes, with a white shirt. A silver pocket watch chain hung from the waist pocket and buttons of brass on his clothes. In his hand was a black briefcase which he promptly placed on the kitchen table.

“Let’s get down to business,” the Asian man said authoritatively as he opened the briefcase revealing a large stack of papers. “I’ll just need your signature on these forms and then I’ll be on my way.”

“Wait, what… who…” Matthew stumbled out the words. He didn’t know what was going on and was absolutely flabbergasted that this strange man just pushed his way into his house and basically started barking orders.

“Look,” the Asian man said, “I’m here to help you out, to give you a better life, but in order for me to do that, I need your signature. Legal documents to cover your ass and mine. Without this, there’s no deal.” The Asian man flipped through the pages until he found what he was looking for and pulled out a pen. “Ah! Sign here please.”

Matthew looked at the outstretched document confused, then to the man holding the document.

“What are you talking about?”

The Asian man looked mildly annoyed, then sighed reluctantly. He had come on a bit strong. Couldn’t really fault Matthew for being confused.

“My apologies. To put it simply, what this document states is that in exchange for your immortal soul, you will live the perfect life you’ve always wanted. Everything you do will be incredibly fulfilling, you’ll live in good health, and you can fulfill your dreams. At the end of said contract, your soul is forfeit and shall descend into the pit of Hell where it will burn forever in eternal torment. At your time of death somewhere between seventy-one and one hundred and twenty-two years of age, dependent on when the most Holy One has deemed your time on Earth to be finished, your soul will be collected. Though we cannot control the exact date and time of death, we can push it into a roughly fifty year window. We also guarantee that your death will be peaceful and comfortable as every moment living from the time you sign this contract will be absolutely perfect.”

Matthew just stared at the Asian man in silence for a few moments as he let what he had heard sink in.

“Did you say my immortal soul?”

“Yes I did.”

“Uh-huh. And who is ‘we’?”

“That would be myself and the denizens of Hell.”

Matthew pursed his lips together and furrowed his brows somewhat as he continued to stare at the man. He took a sip of his beer, not once taking his eyes away.

“Wait. Are you telling me that you’re the Devil?”

“Bingo!” the Asian man said with a smile, swinging a pointed finger into the air. “Now you’ve got it. I’m sorry for not properly introducing myself earlier.” He began walking a circle around Matthew. “I sometimes get so caught up in the agreement that I forget the important stuff like introductions and terms of the agreement and what have you. By the way, you can call me Todd.”

“But I didn’t ask for you to come,” Matthew said as Todd continued to walk a circle around him.

“No. No you did not,” Todd replied, “but any salesman worth his salt will identify and seek out those in need of his services. One cannot just sit there and expect the clientele walk through one’s doors. Though in my line of work most people do anyways. Despite this, it is still important to be proactive. Besides, if someone is going to spend the rest of time itself in the lake of fire, shouldn’t they at least have a fantastic life? Shouldn’t they get some small pleasure and enjoyment while they can? Shouldn’t they…”

“Are you stupid?” Matthew cut him off.

Todd stopped in his tracks on Matthew’s left. He turned his head and looked him in the eyes.

“Excuse me?”

“I’m a Christian,” Matthew answered. “I’m not going to sell my soul to you. What makes you think I ever would?”

Todd made an uplifting sigh and continued his circle around Matthew.

“Well, yes, you are a Christian, that I know, but just being Christian doesn’t get you into Heaven. Matthew 7:21. Look, Matt. I know you. You’re a very depressed individual.” Todd look at the 24 oz can of Milwaukee’s Best Ice in Matthew’s hand. “That’s what, beer number three for you tonight?” Todd glanced into the room with the computer. On the desk was a half empty pack of cigarettes with one almost burned out in the ashtray and then back at the beer in Matthew’s hand. “Let me guess, you’ve got three more in the fridge. I know you. You’re going to drink yourself miserable and drunkenly jack off to whatever pornography suits your fancy at the given moment. You’ll lie down with a cigarette in one hand and the final beer in the other crying about how sorry you are, begging for forgiveness. Eventually you’ll pass out naked somewhere in the house and wake up in the morning feeling horrible about yourself. The next day you’ll try to pass it off and feel renewed, all peachy keen and living for the Lord. And it’ll go great for a few days. Maybe even a few weeks or months. But you’ll fall again and repeat the same process over and over again.”

Matthew inhaled deeply through his nose, eyes closed and held his breath. The words stung. Todd was right. He was a miserable sinner. God wouldn’t want him. Every good thing he ever did was just one broken promise after another to God. Every vow he ever made had been broken. He often became so depressed about it he would sometimes plan to get messed up, not because he wanted to sin, but because he wanted to forget about his sin, even if it meant intentionally sinning in order to escape for only the briefest of times. He hated himself and he hated his life. Oh why couldn’t Jesus come and take him in one of the brief moments of grace he sometimes felt?

Matthew exhaled slowly and then took another deep breath before speaking.

“What of it?”

“What of it!?” Todd exclaimed. “What of it!? I’ll tell you what of it. Heaven doesn’t want you. You’ve rejected the grace of God all too often. You’ve burned your bridges. Your words are empty and hollow. Let’s face it, you’re coming to see me whether you like it or not. You might as well enjoy life while you can because your suffering is going to last forever. And the thing is, you know deep down you deserve it. No amount of continuing to go to church is going to change that.”

Matthew looked away and spoke through his teeth, ashamed of himself, but angry enough about it to fight back against the accusations.

“You’re right,” he said. “I do deserve death and Hell. But you know what? I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!”

Todd froze where he stood. He was stunned, but only so briefly. An evil smile came back across his face and he started circling Matthew yet again.

“Quoting Luther will get you nowhere,” he said. “You Protestants think you’re so great, but you’re the most deluded of them all.” Todd’s clothes started to stretch and break at the seams as his body began to grow. “You don’t worship Yehoshuah. Your American culture won’t let you.” As the clothes fell off Todd’s body, horns began to grow from the sides of his head, his muscles increased, and his skin started turning to red. “Your independence is so ingrained in what you are that though you talk a big game, you rely entirely on yourself. So how about it? Would you like to enjoy your remaining years?”

Todd leaned in behind Matthew, stopping just over his shoulder. A large red hand with terrible claws held up the contract, another held up a blue ink pen. Matthew was sweating profusely and breathing hard. His life had been miserable. He’d always suspected he would burn in Hell for the terrible things he’s done. And here was Satan, offering him a chance to have some happiness before the end. If only he’d just sign.

And then something clicked in Matthew’s head.

If he’s going to Hell anyway, why is Satan trying so hard to get Matthew to sign? Being proactive is one thing, but this was resorting to scare tactics. Satan was supposed to be the most beautiful of angels, not this big red demon that shows up in the movies. This kind of effort is completely unnecessary unless…

Matthew took a deep breath and turned to look over his shoulder. There was the face of the devil staring back at him. A red dragon-like face with black beady eyes looked directly into his. Matthew gulped and then spoke softly, but forcefully.

“FUCK. OFF.”

Satan roared in outrage, throwing the contract and pen in the air. Reeling back, he lunged with his right arm and grasped Matthew firmly around the throat. Lifting him into the air, Satan slammed him down on the floor, squeezing tighter and tighter.

“Do not insult me boy or I will kill you right here where you stand!”

Matthew struggled with his hands to no avail in an attempt to pull Satan’s fingers from his neck.

“Go for it,” Matthew managed to gurgle out. “I hate this life anyway. I’ve got nothing to live for. You’ll just be sending me to Jesus early.”

Satan leaned in mere inches from Matthew’s face and scowled. There was no fear in his eyes. Satan squeezed his neck a little tighter. Matthew choked a bit, but managed to smile. He was telling the truth. He was ready to face death. With a snort in Matthew’s face, Satan released his grip and stepped away.

Matthew lay on the floor gasping for air. When he finally looked up, he saw the Asian man whom Satan had come into his house as stepping out the front door.

Todd stopped briefly and looked at Matthew who was still gasping. He smiled and said, “Just so you know, it is possible to lose your salvation.” With that, Todd tipped his hat and left, gently closing the door behind him.

The following Sunday, Matthew met with the pastor of his church after the service and told him all that had happened. The pastor quietly listened, not interrupting but making sure to absorb every detail. Though the pastor was skeptical about whether this really happened, he was deeply concerned.

“You said at the beginning of our conversation that you beat Satan,” the pastor said.

“Yes,” replied Matthew.

The pastor stood up and walked to the window. He looked outside to see the trees and birds. He felt the warmth of the sun on his face. Normally, he would marvel at God’s creation on the day like this, but not today. The pastor had dealt with tragedy many times over his career. Members abandoning the faith. Death in the congregation. But nothing had ever felt quite like this. Without looking back, he spoke to Matthew.

“If what you tell me is true, then I am afraid you did not beat the Devil. In fact, I fear he may have achieved exactly what he set out to do.”

Matthew was stunned. So much so that it took him a few moments to respond.

“What do you mean?” Matthew asked.

“Satan is the great deceiver and will do whatever it takes to bring us down with him. From what you describe, it sounds to me that his goal was not to get you to sign the contract, but to make you lose what faith you had.”

“What?” Matthew said as he stood up. “That doesn’t make any sense. It was my faith that saved me. That’s why he let me go. He knew if he killed me that I would go to Heaven.”

“In that moment, yes, perhaps.” The pastor turned around to face Matthew, a deep concern and worry for the member of his congregation showed on his face. “But despite your flaws and sinful ways, you still had faith in Jesus. You still hated your sin. But now, I fear, the Devil has turned your faith away from Jesus and onto itself.”

“I….I don’t understand,” Matthew stammered.

“Your faith is no longer in the one who saves but in your own ability to have strong faith. The switch was almost unnoticeable, but it happened. I heard it in the way you approached me. You said, ‘I beat the devil. My faith in Jesus saved me.’ The focus in your language was not on Jesus but on you. Don’t you see? You were already saved. You had your problems, but you were saved.”

Matthew dropped into the chair he had risen from, his face almost expressionless. The words Todd spoke at the end of their encounter rang through his mind. Just so you know, it is possible to lose your salvation.

The pastor carefully pulled a bible off the shelf and laid it open on his desk. Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. And so the pastor began to read the Word and prayed that Matthew would hear.

Letters from Unsung Heroes: The Train – Ester Heraldine

Dear Mildred

Pardon my lateness but I have been stuck on the train for almost two whole days. There seems to have been a power outage of some sort and we’re stranded in the tunnel. I’m not sure how much longer it shall be, but I hope the power is restored soon; people seem to be getting restless. I admit, it is a long time to sit and my legs are getting a bit stiff. I imagine people would like to get out and stretch their legs a bit. I’ve noticed some men have stepped outside to smoke their tobacco.

Listen Mildred, you know I’m no prude and I know people need to de-stress, but don’t they realize how awful that tobacco is? Why, the Collins boy, you remember Jimmy, well he died a few months back from emphysema. He was only forty-three years old. I think it was due to all that tobacco he smoked. I heard that he smoked two or sometimes three of those little cigarette boxes a day. He didn’t care none what it did to him. He just liked the way it made him feel. Can you imagine? He tried to hide it, but I cannot fathom that he enjoyed all that coughing. I think he just had too much pride to admit he was wrong. There’s a reason pride is a deadly sin and the Collins boy is proof.

Speaking of sin, I’m beginning to think this train is turning into a haven for the devil. I saw this older man flirting with a young girl who couldn’t be anymore than twenty-three and then walk off into a restricted part of the train. I think they were up to some hanky-panky. It’s simply disgusting the brazenness some people will have in a public setting. At least the queer boy in the next row over seems to know enough to hide his shame in public and not flaunt it. He just remains quiet and keeps to himself. I wonder if anyone has talked to him about Jesus yet? Perhaps I should go sit with the boy after I hand this letter over to the nice postman. He seems like such a sweet child. It’d be a shame for him to burn in Hell on account of his sin.

Also, I’ve heard a few people using foul language. It seems the more time we spend on this train, the more obscenities I hear. It’s as though Satan himself has grabbed ahold of these people’s tongues. Why, it’s making me just a little bit frightened. Hearing someone utter the word “blast” is bad enough, but some of these words begin with f and d. I even heard a word that began with the letter c. I don’t know what it meant but I did know that it was horribly offensive.

Not all is bad though. Some people are making the best of their time. One gentleman appears to be writing a correspondence to someone by match light as to not wake up the gentleman sleeping next to him. It’s so sweet to see someone being careful not to disturb those around him. I, myself, am actually writing to you by oil lamp.

In case you’re wondering, it was found in your sister’s attic. Apparently, it had belonged to your great-great-grandfather. He was a seaman of sorts and took this lamp everywhere he went. It lit his cabin on the boat and his way when he walked. It helped him to deal with a great many foggy nights. Anyhow, I was visiting your sister for tea and told of how I was coming to visit you. That’s when she sprang up and told me to wait as she ran into the other room. When she returned, she was holding this oil lamp. That’s when she told me all about the lamp and its history. She asked me if I would bring it to you because you so love to study family history. It even has the initials MHD carved into the side for Martin Henry Dennison; the same initials as you. A find like this is ever so delightful. And even though it hadn’t been used in over a hundred years, it was still full of oil.

I’d hope to have it all preserved for you when I arrived but it is ever so dark in here and I needed some light source some of the time. But, you’ll be pleased to know that it works splendidly and the light that it casts is most comforting. I cannot wait to hand it to you when I arrive. I hope that this letter reaches you in good fortune. And don’t worry for me. I have many other activities to keep me company. I brought my crosswords and my knitting. I cannot wait to see you again. Ta-ta!

Your friend
Ester Heraldine