This is a story which has never been told before. At least...not by me. Well...not like this, anyway. It may or may not have happened. That’s for you to deal with, but personally I’ll be leaning towards the latter, because you just can’t trust these writer types. Schizophrenic, manic depressive, compulsive liars, the lot of them.
Anyway...to business. You need to see this world. Oh, don’t worry, it’s not so different from the one you inhabit, so it won’t be difficult. Pretty much everything is the same. Well, except for one thing...one major thing. But we can come back to that at a more...relevant juncture. For now, just go with your own world. It’ll make things much more comfortable for you. There’s someone I’d like you to meet, and we have to be quick, because she won’t be around for long. Her name is Fran Redmond, and we’ll be dropping in on her as she drives home from work for the last time. She didn’t quit her job or get fired or anything like that. No, no. She’s going to die. Quite suddenly, in fact.
Fran was 28 years old, and everything about her was average. Her hair was shoulder length and blonde, but not in the sort of way that makes you think of her having all the fun. You see, Fran had been having a ‘Bad Hair Day’ since...well, since she was about 12. She had blue eyes, but they weren’t piercing and they wouldn’t have reminded you of the sea or the sky or anything poetic like that. I mean, you could say they looked a bit like the sea if you were one of those nerds who sniffed heavily and said something like, “Did you know that the sea is not actually blue?” and went off on some mind-numbing, party-mood-killing tirade about sunlight and reflections and other boring stuff. Fran’s eyes were just...blue. Sorry. She had good skin, if that’s any help, but it was that sort of pale skin that made you think she’d need the curtains closed come dawn.
Her job was pretty average, too. She answered calls from irate customers whose billing estimates had seen them overcharged, and she plied them with feigned sympathy and promises of recompense with her average voice. And every evening, she would get into her car and wish that she would just die. Funny that. Her car was nothing special either, nor was the city road on which she drove or even the weather on that last day. In fact, it was hard to imagine that Fran Redmond was about to become the first step upon a path of...enlightenment, we’ll call it, which would change everything about the way the people of this world understood...absolutely everything. If someone had told her what was about to happen and the consequences of her death, she might even have enjoyed the irony. Of course, I’m sure she would have preferred to be alive to appreciate it, but you know what I mean. To make a long story short – which is never going to happen, by the way – everything about Fran and the day she died was average. The whole thing was like the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ of history, which some people might refer to as perfect. Goldilocks herself did, but then she was just a cheeky bitch who broke into bears’ houses and ate their food. Yes, yes, I’m digressing, but you’ll get used to it. It’s a writer’s prerogative to be self-indulgent and to add a bit of extra padding here and there. That way, if the story stumbles further on, there’s enough superfluous material to keep it rolling along until it finds its feet again. A bit like a fat kid in a lagging jacket.
Luckily, Fran was stopped at a red light when it happened. As women are wont to do when there’s nothing else to focus on except the mirror in front – back me up, please, gentlemen – Fran started the ambitiously futile task of fixing her hair and applying a sixteenth layer of lipstick. Now this is where the anti-climax occurs, because by now, you’re probably expecting something spectacular to happen to Fran. I’m afraid that no planes fell out of the sky, there wasn’t a drive-by shooting with our poor girl caught in the crossfire, and her car was not lifted from the ground by an invading spacecraft – I know some of you expected that. No, nothing spectacular happened. Fran just died, dropping her lipstick as her head slammed on to the steering wheel and the car horn blared to announce her passing to everyone who cared enough not to overtake her at the lights and hurry home. Many people overtook her.
How did she die? I hear you ask. Well, that’s the clincher, isn’t it? Was it an aneurysm, an unchecked tumor, or did her hair just come alive and decide that if it was dying, it was taking this waste of space with it? Well, it took a few days for them to figure it out, because they had to look really hard for the cause of death. Luckily, through the magic of storytelling, we can find out immediately. There had been nothing physically wrong with Fran. Well...apart from her hair, of course, but you won’t find ‘Bad Hair Day’ listed anywhere under ‘Cause of Death’. Unless you got your hair done on Fleet Street in the 18th century.
So, back to Fran and the seemingly endless autopsy. It was a neuro-surgeon who found it, and he immediately demanded a raise, because 250k was “an insult, I tell you!” They sort of had to ‘reverse engineer’ the moment of death to figure out where a shock which had blasted through her nervous system to kill her instantly had come from. And what they found was not pleasant. What they found was buried so deep in her system as to pose many unsettling questions, not the least of which was how it got there. Unfortunately, that was not where the unpleasantness drew the line, which we shall see. Oh, sorry, yes...what they found was...well, for want of a better word...a switch.
Now, you need to get the image out of your head of something you’d find on a wall or on a lamp, because this switch wasn’t like that. It also took some time for the people of this world to figure out what it was, but I’m just letting you know so that I don’t lose you early on. The ‘switch’ itself was organic, a disgusting, pulsing thing with vein-like cords at either end; cords which had been attached to and wrapped around the brain stem. Tiny threaded tips had somehow bored their way into the nervous system from this point, taking complete control of poor Fran. Nothing about this strange and horrific discovery was average, but, as I said it would be, the irony was lost on Fran.
The surgeon and his team marveled at the find as it was passed to a nurse to have it cleaned, stored and cataloged for further analysis. The nurse’s name was Paul Bradbury, a 32-year-old man with a beautiful fiancée, a mother who loved him and a father whose shame at his son’s chosen profession was only barely concealed beneath what some might call a smile, if they were forced to identify the facial expression and were confused by the Mona Lisa. As they put Fran’s head back together for appearances’ sake and expectations of dignity, Paul wheeled out the instrument trolley and tried not to think about the still-pulsing switch on the top tray as it wriggled for his attention. The most disturbing thing about it – and Paul was beginning to make a list of disturbing things in order of their ability to recall his lunch – was that the switch was bleeding. From the ends of the many veins, blood still oozed, and Paul wasn’t sure whether this was the blood of the dead girl, consumed by this thing, or whether it actually had its own blood. I’ll leave it to them to figure that out, he thought, glancing back at the surgical team. That’s what they get the big bucks for.
He turned right as he came out of the theater and then turned right again at the end of the short corridor. He heard the sound of booted feet coming from back where he’d been, but didn’t bother to investigate, so transfixed was he by his internal list of disturbing things. He also didn’t bother to investigate when he heard the gunfire, because...well...because he wasn’t stupid. He stood still for a moment as he heard the sounds of screaming – some men might have screamed, but it’s unlikely – which were swiftly followed by further gunfire, and he made a decision. It may or may not have been the right decision. That remains to be seen. But Paul took the switch from the tray in his gloved hand, turned the glove inside out while removing it, so that the switch was now inside it, and he stuffed it into the pocket of his scrubs. And then he ran. Fast.
Someone shouted gruffly, ‘He’s got it!’ as Paul skidded around a corner to his left, slamming his shoulder against the wall and struggling to catch his breath. The sound of pursuit bullied its way in amidst the blood pounding in his ears and suggested that he run even faster. An emergency exit up ahead shone like the Pearly Gates, with Peter, his big bunch of keys and a ‘Naughty and Nice’ list replaced by the neon lights of contemporaneous vulgarity. Had Peter been standing there, Paul would have slapped him to one side as he burst through the exit, activating the alarm as he emerged blinking into the light of the real world (I always thought Peter and Paul didn’t see eye to eye). He looked around the alley frantically, but there was nothing heavy enough to block the door, which was closing behind him. Instead, he grabbed the closest receptacle of medical waste and flung it at the door just as it was opened again by his pursuers. The moment of delay he caused them was probably no longer than the time he had taken to do so, and he fled again as they came out. There were three men, black suits with white shirts and black ties, and they all looked the same to Paul. He dismissed it as a trick of the light, but he had been sufficiently distracted so that a fourth man sent around to intercept him had nothing to do but stand and wait as Paul ran straight into him. The suit grabbed him with an arm around his neck and held a gun to his head. Had the local fuzz not shown up, things would have been very different for our nurse. Shouting, ‘Drop your weapons!’ by way of warning, they had very little time to set themselves up strategically as the suits opened fire. Paul’s three pursuers didn’t even bother to conceal themselves, as they stood facing the two squad cars and firing repeatedly. One officer was down in seconds, and there were bonus points for windows and wing mirrors. But one lucky shot from the cop who had in his youth played Time Crisis like his life depended on it scored a head-shot on Paul’s captor, leaving the nurse falling to the ground and staying there face down amidst the gunfire.
As a result, we can’t see Paul’s face right now, and I realize that I haven’t described him yet, but let me tell you ladies, that whatever good looks he had hidden behind his surgical mask in that theater – and they were good looks, I assure you – they were now horrifically askew amidst thoughts of impending death and a mouth full of concrete. A good first impression this would not have made. The dashing young nurse of C-Wing, whose smile normally set the ladies knees all a-tremble, will have to visit the dentist after this to get the taste of road and shame out of his teeth. Yes, folks, Courage has well and truly left the building. Via the Fire Exit.
So, getting back, and now that you’ve got some vague idea of our…ahem…hero, let’s move swiftly on, shall we? Paul remained there until the shooting stopped, which only happened because the cops got some back-up and the four suits were either dead or on their way. ‘You okay, son?’ he heard someone asking. He managed to get to his feet with a little assistance from the officer and he grunted in the affirmative, looking frantically around to see where he’d dropped his masculinity. The need to visit the facilities overwhelmed him, but he managed to hold it in. All was not lost. ‘Let’s get you outta here,’ said the officer, leading him away. Luckily, Paul had the sense to check his pocket and he confirmed that the switch was still there. As he approached the police car, he turned back to see the cops checking the dead men for identification. ‘Who were those guys?’ he asked, aware of the secret he held in his pocket. The officer said nothing, pushing Paul’s head down to assist him with the very complex manoeuvre of getting into the back of a car. As the door was slammed shut, Paul felt a chill rush through him. It may have been the fact that he didn’t feel any safer in the car than he had in the alley. Either that or it was the need to go to the bathroom.
The car in which he now sat was facing the alley, and as the officer got into the driver’s seat and started the engine, Paul watched as the dead men in the alley were being transferred to body bags. He assumed for now that the speed of the process was due to the proximity of the hospital, but that was because he had no idea what was going on. The car was put into reverse and Paul twisted in the seat to keep an eye on the scene as he was driven away. Even the officer failed to see the black SUV that was keeping a nice distance behind them as they hit the freeway. There were four men in it. Four men in dark suits.
I’m sure by now that you’ve got lots of ideas as to what’s going on, and who the suits are. But I’m going to continue in the hope that you’re wrong. Well, actually, you’re going to continue for me, because this is the first of what we’ll be calling the ‘Switch’. Think of this story in terms of a railway track or one of those little electric car circuits. It’s going to head in one direction for a while, defined by me, but you, the reader, are going to get to alter the direction of the story at certain ‘Switch’ points. (AT THIS POINT, THE ORIGINAL STORY PROVIDED OPTIONS FOR VOTING ON FACEBOOK)
So, without further ado, here is the first set of options:
Paul found it difficult to relax in the back of the car, as shock set in, panic rushed through him with the full realisation of what he’d just been through and his bladder was kicking like a cat in a bag that could smell the river. As he squirmed in the back seat and the car slowed down in the evening traffic, a dark shadow blocked his view to the left as the SUV came up alongside. The window descended and the barrel of a gun moved into view. Now this is where we meet our next character, because there’s a guy called Frank driving in the lane to Paul’s right, and he’s about to spill his coffee with dramatic effect. He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, as we’ll see. As a matter of fact, in the tool-shed of life, he’s that rusty chisel your grandfather left you in his will, stuck at the bottom of a smelly old leather bag with lots of other rusty tools. Sometimes old tools are the best for the job, and they can always be sharpened. Frank, however, won’t get any sharper. He will, however, be instrumental in saving Paul’s life...
You know when you’re just dying to go to the bathroom and you’re stuck in a car and you think the driver is actively and spitefully seeking out every bump and crack in the road? Well, Paul was experiencing that particular Hell as the cop car headed up the freeway towards the station. He imagined his bladder as one of those stress balls, only this one was being squeezed by a sumo wrestler who was refusing to step into the circle without his favourite nappy! Keeping his legs tightly together and praying that he wouldn’t wet the seat, Paul felt that shiver running through him again and this time there was a rush of fear. He turned around in his seat and saw the black SUV bearing down on them from the outside lane. Now, Paul had seen enough movies to know that this absolutely, undoubtedly meant that he was in the middle of a government conspiracy...or an alien invasion...or that he was the prophesied glitch in the Matrix – Paul watched the Sci-Fi Channel a lot – and he turned around to share this information with the cop. Before he could say anything, however, the cop said, ‘If you give it to me, they’ll leave you alone.’
‘Trust me, son, you don’t need the trouble. Give me the switch.’
‘That thing in your pocket. Give it to me now and we’ll lose them.’ The cop reached back and Paul stared at his open hand. Before he could make a decision, the dark shadow of the SUV loomed as it accelerated and caught up alongside. The passenger window descended...
© Ronald A. Geobey 2018