The Switch - Excerpt
Anais flicked the stovetop on with the kettle over it, leaning against the counter and listening to what was as close to complete silence as one might find in a city of nine million inhabitants. She could hear the clock ticking, the water roiling uncomfortably above the blue flames, the hum of her own breathing. She closed her eyes and she felt herself relax, her body releasing a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding all day.
“Hello, darling Anais. All grown up.”
Anais knew the voice before she saw the man it belonged to. She knew the voice even though she couldn’t remember anything he’d said the last time they’d met. It was a nice voice, an unplaceable accent hiding beneath certain syllables and a droll drawl that slung the words together.
He stood in the doorway between the kitchen and the sitting room. He wore a dark suit and those same dark shoes, with a thin black tie slicing him into perfect monochrome symmetry. Even his hair and his eyes were dark. He stood with his hands in his pocket and a slouched back, but not the kind that betrayed insecurity. His posture was casual in a way that told Anais that he was right where he was meant to be in that moment, and that she had no right to question him.
“You haven’t aged,” Anais remarked. It was true, and it was the first thing she thought upon seeing him. She would have placed him somewhere in his early to mid thirties, which was exactly where she would have placed him sixteen years ago.
“Mm. Aging, that was a bad habit. The trick is to nip it in the bud.” He flicked a finger towards the kettle. “Enough in there for me, I hope?”
“Should be. How’d you get in here?” Anais didn’t move as he entered the kitchen and located the tea selection without searching or scrounging; he moved as if he spent more time in this flat than Anais did.
She heard him tut to himself as he unwrapped a tea bag and dropped it into a seamlessly located mug. He turned to face her again, a distant cousin of disdain written across his features. “Honestly, of all the questions you could ask? I expected more of you, Anais.”
Anais crossed her arms, her eyes narrowing at the man. Perhaps he was on the run, just like everyone else. He probably wanted her to send him somewhere with her willful wishes.
“Are you running from the Angels?” She was almost nervous to ask the question, afraid she’d say it the wrong way or incite anger in the man. Maybe even summon the Angels, whoever they were.
He snorted. “No. They’re a dreadful lot, yes, but they know better than to go after me.” He leaned in, pushing his voice down to a stage whisper. “I’m too much fun for them to get rid of.” He topped the statement off with a sly wink.
There were too many questions, and each of them seemed to branch off in a different direction. Anais wanted to ask them all at once, inquiries falling to the floor and shattering into answers upon landing. He obviously knew about whatever side of reality it was that Anais occasionally brushed with. But it was him she was dealing with now, so it seemed best that she find out more about the strange man joining her for an impromptu tea time.
“Who are you?”
“You can call me Mr. Whimley. Fox, if the two of us get really close.” Another wink. He still spoke and stood with complete confidence, but he pulled the name out of the air just a breath too slowly. Anais didn’t think he had come up with it on the spot. Instead, it sounded as if he had scraps of paper tucked into his jacket pockets, ones with pseudonyms scrawled upon them that he chose from at random. Maybe Fox Whimley was a name he’d used before, and his memory hadn’t been as sharp as he’d hoped. Perhaps Fox Whimley was a name he’d been saving for Anais. It flew from his tongue with a flourish, his accent writing it in gaudy calligraphy in the air.
“You remember me, then?” he asked, beaming when Anais dipped in chin in affirmation. “Glad to hear it. I do love to make an impression.”
“You’ve been following me,” Anais said suddenly. The shock of his presence had faded ever so slightly, and past occurrences were demanding to be brought up.
“Ooh, good eye,” Whimley sing-songed, nodding his head appreciatively as he silenced the building whistle of the tea kettle. He poured the water into his mug and reopened the cabinet. “Any preference on mugs? And what kind of tea would you like?”
“I’ll get it myself, thanks,” Anais replied, biting out her false gratitude. He seemed unperturbed by her snapped reply, and simply backed away from the counter, moving to the other side of the kitchen and pulling a spoon out of the drawer.
“Have you been in my flat before?” Anais asked as she watched the water pass through her tea bag. “You seem to know your way around exceptionally well.”
“Perhaps not as good an eye as I’d hoped,” he murmured. Anais cast sideways glances around the flat, wondering if there was any indication of his presence there on days previous. She didn’t know what she should have looked for. It wasn’t as if there were footprints tracking their way through the kitchen or wayward ties dangling from window sills.
“But, yes, I have been keeping my eye on you for a bit,” he said, taking an experimental sip of his tea. “Ever since I met you, really. Do you remember that, when we met? Do you remember what I said to you?” He was speaking with sudden seriousness, as if the matter at hand had become the single most pressing issue the world had to offer. He waited, staring at Anais with a look of profound concern, as if a faulty memory might spell a doomed future for her.
Anais shook her head, hoping it would perhaps unearth those words he’d said to her, to no avail.
“Pity,” he breathed over the lip of his teacup, blowing at the trails of steam. His eyes emptied for a moment, as if he was watching a golden opportunity be swept into an unfathomable wind. Anais didn’t bother asking him if he’d tell her his words; he considered them lost, and so they must have been.
“What were you doing with my father all those years ago?” Anais said. A part of her wondered if her parents were in danger somehow.
“I was doing almost exactly what I told him I was doing,” he replied, snapping back to the present. “Him and I, we were making deals. I needed money, and his company had money. It was nothing underhanded, really. Admittedly, the money was going directly to me, not to another corporation as I’d told him. And I suppose I wasn’t entirely honest about what the money would be spent on after that. But, those things aside, it was all fair play.”
“My parents can’t remember any details of that night. They don’t know your name or anything you said. My dad can’t even remember what deals he made with you.”
“You’ve been asking around about me? I’m flattered.” He lay a hand to his chest to support the statement. “Yes, I can see why it’d all be a bit hazy in their minds. Ignorance is bliss, you know.”
Anais could allow his words from twelve years ago to slip away, but she didn’t like the crypticism surrounding her parents. “What deals did you make, and how did you make them forget afterwards?”
He breathed out a puff of laughter. “It’s alright, I didn’t harm them in any way. The deals I made were solely concerning money. They were unwise on your father’s part, yes, but you got over that little financial blip, didn’t you?” Anais tried to remember any economic discussions after Whimley’s meeting, but she would have been too young at the time to comprehend budgeting. She couldn’t even recall if things had seemed scarcer afterwards. “As for your parents’ memory problems, that’s just a trick of mine I’ve picked up. Like the aging thing.” He waggled his fingers, as if the ability to revoke entire lifetimes sat just below his fingernails. He stopped, pointing one directly at Anais. “And as I understand it, you’ve picked up a fairly handy trick of your own, haven’t you?”
“So they tell me,” Anais said. She thought this made it sound as if she was more knowledgeable on her ability than she truly was.
“Do they really? Who was the one to spill the beans on it?” He leaned against the counter behind him, crossing one leg over the other and balancing his foot on the toe of his shoe. They were the same kind of shoes he’d been wearing when Anais had first met him. Not so much as a speck of dust on them.
Anais shrugged. “I didn’t get her name. Some woman on the tube, about a year ago.”
“Blonde hair? Irregular gaps between her teeth?” he shot back, prompting her with two entirely unfamiliar characteristics when paired together.
“Brown hair, well-dressed, and no irregularities concerning her teeth, from what I could tell,” Anais said. She didn’t know much about what was going on with this strange man, but she did know she was out of her depth, and that was how he wanted it. She figured the best way to convince him that she wasn’t confused was to pretend she had heard everything he’d ever said before.
“Hm. I’m sure if you had a picture I’d be able to place her right away. No matter.” He gathered the mug up from where it sat on the counter and pointed in the direction of the sitting room. “Fancy a seat? Negotiations get so tedious, no need to stand all the while.”
“What are we going to be negotiating? And I hope you’re not expecting to take my memories after we talk.” Anais didn’t know what threat she was making if his plans said otherwise, so she imagined that there was a small yet efficient knife in her back pocket. If she could fool herself, she could fool him.
“We’ll be discussing your peculiar and particular gift, and how to best make use of it. And don’t worry.” He slipped his right hand into his pocket. “I wouldn’t dream of tampering with that head of yours.”
All of his smiles and winks were props, the hammers he was using to beat his point into place. Were Anais going solely off his voice, she would have believed every word he said. The only reason she knew he was lying was because he wanted her to know he was lying. The thought etched a crooked line across Anais’s lips; he was simply broadcasting how clever he was, but when he was truly employing his intellect for devious purposes, Anais would have no way of knowing.
“Lead the way, then,” she invited, motioning through the kitchen’s threshold. He chuckled to himself but didn’t object, making a show of walking in front of her. She watched the way his jacket moved, traced the outlines of his pockets for weapons. From what she could see, he didn’t have anything on him.
He lowered himself into an armchair Anais often did her work in, watching her as she settled herself into the crook of the sofa. He placed his teacup on the table between them, lacing his fingers together and fixing her with his dark eyes.
“So. What do you know?”
Anais didn’t have to ask him to specify. “I know that I’m called a Switch because of what I can do. I’ve only done it three times, and the last time was the only time I had any answers. It happened once with an older man when I was seventeen, once with two young children when I was nineteen, and then about a year ago with that woman I’ve mentioned.” She shrugged. “That’s about it.”
“And how do you do it?” he asked.
“I just have to touch the person who wants to go and will them away.” Anais looked down at her fingertips, then over at Mr. Whimley’s steepled ones. “Can anyone do it, if they know how?”
He laughed as if a young child had just stumbled over the punchline of a simple joke. “No, dear Anais. If only. What you can do is actually quite rare. I must say, I’m surprised you didn’t further pursue knowledge on the subject.”
“I did, at first. After a few days I lost interest.”
He frowned, his lips creasing downwards and his brows pulling inwards. “Lost interest? If that didn’t catch your interest, you must be an easily bored individual.”
“I wouldn’t say I am, no. I just don’t want much to do with it, is all.” Hearing it through someone else’s ears, Anais knew it sounded absurd. She knew she held something that millions of people would pay millions of dollars for. Not necessarily the power itself, but the knowledge of something more to the world that came with that power. It was a knowledge that keyed you into the shadows at the corner of your vision and the flurries of unexplained activity that you attribute to tricks of the light.
“Too tedious for you?” he said, his mouth splitting into a mocking little grin.
“Not tedious, no. It’s just not anything I feel I need in my life.”
“Easy money, though.”
Anais was about to agree when she thought back to the 100 quid that had been passed from hand to hand on the tube. She remembered squirreling it away, chipping away at its sum through book purchases and clothing purchases, occasionally using it to supplement her oyster card. She’d long since spent all of it, and she hadn’t told anyone of her acquisition of it.
“How did you know about that?” Anais asked. It felt redundant, sitting there and filling him in on her knowledge and the events of her life when it seemed he had them all on a transcript in his head. It was as if he was assessing her, waiting for her to give a wrong answer or slip into the cracks between details.
“I make it my business to know a little bit about everyone and everything. No need to worry about how,” he reassured her, taking another sip of his tea.
A silence grew between them, and Anais could tell that he was waiting for her to say something. As always, there was a correct answer stowed away just behind his lips, but he wanted to hear it from her first. She felt as if she’d been thrust into a complex dance with no knowledge of where she was supposed to move next, with her impatient partner awaiting the next spin or bow or dip.
“Your negotiations...they involve what I’m able to do, don’t they?” Her eyebrows tipped upwards, not for fear of his answer but for fear that her move had been miscalculated.
“Anais, do you know how many Switches there are in the world? That we know of?” He set his teacup down and watched her for an answer, his eyes narrowing and lines of concern cracking his facade.
“No. I haven’t seen anyone else do it. Then again, I don’t quite know what to look for.”
“Take a guess,” he said, tipping his chin forward in invitation.
Anais shrugged, the ballroom she’d imagined herself tiptoeing across transforming into a minefield. “I don’t know. Thousands. Maybe millions.”
Anais blinked, betraying the highest degree of shock she was willing to reveal to him. “Twenty-seven?” she enunciated, disbelief chopping the syllables into terse, angled things.
Whimley returned with a single deep nod.
“That...that can’t be right. There must be more. Besides, I didn’t know until I was seventeen. I’ll bet there are thousands of others out there who don’t know what they can do simply because no one has ever approached them about it.”
“Well, that could most certainly be true, but if those people don’t know what they can do, what good are they to us?” He leaned forwards, lacing his fingers together. “You see, when someone wants to make use of a Switch, they first need to find a Switch. It’s quite the process, but, to make things brief, I’ll simplify it. Essentially, the stronger the Switch is, the easier it is to locate them. You said people have asked you for help three times, yes?”
Anais nodded, trying to pretend it was formulas or theories she was processing, not the ins and outs of something that ground the laws of physics into dirt.
“Of the other twenty-six Switches, only one of them has been approached about their ability twice. For everyone else, it’s been a one and done deal.” Whimley said. “Not only that, but the one woman who it’s happened to twice? Those two occasions were seventeen years apart. Once when she was twenty six, and once when she was forty three.” He leaned back again, getting to the part where he got to tell her why he was so immensely pleased with himself. “But you? You’re an irregularity. Three times in the past five years?” He widened his eyes and blew a breath out through inflated cheeks, shaking his head as if to wipe away the prospect of Anais’s ability. “You’re the strongest Switch we’ve seen in generations.”
Anais leaned her fingertips against her temples, tugging the skin there in circles and dropping her eyelids shut. The other times she’d made use of what she could do had made sense, in their own incomprehensible way. At those times, she was in control. Those people who approached her thrust robes and rosaries into her hands, naming her as their god and begging divine favors from her that she didn’t even know she could grant. The robes were uncomfortable and rubbed against her skin in the wrong way, and the rosary beads were nearly dribbling through her fingers, but those people hadn’t known that. In their eyes, she was a priestess, no matter how unsure or discombobulated she seemed. The trust they put in her gave her a platform to stand on, something solid and elevated that gave her a bird’s eye view of the twilit reality she had stumbled into. Now, she had nothing. She was being told that she was the most powerful in her field, and yet she felt parched, thirsting for rest and wine and a normal night followed by a prosaic day.
“What do you mean by ‘the strongest we’ve seen in generations’?” Anais asked, shaking her head as she pulled it up from her hands. “Who is ‘we’? And how long have you been looking for people like me?” Anais swerved around the word ‘Switch’. She hated its hulking capital S, the way it curved around her ankles and slithered down her throat, claiming her and marking her as an irregularity. She didn’t know what it was she could do, but she didn’t want to be a member of the club her ability defined.
“There are other people like you. And I don’t just mean other Switches by that. I mean that there are other people who don’t quite live in the same reality that everyone else does.” He swept his hands through the air, as if the entirety of the ‘normal’ human population stood beside him as an example. “It’s all very complex and uninteresting, but the ‘we’ I refer to is all of the people whose reality is ever so different. We keep track of Switches because they’re so rare.” He leaned back, settling into the armchair as if he was a king reclaiming his throne at the start of the new day. “And because they’re so useful.”
Anais drew a deep breath in. She knew that was why he was here. It was the only thing that made sense. And yet, she had hoped it wouldn’t be true, that’d he’d somehow skate around it until spiralling in on the topic of conversation and forgetting his purpose in coming here completely. “I don’t feel like offering my services to anyone, thanks,” she replied, clipping the sentence off in a way she hoped conveyed that the conversation was over and it was time for him to leave.
He sighed, dipped his hand inside his jacket, and pulled out a small silver revolver. He stuck his index finger into the loop of metal where the trigger teased and began twirling it around, watching his own dexterous movements as he did so. “I had so hoped it wouldn’t come to this,” he said, mournful eyes locked on the gun’s fluid rotations. Suddenly his finger curled around the trigger and the grip of the gun settled into his waiting hand. His fingers absently rubbed at the handle as he levelled it at Anais, his head tilting to the side and his posture wilting to something far too casual for someone who was brandishing a firearm. “But, hey. You can’t always get what you want.” The last sentence was sung in a nostalgic whisper, as if he was reflecting on the heyday of the Stones and not complaining about the labors of threatening someone at gunpoint.
Anais knew she should be maneuvering to a less vulnerable position, or at least displaying some variation of shock, but she couldn’t rouse herself to do anything more than regard the gun with disinterest. The ring of metal regarding her not five feet away seemed to be no more than a circlet silver. She wouldn’t be able to see its fatal potential until there was a curl of smoke drifting away and she was lying dead on the floor.
At the same time, she knew that her life was very much endangered. It was only because this wasn’t entirely unexpected from Mr. Whimley that she reacted so stoically. Despite his flamboyance and sociability, Anais sensed that he was a creature of calculation. And so she would be, too. The best way to balance her current equation was to recognize the danger, but remove the emotional reaction.
“What is it you’re going to ask of me?” Anais said, pushing the barrel of the gun out of focus and returning her gaze back to Whimley.
“Well, that’s all very complex. You see, it’s not just the Switches you don’t know about; it’s everything. I can’t even begin to explain it all to you, and I’m sure you wouldn’t be so interested if I was inclined to try. But for my situation, I only ask one thing, for the time being. I just want you to come with me so that we can discuss this elsewhere.”
Anais heard all of the packaging he wrapped around ‘I want you to come with me’, trying to bury it in innocuous statements before arriving to the final point. ‘I want you to come with me,’ always sounded like a threat, no matter who was speaking it and in what tone. Hearts race and palms sweat when those words are spoken. Anais felt her own heart rate kick up a notch when those words stood out of his meaningless sentences.
He chuckled and shook his head, grinning at Anais with amusement. “Pardon me for saying so, but I don’t believe you’re quite in the position to be asking too many questions.” He said it like a friendly suggestion, the gun wavering in his hands to back up his point.
Anais sat for a moment more, making peace with the fact that she would not be going to bed early tonight. “Fine,” she said, standing and putting her discarded coat back on. She waved a resigned hand at the doorway. “Lead the way.”
“Splendid.” He spun the revolver once more before tucking it back into its hiding place within his jacket. There was no indication of the weapon’s hiding place once it was stowed away.“We’ll be Switching.”
“We?” Anais questioned, pausing as she zipped her jacket.
Whimley looked at her with a misunderstanding vacancy before shaking his head with realization. “Oh, of course. Yes, you're entirely capable of Switching yourself along with someone else. Your friend on the tube didn't tell you that?”
Anais slowed her movements, the sudden implication of everything she now knew laying flat at her feet. “She failed to mention that.” The entire world was somehow just beneath her fingertips, and she’d never known it. All this time.
“Yes, well. You let me do all the work. I’ll picture the place we’re going, and you can just come along for the ride.” He stood beside her and offered a leisurely arm out. Anais looped her own arm through his, well aware that the very instrument he’d threatened to kill her with was stowed only a few inches from her elbow.
“Is it any different, Switching myself? I know I have to be in contact with you, but what about me?”
“You’re in contact with yourself all the time, aren’t you? No, all you have to do is will the two of us away.”
“Where are you taking me?” Anais asked, looking up at him, already unsure if she could trust his answer.”
“Does that really matter?” he said, patting the place where he’d hidden his gun.
“I suppose not,” Anais replied. She looked forward, wished to leave, and they were gone.