SWITCH

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“I was brought in badly injured and was with Doctor Gerald for several days recovering,” I explained. “He moved me to a cottage across the way yesterday. I need a safe deposit box for some jewelry. Richard didn’t mention setting up anything for me any official paperwork either.”

“Richard? Colonel Richard Wolfe brought you here?” Janet asked, her brow still crinkled disturbing her otherwise calm demeanor.

“Yes, Ma’am a few days ago. Monday night I believe. It was very late.” By Janet’s tone, someone was in trouble.

“Very interesting. What is your rank and who is your commanding officer?” Janet demanded.

“She’s a civilian, a specialized civilian like me.” Ann’s voice was low. As she spoke, she patted Janet’s hand and nodded. The polished woman slowly realized what type of person was in the tiny office with her.

“Oh,” Janet looked me up and down. “No matter the Colonel knows to make the proper arrangements. I’m sorry for your inconvenience. This is highly unusual. I’ll be happy to take you under my group, anything you require, you can ask me, and I’ll help you get it.”

“Sounds wonderful thank you. I’m still getting the hang of things. It hasn’t gone as smoothly as I think everyone would have liked,” I admitted, lowering my eyes to the floor.

“Don’t concern yourself with that. I will get to the bottom of this. Give me five minutes. Write down your social security number down for me. I’ll see if you have a box.” I jotted my social down and handed it to Janet she seemed supremely capable. I almost felt bad for pointing out Richard’s oversight, almost. Ann and I sat and waited in the small, undecorated office for her to return.

“What is it you do here Ann if I’m permitted to ask?”

“You can ask me anything you like. The main purpose of this installation is to gather information, which requires interrogations. We get some of the worst to question hence the restricted access and remote location.”

“But there’s a town below us. People are living down there, don’t they notice all the helicopters flying above them?” The thought of this many people sharing a secret so large just seemed absurd to me.

“I’m sure they do, but those people are our families. The people who work here live in town. Everyone knows the drill.” Ann began to flutter around the room tidying piles of travel brochures before returning to straighten the container of pens on the desk in front of her.

“You haven’t actually answered my question. You don’t seem like the type who shoves bamboo splinters under people’s fingernails. What do you have to do with this place?”

“There are eight of us here with uncommon talents.” Ann patted my arm as she sunk down into an overstuffed chair next to me. “We all lend something to the process. My part is a bit morbid I suppose. I talk to the dead. Once the usual tactics are exhausted, and the subject dies. I prevent their crossover, hold their soul hostage so we can get the information we need.”

“Is that successful? I mean, do we still know everything we did once we die?”

“It’s not a hundred percent successful. Sometimes they didn’t know anything. In that case, they’re terminated needlessly.” Ann began to fidget with a loose thread on her sleeve and seemed a bit self-conscience. “Don’t get me wrong they are all deep into something heinous before they make it here, and I don’t do the actual killing. But from my experience, we are still aware right after death. Most folks will linger on with all the knowledge they have for some time, days even. I can stop their progression beyond our consciousness. Usually, I get the info we are looking for at that point.”

“How did you figure out you could do this?” The whole prospect of talking to dead people sounded terrifying to me. Ann looked puzzled but she quickly recovered her normal pleasant smile.

“We had this conversation before you know, years and years ago, but your questions are similar. Anyway, I was very young, maybe nine or ten. Vivid nightmares, mangled bodies calling out to me, grabbing for me, sometimes they just stood there staring. I woke up screaming most nights. Scared the hell out of my parents.

“I wasn’t sleeping, and they weren’t sleeping either. I would do almost anything to stay awake. I snuck coffee, poked myself with pins, but none of it lasted, and I would fall asleep. My face was gaunt, and the bags under my eyes were so dark. Once my hair started falling out in small clumps, my parents took me to Dandridge. It was a local, upscale loony bin back in the day.

“There were various evaluations and medication to force me to sleep. One of my therapists started trying to help me with my dreams. She was convinced my mind was showing me the gruesome images to eliminate some trauma my parents inflicted on me. My poor parents never laid a hand on me. They were afraid, they wanted to find out what was wrong with me.

“Eventually, a few more doctors joined in and began a guided sleep study of sorts. She helped me to find the courage to ask the dream people who they were and what they wanted. When I woke up, I would tell her every detail I remembered. She took great notes and was genuinely interested in helping me. She willed the journals to me years ago.

“Anyway, she came across one of the names from my dreams in the newspaper. It was a story about a high school basketball star who died instantly after falling from a train trestle. The boy and his friends were goofing off where they shouldn’t be, as boys generally do, but it was foggy that night. The boys were drinking, and one walked right off the edge. Fell more than forty feet to the rocky ground below. He came to me afterward. She was amazed. The details from my dream the night of his death were recounted in the paper two days later.

“The news was a bit slower back then, so she went back and researched the recent deaths. She found all my dream names, but she didn’t find all of the recently dead in my journals. My dream people all had one thing in common they all died unexpectedly. They were confused and didn’t know what to make of their new situations.

“It took a few months, but with everyone’s help, we figured it out. The dead needed a shove in the right direction. They needed to tell someone what happened or find out what happened to them. My Doctor shared her findings with a few noted psychics and together they found me a therapist who specialized in unique areas of study. By the time I was fourteen I accepted my duty to usher the unfortunate to the edge of the veil. The dead didn’t scare me anymore. I could sleep through the night. My health improved, and my life was filled with possibilities again.

“I went to a private school shortly after at the request of my therapist and was fast-tracked into a government program for the spooky and gifted. By the time I was nineteen, I was here, and it’s been my home ever since. I enjoy not having to hide what I am. There are eight, well nine people now, who know what I do, and they accept me. I don’t know I would get the same reaction anywhere else.”

“I can’t imagine being so young and having to deal with all this. It must have been terrifying for you and your parents.” I was shocked. She told her unbelievable story in such a matter of fact way. I believed her even though some rational part of my brain was screaming bullshit.

“They didn’t know what was going on. They were simple, hardworking people with no experience with anything like my problem. I’m not sure what the doctor told them. We never spoke of it in more than broad terms. They were glad I was healthy, and I was in a fancy school. I could tell they didn’t understand everything, but only my happiness concerned them.

“I visited at the holidays, and they came to visit me here a few times. I hid behind the top-secret work excuse, never gave them any details. They were proud I was working for our country. My mother knew there was something I wasn’t telling her, but she never pushed me for answers.”

“God, I can’t expect anyone to accept me. It feels like I’m vanishing. Still, I don’t want to be treated like some kind of monster.” My situation was strange at best and dangerous at its worst.

“Carl understands, it’s what he does. He counsels all of us. He has many subtle abilities, but in my opinion, is his ability to stand alongside you in your thoughts is his most valuable. He can feel your anguish, your pride, or disgust as if it were his own. I’m sure you will feel better once you talk to him. You are not the freak you make yourself out to be. All of our abilities are explainable they just aren’t commonplace. Anyway, if you have to wait for a deposit box you can put the jewelry in one of mine, with instructions of course, in case something happens to me.”

“Ann, don’t say that we’ll see what the lady finds. Besides, you are not kicking the bucket anytime soon. I have a nose for these things.”

“You can tell when people are going to die?” Ann was almost giddy with excitement, her eyes lit up, and she bounced her chair around to face me.

“Yeah, I can tell when it’s the last time I am going to see a person alive. It’s like ice water in my veins or a cold smack in the face, the feeling is just there, bam. You’re fine I’ll see you again.”

“How does that even work? Do you tell the people you have this feeling?” Ann’s excitement was overwhelming.

“Oh no, no. That would make me sound crazy. Besides what if they didn’t die?”

“What if you telling them, changed something, and they didn’t die just then? I’ve heard of dogs that can tell if somebody is going to die. I figured the dog smelled some kind of actual decay on the person, but maybe they sense something divine.” Ann mused.

Janet came back into the room with a smile on her face. “You already have a box in the vault, and I spoke to the Colonel. His staff sent the paperwork to the wrong office. This is his fault entirely. He asked me to extend a dinner invitation to you both for tonight at seven at his residence. He is leaving for a trip tomorrow morning and would like to speak with Calynn beforehand.”

“Thank you so much, Janet. I only need to add a few things to the box.” I pulled my stash of treasure out of my backpack and put them on the desk for Janet to see.

“Don’t you want to see what’s in the vault now dear?” Janet asked.

“Sure, I suppose I should.” Janet led Ann and me to an old bank vault. She needed two keys and code to punch in before the huge door would open. The room easily held a few hundred, safe deposit boxes and there seemed to be twice as many in the room on the opposite side of the wall. Janet led me to a large box and handed me a key.

“You gave back this key before you left years ago. There were instructions to hold the container for twenty-five years before searching for an owner or surviving heir. It looks like you made it back here a few years sooner than you planned.”

The keys slid in the locks and the little door opened. Ann took a few steps back and struck up a lighthearted sounding conversation with Janet while I opened the long shoebox-sized container. There were a few letters wrapped together, a checkbook, an expired passport, a small bag of colored loose gems, and a short stack of hundred-dollar bills.

One letter contained pictures of my family. All their names, birth dates, and addresses jotted on a page in what looked like my handwriting. The largest pile of paperwork was a collection of old mail. There was an owner’s title for a 1967 Mustang. A stack of GIA certificates and a folded note taped to another small envelope.

I chose to leave, and I hope things go well in my new life. I gambled everything. The cost was more than anyone should risk. What I asked Ivan to do is terrible, but he is the only one I trust. What I want for myself can’t be found here. I wish for happiness and peace, for a life far away from this constant tragedy. I accept what the universe sees fit to provide me.

I peeled the note from the envelope and handed it to Ann. “Do you think I wrote this?” I tried prying the envelope open with my keys, but the thick packing tape had melted into the paper.

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