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Dead Man's Switch

by Megan Anderson 18 days ago in Adventure · updated 11 days ago
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A reckoning on the tracks

It’s the scratching sound that wakes him. Raspy and clipped. Irritating. When he opens his eyes, there’s a woman sitting across from him, filing her nails. A mop of black ringlets frames her face, but the look she’s rocking is defiantly white: pearly gown, chalky high tops, fingerless mittens, alabaster skin. Protruding from her shoulders is a formidable set of wings, their milky feathers glistening like meringue.

‘Hello, Sunshine,’ she says, blowing nail dust off her left pinkie.

He looks away; there’s always a weirdo on the train. Of all the seats in all the carriages, of course she had to choose this one.

He stares out the window. Now he’s really awake. The view – cobalt sky, pillowy clouds, snowy peaks – is tilted at a 45 degree incline. It’s a sheer drop down.

His eyes dart to the woman. She’s gazing back at him, impassive, snapping out bubbles from her gum. It’s also white. Even the leather of her seat is white. His seat is white. A bold choice for a commuter line.

‘Stupid question,’ he ventures, trying for a smile. ‘But what train is this?’

‘Funicular,’ she says. ‘Liminal line.’

He shakes his head; never heard of it. She stifles a yawn and tilts her chin at the route map above the windows. It’s like no other train map he’s seen. No tangle of coloured lines, no mess of station names, no intersecting hubs. Just one straight line with two stops.

Death at one end, Afterlife at the other.

He blanches.

‘Lachie, isn’t it?’ She pipes up just as he’s about to faint. She leans across and gives his face a brisk pat. Lightweight. She consults her tablet. ‘Let’s see now… mountain pass, wet conditions, high speed…’ She scrolls on, inhales through her teeth. ‘Ooh. Nasty.’

His head swims. His breath is shallow. ‘Who are you?’

‘I’m your angel,’ she says, tracing a halo shape in the air with her finger. ‘Brenda. I’m here to steward you to the end of the line.’

The train rocks on its tracks, picking up speed.

‘The end of the line?’ he says.

She gestures to the map again, poker faced. ‘I thought we’d covered this.’

‘But I didn’t buy a ticket for this line,’ he says, alarm building. ‘I don’t want to be on this train. I don’t want to go… there, whatever that is.’ He waves his hand dismissively in the direction of Afterlife.

She shrugs. This again. ‘Well, you’ll need to get cracking then,’ she says, brushing a stray feather from her lap. ‘The further we get from Death, the faster this baby goes.’ She hoists her eyebrows and grins. ‘Steeper, too.’

He gawps. ‘Get cracking?’

Her eyes flick deliberately back to the route map. His eyes follow. Is she talking about some kind of code? He squints hard at the map. Half way along the lonely black line, there’s a faint dotted circle, and a faded word in tiny letters. Interchange. She chews her gum, listless.

‘Interchange?’

‘It’s where we rub shoulders with the B-Train.’

He looks blank.

‘We’re on a funicular.’ She says it like he’s an egg shy of an omelette. ‘One cable, two trains, one up, one down. You know physics, right? The relationship is symbiotic. Without one, there’s no other. We pass each other once every trip. We’ve got totally different agendas, but we’re on nodding terms.’

‘And the B-Train is…’

‘Empty, most of the time.’

‘Where’s it going?’

‘Back to Life, Sunshine.’ She makes jazz hands. ‘You get on that train, you get one more shot at it. Job, kids, mortgage, Wordle gloating. The whole catastrophe.’

An electric whirr vibrates through the floor, and the train’s velocity ratchets up a notch. Lachie squares his body and fixes Brenda with his best I’m serious.

‘How. Do I get. On that train?’

She purses her lips. ‘You’re driving. You tell me.’

What?’

‘Well, after a fashion.’ She adjusts her wings. ‘The big boss has the route mapped out, more or less, but he works remotely. There’s no actual driver at the helm.’

‘And I’m driving… how?’

‘You’ve heard of a dead man’s switch, right?’

‘Emergency brake? Engine override?’

‘Bingo. It doesn’t happen often, but every now and then a passenger gets to hit that sucker.’ She beams. ‘It does make a trip more interesting.’

‘What happens?’

‘Sparks,’ she says. ‘It gets pretty noisy. Then it gets quiet again, there’s a bit of woo-woo stuff, and someone crosses over.’

‘Someone? Why not everyone?’

‘One per trip, tops. That’s the rule.’ She plucks some lint from her thumbnail. ‘Sometimes not even. It’s a lottery. Completely random. You can’t earn it, exactly. It’s indiscriminate. But you can get lucky.’

Lachie springs from his seat and heads for the connecting door. A clump of mud dislodges from his rain jacket. His neck hurts.

‘Settle, Petal,’ she says. ‘If you’re on the hunt for the dead man’s switch, you’re getting colder.’

The train tilts another 10 degrees north, and gains five clicks. Sweat glistens on Lachie’s brow as he staggers back into his seat. His eyes are pleading.

‘What kind of angel are you?’ he says. ‘Aren’t you meant to help me?’

She gives him a faux pout. Her curls bounce as she waggles her head. ‘Aw, Locks,’ she says. ‘Tell you what. Here’s a clue. There’s a switch in every carriage.’

His eyes swivel, feverish.

‘It’s hard to find,’ she says. ‘Actually, it’s more or less invisible.’

He slumps.

‘It only shows up in some circumstances.’

‘Circumstances?’

‘Always different. Hard to say.’

The train shifts into overdrive and tilts some more, tipping Lachie hard into his seat. Out the window, a cherub plucking at a harp whips past on a cumulus cloud.

‘Oh come on. I’m not meant to be here!’ Lachie snaps. Exasperation gathers as spittle at the edge of his mouth. ‘I should be working on my Strava stats, perfecting my dirt jumps. I’ve got Tik Tok moves to master. I just renewed my passport!’

She scratches her chin.

‘Look, I've got an important work Zoom this afternoon. And tickets to see The Pixies. And unredeemed Fly Buys. And plans. I’ve never surfed Fulong Beach, God dammit. SHOW ME THE WHERE THE SWITCH IS!’

‘I think you mean be an angel and please show me where the switch is,’ she says, smoothing her thighs like a kindergarten teacher.

He’s panting, fingers making divots in his armrests.

‘Listen,’ she says. ‘There’s stuff you still want to do, I get it. Hardly anyone boards this train with their bags packed and a good book, pumped for the ride. Most people aren’t ready. It’s sucky, but that’s life: unexpected, unfair, ephemeral.’ She sniffs. ‘And kinda overrated.’

His ears pop with the altitude.

‘On the upside, where this train’s going, there are highs you can’t even imagine.’ Her face lights up. ‘Honestly, it’s the business. Music that’ll blow your head off. Flavours that put chocolate in the shade. Zero head colds. Asteroid infinity pools. Solar storms to die for…’

‘Well all that can wait,’ he barks. ‘I’ve got years yet.’

She pushes her lips sideways. ‘You think?’

He looks around him. White on white. Not so much as a phone-charging dock, let alone a way to access his WhatsApp chats. Just some freakish bullet train on a near-vertical lean, and a querulous angel with attitude. This isn’t happening. This can’t be it.

‘Try to relax, Sunshine. It’s all a bit strange and new right now but this part’ – she makes an offhand gesture at the train carriage – ‘is the most tedious. I promise you. It gets better. Just wait till you try cloud surfing!’

‘But I’ve got 12 unused swims on my pool membership,’ he says, despondent.

She regards him like a misbehaving toddler, fatigue and disappointment on her brow.

‘You really want to go back?’ she says. ‘OK. Let’s do it.’

She taps twice on her tablet, and the carriage dims. The train noise vanishes. They’re suspended in space and time. A gel screen shimmers into view between them. It’s like a high definition portal with a bird’s eye view.

She zooms in.

~

Early morning in a coastal town. Light mizzle falls on the mountain. A hiking trail snakes its way through spindly peppermints and banksias, flanked by a steep valley. On the rain-slicked trail, there’s a gash of blue. Something glints.

Zoom in.

A blue spray jacket. Lachie’s spray jacket. Lachie. He’s spreadeagled on the track, head bent at an improbable angle, unmoving. The spokes of his mangled mountain bike catch the light. The wheels are still spinning.

‘Jesus.’ Lachie is pale. Trembling.

‘There’s more,’ says Brenda, shifting the viewfinder. ‘Down the slope. Looks like a kid.’

Zoom in.

A boy, maybe 10 years old. He’s wedged in the low branches of a rambling melaleuca, blood dribbling from his ear. A chocolate Labrador paces and frets by his side, nudging the limp body with his nose, whining softly. The dog’s tail twitches a tiny flag of hope. Desperate barking echoes off the granite outcrop.

‘Oh, Christ.’ Lachie lurches in his seat. A wisp of recognition flutters across his face.

Rewind. GoPro view.

Morning. Mountain trail. Lachie Avery takes a banked corner on his Norco Torrent. Nails it. He punches the sky and speeds on, catching air as he sails over a mound. Rain pings off his jacket in applause. Mud splatters sideways. He’s pumped. Up ahead, he sees a kid and his dog on the track. It’s Benny, from three doors down. Odd kid. Not many friends. Huge disco nut. Lachie likes to rib him about that. Tells him to quit torturing the dog. Tells him the dog looks like more of a Britpop fan.

Benny’s got his AirPods in and his rain hood on. The dog trots beside him on a leash while Benny squirms his hips and jabs at the air with his free hand. He’s belting out The Bee Gees like nobody’s listening.

Lachie spots an opportunity for sport. If he times it right, he can barrel up behind them and scare the bejezus out of Benny by floating his wheels past the kid’s left ear just as they reach the creek crossing. ‘Staying Aliiii-iiive,’ he’ll croon over his shoulder at Benny, who’ll scream like a girl and pitch into the creek. Lachie will belly laugh all the way home. The whole puerile prank will see him through a full day of drudgery at the council office.

Lachie picks up speed. When he finds Benny’s heels, he bunny hops his front wheel off the ground. He makes the jump, but misjudges it. Mid-air, an errant tree branch collects him just below the chin, snapping his neck and felling him onto the track with a sickening thud. His bike spins out from under him. Mud and blood streak his motionless body.

He doesn’t get to see the spooked dog launch off the edge of the track, snapping its leash taut and dislocating Benny’s shoulder as the two of them careen into the gully. He doesn’t see Benny skid and crunch down the slope for a full 10 seconds before thwacking into a tangle of branches. He doesn’t see anything.

Rain drips off the foliage. Birds chirrup. The dog cowers in a hollow, whimpering.

~

Brenda stops chewing and looks at Lachie. The lights come up. The train noise is back, throttle working overtime. Lachie feels the speed ripple through his belly. He’s light headed and reeling.

‘Who else is on this train?’ he asks, shaken.

‘There’s a fair crowd this morning,’ she says. ‘We’ve managed to give everyone a private carriage, though, just for transit. Less chance of mutiny that way.’

‘Benny?’ He hardly dares ask.

‘Next carriage along,’ she says. ‘Poor little mite. I see on the staff group chat he’s pretty terrified.’

Lachie drops his head. Behind his eyes, it’s all Benny. Benny on that slope, lifeless. Benny’s dog, fretting. Benny’s plugged ears, pumping out blood and Bee Gees static. Benny’s limbs tangled in mountain scrub. The mountain scrub, judging.

He looks up, and an amber glow catches his peripheral vision. Above him on the route map, the faded Interchange circle is now lit, clear as a laser.

Lachie blinks. Another light shows up on his armrest. He knows it wasn’t there before, because he’s been digging his nails into the bare leather. Now there’s a boxy red button sunk into it, backlit and glowing, pulsing in time with the train.

Dead. Man’s. Switch.

The train tilts higher. The engine thrusts. Lachie swallows. It has to be now. He makes a fist and slams it down hard on the button. There’s a satisfying click, and the light glows green. Then comes the noise: the banshee wail of metal on metal, the bone-chilling groan of a complaining engine, the crackle of hot sparks whizzing past the windows, the hydraulic hiss of a locomotive finding its level, one very amped angel making her appreciation known.

‘Whoooooo! Hooooooo!’ she yips as the train judders to a ticking, smoking halt. ‘Finally some action! Look what you did, LockStar! Never knew you had it in you!'

Lachie is dumbstruck in his seat, breathing hard. The stillness is disorienting. When his head stops spinning, he looks across to see another train parked on the adjacent track. The B-Train. Its garish polyester seats strobe under the fluorescent lights. There’s an empty Coke can on the floor, some graffiti on the walls. No sign of passengers.

‘One pimped ride,’ the angel deadpans.

Lachie stands, unsteady, and walks to the automatic doors. They don’t open.

‘Ah, it’s not a self-serve kind of situation,’ says Brenda. ‘Did I mention? Hitting the switch is not a fait accompli. Random is king. Random decides. Random is busy hitting and missing its way through this train as we speak.’

She taps at her tablet. ‘Let’s have a look.’

The carriage dims, and the gel screen wobbles back into view.

Live feed. Drone view.

On the mountain slope, the Labrador makes high mewing sounds and paws at Benny’s arm. The dog sits, suddenly startled.

The boy’s fingers move. His legs twitch. His eyes flutter open.

The dog barks and spins in circles by his side, its tail a helicopter blade. Benny moans. The dog licks him. Benny screws up his nose. The dog licks him some more, then takes off down the track towards home.

Brenda reads something on her tablet, then shifts her attention to the other train, expectant. Lachie does likewise. They watch, transfixed, as Benny materialises on the B-Train’s bench seat, blinking like a stunned deer in the anaemic glare.

He casts his bewildered eyes around, then meets Lachie’s gaze through the closed doors. Lachie steps closer and puts his hands against the glass. Benny stands to mirror him on the opposite train. It’s deathly quiet. A galaxy of knowns and unknowns and goodwill and fear and gratitude and hope and disco eddies like stardust between them. They’re perfectly still; like vessels becalmed on a lake at twilight. Then they’re smiling. Brenda bats her damp lashes at the ceiling.

Thick cloud floats in and fogs the glass, obscuring the view. A shrill whistle sounds. Lachie steps back from the doors, and reclaims his seat opposite Brenda. Both trains creak and tilt – one up, one down – and start to move.

Brenda gives Lachie a rock 'n' roll salute.

‘Let’s get there already!’ she hoots.

And in a warp-speed whorl of white light and feathers, they’re away.

Adventure

About the author

Megan Anderson

Loves a yarn. Draws a bit. Sings in the yard. Spells things the Australian way.

Reader insights

Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insights

  1. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

  2. Easy to read and follow

    Well-structured & engaging content

  3. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  1. Heartfelt and relatable

    The story invoked strong personal emotions

  2. Eye opening

    Niche topic & fresh perspectives

  3. On-point and relevant

    Writing reflected the title & theme

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Comments (20)

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  • Al14 days ago

    What beautiful writing and such an incredible story. You are truly a writer, absolutely love it xxx

  • Shaye Smith15 days ago

    Great writing! Enjoyed immensely! Your description of the angel was terrific...I could absolutely picture her!

  • blight15 days ago

    Brenda was an absolute riot throughout. The non-verbal communication was just as captivating as the dialogue while sending me through a whirlwind of laughter and worry. Will definitely be subbing.

  • Annie16 days ago

    Such an enjoyable read! Entertaining and captivating. Great job - I look forward to reading more :)

  • Matthew Foster16 days ago

    Great! I loved: "‘I think you mean be an angel and please show me where the switch is,’ she says, smoothing her thighs like a kindergarten teacher." It's so good. One criticism though. A dead man switch isn't a switch that you press to make the train stop. It's a switch that you let go of. For instance, in order for the train to move the driver has to be pressing the switch. If the driver were to have a heart attack or something, then the switch is released, and the train stops on it's own. Maybe I'm thinking to hard about it. It's excellent nonetheless! Subscribing right now.

  • Marie Ormerod17 days ago

    Loved, loved, loved this story! Compelling from start to finish! Great character development in a short time! Excellent word choices and usage...written to be read and fully enjoyed!! Perfect insertion of humour! I just loved this. Keep on keep'in on. You have talent with a capital T! I am hitting that subscribe button right now and I look forward reading more!

  • Tina Sorenson17 days ago

    Truly beautiful writing and story. Loved it.

  • I feel this story in my heart. Just. Wow.

  • Madoka Mori18 days ago

    Wonderful story, AND it reminded me to do my Wordle. A twofer!

  • Dana Stewart18 days ago

    Loved how you incorporated the use of technology, and angel Brenda's sassy attitude - 'Settle, petal' had me LOL-ing. Great tale!

  • Call Me Les18 days ago

    It's quirky and fresh! Well done. Had me racing to the end.

  • Kat Thorne18 days ago

    Great story! Loved how you wrote the characters

  • Jay Mckenzie18 days ago

    Excellent concept and pace. Lovely!

  • Wow!

  • Judy Gandza18 days ago

    Loved every word...kept me captivated to the end!

  • Hayley Conick18 days ago

    Nice. Conceptually strong and well paced. Also made me chuckle.

  • Tom Jardine18 days ago

    Love your style! Great work!

  • Dean D’Adamo18 days ago

    Nice job. Love your writing style

  • Shaun Botica18 days ago

    That was awesome! great read, amazing imagery and a really cool concept.

  • good work 😊

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