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art by Melissa Mead

Flip Side

Chip Houser is a recovering architect who currently studies creative writing at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. He and his wife's domestic circus features three fourlegged beasts, none of whom are allowed to cross streets alone. This is his first publication.

Squatting on the curb in front of a boarded-up duplex, a woman rocks back and forth, arms crossed, arguing with herself.
"You were driving too fast!"
"He should have looked both ways!"
The sun is shining brightly. Her freckled flesh is sunburned where it presses through tears in her dress. Meant for a slimmer frame, the dress is dingy and thin, the once bright floral pattern lost to wear and dirt.
"You weren't paying attention!"
Beside her feet huddle several grimy shopping bags and an empty bottle with a pirate on the label. She grabs it and, finding it empty, curses.
"Look before you cross, Tommy!" she yells, hurling the bottle without looking. It skips and shatters across the street.
Just beyond the ruined bottle, an elderly fellow in a threadbare suit leans on a wooden cane, watching. Wraparound sunglasses dwarf his head, which is covered in age spots, thinning hair, and beaded sweat. Tapping and sweeping the ground with his cane, he carefully navigates across the lumpy asphalt through the broken glass. The woman looks up when his shadow crosses her. Her eyes are red and angry. "What do you want?"
"Mind if I sit?"
"Yes!" she yells, leaning away. Her limp hair sways, heavy with grease. "Who are you? Go away!"
The old man sits down; she clutches herself and scoots away from him.
Patting away the sweat with a yellowed handkerchief, he says, "I'm here to help."
"I said go away!"
He draws a small glass bottle from inside his jacket. It sparkles in the sunlight, like the broken glass on the street.
"What's that?" The woman snatches the bottle from him, cradling it protectively in both hands. The bottle holds what looks like barbecue sauce, russet-colored with black flecks. Pulling the stopper the woman sniffs it. "Whiskey?"
"Better than that."
She tips the bottle, empties it. A trickle of sauce runs down the dirty crease at one corner of her mouth. She grabs her throat and gags. "That's not whiskey, it's poison!"
"Your mind's poisoned, not my sauce."
"No! If that kid had just looked--" The woman rubs her temples with dirty fingers. She looks confused, as if she's forgotten what she's talking about. She shakes her head as if trying to clear her mind. Her fingers, gripping the bottle tightly, have become slightly translucent.
"See, it's already working." Gently, the old man takes the bottle back. "Relax now, it won't take long. Tommy's going to be just fine this time."
The woman looks sharply at the old man. "What did you say?"
"You'll see." He chuckles as she fades away to nothing. The old man tucks the bottle away, tilts his smile up toward the sun.
A red convertible races along a narrow two-lane road, a rocky slope to the right dropping down to a sandy beach. The air is clean, the sun warm, the sky blue. The driver's hair blows in the wind while her dress, a bright floral print, flutters against her slender frame. She is smiling, paying no attention to her speed.
As she steers into a curve she sees a young girl crossing the road. It is too late to brake, but the girl is across in a flash. The woman does not notice the little boy crawling clumsily under the guardrail.
"Wait for me!" he cries, running into the road.
The car is going far too fast for the woman to stop.
Too late, the girl turns back. "Tommy! No!"
The boy stops, confused, directly in the rushing convertible's path. His head turns, as if in slow motion, eyes widening, eyebrows raising, mouth forming an "O."
The woman jerks the wheel hard to the left, fishtailing into the oncoming lane and back across again toward the guardrail. As the car strikes the guardrail, a dozen yards in front of the little boy, it flips into the air.
The boy stands, frozen, watching wide-eyed as the convertible whooshes over his head, so close he could reach up and touch the woman's streaming hair. There is no sound other than the screaming engine. He turns, watching the convertible slam onto the rocks below and burst into flames.
Years later the boy, now grown, crosses that same stretch of road. There is a crosswalk now, and yellow signs, but people still drive too fast. As he crosses, he looks both ways--left, then right, then left again--and stops dead in the middle of the road, very near where he had as a boy. He has just remembered something from that day long ago: why, he wonders, was the woman smiling as she sailed past?
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, August 29th, 2013

Author Comments

"Flip Side" came from a writing prompt: a woman is given the ability to go back in time and change one event in her life. It brings together my own horror over hitting a squirrel, my inability to avoid another of life's little horrors, floral patterns, and my unrealized dream of formulating a magic barbecue sauce. I liked the idea that the grown Tommy would wonder why the woman was smiling, and that he could never know the tragedy and redemption his successive appearances brought into her life.

- Chip Houser
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