The Other Side

Jennifer A Swallow

Jennifer A Swallow

Jennifer A Swallow is known more for writing about cybersecurity than imaginary lives, but that doesn't stop her from filling notebook after notebook with ideas. She lives the life of a digital nomad and usually finds inspiration everywhere she goes. When inspiration is lacking, she disappears into the wilderness until it comes back.

The early birds had come and gone, as had the later risers and the Sunday morning drivers. It was lunchtime now and no bargain hunters had stopped by in the last twenty minutes. The sun shone, scorching the plastic knickknacks and costume jewelry on the card tables. Sandra sat in the shade of her open garage fanning herself with a decade-old flyer for the high school chorus' spring concert.

She scanned the racks of clothing. Dozens of t-shirts and sweats emblazoned with the letters for Alpha Xi Delta. Lacrosse jerseys with the number eight on the back. Prom and homecoming dresses carefully wrapped in plastic with tissue paper between the layers to preserve them for the day when Kelsey had her own daughters. Now Sandra could only hope to relive Kelsey's excitement about those dresses in the eyes of an unfamiliar teen girl. But she did hope.

A flash of wind pierced the stillness, rattling the great oak tree in the yard.

Except it wasn't wind. It was a pair of black, military-style boots, and a split second later, jeans and a shirt, then a whole human being, crashing down along the branches, ejected out toward the driveway, skidding along the tables, and flying into the clothing rack.

The prom dresses scattered, colors floating through the air, brightly cascading in slow motion, somehow having escaped their plastic casings.

Except it wasn't dresses. Huge, heavy swaths of blue and red and yellow draped the folding tables and blanketed the dark pavement. Sandra crouched down and picked up an edge. She gathered it to her as she walked toward a groaning.

A man lay on the blacktop, legs and arms tangled in hangers and metal.

She dropped the fabric and dug him out of the wreckage. He rose slowly, first to hands and knees, then upright, favoring his left side.

Sandra said nothing.

He patted his clothing up and down as if looking for a lost wallet or eyeglasses. He shifted some cords from one side of his chest over his head to the other. Then the man said, "They told me this would happen. Take up parachuting at my age and you're going to get hurt. They think it's a crisis from Beverly leaving me, but they don't know what they're talking about."

Sandra still said nothing.

"Well," he smiled slightly and gestured to the tables, "thank goodness for your clutter or I would have ended up flat as a pancake on your driveway."

Pancake. Sandra cringed. That staple of small-town diner breakfasts all across America. A breakfast that she and her now-vanished family had once enjoyed on road trips. Now a disgusting, vile word.

Sandra remembered the suppressed snickering. The comments of "idiot!" and "Darwinism at its best" online. The confusion and even annoyance when Sandra refused to tell people what happened and the subsequent whispers and smirks after they had Googled it.

Alpha Xi Delta had held a fundraiser for the McDowd family. The father, William, had been shot by police in his own home while his arms were raised. The police claimed he was threatening them. The subsequent investigation revealed he had not been, and the responsible cop pled guilty to manslaughter. The sorority wanted to help. Each member went around the community and got pledges. Kelsey raised eight-hundred dollars.

None of that part of the story mattered. What mattered to people was that Sandra's twenty-year-old daughter had choked to death in a pancake eating competition. That was apparently "fucking hysterical."

Kelsey died two months after William McDowd. One year and nine months before his daughters were awarded three million dollars in a civil suit against the county. Seven years before Sandra was emotionally prepared to let go of her daughter's belongings and a strange man came crashing into the therapeutic purge, almost pancaking himself amid the faux fur throw pillows and pastel desk accessories.

But there was one thing Sandra hadn't put out for the garage sale.

"Ma'am? Are you alright? I'm sorry I startled you. I'm still new to this whole skydiving thing and I—"

Sandra turned away from him. She headed through the garage toward the interior door. The man called something to her, but she couldn't make out the words. She went into the basement of this house she had moved to a year after the incident in an effort to escape the ghost of her daughter.

On a shelf in the basement was a box containing baby shoes, tiny teeth, handmade Christmas ornaments, yearbooks, and a small object the Alpha Xi Delta sisters had given her all those years ago. At first, this object had horrified Sandra. She'd wondered how her daughter's former friends could be so crass and cruel, why they too would mock her this way. Years of counseling had helped her see a different point of view, that maybe they'd given her this object to honor their friend. Maybe they felt she deserved it since Kelsey had quite literally given her life for the cause.

When Sandra walked back outside, she saw the man seated back on the ground. He had removed his helmet and was holding his head in his hands.

"Ma'am, I'm awfully sorry, but do you have an aspirin?"

"Here, this is for you." Sandra held out the object, a trophy.

He held it up and read the quote on the pedestal out loud, "No matter how flat you make your pancake, it still has two sides."

Now it was his turn to stare.

"Because of what you said. About pancakes and people not understanding you and all."

"Oh. Yeah." He turned the trophy around in his hands. Then he swiped one finger across the brass pad of butter that sat atop the brass stack of pancakes. He touched the finger to the tip of his tongue. He laughed.

And after a few seconds, Sandra laughed too.

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