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The Switch Back
Mandy Carson lay on her side with wide-open eyes, staring at the slender strip
of moonlight gliding in through a subtle crack in the shutters. Her head rested
gently upon her pillow as she burrowed deeper within the soft warmth of her
favorite blanket. Through the screen of the open window, the frigid night air
passed through and settled upon her face, cooling her with each heavy breath.
Mandy dozed off and on but the thoughts of her troubled past zigzagged within
her head like moths around a lamp lit room.
Once upon a time she was known as Amanda and had a princess perfect life with a
princely boyfriend and friends they show on beer commercials. It was all hers;
the expensive clothes; a prestigious job with a large computer software firm and
weekends in far away castles. Amanda was a health nut who avoided caffeine,
carbohydrates and cigarettes. She was a thirty-year-old hazel-eyed beauty from
Toronto with flaxen hair and built like a marble statue - tight and long. She
was sophisticated and sexy; a sort of thinking man's siren.
But the dream evaporated one rainy afternoon with a short poignant email from
her suddenly not-so-princely boyfriend. She hoped he would change his mind but
after a dozen unreturned phone calls and as many tear stained letters she
surrendered to the reality. Her palisades crumbled. She ran away from the
expensive apartment and its memories and trappings. She ran away from her fake
friends and their cardboard cutout emotions but worst of all, she ran away from
That life was over but the life she led now was far worse. The princess fell
fast and far. She became Mandy in a different city, in a different career, alone
and lost. She winced inside at the thought of the nights she spent alone,
disillusioned with it all, a knife within easy reach.
She dreaded Monday mornings, not because they signaled the end of dreary, lonely
weekends, but because they signaled the beginning of another gray and stormy
week at the Blue Unicorn. Every part of her body cringed at the thought of
facing another day.
Today would be different. Today she would take back her life and raise herself
out of its icy grasp. She promised herself this day and now she was ready. She
sprang out of bed, scattering the sleeping cats like popcorn. The fever of
optimism burned deep within her.
She slipped into the shower to wash the thoughts of her past away. Her chestnut
colored hair was now cut short like a boy's and her tired and puffy eyes glared
above sunken cheekbones. She was still a beautiful woman when she wanted to be
and would have been a hot commodity but she kept it to herself.
When she wasn't working, her shapely thin figure was camouflaged under bulky
cotton shirts and baggy trousers but as she stood in front of the hallway
mirror, she wiggled into the bar's standard uniform - a black cutoff T-shirt and
mini-skirt. As she pushed and prodded the flesh around her eyes and mouth, she
noted the extra wrinkles and laugh lines that aged her an extra five years. She
sighed in defeat and left her Spartan apartment without eating.
It was March and a premature warm front brought hope for an early spring. The
thick blanket of winter had melted; the runoff made shining puddles on the
street and swirled along the curbing like tiny mountain streams. In the park,
purple crocuses opened their faces to the sky. Sunlight shimmered on the
slush-covered road and dressed the trees in a veil of bright light.
Mandy's shift at the Blue Unicorn did not start for another twenty minutes so
she took her time to look in store windows along Jefferson Street, trying not to
remember. She now hated this world with its cute and expensive things. She still
did not know what she wanted out of life and it made her angry but only at
herself. Her discontent was concealed behind a warm smile and quick 'how do you
In the window of Monahan's Shoes, she smiled at her reflection. She had planned
this day for the past week, rehearsing her speech over and over with Patches and
Sherman. The cats' reassuring meows were her only indication that she was ready.
Mandy was the best bartender at the Blue Unicorn. If she didn't know it, the
owner knew it and the other bartenders knew it. She didn't care. She just made
screwdrivers, rusty nails and white Russians and ducked every slimy come-on and
grating insult. The customers ranged from Armani to Goodwill and everywhere in
between but the big tippers never seemed to return. Her boss, Barry Dunkin, was
a self-centered prick who didn't care about her or any of the staff. He just
made sure the liquor flowed and the barflys drank themselves into the stupor
they craved. He worked her like a slave in the cotton fields but she didn't
mind. It was better then sitting in a dark apartment eating Swansons and staring
out the window like an old widow.
Mandy crushed out her cigarette and breezed through the door under the flashing
sign and let her eyes adjust to the dimness. The bar was especially quiet for a
Monday. The room was deserted except for a couple of regulars who chatted in
muted tones. Troy stood in front of the huge mirrored bar wiping down the
perfectly spotless bar counter. A lone player threw darts towards a dartboard in
the far corner. Natalie was the only waitress she could spot, feigning interest
in taking a drink order. Some grating song from a modern punk band blasted out
of the sound system. She yelled at the bouncer, "Is Barry in yet?"
"Back room. Be careful, he's in a foul mood. Someone's pissed him off real
Mandy made a mental note and headed to the rear of the bar. Through the thin
door of his office, she heard Barry yelling on the phone. When the receiver
slammed down, she entered the room like a scolded puppy.
The place reeked of beer and rancid smoke of old cigars. Second hand furniture
was scattered haphazardly on a stained and threadbare carpet. The walls, once
painted black, were now faded and chipped. She squinted through a cloud of
cigarette smoke, coughed and waited.
Barry looked up from the landfill that covered his desk; his smile as oily as
any politician's. His eyes were dark and without expression and at some time or
other his nose had been broken. Dark and tangled hair hung loose down to his
shoulder. His shoulders slumped with a bitter weariness like a man who got to
know the world and its inhabitants too well and didn't care for what he had
The pause drew out and to her satisfaction he broke first. "You're late. Where
the hell you been?" he thundered.
The rush of fear set the blood pounding through her chest. Her palms grew wet
and she nearly lost her nerve. "This is for you," she said passing over the
He read, his eyes uncomprehending. The man turned on Mandy with all the
indignation of a pit bull, lips parted to display a row of ugly teeth. He looked
up to say something but then he either lost his words or thought better of them
because something in her face shut his mouth. She stood straighter; a bold gleam
sparkled in her eyes and a smile of confidence spread across her face.
"I quit." Amanda said.
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