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Between railroad tracks and intersections. A mountain road up to the left that follows a lost creek. Watch out for falling rocks. Towns with coal names written in ash, rising in smoke. Watch out for caving earth. Underneath your feet, the street too hot to touch. Underneath you, the world burns slowly, forever. On the map, your name is erased, only the standing remain. Ashland. Frackville. Mount Caramel. Melting. Your whole life an accident log of lost limbs, blown off fingers. Your whole life a roadside motel beneath a prison. Your whole life, on fire.
Jennifer Pashley is the author of two story collections: States (Lewis Clark, 2007) and The Conjurer (Standing Stone Books, 2013). Her stories have appeared in Mississippi Review, PANK, SmokeLong Quarterly, Salt Hill and many others. An ebook of States will be rereleased by Dzanc Books this winter. For more, visit jenniferpashley.com
That taste like strawberry milkshakes, fake and pink. The kind that froth in your brain. Burger King was the only place you were allowed to walk. You’d sit in the back booth by the pay phone and call your second grade teacher. She was divorced and had hair like a brillo, wore lipstick that was a dark stain. On the phone, she sounded tired. The pop and hiss of her cigarette, just static on the line.
There’s the kind that sends you to school the next day, your face a road map of blood blisters from crying and puking. Your brain, a dull ache. On the spelling test that day, the words trust and mother. And no pencil is sharp enough to make the words look neat.
In one, your throat feels filled with smoke, on fire from a night long struggle. Your open mouth in the morning, at the bus stop, a hot cave of smoke, streaked with blood. The dog, who always walks you to the door, is under the covers on your bed. Her legs lame, her brain, pounded from being thrown down the stairs. Her small head, like velvet, and hidden beneath the sheets. Outside, just the remnants of a storm, a wet street, some scattered twigs, that made her so, so nervous in the night.
Sometimes a hangover follows you to college, or to work. Where you wake up different from everyone else, when you’re supposed to follow along, supposed to perform, be on time. You walk down a sunny street in a city, over a perfect sidewalk in decent shoes, and your insides are a storm, the eye of a dark hurricane spinning in your gut.
A hangover is the other shoe.
A hangover calls you in the middle of the night, in your own house, when you forget to unplug the old dial phone that rings with a loud metal bell in the kitchen. It tastes like fake strawberry milkshakes and it shivers like a beat dog. On the couch, you sit with the phone, and on the window, the tree outside makes shadows like arms. In the streetlight, bugs, or snow.
Some hangovers last for years, in the backs of minivans, in the waiting room at a courthouse, a thousand dollars bail in your pocket, the bailiff, joining you outside for a cigarette.
In the hospital room, under a dull light that is no color at all, not yellow or blue, just nothing but filter and buzz, you walk away. There are nurses in and out, a drip line of fluid, a screen monitoring blood pressure and oxygen, but no indication of what’s left. Not a signal anywhere that says eighty-three percent gone, or seven percent still viable to rise up and strike in the night.
Outside, there are families waiting. A son who’s been shot, a kid with a broken arm, a mother who can’t breathe. If you look deeper, there’s a girl, sick from a milkshake, and a dog who limps. They huddle with their own throb, and they don’t even see you.
by Jennifer Pashley