In “The Road Takes the Shape of the Earth Beneath It” by Jeremy Packert Burke, our newest addition to our New Voices catalog, we’re given three views of a car crash. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of moment, but one Packert Burke manages to spiral around to give the reader a clear image into this strange and unpredictable world that’s pulsing in the background.
Maggie did not wait for a response. She sailor-dived off the railing. He barely kept from crying out as he watched her fall headlong toward the river. He was certain she would vanish, leaving only a bloom of blood on the water.
But she slowed, slowed, stopped. She hung perfectly in mid-air—heels over head, a foot and a half above the water.
Three Views of a Car Crash
The car screams down the undivided highway, a blur of chrome and white as it crosses the half-broken yellow line and passes Alice on her left. “Jesus fuck,” she says. The move is legal, there is no oncoming traffic, and the white car makes it back to its proper lane untouched. Even so, Alice tenses and leans long on her horn as the white car pulls ahead. She looks to the bulbous paper bag on the passenger seat. “Even you wouldn’t drive that badly,” Alice says, “and you’re bread.” She prods at it gently to make sure the loaf within is not going stale in the car’s moist summer heat.
The road undulates, mapped to the shape of hills that have stood for centuries. A sinusoid waveform of some ancient sound. As Alice crests one, a long, sloping view opens before her: glimmering windshields and shadeless tar; brown grass and stunted trees. An entire world beyond the red hood of her car. It’s hard at this remove, she thinks, to remember that there are people in the other cars. That the glimmering forms are more than something to be overcome or feared. They have destinations, wants.
Some distance ahead, the rushing white car is stuck behind an eighteen-wheeler, riding close enough to kiss it. Passage blocked by the double yellow line.
“It would be so simple to dip into the other lane,” Alice tells the bread. “It’s only paint. Flat stripes and the power of suggestion. You can’t even pick them up.” She wonders where the white car is headed in such a hurry. All she can think is that it, too, is going to visit some dying friend. “Except if it were actually that simple, we’d ignore them far more.”
The bag is crumpled sadly around the loaf. Adrian will not accept sympathy and so Alice must bring something else: a gift, bought at a discount from the bakery where she works. Adrian’s legs have been turning to stone, a dark and mottled gray. When she Skyped him last Tuesday, it reached from his toes to just below his knees. Heat poured off the ragged seam between flesh and not and hazed the air. She remembers when it was only a blotch, an innocent island of slate in the middle of his heel.
“So what stops us? What keeps us from crossing over?” The bread has no answer. “Natural impulses, I guess. A reflex against suicide.” As if breaking a spell, the white car zips into the left lane, twenty miles at least above the limit, and slots ahead of the eighteen-wheeler. It disappears as they mount another hill. Alice says, “We think we’ve conquered so much.”