“Laws of Motion” by Lena Crown, 2019 Non-Fiction Winter Contest Winner

  1. Every object persists in its state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.

Jaxon was stranded all the way across town when he called me at three-thirty on that Thursday in November. He rushed through the introduction – “Heyineedafavor.”

I considered refusing. “Sure,” I said. “I’ll be right there.”

His truck had died nearly a week before in the hotel parking lot. Jaxon bartended on weekdays at ten in the morning, which meant hours of cutting lemons and pouring beers for the few hotel guests or locals drinking before five o’clock. Some days, he could count the number of people he’d served on one hand.

The truck was a recent acquisition, purchased from his buddy for seven hundred bucks. Twelve years old, hulking and unwieldy, with maroon paint rusting in places and chipping in others, a shuddering manual transmission that required coaxing and jiggling and sometimes imploring, an overwrought battery prone to epileptic fits, gas mileage so abysmal that he sometimes risked driving with the gas light on for days before shelling out another thirty bucks at the Quik Trip. Even he admitted it felt like driving a tugboat.

When I pulled into the parking lot twenty minutes later, Jaxon was already outside, shivering in front of the hull. His collarbone-length curls hung loose around his shoulders, and his black work polo was wrinkled beneath his thin jean jacket. I frowned; he was underdressed for the weather. The dregs of the first snowfall had frozen into mounds of black slush on the sidewalks. A film of ice had crusted over the truck’s windshield. How Jaxon had gotten to and from work the past few days, I wasn’t sure. I didn’t bring it up and neither did he.

I’d never attempted to jump a car before. “I don’t have any cables,” I said as I cut the engine and stepped into the chill.

“I have everything, don’t worry.” He pecked me on the lips. As he turned away, I ran my tongue behind my upper lip, where the thin flap of tissue had begun to heal.

Jaxon loved cars. Loved them the way I love ballet, and flowers, and books. The type of love a sommelier holds for wine or a roaster for coffee; a love bordering on lust. Once, we stumbled on a vintage car dealership on the way to collect our take-out sandwiches. Jaxon flitted around the parking lot like a bee, darting from the portly Rolls Royce to the elegant Jaguar to the classic VW Bug, one of his favorites. His eyes ravaged the curves of their hoods and squinted against the glint of their silver emblems. “I’ve never seen one of these in America before!” he shouted from behind a petite orange hard-top convertible shaped like a piece of Pez candy. I watched, amused. He wore just a white T-shirt with the sleeves rolled twice, like a kid in The Outsiders. That was before the cold set in.

Jaxon told me to pop the hood and went about extracting a series of black and red cords from the bed of his truck. I liked that he was handy in all the ways in which I’d always been decidedly helpless, including anything to do with fixing, lugging, hoisting, hammering, assembling, and disassembling. He once told me that his Grandpa always said a man should build his own coffee table and his own front door. My parents inherited all their antique furniture from my mother’s mother in Los Angeles.

I fumbled around the dashboard for a few minutes, then gave up and sat there until he noticed my grimace. He gave me a playful eyeroll and stuck his head in the window to flick a lever beside the wheel. I craned my neck to watch as he disappeared behind the hood and began to clamp the ends of each cord to our cars’ innards.

My own car was a 2011 Toyota Corolla, white, with grey nylon seats stained with shards of chocolate from the KIND bars I inhaled on the way to work. My mom had found it on Craigslist two years earlier, the summer after my sophomore year of college. Just 30,000 miles and a brand-new battery. I lied and told Jaxon that I paid for the car out of my savings. I had offered, but my parents just shrugged. I think he knew anyway.

Jaxon swung himself into the cab of the truck as I turned the key in the Corolla and lowered my big toe onto the gas pedal. The red tugboat remained stubbornly dormant. From my vantage point around the edge of the hood, I saw Jaxon’s expression sour. I did it again and still nothing.

I drummed my fingers against the steering wheel. I felt agitated, although I didn’t have work for another hour. I realized by and by that I regretted answering the phone when he called. It was an unfamiliar feeling—I rarely resented doing favors for him. Since September, I’d been juggling four jobs: serving at an all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant, freelancing for one magazine, interning for another, and tutoring high schoolers at a private center, where I was scheduled to be that evening. The situation left a bitter taste in my mouth, startling, like accidentally biting into a flake of aluminum foil. I revved the engine a little harder.

Jaxon shook his head and hopped out of the truck. “Ugh. I just had the battery replaced like two weeks ago. And checked the alt’nator. So there’s gotta be something else draining the battery.” In his Midwestern drawl, words had soft centers. He never believed me when I pointed out the way he skimmed the surface of certain syllables, muffled consonants and truncated vowels. He said Californians just overenunciate.

“Could it be the starter?” I asked.

“Nah. No clicking sound when I turn the key.”

“Oh,” I said. Then, trying to keep my voice neutral, “It’s getting late, Jaxon.”

I learned much later that when a car won’t start, it’s usually the fault of the battery, the alternator, or the starter. A car battery should last about four or five years. As it nears the end of its life, its entrails start to corrode, and the battery slowly loses its charge like we lose our memories. If the battery is the brain, the alternator and the starter are the heart and lungs, pumping electrical signals through the battery as it recharges itself. When a young battery dies suddenly, there’s likely a hidden problem, a “parasitic draw” that saps energy through one of the car’s many circuits and fuses. Like leaving the headlights on, although it’s not always so obvious.

If a parasitic draw is at fault, you can replace the battery and the alternator and the starter as many times as you like—but the only way to keep your car running, the only way to prevent all your energy from draining away overnight, is to find and fix the source.

***

In February, when Jaxon and I had been dating for just a few weeks, I stepped off the curb by the bar one night and got hit by a car. It was late, and we were drunk. The whole situation felt absurd, dreamlike, hilarious. A slideshow: Jaxon and me, dancing on the sidewalk. Click. The black SUV, invisible but for a molten glint against the asphalt and the night sky. Click. My sharp intake of breath as something hard and cold walloped my elbow. Click. Then the images pick up speed, accelerating into something like a flipbook, then a silent reel—Jaxon springing to my side, grasping my arm, pulling me across the street—the reel now gaining sound, the slap-slap-slap of our Vans slip-ons against the pavement as we raced down the block holding hands; the echo of our laughter.

I kept repeating it—I got hit by a car! We giggled it to each other in bed the next morning – You got hit by a car last night. When he made fun of me for the pile of dishes in my sink – I got hit by a car, Jaxon. It wasn’t until my third class of the day that I twisted to reach into my backpack and noticed the deep purple shadow beginning to bloom around my elbow, irregular at its edges, like water dribbled on fresh ink. I rubbed the splotch in disbelief. It hurt.

I tried to decide what to say if one of my friends or roommates asked me about the bruise. I wasn’t exactly the spontaneous, drunkenly-get-hit-by-a-car type. Although by that point, Katy and Lizzie had started to raise their eyebrows at the frequency with which I galloped out the back door late at night, after the two of them had already surrendered to their sagging eyelids and postponed the rest of their assigned reading until morning.

For the first three and a half years of college, I had dated a serious, intellectual boy from another West Coast suburb. He was allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, bananas, crustaceans, and every fish but salmon. He hated bars and strangers and extravagance, but he loved poetry and modern art and me. He wanted to go into either law or public policy. The sincerity behind his glasses and the staunchness in the set of his jaw meant that marriage didn’t seem crazy, until it did. He clawed at the life we’d planned as I bucked against him and his definition—or really, that of most everyone in my graduating class—of what a life could, and should, be.

I decided to write. I started going out four nights a week. I ate bananas and peanut butter. I met strangers, and sometimes kissed them. I pre-gamed at eleven at night with vodka and lemonade and gyrated on the stage at a country bar by the ballpark. I had only been single for two months when I gave my number to the barista with eyes the color of the Mediterranean, and entered his name as “Jackson” in my contacts. After our first date, a haphazard let’s-grab-a-drink after midnight on a weekday, he slept over. We gained momentum. I met the members of his crowd over six-packs of Stag in punk-house basements, then flailed my limbs to grunge guitar in the dark once we were drunk enough. Together with Jaxon and his best friend Myles, I got banned from a casino on a Sunday.

Jaxon called this “making a mess.” He left a trail of messes all over St. Louis. We often saved the worst of it for Mike Talayna’s Juke Box, which my friends called “T’s” and his called “Sticky’s.” Once, Jaxon got us kicked out before eleven for nearly fighting the bouncer. We snuck back in and drank gin and tonics with two limes and made faces at each other in the walls of mirrors that, together with the lavender lightbulbs and looping strands of silver tinsel, made you feel as though you were inside a twirling disco ball. Or a unicorn-themed strip club.

That night, I sang karaoke to “You Know That I’m No Good” by Amy Winehouse. At the sound of my voice over the speakers, Jaxon came careening out of the bathroom and vaulted the rail bordering the dance floor like a hurdler. He landed in a heap at my feet and gaped up at me as I crooned, I told you, I was trouble—his eyes wide, full of wonder—and I finally knew what it was to smolder. You know that I’m no good.

On more tame nights, Jaxon and I went on walks. He would rap once on my window, and I’d find him smoking a Turkish Royal against the brick wall at the base of my fire escape. We snaked aimlessly around my neighborhood, talking about our childhoods, our friends, work. I told him about all the internships I’d hated—social media (too mind-numbing), immigration law (too heartbreaking), public relations (too shallow and bureaucratic). I liked listening to him gripe about his lazy general manager and the university students who never tipped. I took mental notes. Sometimes I complained about my thesis in broad strokes. He asked quantitative questions, so I spoke in quantities—how many pages written that day, how much time spent reading, how many sections left to go. I didn’t mind. It felt good to talk about anything, everything but that.

***

Before the truck, Jaxon was the proud father of a sleek black Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk4. Jaxon poured hours – and probably over two thousand dollars – into that car. He lowered the body using specialty coils until the vehicle hovered above the asphalt like a racecar, making speedbumps perilous and potholes impossible. He replaced the rounded hood with a flatter one and the cloudy headlights with crystalline plastic, giving the entire front end a curt, European gravitas. He installed a silver four-bar grille below the front license plate to regulate the temperature of the air flow, and swapped the stock wheels for multi-spokes with hubcaps like steel sand dollars. A real car-lover’s car. It goes without saying that he would only drive stick.

The Golf’s interior, on the other hand, was coated in trash. Unpaid parking tickets spilled out of cupholders and littered the dashboard, amassed during his last job at the coffee shop near my university’s campus. Loose French fries cozied into the carpet. When I slid into the passenger seat, I made sure to spread out an old T-shirt as a barrier between the butt of my jeans and the gooey, incandescent pool of melted sour gummy worms fused to the leather.

Like the truck, the Golf always suffered from one malady or another. When we started dating, the problem was coolant. It leaked out of a hidden rupture in the hose, reservoir tank, engine, pipes, or radiator and puddled on the pavement by the front-right wheel. The car sometimes died unexpectedly in the middle of the road, and if parked, it refused to start unless he poured coolant into a hole somewhere under the hood from a jug he kept in his backseat. He bought gallons of the neon green liquid twice a week from Target. He shoplifted a few. When he had none, I picked him up. I’d pull up behind the Golf to find him leaning against its side, chain-smoking, wearing the round sunglasses with white rims that he stole from his mom’s closet.

That lasted for over a month in the summer. Once, after midnight, the Golf overheated by the entrance to the freeway. I was living in a sublet nearby. “Where are you, Jaxon?” I repeated into the phone, laughing in exasperation.

“I’m fine, I’m walking, I’m good,” he slurred. “I don’t need help.”

“You do, though. So let me!” I kept giggling. It was all so funny—me, a summa cum laude college graduate, living in someone else’s apartment two thousand miles from home, serving accountants frozen fish mixed with cream cheese and wrapped in rice, in love with my barista whose car pissed antifreeze incessantly and who needed me to pick him up from the side of the road at one in the morning.

That was summer in St. Louis: scorching days spent indoors and balmy nights spent outside, drinking Long Island iced teas while playing Hoop Fever on the back patio at Friendly’s; smoking too many Turkish Royals on the fire escape. Forgetting to eat dinner. Gallivanting with Jaxon’s motley crew of Midwestern twenty-somethings, a band of boys who looked like him, with lank shoulder-length hair and stick-and-poke tattoos. Sad boys who skateboarded in abandoned churches and read Camus and drove drunk from the city back to their parents’ houses in the suburbs. They made art and didn’t care enough to vote. I sat back and laughed at the messes they made, for no other reason than because we were bored and the night was too quiet and we had the privilege to forget the possibility of a future, at least for a little while.

Most of the kids our age migrated to the coasts. There were too many open parking spaces for a Saturday night. I quickly learned that to be young and white in St. Louis was to belong to one of a small number of cliques: the artists, the activists (which overlapped with the former), the County kids, the punks, the coffee snobs, the beer guys, the private-university grads, and the corporate transplants. We felt uncategorizable. Jaxon and his friends were County kids who had moved to the city, and some were punks without the mullets; I was a private-university kid who, by dating one of them, had graduated from her standing as a coastal yuppie, as an intruder. I survived the summer on three bucks an hour plus tips. Our pasts aside, we were the same.

***

Summer melted into the most beautiful fall I had ever seen in St. Louis. An elder maple tree in Jaxon’s neighborhood stooped over the sidewalk, and I liked to duck beneath the glowing canopy of red and just stand there, in my red room. One afternoon, Jaxon and I went on an expedition to collect one leaf for each shade of autumn. We fanned them out in a gradient before us on the kitchen counter: lime, daffodil, butterscotch, tangerine, ruby, rust, mahogany. Pale green, bright yellow, deep red. A deciduous traffic light—go, slow, stop.

I picked up the tutoring gig, the magazine jobs. Jaxon quit the coffee shop where we met and started bartending up the street, where the black SUV had left its mark a few months earlier. Nick, the bar manager, made me nervous. He rarely made eye contact and spoke in clipped, anxious fragments like a character in Napoleon Dynamite. He had tangled brown hair past his ribs and a thick tribal tattoo winding around his right arm that belied his reedy voice and narrow shoulders. I never saw him without a drink in his hand. In the beginning, each time I came to visit Jaxon at work, Nick—without looking up, or asking—poured us each a shot of whiskey. I usually declined. I never liked the way Nick stared at the sloshing amber liquid, his eyes glassy with the rapture of someone gazing into a fish tank.

The leaves fell and I watched the city’s energy drain away with its color, leaving behind—or exposing—a flat, grey, wasted landscape. Had that row of brick houses always been vacant? Had those windows always been broken, that donut shop shuttered, that factory crumbling? The same pallor stole over Jaxon’s face, and my own. He stopped cleaning his apartment. He rarely washed his hair. We still stayed up too late and smoked too many Turkish Royals and made too much noise in public, but as the ginkgoes dropped their rotting fruit I smelled something else decaying, too.

 

2. Force is equal to the change in momentum per change in time. For a constant mass, force equals mass times acceleration, F = ma.

It was two o’clock on a weekday afternoon when the red hatchback sailed past my apartment and crashed into the tree on the firehouse lawn. I dashed to the window and paused before I looked. The front of the red car had snarled itself in the tree bark. Firefighters jogged out in twos and threes as the driver’s side door swung open. All I could see was an arm, but the men seemed to be laughing, incredulous, relieved. The driver hobbled out of his own accord, and a few hours later the car was disentangled from the oak and dragged off the grass by a tow truck.

The sound of a car crash isn’t so much a single sound as a sudden symphony: the slow crescendo of the strings, screeching horsehair over steel, building—the moaning cellos, the violas, the shrill violins—until, finally, the resounding boom of the bass drum as the horns blare in harmony, the crashing of the cymbals. Sparkling above the cacophony, the effervescent tinkle of the triangle, light as shattered glass.

Car parts always littered the road in St. Louis. A hubcap; a blown-out tire; shreds of bumper; smatterings of windshield. After the third accident outside my apartment in a single month, I did some research and found that in 2018, St. Louis clocked in dead last in the category of ‘Driving Safety’ on a list of one hundred U.S. cities.

Ironically, when I first moved to the Midwest, I found that compared to Californians, St. Louisans drove painfully slow. I used to get a kick out of weaving around the snails going forty on the highway. My friends and I joked that at four-way stops, we could hear each driver insisting, “After you!” “No, after you.” I couldn’t fathom how a people so cautious at stop signs could also cause nearly six hundred accident-related fatalities and over thirty-five hundred serious injuries in a single year.

I still hear that sinister symphony in moments of calm and quiet. I can close my eyes and recall the whine of the violin, the clash of the cymbals. Each time, I have to run somewhere far away in my mind so I don’t hear the rest.

 

3. For every action, there is an equal and opposite re-action.

For the next hour at the tutoring office, I couldn’t shake the agitation I felt in the parking lot, a prickling along my temples. I wondered if Jaxon got the truck to start. Marley, sensing that my mind was elsewhere, took the opportunity to send several Snapchats of her sucking on a pencil. She was sixteen and terrible at geometry and loved to procrastinate by asking if Jaxon and I would get married.

I tongued the inside of my upper lip again. It had slowly begun to reattach to my gums, the thin stretchy part. The maxillary labial frenum. My mom always told me that wounds in the mouth healed the fastest.

I was packing up my backpack a few minutes past six when Jaxon called again. He asked if I wanted to hang out, but we both knew he was really asking for a ride home. He was still at the bar, though his shift had ended hours before. I wondered if he had been drinking with Nick. Again, the flake of foil in my mouth, the sudden, metallic tang. Again, I considered refusing. The silence that crackled over the line probably lasted no more than a second, maybe two, but I hoped that he could hear my anger in the white noise. In the end, I told myself it would take more effort to explain than it would to pick him up. The bar and his place were both on the way home.

Weeks had passed since I had been to his apartment. I realized too late that driving him home meant passing through Tower Grove. On 64 East, I saw the sign and pulled hard into the right lane just in time to get off the highway one exit early. The reality of my situation came into focus gradually; no sudden pang of recognition, just a mounting roar in my ears, like the rumble of a distant plane. My foot found the pedals robotically. Go. Slow. Stop. Jaxon started talking about something. The hot breath from the vent reminded me to inhale, exhale. I drove as if I were handling the controller in a video game, the world outside as unreal to me as the landscape in the Grand Theft Auto we played at night in Jaxon’s living room, the asphalt too smooth, the tree canopy too coarse, nothing but a mass of olive pixels blotting out the cold evening sun. I passed the bus stop on the right, then the banner for the market at the corner; when I braked at the stop sign I considered charging right on through the intersection but the thought of his questioning glance flooded my mouth with metal so at the last minute I turned right and there it was, and all I could do was lock my gaze onto the pavement in front of me as we passed the mangled carcass of the Golf GTI Mk4 and I remembered everything, everything.

How bright your eyes looked when I joined you at the bar that night, how I laughed when you stuck your tongue in my mouth, even in front of Nick. How you fumbled with the keys, and I noticed, then got in and said nothing. How you pulled off the freeway and rolled the windows down all the way; how you gunned the engine and flew through one red light, then another, and I laughed as the wind whipped my hair around my face, shrieking Stop it, Stop it, I mean it Jaxon, Stop it, but I did mean it that time, and I was no longer laughing; how the car gained speed as we climbed the shallow incline and Stop, Jaxon, please, but you didn’t and we crested the hill and you saw the brake lights a second later than I did and nothing slowed down, not time and not the car, and I screamed as we soared headlong into the stopped car before us and disappeared into a cloud of steam.

Nothing slowed down. They say that even a ten percent decrease in speed in a car crash can decrease the opposing force on the car by twice that. When a moving object stops suddenly, its kinetic energy has to go somewhere. Cars deform themselves in high-speed collisions to cushion passengers from this pulse of excess energy. The moving car strikes the impulse—the interrupting force—and instead of bouncing apart, so-called “crumple zones” across the bumper and hood absorb the energy from the impact. A controlled collapse.

Imagine: a vehicle going fifty miles an hour crashes into a bigger, heavier vehicle. Its crumple zones scrunch up like an accordion against the inert hunk of metal. The abrupt stop causes the seat belts’ retractor mechanism to lock in place, leaving diagonal lashes across both passengers’ torsos. Within the dashboard, a steel ball jolts forward, activating an electrical circuit that deploys the airbags. The nylon may as well be iron. The airbags must start to deflate before the passengers even make contact to avoid severe injury. Another controlled collapse. All in all, the process takes under two hundred milliseconds.

Two hundred milliseconds. I smelled sulfur, gasoline, metal, like a freshly paved road. When I put a hand to my mouth it came away dark, shiny, wet. The crumpled hood levitated, blocking the windshield. We couldn’t see. You threw the car in gear and stuck your head out the window and how we were moving again I didn’t know, past the other car, out of the intersection and left on a red light and down Tower Grove Avenue and left on Shaw and we were leaving the place where it happened, that’s bad, I thought, you have taken us away from the place where it happened. The car finally gave out around the corner from the market in a great shudder and wheeze of black smoke. I turned to the left to look at you and you turned to the right to look at me and oh God, your eyes so bright, your face covered in blood, and I realized then that in those two hundred milliseconds my bladder released and I was sitting in a damp pool of my own pee.

We pushed open the doors and stumbled out of the car and stood on shaky legs, but we were both okay, miraculously okay; your nose bled and bled but we were alive and unbroken and okay. I couldn’t think about the people in the other car, the two shadows I’d glimpsed in the front seat, spectral as the smoke. I stopped you when you tried to ask me if I saw. If I knew.

I took out my phone and called an Uber. The driver pulled up just as the policeman leaned out his window to ask if everything was alright. I stared at you sitting on the curb with your bloody head in your hands. I’m leaving, I said, and you nodded because you understood that I could not lie to that man.

That’s not what I told people. I told people the only acceptable version: He was speeding, messing with me, like he does sometimes. There’s that hill on Vandeventer, you know the one – where you don’t see the intersection coming until the last minute. He just didn’t brake in time. The other car drove away.

The truth and the not-truth converged there. I left (bloody, crying, in soiled jeans). The officer gave Jaxon a ride home (without breathalyzing him, or taking down his information, or reporting a crash. The driver of the other car had not even called the police and, to my knowledge, never did). Jaxon showed up at my door the following morning, beside himself (with fear that I had been seriously injured. He remembered little of the crash, and nothing of its aftermath). He apologized (in a frenzy so hysterical he had to puke in my toilet twice).

“These things happen every day,” my friend Neena said. “No one was hurt, right?” I replied that I didn’t think so. I meant that I didn’t know. As the days dragged on with no word from the passengers in the other car, no call from the police department, no news reports, I held onto her words for dear life. These things happen every day.

The pew-pew-pew of an airhorn on the radio tugged me back to the present. I tried to pull myself together as I paused at the intersection. The front of the Golf was a jumble of metal. Jaxon was still talking, complaining about work, oblivious. I could see into the car’s flayed chest cavity in the rearview mirror, a tangled mess of tanks and tubing, scorched black like the smokers’ lungs on display at the Science Museum on fourth-grade field trips.

I sucked as much air into my own lungs as I could and sent it out through my nose long and slow, like I had learned in yoga. It hissed like a wave breaking.

It struck me that there were two Polaroids of me still wedged into the mirror on the Golf’s sun visor. I’d found them one afternoon the previous summer, when Jaxon sent me to his car during a shift at the coffee shop to fish out his cigs from the glove compartment. In both shots, I was only partially clothed, mussed and smirking at the camera. I’d forgotten those moments—the flashes of astonishment at the other’s existence, my head in the crook of his neck or his cheek against my stomach, when one of us would say, Wait, hold still—and snatch my camera from my bedside table.

I considered reminding him, but I refrained in the end. Maybe he had already stashed the pictures somewhere. Maybe he didn’t care either way. Maybe I didn’t want to resurrect anything that died with that car.

He kissed me again when I slowed to a stop in front of his apartment. “You okay?” he asked, suspicious.

“Yeah,” I nodded. I felt exhausted. Drained, like after a good cry, though I hadn’t cried in a long time. I was seized by an acute yearning in my chest for my mom. Only a month had passed since I’d last seen her—she had jumped on a plane to St. Louis when I called her the night of the accident. Though I’d only told her the acceptable version, she felt me shattering from two thousand miles away.

Before he shut the door, Jaxon offered to drive me to the airport. I was set to fly home to California for Thanksgiving in just a few days. We agreed that he would keep the Corolla at his place.

The day I left was overcast and not-quite-snowing. On the way to the terminal, we passed a large vinyl advertisement plastering the façade of an abandoned warehouse. ESCAPE St. Louis!!! the sign read, in letters as tall as me. While Jaxon scrolled through my music library, one hand on the wheel, I craned my neck in the passenger seat to follow the words.

Leaving St. Louis at that moment – on a flight I had booked months before – felt natural, more than coincidence. Newton saw particles careening around the universe all the time. It comforted me to think of myself as nothing more than a particle, and memory as a series of particles, each with its own mass and acceleration. Maybe PTSD was like that: one of those particles struck you at a certain velocity, and you caved in with the weight of it. This time, the force had shuddered through my body and sent it flying to a cruising altitude of forty-one thousand feet.

These things happen every day.

Jaxon gathered me into his arms outside the airport terminal and turned his back to shelter me from the biting wind. His curls smelled of cigarette smoke and the Value Size dog shampoo he used on himself and his pit bull. I breathed in, long and slow. I watched as he followed the line of cars onto the freeway, headed south. A week later, when I came back and turned the key in the ignition, the needle on my fuel gauge hovered above Empty.

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