Fiction - Autumn 2023

Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit

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“There was the rabbit lying in the middle of the road, legs limp but twitching before its head sagged and went still.”

By Anne Valente | September 5, 2023
Illustration by Dadu Shin
Illustration by Dadu Shin

It happened before the stop sign at the base of the hill, the steepest part of the road, an inevitability she should have anticipated when they moved in eight months ago. They’d come for her husband’s job, a faculty position at an elite liberal arts college in rural Pennsylvania, the kind of job he’d coveted when he started his history PhD at Berkeley and the kind of job she’d feared. He’d told her, Relax, there are colleges in every major city in America, and then he’d defended his dissertation and they were not in a major city, they were not even in a town, but on the outskirts of a tiny town where field ants marched through the kitchen until the first October frost and where swarms of carpenter bees drilled holes in the attic as soon as March crocuses appeared and where white-tailed deer dashed across the road all through winter, eyes gleaming in the dark. Her husband’s department chair had plowed straight into a buck this past January, the car totaled, the deer hobbling off into the snow to die. And now it was early May and the deer were breeding and she crept slowly down the hill, scanning the brush for fawns. She didn’t expect a rabbit. She’d never even seen one since they moved, just gray squirrels and striped chipmunks and the occasional firecracker-flash of a cardinal.

She’d just buckled her 20-month-old into his car seat for the five-minute drive she took every morning to the college-sponsored daycare before returning to an empty house and to the marketing job she was now working remotely. When she fastened the car seat, the baby had shouted tight! The baby was shouting new words every day, tree and apple and giraffe. She didn’t know if she could even call him a baby anymore. She hadn’t understood before having a child why parents never used years, why they’d say their child was “22 months old,” making her do the math, when they could have just said “two.” But now she understood, now she saw that each month was its own lifetime. The baby waved to her husband, whispered bye-bye. She pulled out of the driveway. She felt her foot on the brake down the hill, the stop sign visible ahead. Morning mist clouded the hills in the distance. For just one second, her eyes strayed from the road toward the rising sun spreading through the fog. And then she looked back and a brown flash magneted across the road and she stomped on the brakes and her purse sailed from the passenger seat to the floor. The crunch was sickening, a word she’d read in crime novels when a bone snapped or a neck broke. There was no other word. She heard her own screaming. The baby stayed silent, tiny shoes kicking against his car seat. Another car zipped through the intersection. At the stop sign, she peered into the rearview, hands shaking on the steering wheel, and there was the rabbit lying in the middle of the road, legs limp but twitching before its head sagged and went still.

The college billed itself as a close-knit community nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, but there were no foothills, just soybean fields and livestock farms and more concentrated wealth in a two-mile radius than in the entire surrounding 11 counties. Ticks infested the grass. Last month, she’d spotted a nymph on her husband’s ear and grabbed it so fast, she nearly tore off the lobe. She scanned the baby every night in the bath, and he’d learned to parrot back: tick check. Gray heavied the sky all winter. Sometimes snow accumulated two feet in one night.

They’d closed on a three-bedroom house last June and flown from California to Pennsylvania in late July, bursts of goldenrod blooming through the surrounding woods when they moved in. An abandoned robin’s nest fell from the fireplace when she opened the flue. A family of field mice nibbled on the potatoes in the kitchen until pest control set traps. The baby’s room was across the hallway from their room upstairs, and the third bedroom downstairs became her home office. The window above her desk looked out on a field piled with snow all winter, the sky above a thin pancake of sludge. A content strategist, she managed the digital marketing and user navigation of a grocery-chain website. At the new-faculty welcome party, a literature professor asked about her work. When she heard herself say front-end strategy, the professor refilled his snifter and never came back. All year, she’d had the same conversation at the same parties with different professors refilling the same negronis and Sazeracs, professors whose faculty webpages were maintained by someone in college communications who did her exact job, maintaining outdated headshots they never replaced.

The corporation she worked for was based in the Bay Area. After she convinced her boss that telecommuting was entirely possible, the transition was easy if not for the crushing isolation. Her family lived in Wisconsin. None of her friends had settled anywhere nearby. Her husband’s family lived across the state line in Ohio, but Pennsylvania was wide. She dropped the baby off every morning. Her husband picked the baby up every afternoon on his way home from class, unless he had meetings or office hours or committee work, all of which had proliferated as the months progressed. And the hours in between, eight hours of silence, with only her computer and the faint crackle of the home’s forced air. It was the loneliest she’d ever been in her life.

After she dropped off the baby and returned up the hill, her hands still shaking, there was no rabbit in the road. There wasn’t even a bloodstain on the street. Maybe a red-tailed hawk had carried it away, or one of the turkey vultures she’d seen circling the hill since the snow had finally melted. She glanced at the passenger seat where her purse now lay, open and on its side.

Her husband’s car was still in the garage when she pulled into the driveway.

I hit a rabbit, she said when she walked into the living room.

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