by Adrianna Jereb
Runestone, volume 3
The door stuck. Swollen from humidity, it needed a little convincing from the young man as he shouldered his way into the bar. He held the door for the woman behind him, as the bartender, rag in hand, turned toward their scraping entrance. The man wore a blue baseball cap, he didn’t remove it upon stepping inside, and a farmer’s tan severed his bicep into two tones—if his arm had been a paint chip, the colors would have ranged from “parmesan” to “cattail brown.” The woman trudged past tables in her white, rubber-soled sneakers, hefting her purse like a bucket filled with wet sand. Looked like the usual tonight.
The twenty-somethings set down on black vinyl-covered stools at the counter, skipped the laminated menus, and the woman—Becca—ordered the kind of greasy food that came in plastic baskets lined with wax paper accompanied by a red bottle with booger-like ketchup leftovers crusted to the squirt top.
The man—Aaron—ordered the first round, and their food went cold as they sat waiting amidst familiar sounds: otherwise respectable locals bragging to their coworkers, the back door squeaking for smokers sneaking in and out, and the quiet pings of slot machines shoved against the wall.
The baseball game on the TV in the corner cut to commercial. The bartender, idle without any orders of fish to watch roll in the fryer, came to chat. He thought he’d heard their truck pull in earlier and turn around. What happened?
“Becca hit a rabbit!” the young man, Aaron, shouted.
“Oh, that’s terrible,” the bartender said, and shook his head.
“We went back to check. It was right in the middle of the road—right, Becca?” Aaron said, turning in his seat to look for her confirmation.
“Yeah, it was,” she said.
“She couldn’t have missed it,” he added.
Becca looked down at the counter, her gaze arriving a beat later than the bow of her head. She focused on one object at a time. Her hand, next to a few empty bottles of beer. Her fresh, baby blue manicure. The gold band on her third finger. Could she have missed it?
A periwinkle haze had hung in the east as the rabbit hopped from the gap between grass and pavement. Its eye glinted in the pickup’s headlights and Becca’s toes pulled away from the accelerator.
“Oh, come on, speed up!” Aaron said, sitting beside her. “You’re gonna miss it!”
Becca hit the gas and the engine bogged while the rabbit, confusing the meanings of immobility and invisibility, sat frozen. She downshifted to fourth and the truck roared on. Just as the machine was to pass over, with the rabbit safely huddled between its tires, the animal lurched forward. The resulting bump hardly transferred to the cab.
Air from the open window blew over Becca’s pink-faced surprise. She didn’t check her mirrors to look back. They were just passing an Amish farm, where the laundry had been left out on a line suspended from the top of the barn to the house porch. Aprons flapped in the dusk.
“Jesus! I was kidding!” Aaron finally said, scooting away across the bench seat and looping an arm out the window.
“No, you weren’t,” Becca said.
Like most drivers, she had hit animals on the road before—a songbird that had flown into the window with a startling thud, a field mouse that had looked like a leaf blowing over the road until it crunched under a tire—but she had never hit anything on purpose.
“I didn’t think you would do it,” Aaron lied.
It was his truck they drove—a 1979 Ford F-150, painted glossy red and modified to house a V-8 engine—and it was worth quite a bit more than his original investment. He sometimes liked to talk about selling.
“But then what do you have?” he’d say to Becca. “Just some money.”
She would have liked to have just some money. Every now and then she dropped hints that it would be nice to travel, that you could go a lot of places and stay away a long time on a few thousand bucks, but Aaron didn’t know anybody further away than this side of the South Dakota border. Besides, he never traveled any place they didn’t speak English.
Becca gripped the steering wheel with both hands.
“Do you think we should go back?” she wondered.
“What for? No way that thing’s breathing.”
“I don’t think we should leave it on the road. It’ll get smashed.”
She knew what would be left of the rabbit after a day of cars driving the Wisconsin country back road—just a bloody smear and some tufts of fur for the turkey vultures to pick on.
They were at the bar already. Becca turned around in the empty gravel parking lot. Nobody could explain how the bar, nearly smack-dab on the county line and a good half-hour from any town, kept on. The place relied solely on word-of-mouth for publicity. With no letters outside to name it, only neon Miller and Budweiser signs in the windows indicated that it was a bar.
“Do you want me to drop you off?” Becca asked. “I’ll be right back.”
She turned back, driving faster than on the way out. Aaron sat stiffly to keep from leaning into the door as she took the curves.
The Amish farm came into view again, its barn rising above a dark hill covered with pine and oak trees. It was too dark to see the family laundry anymore, or the women had taken it in, tugging the line to the porch, pulleys squeaking, as they took down plain-colored pants and dresses to pile into baskets.
Becca hated doing Aaron’s laundry. She had never wanted to be the kind of woman that she’d known growing up—scrubbing counters, taking kids to the pool and pets to the vet, asking what everybody wants for dinner. Teenage Becca was the type to strip to her underwear before hopping into bed at night, leaving day clothes in hazardous piles on the floor; she was the type who didn’t rinse the sink after spitting out whitish-blue gobs of saliva and toothpaste. Teenage Becca recognized the value of simply cleaning up after yourself, but somehow the only thing more satisfying than a job well done was refusing to do the job in the first place. Now she was 27-years-old and kept a box of recipes for slow-cooker pot roast that would heat itself and be nice and tough by the time she got off her shift at the nursing home.
She hated her job there, hated it with the quiet passion granted to those who once dreamed of different lives. Dressing the old men and women, their limbs as stiff as the plastic baby dolls she had played with as a little girl; cleaning them and their beds when their bladders or their bowels failed, yet again, that afternoon; pushing them out to the parking lot for a strict 15 minutes of Vitamin D without any possibility for sunburned wrinkles—she wasn’t right for the job, she knew. She couldn’t take the way some of the patients stared, angry, daring her to start a conversation, or the way others looked down and thanked her, so tired. She was supposed to get attached to these people, but she rarely did. She told her friends she would never put her parents in a place like that, and then she wondered, later, if she really meant it.
There was the rabbit, there, a lump in the road. Becca pulled over. The brake lights reflected red in the rearview mirror. The two of them got out of the truck and slammed the heavy doors shut.
The wind blew over and fluffed the rabbit’s brown-gray fur. There was a paw sticking out; it was definitely twitching.
A reflex, she thought. It’s dead.
“It’s still alive,” Aaron said, crouching down with one hand outstretched. “God, you couldn’t even kill a rabbit right, on purpose.”
Aaron stood, his hands going to his hips.
“All right,” he said.
The rabbit’s eyes were shut. It didn’t make a sound. In the growing darkness there was no telling what was shadow and what was blood.
Blood had never bothered Becca. It was just part of life, part of the system. The human body was the best system of all, as she’d decided when she was eight years old, examining the cast model of the human skeleton dangling on a hook in her third grade classroom. It hadn’t been much bigger than her. She was allowed to touch it, and she liked to hold its hands up and shimmy the thing around until the teacher chastised her, reminding that the model had to come from somewhere—it was cast from a real person’s remains. That fact subdued Becca for a while, but was soon forgotten; an early sign that her weakness as a doctor would have been her fascination with the machine overwhelming her empathy for the person.
When she met Aaron, she was a sophomore in college, dreaming of being a surgeon. She took five classes a semester, sat in the front row of 300-student lecture halls, and asked questions until her professors knew her name and emailed her personally when their office hours changed.
At the end of sophomore year, she got a full-time job as a nursing assistant. September came around—she decided to work through the fall, push down her loan debts, and come back in the spring. A year later, the year she might have earned her premed degree, she was married and living in Aaron’s hometown.
So she took care of the laundry, with Aaron’s jean-pockets always full of sawdust and quarters and toothpicks, and she always thought she’d emptied out all the junk, but once when it was time to change the load over to the dryer, she’d open the door of the washer and find clumpy gray bits of tissue stuck to everything. The next day Aaron grumbled and made a show of picking pieces off the shoulders of his button-up before leaving for work.
Becca watched Aaron lift his foot slowly, as if he were going to tiptoe like a cartoon robber past a sleeping cop. Then his heel swooshed down towards the rabbit’s neck and connected, making the crack of a baseball bat hitting a pop fly.
She lowered her eyes and crept to Aaron’s side. He kissed her on the cheek, then turned and walked back to wait in the truck. Becca bent down and felt for the rabbit’s feet. She picked it up by its back legs, its head wobbling on the end of its outstretched weight, and its toes no warmer than the summer air. On the edge of the road, she swung the rabbit out and let go. It fell hidden in the tall swaying grass of the ditch.
Aaron started the truck, the engine rumbling alive, and made a slow Y-turn on the narrow road, creeping back and forth to get turned around. He yelled out the window.
“You ready? Or you wanna walk back?” he joked.
“Aww, you watch it, mister,” Becca said, climbing in the passenger side.
They sped off for the bar, which was busier when they arrived for the second time.
Could she have missed it?
“I tried,” she said.
“Well, sometimes it’s just unavoidable,” the bartender said. “Can I get these out of your way?” He motioned to the untouched baskets and empty bottles. Aaron nodded. The bartender moved off in search of better conversation, leaving the young couple to blink at the TV across the bar, dazed by the silent motions of a late-night host giving a monologue, and each waiting for the other to claim to enough sobriety to pick up and drive home.
Adrianna Jereb is a junior majoring in English creative writing with a minor in Spanish. She is pursuing a journalism career but sometimes wonders if fiction really is truer than fact. This is her first published short story.