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**PRINT: LIFE ON THE FRONTIER, by Chicago resident and native Kate Duva, is THE2NDHAND’s 33rd broadsheet. Duva's been plying the brains of THE2NDHAND readers for several years now, and her characteristic stylistic mix of arch-weird and arch-real in story makes for a explosively brittle manifestation of reality in this the longest story she's published in these halls, about a young woman's sojourn at what she sees as the edges of American civilization, Albuquerque, N.M., where she works as a nurse in state group homes for aging mentally disabled people. Catch Duva Feb. 8, 2010, at Whistler in Chicago at the second installment of our new reading series, So You Think You Have Nerves of Steel? This issue also features a short by THE2NDHAND coeditor C.T. Ballentine.

RABBIT Irene Westcott
OUT Greggory Moore
THE CROW'S NEST Peter Richter
LIVING COLOR Stephanie Friedman

Irene Westcott

Westcott lives and writes in Chicago. Her fiction and essays have appeared in the Baltimore Review, LITnIMAGE, Blue Earth Review, Pure Francis, Literary Bohemian and Bullfight Review. She has an M.A. from Northwestern.

In the nanoseconds before impact -- before the front fender snapped off like an aluminum flip top, before the jackknifed hood and the judgmental slap of the airbag -- before all of that, Maddy had simply been thinking: Stop.

Not as a wish or a plea, but as a statement of fact. An affirmation. She'd been so certain that the brakes would catch in time, so certain she would lurch to a halt with a few inches to spare. She'd had plenty of these moments in her life -- times when she'd seen calamity rushing toward her, only to have it swerve at the last minute and leave her breathless but untouched. Afterward, she would exhale slowly, shake her head and go back to doing everything exactly as she had before.


So while she'd been thinking Stop, what she'd really meant was: I Will Stop. Her brain had just taken a shortcut.

And now she was standing -- swaying, really -- in the accident pull-off alongside I-90, clenching her teeth against the cold March wind and trying to get over her shock at having been wrong.

The other driver, the woman in the white Xterra, was about 15 feet away, pacing back and forth alongside her SUV. One hand pressed her cell phone to her ear, the other cut large sweeping arcs in the air. Maddy couldn't hear what she was saying (it was lost in the shooom shooom of traffic), but every few moments the woman shot her a look that could have frozen Lake Michigan.

Which Maddy deserved. The whole thing was her fault -- a textbook rear-ender. She'd been cruising along, mentally rehashing what she'd told Lissa over maki and sake ("Do you think everything in Japanese rhymes -- or just the food?") only to realize she was about to miss her exit. So she'd slipped into the right lane just a few feet behind the white Xterra, making it virtually impossible to avoid the crunch of their bumpers when traffic suddenly slowed.

Once her airbag deflated, Maddy followed the Xterra to the accident pull-off, letting her VW bug sputter off the highway and come to a groaning stop. She'd opened the door and tumbled out, coughing and brushing off airbag dust as she went. While she was bent over, she cupped her hand to her mouth and sniffed her breath. Did it smell of liquor? She sniffed again, but wasn't sure.

What she was sure of: That third glass of sake had been a mistake. A big, steaming, 40-proof mistake.

When the door of the Xterra finally opened, Maddy took a deep breath and called out, "Are you all right?"

The woman who emerged was dressed in a black turtleneck sweater and cream-colored wool coat. Large gold earrings jutted beyond the sharp edge of her blond bob; they swung savagely with every step. She was 30-ish and attractive -- like any number of Maddy and Daniel's friends. Maddy could easily picture this woman at her dining room table, forking up some of Daniel's curried prawns.

"I'm so sorry," Maddy said as she jogged toward the Xterra. "I hope you're OK."

The woman said nothing, just brushed past her and swung around the rear of the SUV. The dimple in her bumper, not much bigger than a man's fist, seemed to Maddy like the merest nothing -- a slightly crooked tooth in an otherwise perfect smile. Her own car, meanwhile, might have been a victim in a slasher flick -- the hood peeled back like a severed scalp, black tubes spilling like sinew onto the pavement. Maddy looked from the Xterra to her own car and back again.

So much for German engineering.

"I have insurance," she said as she dredged the bottom of her oversized purse.

Maddy was foolish enough to think that would be it: They'd trade policy numbers, jot down license plates, then the Xterra woman would drive off and Maddy would get a tow. But no. The woman insisted they call the police. For a ding! Maddy chewed her lip. Already she could hear Daniel's voice: Three glasses of sake? Are you stupid -- or do you just not care?

A chunk of pavement seemed to be caught in her throat. With difficulty, she swallowed it down and called home.

And here was Daniel now, pulling up in the Explorer. The towering lights over the expressway reflected off the windshield and hid his face, but Maddy knew precisely what to expect -- the lean, freckled cheeks; the cinched blond eyebrows; the long fingers with their stranglehold on the steering wheel. Daniel, her husband of 10 months. The marathon runner. The frustrated chef. The Assistant Cook County State's Attorney.

"Christ, Maddy!" he said when he saw what remained of the car.

"I'm sorry. I said so on the phone."

He grabbed her bicep and pulled her toward the Explorer. Maddy stole a quick look over her shoulder at the woman in the white coat. She was crouched next to her bumper, tenderly caressing the miniature dent. They climbed into the Explorer, and Daniel tossed a pack of gum into her lap.

"Chew it," he said. "You smell like a goddamn frat party."

"They served sake at your parties? I should have been an Illini."

He swiveled in his seat. "Just tell me what the hell happened."

"Yeah, well, you left out the part about being drunk."

Maddy turned and stared out the window. The pull-off was like a small paved island between the eastbound expressway and another on-ramp. It was about 40 yards long and 20 yards wide, defined by a low concrete wall on one side and a swath of dry grass on the other. Crumpled food wrappers, cigarette butts and Styrofoam cups dotted the turf like mushrooms.

"Hel-lo? Anyone home?"

This was Lissa not more than an hour ago, waving her hand in front of Maddy's face. "You're so far away I want to call you long distance."

Maddy prodded a bright pink sliver of fish with her chopsticks. Was it salmon or tuna? She could no longer remember what she'd ordered. "Sorry," she said. "I guess I'm a little distracted."

"Clearly. What's going on?"

Maddy looked across the crowded dining room at the other faces laughing and nodding and chewing. When she finally spoke, her voice was little more than a whisper. "Things with Daniel," she said. "Not good."

Lissa set down her chopsticks. "'Not good' how?"

Maddy took another gulp of sake. Saying it aloud was almost more than she could manage. Especially after all the evenings she'd spent gushing to Lissa about what a perfect match she and Daniel were. Like synonyms. Like a rhyming couplet. Like--

"I get it," Lissa had said dryly.

Now, her friend leaned across the table. "You don't think he's...you know...met someone?"

Maddy sighed. "Cheating? The great paragon of justice? No. It's more like--" She lowered her eyes. "Like we're just not friends anymore."

Friends. The word stuck in her throat like a fishbone. When she and Daniel had met four years earlier, they seemed to have everything in common: an affection for spicy food and black-and-white movies, Catholic upbringings that had left them iffy on religion, the same snarky sense of humor. Often, they'd stayed up until daybreak just talking.

But lately everything felt painfully out of sync. The things she found funny only made him frown. He no longer asked her to taste whatever was bubbling on the stove. And he'd begun to harp on what he called her "recidivistic nature" -- her tendency to make the same mistakes over and over.

"You better hope to God they don't breathalyze you," he was saying now. He dragged a hand over his face. "Jesus, Maddy, do you have any idea how bad that would be -- my wife with a DUI?"

"I thought I was OK."

"You could have killed somebody."

Maddy turned and looked out the window. Under the orange glow of the expressway lights, a faint movement caught her eye.

"Look," she said, "a rabbit."

There was a moment of silence during which she noticed an ache at the back of her neck. Whether from whiplash or the force of Daniel's stare, she couldn't tell.


"Right there. See?" She lifted a finger to the window. "On that little patch of grass."

It was small and brown with stubby ears and a little tuft of white at its throat. Its nose twitched busily.

"Don't you see it?"

Daniel leaned in. "OK, yeah," he said. "What's your point?"

"Well, what's it doing in the middle of the expressway?"

Daniel threw up his hands. "Maddy, goddamn it, the police will be here any minute!"

The rabbit took a few tentative hops, edging closer to the Explorer. It nosed an orphaned hamburger bun, then pulled at it with its tiny blunt teeth. How awful, Maddy thought. How awful for something so small and defenseless to find itself here. All around were the sounds of traffic, huge and ponderous and threatening, The noise seemed to press down and trap the three of them -- Maddy, Daniel, the rabbit. She felt that sense of impending disaster again; it was like teetering on a high ledge and knowing one slight shift of her weight, one ill-considered movement would send her careening over the edge.

"It's going--" she said, her voice cracking, "going to get hurt."

Daniel squinted at her. "Are you in shock or something?"

"We need to help it."

"No. What we -- what you -- need to do is focus. Which is what you should have been doing when you were behind the wheel." He got out of the car and slammed the door. The sound sent the startled brown ball streaking past the Explorer, past the woman in the white coat. It was headed straight for the expressway.

Maddy closed her eyes. When she heard the squeal of tires a moment later, she knew it was all over.

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