“The Erratic” by Christina Milletti

Dilly was ten, or maybe eight, or possibly twelve years old the day she disappeared, for the last time, from her engineered neighborhood on Willow Park Lane. She no longer remembered when the final vanishing happened. Long ago, maybe yesterday, she sat alone in the backyard of her home where a large rock, a boulder really, divided the lawn into two different countries. One half was brightly baked by the inescapable summer sun; the other half slept in the moody, perpetual half light cast by the rock over a groomed but scrubby terrain. Like many of the creatures that lived in the yard, Dilly regularly made a nest of the rock. Curled up inside a deep, protected cavity carved by time on one face, she’d sit as still as an icon in a sinner’s grotto and watch the light shift time’s shape.

Occasionally, she’d flick an ant off her leg.

Or crush it with her innocent thumb.

Occasionally, she’d disappear into the rock. When the vanishings happened to her, Dilly couldn’t tell you where she went. How. Or, possibly, who took her.

If she could tell you now, she’d explain those weren’t important questions.

After all, the coming cataclysm had already begun.

*          *          *

Geologists called the rock in Dilly’s backyard an “erratic.”

Majestic and alone, the boulder had been set adrift on the landscape long ago by prehistoric glacial movement, a time when there were no suburbs, states, or picket fences. No people. No malls. No string cheese.

The rusted, ferrous veins in the gray limestone erratic intrigued geologists at the nearby university. After a photograph of it appeared in the newspaper, a graduate student and his professor began to drop by without warning, jotting observations in small notebooks they always kept on hand as if they expected the erratic to start moving again, to suddenly resume the path it had started millennia before.

Its “composition and placement” was “unusual,” the geologists told her mother. The faded professor wiped the sweat from his brow, then dabbed at the bald patch under his hat. He gestured toward the slouching student beside him. “We’d like access if you don’t mind.”

Dilly wasn’t sure what that meant exactly. But guessed her mother would no longer petition her father to have the rock removed from the yard. In the past, her mother complained the erratic gave off too much shade. That it encouraged moss to encroach on the lawn. To infiltrate the flower beds. The erratic blocked the view of their neighbor’s potted gardenias, the distant copse of saplings by the silty, man-made pond.

“What kind of people,” her mother once grumbled, “showcase a boulder in their backyard?” She was convinced it put off the neighbors.

But an “erratic?” That was a different story. Her mother could make that work.

At first, Dilly was pleased by her mother’s shift in consciousness. Then the bearded graduate student turned up in their yard Saturday afternoon and took Dilly’s spot in the nook.

“Hey.” She kicked his dusty steel-tipped boot.

His eyes were closed. He didn’t open them.

“You’re in my rock.”

He peeked a look at her. “Your rock?”

“My yard.”

“Ah.” He closed his eyes again. His fingers drummed on the notepad.

“What are you doing?” Dilly knew she sounded annoyed. Rude even.

The graduate student uncrossed his calloused knees. “Listening.”

Dilly leaned against the rock. She didn’t need to listen. She knew what he was hearing. She often heard the voices when she sat inside the rock too.

“What are they saying today?” she asked.

He looked surprised.

Dilly just shrugged. “It’s my rock,” she said again.

The grad student closed his eyes, concentrated. “They’re saying, ‘It’s much much too late’.”

Dilly nodded. “They’ve been saying that for a while now.”

“And you haven’t told anyone?” He studied her.

She kicked his boot again. She didn’t want to call him stupid. Her mother would be mad.

“It’s a rock,” she said.

He cleared his throat and sat up, relinquishing the nook back to her. Dilly scrabbled in and curled up, her knees tight to her chest.

He leaned in close to her. Too close, she thought.

“I think it’s best,” he said, “if we keep this to ourselves.”

Dilly just stared as he walked away, taking the scent of wet cardboard with him.

Idiot.

At least she didn’t say it out loud.

*          *          *

At rest in her nook, Dilly couldn’t be seen from the house. When she grew hungry, she clambered out from the rock, returned to her parents and their aromatic, well-lit rooms, their sandwich-shaped love. Waiting for her at the kitchen table she’d find a folded napkin by a plastic plate. A cup of milk on the right. A fork on the left. Her meal islanded as geometric food groups. At the sink, her mother washed dishes. In the next room, her father sat a penitent vigil before a humming TV.

Occasionally, her father joked that she’d turned “feral,” especially on rainy days when Dilly returned from the erratic caked in a hieroglyphic spatter of mud and leaves. Dilly knew she was the changeling in her parents’ home. That she preferred out over in, rock over kitchen. And in the stories her mother read at night, a changeling had to be tamed. Returned to its wilding home. Or put down.

Already, Dilly knew she was a girl who didn’t belong.

At least in the erratic, she wasn’t in error. Her compact child’s body fit as neatly inside the rock as a rat’s in its burrow. In the erratic, Dilly found a place that felt safe. The rock eased her fears. Soothed her with its constancy. Its insistent, unvaried, if paradoxical, message.

Change, it said, was coming.

Sometimes she wished it would say more.

Be patient, it added.

Change would come for her. For her family. Much as it had come for the erratic before it was called an erratic: when it once was just an outcrop of mountain bound to other outcrops of mountain. Before it had been torn away from other rocks like itself. Then transformed into a “hardscape feature” in Dilly’s backyard, domesticated with raised beds of mulch, oversized phlox, and pachysandra.

Change would come, it promised, for the child who crawled into its belly. And stayed there.

*          *          *

The next morning, the graduate student returned. When Dilly wandered outside with a breakfast bowl of toasted oats, she found him on his back half tucked into the stone, his legs dangling out of the erratic as he probed its interior, carefully scraping its private walls with his tiny chisel. In his free hand, he held a small recording device. In between probes, he held the recorder up toward the stone.

He was, she guessed, trying to capture the sounds of the erratic’s voice.

“Won’t do any good,” she said.

He craned his neck up and squinted at her.

“I tried a long time ago,” she said. “No luck.”

The grad student slid out and crouched on his haunches. Dilly at once took his spot in the nook.

“Damn.” He looked frustrated. “What else has it told you?”

Dilly looked at him and shrugged. “It’s a rock. It’s not complicated. Change comes for us all. Stuff like that.”

The student nodded and shuffled his feet.

“We really should move it to the lab.” He made a quick note to himself.

In the distance, Dilly could hear her mother chatting on the phone with one of the neighbors, something about getting the carpets washed. Or maybe the car detailed. The erratic had begun mumbling at her, but the geologist didn’t notice.

Lost in thought, he started walking away.

When the graduate student looked back, Dilly was gone.

She was a kid. He didn’t think anything of it.

*          *          *

Where did Dilly go?

Ask the question a different way.

Where didn’t Dilly go?

Backyards of houses are home to savagery. Whether in sun or in shade, unseen arthropod barbarity wars its blue blood in the grass. In the trees above, birdsongs clash over egg-spattered nests. In the worlds between, mammals and humans show their fangs and teeth, fists and bombs, the violence swelling, erupting, receding: a predictable tide on land, air, and sea. Centipedes inject their venom. Spiders liquefy their prey. Raccoons steal eggs. Cats pounce rabbits. Humans pummel and punch their young and make up later with gifts of stuffies or bowls of carmeled corn.

The erratic told her what to look for and what was to come:

Look.

—To the rear of her home, a dark house. Breakfast dishes with bits of sliced pig abandoned on a counter. Ants harvesting toast crumbs. In the yard, a cat pulling apart a stunned mouse in the brittle undercarriage of a bush.

—To the right, at a desk by a window, a boy named Donny. One finger swiping naked girls on his tablet. The other, rummaging around in his lap. Sometimes digging into his nose.

Look.

—Next door, the quiet neighbor who gardened. Who tended wild flowers while her husband worked. Writing a check to a children’s fund. Rubbing a purpled bruise on her arm.

See the cataclysm that would soon rock her home, her neighborhood, the country, their planet. The drought that would one day parch Willow Park Lane. The rusted particulate air much too gritty to breathe.

The erratic knew what would happen while Dilly listened and watched. Soon, her limbs would go limp, her breath run shallow. Her skin would oxidize. Then splinter. Her bones would clast.

In no time at all, Dilly wouldn’t even feel the limestone’s chill.

*          *          *

Dilly wasn’t thinking about the future the day she almost disappeared for good. Sitting by a nearby woodpile, looking for bugs beneath peeling reams of papered bark, she watched the grad student turn to wave to her. When he didn’t see her, he dropped his hand in confusion, shrugged, kicked a stone, and walked off.

It should have been easy to see a girl in a bright purple coat against a stack of moldering logs.

Dilly followed the student quietly as he walked toward her neighbor’s house, down the side path between their homes, and passed a crow perched in a thicket of berries, a small toad, lately dead, in its beak. The student rubbed his eyes, then stopped to admire a silent Mercedes parked outside the neighbor’s garage. The unexpected driver was in the bedroom; the shade was up. The grad student’s gaze turned to the window. So Dilly’s gaze turned there too.

Finally, the student noticed her. And put a finger to his lips.

Inside the house, the neighbors were “going at it,” as her father would say. Dilly was eight, or possibly twelve, maybe just ten years old. But she knew what she was seeing was trouble. “Going at it,” meant a twisted arm, bruises, pulled hair for her neighbor. Even outside in the yard, Dilly could tell something was wrong. She knew what the erratic would say.

Change is coming.

Dilly looked at the grad student. He was shuffling his feet, he was turning away. Without looking at her, he walked quickly toward his car.

A rock can succumb to gravity. To the intensity of pressures around it.

Dilly picked up a rock, gauged its weight. As soon as she launched it at the window, she ran. When the glass cracked, the grad student looked back. Then hastily got into his car.

Above them on Willow Park Lane, the sun, also a rock, was undergoing constant incandescent transformation. Safe in the erratic, Dilly held her hand up as she heard doors slam. Then muted shouts. Farther off, the sound of the grad student’s punctured muffler rumbling exhausted carbolic life as he drove the Chevy down the street.

Silhouetted above her head, Dilly’s palm glowed, her inner fire shining through. She was molten. Metamorphic.

Dilly understood what the grad student did not.

A rock can always be moved.

 *          *          *

Two days later, Dilly emerged from the erratic. By then, her tongue had transformed into limestone. Sluggish and pale, she could barely talk.

Dazed, she wandered into the kitchen and fell into her mother’s arms.

“You’re hurting me.” Dilly could barely understand her own voice. The pitch was deeper, more resonant, than she remembered. It reverberated: the sound of pipe on stone.

When her mother finally released her, Dilly tried to apologize—for disappearing, for not telling her mother about the erratic’s strange message, for not being the daughter her parents wanted. But her mouth was full of gravel and her legs felt numb. When she collapsed, her mother went with her, panting and whining like a dog tending the runt of the litter. In her grunts, Dilly could hear concern. Resignation. Dismay.

Soon, Dilly was wrapped in a blanket, and tucked into her bed. A doctor stopped by and checked her in places she’d never been checked before. Not long after, there was a policeman. In the draped afternoon twilight, he took notes while her mother eavesdropped out in the hall. Dilly tried to explain that she’d been in the yard. That she’d just been upset; had fallen asleep in the rock.

That she hadn’t gone anywhere at all.

She told the same story over and over. Her mother, the doctor, the policemen—they listened and nodded. But Dilly could tell they didn’t believe her.

Didn’t she know, her mother said, that the erratic was the first place they’d looked? Couldn’t she remember where she’d really gone?

Her mother pulled the blanket up, tucked it around her. She hadn’t done that since Dilly was seven, or maybe four, or possibly ten years old.

“I’m right here when you’re ready,” her mother said as she stood.

The absence she left in Dilly’s bedroom was the dark matter formed by the smallest of planets after passing through a black hole.

*          *          *

For the first time, Dilly tried to tell her parents what the erratic was saying. But they hushed her. Kept her home from school. Soon, her mother began grousing about the erratic’s influence over their family. This time, Dilly could tell her father was listening.

In the meantime, her mother kept pushing Dilly to tell the “real” story. The new family at the end of the street, she said: had they ever met? How about the family with the green ranch on the next block? They had a rough looking dog. A stepson in college. Had Dilly ever been invited inside?

For the next few weeks, Dilly tried to keep to herself. But her mother was never far out of earshot. And her father, now home on time each night, was suddenly interested in all her ideas. The conversations at the kitchen table were exhausting.

No wonder infants cry so much, Dilly thought. They must go mad from all the attention.

The erratic told her to be patient. Their attention would ease. All things eventually ease, it said. It was the nature of physics. Intensity cannot be maintained. Soon, even the universe would ease. Relent. Decay.

When the grad student knocked on their front door two days later, his hat in his hands, her mother stepped outside to talk with him. Dilly couldn’t hear what he was saying, but the timbre of her mother’s voice could have cut a tree in half.

Vaguely, Dilly felt sorry for them. The way a rock might feel sorry for the soft earth cradling its weight.

Free for the first time in days, Dilly quickly went outside and at once curled up in the stone.

There, as the erratic’s voices swelled—Look, it muttered, look!—she couldn’t hear the strangled sound of her mother’s fear.

*            *          *

As the hours passed, then days, months, finally years, Dilly didn’t disappear so much as become the rock in which she sat. The more she listened, the more she took on the rock’s point of view. First a stillness. A slowness that was not slow because there was no other possible pace. A patience of thought that took the time required for each idea to fully form. A sense of time expanding. Of expansive time. Slowly, Dilly’s pale skin hardened, was transversed by the deep red ferrous veins that the geologists once called “unexpected.”

Dilly couldn’t say when she realized the erratic wasn’t really a stone at all, but a sedimented being composed of girls like her. Other children before her, and some long after, had (would) sit in the stone as Dilly had sat. They had (would) listen. They had (would) transform too.

Dilly couldn’t say when her last disappearance began to happen. If it started years before, the very first time she sat in the rock. Or the last time, while her mother dispatched the geology student, then returned to the kitchen to find Dilly gone. Perhaps it only began as her mother called for her, a strange panicked bark that echoed down the street.

By the time her mother called the police and her father, by the time the detectives arrived to scout the yard for clues, Dilly knew change had come to her. That change was already under way. But that her change was not new.

That all stones, everywhere—Look!—were just girls waiting for the universe to complete its interminable work.

Volunteers arrived. Then left. The search began. Then ended.

Time passed.

More time passed.

In time, her family was gone.

And all memory of Dilly passed with them. Even Dilly’s memory of herself as “Dilly” and not something that “once was Dilly but became something else” passed too. There was no Dilly to remember the Dilly who once believed she was Dilly.

There was only a large rock and the earth.

A girl is a porous compaction of subcutaneous layers.

The erratic had been a girl many times before.


millettiauthorphotoChristina Milletti’s first book, a collection of short stories, was published by Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her fiction has appeared most recently in The Denver Quarterly, American Letters & Commentary, The Cincinnati Review, The Alaska Quarterly Review, The Chicago Review, Harcourt’s Best New American Voices, and Scribner’s Best of the Fiction Workshops (among other places). She teaches in the MA in English/Innovative Writing Program at the University at Buffalo where she founded the Exhibit X Fiction Series. Her novel, Choke Box, is currently circulating with publishers (an excerpt is forthcoming in the Akashic Books anthology Buffalo Noir) and she’s working on a new collection of stories called Erratics.

 

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