Across the yard stretched a line of rags that had never been white. In the blue beyond the row was a streak for comparison: the fused contrails of a missing jet. It was a world where there were true things and false things. Nearby was the baby.
As far back as Dilly could recall, it had been with them. The prefiguring infant: perpetually undeveloped and apparently immortal. Always preceding and outliving its caretakers, already there when the next batch arrived. Dilly stroked a mite from the barrel of the rifle, crossed it from the inside of one leg to the other, and named the pain. Grace.
How old it was, was impossible to say. Their family had fragments detailing her history: material bits that spoke of her enduring reality. There were trinkets from before there was a nation, relics from before there were names for continents. There were stories of scrolls no one could read, vellum marked in tight, soft lines. All of it a legend whose myth the child’s body defied. There were rumors of notes in Middle Dutch, a string of beads from Pomona, a sketch from the shore of Virginia. In the summer of 1843, a great-great somebody down from Portsmouth started a journal, imagining he’d pass it on after he’d gone. To keep track of the child so that others, at least from then on, would know how long it had been. But the journal cut off abruptly in the spring of 1845, the last possible mention of the infant being the marginal scrawl: “Yet she continues to cry.” There are other records, of course: letters and notes and Christmas cards—some of which hint at the baby’s history; still, if it wasn’t here, plopped into that dusky rotten half barrel bassinet, no one would ever have known it had been. They kept these materials in the trunk at the foot of Grandad’s seat.
As a rule, the family did not have new ideas about the baby.
When notions arose, Grandad would snort and twist his hands around the armrests of his chair as if he were going to turn to face them. Instead he’d only pause for a moment before swaying back toward the fire, his head falling a little to the left as if to look around a corner. Aunt Edie would take up where he left off.
“There’s no reason to try to make something of it. Can’t be done. Can’t make use of it, can’t get rid of it, can’t give it away, can’t leave it alone.”
It was four years ago that Dilly had last talked openly about the child.
They had been in the kitchen, making the next meal as they cleaned up from the last. From the other room came the familiar cry.
“She’s hungry,” said Aunt Edie, smearing a dish with a wet cloth and setting it in the rack. For Dilly, Edie too had always been there; arrived when she was a baby like Grace. She and Linton had lived with the family until Tom was born, when Dilly was ten. After that it was just Edie and Tom.
A miniature police cruiser rolled by on the tile beneath them.
“Yup,” said Grandma, stirring something in the big pot on the stove. “Dilly, could you take care of the baby?”
Tom sped the car out of the room, toward Grandad.
“No,” said Dilly, arms crossed at the sink next to Edie. “I won’t do it.”
Grandad started and poked at the fire and nodded off.
“Sweetheart,” said Edie, knowing this day would come.
“Why should I help it?” she said. “I hope it dies.”
“Don’t say that.”
“It ruins everything.”
Tom again smashed his driverless car into the side of the trunk: “Haupit dieeesss!”
“She’s keeping you alive.”
Grandma turned, touching Edie on the shoulder and taking her place at the sink.
“We should stop feeding it,” said Dilly, looking toward the other room.
“One can try,” said her grandmother.
And she would, Dilly told herself. She would be the first to forget, the first to escape.
“But you won’t be able,” her grandmother told her. “And then we’d lose you too.”
Dilly watched her grandmother’s hands pluck flatware from the foamy water. Watched the bubbles light and pop, revealing the scars of a childhood illness. She looked down at her own familiar marks and tried to picture the missing stage between them.
“She should be here.”
Her grandmother’s soapy hand stroked her shoulder. “You know she can’t, dear.”
“I don’t know that.”
“She left to save you.”
“She left to save herself.”
Grandpa didn’t turn around as he spoke, didn’t take his eyes off the fire.
“I will not have a daughter of mine . . . .”
And, exhausting himself with a wave of his hand, he fell asleep again.
After that, Dilly didn’t discuss her plans with her family. She knew what they would say. She knew that they would remind her of what she could not remember. Of a sickness that would have killed her had she not been brought to Grace. Of their travel home and the subsequent transmission of that sickness to her mother. Of her father and grandparents making her mother leave without her in order to save her mother’s life. Of a time they were all together. The last time. Of a mother who loved her.
“She is so much like you,” her father would say. “You’re both so different . . . .”
But Dilly knew they were nothing alike. That she would be the one to break the cycle, the one to do what her mother had failed to do. She did not decide this immediately. At first, she had made an effort to fit in, to forget her plan. But, as she grew older, the absurdity of it restricted her thinking, kept her from being herself. That and its material opposite: the undeniable presence of the body that gave her daily work. Dilly more than any other. Dilly, the second oldest child. As though she were responsible. As though she had made this happen. So, unlike the others, Dilly could not let it be, could not accept her lot. Could not help but agree with Jake that there was always a way out.
Not that Jake knew the particulars, yet. Though she wasn’t supposed to tell him, and hadn’t yet been able to do so, she knew she eventually would. She had no reason to doubt that he wouldn’t know what to do. When they were sitting in his car by the lake everything was easy, simple. There was his bare arm above the elbow, there was his hand just below her navel. And there, over his shoulder and out the window, she could see it all spelled out, connecting the dots of the stars. It was so easy; it was nothing at all. She could see it like an unsent postcard.
Afterward, when they lay together without motive, he would tell her how it was. She had no evidence that anything could touch him, could interrupt the clean economy of his logic. It just came out of him, as if scripted long ago, as if he weren’t generating thoughts but merely passing them along. When she was alone, it wasn’t the same: his math was muddled as soon as she saw the house, stepped onto the porch, heard the latch come off in expectation of her arrival. It was always like this. Whenever she worked the problem through his rules—away from his body—things got bent, nothing squared. She thought maybe it was a product of secrecy: divulgence would bring clarity and insight—a new thing between them that would turn out to be the essential, missing phrase of the equation. In the meantime, she couldn’t stop trying to discover the solution. Franklin, her father, would find her on the porch at night, looking back along the length of the house toward the yellow nursery window.
“Honey,” he’d say from the doorway. “You’ll catch your death.”
“It just doesn’t make any sense.”
“You’re young,” he’d say, as if reminding himself. “Just trust me.”
Dilly would frown, pull at her lip.
“You think I’m wrong,” he’d say.
Dilly would tell him that he didn’t know what young meant.
Last night, during the talk, Franklin had bent his knee slightly in the doorway, as if he were going to come onto the porch.
“You think you’re missing out,” he had said.
“I am missing out.”
“What do you think the other kids are doing?”
“Which other kids?”
“Kids your age.”
“There are no kids my age.”
Franklin smiled, unable to hide his pride.
“I guess not. So what do you want?”
Dilly thought of Jake and his plan to leave town.
“You know what I think of that boy.”
“He’s not a boy.”
“Exactly. I don’t want to see you get hurt.”
Dilly snorted like Grandad.
“How could he hurt me worse—,” she started, not knowing how to finish.
“We haven’t done anything to you,” Franklin said, “if that’s what you mean.”
“I know,” she said. “But neither has Jake.”
Franklin patted the jamb of the door as if it were a dog.
“Well, not exactly.”
“It’s not his fault—I haven’t even told him.”
“I know, honey.”
“It’s not my fault, either.”
“It’s not anybody’s fault. It’s just the way things are.”
Dilly didn’t move, even after he had gone inside with one last invitation. She stayed with her face to the valley, watching for flashes along the highway. From her plastic-slatted chair she collected cities of traffic and fell into a dream as close to dawn as ever. It was there she found the gun.
They drove north toward Mobridge. Jake was quiet and the radio was off. Dilly thumbed her phone, saw the barrel shine in its face from the back seat. It was the best that she could do, keeping it with her, bringing the weapon along. Maybe it could protect her, at least from others, but it couldn’t have set her free. Somewhere near dawn she had relented. Even if she had killed it, even if they had kept it quiet, she would have been trapped—would have no reason to leave. She would have been free to leave, but would have had no excuse, no motivation to mollify her father, Aunt Edie, Grandma or Grandad. They would be upset, afraid, even angry—but they would understand. To Dilly, they were true believers. That was Franklin’s term. True believers don’t doubt the convert’s sincerity, he said, it’s the disbeliever’s blindness that confounds them. Later, when she found they acted without recourse to faith, depended on nothing without evidence, she had her own revelation. From then she lived in a world of magic without magicians, of predictable impossibilities—a realm whose laws were not unknowable, merely inexplicable. But now, as her head leaned on the window and the snow began to fall, she could not imagine her people sustaining their world without belief. Foremost among their beliefs was this: she could not do what she had just done. She could not leave the baby. Yet she was here, with Jake, alone. Somehow, she thought, she had excused herself.
As they drove she dreamed. In her sleep was a washing machine whose spin cycle generated a tornado that thinned the universe into a liquid and out of existence through a lightless drain, making an intermittent high-pitched whine on each rotation of its vortex. There was no dryer.
Something touched her stomach, crossed over her thigh. She kept her eyes closed and resisted waking.
“. . . that sound?” came the question.
As she pulled her head away from the window, she reached to the left and the hand pull back.
“There it is. Do you hear it?”
He didn’t ask again. As she came to, she heard it and understood. An occasional, windy two-tone sigh. As though in time with the rhythm of the tires and the roll of the road.
iheeee iheeee iheeee
Jake was looking around the dash, into his mirrors; he put his hands on whatever might be loose, hoping for the simplest solutions. It was late; early morning. They were alone on the road; another car wouldn’t pass until well after they had pulled over. He kept his face forward, but she could see the future where his eyes were on her, judging, suspicious. It was coming.
“Is it the engine,” Dilly said hopefully.
“Maybe something got caught in a hubcap,” he said without confidence.
iheeee iheeee iheeee
“It’s probably nothing.”
Jake shook his head.
“No reason not to check.”
“Can’t we wait till Selby?”
“Better not,” he said, slowing down.
They drove the rest of the way to Mobridge without speaking.
She held the baby to her chest, afraid that her anger might squeeze it too tightly and kill their love. The silence didn’t bother her; she didn’t have a thing to say. It was so obviously impossible, this situation, finding her family’s baby in the trunk.
“Why did you keep her,” he had said, stunned on the side of the road.
She stared into the carpeted darkness.
“I did nothing.”
“You knew it was there,” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t know there was anything to tell.”
He told her he didn’t believe her by nodding.
“Whatever,” he said. “We’ll take care of it in Mobridge.”
In Mobridge they got a room. The baby began to cry. It needed milk, food, something. They’d have to take care of it, for now, she said. “Of course,” he said. “Absolutely.” He pressed his lips to her forehead, rattled his keys. “Stay with her, here. I’ll get the stuff.” They could all go together, she suggested. She wasn’t comfortable being left alone with the baby. Had never been. “Don’t worry,” he said, sitting down on the edge of the bed where Dilly lay supine with the child. “We’ll figure it out. Everything will be all right.”
Two hours later, Dilly woke to the sound of an engine in the lot. The baby was asleep, face down on her belly, its head between her breasts. She gently rolled Grace to the bed and moved west to the window. She sat there until morning, trading glances between the bed and the space where Jake had first parked the car when they had arrived.
In the taillight of foreign cars she thought he took the gun he took the gun he took the gun.
They got a ride from the twenty-second truck that passed. After half a day and no money for another night, she and the baby had headed north. Twenty miles to Cannon Ball. That was all they had now, the numbers: eighteen wheels, eleven matches, two cigarettes, fourteen dollars, sixteen years and a millennium between them. 19 miles to Cannon Ball.
That’s where they would go: the childhood home of the woman who had abandoned her. A place the family still owned but never visited, forgotten when her mother left. She hadn’t realized they had been headed for it until Jake didn’t return. Almost at once, the image of his car was replaced by the idea of the cabin—a house in which she’d never been. 18 miles and no gun.
She did not introduce Grace as a problem, but somehow the truck driver knew.
Dilly wondered why she had to ask.
“I don’t,” replied the woman. “But I didn’t know how to bring it up.”
“Bring what up?”
“Your not wanting it.”
Dilly smoothed the wispy hair on the side of Grace’s face.
“You don’t understand.”
The driver turned her chin toward Dilly but kept her eyes toward the road.
“I think I do,” she said. “I’ve been where you are.”
“I don’t think so.”
The truck accelerated past a hatchback transporting six singers.
“I do,” she said. “And I can help.”
Dilly couldn’t allow that. She had never considered that there might be others. The only thing she had was the uniqueness of her misery.
“Don’t take this from me,” Dilly mumbled.
“I won’t take anything from you,” said the driver. “But I can help you detach, if you want.”
Dilly was suspicious. Didn’t like the sound of that: dee-tatch. Both dreaded and didn’t want to believe she wasn’t alone. That another could understand.
“I know somebody,” said the driver.
Dilly shook her head, shifted Grace to the cradle of her right arm.
“I couldn’t do that.”
“Listen,” said the driver. “Open up the panel just below your knees. That one. Grab the black wallet.”
In the compartment were half-used napkins, a flashlight, half a cassette tape, a bottle of lotion, and three wallets: one black, two brown.
Dilly held it out toward the woman.
“Open it. In one of the folds is a bright yellow card.”
The trifold wallet held credit cards, pictures, slips of paper. Dilly paused over the images, a series of single shots of a toddler, young boy, young man.
“That’s my Virgil,” said the woman.
He’s beautiful, Dilly almost said, surprising herself with the impulse.
“The card’s just there,” said the driver, glancing across the face of her son.
Dilly pulled the card from its slot and read:
Tom Brand: Technician
And there was a number.
“Take it,” said the driver.
“I don’t know,” said Dilly.
“I do,” said the driver. “It’s for the best.”
The driver dropped her off on the edge of the reservation. Said she was willing to take her closer to the house—wanted to—but Dilly resisted. Didn’t know why. It’s not far from here, she told the driver. Told her thank you as she and Grace came down from the cab. Don’t worry, she said. We can make it.
“My pleasure,” said the woman. “Take care of yourself.”
“Wait—,” said Dilly, stepping back up to open window, to a face she could no longer see.
“Honey?” came the voice out over the door.
“I never asked your name.”
“Williams,” came the reply.
“Your first name?”
“Williams is what I go by now,” said the window of the truck, lurching forward.
Dilly didn’t want to call the number. Walking down the highway, no longer familiar, she tried to remember the driver’s hands, arms, to compare them to her own. Above her the sky did nothing. Grace, drifting into an ageless sleep, grew heavier. It was just a phone call; it didn’t mean anything. Not yet.
She called as she walked to the house, stopping when the phone on the other end rang, flustered by the awkward weight of the baby.
Tom Brand’s office was located in Bismark, he told her, on the eastern side.
“I can’t make it to Bismark,” said Dilly. “I have no car.”
“I’ll send someone to you,” he said. “They’ll talk over the details with you. After that, if you want, they’ll bring you back to my office.”
“I don’t know.” She switched Grace to the other arm and turned down a road with no center line.
“We’ll need the address.”
“I don’t know.”
“I understand,” said Brand. “This is a difficult decision. Trust me, we won’t effect a detachment without a thorough consultation. But we don’t do those over the phone. No exceptions.”
“I have no money.”
“The consultation is free,” said Brand. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”
“I don’t know.”
Brand let the silence draw out.
“Ma’am,” he said, “you called me. I work only on referrals. So somebody you trust trusts me. If you want help, I can help you. But I don’t want to pressure you; there’s no need for that.”
Grace grabbed at the phone.
“It’s just—she’s always been here.”
“Longer than I have,” said Dilly. “Longer than you.”
“Ma’am,” said Brand, “you can discuss all of this with my colleague. All I need is an address.”
Grace cooed into the receiver as if trying to satisfy Brand’s request.
Dilly kissed Grace on the forehead, like Jake had almost done, and gave Brand the address to her mother’s childhood home.
The cabin was just outside Cannon Ball, on the edge of Standing Rock along the Missouri. Even before she reached the steps, she sensed someone had been there recently, someone other than squatters, someone familiar. Through the unlocked door she found a long wood table beside a trough-like sink. Above her, in the loft, she thought she remembered sleeping, cries and grunts, an oval mirror on the wall, a quilted bed tucked in the corner. Here, below, was food and drink and a fireplace with two blackened logs. With embers left behind. The baby squawked and Dilly turned to find a woman on the stairs.
Dilly knew and did not know this woman.
“My god,” said the woman. “You’re so beautiful.”
This woman had stolen her voice.
“Come, sit down.”
Dilly didn’t need to ask. This woman was not the technician.
“I sent him away,” said the woman as if Dilly had asked her question out loud. “We don’t need him. We don’t need any of them.”
“We,” Dilly repeated. Her first word.
Dilly laughed. “How did you find me?”
The woman said that didn’t matter. All that mattered was that she was free.
No, Dilly said, it will only latch on to the next one. “To my cousin,” she said.
“No, not him,” said the woman. “Never to him.”
Dilly nodded, knowing this already.
“But not you either.” Not anymore. Dilly would stay away. Unattached.
“Isn’t that what you want?”
It wasn’t. But she did not know what it was to know what she wanted.
“Grace will come with me,” said the woman.
“You know her name.”
“It hasn’t changed in a thousand years.”
Dilly heard a light growl as the woman picked up the baby.
“Can you do this?” asked Dilly, staring at her mother’s hands.
“Yes.” There was no doubt. With Franklin. With the others. Yes.
“Because it’s your baby.”
“Oh, honey,” said the woman who was and wasn’t her mother. “It’s nobody’s baby.”
“It doesn’t latch on to nobody.”
“It’s the only way.”
Grace was quiet, her eyes to the ceiling.
“Yeah,” said Dilly, nodding, assuming the family platitude. “It’s always been like this.”
“No. Not at all. It used to be much worse.”
Worse than this. Before we had the chance to be alone.
“And it helps,” said Dilly, feeling the coming abandonment.
“Sometimes, for some,” replied her mother. “But it isn’t a choice. It’s necessary.”
“But it doesn’t have to be like this.”
Something like the engine of a jet sounded overhead.
Her mother smiled. “Only for now.”
Dilly saw the future when Grace would come back to her, after the birth of her own child, a daughter who would grow and age and die away from her. Dilly’s replacement.
“But someday,” she said, still thinking in the future.
“Yes,” said her mother, reaching for the baby with once familiar arms. “Someday.”
As of May, 2018, Nelson Lloyd still has no biographical information. In 2011, a team of 14 cross-disciplinary investigators was sent out in search of some data; only two returned, unable (or refusing) to speak. The new ‘mission’ planned for the summer of 2019 seems to have fallen through due to the recent decline in Bio-explorer graduate programs and the sad state of current subterranean submarine technology. We will, of course, keep you posted.