Fiction · 10/12/2016

Just-in-Case Stones

She picked up her first stone when she was seven years old. As she leaped to avoid cracks in the sidewalk, she noticed the speckled, pinkish rock in the center of a concrete square, as though an unseen hand had tossed it into her strange, solitary hopscotch game. Orb-like, vitreous, perfectly smooth, the rock reminded her of an egg, but when she tapped it against the ground she delighted to find it did not crack.

A few weeks later, a piece of black onyx scavenged from a construction site. Her face reflected in its sheen. Despite its luster, the stone’s ends were jagged, angry where it had been chiseled from something larger. When she ran her finger over the edge, a drop of blood effused from the shallow slit the rock made in her skin.

The next: brown, ancient smelling, striated bands along the rim, strata indicating it formed under pressure, over time.

A rock collection, her mother said, how cute. But it was not a typical collection of a child compelled by the lovely or interesting. Only certain rocks sufficed, ones with weight in her hand like a ripened plum. Size, shape? Deceptive, didn’t matter. It was heaviness. She considered each rock with gravity, could tell which were right.

When she was small, the rocks were small. Not pebbles, but the right size for tiny pockets of pink cutoff shorts, pastel denim straining against their bulge.

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Nothing rosy or cherubic about this child: she held a flat, serious gaze in dark eyes under heavy brows. She did not laugh. The pallor of her skin, the purse to her thin lips. Adults averted their eyes, came up mute in her company.

Other children didn’t ask her to play. They fused together in impenetrable groups. Sometimes another girl would see her watching, point, whisper to a friend. Instead of double-dutch or kickball, she paced the perimeter of the schoolyard with her gaze turned down, toe-to-heel-to-toe. In that way she discovered a hefty chunk of cobble that beckoned from its place in the earth. She used a twig to scrape the soil, prying the stone loose to reveal potato bugs that winked in the sudden flash of sunlight. A rare smile when the rock nestled in her palm.

In class, the rock’s iceberg tip protruded from her pocket into the small of her back. Reveling in the distraction of discomfort, she didn’t hear when her teacher repeated her name several times.

At Parent-Teacher Conferences, Mrs. Heffernan remarked to her mother that she never heard the child’s voice, wasn’t sure that she could speak. If not for the satisfactory marks on her test papers, she would have been shuttled into the class for children with intellectual disabilities, which wouldn’t have made a difference to her.

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By nine years old, she amassed more rocks than her parents allowed her to line on the bookshelf, so she relegated most of the stones to a shoebox underneath the bed. At night, after her bath but before her story, she sat cross-legged on the rug in her nightgown with the box on her knees.

One, two, three, she counted. Counted as high as she could before coming to the end of the line, then starting again. One, two, three. Five times, to be certain the number did not change.

After counting, she sorted the rocks by weight—heavy to light—and selected the densest to carry. But it was an imprecise science; she couldn’t be certain which rocks weighed more. This left her unable to fall asleep. She wondered, until the alarm clock rang, if her choices were wrong. Imagined the consequences. Got out of bed to count them again. Sort them again. Heavy-to-light. Made the same selections each time, afraid to change.

She begged her parents to buy her a scale. First they refused, but after several sleepless months, they relented. Her sleep was restored, though shallow, superficial. Her dreams remained secret even to herself. She did not feel rested upon waking.

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At the park she built rock towers, stones stacked one on top of one, two on top of two. She filled the spaces between large rocks with smaller ones, the smaller spaces with stones smaller still. She populated rock cities with rock people, round heads atop oblong bodies. White rocks, she found, functioned as chalk: she sketched roadways through towns, expressionless faces on rock-people’s rock-heads.

Some days she left her creations at the park and returned to find them intact. She loved, on those days, that the rocks only moved if she transported them. She waved a greeting as she rushed toward them. But other days she found that someone had trampled through her rock cities or used big stones to grind little ones to dust. Those days, she cradled as many rocks as possible in her arms, carried them home to where they might all be safe.

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As she grew, so did the rocks. By middle school, the majority of her collection looked so small that it was hard to believe they ever seemed significant. She shunted older, smaller rocks to the back of the closet, the bottom of drawers, places of less priority, as toys of childhood so frequently are.

Seventh grade brought gossip, parties, boys-boys-boys for the other girls. For the first time, she eavesdropped on her classmates’ conversations, squeezing stones in her pockets until they left curved rings across her palm. Unsure if she liked the other children but tired of being lonely, she called a polite classmate on the phone. After repeating her name several times but hearing only Who? in response, she returned the receiver to its cradle without saying goodbye.

She smeared a cherry-colored balm over her mouth but grimaced at her reflection, which looked like someone else. She went to a dance in a gymnasium, but the fluid dancing made her retreat to the bleachers to press her back against the wall until the chaperone announced, Time to go home.

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Blue jays, gnats, dragonflies, other children: things that fluttered, unbound, distressed her. When a loud, low-flying plane passed she craned her head to watch, toes pressed downward, petting the stones in the pockets of her coat. They clacked against each other, barely audible over the roar of the engine overhead.

She ground her teeth at night, waking with a jaw so tightly clenched it locked. In the morning, fine detritus coated her tongue as though her teeth were softening to silt. She imagined she wore her teeth away, watched them in the mirror for signs of deterioration. When she read that birds, which have no teeth, swallow stones to digest their food she considered, but rejected, following suit. She didn’t want anything in common with creatures that had wings.

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In high school her isolation made her interesting to peers. They called her enigmatic, a word that curried favor with the ninth grade after appearing on a vocabulary worksheet. The popular boys and girls watched her from the corners of their eyes; a girl oblivious to their attention stood as a curiosity. Occasionally a classmate ventured a hello that prompted only the blank stare she had perfected over so many years of being alone. It made her sexy. She procured her first boyfriend, a sophomore named Justin who proudly announced to anyone who would listen that still waters ran deep, an expression he didn’t understand. He also said he loved her. Maybe he did. Unsure if she loved Justin or not, she appreciated that he was courteous, easygoing, solid. They went on dates to the movies where he pawed her breasts in the dark, hands greasy with popcorn butter, with no pretense of conversation.

When Justin climbed on top of her for the first time it reminded her of rocks, their heft when he pushed inside. But she never gasped or shuddered when he thrust; eventually he broke up with her to go out with Bethany. He lamented so that others could hear that he had been a fool who didn’t know what real love was while stroking Bethany’s flaxen hair.

She had lost rocks before, holes in pockets, occasional carelessnesses; losing Justin felt very much the same. She was disappointed, missed the weight of him, but not long after they broke up she found a bit of white marble that chased Justin from her mind.

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For Christmas her mother bought her a geode. The dull gray stone cleaved along its median to reveal a glistening purple crystal core. She traced her fingers over the sharp mineral peaks, forced a smile, wondered what good something was if it wasn’t solid through.

She placed the geode on a shelf where it encased in a layer of dust. Each night she continued her counting-and-sorting ritual with rocks that mattered.

In eleventh grade Geology class she was caught stealing a piece of shale. Instead of yelling, Mr. Noonan surprised her a few classes later with a sampling of rocks he purchased at a natural history museum with her in mind.

Igneous, he explained, formed by volcanic eruptions.

She was repulsed to realize the rocks floated. How unnatural, she said, as he tipped the porous lump into her hand. The smile on the young teacher’s face eroded.

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She stitched pebbles into the linings of her coats, the cuffs of her jeans, the hem of her graduation robe. She clattered when she walked, fabric strained beyond its elasticity, rocks tumbling against the places where her bones protruded from her skin.

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Her roommate at State University was a chubby, affable girl named Tracy who invited her to parties, the weekly ice cream social on their floor. Though she sometimes told Tracy she would meet her here-or-there she never appeared where promised. Instead, she sat alone by the campus’s man-made lake watching red-eared turtles nap on the perimeter rocks. The turtles reminded her so much of stones that she never expected them to resurface after a plunge into the water. Hours later she returned to her room, pockets laden; indefatigable, Tracy attempted friendship again, asked about the stones.

She stammered over words that jammed in her throat. Several failed tries to explain demonstrated she had lost the ability to articulate her thoughts even with someone to talk to, something to say.

Tracy became close with the effervescent theatre major across the hall; when the theatre major’s roommate dropped out in November, Tracy moved into that room, no explanation or apology. Student Housing never sent a replacement, so she lived alone. While her standard-issue desk was home to textbooks, a laptop, a gooseneck lamp, a mess of stained papers, the identical setup that used to be Tracy’s became home to an ever-expanding array of rocks.

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She moved heavily; shuffling feet, stiff arms, leaden carriage. She squared her shoulders to heave her bulk through doorways. Her skin calloused where rocks pressed through her clothes. She ran her hands over the rough parts of her body, which felt more familiar than the rest of her flesh. A patch on each hip, a swath across her stomach, in the hollows under her arms, between her shoulder blades, behind her knees: her skin was tight, firm, stronger than it should have been, in those places.

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During her second year of college a boy named Austin walked her to her room after a late class. At her door he pushed his tongue in her mouth; when she broke away he pushed himself into her room.

She struck him in the temple with a rock, one that was close to the door, easy to grab. She was surprised anyone could bleed that much. Austin raced from her room cursing, palm cupped against his face, red running between his fingers.

It annoyed her to have to clean his blood off the rock, which she stopped loving as much as the others.

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If her mother had been at Commencement she might have wondered when her daughter put on so much weight. The graduation gown stretched across her bulky midsection, where rocks were strapped like a gunman’s rounds of ammunition. But she didn’t need to explain because her mother wasn’t there, wasn’t invited. She convinced her parents she did not plan to attend the ceremony, talked them out of throwing a party nobody would attend. She claimed dinner plans with Tracy, a quiet celebration for two shy girls. Her parents, grateful she had made a friend but sorry to miss the milestone, sent a hundred dollars in a card, insisting dinner was on them.

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Her studio apartment remained undecorated and largely unfurnished. A sagging beige sofa, small table with only one chair, twin-sized bed whose linens needed a change, nothing on the walls.

Instead of a home, she lived in a quarry. In the cabinets, stones. On surfaces, stones. They stacked on the bowed shelves of a flimsy bookcase, piled in corners of the room. They left impressions in her mattress, peeked from beneath the couch. The closet doors wedged open by rockslides from within.

The mortar between the square bricks of her apartment was replete with gravel, pebbles, none bigger than the nail on her little finger, many infinitesimal. She broke her fingernails on the bricks in an attempt to pry them loose. On sunny Saturdays and Sundays she visited the park, as she had when she was a child, filled totes, trudged them home. On rainy Saturdays and Sundays she did the same, clothes sticking, heavy, pulling ground-ward.

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She took an administrative job in a corporate office where she was never certain of her responsibilities. Her supervisors were unobtrusive, her colleagues distant. She attended a few after-work happy hours with a man called Andrew and a woman named Emily, but their airy conversations left her empty, so after the first few outings she refused their invitations. Emily stopped swinging by her desk to chat.

When she decided to leave her job she was unsure how to announce she was moving on. She cleaned out her desk on a Friday, didn’t report the following week. Her supervisor called several times, but she did not answer the calls. We’re very worried, his voicemail said. Please call us back.

Her parents’ messages were similar; she ignored those, too.

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She filled a suitcase with as many rocks as fit. It was her first vacation. Never one for air travel, she boarded a bus, rode three hours to a seaside inn. The wooden edifices of the town’s buildings were cracked, swollen, rotting in the humid air.

She had never seen the ocean and did not expect it to be a solid wall that crashed against the shore. She watched the waves from the boardwalk for hours; the ocean, she realized, was powerful.

She ventured onto the sand and rubbed the grains across her hand. They scoured her skin, abrasive. Each granule possessed its own color and diameter; when she examined the specks she found them to be stones in miniature. They glued themselves to the backs of her calves.

She picked up a stone from the shoreline, held her breath, threw it into the ocean.

The water puckered where the stone disappeared. Once a wave erased the ripple, it was impossible to tell where the rock had fallen. She lifted her arm and threw another, the same listless throw, the same result. Not satisfying as she hoped.

You’re doing it wrong, said a man with a pale, concave chest wearing lurid swim trunks, orange flowers on a purple background. He extended her his hand, took her stone. Tossed it into the surf where it skipped multiple times, then dropped into the deep.

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Mallory McMahon’s fiction has appeared in The Berkeley Fiction Review; the Tupelo Quarterly; and the EEEL. She placed third in The Berkeley Fiction Review’s Sudden Fiction contest, was shortlisted by The Masters Review, and was the recipient of third prize in the International 3-Day Novel Contest. She holds an MFA from the New School and lives and works in her native Brooklyn, NY.