A Town Built on Salt
Liam stood next to the most warped section of his fence and toed the soft wet ground below it. A boy in his sixth grade class had told him a story about a sinkhole that had opened up on his property last week. It was big enough for their dog to fall into, the boy had said. The ground had suddenly opened its mouth, small at first, then as big as a dinner plate. The earth had poured into the center of that hole like sand in an hourglass.
The whole town was going under. Liam had watched a news broadcast with his mother the night before, confirming it. Channel Five played a cell phone video shot by a teenager who’d meant to be filming his best friend’s skateboard trick. On the screen, Liam had watched a parked car fall clean out of view. One second there, the next, gone. The earth had gulped it down whole. It was the salt mining, the newscaster had said. That and the heavy rains.
Liam hadn’t told his father that their fence had changed. The man would have seen the damage for himself if he’d made his Sunday visit on time, but darkness had covered the yard by the time his father had arrived and Liam hadn’t even gotten to see him. His father had said something drunk and slurry as his mother had opened the door, and she’d slammed it shut right after, locking his father out. The next morning, Liam’s mother scrubbed a boot print off the front door, but pretended Liam’s father had never showed up.
The mines were nearly empty now and people like Liam’s father had been out of work for over a year. Everyone in Liam’s class had been told there would be government assistance when it came time for them to graduate high school, since the town’s biggest industry was dead.
Liam walked back a few steps until he stood in the center of his small yard. He watched his white pickets for any sign of movement south. If something budged, even a little, he would run to the house and call his mother at her job. She would tell him to stay inside where it was safe, then she would find his father and they would rush home together. They would fix the yard, and his father would move back home. For protection.
It could happen at any moment, the newscaster had said. Liam already knew three other people with sinkholes. One was the boy in his class. Another was the school nurse, who was taking it bad. Nurse Gravel had wrung her hands at the school assembly last Friday, pacing back and forth near the bleachers. They’d been gathered to honor the retiring art teacher, but nurse Gravel had interrupted right as the school principal was about to give out the plaque.
“We need to save the children!” she’d cried, walking in front of the ceremony. Nurse Gravel had swiped the microphone from the principal’s hand and implored the students to listen. “There are warning signs,” she’d said. “The birds have all left our town, haven’t you noticed? We need to pray, every one of us!”
The principal pulled the microphone away from her and ushered nurse Gravel toward the double doors that lead to the parking lot. Nurse Gravel had scanned the crowd as she left, and she’d spotted Liam. He’d held her eye until the doors shut her out.
The other sinkhole person Liam knew was Ms. Judy, his mother’s best friend. He didn’t get to hear Ms. Judy’s story first hand, only his mother’s account and opinion about it all. Liam had not been allowed to go see the gaping hole that had sunk Ms. Judy’s entire set of patio furniture. It had been sudden, Liam’s mother told him, like an elevator with a broken cable. Snap. Poof. Gone. Liam’s mother and Ms. Judy were not alarmed. Ms. Judy had wanted new patio furniture for years.
Liam searched above for birds but only saw clouds inching toward each other in the darkening sky. The air felt wet and hushed. He returned his attention to the fence and tried to limit his blinks. He stepped forward, watching for subtle movements.
Suddenly, a long stick of lightning cracked the sky above him. Everything went silent for the count of four. Liam stood still and waited for his fence to slip lower, but the pickets didn’t budge. When thunder hit, he felt it rumble across the whole town, all the way to the ground beneath his feet. It shook his teeth.
He heard a snap of wood behind him and turned to watch the spectacle. When an entire house is eaten by a sinkhole, he would later tell his mother, it does not pour itself to the bottom of the earth like sand or lose its footing quickly in one loud drop. Instead, it crumbles at the edges from one corner to the next, then slowly melts away.
© Windy Lynn Harris
Windy Lynn Harris has been published in The Literary Review, The Sunlight Press, and Literary Mama, among many other journals. She is the author of Writing & Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays: The Essential Guide to Getting Your Work Published (Writer’s Digest Books) and a frequent speaker at literary events. www.windylynnharris.com.