American Contemporary Speculative

This story contains sensitive content

Note: This story deals with disappearance and death.

I walk through my home now and I marvel at how safe everything looks. More than safe, solid. The dark heavy beams, the hardwood floor, the double-paned windows set inside the thick walls. My great-grandfather built this house. He meant it to be the ‘forever home’ for his family line running through the eldest children. The oldest child of every generation inherits the house. That is his rule and it is written in the spidery old script of his will, still on file down at the courthouse. Younger siblings can inherit money or other property, but the eldest gets this home. I am not an ‘eldest’ but an only child. That is how I came to have this house. My family came here over one hundred years ago to work in the mines. No one works in the mines now. The mining companies and the people that worked for them are long gone. 

The house, my house, sits in the little town of Straightville. I say little because Straightville isn’t much. The census can tell you that. All told, the population normally sits at around twenty-two thousand. No, it isn’t much, but we have everything we need, all the things other small towns have. We have the stores, restaurants, schools, parks, police and post offices. Many people thought Straightville would die when the mining companies packed up and left, but it didn’t. After all, we had automobiles. There were still plenty of jobs; you just had to drive a little further. People found work in factories, schools, distribution centers, truck driving, nursing-you name it. There are plenty of jobs around here and in neighboring towns and cities. So we didn’t fall apart when the mining companies left. Up until the last eighteen months, the only disturbing thing about Straightville was the story of our founder, Arlen Straight. Arlen got into a property-line dispute with his neighbors who ended up murdering him with an ax while he was out on his horse. That was back in 1802. Just a bit of town trivia from a time long ago.

We were fine, going along, getting along and doing just fine until January before last. It’s hard to believe that it has been eighteen months, but the calendar doesn’t lie. The funny thing is nobody really knows what happened. Everyone has an idea or a theory but nobody really knows. Even the scientists we brought in do not all agree. All I can tell you is the ‘what’, the ‘why’ is still up for debate.

That January was when the Shaw boy went missing. He was home, enjoying the last week of the holiday break when he disappeared. Bernard Shaw, that was his name, everyone called him Ben. I did not and still don’t know the family, but I know the story well enough. One cold January morning at around ten o’clock, twelve year-old Ben stepped out into the front yard of his family’s home and was never seen again. When the police investigated, they found that the neighbor across the street had a security camera mounted on his porch. The footage from the camera was pulled and the police watched it carefully. They theorized that Ben had left the front yard and headed out on the sidewalk. The camera footage would at least tell them what direction he was headed.

Everyone in town waited for the police to make an announcement after they had pulled the camera footage. Days went by, then a week, then two weeks. The Straightville social media pages were lit up with people discussing Ben Shaw, trying to figure out why the police had said nothing about the video or Ben’s disappearance. Then the town paper, the Straightville Story, printed up an issue with big bold lettering that said:


Finally, the chief of police Wayne Hadley called a press conference. Hadley was shorter than most of his deputies but he always managed an air of authority. The day of the press conference, he planted himself behind a podium that came almost up to his chest. Hadley adjusted the microphone on the podium down to his height and then began his statement. The police had viewed the video along with experts to verify its authenticity. They would release the video for everyone to see, but they wanted Ben’s parents to view it first.

Ben’s parents, Emmett and Donna, were due at the police station the next morning at eight. Rumors were flying that they had something do with the disappearance. Either that or they knew something that they weren’t telling the police. They had hired a local lawyer to accompany them. It didn’t matter. The Shaws never made it to the police station.

The 911 call came into the police department at five o’clock in the morning, three hours before the Shaws were due. It was the Shaw’s neighbor across the street, the one who had originally supplied the video of Ben.  The operator connected with the deputies on duty and the fire department. Then she made a private call to Wayne Hadley, who could not believe what she was telling him. The Shaw house was gone and the Shaws along with it.

It all came out. The video, the fires, the mistakes, the cover-ups, all of it. Of course, the video was posted on the Straightville webpage and I watched along with everyone else. Ben had walked out of the front door of his house, down three front steps and into the middle of the small lawn and stopped. He looked to the left and then the right. He seemed to be debating about which direction to take. Then, Ben Shaw just disappears into thin air. He is in one frame and then gone in the next. The cops had seen this and like the rest of us, did not know what to think. It looked like the ground had just swallowed the boy up.

It had, just as it had swallowed up the Shaw house weeks later. The neighbor’s security video, the second one that the police confiscated, only showed that the Shaw house collapsed. It took weeks and teams of people from the state geological survey and the environmental protection agency to investigate why it had collapsed.

Like I said, nobody really knows. All they have is theories. The best they could tell was that a giant sinkhole had opened underneath the Shaw house. Ben must have stepped into a section that was opening up and fallen in. Later, it expanded to take the house. Those first scientists assured everyone that this was a freak occurrence.  Although they advised anyone living in the vicinity to evacuate their homes and have them inspected.

The gaping hole became a town curiosity. I am ashamed to admit it but I went to see it, stood on the sidewalk and gawked with the rest of the crowd. Looking at that big hole was scary. Before the town put a chain link fence around it, I walked right to the edge and looked down. I could see nothing but a dark void. I stared down into it for a while before I heard a bit of a rumble. After that, I walked away from it and never went back. I returned to the solid safety of the home I had inherited. I was thankful that, by sheer chance and luck, my great grandfather had built this home on the opposite side of town from where the Shaws had lived.

You’d be surprised to know how quickly things went back to normal after that. Some of the people who lived in homes near the Shaws had inspections done, but most of them weren’t concerned. The inspectors found nothing amiss. Through February and March, the Shaw incident became a just a little odd fact of Straightville. A bit of town trivia like the 1802 murder of the founder. It faded into the background. I myself had forgotten about it when the rains came.

April brings two things to Straightville every year: days of rain and days of sun. Perfect weather to get everyone’s gardens started. The town comes alive with the color of blooming flowers and the hum of lawnmowers.

That spring feeling of everything being reborn can really make a person focus on the optimism of the future and forget the tragedies of the past.

Brady Collins had been a groundskeeper for the school system for years. It was a Saturday morning in April when he noticed something strange while mowing a football field. Parts of the ground seemed to be moving. He stopped the mower and began tiptoeing across the field. The ground was normal in some places, but soft in others. He turned back to the mower only to realize that the ground was giving way beneath it. The mower was sinking; the ground was devouring it with a slow sucking noise. The earth could not support the weight of the machine. Brady thought first that he needed to try to save the expensive piece of equipment, but as he started to take a step forward, he realized that he too was sinking. He managed to free himself from the soft soil and ran to call the mayor.

The descent after that was swift.

Within weeks, the ground beneath Straightville began to tremble and collapse with sickening frequency. Homes began to rattle and shake. One neighborhood shook until twenty homes caved in and over sixty people died. At one of the elementary schools, a teacher took her class out to recess only to watch the ground beneath the swing set crack as the kids joyfully shouted and played in the swings above.

Experts were, once again, brought in. They stated the obvious in riotous town meetings. Parts of the ground under Straightville were compromised, but it was unlikely that the whole town was unstable. They insisted, along with the mayor and town council that many neighborhoods were still safe. Plenty of homes and streets showed no signs of instability.

Throughout the summer, everyone looked for answers. It was as if the everyone was sitting on a thin pane of glass. No one knew where the next crack would be. People would jump at any loud noise. Tempers flared and fistfights broke out. Other neighborhoods began trembling, other houses began to crack, cave-in and fall. People filed claims with insurance companies for their property lost or damaged. The insurance companies refused to pay the claims until the cause for the damage could be identified. Some families, unable to collect insurance, were reduced to sleeping in their cars near empty holes and piles of rubble where their houses once stood.

September was when things got strange. I stepped out on my porch and saw that the street in front of my house was covered with masses of slithering snakes. Sometime in the early morning hours, they had come up out of their burrows in the ground. At first glance, I was afraid that they would end up in my yard and ultimately my house. I need not have worried. They were all headed in one direction: out of town.

After the snakes left, the churches filled up. People began praying, promising and apologizing to god. The scientific experts were still “investigating”, but they still hadn’t come up with a solid explanation. Therefore, people turned to faith. Some thought it was a plague; some thought the end times were upon us. Still, no one really knew.

In November, after the first frost, smoke and steam began belching up from the ground. By this time, the mayor of Straightville had gone from being a confident, hand-shaking politician to a hollow shell of a man. He had concluded that the so-called “experts” were concealing information. Possibly, to protect some corporation. In desperation, he called on the geology department of the state university. They agreed to look and give an informal opinion about what was happening.

The cavalry from the university consisted of three professors, Dr. Mick Lanier, Dr. Shelley Crowder and Dr. Jesse Wells.

We had expected them to first look at the damage, but instead they went to the Straightville library. They looked at maps, new and old. They studied the locations of old mineshafts; they read historical documents, deeds of properties owned by the mining companies, newspaper articles about accidents. Then they looked at new documents, environmental reports about wastewater and dumpsites.

Finally, they began to look at the ever-growing columns of steam and smoke rising up from some concealed open valves beneath the surface of what we could see.

Just like the other experts, they only had a theory.

The final town meeting for Straightville was called on March 15 at Straight Presbyterian, the largest church in town. The meeting was livestreamed. Still, so many people showed up that the crowds spilled out of the sanctuary, into the halls, lobby, and finally out onto the church grounds. I had managed to get a seat on a rear pew. It was hot, close and crowded but everyone felt they had to be there. Something important was going to be said. Something big was about to happen to all of us.

The professor, Dr. Mick Lanier, looked out of place in the pulpit. I read later that he was an atheist. I am sure he never expected to find himself in a church addressing an entire town. That was probably why he looked a little less than comfortable.

Dr. Lanier’s statements were brief and to the point. I took notes on the important parts.

 Over the years, the coal mining operations had been subject to a number of accidents, including fires that had caused numerous cave-ins at different mines that ran underneath the surface of the town of Straightville.

The mining companies had claimed, after each incident, that the fires had been extinguished. However, in examining the underground phenomena, Dr. Lanier and his team had come to realize that at least some of the coal seams were still burning and had been for quite some time. In short, as the coal seams burned, the ground that they supported above was crumbling away from the surface.

At this time, some people began to speak up and to interrupt Dr. Lanier’s statement.

“So can we just put the fires out?” came from one voice near the front of the room.

“Maybe we can just dig out some of the coal seams to cut off the fuel supply of these fires,” another voice shouted from the church balcony.

Everyone began to discuss amongst themselves, but Dr. Lanier held up his hand and everyone went silent again.

He wasn’t finished with his statement.

In addition to the fires from the mining incidents, we also believe other fires, possibly forest fires or trash fires over the years have begun feeding on the coal seams. Making the problem worse has been ongoing issues with the disposal of wastewater in the town or neighboring towns. Our findings indicate that the ground beneath Straightville is seriously compromised, infinitely unstable and we recommend to everyone to evacuate as quickly as possible for their own safety.

Hearing the last sentence out of Dr. Lanier’s mouth, people went silent, then scoffed and began shouting. The sanctuary grew loud with disbelief and rage.

“The entire damn town couldn’t sink into the ground!”

“Whoever heard of such a thing?”

“Those scientists don’t know shit about shit!”

Lanier and his team saw that further information was futile. No one wanted to hear it.

They each shook hands with the mayor who had appeared next to them in the church pulpit. They then stepped off the riser. They nodded to the mayor who looked desperate and small as they exited through a door on the left side of the room.

If no one wanted to listen, their work here was finished.

Some of us had listened. Not the loud ones who shouted insults and attacks. Those of us who listened were quiet. We were quiet when Lanier spoke, quiet when he and his team left. We said nothing while the others shouted; we were silent when we left the church.

Later, I heard that the meeting went on into the wee hours of the next morning. The discussions started out lively but ended with blame, denial and screaming matches. The mayor formally resigned and ran from the building.

I tried to stay for the first few days after the Dr. Lanier’s statement, but I found I could not sleep anymore, not in the house I had inherited and not in Straightville.

My original plan had been to pack up the house, load up a moving van and get a little apartment in another town somewhere.

I decided to leave first and pack later. Instead of an apartment, I got a weekly rate motel room and a storage facility. It has taken eight truckloads to move four generations of possessions out of this house.

I have been selling them at a flea market. I think I will get an old camper and start traveling around.

As for the town, I do not know if it still exists or not. More patches of ground have been collapsing. More houses have caved in. Smoke and steam continues to belch out of the ground. The main highway out of town has begun to crack down the middle, right between the yellow lines. Nevertheless, around seven thousand Straightville residents remain. Some say they will never leave.

Today I will say goodbye to the home my great grandfather built.

I will get into the moving van with the final load of all of my earthly possessions.

I will hit the cracked highway in record time, determined to get out of Straightville before it crumbles away beneath me forever.

June 06, 2022 14:20

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Mike Panasitti
23:53 Jun 06, 2022

"The earth could not support the weight of the machine." I sometimes feel as if this line surmises the global condition - but that's only when I'm mired in pessimism. This is suspensefully speculative in a way that is perfectly plausible...a cautionary tale for a planet accosted by many environmental and social woes.


Kelly L
18:35 Jun 12, 2022

Thank-you Mike!


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