Monthly Archives: May 2016

The Skytown Mining Disaster

Skytown, Pennsylvania was founded entirely on the principle of harvesting minerals. Like any other coalburg in the state, it made its fortune on the backs of immigrant laborers. The name Skytown referred to the fact that the settlement was so dwarfed by the surrounding mountains, the townsfolk felt as if there was nothing but them and the sky. The town’s founder was Ulysses Byrne, a third generation Scotch-Irish immigrant who began as a journeyman in John C. Osgood’s firm and worked his way up. The mine was originally called “Byrne’s folly,” both for its remote location and for its predicted low yield. The coal seam began as a narrow ridge which broadened unexpectedly after sixty meters. The shanty-town swelled as the seam bore richer and richer yields, feeding into what became a vicious cycle. More miners would be needed to mine the coal, the more coal was mined, the more miners they needed. Byrne was typical of the robber barons of the day, using violent tactics to bust unions and refusing to equip his miners with any kind of safety gear.

The term “Byrne’s folly” took on a new meaning when the baron got wind of the Owl’s Keep tunnel in West Virginia. Boasting a rumored length of 2 miles and a yield of 470,000 short tons of coal per annum, the rumor threw Byrne into a frothing envy. He ordered the sudden expansion of the tunnels, slashing the already lax safety rules to suicidal levels. Workers were expected to haul coal even when in the throes of of late-stage silicosis. Skytown became known as the valley of “little blue men” because of the heavy presence of cyanosis in the miners. Rumors abounded that Byrne would take workers too sick to even stand and bury them in the slag heaps so as to make room for the ever-incoming new miners. Despite Byrne’s tyrannical reputation, news of the expanding mine kept a steady income of fresh blood.

The tunnel ceased expansion after ten years, stabbing nearly three miles into the earth’s surface. The mine produced an estimated 800,000 short tons of coal per annum, but this was second only to the bragging rights Byrne enjoyed. He mocked up a parade in the town’s one and only road, driving the only automobile in town: a Winton that had to be hauled piecemeal up the mountain trail and then assembled in town.

Because expansion of the tunnel gave so little credence to safety, an incident was all but inevitable. One an April morning, three months after the parade, the middle section of the tunnel collapsed. Because the workers were largely undocumented, the final death toll is impossible to gauge properly. Byrne undertook no recovery efforts. For weeks the townspeople complained about hearing the voices of trapped workers, hoping the heavy spring rains would fill the tunnel and silence their ghostly cries. Sinkholes began appearing in the town’s soil, which they attributed to the ghost’s desperate escape attempts. To this day, there is a county-wide folk belief in “little blue men” that collapse tunnels out of spite. 

Be it ghost or engineering oversight, after weeks of deluge the pockmarked soil beneath Skytown liquefied and sucked the settlement and all its people into the earth. All that remains to mark the spot today is the former mine entrance, which now extends only a few meters into the earth, and a plaque dedicated to the fallen miners. 

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Pima

Valerie was in the kitchen when she heard Reggie talking to someone. She chased a charred hotdog around the pan and tried to listen in, but the murmuring was too indistinct. Maybe Reggie was talking to an imaginary friend, it wasn’t unusual for a four-year-old to do that.

Valerie snorted and took a drag from her cigarette. With her luck it was some busybody from another trailer looking for her. The guy who rented the place out tried tricking the other tenants into finding her for him. Fuck him. Rent was only two weeks overdue.

Her son sat alone at the tv tray that served as their only table when she came out with the hotdog and a slice of white bread on a paper plate.

“Who ya talkin’ to, baby?”

Reggie was coloring, keeping one eye on the tv. He stayed perfectly within the lines, something she’d had trouble with even at 10.

“My new friend.”

“Some kid move in?” Someone he could go play with, maybe? She was hoping to have him gone by the time Dave got there. She didn’t want them getting familiar, for multiple reasons.

“No. His name is Pima. He comes from the future.”

Valerie nearly swallowed her cigarette. Fuck, had the kid been listening in on her and Dave? Pima, an acronym for “pain in my ass,” was the name she used to bitch about Reggie.

“That’s real cute,” she snapped, “you eat your lunch smart quick or there’ll be trouble.”

Reggie obediently shoveled the burnt meat and bread into his mouth. She had to go grocery shopping soon. If only a new kid had moved in, maybe Reggie could take meals somewhere else for a while. Or maybe she could just palm him off on a new family. Shit, if it wasn’t for the support check, she’d drop him here.

Valerie scrubbed angrily at her face and went to the kitchen. She ate some oreos and had another cigarette while she stared out the window. Dave had better get there soon, she was fucking gagging and the kid was getting on her last nerve.

She couldn’t understand why it bothered her so much that the kid knew something like that. He was a pain in her ass. Maybe it was the implication that he had been listening in on her and Dave. Maybe the little blabbermouth would repeat something in the wrong place and get the cops on them.

The talking started up again. Red tinged her vision. Valerie put her head down on the table and counted 1-2-3. The talking faded as the screen door screeched open and shut. The red receded as Valerie breathed.

Dave had promised to be by at around 10. It was 11:59 when his Charger tore the gravel up in her driveway. If he hadn’t been holding a bag of oxy, she would have kicked him right the fuck back out. But she purred and pulled him in, spending most of the afternoon chewing on him. They snorted oxycontin in white drifts and laughed at some private joke.

“What does it matter what he knows, he’s, like, three.” Dave reclined on Valerie’s mattress and rubbed his chest.

Valerie could not say that she was afraid of him accidently busting them, because then Dave would bash the little creep’s head in and probably hers too for good measure.

“He’s gettin’ too big for his britches,” she said finally, “I don’t like pushy kids, because then they think they’re the parents.”

Dave rolled his eyes, scratching the tribal antlers tattooed on his neck. “Fuck, I don’t want to talk about your kid anymore. I wanna do something fun.”

And so they did for the rest of the day. Then Dave zipped up his pants and left and Valerie ended up sleeping for fourteen hours. She only woke up because of a burning smell. Groaning, she made herself rise and walk painfully to the kitchen.

Reggie was at the stove. The single working burner was blazing, and the pan she used to boil equipment sometimes was brimming with a bubbling liquid.

Reggie kept up a wall of bright chatter as he poked at the mess with the kitchen’s only cooking utensil, a spatula.

Valerie gave a pained groan that stood in for an inquiry as to what the fuck was going on.

Reggie stopped talking and turned to her. He looked like he was evaluating her in some way, judging her. It made the red seep in again.

“Pima told me how to make soup. I didn’t burn myself, honest.”

Valerie grabbed her face with both hands and sucked in a breath. He may not have intended it, but every word out of the kid’s mouth just made her angrier. “Did you use up all my salt?”

“No, mommy. I used the old dried baloney and the frozen peas and Pima showed me where onions grow. Did you know you can grow food?”

Valerie waved in front of her face, as if the question was an errant fly.

“It’s almost done. I made enough for both of us.”

As she sat at the dinner tray and tried to move as little as possible, Reggie dipped a mug into the concoction and brought it to her. He even blew on it.

Valerie took a sip and almost gagged. The soup wasn’t bad. Her stomach was.

“If you don’t like this, Pima knows how to make pancakes. He’s real smart. He says he’ll teach me how to take care of myself.”

Can he teach you how to shut the fuck up?” she screamed.

Reggie took his soup outside.

God, everything was Pima now. Pima knew where to get the best value out of their foodstamps. Pima knew how to fix the rabbit ears on their loaner TV. Pima knew that Reggie needed shots before he started school next year. Pima said that Dave was more trouble than he was worth, and might bring bad things if he kept coming by.

She was getting sick and fucking tired of Pima.

Valerie was rattling around the stove one day. The last burner had called it quits, so she took a pipe cleaner and some soda water to the line to try and clear it. Her phone buzzed, so she smoothed the hair from her ears and tried to speak like she wasn’t sweaty and frazzled.

“Hello, lover,” she purred.

“Who is this?” asked an unfamiliar male voice.

Valerie shrieked and clapped the phone shut. Thank god it was just a shitty burner model. She immediately opened the back and ripped out its guts.

“Reggie?” she called, fiddling with the stove knobs, “baby, we gotta go.” She turned them too much one way, then the other. “Now.”

“Pima says no.”

Valerie looked around. She was the most lucid she had been in days, and still she couldn’t discern where his voice came from.

“Baby, uncle Dave got into some bad trouble. We need to leave now.”

“Pima says that Dave brought his own trouble.” Reggie’s voice was monotone and hesitated in odd places, as if he was only repeating something he half-understood. “He said that it was only a matter of time before Dave got caught, and hurrying it along wasn’t wrong. He said that Dave would have a trunk full of bad things while he was at home today. He said the police would be happy to know that.”

The red rolled in like a tidal wave, swamping Valerie’s reason.

“You fucking little fucking shit!” she screamed. The club soda hit the floor and bounced, gushing all over her. “I’m gonna fucking kill you!”

She tore through the trailer, trashing any little space she thought he might hide in. She punched the hamper, and wailed on the shower curtain with Dave’s baseball bat. It was only by chance that she looked up and saw a flash of Reggie’s sunshine-yellow shirt out the window. Valerie bodyslammed the trailer door, falling painfully to the gravel as her son ran away. Getting to her knees was agony. She stumbled after him, chasing him, screaming at him that she was going to kill him. Her energy drained quickly and she was reduced to shuffling and calling out half-hearted curses as the bat dropped from her grasp.

The trees around the trailer park were littered with trash from homeless camps, too many places for a little boy to hide. Valerie collapsed on an abandoned mattress surrounded by garbage, breath sobbing out of her. She held her throbbing head in her forearms and rested it on her knees.

After a while she heard the sounds of worn tennis shoes on dead, dry grass.

“Pima says we can go back now.”

Valerie waited until he was too close before lunging at him. He cried out. She dug her nails into the back of his neck as she dragged him, promising all sorts of terrors that awaited him once they got back to the trailer.

What could she do? Mom had promised to call the cops the next time Valerie even set foot on her lawn. Uncle Hank would want a little touchy-touchy before she could stay, and even then there was no guarantee he wouldn’t sic the cops on her once he was done.

Valerie sucked on a lock of hair that had landed in her gasping mouth. God, she just needed a little. Then she could think straight.

They would get in the car, she decided as the trailer drifted back in sight, and just drive. They could work out the how’s and why’s later. She just needed to escape.

Valerie slammed Reggie into the car door. “Now you wait here, godammit. One step and I’ll leave you somewhere and never come back.”

Reggie nodded, dabbing at tears with the hem of his shirt.

“Good.” She nodded and stalked to the trailer. “And just for all that trouble, we’re leaving Jerry giraffe and your penguin here.”

The kid was silent, like the threat didn’t even mean anything.

Valerie opened the door. “I mean it, you little turd. You can’t get any of your animals to bring with us. You’re staying out there.”

“Oh, that’s okay.” Reggie called as she  fumbled for the light switch. “Pima knew you would go first.”

The switch clicked on, and the gas that had been filling the trailer exploded.

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Roots

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The plants in the basement never stopped trying to come up. They looked like bamboo shoots, but they were covered with warts. They grew without light and they didn’t seem to need water. They pushed up through the concrete until the surface cracked into gravel.

Pa pumped a ton of poison down there. We had to stay out for a week. It made them go away, but only for a while. They came back bigger. They started moving. Pa came upstairs, holding his shoulder from where one had whipped him. They would thrash around if you brushed against one. Hard enough to break bones. Pa said it was just whatsit. Automatic response. My brother said he watched the thing aim for Pa’s back.

Soon they were moving all the time. They would band together if you came at one to cut it down. Pa got a chainsaw and lit into them, and we thought that would be that.

They grew back with thorns this time, and skin tougher than wood. Pa forbid us from the basement until he could figure out a way past them.

I looked the plants up in every book I could. They didn’t look like anything else on earth. My brother said they were probably mutant plants from the mole people. Pa called us a bunch of busybodies as he poured gas down the basement steps. The plants whistled and popped as they burned. I thought it sounded like screaming. Pa told me to cut it out.

When the plants grew back, they were different. More warts, and thicker. They’d lost the thorns so Pa said to leave them be. We started storing things in the basement again. One night while I was picking out a jar of preserves, I thought I saw ma’s silhouette. It kept beckoning me closer, giving me the cold horrors. Ma was in the kitchen when I ran upstairs. Pa brushed it off until a few days later. He came in the livingroom, all panting and sweaty. He had a root in his hands, looked like a head of something. It was all ragged at the bottom like he’d hacked it away. Pa was shaking.

He made us go to a hotel for a few days while he took care of it. When we came back, he wasn’t the same man. He’d tell us to hush down every so often and crane his head like he was listening to something. We never heard anything.

When the plants grew back, my Pa cried. He went in with a golf club, hitting everything in sight until ma could get him upstairs. When he came back down, he was calmer. He’d had an idea. He would dig up the floor, find out where the plants were coming from. He took a lantern, a shovel, and my brother. Every morning at dawn they’d both go down there, and every night after my bedtime they’d come back up. Pa was cheerful, saying they’d find it any day now, any day. After a month ma demanded he stop before the house collapsed.

Pa died of a heart attack one day, while lifting a bucket of soil to my brother. He stayed down in the basement. My brother told ma that he’d slumped to the dirt, and the roots were on him before his eyes closed. Ma threw her apron over her head and cried.

It was only us two left, so ma wouldn’t let us down there for very long. Something knocked on the basement door one night. My brother went down there with an axe and came up white and trembling. The knocking stopped.

Since Pa was dead, it fell to the two of us to take care of the basement. Ma sat on the stairs while we hauled tools down homemade ladders  to the pit Pa had dug. We had to take care of the shoots everyday or they’d get too much of a foothold. They grew faster the more we cut them down. I swear some of them grabbed my clothes as I cut them. I know they untied the lowest ladder, it was the only way it could have fell. I was on the last rung, made it to solid ground in time. My brother was behind me.

Ma wouldn’t let me go after him. We stayed on the steps and called and called until dark. Finally something struggled out of the pit.

My brother was covered in dirt and walked with a limp. Thick-tongued, he told us he needed help upstairs. And we were ready to, right up until he grabbed the banister with a hand that had too many fingers.

Ma went after him with the shovel, sobbing as she swung. I got his knees with the axe. He kept screaming that we were killing him, we had made a big mistake and stop and think, but he had no bones and his blood was white sap.

Ma went upstairs without saying a thing. I heard the gunshot, got up there just in time to see her stop twitching.

I cremated her myself. No way I was letting the basement get her.

I poured gas down the stairs and lit it up. As it died down to embers, it properly looked like hell.

The plants grew back. They got smart. I woke up to some cops saying they had an anonymous tip about some bodies in the house, I had to come with them. Almost had me, until I noticed their guns were a solid piece, the barrel had no holes. I took a knife to one of their sleeves and it bled. After I hacked them up, I got a new bar for the basement door.

I never married or had kids, I never had time after taking care of the plants. They would scream at the door that I was keeping them imprisoned. One day the bottom of the door flooded with sap that ate away at the wood.  I bought a metal one to replace it. They called out to me with my dead family’s voices, pleading to be let out. I caulked the crack s around the door. All the time, I’ve kept the door shut as they grew in the darkness.

Then, the other day they tried something new. They knocked on the door and asked politely if I would open it, please. They had something they wanted to show me.

What I saw through the crack in the door were two of them, looking like well-dressed young gentlemen. The pit was gone. Instead they’d made a pretty good go at a street with houses and everything. Thick stems like streetlamps lit the way. It went a long way back.

They said they had made it for me. They said we could switch places, I could come in and live there, and they could come out and live. Just a simple switch, and they would never bother me again, they said.

Would I, they asked. Would I?

There’s no one to guard the door after me.  I’m getting old. I’m getting slow. I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in years.

Maybe they give me a nice neighborhood with streetlamps and houses and lawns with no more door to guard.

Maybe they wrap me with roots and stuff my mouth with dirt like the rest of my family.

Would I? Would I?

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Times Are Hard All Over

Henry and Frank sat on an upturned newspaper vendor and split a bag of sunflower seeds. They faced a sign that had been bright once, and welcoming. Now the blue had faded into yellow, the yellow was white, and the name of the town it advertized was practically invisible.

“That town.” Frank motioned with his chin. The wrinkled skin of his muzzled dipped in around his remaining teeth. “That town got mean hearts. You couldn’t pay me to go there.”

Henry took a swig of water. He’d filled it at the library hours ago, before they’d kicked him out. “No choice. Alameda’s gotten meaner. The hell else am I gonna go? Times are hard all over.”

Frank was lost in a reverie of another time. Despite the winter coat over his bare torso, he still looked chilled. “Jill went in there a while ago. Haven’t heard back from her. I’m gonna hit the highway, see if someone won’t take pity on me.”

“That’s a lot of walking at your age,” Henry said, not without concern.

Frank just looked at the sign, shaking his head.

“Couldn’t pay me to go there,” he repeated, “not money or honey to go in that town.”

Frank unlocked the brakes of his cart and wheeled it off along the road. There were no shade trees on either side, so the old man dwindled in a shimmer of heat. Just the sight of it made sweat break out on Henry’s neck. He looked up at the sign.

Beneath the town name, there were three diagonal slash-marks. Old hobo signs. Henry wished he knew what they meant.

He hitched up his bag and started walking.

 

The grass to either side of the road was a broad yellow that seemed to absorb the sun and give it back in equal measure. His water was gone before he’d traveled a mile.

Here and there you could see remnants of citrus orchards that had been cleared out for construction of housing. He could tell by the shape of the land that much more had been planned out than the little snakebite that unfolded beneath him. Roads that were more crack than concrete. Houses that lay in sunfaded fifties colors. A rusted pump station where he filled his aluminum bottle at an old tap that tasted like chlorine.

The place set off his hackles well before he came to the little main street. There was no one out, not even to lounge in the doorway of a shop and goggle at passerby. There were no franchises. He saw signs for places like “Bob’s BBQ” or “Village Antiques.” No Mc-anything, not even a hotdog cart.

When the police cruiser glided down the street behind him, Henry had already broken into a cold sweat. Two carrier bags automatically marked him as homeless, no matter how clean he kept himself.

The car cruised to a slow roll beside him.

“Where you going, young man?”

Henry kept his eyes on the road before him. “Just passing through,” he said automatically. He’d pass right through if they let him.

“No need to rush on our account. We like visitors, don’t we Ben?” An answering laugh from the passenger side.

Henry kept mum. In his experience with police, if they had a mind to harass you there was nothing you could say or do to put it off.

“Stop, son.” This came from the passenger side, and it meant business.

Henry stopped, eyes neutrally on the distance beyond the cruiser. The car doors opened.

The driver was a weaselly thin white guy with very little chin and a smile that didn’t help things. The passenger was a black guy with the body of an athlete and the face of an enthusiastic little boy. He took his sunglasses off and nodded at Henry’s bags.

“What you got in there?” he asked casually.

Henry shrugged. “Little things. A towel.”

The white cop reacted like he’d just told the funniest gut-buster of all time, pounding the roof of the cruiser.

“Towel?” he gasped. “You going swimming?”

Henry kept his eyes on the other cop. This one was dissecting Henry with his eyes, weighing him with an air Henry didn’t particularly care for. Finally, the cop nodded.

“Get in the back.”

Henry felt his skin prickle. “Have I done something?”

“You ain’t in trouble. We’re just giving you a ride.” The white cop leered.

“I’ll be out of here,” Henry promised, “I can be out of town by nightfall.”

“Well, we’ll help you along with that.”

Beaten, Henry slid into the backseat of the cruiser.

The white cop kept up the chatter in the car. “We don’t get many visitors here, nope. It’s a shame, because we’re downright hospitable. Aren’t we, Officer Baggs?”

“That is affirmative, Officer Corlin. We love all people, especially people just passing through.” Officer Baggs laughed, and it was an infectious laugh.

“Yesiree. The outside world may’ve written you off, but we in town believe you can still make a contribution.”

The car swung a right, traveling deeper into town. Henry’s grip on his bags tightened.

“Know what we do with you?” Corlin made eye contact in the rearview mirror. “We keep you on ice. You can stay here as long as you last.”

“Shut up, Cor,” Baggs said affectionately.

They passed several shuttered restaurants. Henry blurted out the first thing that came to mind: “I have to go to the bathroom!”

Corlin squinted. “Like hell you do.”

“I been holding it in for hours,” Henry promised, “I can give this seat a real good shower if you want.”

Baggs laid an arm across the seat and looked back. “Just let him,” he said breezily, “it’s not like he can do anything.”

They stopped at an old drug store. From the decor, Henry figured it had closed in the fifties. Soda fountains lay untouched by time under layers of dust. Officer Corlin encouraged him out of the back seat with a truncheon. He didn’t see Henry as enough of a threat for a gun. Good.

Baggs leaned against the side of the cruiser with his arms folded, looking innocently up at the cloudless sky.

Corlin led Henry to a bathroom with a broken door. In the heat it smelled like a busted port-o-john. He nudged Henry with the stick. “Go on. Don’t make a day of it.”

Henry took two steps like he was going in. Baggs had his holster unclipped, but his hands were tucked into his elbows. Corlin was twirling the truncheon like a baton. Henry stopped at the door.

He mumbled something. Corlin drew closer.

“What?”

Henry let swing with his leg. The cop may have been expecting the blow, but he hadn’t anticipated the aluminum of Henry’s prosthetic leg. It made a nice ringing sound. Henry dropped his bag and ran for it while the cop writhed in pain. Baggs shouted and peeled away from the car. Too late, too late.

Henry ran in-between stores and under fences. He was probably screwed. The cops lived here, they could probably hear him fumble through the labyrinth of sheet metal and wood.

Someone opened a door and Henry got a flash—dark cloth, white collar, bald head. Gesturing.

“In here, my son!”

Henry ran gladly into the waiting darkness. The priest closed the door, which only had a handle on the inside, and shut out the sun.

“Sorry for the cliche,” he said, laughing a little, “it’s the best attention-getter I can think of.”

He had a little brownish red hair in a horseshoe all around his head, and a smile that awkwardly tried to look nonthreatening. Good. Henry had had enough of people who smiled too easily.

“I can repay you with labor,” he said carefully, “I had some cash but it was in my bag…”

The priest waved it away. “I couldn’t possibly expect to ask for payment. Not for such a thing. Do you have any idea what they wanted with you?”

Henry shook his head. He had an inkling of an idea, something horrible that he pushed down because he didn’t want it to be true.

The other man shook his head. “Good. That talk isn’t for daylight hours. Please follow me.”

The shelter had a shower cubicle and donated clothes several sizes too large for Henry. The priest waved away his repeated thanks and brought a bowl of hominy soup thin as water. Henry had eaten a sandwich only hours ago and the run had done his appetite no favors, but he choked down the bowl anyway. The priest watched approvingly.

“Times are hard all over,” he said, “but that is no reason to let savagery triumph. The men you saw today have been made desperate by hardship, but they are by no means bad men.”

Henry swallowed his disagreement with a gulp of iced tea.

“We all have needs,” the priest said. He was looking at the wood of the table now, wood that was marked by many generations of initials. “But what they don’t realize is that you can reap a far greater harvest with gentleness than with force. Don’t you agree?”

Henry nodded. The bowl was empty. The priest came back to the present.

“Wonderful,” he said, “I knew you’d be hungry. Everyone here is. Now you probably want to rest, right?”

Agreement had gotten him this far, so Henry nodded. The priest led him down a long hall with many identical municipal doors.

“This used to be a school. So many things in this town used to be something else.”

The priest opened a door identical to the ones around it. “I’m sure you’ll be comfortable.”

Henry stepped into the room. There was a cot with a jailhouse mattress, an end table with a plastic jug of water. It was twenty degrees cooler than the rest of the building. As Henry was studying the lay of the land, the door closed behind him with a bang. He turned and found that there was no handle on this side of the door. He drew close and pounded on it, as cold air hissed through the vents.

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