Do you need a little terror in your summer? Then I got you covered! Enjoy a free short story about a young boy who loses his family to a tragic sinkhole collapse, only to find them reappearing years later, changed and desperate to bring him home.
Damon brushed his teeth. The timer said he needed another thirty seconds, but he spat out the toothpaste and jumped off the stool sitting in front of the bathroom sink. He negotiated four bedtime stories from his parents, and when they left the room, he pulled the blanket over his head and pretended he was piloting a spacecraft. Once the heat became thick, he pulled down the blanket and breathed in the rush of cool air. He closed his eyes.
Four hours later, he swore a meteor hit the house. He would repeat this story again and again, to the first responders, to the doctors, to children in the classrooms and foster homes to come. Everything shook. There was a roar. He blinked in the dark and sat up. Light poured into the room as his bedroom door was thrown open. His mother burst into the room and gathered him up and ran through the house, gripping his body tight against her.
“It’s okay, Damon. It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.”
His mother yanked open the front door, and he spilled out onto the concrete steps. He jumped up and called to his mother.
Damon was alone.
No mother stood there. No house either. The cement steps, with the decorative rocks sunk in a flowing pattern that once led to the front door, cracked and crumbled. A massive hole was left where his home once stood. He thought the hole before him was a crater, left behind from a meteor, like he saw in his books about dinosaurs. But there was no meteor, just the sinkhole. Everything for Damon had changed in seconds, just as it had for the dinosaurs in his books, leaving only a crater behind.
He stepped forward three paces and glanced down. About twenty feet into the hole, he could see earth, and nothing more. He called out softly. He found his voice and screamed. He screamed for his mother and father.
Only silence from the chasm.
He continued to scream, sprinting around the front yard. The quakes from the house sinking into the ground brought out the neighbors. They surrounded him, and one kept Damon from climbing into the hole to save his parents. He wasn’t sure who held him until the fire department and the police finally arrived. He eventually found himself wrapped in a blanket, trying to explain how a meteor hit his house.
He asked when they would pull his parents from the crater.
The fire department spent four days attempting to excavate the hole and recover his family. They made it into the house on the fourth day. Damon later read in news articles that the ground shifted again and threatened to collapse further. They abandoned the search. Soil scientists and geologists struggled to determine how the sinkhole developed in the first place. The homes on either side of the sinkhole were evacuated. Damon would later learn it was a cover-collapse sinkhole, which happens quickly due to water dissolving soil into an underground cavern or mine. But the soil was dry. No caverns were detected. No mines found in the area. No clue why or how this happened.
He stayed with an elderly couple, family friends who lived a few blocks over. On the fifth night, he laid down on the pull-out couch the Henderson’s made up for him and closed his eyes. He waited. He waited until everyone in the house slept. At ten o’clock, Damon slipped into the night.
He searched for landmarks and navigated his way through the neighborhood by spotting certain trees, that one colorful mailbox. These were markers tied to memories, memories that made his chest heavy, memories of his mother and father.
He ran barefoot, his feet slapping the pavement and sidewalks. By the time he arrived at his street, he felt like he’d been running on sandpaper. The bottoms of his feet burned; his sides ached.
Tape and barricades surrounded the house. He followed the driveway, which looked much the same as it did before the collapse, but was now covered in thick muddy footprints and dirt. Deep, wide tracks from excavators and backhoes crisscrossed his front yard.
Damon thought about how mad his father would be about the yard. But then he remembered. The hole seemed bigger than he remembered, gaping and dark. A vast chasm. Damon stopped. He hesitated before finally forcing himself to take one step forward, then another. He looked into the pit. No one loitered nearby.
“Mom? Dad?” He asked. He lowered himself to his knees and leaned forward, glancing down into the dark. He called out again. Damon waited. Did he really expect an answer? If not, why did the silence tear at him so?
In that moment, he realized they were gone. Well and truly. He wept before standing, dusting off his knees, and starting the walk back to the Henderson’s home. He stopped to pull a pebble that embedded itself into his foot.
His mother’s voice.
He turned and ran to the hole. He looked in the maw and called out to her. He called out several times until his voice became hoarse and raw. He remembered what the Hendersons told him.
It had been days. They would repeat that every time he mentioned his parents being rescued. Days.
“Five days,” Damon said. He started the walk back. No voices stopped him.
He heard it; he would tell himself.
He heard that voice. Just the same, he told no one.
* * *
The Hendersons couldn’t take him in. They were too old and too tired. Damon tried to change their minds; he didn’t want to lose another home. A foster home was found, one that promised to raise him under the caring and loving example of Jesus Christ. There were times in his new home, when left outside freezing in the night air, shivering against the cold water his foster parents soaked him in as punishment, when he hated his own mother and father. Loving him for those years, only to leave him behind, only to make his suffering so much greater with the knowledge of everything he lost.
He pulled at his underwear. They were too tight and left red marks on his waist, but he didn’t want to take them off. He wanted at least that much dignity.
This night, Damon, aged nine, shaking against the cold and laying in the cool grass, spoke to his parents.
“I’m still here,” Damon said. “I’m still here.”
After that night, he started to hear the scratches under his bedroom floor.
The night they turned to knocks, he crawled from his bed. He knelt down on the floor and put his ear against the stiff carpet. A loud rap underneath his ear. He jumped up.
He felt air tickle the inside of his ear, like someone whispered from just behind him. He searched the room. He heard it again.
The voice was muffled, coming from the yard, just outside his window. He opened the latch and winced at the audible click. He waited, but no one screamed or came to his room. He exhaled and then gently opened the window, just enough to slip outside. Damon dropped onto the grass and looked out on the lawn, catching the silhouette of a woman kneeling in the grass. He walked toward her. The silhouette straightened up.
He walked forward, the grass cool and soft under his feet. He didn’t feel the chilled air. His heart beat at his chest, and he bit his lower lip. It was her. His mother. He drew close and realized she wasn’t kneeling. The earth was overturned around her, her body smeared with mud and a viscous liquid, which oozed down her arms and streamed from her body. Her hand shot forward, striking at him like a snake. Damon fell back. She looked at him with pleading eyes, and when she opened her mouth, dirt tumbled out.
Damon screamed and ran.
* * *
Following his encounter, he started to act out in school. The attention he gained drew eyes to the bruises. Damon moved to a new home. The Oakmans were kind. They didn’t yell when they found he was hiding food in his room in plastic bags in the rear of his closet. They indulged his need to keep doors and windows open, to identify any exits when he entered a new room or building. They knew Damon couldn’t even count on the ground beneath his feet to remain stable.
When the scratches and knocks returned, he told them.
They sent him to a therapist. Together, his new family and his therapist tried to find an explanation. A strange manifestation of survivor’s guilt? A specific expression of his PTSD? They also sought treatment for his sleep issues. Damon slept light, when he slept at all. A doctor told him if they didn’t address his issues now, sleep deprivation in adulthood would cause heart disease, high blood pressure.
“You could be dead before you’re fifty, kid,” the doctor said.
At least, Damon thought, I won’t die in the dirt.
The noises persisted.
The voices followed.
The figures rose from the ground in the backyard. They never walked to him or moved beyond the hole they formed in the soil. The holes would be filled in and covered the next morning, leaving little evidence the ground had been disturbed at all.
Damon noticed the pooling water in the backyard after every rain. He pointed out the electrical pole just outside the corner of the fence that started to lean. He noticed the knocks and creaks throughout the house, along with a deep groaning sound. The back porch pulled away from the house, and spider web cracks formed in the foundation.
One night, the house shifted. A loud crunch reverberated throughout the home. He woke his parents screaming, and again he was carried outside. He stayed with his father’s parents, his new grandparents. Again, no cause was discovered for the shifting or deep impressions forming in the backyard.
When it was deemed safe to return, Damon did. So did the scratches and knocks. The light tapping on his window. The voices.
“Damon. Come home.”
On his fifteenth birthday, a massive sinkhole formed behind the house overnight, and Damon ran away. The Oakmans would never see him again.
* * *
Damon moved frequently. Retail meant low wages and little benefits, but also new jobs in every town, a chance to start over when his family came calling from beneath the ground. He stayed off social media and changed his name. He moved to cities, situated himself in upper floors of apartment buildings, or to a cot in a loft filled with struggling artists. Rental houses, basement rooms, or attic spaces. No matter where he went the earth shifted beneath him and they called to him.
He would find his family’s story online, in videos on YouTube where a narrator would breathlessly describe the horror of the sinkhole collapse and Damon’s own mysterious disappearance. He was a Missing 411 case, an alien abduction. He knew too much, or the trauma made him snap and abandon society. Theories abounded.
An old man now, Damon collected stories and folklore from around the world. Printed from forums, copied from musty pages of old books, written from hearsay and tall tales in the Appalachians and beyond. The names of the beings would change, the sins ascribed to the victims would vary, but some facets never changed.
Tales revealing that sometimes, something in the ground under us makes a claim on a person. Or a family. They are taken, and they never return. Of course, there are the occasions stragglers, the witnesses, the ones that got away. But they only get away for a time, that much was clear from each and every iteration.
Damon noticed they never aged; his mother and father looked as they did the night the ground swallowed them.
Damon was now barely able to hold down a morning shift for twenty hours a week at Dollar General. He had a small place in a suburb outside McKinney, TX. A neighbor and her daughter often looked in on him, picked up his pills for him, drove him to the store when he was too weak to shop after a shift. Margaret and Yelena spoke to him, told him about their day, and asked about his. They had nothing important to talk about, but these conversations nourished Damon in a way he could never describe.
They were like a new family, one he looked after as well, slipping Margaret cash for the water bill, or to get the transmission looked at in their car, or making sure Yelena had a little spending money.
On the last night of Damon’s life, Yelena popped by to drop off his prescription. She handed him the paper bag; the instructions stapled to it. He nodded and considered inviting her to stay for tea. He loved hearing her talk about nothing. Her nothing, her friends and their dramas, made him dream of what childhood could be. She smiled in a way he forgot kids could.
He wanted her to stay, but behind her, through the window, he saw the silhouette of a woman rising from the ground.
“You better get back now, sweetie.”
“You sure? I don’t mind staying. Tomorrow night I’m busy.”
“William?” Damon asked.
“Did mom tell you?”
“No, your smile did. But go on now. I can’t keep my eyes open another second.”
“It’s 8:30,” she laughed.
What a laugh. Damon smiled. A perfect goodbye.
She left, and he didn’t lock the door. He took a bleach wipe and scrubbed away the symbols he painted on the basement door in the kitchen, usually hidden from view by a picture of birds. He walked into the backyard. He didn’t see his mother, but he removed the totems from the trees and fences. He carried them inside and deposited them into his kitchen trash can.
No need to keep them at bay.
No more running now, old man.
They live forever, apparently, with the ones they love. Living forever, but in total darkness, in the deep world beneath our feet. Maybe heaven and hell are two sides of the same coin, Damon often thought. Eternity was all about perception. Hell, or paradise, awaited.
He couldn’t run forever. Damon looked at the bag from the pharmacy on his coffee table, knowing he wouldn’t need those damned pills anymore. He wouldn’t need pills anymore. He chuckled and walked upstairs, stopping midway to catch his breath. The diminished lung capacity, a symptom of a far graver ill, left him wheezing. He gripped the handrail hard and pushed himself forward. He stepped into his bedroom and laid down on top of the covers. He clasped his hands together and held them gently over his chest.
Enough running now. They were his family; they were something else. They burrowed to him and nothing would slow them.
Today or another, they would claim the one that got away.