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The Sinkhole
excerpt from EMERSON, a novella
 

August 10, 2017

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by Caleb Michael Sarvis

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About Caleb Michael Sarvis

Caleb Michael Sarvis is a writer from Jacksonville, Florida. He is the fiction editor for Bridge Eight Literary Magazine and received his MFA from the University of Tampa. His work has been featured in or is forthcoming from Hobart, Literary Orphans, Panhandler Magazine, Flock, The Molotov Cocktail, Barrelhouse, Atlas and Alice, Oyster River Pages, and others.

I

In the morning, a sinkhole opens up in the Cafeteria, Emerson’s trailer park. The ground caves in just behind the mobile homes on the other side of the water, sucking in all the contents of the lake. The water and fish all disappear into the center of the earth. The geese manage to fly away but the turtles are too slow. All that remain are puddles and half eaten fish carcasses.

The hole itself is small in diameter, only about a hundred feet, but its decline so steep that the people who’ve gathered keep their distance. A unique kind of heat seeps from the hole. It rolls like crumpled sheets kicked away during a nightmare, it smells of boiled water after the chicken’s been cooked and removed. The citizens of Emerson stand in a circle, all curious to witness destruction. Six-year-olds cling to their parents’ shorts and kick the rocks at their feet into the sink hole. Some of them move like mirages and Xavier is dizzy.

Xavier rests on his bicycle seat. He is happy to be out after wrestling with sleep in the fold out bed above the bar. He tried masturbation, a post-orgasm smoke, but nothing helped. Sebastian sat on the window sill, moonlight carving a prehistoric shadow across the floor, and Xavier spent the night thinking about his brother Charlie and the time portal, its existence. Emerson is too small.

The crowd isn’t large, maybe a hundred people. Policemen wave batons and tell people to step back but nobody listens. They wear shades and Xavier wonders if their eyes are closed. He can already see familiar faces; Wanda, the Rogers twins, Maggie, and, of course, the Salamander, the town superhero. He is on his hands and knees, peering into the hole and Xavier realizes that his trailer is gone. Where it used to sit is a congealed trail of mud that slides into the hole. Once the absence becomes noticeable, it hits heavy. The Salamander leans over the edge, his green jumpsuit peppered with dirt. “Caroline!” he shouts. It echoes about.

“Someone’s had to have fallen in already,” Sebastian says. “Tumbled to a dreamy death.” Sebastian is a small tyrannosaurus, approximately the size of a six-year-old. When he laughs, the laugh-track of an awful sitcom plays.

“I wonder if he’s here.” Xavier continues scanning the faces, bouncing from nose to nose, but he doesn’t see Charlie.

“I wonder if he fell.”

The Salamander crawls from the muddy trail and pulls himself to his feet. Xavier pushes his bike and meets him away from the hole. The walkie talkie speaks to Xavier in its cactus tongue and he remembers the Salamander smashing his own.

“How’d you survive?”

“Drank too much, woke up in the scooper of an excavator.” The black makeup behind his mask is cracked, his eyes scarlet and sharp. “I’m too hungover for this. Have you seen a ferret anywhere? We had this pet ferret.”

“Hair of the dog?” Sebastian says.

Xavier spots Maggie glide away on her bicycle. “A shot and a beer, and you’ll be good.”

“You might be my best friend,” the Salamander says. “But I think I’ve lost everything.” He turns and lies in the mud.

An adjustment rumbles beneath them, something like a heavy door squeaking open. Ground breaks and slides as the hole expands a few feet across. The crowd gasps and shuffles backwards. More heat grasps at the edges and pulls itself out of the earth. Across the hole, one of the six-year-olds slips and scoots towards the endless nothing. From the crowd a white man in a light button down grabs the boy by his collar and pulls him back. Once he’s returned, the boy’s parents squeeze him tight. The man waves away their gratitude. Brown hair, small beard, a little lazy with his posture. Charlie.

“It’s not him,” Sebastian says.

The crowd thins and people shuffle to their cars, already bored. Gaps between bodies grow wide but Xavier can’t catch a glimpse of his brother. He spots the twins chugging beers and tossing the cans into the sinkhole. He surveys the crowd once more. Xavier pats his pockets and realizes he left his cigarettes in the loft above the bar.

The sky grows gray and quick. Wind shakes dresses and undone hair. Rain falls sideways.

“Caroline,” the Salamander says. His face is all purple and lines. “Some hero.”

Xavier pulls him up. “Hop on the handle bars.”

II

The ride to Maggie’s is slower than anticipated and Xavier worries his front tire has gone flat. Sebastian laughs as the Salamander struggles to dismount.

Maggie’s smile is wide when they sit and Xavier orders two shots and two beers. They toss the bourbon back and chase it with the beer.

“I live with my sister,” the Salamander says. “I haven’t seen her or her moped.”

Sebastian laughs and Maggie shoots Xavier a look. She’s statued and sad. “What does she look like? Maybe one of us saw her,” Maggie says.

“She’s old. Got eighteen years on me. My mother was a mistress. Used to own a book store. Dad paid her off and then he and his wife died of age. My sister raised me.” The Salamander’s voice is even. A few threads have come loose on his shoulder. “She’s really small. Smile lines deeper than that hole. She had a daughter a few years ago and gave her up because she was too tired.”

Xavier doesn’t know what to say so he slides a few quarters in the juke box. He selects some of the cut and paste hip-hop from the other night. Maggie pours more beers. They down them. She refills. This goes on for too long. Xavier and Maggie catch each other’s eyes. The Salamander’s head droops forward, not quite touching the bar.

If there is a time portal, Xavier imagines it doesn’t work the way Maggie said it did. His own memories are far too muddied, too malleable to be trusted. He’s heard before that the way we remember things isn’t the way it happened, so could time travel ever depend on memory, when our own understanding might not exist?

“She’s been gone a lot more lately. Sleeping elsewhere.” As soon as it looks like he’s out, the Salamander pops up and rummages through the compartments of his belt. From it he pulls a small pipe and about a gram of marijuana. “I’m not ready to call a search party,” he says.

Xavier takes him to the loft upstairs. Last night he didn’t do much outside of walking between the bed and the bathroom. Still daylight, the room illuminated, Xavier sees more. The floor is an unpolished concrete. A rug lies in the middle, a forest with a napping Bengal tiger. They place a pitcher and glasses on a coffee table and take hits from the small pipe.

“How old are you?” the Salamander says.

“Thirty.”

“You ever throw rocks at trains?”

Xavier hits from the pipe. Trains dominate the DC area, but no, he hasn’t thrown rocks at them before.

“I’ve never seen a train. No track in Emerson. I dream about throwing rocks at trains all the time, though.” The Salamander grabs his glass and chugs the entire thing. “Maybe I should leave.”

Thunder growls in the distance like a neighbor moving furniture. It’s odd for Xavier to be in a perceptive position. The people around him are emotionally naked, vulnerable in a way that leaves Xavier inundated. His first instinct is to fight the current, find some bearing of sentiment. The Salamander stands by the window. He blows smoke against the glass. “I love the way rainfall looks from a distance. Frozen like a tornado that hasn’t learned hate yet,” he says.

The walkie-talkie murmurs and Xavier places it on the coffee table. The audio snow spikes and hushes and Xavier turns it off. “I’m beginning to think my brother isn’t here. I thought I saw him, but I don’t trust my own eyes.” Sebastian rolls on the tiger rug.

The Salamander finishes another beer and pours one for Xavier. “First, drink all of this. Second, let’s go look right now. Everywhere. This town ain’t that big.” He pulls the mask off his face and rubs his eyes with beer covered fingers. He clicks the walkie back on. His eyes look like crushed cherries against splotches of black makeup. “I used to use a walkie because it seemed official. That’s got to mean something for us, right?”

Xavier chugs his beer. “I’m learning more that sentiment means nothing.”

III

Soon it’s dark out. The wind is a tantrum. Xavier can draw a rough map of Emerson in his head. The main street has two ends: the original Emerson saloon on the north side and the bike shop on the south. Maggie’s bar rests somewhere in the middle on the same side of the street as Malik’s store and the hotel. On the opposite side are the Lofts, a pizza joint, a sports bar, and a grocery store. The aquariums lose their shine as he settles into the town, easing into a familiarity akin to mailboxes or cracks in the sidewalk. He and the Salamander pass the pizza joint and check their reflections in the windows. His hair is a mess, flat on one end and unpicked. His patchy three-day shadow looks thicker in the streetlight. A shifty black kid indeed. Sebastian bounces next to him in the glass.

The Salamander presses his forehead to the glass door. “Caroline?” he says to it. He rattles the door with his knuckles. “Has anybody seen my sister?” He does this for every door they pass until they get to the bike shop.

Wanda sits on a tricycle outside the shop, a small gun in her hand. A cooler rests to her right. It’s a blue that’s been scratched to gray.

“What’s your brother’s name?” the Salamander says.

“Charlie.”

“Have you seen Charlie?” he says to Wanda. His jaw hangs low, his shoulders slumped forward. His breath is Van Gogh in the night.

Wanda slacks her wrist back, points the gun towards the Cafeteria. “Don’t know a Charlie, but those Rogers boys were a little too close. If you see them, tell them the safety’s off.”

“Got any beer?”

Wanda tosses him a beer, then Xavier.

The Salamander chugs his, crushes the can, and whiffs a punt. Xavier is sure Caroline is dead, resting under a crooked steel blanket, and the Salamander knows it. His search is too standard, a going of motions. If she were sleeping elsewhere, she would have checked on her brother, no?

“You know about the time portal?” Xavier says.

Wanda nods and presses the pedals of the tricycle. She blows her kazoo as she rides in circles. The thin skin of her half-ear shines in the streetlight. “This girl Devon swore it was in the Cafeteria. She was haunted by an abortion.”

Sebastian chases her tricycle, chomping at the back wheels. The lobsters above her claw at the glass, a silent knock-knock-knock. The Salamander paces to the other side of the street.

“Where do you think it is?”

Wanda taps her head with the gun, the barrel points at the sky. The glass of a street light breaks. The bulb stays bright.

“I’d think those kids know. If there’s a time portal, wouldn’t their family own it?” she says.

“No, no, no,” the Salamander says. He presses both palms into his ears. His beard droops low, weighed by suds and scowl. “I don’t have the stamina for that kind of faith.”

Stamina, a word Xavier’s been feeling for but couldn’t quite taste it. He wonders if his years alone have been a carbo-load, a preparation for this Tour de Chance. Or is this the hibernation? Is the ground a fog? He grinds his toes into the asphalt. It doesn’t give.

“Where’d they go?”

“Off to the sinkhole, I presume.” Wanda stands from the tricycle and rolls the two watermelons into the street. She points the gun at the fruit and after a moment, lowers it. “I don’t want to scare the water roaches.”

The Salamander runs to a sewer opening on the side of the street and vomits. Most of it hits the sidewalk and a couple of dragonflies hover above it.

Xavier feels his own spins. He catches himself in the window of the bike shop and for a moment, relief descends upon him. His reflection smiles, winks one of its glazed eyes, and Xavier lies on the sidewalk.

All he can see is the dark sky and obese Florida clouds hovering in his peripheral. He closes his eyes. Rain puddles in his hoodie wrinkles. Sebastian hops on his chest and sniffs his face. “Get up,” he says.

Xavier feels like he’s in the swimming pool on the campus of UMD. He used to spend mornings before class floating on his back, ears below the water, pretending he was deaf and blind. He liked to limit the distractions and get lost in his head. After Sierra told him he was going to be an uncle, Xavier obsessed over a life that he would unquestionably be a part of. His parents lived entire lives before he ever joined them. Charlie, while born the same day, came into the world hours before Xavier was born and abandoned. Jordan, his family, wouldn’t live a second of his life without Xavier connected to him. When Jordan was born dead, the disconnect of his everyday life shifted more out of place. Not only did Jordan never breathe from the same world as Xavier, but the bridge between he and Charlie, one that crossed blood, crumpled a bit on one end. Sometimes Xavier suspected it was his own.

Eyes still closed, he sees Sebastian laughing as street lights warm his lids. He hears the walkie’s harsh whispers and light dances behind the laughing Sebastian. He sees the Salamander without his mask. He sees Maggie’s wink and curly hair. He sees Sierra’s large pregnant stomach. He sees Charlie’s miserable eyes. He sees six-year-old Jordan with the same hazel sadness. He sees himself, as absolutely nothing, if he doesn’t share the pain with them.

A hand grabs him by the collar and pulls him up. Xavier opens his eyes and sees the Salamander studying him. “No time for giving up,” he says. His breath is all death.