hat year the ground gave out from under us. We went to the flats behind the 7-11 every day after school and took turns jumping – first individually, then in pairs, then threes, seeing how far our nerve would take us. The earth buckled and yawned open in places and when we jumped it sometimes cracked to reveal a shelf and one time threw Susanne Laurence back up in the air like it was spitting her out. There were other places in town you could do these things, but behind the 7-11 was the best place.
Some mornings when we walked to school the ground seemed unsteady all around us, gas leaking from the vented earth. Our school was small, it fit our town, five rooms that we shared in shifts with the younger students. We packed our day into five hours and would pass the first- through fifth-graders on their walk in as we headed home, the janitors emptying trash cans and scrubbing blackboards in preparation for their arrival.
We were at a party in Jason Dunbar’s basement when the alert was issued, seismic activity or something. This is the sort of thing we should remember but Jason Dunbar had the best basement for Spin the Bottle and Seven Minutes in Heaven and we were fifteen, when we knew all the things worth remembering were going to happen in his parents’ game closet or laying on the cement floor behind their bar, well-stocked with watered liquors.
Sometimes we couldn’t sleep at night for the groaning that went on all around us, the sounds of the Earth gawping its maw. We wanted to know things like why was this happening to our town, of all towns. In front of the bookmobile’s parking spot a steady fissure of steam that grew and grew until we all, even the librarian, became reluctant to bypass it to open the door of the blocked and reimagined mobile home.
hen Jenny Wells disappeared we all of us knew where she had gone. She never came with us to the flats and it only made sense she would go alone. That was the way she did things. We told our parents we had heard she went back there after school to test the earth, that she would jump up and down in one spot until something gave. The sheriff went back there and when he returned said it was like walking across a sea of jello, that he thought he’d seen a new fissure but it was hard to say because he had felt the ground might at any minute quit its wobbling and decide whether it wanted to throw him out or take him in. He was young and his wife was pregnant and none of us was surprised when a week after Jenny Wells vanished he vanished too, but with his wife and his truck and his house stripped of all its valuables.
We went back to the flats one more time. We jumped singly, then in pairs, then three at a time, howling as the earth returned to us what we gave in steam and a viscous brown liquid that leaked from its crust. The sun slapped our backs, doubling us over with its strength, and between turns we stood hunched with our hands on our knees, sweat dripping from our foreheads to the cracked earth. What made it so bad was that the heat came from above and from below, and we said that this must be what hell was like, this place right here, the not-being-able-to-get-awayness of it all.
The earth rolled that day, the flats undulating and never ending. We jumped four together, then five, then six, imagining Jenny Wells somewhere under us, then all seven of us, lined up and holding hands and sweat staining the armpits of our shirts as the earth threw us higher with each go. There was never any wind and the stillness of the air made it feel like there wasn’t any at all and we would have to gasp for breath when we came back to earth.
We imagined that under the crust, down where Jenny Wells was so persistent in her hiding, was another vision of our town, only with green things and a bookmobile that had wheels, a school with a gym and ten classrooms, a grocery store so the people down there didn’t have to drive ten miles to the Food City just for a frozen pizza. The earth down there was still and coated with grass that didn’t wither and die the minute summer hit but stayed green all year round. We said that while we were up here clutching hands and jumping Jenny Wells was down there on lunch break from school, sitting under a tree watching the sky shudder and release the rain clouds we were making. Everything in that town down there was good and better and the way it should be, but all the same we ran home after we were thrown so high we landed in a tumbled aching heap with rivulets of the brown mud working their paths around us. We didn’t tell our parents about the under the crust town but stayed at our windows watching the mud coming down the edges of the streets, widening and widening until all the pavement was taken over and we couldn’t do anything besides sit with our families and listen to the news. We all of us went back to our windows again and again, watching to see if Jenny Wells had come back to tell us how things were down there, but there was only the mud and the sun and the still, cracked air.