short story

The Volcano (part one)

This is my only real attempt at writing humor. Perhaps you’ll see why.

I was more than a little surprised when “Little Mac” McAllister identified himself on the phone. He wasn’t the type to call the local paper; heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t even read our little weekly rag. He just wasn’t the reading type. Whatever information he’d need, he could pick up easier at the City Diner, or Fat Man’s Tavern, or from Melody, his wife.

He didn’t waste any time on social niceties now. “I wondered if you’d stop by the ranch
this afternoon. There’s something out here I think you should see.”

Stopping by his ranch meant a twenty minute drive out of town. “What’s that?”

“Dunno. That’s why you should look at it.”

Well, put that way . . . I had to admit I was more than a little curious. Something was
certainly up, if Mac was asking me to come take a look at it.

“I have a meeting with Joan Collins (yes, that really was her name) at 1:00 to talk about
the school bond measure,” I told him. “I can come out afterwards‑‑say 2:00, or 2:30.”

I thought I heard a chuckle. “I’ll have coffee on.”

Joan Collins apparently wasn’t on his Christmas card list. She wasn’t on mine either, for
that matter, but when you run a small town weekly, you deal with the people who make the local
news. For better or worse.

We disconnected and I went back to milking two thousand words out of last weekend’s
Volunteer Fire Department pancake feed.

#

The McAllister Ranch was twenty acres of mostly flat land along a small creek. It sat
among the foothills of the Cascades a few miles east of town, off County Road 151. It had
belonged to Little Mac’s father (Big Mac) before him and was less a working ranch than a
country retreat from the construction business he ran in the city. I had been there a couple of
times over the previous two decades and‑‑from the point of view of someone who’d lived in one
bed room apartments most of his life‑‑thought the house was very nice. It was a two‑story
farmhouse with a wraparound porch and a beautiful oak shading the front yard.

I drove up the newly paved driveway toward the house shortly after two, my mind still
numbed from the hour I’d spent listening to Mrs. Collins, and parked my aging Honda beside
Little Mac’s new Ford pickup and his wife’s Explorer. Neither had a scratch or a speck of dust
on them.

Little Mac met me on the front porch with a grinding handshake. “Thanks for coming
out.”

I checked my hand for broken bones and admitted I was curious.

Little Mac nodded. “It’s the damndest thing.”

“Well, let’s go see it.”

“Hi, Tom.” Melody McAllister appeared in the doorway behind her husband. “Mac
seems to have forgotten his manners. Would you like to come in for some coffee?”

“Oh,” Little Mac looked chagrined, like he’d been caught with the cookie jar. “I was
going to take a look at the pasture first.”

Ever the peacemaker, I suggested we take a look at whatever he had in his pasture, then
discuss it over coffee.

Five minutes later we stood in the pasture a hundred yards behind the house looking
down at a crack in ground. It was two inches wide at its widest and about four feet long. Thick
clouds of foul‑smelling steam drifted out of the opening and the air itself seemed tainted with
the stench of rotten eggs.

“Well?” Little Mac asked. “What do you think?”

“When did this start?”

“A week ago. Something like that.”

I could only stare. It was the most incredible thing I’d seen in these parts.

“What is it?”

“I’m no expert,” I told him. “But I’d say you’ve got a new volcanic vent here.”

He nodded gravely. “That’s what Melody thinks too.”

For a few seconds we both stared at the smoking crack in the ground. We were standing
almost five feet away and I could feel the heat on my face. The meadow grass around the edges
of the crack was blackened and withered brown.

Little Mac looked at me. “So what do I do about it?”

I looked up at him. What do you do about it? What do you do about tornados,
hurricanes, tsunamis, or any other force of nature? You get out of the way. But the look in his
eyes told me he wasn’t jerking me around, nor was he taking this development lightly.

“I don’t know,” I told him. “But I have a friend at the University who might have an
answer for you.”

He nodded.

It might have been my imagination, but right then the ground beneath me seemed to
quiver just a bit.

#

The next afternoon, Little Mac and I watched as Henry Jenkins, a professor of geology at
the University–who looked like Kurt Cobain after a rough night–scrambled around the edges of
the crack taking readings on some kind of handheld device. I had been shocked at the changes
in just a day. The crack was now almost six inches wide and nearly ten feet long. And if I
wasn’t mistaken the area around it had risen several inches during the night, as if something was
pushing up from below the meadow. I’m no expert, but I personally took that as a bad sign.

The fact that it was a beautiful spring day, just made the anomaly in Little Mac’s pasture
seem all the more weird.

Finally, Henry returned to us, his eyes lit up like a kid on Christmas morning. “It’s
incredible. And right in our back yard. This will make Mt. St. Helens look like yesterday’s
news.” He consulted his device. It looked like a Blackberry. “It’s emitting sulfur dioxide at the
rate of ten cubit feet an hour and the ambient temperature at the mouth is approaching five
hundred degrees.”

“So what is it?” Little Mac asked.

“A vent. You’ve got a vent just starting up. Do you have any idea how rare it is to
witness something like this? I’d like to set up a monitoring station immediately.”

Little Mac just shook his head. “How do I stop it?”

Jenkins looked like Little Mac had just asked him if he believed in the Easter Bunny. He
stopped playing with his device long enough to look up at Little Mac. “You can’t stop it. This is
part of a volcano.”

He gestured at the Cascades lined up along the eastern horizon. “All these mountains are
volcanic. This is where the Pacific and North American tectonic plates come together. Channels of molten rock cris‑cross the entire region, just under the crust, looking for a weak spot. You might have a new mountain growing right here. It’s probably just venting some heat and gas, but if it decides to go into a real eruption, it will erupt. There’s nothing you, I, or anyone else can do about it.”

Little Mac’s eyes narrowed to slits as he gazed at the crack. “We’ll see about that.”

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