In the middle of Utah, there is a place that looks like a desert, but something isn’t quite right. The people in Salt Town in this desert all know that there is something odd in the desert. The ground looks wet and dry at the same time, but that isn’t it. There is a constant rumble from the machines under the ground, but that isn’t it. When you walk across the desert, your feet sink into the ground, but that isn’t it. No, these are all normal things in a salt flat.
The problem with Salt Town is the animals. When they look at you, they seem to know you. The cats don’t act quite like cats, and the dogs don’t act quite like dogs. Sometimes even the mice are a little odd. No, everything thing they do seems to be on purpose. And what animal makes plans, or, stranger still, acts like it knows what you’re saying?
The people of Salt Town have gotten used to the oddity. Little old ladies leave out food for the dogs who live behind the grocery store. At night, the men who work at the salt mines say hello when the local cats go by. When the teacher at the school sees a mouse, she doesn’t scream or run away. She tells her students to watch their step and be nice to the little critter.
A man named Jackie works at the salt mines. Every evening as the sun goes down; he takes a shaky old elevator deep into the earth. It rattles and clanks, bumping into the crusty white walls of the elevator shaft. He doesn’t like working so far underground, but he likes the people he works with. Down in the mine, his olive skin and black hair don’t matter the way they do sometimes when he is in town. Sometimes people are mean to him just because of how he looks. In the mine, all that matters is his hard work and funny jokes.
One night, as he starts his work in the mine, Jackie hears a strange noise. He is supervising the carts carrying salt up from a long tunnel. The noise sounds a little like a cat howling at the end of the tunnel, but the echoes change the noise so he can’t be sure. Jackie tries to ignore it, joking with his friends and making sure the cars stay on the track. He hears it again, and this time his friends pause too.
Thinking maybe one of the strange town cats is stuck in the mine, Jackie tells one of his friends to stop the carts. It is hard to get down the tunnel past the carts stopped on the track because there are only a few inches between the wall and the side of the carts. Instead, Jackie has to crawl over each cart full of crunchy salt, careful not to slip or fall. There isn’t much light, and as he crawls over one of the carts, he nearly steps onto a kitten.
The little ball of fluff ducks out of the way and lets out a sad little “mew.” Jackie knows this must be the sound he was hearing.
“Come here, little guy,” Jackie says to the kitten. But the kitten hops away, further down the tunnel. Jackie has to follow it slowly, still climbing over each cart. A little way along, Jackie sees a second tunnel off to the side, which the kitten hops down and waits for him, purring. Just like in town, Jackie has the strange sense there is more to this cat than meets the eye. He’s pretty sure that tunnel isn’t on any of the work maps, either.
Jackie follows the kitten down into a darkness so deep he can’t see his nose on his face. He has to listen for the purring of the kitten and keep his hand on the tunnel wall. Suddenly, he turns a corner and is blinded by a million golden lights. When his eyes adjust, he realizes there is only one light, a little fire in the middle of the room. The salt walls are cut into uncountable little facets, or surfaces, which are catching the light and sending it every direction. Behind the fire are an old lady and a boy.
The kitten is hiding behind Jackie now, shivering, afraid of the lady. The old lady has her back to Jackie and is waving her hands at the boy and saying something Jackie can’t hear. Suddenly, in the place of the boy, a puppy appears. Jackie’s heart stops. So this is why the animals are so special!
Jackie runs across the room and surprises the woman.
“Why are you turning people into animals?” Jackie shouts.
“I’ve been lost down here since I was a little girl. I only did it so that there would be someone to help me and keep me company,” she says.
Jackie realizes just how many of these animals there are around the town.
“Don’t you want to get out?” Jackie asks. “I can take you out of here, but you have to promise to change everyone back. Starting now.”
The old lady nods her head and waves her hand at the puppy and kitten. A little girl and boy are suddenly there instead. Jackie leads them all out, carrying the old lady on his back. His friends are shocked to see the little group appear when he gets back to his job.
Over the next week, the old lady turns back all of the animals to who they once were. The town is still a little odd but in a much more normal way.