The damage wasn’t visible from the street. Sitting on the cool grass, staring back at the house, you might not even know it had happened. This would prove frustrating for the photographers and camera crews.
The day the sinkhole appeared was warm and inviting. It was a day for exploration, baseball, and picnics in the park. As usual, Jeremy Vespucci was in his room at the time of the incident.
Jeremy’s brother, Michael, made a frantic call to 911. Police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks vanished from all over the city to rematerialize on Orchard Street, outside the Vespucci home. The amazing speed of these emergency responders in a crisis was only outpaced by the fastest TV news vans.
Once inside, emergency personnel gathered in the hallway near the hole. Firefighters used flashlights to sound the depths. They lowered ropes that could never reach the bottom. Jeremy’s parents held each other and tried to not look useless. One of the police officers dropped his flashlight and watched its beam disappear soundlessly into the blackness. Everyone paused to listen, yet no one heard the light strike bottom. The void seemed infinite.
Between rolling waves of grief and terror, Michael heard a buzzing sound and felt a familiar vibration in his pocket. He retrieved his cell phone, more out of habit than any conscious desire to do so. Illuminated on the screen was a tweet:
JerryVespi So, I’m sitting on my bed and the room goes all Tower of Terror. There’s nothing above me and I can’t get out. #wtfJustHappened
What is it? his mother asked.
Michael lifted the phone, seemingly unable to speak. His father took it and read the message aloud. A new silence descended over the assembly as he gave voice to those unfathomable words.
As this was happening on Orchard Street, in cyberspace Jeremy’s tweet was automatically forwarded to Facebook, Tumblr, and Google+. If he hadn’t been so distracted by the unfortunate mess of real-world implications, Michael could have watched the first concerned comments appear from friends and family members. He could have seen the first wave of retweets, shares, and reblogs as it gathered. He might have wondered at the ironic implications of Facebook “likes” in this situation.
The phone buzzed again.
JerryVespi @Vespucho Hey… where are you? Or where am I? #4srs #KindaScared #NotGonnaLie
A moment passed.
Well, Jeremy’s mother said, you have to answer him.
Michael’s hands shook violently as his thumb slid across the screen.
Vespucho @JerryVespi A sinkhole opened ticket root. Are Ross ok?
JerryVespi @Vespucho What?
Vespucho @JerryVespi Sorry. A sinkhole swallowed your room. Everyone else is fine. Are yo u ok?
JerryVespi @Vespucho I’m fine. Room’s ok too. Nothing even broken, but I can’t open the door or windows. I can’t get out.
JerryVespi Even electricity and lamps are still working. See: pictwit.url/2973417855432 No cell service though. #I’mInAHole #StrangeButTrue
Michael clicked the link. It was a gritty webcam photo of Jeremy sitting in his desk chair. The room was brightly lit. He looked a little worried, but otherwise it appeared unremarkable.
On the surface, relief was palpable — for a moment. Gradually, they realized that Jeremy had every light in his room turned on, and yet not even a rumor of that illumination reached them at the surface. They began to understand just how far out of reach he’d fallen. A few may have noticed the other troubling detail in the photo. The window visible over Jeremy’s left shoulder, which once opened on a yard of hand-laid sod and a wooden fence, displayed a featureless black space, satin-smooth and menacing.
The situation was at an impasse. Firefighters and police tried every method they could think of to reach Jeremy, or to at least measure the depth of the hole, but nothing worked. They tried lowering every rope they had, even a fire hose, but found nothing long enough to reach the bottom. Through all of this, Michael manned the lines of digital communication with his brother below.
Meanwhile, a seemingly inexhaustible stream of news vans emptied into a delta around the Vespucci home. Jeremy’s story had that winning combination of mystery and tragedy that audiences eat like manna. Reporters descended like locusts. Bright-eyed local news teams gave way to jet-lagged national network crews. Newspaper and TV reporters blockaded the home, pressing for interviews with anyone who had even a tenuous connection to the situation inside. Spectral AP correspondents appeared and vanished. Each visit spawned a labyrinth of reprints and speculation in papers, blogs, and aggregation sites. Not a moment passed without the private troubles of the Vespuccis being trotted out in articles, forums, and across dozens of social networks.
Michael was still too distracted by his immediate concerns to notice these rumblings online. Otherwise, he might have seen when Jeremy’s story was up-voted onto the front page of Reddit. He might have heard the servers around the world groaning under the weight of a million mouse-clicks. He might have chuckled at one of the “and then I was in a hole” memes made with a Photoshopped picture from Jeremy’s Facebook account, or recoiled at the callous, irreverent jeers of complete strangers. Michael might have seen the dawning of his brother’s internet fame.
Although they may not have known its extent, the Vespuccis did benefit from the attention Jeremy was getting. Early the next morning, a large truck pulled up outside. Its sides were plastered with the logo of a local home-improvement superstore. The truck was filled with giant spools of rope and chain, almost all they had in stock, donated to support the rescue effort. The news crews quickly set to praising the generosity and compassion of such a selfless corporate sponsor.
The firefighters returned soon after the donation arrived and began to drop the first length of rope down into the abyss. When one spool ran out, they tied its end firmly to the next length of rope or chain and continued lowering. Yet even when it was all connected and lowered, Jeremy could barely see the bottom of the rope hanging above him. Finally, with the addition of the Vespuccis’ garden hose, the rope was able to touch bottom — six miles beneath the surface.
At this point, the firefighters told the Vespuccis any attempt at rescue would be too dangerous and costly for them to attempt. Jeremy was notified of this, and responded with a surprising degree of monastic acceptance.
JerryVespi Well, it’s not too bad in here I guess. There’re worse places to be trapped forever. Could use some food though. #InAHole #TheNewNormal
Jeremy’s tranquility seemed to give others the strength to accept, and adapt to, the situation. His parents attached a basket to the end of the rope and used it to lower food and water into the void. For the first time since the incident, the people on Orchard Street relaxed.
Except for Michael. Michael refused to accept. He was determined to rescue his brother, even if that meant hauling Jeremy out of the pit with his own hands. He tweeted as much, and began to lower the rope, but when he reached the end, Jeremy said that he could not see the rope. The same rope which had measured the depth of the void, which had lowered Jeremy’s food with length to spare, was now too short. It was almost as if the void grew deeper to prevent the rescue. This was not lost on Michael. He retrieved the rope, attached the basket with a gallon of water to its end and dropped it over the edge. He’d lowered less than half its length when he felt the rope go slack. Jeremy tweeted that the water was in his hands.
In the years that followed, teams of scientists came to test the void with advanced imaging techniques. Time and again, they came to the same conclusion. Somehow the void saw back into the hearts of its voyeurs and adjusted to suit their intentions. A measurement taken while thinking of rescue was invariably deeper than a measurement taken for its own sake. Altimeters lowered into the void came up reporting no change in elevation. Harnesses and other rescue devices disappeared completely. While Jeremy’s condition remained a continual source of speculation and wonder, it was widely acknowledged that retrieving him was somehow impossible.
Jeremy continued to survive off of the meals his family delivered with the rope, which he began referring to as the Lifeline. Over time they gave him a small fridge, along with a hotplate, a microwave, silverware, plates, glasses, cooking pots, knives, spatulas, and so on. Once a week, groceries were sent down the Lifeline. A portable toilet was added and its holding tank was also carefully raised and emptied once a week. They gave him UV bulbs and vitamin D pills to prevent depression. Tools, parts, replacement appliances, and the latest technological innovations all appeared on the Lifeline whenever it became necessary.
Jeremy continued to communicate, learn, and experience the world as filtered through the expansive lens of the internet. His family, later just his brother, lived in that home for the rest of their lives to provide for him.
Jeremy Vespucci’s underground life continued much as it might have on the surface. To all appearances, he lived quite happily to an old age. He became a prolific purveyor of digital armchair philosophy, filling the screens of his countless friends and followers with the sundered wisdom from his deepest of bowers. His followers marveled that this man, who’d suffered so greatly — especially when compared to their own lives — was always the most unshakably optimistic voice in their newsfeed.
In his final transmission, Jeremy wrote:
JerryVespi Beautiful day in my world, away from the pollution and heartbreak above. Know: you have your blessings, I have mine. #LifeInAHole #NoRegrets
With that, and with Jeremy either dead or gone Cistercian, silence and a veil descended once more over the abyss on Orchard Street.
Daniel J. Pizappi lives next to the New York State Thruway in New Paltz, NY, under a string of high-tension power lines. When not wondering about the impact of ambient voltages on the human brain, he tries to find the time to write. He is currently working toward an MA in English at SUNY New Paltz, where he also teaches classes in rhetoric and composition. His fiction and poetry has previously appeared in The Schawangunk Review, Burningword, and Cellar Door, among others.