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The Hole that Swallowed the World
by Kurt Newton

We got used to the collars around our ankles, the bracelets around our wrists. There were snap hooks connecting us to the next person, the next volunteer, to the left and to the right, ahead and behind. Collectively, we were a human quilt spread out in a honeycomb pattern across an ever-growing chasm aptly named the Hell Pit. 

But there was one thing we couldn’t get used to: the dying. 

Ropes fray. Harnesses fail. Each scream of an unlucky volunteer falling to their death was a slice to the heart, a blow to the psyche. And each time, it brought us closer together. The chant would rise. We can stop it! We can stop it! But each time we knew the odds of being the next one to become food for the mouth of the Hell Pit increased. 

It was a war of attrition. A war in which we had blind faith we were going to win. 

But wars have casualties. Wars are won, but not without sacrifice.

Looking back, I can still feel Charlene gripping my hand. I can feel the warm sweat of her palm. When I close my eyes, I can see her. 

“How are you doing?” I would say, as I said often during the course of our ordeal.

She would life her head to look at me. “Okay, I guess.” Our eyes would meet, she’d smile.

In those early days, we tried not to look down. Beneath us the chasm descended in an endless, bottomless void. From our position in the fabric we could barely see the chasm walls, which had stretched to nearly sixty miles across. There was no turning back. We were committed.

Invariably, Charlene would take a deep breath, her lungs would fill, and with her high, thin voice would shout: “We can stop it!”

And the chant would rise again, spreading outward like a wave from where we were suspended.

We can stop it! We can stop it!

The chorus echoing down into the chasm and reverberating like the solemn prayers of monks in a cathedral. And for those few moments we believed.

•••• •••• •••• •••• ••••

June 3rd. Eureka, Kansas.

It began as a sink hole in the middle of a Costco parking lot. Sink holes were not uncommon around the world, but they were in Eureka, Kansas.

Pythagoras would have been thrilled. A town named after his famous exclamation. He might have gone running through the streets shouting something else entirely after it was determined what was happening in Eureka was no run-of-the-mill sink hole.

It became an unfolding event, carried on every live news channel across the country, around the world. What would it swallow today? A parking lot? An office building? An entire city block?

Scientists, at first, speculated the cause as a massive erosion of an underground salt bed. A hollow in the Earth’s crust had finally worn through. But the magnitude of the event was unprecedented.

As the days progressed, and summer came to the heartland, the sink hole continued to deepen and expand. Reporters had run out of adjectives. Gigantic. Tremendous. Gargantuan. And when the physical dimensions had become unthinkable, the tone turned introspective. Surreal. Breathtaking. Humbling.

Some blamed global warming. Some linked it to biblical prophecy. Either way, nothing was being done to stop it. The earth had at last opened up and was going to swallow the world. A scenario Heironymus Bosch would no doubt have appreciated.

When it reached a mile across, a local preacher began referring to it as the Hell Pit, and the name stuck.

•••• •••• •••• •••• ••••

The nights were the worst. Charlene and I were so far from the rim, the floodlights set up by the news crews barely reached us. Only the occasional helicopter and its alien abduction cone of light sweeping across the masses to monitor our progress kept us from being swallowed up by the darkness entirely.

Eating was always an adventure, especially for the scouts. These nimble-footed spider men and women risked their lives to feed us.

And if that wasn’t enough to worry about, the days were getting shorter, the nights incrementally cooler. The whisper across the pit was if we didn’t close the gap by harvest time, we wouldn’t have to worry about the darkness swallowing us up⎯the cold would get us first.

But not all of it was dire and depressing. The ten of thousands that were now joined across the expanse created their own nightsong⎯a strange, echoey wave of murmurings and sleep sounds and bodily functions. It was like floating weightless on the blackest ocean one could ever imagine. And there were times, in the intervals between helicopter flyovers and lulls in the human nightsong where one could hear the pit itself, moving, widening with the fracture and scrape of solid rock. It was an eerie reminder of just what we were up against.

On one night in particular, the sound of the pit was especially clear. Perhaps the overcast sky had added an extra dimension of acoustical reverb, but the pit bellowed with a deep resonance, like the wailing of some unseen leviathan. The sound was so mournful it brought tears to Charlene’s eyes.

“The world’s heart is breaking,” she said. She said this in reference to the news of the latest conflict to erupt on the world stage. War, famine, atrocities⎯all were fodder for the evening news, and all of it was a sober reminder of just how delicate was the balance between peace and oblivion. 

I wanted to hold her then, tell her everything was going to be alright. But all I could do was caress her hand.

•••• •••• •••• •••• ••••

Charlene and I were once students living on the campus of Wichita State University. We never pegged ourselves as activists. There were causes Charlene and I were passionate about, but never passionate enough to disrupt our pizza parties or movie dates or all night dorm room lovemaking. Despite the current dark political climate, Charlene and I thought we were removed from it all, unaffected by the government’s hardline policies, insulated by academia. 

But the pit had become a rallying cry for the State of the Union. It was a way to fix something unfixable. A way to take our seemingly insignificant lives and make them matter. A way to act, even if that action appeared futile.

So, when the shit got real, and the Hell Pit appeared hell bent on swallowing the world, we volunteered. What was a degree in engineering worth if there was no world left to engineer? The government appeared unable, or unwilling, to stop what was happening, so it was up to us. The people. Not metal and might, but flesh and blood.

Charlene and I chose to be coupled face to face like two trapeze artists catching each other for an eternity. At the time, we thought it was romantically symbolic. Ideally, the engineers wanted an alternating wrist to ankle pattern, but allowances were made.

Because of this arrangement, our immediate neighbors were ankles, so we never really got to know the volunteers at our feet. Initial introductions were shared, of course, as the excitement of what we were all attempting to do lent a party-like atmosphere to the event. But, ironically, the distance soon overcame any attempt to stay connected. Our neighbors were only six feet away, but they might as well have been a mile. Which left Charlene and I in our own floating world.

Charlene passed the time doodling, creating quirky pictograms in colored chalk that she brought along and kept in a fanny pack. She was an art student and she saw light and color in everything. Who else could turn harness straps into prehistoric cartoons? Or bare skin into intricate henna-like tattoos?

It was one of the things I loved about her. There was an innocence that emanated from her smile, that resided in the green pools of her eyes. She made everyone around her feel good. It was her gift.

I, on the other hand, had not an artistic bone in my body. My mind was an ordered universe of numbers and vectors and statistical probabilities. Our friends called us the odd couple, but the equation of us worked. The way we had hoped our collective effort to stop the Hell Pit would work.

•••• •••• •••• •••• ••••

…and then what happened?!? Find out for yourself in this month’s issue—on sale now!

Copyright © 2020. The Hole that Swallowed the World by Kurt Newton.