by Sheldon Birnie, 3.24am Sept 10th 2021
The chasm is growing.
That’s what the old man on the line told me. I looked at the phone like you gotta be fucking kidding me. The calls we get sometimes.
Which chasm is that, sir? I was trying to sound diplomatic. Specifically.
The big one, the old man said. I could tell he was old because his voice sounded the way a rotten shed looks when it’s slowly returning to earth. It’s getting bigger.
One moment, sir. I opened a new file on the computer. Let me just make sure I get all the details down here.
Working for the government, it’s not all dog fucking and union breaks. There’s some real wackadoodle crap we’ve got to wade through in order to put the minds of tax payers at ease every now and again.
Walter, the old man, explained that the chasm out back of the seniors complex had been there for years. You know the one, he repeated. Nobody had fallen in that he knew of, but it was only a matter of time. Mark my words young lady, he repeated. Nothing good can come of this.
I understand, I assured him. Someone would be by soon to examine the chasm.
But soon wasn’t good enough for Walter.
No time to muck about, he maintained. The chasm, it’s growing.
I’ll get someone right on it, I told him. I hung up, sending the report wherever it went when you clicked Send. Figured, that’s the end of that.
Next day, middle-manager waddles over to my desk first thing. Hadn’t even had two sips of my coffee yet.
You take the call on the chasm? Don’t know why he asked. He knows I did. Everything we do is logged. Sure, I shrug. Middle-manager sighs. He waves for me to follow as he waddles off, leading me to a room full of high vis protective gear, tells me to find a vest, gloves, and safety glasses that fit. Tells me I’m going to check out this chasm.
Usually, there’s a crew that would handle that sort of stuff. Trees that have fallen over the road, bigfoot sightings, water main breaks. That kinda crap. In two years in this department, I’ve never once been sent out to follow up on the calls we get, crank or otherwise. Why me?
Middle-manager shrugs. Orders from above. Or someone’s on vacation, stress leave, whatever. I dig through the stacks and find the smallest safety vest and gloves they’ve got (still too big) and a pair of plastic safety glasses. Middle-manager tosses me a set of keys, metal fob with 462 stamped on it.
Truck’s in the garage, he grunts. Send a report up soon as you’re back. Take some pictures with your phone. You know the drill.
I don’t. Not really. But he’s already waddling off. Well. How hard can it be?
Half-hour later I pull up to Walter’s old folks home in a big old GMC with government plates and peeling decals on the side. #462. It’s fun driving the big old beast around town. Usually, I take the bus. I’m starting to think my license expired some time back, but I’m not even certain I have it on me. Oh well. Middle-manager should have confirmed before he flipped me the keys.
At the old folks home, I pull up to the curb, get the four-way flashers going, and wander into reception where I tell the guy behind the counter I’m here to inspect the chasm.
Right this way, reception guy says. Please.
We make our way down a long corridor, reception guy unlocking each set of closed double doors with a keycard attached to his belt by a retractable zip line. Each time, the thing whirrs this high pitched whirr that reminds me of the dentist. Reception guy doesn’t seem to notice. Maybe he likes it?
Before long we’re out back.
Here it is, reception guy says. I whistle. No kidding. We’re standing on the edge of a chasm alright.
Reception guy, he stands next to me, hands on his hips. I pull out my work phone, take a few photos. But it’s hard to really get a good sense of perspective this close. It just looks empty.
Any chance we can get up to the roof?
Reception guy frowns. Let me make a couple calls, he says, pulling out a phone. I leave him to mumble my request up the ladder and lean into the chasm for a closer look. It’s deep and dark with no discernible bottom. Across, it’s a good 20 feet, easy. Maybe twice as long. No safety signage in sight. Walter’s right: It’s a miracle nobody has fallen in yet.
How long’s this been here? I ask. Reception guy just holds up a finger, nodding along to whatever’s being said on the other end of his phone. He tucks it back into his pocket, apologises.
I ask him again, as we climb the stairs up to the roof. But it’s no use.
Couldn’t tell you, reception guy wheezes. I’m new here.
We step out onto the roof and sure enough, from the edge, I can take a decent photo of the chasm, though it just looks like a big black empty blob or a gross fat leech, against the yellowing grass of the lawn that surrounds it. I snap a couple pics anyhow. Nice view, I offer. Reception guy nods, squinting against the glare of the late morning sun. We head back down.
On the ground, reception guy heads off to track someone down who can tell me something, anything, while I crouch down on the lip of the chasm, peering into the depth.
It’s hard to say just what I saw down there. Nothing, really. The chasm is deep and it is dark and it seems to go on forever and I told you that already.
Sound echoed down off the dirt walls but at some point seemed to just disappear or taper off. No sound seemed to emanate upwards, exactly, though I could be wrong. There was something, a hum or vibration maybe, which I found highly unsettling. Maybe it was nothing. Maybe I imagined it. But sitting there, staring down, I felt the dread that I’d heard in Walter’s voice over the phone. Made me want to puke. You know how when you listen to a conch shell, you know that’s not the sea you hear. But if it’s not the sea, then what is it?
Don’t ask me. I just work here.
Finally, reception guy returned with a power suit lady in tow. He introduced her as the facility manager, though I didn’t catch her name. Probably should have asked, but here we are. Instead I ask, How long has this thing been here anyway?
Some time, now, the facility manager replies, bored. Years. But it wasn’t always so large. I’m not sure what you can do about it, though. This isn’t the first time someone’s come out to take a look at it.
I can see how that would be concerning. Why hadn’t middle-manager told me this was an ongoing issue? Maybe he didn’t know. He doesn’t seem to know much of anything, really. A lot of reports go flying through the office. After a while, they kind of all blur together. Even something this big could get lost, in time.
We’ve grown used to it, facility manager tells me. Most of us, anyway.
I guess, I say.
Can’t seem to fill it in, the facility manager says. Lord knows we tried. We’ve completely blown our budget on safety fencing. But it just keeps falling in. No getting that money back. No use fretting about it, is there?
When I get back to the office, I give the middle-manager back the keys to the truck and file my report, pics and all. I haven’t heard anything about the chasm since. Not from middle- or upper-management. Not from Walter, the receptionist or the facility manager at the old folks home either. Nada.
Yet, it bothers me still. Where did the big hole come from, anyway? Where does it lead to? It has to end somewhere, right? How many more are out there? How long till Walter and the rest of the old fogies housed in that old building are swallowed whole?
I tried searching through our system, at work, for some answers. Zip-zilch-zero. Our system doesn’t work that way. It’s a one way system. Info goes in and it flows to where it needs to flow. Generally, that works out just fine. Generally, who cares, right?
When I leave the office at five each day, I have a strict, no exceptions policy of shutting my work brain off completely.
But I can’t quite pull that off anymore.