Teresa walked on stage and danced three of the dances; as she reached the far edge of the platform, during one of the more provocative gesticulations, the platform gave way below her and Teresa half fell and half slid off the platform and into the sinkhole that had formed below. It all happened in a second: she was dancing, she slid, and she plunged into darkness. She did not cry out or scream; at first she thrashed her limbs to grab hold of something. After a second of free falling, her body hit the wall of the well—for it was an ancient and forgotten well into which she had fallen—and she was knocked limp, but not senseless. Later, she recalled spinning violently for some seconds and finally hitting the water with a painful smack that sent her into unconsciousness and, so, all was dark and icy cold as her lungs emptied of oxygen and with a gurgle she sunk slowly into the murky depths of the old well and would have died there that day if she had been a normal sixteen-year-old girl.
All was aflutter at the mouth of the sinkhole. Teresa’s uncle was feeling various emotions at once and the television cameras were quick to find him and record his panic, anger, embarrassment, and helplessness. He had known, of course, there was an old well around somewhere, but it had been buried for so long that he had taken it for granted that it would stay buried for another day or two if not permanently. The television reporters were quick to sympathize and knew that this story, the story of a girl who fell into a well, might just possibly lead to a real job in news broadcasting. The key was to sensationalize the event as much as possible in order to drive more traffic while appearing sympathetic to the victims.
It was only Irene who showed a good deal of courage by walking calmly to the garage, searching for and finding a good bit of rope and an old flashlight, walking to the mouth of the well, securing one end of his rope to an orange tree, testing his knot, wrapping the rope around himself, sitting, and dropping into the abyss.
When a human’s lungs fill with water, the brain soon dies. Irene knew he needed to act quickly; Teresa would be alive for only about five minutes if she lost consciousness and her lungs filed with water.
He reached the end of his rope just above the water’s edge. He knew that he would not easily climb out of the well alone and he could never hope to pull Teresa out of the well singlehandedly, but maybe some of the onlookers above would be able to toss down more rope and lift Teresa up quickly and she could be given artificial respiration immediately on the surface before she suffered brain death after five minutes without oxygen.
Irene took a deep breath and let go of the rope. In retrospect, he realized he should have dropped into the water from a much higher point and so immediately dove deep into the well, but he didn’t know if the well was deep. It was. The water was icy cold and it was much deeper than he had imagined. He rose to the surface and swam for a moment breathing deeply. He took a final breath, dove, and swam straight downward. He had put the flashlight in his trouser pocket; he removed it now and switched it on. He assumed it would not work, or it would only work for a moment in the water, but the light shone dimly in the murky water of the well giving him a few feet of visibility.
He couldn’t reach the bottom. His lungs were burning and he was swimming with only a single hand and time was running out. He had to control his own heart rate. The faster his heart beat, the more oxygen he used, so he needed to calm down. He must act quickly and calmly or all would be lost. He turned back and rose to the surface and gasped for air.
He closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths while dreading water. What he needed was a stone that would quickly carry him all the way down so he could search for Teresa at the bottom. He swam to the wall of the well and inspected the stones.
Irene: Waste of time—No, this one will work.
He put his flashlight into his back pocket and began to wiggle the stone. As it came loose, he hugged it and let the stone carry him deep, deep to the bottom of the well. As he descended, he tried to pop his ears, but he needed one of his hands to hold his nose. His ears were killing him, but he could do nothing until he was at the bottom of the well. He reached it soon enough and turned on his flashlight.
And there she was at the bottom of the well like a fish asleep. She was laying on the bottom of the well and could have been sleeping apart from the current of water that was pulling her hair all to one side. Irene didn’t notice the current at this time, but later he did.
Irene swam to Teresa, grabbed her arm and pulled her upward towards the surface of the water. His lungs were burning for air at this point, but he did not let her go. They reached the surface of the water and Irene gasped for air. He wrapped his arm around Teresa’s neck and tread water behind her keeping them both afloat. If Irene didn’t fill Teresa’s lungs with oxygen soon, all would be lost. He found the end of his rope and pulled Teresa further out of the water and hung there for a moment with one art holding the end of the rope and the other arm holding Teresa’s head out of the water. He dried to catch is breath and his wits. He began to look around and that’s when he say it: a stairway.
Often in old wells, a builder sets stairs into the wall of the well. The stair can be simply some rough stones extending out from the wall of the well. This particular well had an arched stairway built into the wall that could not be seen from the top of the well, which accounted for Irene not seeing the stairs when he made his first assessment and searched for a good bit of rope. These stairs began somewhere underwater and rose to about half-way up the well wall where they terminated in a dark opening, which was possibly a doorway.
Irene let go of the rope and swam to the nearest stair. He let Teresa bob there in the water while he pulled himself upon the stair and then pulled Teresa up after him. There wasn’t much room, but he had space enough to sit Teresa on one stair and lay her head back upon another. This would have to do; there wasn’t time to hoist Teresa to the surface.
Irene began artificial respiration, which was one of the stupidest things he had ever attempted, as his father told him later when he’d heard about the events of the day. Irene straightened Teresa’s neck and mouth to open her airways, placed his hands on her heart and began pushing down forcefully counting one, two, three, and then he stopped her nose with his hand and lowered his mouth to hers to begin forcing air into her lungs.
As he bent down to breathe air into her lungs, Teresa woke up and, well, she attacked is what she did. She shoved him backwards with both hands and, as she did, there was a loud pop and the smell of ozone and burned hair after which Irene fell backwards into the water limp as an electrocuted monkey.
Teresa was disoriented and sat there on the step for a moment trying to catch her breath. Her lungs didn’t appear to be working properly. She bent over and a good deal of water poured out of her mouth. A good deal of water. The water kept coming out and then air flowed in and she took a breath of air and began to cough up some more water. It was a strange sensation, but not painful.
Teresa looked and saw that the boy she’d pushed was floating in the water face down. She was by no means as eager as Irene to help strangers, but she knew the boy needed help soon, so she reached over and pulled him onto the stair. As she reached out both of her hands and pulled him out of the water, she saw sparks and heard a pop. Irene’s body convulsed and he immediately took a deep breath of air. Teresa let go of Irene as soon as he was out of the water.
Irene: Don’t. Don’t touch me. Don’t touch anything. Go up the stairs. Up there.
Teresa: I’m sorry. What happened.
Irene: Let me sit here a moment.
Teresa: What is that smell?
Irene: Ozone, thank god.
Irene: There is oxygen in this well.
Teresa: I thought you said ozone.
Irene: Ozone is an unstable, toxic gas created from oxygen by electric discharge; it has three atoms in its molecule, so O-three or tri-oxygen.
Teresa: Electrical discharge? From where?
Irene: Often old wells will fill up with other gases and if you enter the well, you suffocate. We have oxygen to breathe down here, so that’s one less thing to worry about.
Teresa: Where are we?
Irene: Here, take the flashlight. Why don’t you go up the stairs and see where they lead?
Teresa: Where are we? What happened?
Irene: We fell into a well. Well, you fell; I jumped in after you.
Teresa: That was stupid.
Irene: Yes, I forgot something important. My dad told me, but… I know what he said, but I didn’t understand until now.
Irene: Just go up the stairs and look around. Don’t fall.
Teresa: I don’t want to go.
Irene: Just do it.
Teresa: What about the electricity? I’ve always been afraid of electricity.
Here, Irene laughed, which did him a lot of good but made Teresa feel ashamed; something about the laugh made her certain that he was either laughing at her or laughing at her ignorance, which was the same thing.
Teresa: Don’t laugh at me.
Irene: You have nothing to worry about.
Teresa: I’d rather stay here with you.
Irene: Even if I’m laughing at your face?
Teresa: You aren’t very nice for someone who jumped into a well to save me.
Teresa turned away and looked at the damp well wall; she was probably happy that the well was dark and Irene couldn’t see the annoyed look on her face. She wanted to say something witty and hurtful to regain her self composure.
Irene: My dad asked me to do it.
Teresa: Well, I didn’t!
Irene sat up and looked at Teresa. The look was not sympathetic: he was calculating or analyzing her to better select his next statement.
Teresa: Stop looking at me.
Irene: Do you want to stay in this well or do you want to leave?
Teresa: What kind of question is that?
Irene: A cooperative one? I’m asking what you would like to accomplish so I can help you.
Teresa: I don’t want your help!
Irene made as if he would say three different things but stopped himself each time; his brow creased in thought.
Teresa: You are such a weird boy.
Irene: Your hygiene disgusts me and your eating habits horrify me; in a word, you are the product of a culture I find… repugnant. The one blessing that your culture has produced is the pastel nata, which I grant is a masterpiece, but I’m sure some global franchise will produce the cake en masse, destroy them, and leave you with nothing.
Irene wasn’t sure if he had used the term “en masse” correctly, but it sounded good and maybe Teresa didn’t know the term either.
Irene: Name calling? In the bottom of a well?
Teresa: Are those rhetorical questions? Do you want an answer?
Teresa and Irene glared at one another.
Irene: You are an idiot about some things and yet obviously not an idiot.
This time it was Teresa who laughed and she felt much better for it; she was finally feeling like herself. As she laughed, Irene appeared to realize something and he tried a new line of approach. It was a little theatrical.
Irene: Did I tell you: ozone is an unstable toxic gas created from oxygen by electric discharge? Ozone has three atoms in its molecule, so it is O-three or tri-oxygen.
Teresa: Yes, you told me. Fascinating.