“I don’t see a house over there,” I said as my eyes scanned the wooded area Henry had pointed toward.
Henry let loose a deep laugh that rattled around like it came from the chest of a two-pack-a-day smoker.
“Well, it’s hard to see from here. I live deeper than dead.”
“Deeper than dead?” I asked. That sounded odd to me.
Henry was the elderly caretaker at the small Shadow Grove Cemetery. Today he was clearing some weeds and brush. It was a private cemetery with only 19 headstones, the perimeter lined with masonry blocks about 3-feet high and a wrought iron gate that was never locked. Very few people in the area even knew it existed. Though the cemetery looked hundreds of years old, it was immaculately kept. It was on the State of Illinois list of recognized cemeteries.
Henry stopped working for a moment, setting his rake aside and leaning it against the block wall. Poe, my 9-month-old black lab, saw a squirrel scoot up a tree and began yanking at his leash to give chase. I pulled back.
“What does that even mean?” I asked.
“Just what I said, son. Deeper than dead,” Henry said, mopping his weathered brow with a red handkerchief from his back pocket. His light blue work shirt was already soaked through with sweat. “Come back after the leaves change. The first Saturday in November. I’ll be here and can show you around the place.”
Poe was sniffing around Henry’s work boots, paused, then quickly walked over to me. It was barely 10:00 am and already the unforgiving summer sun was bearing down. The sky was a deep blue for as far as I could see, and I was forced to squint.
“Well, I better get him back to the house before he gets the best of me,” I said, pulling at Poe’s leash.
“Nice to meet you both,” Henry said, smiling as he picked up the rake and continued working in the mounting heat. He was hot and already tired, but he smiled thinking about something his father had always said. Any day above ground is a good day.
It was the first Saturday in November, and Henry found himself nearly done digging a fresh grave at the Shadow Grove Cemetery. At his age, Henry couldn’t work like he had as a young man in St. Louis. He was always a hard worker. Even now, he kept himself in good shape, and, thanks to some strong genes, he was still able to hand dig a grave, even if it took him a couple days.
The sun had only been up for an hour, and looking at his watch, Henry knew there were several more before things had to be ready to go. He could have dug the grave days or even weeks ago, but it had to be just right. He had to follow the way it was supposed to be done. Henry had been keeping track of the days for a long time, so the final hours were going to creep at glacier speed. He had been looking forward to this day, despite his early morning chore of finishing the digging of a new grave at the cemetery.
Poe was a puppy when I first saw the house and property in April. An old family friend told me about it. My realtor informed me about the cemetery, but it wasn’t a concern. I was a real mess back then. My wife Amanda left me suddenly and took our two girls, Madison and Amy, with her. She didn’t even leave a note to explain why. I had to find out from her mother that they were gone. I was worried to death about where they were and how I was supposed to pick up the pieces and move on. It was a living hell. I had overcome obstacles in the past, but this was ripping my heart from my chest.
After four months, I decided it was best to sell our house in Collinsville, Illinois and move several hours away to a more rural part of the state in Clarence, where I had some roots. I hadn’t been back for at least ten years. My uncle Troy lived there, and he used to take me fishing when we’d visit. Clarence is a small, unincorporated town in eastern Illinois, with only 80 residents and not much else. It was surrounded by corn and bean fields. The nearest gas station or grocery store is almost eight miles away. I thought the country air would do me some good to clear my mind and start fresh. Uncle Troy had been gone for years, but I was looking forward to moving to a place where I had little past. It was going to take a dramatic change for me to get used to not having my wife and girls with me.
When Audrey, my realtor, showed me around the ten acres of property that surrounded the small, one-story, two-bedroom house, she pointed out the old cemetery. She said it was private and used by the Glover family, who owned the land originally. Audrey went on to say no one had been buried there for almost one hundred years. She also mentioned there was an elderly caretaker, Henry Washington, who owned the property next door and liked to stay busy and tend to the cemetery. She said he mowed the grass, kept the weeds at bay, and didn’t mind doing it. He never asked to be paid for his work.
There was a noticeable chill in the air. The leaves had been changing for a month, and it was really starting to look like a beautiful Midwestern fall. It made me want to take Poe out for a long walk and work up a hunger for chili and cornbread. Maybe I would do some painting inside the house I had been putting off? The house was 110 years old, and there was always something that needed to be fixed, tightened, or tossed out and replaced.
I welcomed those projects, as I continued to struggle with the loss of Amanda, Madison, and Amy from my life. At five and six, the girls were both at a fun age, and I missed them terribly. My father never spent quality time with me, so I think in some way I was doing what I could to not repeat history. It made it hurt that much worse. Without my family there, the house was eerily quiet, even with Poe barking at squirrels who loved to tease him at the window. At night you could hear him raise hell with the raccoons and possums coming around to look for food outside by the garbage cans.
It was nice to get out in the crisp fall air and go for a walk. We wandered toward the old cemetery, the crunch of leaves under our feet. Henry stood at the gate, waving, and smiling big. I noticed a large spill pile of fresh dirt as we approached. There was a black cloth on a metal frame blocking the view of what was likely an open grave. It appeared to be ready for a small graveside service, which seemed odd, since no one had been buried there for almost one hundred years. I didn’t want to ask questions, as I was fully supportive of Henry’s desire to do the maintenance of the old graveyard, and I was not looking to join the crew. The less I knew, the better. It gave me a bit of the creeps being at the old cemetery, desolate and deep in the woods. Poe seemed to be tentative around the area, especially near Henry. He faintly whimpered as he stood behind me with his head down.
“Good morning to you both!” Henry said, smiling still. He was wearing a pair of black dress slacks and a white button-up shirt like he might have worn to church on Sunday. He even had a red and white polka dot bow tie, tied right and proper. His dress shoes were polished to a high shine.
I stopped about ten feet from the cemetery gate, trying not to look at the new grave. Poe considered it for a moment, then turned his head down. He whimpered again. I had an unsettling feeling in my stomach that slowly crept into my throat.
“Good morning to you as well, Henry,” I said, clearing my throat. “You look like you woke up in a good mood and in your Sunday best!”
Henry laughed. “I did wake up in a good mood. You guys ready to take the grand tour of my home?”
I recalled how he had mentioned touring his home the last time I saw him, to come back in the fall. When you have time after the leaves change. Come by the first Saturday in November. I’ll be here and I can show you around. I also remembered he had referred to his house as being deeper than dead. That struck me as odd then, as it did right now. We approached Henry, and somehow his smiling, wrinkled face gave me a sense of calm. His eyes were a warm brown. I was swept over with a feeling like things were going to be OK. The foreboding cloud I saw at the old cemetery was now fading away. The serenity that seemed to encircle Henry put me at ease.
“Yes, we’d love to see it,” I said. “Poe is a handful today. He’s grown quite a bit since we last saw you.”
“Yes, he has.” Henry said, then turned and began to walk at a brisk pace. “Dogs don’t usually like me much. I’m a city boy.”
“St. Louis, born and raised.”
“Strange. Me, too.”
Henry laughed and kept on walking. We followed the old man along a narrow path that led from the cemetery toward the area that Henry had pointed to in June on the day I first met him. He moved with relative ease and surprising speed for his age. I wasn’t sure exactly how old Henry was, but I would have figured him to be in his mid-sixties or so.
As we followed Henry, the path was winding to the left, then right, then left again to the point that I wasn’t even sure which direction we were facing any longer. The thick trees and vegetation of the forest obscured the sun, making the woods dark – even in the middle of the day. I was oddly compelled to follow the old man as he deftly maneuvered down the narrow path like he had made the journey thousands of times. There was something I couldn’t see pushing me along to see what Deeper Than Dead was. I had no doubt that Henry could probably make the trip blindfolded. Poe kept up with our pace, faithfully behind me. He knew something was amiss, but he continued.
“We’re almost there,” Henry said without turning his head toward me.
Less than a minute later, I saw him stop, then turn around to face me. He was still smiling and didn’t appear to be winded at all from the fast pace he kept, navigating the path like a combat infantryman on patrol. As I approached, I noticed there was a dark mass behind him. It was the base of a huge tree surrounded by vines and dense brush. It was so dark where we were, that it appeared to be dusk, and the temperature was at least ten degrees colder than the cemetery.
I couldn’t think of anything to say. So, I only smiled back, wryly, trying to read his stone poker face. I couldn’t tell a thing from that smile of his, and the sense of ease I had felt before our journey into the woods had since melted away, leaving behind a bundle of raw nerves.
I heard a creaking noise as Henry opened a heavy wooden door that was built directly into the side of a small hill, densely covered in bushes and weeds, flanked on each side by large mature maple trees. I couldn’t see anything beyond the door, yet as Henry passed the threshold, he immediately began descending, as if he were going down a staircase. As I followed him, holding tightly to Poe’s leash, I confirmed he was going down some stairs. Looking beyond, I saw the stairs continue for many feet with no apparent end in sight. Poe hesitated, not wanting to continue. He began to whine, digging his paws into the soft earth outside the door.
“You can tie him to this tree here,” Henry said, pointing to a sturdy branch. “We won’t be long.”
I didn’t like the idea of doing it, but I knew Poe simply wanted no part of going down those stairs. I also was afraid, feeling the anticipation at what was deeper than dead, as Henry had put it. It became a sort of morbid curiosity.
“Watch your step here. You might want to hold the handrail. I told you I lived deeper than dead,” Henry said, letting out a low laugh that echoed on the masonry walls and ceiling of the stairwell.
As we descended, the temperature seemed to increase slightly. I lost count of how many stairs there were, but it seemed like we were at least 100 feet below the ground when Henry stopped at a small landing at the bottom of the stairs. The air was heavy and stagnant.
“How are you holding up?” Henry asked, smiling again.
Sweat was beading up on my forehead. I looked back at the stairway we had just descended and marveled at how far down we had come. It was at least two stories, maybe three. I was amazed that Henry seemed unaffected by everything. No matter how badly I wanted to turn and run, something was drawing me down below.
Henry opened a second wooden door, equally as sturdy as the first one. It creaked the entire way like the door of a crypt. I felt a surge of heat across my face as we went inside. Before me was a dimly lit small apartment. There was an odd smell. It was well-maintained though dated several times over. I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to live in this awful place. It was made completely of concrete - walls, floors, and ceilings. We entered a hallway that continued past a kitchen, a bedroom, and a living room at the end, with a large bookcase, a recliner and small couch. There was a wooden coffee table with two small stacks of very old hardcover books, one of them opened to a page. Looking closer, the pages were blank. I found that very odd. I saw pictures on the walls I assumed were of Henry’s family, at various milestone life moments, making memories together. Oddly, their faces were blurry in each photograph. There was a small lamp on the side table next to the recliner that cast barely enough light to see around the small room. I followed Henry as he sat down in the chair and motioned for me to have a seat on the couch.
“Well, this is what I meant when I said deeper than dead,” said Henry. “They only put them six feet under, but we’re past that.”
I noticed the absolute silence that surrounded us. I felt pressure from every side against my body. It slowly tightened.
I nodded my head gingerly, entranced by all the small knickknacks and details of the room. The fact I could barely see them made things that much more mysterious. There were several clocks on display, yet the times were different on each. Some had no numbers. My eyes darted from one to the other. One was as small as a wristwatch, while others were two feet in diameter. There was an odd clock on a horseshoe-shaped mahogany base with a glass dome above it. I could see a gold frame inside of it with a network of gears, yet I wasn’t sure how it operated with no clear source of power.
There were small figurines scattered throughout the room, mostly on the large bookshelves that claimed an entire wall. Amidst the books were small figures of snakes, reptiles, flies, and bats. Mixed in with the animals were small statues of the devil in a variety of forms, but dark and evil in every pose. Taking it all in left me disturbed and fearful of what Henry Washington had planned.
Henry looked as if he wanted to say something but couldn’t find where he had hidden the words. That was when I felt an obvious shift from a nervous curiosity to a sense of dread and terror. It was as if an invisible entity encircled me, causing this strange feeling in the dynamic of the space. It was some sort of evil.
“We need to have a talk, Edward,” Henry said, and for the first time he was not smiling. He was very serious. Alarmingly so.
“Sure, what’s up?” I replied. How did he know my name? I never told him!
He stood up abruptly and walked over to the other side of the room where it was dark and difficult to see what he was doing. I heard glasses bumping into each other. That sound seemed to trigger a memory. Suddenly I was looking at myself sitting at a kitchen table, slobbering drunk and drinking whiskey straight from the bottle. In front of me, sitting on the table next to the bottle of Calverts whiskey, was a set of car keys.
“Would you like a drink?” Henry said, pouring himself a glass. It was Calverts. I could tell just by the smell of it when he removed the cap.
“No, thanks. I don’t drink,” I replied.
Henry laughed a deep belly hearty growl. “It’s a little late for that, don’t you think?” He handed me a glass anyway.
I didn’t know how to respond and sat there looking at Henry’s eyes. He stared back and seemed to enjoy watching me squirm. Suddenly, I was struck with another flashback. This time I was staggering toward a Bronco with car keys jingling in my hand. Opening the door, I could see my wife, Amanda, in the passenger’s seat, and she was yelling at me. I couldn’t hear what she said, but tears were streaming down her face as she verbally unleashed on me. Madison and Amy were crying in the back. I was backing up the SUV and turning on to a main road, so drunk I could barely see three feet in front of me. Everyone around me was screaming and crying.
“There’s a reason you’re here. I don’t know if you realize that.”
I came crashing back to reality. Sweat was pouring down my face.
“No, I didn’t. What the hell is going on?”
My heart began to race, and my mouth got dry. I took a sip of the whiskey. It burned going down, but it tasted so good. It had been a very long time.
Henry smirked. “Yes, there is a reason. A very good reason.”
I stood up, desperately wanting to get out of that room and from the bizarre underground prison. My anxiety was reaching its absolute limit and I felt like if I stayed there a minute longer, my head would shatter into thousands of tiny pieces.
“I suggest you sit down, or your head will explode,” Henry said, firmly. He sipped his drink.
How did he know about my head feeling like it would explode? I felt a tremendous pressure on my chest, like something large was pushing on me, until I fell back onto the couch.
“What the hell is going on here? I need to leave right now!”
Henry smiled. “I don’t think so.”
I tried with all the strength I had to get up from the couch, but I was unable to move. Something was pushing me back. My head was reeling. My shirt was soaked at this point as I felt the temperature increase slightly.
“Those flashbacks you’re having are the reason you’re here. Your wife didn’t run off and take the girls with her,” Henry said, making eye contact with me. “Your brain is playing tricks on you, giving you something better to consider than what actually happened.”
My head continued to spin as I felt myself sinking into the couch cushions. My heart was beating the inside my chest like machine gun fire. An M-60 with a white-hot barrel. My vision blurred.
“You killed them, Edward. About 15 minutes after you left the house, you ran the Bronco into a deep ditch and flipped it going over 100 miles an hour. They all died at the accident, but you lived on life support for a week before they pulled the plug.”
“What? That’s crazy. How can I be dead?” A strange feeling swept over me.
“You are dead, Edward. That’s why you’re here.”
What he was saying was incredible. I was dead? This had to be a crazy dream I would awaken from, drenched in sweat, but glad it wasn’t real. This made no sense to me at all. Flashbacks continued as Henry explained the story. I remembered the accident and how I had crawled out through the driver’s side window with the Bronco upside down. I could see the scene as if I was flying over it like a bird. I saw both girls lying side-by-side and bloody in the gravel along the shoulder. Amanda must have been inside the SUV. A thin wisp of gray smoke was coming from under the hood. Emergency lights began to fill my vision as the first responders arrived.
Henry stood up and turned on a large flashlight, illuminating the other side of the living room that was in total darkness. The beam of light was fixed on a large, arched wooden door, with tarnished metal bands riveted together for reinforcement, and a large obsidian handle that resembled a serpent’s head. It looked hundreds of years old. Just looking at the door gave me a sickening feeling. I wasn’t sure why, but something told me whatever was on the other side was horrible beyond anything l could imagine. I felt my sanity crumbling.
Henry was staring at me. He knew I was panicking. I continued to try and get up but I was unable to move an inch. The salty taste of sweat wet my lips.
“For your crimes, Edward, you stood trial. Believe me, even the dead have a system of sorting things out. A jury of your peers decided that you were to spend every day of 99 years here, deeper than dead, guarding that door,” Henry said, his voice rising slightly.
“What? 99 years? How is that even possible? I’m already 44!” I cried out. “I don’t remember a trial or a judge or jury! Let me out of this place!”
I craved to put my hands around his throat.
Henry laughed at me as he sipped his whiskey. I was still glued to the couch, unable to budge.
“Don’t you think about choking me. They won’t let you.”
I tried to raise my arms, but I was unable to. Something continued to force them down to my sides. How did Henry know what I was thinking?
“Time moves slow down here. Today my sentence is up. That’s why I woke up in such a good mood, and as you said, put on my Sunday best,” Henry said, beaming.
“You don’t look old enough to have spent 99 years down here? How is that even possible?”
Henry smiled. “They stop at 66 years old. After that, you don’t age anymore.”
I couldn’t think of a response. I stared at Henry.
“Time down here moves a lot different than up there,” Henry said.
My mind was reeling with all the information. It seemed like a nightmare that I would soon awaken from.
“Why does anyone have to guard that door? What’s on the other side of it?” I asked, trembling slightly at the thought of what atrocities it must contain.
“You might not believe it, but it’s a gateway to Hell. That door must never open,” Henry answered, still very serious, his expression intense.
“You’ve been down here for 99 years guarding this door? That’s just crazy! What about when I saw you up in the cemetery? I haven’t seen a guard or anyone else. Why don’t you just run away?” I asked the series of questions in rapid succession.
I was looking around for a way out. I wanted to jump up and punch him repeatedly, but I couldn’t move. I wished I had a gun on me. I would have blown his head clean off.
“I did something just as bad as you did, and I got 99 years like you. They even added more time on top of that. I did every day of it.”
“What about guards? I don’t see any,” I asked.
Henry laughed. “There are no guards. At least that you can see. But they are watching you from everywhere. I mean EVERYWHERE! They let you go up and tend to the cemetery on most Saturday mornings, but above ground breathing is harder. Everything is more difficult to do, and so it’s like your heart and lungs are being fed by whatever is on the other side of that door. You wouldn’t last long running from here.”
“I’d still run. I’d rather die than be stuck down here.”
Henry shook his head. “That’s just it. You wouldn’t die. You’re already dead. They would just add time to your sentence.”
Suddenly I was able to get up from the couch and instinctively ran from the living room. I didn’t know what else to do but get far away from this insanity. Henry barely reacted, slowly rising from his recliner. I staggered down the hallway, my vision blurry, and my head swimming with dozens of scenarios. Most of them were terrible. As I got to the heavy door we had entered, it was locked. I pulled and tugged on the smooth obsidian handle and looked for a lock or other device, but there was nothing I could see, and the door wouldn’t budge. I grunted in frustration and let out a primal scream.
“God damn it, let me out of here!” I pounded the door. I continued beating on the door and screaming.
“They only open that door when you are going up to work in the cemetery. Aside from that, the door is locked,” Henry said, calmly walking down the hallway toward me.
I continued beating on the door and jerking at the handle, despite the fact I knew it was futile. The whole thing just sounded unbelievable to me, and I was in a spiral downward. The next thing I knew, I was going unconscious.
“Edward,” Henry said, standing next to me.
I was in a bedroom. My eyes were fluttering a bit. The room was dimly lit, like the rest of the subterranean apartment. I knew that’s where I was. It had a certain smell to me now, and the aura of the entire place was dreadful and awfully familiar. It reminded me of the dying embers of a campfire after a bucket of water was poured over them. The reality of what was going on began to take a firm hold. I was so weak; I could barely move my head from side to side. I wanted to get up and strangle Henry for bringing me down here.
“This whole place is insane! I haven’t seen any food. Or a bathroom,” I said.
“No need for any of that. Remember, we’re dead. We don’t need to eat or drink. It’s the work of an infernal genius.”
The thought of not eating or drinking was strange. One of the things I loved was my grandmother’s Italian food. Her meatballs and garlic bread were the best. The thought of a single year without her cooking at the holidays was terrible, but 99 years was simply unimaginable! So many ideas were running through my mind I couldn’t keep up. Reels of film from the recesses of my brain were playing clips of those same milestones in Henry’s living room: holidays, anniversaries, graduations, weddings, birthdays, and more.
Things started to go black again. I looked at Henry, sitting at my bedside, smiling. He was ready to leave. I could tell.
“I left a letter with some additional instructions on the coffee table. I hope it helps you. Good luck with your time here,” Henry said as he walked out of the room.
I heard the heavy wooden door close behind him with a thud as I drifted off to sleep once again.
Henry made his way up the stairway at a slow, methodical pace, holding tightly to the handrail. There were exactly 99 steps to climb, denoting the amount of time in his original sentence. The last thing he wanted to do on his departure was fall and injure himself. He wasn’t taking any chances of not making it out of Deeper Than Dead. Henry knew he had quite a journey ahead. He was excited, even though he wasn’t sure exactly how things would turn out. His crimes were heinous, as Edward’s had been. Innocent blood had been shed.
Now the door that led to outside opened, and Henry took deep gulps of the fresh air. Every time he went above ground, he did that same thing, like he couldn’t get it fast enough. This time he noticed his air supply didn’t seem to be less above ground like it had when he tended to the cemetery. He took in big gulps and it felt wonderful. Poe was whining when he heard Henry ascending the steps. He had forgotten about Poe with all that had transpired with Edward. He tried to remember what it was like when he had assumed the duties so many years ago, but everyone deals with it in their own way. It seemed like forever ago. It was a memory he was all too ready to let go of.
Right now, Henry had other things on his mind. He quickly untied the leash that held Poe to the tree and laughed as the dog followed him and didn’t run away. It was likely he was scared being in the woods by himself with lots of unfamiliar noises. Henry thought he had about another hour of sun before dusk would set in and make things hard to find. Yet, for someone who had made the trip so many times, in all types of conditions, he could make his way blindfolded. He was sure of it. As he continued down the path toward the cemetery, Poe lagged but still followed at a distance. Henry forged on and moved with a purpose.
As Henry approached the cemetery, he looked up at the Shadow Grove Cemetery sign above the gate and thought it could have used some touch-up painting. He smiled, thinking Edward would eventually find his way above ground and continue maintaining the very old cemetery. Each of the 19 tombstones that were spread throughout the small graveyard were all previous occupants of the subterranean abode – Deeper Than Dead. Each one had their own story of how they ended up here and what it was like to serve their time.
Henry stood before the fresh grave he had dug himself. He longed for the eternal slumber of the truly dead. He had been stuck somewhere between the dead and the living for so many years, and he was now ready to move on to the next stop on his journey. The judge advised him, when handing down his 99-year sentence, that upon completion of his time, he could cross over to the land of the dead. There was no guarantee he would be admitted into an afterlife, and if so, what kind of life it would be. He heard adults talk about religion when he was growing up, but Henry really didn’t know what to believe. He just knew anything would be better than being deeper than dead for even one more minute.
He crawled down into the hole, slowly pulling at the tarp he had used to set most of the dirt on while he dug the hole. Dirt began cascading down - a cool embrace. It felt good against his skin. Henry began to drift away as the darkness came calling. He was finally moving on.
More dirt fell until he was covered completely. The other residents of Shadow Grove made sure of it. Poe looked on, then walked solemnly back toward Edward’s house.
I staggered down the hallway toward the living room after waking up from a deep sleep. My head was a bit groggy, but things were quickly becoming real to me. Henry was gone. I wasn’t sure where he was or if he was going to come back and check in on me from time to time. Something told me that wasn’t going to happen. I was furious at the situation. Could it be real or just some horrible nightmare?
I walked past the kitchen, which made no sense to me, since Henry said I wasn’t going to need to eat anything. What was a kitchen for? I walked into the living room and pulled up some on the lampshade to cast more light at the large arched door. It looked even more ominous, so I put the shade back in its original place.
Sitting down in the recliner, I gazed around the room. Immediately, I noticed something was different. As my eyes darted from one family picture to another, I realized that now all the pictures were of my own life. They weren’t blurry. Henry’s pictures were gone and now replaced with the ones I was seeing. The books on the shelves were my own, as well as some that were on the coffee table. My things had somehow been put in place of what had been Henry’s for so long.
As my mind desperately tried rationalizing what was going on, I stared at the heavy wooden door with the thick metal bands. I was unable to take my mind off it, wondering what would happen should something from the other side try to get in. I wondered if it could it be so bad deeper than dead that I would choose to leave and enter Hell. I really didn’t know. The only thing I knew for sure was that I had 99 years to figure it out. I put my head in my hands and wept for a long time.