Dustin walked with Steve out to the area of the crack where Mr. Perez had been sitting. He could see that several of the coffins had fallen off their ledges down into it as well. The casket of the architect’s mother had been one of them. Dustin hoped it hadn’t fallen on top of the man killing him.
“Hello!” He called out, bending down towards the darkness of the crack. “Can you hear me Mr. Perez?”
Together they waited a moment, listening.
“I tried that.” Steve muttered as he paced back and forth behind Dustin. “There’s nothing. He’s done gone and falled off into the damned center of the earth.”
“That’s ridiculous.” Dustin snapped back at him over his shoulder. “Now shut up so I can listen.”
Steve stopped pacing.
After a long while Dustin asked: “Do you hear something?”
Cautiously Steve approached his side, bending at the hips to listen. Visibly concentrating on the hole he cocked his head. “Snakes?” He asked.
Dustin righted himself. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard Steve.” He quipped. “Why would there be a cave of snakes under the cemetery?”
“Well I don’t know.” His partner shot back defensively. “Heck man, it sounds like snakes to me.”
Just then Marcus approached. “What about snakes?” he asked as he joined them.
Steve pointed down into the hole. “It sounds like there’s a bunch of snakes down there.” he barked incredulously. “You’ve got to listen really close but I swear, that’s what it sounds like.”
Dustin merely shook his head.
The young groundskeeper bent, listening intently. After a moment he stood up and said. “I’m not going down there if there are snakes.”
“It’s not snakes!” Dustin scoffed. “It more like a low breathing sound.”
“It’s too steady to be breathing man.” Marcus argued. “The boss is right. It’s got to be snakes.”
Dustin put his hands on his hips and regarded them both. “Seriously?” He asked mockingly. “What do you guys think? We’re in Redwood, California not west Texas or Cairo, Egypt. This is not Raiders of the Lost Ark here you know?”
Marcus threw down the rope. “Well you go down there if you’re not afraid of snakes.”
“It’s not that I’m not afraid of snakes.” Dustin sighed. “I just think that it’s dumb to believe that there’s a huge den of snakes beneath this cemetery.”
“I don’t know what else it could be.” Steve said bending to listen again.
Dustin followed his actions, cocking his own head to listen more intently. “Do you think it’s a gas leak?” He asked after a few moments.
Steve straightened, flexing his back muscles as he did so. “No way dude.” He groaned stretching. “My daddy had to clear all of that before he went and got a permit to bury up on this hill. You can’t just go digging graves around gas lines. Everyone knows that.”
Dustin looked up at his from his crouching position. “Maybe it’s one that the city forgot about?” He asked.
“They don’t forget about things like that.” Steve scoffed. “That sound is snakes man.”
In exasperation Dustin stood, pointing down at the hole. “There are no snakes down there Steve.” He quipped. “Maybe it’s not a gas leak but it’s not snakes. I don’t even know why either of you’d even consider that. It’s crazy!”
Marcus motioned towards the length of rope that he’d just thrown down onto the ground. “Why don’t you grab the rope man, if you’re so sure it’s not snakes?”
Dustin looked at the angry face of the boy for a long time. “Fine.” He said.
“No man, wait.” Steve said with a sudden calmness. “Maybe we should get the cops or the fire department to come out here. I mean, even if it isn’t snakes should we really go down there and move the guy if he’s laying on the bottom all busted up and stuff?”
Dustin thought about that for a moment. To him it seemed like the whole scenario was pulling him back into his duties of being the administrator for the funeral home and the one of ultimate responsibility for what went on there. Steve had indeed made a good point to get trained rescue professionals out there to the scene. In fact, it was uncharacteristically insightful for the man.
“To hell with that.” Dustin spat. “I’m not going to stick around here all day long waiting for some kind of massive rescue effort when I can just go get him myself and be on my way.”
Steve frowned. “You still planning on quitting?”
“Yes.” Dustin replied raising his eyebrows for emphasis. “I’d probably be on my way out the gates right now if you hadn’t let this Perez guy run back in and sit in the hole with his dead mother.”
His partner shook his head. “You ain’t going nowhere dude.”
“Jesus Steve!” Dustin shouted in frustration. “Why is this so hard for everyone to see? I’m moving on. It’s time. I’ve been in this exact same position before and I knew it was time to go. I’ve lost the ability to care or be effective anymore. I’m done here. I can’t say it any more simply than that.”
“Well.” Steve said putting his hands in his pockets and rocking back and forth on his heels. “You can’t leave because I need you here.”
“Doesn’t matter.” Dustin snapped.
“If you take one of the hearses, like I was told your was going to do, I can track you.” Steve smirked. “They’ve all got GPS and I can see where they are at all times on my cell phone. That was your idea, remember?”
Dustin sighed. “I’m not stealing a hearse.” He said wearily. “That’s stupid. You know I’ll bring it back.”
Steve shook his head. “If you take it without me letting you, then you’re stealing it.”
“Whatever, Steve.” Dustin replied simply.
After a short silence, Marcus interrupted. “Are you going to go in to there or not?”
“Yes!” Dustin shouted.
Marcus balled his fist. “You’re scared too aren’t you?” He said defiantly. “Maybe not of snakes but you’re still scared.”
In truth, Marcus was right. Dustin was a little frightened of descending down into the hole but it wasn’t because of snakes. For one, he didn’t trust either the boy or Steve to hold onto the rope with enough confidence or care to keep him from slipping down into the abyss. He also was concerned about what he might find. The sound was one thing but the thought of getting to the bottom only to discover Mr. Perez dead and covered in rotting corpses wasn’t something that he wanted to endure.
“Did you grab a flashlight?” He asked Marcus instead, taking up one end of the rope as he .
“Here.” The young groundskeeper said pulling one from his back pocket.
Dustin took it. It was bright yellow and grease stained. “Thanks.” He said.
Steve, who had spent a good deal of time fishing on boats when he should have been tending to the funeral business, helped Dustin tie a knot to secure around his waste. As they tested it, both he and Marcus took up the other end serving as its anchor. With a deep breath, Dustin gently lower himself down onto the ledge where the architect had been sitting. The dirt felt moist.
Looking up Dustin was surprised at how far away the pair already seemed. “Don’t drop me.” He said with an increased sense of earnestness.
Steve winked. “I should but I won’t.”
Marcus simply stared right through him.
“I’ll shout up to you when I’m ready to be pulled up.” Dustin said, still standing with his back to the precipice.
“If you’re down there too long,” Steve replied with a grin. “I’ll haul your ass back up without you having to yell.”
“Fair enough.” Dustin nodded.
Turning to face the hole, he lowered himself down to a seated position at the lip. Next to him, he could see the indentations that Mr. Perez had made sitting at the edge. There were hand prints and spots where the earth had been raked and piled up in various patters which belied the absent minded boredom that had created them. Looking at them, Dustin became aware for the first time that the architect had been his responsibility and he’d failed in looking after the man.
With these thoughts tugging at his mind Dusting slowly pushed forward, over the mouth of the drop off. He felt the rope go tight around his shoulders and waist as Steven and Marcus pulled back the tension from above. For a moment, he dangled there, looking down wide-eyed into the darkness. Then, the men above began to lower him slowly and as he was swallowed up by the earth his demeanor calmed.
Switching on the flashlight he swung its arc of light back and forth below him kicking gently off the wall with each length of rope the men released. As far down as he could see there was nothing. At his sides was dirt and more dirt. Roots, some alive and some petrified sprung out at various points along his descent like skeletal fingers.
He was unaware just how far below the lip he’d traveled until he heard Steve’s voice calling down from above. “How’s it going dude?” His partner asked, the sound of his words distant and muffled.
“Fine.” Dustin shouted upward. “I haven’t seen anything yet.”
“Well we’re running out of rope.” Came the reply. “We’ve got maybe thirty feet left.”
“Drop me down another twenty.” Dustin shot back. He wanted to see as much of the hole as he could but he didn’t want to risk them losing their grip on the rope and not having enough slack to catch it again.
Slowly, he continued being lowered.
Ten feet down, the edges of the hole vanished leaving him dangling without purchase in midair. Dustin swung wildly back and forth casting the beam of the flashlight in every direction as he tried to steady himself.
Dutifully, Steve called down to him once more. “Is everything okay down there man?” He asked with a little alarm.
“Fine.” Dustin spat back in an uneasy tone. “I’m okay. I’m just in some kind of cavern right now and I can’t find the walls.”
“I thought you’d been attacked by snakes.” Steve replied. After a moment he added, “We’re gonna go ahead and start pulling you back up. This was a dumb idea.”
“Hold on!” Dustin said.