“Deeper Than Hell” by Josh Millican
Chapter One (Main Page)
The thing most people don’t understand about Heroin is: It’s not about the quality of pleasure; it’s about the absence of pain.
People think I’m a selfish fuck-up who traded my friends, family, and future for a fleeting rush. But pleasure’s just the bait on the hook. The real magic of Heroin is how it makes all my fears and anxieties, no matter how crippling, dissolve into Warm Oblivion. The truth is, I would’ve killed myself years ago if it wasn’t for Heroin—not because the drug’s so awesome, but because life without it’s completely unbearable. From a spiritual perspective, Heroin kept me from committing the mortal sin of suicide.
Which is ironic, considering I’m about to meet God.
I’ve always been unusually susceptible to the ravages of non-physical pain, but nothing mattered after I buried the plunger. Not the bullies who beat me or teachers who never gave a fuck; not the beautiful liars who gaslit me, swearing they were true and I must be crazy for being so jealous; not the devastation of treachery among friends, or infiltrators practicing divide and conquer; not the lust of money that seems to trump loyalty at every turn, the backroom dealings and inter-tribal gerrymandering; not the guilt of never living up to my parents’ expectations, the taunting torture of missed opportunities, or the never ending punishment of regret; the permanence of grudges, the inability to let sleeping dogs lie, the abject terror of looking at my face in the mirror… None of it matters in the Warm Oblivion, that netherworld of waking dreams and dreamless sleep.
The incriminating abscesses, the weight loss, the sunken eyes, even the subtle reek of slow decay—it’s a small price to pay for absolute freedom. Sure, fear of sickness is an inevitable and serious motivator for me, but that’s always secondary to keeping a tidal wave of emotional agony at bay.
Now, tourists on the Las Vegas Strip accidentally abandon thousands of dollars in slot machines every day; then there’re the hundreds of dropped chips, forgotten ATM cards, and misplaced purses and backpacks. It’s never taken me more than a day to scrape together enough for a fat wad of tar and a 2-liter bottle of Mt. Dew—and that’s without begging or robbing. It’s like, the Gods of Vegas understand junkies are an inevitable byproduct of vice, and that we play a vital role in this artificial ecosystem (like insects clearing debris from forest floors). And in turn, Sin City provides, ever kind to the symbiotic scavenger (so long as he abides by the unwritten bylaws).
I was one of hundreds living in the tunnels beneath the City; it’s an intricate system built to protect casinos from flash flooding. A lot of cities have them. A news article in 2008 turned this particular maze into something of a countercultural hotspot attracting all kinds of temporary residents: Guerilla campers, Burning Man devotees, Slab City evictees, neo hobos, college dropouts, conspiracy theorists, teenage utopists, economic refugees, anarchist affinities, punk rock collectives, parole violators, domestic violence escapees, gender nonconformists, urban explorers, and repeat alien abductees (among many others).
The population thinned when the economy hit its upswing in 2012, but the resulting infrastructure remained: An active subterranean shantytown for the full-timers. There’s a guy who fixes shoes, and a guy who recharges batteries, and a guy who sells hoodies; there’s a guy who always has extra belts and a guy who passes out cups of bleach; there’s even a guy who sees to all your spiritual needs, should you have any.
The only thing that’s not for sale down below is sex. It’s not because people don’t fuck, but because the organized commoditization of sex is strictly an above-ground activity. Because the Gods of Vegas know what really keeps the tourists coming back. When you get down to it, every guy just wants a big win and a hot fuck. Jackpots are rare, but pussy’s always at your fingertips. Hiding it, forcing people to go underground to get it—that would be the real crime. That would be an insult.
Drew was something of a local celebrity in the tunnels. The first thing everybody noticed was his surprisingly upbeat attitude (especially for someone living in the hardcore fringes). He had a great personality and natural good looks, despite being as much of a junkie fuck as anybody. Drew didn’t beg, borrow, or steal, but he was never lacking in the necessities (those being Heroin and her corresponding paraphernalia).
He got checks twice a month at a PO Box he rented at Kinko’s, but no one knew where they came from. There was a persistent rumor, probably started by Drew himself, that he’d been part of a one-hit-wonder power-punk band in the mid-2000’s—or a teenybopper boy band. “They were huge overseas,” someone told me, “mostly in Japan and Korea.” Another popular theory was that he was on disability for some seizure disorder, a condition all but cured by his near constant Heroin use. Other posited explanations included: Section 8 benefits, a secret trust fund, and payments for work as a police informant. But part of Drew’s mystique was that he never actually carried cash on his body. “He’s got stashes of money and Heroin hidden all over the City,” someone told me.
He’d been living underground since the heyday, so I was lucky he took me under his wing. As easy as it is to fill your belly and your veins in Vegas, going solo is a dangerous game. It doesn’t matter how big or intimidating you are, loners are easy targets (and I’m not big or intimidating). So he had my back and I had his, from Day 1. We’d watch for interlopers, share food, cut each other’s hair—we’d even spoon on those nights Drew said were “colder than a bitch’s tits!” We shared a hovel built out of plywood and discarded chain-link; it had a burn barrel out front, a couple hammocks strung between the walls, and a crash mattress on the floor.
Just about every night, after slamming, we’d settle in for Story Time. It was a perfect mix with the Warm Oblivion! The tone and timber of his voice was hypnotic.
“Hey Sonny, you ever heard of the Cave of Letters?” he asked me on my first night underground. “Back in the 1st Century, the Romans went to the Holy Land to slaughter all the Jews, right, and they built this huge military outpost in the mountains. Now, just recently, archeologists discovered an opening under the city that led to an entire cave system. It turns out, this one tribe of Jews escaped underground to avoid the Romans—and no one knew about it! They found living quarters, and kitchens, and Temples, and even pens for livestock. They only found a few bodies, but at the deepest levels, they found passageways that had been completely sealed off. Now let me ask you this: Do you think all those people just died off or, maybe came up someplace else? Fuck no! Obviously, they moved down even deeper, and they sealed the tunnels so no one could follow them. It’s not impossible to think they’re still alive down there, all these generations later, completely removed from the surface. Why wouldn’t they be? Now think about this, Sonny: If archeologists just discovered the Cave of Letters a few years ago, how many other underground societies do you think are out there? That can’t possibly be the only one.”
I fucking loved Story Time! If Drew wasn’t completely lost in his own Warm Oblivion, he’d slide seamlessly into another one, like: “Hey Sonny, did you know the Pyramids are as deep as they are tall? …” or “Have you heard about the so-called ‘Mole People’ of New York City?…” or “Do you know the legend of the Minotaur?…” or “Let me tell you about the myth of Persephone…”
We lived in the open space about 150 yards down one of the main runoff channel, just south-east of the Strip; it’s a sizable chamber, a convergence point for dozens of drainage pipes. At night refracted flashes of neon still manage to find their way inside. It’s mostly inhabited by other addicts, and we organized ourselves like tribes based on drug of choice. Heroin heads and pill poppers just want a quiet, comfortable place to shoot and crash. We cluster along the east wall in a series of sheds and shanties. You can always find a lit burn barrel to warm up beside, or a couch to flop on. So many old couches have been dragged down there you could reconstruct Stonehenge with them. Picture it.
Crack heads are generally older folks in their 40’s and 50’s; Cold War ‘throwbacks’ from the pre-meth era. They keep to themselves for the most part, sometimes forming small circles to cook by campfire, or to watch sports on TV. Despite common stereotypes crack heads are a generally mellow bunch. Still, a lot of people consider them subhuman; lost causes, irreparably damaged, feeble minded; constantly picking up pebbles, more akin animals or creatures than people; slaves to the strict commandments of a lesser god.
Meth heads make up the largest tribe by far, and it sucks because they’re the ones you really need to watch out for. They never sleep, which means they never stop spinning. Some of them cook product, polluting the already stagnant air with nauseating plumes of Sulphur and ammonia; some of them film pornos for money (a loophole in the unspoken sexual commerce laws). Every other night’s a nonstop cacophony of feuding, fighting, and fucking. Meth heads are prone to violence, exasperated by audio and visual hallucinations linked to sleep deprivation. Everything about them’s toxic. I’ve seen stabbings, rapes—even a full-fledged riot that sent us running for our lives amid gunshots and Molotov cocktails.
The chaos reaches critical levels a few times each year. But then, like clockwork, the floods come. It’s like the Gods of Vegas feel our plight, sending roaring, baptismal waters as a means of purification. The City gets an enema, and out comes months of shit; actual shit, yes, but also thousands of used condoms, hundreds of shopping carts, tangles of clothes and needles, islands of debris, vermin (both dead and alive), and some things you don’t even want to know about. Inevitably, the floods push out a human body or two, sometimes fresh, sometimes skeletal, usually somewhere in between; someone who overdosed in a corner and went unnoticed, or a well-stashed murder victim, perhaps. Could have been me one day, if I had stayed.
Building a new shanty after floods takes some effort, and usually means sleeping on cement for a few days. But there were times, in the immediate aftermath, when our spot felt fresh and spacious; a magical catacomb with fires casting shadows in every direction. It was a perfect backdrop for the Warm Oblivion. Sometimes it got so quiet we heard voices coming from other tunnels miles away; sometimes we heard music. Eventually, inevitably, the meth heads would return in mass to destroy an otherwise peaceful vibe—until the next big storm.
“Hey Sonny, you ever heard about the Prehistoric Superhighway? There are caves that go from Northern Ireland all the way to Turkey and they’ve barely been explored. They’re filled with torches, and tools, and paintings that go back to the Stone Ages.” Drew loved living underground, like it was noble; like he was connecting to a primitive and enlightened state of existence; a deliberate, spiritual lifestyle. This was his Walden. “These tunnels right here, they lead to their own superhighway. You can get anywhere in the City, Sonny Boy, and that’s just the beginning.”
It took years and years to complete the networks under Vegas. Offices were built for construction supervisors and city planners, then abandoned when work in a particular sector wrapped up; some of them even had bathrooms and sleeping quarters. Finding an empty one was like winning the lottery, but Drew considered himself lucky. “I’ll find us a place, Sonny Boy: A place with electricity, and running water, and a door to keep these crazy fuckers out of our business. We’ll make a big score and shoot for days at a time, not a care in the world. We’ll be set, Sonny Boy!” I hated it when he called me “Sonny Boy”; not because he was 5 years younger than me, but because that’s what my dad used to call me. I hated my dad.
I also kind of liked it when Drew called me “Sonny Boy”.
From the front porch of our shanty, the tunnel’s wide open mouth looked about the size of a grapefruit. I liked that I could always see it, even after I kicked the preliminary jitters of living underground. I liked knowing it was there—just in case I needed it. It was a reminder that the world still existed, no matter how far into Warm Oblivion I drifted. I never wanted to go so far deep I couldn’t see my way out.
Sometimes, after an especially big or pure hit, I’d start getting literal tunnel vision; like, black clouds gathering in my periphery, closing in. To keep from panicking, I’d focus on the entrance, like it was a beacon, and as long as I could see it everything would be okay. Sometimes, the clouds would get so thick that the opening was just a pin prick, a single star in a pitch black sky. Sometimes it felt like I was trapped in the icy grip of something paralytic, a succubus sucking the breath right out of me. Those times, when the haze finally receded, I’d be gasping for air and Drew (bless his heart) would be slapping my chest.
“Easy there, Sonny Boy! Don’t you leave me, now!” He had an awesome smile, like a beacon.
Drew was infinitely more adventurous than me. He’d go on days-long excursions underground, re-emerging with new material for Story Time (and a strong hankering for Heroin). He told me, for example, about a subway system that ran from the airport to Groom Lake and Area 51. He told me that some of the bigger, newer hotels had dozens of sublevels teeming with extremely illegal activities (like bestiality and live snuff), all catering to extremely wealthy psychopaths. He told me there was a mirror image of The Luxor, a reverse pyramid, directly below it, meaning the hotel is actually an 8-sided diamond.
Over the years, he’d come home with some doozies, like: Satan cults and white slavery circuits, drug factories and operating rooms for the surgical harvesting of organs; death merchants and serial killers—even trolls! To be fair, Drew never claimed to have seen any of these things; usually it was something he’d heard from someone who’d been living underground since way back when. But Drew believed it. “There’s some seriously crazy shit going on down there, Sonny Boy. Never doubt it.”
On that last day, I was sitting in a lawn chair on the “front porch”, chin on my chest, cruising through some mid-afternoon W.O., when I felt someone kicking my foot. I fought through the confusion of semi-consciousness and focused on a white guy with cornrows in his hair, dressed in a track suit. He was talking to me.
“Are you talking to me?” I asked him, continuing to emerge for the Warm Oblivion.
“I said, ‘Where the fuck is Drew at?’!”
Reflexively, I scanned the back of our shanty. “He’s not here,” I told the guy, who also sported a silver grill on his front teeth. The ensemble identified him as one of Thaddaeus’s boys. Drew had previously explained that the “matching uniforms” made it harder for cops to pin specific crimes on specific goons, and someone was always willing to take a rap for Thaddaeus.
“Yeah, no shit, Sherlock!” From his vantage point, he could see perfectly well that I was alone. “When’s he coming back?”
“I don’t know.” It was true, I didn’t.
“You tell him Thaddaeus wants him topside now! Bellagio.”
Thaddaeus and Enrique were the only two Heroin dealers in our little corner of Vegas. Enrique sold China White, catering almost exclusively to rock stars, actors, and socialites—above ground all the way. Thaddaeus was the dealer for the rest of us, a slinger of the “Cheap & Strong”, a working class business man who held regular hours, selling out of his car. He’d park at different casinos on different days to mix things up, but his posse always knew where to find him (and they were easy to spot, another benefit of the unified dress code).
Drew got home a few hours later, somewhat out of breath.
“One of Thaddaeus’s boys was looking for you.”
“He said Thaddaeus wants to see you. He said meet him at the Bellagio.” Drew sat down on the floor mat, pulled gear out of his pocket, and started prepping. It was as if what I just told him didn’t even register. After a minute or so, I prodded: “So what’s up with that, with Thaddaeus?”
“Fuck if I know.”
“His boy seemed serious.”
“Look, Sonny, I don’t know what dude wants and I don’t care if his panties are in a twist. I’m almost ready to shoot. You coming?”
“Of course,” I said, sitting down beside him to cook up my own. Back into the Warm Oblivion we dove. I remember it was a good batch, the kind that puts a sweet metallic tang in the back of your throat; I slumped into weightless.
“You know what a vision quest is, Sonny? It’s part of most indigenous cultures: A coming of age ritual where a young man goes off by himself into the wilderness, sometimes after eating peyote. There was a tribe right around here that sent their young men on vision quests, but not in the desert—underground, into caves that ran beneath the mountains. And these teenagers, these kids, would spend days creeping through them. Sometimes, the corridors would be so tight, they’d have to crawl on their bellies. The only light was from these lamps that were just leaves filled with oil. They’d find these tight crevasses, barely big enough for a single person, and spend days on elaborate paintings, knowing full well no other human eyes would ever see them. No human eyes. And they always painted the same thing: The Great God, The God of the Hunt with huge horns; The God of Meat! That’s what I’m doing when I go down there, Sonny Boy. I’m looking for God.”
“Yo, mother fucking Drew!” It was Thaddaeus, coming right towards us with three of his boys—totally interrupting Story Time. I remember thinking the posse looked semi-comic, like a group of mismatched clones: Fat, tall, Chinese, Ginger; each sporting cornrows, track suits, and chrome grills. “Why you been ducking me, junkie fuck? This shit’s serious!”
Was this really happening? I was in such a deep Heroin hole I thought I might be dreaming. Drew popped up to intercept Thaddaeus and crew before they got too close to the shanty. Thaddaeus was pissed and Drew was making a series of gestures, trying and soothe him. But Thaddaeus would not be appeased.
“That’s bullshit, Drew, and you know it. Did you really think you could fuck me?”
Thaddaeus slapped Drew. I think I actually laughed out loud (for a split second) because it was that ridiculous, improbable, and unfathomable; like a sitcom moment. But Drew was calm—calm and strong; he stood his ground. “You need to chill the fuck out, Thaddaeus.”
Thaddaeus slapped him again, and then again. Then, his boys surrounded Drew and held his arms behind his back. Then Thaddaeus started punching Drew in the gut. Was this really happening? Drew pulled this WWE move, reared up, and gave Thaddaeus a double kick to the chest. Everyone broke into a melee. Was this really happening? Then I heard a gun shot. And then I heard another gun shot.
I got on my feet, and shook off every last bit of Warm Oblivion. I didn’t know whose gun it was, or who fired the shots—but Drew was holding it now, and one of Thaddaeus’s boys had a hole in his head. The remaining five of us froze as our immediate neighbors made b-lines for the exit.
“You done fucked up now, bitch!” Thaddaeus declared as Drew alternated pointing the gun at him and his two goons.
“Drew,” I had a humiliating squeak of a voice. “What’s going on?”
“I got this, Sonny. Just grab your gear. We’re going.”
“How far you think you gonna get, bitch?” asked Thaddaeus.
He didn’t answer because he didn’t have time to: One of Thaddaeus’s boys, the fat one, grabbed Drew by the hair and held a knife to his throat. I started having an out of body experience, and, as I floated upward, I saw myself spring into action like a football player. I rammed my skull directly into the goon’s bloated spine, and the knife went flying.
“Hold him!” Drew screamed, and I did, but the fucker was over 300 pounds and just rolled over on me. There was another gun shot. And then another. The ethereal Sonny crashed back down into my physical body, and I was drenched in blood and piss as the fat fuck went limp. Drew rolled him off, pulled me to my feet, and slapped the knife into my hand. We were facing off against Thaddaeus and his only remaining goon.
Unbelievably, Thaddaeus released a triumphant blast of laughter.
“That gun only had four bullets,” he informed us as he pulled another one out of his waistband. “But this one right here’s got six!”
Drew aimed at Thaddaeus and pulled his trigger: Click.
If only Thaddaeus and his gun had been standing behind us, we might have sprinted outside and up an embankment to a busy street—someplace public where Thaddaeus wouldn’t dare kill us. But that’s not what happened; Thaddaeus and his gun (and his one remaining goon) were standing between us and the exit. When Drew suggested we run, there was only one way to go: In; down; deep.
The very prospect terrified me, but not as much as an angry Heroin dealer with a gun. So we ran, side by side, straight into the darkness. I heard two bullets whiz over our heads before a third clipped my ear.
“He shot my fucking ear off, Drew!”
“Keep running.” He grabbed my left hand. “I know where I’m going.”
Soon we were beyond the lights of the campfires and burn barrels; I looked over my shoulder and saw the opening reduced to a pin prick before it disappeared completely. At that point, it didn’t matter if my eyes were opened or closed, so I let Drew pull me downward like a rag doll; down into a blackness more complete than anything I’d ever felt in the Warm Oblivion.
That might have been months ago, or maybe it’s been years. Time moves differently down here. Drew’s still with me, though not in the physical sense (and maybe not as good looking as he used to be). It’ll take a lot more than death split us up, that’s for damn sure! He’s been here every step of the way: To the bottom of the rabbit hole and through the 9 circles of Hell: My light and my guide into the Realms of the Old Ones. I never could have made it without him.
I barely even dream about the outside anymore, about the surface. I’m exactly where I need to be.
And I’m about to meet God.