15.1 The Miner's Tale - Continued

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Billy's father paused for the first time since beginning. He drew in a breath that seemed to last forever, pulling the air in the room down under the bed, and I bit back the compulsion to tell him to stop, to save some for the rest of us.

There was plenty of oxygen to spare.

Of course there was.

Of course.

Thirty minutes later, the gate opened for the last time. Hot air belched into the cage where Carl stood alone with Mike and Gabriel.

"Home sweet home," said Mike.

"Indeed, amigo. Indeed."

"This weather, don't it just remind you of Méjico?"

"I'm from Texas, pendejo."

"Same difference."

The pair stepped off without looking back. Carl thought of staying right where he was, fuck you and fuck you and fuck the basement, he'd find himself another job, one out in the sun where he could get a tan while he worked. He'd build houses, cell towers, anything. Who cares if he was terrified of heights?

The gate started to close.

Carl slipped out.

Loading Station F, or Level F, was a tenth the size of the level above it and one hundredth the size of Loading Station A. Its craggy walls were braced by tinder beams. Carl could hear those beams creaking sometimes. Sometimes he could hear them creaking when they weren't. Around the shaft a cluster of LEDs hung from the low ceiling. Too many lights, too bright. They scrubbed the dark out like a germ, cleaned each and every nook of shadows. That was unnatural. That was dangerous. A man works under those lights long enough and he forgets where he is. He lets his guard down and one day the power goes off and he's gone, not a man anymore, not even a human, just a piece of nothing digested inside the guts of the mountain.

A driller blocked the way. Carl squeezed by it to find Gabriel sitting on the explosive's safe and idly swinging his legs. Across from him was Level F's solitary Porta-Potty. Carl could hear some grunting going on in there. Not to mention other sounds.

"Be a pal, Rascal, and open this thing." Gabriel kicked the safe's heavy black door with his heel. "Dear Mike is all blocked up inside. He requires a wee pop to clear things up."

"Get off," said Carl.

Gabriel smiled and went on swinging his legs, beneath his skinny ass enough ANFO to launch him to the surface of the mountain. There was a safe like this one on every level of the mine but the basement, which could hardly be called a level at all, and the combination for each safe was known only by one man (except for old asshole McCormick, the overseer, who had the combination to all of them). Carl was one of the lucky few chosen. Why was that? Not out of respect. And certainly not trust. No. He was picked because he had spent thirty years at Blackstone's heels, following the company across the country like a good little doggie, and so what if that good little doggie wet the rug once in awhile? That's what rolled-up newspapers and deep, deep underground digs were made for.

Carl turned away from Gabriel and the safe. There'd be no explosions today, unfortunately. The boom work, as his father used to call it, had all been finished last evening. What remained now was the dead work, a week straight or more of pickaxe-ing and wheelbarrow-ing, of moving rubble from point A to point B in the hope of finding something that glittered behind the rock.

Carl sat down in the transpo cart parked at the tunnel's entrance. He pressed a button to start the electric motor.

"Hey," Gabriel shouted, "that's our ride."

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