The sour taste thick on his tongue spoke to his subconscious mind, which in turn chiseled the message methodically into his consciousness. After damp. Thus, Serge Marcon’s mind knew what had just happened deep within the belly of mine #4 seconds before his body awoke to the sensation of being buried alive. Eyelids twitching under a pile of debris, the chisel of his thoughts continued to etch messages onto the surface of his mind: Another minute and you’ll be dead; move you arms, your legs; get up!
With a serge of electricity his body began to pulse and throb. He gasped for breath, managing a short gulp of acidic air that burned his lungs with too much carbon dioxide. In sporadic seizures he tore at the shattered rock and crumbling bituminous coal enveloping him, until he jerked his head and arms free.
Gulping awkwardly for breathable air, he yanked his body from the heap and flopped a short way to the debris-scattered floor of the mine. A cool breeze lapped against his face. He drew a long, raspy breath—burdened with coal dust but breathable. Finally his consciousness rebooted. Dino. With gritty effort he opened his eyelids. “Dino!” He coughed and spit his brother’s name into the pitch black storm of dust and gases broiling around him.
He fumbled with his carbide head lamp, but it was dead just like the string of electric lights that had been buzzing gently right up until the earth above them collapsed. They’d been working the longwall when the earth shook. Serge had been closest the maingate while Dino had been working his pick several feet further down the face.
Serge gritted his teeth and forced the noxious air deep into his lungs before he clambered cautiously to his feet. “Dino!” The air near the ceiling was sweltering, several degrees warmer than at the floor. And the temperature appeared to be rising fast. Serge begged his left leg forward, but it hitched as he stumbled onto the pile of rubble that had collapsed through the roof supports.
For the first time he felt a sharp pain emanate from his core, radiating into every extremity. “Dino, I’m sorry.” He thumped his fist weakly against a clump of shale. So hot. His fist and neck spasmed as he began gulping again. Get out! Instinct clawed at his thoughts.
He tumbled to the floor and snorted in an effort to clear his airway of coal dust. Swallowing the slurry, he tasted something new in the trickle of darkened mucous, rotten eggs—hydrogen sulfide. Dammit.
He scrambled several feet on hands and knees, his left leg still grabbing awkwardly. The timer in his head told him to get out. He had to get to the damp sheet separating the longwall from the maingate. Muscles screaming for oxygen, hands thrust blindly before him, he lurched down the shaft with his eyes closed against the stifling blackness.
Misjudging the distance to the manway, he careened off a jagged rock wall and stumbled over steel rails used for coal carts. Before he could hit the ground the smothering air of mine #4 burst into flame.
Pitching him head over heals and rolling his battered body along the rails, the firestorm licked every breath of moisture from his skin while tossing him against a stone pillar. Lying there on his back, he watched the blue flames dance and roll on the ceiling, waiting for an orange tongue to shoot down and consume him.
Demons and ghosts appeared in the mesmerizing liquid-blue fire—memories, regrets. Dino. Phebe, I love you. And in that singular moment Serge wondered if these same haunting flames had been the last thing his father’s eyes had beheld before he died.