Caked in bloody coal dust, Serge rose to his feet and staggered forward. “My brother’s down there!” Ignoring him, the driver of the Caterpillar unhooked the chain and chugged off the way he’d come. “Dammit!”
The earth shook beneath him. Serge steadied himself on one knee while plumes of smoke belched out of mine #1. The alarm at the brick kiln blared, men criss-crossing the field in a chaotic scramble.
“Serge!” The door to the wench house flew open as he turned toward the familiar voice.
“Phebe.” Seeing his wife, all Serge’s stoic exterior stripped away. Sorrow and passion filled his eyes. Still in her house dress and apron, the full-bodied yet curvy Italian woman he’d married seven years ago took the steps down to him three at a time. “How did you—”
She smothered him with her warm embrace and pulled him into her. He draped his arms over her shoulders and slumped, his tired weight resting on her sturdy frame. It was the routine of their embrace. “I was at the company store when the whistle blew.” She squeezed him. “I just knew it was you.”
“Phebe.” Serge pulled gently back until he looked her in the eyes. “Dino is still down there, with three others.” Fire shattered the windows in the brick kiln behind Phebe, sending both of them to the ground. Flame bloomed out the opening and belched a toxic smoke into the air. Through it all Serge held his wife close, her bottom lip trembling, a twitch in her left eye. It was her tell. Remorse. She’s sorry because she loves him. But does she love us both?
She watched his eyes, husband and wife communicating without a sound. He knew his own face spoke the same feelings as hers. She clutched him tight, lying side by side in the cinder, her face smudged with coal from his clothing. She pulled herself closer and rested her face lightly on his chest. “I’m sorry. We should have spoken sooner.”
The words dug into the crater of his heart, confirming his worst fears. He struggled to drag himself out from under her, to get to his feet, his steely exterior returning.
She clung to him as he rose. “But I ran here for you. When the whistle blew, I came for you.”
He sighed. “I know—”
“What’s going on over here?”
Serge whipped around, rage suddenly smoldering in his eyes. “Lorenzo Vezzoni, you rat bastard. I’ll flay you where you stand if you don’t open that mine.”
“Back off, Marcon. I should have capped it earlier, but your crazy wife started lifting the cage. Lucky for you, I suppose.”
“Dammit Vezzoni!” Serge pushed his finger into the boss’s chest. “There are four men still down there.”
Vezzoni brushed him off. “Look around. The whole damn place is on fire. If we open #4 we’ll be feeding both #1 and #2. I’ve got other miners to look to. If you don’t have any helpful information—”
“Helpful inform—” Serge choked on his rage. “You dirty, lying son of a bitch.”
Phebe tried to intervene, “Serge.”
Serge moved to keep her behind him. “The explosion came from off the map, from the other side of the tailgate.” He stood on tip toes to get into his boss’s face. “So you tell me, Vezzoni. Why the hell is my brother trapped in that mine due to an explosion from a no-go zone?”
For the first time Vezzoni looked more worried than upset. “Look, I’m glad you made it out. You’re a hell of a miner.” Serge started to interrupt, but Vezzoni continued, “And we’ll do everything we can to get your brother out, but we’ve got to get these fires under control.”
While Vezzoni spoke Serge noticed a puff of smoke coming from the remains of a nearby supply shed—a shed that stood directly over the source of the explosion. He turned quickly to Phebe, clutching her by the shoulders. “I know. It’s my fault too. I shouldn’t have locked up my emotions. I should have told you more often—shown you.”
“Serge.” Phebe put her fingers lightly to his face, her eyes confused, grieving already. “What—”
Serge swallowed hard and choked on his words, mere whispers. “I love you.” A distant spark surged to life deep in the hazel brown of his irises as he whipped a vicious elbow into Vezzoni’s chest. With a quick yank he tore the boss’s helmet off and dashed for the smoking shed.