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Charlie woke with a start, his whole body shaking as he coughed. He wiped his mouth, hastily rubbing the dark residue on his pants. Pale light filtered through the cracks in the one room shack. On the other side of the room, his mother slept restlessly while his father silently pulled on his boots. Charlie gazed beside him in the small bed at his baby sister who slept soundly. Charlie slid out from under the thin blanket they shared and tucked it around her small form. He mimicked his father’s actions as he put on his boots and carefully crept out the door.
Outside, people bustled by duly, still drowsy from sleep and reluctant to hurry to work. Charlie parted with his father as they trekked in opposite directions, Charlie to the mine and his father to the mills. In the grey morning, the shacks seemed like dark shadows and the apartments behind them appeared as giants or mountains. Charlie imagined he was on some great quest, killing his enemies, when his friend Travis’ voice cut through his thoughts.
“Get your morning paper! Fresh off the press! May 6, 1901! Morning paper! News in London! Hear what’s happening! Morning paper!” He waved at his friend as he passed. Charlie could already hear Travis’ voice starting to crack from the strain of yelling. Charlie was sorry his friend’s voice hurt, but he knew Travis needed a job to support his family. Charlie needed a job too, he had turned twelve last summer and was a man now. He was old enough to get a job to buy food for his baby sister.
“Charlie, you’re nearly late.” The gruff supervisor always seemed to glare, but Charlie smiled at him.
“Mornin’, Jacks,” the man huffed as Charlie made his way to the other miners. Some were kids slightly older than him, but most were adults. Charlie looked positively miniature beside the grown men. He had always been small, with knobbly knees and slim features, but he supposed that was how he got his job. He could fit into almost any space in the mines and the cramped holes didn’t bother him. He mingled for a moment with the other workers, then on Jacks’ signal, they filed into the dark caves.
Charlie spent the whole day crawling in tight spaces and hauling mud. The work was grueling, and during the brief lunch break, Charlie relished the sun, even though it was but a watery disk in the ever dismal Northumberland sky. He sighed deeply, appreciating the fresh air and open space. While he didn’t mind small spaces, he didn’t necessarily like them either. A cough racked his body, making him gasp for air.
“Thomas, I don’t like him working in the mines. It isn’t safe. Another accident happened nearby his mine. I don’t want him hurt. Can’t he get a job at the mills with you?” Charlie could hear his mother’s cry the moment he reached the door. He pressed his ear on the door, but his father’s response was muffled and quiet. The sun had set, dark shadows fell across the street, and Charlie found himself far less excited to battle them than he had in the morning. He was tired. He pushed open the door, pulled off his shoes and stumbled into bed. His mother gasped and tutted in disapproval, “Charlie, you’re filthy. At least wash up a bit before you sleep, you’ll get your sister dirty, not to mention the bed.”
Charlie stared at his mother, realizing she was serious. He hastily brushed off as much dirt as he could and used a stained towel to wipe his face and arms. He looked at his mother expectantly. “That's much better,” she beamed. “Now to bed with you.” Charlie shrugged and rolled back into his cot and passed out.
Charlie woke coughing, and his day began again. The mines had flooded during the night. No one had been hurt, but the work for that tunnel had to be delayed. In the new tunnel the ring of pickaxes shook the caverns. Charlie didn’t use an axe in the mine shafts, he was too weak and better suited for moving debris. He had always admired the men with pickaxes though. They swung nonstop all day, crushing rocks and loosening coal. Charlie liked watching the sparks from the axes; they shone in the tunnels and reminded him of fireflies. Although he enjoyed watching them fly when the axes hit rock, he also knew that the sparks were dangerous. One spark could cause the entire chamber to explode.
Of course, it was only one of many possible ways to die in a shaft. Charlie found himself thinking of such things in the mines. He knew that if he made a mistake, everyone could die. They could drown in flooding, they could explode, the roof could collapse, they could be crushed by an out of control cart, they could fall down the shaft. Charlie had created an entire list and was sure to do everything he could to avoid any of the possibilities becoming realities. He had heard enough stories to know that mistakes could be fatal.
He started pulling a cart back up the shaft when a boom echoed through the tunnels, a panic filled him, and he ran frantically from the shafts entrance. The ceiling crashed down around him as he sprinted for the exit. He pulled himself up and stumbled away from the entrance yelling wildly.
His body ached and his ankle throbbed with pain. He reached up to his head and his hand came away with a warm, sticky ooze. He was bleeding. Darkness enveloped him as terrified yells filled his last conscious thought.