Another day in the mine. That's all it was. Everyone went about their assigned duties and paid no mind to anyone unless it was necessary to accomplish whatever they were required to do in order to receive their weekly paychecks. Mark Gideon melted into the sea of vests and hardhats with ease. As focused as every other body that passed him by. He drifted into a line to the right that ambled on past the pickaxes and giant gas-powered chisels that lined the wall of the storage shed. As he passed the shed, he grabbed a pickaxe and it was off to the elevator.
The sun glared in the bright blue Minnesota sky. He wiped away a pool of sweat that built up on his forehead. Gosh, he hated his job. Twelve hours deep down in the boiling heat of the thin, crusty shell of Earth was detrimental to his health. His wife was always complaining and asking him why he took this job.
It provides a good source of income, he thought to himself. And since I can't find anything else, it's my only choice right now.
Born in Indiana, he was used to the manual labor. He was the classic farm boy, of a sort. From the day he opened his eyes and took his first breath to the day he left for college, his good old daddy raised him to eliminate the daily chores without any fuss. Each day he would wake up, go to school, come back, work on the farm, and then finish his homework in the last hours of the day. Whereas most kids longed for summer, he dreaded it. The summer meant more work because his duties on the farm would increase twofold.
As a side job, his father was also the pastor at the local church. The man was a strong believer in everything he preached. Jesus is this. Jesus is that. Jesus makes the world go 'round. Blah-blah-blah. Yadda-yadda-yadda. And yet all Jesus ever did for the old fool was give him cancer. All he did was condemn the poor man to a year and nine months in a hospital bed before an unnecessary end.
Jesus is fair, Son.
No, Dad. He's not.
No matter how hard he tried to get his old man to admit that Jesus had wronged him, he wouldn't listen. He was like the Job of modern times. Lose just about everything you have and just keep on kicking. That was Daddy.
The elevator gate closed on him and a group of his fellow pickaxers, and there was no turning back. The point of no return had been reached. He listened musingly to the clacking of the metal as the steel box descended to the tunnels. Luckily for him, he was working in the first tunnel which was closer to the surface than the others. If an accident occurred, he had a better chance than those in the lower tunnels. But it was still slim.
The machine jerked to a halt. He and four others exited and made their way down the long dirt pathway.
As he moved along he felt a pat on his back. He turned to see the face of his good friend Tom Witchell.
"Hey, Tom," he said as he moved on.
"How ya doin', Mark?" Tom queried.
"Another day, another dollar."
Tom laughed. "True, true. How's the family?"
"Oh, they're good. Kelly's graduating this year, and there's a new one in the oven."
"Congratulations!" belted Tom. "How many does that make?"
"With this one, there'll be five."
"And yet you're workin' a crappy job like this?"
They both moved to allow two men pushing a cart of coal in the opposite direction to move past them.
"What was that?" Mark asked.
"Why are you workin' in such a crap hole as this?"
Mark shrugged. "It pays."
They could hear the low drumming of power drills below. As they listened, they walked on in silence. Mark glanced at Tom and was shocked to see that he had become serious. He turned away just in time to see the supply closet that would become his best friend for the next hour or so.
"Be careful," Tom said, finally.
"What do you mean?"
"Be careful, Mark. I don't need to tell you how dangerous this job is. Just be careful. Your family needs you in their life. It wouldn't be the same without you. Be careful. And as soon as the opportunity arises, get away from here and find a job somewhere else, a safer job."
"Okay, Tom," he said, though he had no intentions of quitting. He pictured himself working in this mine till he was old and gray.
They approached an open slot between the men that were axing away on the tunnel wall.
"This is my station," he said.
"Okay," Tom replied. "I'll let you go then. Have fun and have a good day, just in case I don't see you again before we leave."
He stood there and watched Tom as he continued further down the tunnel. He began to turn over Tom's words in his head.
Be careful. They need you.
"You got this?" came a voice from behind.
He turned around. It was his station manager.
"Yeah," he answered.
"Okay, then get to work or keep moving down the tunnel till you find a spot to do so. If I come back and you're still standing there admiring the scenery, I'll place someone else here and find you something else to do."
Mark nodded and began chipping away. As the manager moved on, he began thinking about his family again. After high school, he had managed to save up enough money between a part-time job and his weekly cut of the money raised on the farm to slip him through college. The average frat boy, partying consumed a lot of his college life (though he did manage to keep a high GPA). When he entered, he did not know what he wanted to major in. But as time went on, he grew to love the beauty and complexity of literature and began a track toward a degree in English. His goal was to be a fiction author. But whenever he decided to sit down and begin a manuscript, he would discover that there were more important things to be done, and thus, never successfully finished a story.
Along with partying and English, he was a short-distance runner for the track team, where he met his wife. A runner for both the short-distance and long-distance teams, the future Cassadie Gideon appealed to his senses immediately. Her beauty was beyond comprehension. The sun reflected off her qualities with a divine radiance. Her short blue athletic shorts tightened to her legs majestically and created a mystical aura around her. Her bosom was plump and formed perfectly to her slender body. She exhibited the tiniest amount of body fat. And her skin was flawless. But what interested him most was her kind and generous personality. No matter the circumstance, a smile was on her face as if it were super-glued in place. And what a beautiful smile it was! He was awestruck by it every time he saw her.
The day he asked her out was nearly a disaster. It was around noon on one of his days off from class, if he recalled correctly. He was walking the campus alone, visiting different friends and ignoring schoolwork for as long as possible. After a while, he decided to walk into town and visit the different shops and/or stores that competed for business down every street. As he was about to enter a spiffy-looking book store, he saw Cassadie through the window. She was alone. This was his chance and he knew it. But he looked like a homeless bum. He'd had a feeling his choice of attire that day would be problematic, but he'd underestimated how problematic. He had to do something to make up for his flaws. There was a florist down the street. Though he and she were just friends he'd learned a lot about her, and he knew that orchids were her favorite flowers. He ran as fast as he could and bought a small bouquet of them (that was all he could afford at the time) just for her. When he returned, she was right where he had left her, skimming through a Reader's Digest. While the pages flipped at a moderate pace, he slipped in and entered the isle she was in. At first, she continued reading, and he stood there admiring her beauty. After a few seconds had passed, she slowly raised her head and noticed the figure beside her in the isle. When she had fully turned to him, he removed the flowers from behind him into her view. He was scared of what might happen, but to his surprise, she smiled. He handed the flowers to her, and she began to sniff them with her perfectly-molded nose. Her face appeared to be swallowed by the plant. As he watched her enjoy his gift, he asked her. She looked up at him and pleasantly answered with a kiss. They kissed for what seemed like hours as everyone else in the store erupted in applause. She was the only girl he had ever loved, and now, she was his.
They dated for two years. Then, as they walked hand-in-hand through the campus garden one evening in May, he proposed. They waited until they had finished college and were then wed in a Pentecostal Church down the street from his parents' house. His father, as it stands, was actually the man they had both agreed should lead the ceremony.
Over the next few years, he'd acquired a house in a casual, suburban Minnesota neighborhood with some left-over college money and a loan from the bank. It was roomy, fresh, and came with at least an acre of land. But it was by no means a rich man's house. It was just as average as all the other houses in the neighborhood.
Now, he needed a job. Cassadie had majored in accounting and managed to find a job at a local bank, but that income alone was not enough to make a living, especially since both of them wanted children as much as they did. He sent out several applications and was finally accepted for a position as a high school English teacher.
Two years in, Kelly came along. It was the best moment of their lives and they'd decided that they wanted more children. Soon, they had four, total, and that's when things got bad.
Space in the house was becoming insufficient. They had to buy a large place in a residential neighborhood near his parents' farm. To add to this, his father's cancer was in full swing, and he spent several nights in the hospital talking with him about numerous subjects, just to pass the time. When he passed, they had to help his mother cover the funeral expenses. But both of these just added to the worst of all: He lost his job at the school. The school system as low on profit, and it began to make cutbacks. Unfortunately for him, his school decided to revamp the entire English department. He was let go with about four others. Back on the market, he needed a job badly, and he only had one option: mining. Since the job market was overflowing, it was his only choice. Though it was small pay, it helped. It was...
Everyone looked up as a large, violent roaring sound shook the ground beneath them. Mark looked down the tunnel and saw a dim orange glow that was getting closer by the second. Suddenly, men came running around the bend toward him screaming, "Run!"
Methane! he thought. Someone forgot to check for methane!
Men continued to run past him. As they did, he stood staring at the growing glow as if hypnotized by it. What could he do? If he followed the men, he would end up trapped in the congestion at the other end of the tunnel as men waited impatiently for the elevator that wouldn't come fast enough to save them from the flames. If he...
The closet! It was small, but he could last in there for a while. And it was to the side of the tunnel. The flames might go right past it without coming inside because of the speed at which they were traveling. It wasn't the greatest choice, but it was better than the others.
He began to run with the crowd, carefully shifting lanes in an effort to reach the closet on the left side. He heard screaming to his right and looked over just in time to see a fallen man being trampled under the feet of his comrades. The terrible crunching of his bones sent a shiver of terror through Mark. As he ran on, the orange glow grew behind him and became a yellowish-white. He was worried by how close it was and the fact that he still couldn't see the closet. Was it really that far back? The overhead lamps began to pop behind him. Where was it?
Finally, it came into his line of sight. He made one final shift and prepared to jump for it. He could now hear the steady roar of the angry flames and felt the immense heat begin to trickle down his back. As he neared it, he noticed that the doors were open. Maybe someone else had gotten the same idea he had.
He sprang inside and rolled against something. A sharp pain entered his arm.
"Get in here!" he yelled to the other men as they ran past.
One man heard him and made a jump for the closet. He was nearly there when a violent gust of air grabbed him mid-air and slammed him into the steel edge of the closet door. The edge of the door connected with the back of his neck and ripped his head from his shoulders. The head rolled toward Mark and then swerved and made rest next to a couple of empty carbon dioxide canisters. The decapitated man was followed by a bright light as the flames blew past the closet. It was so bright that Mark had to close his eyes to keep them from being seared in their sockets. He kept them shut until the roar died away and was followed by a grinding, gravelly sound.
When he opened them again, the exit was sealed off. A giant mound of rocks and dirt sloped into the closet. It was just as he suspected. The gravelly sound he heard was the roof of the tunnel caving in due to the heat.
After a few seconds staring at the former tunnel ceiling, he realized he was crying. Whether it was the fact that he had watched two men die, the fact that he was, now, trapped from the outside world and might die, or the fact that the severed head was beginning to smell horrible he did not know, but he was crying, nonetheless. Two of the problems he couldn't fix, but he could at least muffle the smell of the head if he had something to cover it with. He looked around and finally located a blanket covering some other canisters (what they were filled with he did not know). He threw it over the head as quickly as possible and immediately noticed a decrease in the strength of the stench.
Now, he needed to find a way to get out. Judging by the size of the closet he estimated about two hours worth of oxygen. He searched around for something he could use. There was a pick axe. But even though the roof had caved, the methane would still be there. One spark would set it off again. It was in the miner's handbook they had given him the day he had gotten the job. What could he do?
He fell to the floor and tried to catch his breath. Panic was setting in. But he couldn't let it beat him. His
wouldn't be the same without
him. He'd seen it time and time again. People in desperate situations would let panic take over,
and lose there minds before they could reach safety. They would die because they had simply given up. But he was different. He was strong. He was better than panic. It could be bested, and he was determined to defeat it.
In an effort to keep his mind from giving in, he closed his eyes and went back to that dreadful day when he had watched his father take his last breaths. That day he had held his father's hand and cried as the poor man went (so the old coot had believed) to see the good Lord.
He remembered it as if it were yesterday. He could see his father's hand in his own. The rest of his family surrounded the hospital bed and watched them both stare into each others' eyes as he withered away. Though he did not believe a word his father had said to him about Jesus and/or God over the years, he could not deny that there was a strange presence in that room. Yes, there was the family, but there was also something else he could not name. And his father knew. He knew more than his own son that something was there. But, unlike Mark, he knew what it was. And knowing seemed to give him peace. It was something piquant and pleasant for him. Something that seemed to enter his mind and tell him that everything was going to be alright. That his family was going to live on. That he had done his job on Earth, and it was time for him to move on to the next step (whatever that was).
When he finally died, it was without warning and so sudden
(into your hands I commit my spirit)
that a deep ache entered Mark's heart and began to reap havoc throughout his body. The pain swelled so deep and became so harsh that he thought he was going to die himself. Though his father was a confused man, he loved the fool. And now that he was gone, Mark lay with his face planted into his chest and cried hard. The hospital gown that covered the old man's body was covered in a grayish stain. If it weren't for the fact that his wife and kids were with him in the room (except for his youngest child who was only four months old) he probably would've died, because the pain was too much. But they were there with him. His wife stood behind him and stroked his back with her hand. He remembered that feeling of renewed comfort as she did so, and was beginning to feel re-energized as he sat in the closet alone.
What was that? He thought he heard a noise coming from the left wall. It sounded like the sharpened tip of a pickaxe slamming against the closet's metal coating. Maybe it was just his imagination.
There it was again. He crept over to the wall and put his left ear against it. As he did, he noticed that his shirt was drenched in sweat. The heat was increasing by the minute, or so it felt.
There it was again. Someone was behind the wall.
"Hello," he said.
At first there was no answer.
"Hello," he repeated in higher volume.
"Who's there?" came a muffled reply.
That voice. He knew that voice. "Tom?"
"Mark?" the voice came back. "Oh, thank God."
"How did you get in the wall?"
"There's a crevice here."
"I don't know. But it's here. I managed to squeeze my way in just before the fire passed by. What's that there you're in?"
"It's the supply closet we passed on our way down the tunnel. You need to stop banging that pickaxe before you set the whole place ablaze again."
"This isn't a pickaxe. It's a piece of one of the wooden beams that broke off during the fire. I'm not crazy. I read the same handbook."
"Never said you were, buddy." Mark whimpered a slight laugh with this.
"Are you alone?"
"Yeah. Just me and a lowly head."
Mark shifted so that his back was against the wall. "Some guy tried to jump in with me before the fire, but the draft at the head of the flames picked him up and slammed him into the edge of the door. The back of his neck's what hit. Ripped his head right off."
"Did you recognize him?"
"I think it was Patty, but the face was too mangled for me to confirm my suspicion." (Patty was the nickname for Gale Patterson, one of the older miners who had been working in the mine since the Stone Age.)
"Yeah. How are things on your side?"
"There's good room," Tom replied. "But the cave-in threw rocks and dirt all over me. Also, I think a beam fell on my leg because it hurts like you would never imagine, and I can't move it worth a crap. I think it's broken."
"How much oxygen time you got?"
There was silence for a moment. "About two hours. You?"
Their conversation continued for about an hour. Both of them were just happy they weren't alone. The situation was desperate, and they knew that they would probably end up dead before they could be reached. But the worst thing to do was lose hope. Mark could feel those same feelings of panic begin to rise again, and he knew he had to suppress them. He had heard stories about miners who had been trapped before, stories about miners who had been trapped and died because they had given up hope, and began killing each other or just died because they and their bodies didn't want to try anymore. Before long, he found himself doing something he never thought he would ever be doing in his life: praying. He prayed hard, as hard as he had cried into his father's chest, for protection and guidance. He had nothing else to fall back on. So he took this one moment to put his trust in his father's God. If it worked, he would believe. If not, he would just die and see what happened next.
When he finished, Tom was clanking again. "You alive in there?"
"Yeah," he answered.
"Good," Tom said. "I thought...I...had...lost you."
A concerned look covered Mark's face as Tom coughed through the words in his last sentence. "I'm fine. I was just praying."
"Praying? What...good...will that...do?"
There was the coughing again. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, just peachy. I'm caught in the crevice of an underground cave and just eating it up."
"I'm being serious, Tom."
"Well, in that case, I'm a little uncomfortable. This rock blanket is terrible. I'm gonna call the front desk and give them a piece..."
"Yes, I'm fine. Just answer my question."
"I don't know. Praying may not do anything. But I'm out of options right now. Maybe someone will find us. I can't just give up hope."
There was a long, uncomfortable silence. Whatever was keeping Tom, it made him nervous. Finally, he replied. "I don't think anyone is coming for us, man."
Just then, as if right on cue, Mark heard a gravelly sound from above, like that of a shovel being pushed into the Earth. Tom began to talk-cough again, but he stopped him. He continued to listen and heard it again. Someone was digging above them. There was no doubt in his mind.
"What is it?" Tom asked.
"Someone's above us."
"What makes you say that?"
"I hear gravel sliding."
Tom's coughing began again.
"You're not fine, Tom. You're coughing like a horse."
"So I am," he said. "I guess I'm a little allergic to tunnel dust."
"Or you're running out of air." He paused to listen to the sound again. "I need to get up there to them."
He began to search the closet for something to use while Tom started up again. "Mark, if they're there, let them dig. They'll find us."
"But what if they don't, Tom? They might not be able to get down here. If that happens, they'll move on to somewhere else down the line."
"If they can't get down here, what makes you think you can get up there?"
"I have to try."
He thought Tom would protest further, but to his amazement, he came back with, "Be careful."
"I will. I'll be back for you when I get help."
"If you get help," Tom said.
Tom coughed up a painful chuckle at this. It was the laugh of a life-long smoker, someone who couldn't breathe. "I definitely think I underestimated my air time," he admitted.
"Hang in there, Tom. Conserve your air supply. Don't speak anymore. I'll be back. I promise."
With that, he turned to the closet. Though it was small, there were more items in it than he had expected there would be. From what he saw, there were a few pairs of construction goggles, a box of zip-ties, several carbon dioxide canisters, a row of pickaxes, and a hose that tied to the canisters. In order to reach the surface, he needed an oxygen supply and something to protect his eyes. He had the eye protection with the goggles, but what could he use for an oxygen supply?
I've got it, he thought. He picked up the hose and stretched it out slowly measuring it with his hands. It was about forty feet. If the surface had caved in enough, he might be able to survive by breathing through the hose. Whether it was long enough, he didn't know, but he had to take a chance.
And he needed to move quickly. He used one of the pickaxes to pop the nozzle off the end of the hose. All that was left was the tube of the hose through which he could at least accomplish some labored breathing. Next, he moved to the blanket he had thrown over the head and used the pickaxe, once more, to cut three small strips from its fabric. Next, he had to put it all together.
He grabbed the box of zip-ties and removed three of them. With them, he used two to tie the tube to the back of his left arm, far enough up so that he could wrap the end around and into his mouth. Since they were large zip-ties, he was able to use the last one to tie the three pieces of cloth to his face: one over his nose and the other two over his ears. The last thing was eye protection. He grabbed the goggles and fixed that problem quickly. When he was finished, he looked like the killer in a Stephen King novel.
"I'm going, Tom," he said. "I'll be back. You hang in there."
"Don't worry, Mark," came the reply. "I'll be here, holdin' up the fort."
With that, he put the tube in his mouth and began to dig into the gravel. The air was nasty, but at least he could breath. He knew the taste of the tube would be stuck in his mouth for weeks to come, but being able to breathe was better than nothing.
After a few minutes, he had removed a good majority of the rocks and prepared a large indent of soft dirt in the pile. He took his cloth-covered head and stuck it into the dirt. Once it was in, he wiggled his body in with it until he was submerged in the debris. The dirt gave easily and allowed him to move his limbs slowly but surely. He felt like he was swimming in a vat of quicksand. Though it moved easily, it was also heavy on his abdomen, and he thought his ribcage was going to collapse. When he encountered rocks, he could not move them. The dirt seemed to lock them in place. Thus, he had to go over them or around them. But he was moving up and he was still alive. That was all that mattered.
This must be what a mole feels like, he thought to himself as he wormed his way to the surface.
Suddenly, the charred remains of a fellow coworker appeared in front of his face. The only reason he saw them was because some hot coals still flickered on the man's baked skin. The man's face was that of someone in deep agony. His teeth were jammed against each other as if he were biting down in an effort to create another form of pain that might counteract the burning sensation of the flames. Mark was overwhelmed by the stench and was drawn to tears as he wiggled on.
The cloths were paying off. Very little dirt was getting into his nose and ears. Maybe he would...
Oxygen stopped coming through the tube. Had he seriously traveled forty feet already? He held his breath and began pushing on further, as quickly as possible. He had to reach the surface. It couldn't end like this. Not now. Panic began to set in again, only this time he could do nothing to stop it. This was not how it was supposed to be. He promised. He promised Tom he would be back.
He was about to faint from lack of air when his hand broke through the surface and into the beautiful atmosphere. That was all he could manage. His strength was used up. He tried to yell out, but there was nothing to push past his vocal cords.
"Over here!" someone screamed.
Following that, everything became a blur. He remembered feeling two hands grip his hand. He remembered feeling the weight of the Earth ease around him and the blistering hot sun covering his face. Then he passed out.
When he came to, two figures hovered over him: a man and a woman.
"Woooee," the man said. "You are one lucky son of a gun."
Mark tried to sit up, but he was hit by a sudden attack of weakness.
"I wouldn't do that," the woman said. "You're pretty banged up."
He lay resting and looked up at the sky. He noticed that they had not moved him from where he had come out. He lay in the same exact spot facing toward Tom's crevice. "So who do I have to thank for pulling me out of that nightmare?" he asked.
The man smiled and looked at the woman then back to Mark. "I'm Luke and this is my wife Gabriel. We're from Alabama. We were passing by to go see my folks when the explosion happened. We swerved faster than you would ever believe and hurried over here. While Gabriel was calling it in, I began digging with this here shovel." He held the shovel out toward Mark.
"That must've been what I heard while I was talking to Tom."
"There's more a you down there?"
Mark nodded. "I voyaged up here to get help. I thought you guys might move on and never find us."
"It's a good thing you did," said Gabriel, "because we almost did move on further toward the other end of the mine."
"Where is he?" Luke inquired.
"Excuse me?" Mark said.
"Your boy. Where is he?"
Mark made a gesture with his hand toward the crevice. "He's about five or six feet that way."
Luke looked at Gabriel. "You stay here with him. I'm gonna get his friend."
She nodded, and he ran off with the shovel.
She turned her gaze back to Mark. "You rest," she said. "I'll be right here. I'm not going anywhere."
So he dozed. And, for some unforeseen reason, he believed her. Luke was strange (his overalls and striped red and white shirt didn't help), but he had a cheery side to him that Mark had never seen in anyone before. Gabriel was also just as kind, but she seemed to take the situation more seriously than he did. Though wrinkles covered her face, she didn't look a day over forty. And they both seemed to shine with some hidden force that seemed so familiar to him. He didn't understand why. It took him a while to figure it out, but he finally realized what it was. It was The Presence, the same presence that had comforted his father as he died in that hospital bed. There was more to these people than he could see on the outside, more than human.
When he woke, she was still there as she had promised. But he heard Luke call for her. She assured him that she'd be back and then ran off. And he dozed off again.
The next time he woke, he woke to the voices of many people. They were coming from the other end of the mine. And Luke and Gabriel were gone. The shovel lay beside him and they were just gone. That was strange. Where could they have gone in such a hurry? They didn't sound like they were in such dire need to get to Luke's family that that would've taken precedence over what was going on here.
"Over here!" he heard a woman yell.
That voice. So familiar.
He heard foot steps and looked toward where Tom should have been if Luke pulled him out like he said he was going to. His face lit up with joy at the sight of his wife walking toward him.
"Mark!" she screamed. "Oh, my Gosh, Mark. Baby."
She knelt beside him and lifted him up with her arms. For the first time, he realized that the cloths and zip-ties were gone, and the goggles and the tube lay motionless beside him. She began kissing him all over his face in a frantic display of affection as tears streamed down her face.
"Are you okay?" she asked. "Are you hurt?"
She kept asking the same question over and over again in different forms, and he put his finger to her lips to silence her.
"I'm fine," he said, both of their eyes lost in the other's.
They kissed passionately for what seemed like an hour. Holding the love of his life in his arms again was more than satisfying.
"I was so scared," she said to him, still crying.
"So was I," he replied.
"How did you get out?"
He picked up the tube, and noticed something strange. Next to the tube, drawn in the dirt, was a cross and underneath it was written, Was that fair enough? He couldn't help but smile as he read the end. Below the message was written, Sincerely, J.C., followed by a smiley face.
He turned to her, still smiling. "How's Tom?"
"How did you know Tom got out?"
He smiled wider. "I'll tell you about it later. Right now, I just want to hold you."
They grasped each other tightly. Neither of them wanted to let go. He stroked her hair and looked up into the bright blue sky. As he held her close, the pieces began to fit. Luke and Gabriel weren't ordinary human beings after all. In fact, they weren't humans at all. What he had been a part of was no ordinary experience. His prayer had been answered. What he had witnessed was an act of God.
He continued to stare into the sky. As he did, he could almost see his father's face.
Jesus is fair, Son, he was saying.
He smiled once more. Yes, Dad. He is.