Eldwin threaded a detonator cord through the center of a green-wrapped explosive. He pushed the end of the cylindrical charge into a hole drilled in the rock face. It stuck halfway and he had to wiggle it to get it to slide into place. He used a long bar to pack the charge into the back of the hole. The mine was sweltering. He tipped his hard hat back to wipe away the rivulets of sweat that threatened to drip into his eyes. His gloved hand left pale streaks in the grime that caked his face, framing blue-green eyes shot through with red. He closed his eyes for a moment. The sounds of the mine reverberated through the shaft. Every thud of a pickax drove a dull blow into his aching brain.
“All done, then, bud?” The chipper lilt of Thain’s voice sent sharp pains shooting through Eldwin’s temples. He wondered if the man was mocking him. Turning to face him, he cracked his eyes open into slits. They swam, trying to pierce the fog of the pain and the residual haze of whiskey. After a moment they focused into a glare. Thain wore a goofy grin, as always, but Eldwin detected a hint of smugness. The bastard knows, he thought. His fingers twitched with the urge to slug the smile off his face.
Eldwin grunted and set off down the corridor. Thain caught up and kept pace with him.
“Rough weekend?” Thain tried again. He looked at the gash on Eldwin’s forearm and his wide forehead wrinkled with concern.
“It was all right,” Eldwin said, tugging at his sleeve. He’s baiting me, he thought. He knows damn well how it went. The cut stung as the fabric rubbed across it.
Eldwin hadn’t felt it when it happened. He had been beyond pain, numbed by the whiskey that had filled the bottle and angry that it was empty. Nothing lasts, he told himself. He hurled it against the wall. When a ricocheted shard sliced through his arm he welcomed the blood that gave him a reason for the tears that he cried.
Esme had showed up at his house on Sunday morning. She had stayed home sick from church, she said, and he could see it wasn’t all an excuse. Her face looked pale and strained, her usual bloom faded. The morning rain plastered dark streaks of her hair to her cheeks. She stood on the step, refusing to come in.
“I can’t do this anymore,” she said.
Eldwin looked at Thain as they entered the line to ride the cage up to the top. He was still talking, though Eldwin hadn’t said a word, keeping up a current of chatter. His open face and brown cow eyes made him look pleasant, if a little slow. He was average. Boring.
I can’t believe she’d pick him over me, he thought. He forced a smile as they passed the boss.
The men took their lunch break while the mine was off limits. Eldwin hid in a corner with a thermos of coffee. Thain plunked down next to Eldwin on the bench. He unwrapped his lunch, a half circle of flaky golden crust. Without a word, he broke it in half and laid one of the pieces in front of Eldwin.
The crust was rimmed with little cutout hearts of dough. The sight of them brought to mind her delicate hands. He felt a knife twist in his heart. Thain was watching him so he took a bite. The buttery crust crackled under his teeth and gave way to a hearty, saucy filling. Warm notes of curry spread through his mouth and smoothed over the sour aftertaste of alcohol.
“’S Good,” he managed. “Thanks.”
“Esme’s magic in the kitchen,” Thain said, and his cheeks went red. He looked down at his folded hands and cleared his throat.
Here it comes.
“You’re my best friend,” he began.
Some friend, Eldwin thought with a pang of annoyance tinged with guilt. Just get on with it.
“Look, I know you’re going through something, and you don’t want to talk about it.” He looked up. “And that’s fine, really, I get it. I don’t want to make it any worse. I just—I have to say this. It’s about Esme.”
Eldwin tensed himself, ready for the accusation. Thain looked around and leaned closer.
“She’s—” he reddened again and glanced down at the half-eaten lunch in front of Eldwin. “Well, she’s got more than pies in the oven, if you know what I mean.” He nudged Elwin with his elbow and let out a laugh. His eyes shone with tears. He blinked them back and shook his head. “I still can’t believe it.”
The curry rose up in the back of Eldwin’s throat and he swallowed hard. Eldwin broke from Thain’s gaze and gripped the edge of the bench. The floor rumbled beneath their feet as the blast shook the mine. Eldwin took a deep breath.
“Time for us to go,” he said.
Glittering shards of rainbow light scattered over the sides of the shaft and swirled through the crevices in the pile of rubble left over from blasting. They had hit a vein. Thain whooped and turned his hands over in the light, watching the sparkling drops dance on his palms.
Eldwin stared at the muckpile. He kicked a rock with the steel toe of his boot. A flash of green caught his attention. One of his charges was intact, wedged into a chunk of rock. A segment of detonator cord lay next to it where it had come loose from sloppy packing. The wrapper was singed and a red glow curled one edge of the paper.
“Misfire!” he called. “Run!”
He sprinted down the corridor. Thain’s footsteps were close behind him. A roar filled the shaft. The shockwave from the blast rolled through the corridor and knocked Eldwin to his knees. The walls around him groaned. He scrambled to his feet and stumbled forward. Fragments of rock rained down on him as he ran. He ducked and threw his arms over his head.
Eldwin staggered through the door of the cage and fell to his knees. His stomach heaved from the effort and the acrid smell of smoke in the heavy air and he retched onto the wire flooring. He put his hand on the lever for the elevator and squinted down the hallway to find Thain, but he saw nothing but debris. After a few moments, he struggled to his feet and headed back in.
Thain lay slumped against a wall. Blood streaked down his face from a cut on his temple. One leg was twisted under him. The other stretched straight out, pinned in place by a piece of rebar that had punctured his thigh.
Eldwin took a step back. He glanced back down the tunnel, thinking of the waiting cage and of Esme. He took another step back.
Thain stirred. He tensed his leg and let out a groan. He stared for a moment at the rebar and then his eyes focused on Eldwin.
“Take care of Esme,” he said, “and the baby.” At the thought of them, his grimace of pain faded, and his face relaxed into a peaceful smile.
Eldwin shook his head and bent over Thain.
“Come on, buddy,” he said. He heaved Thain up. The rebar caught and pulled. Thain screamed, but Eldwin ignored him, fighting to lift him until his leg slid free. The pain was too much. Thain’s body collapsed against Eldwin.
Rocks littered the floor of the tunnel. Eldwin made slow progress dragging Thain through the clouds of smoke. They turned the final corner and Eldwin could see the open door of the cage.
“Not much farther,” he said. “Hang in there.”
Eldwin staggered forward. He heard the sickening crack of shattering rock, and he let Thain fall to the floor of the tunnel. He threw his body over his friend as the ceiling caved in.
Esme wanted to name the baby after her father, but Thain was insistent.
“His name is Eldwin,” he said. Those were the first words she heard when he struggled back to consciousness, three long weeks after the crew pried the rocks free from where they lay, just a few feet from the cage door. Thain would heal, though he would always walk with a limp. His biggest regret was missing the funeral.
There would be other babies to honor their family members, he told her.
Eldwin was born in the spring. Thain doted on the boy, and as he grew, he told him stories of his namesake. Recounting the story of the cave-in for the thousandth time, Thain looked into his son’s blue-green eyes and said a silent prayer of thanks to his friend for the family that he gave back to him.