Four bodies have been recovered from the gloomy depths of Carbon Hill Mine after Monday's deadly explosion, the most disastrous in the mine's forty year history. They were raised to the surface through a ventilation shaft near the accident site.
According to mine spokesman, James Lear, “This calamitous event was likely caused by a pocket of methane gas ignited by a miner’s open headlamp. Efforts to recover four more members of the unfortunate crew are continuing. The company will bury the dead at its own expense.”
A member of the rescue team, who wishes to remain anonymous, reports the blast not only brought down much of the tunnel, but also opened an entrance to a heretofore unknown cluster of natural caverns. He claims there is no sign of the bodies of the missing. “It's hard to wrap my mind around it,” he said. “We found helmets, headlamps, and picks but no bodies – not even body parts. Guess we’ll just have to keep on digging.”
Carbon Hill Coal has refused further comment.
* * * * *
From the pillared entrance of Carbonado School, a set of red-painted stairs stuck out like a tongue, and I pictured it lapping students up in the morning and spitting them out in the afternoon. With each agonizing step, the knot in my stomach pulled tighter. Despite being March, it was my first day of school.
No turning back now. I hesitated for a moment, sucked in a deep breath, and trudged upwards toward the entry. Staring straight ahead, I pushed open the double doors of the red, brick building.
When they clanked shut behind me, I stopped and peered about the plain, beige foyer. A fancy plaque on the opposite wall caught my eye. It read: Carbonado Historical School District Number 19 – Established: 1878. “Oh, no,” I muttered under my breath. “Worse than I thought. This joint is ancient.”
In the undersized office, the round-faced secretary greeted me with a warm smile. After I checked in and introduced myself, she gave me a handwritten schedule for my ninth-grade classes. “Welcome to Carbonado School, Nathan. We don’t get many new students here – especially after spring break.”
“Yeah, that really doesn’t surprise me,” I said, not pointing out the move wasn’t my idea.
“If you have any questions, just ask the teachers or me. I think everybody here knows how nerve wracking it can be on your first day in a new school … and you’re from the Bay Area?”
I nodded and smiled with pride. "Yes, San Jose."
She shook her head. “My, my, Carbonado school must seem tiny to you." Her sympathetic voice made me like her right away. “Don’t worry. You’ll do just fine. Your homeroom is that way.” She pointed to the hallway on the other side of the office.
Feeling a little more at ease, I thanked her, clutched my class schedule, and edged into the ivory-colored, marble-floored hall. Gee, with all this marble, it seems more like a bank than a school.
A commotion outdoors by the red, front steps stopped me in my tracks. Through the glass panels in the doors, I saw a tall, skinny kid with dark, greased-back hair playing keep-away with someone’s lunch sack.
I walked outside for a closer look. A fat kid with black, horned-rimmed glasses kept grabbing at the sack. The other kid dodged this way and that with a clownish expression plastered to his pimply face. He was creating a big scene by showing off the contents of the sack to the small pack of kids ringing them.
“Let’s see what your mommy packed you for lunch today, Mr. Piggy.” Then the skinny kid snorted like a pig. A few kids showed their appreciation by snorting along. “Looky here. A Twinkie! Is that what your mommy calls you, Brian baby? Oh, Brian, dear, my sweet squishy twinkie.” He grabbed the Twinkie in the middle and squeezed it, his greasy voice taking on a shrill, sing song tone.
The overweight kid, almost in tears, kept pleading, “Give it back, Reno! It doesn’t belong to you. Give it back!” He grabbed for it, but the other kid just pranced away, holding the sack like a bullfighter’s cape. Grab and dance. Grab and dance. The big kid wasn’t light on his feet or anywhere else, for that matter. He didn’t stand a chance.
Then the thin kid continued mocking. “Brian Erdman rhymes with turdman – Brian Erdman rhymes with turdman.” Scattered laughter echoed from the group.
Out of nowhere, a girl with long, strawberry blond hair tied in braids, pushed through the group and strode into the eye of the circle. As tall as most of the boys, she would have been pretty if she hadn’t been wearing Levis and a pullover shirt like a guy. She stuck her body between the two boys and stared the skinny kid straight in the eye.
“Okay, that’s enough, Reno. You’re not funny – unless looks count. Give him back his lunch.” Her words sounded real calm – almost icy. You could tell she meant what she said.
“Oh, come on, Charlie! Butt out! This ain’t none of your business,” he griped, his voice pitched a bit higher.
“I mean it, Reno Clark.” Her voice steady and her glare piercing, she showed no sign of fear.
“So! Whatcha gonna do about it?” His whine sounded angry and scared at the same time.
My mouth flew open when her right fist, flicking like a rattlesnake, struck him flush on the tip of his nose. He dropped the lunch sack on the ground and grabbed at his face. When he removed his hands, they were streaked with blood.
Reno whirled away and shouted, “You ain’t seen the last of me, Charlie.”
Almost under her breath, she said, “Too bad.” Then she leveled a penetrating stare at him, watching him slink into the building. She leaned down, retrieved the half-crushed Twinkie, and dropped it into the sack.
Brian stuttered, “T-thanks, Charlie. I owe ya.” He grabbed his lunch and hurried off.
Her gaze lingered on him until he disappeared inside. “Yeah, you’ve owed me since the fourth grade,” she muttered to no one in particular. The girl stooped to pick up her binder, and a little smile of surprise lit up her face when she noticed me standing there. “Haven’t seen you before. You’re new, aren’t you?” She pronounced those words like she was making a statement.
“I just moved here over spring break.” I introduced myself. “Nathan Carr.”
“We don’t get too many new kids here, especially this late in the year. I’m Charlie Kowalski.” She stuck out her hand, like an adult, and I shook it.
“Yeah, yeah, the secretary gave me the same line a few minutes ago. Charlie?” I paused, not sure about my words. “Isn’t that kind of a . . . a different name for a girl?
“Charlotte’s my real name, but kids and teachers here call me Charlie. If Reno had called me Charlotte, I would have given him a black eye as well as a bloody nose.” She wrinkled her nose like something smelled bad.
“I guess I’d better remember that. Hey, you’ve got a mean right cross.”
She just tossed me a brief smile. “Thanks, I’ve had a little practice growing up here. With a few of these rednecks, you’ve got to learn to take care of yourself.”
“But aren’t you afraid you’ll get in trouble for fighting?”
“Nope, that’s the last thing I’m worried about right now. I don’t think Reno Clark is anxious to tell the world about the bloody nose a girl gave him.” She grinned at her advantage and peeked at the schedule in my hands. “Hey, we’ve got most of the same classes – except P.E., of course. They’re so retarded around here. This is the 1980,s, and they still think girls should be treated different than guys.”
I gave a nervous chuckle. I hadn’t really thought about it before.
As we entered the building, I pointed to the marble flooring. “What’s with the marble floors?”
A puzzled look crept across her face, and then she smiled. “Oh, yeah. I don’t even notice stuff like that anymore. Must be a little weird to some people. This is an old school.” Her eyes darted to the plaque in the entry. “A coal company built it more than a century ago. I guess they wanted to show off how rich they were. Brick and marble. Nothing but the finest for their town.” She veered to the left. “Right this way, plee-uz.” Smiling and acting like a tour guide, she led me down the hall to homeroom where she found me a seat in the row next to her.
I began to feel a little more at home.
I don’t think the guy who designed old Carbonado School knew much about the attention span of kids. The oversized windows pointed east, facing the huge mound of snow and rock – Mount Rainier – the highest volcano in the lower forty-eight states. Its shadow sometimes blanketed Carbonado in the morning as the sun rose.
In Mr. Adams’s math class, Jason Hastings sat two desks away in the outside row next to the picture windows. Even in the middle of a lesson, I caught him staring outside. I couldn’t blame him. When the mountain broke through the overcast, the view defined the word “breathtaking”.
Although Jason never advertised his presence, I knew his name because my eighth grade class numbered no more than forty students. He never raised his hand in class and never answered questions unless called upon. A good looking kid, with dark hair, hazel eyes, and smooth, delicate skin, he didn’t stand out in a crowd. He kind of kept his head down, and I seldom heard a peep out of him.
On his desktop, next to Jason’s textbook, rested a sketchbook. That’s what caught my attention. Whenever he found a spare moment during class, he jotted down pencil sketches in his drawing notebook.
On Friday of my first week, I pushed myself out of my seat and walked by his desk when something snagged my attention. He was putting the finishing touches on a sketch of Charlie Kowalski. The drawing showed her bent over her desk with knitted brows, her right hand pressing her pencil tip against a sheet of paper, while the thumb and index finger of her other hand twirled her left braid. The drawing almost jumped off the page, showing a serious Charlie in a mood of intense concentration.
“Wow! That’s Charlie Kowalski!” I almost shouted, stating the obvious. “I mean, that’s really good. You could be one of those police sketch artists.”
“Thanks,” said Jason in a soft voice as a little smile creased his face. “I just like to draw.”
“Well, you’re really good at it. By the way, I’m new in Carbonado. My name is Nathan.” I stuck out my right hand.
He hesitated, examined my hand, and then shook it. “I know. Mrs. Ryan read one of your stories in English yesterday. Your writing makes things come alive. I can see what you’re writing about like . . . like I was watching a movie. I wish I could write like that.”
I was surprised by his comment since the story she read wasn't one of my best. I caught myself and added, “I guess that makes us even. I wish I could draw like you.”
His eyes tilted toward the black and white, linoleum floor tiles. “Oh, I just like to doodle sometimes.”
With his sketchbook in front of my face, I got curious. “Hey, can I take a look at some of your other stuff?” I pointed at the drawing notebook with the picture of Charlie on top.
He shifted his weight from one foot to the other like he was unsure. “Sure, . . . if you really want to.”
I turned back one page and started howling with laughter. Mr. Adams in cartoon form looked back at me, his puffy face and eyes framed with clear, rimless glasses drawn on the body of a bulldog. “I guess you haven’t shown this one to the teacher, huh?”
His face colored pink as he smirked and shook his head.
Jason had filled several pages with pencil drawings of Mount Rainier. Crowned sometimes with fluffy, pillow clouds and other times surrounded with swirling flying saucer clouds, he'd caught the mountain in various poses. He’d sketched the massive mountain with the white glaciers outlined with dark, volcanic rock and other times with new fallen snow, making it look like a humungous, vanilla ice cream cone. Jason had made each drawing different.
“Why do you draw Mount Rainier so much?”
He paused, pursed his lips together, and replied, “Well, you don’t get to see it all the time because of the weather. But – but when you can see it, it’s – it’s just awesome. I mean – like it puts on different faces. I want to draw as many as I can.”
“Hey, I never thought of it that way before. That’s pretty cool.” I meant it, too.
Jason then pulled his Minnesota Twins cap low over his forehead, grabbed his backpack and sketchbook, and, with me at his side, headed toward the door. In that instant we formed a mutual admiration society as we walked to the cafeteria and sat down at the same table. We'd just yanked our sandwiches out of our sacks when Charlie strolled by carrying a tray of food.
On impulse, I yelled, “Hey, Charlie. You’ve gotta see the sketch Jason drew.” I grabbed Jason’s pad and opened it to the page.
She paused for a moment and then leaned toward the sketch pad, aiming her gaze at the drawing. “Wow, that’s really me! I didn’t know I concentrated so hard. And my nose is sooo scrunched up. No wonder I didn’t notice you drawing me.” She slid onto the bench and rested her tray on the table. Grabbing the pad, she studied her likeness like she was memorizing every detail.
“Hey, guys!” Brian, the overweight kid, hustled toward our table like a pack of hungry wolves was stalking him. Breaking Charlie’s focus, he asked, “Can I sit here?” He plopped next to Charlie without waiting for an answer. “Gee, nice picture! Who is it?”
We all chuckled.
“What’s so funny, you guys?” whined a confused Brian Erdman.
Charlie put a hand over her mouth, stifling a snicker. Jason grinned and shook his head.
He looked down to see if his fly was unzipped. Then, he screwed his face into a question mark. “Really, guys, do I have a spot of somethin’ on my face?”
That clueless question sent us all into a full-fledged laughing fit.
The incident put an exclamation point on our new little gang of misfits.
Some people say a creature lurks inside The Pit, but only one person knows for sure.
Thirteen-year-old Nathan Carr moves to Carbonado, Washington, a coal town in the shadow of Mount Rainier. To Nathan, it’s "Deadsville".
Uprooted during the school year, he bonds with three other students who consider themselves misfits, a girl and two guys.
The group forges a friendship with Ben, an old man who lives in a cabin bordering a secluded, sub-alpine meadow. Pardou's Pit, an abandoned coal mine ventilation shaft with an unsettling reputation for unsolved disappearances, lies nearby.
During the summer of 1981, Ben acts as their friend, mentor, and confidante. The old man’s arrest on false charges trumped up by Jason’s father, spurs Nathan to lead some of the group down The Pit in search of answers to clear their friend. What they discover in the subterranean passages tests their courage, wits, and grit to stay alive.