This is a book I started writing and plan to continue. I’ll add by chapter as I edit!
My arms ached, sending little shocks down my spine, riding my nerves like a roller-coaster, pain accumulating in my shoulders and stiffening my neck. I stretched, arching my back and sighing when I felt a large pop in my lower spine.
“Well, that sounded painful.”
I glanced over my shoulder at Asreth, her elongated neck covered in dusty soot, just like the rest of her, it clung like a layer of glue over every inch of her skin. She rubbed the nape of her neck and yawned, rolling each shoulder in turn, “They say it gets easier.”
I laughed softly, my lips broken and cracked by the hot dry air of the Sootcombs, our little nickname for the place we all spent our days. I fixed the twine holding my mass of brown hair up on my head and off my neck, then rubbed absently at the soot on the back of my right hand, “Sure they do, they say that about all the jobs.”
“When’s your shift over anyways?” Asreth asked, leaning against the dented and rusted railing near my station, her dark blue eyes kind.
“Crag gave me the night shift too, so I’ll be here awhile.”
“Gosh, this early in the week?” Sympathy filled her eyes and she shrugged when I tossed a chunk of coal into the fire.
I nodded, grabbing the handle of my long necked shovel and digging into the pile of charcoal and coal by my feet, “We better get back to work, you know how Crag gets when we stand talking.”
She smiled wickedly and rolled her eyes before spinning on her heavy booted heel, “I’ll leave you some dinner in the stove or fridge.”
“Thanks, Asreth.” I waved before dropping my head and straining to heft the load up and toss it the five feet across the ducts into the gaping mouth of the boilers.
The Sootcombs were loud, the sounds of the fires roaring and the clanking of coal against metal, the tinkling as the coal tumbled into the duct when you don’t throw it far enough. Sometimes I could hear Crag letting loose on one of the new workers, he liked to get after them for the smallest things. However, this life was hard, and you couldn’t slack off if you wanted to stay around. I hear the ringing of the second shift bell, calling the ending of the eight-hour shift. Most newbies took second shift, or first, then the older folks took third or more than one. Asreth had only been here four weeks and she just did second shift.
I, on the other hand, had slaved away in the Sootcombs for fourteen months, and today, as I’d slacked a bit too much last week, Crag had dumped all three shifts onto my sagging shoulders. I stole minute-long rests against my shovel when I could, but those last hours less than I wished they could.
I tossed another shovel-full of coal into the chamber and it flared, hissing and spitting back towards me. Luckily, the duct was wide enough that it rarely ever touched my skin. I did, however, have many singed pieces of hair or red burns on my hands. My first week here, I’d gotten too close to the duct and when I tossed, the backdraft flung the burning particles and they engulfed my hands. I’d been scarred ever since.
My body was numb to the majority of the pains it had endured the past months, my palms were calloused and hard, my skin used to the sweat and heat of the Sootcombs, my lungs accustom to breathing in the poison air. It was a type of life that one stayed in until they died, which for many wasn’t long after arriving.
I rolled my shoulders and leaned on the railing, rubbing my forehead with the back of my hand and letting out a long breath.
Throughout the day I’d felt the prickling in my chest, and only now did I press my hand flat against my breast, where my heart lay. Its pound was a sad sputter, barely registering in my veins. I sighed, turning back to the fire chamber and hefted another few loads in before having to stop again and touch my heart, it was so weak, so tired. Suddenly, like a stormy sea, the undertow ripped at my body, balance lost in the moment. Stumbling back, I let out a soft squeak and then slipped.
The duct was over four hundred feet deep, and it dragged on, though I didn’t really mind, my heart was collapsing in my chest, crushing under the strain of running my body. Though, in all honestly, I didn’t have a heart, not a full one at least. None of those down here did, for we lived in the home of the heartless. I closed my eyes, the gravity pulling me down, faster and faster, and I cupped my breast.