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Third Place: Luzerne

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Through the smudged window of the classroom, Edward could see the sun shining on the hill of the school. His classmates were still standing, talking. Afternoon break had been over for five minutes, but the teacher had not yet returned. They were supposed to be reviewing their history books. Edward refused to read the textbook unless he was forced to, but the sitting down was his concession. Better to be at least halfway obedient rather than stupidly rebellious, he figured.

Edward looked down at his left hand, covered in faded, bleeding ink lines. Directions home. Three days into the school year and he still could not remember how to get back to his house. It was getting harder not to wash the hand, but he was too ashamed to ask his mother to redraw the map. Sweat had turned his tiny palm into a mess of tangled blue lines, like one of his own drawings.

When the teacher finally returned to the classroom and saw his students, his features twisted into an unfamiliar arrangement, a different version of his standard angry face.

"Children! Take your seats immediately!" he shouted. The teacher smoothed the folds in his vest. "I'm shocked to see that none of you know the rules about break yet." He walked slowly in front of the chalkboard, then marched up and down each row of desks. "How is it that Edward Connolly knew to sit down at 1:30 and the rest of you did not?"

Edward could feel his head grow hot. This would not win him any friends, he knew. He whispered a slight prayer into his cupped hands to the Holy Mother Mary, asking her to please stop the teacher from mentioning him by name and to do her best to protect him from any beatings his classmates might have in store for him after school. In exchange, he promised to stop swearing under his breath and gave his word that he wouldn't tell his little brother any ghost stories for a month. Edward felt the wall furnace kick on, felt the shimmer of its heat burning through his shirt to his elbow. He took it as a sign.

Saint Aloysius Grade School sat halfway up one of the highest hills in the county, above the town, above the river, above everything save the true mountains. When Edward walked through the doors at dismissal time, he could feel the tumble of the hill tugging at him, the pull of the town and his home somewhere down below. The sun was strong and bright that afternoon, as it often was up near the school; it shone so hard sometimes that Edward thought it almost made a noise as it struck the trees and grass. In the summer, when they had first moved to the town, he had asked his father why the hill was always so sunny; his father had told him that it was because of the coal in the ground, that the sun was striving for it just like the miners, could feel the blackness of the veins of coal rolling through the deep-down unbeating heart of the hill. Edward did not believe this explanation. The sun knew nothing, had no need for coal. Edward shaded his eyes with his hand as he left the school building and walked down the footworn path.

"Hey, Connolly," an unfamiliar voice shouted from behind him, somewhere up above. Edward looked back over his shoulder and saw three boys from his class. One he knew was a Lithuanian boy, who spoke English in a slanted, deliberate way. The other two were dirty, but dressed in clothes like Edward's. The way they had said his last name made it difficult for Edward to tell if they were truly angry or merely irritated. The group walked toward him.

"What? What do you want?" Edward thought it best to be on the defensive, considering what had happened that afternoon. He knew that obeying school rules, regardless of motivation, was a cardinal sin in the eyes of his classmates.

"Thought you were so smart, didn't you?" one of the boys said, walking in front of the other two.

"Not smarter than you. Just wanted to sit down." Edward watched the three boys circle around him. He felt a kind of twisting and pulling in his stomach. He was nervous already about following the directions home, and he did not want to have to fight. The boy talking to him had long, thin brown hair and a pale, fat face. His cheeks reminded Edward slightly of the head of a cauliflower.

"Think you're better than us, huh? Your dad works in the mine just like ours do." Here the boy poked Edward's chest, right in the middle button of his shirt. "No better."

"Maybe," Edward answered. "Never said I was." The other boy took a step back and looked at Edward, judged how hard he was. He motioned to his two companions, who walked over and stood next to him. They whispered to each other and the Lithuanian boy pointed toward the mountains. They seemed to come to an agreement. Edward did not want to wait any longer, did not want to hear what they would say next, and turned to leave down the path.

"Wait there, Connolly. If you're the same as all us, you can get a little dirty. C'mon."

"Can't. Have to get home." Edward was tired, and was not as afraid of these boys as they thought he should be. His father had taught him to box, had taught him how to swing and turn his fist to break a nose, shatter a cheekbone.

"If you don't come, we'll beat you and your little brother every time we see you alone." The fat boy smiled and mimed some punches to illustrate. "Rocks, sticks, nails, bottles. Whatever, we'll use it."

Edward realized with a cold shiver how much of a stone fool he was. He knew he should have just kept on walking, followed the directions on his hand until he reached his tall, narrow home at the bottom of the hill, near the river. If they wanted a fight, he could deal with it, probably hurt one or two of them. It was fine for them to threaten him alone, but he didn't want to also risk his little brother, who was too young and too small, and who could not defend himself in any way. He would go with them.

The colliery buildings were up on the right side of the path that the boys walked upon. Edward had been up there twice with his father in the summer, and knew where the entrance to the mines was, but they were hiking through the woods in a different direction, had steered off toward the left, along an alternate cut in the trail. No one had spoken since they left the school, and Edward felt the still, heavy atmosphere of a mistake every time he breathed in deeply. The sky was purple through the trees, branches looked thick and painted against the color of the sunset. Maybe the others were tired, he thought, and that was why the silence. After they had gone another 15 minutes of walking past the colliery, they came to a small, clear area, spread out with gravel and fist-sized rocks. It was a braitch hole, an unused airshaft. It was jagged and small, five feet across at most. Edward had heard stories from both his father and his mother about people, usually drunk and young, who had been injured in a braitch hole, trying to climb down late at night, without lights, without any knowledge of the hole or the way it lay within the ground.

They gathered around the edge.

"There it is," said the boy with the fat face.

"Sure looks deep," the other one said, and grinned. The Lithuanian boy merely stared at Edward.

"Scared?"

"No," said Edward. "I've seen it before." He was lying, and he hoped the others couldn't tell. "I'm going home now." It was just starting to turn dark, and there were more than two miles of path between this hole and his house. Edward glanced quickly at his palm. He would have to try to memorize the directions before the light failed completely. The Lithuanian boy grabbed his wrist.

"Look," he said, and turned Edward's hand so that the others could see the palm.

"What is that, Connolly?" They squinted their eyes at the lines. "Doodlin' pictures on your hand?"

Edward pulled his arm back hard. "It's none of your worry," he said. He rubbed his wrist with his fingers.

"Well," said the fat boy, "go ahead." Edward looked at him to see what he meant. The other boy narrowed his eyes. "We've all been in there. Now you have to climb down. If you're just like us, then you'll climb down." He took a few careful steps toward Edward and pointed to the braitch hole, across his own chest. "You're new. Your family's new. If you come from coal," he paused and kicked a small rock forward, "you'll show us."

Edward recalled seeing his father come home from work, exhausted, glazed over with black dust, as if he had been traced over with a charcoal pencil. He knew who and what his family was. He wanted to be back with them then, with his brother and his mother in the kitchen, setting the table for dinner. In their old town, they had eaten meals with their neighbors, had picnicked with people from their parish, played with children from other counties. This town was different, worse. No one spoke to them after church on Sunday except the priest. His father was often upset, seemed unsure and imbalanced. His mother complained about the way she was received by everyone, in shops, in the streets. This town was strict. It was not easily impressed. Edward looked up at the sky, at the ribbon of twilight still in it. He could not imagine how things would ever be better, how he could bypass this time and this place. There seemed to be no way around it.

If he could have seen just for a second somehow, a mirage or vision or epiphany, the way his life would be, the person that he would become in 30 years, his adult Edward self, and the long, wending, incandescent progression of events that drew its own way from that moment to the next and to the next, and how insignificant this hole was, how ruthlessly petty and tiny these people were, if he could have glimpsed it, saw it like the sun through a sheer bank of clouds, how quickly he would forget this town — this town and the soft, brown water in the river and the gray rising scope of the mountains and the ink lines drawn gently on his hand by his mother scraped away by the hard, hard coal, by stillborn diamonds dusty and black; if he could have known, at that moment, that one day he would forget all of this, he might not have lowered himself into the hole, inch by inch, gingerly, with tense arms and a grimace of effort, down into the hole, a sweat bead hanging on the length of his eyelash, his legs scrambling optimistically for rocks, down into the dark hole, not knowing how or if he would land or where he would emerge, his heart beating the ribs of his small chest with a primal thump, further down into the dark, quiet hole. If he could have seen it, he would not have clung there to the shorn, black edge, suspended in earth, transfixed. He would have risen, confidently, and walked quickly and silently to his home, with the mountain at his back, and the town there below him at his feet. S

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