“I- I can’t keep doing this,” she said, running a hand through the tangled knots of her hair, “it’s not fair.”
He glanced at her, resting the pickaxe on his shoulder for a moment. “There’s not much of a choice, Diane,” he said with a shrug, his gaze floating back towards the cave walls as he scanned them up and down, looking for any more of their precious resource.
Sighing, she once again wrapping both hands around the grimy wooden handle. “You know there’s people up there.” She looked towards the roof of the cave, where only more untouched rock awaited them.
“Above us? Surely, in another tunnel.” He shrugged, the swinging of picks hitting rock could be heard echoing back from the way they came, from others climbing through tunnels of their own in search of minerals.
“No, I mean above all of that. There’s people way up there. On the surface.”
With a grunt, he took his pick and and swung it against the rock, another great clang that left his eardrums ringing. “The people who don’t mine?”
Nodding, she lifted the pickaxe to strike again at the mineral, barely flinching at the clang of metal on rock. “Why can’t we go up there, Will?”
Will pondered her question, his gaze floating aimlessly around the room as he wiped the sweat from his brow. “We haven’t earned it.”
“Earned it?” she said, narrowing her eyes. “We work down here everyday, and you think we don’t deserve something better? We’ve earned whatever paradise is up there.”
“We’ve been over this before, you can’t go up there until we’ve earned it.”
She stomped her foot, worn boots echoing on the floor. “When do we earn it? Have you ever seen someone taken up there, someone who earned their place?”
“No- but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. We just have to wait, do our part, and we can be the ones basking up there.” He went to swing his pick again, another clang echoing down the hall.
She threw down her pickaxe. “No. I’m going up there, today. I’ve had enough.”
“Diane if you waste time doing this we won’t mine enough to afford the next meal-“
“I won’t need it. I’ll be up there, and I’ll never mine these stupid gems for my food again.” She started towards the exit of the tunnel. “Are you coming, or do you want to mine away for the rest of your days?” She stuffed her hands into baggy pant pockets, glancing back at him.
“Fine. Just to disprove your theory.” He trailed after her, gently laying his pickaxe on the ground with plans to return to it later.
It didn’t take long to reach the entrance of the tunnel, their boots echoing along the floor sounding off from the cacophony of noises of other miners. They came to entrance every morning and night, to exit to get to their hammocks for the night, and to enter to mine once again in the morning.
They stood at the edge of the tunnel for a moment, Diane scanning their surroundings. It was what she had known all her life. Their tunnel opened into what Diane called The Hole, a pit that went ever downward, and when she carried her gaze upwards, faintly in the distance, she could see light from somewhere far up above. Around them were more tunnels, covering the walls in every size and shape, where the echoes of more mining could be heard. Everyone had a tunnel, whether they shared it with others was their own choice. She had been mining with Will since they were kids, and they always made more pooling their plunder of the day.
What mattered to Diane, however, was not the tunnels that coated the rocky walls, but the wooden structures and support beams that laced up and down between them, heading down as far as she could see, but also stretching upwards towards the sky like hands reaching out towards the light. "We can climb them," she said, rubbing at her chin as she tried to decide which one would be her ladder.
"There," she pointed to a few beams that crisscrossed back and forth, easy beams for them to grab onto and slowly climb their way up. It would be painful, and it would be slow. But was that any worse than mining?
Will rubbed at the bridge of his nose, shaking his head. "We could fall," he warned, "end up farther down. You know there's less minerals down there, too."
"But there's more up there!" she huffed. "Come on, this once, I'm not taking no for an answer. Come with me." Diane started towards the structure she had chosen, grasping on to the lowest bit of blackened and chipped wood, too excited too worry about splinters.
He shook his head, but he walked after her, testing his weight on the wood as he leaned against it. "I already said I would- but this is pointless. We'll fall. And if we don't fall, there's no chance of us reaching the top." He looked up, squinting to try and see any end to the hole above them, but there was no clear sight of the top.
"Just you watch," she said, starting to climb up. Diane let out a grunt, struggling to even make her way up onto the first wooden beam.
Wil rolled his eyes, helping her up onto the beam before pulling himself onto it, sighing. "This is going to go great..."
"Don't mock me!" she complained, managing to heave herself up to the next one without his help.
He followed after her, and they soon got into a rhythm, slowly climbing their way up.
It had been hours now, the light that shone down from the top of the tunnel had faded, and they continued to climb using the light from the lanterns hung above the tunnels.
"We should stop here," Will finally said as they arrived at a platform at the top of one of the structures where they'd have to switch over and start climbing a different one. "We're plenty high up here, you know. The minerals will be much richer, I'm sure we can find an empty tunnel. There's- there's no reason for us to keep going and risk falling back down." He took in a deep breath, thankful for the short break to rest his body.
"Oh come on, it's so much closer!" She looked up, now able to see the sky, stars twinkling up above them. She had never seen the stars before, and their shine was fascinating to her. It would be even more beautiful up close, seeing it from the surface. Sure, the minerals were more plentiful here, but she never wanted to mine again. To do that, she had to make it all the way up there.
"No, Diane. It's too risky- we've already come this far, I didn't think we'd ever get this far."
Her eyebrows furrowed, and she shook her head. "No, I want to keep going! We're so close, only a few hours more. I'm not giving up!"
Will sighed, sitting down on the platform. "I can't keep going," he said, shaking his head. "We've come so far... it's already better up here. I'm scared to fall, Diane. I can't go any higher."
Diane's eyes went wide, and she shook her head. "Will! Will you have to keep going, it'll be so much better when we get up there."
He shook his head. "I'm standing my ground on this one. I'll stay here. You keep going, do what you want. I'll stay here, the minerals are more plentiful, I'll barely have to work. That's enough for me."
"That's not enough! If we reach the top, it'll be a whole new world! There's so much to see, I want to share that with you."
"No, Diane! Just go without me. I'm not risking everything for a chance at getting to the top. What if they just push you back down, huh? Did you think about that?"
"They won't! I'll make it up there. And- And you'll be sorry!" she shouted, blinking back the tears as she thought about leaving Will behind. He would come up after her, right? If she made it up there, he would eventually come too. She just had to show him it was possible.
Will looked away from her, shaking his head as she marched off, heading carefully along the rocky edge to head to another supportive structure to climb.
Without Will, the climb felt so much longer. Her arms screamed at her to stop, and her feet dragged along the earth as she struggled to switch structures as they began to get shorter. Near the top, she soon figured out, there was no need for the extra support to keep it from collapsing. Eventually, as she reached the top of another one, she realized there was no more for her to climb. She would have to try and scale the walls.
Her optimism was starting to fade, and the idea of quitting was sounding rather appealing. She was already so high- it would be easy to mine up here, easy to quit. But while her mind thought about the ease of quitting, she could just barely see the lip of the hole, she was an actual witness to the top of the hole. She could see the finish line.
Diane took in a deep breath, bracing herself. She was this close. She couldn't quit now, no matter the odds.
The walls were rocky enough, and ever so slowly she began to creep upwards, her hands struggling for a grip on the slight indents, barely able to find footholds. There would be no breaks, she had to just keep climbing.
It was taking longer than she expected, the lack of sleep beginning to pull at her, energy reserves in her body low. But she was almost there. Just keep climbing.
A few times, as she headed dangerously close to the top, her foot would slip, or her hand would lose its careful grip. Her eyes would go wide, and she would be reminded of Will, telling her to stop, to quit while she was ahead. But she'd always regain her balance. She had to go farther.
Eventually, her shaking hands reaching for another grip above her, it wasn't the rocky wall that met her hand, but instead the edge, her hand grasping something soft that was at the tope. Energy rushed through her like a water dam that burst open, pushing herself to climb over the edge, finally dragging her body onto the earth of the surface, laying on her back as shallow breaths escaped her.
She had made it. Despite everything, she had made it. Beneath her was something soft, and she soon realized it was grass, rubbing her hands back and forth along it. Of course she had heard tales of the surface, but never truly had she felt what was described, or seen the stars that sparkled above her, as if they were applauding her for making it this far.
She laid there, her eyes slowly drifting shut, basking in the quiet peace of the surface, and her success. Her life was different now. A whole new world was laid out before her. Even if she had to face it alone.