In 1911 Pennsylvania Coal Country, can Corey overcome the panic attacks that prevent him from helping support his family?
Corey is just a kid, but his family needs him to chip in. He’s dropped out of school and works as a breaker boy—picking out coal impurities from bins—in the coal mines of Pennsylvania.
But after a skating accident nearly kills Corey, he begins having panic attacks and nightmares. Corey turns to Mrs. Chudzik, a strange and mysterious local recluse, for help. She’s a trained doctor and Corey’s overwhelming fear of tight spaces means he is jeopardizing his family’s future.
When there is a disaster at the mine, trapping his father, Corey knows it’s time to face his fear. He and Mrs. Chudzik’s hound, Hovi, must find the trapped miners and bring help. But how can he when the thought of being in the dark and enclosed space might be more than Corey can handle?
Breaker Boy 1 Drowning! Corey sat on a rock, pulled off his boots, and pushed his feet into the old pair of skates. He looked at the shining surface of the ice and grinned. He had been watching day after day, until the fragile shell of ice on the top hardened as smooth as a mirror. Once the kids who didn’t work in the mines realized the ice was safe, they would crowd every puddle and pond around Wilkes-Barre each afternoon and weekend, to play hockey. But for now, Corey had the whole pond to himself—except for a dog somewhere nearby, who kept barking.
After lacing up the skates, he stepped onto the ice, gliding awkwardly around the perimeter of the pond, his ankles folding inward. It was always like this the first time out. Besides, the skates were too tight. His feet had grown a couple of sizes since last winter.
However, he probably wouldn’t have much time to skate once he started to work. Corey was eleven—almost twelve—and the oldest boy in the family. Dad tried to put off the inevitable, hoping his sons would never work in the mines. However, Dad told him just a few days ago that the family needed money. There was no way to get around it. Corey would find a job in the mine, and quit school in February, when he turned twelve.
Still, once I start working, maybe I could put something aside for new skates. Maybe a nickel or dime now and then. I’ll hide them in the cigar box Dad gave me. “To keep your treasures—your special things,” Dad said. What special things? Corey remembered opening it, expecting something special inside. It was empty. It remained empty except for a rabbit’s foot that he found on the way home from school one rainy day that still stank from the wet fur.
Corey did a quick turn and skated forward again. He stroked across the smooth ice, heading out to the middle of the pond. A few white clouds moved rapidly across the blue sky. He could see the gables of the big house on the hillside, belonging to that strange Mrs. Chudzik, the Polish widow of Dr. Chudzik. Corey heard the kids at school whisper that she was “peculiar.” Corey was curious how they knew, since he had never met her. He’d seen her a few times driving around in her bright red touring car with her scary-looking dog at her side, when she went out for groceries or something.
In fact, he had just seen her this morning down by the company store. A few women standing nearby whispered that the dog in the front seat was Mrs. Chudzik’s hellhound. His grandpa told creepy tales about the hellhounds of Wales, where he was born—stories of dogs with blazing eyes and bloody fangs. Poppa, his Polish grandfather, said that if a hellhound looked at you three times, you would probably die in a terrible accident or something worse.
As Corey stood on tiptoes to see the driver of the snappy red convertible, the dog had stared at Corey and bared his teeth. Three times this happened! Corey felt a shiver run down his back at the memory. It was no wonder that everyone in town stayed away from Mrs. Chudzik. Just having the dog bare his teeth was enough to scare the pants off anyone.
No one saw Mrs. Chudzik or her dog very often. Most of the time, she and her dog stayed inside the gloomy gray mansion. But it was also said she had a beak instead of a nose—and when she lured children into her house, they were never heard from again.
Corey turned to do a little circle, when suddenly his blade hit—what? He heard an echoing sound, and he realized, too late, that the ice had cracked and he was falling into a black hole of icy water.
He grabbed for the edge of the opening, and more ice cracked and broke off. He tried to swim, but the waterlogged sleeves of his jacket pulled him deeper into the blackness.
As he sank, he groped for the edge of the hole again, but this time he couldn’t find it. The sun shone through the ice above him and everything was bright and blurry. Where was the hole he had fallen through?
His bulky clothes and skates dragged him deeper. He tried to kick his way to the surface, but he could not lift his legs. His pants were full of water and tugging at him; his arms were heavy and tired.
Clouds must have covered the sun, as now it was as dark as a grave. He pressed his mouth near the ice and found a small place of air just under the surface. He must stay close to the top and breathe in that tiny space of air until someone came.
But who would come? No one was around.
It was hard to stay near the pocket of air, with his soaked clothes pulling him under. Terror crept over him, and he panicked. Thrashing, he fought to break the ice above him. His arms and legs were useless and weary, and he found himself slipping, slipping down into the murkiness.
He needed air—he had to breathe. He tried to take a breath, but water flooded into his mouth and down into his lungs.
As he nodded out of consciousness, he could hear the barking dog, but when he felt his feet touch the bottom of the pond, he knew he had drowned.
Joan Hiatt Harlow is the author of several popular historical novels including Secret of the Night Ponies, Shadows on the Sea, Midnight Rider, Star in the Storm, Joshua’s Song, Thunder from the Sea, and Breaker Boy. Ms. Harlow lives in Venice, Florida. For more information, visit her at JoanHiattHarlow.com.