The sound was the loudest Clayton Poole had ever heard, the noise he imagined a bomb would make if the Huns attacked Long Island. Twelve years old, a sturdy boy with freckles and a blunt boxer's jaw, he'd been sketching a line of sandpipers on the bottom margin of his Elson Reader. Pretty Miss Collier, in a brown-checked dress, stood with her back to the fifth- and sixth-grade children, writing a list of spelling words on the blackboard. The sound crashed around them like a breaking wave and the windows rattled in their casements. The chalk in Miss Collier's hand skipped across the slate like a stone on pond water.
Clayton was the first one to reach the window. To the west of Fire Neck, white smoke billowed against the sky. Maybe it had been a bomb. Where was his sister? What if she'd been hurt? At the front of the classroom, a girl in pigtails started to blubber. Clayton thought of the birds at Washington Lodge, where he worked every morning before school. The cockatoos were inside, he reminded himself, because of the man from Boston. "Sit down, children! Sit down!" cried Miss Collier. She slapped the desk with her ruler. But they stayed clustered at the window with their faces up against the glass like the turtles in the class terrarium.
Seeing his chance, Clayton edged toward the door.
Clayton's sister, Nancy, 19 years old, was riding bareback down Old Purchase Road when the thunderous noise spooked her horse. She felt the animal contort beneath her, then surge forward like water through a broken dam. She hung on to the mane as they careered across the road, narrowly swerving around a child on a tricycle. Nancy saw a red cap and the round O of a mouth. Gripping with her knees, she hauled on the reins. The horse galloped into the woods that bordered the marsh. A flock of black ducks rose from Scheibel's Creek. Leaves and vines whipped against her, and Nancy crouched lower and tried to shield her face with her elbow. Then a branch loomed and she was scraped off the horse's back like mud from the heel of a boot. She landed on the damp ground among the skunk cabbage, rattled and indignant. It had been years since she'd fallen off a horse. In the distance she heard the sound of Buckshot crashing through the blueberry and the shadbushes.
In Fire Neck, just east of Southease, Clayton's grandfather woke with a start. In his dream a ship had run aground with all sails set and was breaking up on the sandbar. August Scudder had worked for most of his life in the United States Life Saving Service across the Great South Bay on Fire Island; his dreams were full of maritime disasters. Scudder jerked upright, surprised to find himself not in a lifeboat but in a chair on the front porch of his house. Out in the yard he saw his son, Roy, standing open-mouthed.
"What the hell?" Scudder demanded. Roy was staring over the trees at a ragged cloud smudging the blue sky. He wondered aloud if this might be war, if the town of Southease had been bombed by the Germans.
Scudder's thoughts leaped to his granddaughter, out riding her horse. The girl was his favorite, like her late mother before her, and he wanted her home. He distrusted horses at the best of times, skittish beasts, prone to shying. "Where was Nancy headed?"
Roy shrugged. Behind the house his hunting dogs barked and whined.
"And Mavis," said Scudder, thinking of his youngest child, "up at the lodge."
Washington Lodge, where Roy's sister Mavis worked, lay on a small rise between Southease and Fire Neck, much closer to the confusion. The two men exchanged a look. "Pigs," Roy said. "I'd better go and bring her home."
In the kitchen of Washington Lodge, Clayton's Aunt Mavis prepared to meet her maker. She'd scalded a goose and had just started to pluck it. There were two loaves of bread in the oven, and she'd opened the window above the sink to let out some of the heat. Then the room shuddered around her and a stack of dishes lurched to the floor. The goose slipped from her fingers. From the pantry came the tinkling sound of wineglasses breaking. Mavis, stout and ungainly, fell heavily to her knees and pressed her feather-covered hands together. Out the window an ugly gray cloud was rising above the trees. "Our Father who art in Heaven . . . " The cloud seemed to take on a shape. She could see it moving toward her. The fist of God, she thought, breathing in the smell of brimstone. She squeezed her eyes shut and prayed as fire whistles went off and dogs all over town began to howl. She prayed as flakes of ash as big as hands drifted in through the open window and brushed her face.
Rushing home, Clayton saw ashes dancing in the wind along the string of lanes that ran south toward the bay off Beaver Dam Road. They settled on the grass and on a half-empty laundry basket at the corner of Hawkins Lane, where a clothesline had been abandoned. The last shirt on the line fluttered a damp arm. Clayton rounded the corner onto Salt Hay Road, his shoes kicking up dust.
The Scudder house stood at the end of the lane, facing the uninterrupted marsh. Across the field, the Barto River flowed toward the Great South Bay. As Clayton turned into the yard, he could see the masts of the sailboats at Starke's Boatyard poking up over the far hedge. His grandfather stood at the door to the house, a sinewy man with a crest of white hair. His sharp nose protruded like a beak. "What happened?" Scudder asked.
Clayton struggled to catch his breath. "Where's Nancy?" Flakes of ash and charred paper drifted down around them. The stain in the sky had faded and spread toward them on an easterly wind that blew the sharp smell of gunpowder with it. Ash settled on the grass and on the yellow daffodils by the gate.
"Riding," Scudder told him. "Roy's gone to fetch your aunt. Why aren't you at school?"
"Riding where?" Clayton insisted. He had slipped out of school in the confusion, something he didn't care to explain, because his sister wouldn't like it. Now she wasn't home. What had started as a small uneasiness unfurled inside him, billowing like a sail in a gust of wind.
Scudder shrugged his bony shoulders. "Who knows where she goes on that animal. Run over to the Captain's house. See if he's all right."
Captain Kelley lived alone in a cottage across the field. He was an old man, almost as old as Scudder, and they had known each other since their days in the Life Saving Service. Clayton knocked on the door for form's sake before opening it. The small, dim house was overrun with cats. Two of them rubbed against his legs as he stepped inside. It took Clayton's eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness. In the front parlor, portraits of the Captain's mother and father hung on the wall, draped in dusty black lace. The shades were always drawn; Captain Kelley had once explained to Clayton that he hated looking out of dirty windows. From the sofa came the sound of snoring. Clayton tiptoed across the rug. The Captain was stretched out, with his head on a pillow and his mouth open. His white mustache rose and fell. The room smelled of fish and cats and standing water. Clayton closed the door softly behind him and stepped back into the sunlight.
Instead of going home, he skirted the field and headed into Southease. He knew his sister sometimes rode down to the Southease dock to watch the sailboats on the bay. Until he saw her, the jittery feeling in his gut would only get worse. At Hawkins Nursery, glass lay smashed at the base of the greenhouse like drifts of ice. A little girl stood barefoot on the porch next door and cried halfheartedly, rubbing her eyes with her fists. Across the street a man in a gray suit was stamping out a fire on an otherwise immaculate lawn. "What happened, mister?" Clayton called.
"The fireworks factory," the man said glumly. "Look at all this garbage!" Scraps of singed paper hung in the green privet.
Clayton asked if anyone had been hurt.
"I wouldn't be surprised," said the man in gray. "The blast nearly took my roof off!"
A policeman had blocked off Main Street with a saw horse, forcing the traffic to turn back. On a lawn nearby, bits of orange and silver shone in the sunlight where a window had shattered and blown outward, along with an aquarium. Half a dozen goldfish lay strewn like bright fruit on the grass.
Clayton planted himself in front of the policeman. "Mister, have you seen a girl on a black horse?"
Intent and self-important, the policeman shook his head. He had a whistle between his teeth and blew it sharply, gesturing at a Buick convertible that had come to a stop and was now blocking traffic.
Clayton hurried on, past the fish market and the stationery store. A woman in curlers ran by, nearly knocking into him, a scarf clutched to her head. Clayton joined a cluster of people on the sidewalk. They stood watching as, across the street, firemen from the Southease Hook and Ladder hosed the smoldering debris that had once been the fireworks factory. Blackened and twisted shapes protruded randomly from the rubble. "I knew it the minute I heard it," a man in a houndstooth hat was saying. He had the stub of a cigarette in his mouth, unlit, and talked around it. "They were always testing something."
"Not like that," said another man, with a snort of derision or disbelief. "Not that loud. I thought it was gunshots."
A woman in the front of the group shook her head. "I knew it was fireworks. All that popping before the bang, and the colors. Red and yellow and green. Like a Christmas tree."
"Excuse me," Clayton said, pushing himself forward. "I'm looking for my sister. On a black horse?" An older woman with a shopping bag turned to look at him and tutted, sympathetic. No, no one had seen a horse.
The man with the cigarette stub spat it onto the ground. "Would have bolted," he muttered. "Miles from here by now."
Clayton felt their interest in his small problem ebb. The crowd turned back to the smoking wreckage across the street.
The fireworks at the Lights of Long Island were made by hand, packed one by one with a brief and particular glory, from penny snaps to aerial shells to set pieces that took weeks to construct. What had set them off was a rogue spark, a scrap of electricity. One squib shot up, then a few more. Then came the rolling explosion as the rest fired off together - the beehives and the Niagara Falls, the willow tree rockets and flying pigeons, the pinwheels, the crimson stars, the white-and-gold flitter, the revolving suns and the Saxon crosses - each carefully planned artifice of light reduced to smoke and noise.
Out on the Great South Bay, fishermen on their boats heard the loud report and saw smoke like a sudden thunderhead rise above the trees. In Southease windows shattered in houses and storefronts from Main Street to Oyster Lane. Burning debris hurtled through the air. A man on Ketchum Road later swore that the face of the Shah of Persia had appeared in lights above his vegetable garden. The stained-glass window in the Presbyterian church, the one showing Christ as a fisher of souls, fell in pieces. Greenhouses echoed with the sound of breaking glass. When the ground shook, people feared their homes were collapsing around them; a terrified mother tossed her baby out an open window. Wrapped in a blanket, he landed unharmed in the yellow branches of a forsythia.
While people panicked and dogs howled, the cloud of burned powder rose over the fireworks compound and the maple trees on the sidewalk. It broke up slowly, catching in the spokes of the windmills and the leafy tips of trees, curling south in wisps down Main Street. It drifted out over the tops of sailboats moored at the Southease dock, east over a stretch of oak and scrub pine, down Fire Neck Road, along the grasses and cattails of Scheibel's Creek. It spooled over the salt marsh, sifting powder and ash onto the spartina and high-tide bush. Beyond the marsh lay the Great South Bay, and beyond the bay stretched Fire Island, a long and narrow strip of sand clumped into dunes, where, days later, Clayton and his friend Perry would collect piles of blackened cotton and singed balsa wood that washed up along the beach.
Excerpted from "The House on Salt Hay Road" by Carin Clevidence. Copyright © 2010 by Carin Clevidence. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.