Under a Dark Summer Sky is a stunning debut novel, at once a love story set in a time of great turmoil and a vivid depiction a vicious hurricane.
Florida, 1935. In Heron Key, relationships are as tangled as the swamp's mangrove roots. It's been eighteen long years since Henry went away to war. Still, Missy has waited, cleaning the Kincaids' house and counting the stars. Now he's back, but she barely recognizes the desperate, destitute veteran he's become unsure of his future, ashamed of his past. When a white woman is found beaten nearly to death after the Fourth of July barbecue, suspicion falls on him immediately. As tensions rise in the small community, the barometer starts to plummet a massive hurricane is on its way.
Based on real historical events,Under a Dark Summer Sky evokes what happens when people, sweating under the weight of their pasts, are tested to the absolute limits of their endurance.
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)|
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Under a Dark Summer Sky
By Vanessa Lafaye
Sourcebooks, Inc.Copyright © 2015 Vanessa Lafaye
All rights reserved.
The humid air felt like water in the lungs, like drowning. A feeble breeze stirred the washing on the line briefly but then the clothes fell back, exhausted by their exertion. Despite the heat, they refused to dry. The daily thunderstorms did nothing to reduce the temperature, just made the place steam. Like being cooked alive, Missy thought, like those big crabs in their tub of seawater, waiting for the pot tonight.
She bathed the baby outside in the basin under the banyan tree's canopy of shade, both to cool and clean him. His happy splashes covered them both in soapy water. Earlier that morning, asleep in his new basket, his rounded cheeks had turned an alarming shade of red, like the overripe strawberries outside the kitchen door. You could have too much of a good thing, Missy knew, even strawberries. This summer's crop had defeated even her formidable preserving skills, and the fruit had been left to rot where it lay.
The peacocks called in the branches overhead. Little Nathan's cheeks had returned to a healthy rose-tinted cream color, so she could relax. With a grunt, Missy levered herself off the ground and onto the wooden kitchen chair beside the basin and brushed the dead grass from her knees. There was no one else around, only Sam the spaniel, panting on the porch. Mrs. Kincaid had gone to see Nettie, the dressmaker, a rare foray from the house, and Mr. Kincaid was at the country club, as usual. He had not slept at home more than a handful of nights in the past few months, always working late. The mangroves smelled musky, like an animal, the dark brown water pitted with the footprints of flies.
Nathan started to whimper like he did when he was tired. Missy lifted him out of the water and patted him dry with the towel. He was already drowsy again, so she laid him naked in the basket in the shade. With a sigh, she spread her legs wide to allow the air to flow up her skirt and closed her eyes, waving a paper fan printed with "I'm a fan of Washington, DC." Mrs. Kincaid had given it to her when they came back from their trip. Mrs. Kincaid had insisted on going with her husband, to shop. Their argument had been heard clear across the street, according to Selma, who didn't even have good ears.
Even so, Selma knew everyone's business. Before anyone else, Selma knew when Mrs. Anderson's boy, Cyril, lost a hand at the fish-processing plant, even before Doc Williams had been called. She knew that Mrs. Campbell's baby would come out that exact shade of milky coffee, even though Deputy Sheriff Dwayne Campbell had the freckles and red hair of his Scottish immigrant ancestors. She just knew things, and Missy had no idea how.
Selma had helped when Missy first went to work for the Kincaids ten years ago. She showed Missy where the best produce was to be found, the freshest fish. People told things to Selma, private things. She looked so unassuming, with her wide smile and soft, down-turned gaze. But Missy knew those eyes were turned down to shield a fierce intelligence, and she had witnessed Selma's machinations. Missy was slightly afraid of Selma, which gave their friendship an edge. Selma was that bit older and had more experience of things generally. She seemed able to manipulate anyone in town and leave no trace, had done so when it suited her. After Cynthia LeJeune had criticized Selma's peach cobbler, somehow the new sewage treatment plant got sited right upwind of the LeJeune house. It took a full-blooded fool to cross Selma.
Missy sighed and stroked Nathan's cheek. His lips formed a perfect pink O, his long lashes quivered, and his round tummy rose and fell. Sweat soaked Missy's collar. When she leaned forward, the white uniform remained stuck to her back. She longed to strip off the clinging dress and run naked into the water, only a few yards away. And then she recalled: there was still some ice in the box in the kitchen — no, the "refrigerator," as Mrs. Kincaid said they were called now. She imagined pressing the ice to her neck, feeling the chilled blood race around her body until even her fingertips were cool. They would not mind, she thought, wouldn't even notice if she took a small chunk. There was no movement at all in the air. The afternoon's thunderclouds were piled like cotton on the horizon, grayish white on top and crushed violet at the bottom.
I'll only be a minute.
Inside the kitchen, it was even stuffier than outside, although the windows were wide open and the ceiling fan turned on. Missy opened the refrigerator, took the pick to the block. A fist-size chunk dropped onto the worn wooden counter. She scooped it up, rubbed it on her throat, around the back of her neck, and felt instant relief. She rubbed it down her arms, up her legs. She opened the front of her uniform and rubbed the dwindling ice over her chest. Cool water trickled down to her stomach. Eyes closed, she returned it to her throat, determined to enjoy it down to the last drop, when she became aware of a sound outside.
Sam barked, once, twice, three times. This was not his greeting bark. It was the same sound he made that time when the wild-eyed man had turned up in the backyard, looking for food. Armed with a kitchen knife, Missy had yelled at him to get away, but it was Sam's frenzied barking that had driven him off.
"Nathan," she groaned, racing to the porch. At first she could not comprehend what her eyes saw. The Moses basket was moving slowly down the lawn toward the mangroves, with Sam bouncing hysterically from one side of it to the other. She could hear faint cries from the basket as Nathan woke. She stumbled down the porch steps in her hurry and raced toward the retreating basket.
Then she saw him.
He was camouflaged by the mangroves' shade at the water's edge, almost the same green as the grass. He was big, bigger than any she had seen before. From his snout, clamped onto a corner of the basket, to the end of his dinosaur tail, the gator was probably fourteen feet long. Slowly he planted each of his giant clawed feet and determinedly dragged the basket toward the water.
"Nathan! Oh God! Someone please help!" Missy screamed and ran to within a few feet of the gator. But the large houses of the neighbors were empty, everyone at the beach preparing for the Fourth of July barbecue. "Sam, get him! Get him!"
The dog launched himself with a snarl at the gator, but the reptile swung his body around with incredible speed. His enormous spiked tail, easily twice as long as the dog, surged through the air and slammed into Sam with such force that he was flung against the banyan tree. The dog slid down the trunk and lay unmoving on the ground.
"Sam! No! Oh, Sam!"
The gator continued his steady progress toward the water. Missy swallowed great gulping breaths to hold down the panicky vomit rising in her gut. Everything seemed to happen very fast and very slow at the same time. She scanned the yard for anything that would serve as a weapon, but there was not even a fallen branch, thanks to the diligence of Lionel, the gardener. The gator had almost reached the water. Missy knew very well what would happen next: he would take Nathan to the bottom of the swamp and wedge him between the arching mangrove roots until he drowned. Then the gator would wait for a few days or a week before consuming his nicely tenderized meat.
And then she imagined the Kincaids' faces when they learned the fate of their baby son, what they would do when they found out that a child in her care had been so horribly neglected. The gator's yellow eyes regarded her with ancient, total indifference, as if she were a dragonfly hovering above the water. And then suddenly the panic drained from her like pus from a boil and she felt light and calm. She was not afraid. She knew what she had to do. That precious baby boywill not be a snack for no giant lizard.
Missy's thoughts cleared. Despite the ferocious mouthful of teeth, she knew that most of the danger came from the alligator's back end. She began to circle nearer the head. She need only spend a moment within the reach of that tail, which was as long as she was tall, to snatch Nathan from the basket. If she succeeded, then all would be well. If she failed, then she deserved to go to the bottom with him. The gator had reached the waterline. There was no more time.
Movement on the porch. Suddenly Selma was running down the lawn toward her, loading the shotgun as she ran.
"Outta the way, Missy!" she cried, stomach and bosoms bouncing, stubby legs pounding. Missy had never seen Selma run, did not know that she could. "Outta the way!"
Missy threw herself to the ground, hands over her head. Selma stumbled to a halt and regained her balance, feet spread wide apart, stock of the gun buried between her arm and her bountiful chest.
"Shoot it, Selma!" yelled Missy. "For the love of Jesus, shoot it, NOW!"
There was an explosion. The peacocks shrieked and dropped clumsily to the ground and fled for the undergrowth. The air smelled burnt. And there was another smell, like cooked chicken. Missy looked up. Selma was on her back, legs spread, the gun beside her. The baby was screaming.
"Nathan," Missy whispered and scrambled to her feet. "Nathan, I'm coming!"
The gator was where she had last seen it. Well, most of it was there, minus the head. The rest of the body was poised to enter the water.
"Oh, Nathan!" He was covered in gore. It was in his hair, his eyes, his ears. She scooped the flailing baby from the basket and inspected his limbs, his torso, his head, searching for injuries. But he was unhurt, it seemed, utterly whole. She clutched his writhing form to her, made him scream louder, but she did not care. "It all right, honey, hush now, everything gonna be all right."
"The baby?" asked Selma, propped on her elbows. "Is he —?"
"He fine! He absolutely fine!"
"Thank the Lord," said Selma, wincing as she got to her feet, "and Mr. Remington." She rubbed her shoulder. "Helluva kick on him though."
Missy said nothing, just cooed and rocked Nathan with her eyes closed. He still cried, but fretful, just-woken crying, and it was a joyous sound to hear. Her uniform was sticky with blood transferred from his little body. She looked up suddenly. The Kincaids would be home in a few hours to get ready for the barbecue, and when they learned what nearly happened, she would be fired. And that might not be the worst of it.
"Missy," said Selma firmly, "come on. We got a lot to do."
She felt cold under the hot sun. "Oh, Selma, I'm done for."
"Listen to me, girl. This ain't the biggest mess I've seen, by far." She shook Missy by the shoulder. "Come on now, pay attention. First we get him cleaned up, and that basket too." She scrutinized it with a professional eye. "Yeah, this ain't too bad."
The bundle at the base of the tree stirred, emitted a soft cry. "Sam! He alive! Oh, Selma, how bad is he?" He had been an awful trial as a puppy, eating the legs right off the living room furniture and weeing in Mr. Kincaid's suitcase, but Sam had been Missy's only companion most days.
"Give me a minute," said Selma. She bent over the dog, stroked his ribs, felt his legs, his head. "Nothing broken," she pronounced. "Just knocked out. Be some bad bruises. I'll give you something for that." She straightened. "Call him."
"Sam, here, boy! Come here, Sammy!" The dog's eyes opened slowly. He raised his head, whimpered as he struggled onto his front legs, then straightened his back legs. "Good boy, Sammy, good boy!" Missy could not look at the carcass by the water's edge. "What about ... what do we do with ... that?"
"What do you think?" Selma was already striding toward it with great purpose. "We eat it. By the time my people is done here, won't be nothin' to see but a few peacock feathers."CHAPTER 2
As she hurried home, Missy's heart thumped crazily, like a moth trapped in a glass. Her feet sped along the familiar road, shoes whitened by the dust of crushed clamshells. To have come so close to losing Nathan ... Were it not for Selma's quick action, the boy would now be tucked under the water somewhere, awaiting the gator's pleasure. The very thought of his blond curls stirred by the current, his blue eyes empty and sightless, the gator's jaws open for the first bite ... Oh, dear Lord. Sweating hard, she forced her steps to slow. One deep breath, then another, then another. "Breathing and praying," Mama always said. "The only two things you got to do every day."
The pounding in her chest began to ease. Nathan was safe. There was no need for the Kincaids ever to know about the incident. All thanks to Selma ... and someone else. She stopped for a moment to say a thank-you to the sky.
Hard to believe that the huge pile of bloody meat would soon be cleaned up and gone, but Missy had no reason to doubt Selma's word. It seemed all of her extended family had answered the call to help with the carcass.
Missy had prepared to help too, but Selma had said, "You go home, make yourself pretty for the barbecue. I take care of Nathan till Mrs. Kincaid get home." The baby bounced happily on her hip, all cleaned up, his favorite wooden elephant in his mouth.
Missy had picked a speck of gore from his hair, on his miraculously unharmed head. "Well, okay, then. Thank you. See y'all at the beach."
The Fourth of July barbecue and fireworks display was the high point in Heron Key's social calendar, the only one at which coloreds were allowed — on their own side of the beach, of course, but no one could partition the sky when those fireworks went up. Most years, she had missed it because of work. This year would be different because Mama was going to watch Nathan for her.
Just as she turned to leave, Missy had heard something that froze her feet to the bloody grass. It was Selma, calling, "Henry Roberts, you think just 'cause you been to Paree that you too good for this work? Get your scrawny ass down here and help." Henry had given his sister a wry salute, stubbed out his cigarette, and joined the others to swing his machete over the carcass.
So he really was back. Selma had gotten the news only a week ago, since which time Missy had lived in a state of feverish anticipation. He did not seem to recognize her, for which she was grateful, looking as she did like someone who had been through a wringer. Heart thudding, she studied him with sideways glances, at once desperate to be somewhere else but unable to turn her eyes away. He looked so different, no longer the young man she had seen off to war all those years ago. He was thin, ribs clearly visible through the open front of his sweat-stained shirt. Gray stubble marked cheeks no longer smooth. He took a dirty rag from his pocket and wiped his neck. There was a long, curved scar there, like a great big question mark. He looked, she thought, just like the millions of hopeless souls lined up at the soup kitchens in the North, seen in the newspapers that Mr. Kincaid threw out.
So, she thought, the war's been over for seventeen years and he never saw fit to come home until Uncle Sam sent him and a load of other dirty, hungry soldiers to build that bridge to replace the ferry crossing to Fremont. If this was supposed to make the veterans feel better about having to wait for the bonus they had been promised by the government, she figured the plan was less than a complete success. It sounded like there was a lot more drinking and fighting than bridge building going on at the camp.
Since hearing he was back, she had both dreaded and hoped for a chance meeting. In her daydreams, they met at church or maybe in town. She would be wearing the yellow dress with the daisies, and a white hat and gloves. She would be poised, head high, and would walk past without noticing him. He would be in his uniform, like he was when he left, shoes polished to a high shine, sharp creases in his pants. He would tip his hat to her, then do a double take and say, "This beautiful woman cain't be Missy Douglas. She was just a child when I left. Ma'am, may I escort you home?"
Excerpted from Under a Dark Summer Sky by Vanessa Lafaye. Copyright © 2015 Vanessa Lafaye. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Excellent. Well written. Loved the characters. I would love to read a sequel. My husband was raised in the Keys in the 40s. His family was the white poor and lived in a railroad car. I would love more about the Conchs that lived there. This novel focuses on the Black Veterans and the wealthy white during the 1930s. The book is based on real historical events. This book included: a true hurricane disaster, racial tension, betrayal, love, forgiveness, bravery, and more. I highly, highly recommend. It was well worth my time and money. Another excellent book based on real historical events is The Partisan by William Jarvis. This book and Jarsis's book deserve an A++++++++
Check out the full review at Kritters Ramblings A historical fiction with a southern racial twist that kept me intrigued from beginning to end. A small town in Florida gets turned upside down when a load of veterans are sent their way to build a bridge, but with temporary housing in a hurricane zone, this may not be the best of situations. I loved the combination of southern racial with a historical event. There was romance, drama and mother nature all tied up in this book! Before reading this book, I had no idea that the veterans were organized and put to work like this and am intrigued to find out if this happened often and where - does anyone know when and where else this happened?