Twelve years after the Halifax Explosion, the Sullivans still feel the effects of the devastation every single day.
When nineteen-year-old Dolly Sullivan takes a job at the Moir’s chocolate factory and starts spending her evenings in a blind pig, her staunchly Catholic mother looks the other way. But when Dolly comes home pregnant by a wealthy young man who is unable to marry her, Gladys Sullivan hatches a plan to keep her family intact and their reputations in the clear.
Meanwhile, William Cromwell, the baby’s father, is discovering that married life is not at all what he bargained for.
Years of lies and betrayal by both Dolly and William come to a head as Dolly frantically searches for her rebellious daughter on the streets of downtown Halifax during the VE Day riots.
Pot of Gold is the story of two families, intertwined, both suffering loss and tragedy, and how they deal with these obstacles in an era where appearances and reputation can cause ruin and humiliation, regardless of what part of town you come from.
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Read the Prologue
“Has anyone seen Dolores Sullivan?”
The little girls wiggled in their seats as the teacher called the attendance.
“I saw her in the schoolyard, Miss Henneberry,” Mamie O’Shea waved her hand from her seat in the front row. “She was out back by the old tree.”
Kathleen Henneberry looked across the sea of seven-year-old faces, rows of pale skin, freckles, and sleepily braided hair to the empty seat in the center of the room. Pale morning light streamed through the high windows and dust shimmered in the air above their heads as the smell of chalk and poorly washed children filled the room. There was no time to look for Dolores now, the young teacher shook her head, and the child would be marked as tardy. Sitting down at her desk, while the little girls whispered and fidgeted in the cold classroom, the tall young woman drew a large X in the attendance record next to Dolores Sullivan’s name for December 6, 1917.
In the far corner of the schoolyard, Dolores Sullivan, Dolly to almost everyone that knew her, hid behind a large oak tree. Her bright red coat with the Peter Pan collar, a find from the church charity box, was visible to anyone walking past or looking out the back windows of St. Joseph’s Catholic School for Girls, but it was shortly after 9 o’clock and in the rush to get settled into their desks and start the school day, nobody was paying attention.
Dolly crouched against the tree with her back to the school building. She wore her school uniform under her coat, along with much-repaired woolen stockings and tiny black lace-up boots with scuffs across the toes. The boots did nothing to keep her feet warm but they were the only pair she had, and she wiggled her numb toes at regular intervals to keep the blood moving as her Ma had instructed her to do. Her bright red hair was braided into one long plait, which ran down her back almost to her waist. She sniffled in the cold, and adjusted her misshapen woolen mittens, full of mistakes and flaws, the first she had knit all by herself, to keep the cold from blowing up her sleeves. Her knitting had gotten better now that she had practiced, and she had finally been allowed to help her mother and sister every night as they sat in front of the stove and knit socks and mitts for the soldiers overseas.
She looked up at the school again but dared not enter. The day before, that tomboy Maureen Stewart had threatened to beat her up for telling Miss Henneberry about Maureen’s attempt to cut off Dolly’s beautiful braid.
Fearful both of telling her mother and of provoking her schoolmate further by appearing in the classroom, Dolly left for school that morning but dawdled along the way and was now hiding in the schoolyard until she could figure out what to do. If she returned home her mother would be furious at her for being so afraid. Yet if she entered the classroom and sat down in front of Maureen, her lovely hair would be gone from her head before she returned home at the lunch hour, which would provoke a fury in Gladys Sullivan the likes of which had never been seen. Pulling a small, lace-edged handkerchief from her pocket, Dolly blew her nose and wondered what to do.
Suddenly, there was a loud noise from behind her, a combination of a booming sound that filled her ears and made them feel as if they might pop, mixed with a cracking noise and the shatter of breaking glass. The ground beneath her shook violently and Dolly felt a huge force push her forward to the ground onto her face, as if she had been thrown by something massive and heavy, like the time she had been knocked over by the cow on her Aunt Mitzi’s farm.
Behind her, the old tree she had been crouching behind cracked and toppled to the ground a few yards to her right. The bare grey branches shuddered eerily as they hit the hard icy ground, taking a long time to become still. She lay face down for a few moments and listened, afraid to get up in case whatever had hit her was still there. She imagined Maureen standing over her, her fat, round face twisted in an ugly sneer, ready to punch her again. There was a long eerie silence that frightened her and then, all around her, she heard screaming.
Dolly pulled herself up and quickly assessed her damage: her knees were scraped badly and her stockings were torn again — she’d get heck for that from her Ma, these stockings were the only pair she owned and had already been repaired more times than she could count. Her red coat was missing one of the shiny gold buttons from the front, yet Dolly could not find it on the ground around her. The tip of her nose hurt, so did her left cheek, and when she touched her mittened hand to her face she wiped away not only a smear of her own blood, but a black sooty residue which, she now realized, seemed to cover not only all of her person, but everything around her.
Looking up at the school building, Dolly noticed something odd; the building now seemed almost to tilt to one side. Dazed, she walked slowly around the perimeter of the structure until she came to the front entrance. Her face registered the shock she felt, the entire wall that had faced the harbour had collapsed.
On the ground in front of the school, and streaming from the building, were girls of all ages, covered in blood. Some screamed and cried for help, others lay in twisted positions, their limbs torn off or wrenched into unnatural poses. Many of the little girls were still trapped inside as teachers, wailing and crying themselves, tried fruitlessly to rescue the children before the rest of the school collapsed down around them. The sound of a hundred voices, praying and crying, was a background hum for the screams of pain and fear that came from the terrified little girls.
Dolly saw Kathleen Henneberry limp through the double front doors and down the high wooden steps, her arm around the shoulder of a bleeding Mamie O’Shea as she guided the child to safety. As she looked up from her charge, her dumbfounded eyes grasped Dolly Sullivan with a stunned gaze.
“Go home, Dolores,” she managed in a dark voice, “go home to your mother.” Dolly watched as her teacher took a few steps forward and collapsed to the cold ground in front of her, a long triangular wedge of glass about a foot long embedded in her upper back. Moving forward to aid her teacher Dolly stopped abruptly, her eyes round in fear, when the woman emitted a wet gurgling noise. Dolly heard her teacher cough and they both watched, wide-eyed and speechless, as a dark pool of blood formed on the ground beside Kathleen’s face as the woman’s eyes went blank and empty.
Dolly stood in silence for a moment, speechless and dumbfounded by what she had seen. Startled by new screams from another direction, the girl looked up from the devastation of the school for the first time. Every building on the street had been damaged — some were gone completely, now flattened piles of rubble, while others still had parts of one or two walls standing erect. The contents of these buildings had been blown about: furniture, papers, clothing, and dishes were scattered everywhere. From the school, broken desks, torn books, and a jagged chunk of blackboard littered the front lawn of the collapsed building. Bits and pieces of destroyed lives lay in heaps in front yards, on sidewalks, or scattered in the middle of the street. All around them, people were bloodied and hurt, some moaning, others screaming, many dead.
Her brain struggling to process what she had just witnessed, Dolly stood for another moment, then without looking back, she bolted suddenly and began to run.
At the old house on Stairs Street, Gladys Sullivan was going about her morning chores. “David! Come and help me in the shed, please. I need to bring in water and some wood.”
“In a minute, Ma,” her ten-year-old son called back to her from upstairs. “There was a collision in the harbour and one of the ships is on fire!” Gladys smiled and shook her head. Just like his father, that one, fascinated with anything to do with ships and the ocean. If only her husband had taken the boy with him to the dockyards this morning to get him out of her hair. The foreman never seemed to mind the boy being there, especially since David was so enthusiastic and was always so willing to run small errands, fetching coffee or snacks for the men. Ever since the Catholic boys’ school had burned down last year, David had been home with Gladys in the mornings, while Dolly attended class. Then, in the afternoons, the girls would come home and the boys would use the classrooms in the girls’ school for their studies. Not an easy arrangement by any means, but one they had to accept until the new boys’ school was finished. She could always find something to keep little Dolly busy, the child would sit happily for hours with her knitting or some sewing, but David wandered around listlessly, hating to be trapped in the house when he could be playing outdoors.
Gladys walked softly into the kitchen and peered into the crib at her youngest child. Frankie was six months old and probably the last child she’d ever have. At forty-two, four children were enough, and with a daughter of seventeen, it was time Gladys started thinking about being a grandmother. Besides, money was always tight and another mouth to feed, once the baby took to solid food, would soon make things even tougher. She and David Sr. hadn’t even been able to save up enough money to buy a house, which is why they were still, after thirteen years, renting this dilapidated old place with the cracked windows and saggy floors and a well in the backyard.
It was typical of many of the homes in the area, with no electrical lighting and no indoor plumbing. If only her husband would make a point of bringing home all of his pay packet instead of visiting the bootleggers and squandering it on rum. She pushed back a wisp of the curly red hair that framed her face, then sighed and kissed the soft pink cheek of her youngest child before returning to the foot of the steep, narrow staircase. “David! I need your help now!”
“In a second, Ma!” came the reply, but Gladys heard no footsteps on the floor above her head and knew that he had not torn himself from the window in her cold bedroom with the view of the comings and goings in the harbour.
“At least come downstairs and keep an eye on your brother!” she yelled with frustration as she stomped away and headed for the door, pulling on a worn overcoat and a pair of work gloves.
Outside in the yard, it was cold, but clear. Gladys walked across the frozen back yard and entered the chicken coop where she rooted for eggs — not a one today — and fed the hens. She would make David come out and clean the coop before he went to school, whether there was a boat on fire in the harbour or not. She filled a basket with the rough-hewn logs her husband had chopped and carefully stacked, and was about to place the worn grey waterbucket under the pump when she felt herself picked up off her feet and flying across the yard.
Tumbling and spinning through the air, the force of the explosion pushed the small stout woman a hundred feet up the hill, where she was thrown onto the back of a wagon that had been left in the neighbour’s yard. When asked later, Gladys would not remember anything about how she got from her own pump to the other side of the neighbour’s house.
She lay still for a moment, groaning in pain. Her left arm folded underneath her and ached piercingly. She was having trouble breathing. Her attempt to sit up was made difficult with the use of only one arm, and once Gladys saw her left arm, hanging twisted and dejectedly from her side, she realized it was most definitely broken, probably at the shoulder. The sharp pain in her side indicated something else was wrong. Broken ribs, she assessed, based on the pain and her difficulty in taking a deep breath.
Using her good arm to pull herself out of the wagon, it was only as she touched the cold ground below that Gladys realized she was no longer wearing anything on her feet. That force had ripped the shoes and stockings right off her, although the rest of her clothes had remained in place, and the hand of her broken arm still bore a glove, although the right hand did not. Startled, she looked around her. Her neighbour’s house was gone completely, it was a flattened pile of rubble. The force had actually thrown her over the house, or perhaps it had destroyed the house before she had been thrown across the pile of debris. In any case, the wreck now stood between Gladys and the remains of her own home.
David! Her maternal instinct kicking into overdrive, Gladys ran as fast as she could. Her bare feet never noticed the cold of the ground, the greasy black soot that coated everything, or the shards of glass and splinters of wood scattered everywhere. Her trip down the hill was punctuated with the tormented screams of her eldest son.
Gladys ran around the building to discover that the harbour side of the house looked like it had been split open and its contents torn out by a giant hand. Strewn across the front lawn were bits of broken furniture, a doll, some dishes, all twisted and intertwined with the window frames, wooden beams, and parts of the roof. David stood at the edge of the second floor where the wall had been torn away, the joists of the floor exposed to the December sky.
“David!” Gladys screamed, remembering only at the last moment to avoid the broken glass on the ground.
“Mama, where are you? I can’t see! It hurts so much!”
“I’m right here!” she yelled back.
Gladys was close enough to look up at the boy, and she could see his face was covered in blood. He turned his head, trying to figure out where her voice was coming from, and it was then that she saw the glint from the huge piece of glass protruding from his right eye.
“Sweet Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” Gladys whispered under her breath.
“Mama, how do I get down?” her son cried out. “I can’t see! My eyes hurt so bad!”
A sharp wrenching noise came from the other side of the house and Gladys watched horrified as the far wall fell and the staircase crumbled like a pile of matchsticks, knocking over the wood stove in the front parlour in the process.
“Just wait, David, don’t move!” Gladys quickly looked through the debris surrounding her and found one of her husband’s summer shoes in the rubble and put in on. She hobbled across the yard to the corner of a mattress she had spied. She held tightly to the front of her dress with the hand of her broken arm to keep it from swinging lose, and tried to ignore the pain in her shoulder and ribcage. With her good arm, balancing on one foot as she tried to keep from setting the other foot down in the glass and splintered wood, she managed to drag the mattress over to the area immediately below where her terrified son stood waiting.
“David, I want you to jump. I’ve put a mattress underneath to protect you, I want you to step forward and jump.”
“I can’t Ma! I can’t see! I’m so scared! It hurts so much! My eyes are hurting!”
“David, listen to me,“ Gladys yelled, trying to disguise the fear in her voice with authority. “The house is on fire and the staircase has collapsed. You need to jump, RIGHT NOW!” Gladys looked frantically from her son standing above her to the corner of the porch by the back door. The kitchen wall was still intact and there was no sign of fire or smoke there yet. She had to go and rescue little Frankie — if only David would jump!
“I can’t!” the child cried back, fear and pain evident in his voice.
“David, I’m right here. Just jump, like you do from the rope at the lake. The mattress will break your fall. I promise you, I’m right here!” Gladys watched her son take a deep breath, mustering up all his courage to jump. She watched his little hands form fists at his sides as he set his jaw firmly, determined to be brave for his mother’s sake, and stepped off into nothing.
He landed safely in the center of the thick straw mattress, and she ran to his side. “See,” she tried to joke, “It’s just like when you and Dolly jump off the shed at Aunt Mitzi’s into the piles of hay!”
Quickly, she looked at the boy’s face, covered in tiny dots of blood, the tiny slivers of glass speckling his cheeks and forehead. Gladys could not find the familiar icy blue of his pupils, as there was too much blood surrounding the long piece of glass piercing his right eye for her to see anything. He had stopped screaming but she knew he must be in excruciating pain.
“Come and sit down,” she said, trying to appear calm as she led him to a spot of grass near the dirt road, away from the rubble of the house. “I’ve got to get the baby.”
As she rushed back towards the house, she could see that only the corner by the back door remained intact. The fire from the living room stove had spread and was licking away at what was left of the roof. The bedroom where David had stood only moments before was engulfed in flames. Gladys threw open the door which hung oddly from one hinge and felt the heat blast towards her.
She could hear the baby crying from inside. The crib was only steps from the doorway; just a few feet and she could reach him.
A burning timber came crashing down in front of her and Gladys jumped back onto the small porch, crying out in pain as her broken arm swung limply at her side. She stepped forward again but the open air surrounding her fueled the flames and the heavy beam now blocked her way. It was too low for her to crawl under and too high for her to climb over. She looked back out into the yard for something to cover herself with. There was a torn bed sheet on the ground at the edge of the porch where she planted a bed of cheery pansies every spring. If she wet the sheet at the pump, and then covered herself with it, she figured she might make it under the flaming beam.
As she stepped off the porch to grab the sheet, the final remaining wall of the house gave way to the fire. Gladys turned in time to see her house disappear in a pile of timber and rubble as the flames shot up from the debris. She ran back onto the porch and fell to her knees in front of the burning door frame. With her good arm, she tried to pull pieces of burning wood away from the pile, but only managed to burn her hand in the process. She could no longer hear Frankie crying, the sound of her own screams filled her ears.
A small mittened hand touched her gently on the shoulder. “Mama, you’ll get burned,” Dolly said.
Realizing there was nothing she could do, Gladys wordlessly allowed her young daughter to lead her out to the road where she sat down heavily on the ground beside her son, groaning at the sharp pain in her side and adjusting her left arm to a more comfortable position.
For the first time, Gladys noticed that everything around her had been flattened. Every house, every barn, every shed was a pile of debris. Many houses, like her own, were on fire. In the street in front of her a pig ran past squealing loudly. Some of her own chickens wandered around the yard, the hen house having been smashed to bits. From the debris of homes up and down the street, other people emerged, some missing limbs, some pierced with of shards of glass like David. The three sat mutely and listened, unable to move, to help, or even react, while people in neighbouring homes moaned and screamed. A woman stumbled past them silently, completely naked but for the coating of greasy soot that seemed to cover every person and every object within view.
After what seemed like an eternity, Gladys finally asked wearily, to no one in particular “What the hell happened?”
“It was the Germans,” Dolly whispered, her blue eyes huge with fear. “I heard someone say.”
“No, it was the ship,” David replied. “The one that was on fire in the harbour. It blew up.”
“Oh sweet Jesus, your father! He would have been right down there. Oh my dear God!” Gladys crossed herself frantically and then sat silent again, offering a prayer that her husband was safe. She made no effort to tend to David’s face and she did not ask why Dolly was home from school.
“Where is the baby?” Dolly asked, tugging gently on her mother’s sleeve to get her attention.
Gladys did not answer immediately. Instead she asked her daughter, “Are you hurt?”
“I tore my stockings,” the girl replied, guilt in her voice as she hung her head, expecting a tongue-lashing from her mother. “My knees are scraped. So is my cheek, and I think I have a bloody nose.” She showed Gladys the blood on her mitten.
“Can you walk?”
“And nothing else hurts you anywhere?”
“You must be the only one,” Gladys muttered, twisting to find a more comfortable sitting position as she tried to think clearly, her mind muddled by all that had just occurred. She looked at her son sitting beside her. She was frantic to head to the harbour and search for her husband at the shipyards, but she knew David’s eyes could not wait. He whimpered in pain and she knew he must see a doctor as soon as possible. He was in need of immediate medical attention, that much was obvious. Her broken arm would need seeing to as well.
“Dolly, help me take my coat off and put it around David.” Gladys cried out in pain as her broken arm was jostled, but she was relieved to see that at least the bone had not broken through the skin.
“Now, I need you to rip my skirt for me so I can make a sling for my arm.” Following her mother’s directions, Dolly tore at the fabric carefully, her eyes wide and alarmed as the white petticoat showed from under the sooty skirt. She helped Gladys settle the arm comfortably and tied the strip of cotton in a careful knot behind her mother’s neck.
“Good, you’re a very good nurse,” Gladys declared to the girl in a reassuring voice. She looked at her daughter’s small scared face smeared with soot and blood. “Now I need you to be very brave. David and I are going to the hospital, and I need you to stay here until your father and Colleen return. I need you to tell them that we’ve gone to the Camp Hill hospital.”
“That’s the soldier’s hospital,” David interjected, breaking his frightened silence.
“It’s the closest hospital,” Gladys said, taking his hand and pulling him to his feet unsteadily, her ribs protesting painfully. “You’re badly injured, they’ll have to take us.
“Dolly, when your father and Colleen come back, tell them where we’ve gone, and tell them to come meet us there. We’ll get your face looked at when you arrive.”
“What about Frankie?” the girl asked, her eyes shining big and wet in her sooty face.
Gladys held back a sob, and fought the immense feeling of guilt that had overcome her. There would be time for crying and mourning later, she told herself, right now, she had to get her surviving son to a hospital before she lost him too. She turned to her daughter and said solemnly, “Frankie is dead, Dolly. He was killed when the house collapsed and caught fire. I tried to save him, but I couldn’t get in. I’m sorry. I couldn’t save him.”
Dolly did not cry, she did not even speak. Instead, she looked at her bedraggled mother and asked, “Should I try to put out the fire while you’re gone?”
Not knowing how to reply to her young daughter’s practical thinking, Gladys looked at her with surprise. “No, you stay away from the house. Don’t touch anything, sit right here by the street — do you hear me?”
“Remember, stay here until your father and Colleen show up. Tell them where we’ve gone.”
Gladys took David by the hand and led him up the road. They joined a line of other survivors heading towards downtown and the few small hospitals Halifax possessed. David staggered and stumbled, frightened and unused to the pain and the darkness, while Gladys hobbled along beside him in her husband’s single shoe, stopping for breath every few steps. When they had walked a few blocks south along Agricola Street, a truck pulled up beside them. Two soldiers were picking up the most seriously injured people and they immediately made room for Gladys and David in the open truck bed. Mother and son sat silently across from a young man with a large piece of metal in his chest and a woman holding her left breast in place where it had been nearly sliced off. Gladys moved to cover her son’s eyes and shield him from the woman’s bloody nakedness and then realized her folly as she caught sight again of that menacing shard of glass protruding from his eye.
Others crammed onto the truck and into the cab, the second soldier giving up his seat so the driver could whisk everyone to the veteran’s hospital and return to start all over again. Everyone sat stunned and silent as the vehicle drove slowly through the devastated streets, veering every so often to avoid piles of rubble or a body.
Meanwhile, Dolly sat in the front yard amidst the ruins of the old house on Stairs Street and watched it burn. She grew cold as she sat there on the ground and got up to walk around, stretching out her small legs and feeling the sharp tinge of pain on her scraped knees. She wandered around the yard, making a point to obey her mother and keep well back from the house.
“Dolly Sullivan, are you alright?”
It was Mrs. Fisher and her son Artie from the next street over.
“Yes, Mrs. Fisher, I’m fine. I’m not hurt at all.”
“Where is your mother, child?” the woman asked, looking wild and disheveled. “You’re not here alone, are you?”
“Yes, ma’am, she’s taken David to the hospital. He’s got glass in his eye.”
“We’re on our way there now. We’re both cut and bruised. Do you want to come with us?”
Dolly looked at Artie Fisher and then up at his mother. Neither of them seemed injured at all.
“No thank you, ma’am. Ma told me to stay here and wait for Pa and Colleen to come home.”
“Very good then, Dolly, very good,” Mrs. Fisher said, although she did not look at Dolly directly, and instead stared off into space. “Come along, Arthur, let’s go before the hospital gets too busy.”
Mrs. Fisher headed off up the hill and Artie waved to Dolly silently then turned and followed his mother.
On the ground in the back of the house, where Gladys kept a vegetable garden in the warm summer months, Dolly saw her favorite teddy bear. She picked up the toy and brushed the dirt off of it, although it too was coated in the black grease that covered everything around her. Holding the bear close to her, she searched the rest of the debris that was in the garden. Most of what she sorted through was broken china and glass, but she came across a framed photo of her parents’ wedding day. She picked it up carefully by one corner in her mittened hand and shook the frame so all the glass fell out. The frame fell apart in her hand, but the photograph itself was only slightly torn at one corner. Walking around the perimeter of house, she gathered other small items that remained intact or could, by her assessment, be repaired. She found her sister Colleen’s new Sunday hat; the large feather was slightly crushed, but the soft blue velvet was clean and with the dirt brushed off it was still wearable. By the hen house, one of David’s toy boats that he loved so much sat bright and shiny in the sooty grass. The contents of her mother’s jewelry box lay scattered around the pump, and Dolly carefully picked up these pieces and put them in her pockets. She searched the rubble more closely for something of her father’s, wanting desperately to have an item for each member of her family when they returned. She found his favorite pipe and one of his good summer shoes, but the other one eluded her.
Finally, she gathered all of these items into the large basket her mother had left by the woodpile and walked back out to the road, noticing that the fire was merely smoldering now, and only small flames licked at the center of the mass of broken timbers that had once been her home. Dolly sat down again and called to her favorite of the laying hens that was pecking at the ground in the front yard. She sat petting the silky white chicken, which had remarkably, remained free of the oily black soot that coated everything else, and calmly watched the chaos around her continue to unfold.
By this time, anyone who was mobile had begun heading towards downtown, or at least out of the area devastated by the explosion. Many houses were burning steadily now, while some had already burnt out, charred beams visible amid the rubble and acrid smoke rising from the piles. Other houses were just dark hills of broken debris, no longer resembling a house at all, but a pile of matchsticks crushed by a petulant giant. Dolly wondered if the people who lived in those houses would be able to retrieve their belongings when they returned.
People continued to walk past her in a daze, displaying every conceivable type of injury. Dolly saw a young boy pushing a wheelbarrow up the steep incline of the road. Inside it was an unconscious old woman, her face covered in blood. Few people looked at the small girl sitting by the side of the street, and none acknowledged her until a car stopped in front of her and a stout policeman got out.
“Are you all right, little girl?”
“Yes, sir.” Dolly nodded.
“My name is Officer Keith. What’s your name?”
“Dolly Sullivan, sir.”
“Are you hurt?” he asked.
“A tree nearly fell on me, but it didn’t. Then I fell down and scraped my knees and my face. But that’s all.”
“Were you not in school today, Dolly?”
Dolly told Officer Keith the story she had wanted to tell Gladys, rattling it all off in one breath without stopping. “I went to school but stayed in the schoolyard because Maureen was going to try to cut my braid. Then the school fell over and all the girls were hurt and crying and Miss Henneberry came out with a big piece of glass right in her back, and then she fell and blood came out of her mouth and then I ran home and David was sitting right here and had glass in his eye and Ma was at the back door trying to get in and save the baby.”
“This is your house, then?” he asked with concern, looking up at the smoldering pile.
“Yes, sir,” she replied.
“Where is your family now?”
“Ma and David went to Camp Hill Hospital to get the glass out of David’s eye and to fix Ma’s arm because it’s all twisted and hanging funny. Pa is at work, so is my sister Colleen. The baby is inside, Ma says he’s dead.”
“The baby died in the fire?”
“Yes, sir,” she said, more solemn now. “Ma couldn’t get him out in time. She burned her hand trying to save him, but there was a big piece of wood blocking the door. She was trying to put a sheet over her head, but then the fire made the whole house collapse.”
“Why are you still here? Why didn’t you go with your Mother?”
“Ma said I’m to stay and wait for Pa and Colleen to come home, so I can tell them where she went, because they wouldn’t know to look at the veteran’s hospital.”
Officer Keith looked at the child thoughtfully. “Where do your father and sister work?” he asked.
“Pa works at the shipyards unloading the cargo, and Colleen works at the textile factory.”
Dolly did not notice the grim look that crossed the man’s otherwise kind and jolly face. The shipyard had been almost completely destroyed, there were few survivors expected to be found. The textile factory wasn’t much better off. While there had been few initial casualties there from the explosion itself, the blast had weakened the walls and supports and before many of the workers could escape the building, the heavy looms and machinery had caused the floors to collapse one on top of the other, trapping many of the young women inside. The child could be sitting here for days or even weeks if he left her, and he had been ordered to clear the devastated area of all survivors immediately, as there was fear of a second explosion.
“I’ll tell you what, Miss Sullivan,” Officer Keith said in the most jovial voice he could muster, “It might be a while before your sister and your father show up, and I bet you’re cold and hungry. How about if I drive you to the hospital to find your Ma? I’ve got some sandwiches in the car that you can have if you like.”
Dolly looked at him suspiciously. “Ma says I’m to stay here.”
“Your family might not be back for a long time, Dolly. Best to come along with me. If your Pa and sister were hurt, they might already be at the hospital.”
She though about protesting, but remembered what Gladys had told her about always obeying police officers. Dolly wondered who actually had more authority over her, the kindly Officer Keith or her mother. Finally admitting to herself that she was cold and hungry, she picked up her basket in one hand while cradling the chicken in the other and stood before the bewildered man.
“You want to bring the chicken?” he asked in consternation. “They won’t let you take that into the hospital.”
She was steadfast. Officer Keith looked down at the small girl, her face and hair covered in soot, her coat and stockings torn, her home a collapsed and smoldering pile behind her. She was obviously in shock. The basket of detritus she clung to tightly and the chicken under her arm were likely her only belongings and he didn’t have the heart to take this one last thing from her. Officer Keith thought it best not to argue and allowed her to climb into the passenger seat of his car where Dolly politely accepted a sandwich. She remained silent as Officer Keith stopped and filled his car with other survivors on the way to Camp Hill Hospital.
Once there, Dolly put the chicken in the basket next to the sooty teddy bear and both girl and bird remained quiet and docile as Officer Keith lead them on a search for Gladys Sullivan and her son through the terrifying hospital halls crowded with the mangled and injured.