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Momma once told me that she and Daddy named me Dawn because I was born at the break of day. That was the first of a thousand lies Momma and Daddy would tell me and my brother Jimmy. Of course, we wouldn't know they were lies, not for a long time, not until the day they came to take us away.
Chapter 1: Another New Place
The sound of dresser drawers being opened and closed woke me. I heard Momma and Daddy whispering in their room, and my heart began to thump fast and hard. I pressed my palm against my chest, took a deep breath, and turned to wake Jimmy, but he was already sitting up in our sofa bed. Bathed in the silvery moonlight that came pouring through our bare window, my sixteen-year-old brother's face looked chiseled from granite. He sat there so still, listening. I lay there listening with him, listening to the hateful wind whistle through the cracks and crannies of this small cottage Daddy had found for us in Granville, a small, rundown town just outside of Washington, D.C. We had been here barely four months.
"What is it, Jimmy? What's going on?" I asked, shivering partly from the cold and partly because deep inside I knew the answer.
Jimmy fell back against his pillow and then brought his hands behind his head. In a sulk, he stared up at the dark ceiling. The pace of Momma's and Daddy's movements became more frenzied.
"We were gonna get a puppy here," Jimmy mumbled. "And this spring Momma and I were gonna plant a garden and grow our own vegetables."
I could feel his frustration and anger like heat from an iron radiator.
"What happened?" I asked mournfully, for I, too, had high hopes.
"Daddy came home later than usual," he said, a prophetic note of doom in his voice. "He rushed in here, his eyes wild. You know, bright and wide like they get sometimes. He went right in there, and not long after, they started packing...Might as well get up and get dressed," Jimmy said, throwing the blanket off him and turning to sit up. "They'll be out here shortly tellin' us to do it anyway."
I groaned. Not again, and not again in the middle of the night.
Jimmy leaned over to turn on the lamp by our pull-out bed and started to put on his socks so he wouldn't have to step down on a cold floor. He was so depressed, he didn't even worry about getting dressed in front of me. I fell back and watched him unfold his pants so he could slip into them, moving with a quiet resignation that made everything around me seem more like a dream. How I wished it were.
I was fourteen years old, and for as long as I could remember, we had been packing and unpacking, going from one place to another. It always seemed that just when my brother, Jimmy, and I had finally settled into a new school and finally made some friends and I got to know my teachers, we had to leave. Maybe we really were no better than homeless gypsies like Jimmy always said, wanderers, poorer than the poorest, for even the poorest families had some place they could call home, some place they could return to when things went bad, a place where they had grandmas and grandpas or uncles and aunts to hug them and comfort them and make them feel good again. We would have settled even for cousins. At least, I would have.
I peeled back the blanket, and my nightgown fell away and exposed most of my bosom. I glanced at Jimmy and caught him gazing at me in the moonlight. He shifted his eyes away quickly. Embarrassment made my heart pitterpatter, and I pressed my palm against the bodice of my nightgown. I had never told any of my girlfriends at school that Jimmy and I shared even a room together, much less this dilapidated pull-out bed. I was too ashamed, and I knew how they would react, embarrassing both Jimmy and me even more.
I brought my feet down on the freezing-cold bare wood floor. My teeth chattering, I embraced myself and hurried across the small room to gather up a blouse and a sweater and a pair of jeans. Then I went into the bathroom to dress.
By the time I finished, Jimmy had his suitcase closed. It seemed we always left something else behind each time. There was only so much room in Daddy's old car anyway. I folded my nightgown and put it neatly into my own suitcase. The clasps were as hard as ever to close and Jimmy had to help.
Momma and Daddy's bedroom door opened and they came out, their suitcases in hand, too. We stood there facing them, holding our own.
"Why do we have to leave in the middle of the night again?" I asked, looking at Daddy and wondering if leaving would make him angry as it so often did.
"Best time to travel," Daddy mumbled. He glared at me with a quick order not to ask too many questions. Jimmy was right -- Daddy had that wild look again, a look that seemed so unnatural, it sent shivers up and down my spine. I hated it when Daddy got that look. He was a handsome man with rugged features, a cap of sleek brown hair and dark coal eyes. When the day came that I fell in love and decided to marry, I hoped my husband would be just as handsome as Daddy. But I hated it when Daddy was displeased -- when he got that wild look. It marred his handsome features and made him ugly -- something I couldn't bear to see.
"Jimmy, take the suitcases down. Dawn, you help your momma pack up whatever she wants from the kitchen."
I glanced at Jimmy. He was only two years older than I was, but there was a wider gap in our looks. He was tall and lean and muscular like Daddy. I was small with what Momma called "China doll features." And I really didn't take after Momma, either, because she was as tall as Daddy. She told me she was gangly and awkward when she was my age and looked more like a boy until she was thirteen, when she suddenly blossomed.
We didn't have many pictures of family. Matter of fact, all I had was one picture of Momma when she was fifteen. I would sit for hours gazing into her young face, searching for signs of myself. She was smiling in the picture and standing under a weeping willow tree. She wore an ankle-length straight skirt and a fluffy blouse with frilly sleeves and a frilly collar. Her long, dark hair looked soft and fresh. Even in this old black and white photo, her eyes sparkled with hope and love. Daddy said he'd taken the picture with a small box camera he had bought for a quarter from a friend of his. He wasn't sure it would work, but at least this picture came out. If we'd ever had any other photos, they'd been either lost or left behind during our many moves.
However, I thought that even in this simple old photograph with its black and white fading into sepia and its edges fraying, Momma looked so pretty that it was easy to see why Daddy had lost his heart to her so quickly even though she was only fifteen at the time. She was barefoot in the picture, and I thought she looked fresh and innocent and as lovely as anything else nature had to offer.
Momma and Jimmy had the same shimmering black hair and dark eyes. They both had bronze complexions with beautiful white teeth that allowed them ivory smiles. Daddy had dark brown hair, but mine was blond. And I had freckles over the tops of my cheeks. No one else in my family had freckles.
"What about that rake and shovel we bought for the garden?" Jimmy asked, careful not to let even a twinkle of hope show in his eyes.
"We ain't got the room," Daddy snapped.
Poor Jimmy, I thought. Momma said he was born all crunched up as tightly as a fist, his eyes sewn shut. She said she gave birth to Jimmy on a farm in Maryland. They had just arrived there and gone knocking on the door, hoping to find some work, when her labor began.
They told me I had been born on the road, too. They had hoped to have me born in a hospital, but they were forced to leave one town and start out for another where Daddy had already secured new employment.