The face in the sun, which looks like the man in the moon, grins at me through the window. I burrow deeper under my covers so I won’t see him.
“It’s up time, Joanie,” Mama hollers from the staircase. I put the pillow over my head, hoping to disappear.
Hands lift the covers off me and rub my arms. “C’mon, Joanie. Get up. You need to get dressed for school.”
“No, mama, please don’t make me go.”
“But you have to. You’ll have fun. Let’s get you dressed in something special. Let’s see…” She pulls out the crimson, taffeta dress, the one the other kids laugh at, the one she made for me. “You haven’t worn this in a while.”
She slips it over my head. It crinkles every time I move. I can’t tell her I don’t want to wear it. I used to like this dress. When Mama was making it, I begged and begged to try it on. The first time I wore it, I practically danced to school.
But then Herman pulled on my hem and said, “Sounds like a Christmas present.” The other boys started tugging at me. After a bit, I got so upset, I peed in my panties. I have not done that since I was a real little kid.
Mama buckles my shoes over my socks. “We’ll braid your hair later. Get on downstairs and eat breakfast with your sisters.”
I trudge down the stairs, looking for a place to escape.
Grandma is at the table with my sisters. She gets up when I enter the kitchen.
I plop down next to Lottie who was eating a disgusting bowl of Graham crackers and milk. The smell makes my stomach turn.
“I don’t want that,” I say, pointing to the mush Lottie is putting in her mouth. Lottie grins at me with brown flakes in her teeth. Ellen, at the other end of the table with her elbows firmly in place shoves cereal in her mouth. She barely looks up when I sit down.
Grandma puts a bowl in front of me. “How about some Rice Krispies?”
I eat as slowly as possible, counting to ten before taking a bite. Maybe I’ll miss school.
Mama comes in and braids my hair as I eat. She pulls it too hard and makes me whimper. “Sorry, sweetheart,” she says.
Ellen walks me to school even though I know the way. I memorized the path the first time so I could come home. I did that until Mama got real mad at me and told Ellen to make sure to hand me over to the teacher.
Ellen doesn’t take my hand but she pushes me as we make our way to the school. I want to run away, but she keeps giving me a nudge. Finally we are at the door to my classroom. She shoves me toward the teacher and says, “Get lost.” Then she disappears in the crowd of kids.
The one thing that keeps me coming back to school is Rosie. She’s my favorite doll. They keep her in a big chest with other toys. The second day of school I found her tossed in the box with big trucks and other heavy tractors on top of her. I pulled her out, rescuing her from that awful place.
As soon as I get in the classroom, I go to the chest and dig for Rosie. Someone shoved her way down in the dark. I twist her out. Her legs are bent. I can’t straighten them. Some of her hair is missing. I tip her back and one of the eyes closes, but the other stays open and stares at me.
The teacher calls us to our seats. I take Rosie. When it’s time to go home, I keep Rosie tucked under my arm. I don’t want to put her back in the box where it’s dark and where she’ll get hurt.
On the way out, the teacher says to me, “You need to return the doll to the toy chest. You can’t take her home. She belongs here.”
A tear rolls down my cheek, but the teacher grabs Rosie from my grasp. “The toys are for all the children. Not just for you.”
The rest of the school year drags like waiting for Daddy to come home or for Christmas to come. I ask the teacher to let me stay inside during play period. I don’t want to go out in the cold with the other kids. The boys hit me with a ball, and I don’t want to play with them. She makes me go until I pee on my dress.
“Why didn’t you say you needed to use the bathroom,” the teacher says. Her face is red with anger. I didn’t know I needed to use the bathroom until I got scared. I try to tell her, but she just thrusts me in the bathroom and closes the door. I cry for long enough to miss play period.
Finally when the last day of school comes, I tuck Rosie under my sweater. I can’t leave her here in this awful place, alone, cold, and with no one to love her. I hide her, and walk slowly so no one will see.
We are nearly home when Ellen tugs on my arm and Rosie nearly falls out on the pavement, but I catch her. “What’s that?” she asks.
“The teacher said I could have her,” I lie. I don’t usually lie but this was a special situation. I had to save Rosie. Free her.
Ellen doesn’t care. She slams the backdoor entering the house. Grandma says, “What have you got there?”
Getting better at lying now, I tell her, “It was a prize. I won it for being good.”
“How nice. Let’s get her cleaned up.” My grandmother takes her and cleans her face and brushes her hair. Now I can see Rosie’s cheeks and her lips.
That night I take Rosie to bed. Just before Mama turns off the light, I look at Rosie. She’s lying next to me with one eye open and the other closed. It’s as if she’s winking at me. She knows my secret.
I freed her, and she’ll never tell.