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**Sweet Potato Jones Sneak Peek Chapter One**
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To Eli, for dreaming with me

To Solomon and Samuel, my loves forever

To Aunt Dot, for always believing in me





Chapter One

Everything used to always look different on Sundays. Why that was, is hard to say. I just knew it did. On Sundays, the air seemed to be a little cleaner, my vision better. Within me, a hope burned that no matter what had happened in my life before then, Sunday would make it all better.

The grass prickled my bare feet as I spun the kids in helicopter circles, individual sprigs like a spiky hairdo, would tickle us as we fell softly together in our small backyard. We would lay back imaging cloud dragons and stare up at the Carolina-blue sky.

My heart swelled as I remembered sitting with Daddy on the front porch glider on Sundays at the old place. I’d stare across the railroad tracks and see the same exact water tower and the same exact burned-down mill. They’re both probably still standing today, since around there, broken things aren’t demolished to make way for something new. They’re left in pieces to remind us how shattered we are. Even though we had nothing pretty to look at, only shambles and stacks of rotted wood, those were the most wonderful moments of my existence. That was how it once was for me, before she stole Sunday. All the miles had left me a hollow girl robotically moving from one day to the next. On most days, I found myself feeling more like a dead stump where nothing would ever grow again.

        The Sunday Momma died was the day all the goodness in my life flew away on angel’s wings—if angels even came for the broken ones.

        “Do me a favor.” She spoke to me in a fragmented whisper.

We needed her to give us last words of wisdom, to tell us about her legacy, our grand purpose in life. We deserved words to hold on to, the ones to help push us through the hard days. But these words never came. Her speech would dwindle to a dreamy whisper, and then she would say, “Do me a favor …”

By the time she expended all her energy on those four words, she didn’t have the strength to say anything more.

When she seemed on the verge of speaking again, we would say, “Don’t ask us to do the favor. Just tell us what the favor is.” But she could not continue.

Daddy shook her, and she lolled her head to the side and held out her arm, asking for a release, dancing those frail arms in her pantomime even as she fell into a comatose state. “One more hit, baby.”

Daddy, give her one more try at it, why don’t you? I wanted to scream.

But all the words I had wanted to say were closed up inside of me.

        Whether she couldn’t or wouldn’t tell me her last wishes is something left to the mysteries of this life. What was that favor? Why couldn’t she have said all the things that she needed to say when we were by ourselves, singing gospel songs and hanging clothes out on the line? She could stare down that preacher like the best of themgo hide out in the basement by the hot water heater and shoot up, as if we didn’t know what she was doing down there. Why couldn’t she talk to me instead?

Why didn’t she tell me what I was meant to be? Why her love for me wasn’t enough to keep her on the straight and narrow? She could’ve even told us about our family treegiven names and faces to our ancestors. A generational connection would’ve been something I could hold on to in times like these. But instead, that overdose messed with her mind to the point where unanswered wishes or last requests were never granted, because she had already lost all her ability to speak and eat and urinate and move and breathe independently. Momma had lost her ability to be.

        “Do me a favor. Give me a proper life,” I whispered in the dark, as the sweat clung to my skin like sticky rain.

I felt cheated. And scared. And alone. And mad. I felt everything and nothing at once.

        In the days before her overdose, a sense of paranoia hit her strong like she knew the reaper would soon be coming to claim her soul. She had been scared, too, and I’d lied to her. When she whispered to me that she was afraid of death, I told her there was nothing to be frightened about. I tried to reassure her she was going to Heavenwhy should anyone fear that? But I lost my real, deep-running faith the day her eyes turned this strange, oil-pumping color, like her pupils had filled up with mud. Almost like Satan had already staked his claim on her, and it showed not just in the spider-web veins all along her arms and neck, but in those orbed, blank eyes that looked but did not see.

        I kept wanting to grab that faith I once believed existed on those Sundays of my childhood. My insides yearned for it again. I even found myself praying it would show up in my times of despair. I needed it now so desperately, and I begged God would give us a chance, but it had been proven, time and again, God wasn’t taking calls from me.

But maybe he was still listening to my brothers and sister. In her ten-year-old eyes, Bell’s world was adventure and freedom, without the restraint of the system. She never saw the danger or felt the cold or had those longings for a porch swing, like I did. She was an infant when we started hopping trains. She’s never known anything different. Bean was barely out of diapers then, and who’s to say what an almost-three-year-old could remember. It was something we never openly discussed with the youngins. I did know for a fact Maize had flashes of it. He was only three years younger than me, and despite all our apparent differences, he was more than a brother to me. He was my soul friend.

        I had pains for Maize like I had for no other—deep ones that would take my breath away if I allowed myself to dwell on them long enough. It might not be all in what he said, and he sure had lots to say on the subject of our life. It was in his blank eyes, his rough edge. He remembered our past life, knew all about this transient one, and had the comparison of what normal folks had. He’d once said we’d be cursed forever. I knew how long eternity was and wasn’t so sure about all of that. Not that I didn’t believe we were the unluckiest family in the world but cursed? That was saying much. I had learned the art of suffering in silence, because I knew no words in the world would ever change the circumstances of our life.

“Sweet Potato,” Maize whispered harshly from the corner of the shed. “This is it. The last stop.”

        “What are you rambling on about now?” I grumbled in the dark, trying to hide my growing fear. I knew exactly what he meant.

        “I’m running away after this one. I’m calculating me a plan.”

His voice was shaking leaves, but there was something there that made me believe him deep down to my roots. I had to put this to rest now, before the idea festered within him.

        “No, you hush up now. I’m too tired for this. The only plan we’re making is one that involves us staying together, so stop talking about tearing us apart. We’re all we’ve got, bottom line.”

        “You ain’t gonna stop me. You’ve got Bean and Bell to mess over. With me gone, it’s one less to worry about. More food for the kids. I don’t like the way Bean is looking.”

        “You know you lie, Maize. Shut up and go to sleep. I’d worry about you to my death if you ran off. You can’t up and leave like that. Losing yourself in the world will never erase who you are.”

        “It has to be better than who I am now. I want to be lost, and that’ll be the ticket that sets me free.”

Didn’t he know how lost we already were? Our souls held the dreaded black spot, marked with the sin of our beloved, dearly departed mother and the rambling sins of our father.

        I whispered, “If you leave, we won’t survive. I can’t do any of this without you. You’re the rock, Maize. No matter what, we’ve got to stick together.”

I pulled the frayed, plastic tarp over Bell’s tiny-boned shoulders and watched as her soft, even breathing rose and fell. It was too hot in the shed for a blanket, but for some reason, it made me feel better that I could cover her, as if it was a natural thing I should be doing. Bean was sprawled out on the dirty floor with his shirt off, swatting at flies that weren’t there. He was faking sleep, and my voice lowered once more to a plea.

“You have to stay, Maize.”

        “Why?” He sat up, his shoulders slumping over in the dark. “I gotta go. You can’t make me stay.”

        Bell sighed, stirring. My heart sank straight down like an anchor, crashing through my feet to hit rock bottom. She didn’t need to hear Maize’s desperation, and neither did Bean. When would he learn to keep his mouth shut?

Bean sat right up with his hands crossed over his chest like he’d popped out of a casket.

        Bell sang a sweet melody, her voice rising above my fear. “Stay on, brother. Roll on, sister. Just for a little while. We got miles to go.”

        “That’s what I’m saying, Bell. We’ve got to find us a place.” Maize tumbled off the crate he’d been sitting on. One of the soda bottle crates crashed to the floor with a thud, and his butt sank into it.

He crawled over to my side, putting his hand out to me. He squeezed my fingers like a vise. Panic attacks often rose up in him at unforeseen times, mostly in school or when we were out in the public, but never really when it was us alone in our sanctuary. He must’ve been losing his grip, because he was holding on to me with all the strength he had left.

        “Daddy said we’re all deciding this time,” Bell chirped in optimistically.

I broke the silence beginning to make my heart ache and said, “Don’t get Bell all into this. We’ll let you decide, Bell. Won’t we, Maize? Bean, let’s give Bell a spin at it.” My voice rose a little, giving them a clear sign we had to play along, for Bell’s sake.

        Maize put his head down shamefully. He loved our little Bell Pepper Jones, our sweet-singing little angel of music. He relented. I felt a whoosh of wind release from him, and I sighed when he relaxed his hold on my hand.

        Maize mustered up spirit and announced, “Alrighty then, Bell. You got it. Where to?”

I pulled the flashlight from my bag, and Maize unrolled the map Daddy had marked and circled so many times before. Bean kept swatting imaginary flies.

        “Now? Without Daddy here?” The disappointment crept into Bell’s voice.

She saw Daddy as a knight shining bright and polished, and for reasons unfathomable, so did I.

        I reassured her. “He’s working down at the cleanup site, and you know it’s a long-day work. When he gets back, he’ll be glad we’ve taken care of the logistics of the matter for him. So, where will it be? Let us see.”

        My flashlight strode across the interstates and highways of North Carolina, along the mountain ranges we hadn’t had the chance to travel yet, touching the coastal waters that I’d seen only in books. We’d somehow stuck to the main cities and the little sideways towns labeled in such small print that it was hard to make them out even with the flashlight.

        “We gonna do this right this time,” Bell said, her smile breaking all speed limits across her tiny face.

        “You act like we’ve been doing it all wrong.” Maize chuckled. “You know Daddy don’t do no wrong.” His sarcasm fell on deaf ears.

This was a big night for us, laying out future plans. The unknown was always our shadow, but hopelessness wouldn’t be, not anymore. I only had to look at Bell to see there was hope left in the world. Maybe not for me, but for her sake, I’d try to summon all my courage and smile. Smile even in the darkness, no matter how forced it was. In all honesty, the anticipation was there for me, too. The ceremony was about to begin, and I felt all sorts of feelings trying to attack me at once.

        “We never prayed about the thing before,” Bell said, pulling her weather-worn New Testament out from the back pocket of her jeans and fitting it into the palm of her hand.

        My heart ached when she mentioned prayer, because she said it with the innocence of a child, the way Jesus would’ve wanted it. That little, dark hole had once been a blood-pumping apparatus lurched in my chest. I wanted to be able to pray right. Lord knows how bad I needed to. She laced her tiny fingers in mine, wanting me to join in her prayer.

I could do this. For her.

“Go on,” I encouraged her.

        She released my hand once she knew she had me, pulled her knees up under her, and put her tiny hands against her chest, clasping tight to a frayed-edged Bible we got from the Gideon men who were passing them out two shelters back.

Bean started waving his hand across the map as if he was a magician flicking a wand and said in his comedic flair, “Abracadabra, a home is what we’re after.”

        Maize stared at me with expressionless eyes. I had the darkest eyes of them all, with a ring of hazel framing the brown like a field with weeds. Mine was the color of the earth and their eyes were the color of the myriad sky. The colors before a storm. Bell’s gray clouds, to Bean’s hazel, to Maize’s Tarheel blue. Maize got his directly from our white momma. That was about where the resemblance stopped, because our dominant features came from Daddy. I didn’t know how my eyes looked to other people, stuck behind a pair of cracked, framed glasses, but the eyes that were looking at me now, they were my world. Those eyes should have still been holding young wonder. At fourteen, Maize should have still held on to the world like someone who can waste away days, playing video games and daydreaming about girls. He was an old man in a frightened, little boy’s body.        

        Bell said, “Dear God and Jesus, too, we about to pick a place. We Joneses are on the move again, Lord, because that’s what you would have us do. You would have us to be ramblers for your Word, but Maize is tired, Lord.”

        Horror filled me as I stared at Maize. I dared him with my dagger-slinging eyes to never, ever give way to his feelings of despair in front of this precious child. Bell had overheard their conversation about him wanting to run away again, and she was sure that girl was sound asleep. Talking about Maize being tired. He looked at me like he needed prayer more than he would ever admit, so I bit my lip again to stop myself from crying at the pain starting to form right behind my eyelids. Take his tired, Jesus, upon your shoulders.

        Bell patted Maize on the head, her tiny hand sinking into his curls. “He needs a stopping place. So, please, Lord. Give us one. Give us our time. Our place. We been traveling for you long and hard all these ten years. I know we must have paid off our debt by now. Give us a home, God. A real one, this time. Amen.”

Bean’s little voice came out manly and rich in his echoed amen as Bell closed out her prayer. He believed it, too. The faith of these two combined might take us home.

When I didn’t chorus her ending, Bell pinched me hard on the arm. “Say amen, or it won’t work, Sweet Potato.”

        “Amen,” I whispered.

In all the emotion of hearing Bell praying, I missed the sound of footsteps. The scraping sound of metal startled us all, and we jumped into each other’s arms. Bell cowered between us, and I found myself holding them all up, with Bean holding on to my knees in the huddled position of a tornado drill in progress.

        Daddy said, “My, my, what a sight.”

When he held up his flashlight, he found what I could only imagine looked like the four of us caught like red-handed thieves.

I wanted to say, what a smell, but I kept my thoughts to myself. Daddy had worked a grueling day at that landfill, doing the jobs they couldn’t get the salaried workers to undertake. He had one small, brown bag with him, and my stomach growled ferociously at the crinkle of it in his hand, like what I learned from my psychology class on Pavlov’s dog reacting to the bell. Never imagined I would give a second thought about my psychology class again, but here I was, comparing myself to Pavlov’s dog. I actually missed school, some place to go and feel normal again. I’d forgotten my daily hunger in the midst of Maize’s pain.

        Bell whispered, “I’m starving, too.”

It was so hot since we closed up the shed. Shacks were safer than the main house, because no one would think to go in here to check for people like us. We’d tried staying in the shade of the forest behind the abandoned house to beat the humidity, but the blistering summer heat pure wore us down to the core. We’d been lying down in here for hours to conserve our energy. If it wasn’t for the pulled-back, metal roof that must have taken damage from a storm, we would’ve probably suffocated by now.

        Daddy asked, “Who wants some chicken and taters?”

He waved the bag in front of us, and the sight of the grease stains on the paper made my mouth water.

He frowned. “What you doing with that map? You think you getting a head start without me?”

It was almost as if he could sense Maize’s urgency to flee, because as he spoke, he looked directly at him. Maize crossed his arms defiantly, even though he had never once spoken his feelings outright in front of Daddy. He gave them all to me late at night when nobody else was alive to the world to hear it.

I said, “Bell just prayed us into the ceremony. We ’bout to choose. Well, Bell’s ’bout to do it for us.”

        “Without me? That’s always been my job. This time I promised we would do it all together, and here I come walking in to find y’all huddled up making plays without the coach.” Daddy’s shoulders slumped, a tired smile trying to spread across his face but not quite making it.

He handed me the bag to distribute the food, and I suddenly had to push back the bile forming in my throat. His smell came too close to my nostrils, and it mixed in with the scent of the grease wafting through the thin paper. I gave the biggest pieces to the kids and took a leg for myself. I turned to face the wall to eat, trying to block the sight of his body. I knew if I covered my face, it would be disrespectful. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I wished he could have at least stopped in at the rest stop and washed up a bit before coming home.

        Bean spoke through a mouthful of chicken breast. “We got done praying. That’s all you missed.”

        “Prayin’, huh? Well, that’s ah right, then.” Daddy fidgeted.

We stayed the whole summer out of sight at the edges of civilization. He said he was trying to gather his wits about him and needed time to himself, like Jesus going out to Gethsemane to pray, without stranger church folks trying to help us or give advice or split up us kids and take us away. I knew Bell had been missing the whole church experience, probably mostly for the fresh choir robes and the singing. I was glad for the break, in all honesty. God hadn’t done nothing for us, and by now, I figured it was probably too late for him to show up. Why show up for him on some forced Sunday morning with fake smiles and a made-up backstory? I was over it completely.

        Bell was a little harp. Whenever and wherever, a song would swell up in her spirit, and she’d release it. Talk about walking guilt strings along the pathways of your heart. Bell could do that to you, and she was starting on a gospel one this time. Daddy hung his head down, and it wasn’t long before his baritone voice jumped in on the old-timey chorus.

        Take it to the altar, where you are, just stop and pray

Let the spirit move you as you go about your day

Fill me with your promises, Jesus, never let me fall

Take it to the altar, hear the sinner’s call

        Bean hummed along some, too. I guess you could have called Maize and me the cynical ones. Let them sing for us.

        “You already invited Jesus. Now let’s get to it.” Bean was rubbing his hands together. I could see the sweat beading up all along his forehead as he rocked back and forth in anticipation.

        Both flashlights lit the map. Daddy’s solemn, deep eyes scanned each of our faces. He had this loving look on him like this was a tender moment for him. Wonder where that had come from? If he loved us enough, wouldn’t our lives be different? Even though I hated like all get out to admit it, that look was one that endeared him to me, no matter what our life had measured up to. Daddy didn’t have a formal education past high school but wasn’t a stupid man. Why did he choose to be this wandering soul, unable to put down roots? Questions left again to the mysteries of life.

        He looked around at us as if he could figure out the latitude and longitude of our next living arrangement by the contours of our faces. I hated maps. I knew what they meant. Maps meant moving. Traveling on. Migrating. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder.

Bean’s hands were clamped firmly over Bell’s eyes. He released them, and they all bent over in fascination at where Bell’s petite finger had fallen. I was the last to grudgingly look at our fate. No more North Carolina sights for me. We’d never stepped foot out of North Carolina. We had miles to go on this one, all the way to Virginia. Crossing borders this time.

        Daddy said, “Well, there we go. Almost to the end of the Earth. Let’s get it going first light.”

        “Already?” My voice sounded more exhausted than I’d ever heard it. Must have been all of this heat and humidity bearing down on me, and the weight of Maize on my soul like a seven-hundred-pound bench press. Maybe it was simply the thought of traveling three hundred country miles.

        Daddy said, “No better day than the one before us. Besides, summer’s ’bout over, and you know what that means.”

        Maize’s face wore a pained expression.

        “Lights out,” I said it like we were in a place with an actual switch that connected to current.

I cut off my flashlight and settled back down on the tarp with Bell. Bean decided he was going to stay snuggled up with us, and I minded it so much but couldn’t deny him. The sweltering heat was a beast, not to mention the smell now pervading all of my senses. But I didn’t have the courage to ask that little boy to move.

Now, despite how I’d managed to get my family through everything we’d endured up to this point without cracking, I had a feeling I was about to get like Maize—tired and fed up.