“Choo-choo!” I wake up drenched in sweat on a warm summer night in Alabama. It is still pitch-black outside, and the crickets are still awake, but the hummingbirds are still asleep. I have a recurring dream of a train that is picking up the slaves to bring them to New York, a slave-free state. But in this dream, I am left behind, and I miss the train. Every night the dream ends with a train screeching “choo-choo!”, and the train is about to drive into me. When I wake up from this horrible nightmare, I look around the small house for slaves like myself, and I see all of the other children sleeping soundly. As soon as the sun peeks over the hill, our master will be screaming for us to start our day in the cotton field.
Master Gordon “owns” five hundred slaves on his cotton plantation. A quarter of his slaves are child slaves, like me. Most of the children on this plantation do not know their own age or name. I know that I was separated from my family after a fire at our old plantation when I was around the age of three. Since then, I have been working hard every day on this new plantation for about eight years, so I can only guess that I am around eleven years old. When I see Master Gordon’s children celebrating their birthdays, receiving a lot of presents, and being referred to by their own name, it makes me feel like I am not worth anything. I know this is not true, but when a girl my age does not even have a name, it is hard to feel good about yourself. My best friend Molly and a few other child slaves know their own names because their families live on the plantation as well. I, however, cannot even remember what my own family looks like. I think I may have biological siblings because when I think of my old plantation, I remember there was always a lot of noise in our cramped slave house.
Sure enough, as soon as the sun peeks over the hill, Master Gordon bangs on all of the doors to the slave homes. All of the children and myself race outside in our disheveled clothing and messy hair. All I get to wear is a nightgown at night, and overalls to throw on top of my nightgown during the day.
“Get in a straight line, you lazy fools!” Master Gordon barks as we report for the roll call. We slaves are frightened by Master Gordon, a ruthless man who barely gives us any food to eat. I have not eaten in two days, and I am very skinny. Master Gordon is so unfair to us children and does not care that we look like skeletons. Even though I am not a doctor, I know that being malnourished cannot be healthy.
“Suck in that gut!” he screams at my friend Jordan. It is awfully odd for Master Gordon to say this to Jordan, because Jordan is terribly slim.
After a long day in the field, I am called into the kitchen to serve Master Gordon and his family dinner. This is my least favorite job as Master Gordon is always staring at me and waiting for me to mess up.
“Pappa, I want some more grits,” the master’s daughter, Virginia, complains. Master Gordon has five children, who are all equally as cruel. Jake is thirteen, Madison is eleven, James is nine, Scarlett is seven, and Virginia is five.
“Anything for my little Virginia. Now get over here, girl. You heard my daughter!” the master shouts.
I pick up the steaming hot bowl of grits and walk toward the table. My hands tremble as the grits just came out of the oven. Without a doubt I’m going to get burned, and I will have blisters all over my hands. Then, all of a sudden, the bowl drops and splatters all over me.
Virginia rolls her eyes at me, and her father slowly stands up. He walks stiffly across the floor to where I am standing, as if he is made out of wood. The master’s face is as red as Alabama clay, and the expression on his face tells me that I will get whipped. He grabs me by my overalls and lifts me into the air.
“You're going to get it, girl. You’re going to get a whip,” he says over and over. When we get to the barn, he throws me inside. I land on some rocks with a thud. He barks at me to lie on my stomach and undo the back of my overalls. Then, he takes his whip and whips me very hard, over and over.
“Sir, please stop!” I cry. I have never experienced more pain in my entire life. The whip flies in the air and lands on my back and seems to be hitting me harder each time. This lashing hurts more than the time I fell off of the roof while I was removing leaves. The pain I was experiencing probably hurts more than getting your finger caught in the cotton gin.
When it is time for bed, I can barely move. My back is scarred from the whip, and it feels tender to the touch. I can already see splotches of bruises going down my back. At dawn, we are all up and at ‘em. Once all of the other children and I get into the field, I show them my back.
“Oh dear! How on Earth did that happen?” Molly cries.
“Is it really that bad? The master whipped me because I dropped Virginia’s grits. It was an accident. I swear,” I tell them.
“Goodness gracious, dear,” an old man near us says. He is always working harder than anyone else on the farm, but he does not talk that much. We all look at each other in shock that he actually spoke to us after years of us trying to talk to him.
“No, it can’t be,” he says. “Is that the lost child of Mary and Charles Femi? You know your last name means ‘love me’, right?” he draws closer to me.
“I don't think I’m the person you are talking about,” I have no idea what he is saying.
“Your last name is not Femi?” he says in disappointment.
“I do not know my name, sir,” I reply. We are required to address everyone with “sir or “ma’am.”
“You must be the lost child everyone is squawking about. You have a scar on your arm from the fire that took place in your home right before you were separated from your family. Darling, you must go see your family. They escaped through the Underground Railroad a few nights ago and were headed to New York. They wanted to get you, but everyone said that you were dead.”
All of a sudden it hits me. That is why I keep having this nightmare of everyone escaping without me. My dreadful fear turns out to be my reality. The only way out is to leave in the middle of the night with anyone else who dares to go with me. There is of course the consequence of getting caught, but if it means meeting my family after all this time, then I must go. After all, I cannot bear to be whipped again like I was last night. That is why Molly and her family, Jordan and his family, the old man, and I decide to escape that night. Molly’s family has a newborn baby who was born five days ago, a two-year old toddler, and a dog named Macey. I worry that they may start to whine or bark while we are supposed to be as quiet as mice.
Molly’s mother and father walk over to my bed and wake me up saying, “It is time to go, sweetie. Pack only what you can carry.” I do not own anything besides my teddy bear, which I assume is from a time when I was with my family. It is the only thing that I have from my parents, so I stuff the bear in the front pocket of my overalls, right next to my heart.
We slowly open the door of the slave house so that the hinges do not squeak very loudly. All together, there are eleven of us, plus a golden retriever. We race through the grass and into the woods, with nothing but a dim candle burning inside of the old man’s lantern. All is quiet until Molly’s two-year-old brother named Jonathan finds a stick.
“Look, mama. It’s a stick,” Jonathan throws the stick into the pond. We all gasp, and we are thinking the same thing. Golden retrievers love to swim, and they love to play fetch, even if that means jumping into the water and getting soaked.
Sure enough, Macey jumps into the water with a loud splash! Molly and Jordan’s dad race into the water and grab the dog from underneath her. Once they are out of the water, Macey seems like she is about to bark. Molly’s father takes a rag out of his pocket and muffles her mouth.
“Daddy, you can’t do that to poor Macey!” Molly cries.
“Molly, be quiet! I would never do anything to hurt Macey and you know that. We simply cannot afford to have the master hear her. At least she only made a splash and did not bark. The splash could have been a rabbit or another creature. I do not want to hear another peep from anyone. Do you understand that?” her dad orders.
“Yes, sir,” she replies. When we start walking again, Molly looks at me with a depressed face.
The conversation between Molly and her father was the last conversation spoke during the rest of the trip. We stopped in each state at a “safe house” to have food and shelter for the night. The actual path of the Underground Railroad that we took technically did not start until we got into Georgia, since there was not a direct path from Alabama to New York that we could take. Therefore, going through Alabama the first night was immensely dangerous. Once we were on the border of Virginia and Maryland, our feet were so sore we could barely move another step. Yes, we took the nights off to rest, but all of the walking during the day was especially hard without any shoes to wear. Luckily, a man named Harrison who owned one of the safe houses was kind enough to give us a ride in the back of his horse and buggy. We had to lie down in the back of it, and he had to put a tarp over us so we would not be seen. The only other white man I knew was my slave owner. I realize now that not all white people think we should be slaves and that there are good people left in this world.
All of a sudden, I hear a lot of noise coming from all around me. Did my slave owner find us, or did Harrison lie to us and lead us right to him? Then, our buggy stops, and we hear Harrison get off the buggy.
“It gives me great honor to announce that you are free,” Harrison opens the tarp and we see a diverse area where all men and women are welcome. The surroundings bring me to tears, and I think that I will wake up from my dream any minute. We go inside into a small building where recently freed slaves can stay until they get back on their feet. There, the old man asks me to follow him.
“I think there is someone that you may want to meet,” the old man smiles. I follow him to the second floor where I see a loving mother, father, and identical twins; one is a boy, and the other is a girl.
“Who are they?” I ask the old man. “Did they also escape from our old plantation?”
“No, dear,” his eyes start to tear up. “They are your family.”
Without any further explanation, I rush into my family’s arms and embrace in their hug. My father Charles and my mother Mary are the parents whom the old man was telling me about. The twins are my older siblings, Chloe and Connor, who are both fourteen.
After some catching up and a lot of hugs, I am still wondering what my name is. Is it a majestic name that sounds like it belongs to a queen? Could my name be a long name or a short name?
“Mamma, I just have one question. What is my name?” I ask while sitting on her lap.
“Darling, I have missed you so much, and I have greatly missed calling one of my children by their name. I will say it now, but you need to promise me that you will remember how special you really are. You are Grace, the smartest, strongest, and the bravest person who ever walked the planet.”
Isabella Vaughn is thirteen and lives in New Jersey.