by KD Miller
Theodore and his siblings leave Brooklyn on the Orphan Train. (Theodore's POV. 1904)
Brooklyn Home for Orphaned Boys
Brooklyn, New York
November 29, 1904
Theo inspects his three brothers from head to toe. Fourteen-year-old, Francis is wearing a pair of thin trousers with a large oil stain on the leg. He has on a long-sleeved, threadbare, sweater and boots with the soles coming undone. Taking a washcloth from the pile on the dresser, Theo dips it in the basin and proceeds to dab his brother’s face. Francis pulls his face back.
“I can do it myself.”
Theo places his hands on his hips and glares at his brother.
“What did I tell you,” he pulls Francis closer. “I’m sixteen now and am in charge of the three of ya. Do ya honestly think our new “father” will take care of us? Our job is to be free labor to him. He’s only adopting us for that purpose.”
His ten-year-old, twin brothers peek out behind Francis.
“What’s that gotta do with keeping our faces clean?” Millen pipes up as he pauses to wipe his nose with the sleeve of his sweater.
“Headmaster says our new father wants four strong boys to be his servants. That’s the only reason why we’re adopted.”
“Yeah,” Dylan chimes in. “Someone is going ta teach us how ta be proper servants when we get ta Texas. We’ll never even see our new father, just his two sons. What’s the point in you cleaning our faces, when we’re now old enough ta do it ourselves?”
Theo drops the washcloth into the basin. His brothers were not seeing his point. With a sigh, Theo stands up and heads back to the large room they shared with all the other boys at Brooklyn Home for Orphaned Boys. He came back a few seconds later with a carpetbag holding their meager possessions: a pillow, one threadbare blanket, and the drawing Theo drew of their parents before they passed away last year making his brothers and him orphans.
“I don’t care who our new father is.” He responded. “We all know the man doesn’t care one bit for us. We are darn lucky to have been adopted by him. He wanted four boys, preferably brothers, to be servants for his two grown sons. We will attend to the men, help them dress, clean their rooms, and assist them in other small tasks. We’re not this man’s children, nor children to his two sons. We’re only adopted for labor. Don’t you understand?”
He watched his siblings nod their heads in agreement.
“Good,” Theo points toward the basin. “Give your faces a good scrubbing before we leave. I don’t want this man to think I cannot care for my brothers when he sees us in a few days. I have done everything in my power to keep the four of us together since Mama and Papa died. Our prayers have finally been answered. We’re being adopted together, but we will not have a loving family. It does not matter. Once we get good and settled in our new town, I’ll hatch a plan to run away. We’ll somehow get to Dallas, and I’ll find factory work. We will be able to find a new place.”
Francis gives a little stomp of his foot as the twins splash water on their faces.
“Theo,” He lets out a sigh. “I’m tired of running. Can we just live with this man and his sons until we all turn eighteen? Living in his barn and being servants is better than living illegally on the streets of New York, or up in this rat and bed bug-infested orphanage.”
The twins turn to stare as well. Theo can feel his face growing hotter, as his blood begins to boil. After all the hard work and sacrifice he has done for the four of them since their parents passing, they still don’t get it.
“No one,” he hisses “Will ever love us as our parents did. No one will ever care about us as they did. I am the oldest, and I am in charge of all three of you until you turn eighteen. Do you understand? I will fight for you. I will kill for your safety. I’ll be damned if two arrogant men look down on the four of us. We will escape as soon as it’s safe.”
Theo can see the twins smile, even Francis looks amused.
“Love ya, brother.” He giggles.
Theo laughed back and reached down for the carpetbag. “Let’s go downstairs. The wagon to take us to the train station will be here soon.”
Outside on the steps of the orphanage, the sun shone despite the chilly winds. In the distance, they spotted the Brooklyn Bridge. Their Papa used to work on the docks before he fell off and died. His body was never recovered. Toward the shore was the pauper’s cemetery where their Mama lay buried since dying of tuberculosis.
The previous night, Theo gathered his three brothers to the fourth-floor upstairs window, overlooking the busy streets. A maze of vendors, horses, buggies, beggars, and officers hurriedly snaked their way along.
“This is the last time you will see this.” He pointed to the hidden cemetery. They couldn’t see the headstones, even from the tall upstairs window, only the tops of the wild trees littering the ground.
“Someday in the future, when we all turn sixteen, I will buy us a train ticket back to Brooklyn, and we will have a house near our parents and see them every day.”
He was mostly talking to the twins, trying to keep their spirits up. They hadn’t visited their Mama’s shared grave since the day before they were sent to the orphanage. Behind him, he heard Francis give out a snort. His older brother knew better. A lot could happen in ten years.
At least Mama and Papa were near one another. Papa’s family lived somewhere in Scotland, and no one knew how to contact them because he'd run away from home when he was fifteen and hopped on a ship to America. He hid in the cargo section and thankfully was never found, or he would have been tossed overboard. Papa said he and his parents fought terribly. He wanted nothing to do with them, and they likewise. Theo felt a ping of sadness knowing he had grandparents out there who didn’t even know he and his brothers existed. He didn’t even know their names or where they lived.
“Remember; don’t speak until you is spoken to. Keep you’se eyes at ground level at all times, and when you’se do eat be sure to be thankful! I don’t want Mr. Woodrow ta send ya peasant rats back to me!”
Theo frowned at the headmaster who stood in front of them lecturing, his gnarled hands waving in the air. The wagon taking them to the train station arrived. A sullen-looking man smoking a cigarette leaned against the buggy seat. He looked like he’d rather be doing anything but attending to four dirty children.
“Yes, sir,” Theo heard his brothers answer.
The headmaster nodded and cocked his eye toward him. Theo squinted his eyes back.
“You’se,” he pointed a bony finger at him,
“Have been nothing but trouble for me since the four of ya were dropped off three months ago! Sassing me! Sneaking in chocolate and lying more than the devil himself! I thank the Lord Mr. Woodrow requested four orphan boys ta adopt for slave labor. Christmas presents for his grown sons. How I would have loved ta separate ya from ya brothers, but this was a perfect time ta get rid of all of you’se.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his brothers staring at the ground. Not because of guilt, but because they were forced to not stare at their “betters.” Theo didn’t care. He looked deep into the headmaster’s inky eyes.
“Boy,” he snarled, tobacco juice spitting from his lips.
“Ya were born into nothing and will always be nothing. You’se and ya brothers are Irish slaves. The blacks and Indians are better than ya kind. It gave me great pleasure knowing ya will spend the next two years of ya life waiting on ya betters hand and foot. Once ya turn eighteen, the men will kick ys out and you’se never see ya brothers again.”
Theo knew the man was lying in hopes of scaring him. He saw Francis staring at him; his brother’s eyes begged him to “go along with it.” Theo just smirked.
By now the driver had enough.
“Get these peasants in tha wagon.” He flicked his cigarette ashes to the ground. “I has a funeral in an hour. Gotta drop them off and be back at tha poor man’s hospital ta load up a casket. That man better has my two dollars for escorting them! Or, else he and tha boys, will find themselves in tha river.”
The headmaster rolled his eyes.
“In ya go!” He screamed while flailing his arms trying to hit the boys. “Let’s get this pathetic Christmas Train started.”
Theo was in such a hurry he forgot the carpetbag on the steps. It wasn’t until they were three blocks away that he remembered. He could care less about the pillow and blanket, but he wanted the drawing. He remembered the night his Mama bought him a sketch pad and a box of charcoal pencils from the vendors outside their apartment. They had just returned from Coney Island and were distressed to learn they couldn’t afford the fifty cents to have their photo taken. They had gathered in the studio and the man pressed the button on the shutter. After announcing the price, Papa looked through his pockets, but the money was gone. Someone had stolen it. The cameraman shooed them from the studio. He believed them to have wasted his time.
That night at their apartment, Mama took the dollar from the tin can on top of the stove, waited until Papa was asleep, and left. Everyone looked at her in disbelief as the apartment door quietly closed behind her. Grocery day was not until Friday when Papa got paid. There was also another reason. Papa had forbidden her to leave the apartment without his escort. There were too many dangerous men wandering around after dark.
When their Mama returned an hour later, Papa was still snoring from the cot behind the thin bedroom wall. She laid a box full of produce, a sketch pad, and some charcoal pencils on the battered table. Theo could see the anger behind her eyes. She was remembering the photographer rolling his eyes and telling them to leave.
“You’re such a talented artist,” she handed the items to Theo. “Please draw our portrait.”
Theo blinked in disbelief. He'd returned from school many afternoons with drawings from his art class. The teacher had written words like “Excellent work,” and “You’ll be a talented artist.” Theo smiled at his Mama and took the items. Later that night, he presented her with the drawing. Everyone stared at it in awe. Theo had a talent and was from then on, ashamed of it. His Mama had spent the fifteen cents they usually used for coffee and canned milk on the supplies. They had to go without until Friday, and it was only Saturday.
Theo was in a panic. He could not leave the only item he had connected to his Mama behind. Reaching behind the wagon seat, he tapped on the driver’s shoulder.
“Sir, we have ta turn back. I forgot something.”
The driver ignored him and kept at a steady pace through the morning traffic. Theo cast a frightened look at his brothers. “The carpetbag,” he whispered, causing them to gasp.
“Please sir,” Theo tried again. “Our parents died last year and the only object we have left of theirs I accidentally left behind.”
The driver continued to ignore them. Knowing he had only moments to spare, he stood up and braced himself to jump.
“I’ll race back ta the orphanage and come back to tha train station. I can run faster than tha wagon.”
The driver heard him that time for he came to a dead stop. Theo sighed with relief.
“Thank ya, sir.”
Balancing on the ledge, he was about to make his escape, when the driver reached out and grasped a hold of his arm, pulling him back. Millen began to scream as the man hit Theo several times across the face. The slap seemed to echo.
“If ya jump, I will come after ya with a horsewhip. Do ya understand? I don’t give a damn about you’se parents’ trash. Sit ya self down and if ya don’t shut that brat up, I’ll beat all of ya."
Theo was in too much of a daze to start crying. Millen started sniffling and wrapped his arms around him. Pulling him close, Theo saw the street leading back to the orphanage fading further in the distance.
“It’s alright,” Francis whispered. “It was meant ta happen. You’se done so much for us. Let it go.”
Theo settled down. He could taste the metallic tang of blood on his lip. They had a way to go before they reached the train station. The sooner they arrived in Texas, the better. Theo couldn’t wait to hatch a plan to get them away from their new “father” and back on their own.