by KD Miller
The children go to live with the rich Mueller family for three weeks. (Theodore POV 1904)
Theo placed his hands on his hips and squinted down at Millen in the bathtub. He watched the boy's eyes close and slightly open as the hot water swirled around him. A peaceful sigh escaped the child's chapped lips. Theo couldn't help but notice how quickly the clear liquid turned gray. They were dirty. Reaching for the linen washcloth and bar of Ivory Soap, it hit Theo how awful they smelled, like rotting banana peels and barn animals. The train they had ridden on from New York was an empty cattle car attached to the main passenger cars. Thankfully, they didn't have to share with the cows, but it smelled awful.
Almost a week of living and sleeping in the car with no heat, leftover scraps to eat and only a pile of blankets to keep them warm had taken its toll. They were cold, hungry and on the urge of becoming sick. But, there was one thing they didn't have and that was bedbugs or lice. Every day, Theo would inspect their hair and clothing for the little varmints. He never noticed anything unusual, but he remembered the hesitation on Catrina's face as her fingers paused to touch Millen's greasy hair. He wanted to slap the woman across her elegant face.
In the bathtub, Millen squirmed as Theo took a hold of his brother's hand and scrubbed the dirt off his arms. This was the first time the four of them had a proper bath in their entire life. When their parents were still living, they bathed once a week in the shared privy at the Brooklyn Flats, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the area. The landlord allowed each family to fill the tub up with clean water, and it was supposed to last for each person. Their daddy went first, and then momma, Theo, Francis and last the twins took a bath together. Some days the children went after daddy, and she took her bath last.
With a small groan, Millen turned to him, his eyes closed again and he smiled.
"Theo, I had a wonderful dream. Instead of going to live in Mr. Woodrow's barn, we were taken in by a rich couple."
Reaching out, Theo placed the palm of his hand on his little brother's forehead. He was growing hotter by the minute.
Taking the cup of clean water from the basin, he gently poured it over Theo's head, wetting his hair.
"The doctor will be here soon," he whispered back, placing the half empty cup on the floor. Spotting the harsh, lye soap on the edge of the tub, Theo took it in his hands, dunked it in the water, worked up a lather and massaged it through his brother's dirty, oily hair. He knew the reason why Catrina wanted them to use the lye soap on their hair and Ivory on their body. Lye was powerful enough to kill lice.
When his brother was good and clean, Theo stood up and opened the cabinet above the wash basin. Inside he spotted a stack of large, fluffy, cotton towels. Taking the top one, Theo draped it over his body and walked back over to the bathtub,
"Hands up," he commanded.
Millen slowly raised his hands and gently arose from the murky water. Leaning into him, Theo wrapped the towel around his exhausted brother, covering up his shivering body and hauled him into his arms. Stepping in through the door, He found the guest bedroom. Two giant beds had been made up, the quilts pulled back to welcome them. In front of the room, a fire had been lit in the enormous fireplace. Taking his brother to the far bed, he laid him down gently, wrapping him up in the wool and tucking the quilts around him. Theo knew for the first time in their lives he wouldn't have to worry about bedbugs or rats crawling over them while they slept.
"Francis and Dylan will be here soon," he whispered, reaching down to kiss his brother on the forehead. "I need to take a short bath."
"Mmmm," Millen whispered, as he turned his face into the mound of feather pillows.
Walking back into the bathroom, Theo noticed the locks on the two doors and turned them. He couldn't risk anyone accidentally walking in. Reaching into the dirty water, he pulled out the stopper, with a swish, the water swirled down the drain leaving behind a dirt ring. Taking the washcloth he used to bathe his brother, Theo cleaned up the bathtub and disposed of it down the laundry chute. He guessed it went straight down to the basement, which is what they did back in New York.
Unlacing his boots, he tossed them down the chute, followed by his damp, mildew smelling socks. Perching on the inside toilet, he bent down to study his feet. They were small, and his nails were dirty. Because of the snow, rain and dampness of the train ride, his toes had shriveled up into blue raisins. It was a good thing this Catrina lady rescued them. If they had gone straight to Mr. Woodrow's barn, frostbite might have taken his feet. Theo shuddered at the thought of not being able to work, and being forced to live his days out at an asylum. Quickly he stripped off his damp clothing, and flung it down to the basement.
Reaching behind him, he quickly untied three ancient neckties that stretched across his backside and allowed them to fall to the marble tiled floor. They had belonged to his late daddy, and were used to hide the bruises and scars along his spine. While waiting for the tub to refill with clean water, Theo paused to study his body in front of the floor length mirror. With a scrunched up face, he twirled and placed one hand on his hip. Tilting his head up, he let his eyes travel down his malnourished figure. Fingers traced over his ribs that stuck out sharp and pointed. Cupping his hands over his hip bones, he noted they were starting to curve outward. With a frown, he raised his arms, and saw hair starting to grow underneath. With a deep sigh, Theo walked over to turn off the water. Bracing himself, he lifted one leg over into the steaming hot water, followed by the other, and gently lowered himself in.
Taking a breath, he exhaled as the water splashed around him. Never in his entire life had he ever taken a bath in clean water. He didn't even know how the boilers in the basement of the house carried hot water to the tub,
"Am I dreaming," Theo heard himself talking aloud, as his head rolled back, allowing the water to take him into a trance. "Perhaps, Millen is correct? We were extremely hungry on the train, perhaps I fell into a coma? This is all a dream. I'll wake-up in a few hours and we will be in Sherwood, where Mr. Woodrow will take us to his horse barn to live and not a luxury house..."
"Theo, are you in there?"
Theo's eyes snapped open in alarm, as a sharp knock echoed through the room, followed by the door knob trying to turn.
"It's Frank," the voice called back. "The doctor is here, and Benjamin brought up some clothes. I'm going to leave yours in a basket by the door. Please, help yourself find a pair of pajamas and come out when you're good and ready. Dinner is almost ready and we're going to have you four eat in the guest bedroom."
"Yes, sir," Theo said back, his voice shaking with nerves. The man had tried to walk in the room! But, they were both boys. What did it matter? Still he must be more careful.
With his heart pounding in his chest, Theo reached down for the copper bucket of fresh water on the floor, where he had left it. Quickly, he washed his hair with the lye soap, scrubbed the dirt from his body, unplugged the glass stopper and stepped out of the tub. Taking another towel from the cabinet, he wrapped it tightly around his body and cautiously unlocked the hallway door. Finding the wicker basket of clothing, he snatched it up, shut the door, locked it and took the basket, placing it on the lounge sofa.
Theo's eyes blinked at the noticeably expensive clothing: cashmere sweaters, wool pants, thick socks, linen handkerchiefs, men's linen underclothes...and a pair of silk pajamas! He had never felt expensive clothes before, but saw them all the time in old, tattered copies of Vogue Magazine that he salvaged from trashcans. Their mama loved to look at the latest fashion.
"Just because we can never afford these clothes, doesn't mean I can't look." Their mama was fond of saying.
Shaking his head in disbelief, Theo took a hold of the pajamas. They were a deep, royal purple. Feeling like a thief for being allowed to wear such an expensive garment, he dropped the towel, slipped them on over his hairy legs and gasped as the fabric brushed against his skin.
"Theo? Honey, are you almost ready? The doctor wants to examine you and make sure you're not ill as well."
This time it was Catrina's aristocratic voice that came from the bedroom side of the wall.
"Yes, ma'am," Theo slipped on a pair of night socks, hopped off the sofa and walked briskly to unlock the door. Stepping inside the bedroom, he found his brothers, Catrina, Frank and a strange, younger man staring back. He wanted to run and barricade himself back in the bathroom.
Catrina laughed from the bed. "Come on in, we won't bite!"
With a queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach, Theo turned his eyes to the floor and walked over to the opposite bed, sitting stiffly behind Francis.
"He's so shy," Frank smiled over at Catrina.
How he wished he could race out of the house, hop the nearest train and ride it all the way to Dallas.
The doctor gave a chuckle as he dug around his leather bag. Pulling out a metal object he turned towards Millen, who was already deep asleep. Theo's eyes grew large at the strange contraption. He watched like a hawk as the man's fingers pulled down the wool towel covering his brother's throat. Placing one end of the device on his chest, the doctor stuck the other end in his ear.
"Well, he has a good heartbeat. That's a relief."
Theo sighed. In front of him on the bed, Francis turned and smiled. "I think he will be OK."
Turning back to the bag, the doctor pulled out a glass thermometer. With his two fingers, he gently pried open Millen's mouth and stuck the object in. A few seconds ticked by and he removed it and stared down with a frown.
"He has a slight temperature," the doctor shook the thermometer. "But, he should be fine by tomorrow. It is a damn miracle you rescued these boys when you did."
Theo noticed that Catrina raised her eyebrows at the curse word. Having grown up in Brooklyn the boys were used to it: "Damn kids," "Stupid bastards." "Dirty sons of bitches," "Fucking immigrants," and "Poor Irish trash," were insults they heard on a daily basis. It didn't faze them. They had learned from a small age that they were peasants and society would never let them forget it. Theo also suspected that tomorrow morning, Catrina would hand them a list of chores to do around the house. They were not her children, why should they stay at her and Frank's house for free? He distinctly remembered Mr. Woodrow shouting, "A thousand dollars worth of labor in your house..." He shook his head. At least they would be able to help the Muellers have a good Christmas before being handed over to Mr. Woodrow and his sons.
"Keep him in bed all day," the doctor moved over to Dylan and unsnapped the two silver buttons on his pajama top. "No, wait! Scratch that. Keep all of them in bed today. I know it's not even two in the afternoon, but these boys look exhausted. Give them lunch and put them straight to sleep."
"Of course," Frank nodded his head.
The doctor smiled and took Dylan's heartbeat and temperature. When he was finished he stood up and moved to the bed with Francis and Theo. With eyes wide, Theo watched as the doctor pulled down his brother's night shirt revealing his throat, just like with the twins. After a satisfactory read, he turned to him.
"Your turn," he flashed a perfect row of white teeth. Theo stared in awe. He had never seen such immaculate teeth. In Brooklyn a man, or woman, was lucky to have all of their teeth at age thirty-five. Both of their parents had decaying or missing teeth. It was common, it also told society that they were poor and couldn't afford a dentist. Dental work was for wealthy families on 5th Avenue, not factory workers in Brooklyn.
With a smile, the doctor reached his hand out to him. Theo protectively pulled back and unbuttoned the pajama top himself, causing the doctor to laugh.
"Frank's right, you're shy."
Closing his eyes shut tight, he leaned back against the pillows, feeling the cold medical device rest on the top of his chest. His heart beat like a hammer, as the doctor trailed his fingers up his throat, pausing near the middle.
"Hmm," he muttered. Opening his eyes, he found the doctor staring down at him, a playful look on his face.
"What is it," Catrina called out from across the room, a worried tone in her voice.
The young doctor let out a chuckle, and removed the device from his ears. "Oh, nothing serious! I'm so happy to announce that the boys will be just fine, including little Millen. But, Theo can you remove your socks? I wish to see your feet."
"My feet," he sputtered, as he protectively reached for his brother.
"Yes," the doctor took a hold of his feet without permission. "I wish to check for frostbite. Your brothers didn't show any signs of it, but you do."
"How can you tell?" Catrina stood up from the bed and walked across the room, standing behind the doctor. Theo felt his heart sink down to his stomach. He just wanted everyone to leave him alone.
With tears at the corner of his eyes, he allowed the doctor to place his foot in his hands. Ever so gently, the doctor removed his sock.
"It's his throat," the main trailed off. "His heartbeat skips."
Theo looked up at Catrina with a panic in his eyes. Something told him the doctor was lying. The room grew silent as the older man studied his toes, his fingers trailing up his feet. The whole time he chuckled and smiled.
"Your feet are quite small for a sixteen-year-old boy. But, thankfully, they're not frostbitten, just thawing out from being damp for so long."
Theo felt like he would burst out crying as the doctor placed his sock back on.
"Don't worry, dear," the doctor reached out to pat him on the head. "The Muellers will fatten you up! In no time at all you'll be caught up in a growth spurt. All of you. "
This seemed to satisfy Francis and Dylan because they each squealed with happiness. Theo just sunk even further into the quilts. Please leave. Please leave. Please leave. He wanted to cry.
Frank clapped his hands and stood up from the bed. "That's just wonderful! Let me run downstairs and see if lunch is ready! I had Mrs. Coffey prepare potato soup and fresh bread. How would you boys like that?"
Theo turned his head toward the bathroom, as the boys once again squealed their happiness. For an entire week on the train, the cook brought bowls of cold porridge twice a day. He was a nice African man, and took pity on the children who had to live in filth. The wealthier families in the cabins had no clue four orphans were traveling in the cattle cars. Once he brought out a slice of chocolate cake that a businessman threw back at him saying it was, "Too chewy." By then Millen was already showing signs of being sick, so they decided he should eat the entire thing, and he did in less than three seconds.
With a groan, Theo rolled over to his side as Catrina, Frank and the doctor left, closing the door behind them. He didn't want a growth spurt, at least not yet. As if Francis could read his mind, he felt his brother's hand on his back.
"Don't worry," he sang in his Irish accent. "We shall be back at Mr. Woodrow's in three weeks. Nothing serious should happen to you by then. Didn't you still plan on running away once we leave here?"
Theo buried his face into the feather pillow and then bolted straight up. His daddy's neckties! How could he have forgotten? Leaping out of bed, He found them lying on the floor where he had left them. Hurriedly, he washed them with clean water and lye soap. Ringing them out in the bathtub, he hid them to dry in between the two bottom towels in the cabinet.
Returning to the room, he found his brothers exactly where he left them. Francis gave out a smirk, as Theo sunk back on the bed.
"Be quiet," he glared at him. His brother just continued to smile. "You can't hide it forever," he reached up to scratch his freckled splattered nose. "You know mama was..."
"Children, lunch is ready," Catrina called out, as she swept open the door.
Reaching out, Theo pushed his brother back. "Hush up."
Frank followed her holding two plates. The servant, George that they saw earlier came in behind them with two more.
"The boys can eat on the bed," Catrina walked over to the nightstand. "Here let's place a cloth down so if anything spills..." She trailed off.
Opening a drawer, she took out two tablecloths. Francis took one and spread it out between him and Theo. George placed two plates in front of them. Theo noticed it held a small, round shaped piece of bread. Inside, the dough had been removed and the soup poured in the cavity. An aroma of cheese, potatoes, garlic, onions and spices met his nose. It smelled heavenly.
"Well, dig in," Catrina went to sit beside Millen, where she gently shook his shoulder. "Are you hungry? Lunch is here."
Picking up a spoon, Theo tried desperately not to eat like a pig despite the fact they were starving. He watched his little brother's eyes flutter open.
"Mama," he whispered. Theo almost choked on his food. Francis took a deep breath, as he tore a piece of bread. Across the room, Dylan was greedily chewing the food, completely oblivious to his twin's faux pas.
A slight smile crept on Catrina's face.
"It's Catrina, remember?"
Hauling himself up, Millen turned to stare. After a moment he whispered. "I remember you."
"Good," Catrina took a spoon, scooped up some of the broth and gently fed it to the boy. "The doctor just left. He said you will be fine. The four of you are to stay in bed all day. I want you rested."
Millen nodded, and Catrina patted his mouth with a napkin. "I'm going to fed you, is that alright by you?"
Theo finished up his soup and used the knife and fork to cut his bread. His stomach growled ravenously. If Frank wasn't politely watching them from the rocking chair by the fireplace, he would have shoved the entire loaf into his mouth and allowed the butter to drip from his chin. Francis seemed to have taken his cues. Dylan hadn't. Theo watched in shock as his little brother used his fingers to mop up the melted butter and breadcrumbs on his plate, popping them in his mouth. If Catrina and Frank noticed, they didn't say anything. He would have a long talk with his brothers about etiquette tomorrow morning.
"Do you boys want dessert?" Frank asked. "I'm pretty positive Mrs. Coffey baked an apple pie late last night."
Theo's eyes grew large. They had never eaten apple pie. When their parents were still alive, if they were lucky enough to have sweets, it was usually something simple like molasses cookies. During their six month stay above the candy store, Mr. Tuscano would sneak them chocolates when his wife was away. The older boys promptly gave them to the twins.
"I'll go see if she's reheated it," with a smile, Frank stood up from his chair, collected their dirty plates and walked down to the kitchen.
Catrina cleaned up Millen's face and placed the napkin back in her lap. An awkward silence filled the room.
"Well," she called out. "I hope you boys enjoy living here. Tomorrow, I have a few things planned out."
Theo met Francis's eye. There it was. Catrina was already writing a long list of chores for them to do around the house. His brother shook his head. With a sigh, Theo crossed his legs, and then quickly uncrossed them. Boys didn't cross their legs.
Outside, he heard a little howl, followed by the window pane rattling as a mixture of snow and sleet splashed against the glass. A shiver ran down Theo's back. The four of them could have easily been in Mr. Woodrow's barn, huddled up under the straw and blankets while a snowstorm rained over them. Millen could have easily died and Theo could have lost the use of his feet to frostbite. What would Mr. Woodrow care? They were nothing but orphans of poor, Irish trash as the director of the orphanage would call them. Perhaps, he should enjoy the three weeks the Muellers paid for them?
A nagging sensation in his head was telling him everything would be alright. But, Theo knew better. All through his life when something extraordinary happened, and everyone's hopes got up, it would all crash before them. Papa found a great paying job at the Brooklyn Bridge and they could afford to move into a nice neighborhood, then he died. Mama was making it on her own, when she fell sick with TB. The state took her away one day to die at the hospital. The children were allowed to stay with the Polish family. Once word reached that mama was dead, the wife gathered up their stuff, tossed it out into the snow, drug them all out and slammed the door. They didn't even cry. Mr. Tuscano found them living under the bridge after the funeral and snuck them into the attic above his shop.
They lived in secret for almost six months. Theo and Francis took turns sneaking out to perform a day of factory work, bringing home a quarter, which was enough to buy food for a week. Mr. Tuscano refused rent. They started to believe they could make it, when the wife found them one day. She immediately went to the police and claimed her ten dollar reward for turning in orphans. Theo remembered the look of pity and sadness in the candy store owner's eyes as they were hauled off. His wife was so enamored over the money, that she didn't spot her husband placing a cloth napkin full of candy into Millen's pocket. Mr. Tuscano loved Millen.
With a sigh, Theo shook his head at the daydream. He missed his parents, but couldn't complain. For some reason they had died, leaving him in charge. He didn't believe in God anymore because a great and powerful man wouldn't allow something so horrible to happen to them. Theo had taken better care of his siblings than an invisible spirit had.
Outside the bedroom door, he could hear Frank's footsteps.
"Pie," Millen raised himself from the bed, his eyes shone.
Catrina laughed and Theo found himself laughing as well. If it would make his brothers happy, he would allow them to stay here for three weeks. He knew he could easily persuade them to pack their belongings and sneak out as soon as Millen felt better, but decided not to. He would allow them to enjoy their stay.