by KD Miller
The children have a surprise waiting for them on Christmas morning.(Theodore's POV - 1904)
Theodore woke to the scratching of the tree branches against the window panes. They sounded like claws on a blackboard. A nail being hammered into a coffin. With a groan, he turned towards the clock perched upon the fireplace mantel – seven on the dot. A loud yawn escaped his mouth and, he looked down at Francis in his arms. The boy had laid his head on Theodore’s chest, obvious to the fact he hadn’t worn the neckties since yesterday afternoon. He couldn’t. When Theodore went to remove the gorgeous suit that Benjamin had picked out for him, the necktie snapped in two and fell to the ground. The only item that belonged to his father had been reduced to a scrap of dirty fabric.
Yesterday evening, the robe hid Theodore’s expanding chest, but he knew he wouldn’t be wearing it to Mr. Woodrow’s home. He honestly didn’t know what to do tomorrow morning when they woke up and dressed for their new home. It wouldn’t take long for Catrina’s brothers to realize he was actually a girl.
Would they send him back to New York? Impossible. They came from a boy’s orphanage. What would Catrina say? Would she be upset that she had been lied to the entire time? Would Jasper and Clinton turn the four of them back on the streets upon learning they lied to their sister? A piercing pain stabbed Theodore in the stomach, and he tasted bile. It was best to continue being a boy until he was caught.
Maneuvering away from Francis, Theodore stumbled from the bed and walked into the bathroom where he found their party clothes ironed, and neatly folded on the vanity sofa waiting for them. Underneath, their boots stood at attention, shined to perfection. A note in Catrina’s elegant handwriting had been pinned to Theodore’s shirt:
“When the four of you are ready, come down for breakfast. Don’t put on your tuxedos yet.”
With another groan, Theodore turned the taps on the bathtub, removed his pajamas, inspected them for anything unusual, and took a short bath, relishing the fact that this would be the last time for two years that he would be allowed in this tub. By, then he would be living back in the Mueller household, but it wouldn’t happen. His secret would be revealed, and quite soon.
A short time later, the four of them gathered on top of the main staircase. Each of them wore a clean pair of pajamas with matching robes and slippers. They usually took the backstairs to the kitchen, but not today. This would be their last time to walk into the kitchen, and they wanted to remember it.
“I’m scared,” Millen hesitated behind everyone, and nervously blew a strand of hair from his eyes.
Theodore turned and picked him up.
“Don’t be.” His voice was soft and reassuring, as he positioned him on his hip, “I’ll still take care of you.”
Millen squirmed and settled into Theodore’s arms.
“Forever and always, just like mama said,” he whispered.
Theodore closed his eyes, as he remembered the last time they saw their mama before she was taken to the sanatorium to die.
“You will take care of them? Forever and always?”
His mama would nervously tug on her thinning red hair, the same habit Millen inherited, and Dylan copied.
Looking down at his brother, Theodore cracked a smile.
“Mr. Woodrow’s sons won’t know what they’ve gotten themselves into.”
With that said, Francis took a hold of Dylan’s hand. The four of them walked softly down the staircase and enjoyed every second of the sunlight streaming in from the entrance-way windows. They met an unusual sight - the parlor doors had been shut tight. Usually, they were wide open and welcoming. Theodore cast Francis a strange look. His brother was equally confused. The sound of muffled laughter startled them. Turning in the hallway, they found the door to the dining room open. They could see Catrina and Frank sitting at the long table. Shouldn’t they be in the breakfast room?
“Boys,” Catrina stood up from her chair. “Come in! You four are awake quite early, but it’s fine!”
Theodore noticed the woman’s blue eyes sparkling, as she welcomed them into the room with a large hug, and kiss on the side of their face!
How unusual. Catrina was no stranger to kissing them, but it was usually on the top of their heads as she tucked them into bed at night.
“Come sit.” She gestured to the four chairs. “Francis you and Theodore beside me. Frank wants the twins to sit on either side of him.”
Theodore plopped Millen down and went to slouch in his chair. Taking a hold of his knife, he reached for the jar of preserves. His siblings nervously picked at their food, but he didn’t care one bit. He was used to disappointment. It was best to act like nothing was wrong.
“Why aren’t you hungry this morning,” Frank said, as he pushed the tray of steaming hot rolls towards him, “fresh out of the oven.”
Catrina chuckled, as Francis let out a huge yawn.
“Goodness,” she gasped. “Did you sleep well?”
Out of the corner of his eye, Theodore could see Francis stifling back another yawn. He continued to spread the jam and butter on his roll. He knew his brother was dead exhausted. The poor boy had cried most of the night, periodically waking Theodore from his slumber. He was not depressed one bit that they were being sent away. He doubted his brother received three hours of continual rest.
“Frank honey,” the woman called out to her husband. “He has smudges under his eyes. I think he should go back to bed.”
“I’m fine,” Theodore heard his brother whisper. “I’ll go to bed early tonight. I don’t have to go to the party.”
“Honey, of course, you’re going to the party.” Catrina reached up to brush the boy’s hair with her fingers. “You can take a nap after breakfast. How’s that?”
“I think they should all take a well-rested nap after breakfast,” Frank answered. “Especially after…” he trailed off, as Theodore raised his eyes to study the man.
How he would miss having Frank as a pretend father. He and Francis still giggled over the “growing-up talk” they had last week in the parlor. The man was a perfect father, too bad he would never be theirs. Their real papa was the complete opposite. He never showed emotion and came home late at night exhausted from working all day, or tipsy from drinking. He never struck their mama, but he did threaten to beat up Mr. Tuscano because of what the man’s brother did - as if it was his fault.
Frank was the polar opposite of their papa. He loved to read, play games, and tell stories. Not a single sip of alcohol passed his lips. He would pick the twins up, and twirl them around the parlor, while the music box played the latest records. Theodore remembered the night of the “talk” and how he talked to them like they were adults and not pitiful orphans.
In Brooklyn, the four of them were used to being talked down to, but Frank treated them like his own children. At the thought, tears began to form in his eyes. How dare he show them kindness, when they were going to be taken away? At that moment Theodore understood why nobody treated people like them with respect; they weren’t used to it, and therefore would grow clingy.
“Boys,” Frank called out, as he spread his hands and fingers on the tabletop. “Catrina and I have something to tell the four of you.”
Theodore popped the remaining bite of bread in his mouth and picked up his fork to tackle the eggs. He doubted what the man had to say was important – probably that Jasper and Clinton were coming over in a few hours to survey their new property.
“It seems that you met Catrina’s brother, Jasper a few days ago?” He said. The twins gave a shriek.
“He’s nice!” Dylan squealed. “He turned the crank on the car!”
Millen giggled and reached for his glass of milk.
“Yes,” Frank laughed. “The man is extremely nice and … quite remorseful after learning what happened.”
Theodore turned to Francis, and to his disbelief, saw that the boy had laid his head on Catrina’s shoulder, his breakfast plate untouched. With a shrug of his shoulders, Theodore stabbed at a piece of egg. His brother best get used to it. Tomorrow morning they would officially be Jasper and Clinton’s personal property.
“What does that mean,” Millen asked, as he chewed with his mouth wide open. “Re-mouse-ful?”
Catrina gave a chuckle, and Theodore noticed the woman trailing her fingers through Francis’s hair.
“It means my brother feels guilty about something.”
The twins stared back. Theodore had to fight back the urge to cry as Frank picked up his napkin and brushed away a few crumbs from Dylan’s face.
“Boys,” she continued, “I’m going to tell you something that Theodore has already figured out and swore he wouldn’t say.”
Theodore gritted his teeth and stared down at his plate as all eyes settled on him. Here it goes the big, scary reveal.
Catrina let out a long sigh and closed her eyes as if the truth hurt her. “Mr. Woodrow is my father.”
Theodore noticed how swiftly she snapped her eyes open, as she surveyed the boys. “But, the four of you were never in any danger, do you understand?”
Millen’s body visibly shook as he coughed. Frank reached over and patted his back. Way to scare my brothers! Theodore went back to polishing off his eggs, as his siblings stared blankly back at Catrina. Francis had raised his head, his eyes huge.
“My brothers had no clue the four of you were coming,” she continued, pulling Francis back to her. “They weren’t supposed to arrive in Sherwood until tomorrow. The night the four of you first came into this house, Frank sent them an urgent telegram-“
“That afternoon we returned from the nursery with the Christmas tree is the day they arrived. My father was quite surprised to see them at his law office a couple of weeks early. You see, the boys went straight from the train station to our father’s law office. They were that upset over the telegram Frank sent out. Theodore here,” Catrina turned to smile, “witnessed the three of them yelling at one another through the front window.”
“That’s why you had to catch up with us in the snow,” Millen called out, as he remembered the afternoon Theodore paused to watch the scene, while the others carried on.
“Saw the whole thing,” he called out, as he reached for his own glass of milk. “It was quite amusing.”
Everyone started to giggle, and Theodore felt himself smile. How he would miss this.
“Well, that’s not all,” Frank continued, picking up from where Catrina left off. “Remember the night I left for New York? Well, Mr. Woodrow and his sons sent for me and Catrina to meet them at his office downtown. When we arrived, the old man looked quite angry and sad at the same time. Jasper and Clinton were quite happy.”
Theodore began to raise his spoon to his mouth but dropped it with a clatter as he felt Catrina’s warm hand on his arm. Something was going on. The twins looked upset, and Francis seemed to be asleep.
“Boys,” Frank continued. “My father-in-law is actually an extremely smart, and caring person, he was just unfortunate to have been raised by a man who was harboring a horrible secret. Catrina mentioned to me that Jasper told you the story of his own Uncle Jasper Clinton who disappeared during the Civil War. From what Mr. Woodrow has told me, his father was always quite stern, but when his son vanished, the man drastically changed. He raised Cleo, which would be Mr. Woodrow, to be an arrogant, selfish person. Jasper’s disappearance still haunts Cleo to this day, and he takes his frustrations out on others.”
“Before I married Catrina, he pulled me aside and told me about the last night he saw his brother. You see, he blames himself. He was extremely jealous of his older brother and made up a story to his father that wasn’t true. He told the man that a servant, Thomas, had stolen Jasper’s expensive jade ring. There wasn’t one bit of truth in it. His father believed Cleo and locked Jasper up in the attic as punishment for defending the servant. Mr. Woodrow feels remorse for what he did, and to this very day prays that his brother will return home to Sherwood so he can apologize-”
“Cleo has raised his two sons to be just like him, but fortunately, they’ve started to shrug off their father’s arrogant ways. Mr. Woodrow wasn’t thinking clearly when he adopted the four of you. But, he did something miraculous.”
Another great silence filled the air. Theodore found himself reaching down to clasp his hand with Catrinas. She responded by weaving her fingers with his.
“That night we went to my father’s law office, a surprise was waiting for us - a man named Judge Carson,” Catrina said, taking over the story.
“My brothers had successfully convinced my father to sign over all guardianship rights to me and Frank. As of two days ago, the four of you were legally adopted.”
The silence of the room was shattered by the sound of Francis breaking out in loud sobs. Theodore felt his mouth drop open in shock. His brother never cried in front of others. The twins squealed, as Frank pulled them into his lap.
“You mean we never get to go away,” Millen laughed, as Frank kissed him on his forehead.
“Never,” he responded. “You’re all mine - forever!”
Dylan giggled, as Frank turned to kiss him as well.
Beside him, Catrina tugged on Theodore’s hand and pulled him over to her. Francis had his arms wrapped around the woman’s shoulder. His face buried in her neck, as his shoulders shook.
“There now,” she whispered. “You don’t ever have to worry about anything ever again. Do you hear me?”
Francis answered by sobbing louder. Closing his eyes, Theodore let out a sigh of relief. And, just like that, it was all over: their days of being homeless on the streets of Brooklyn, the time they had to eat a rat to survive, the hundreds of bed bugs crawling over their skin at night, the weeks of only eating once a day, Millen almost dying from an ear infection, Theodore almost losing his toes to frostbite … they would never be someone’s servant. They were free from the hardships of being born in poverty.
“… of course, the four of you are going back to school,” Frank said from across the table. Theodore turned his head at the sound of the twins shrieking. “Catrina and I plan on hiring private tutors for all of you to catch-up, up so you can enter an academy here in Sherwood.”
Francis slowly raised his head and took the napkin Theodore handed him. He frowned at the wet spot on Catrina’s robe.
“Don’t worry, darling,” she reached out to pat her brother’s head. “It will dry. Why do you think I’ve been crying since Frank left for Brooklyn?”
“Sorry,” he whispered, as he settled back in his own chair. His own plate still sat untouched. Frank and Catrina seemed to have noticed it as well.
“I think,” Frank announced with a smile in his voice. “That we should take our food into the parlor…”
Theodore stared as the man trailed off. Something else was going on?
“Because….” He continued, glancing down at the twins. “Last night on the way home from Brooklyn, I met Santa Clause on the train. He knew that the four of you had been adopted, and he gave me a bag of presents to deliver.”
Theodore had to laugh at the ridiculous story, as the twins let out another round of shrieks.
“Everyone in the parlor,” he pointed towards the closed double doors. “That includes Theodore and Francis. Santa gave me presents to give to you two as well!”
Theodore caught his brother smiling, his eyes still rimmed pink. Both of them were way too old to believe in fairy tales. He knew Frank was entertaining the twins. The Christmas mornings of receiving nothing but hand-me-down mittens and scarves were long over. Theodore stood up from his chair and brushed his robe. The white lie that his parents told the twins was that Santa didn’t deliver expensive presents to poor children. He would have to mention that to Frank and Catrina later on so they could create a lie of their own to tell the twins.
Frank ushered the twins into the parlor. What they saw must have been remarkable, because Theodore had to raise his hands to his ears to muffle the screaming. Beside Catrina, Francis stood and gathered his plate. He noticed the “look” his brother cast in his direction. Theodore knew he had to tell their new parents soon that he was actually a girl. After the party? Tomorrow morning? Never.
“Theodore needs to talk to you, Mrs. Mueller,” Francis answered for him.
Casting a dirty look at his brother, he stood up to gather his cup of hot chocolate and a glass of milk.
“Mrs. Mueller,” Catrina stood from her chair and placed her hands on her hips. “I’ve been impatiently waiting for two days to inform the four of you to start calling me, mother.
Theodore felt his throat contract as a small cough escaped that seemed to say - Too Soon! Too Soon!
Francis threw a fake smile at Theodore, wrapped his arms around Catrina for another hug, and whispered in her ear. With that, he took his plate and went to join Frank and the twins in the parlor.
“Well,” she smiled at Theodore, her face lighting up like the candles on the Christmas tree “It just so happens that I need to talk to you in private after we open presents.”
“Is it about your brothers coming over after lunch,” he asked, as they walked to the parlor doors, where Theodore paused in disbelief, his hand grasping the doorway. He had to be dreaming! They would wake up in the morning and find themselves back in the cattle car. It would all be a dream. None of this happened. Mr. Woodrow was an evil, old man. Catrina and Frank didn’t exist. Theodore dreamed the entire month of December.
His body trembled, as his eyes swept over the parlor, taking in the sight to behold. Their real parents must be beyond thrilled in the afterlife to know that their children were safe in a loving, wealthy family and not freezing to death under the Brooklyn Bridge eating rats to survive. A sigh escaped Theodore’s mouth, as he let go of the doorway. Everything would be alright for the rest of their lives.
The parlor had been filled with presents, some wrapped and some unwrapped. The twins were on the floor beside Frank as they laughed over a model train set. Francis sat beside them, studying with great fascination what looked to be a kaleidoscope. A neat pile of stuffed animals, a matching pair of rocking horses, toy bouncing balls, science equipment, books, tin soldiers, marbles, jacks, board games, and a music box had been elegantly laid out beside the fireplace for the twins and Francis. Frank looked up and noticed Theodore and Catrina standing in the doorway taking in the wonderful sight unfolding before them.
“Come in!” He smiled, and gestured towards the pink and white striped sofa piled high with books and art supplies! “Theodore everything on the sofa is yours!”
He felt Catrina’s soft fingertips brush over his neck.
“No, darling,” she whispered, answering the question Theodore had forgotten he’d asked. “What I have to tell you is remarkable and has nothing to do with my brothers.”
Millen stood up from the floor, his curly hair bouncing over his ears. He grasped hold of Theodore’s hand, his face flushed with excitement.
“Come see!” he squealed, pulling him towards the sofa. “Santa knows you’re an artist! Look what he gave to Frank on the train!”
Theodore allowed himself to be led to the sofa, as his brothers hauled themselves from the Oriental rug to join him. He didn’t believe one bit that a magical man handed over a bulging bag of toys to Frank on the train. Frank must have traveled to New York to buy gifts that couldn’t be purchased in Texas. It all made sense – that is why he swiftly left Sherwood and made it home last night right when they were going to bed.
The morning passed in a flurry of unwrapping presents, ribbons being tossed in the air, and hundreds and hundreds of shrieks from the twins. They squealed over their new toys, clothes, and a book about Irish fairy tales. Francis fought the urge to fall over and sleep, as he laughed and cried over his new Brownie Camera equipment, clothes, roller skates, and a telescope. How did Frank and Catrina know his brother was interested in science? He scratched his head trying to figure out the clues he gave out. During the last three and a half weeks, Theodore tried his hardest to keep his brothers from giving out too much personal information to the Muellers, but somehow they found out.
“Another present for Theodore,” Frank handed a long box wrapped in expensive wrapping. “Santa didn’t give this to me,” he laughed with a twinkle in his eye. “I picked this out especially for you at a department store on Fifth Ave.”
A gasp arose from his brothers. Fifth Ave! The wealthy side of New York! Fighting back tears, Theodore carefully untied the ribbon. What the twins didn’t realize is that Frank possibly purchased their toys at the grand toy stores on Fifth Ave – not Santa’s workshop on the North Pole.
“Oh, my!” Theodore’s eyelashes fluttered, and his fingers trembled as he pulled out a pair of silk pajamas from the box. True, they had all received silk pajamas as an early Christmas present, but the set Theodore removed from the box was far more elegant, and expensive.
Frank must have spent a small fortune. This was a pair of pajamas that the rich men on Fifth Avenue wore to bed every night, the kind President Roosevelt kept in his wardrobe. Theodore’s fingers caressed the smoothness of the fabric, and realized that this one single outfit cost more than what his real parents paid in rent for an entire year in Brooklyn-maybe several years!
“You like it, darling,” Catrina asked, as she reached over to smooth his hair. Theodore could only nod, his eyes filling with tears. They really and truly believed he was a boy. Glancing up, he saw the twins staring back, their own eyes wide. It dawned on him that they too were realizing that Theodore was a girl and not a boy. They had forgotten.
“It’s gorgeous, thank you,” placing the pajamas back in the box; he absentmindedly stood up to give Frank a hug.
“Why, thank you,” the man laughed, quite startled. “As I was wandering around the heavy crowds at Lord and Taylor, I saw them displayed and immediately thought of you.”
Theodore let the hug continue for a few more seconds. This might be the last bit of affection Frank showed him, as the man had made clear he and Catrina wanted four boys. The expensive pajamas only proved it.
“We have one more present to pass out,” Catrina said.
Theodore unraveled himself from Frank’s embrace and walked back to the sofa. Francis was perched at the far end, a look of disbelief on his exhausted face.
“Go to bed,” he hissed at his brother, as he plopped down on the opposite end. The two of them watched Catrina remove four similarly shaped wrapped presents from their hiding place behind the tree. “I’m extremely upset with you.”
Francis gave out another yawn and reached up to rub his face with his fingers.
“You need to tell them after we open presents,” he whispered. “I think everything will be…”
“These are for you,” Catrina handed what looked to be a book wrapped in blue tissue paper to Francis, and a similar present in yellow tissue to Theodore.
To Theodore’s excitement, it wasn’t a book, but a journal. Glancing around the room, he noticed that his brothers received the same gift.
“Boys,” Catrina perched in her silk armchair, “Frank and I want you all to know that we love you very much, and we’re beyond thrilled to welcome you into our home. We also don’t want you to forget your real parents. Frank purchased these journals for you at Crane’s Stationery in New York to record memories of your parents. When you finish them, please let us know and we will buy you new ones.”
“But, Millen and I can’t write big sentences,” Dylan complained from the sofa he and Millen were sharing. Theodore cast the twins a look, while Catrina held out her arms signaling the twins to leap off the sofa, and onto her lap.
“Don’t you remember?” She laughed, as they toppled on the chair beside her. “We will be hiring a retired teacher to help Francis and Theodore so they can catch up -” she trailed off, with a mischievous look in her eye. “I will be teaching you two up to the Sixth Grade, and hopefully, the four of you can enter Sherwood Academy in September with your classmates.”
Theodore opened the royal blue cover of his journal and examined the brown pages as the twins chattered over the possibility of going to a real school.
“You two are growing every day,” Catrina said. “Soon you won’t be able to sit in my lap anymore.”
Well, they’re finally starting to look like normal ten-year-old boys and not malnourished eight-year-olds, Theodore thought, as he opened one of his presents a gorgeous stationery kit. Inside lay a stack of crisp paper, envelopes, blue and black ink pens, and pencils. The only person he knew he would be writing to was Mr. Tuscano.
“Keeping a journal runs in my family,” Catrina continued. “My brothers and I kept one in school, and I don’t believe my father kept one, but I know my Uncle Jasper and Grandpa Alex kept one.”
Intrigued, Theodore raised his head. For some unknown reason, this mysterious uncle delighted him. Perhaps he could learn more, now that he was an official member of the Woodrow Family.
“When I was young, I overheard my father yelling at my Grandpa Alex in the kitchen. My father was questioning what became of his brother’s journals. Grandpa Alex said that he burnt the books after the disappearance.”
There was a deep pause, as Catrina turned to face Frank who had been sitting on his plaid armchair beside the fire.
“Grandpa Alex! I forgot…” She trailed off, and the twins squealed as they were jolted around.
“Boys,” Frank called out with a sigh. “Catrina’s grandfather is still alive and living at the nearby St. Paul’s Hospital. A few years ago, a terrible ice storm cut through Sherwood destroying homes and killing many people. Grandpa Alex was extremely lucky to have lived, but unfortunately, he tripped over his feet and tumbled down the basement stairs. He landed on his back, and thankfully not his neck, but his memory vanished. His head must have bashed against the steps on the tumble down. He doesn’t remember who he is, his long-departed wife, children, or grandchildren-“
“Mr. Woodrow, who would be his only surviving son, visits him every other day. Catrina and I visit once a week. He does nothing all day but sits in his wheelchair in his private room, and yells out random names. He’s quite harmless, but last night Catrina and I decided that he must see you. You’re legally his great-grandchildren, and hopefully being around young people again will jog his memory.”
The twins gasped at the thought of having a great-grandfather. Francis looked amused. They started chattering.
“Maybe he will remember-”
“Does he look like your brothers-?”
“Does he remember the fall?”
“Do you think he will like us?”
Ignoring the squeals from his brothers, the delight that he had a great-grandfather, and the dread that Mr. Woodrow was now legally his grandfather, Theodore ignored everyone and cast his attention on his mound of expensive gifts. He knew Francis was correct. He had to tell them soon. Something felt odd.
He took inventory of Francis's gifts and saw that the boy had received a man’s wool coat, several scarves, gloves, socks, linen shirts, trousers, and two pairs of new boots. The twins had received the same amount of clothing. Theodore felt his forehead crease in a frown. Didn’t he receive clothing besides the pajamas? His gaze once again swept over the presents: books, enough art supplies to open his own class, Brownie Camera, stationary, ice skates, the journal, and pajamas… no new clothes. An icy grip settled in his stomach. Something felt off. His silk pajamas cost anywhere between two and five hundred dollars. Why spend that much money on one item, instead of multiple items like his brothers?
“Well,” Catrina called out, silencing the room. “Our last gift is for the four of you to share. This gift is the reason why Frank left Sherwood and traveled to New York, but it’s upstairs. Theodore, would you help me?”
“Me?” The grip tightened in his stomach.
“Yes, darling. Please help me.”
Theodore met Francis’s gaze. Despite the haggard look on the boy’s face, he could see a smirk resting. They both knew. It was time. He would either walk back down the stairs crying because Catrina didn’t care one bit he was really a girl, or come back down the stairs crying because she would be sending him to a girl’s orphanage in Texas.
“Yes…” He mumbled and stood.
He felt the twins staring at him, as he followed their new mother out of the room. As they walked softly up the stairs he looked for signs that her attitude was changing: tone of voice, gaze, and arm movements.
He remembered the Polish woman’s attitude changing when her husband returned home from work and announced that Molly O’Connor was dead. How her fat, angelic face turned red. I ain’t wasting good money on these brats! Her once soft grip turned harsh as she took a hold of Theodore’s hair, and shooed them out the door onto the sidewalk. They is you’se problem now! Don’t be squatting near my house either! A few seconds later the door re-opened, and Theodore believed she’d changed her mind; instead, they ducked as their two bags hurled toward them. He couldn’t see Catrina turning into a monster, but he’d been fooled before.
“Here,” Catrina gestured towards the female guestroom. “I have the present in here.”
“The guestroom,” Theodore asked. Perhaps that was why she was crying in the room yesterday afternoon.
The door opened with a soft creak, and a gasp escaped Theodore’s mouth. The room had been transformed. A bright, cheery fire crackled in the fireplace, the wardrobe doors stood open, revealing what had to be Catrina’s spare outfits for guests to wear, the rug had been cleaned, and the Edison Electric Lights were switched on. The room looked and smelled heavenly of pine needles, and the sharp scent of wood burning.
“George and his wife were preparing the room while we ate breakfast and opened presents,” Catrina took her place back on the bed, and once again gestured for Theodore to sit beside her. “I saw the two of them cautiously walk down the stairs and leave the house for the day to spend it with their adult children. It is Christmas after all.”
Felling a sense of déjà-vu, Theodore found himself swinging his feet again. The room was gorgeous and made up perfectly as if Alice Roosevelt herself lived there.
“Are you having any female guests in your home tonight?” He found himself asking.
Catrina gave a chuckle, and Theodore felt her arm wrap around his shoulder as she pulled him closer. The smell of lilac soap tickled his nose.
“There hasn’t been a female guest in my home for almost three days.”
Closing his eyes, he tried to understand Catrina’s statement. Did she figure it out? Impossible. He tried too hard to hide it.
“Keep your eyes closed.” He heard her whisper. “I have a present just for you. Frank doesn’t know, but I want you to have it.”
Theodore’s body quivered and his face twitched with stress, as the mattress shifted and the sound of Catrina’s footsteps walked to one side of the room and back. She sat down beside him, and he heard the faint noise of tissue paper rustling, followed by the shock of cold metal around his neck. A necklace!
“Open your eyes,” her soft voice whispered in his ear. Theodore opened his eyes and saw Catrina pressing a small mirror in his own hands.
He felt the heavy snowflake necklace swinging around his neck before he saw its reflection. He was too scared to bring the mirror up to study his face. He didn’t want to see the expression He knew he was too ugly for such a beautiful piece of jewelry.
“Your mother’s necklace,” he whispered.
“Yes,” she replied, her voice low and quiet. “I know, Theodore. Frank and I both discovered you’re a girl, but we’re curious as to why you would hide such a thing. Did you believe we wouldn’t want you?”
As his new mother’s kind words pierced his body, Theodore burst into tears. The first time he had cried in a long time. Catrina was quick to press her handkerchief to his face.
“Don’t worry, darling,” she sighed. “Girl, or boy, we love you. We’re so excited to have a daughter. You should have told me yesterday when we were in this very room. I sat here figuring out how I was going to transform this room into a young man’s room – then I accidentally saw you undressing and it made sense. Everything made sense, and oh… you should have told me on the first day the four of you arrived. I understand you were scared that Mr. Woodrow would have taken you away, but he wouldn’t...”
Theodore burrowed closer into Catrina’s shoulder, as he commanded himself to cease crying, yet the tears continued to flow, and his eyes grew raw. He didn’t want to go back to being a girl – they had no freedom. Especially now that he was the adopted daughter of Frank and Catrina Mueller. He was expected to grow up to behave just like his new mother. Society would force him to marry before the age of twenty, or he would be given the title of, old maid. A rich woman had only a few choices in life, teacher, secretary, shop girl, or socialite. That was it. Of course, she had to give up the career once that massive diamond ring was on her finger. Her career then became official socialite. Ugh. Vain. Silly. Stupid. Spoiled.
The possibilities for his brothers were now endless; they could be whatever they wanted. Francis could accomplish the fantasy of becoming a doctor that Frank had tossed out that night they decorated the parlor. Dylan could learn how to fly the newfangled airplanes. Millen could someday open a candy shop like Mr. Tuscano.
With a shudder, Theodore realized that a rich woman had less freedom than a poor woman. If Theodore’s real parents were still alive, he could have the freedom of working in a factory or running off to Coney Island to work for the circus. A poor woman could farm or fish beside her husband. A rich woman couldn’t exactly sit beside her husband in his office. Despite poverty, a poor woman had something that a rich woman didn’t have – freedom.
He felt Catrina’s fingers rubbing his back, as the tears began to slow. A fiery desire rose from deep within his body. His mind refused to go back to being a girl. In his head, he would still use male pronouns to describe himself. He would find a way to stop society from turning him into something he wasn’t. It would just take time. He could do it. Baby steps.
“The necklace is beautiful,” he whispered. “I’m honored that you gave it to me.”
“Anytime,” a sigh escaped her lips. “You remind me so much of my mother, and grandmother that I only knew through stories my father told me. The women in my family have always been strong and independent, and I believe you will fit in perfectly. My father did an incredibly insensitive thing when he sent off for the four of you, but it was just what we all needed. The four of ya’ll need a loving home, and Frank and I need three wonderful boys and a daughter. It was meant to happen-“
“I don’t know why God choose to take away your parents, and that is something you will have to ask him someday, but I do know that my mother was taken away from me when I was two years old, and my Grandma Heather when my father was sixteen. We don’t know why God does these things, but it all turned out for the best.”
Visions of Theodore being forced to dress in lace-covered gowns, and attending tea parties raced through his brain. The best! He wiped his nose one last final time and handed the cloth back.
“Thank you,” she slipped it back into her dressing gown pocket and turned towards the open wardrobe. “I know this isn’t much,” she gestured. “But, these are a handful of my dresses that I believe will fit you. I filled the drawers with undergarments and stockings. I bet you’re wondering why you didn’t receive any clothing for Christmas?” Catrina smiled, and Theodore felt himself blush. “I want to take you shopping myself. Frank and I want to take the four of you back to New York for New Year's in a few days. We want to see your old neighborhood, and of course, we want to hunt down Mr. Tuscano to inform him that you four are safe.”
At the mention of their old friend, Theodore’s head popped up. How could he have forgotten? Millen! Their mother! Mr. Tuscano’s evil wife! He had to inform his new parents about the incident that took place so long ago.
“I –“he started, but was gently interrupted.
“What is your real name?” Catrina asked, as she reached behind Theodore, and removed a square-shaped gift from under the mound of pillows that he would be sleeping on that night.
“My real name?” Theodore squeaked. He was tempted to lie and say he’d forgotten. It’d been so long. But, his brothers would gleefully tell her, especially Francis. Baby steps, remember.
“Annabelle Lee O’Connor,” Theodore’s mouth curled up at the name. “Mama named me after her favorite Edgar Allen Poe poem.”
“How wonderful!” Catrina gasped, and Theodore felt himself being crushed in another hug. “I’m quite positive the name suits you.”
Theodore raised an eyebrow, as he stood, and followed his new mother out of the room. Had she even read the poem? The poor, beautiful woman died at the end and was buried by the sea. The poem was more fitting for his mama than for him. His poor, beautiful mama who loved poetry and the latest fashion had led a horrible life, yet still walked around Brooklyn with a smile on her face after the incident.
Their poor, beautiful mama, who owned only two ancient, faded dresses, a shawl, and a tattered nightgown, could recite Irish fairy tales by the candlelight. Her callused hands would brush out the twin’s hair every morning, as she sang in an angelic voice, had succumbed to tuberculosis, and was buried in a pauper’s grave beside the Brooklyn Bridge. How fitting. After their trip to New York in a few days, they would never see her grave again.
A short time later, Theodore met his brothers at the foot of the stairs. The twins looked like little dolls in their matching pajamas, their curly hair bouncing over their faces.
“Frank told us,” Dylan reached out for a hug. Theodore gritted his teeth and swooped up Millen as well. Ignoring the haughty look on Francis’s face, they walked back into the parlor.
“Told you they won’t care,” he sang and recoiled as Theodore reached out to hit his brother on the arm.
“Catrina gave you her necklace!” Millen cried out in happiness, as the four of them walked back into the parlor. Frank and Catrina were sitting on the sofa, the mounds of gifts surrounding them. They looked like a young Father and Mother Christmas, or as Catrina called them, Mr. and Mrs. Clause.
“Oh, the necklace looks beautiful on you,” Frank patted the empty space on the sofa for them to come to join them. “I hear your real name is Annabelle?”
A frown creased Theodore’s forehead as Millen continued to babble, “She likes being called Anna!”
She! Anna! And, just like that, Theodore vanished from his brother’s memory. Theodore watched his brothers plop down beside their new parents, as they poured hot chocolate and laughed. He perched down on the end of the sofa and tucked the snowflake necklace under the top of his robe. Goodness! It was heavy!
“Are the four of you ready for your final present?” Catrina gushed, her eyes sparkling like a chest of jewels. “This is the real reason why Frank went to Brooklyn!” She handed over the present to Theodore. “I’ll let the artist open it!”
Theodore took the gift, as his brothers inched towards him. He could feel the glass under the paper and knew it was some kind of framed picture. This is the real reason why Frank went to Brooklyn!
Theodore ripped the paper off, and let it fall to the floor in disbelief. Tiny little gasps escaped his brother’s mouths as they stared at the framed colored sketch that he’d drawn almost two years ago after the horrible Coney Island incident.
“Mama,” Millen reached out to touch their mama’s face.
Theodore remembered the night he drew the family portrait. He stared at their mama in the gaslight as he etched her on the thin paper with charcoal pencils, and filled in the lines with the colored ones. The way her top lip curled up as she juggled Millen in her lap, singing to him to settle him down. Across the table, Francis held Dylan and fed him oatmeal with a wooden spoon. A summer’s rain splashed against the window and seeped into the cracks. The rags they stuffed to capture the water would smell like mildew by tomorrow morning.
As Theodore drew his family, they all waited with anticipation for the sounds of Mr. Tuscano’s footsteps on the rickety, wooden staircase. Today was Friday, and he would be bringing up the week’s leftovers from the candy store to share with the family. He had to be quick before his wife noticed. Hopefully, he had a tin or two of milk because mama just spent their last dollar on paper and art supplies.
That was the deal Mr. Tuscano made with their parents on the day Millen was born. Up until the boy’s sixteenth birthday, when he could fend for himself, Mr. Tuscano would share a portion of the store’s leftovers and tip money with the family. He would be sneaky because his wife could not find out he was helping a family who couldn’t afford to feed more than two children.
This is what it was like growing up in extreme poverty. Millen and Dylan were not to learn about this until they were sixteen. The day mama was taken to the hospital, she whispered for the last time in Theodore’s ear, “Remember, sixteenth birthday…please - if he lives that long.”
Theodore nodded. He had to inform Frank and Catrina after the party.
“How on Earth did you find this,” Theodore broke the silence, as his brothers continued to stare.
He felt Frank’s fingers in his hair.
“I walked straight up to that orphanage, knocked on the door, and told that headmaster that I was the legal father and guardian of the O’Connor children and I had come to collect their bag that had been left behind! When that sneaky man saw how well-dressed I was, he gave a cowardly shriek and ushered me in. He started with the nervous chatter. I told him to cease. I didn’t care for useless apologies. I just wanted the drawing-“
“We spent a good hour searching the orphanage in vain. He kept throwing open closets and tossing stuff to the ground. As the minutes went by empty-handed, I could tell how nervous he was growing, especially after I informed him my father-in-law is a strict, Texas lawyer. I finally heard a tiny voice behind me. A beautiful boy of about sixteen had crept down the stairs and whispered to me in secret that Theodore’s carpetbag was upstairs in the attic. He had spotted it in the snow while emptying the coal bins, and took it up to the attic so the headmaster wouldn’t throw it away-“
“After rescuing the bag, I asked the boy what his name was, and he responded with Ashton Hara. I told him I would be back to see him.”
Theodore closed his eyes, as Frank told his siblings that they would be returning to New York for New Year's and would be hunting down Mr. Tuscano. He’d also found a loving home for Ashton. His own brother, Oscar Mueller, and his wife, Margot, lived in Indian Territory and operated a grocery store. They had been trying for years to have a boy, but only produced three daughters. As of right this moment, they were currently on their way to Brooklyn to adopt Ashton for their very own. Frank had sent a telegram to his brother on the way home.
The twins gave another round of shrieks and cries. Theodore felt like sobbing - Little Ashton Hara, who has been abandoned twice and adopted once. His real parents left him on the steps of the orphanage when the boy was about sixteen-years-old, with the excuse that they couldn’t feed him anymore.
Ashton was adopted a week, or so, after Theodore and his siblings arrived, and returned because he was too delicate for labor. How happy he had been when a family from upstate New York chose him on adoption day. He had been promised a good life and school up till the Eighth Grade. Two weeks later, the boy was found sobbing on the orphanage steps. He had been dropped off in the cold, with a note in his pocket. The headmaster took him in, and read the note aloud to everyone, his voice snickering, “Too delicate for farm labor! Don’t want him!”
The following morning, after a cruel incident, Theodore helped Ashton take a bath, dry his eyes, and applied ointment on the fresh lashes the headmaster gave the boy - as if it were his fault he wasn’t suited for hard labor.
“Will he work in the grocery store,” Dylan asked in genuine concern.
Frank responded by tousling the boy’s hair.
“No, my dear! My brother owns the store, but he hires other men to work for him. I loaned him the money for the store about a year ago, and business has boomed so much that he now has men working for him! Like the four of you, Ashton will go to school, and never be someone’s servant.”
“Can we see him,” Francis asked, as he stifled a yawn?
“Of course,” Frank replied. “On our way home from New York we’ll stop through Indian Territory so I can introduce you to your new aunt, uncle, and cousins!”
Theodore felt himself smiling at the great news. He and his brothers weren’t the only ones who were blessed to be adopted by a wealthy, caring family.
“Well, Anna,” Catrina interrupted, as she changed the subject, and handed him a fresh mug of chocolate. “How about we gather up all of your belongings, and I’ll help you settle into your new room while the boys go take a nap with Frank in his study?”
“We’ve never been inside your study,” Dylan giggled, as he slurped his chocolate. “Is it on the third floor?”
“That it is,” Frank said. “I have a large sofa that can convert into a bed. I believe we need to give Catrina and Anna the entire second floor to themselves, so we’ll take a nap in the study. I’ll grab a few blankets and pillows from the linen closet. Francis, you look like you could sleep for days!”
Theodore felt his mood melt from sincere happiness over Ashton’s adoption to anger over being dismissed from his brother’s new life. He sipped his chocolate as his siblings chattered with Frank. From the moment he’d chopped his hair off in the attic apartment above Mr. Tuscano’s candy store, and slipped into a pair of discarded pants he’d found in the church donation bin, Annabelle Lee O’Connor ceased to exist, and Theodore O’Connor Jr. was born. His brothers dutifully did what he told them to do.
He knew that if he told them to pack up their belongings and that we were running away, they would ignore him and run tattling to Frank and Catrina. From this moment forward, he was back to being a girl, and would no longer be included in their daily lives.
Feeling like he was going to cry again, Theodore leaned back into the sofa pillows and listened as his brothers talked excitedly about being in Frank’s study. How many books did he own? A bunch! Could they read them? Of course! Would he take them ice skating someday? Anytime! And, just like that, Theodore had been pushed out of the world where he was a boy, and back into that of a girl.
Closing his eyes, he tried to think baby steps, baby steps! He could do it. He could go back to being Theodore. Perhaps not anytime soon, but he could someday. He was Theodore. For the time being, he would pretend to be Anna to make his new mother happy. After all, Anna was the daughter she’d always wanted.