by KD Miller
Adrian reads his Grandfather Joseph's diary about a dark time. (Joseph's Pov - 1904)
Joseph Tuscano's Diary
Brooklyn, New York
The bitter-wind blew across the street tossing icy snow flurries in my face. Raising my hand, I absentmindedly wiped them off, while inhaling the scent of the marketplace vendors: bitter almond, coffee, fried potatoes, onion rolls, and freshly baked Christmas cookies. I pulled my wrap tighter over my body and carefully walked down the frozen sidewalk to my candy store. Slipping my hand into my coat pocket, I caressed the soft paper of the train ticket with the glorious words: Destination – Sherwood, Texas. Round Trip-.25 written across in ink. In about two weeks, I would be boarding a train to this small, Texas town and hopefully bring the children home where they belonged.
A few days after the kids were sent off; I tracked down their former orphanage by talking to the street people. That’s the good thing about Brooklyn, we might be rude, crass, a jumble of different cultures, but we look out for one another. The ugly Polish couple, who tossed the children out on the street after Molly O’Connor’s death were run out of their flat by a mob of men who worked with Theodore O’Connor down on the docks. The Lord only knows what happened to them.
I awoke this morning, dressed in my most expensive suit, coat, and hat. The walk to the orphanage seemed to last forever, but finally, I found myself standing in front of the building that resembled a prison. From the sidewalk I could hear the faint sounds of children crying, and screaming. The stench of the overflowing garbage bins burned my nose. Tilting my head high, I reached out, grasped the metal door knocker, raised, and lowered it with a bang that echoed throughout the foyer.
“The devil is at the door!” A shrill voice came from inside the building. “Shut up, ye brats!”
I stood my ground as the sounds of heavy boots stomped closer. I could do this. I needed the children. The door opened a crack, and a pair of beady eyes stared back. The door flew open and a rat-like human appeared: tall, thin, oily hair, handlebar mustache, rumpled clothing. I felt his eyes traveling over my tailored clothing. A fake smile appeared on his face, as he folded his hands.
“Sir, ye come to adopt one of these angels?” He smiled, revealing his missing teeth. A shudder ran through my body knowing that the children might be living with this man. I raised my head and looked down my nose.
“I have.” I nodded with respect, though I wanted to vomit at the disgusting man who smelled of banana peels and cheap beer.
“Lovely,” he purred. “My name is Mr. Schweighofer. Come with me.”
I followed the horrible man into the icy, cold room. I exhaled and to my disbelief, my breath appeared before me! It was colder inside this mausoleum than outside. The sounds of bare feet scampering over the floor could be heard. I glanced down a poorly lit hall, and caught a glimpse of a group of dirty young, boys dressed in rags, huddled against one another for warmth.
“Ah-“Mr. Schweighofer gasped, as he led me into a dungeon of a room. “Sit,” he pointed to a metal chair. “I has plenty of babies for you to look at? Or, perhaps a man of ye social status would be interested in one of the older boys for slave labor?”
I reeled back as his words slapped me in the face. “Slave labor?” I gasped.
Mr. Schweighofer cocked his head. “I see by your clothing you probably have money? Own a fancy business? Fancy house? The older boys make good servants. If ye adopt them as your own children, ye don’t need to pay them. The babies ye can teach to be just like ye. They will grow-up and never know they were once abandoned in an orphanage.”
“Slave labor,” I shook my head in astonishment, wondering what kind of place this was. The ugly man seemed to have mistaken my words, for he smiled, and crossed his legs, revealing the holes in the bottoms of his boots.
“Of course! I will have the older boys paraded down immediately!” Mr. Schweighofer turned to go, but I reached out to stop him.
“No, wait,” I cried. “There are four boys I’m interested in.”
“Oh,” his voice teased. “Such as?”
I took a deep breath. I could do this. Reaching into my coat pocket, I found the wad of money my wealthy aunt wired me from Sicily. “Their names are; Theodore, Francis, Dylan, and Millen. I am their … uncle. I have come to collect them. They should have never been taken here.”
A look of pure disgust flashed over Mr. Schweighofer’s face. “Those brats,” he hissed, spit dribbling from his mouth. “That older boy, Theo, needed a good beating.” A teasing, almost evil smile crept over his features. “I used the twins as his whipping boy. Taught him quick that I is in charge!”
“Where are they?” I flew up from my chair, causing it to clatter on the floor. “They’re my nephews and I demand them back!”
“Too late,” Mr. Schweighofer waved his scar-marked arm in the air. “Sold all four of them to a wealthy man in Texas for slave labor. Paid me a thousand dollars!”
His gleeful words punched me in the stomach, as the urge to vomit rushed up my throat. My boys…Millen! Oh, God - forced into endured servitude until their eighteenth birthday. Would this man separate them? Possibly.
“If I would have known,” the evil man smiled. “The man paid me handsomely for the children and I accepted.”
Mr. Schweighofer seemed to be enjoying my anguish as I sunk to my knees on the cold floor.
“The man from Texas sent his lawyers up here about a month ago,” he sang out. “I paraded the boys down the stairs and introduced them to the men like cattle in the marketplace. It gave me great –“Mr. Schweighofer paused, as a heavy knock echoed through the room. “Ah, a potential buyer!” He turned to go. “You may see yourself out,” he sang. “Or, I shall fetch the police for trespassing.”
I didn’t doubt one bit that evil man would fetch the police on me. I waited until he was gone, and his voice echoed up the main staircase as he gushed to a couple about the “Beautiful babies that make good Christmas presents” before arising on shaky legs. I failed the children. I failed Molly O’Connor.
“Excuse me, sir,” a tiny voice whispered in the doorway. I turned and to my astonishment, a small boy crept from the shadows. He wore what could only be described as rags: a cloak over a pair of filthy stockings. His feet encrusted in soot. His hair is full of knots. His face was gorgeous. His eyes sparkled as he looked up at me.
“My name is Ashton, and I know where the O’Connor children went.”
I stared at this little angel, as a blush of embarrassment crept over his face. “I apologize for listening in,” he whispered, his eyes downcast. “Theodore was nice to me. The last day they were here, he told me they were going to Sherwood, Texas, and were adopted for slave labor by Mr. Woodrow. He had me memorize the names in case someone came looking for them.”
“Don’t be embarrassed,” I said, reaching out to hug the boy, my body recoiling at his fragile frame. “I am happy you dropped in on our conversation.”
I pulled back, and slipped my hand into my other coat pocket and removed a cloth full of chocolates. I was going to give them to the children if they were at the orphanage. I handed them to Ashton.
“Eat them fast,” I smiled, as his eyes lit up. “I must go, but I promise to come back.”
The boy pulled back the cloth, and stuffed the four chocolate-covered cherries in his mouth. I reached out to ruffle his hair and swiftly snuck out of the room and through the front doors before Mr. Schweighofer returned.
I ran through the streets to the nearest train depot, hoping and praying I could leave tonight. I slid into the warm building and noticed the bored clerk reading the newspaper. I slammed my hands on the desk, startling him.
“I need a ticket for Sherwood, Texas.”
With a look of annoyance, he tossed his newspaper aside and skimmed through a ledger book. I could see his finger trailing down the big cities, frown and turn the page. He finally found the town near the end of the list.
“Next Dallas train leaves the day after New Years,” he removed a ticket from the roll. “There is a stop in Sherwood. Round trip will cost you a twenty-five cent piece.”
Reaching into my pocket, I absentmindedly removed the large bundle of bills.
“Sir, this is Brooklyn,” the man rose from his chair in alarm. “It’s best not to show a large amount of money.”
I took a small note, and laid it down on the desk, while slipping the rest in my pocket.
“I own a gun, and my hellcat wife recently left me for the milkman,” I nodded at the clerk. “I will be fine.”
A slight chuckle escaped the man’s mouth, as he took his pen and wrote the information on the ticket, before handing it over.
“May God be with you on your journey,” he smiled.
I smiled back and took the ticket. The man believed I was headed to Sherwood to drag my wife home. The cheating bitch took off for California the day after the children were taken to the orphanage. She used the ten-dollar reward to purchase train tickets for her and her new beau. I wished her luck on her new life, as she preened in front of our bedroom mirror – an ugly red wig atop her thinning hair, her face thick with cheap make-up.
I could care less for her and the milkman she was cheating on me with. The last time I slept with her, she came to me drunk and crying. That was roughly five months ago, and she hadn’t touched me since. I took it as a sign from God. She had her ten-dollar reward to start her new life in California, and I had an empty apartment for the children. If she knew of my plans, she didn’t care.
I stopped in front of my candy store and removed my key ring from my pocket. I stuck the store key in the lock and turned it. The door gave with a groan and, to my surprise - an envelope fell from the crack. Bending down, I picked it up and noted the expensive quality of the paper and elegant penmanship. With a frown, I turned it over and my stomach lurched as I read the return address – Sherwood, Texas!
I grasped the door and quickly slammed it behind me. My fingers trembled as I slipped the key in the lock and tested the doorknob for accuracy. I didn’t wish for anyone to walk in on me. I snapped on the Edison Electric Lights to my store and plopped down on a bench. I was far too nervous to walk up the stairs to my apartment.
Using my finger, I slipped a nail under the flap and ripped the fold. I didn’t have the patience to find a knife, or letter opener. Removing two pieces of paper, I held them up to the light and began to read:
Dear Mr. Tuscano,
My name is Mrs. Catrina Woodrow Mueller. I am the married daughter of the man who adopted the four children: Theodore, Francis, Millen and Dylan. I am writing to you today at the request of the boys. They do not know the contents of this first letter. They tell me you have been a dear, family friend for years. To ease your troubles I want to make it known that they’re safe in our home, and not with my father...
My stomach tightened in knots and my fingers shook as I re-read the letters over and over. A feeling of pure happiness rushed over my body. They were alive. They were safe. Thank-you, God! Slumping back on the bench, I allowed myself to cry as the sound of carolers floated down the sidewalk outside. At that moment I did not care that I wanted to be the one to adopt the children, nor the fact that the Muellers had no clue Theodore was a girl named Annabelle Lee. I continued to sit, enjoying the moment. The children were safe, well-fed, and well-clothed and were receiving an education. Thank you, God.