by KD Miller
Frank and Catrina take the children back to Brooklyn for New Years. (Theodore - 1904)
Brooklyn, New York
29 December 1904
Theodore laid his head on his mother’s shoulder. Beside him, the twins were excitedly glancing out the window as the train entered Brooklyn. The familiar sights of broken down-buildings, homeless people sitting in the alleys, foreign vendors selling coffee and potatoes, and smog from the factories raced past.
“This is so exciting,” Catrina gasped, as she clasped her gloved hands together. “I have never been to Brooklyn, only Manhattan.”
As if to protect the woman, Theodore reached for her hand and squeezed it. He gave silent thanks that he was with them. Frank may have a gun on him, but Theodore knew how to handle street people without violence.
“I can’t wait to meet Mr. Tuscano,” she continued. “I do hope he’s received our letter.”
Across the cabin, Theodore saw Frank reach out to pull Francis closer. “I’m positive he has,” he answered. “I do applaud you on the other letter you slipped in the envelope.”
The four of them laughed, while the twins continued to press their faces against the cool glass, their breath fogging their vision. They repeatedly used their sleeves to wipe away the obstruction. Before leaving Sherwood, Catrina confessed she wrote a letter to Mr. Tuscano herself and mailed it with the one the children wrote.
“Well,” she reached down and smoothed her dress. “I wanted to put that poor man’s mind at ease. He’s been like a father to the four of you.”
“That’s for sure,” Theodore mumbled. Francis raised an eyebrow, and the two shared a smile. Their secret was out, and Frank and Catrina took it to heart. They wouldn’t let the twins know until their sixteenth birthday.
He remembered his mother’s eyes filling with tears as the tragic O’Connor family history was revealed the night after the party. Afterward, Frank took a bottle of brandy from his cabinet, allowed Theodore and Francis one teaspoon of the sweet liquor, while Catrina sailed upstairs to kiss the twins as if their story would somehow cause them to disappear into the night.
The six of them arrived in Manhattan earlier that day, took a carriage from the train station and checked into their gorgeous rooms at the Dakota Apartment. Frank and Catrina allowed the twins to play in the elevator for a bit as the bell boy took them on a ride up and down. Upon entering their suite, everyone gasped at the sheer beauty of the room. The antique furniture in the parlor, the silk canopy beds, deep rugs, and a fireplace large enough to roast a deer. To four former homeless, orphaned children born in the slums of Brooklyn, this was paradise.
After a quick lunch, they bundled up in their winter attire and boarded a train to Brooklyn. Theodore continued to squeeze his new mother’s hand. Her gloves were made from silk, and her coat trimmed in fur. The woman wouldn’t stand a chance in Brooklyn without Frank’s gun and Theodore’s streets marts.
“Now arriving, Brooklyn!” the porter boomed as he walked briskly down the aisle. “This is so exciting!” Catrina repeated as she stood up, still holding on to Theodore’s hand. “I can’t wait to visit your old neighborhood.”
“That’s the bridge,” Millen pointed at the window. “Papa fell off and drowned, and mama is buried in the cemetery.”
Catrina tightened her grip on Theodore’s hand as Frank gently led the twins from the window and down the aisle, out the train door. The bitter wind nipped at Theodore’s face, and he had to laugh. The last time he stepped from a train he was dressed in rags. He still wasn’t used to the ridiculous long skirts he was forced to wear, but at least they kept him warm from the cold winds.
“Would you boys like to visit the cemetery first,” Frank asked, as they maneuvered their way around the people on the platform. They looked to be businessmen who dealt in Manhattan. The common Brooklyn man didn’t have any need to leave the island.
The twins squealed and jumped up and down. They hadn’t seen their mama’s grave since Mr. Tuscano took them, almost a year ago.
“Yes, I think we should do that first,” Catrina answered for them all, as she let go of Theodore’s hand and opened her umbrella to protect her from the wind and snow flurries.
“Anna, come walk beside me,” she called, and Theodore had to smile. The expensive umbrella was a target for thieves. Thank goodness for Frank’s gun.
Theodore cast a sly look at his amused brothers and grasped Catrina’s hand as they crossed the muddy street and into the unkempt cemetery. Thoughts of the carriage and the ugly woman with the red hair who tried to kidnap Millen flashed through Theodore’s mind. He wondered if his brother still thought of that moment.
If Millen hadn’t bit the woman’s hand and cried, Theodore wouldn’t have overheard him, and his baby brother would have been hauled off and lost forever. The night he and Francis told Frank and Catrina the story about the twins, they decided to omit the story of Millen’s near kidnapping into slavery. Some things weren’t meant to be told.
They climbed up the steep hill, and Frank reached out to push the rusted gate.
“I believe this gate has been here since the Colonial Days,” he joked as the iron squeaked.
He gestured for them to get in front of him. Theodore smiled at the way he was protecting them. Two people with street smarts and one concealing a gun was no match against any hooligans who tried to cause trouble with Catrina. Francis and the twins could protect themselves, but unfortunately, their expensive clothing made them a target.
“Good evening,” an Irish voice called out. “My name is Father O’Malley, and I am the caretaker of this cemetery.”
Theodore’s ears perked up at the familiar tone. The kind-hearted man who paid for their mama’s funeral! If it weren’t for him, she would have been unmarked on what New York called, The Island of Lost Souls. Thousands of poor people were sent to the island to be buried in unmarked graves. The hospital was about to send their mama to the island to be buried when Father O’Malley saved the day. He paid the ten-dollars for Mama’s grave and an extra five for a simple headstone. For that, they were thankful.
“Father O’Malley,” Millen let out a squeal and raced toward the confused man. He accepted the boy’s hug and gently pulled back. “Do I know you, child?”
Theodore stepped forward, and removed his hat, allowing his short hair to tumble against his ears.
“It’s us,” he held out his hand. “Anna, Francis, Millen, and Dylan. We were adopted off the Orphan Train in Texas.”
A look of pure disbelief passed over the elderly man’s face. He let out a sigh to the heavens. “Praise be to God.” The man clasped Theodore’s hand and softly dropped it to pick up Millen and held him against his chest. “The Lord has taken good care of the four of you. I’ve heard that Mr. Tuscano took you in for a bit, but his wife sent you away.”
“That witch,” Catrina snapped, causing Theodore to snicker. “I can’t wait to meet her.”
Frank cast his wife a look. “There now, dear,” he said. “Everything worked out for the best. The children belong to us, and not…”
Theodore and his brothers watched their parents playfully argue. At the mention of them being Mr. Woodrow’s children, Catrina’s eyes grew large, and she bit down on her bottom lip.
“A regretful old man,” Catrina replied to her husband. She stuck her own elegant hand out to Mr. O’Malley, who graciously accepted. “My name is Catrina Woodrow Mueller, and my husband and I have adopted the children. We live in Sherwood, Texas, and are visiting New York for the New Year.”
“How wonderful,” Father O’Malley answered a twinkle in his eyes. “Have I a surprise for the four of you!”
Theodore studied the elderly cemetery keeper. His wispy gray hair floated over his head, his gnarled hands held tightly to Millen. He wore a faded corduroy coat and well-worn black boots. The church caretakers were forced to take a vow of poverty, so how on Earth could he afford to pay for their mama’s funeral?
“Last summer, a tragedy was found tangled-up in the reeds under the bridge,” Mr. O’Malley continued. “A drowned man was taken to this cemetery to be claimed. I took a look at the poor, disfigured, man and opened his pocket, where I found a tin cigar case. Inside was a piece of paper that thankfully hadn’t been water damaged. I read the name of your papa and his last place of residence and the company he worked for. That night, I secretly buried the man beside your mama here in this cemetery. I didn’t have the money to pay for the plot, but I couldn’t stand for him to be shipped off to Pauper’s Island.”
Theodore’s mouth dropped open. Millen gave another squeal in Father O’Malley’s arms, as his siblings began to chatter excitedly.
“You found papa!” Millen cried.
“That I did,” the elderly man answered back.
“Can we see him?” Francis asked, his eyes growing large. “We haven’t spoken to him in two years – I mean,” he paused as everyone stared. “We know he’s in Heaven, but I would like to visit his grave. He left for work that day never knowing he wouldn’t return.”
“I’m quite positive your papa is up in Heaven right now looking down and bursting with pride over how the four of you turned out,” said Catrina as she reached for Francis’ hand, and together they followed Father O’Malley to the middle of the cemetery.
As the simple headstone engraved with their mama’s name came into view, Theodore felt a lump in his throat. Their poor mama who honestly believed the Polish couple would take them in, and care for them as if they were their own children.
Their beautiful mama used to read a tattered copy of Edgar Allen Poe poems to them every night before supper. The heavy footsteps of their papa climbing the stairs meant to swiftly put the book away, pour bowls of potato soup, and place them on the table. Their papa went to work at six every morning. When he came home in the evening, hot and tired, he expected dinner to be on the table. No one wanted to disappoint him.
How different Frank and Catrina were. Frank came home at night laughing, hugging, and kissing all of them in the doorway. He placed his coat and hat on the rack and picked up the twins, and one by one swung them around the parlor while the cook prepared their dinner before retiring with her husband to their cottage for the night.
Frank wasn’t tired after work. Unlike their papa, he loved his job. He told them amusing stories about his clients, while papa demanded silence at the dinner table as he slurped down his soup and shoved Irish soda bread into his mouth. Frank ate elegantly and gently instructed everyone how to properly use silverware. Theodore and his brothers had the luxury of being raised by polar opposite parents. It thrilled and scared him. Would he change? Would his brothers change? Only time would tell.
They came to a stop at the headstone. Beside their mama’s grave stood a simple wooden cross with the name, “Theodore O'Connor” engraved in the wood. No dates.
“He’s been found,” Francis reached out to touch the cross. “Did you carve this yourself?”
Father O’Malley placed Millen down so he could take a better look at their papa’s grave.
“That I did,” he answered. “I found some driftwood and spent all day carving the cross.”
Theodore placed his hands on his hips; the ridiculous skirt blew around his ankles as he tried to remember the last conversation he had with the man. They were sitting at the kitchen table eating breakfast of porridge and drinking black coffee. Catrina would protest at the unhealthy meal, but it was all they had. The twins recently celebrated their birthday and papa was glaring at the chocolate cake on the hutch that Mr. Tuscano snuck up to the apartment to mark the occasion. Like all other birthday cakes, papa refused to eat it.
A short time later, Theodore and Francis helped the twins into their threadbare coats and hats for their early morning walk to school. He could hear papa complaining from the table. “I can’t do this much longer,” he hissed to their mama who stood beside the stove preparing a pail of food for papa’s lunch. “Do what?” She spat. “The good Lord, he provides.” Theodore’s fingers trembled as he buttoned Millen’s coat up. He knew what papa was complaining about. “The Good Lord doesn’t provide,” their papa banged on the table. “That candy shop owner provides! Confess, woman! That child is growing more and more…”
Theodore took a hold of Millen’s hand and Francis took Dylan’s and they raced out the door before the twins could hear their papa’s ramblings. He had been drinking, which would cause him to stumble off the bridge, hit his head on a beam, and disappear into the murky water.
Millen bent down at the cross, while reaching up to run a hand through his silky, black hair. His long eyelashes fluttered over his almond-shaped eyes. Beside him, Dylan tossed his black curls. At that moment, Theodore knew what their papa had been ranting about. He was going to break the news when he returned home from work. He wasn’t going to wait until the twin’s sixteenth birthday. He was nervous and upset, which is why he drank before breakfast, and on the walk to the bridge. A shiver of relief passed through Theodore. Was it a good thing the man had died? Would the twins be here if he had lived?
The Good Lord knew papa was going to break his silence and stopped him. Theodore remembered a sermon from a traveling preacher. The man had set up camp on the street corner and with his Bible held high over his head, he shouted to the poor people of Brooklyn – the sewer rats, the con-artists, the drifters, the swindlers, the alcoholics, the prostitutes, the murders, and to a simple construction worker by the name of, Theodore O'Connor. “The Good Lord put you in this world, and he can take you out of this world!”
That is what he did to papa. The Good Lord took papa out of this world, and then their mama. He steered the children to be adopted by the Mueller Family, and for that Theodore was thankful. Perhaps he wasn’t an atheist after all?
“Can we see them every summer,” Millen swept his fingers over the cross, his eyes downcast.
“Of course, dear,” Catrina smiled. “I promise that Frank and I will take you to Brooklyn every summer to visit Mr. Tuscano and your parent’s graves.”
“Really?” Dylan asked, his face brightening. “We were so scared when we left the orphanage that we would never see them again.”
Theodore bit his bottom lip, as he tried not to cry.
“Oh,” Catrina scooped Dylan into her arms, while Theodore grasped a hold of the umbrellas she absentmindedly dropped to the damp ground. “Baby, your parents are in Heaven right now. I promise. Remember everything I have taught you?”
Dylan snuggled against Catrina as they stood together. Theodore caught sight of the bridge in the background – the same bridge their papa fell off, and the same bridge they lived under when the construction workers went home at sunset. His brothers seemed to realize this too.
“We lived there,” Millen pointed to the bridge. “After mama died we lived with a group of homeless children under the bridge. One night, Mr. Tuscano came for us. The other children were asleep, and we left them. I felt bad, but Mr. Tuscano said nobody could know where he was taking us.”
Theodore watched Frank and Catrina turn to stare with Father O’Malley at the bridge. They could hear the sounds of the water,, and smell the rotting fish. The construction workers scuttled across the beams knowing very well they could slip and fall to their death. Construction paid good money and all of the men had families to feed, so they took the job.
“Oh, my,” Catrina seemed to pull Dylan closer. “I remember you four telling me you lived under a bridge, but I never…” She paused.
“They’re enlarging the area,” Father O’Malley shaded his eyes to the mid-afternoon sun. “I fear that when I pass on, there will be nobody left to take care of this cemetery and it will be swallowed up. I’ve heard of cemeteries being plowed over and tenant houses built over…”
Theodore’s heart sank. “What about the people buried in them,” he asked. “Isn’t it illegal to plow over a cemetery?”
“You took the words right out of my mouth,” Catrina said, her lips pressing together in anger. “How can that be legal?”
Father O’Malley’s thin shoulders rotated under his coat as he gave a shrug. “The bodies are unearthed and moved. It’s immoral and disgusting, but unfortunately, it is legal.”
“That’s repulsive,” Catrina spat. “Is there nothing you can do to save this cemetery?”
Father O’Malley gave a sigh. “I ain’t dead yet, and hopefully someone from the church will replace me when I’m gone.”
Theodore took several deep breaths and closed his eyes. By the time he was an old woman, or should he call himself an old man, this cemetery could be plowed over and a tenant house built atop it. His parent’s remains would be underneath the wooden basement floors of a family home filled with people that they once were.
The cemetery in Sherwood where Catrina’s mother was buried was immaculate and preserved. An expensive mausoleum protected her coffin and someday their grandfather would be buried beside her. The cemetery even had a pauper’s section. No matter how large Sherwood became, the cemetery would never be plowed over. Life wasn’t fair.
“Well,” Catrina hoisted Dylan in her arms. “I don’t wish to go down to the docks without Frank, so why don’t you four show me around the cemetery?”
Theodore was about to ask why she wished to tour a broken down pauper’s cemetery, when he realized their mother needed to calm down. Their pampered mother was swiftly learning how the world treated poor people. She had been lied to her entire life.
“Stay where I can see you, darling,” Frank called out as they walked through the dried-up, knee-deep grass. Theodore had to smile. In the distance, he could see the street corner where the gaudy woman stopped her carriage and got out to kidnap Millen. Life comes around full circle sometimes. They walked around for a bit looking at the broken stones, while Frank talked to Mr. O’Malley.
“There’s the orphanage,” Francis pointed to the soot-covered building. “Can we visit the children we had to leave behind?”
Theodore gave a squeeze of his mother’s hand. The woman had been silently fuming since Father O’Malley made the announcement that the little cemetery might someday vanish under the concrete jungle of expanding New York.
“We’re coming back on New Year’s Day with a surprise,” Frank answered. “I’ve ordered food and clothing for all the residents, and we will deliver it before we leave.”
The twins let out their signature squeals.
“I wonder if Ashton has been adopted yet.” Millen skipped up the steps, but Frank gently pulled him back.
“I’m quite positive he has,” Frank replied. “My brother and his wife left for Brooklyn on Christmas Day. They couldn’t wait to take Ashton home with them.”
Catrina peered up at the cold, intimidating building that they had lived in for a few months. She read the sign aloud, “Brooklyn Home for Orphaned Boys.” Theodore noticed the smirk she cast in his direction.
“Anna, darling,” she laughed. “How in the world did you hide it?”
Theodore shrugged. It wasn’t as difficult as his parents thought. The headmaster didn’t care one bit for the boys. He only cared about the five-dollar pay he received every week. Not to mention his ten-percent cut whenever a child was adopted.
The rooms at the orphanage were ice cold, so Theodore never took his clothing off. On bath day, he bathed in the murky water with his underwear on. Nobody noticed, and his brothers stayed close by to shield his body when he emerged. He might have been wearing his underwear, but the wet cloth would mold to his female body. Francis would swiftly hand him a ratty towel and they would rush back to their cot. Theodore bundled under the thin blanket, removed his damp underwear, slipped the pajamas the orphanage provided on, and hand the damp garments back to his brothers, who hung them to dry over the foot of the bed.
“The old headmaster didn’t care about us,” Theodore answered. “It was much easier than I believed. We all looked out for one another, and nobody snitched.”
Catrina was about to answer, when a rough voice called from the alley. “That’s a damn lie, I loved all them children!”
A smile crept over Theodore’s lips as he recognized the evil snarl of their former headmaster. He was about to retort, when he felt Frank’s hand on his waist, pulling him back.
“Everyone behind me,” he commanded.
Raising his hands in mock surrender, Theodore obeyed his father and walked behind the man with their mother and siblings. A combination of metal clanking on metal and a bottle smashing on the pavement echoed from the alley. Mr. Schweighofer emerged, like a rat from the sewer. His greasy hair stuck to his forehead, his clothing covered in soot, and a terrible smell like garbage surrounded him.
“Youse,” he pointed to Theodore, who smirked back. “I knew there was something different about ya.”
Theodore placed his hands on his hips and cocked his head - the perfect comeback on his lips. He could handle this man without violence.
Frank raised one hand to the man and slipped the other in his coat pocket. The sound of the revolver clicked softly.
“You have no right to talk to my children.”
Mr. Schweighofer slipped his hands in his pockets. “I ain’t gonna hurt them,” he spat. “You can take your hand off the gun.”
“I will do no such thing,” Frank responded. Theodore snorted. He could end this ridiculous conversation in less than five seconds if only Frank would allow him.
Mr. Schweighofer took a step back. “Like I says,” he continued. “I aint gonna hurt them, or any other child from de orphanage.” His eyes cast downward to the broken sidewalk. “I don’t know who ye talked to, but I was escorted off the building the day Ashton was adopted. Officer came, bundled up all me stuff, and threw it out in the alley. I has been living there since.”
Theodore was about to disobey his father and shout out a retort when Millen let out a playful laugh.
“He’s been adopted!” The boy clapped his hands, and gave a jump. “Ashton’s been adopted!”
Theodore noticed how Mr. Schweighofer’s beady eyes traveled over Millen’s expensive clothing. Frank must have noticed it too for he took a step backward, his hand never off the gun in his pocket.
“He was adopted two days after you’se left,” Mr. Schweighofer said to Frank. “The couple says they is Frank Mueller’s brother and sister-in-law. I took de money they gave me, and an hour later I was cast on the street. The city hired a new director to look after de children.”
Frank tilted back his head. “Good,” he responded. “I didn’t think the city would reply to my report so soon, but I can guarantee you, that no boy ever from this orphanage will be adopted for slave labor again. The couples looking for adoption must pass an inspection. These boys are children, not unpaid workers.”
“I know, I know,” Mr. Schweighofer threw his hands in the air. “I apologized didn’t I? Those farmers up north paid good money for the older boys, so I took it. Look what happened,” he gestured toward the children. “Da Good Lord he had enough and set everything straight.”
Theodore crept closer to his mother, as she continued to stand in bewilderment. He wondered how she would have handled Mr. Schweighofer if Frank hadn’t been there. Did she know how to “insult” street people? He doubted it.
“Here,” Frank stepped forward. One hand still in his pocket on his gun, he slipped his other in the opposite pocket and produced a scrap of paper. “I was hoping to run into you.” He handed the man the paper, who snatched it right up.
“What dis?” His eyes traveled over the writing as he struggled to read aloud. “Cons-truction work-ers needed ASAP. Start – ng pay two dollar an hour. No ex-per-ienc…”
“Experience,” Frank answered as Mr. Schweighofer stumbled over the words. “The construction company that Theodore O’Connor worked at before he passed away is hiring. If you go to the docks right away they will take you in, and give you a place to sleep until the project is complete. They will provide you shelter and food for roughly two years. It’s going to be a large project sir, but if you don’t wish to freeze, or starve to death, I suggest taking the job. They will train you.”
Mr. Schweighofer looked at them with large eyes, as Frank ushered everyone away from the man, and across the street. Theodore cast a backward glance and saw the former director scratching his head in bewilderment.
“Dear?” Catrina asked as they crossed over to the opposite sidewalk. “Do you honestly believe that man will take the job? He used to doing nothing all day but sitting in his office yelling at the boys.”
“Well,” Frank answered as they turned on Vine St. “If he doesn’t wish to starve, or freeze in this cold weather he will.”
As their old neighborhood came into view, Theodore squeezed Catrina’s hand. She had witnessed and survived her first run-in with street people. Frank handled the situation like a gentleman, while Theodore and his brothers would have cussed the man out. Mr. Schweighofer was no longer in charge of them, and he knew it.
“Why were you so nice to him,” Francis asked, as they passed a vendor selling pecans. “He was horrible to us and the other boys at the orphanage. He once made Ashton sleep in the closet because he was crying all day.”
Theodore remembered that night. The boy had been returned from being adopted the first time, and after being beat by Mr. Schweighofer, the man locked him in the hall closet overnight and forgot to fetch him in the morning. The early morning wind blew into the orphanage through the crack under the door. Theodore knew the boy was freezing. He spotted Mr. Schweighofer passed out on his couch, and stealthily removed the keys from the man’s pocket, unlocked the closet, retrieved a freezing Ashton, and placed the keys back. The man never realized what happened. Theodore slipped the boy back to bed with him and cleaned his face.
“Because,” Frank answered, pulling Theodore from his memory. “The man needs some kindness in his life. He’s allowed alcohol to control himself and despite his former life, he deserves a good-paying job. Father O’Malley wrote down the address of the construction company your papa worked at before he passed on in case I found someone in need of a job. Mr. Schweighofer was perfect.”
“He was so mean to us.” Dylan cried. “He hit us several times.”
“He hit you!” Catrina screeched, causing a few people to stop and stare before scuttling on their way.
Theodore shot the twins a look. Hadn’t they agreed not to talk about their past abuse?
“I took it for them,” he said, trying to reassure their mother. “The twins were little and missing their mama. They would cry and complain about the cold food. Mr. Schweighofer spanked them, so I agreed to take it.”
“Oh, my goodness,” she let go of Theodore’s hand and threw her hands up. “I should go back there and…”
Theodore laughed, as Frank reached out to comfort his wife. “Dear,” he whispered. “Let the man be. God has punished him enough.” He stared into his wife’s eyes. “We have the children and my brother adopted Ashton, which would make the five of you official first cousins!”
Theodore looked in amusement on how his father turned the conversation around. Mr. Schweighofer was a horrible person, and he doubted one bit the man would take the construction job. Frank was teaching the children a lesson on kindness and forgiveness.
Millen let out a gasp as it dawned on his little head. “Ashton is our cousin!” His eyes lit-up. “I have a cousin!”
Frank reached down to ruffle the boy’s hair. “As soon as the adoption process is official in Oklahoma, then yes, Ashton will be your cousin!”
The twins giggled and danced around in a little circle rejoicing in the fact that their old friend was in the process of being their cousin.
“I have a cousin, a cousin, a cousin,” Millen laughed and paused, his eyes grew large as he stared in the distance. Theodore turned and caught a glance of Mr. Tuscano walking down the street toward his candy store.
“Mr. Tuscano,” Millen screeched as he tore away from the family and raced toward the man.
A frightened look passed over Frank’s face as he tried to catch-up. “Millen, wait,” he called as they took off after the boy who expertly dodged wagons, vendors, and street people, his fur coat bobbing in front of them. Theodore knew his brother could take care of himself, but the fur coat made him an easy target.
They watched Millen jump over a puddle of water, slide over a patch of ice on the sidewalk, grasp a hold of the door, and disappear into the candy store. A short time later, Theodore pulled on the brass doorknob and entered the small store where the comforting aroma of chocolate, sugar, fried pastry dough and different types of hard candies smothered him. How he missed this.
“And, we were adopted by an old man who wanted us to be servants, but his daughter took us in and we were fed, and given medicine and we got to sleep all day long, and we were given new clothes…”
Theodore made his way around the familiar store, snaking around barrels of candy, his family close behind him. He could hear his brother chattering with Mr. Tuscano. He found the man sitting at the soda fountain at the back of the store; Millen perched in his lap, his arms around the man’s neck.
“… Mr. Woodrow apologized at the Christmas Party, and he’s our grandfather now, and guess what? A friend from the orphanage is our cousin! Frank’s brother adopted a boy named Ashton, so he’s our cousin and I have a cousin!”
Theodore placed his hands upon his hips as he listened to his brother babble to their old friend. The man didn’t seem to mind one bit. He kept running his hand through the boy’s short hair, while he clutched a handkerchief in the other.
“Millen, give the man a break,” Theodore stepped forward. “You’re talking his ear off.”
At being playfully called-out, Millen paused and turned to bury his face in Mr. Tuscano’s shoulder.
“It’s alright, nipote,” he whispered so low that only Theodore heard him. The man’s hand rubbed up and down Millen’s shoulder, as she gestured to the others to come to him for a hug.
“Anna,” Mr. Tuscano gave a laugh as his eyes traveled over Theodore’s elaborate wool skirt and expensive, cashmere coat that came from Catrina’s closet. “Don’t you look lovely? It’s nice to see you dressing as a girl again.”
Sticking his tongue out, Theodore gave a mock curtsy as the others laughed. He reached out and accepted a kiss from the man.
“Your mama would be so proud,” Mr. Tuscano whispered in his ear. “She was always interested in the latest fashion. It would have hurt her knowing that you were forced to dress as a boy to support your brothers.”
Forced? Theodore thought, as he pulled back and allowed Francis and Dylan to hug Mr. Tuscano. He felt Catrina’s hand on his shoulder. He could only imagine what was running through their mother’s mind after the conversation they had a few nights ago about the twins.
“You must be Mr. Frank Mueller,” Mr. Tuscano stood up from the bar stool, Millen still wrapped tightly in his arms. “I received your wife’s letter on Christmas Eve.”
“I am Frank.” Their father’s eyes brightened, as he reached out to clasp Mr. Tuscano’s free hand. “My wife and I appreciate everything you have done for the children. It hurts us so much to learn that they were taken to the orphanage, but on the good side, they were adopted by my father-in-law and a few weeks later, he graciously allowed us to adopt them from him.”
Mr. Tuscano’s mouth opened, but Catrina swiftly interrupted him.
“Where’s your wife,” she demanded. “I wish to have a talk to her.”
“I-uh,” Mr. Tuscano stammered, while the children giggled.
Theodore crossed his arms over his chest. He couldn’t wait to see this showdown. A pampered woman who descended from Texas royalty versus a loud-mouth, crass, Sicilian immigrant.
“Dear,” Frank closed his eyes. “Let’s…”
“She’s gone.” Mr. Tuscano steadied his grip on Millen’s body. “The day after you four were taken to the orphanage, she left with her…lover, and good riddance. They took their ten-dollar gold coin that the police officer presented to her, and they were off without a second glance. I waved to them from my apartment window.”
“Wait, what—“ Catrina paused, a look of relief and disappointment on her face. The poor woman was expecting a cat-fight. Theodore had to laugh. Brooklyn women, especially immigrants, had zero respect for the wealthy. Letting out a sigh, he pressed into his mother. He wouldn’t have to intervene after all. Mrs. Tuscano may not be much of a looker with her thinning hair, sallow, acne-scarred face, but the woman had long fingernails and wasn’t afraid to use them as weapons. Theodore and his siblings could speak from experience.
“She’s gone, left in a carriage,” Mr. Tuscano sighed in happiness. “I’m in the process of a divorce. I’ve filed papers at the courthouse for spousal abandonment and since she left me for another man, the judge will be swift to sign them. In a few days, I’ll be a free man.”
“Well, good for you.” Frank smiled. “you deserve it.”
Mr. Tuscano shrugged. “My parents chose her for me. I was in love with another woman, but she wasn’t Sicilian. Her parents didn’t want her to be with a Sicilian man, and my parents didn’t wish for me to be with an Irish immigrant. So, my father found a sixteen-year-old girl at the Sacred-Heart Church and convinced her father to allow his daughter to marry me. We were never in love with one another, and thankfully no children came from this dreadful union.”
“Who were you in love with,” Millen asked. “Do we know her?”
Mr. Tuscano blinked his eyes at the bold question, as the room grew silent. The man had said he was in love with an Irish girl, perhaps she still lived in the neighborhood? Perhaps Theodore and Molly knew her and her husband.
“Um… she left long ago, darling,” the man finally answered. “Her name was Mary Ann or something along those lines.”He shrugged, as Millen stared deep into his eyes. “I assume she married and had many children.”
A nagging sensation told Theodore the man wasn’t telling the truth. The others seemed to sense it as well.
“Like my husband said,” Catrina called out. “We’re happy that you’re finally happy, and we hope you will continue to be a part in the children’s lives.” Theodore noted the way his mother’s tone changed, as she raised her eyebrow letting Mr. Tuscano know that her and Frank knew about the twins. His mother wrapped her arm around Theodore pulling him closer. A knowing smile crept over the candy store owner’s face as he intercepted the message.
“Of course.” He smiled. “The children are safe from my wife’s hatred for them. She’d been sick lately and took to wearing a wig she’d purchased at the local five and dime store. She wouldn’t tell me what was wrong, but she awoke one day with a rash over her face and neck and covered it with pancake make-up from—“
Theodore closed his eyes as he listened to Mr. Tuscano’s story. The words, “carriage,” “wig,” “gaudy make-up” burned in his mind. He remembered the day of his mama’s funeral and hearing Millen let out a cry of distress. Looking up, he saw a petite looking woman wearing a red wig, a gaudy coat, her face covered in thick make-up hauling their brother off toward a carriage. A portly looking man perched in the driver’s seat, unknowing to him the reigns were tangled at his feet. Oh, my gosh…
“Did your wife wear a red wig?” Millen asked his eyes wide.
A soft smile crossed over Mr. Tuscano’s face. “That she did, dear.” He answered. “Did she wear it in front of you four? I don’t remember. Or, perhaps she…”
“That’s the ugly lady who tried to kidnap me,” Millen screamed, as he began kicking his feet in anger. “That’s her! That’s her!”
“Kidnap,” Catrina reached forward in distress. “Who tried to kidnap you, darling?” She reached out and took the upset boy from Mr. Tuscano’s arms. A few screeches, screams and sobs escaped the boy’s mouth.
“When did this happen,” Frank demanded. “I need to know answers!”
Theodore cast his brothers a “look” as Catrina tried to comfort a crying Millen. They had hoped to keep this a secret instead Theodore found himself telling his parents and Mr. Tuscano the story of the gaudy woman who tried and failed to kidnap their brother.
“I jumped on her, and she tripped and hit her head on the sidewalk,” he finished his story, ignoring the horrified look on Catrina’s face. “I took Millen, and we raced to the bridge with Dylan and Francis. We hid underneath a tarp and missed our mama’s funeral.”
Mr. Tuscano closed his eyes and let out a sigh. “That was my wife,” he spat. “She came home that night upset with a mysterious scratch on her forehead. Told me she stumbled over a loose brick and was going to sue the city. I told her good luck.”
“Why on Earth would she try to steal Millen,” Catrina hissed, as she rocked the boy in her arms. “I want this horrible witch in prison. There has to be a way to find her.
Mr. Tuscano shook his head. “I have no idea,” he said. “This happened before the four of you came to live in my attic. If she would have succeeded to take Millen, the boy would have gone to live with that milkman she left me for, or they would have taken him somewhere else.”
A look of bewilderment passed over his face, as he seemed to age by the second. “I can’t fathom why she would want to steal Millen unless she…knew. Oh, my God, she knew.”
Realization hit Theodore hard, and he tasted bile in his throat. A scared look passed over Francis, and thankfully Dylan was hiding behind Catrina holding onto Millen’s hand. He hadn’t overheard the confession.
“She knew the entire time,” Mr. Tuscano whispered. “Your papa must have told her, and she was kidnapping Millen for revenge.”
Theodore felt waves of anger radiating from their mother as she rocked Millen in her arms.
“When her stupid plan failed, she got her revenge by turning us into the police,” Theodore answered as it all made sense. “She didn’t have to turn us in. She hated us with a passion and since we were officially orphans, she knew she’d receive a reward for turning us over.”
“The very next day, she gleefully left me,” Mr. Tuscano finished the story. “She thought she won, but it all ended up being for good.”
Catrina let out a growl. “Thank God for my stupid father placing that advertisement,” she spat. “I’d still love to see her rot in prison. My father is one of the most powerful lawyers in Texas. If she returns to you, she won’t stand a chance.”
A smile crept over Mr. Tuscano’s face. “She told me they purchased a ticket for California and were going to work in the newfangled theater company. I laughed at her. My ugly wife and that stupid man she’d left me for wanted to be stage actors. Good luck with that.”
“I have a feeling she said that to make you jealous,” Frank said, his eyes twinkling in amusement. “Like a child brags on the schoolyard to his friends. I doubt you will hear from her again.”
“Precisely,” Mr. Tuscano walked behind the soda fountain counter. “How about the four of you show your new mother the attic you stayed in? I’ll prepare egg cream sodas for everyone.”
Theodore had a feeling the man wished to speak to Frank in private. Their mother must have sensed this as well, for she gave a curt nod, knowing fully-well her husband would inform her of the secret conversation later on. Theodore also knew he had to listen in on this conversation.
“Is the privy still behind the store?” He asked.
“Of course, Anna,” Mr. Tuscano gestured toward the door that led to the kitchen.
Theodore turned from his mother, as his brothers were leading her up the rickety stairs. He swiftly turned the corner and disappeared into the kitchen. He opened and swiftly closed the door that led to the alleyway. Bracing himself against the gush of wind, he slammed the door, rejoicing in the noise it carried into the store. Using extreme caution, he leaned against the kitchen door, peeking out of a tiny crack. He saw Mr. Tuscano remove several glasses from under the fountain and place them on the bar.
“Egg creams are made by mixing soda water with a certain type of chocolate syrup,” he absentmindedly said to Frank. “It’s my specialty.”
“Sounds extremely New York-” their father laughed.
“I’ll take that as a compliment.” He handed one to Frank. “I have a feeling you and your wife know about the twins.”
Theodore watched their father’s head bob up and down as he drank and swallowed the sweet liquid. “Francis and Anna told us the night of their adoption.”He placed the empty glass on the counter.
Mr. Tuscano gave a shake of his head. “God, I loved that woman,” he sighed. “We dated. I took her on strolls through the park and purchased train rides to Manhattan. I bought her a shawl, which she kept and wore the night of the…”
“Unfortunate incident,” Frank finished. “I can see why Theodore O’Connor informed your wife about it.”
“My wife,” Mr. Tuscano spat. “Molly should have been my wife, but her strict family didn’t want any of their future grandchildren to be half Sicilian. Then again…” He paused and looked Frank in the eye. Theodore felt himself stretching forward, both of the palms of his hands resting on the wooden floor.
“The Lord knows best.” Frank took a spoon and helped mix the egg cream sodas. “My wife has wanted a child of her own since she was sixteen, and the Lord provided. We love the children and we can give them everything Molly O’Connor wished, but couldn’t.”
A chuckle escaped Mr. Tuscano’s lips, as he let his gaze wander. “Did you know I paid for her funeral? I secretly gave Father O’Malley the money.”
A smile crossed Frank’s face. “No, I didn’t. We were just at the cemetery, where the man informed us that the graves could someday be plowed over. I took the man aside and we chatted a bit. I paid him myself and will reveal my secret plans to the children tonight.”
Mr. Tuscano’s forehead creased. “Secret plans?”
“Yes,” his father answered. “My wife and I would like to invite you to join us at the opera tonight. We have purchased an extra ticket and would love you to stay at our hotel in Manhattan for the New Year. There will be fireworks in Central Park across the street and the children are allowed to stay up and watch them.”
“I’m guessing the secret plans will be revealed tonight,” he asked.
“Of course,” Frank answered.
The men continued to prepare the egg creams in silence while they pondered their conversation. Theodore knew he should make his grand re-entrance soon. He was about to re-open the alley door when Frank looked up.
“You said you paid for Molly’s funeral,” he asked. “Out of curiosity, did your wife know?”
Mr. Tuscano laid a spoon down on a napkin and frowned. “She did. She came home that night and asked for the day’s tips to purchase something frivolous and I point blank informed her that I used the entire money to pay for Molly O’Connor’s funeral. Her face grew stark white, then red with fury. She demanded to know why I would waste money on that Irish bitch, and I would be sorry.”
“Well.” Frank rested his elbows on the counter. “She wanted to kidnap Millen the day of Molly’s funeral for revenge. She obviously knew the truth about the twins, and I’m quite positive Theodore Sr. informed her.”
Mr. Tuscano tossed the empty tin of syrup into the metal trash can with a ping that echoed through the store. “Of course he did,” he sighed. “The day that horrible man died, he was going to get rid of the twins.”
From his hiding place behind the kitchen door, Theodore let out a gasp. He knew it!
“He was going to get rid of the twins,” Frank echoed, his eyelashes fluttered. “But, how and why?”
“He was fed-up with everything,” Mr. Tuscano placed his hands on his chocolate stained apron. “He told me himself he demanded a hundred dollars, or they were both going to the orphanage that night when he returned home. I spent all damn day gathering the money. I took out a loan at the bank and used my store as collateral. I prepared a place in the attic for them to live, then…” Mr. Tuscano sighed, his gaze traveled to the floor. “I saw the police officer and one of Theodore’s co-workers enter the apartment, and walk nervously up to the O’Connor flat. I hid on the bottom floor and moments later Molly’s screams echoed throughout the building. I was relieved that the man had died, and the twins were safe. Is that so horrible?”
Theodore could see Frank’s face flush with anger at their papa’s stupid plans to get rid of the twins out of spite. Frank looked as if he were about to say something when they heard footsteps race down the stairs. Gathering himself up from off the floor, Theodore walked back to the back door, opened it, and slammed it. He washed his hands from the rusty pump, dried them on a flour-covered towel, and walked back into the store as if he hadn’t overheard Mr. Tuscano’s confession that he wished he was their real father.