by KD Miller
Millen and Dylan learn who their real parents are. (Millen - 1911) (Long chapter)
|Warning - The trigger warnings for this chapter are rape, attack, depression, child abuse, panic attack. and early 1900's views of abortion. Please don't read if these will upset you. |
Chapter Twenty One
Two days before Millen and Dylan’s Sixteenth Birthday
“What do you think?” I popped my head out of the large walk-in closet I shared with my brother and held out a gray cashmere sweater.
“Grandfather sent me this from Boston. I think I should wear it to our pre-sixteenth birthday party.”
Dylan lay on his bed, a discarded sports magazine with Honus Wagner on the cover, lay on his pillow. I saw him arch an eyebrow.
“Whatever makes you happy,” he smiled. “This pre-birthday party was your idea. I’ve never in my life heard of such a thing.”
I rolled my eyes and began arranging my clothing. My grandfather and my two uncles had been in Boston since August and were finally coming home tomorrow. I was beyond excited - for Mr. Tuscano would be arriving on the same train! To celebrate the occasion I asked my mother and father if we could have a private sixteenth birthday celebration before having the real party at grandfather’s house. Ashton would be coming down with his sisters to the real party, as well as a large majority of our friends from Sherwood.
Ashton! My adopted cousin adjusted well to his new life in Oklahoma and would be completing his freshman year at the University of Central Oklahoma in May. He’d come a long way from a sad little boy who’d been abandoned twice at the Brooklyn Orphanage. He loved his new family, and his new last name – Ashton Mueller! Like me, he felt no connection to his real papa.
Ashton knew of Theodore’s new identity and found it quite odd. But, he mailed Theodore a long, accepting letter congratulating him on his newfound self and would always hold him in high esteem because he saved him from freezing to death at the orphanage all those years ago.
Ashton ended the letter saying he was courting a girl who was studying to become a nurse and hopefully when they graduated he would propose to her. I couldn’t help but notice the slight sneer on Theodore’s face as he read the end of the letter aloud. He was still thinking about Conrad. Nobody mentioned Conrad’s obvious infatuation with Anna since Theodore’s return from surgery.
I remember the day Theodore came home from the hospital in Oklahoma City. He looked exhausted with dark smudges under his eyes and skin as pale as fresh milk, but he finally looked like a man. I watched him stand in front of his full-length mirror wearing trousers and a white, button-down shirt.
Placing one hand on his hip, he swirled around and took a good look, and complained that his bottom was still big. Francis remarked that if he did ten leg squats every day for a year, he might lose more weight. With the combined two surgeries, Theodore had lost a total of fifteen pounds. His stomach still looked swollen, but not as big as it once was. After Christmas, Dr. Alexander put him on a raw vegan diet to help his body heal. Grudgingly, Theodore stuck to it.
As our household adjusted to Theodore, he surprised us all by keeping his bedroom in a feminine color. Over the years, he hadn’t remodeled the room since mother gifted it to him the day we were adopted. Theodore kept the walls pink as thanks to our mother for supporting him. The only change was that another wardrobe was purchased from the local furniture store and filled with men’s clothing for Theodore to wear in the privacy of our own home. The town of Sherwood knew him as Anna and returned to school wearing, what he thought as dreadful, the dresses and wigs mother bought for him.
The day Theodore returned, father mailed a letter to grandfather, Clinton, and Jasper in Boston. The summer we returned from Ireland, the three of them decided to take a long vacation up north. Earlier last year, grandfather came down with a consistent cough that lasted weeks. Dr. Alexander suggested he vacation for a few months with his two sons. His years of being a lawyer were finally catching up with him. He looked run-down, older, and more depressed. He finally made peace with the fact that he would never see his brother again.
The three of them locked up the law office, packed their trunks, and boarded a train bound for the east coast for a six-month vacation. They settled in Boston and took up residence with a distant cousin of Grandma Heather Woodrow. The Yankee side of our family never forgave Grandfather Alex for what he did to Jasper, and the mysterious way their beloved Heather fell down the stairs and died. With Grandfather Alex in the asylum hospital, they began to make peace and welcomed grandfather and his two sons to spend a few months with them.
To everyone’s delight and relief, grandfather, Clinton, and Jasper didn’t find anything strange with Theodore’s gender change. Grandfather responded to the letter stating when the snowstorms passed, the three of them would be returning home. When we received the planned date, I was delighted because it was the same date Mr. Tuscano would be arriving from Brooklyn. I wished to have a day to myself with my grandfather and Mr. Tuscano before celebrating my sixteenth birthday with Dylan, thus the pre-celebration was born.
Another wonderful and unexpected thing happened, Dr. Alexander and his wife, Eloise, took in a newborn baby girl during Christmas. The poor thing had been abandoned at the nearby unwed mother’s home. Eloise Alexander felt sorry for the beautiful child and took her home to foster. The baby was blessed with golden, blonde hair and big, beautiful sky blue eyes. Her skin glowed with rose color, and thus they named her, Rose Alexander. Eloise chose to leave her position as a nurse at the same asylum Grandfather Alex lived in and became a housewife to care for the baby. She and her husband hired a nursemaid to live with them. Together, the two of them took care of little Rose while Dr. Alexander worked long hours.
“I think I’ll wear the new suit and tie father gifted for me during Christmas,” Dylan said, interrupting my daydream. “I haven’t worn it yet, and this will be perfect. I don’t care for cashmere.”
I stepped out of the closet, and placed my hands on my hips, imitating my mother and grandfather. They called it the "Woodrow trait." You could tell a Woodrow man by the birthmark mole on his thumb, and the way he rested his hands upon his hips. I had a similar mole on my thumb, and after years of living beside my mother, grandfather, and my two uncles, my body was easily adapting to theirs. I found myself placing my hands on my hips and glaring on more than one occasion.
“We’re twins,” I huffed. “How can you loathe cashmere? It’s gorgeous and soft and perfect and –“
I stopped at the look of annoyance on my own brother’s face - the way he arched his eyebrow and lifted his top lip as if he were disgusted. I had seen that same look before. But where, and on who? It had to be papa. Dylan must have inherited it from him.
“It’s itchy and hot even during the winter months.” Dylan picked up his magazine and began listlessly flipping through the pages. “You can wear cashmere, silk, and wool all you wish. I’m perfectly happy with clothes from Sears and JCPenney.”
Rolling my eyes, I hung the sweater back up.
“I’m not a snob,” I shot back. “I shop at department stores too. I can’t help it that I began to get attracted to the culture, and you didn’t. I see the way Theodore rolls his eyes when grandfather takes me down to Dallas to buy all the newest clothing from Europe.”
“Did I say you were a snob?” Dylan replied as he slapped the magazine down on the nightstand. “I don’t care what type of clothing you wear. I prefer normal clothing from department stores. You can dress up like the King of England all you want.”
I stuck my tongue out, and Dylan responded by picking up a small pillow and throwing it in my direction. I laughed, tried to grasp it, and to my disbelief, fumbled, and tripped. I heard a snort coming from my brother’s bed.
“You just failed your baseball team tryouts.”
With a grumble, I staggered to my feet and caught my reflection in the mirror above the fireplace. My stomach lurched, and a shiver ran down my body at the person who stood staring back. I felt my face tighten up and a strange gasp escaped.
“What is it?” I heard Dylan ask in alarm. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost. Did you hurt your foot?”
Staggering back from the mirror, I collapsed on my bed, refusing to look back at my reflection. Drops of sweat appeared on my temple.
“Millen” my brother called out. “Are you ill?”
I couldn’t look back, for it finally came true. Since returning from Ireland last summer I had been diligently writing my differences in my other diary. How could I hide it any longer? Even my teammates on the swim team teased me about Dylan not being my real twin. I towered over him. I swam faster than him. My skin tone had a darker hue than his. Mosquitoes loved Dylan, and they hated me. Dylan and my brothers coated their bodies with repellent and calamine lotion. I could walk barefoot in the tall country grass and not one mosquito or chigger would bite me.
Looking up, I noticed the concerned look on Dylan’s face. The way his eyelashes fluttered, as his hands fumbled with the top quilt.
“I saw Mr. Tuscano in the mirror,” I whispered.
I could tell by the silence in the room that my brother believed me to be insane. He stared at me, his eyes enlarged with disbelief.
“Millen,” he finally said after what seemed an eternity of him staring at me with crazy eyes. “Did you hit your head when you toppled over trying to catch the pillow?”
A low snarl rose from my throat at the baby tone he used. With a toss of his head, Dylan stood up from the bed.
“I’m going to fetch our father. I think you might be ill. Dr. Alexander feared one of us would catch the cough and fever grandfather had –“
“No, wait,” I leaped from my bed, and grasped his wrist purposely digging my manicured nails into his flesh. “Hear me out. I don’t think we’re twins.”
The words tumbled out. I didn’t mean for them too. Dylan’s eyes enlarged and he blinked. For the first time, I could see the green specks in them, which I found odd. Nobody in our family had green specks in their eyes, or perhaps I never noticed. Papa and mama were only vague memories. Sinking into the bed, Dylan continued to stare.
“Here,” I removed my fingers from Dylan’s arm. “Let me show you something.”
I stood up and commanded Dylan to do the same. Pulling back the feather mattress, I took out my diary.
“I’ve been writing since you started puberty the year before last, and I didn’t. I wanted to see if anything was wrong with me. So, I took the trolley to Sherwood College, used Francis’s name to get into the medical library, and found a book on the human body.”
I knew myself to be babbling and Dylan must have believed I lost my mind. First Theo discovered who he really was, and now me. What other secrets did this family have?
“Look,” I lowered the mattress and settled back on the bed with the expensive journal from Crane’s Stationery boutique.
“Come sit beside me.”
Dylan crawled across the bed and settled in beside me on the mountain of lace covered, down pillows. Staring back, I knew the time had come to reveal another “secret” I purposely kept hidden since Ireland.
“Do you know that I can grow a beard?” I turned the book to the middle section.
“Papa always said that no O’Connor man can grow facial hair except a small mustache or a bit of stubble on the chin. Something to do with our genetics. A flaw of sorts. Yet, both you and I can grow facial hair. Imagine my surprise when I learned I could too.”
A small laugh escaped Dylan’s throat. “Of course you can. We’re twins, and we must have skipped papa’s genetic flaw. Francis, on the other hand, is nineteen-years-old and has never shaved.”
I noted the sarcasm in his voice. Dylan was brushing off my announcement of us not being twins. I flipped through my journal. He wouldn’t be laughing for long.
“Exactly,” I turned the book to my brother and sighed in relief. The scared looks seemed to have stopped for now. “Here, read this aloud. It’s a list of my observations from last year.”
Taking the book from my hands, I watched Dylan lean back, make himself comfortable, and begin to read:
“My skin color is slightly darker than my brothers, more of a Mediterranean type of olive. Dylan’s hair is wild, a coarse, blackish color. Mine is smooth and silky to touch. I’ve always had long eyelashes, and since coming of age, they have grown tremendously. I catch the girls on the street casting envious looks.
“During swim practice, Dylan has to stay inside and use the gymnasium pool because he burns in the brutal Texas sun. I wear a bathing suit that covers my arms and legs, so the hair won’t be noticeable. I can also use the outdoor pool all day long and emerge a deep, golden tan.
“In the dog days of summer, when the nasty chiggers come out, they attack my brothers with a vengeance. Mother and father keep plenty of Calamine lotion and rubbing alcohol on hand. I can walk barefoot through the tall grass, rollover without any clothes on, take a nap if I desire and not have a single blood-sucking insect bite me.
“I have begun to undress in the men’s locker room in private for two reasons. It seems that overnight, my body has overgrown with hair. None of my brothers, not even Francis, nor papa, ever grew body hair. I don’t wish to shave it because I did once and it grew back within a week. So, I pay for a private shower to undress before and after swim practice. I also go to shave my face.
“When I wake in the morning, I am quick to rush to the bathroom to shower and shave. By the time swim practice is over, my face is covered in baby stubble. I bring my razor and powder to school. After dinner, I retreat to my bedroom and once again shave in private. I don’t know what is wrong with me? Perhaps, the O’Connor flaw passed me? But, as I look in the mirror and see my nose growing longer, a tiny bump appearing at the bridge, my lips growing fuller and my eyelashes thicker, I know something is wrong. If I didn’t see mama’s characteristics in my face, I would swear I was a baby they picked up off the streets and took home to raise.”
Dylan finished reading and slowly closed the book. Staring at my brother, I wondered what to say. I couldn’t be the only one to spot the differences between the two of us.
“I’ve never seen hair on your body,” he finally said, raising his head.
I snorted. That was the only thing my brother could think to say? Lowering my hands, I grasped a hold of the bottom of my sweater and pulled it up over my head, dropping it on the bed.
“I’m going to show you what I have kept hidden since our return from Ireland last summer. There is a reason why I awake at six-thirty in the morning to bathe. I do not want you seeing me.”
Dylan raised an eyebrow and pulled his legs closer to his chest. Unsnapping the buttons on the cuffs of my linen shirt and then moving on to the front, I pulled the garment off and added it on top of the sweater.
Beside me, I heard a gasp of disbelief. Turning around, I sat in front of Dylan wearing nothing but my undershirt, exposing the thick layer of hair on my arms.
“Dear, God,” my brother whispered, but I wasn’t done yet.
Removing my undershirt, I tossed it aside and turned so Dylan could see the hair that covered my body.
“I have a feeling that Mr. Tuscano is my real father and that he was having an affair with our mama.” The words came out flat. I wanted to see my brother’s reaction but only saw a pale, ghost.
“I mean,” I continued. “What other explanation is there? Think back to our childhood. The man was always there for us. Every Saturday he would give our parents a box of food and a can of milk out of the kindness of his heart. He baked us cakes and cookies for our birthdays, Christmas and Easter.
When we were homeless after mama died, he took us in. The day the police came to escort us to the orphanage he dropped a cloth of expensive chocolate in my pocket. He whispered in my ear, and I could hear his voice break as he struggled not to cry. The first time we visited him after being adopted, he cried and said he prayed every night for me to be reunited with him. Then he realized his mistake and said ‘all of us.’ I spotted him whispering to Frank and Catrina multiple times. I think he was…”
“Stop,” Dylan reached out his hand to silence me. “Mama would never cheat on papa. She was a good woman.”
I found myself leaning forward, so I was mere inches from Dylan’s face. I wanted him to see me, to see what I saw every time I looked in the mirror. To see the reflection of the man that stared back at me in the mirror a few minutes ago.
“I have his nose,” I pointed to my Italian nose and ran the tip of my pinky finger over the bump. “We cannot deny it any longer. Mr. Tuscano is my real father and mama and papa made up a lie that we were twins to hide it from us.”
“That means papa knew,” Dylan choked as I watched his throat contract. He was trying to prevent tears from coming.
“And, he forgave Mr. Tuscano for some strange reason,” I continued. “Papa had every right to kill him, but he didn’t. And…” I paused as my body vibrated with a shudder. “Mama had every right to get a back-alley abortion, but she didn’t.”
At the mention of abortion, Dylan burst into tears. Only a shameful, uneducated, shunned woman would ever get an abortion - a woman who found herself in trouble. Mama didn’t get rid of the problem. For that, I was thankful.
“Dylan, don’t cry,” I reached for my sweater, pulled a handkerchief from the pocket, and passed it to him. “Something is beyond crazy. Mr. Tuscano will be here tomorrow and I plan on confronting him. I think I am old enough.”
Pressing the cloth to his face, Dylan began to screech, hiccup, and sob at the same time, as he rocked back and forth. Without thinking, I reached out to wrap my brother in a hug, holding him until the sobs turned silent.
“I love you,” I whispered. Dylan responded by burrowing his face into my shoulder.
We continued to sit there in silence until the familiar wrapping of father’s knuckles on the wooden door interrupted the silence.
“Boys, dinner will be served in about ten minutes.”
Turning Dylan loose, I reached for my clothes and started to dress, while my brother headed to the washroom to clean his face.
Standing up from the bed, it dawned on me that if I wasn’t my brother’s twin, then I wouldn’t be turning sixteen tomorrow, I would be turning fifteen. That is - if tomorrow was my birthday.
After lunch the following day, my father had Mr. Coffey drive us all in the carriage to the train station to wait for my grandfather and Mr. Tuscano’s arrival. Imagine my disgust when that man met us on the platform.
“Hello, children!” Mr. Tuscano called out in his thick, Sicilian accent, as the porters began to load his luggage into the back of my father’s carriage. I remember narrowing my eyes at the large pile of belongings. Usually, he brought two trunks.
Standing back, I watched Mr. Tuscano hug my older siblings one-by-one, and noted with satisfaction how Dylan coolly accepted the embrace. If Mr. Tuscano sensed it, he didn’t say anything.
“Hello, my dear.”
With a tight smile, I stepped forward and allowed the now stranger to hug me. The all too familiar scent of tobacco and mint filled my nose.
How I wished to hit the man over and over for what he had done to my mama all those years ago. I pulled away and spotted my mother scanning the crowd, her hand pressed to her forehead.
“Where’s my father, and brothers?”She asked.
“I haven’t the slightest clue.” Mr. Tuscano reached down to lift up one of his trunks. I watched Theodore and Francis help load the luggage into our father’s carriage, while Dylan stood beside me. The two of us didn’t wish to help the man with his belongings.
“Oh, dear,” a sigh escaped mother’s mouth, as her hands went straight to her hips in perfect Woodrow fashion. “I hope he’s alright.”
Mr. Tuscano reached into his pocket to tip the porters. “I found it odd when the train stopped in Virginia and he didn’t step onboard. I asked the porter if he had a telegram for me, and he responded with a shake of his head. I assume they either hopped on an early train or will be here tomorrow.”
“This isn’t like my father-in-law to telegram to say he’s running late.”
I noted the look of worry over my father’s face, and a tiny pinch tugged in my stomach. He was correct. I haven’t seen my grandfather since last summer, and when I spoke to him on the telephone several nights ago, he didn’t mention anything about running late.
“Well,” father continued. “I say we head on home. If Cleo and the twins haven’t arrived by tomorrow afternoon, I’ll telegram the family in Virginia to try and figure out what happened.”
“Good idea,” Mr. Tuscano chirped. “Millen come sit beside me.”
I didn’t try to hide the look of pure disgust on my face. The candy shop owner must have taken it the wrong way.
“Don’t worry,” he hopped into the carriage and patted the seat beside him, while Dylan followed me. “I’m quite positive your grandfather will be along shortly. I telephoned him a few times while he was staying in Virginia and his spirits are up, Jasper is smitten with a young girl from a Polish family and Clinton is eager to return home to start his years at law school.”
“What’s this about my brother,” mother asked as she, father, Theodore, and Francis sat in the carriage seat in front of us. “My brother is calling upon a girl?”
Despite being wedged beside Mr. Tuscano, I couldn’t help but laugh at the teasing smile on my mother’s face. Outside, the view began to swiftly pass. We would be home soon, and I could escape this horrid man.
“Mrs. Mueller, your father has informed me that Jasper wishes to marry a young woman from a prominent Polish family.” Mr. Tuscano said, causing a flutter of excited voices from inside the carriage.
“Her father owns a grain mill, and her mother is a socialite. The sweet, young girl’s name is Zakitria Schueller, and she is only sixteen years of age. Her father has given your brother permission to marry her after the girl graduates from high school. She will return to Sherwood and begin her college studies here. I believe your father says Zakitria wishes to become a chemistry teacher.”
I watched my mother cross her ankles in an un-ladylike way. Theodore must have noticed it too, for he snorted.
“I believe that married women cannot teach.” She raised her eyebrow. “I had to abandon my teaching after marrying Frank.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I watched Mr. Tuscano clasp his knees. “That foolish law is becoming a thing of the past. Up north, and in large cities like Dallas and Fort Worth, married women are slowly becoming teachers. Your brother supports the idea and wishes to live in Fort Worth. They have spent the last six months planning their lives. Jasper just has to complete his college in the next two years, and when Zakitria graduates high school he can marry her and begin their lives together.”
Mother’s lip curled up, and she uncrossed her ankles. “How come my father never told me this? I’ve telephoned him many times in the past six months.”
I felt Mr. Tuscano’s shoulder rotate beside mine. “Because he only told me this story three days ago. He and your brothers boarded an early train for Sherwood and arrived this morning around seven. The three of them asked not to tell you until we were safely on our way from the train station.”
“You mean you knew he was safe this entire time –“mother said, as she pointed a gloved finger at Mr. Tuscano.
I turned to look out the window as our house came into view across from the railroad tracks. A familiar horse and carriage were tethered to the post outside. Grandfather! The same man who had adopted the four of us to be slave labor six years prior.
“Grandfather,” I squealed, as I crawled over Dylan and unlatched the carriage door.
“Millen, wait!” Father yelled. I felt his hand on my back, as I easily pushed open the door and tumbled out with Dylan.
“You could have broken my neck,” he spat, as he pulled himself up from the dirt. Behind us, our carriage came to an abrupt halt. I could see Mr. Tuscano fumbling to escape. I grasped a hold of my brother’s arm, and we raced up the cobblestoned path, onto the veranda, opened the heavy oak door, and sailed into the parlor.
“Welcome home, grandfather,” I plopped on the silk couch, throwing my arms around grandfather, who had arranged himself like a king, awaiting our arrival.
“Happy Birthday, runt,” the man whispered.
With a giggle, I pulled back so grandfather could get a look at me. It had been a long six months since he traveled up north to recover from his dry cough, and spend quality time with my two uncles
“Well, now,” his eyes traveled up and down, taking in how tall I’ve grown.
“Goodness, you’re not so little anymore. I guess our days of you sitting in my lap as we look through the old Woodrow photos and handwritten family history books are over. Perhaps, I should retire on calling you by your childhood nickname?”
I reached out to kiss him on the side of his face. He loved that. “I was about five foot ten when we returned from Ireland last summer, and I’ve surpassed six foot. According to Dr. Alexander, I’m still growing!”
Grandfather pressed his hand to his mouth, as his eyes widened in disbelief. “Your voice is different. You sound like – I mean, you sound older. I like it.”
“I like it as well.” Falling back onto the pillows I heard the front door open. Dylan must have gone back to help with the luggage. At the moment I forgot about the fact that I must have inherited my height from Mr. Tuscano. I pushed the horrible man to the back of my mind. My grandfather returned from being away for half a year, and I didn’t wish to think of the candy shop owner.
“I will always be your little runt.” I continued. “I love the nickname you bestowed upon me all those years ago.”
A bright smile appeared on my grandfather’s face, so I continued.
“You were the one who taught me that a proper, young man from a distinguished household is always seen in public wearing gloves.”
Grandfather laughed. “You look marvelous in them! I wonder if young men wear them in your ancestor’s country.”
I frowned at the odd remark. Did he believe Mr. Tuscano to be my father as well? That morning I stood in front of my mirror brushing my hair this way, and that. Styling and restyling it with hair crème, trying to erase all traces of that man.
Despite my efforts, my nose still resembled his, and I couldn’t change the color of my skin. I tried brushing body powder on my face and found I looked ridiculous. Behind us, the parlor doors flew open and Dylan and Francis came rushing in to greet their grandfather, followed by mother and father and, ugh, Mr. Tuscano.
“My God, Millen,” father removed his hat and placed it on top of the coat rack. “Please don’t jump from the carriage until it’s stopped moving. I don’t want you to break your leg, or worse. Remember when Francis hurt himself a few years ago at football practice and had to stay in bed for a week while the swelling went down on the back of his neck and shoulders?”
“And, when the swelling went down, he returned to practice-” I replied, feeling grandfather’s hand on my wrist.
“You jumped from a moving carriage,” he asked, a frown on his face, as he gathered Francis and Dylan to him on the couch.
I watched Francis stick out his tongue. For a college freshman, he still acted like a child.
“In answer to your retort, Millen,” Francis smirked. “I was the quarterback, and I couldn’t let my teammates down. My body healed, and I scored three touchdowns winning the game against Van. I still have the trophy in my bedroom.”
I stuck my tongue back out, causing my brothers to chuckle. I took in the amused looks on Dylan and Francis’s faces. I had more swimming trophies in my bedroom than his small football trophy collection. I turned my attention back to my grandfather.
“You’ve been on vacation for so long, that I couldn’t wait to see you.” I smiled, my voice melting like butter.
“That’s not an excuse,” grandfather’s mouth pressed down in a frown, then up again. “Where’s Annabelle?”
“Theodore,” My brothers and I said aloud at once.
“He’s upstairs changing into men’s clothes,” Mother settled in a chair beside father, and next to Mr. Tuscano. “I wish you would be more supportive, and what is this I hear about my brother engaged to marry a young girl named Zakitria Schueller? You can inform Joseph here,” she gestured toward Mr. Tuscano, “but you forget to inform your sister and son-in-law.”
“I am supportive,” grandfather argued, as he answered his daughter’s first question. “Just extremely confused. I don’t understand any of it, but if my oldest granddaughter wants to become my oldest grandson, then I will accept him. As for your other question –“
“Good,” Theodore chose that moment to enter the room wearing a pair of men’s linen trousers and a long-sleeved shirt underneath a sweater. On his feet were wool loafers. I was amazed at how fast my brother could escape, as he called it, from the heavy, wool dresses and itchy wig he was forced to wear in public.
“There’s my grandson!” Grandfather patted the empty seat beside him on the couch, as Francis and Dylan scuttled around to sit on the opposite end.
I watched a faint blush spread across Theodore’s face.
“It’s been a long six months without you,” my brother reached out to hug grandfather. “You’ve missed so much!”
“I have,” the man’s eyes traveled over Theodore’s short haircut, to his slender body. The last time grandfather had seen his oldest grandson, the boy, then a girl was wearing linen dresses, had waist-length hair, and a large chest.
“I don’t ever again want to receive a letter like the one I received. Do you understand me?” He asked, pleaded almost.
I inched closer to Francis, as I felt pain radiate from grandfather’s body. The suicide attempt hurt him more than he could bear. The only reason he hadn’t packed up and returned home during Christmas break was because of the deadly snowstorms up east.
“Yes, sir,” Theo reached out to kiss his grandfather.
“Isn’t that sweet,” Francis said beside me.
Theodore turned back from our grandfather and tried to swat Francis on the head, causing everyone in the room to laugh. Grandfather reached out for Theodore’s arm and pulled him down so he was sitting next to him on the sofa.
“In answer to your other question, Catrina,” our grandfather said after everyone was settled. “I believe we should put your brother’s two-year engagement on the backburner. Today we are celebrating the twin’s pre-birthday and tomorrow the real ceremony at my house. Jasper will be happy to tell you all about Zakaria. He’s already written and mailed her a letter since waking up from his nap. The young girl’s father has given Jasper permission to telephone her once a week for roughly thirty-minutes.”
Mother gave a curt nod of her head, causing her auburn curls to bounce over her shoulders. “Yes, with everything going on and the events to come –“
Closing my eyes, I turned my mother out. Faking a yawn, I leaned over to rest my head on grandfather’s shoulder, knowing Mr. Tuscano was watching from across the room. I knew the man didn’t think anything of it. We hadn’t seen our grandfather in six months. The last time Mr. Tuscano came down to visit was two months ago during Christmas. I felt myself beginning to drift off for a nap when my body suddenly jolted awake by my grandfather’s voice.
“Joseph, I have purchased you a home. Earlier, I received word that the previous owners vacated a month ago, so you can move in today, or Monday if you wish? I’ve ordered some furniture for you from Anderson Brother’s shop. It should be delivered after the weekend. I also think you will be pleased to know that your new home is the little cottage across the street.”
“Thank you, Mr. Woodrow. I…”
I heard enough. It felt as if I were in the middle of a bad dream.
“What,” I screeched, causing all eyes to look upon me in shock. Mr. Tuscano’s face turned to disbelief at my loud tone.
“Ni… I mean, Millen, I’ve sold my store in Brooklyn. I’m moving to Sherwood,” he said in a low voice.
I stared hard at the man across the room with a mixture of confusion and disgust. I didn’t want the creature that had an affair with mama anywhere near my family. The man may be my blood father, but I didn’t want anything to do with him.
“Oh, that’s my fault,” father interrupted the awkward silence. “I know you told me in your letter to reveal the plans to the boys, but Catrina and I felt you should do it yourself. It seems two secrets were kept today, with the possibility –“
Father trailed off, as mother swirled around and shot him a look that was cold enough to freeze ice cream in the middle of a Texas summer.
She always told us that the daughters of wealthy parents could imitate the cold-hearted look by the time they were five-years-old. The snobs used it to let other girls know their place. Mother wasn’t a snob, and she used the look to silence someone when they were “acting a fool.” Like a talkative person in the church - or, a middle-aged man who adopted four children for the sole purpose of slave labor. My gaze traveled back and forth. What on earth was going on? Father wasn’t “acting a fool.”
“I see…” Mr. Tuscano shot the side-eye to father and then turned back to grandfather.
“You do not have to buy me a house. I will pay you back as soon as I can.”
I watched grandfather wave his hand in the air, dismissing Mr. Tuscano.
“Nonsense,” he smiled. “You’re a part of our family. You helped raised the children when they were young, and you took them in when they had nowhere to go. This is the least I can do.”
“You don’t,” Mr. Tuscano tried to argue, but grandfather gently cut him off.
“It’s my decision, Joseph.”
Waves of anger swarm through my body. I felt grandfather tighten his grip around my shoulders. I knew I startled everyone in the room with my immature outburst and quite possibly hurt Mr. Tuscano’s feelings. But, I didn’t care. Shrugging off grandfather’s arm, I stood up.
“I need a drink of water,” I announced to no one and headed toward the kitchen doors, feeling the eyes of everyone in the room on the
back of my head.
Shutting the door firmly behind me, I spotted pots of tea and coffee steaming on the stove. Forgetting a trip outside to the well for freshwater, and Francis’s lectures that tea and coffee were bad for the human body, I reached for a cup and saucer from the cabinet, took a hold of the handle of the coffee pot, and poured the steaming hot liquid.
The tiny icebox sat opposite the stove. Walking over, I raised the hatch, spotted the tin cup of milk, and was reaching for it when I heard the kitchen door open. Expecting it to be one of my parents, I braced my body for a lecture, especially if it were my mother.
Father never disciplined us, he listened to our stories when we found ourselves in trouble and gave advice. He knew Francis and Theodore inherited Brooklyn tempers, especially Theodore. Living with the Muellers for six years, our new parents taught us to relax and release our anger through other projects. Dylan and I went for a swim when we were having a bad day. Besides football, Francis joined the Debate Club in high school and college. Theodore would spend his allowance at the art studio in downtown Sherwood, and took his frustrations out in his artwork.
“Millen, are you doing well?”
The tiny cup of milk hit the floor and spilled over the pinewood as Mr. Tuscano’s voice filled the air.
“Oh, goodness, let me get that for you.”
With my back to the now stranger, I stared as the liquid spread across the floor. The cabinet drawer squeaked, as Mr. Tuscano removed a tea towel and bent down on the floor to mop up the mess.
“I hope I didn’t startle you?”
I looked down my nose, and met the eyes of the man whom I assumed was my real father as he bent down on the floor like a servant from a fairy tale. Since being adopted by the wealthy Muellers, Theodore constantly reminded us that if we ever started to act like spoiled brats and forgot that we once slept on bed-bug infested blankets, and ate food off the streets to survive, that he would beat the hell out of us.
At that moment, I didn’t care. Curling up my top lip, I watched Mr. Tuscano slowly rise to his feet after realizing I wasn’t going to help him. We stood in front of each other, identical in height.
Mr. Tuscano flinched silently as I kept glaring at the man. At that moment I knew the man realized his secret had been discovered.
“I’m fine,” my voice came out as chilly as mothers were in the parlor. “Now, if you excuse me, I’m taking my coffee and going upstairs to nap before dinner.”
Without waiting for a reply, I turned my back and walked up the kitchen stairs to the second floor, so I wouldn’t have to see my family in the parlor.
I woke a few hours later to my father knocking on the bedroom door.
“Millen,” he called. “Dinner is ready and we’re all waiting on you.”
Groggily, I raised my hands and rubbed my eyes. Turning them around, I studied the mole on my thumb and noted with satisfaction how neat and perfect my fingernails were. When grandfather took me to the manicurist in Dallas a few weeks ago, the beautician didn’t complain or roll her eyes. According to grandfather, a lot of businessmen, and young men who worked in department stores were expected to have a simple manicure, which consisted of trimmed and polished nails. Theodore, Francis, and Dylan politely refused to accompany me and our grandfather to the salon.
Kicking off the quilts, and cotton sheets I fumbled out of bed, slipped off my pajamas, and into the wool pants and cashmere sweater I laid out on Dylan’s bed before taking my nap. After slipping into my shoes, I opened the door, walked down the hall, down the stairs, across the parlor, and into the dining room where I was greeted with a big “Happy Birthday!”
I froze like a deer when it wandered into a bright light and let my eyes travel taking in the paper mache streamers, balloons, confetti, and a small table of desserts.
Dylan gave a little laugh and wrapped his arms around me in a hug.
“We finally made it to sixteen,” he whispered in my ear.
A strange shiver raced through my body as my mind conjured up two memories. Theodore turned sixteen at the orphanage before the Muellers adopted us, and papa’s constant yelling.
Dylan and I would be sitting at our old broken kitchen table back in Brooklyn silently eating our supper when papa would go off. You’se two are out de door the day you turn sixteen! I remember trying not to cry, and mama would whisper, He’s been drinking. Bad day at work. Don’t pay him any mind.
With an elegant toss of my head, I pushed the memory away. I assumed my brain had forgotten all about that horrible man, but obviously, some incidents were tucked away. Thank goodness, he wasn’t my real papa.
“Well, come on, let’s eat,” mother called out. “Mrs. Coffey prepared all of your favorite foods.”
Tears threatened to spill from my eyes, as I took in the table filled with all the wonderful Mexican food I’d grown to love: tamales, beans, rice, enchiladas, sophias, tortillas, black beans, Mexican corn on the cob, stuffed bell peppers, and cinnamon chips.
Closing my eyes, I let out a sigh of happiness. The pre-birthday celebration was more wonderful than I’d imagined. Despite my eyes being closed, I could feel someone staring at me from the far-left corner of the room.
Opening my eyes, I glanced over and spotted Mr. Tuscano standing in the shadows, wearing the same clothes he walked off the train in, his hands clasped in front of him, a small smile on his face.
I gave him a curt nod and took my usual place beside Dylan at the table. Extra chairs had been brought in for grandfather, Uncle Clinton, Jasper, and Mr. Tuscano. With an inward sigh of relief, I watched as that man was seated next to Dylan.
“Hold hands,” father announced from the head of the table. “Let’s pray in celebration of this wonderful day for Dylan and Millen.”
Taking a hold of my brother’s hand, I secretly smiled knowing he had to take Mr. Tuscano’s hand. I closed my eyes and focused on my father’s words.
“We’re joined together with Cleo Woodrow, who has been a wonderful grandfather to the boys for the last six years, his two sons and Joseph Tuscano, who has been a life-long friend to the O’Connor family.”
Cracking an eye open, I turned to Dylan and saw him deep in thought, meditating on our father’s prayer. Beside him, Mr. Tuscano sat like a stone statue, his face expressionless. I felt a slight smile creeping over my lips - but stopped. To my shock, a small drop of water raced down the man’s face, disappearing under his chin. A small gasp escaped my throat as I looked down, and saw that Dylan had refused to take the man’s hand. Both of their hands lay, palm down on the table. It was as if Mr. Tuscano had reached for Dylan’s hand, but my brother shrugged it off.
My other hand jerked, as I felt long fingernails scraping the skin. I turned and came face to face with mother, her mouth pressed in disapproval. Taking that as a warning, I closed my eyes as father ended the prayer. It didn’t matter if it was my party or not, mother wouldn’t tolerate disrespecting the Lord.
“Amen,” everyone echoed.
Using extreme caution, I opened my eyes back up and surveyed the room. Mother calmly placed her napkin in her lap and began to cut up her tamales. Around the table, Theo, Francis, father, Jasper, Clinton, and grandfather were doing the same.
“Dylan, darling, are you cold?”
I felt my forehead crease in a frown at mother’s odd remark, as I reached for my cup of orange tea.
“No, mother,” Dylan replied with a slight shake of his head. “Why do you ask?”
“Well,” I watched mother reach up to pat her hair and then smooth down the front of her dress. “I was just thinking your skin was too cold for Mr. Tuscano to touch during the prayer.”
I heard the clatter of silverware hitting the china plate as Dylan fumbled with his fork. Ignoring the thick tension in the air, I directed my gaze to my plate of fried eggs and tamales. I felt awkward sitting beside our mother and my brother while my father, grandfather, siblings, and uncles stared. Oh, so carefully, I focused my attention on cutting my food into perfect pieces while Dylan stammered up a reply. The obvious fact that I wasn’t staring at my mother must have been a red flag for everyone.
“Well, I…um, I see, it’s…” Dylan squeaked.
“Mrs. Mueller, may I explain?”
I raised my eyes and slowly turned toward Mr. Tuscano. Everyone else at the table, besides Dylan, was staring at the man in surprise. My brother kept his eyes focused on his lap, dreading what would happen next. Mr. Tuscano wouldn’t dare say anything during our birthday dinner? Or, would he?
“I recently returned from the doctor’s office in Brooklyn and received troubling news,” He said slowly, in a calm, gentle tone. “I was diagnosed with arthritis. Sometimes it hurts my fingers on my left hand when someone else is holding onto them - that is why I…politely wished for Dylan not to hold my hand.”
“I see…” mother’s voice came out cold, causing shivers as sharp as razor blades to once again race through my body. My breathing escalated and I used exercises I learned during swimming practice to control it. In out. Breathe. Mother knew Mr. Tuscano was lying. Her eagle eyes must have witnessed Dylan shrug off the man’s hand. Mr. Tuscano’s answer seemed to satisfy everyone else, for they continued to eat. I knew Dylan and I were sure to hear mother’s wrath later on that night or possibly tomorrow. At least Dylan and I weren’t being kicked to the curb like the fake papa used to threaten us with. I picked up my knife and fork and cut into my food wishing time would stand-still. Wouldn’t that be the perfect birthday gift?
Dinner continued with Dylan, Mr. Tuscano, and I never saying another word. Grandfather spoke of his months in Virginia and how his dry cough seemed to vanish like smoke. Jasper confirmed the rumors were true, and that he was engaged to be married to a sweet, beautiful young lady named Zakaria. He hoped the following two years would pass as swiftly as possible, and he couldn’t wait to marry her at the Woodrow home. Grandfather said it would be nice to create another wonderful memory since so many unhappy ones were made when he and his brother were little during the Civil War. With that being said, father announced that we should all go see Grandpa Alex at the asylum tomorrow before the party.
As the conversations died down, I picked up my spoon and scooped up the remaining enchilada sauce from my bare plate, and popped it in my mouth. I always ate everything. I couldn’t leave food on my plate to be thrown in the bin, and my siblings were the same way. I seemed to have no memory of our orphaned months eating out of the trash, or when we were little eating once a day at our flat in Brooklyn. My subconscious brain, as Francis called it, seemed to have remembered. I always cleaned my plate.
“Time for these two,” father gestured toward Dylan and me, “To open presents.”
A smile crept on my face. Over the years, my brothers and I had received so much and were blessed beyond words. We all knew that we would have never received a purebred horse for our fourteenth birthday if mama and papa were still alive. Or, a shopping spree at a Dallas department store for our thirteenth birthday.
Last February, Dylan and I were taken and fitted for our first real, professional suits with deep wool, and silk lining. Theo had looked at us and started to cry. Everyone believed he was happy. No one at the time knew it was because he, who was then living as Annabelle, wanted the same thing.
I found myself wandering into the large, airy, open parlor behind my brothers. The massive fireplace was lit, warming us with the smell of burning wood and cinnamon-scented pinecones. With a deep sigh, I plopped onto a silk couch, pulling Dylan down beside me. I spotted Mr. Tuscano awkwardly perching on a chair in the far, dark, corner of the room. After taking full blame for the holding hands incident, the man had not spoken one word throughout the entire meal.
When we first came to live with the Muellers, before the official adoption, father took us aside in this very parlor. Unlike mother, he grew up the son of a poor sharecropper and knew what it was like for people to be cruel and mean for no reason. Mother hadn’t grown up that way. She dealt with petty gossip and snobby girls at her boarding school, but she didn’t know her father’s true side until the day she walked up on him yelling at us on the train station platform. It scared, insulted, surprised, angered, embarrassed, and saddened her to see her own father be so cruel to a bunch of children.
“Boys, I want you to remember something.” Father’s eyes swept over us, studying our reactions. “A person will always remember how you treated them. Like you, I too have been treated with disrespect all my life, up until I married Catrina. Heck, some of my own family still won’t talk to me because I’m wealthy now - such, foolishness.”
During that week, the Muellers didn’t know Theo was biologically a girl and was constantly scared that they would find out, therefore permanently in a sour mood. Not to mention, he had gotten his first period, causing him to freeze up.
During father’s lecture, then “Mr. Mueller” I remember seeing my older brother raise his head and frown at Frank. The four of us were used to being disrespected, for it was nothing new. To us, the Muellers allowing us to live with them in a mansion and wear expensive clothing was too much. We didn’t know how to handle it. For the first week, we walked on eggshells frightened that any sudden move and they would kick us out on the street. Nobody, except our real mama, and Mr. Tuscano, ever treated us with such kindness. It scared us that strangers were acting as if we, a bunch of peasant rats from Brooklyn, were their children.
Here I stood, six years later, in the very room father took us to him and told us about kindness and I had forgotten everything when I convinced Dylan to hate Mr. Tuscano for no reason.
“Let’s see,” mother swooped toward the fireplace and removed two small boxes that were resting on top of the mantle. I bit my bottom lip and pondered her joyous attitude. She seemed to have dismissed the incident in the dining room.
“One for you,” she handed a box to Dylan, and turned to me, “and, one for you!”
I took an equal-sized box, and turned it over in my hands, feeling the bump underneath the expensive wrapping paper. Jewelry box! Casting a knowing look at Dylan, we began to tear off the tissue. Sure enough, a light blue box began to emerge. With a giggle, I grasped a hold of the top lid and slowly tugged it off. My eyes went down into a frown as a strange silver key-like object came into view. Then it dawned on me. I could only stare, a complete loss for words.
“For real?!” Dylan whispered, as he held up the key for all to see, his eyes enlarged in shock.
“Well,” mother leaned against the wall, a smile upon her face. “They’re not real automobile keys. Those will come later. I asked a jewelry maker to craft a silver replica so the two of you could wear them as necklaces. Your new automobile will arrive on the train from Henry Ford’s shop next week. Your father and I purchased you two a brand-new Model T, which you will share.”
In a daze, I absentmindedly handed Theodore my box, leaped from the couch, and jumped into father’s arms, feeling the man return the gesture. Theodore and Francis didn’t even have automobiles. Mother drove the four of us to our different schools every day. She preferred to see us off for the day, not Mr. Coffey. How we returned home from school was our business.
“This was my idea,” grandfather announced, breaking the silence in the room. “I think the two of you need your own automobile for adventures, instead of taking the train.”
Removing myself from my father’s embrace, I stumbled over to grandfather, who sat on the same sofa from earlier that day. This time, Uncle Jasper and Uncle Clinton sat on the opposite end.
“Happy birthday, runt” He laughed, as I lay my head back into the crook of the man’s shoulder. “It’s not over yet. I have a present for you, as well as Mr. Tuscano.”
I froze at the name and swallowed bitterly. Opening my eyes, I spotted Dylan on the couch and noticed his lips press together. I had no clue what “that man” would give us, but I knew it would be going to the back of our closet.
“Want your key back?” Theodore waved the box in my direction.
With a nod, I reached for the box, meeting my older brother’s eyes. I noticed the unmistakable look of annoyance. Theodore knew something was wrong and was shooting me a “look” telling me to politely keep it to myself. I returned the gesture, took the box, and leaned back up against grandfather.
“Good!” grandfather announced and looked around the room. “Frank, Catrina, Mr. Tuscano, Theodore, and Francis, is it time?”
I shared another look of confusion with Dylan. Something unusual was about to happen.
“Well,” Father began to speak. I could see the contraction in his throat, as he took a small breath of air. “It’s a perfect time. Joseph, please come closer and join us.”
All eyes traveled to Mr. Tuscano in the far, dark corner of the room. The man rose from the shadow of the tall, house plants, and removed an old, leather satchel from behind the chair he had been sitting on. In silence, he quietly crossed the large room and settled beside mother and father on the sofa near the fireplace. I watched him place the satchel on the floor. I could see it bulging with old papers and books.
“First things first,” grandfather pulled back his jacket and removed an envelope from the inside pocket.
A frown creased my forehead at the strange object. An eerie silence filled the room. Casting a glance around, I noticed Dylan staring back in pure confusion. Mother and father looked nervous and unsure. Mr. Tuscano kept his eyes on the Persian rug, as he tugged on the strap of his satchel.
A deep pain pierced my stomach and I tasted the bitter tang of bile on my throat. My eyes focused on that man’s fingers and I tried not to cry. Did grandfather notice? I really and truly was Mr. Tuscano’s son. I could see the man’s slender fingers rubbing the worn leather on his satchel. I had the same shape of hands, right down to the little mole near the thumb. I choked back a sob. I couldn’t cry now.
“I have tickets for you two.”
I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. Tickets! My real father must want me to go back to New York to live with him? Taking a deep breath, my eyes grew large, and then I remembered the cottage across the street. Mr. Tuscano moved to Sherwood, directly across from us. That couldn’t be it.
“Actually,” grandfather laughed. “These tickets are for everyone in the room, including myself. The only exclusions are Jasper and Clinton. They will be spending the summer back in Virginia calling upon Zakitria.”
“Boat tickets?” Dylan asked out loud.
I watched grandfather open the envelope and remove a bundle of small thick pieces of paper.
“Millen, Dylan,” his eyes traveled back and forth. “I purchased the ship tickets in Virginia, but before I did, I spoke on the telephone to everyone in this room, including Mr. Tuscano, Theo, and Francis, and they all agreed. This summer, we shall spend two months in Sicily together. The ship departs from New York precisely two weeks after the end of school exams. That gives all of us enough time to catch a train to New York. We will spend two months on the island of Sicily and return to the ship on the last day of July. Naturally, it will take about two weeks of sailing back to New York, and another week on the train back to Sherwood-“
“If all goes well, we should arrive back home with a week or two to spare until school starts up again in September. There won’t be enough time for me to take the four of you clothes shopping in Dallas, so I will do it in Sicily. How’s that?”
My entire body trembled in fear. I shoved my hand under a pillow to hide the trembling. I didn’t know what was worse? The fact that I would be spending the entire summer in Sicily, or “that man” would be going with us! Glancing down at the expensive blue box in my lap, my lips curled up in a smile. I would sneak out in the middle of the night and drive off for a few weeks, purposely missing the departure date! Yes! Of course, but mother shot the idea down.
“Don’t worry,” she laughed. “You two can take your car! We can have it shipped on the train, then placed on the boat! Imagine how fun it will be driving around the countryside in Sicily!”
The taste of bile grew sharper. I could taste the hot salsa I ate for dinner at the back of my throat. The two of us sat in silence for a few seconds. Mother and father stared at me, as I turned the jewelry box over and over in my hands. That evil mole on my thumb seemed to taunt me. I’d fallen in love with it as a child when my grandfather showed me an identical one on his thumb. Now, I hated it. There must be a surgeon in Sherwood who could remove it. As I fumed, I felt everyone waiting on me to say something. Instead, I kept silent. Dylan finally saved the day.
“Thank you, grandfather,” My brother’s voice whispered, his eyes focused on his car key.
“You’re welcome, dear.”
My leg jerked up, as Theodore openly kicked me in front of everyone. With a roll of my eyes, I turned toward grandfather.
“Thank you,” the words came out flat.
I studied grandfather’s sullen face and immediately felt terrible. He didn’t know anything about Mr. Tuscano being my real father when he purchased the tickets. Maybe the trip wouldn’t be so bad? I could purposely avoid my “father” as much as possible by taking our mother’s advice and driving the car around. There would be plenty of museums, theaters, and libraries to visit in Sicily. I could tolerate it.
“I mean it,” I whispered.
“I know,” grandfather replied, his eyes crinkling.
“Well, now,” mother’s voice filled the air. She turned to father. “Are you ready?”
I watched my father nod.
“This is what Molly and Theodore Sr. wanted, isn’t it? Joseph?”
“Yes, they did," he whispered. "On Millen and Dylan’s sixteenth birthday, they were officially old enough.”
My lip curled in disgust, as I twisted around on the couch to face that man. My parents wanted to go on a boat trip to Sicily when Dylan and I turned sixteen? How stupid! My real parents had trouble scrapping up rent every month! There were days when the only food we ate was the leftovers from Mr. Tuscano’s shop. Mr. Tuscano! I met the man’s eyes and stared down at him in fury.
“My real parents paid the rent in change every month and were always eviction notice late because their jobs didn’t pay enough,” I heard myself spat, fully aware that everyone was staring at me, “why in the world would they want to vacation in Sicily?”
“Oh, shut-up, Millen,” Theodore kicked me again, this time with enough force to leave a nasty bruise. “Let the man speak. We’ve all noticed the horrible way you and Dylan have been treating him since he arrived this afternoon - especially at the dinner table. We’re not stupid! I wanted to take you two aside and smack both of you, but mother wouldn’t allow it.”
At the confession, Dylan burst out sobbing upon realizing everyone in the room witnessed him pushing away Mr. Tuscano’s hand at the table.
“Hey, there is no reason to cry,” mother flew across the room to comfort him. “It will be alright.”
Grandfather reached out, crossed his arms around my shoulders, and pulled me back.
“Settle down, dear,” he whispered. “You need to know this and it’s not what you think.”
Shrugging him off, I met the eyes of Mr. Tuscano. This time, the man stared back. Beside him, Dylan was calming down as our mother held onto him. Father looked composed despite the announcement that was about to come. Jasper and Clinton were like statues beside grandfather.
“I’m ready,” My voice came out cold and unforgiving. “Tell me what I already know. Tell me what I figured out months ago when we vacationed in Ireland.”
Mr. Tuscano cocked his head to the side. A sad smile rested on his face.
“Dear, you have no idea,” he continued. “I’m surprised you haven’t learned Italian in school, or you would have learned what “nipote” means.”
I leaned back in disbelief at the man in front of me as the memories came pouring back. This was not the shy Mr. Tuscano I knew - the one who knocked softly on my parent’s door every Saturday night back in the slums of Brooklyn and delivered a box full of leftovers, milk, and a pocket full of change. The way his eyes would be focused on the floor, as papa snatched the money away. Mama would immediately divide up the sweets between me and my brothers while placing the stale bread and cans of milk in the cupboard. I always received the biggest cupcake. Mother never looked at Mr. Tuscano during this time.
Papa always slammed the door behind the man and shouted, “See you next week” - like it was a threat. I was only a small child then, but I knew once a week, the nice candy shop owner gave our family free food and milk. Something we couldn’t tell anyone outside of the apartment. The shopkeeper’s wife could never find out, but I was older now and knew better, or so I thought. So, I might as well say it and get it over with. It would make me feel a lot better. It would give me the upper hand.
“Are you my father?”
Grandfather, Clinton, and Jasper all took in deep breaths. Father’s eyes grew large at the bold question. Mother coldly called my name. Theodore glared at me with enough force to shatter an electric lamp. Francis just shook his head. Dylan started crying again.
Mr. Tuscano calmly crossed his leg at the ankle and gathered his satchel into his lap.
“Nipote,” he began, using the Italian word. “I wish to God I was your birth father, but, I’m not.”
My stomach turned to ice as the realization settled in. My brothers and I were taught Latin in school and during the one year we were homeschooled after being adopted. How could I have not put two and two together before? Italian and Latin were pretty much the same languages. Mr. Tuscano always called me by the name of “nipote,” openly giving away his relation. How could I have been so stupid? In Latin, the word, “nepos” meant, nephew. Nepos. Nipote. Nepos. Nipote. Tears began to fill my eyes.
“I’m your uncle,” Mr. Tuscano continued, his eyes never leaving my face. “Your real father is currently in Sicily, serving year fourteen of a seventeen-year jail sentence for killing a man. The day after you were conceived, and realization dawned on what he did, I walked up to the Brooklyn jail to turn him in, but when we returned to my candy shop, he was gone. He had stolen my monthly profits to buy passage back to our birth country of Sicily-“
“Once there, he went to a bar, remembered what he’d done to your mother, got disgustingly drunk, and killed a man. I wrote and asked him why he did it, and he replied that the man made a joke about having bastard children all over the ports of Sicily from women he’d raped. Following the man outside, my brother took his knife from his pocket, jumped on the man, stabbing him to death. Shouting, “If I can’t see my child, then you won’t see yours either.”
“Joseph,” mother’s elegant voice called over the room, as my eyes closed. “That’s a little too graphic, isn’t it?”
“He needs to know.”
I felt my body trembling and saw myself standing on the train platform at ten-years-old, when grandfather, then “Mr. Woodrow” announced we were going to be his servants. I saw Theodore, then “Anna’s” lifeless body in her bed. Bile filled my throat and I gagged and reached for my handkerchief in my pocket to spit it out. My fingers shook as I fumbled with the cloth. I felt horrible for treating Mr. Tuscano so awful. The man did nothing wrong.
I’d jumped to conclusions, and forgot my father’s first lesson to us about a person always remembering how they were treated. Taking deep breaths, I tried in vain to control my heart beating in my chest. My real father was nothing but a cowardly rapist and murderer. I’d blamed the wrong man and convinced Dylan to hate as well. I truly was an awful person, just like my real father.
“Dear, God, he’s having a panic attack! I’m going to fetch Dr. Alexander.”
My body merged from trembling to convulsive shaking as the room raced. My parents and siblings melted together.
“We should have waited until he was eighteen,” a voice shouted.
“This is what Molly and Theodore wanted,” another responded. “If they’d lived, they were going to tell Millen and Dylan on their sixteenth birthday. So, that is what I decided to do.”
“Perhaps, you shouldn’t have been so…graphic?”
“This is what his real father wanted him to know - word for word.”
The panicked voices continued to shout from one end of the room to the other.
“How do you know he’s having a panic attack?”
“They run in our family. My brother confessed to me he suffered one the day after….and he’s had many in jail.”
“Will Millen be alright?”
“He should be fine. He has to let it pass.”
“Frank needs to hurry up!”
“There is nothing the doctor can do. Millen has to come out of this himself.”
The voices continued to shout. I had no idea if I was still sitting on the sofa, or been moved. I felt the softness of fur brushing my face.
“I have an idea.”
Catrina. Catrina. That was my adopted mother’s voice.
“Everyone out of the room until Frank and the doctor come back.”
“Come here, baby,” mother’s voice swam around. “Do you remember when we were at the train station all those years ago? You had a panic attack then, but you didn’t know it. You were far too young to understand.”
I commanded my fingers and hands to move and ran them over the soft fur.
“Remember how I held you and told you everything would be alright?”
“Hmm…” I found my voice.
“That’s a good boy. Joseph is a good man. He loves you so much.”
“Hmm…” I realized I was lying against my mother on the same couch. She’d wrapped some kind of fur around my shoulders.
“We wanted you to know the truth. You deserve to know who your real father and roots are.” She continued.
I buried my face into the crook of mother’s shoulder as she tightened her grip. With a small laugh, I realized it was the fur wrap she had on at the train station all those years ago.
“It never dawned on us you would have a panic attack. Please remember, we all love you, and we will be here for you and help you out of this.”
Reaching for mother’s hand, I intertwined my fingers around hers.
“I feel horrible. That’s what caused the panic attack.”
“Feel horrible for what, dear?”
I cracked open an eye, my vision still blurred, so I swiftly closed it.
“I blamed Mr. Tuscano for everything. I believed he was my real father and I convinced Dylan to treat him badly.”
Mother’s soft lips pressed on my forehead.
“I can see why you would believe him to be your real father. There is more to his story and he would like to share it with you and Dylan, in secret, when you are ready. Francis and Theodore already know.”
“They do?” I peered out from the protection of the fur wrap feeling like an animal leaving hibernation.
“Yes, dear.” I felt my mother's fingers in my hair.”They’ve known since the day you were born who your real father was but decided not to say anything. Molly and Theodore Sr. wanted you and Dylan to know the truth on your sixteenth birthdays, and your brothers have honored the request. When Frank and I officially adopted the four of you, they told us everything. That is the reason why we made a trip to see Mr. Tuscano immediately afterward. We wanted him to know the four of you were safe.”
“But, I’m not sixteen,” I pulled my head up, wiping tears from my eyes. “How old am I?”
Mother took a small breath. “That is for Mr. Tuscano to tell you.”
“But, I…” I started, as the door opened.
“Millen? Are you feeling better? I’m here to help.”
Dr. Alexander swept into the room, carrying his leather bag, which he dropped on the floor beside mother’s feet.
“Your father told me everything.”
My Adopted Father. My Real Father. Papa. I now had three men to call, father.
The doctor kneeled down in front of me, a piece of cloth in his hand. “Do you wish to clean your face? Take deep breaths before answering.”
Inhale. Exhale. Relax.
Taking the handkerchief from the family doctor, I reached up and brushed my bare fingers to my face and realized I’d been crying hysterically. Funny, I didn’t remember crying.
“Do you want me to find Dylan?”Mother asked.
Pulling the fur wrap tighter around my shoulders, I sniffled and shook my head.
“I’ll be fine, just give me a second.”
“Mr. Tuscano tells me panic attacks run in your family,” Dr. Alexander took a hold of my hands. “I can help you learn to prevent and handle them.”
With a shudder, I looked up into the man’s eyes.
“Mr. Tuscano is my uncle.”
“I know,” Dr. Alexander said with a smile, gently squeezing my hand. “I’ve known since Frank and Catrina adopted you six years ago.”
“You did?” The tears began to stream down my face again.
“We thought it to be best to tell him.” I felt my mother's hand on my shoulder. “He does give the four of you your check-ups.”
“Mmmm,” I fell back onto my mother in disbelief, as the doctor ran his calloused fingers over my own hands.
“You’re due, Millen,” he said. “You haven’t had one since returning from Ireland last summer, and, since you now know panic attacks run in your family, I need to teach you how to walk through them. They could happen at any time, and you might be alone.”
A feeling of dread passed through my body as I realized an attack could happen anywhere.
Closing my eyes, my heart once again began to beat like a horse running around a race track.
“You need to breathe,” Dr. Alexander’s calm voice called from in front of me.
“Count your breaths and realize you’re sitting on the couch, beside your mother. You’re safe. Mr. Tuscano loves you, and he cares for you. He wants what’s best for you. He told Molly and Theodore the day you were born that he would take care of you until you reached the age of sixteen.”
Cracking an eye open, I started at the doctor’s kind face. Dylan and I were truly the only people who didn’t know my past.
“Why sixteen?” I asked. “I doubt I’m that age, and I doubt today is my real birthday.”
“Because,” the doctor leaned forward. “That is the age that Molly and Theodore decided that you and your brothers could leave and fend for yourselves. Here in Texas, it’s different. Even though legally you and your brothers can leave home, do you want to leave Frank and Catrina?”
I pressed my lips in annoyance that Dr. Alexander ignored my second question. I guess it would be up to Mr. Tuscano to inform me how old I was. I shook my head.
“I don’t want to leave my parents, “I whispered, pulling the wrap around my body.
“We don’t want you, or your brothers to leave, dear,” mother patted me on the head. “We want the four of you to realize you can stay with us for the rest of your lives if you wish. But, we understand if the day comes that you would want to leave, marry, and start a family of your own, we would accept. You don’t have to work in a factory here. We want the four of you to graduate from the university, find careers, and help yourself and the community. But, if you wake up someday and realize you want to be a gypsy or a monk, then we will support your decision.”
Me! A monk! I giggled at the ridiculous remark, pulled myself up, shook my head, blinked, and looked around. Besides the empty couches, the room was just as it was before. The jewelry boxes waited on a small table beside Mr. Tuscano’s leather satchel.
“I heard your real father wants you to graduate from school and college,” Dr. Alexander said.
“Hmm?” I asked in a daze.
Dr. Alexander rose from the floor, stuck his hand in his pocket, and removed a tin of peppermint drops.
“Take a few,” he held them out. “They will help calm you down.”
My face pulled down in a frown, as I took two and popped them in my mouth. The strong fumes went straight up my nose, and I sneezed rapidly. The couch shifted as the doctor sat down.
“In answer to your question,” he began. “Mr. Tuscano and I have been writing letters to one another for years.”
Of course, you have! I angrily bit into the peppermint, crushing it into my teeth.
Dr. Alexander seemed to sense my disgust.
“As your doctor, I needed to know about your heritage, and family medical history.” He began. “Joseph sends me letters full of details about your father in Sicily. When he found out the four of you were adopted, he demanded that you graduate college and make something of your life.”
“Mr. Tuscano?” I asked, swallowing the remains of my peppermints, and gestured for another.
Removing the tin can from his pocket, Dr. Alexander handed it to me.
“No, your father.”
My eyes widened in surprise.
“My father knows about me?”
“He knows all about you,” mother answered. I turned to her in surprise. A warm smile spread over her face. “He’s been in contact with Joseph since the day he was sent to prison for murder. He knows we adopted you and your brothers. He knows all about their personalities and quite recently a letter was mailed off describing Theodore’s change of gender. We’re hoping he’ll be…supportive? Then again, it won’t matter if he is, or not. You and your uncle are the ones going to see him in prison this summer, not us. He wants to meet you.”
My mouth formed an “o” of surprise. My imagination conjured up an older, dirtier, uneducated vision of myself sitting in a damp, underground, Sicilian jail. There would be a pallet on the floor to serve as a bed, a basin of greenish water, a bucket for a privy, and perhaps a cargo box for storing the letters. I assumed there would be rats the size of kittens, roaches, and bedbugs occupying the cell. Common things when my brothers and I lived at the orphanage.
“Your father has changed,” Mr. Tuscano’s voice called out. “He’s no longer the arrogant twenty-one-year-old who attacked your mother almost sixteen years ago. He’s taught himself basic English in prison and reads books that I mail him. Of course, that doesn’t excuse what he did to your mother or the murder.”
I spun around to see my uncle standing in the doorway. He looked relieved at having the story out in the open. But, there were a few more unanswered questions.
“How old am I?”I asked.
“You will be fifteen in a few hours,” Mr. Tuscano ran his fingers over the ornate molding on the edge of the doorframe. “Coincidentally, or a miracle, whatever you wish to call it, you were born on Dylan’s birthday. He turned one at ten-thirty in the morning and you came along at ten-thirty that night. So, your parents decided to raise you as twins. Theodore O’Connor didn’t care one bit that you would be turning fifteen, and not sixteen. He believed Dylan would take you in. What he didn’t know is that I would be purchasing the two of you a flat of your very own if things hadn’t –“
“If God hadn’t intervened and took you home to live with me and Frank.” Mother interrupted.
I choked back a sob at her kind words. “That means I was conceived three months after Dylan was born.”
Mr. Tuscano nodded. “More or less, and that is another story I need to tell you and him. As far as we know, you arrived on time. I was there the night you were brought into the world. Your papa and I were in the kitchen. Theodore and Francis were awake on the trundle bed, trying to comfort a crying, baby Dylan. A Jewish doctor had been called in to deliver you. I paid for it because I knew your parents couldn’t.”
I was about to ask why a Jewish doctor, then I realized why and decided to forget it. It would only embarrass Mr. Tuscano.
“And, I named you,” Theodore poked his head around the corner. “Mama and papa were having a rough time trying to figure out a name that rhymes with Dylan. I remembered a man at the park who sold peanuts and owned a pet monkey. He came from Greece and called himself, Millen from Calypso because no one could pronounce his real name.”
I smiled at my brother. “I never knew there was a peanut man down at the park.” I tucked my feet under myself and popped the last of Dr. Alexander’s peppermints in my mouth.
Theodore shrugged and walked into the room, picking up a few stray pieces of wrapping paper. “He was a gypsy and probably stayed a month before packing up his caravan and traveling off. Francis and I found a few pennies on the ground one day, and we used them to buy peanuts.” A funny look came across my brother’s face. “I remember that name being so unusual, and I loved it!”
Dabbing my handkerchief on my eyes, I carelessly brushed my fingertips across my upper lip and felt the bristles of baby hair. It was time to shave. In my excitement, I’d forgotten to before dinner. But, did it matter? Everyone knew the whole time the true identity of my father. I could have gone forward with my secret routine, instead of hiding it. Nothing disgusted me more than facial hair and I knew Francis and Theodore would be jealous. The medical book from Sherwood College stated that a normal man begins to shave around seventeen-years-old. I also read about genetic flaws that caused men not to ever grow facial hair, like Theodore O’Connor Sr.’s side of the family. I also read about inherited traits that caused boys to shave at an early age, like my Sicilian ancestry.
“Where is everyone?”
Crumbling the wrapping paper in his hands, Theodore tossed it into the lit fireplace.
“The library,” he answered, turning toward Mr. Tuscano and the open parlor door. “Joseph and I decided to disobey mother’s orders and listen in.”
“Why am I not surprised,” mother stood up to ruffle my hair. My eyes followed her, as she moved to pass my uncle.
“Alright, everyone!” she called out. “He’s feeling better! Let’s eat some dessert!”
Standing up, I shrugged out of the wrap, allowing it to fall back on the couch. The excited, yet worried voices of his father, grandfather, Uncle Jasper, and Clinton as well as my siblings filled the air. I hugged all of them and reassured them I would be fine.
A short time later, I found myself sitting back in the dining room with Dr. Alexander, and this time my uncle sitting beside me. I felt Dylan behind my back, as he firmly secured the new necklace around my neck. The cool silver key touched my throat and tumbled under my sweater. The electric lights on the walls began to dim, as father wheeled out a giant chocolate cake.
“Millen, Dylan,” he gestured, “On your feet! We’re going to sing to you!”
On shaking feet, I allowed my brother to lead me over to the head of the table. I still couldn’t believe the drama I’d caused over an hour ago. Yet, my family dismissed it. I couldn’t tell if they were only doing it because today was my birthday, and I would be getting into trouble tomorrow. Or, it would be forgotten - only time would tell, and I would accept the punishment if my parents decided to bestow one.
Pushing back the sleeves of my sweater, I accidentally exposed the strands of hair peeking out from my linen button-down shirt. A moment of dread passed through me. Looking up at my family, they didn’t even notice, or they didn’t care. I decided it wasn’t going to bother me anymore. I stood back and listened to them sing.
An hour later, I kissed grandfather goodbye in the parlor and allowed the man to sweep me up in a hug.
“Everything will work out,” he whispered. “I love you, too, and am overwhelmed with happiness the four of you came into my life. You, my dear, changed me for the better.”
I tightened my grip around grandfather’s shoulders, and let out a happy sigh. In all the years my siblings and I had been adopted, grandfather never confessed I’d changed him.
“Love you too, grandfather.”
After watching the man’s carriage disappear down the darkened street, I flew upstairs and began the process of changing into my bedclothes, except I wasn’t going to sleep. Dylan and I would be retiring with Mr. Tuscano to the third-floor guest room, to hear the remainder of the man’s story.
“First things first, we need to apologize to him,” Dylan held open the door that led to the third-floor hallway. “I feel horrible for how I acted.”
Quiet as a mouse, I shuffled past my brother. “How, do you think I feel? We made the man cry and mother witnessed it.”
“Think of it this way,” Dylan closed the door behind him, and together we walked up the narrow staircase. “Both of us grew-up tonight.”
I nodded in agreement as we reached the top and opened the door to the third floor. “Speaking of growing up, I’m not going to hide it anymore.”
“Hide what?” Dylan asked.
The two of us stopped in front of the guest bedroom.
“My three-times-a-day secret routine,” I smiled.
A short laugh escaped Dylan’s mouth, as he reached out to knock. “You’ll make Francis and Theo extremely jealous.”
I smirked as I placed my hands upon my hips in typical Woodrow fashion, “That’s the whole…”
The door swung open and Mr. Tuscano stood in the entrance to the bedroom wearing his velvet robe over a pair of striped pajamas.
“Boys,” his eyes crinkled in surprise. “Come in!” He stepped out of the way and gestured toward a couch.
The two of us entered a room that took up half of the third floor. Mr. Tuscano softly shut the door and walked over to the fireplace.
“Coffee, anyone? I just made a batch for myself.”
“Yes, please,” I tightened the sash on my robe and sat down beside Dylan on the couch. In front of us on a small, parlor table laid an old photo album, a stack of aging papers, and a hatbox.
“Do you like cream and sugar?” Mr. Tuscano asked as he poured coffee into three mugs.
“Yes,” I answered.
“No,” Dylan replied at the same time.
“So, there is something the two of you don’t have in common.” Mr. Tuscano said with a smile in his voice. “My former wife loved her coffee plain as well.”
Settling back, I watched my uncle add the cream and sugar to two of the cups, leaving Dylan’s black and bitter. Studying the man, my eyes traced over my uncle’s floppy silver-streaked, black hair, his dark almond-colored eyes, and the scar on his left elbow where he’d accidentally burned himself on his shop stove many years prior.
I let out a yawn, raised my arms, and stretched. I didn’t care too much for his former wife, being as how she almost successfully kidnapped me on the day of mama’s funeral. I still remember looking over the evil woman’s shoulder and seeing her driver sneer as he yelled at Theodore. The way that man’s upper lip curled up in disgust still periodically haunted my dreams.
“Besides, our different fathers, yes,” I heard myself say aloud, answering my uncle’s first question.
Mr. Tuscano smiled, while I felt my brother shift uncomfortably on the couch.
“I mean,” I gasped, realizing my faux pas. Thinking about that evil woman and her driver must have caused my brain to say something ridiculous. I tossed my head and tried to smooth out the horrible statement.
“The two of us don’t like everything. Dylan wants to fly airplanes someday. Honestly, anything that can take to the air and fly like the bird scares me to death.” I heard myself ramble. “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow-up. Theodore is studying art culture at a women’s college, upset that he cannot attend the men’s college. Francis is studying to be a doctor. Dylan wants to fly airplanes, and I don’t know what I want.”
“Your father wanted to go into business with me at the candy store,” Mr. Tuscano sat down in-between Dylan and me, handing us each our coffee. “He was extremely talented at baking, sewing, and the blacksmith trade. Our Tuscano grandfather was a tailor back in the old country. Unfortunately, your father also had a short temper and a drinking problem - something that upset our parents because nowhere in our family tree could we find a male ancestor with a drinking problem. We do have a branch that –“
“Why did he rape my mama?” I peered over the edge of my coffee mug, while Dylan took a sip and instantly coughed it up at my blunt question.
“Like, I said,” he crossed his legs and reached for the album. “When your real father was young, about your age, he fell in love with alcohol and frequently visited the pubs in Brooklyn. We believe our sister’s death from influenza caused it. I tried to help him and so did our parents before they passed, but he spent all his money on liquor.”
“One night, he came stumbling home from drinking away his pay and spotted Molly O’Connor walking down the alley alone from her weekly church services. My brother had no idea who it was, only that it was a woman and he started to follow her. When Molly realized she was being followed, she started to run and tripped over a brick, sprawling onto her stomach. My brother saw that she was helpless and…”
“Stop,” Dylan reached out to grasp a hold of Mr. Tuscano’s arm. “I don’t want to hear anymore.”
My eyes narrowed as I digested the story. “What about me,” I snapped at my brother. “I’m torn here.”
“Torn at what?” Mr. Tuscano calmly took a sip of his coffee.
I tilted my head and looked straight into my uncle’s eyes.
“One of the reasons I succumbed to a panic attack was a realization that the only reason I was conceived is that my real father raped my mama. Like, the Bible says, there is a time for every purpose under Heaven. The only reason why I am here is that my alcoholic, murderer, father raped my mama in a dark alley.”
“She never did anything to deserve being raped,” Dylan smacked his coffee mug down on the table beside the hatbox.
“So, I didn’t deserve to be born,” I shot back. “I’m torn here, and I don’t understand it.” I felt tears filling my eyes. “The only reason why I’m alive today on this earth is that my real father got drunk, attacked mama, and raped her in an alley. A disgusting, Brooklyn Alley, and I don’t understand why God would do that to her, me, or the family!”
Dylan reached around Mr. Tuscano, his face turning redder by the second.
“I didn’t say you didn’t deserve to be born,” he spat, his voice quivering, “I said, I don’t understand why God allowed our mama to be raped. I’d feel more at peace if you were conceived from an affair.”
“Affair,” I jumped to my feet, towering over my brother. I could sense the fear on my twin’s face. Or, should I refer to him as my unofficial twin?
“Silenzio!” Mr. Tuscano yelled in Italian, obviously having enough. His eyes traveled back and forth. “Sit down.”
Shooting a glare at both Dylan, and my uncle, I did as I was told.
“Do you not think she didn’t go through the entire childbearing months thinking the same thing,” my uncle said in a low voice. “We thought about it. We prayed about it. We had options. In the end, your mama wanted you, and she cared for you. Theodore Sr. told me they couldn’t afford another baby. I remember Molly telling him to shut-up, that if God allowed her to get with the child, then he would figure out a way for them to raise it.”
“Naturally, I came along. I agreed to support you until you and Dylan came of age. Every Saturday, I supplied Theodore and Molly with enough bread and milk from my candy store for an entire week. I also threw in the leftovers. With the tips I collected, I divided it in half and gave one portion to your family to pay for extra coal. My wife had no idea. She just knew I loved and cared for your family, and it filled her body with jealousy.”
I slumped back into the couch pillows in a daze. “She loved me from the beginning,” I whispered, finding my voice.
“Once the initial shock and fear of being raped passed, yes, she did,” Mr. Tuscano calmly answered.
Dylan scrunched up his face in disbelief. “How did papa feel about that?”
Mr. Tuscano chuckled and pulled him close. “What do you think? He honestly believed his anger could force his body to swim across the Atlantic, to Sicily to personally kill my brother.”
“Good for him,” Dylan laid his head on Mr. Tuscano’s shoulder and peered over at the photo album that had been sitting in the man’s lap.
“Molly O’Connor was an extremely religious woman, brought up in the Irish Catholic Church,” Mr. Tuscano continued, tracing his fingertips over the cracked leather book. “She’d been taught her entire life that women were only on earth to bear children, keep house, and to learn basic writing and math skills to be used to run a household. Unlike your adopted mother, Catrina Woodrow Muller, who believes all women should be educated at the finest colleges in the world.”
Mr. Tuscano paused and smiled. “God gave the four of you a gift of being raised by two polar opposite women. But, when Molly found herself with a child that wasn’t her husband’s, she knew her purpose was to raise it. Unlike your opinion, Dylan, she was thankful Millen was conceived from rape rather than from an affair.”
I squeezed my eyes shut, as teardrops seared in the corners. “She felt she did something to deserve it,” My voice cracked.
I felt my uncle’s arm reaching out, as he pulled me closer to him. “You know that’s how she was taught to believe. Trust me,” The man’s eyes washed over my face.
“She didn’t believe you were a burden,” he continued. “She loved you, and the night you were born, Theodore Sr. fell in love with you too. When my letter reached my brother in Sicily, he responded the night you were born was the best day of his life. Even though he wasn’t there to see it, he felt it in jail. He knew something remarkable happened back in America. You’re not an accident, Millen. You were put on this Earth for a purpose, and only you and God knows what that is. As for being conceived from a rape, that is a question you’re going to have to ask God someday.”
I slumped and buried my face in my uncle’s velvet robe, meditating on the confession. What was my purpose? I came from rape, and mama’s religion brainwashed her into believing she deserved it - such foolishness. My adopted mother’s eyes would grow large with anger at such a thought. If it wasn’t for her, Anna would have never become Theodore, and it wasn’t the money to afford the operations either. Mother accepted the change and never stopped loving Theodore. She cut his hair and bought men’s clothes. Father went out and bought him an expensive razor, even though his female body couldn’t produce testosterone. Father’s gift was a gesture of acceptance, that he loved his oldest son.
Their real mama would have abandoned Theodore and refused to talk to him again. Theodore Sr. would have personally marched his “new son” down to the mental asylum and told everyone their “daughter” died under mysterious circumstances. Theo would probably find a way to escape and make his way to Coney Island to join the circus. “If these people are going to stare at us in a freak show, then they should pay us!” He was fond of saying.
Mama also believed women should submit to their husbands, while Catrina stood up to men. There were times when their father’s eyes grew large at his wife’s outbursts, and he took it. Mama would never tell papa what to do. My uncle was correct in God giving us the chance to have been raised by two different women - he also gave us a grandfather.
Back in Brooklyn, we never knew our grandparents. Mama’s parents died when Theo was a baby, and she never spoke of them. Her two sisters married, moved off, and ceased to keep in touch. On papa’s side of the family, our grandparents in Scotland never wrote. They were upset Theodore abandoned the family at age fifteen and snuck aboard a merchant ship bound for America. When he settled in a crowded boarding home, he used his job at the livery as a forwarding address and mailed his parents a letter. They responded with “Be gone.” That was the last he heard from them.
God did give me and my brothers a loving grandfather. What became of Mr. Woodrow after we were adopted was nothing short of a miracle. As the days and weeks passed, the man began to change. At first, he showed up at our house for a short five-minute talk, and by the end of the month, I would be the first to warm up and forgive him.
I remember grandfather coming over after our private tutor left for the day. Mother poured hot chocolate, and absentmindedly wandered into the kitchen to help Mrs. Coffey prepare sandwiches. Despite the cheery parlor decor and warmth radiating from the fireplace, the room let off a chilly air.
Theo wouldn’t even look at the man. I remember him, then her, sitting on the edge of the couch, purposely gazing out the window, her fingers angrily twisting the hem of her tailor-made dress from a seamstress on Fifth Avenue. A garment she would have never imagined to wear before.
Francis swung his moccasin-clad feet, his eyes resting on the floor. Dylan sat beside me on the couch, twirling his bare finger in his chocolate. Even at ten-years-old, I knew the old man harbored remorse for his past actions. I felt the guilt radiating off him like waves on Coney Island Beach. At the time I didn’t know what it meant. All I knew was that the man looked - sad and lonely. Remorseful. Re - mouse - full.
To this very day, I don’t know why I did it. An unseen force seemed to control my body. I took a sip of hot chocolate, stood from the couch, and walked across the room to the reclusive grandfather sitting alone and miserable. The two of us locked eyes. The wrinkles and dark smudges gave away the restless nights he suffered. I swallowed the chocolate in my mouth, and boldly asked, “Can I sit next to you?”
I didn’t know who was more shocked - my brothers, or mother when she returned to the room with a plate of cucumber sandwiches. I laid my head on grandfather’s shoulder and watched mother fumble with the tray. From the moment I felt Mr. Woodrow’s arm snake around my waist, the man became a grandfather and we created an unbroken bond.
“He said I changed him,” I opened my eyes and saw my uncle and brother patiently waiting. “If it wasn’t for me, he would have died a bitter old, snob of a man. I saved him from an eternity in hell.”
“Who, baby,” my uncle reached out to brush back my bangs.
“Our grandfather,” I whispered. “He said I changed him. He felt deeply ashamed of his past actions of being a closeted snob. No one in the family knew he treated people with such disrespect, and he looked down upon the poor people of Sherwood. If our mother hadn’t caught him yelling at us, then he would have never changed. Perhaps, that’s my purpose?”
I paused to take a sip of coffee, savoring the rich hazelnut flavor. I swallowed and patted my mouth with a linen cloth. “As Grandfather grew-up during the Civil War, his mysterious brother, Jasper Woodrow had a personal servant so grandfather adopted us for that purpose. Uncle Jasper and Uncle Clinton were so terribly embarrassed when they received our father’s urgent telegram they wanted to cut off all contact with their father. The two of them immediately purchased a train ride home, and upon confronting their father at his law office, they demanded their sister adopt us, or they would never talk to him again.”
“Ah, I see.” Mr. Tuscano opened the album and motioned for Dylan and me to come closer.
“I’ve had the pleasure of trading many letters with your grandfather,” he began. “He loves the four of you so much, as do I. He told me once that placing the ad was the best and worst thing he ever did. With Christmas time approaching he knew his two sons needed help when they moved off to college. At the time, your grandfather was just acting like he was raised. He read in the newspaper that the Boys Orphanage in New York was bursting with orphans needing homes. He honestly believed nothing wrong with adopting four brothers to be servants for his sons. After sending a telegram to Mr. Schweighoffer, he heard back almost instantly and that was that.”
Dylan started to protest, but Mr. Tuscano softly placed his hand over his and continued.
“The night Catrina took you away, back to her and Frank’s house, Mr. Woodrow told me he returned to his home in great shame. His daughter and son-in-law witnessed something he kept hidden from his children--his snobbery. Something he prayed they’d never see. He poured himself a glass of bourbon and sat before the fireplace. He knew he’d become a modern-day Mr. Scrooge. The life he led around his children and close business friends was a lie. He also remembered the way his daughter looked at him, a mixture of disbelief and horror when she walked off in the snow holding you in her arms. Do you remember Millen?”
I tried to remember the screeching sound of the train coming to an abrupt stop in Sherwood, the bitter cold slashing through the air. I stumbled off the train sick. Mr. Woodrow and mother yelled at one another, while my brothers and I stood nearby silently freezing to death. The orphanage didn’t supply us with coats or boots for the harsh weather.
“These boys are my property! I paid for them!”
I burst out crying at the cruel man’s harsh words. Theodore tried to hide it by explaining how sick I’d become on the train. The next thing I knew, Catrina took me in her arms, wrapped me in her fur shawl, gathered everyone, and we walked back to her house while the snow continued to fall.
“Well, Millen, do you remember?”
Looking at my uncle, I let out a long sigh. “I do.”
“You know,” Mr. Tuscano turned to the first page in the album. “God never stops working in a person’s life. Your grandfather considered himself to be a bitter old man when he adopted the four of you. It took the right person to set him straight and that person happened to be you.”
Intrigued, I stared up at my uncle, “How so?”
“You changed him for the better,” he continued. “God uses people to help others. He knew you were the right person to change an old scrooge into the kind, loving man he is today. Perhaps, that is your life’s purpose. You know you’ve changed your real father?”
“My real father,” I gasped. “I’ve never met or wrote to him! Until a few hours ago, I believed you were my real father.”
Mr. Tuscano pointed to the first photo in the album, “Roberto Tuscano before he turned to alcohol.”
Dylan gave out a little gasp of shock at the well-preserved, cabinet card photograph. The young man lounged back on a velvet chair, wearing an old-fashioned suit, tie, and a small cap. A fluffy cat rested at his feet. The way the man’s hair swept to the side, the slight, teasing smile on his baby face, and the way he held his gloved hands elegantly in his lap, one over the other, the man looked like an older version of me.
“My father,” My fingers reached out to trace the photo. “That’s my twin!”
Dylan let out a small growl of protest.
“Oh, honey,” Mr. Tuscano patted him on top of the forehead. “In my opinion, you will always be your brother’s twin. “
“When was this photo taken?” I asked, ignoring Dylan’s displeasure.
“Shortly before our sister died,” my uncle replied. “Your father is about eighteen.”
“I’m sorry,” Dylan angrily crossed his arms and fell back onto the couch. “The only thing I see is a rapist and a murderer.”
“Sweetheart,” Mr. Tuscano sighed. “Please let me explain.”
With a long, deep, sigh of frustration, Dylan rolled his eyes and smirked.
“I thank your brother for giving me my twin, but I can’t ever forgive him for how he was conceived, even if mama forgave him.”
I stared at the man in the photo, my body shivering at the similarities. But, what was this? My father held his head in an almost haughty way, as his gaze seemed to travel downward. I’d seen that look before, and it wasn’t my uncle. Perhaps, it was what Francis called an inherited trait? The general population all descended from the Twelve Tribes - therefore we’re all related in some way.
A few weeks ago, Francis came home with a medical book and excitedly shared it with everyone. The book explained how everyone in the world has an unofficial, unrelated twin. Somewhere in the world a man or woman existed who looked, talked, and acted exactly like Francis, or anyone in the family. I found it unusual, and perhaps a little unbelievable. Staring at the photo of my eighteen-year-old father, I took careful note of the semi-arrogant way he held his head, I knew Francis’ medical book to be correct. I’d seen that exact pose on someone, but for the life of me, I couldn’t remember whom.
“Over the centuries, the Tuscano Family accumulated a large amount of money and a royal title in Sicily,” Mr. Tuscano said, answering my thoughts. “I understand your concerns, Dylan, but let me explain how my brother changed in prison. It is your choice to never forgive him. I won’t hold it against you.”
“Hmm,” Dylan responded, prompting me to chuckle.
“Let’s see,” Mr. Tuscano turned the page in the album to a group photo. “This is our family shortly before leaving Sicily. Salvador and Eva Tuscano with their three children: Joseph, Roberto, and Felicia.”
Following my uncle’s finger, I took notice of a typical, upper class, Sicilian family. The father and mother, whom I guessed to be my grandparents, sat side-by-side on an elegant couch. Two young boys stood on each side, while a small girl wearing a white dress trimmed with lace and ribbons perched on the mother’s lap.
“Is this you,” I pointed to the boy dressed in a tailored sailor suit standing beside the mother.
A small smile appeared on my uncle’s face.
“Yes. I was twelve, your father ten, and our sister five.” He said.
“The five of you look quite educated,” I replied, my eyes taking in the remarkable photograph.
My attention was diverted, as I watched my uncle throw back his head and laugh.
“We were, believe it, or not,” he explained. “Our family owned businesses in Sicily - my mother’s side of the family were the candy makers. Naturally, I followed that path. Shortly after my sister died, my brother started staying late nights at the caverns, drinking heavily. My grandfather, Victor Tuscano, traveled from Sicily to teach me and my brother the trade. From an early age, we took a fondness for baking - something our father took a while to accept. He wished for us to become tailors like him.”
Mr. Tuscano turned the thick black page to a photograph of an elderly couple.
“These are my mother’s parents, Alberto and Maria Merz,” he pointed to an elderly couple.
“Unfortunately, my mother’s real father is an unknown American. They were going to marry and return to the States, but he simply vanished the day of the wedding. We believe him to be a Civil War deserter and traveled to Europe, making his way to Sicily. After he disappeared, my grandmother discovered she would be having his child, my mother, Eva. To save the family from further embarrassment, they called in a priest who found a young man from a well-to-do family willing to marry her, Alberto Merz.”
I scrunched my face at the tall, older, distinguished man in the photo, taking in the linen suit, leather boots, wool coat, and suede hat. He stood behind a chair that his wife sat in, one hand clasped over the top of the chair, the other on her shoulder, his head tilted, but not in a snobbish way.
“I’m going to make a cute, old man someday,” I decided after studying photos of my father, grandfather, and great grandmother.
Dylan let out another sigh of annoyance.
“You look like our mama too.”
“Yes, I do,” I responded.
Having enough, my uncle gently closed the album and laid it on the table. He picked up the hatbox and gestured toward everything.
“Millen, this is your birthday present,” he said. “I want you to have the photo albums, letters, and documents. In the documents, you will find hundreds of years of our Sicilian family tree carefully preserved. I don’t have children, so you’re the only one left. I have copies of all the photos, but I want you to have the originals.”
A gasp escaped my throat.
“We have a family history,” I squealed. “I mean, mama’s side of the family knew nothing of the family. The man whom I always assumed to be my real papa, refused to talk about his parents in Scotland.”
Dylan snorted and was ignored.
“You come from a closely-knit, Sicilian family,” my uncle continued. “The Tuscano branch has lived on the island since the days of Ancient Rome. As far as I know, not counting my American grandfather, my family is the first of our line to leave the country. When we arrive on the land this summer, you will feel like you’ve been here before, yet…”
“I haven’t,” I continued.
“Did you feel that way when we reached Ireland last summer,” Dylan demanded, his eyes narrowing down into slits. “That is our mama’s birthplace.”
I took a deep, calming breath, and accepted the hatbox my uncle handed me.
“I did,” I responded, looking my brother in the eye. “I am thankful to have come of age in such a beautiful country, that my other ancestors lived in.”
Dylan raised an eyebrow, challenging me. “How so,” he demanded.
I wished to hit him. I knew once this endless growth spurt I was currently on finally ended, I could probably take all three of my brothers. Well, maybe not Theodore.
I loved the music,” I responded, looking at both Dylan and my uncle. “I loved it when we would sit in the backyard after dinner, watching the sunset over the ocean. Far up in the hills, the monks would be going to bed, and we could hear the bongs and faint sounds of the tambourine and flute. So, to answer your question, yes, I loved Ireland, and, I’m positive I will love Sicily. I’m honored to have both blood types flowing through my body.”
“Grazie,” my uncle smiled and reached into his robe pocket for his handkerchief. “You’re going to make me cry.”
“Oh,” Dylan plopped his head down on the man’s shoulder, obviously remembering the events earlier that day. “I’m so sorry about dinner tonight. I feel so terrible.”
“You poor thing,” Mr. Tuscano pulled him over in a hug. “I understand why the two of you believed me to be Millen’s father. And, honestly, at your age, I would have done the same.”
“We forgot the first lesson our father taught us when we first arrived in Sherwood,” I bowed my head to look at the contents of the hatbox. “He told us that a person will always remember how you treated them. Despite the fact they will grow-up, children remember it far more than adults.”
“That is true.” My uncle removed a bundle of letters from the hatbox. “Do you recall how your grandfather treated you when you first arrived in Sherwood?”
“Yes,” Dylan and I both answered.
Dylan snuggled closer to Mr. Tuscano. “Sometimes when we’re over at his house, I remember the harsh words he yelled at us on the train platform. I remember sitting in his lap when we were little, while he read us some childhood books that belonged to him and Jasper. I seem to recall his arm slightly flinching. He covered it up by drawing us closer to him. I believe he had a flashback of him yelling at us.”
I watched my uncle remove the string holding the stack of letters together, and fanned them out of the parlor table. “The four of you forgave him, correct?”
“Yes,” Dylan and I agreed.
“But, it still stings on occasion. Not just for you, but for him as well?” My uncle asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Seems to be,” Dylan responded.
I didn’t say anything. I knew what my uncle was doing. I kept silent while he continued talking.
“I understand, and can forgive the two of you if you can forgive me for keeping my brother’s secret.” Mr. Tuscano responded.
“Well, of course!” I stared back in disbelief. I noticed my brother’s face buried behind my uncle’s back.
“Good,” Mr. Tuscano said.
I watched him pick up an envelope that had the number 1 written on the flap. Upon closer inspection, I noticed all the envelopes were numbered.
“This is the first letter your father wrote to me upon arriving in Sicily,” he took a deep breath. “In it, you will read about his regrets upon doing what he did to your mama and how he killed a man. Unfortunately, my brother only spoke Sicilian at the time, so I transcribed the letter. Paper clipped to the original, you will find my edited copy. I want the two of you to take these letters back to your room tonight and read them. There are sixteen bundles of letters in the hatbox, sixteen year’s worth. You will read about your father falling in love with you, despite the fact he never met you. You will also read about his atonement over what he did, and hopefully you two will understand why I forgave him.”
“You want me to read them too?” Dylan peered over Mr. Tuscano’s shoulder, a curious look on his face. “I don’t know if I can forgive him.”
“I want Millen to read them to you,” the man responded. “Whether or not you forgive him, I want you to understand my brother. In the stack, you will find one unopened letter. A couple of days before your mama was sent away to the hospital she asked my permission to write to my brother. I gave it, and she did. Her letter is none of my business - I only supplied his prison address. After she’d passed away, his response arrived. I assume it’s in English. By then he’d taught himself. The letter is unopened, and I want you to read it. If you find it written in Sicilian, I’ll be happy to translate it.”
I took the letters and with my fingers trembling placed them back in numerical order. I felt my heart pounding in my chest and tasted the bitterness of bile at the tip of my throat. Mama wrote her rapist a letter! What was going through her head? At that moment I knew I had to meet my real father. If mama could write him a letter, then I could talk to him face to face.
“I honestly can’t wait to meet him,” I whispered, purposely avoiding looking at my brother.
“I know he can’t wait to meet you,” my uncle replied. “When I visit him every two years, he keeps on about how he can’t wait to meet you when you turn fifteen. Legally, you’re not an adult and have to do as your parents say. I want you to meet him, and I know Molly and Theodore Sr. wanted this for you as well. If you decide this will be your first and last meeting, then so be it. Next year you will legally be an adult in the State of Texas, and can do as you please.”
A little shiver raced through my body, as I placed the letters back in the hatbox and closed the lid.
“I want to know all about him.”
My uncle nodded and looked and removed his pocket watch. “Well, Happy Fifteenth Birthday, Millen!”
Dylan stood from the couch and stretched. “Do you want us to sing to you?” He laughed.
“Oh, not now,” I smiled and helped my uncle place the items back in the satchel. “It’s time for us to retire to our bedroom and let my uncle sleep.”
“Hold up one minute,” Mr. Tuscano gestured for us to sit back down. “I have told Millen his story and now I must do the same for Dylan.”
“My story,” Dylan’s nose wrinkled. “I don’t understand.”
I sunk beside my uncle, my face twisting in confusion.
My uncle let out a sigh of frustration. “Yes, baby. The only people who know your story are me, and Molly. Catrina, Frank, neither your siblings nor your grandfather know of any of this. I will inform them in the morning.”
Dylan’s eyes grew large and the green specks seemed to glow. I leaned closer to study my brother’s face. We kept the old Coney Island tintype photo in a frame on top of the piano. During my months of questioning my parentage, l spent hours with a magnifying glass studying papa’s features. His eyes were curved. Dylan’s weren’t. Papa seemed to have blonde eyelashes. Dylan’s were dark brown. Francis and Theo inherited papa’s blonde eyelashes and curved eyes. Dylan didn’t. I never noticed until this moment. How come my brother didn’t look like Theodore O’Connor Sr.?
“I think I need some more coffee,” Mr. Tuscano shook his head. “Are you two ready to learn another reason why Molly wanted you to be raised as twins?”
“I-I think so,” Dylan stammered.
“I’m scared,” I burrowed closer to my uncle and felt the man wrap his arm around me in comfort.
“As am I,” he said. “It is time. I am ready.”
Mr. Tuscano looked at Dylan.
“My dear,” he sighed. “Your story starts the day I found an abandoned baby in my candy store.”