Tucked in the corner of Brookhurst, Long Island’s modest but congenial part of town, a family of four sat around a enamel-topped table. The father round in the belly and nowhere else, next to his wife whose youth seemed to have only disappeared just yesterday, and two daughters. One was nearly grown and the other not quite. It was the little one whose smile should have been the largest, though it was not. They sang in unison to her as warm flames and the sent of burning candle wax filled her nose. “Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday, dear Teddi! Happy birthday to you!”
She filled her lungs and blew ten flames into nothing. Her sister, Fuzzy kissed her on the cheek. “You’re a grown up now, kiddo.”
Teddi scrunched up her nose, giggling. “I’m only ten!”
Fuzzy, who was seventeen and thought herself sophisticated, put her arm around Teddi and squeezed. “One day you’ll group and have to deal with the real world.”
Their father howled with laughter. “And what do you know about the real world, missy? Listening to vulgar music and smoking with your friends hardly qualifies you in worldly knowledge.”
Fuzzy’s cheeks turned red. “I think I know a little bit more than Teddi about being a grown-up.”
He laughed. “All you ever worry about is taming that hair of yours.”
“Leave her alone, Terrence.”
Fuzzy retreated to the living room sofa with her lip tucked in and her fingers clenched. Her sister and father did not get along very well, especially lately. Her mother was a gentle referee. It wasn’t an easy job for a woman who preferred to avoid conflict.
The room grew quiet. Teddi wanted to follow her sister but resisted. If she followed, her parents would too and that meant more fighting. So, she slumped into her chair and accepted the piece of cake her mother had just sliced for her.
Ten minutes stretched tediously along in thicker and thicker silence as Teddi and her parents slowly ate their custard cream cake. Teddi wished for a distraction. There were no presents left to open because she had received them earlier that evening – two new Nancy Drew detective novels, a brass handled brush and matching mirror, and a set of paper dolls. So, there was nothing to do but hope that Fuzzy would come back to break the tension.
When five more minutes had passed and the atmosphere had become unbearable, Aurora Donovan stood up pulled down a bowl and scooped some ice cream into it and said, “Let’s take this into Liza.” She only used her children’s given names when all humor had left her body. Neither Teddi nor her father would argue with the peace offering. Teddi did know one thing as she walked into the living room and saw her sister sitting on the sofa, arms folded in a huff. Her father was right. Fuzzy was not a grown up.
About fifteen minutes later, a car puttered into the driveway. “I hope it isn’t Uncle Richard.” Teddi frowned and put her paper dolls on the floor beside her. Her uncle was so grouchy and rude, but then she thought better of the notion. He had never shown up on her birthday before. Why would he start now? “Maybe it’s grandfather!” She ran over to the window only to spot an unfamiliar green coup. “That isn’t his car.”
Her mother got up from her place beside Liza on the sofa. “You will see your grandfather tomorrow as promised. Now up to your room.”
“But mama—” Then Teddi saw who it was. “That’s Frank! Fuzzy! It’s Frank. Since when does he have his own car?”
“Since his father bought him one,” said Fuzzy. “He is a rich doctor, you know?”
Teddi’s mother led her toward the small staircase. “Daddy, you’re not going to let her go, are you?”
Her father looked up from his automobile magazine. “Just be back before ten.”
Teddi’s eyes went wide. Her father said that they couldn’t ride around with boys at all unless they were engaged. And Frank Jessup was such a louse! Then again, he was Doc Jessup’s son, which meant something to this family for some reason.
Several weeks later, Teddi heard a scream peel through the night and drag her from sleep. “Mama! Liza?”
Fuzzy was not in her bed. Teddi looked at the clock. It was after two. She heard two quick blasts far off in the distance. Her heart thundered beneath her nightgown. The air was as thick as honey as she pushed her blankets away and flew into her parents’ bedroom. “Mama!” She gasped when she found the room empty. And, in that instance, she knew her parents were not home. It was difficult for her to recall how she had gotten downstairs or when she realized her grandmother was there. She did recall the phone ringing, and that suddenly they were at the hospital, waiting in that white room, with those awful white lights, forcing her eyes shut. People muttered around her. She didn’t hear anything until her grandmother forced her to look into her cool gray eyes. “Theodora, your mother is dead.”
Teddi remembered wanting her sister so badly at that moment, but they told her Fuzzy was gone and her father had been taken to jail for shooting someone. Her grandfather carried her to the car and took her home. Not to the beautiful little cottage at the edge of town where she’d grown up but to the Donovan’s Victorian manor on Brook Hill Road. A few days later, Terrence Donovan died in prison. Her grandfather told her it was of a broken heart. Teddi knew her grandfather would never lie to her to hurt her, but she wasn’t so sure about that. It was hard to believe he loved any of them. He’d been so cruel to Fuzzy the last few weeks before he died. And, on more than one occasion, Teddi had seen him shove her mother during one of their nastier fights.
Still, Terrence had a bit of a soft side. He taught Teddi, not only how to ride a bicycle, but how to build one from scratch. He helped her with her math and protected her from her Uncle Richard’s nasty sneers when he came by to visit. Teddi couldn’t help but think her mean-spirited uncle had something to do with this nightmare even though he said he’d been in the city that night. She would never find out the truth because no one ever talked about it. No one in her family ever talked about anything.