Teo is an orphan, about thirteen or fourteen, and a hero in Serafina’s short mystery, Death of a Sad Face. In this scene and for most of the story, he suffers from mental anxiety. Small wonder, Teo has seen horrible things. In this excerpt, he decides to run away. Death of a Sad Face is a mystery and therefore it is Serafina’s story. But it is also Teo’s story.
Late Wednesday evening, October 28, 1868
Teo undressed in a hurry because he knew the specter might appear any moment. He folded his breeches and put them on the chair, ready for the next day. Struggling into his nightshirt, he lifted the bedcovers with the book in his hand, the one he’d tried to read to Maria earlier. That had been a mistake, a big one, but he only wanted her to smile at him like she had that one time. Instead, she told him to get out of her parlor because he wasn’t allowed, and anyway, she had to practice, so he’d lowered his head and left the room.
No sooner had he jumped into the bed and begun reading when there was a whoosh and a puff of smoke, and the flame of his candle flickered. He smelled something bad, like a rot from the streets.
The wild creature was in the corner again, all greasy and scaly but vapory, too, so Teo had to squint hard to see him. He had three eyes, his beard was green, and flames shot out of his mouth and ears. Teo gave a shiver. He wondered if the bad thing would happen to him like it had to his parents, but just then, the creature cast a horny toad into his innards that nearly choked him, and for a while he couldn’t move.
“What are you doing, lad, just sitting around and reading, like as if you had all night and owned a candle factory besides? Books are no good for boys—girls, maybe—but not for the likes of you. Got to get yourself out of here. Best heed my words when the moon is full. Tonight’s your last chance. And don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“Can you make Falco come back? My parents, too?”
“Why would I want to do that? They ain’t never coming back. But that don’t mean you gotta sit here and take it while that smug princess with the piano gives of her babbling. You gonna take all her moods? Her friends, too? Such a tatty blighter you are! Why, when I was your age, if a body looked cross at me, he was a mess soon enough, and this one’s a girl, besides.”
The specter spat, and his spittle spread and smoked, and made a hole in the floor. “When I was a tike, much younger than you, I left home, I did. No schooling for me. Didn’t need no prompting, neither. Made myself a fortune soon enough. Built this house. Lived like a king. But you, what are you good for but taking handouts from a widow?”
“Donna Fina’s glad I’m here. She couldn’t have stood it if I’d gone away to live in the orphanage, that’s what she says, and she told me not to pay attention to Maria. All Maria wants is her piano. It’s not her fault, born that way, that’s what Donna Fina says.”
“Boy turns into a man by leaving. Better go now, or tonight when you’re sleeping all warm in your bed, something bad’ll happen, sure enough, like as happened on that day by the sea.”
“I’m not afraid of you.”
“Leave if you’ve got any sense, boy, before that runty brother of yours gets in my way and I stomp on his head.”
With that, the specter disappeared.
Teo slammed the pillow over his ears and tried not to think about his brother or about his parents. If his head were formed like the others at school, he wouldn’t have to leave, but there was nothing he could do about it, Falco had told him that. “When you’re older, if you’re lucky, your nose and lips will pop out more and the cleft in your chin will disappear. But take a look at your old man’s face, don’t you see it, you look just like him, no hope for you.” Falco had laughed and so had he, but those were the happy days.
In the happy days, his parents were alive, and he and Falco spent lots of time together and so what if the other kids didn’t like them. Falco had a silvery eye that wouldn’t stay put, so they stuck together, him and Falco, a flat face and a silvery eye. They laughed about it, the two of them sitting under the chestnut tree near the schoolyard, listening to the others whooping and playing.
But one day Falco didn’t come to school. The teacher said he’d gone, to where she didn’t know, just left with his family, no goodbyes.