Young Catlin stood beneath The Olde Book Shoppe wooden sign, gazing at the beautiful old Fairy Tale book which lay open in the display window. The afternoon sunlight highlighted her curly red hair floating aimlessly about her beautiful Irish face. Her flawless white skin bespoke youth and innocence.
The illustration on the right-hand page was of a mother sitting in a beautiful garden with a little girl at her knee. Catlin’s heart ached for her mother and those happy times they had spent together. The sadness that was always with her seemed to disappear for a moment as she gazed at the lovely picture of mother and child.
She remembered how things changed after her father went away, she never saw him again. Her mother told her, 'Daddy had a job on a ship sailing around the world and he would be gone a very long time.' She knew that wasn’t true but said nothing.
She remembered hearing the yelling as she came home from school that last day. It stopped as soon as she entered the house. Her parents pretended nothing had happened. Catlin knew it was not true. The next day, she and her mother were alone. There was a sadness in the house which lingered in spite of her mother’s effort to be cheerful.
Catlin would wake in the middle of the night and hear her mother weeping quietly in her bedroom. She tried to comfort her but was pushed away. The second time it happened, she decided not to do it again. Months passed before the weeping stopped, but the sadness lingered.
They moved from the only home Catlin had known. It seemed like they moved every few months, to a new place, a new town. Her mother left her alone most evenings. A different man would call for her each evening. They were nice to her, but she only saw them once or twice. Her mother acted differently with these men, these strangers. Carlin did not like it. She was afraid. There was always plenty of food and a small TV which she never turned off. It was the only company she had in her loneliness.
One evening her mother did not return. It was daylight when she heard a knock on the door. She asked who it was. The nice lady said she was from Child Services and asked if she might speak with Catlin about her mother.
Catlin opened the door and let the lady in. The lady explained there had been an accident, her mother would not be coming back. Catlin asked if her mother was dead. The lady avoided answering her question but Catlin knew the answer and did not ask the question again. She wanted to cry for her mother but the tears did not come. Perhaps they would come when she was alone. The lady helped gather her belongings into an old beat-up suitcase and a shopping bag. Catlin made sure she had the photograph of her mother and her. It was the only thing she owned which meant anything to her.
The lady promised she would be well taken care of by another family. She was 9 years old, almost 10. She found herself alone with her sadness and strangers she did not know or love.
She moved from one foster home to another. The last one proved to be unpleasant. She was treated well, but the man and woman were always fighting. It reminded her of when her mother and father would fight. She decided to leave and go off on her own.
She overheard school friends talking about the abandoned railroad terminal down town. Homeless people lived there, including kids her age. One Saturday morning a few weeks later, when she was alone, Catlin packed everything she owned into the old beat-up suitcase and headed for the railroad yards. She never looked back, hoping the sadness would stay behind.
She found children her age in the abandoned terminal. They stayed together for protection. Catlin became part of this unusual, close net family. She was treated well and with respect, something she never experienced before. She stayed close to the leaders of the group, always willing to help, watching and learning the ways of the street.
Catlin was petite and attractive. She learned how to pick the pockets of just about anyone. At first, she thought it was a game they were teaching her. She soon realized it was not a game. Survival was the reason. She focused on well-dressed older men who could afford the loss of a gold pocket watch or money from an expensive leather wallet. She learned to smile and look helpless, and it worked. It worked so well she got a reputation, which helped little when the police realized her deftness.
The day came when she was caught and arrested. The respect she was accustomed to, vanished in a heartbeat. In its place came harsh words and humiliation along with the threat of going to jail. She was 15. She knew it would not be the adult jail, it would be the one for kids.
The man from whom she had taken the wallet decided not to press charges, she was released with a severe warning, she now had a criminal record. Next time she got caught she might not be so lucky.
She caught a summer head cold. A persistent cough lingered as a few of the girls in the family showed Catlin how to make money, which was always in short supply. All she would have to do is stand on a street corner, men would stop their cars and ask her for a date. She remembered her mother would go out on dates almost every night. The prospect of doing the same thing depressed her. Living with her street family was an adventure, in the beginning. Prospects for the future, however, seemed daunting to Catlin. She did not like what was happening to her life.
As she stood in front of The Olde Book Shoppe, gazing at the beautiful illustration of the mother and little girl, her eyes welled with tears as the loneliness she had denied for so long became evident again, the sadness returned. She wiped her eyes and walked away from The Olde Book Shoppe and the beautiful picture. She had to go to work.
Several days later, Catlin walked toward The Olde Book Shoppe again. The book was still in the window and was open to the same page with the illustration of the mother and little girl sitting in that beautiful garden. She stood at the window for the longest time. The thought of going into the shop and stealing the book crossed her mind. She had become adept at stealing. She would not sell this book, she would keep it forever, hidden among her meager belongings. She would look at the beautiful illustration of mother and child whenever she pleased.
She decided she would steal the book, but not today. She would dress in the best clothing she had and come back another time. She coughed again, her handkerchief now had red stains. She could not understand why this cold lingered so long.
Catlin entered the Olde Book Shoppe the next day. The little bell above the door jingled as she closed the door. She found the smell of old books and dust comforting. There was a homey feeling here, something she had not felt for a long time.
A moment later she heard someone shuffling across the floor in the back room. The divider curtain parted and a little old man emerged. “Good afternoon, young lady. What can I do for you?”
Catlin noticed his beautiful crystal blue eyes smiling at her over the gold rimmed glasses perched on the end of his nose. His disheveled short white hair framed a peaceful and carefree looking face. He wore a canvas apron over a wrinkled shirt, the sleeves were rolled up to his elbows.
Catlin was not prepared for the gentleness of his voice. People in stores she entered spoke harshly to her and wanted to know what she wanted. Here it was different. She was charmed by the interior of the shop, and this radiant old shop keeper. She felt welcomed.
“The book in the window, sir. Is there any chance I can take a closer look at it?” She had learned how to talk to men to get what she wanted. She smiled seductively.
“Yes, of course.” The elderly man took the book from the display window and laid it gently on the table in front of Catlin. “And here are a pair of cotton gloves which I would like you to use. It will keep the natural oils of your skin from clinging to the parchment pages. Now you take your time and call me when you're finished. My name is Morris.” He turned away and walked toward the partition curtain.
“Thank you, Morris.” Catlin watched as the man disappeared into the back room.
The book was still open to the beautiful illustration she had admired. It seemed to glow with a three-dimensional quality. She forgot about stealing the book for the moment. As she gazed at the beauty of the illustration, she thought she saw motion in the garden surrounding the mother and child. Yes, there were tiny birds flitting from one flower to the next.
Catlin’s heart fluttered with the joy she was feeling at what was taking place. The little kitten on the mother’s lap flicked its tail and meowed. Catlin flinched at first. She wondered how a painting could make sounds like that.
Then, the little girl turned her head and looked at Catlin. “Hello there.” She waved to Catlin. “What’s your name?”
Catlin was taken aback at what she heard. Her heart leapt at the possibilities. What harm was there in answering the little girl, even if she was inside an old book. “I’m Catlin.”
“Oh, I’m happy to meet you, Catlin. My name is Lilly, and this is my Mum. Her name is Kay. You can call her Mum, everyone does, you know.” She tugged on her mother’s sleeve until she turned around and looked at Catlin.
“Oh, there you are. I was wondering who Lilly was speaking with. Would you like to join us? We’re about to have luncheon.” Catlin paused in amazement at what was happening. “It’s all right. We have more than enough. Won’t you please join us?”
“Yes, I would love to.” Catlin found it difficult to believe she was having this conversation with a book. “I’m not sure how I will be able to get to where you are.”
“Oh, that’s no problem. Look straight ahead. Do you see the beautiful oak door on the other end of the room?”
Catlin looked up. “Why yes, I do.” She was surprised because she could not remember seeing it when she entered the shop.
“Well, you can open the door and come right on in. We’re having peanut butter and jam sandwiches on whole wheat bread, with chocolate milk. Doesn’t that sound inviting?”
“Yes, it does.” Catlin anticipated tasting her favorite foods.
“We’re looking forward to having you join us.” Kay motioned toward the door. “You come along now.”
“Thank you, Kay. I’ll give the door a try.” Catlin moved away from the table and walked to the door. As she reached for the door handle, the door slowly opened by itself.
Catlin was dazzled as she stepped into the beautiful garden. She felt light headed. And the sadness was gone. She was afraid to believe this was real. She looked around the garden and then saw Kay and Lilly waving to her, beckoning her to come to them.
Catlin’s heart filled with joy as she walked through the garden toward her new friends.
Lilly ran to her and took her hand, guiding her to Kay who got up and embraced Catlin. “I’m so happy you are with us. Please, sit down. And you can call me Mum if you like — everyone does.
“Yes, I would like that,” Catlin whispered. Tears of joy welled in her eyes and overflowed onto her cheeks.
“Why Catlin, you’re crying. Tell me what’s troubling you.”
“Oh, no. I’m just so happy to be here. To be with you and Lilly.” As she wiped her eyes with her handkerchief, she noticed the red stains in the hankie were gone. She was glad and breathed a sigh of relief.
“Well, we’re happy you are here as well. Now, let’s dig into those lovely sandwiches.”
As she reached for a sandwich, the little tabby kitten jumped into her lap and licked her other hand.
“Oh look, Mum, Scruffy likes Catlin.” Lilly laughed.
“He does, indeed.” Kay smiled.
Tears welled in Catlin’s eyes again. She felt like she was home. She finished her first sandwich, drank some chocolate milk then asked a question — the answer to which she was frightened to hear. “Mum?”
She hesitated, “How long may I stay?”
Kay looked at Catlin in surprise, “Why, you may stay as long as you wish to stay. We love having you here with us. And Scruffy seems to agree. If you like, you may stay forever.”
Catlin’s heart seemed to burst with joy. Forever — what a wonderful word. She reached for another sandwich made with peanut butter and jam on whole wheat bread. What a treat. And it was strawberry jam, which she loved more than any other.
“Mum? Can we go horseback riding after lunch?” Lilly looked at her Mum with a hopeful smile.
“Yes, that sounds like an excellent idea. And Catlin can come with us. Would you like that, Catlin?”
“Oh, yes, I would like it very much. Thank you.”
It was 11:28 PM when the 911 call came in. “Police, Fire, Ambulance?” the dispatcher waited.
“Ambulance.” came the sullen voice of a shaken man. He gave his name and the location from where he was calling.
“I was walking home and noticed something unusual in the alley. I walked in and realized it was a body. I called out to it, there was no motion. Yes, I’ll stay here until you folks arrive.”
He pressed disconnect on his cell phone, placed it in his pocket, then pulled the collar of his coat closer around his neck. He kept looking at the lone bent figure lying against the charred wooden sign in the shadow of the burnt out building, hoping it would move. It did not. He cupped his hands together and blew into them to warm his chilled fingers.
The police vehicle arrived first, followed by the emergency vehicle, lights flashing red. Two medics ran into the alley with a stretcher while the two police officers talked to the waiting man. They spoke with him a moment, then walked into the alley. The man who had waited for them took a last look down the alley then walked away.
“Any pulse?” the woman looked at her medic companion.
“No, she’s gone.” They lifted the body and placed it on the stretcher.
“This rag clenched in her hand." She looked up at her partner.
"Is that blood?" His partner nodded. “We better have it analyzed. Hope it’s not TB.”
“She’s just a kid,” the woman turned the body over. “Can’t be more than 15 or 16.”
“What a way to end it, in a place like this. She must have been living in that burnt out building.”
It began to snow. “Come on, let’s get out of here. I’m freezing.” They picked the stretcher up, walked to the emergency vehicle and slid the stretcher into the back.
The medics assisted the police officer in filling out his report. “Did you find any identification?” the officer looked up from his report?
“No. Nothing but a pair of white cotton gloves and an old photo of a woman with a little girl. There’s a name on the back. Catlin Benson, age 4, South Forks, Colorado.”
“She sure is a long way from home. We’ll put it in the computer and see if we can locate her kin. How these homeless kids get this far away is a miracle. Well, wherever she is now, it has to be a lot better than this place.”
Both vehicles departed in silence, with red lights flashing.
The wind whistled down the snowy alley and through the old burnt out building. The little bell over the boarded up front door tinkled merrily in the breeze.