Pastor David Langley understands six-year old Caleb Holsheyer -- what it feels like to be damaged and alone. His family killed in a fire, and his body severely burned, David grew up in an orphanage, ridiculed and shunned. He couldn’t let that be Caleb’s fate.
When adoption plans fall through, David is desperate to find Caleb a new home. But in the midst of the Great Depression, most families are barely getting by. No one seems willing to take on the responsibility of an extra mouth, especially one belonging to a crippled child.
Except for Sadie Miller, the town spinster. In Sadie, David sees the answer to Caleb's needs. But Child Welfare doesn't agree, and demands other arrangements be found, or the boy be returned to the orphanage.
David and Sadie team up, determined to find a home for an orphaned child, but while searching, might they find a family instead.
From Orphaned Hearts
How do you destroy a child?
Take away all that he loves. Promise a new beginning. And just as he reaches to take hold, yank it from his grasp. That's what he was about to do.
After thirteen years as a minister, David should know how to comfort those in grief. But, for the life of him, he could think of no words to wrap around the news and ease its delivery.
I'm sorry, son. Your new family has changed their mind. You have no home after all.
One more loss for a child who'd lost everything; his mother, his father, his sister -- his arm.
David propped his elbows on the oak desk and buried his face in his hands. There had to be a better way. Something he could do!
He rubbed his weary eyes and looked to the clock on the far wall, its pendulum swinging within the glass cabinet. David watched, hoping that somehow its hypnotic effect would draw forth an answer.
Through blurred vision, he made out the time -- 3:58. Caleb's train would arrive at 6:30. In an hour he'd have to leave for the station in Winslow. Should he buy a return ticket and rent a hotel room so he could send the boy back to Van Buren on the early morning train? It would be cruel to bring Caleb into the town that was 'almost home' and then send him away. He should probably call Mr. Murphy so he could meet the boy and take him back to the orphanage in Fort Smith, where Caleb would most likely remain for the rest of his childhood.
"Lord, I can't... I just can't."
Exhausted by the overwhelming burden, David sighed and leaned back, scraping the desk chair's legs into the floor.
The squeals of happy children playing outside on a warm summer day drew his attention to the window. David rose and paced across his small office inside the church.
Across the field, the Carson children played on the schoolyard. Twin little girls, Christine and Caroline, dressed alike as usual, bobbed up and down on the seesaw, and their pigtails bounced along with them. Their older brother, Marcus -- maybe eight or nine now -- hung upside down from a tree branch, and Mrs. Carson sat on a park bench with her youngest son -- what was his name... Daniel, playing at her feet. The toddler's back was to David, and he scooted a toy David couldn't see along the ground. Mrs. Carson called out to Marcus to be careful.
A mother and her children, a beautiful sight. Soon she'd take them home and cook dinner. When their father arrived from work, the children would rush to greet him, hugging his legs as he entered the house. Then the family would sit down together to eat and talk about their day. David pictured the scene with clarity. A family as it should be. A family like Caleb used to have.
David wasn't sure which was worse; to be old enough to remember your family and have to endure the pain of losing them like Caleb had or to be spared that pain because you were too young when they died. Like himself. He may have escaped the pain of loss, but, throughout his childhood, he'd wondered how it felt to be loved.
Even so, he'd recovered.
Perhaps his own story could comfort the six-year-old boy? David tried to imagine Caleb's face as he heard the tale.
"You see, Caleb, I was orphaned when I was two. I had a mother and father and a sister, just like you -- so I was told. But they all died and I went to live at the children's home, the same one as you. Good people came into my life there. The person I best remember was a minister, Brother Rice. He visited every Sunday with his family. He's why I became a minister and why I come to the orphanage to see the children and try to find homes if I can."
"Did you ever find a home?" the boy would ask.
And then he'd have to answer. "No, son. I didn't."
David loosened his collar, feeling the edge of the hideous scarring that covered the right side of his body -- evidence of the only memory he carried from his life before the orphanage. A memory that only surfaced during his sleep -- flames searing his skin, smothering, and someone calling out, "I'm coming, David!"
He could hear the panic in the voice he believed had been his mother's. Sometimes, he tried to imagine how she might have sounded if she were singing a soothing lullaby or simply laughing. But just when he thought he could grasp hold, the memory vanished like vapor. His burn extended over his chest, shoulder and back, and up to the base of his neck, where it fit the collar pattern of the clothing he'd worn. Clothing that had served as fuel. It wasn't visible under his daily attire of a button up dress shirt, necktie and jacket, and he never spoke of it. No one in the congregation knew, but he'd been unable to hide it from the children he grew up with at the orphanage, and it was a constant source of torment. Monster... Frankenstein... Leper... even the caretakers seemed afraid.
Perhaps that explained why he felt so desperate that Caleb not be let down. He had to find him a family. A home. Someplace where he'd not be subjected to such cruelty every single day. If he didn't, who would?
He knew what it was like to be damaged, for people to look at you with pity before passing over in favor of a more appealing choice. He could remember like it was yesterday. Hopeful parents browsing through the orphanage on a shopping spree for a child, though it was more likely they were looking for free labor. But it was still a home.
Sometimes one of them would pause and ask, "What's your name?" But then the social worker would proclaim that he was not 'normal,' and pull up his shirt, showcasing his defect. Eyes would widen, heads would shake, followed by the smile of pity -- he detested pity -- then on they would move, in search of a 'normal' child.
With only one arm, Caleb's damage was far more apparent than David's. He didn't even get a, "What's your name?" That's what had made the Sheldons so special. They had wanted him anyway.
David turned to see Sadie Miller standing in the door.
"I'm sorry. Am I interrupting?" she said.
"Sadie, how can I help you?" David shoved his memories into the closet and straightened his suit jacket as he approached his desk.
She stepped into his office, a brown paper bag in hand. "I wanted to thank you. Your words about my father were so kind." She held up the bag. Moisture from its contents seeped through, spotting the bottom and sides. "I baked you something. It's not much. But, I wanted to show you my appreciation for such a lovely service."
"That's very thoughtful of you." He reached for the bag. "This wasn't necessary, though. Your father was a beloved member of the flock. My words were heartfelt. They don't require a thank you."
David opened the bag and inhaled the aroma of freshly baked oatmeal cookies. "However, I will graciously accept these." He smelled them again.
"I'm sorry about the presentation. I didn't want you to have to bother with returning a dish."
"Presentation isn't important when it comes to food." David rolled up the bag and set it on his desk. He looked at Sadie, who stood in front of him, hands clasped, worn-out smile. She tried to appear cheerful, that was her nature. She just wasn't doing very well today.
Her drawn-in features and the dark circles beneath her eyes, suggested that she likely wasn't eating or resting well in the wake of her father's death.
"I know it's hard, Sadie. Is there anything I can do to help?"
She sighed. "No, I don't suppose. I'm getting by. It's just... the quiet. It's hard to get used to."
"Don't get me wrong. Papa was never demanding, yelling for this or that. He mostly slept. He really wasn't any trouble at all." A tear rolled down her cheek.
"Of course not. You loved him very much. We all know that."
Sadie brushed the tear away with a gloved hand. Then she tucked her bun at the back of her head. "It's more the feeling of being alone. I guess that's what I mean by quiet. The house has always been Mamma's and Papa's house. Now, there's just me."
David nodded and sat on the edge of his desk. He motioned to the chair next to her, indicating his willingness to listen.
Sadie took the cue and sat. "It feels so empty," she continued. "I have all of this time and I just look around and see myself as a child, sitting on Papa's knee at Christmas, or baking cookies with Mamma. I suddenly miss her so much. It's been twelve years since her passing. I don't understand it."
"Grief manifests in all sorts of ways, most of which are hard to understand."
She wiped another tear, and then another.
David opened his jacket and pulled a white hanky from the inner pocket. "Here, it's clean, I promise."
Sadie took it and blew her nose. She looked up with red-rimmed eyes. "I'll wash it and return it."
"Keep it. I've got plenty."
Gazing at the window, Sadie sighed. "Look at those children. Not a care in the world."
David watched again as one of the twin girls -- he didn't know which -- joined Marcus in the tree, and Mrs. Carson pushed the other daughter in a swing while balancing Daniel on her hip.
"I find myself thinking that I've wasted my life," Sadie said. "I feel guilty for feeling that way because Papa needed me."
David opened his mouth to offer words of comfort. Caring for her father wasn't a waste in God's eyes. But something about the way she gazed at the children on the playground -- with longing -- made him pause.
Sadie had been labeled the town spinster for as long as he'd known her, five years, but he had no idea how old she actually was. He'd never thought to ask.
He studied her as she looked out the window. Her pale face and lined eyes spoke of fatigue more than years. Her hair and clothing were that of an older woman, but with all of her time and energy focused on caring for her father, it was understandable that such things took low priority. Could she be younger than him? It was possible. If so, there was still time.
Even he, at thirty-five, held some hope for a family -- though his situation created a difficult challenge to overcome. Not just any woman could deal with his true appearance.
But Sadie was 'normal.' David looked past her fatigue, with a smile gently tugging at his lips. Lovely blue eyes continued gazing out the window, and a faint sprinkle of freckles covered an adorable up-turned nose. Sadie might even be somewhat pretty.
David noticed a few wisps of hair had escaped her bun and curled into tight ringlets over her ear. Did she have curly hair? He'd very much like to see her wear it down. He'd always thought curly hair on a woman was quite beautiful. Wearing it loose might help to catch a man's attention. If she was hoping to marry.
"Sadie," he said, deciding to trust his instincts. "You could still have a family. If that's what you want."
"Oh," she dropped her head, laughing the saddest laugh he'd ever heard. "I had my chance. It wasn't meant to be."
David remembered several years earlier, before Sadie's father was completely homebound, he stopped in to have a talk. David first assumed it was about some pressing matter, but Sadie's father proceeded to tell him how Sadie's fiancé went missing during The Great War. And how Sadie, never being certain of his death, had clung to hope far longer than she should have. Then upon her mother's death, she devoted herself to caring for him.
Her father went on and on about Sadie's strength of character, dependability, and how she cooked just like her mother. David never understood his point. People usually talked to their preacher when facing a crisis, be it of conscience or circumstance -- though Sadie's father had never expressed either. David concluded his need to voice pride in his daughter indicated an underlying guilt over her devotion to him. Her father would have wanted her to find someone to share her life with.
"Don't give up on the possibility of finding someone, Sadie. Your father wouldn't want that."
She dabbed her eyes and smiled. She had a lovely smile.
"It's all right, Brother Langley. I accept God's will for me. Being alone is just going to take some getting used to." She stood and pulled at the fabric of her full calf-length skirt. "I actually thought I might offer to be of assistance to you -- in tending to the needs of the congregation."
"Well, I appreciate that very much. But I think you need time first. Allow others to tend to you for a change."
"I wouldn't know how to respond to that." She glanced out the window once more, another sigh escaping her lips. "I suppose I've taken enough of your time. Thank you for listening."
"Of course." David escorted her to the door of his office. "If you need anything, please don't hesitate to ask."
He closed the door and walked back to the window. Outside, Mrs. Carson leaned forward, shaking a finger in Marcus's face, while Christine or Caroline, which ever had been hanging from the tree with her brother, cried.
David watched Sadie as she passed the school, walking toward her house several blocks away. It was unfortunate that she was resigned to being alone. She would make someone a wonderful wife, and she'd be a good mother.