Storybook brings slain child's imagination to life

The little girl's white, four-post bed is empty, her favorite doll Natalie atop it. Her pink plate and cup are set on the kitchen table; her vitamins await. The last CD she listened to is in her...

The little girl's white, four-post bed is empty, her favorite doll Natalie atop it. Her pink plate and cup are set on the kitchen table; her vitamins await. The last CD she listened to is in her little stereo, the last lesson she learned on the blackboard, the last month she was alive frozen on the unturned page of the calendar.

Since a relative's Thanksgiving Day 2009 shooting rampage at their home, Jim and Muriel Sitton have faced a horrific balancing act: moving on past the time-stopping grief of losing their 6-year-old daughter Makayla Joy, and helping to realize her unfulfilled dreams.

One of Makayla's hopes — to someday publish a book — has now come to life in "The Bear's Castle," a simple story of a little bear who wants to make all his wishes come true. It is accompanied by a recording of the girl's initial telling of the story.

"We are trying to bring something good out of the ashes that is our life at this point," Jim Sitton said.

A foundation bearing Makayla's name carries on her love of dance and music, and it receives all profits from sales of the book. An annual concert has been started in her honor. And her plans for a Christmas pageant are coming to fruition.

Her parents hope children who open the storybook will find some joy in one of her creations, a tiny fragment of the happiness she brought to her family. Yet they can't paper over the past, so it simply remains untouched in their home in a manicured development in this beachside town since the night a family tradition turned into a massacre.

"How do you cope with that?" asked the girl's father. "You don't heal, time doesn't heal. The hole is still there."

Thanksgiving always was the family's favorite holiday. Some 16 people gathered at their home Nov. 26, 2009, including a last-minute guest, Muriel Sitton's cousin Paul Merhige.

They enjoyed a traditional dinner and then gathered in a horseshoe around their brown Baldwin piano to sing and dance, mostly church songs. As the night wore on, police say Merhige left the house, only to return with a gun.

Killed that night were Merhige's twin sisters, one of whom was pregnant; his aunt, who was Muriel Sitton's mother; and Makayla, who had been tucked into bed not long before. Others were hurt, including one relative who spent three months in a coma.

"I have been waiting 20 years to do this," Jim Sitton said he heard Merhige say during the shooting.

Merhige was on the run for more than a month after the shootings. He is jailed and has pleaded not guilty to murder and attempted murder charges and could face the death penalty if convicted.

When a children's book illustrator, Tyler Hollis, heard of the girl's killing and her proclivity for writing, she offered her help. Makayla had penned several stories while being homeschooled by her mother and had always wanted to publish a book. Within a few months, "The Bear's Castle" was born.

Makayla's mother recorded the girl's storytelling one day, the simple tale of a little bear who wanted to make all his wishes come true. He meets a unicorn, and the two live together happily ever after in a castle.

"It had a perfect beginning and an end," the girl's mom said.

The project was a labor of love for Hollis, too, whose own adult daughter died four years ago. The hardest part, she said, was hearing Makayla's words.

"Listening to that little voice telling the story," she said, trailing off as her voice cracked and her eyes welled. "She was so incredibly intelligent and bright and smart."

A glimpse of that comes through in a visit to the Sittons' home, where Makayla's writings remain just as she left them, her Bible judiciously filled with her markings and notes, her artwork hung in the living room.

Despite all this, the Sittons, both 49, said they remain thankful for the time they had with their daughter and that they each spent a special moment with her before she went to sleep that Thanksgiving night.

Her father prayed with her and kissed her and told her he loved her. Her mother told her how proud she was, how much she loved her, and blew kisses. She was tucked away in her room, which she said was "where only good things happen."

Jim Sitton eventually returned to work as a television news cameraman. Muriel Sitton, a former television producer who had devoted her recent years to her only child, remains at home each day, tormented by emptiness.

"This house used to be full of little girl giggles, the energy of a little girl, and now it's just an empty house," Jim Sitton said. "Can you hear that? Just deadly silent."

The girl's mother said softly: "The silence is horrible."

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