I read the letter over again in the privacy of my bedroom.
I’d done it. The months of work had paid off --- I had earned my Graduate Equivalency Degree.
Me. Sara. An Amish runaway who came to the big city with an eighth-grade education. I allowed myself to feel a little pride.
A little would not hurt.
My life hadn’t merely changed in the last six months --- it had turned a somersault. I left my life as an obedient farmer’s daughter in the center of the Willamette Valley to be something else. I wasn’t the first person in my family to do so though. Levi, my oldest brother, left first. He got his GED, attended many years of college, and now worked in a large glass building in Portland.
Maybe Levi inspired me. Or maybe I would have left on my own anyway. But the arrival of Jayne Tate on our family’s doorstep changed things. She was fancy and brave, everything I wanted to be. When Jayne left, so did I.
I don’t know why people say run away, because I don’t think a lot of running is usually involved. I suppose a lot of people take the bus. I hid in the trunk of Jayne’s car. She’s still not very happy about that. Says it wasn’t safe.
It probably wasn’t. Maybe that’s why I’ve been extra safe ever since.
I’m not the person I thought I would be after I left. I look in the mirror in Jayne’s bathroom (so funny that it’s called a bathroom, because Jayne’s apartment doesn’t even have a tub), and I feel as though the person in the mirror is the same person who hid her fashion magazines underneath the floorboards in her old bedroom.
I know in my head I’m not the same person. I don’t even much know what I looked like before because I didn’t grow up with many mirrors. But the image in my head and the image in the mirror seem the same.
The same, even though I have earned my GED and live in the city with my brother’s fiancée.
I must stop. I must change.
I want to apply for college. I want to find clothes that I like, not just more modern versions of the things I wore all my life. I want to learn to drive. I want to find a job so Levi can stop leaving money in my purse when he thinks I’m not looking.
College. The idea makes me sit up straighter. I, an unbaptized Amish girl, could go to college.
“Of course you passed,” Jayne’s friend Gemma said when I called a few moments later.
“Listen, do you guys have plans for dinner? Come on down to the restaurant tonight. We’re trying a new special.”
Gemma’s parents tried new specials a lot at their restaurant. I think Gemma saw them as excuses to get everyone together and make sure we all ate properly. When she mentioned a new special, we felt a bit less like her culinary charity cases.
I told her I’d ask Jayne, promised I’d call shortly, and said goodbye.
“Gemma wants to feed us again,” I said, entering the living room.
Jayne and Levi stood in the kitchen surrounded by mixing bowls, measuring cups, miscellaneous other utensils, and a generous dusting of flour. “What are you doing?” I asked.
They exchanged glances.
“We’re making you a pie,” Jayne said, pushing her short dark hair behind one ear and leaving a streak of flour in the process.
“Oh.” I brightened, and then lifted the phone in my hand. “Gemma wants to feed us?”
Levi dusted off his hands. “Another special?”
“Is that yes?”
“Only if you can eat Italian food and pie.”
I shrugged. “I’ll find a way.”
Two of Jayne’s other friends met us at the restaurant --- Kim, who also worked at the Oregonian with Jayne and Gemma, and Joely, a police officer. Joely tugged at my hair.
“How’s life, Ethel?”
Ethel was her pet name for me. She thinks I’m an old soul.
I gave her a hug, mainly because Joely isn’t a huggy person. “I passed my GED.”
“I heard. Planning for college now?”
“College.” I exhaled, mentally steadying myself. “Yes. But I would also like to find a job.”
“Really?” Kim asked as she slid into the restaurant booth. “I may be able to help you with that.”
Before I could answer, Gemma’s father arrived at the table with a steaming platter of appetizers. The conversation broke off as everyone dove in.
“You guys are really quiet eaters,” Gemma said, a slice of crostini in her hand.
“We’re chewing,” Levi answered. “With our mouths closed. Doesn’t lend itself to easy conversation.”
“Italians don’t let a little chewing slow them down,” Gemma retorted. “You need to speed it up a bit. Talk, chew, swallow, and repeat.”
“And repeat.” Jayne took a sip of her water. “Repeat, repeat, repeat.”
“I never said my family wasn’t dinner and a show.” Gemma lifted her water glass. “A toast for Sara, to her courage and success.”
Everyone else raised their glasses and clinked them around.
It was kind of Gemma to say so, but I didn’t feel that courageous. Or successful. Finishing my GED was like crossing a creek when I had an ocean ahead. Just thinking about it made me dizzy.
College wasn’t the only factor I had to consider. I needed some sort of employment, a driver’s license, and, to be honest, friends of my own.
Not that I didn’t love Jayne’s friends. They were more than kind, letting me tag along all of the time, taking an interest in me. I felt like Jayne’s kid sister though, trying to join in on a world I didn’t understand.
“What are your plans?” Kim asked.
“I need to start on my school applications,” I began. “I want to see more of Portland than Powell’s and Elephants Deli.”
“Not a bad combo though.” She pointed at me with her fork. “My mom’s cousin owns a bookstore. It’s pretty close to the Art Institute campus. He’s always looking for good help --- I’d be happy to introduce you.”
I sat up straighter. “A bookstore? Really?”
“She’s been reading like crazy ever since I found her in the trunk of my car,” Jayne said.
Levi elbowed her.
“Well, it’s true!” Jayne protested. “I found her in the trunk of my car, and she started reading everything I own.”
“That’s a lot of books,” Kim said as she took a sip of water. “Anyway, I’d be happy to introduce you. We can go over tomorrow if you’re available. We’ll just leave out the part about you and the trunk when we talk to Rich.”
A little bell jangled over the door as we entered. The moment I stepped inside, all I could see was books.
Sure, I expected to see a lot of books in a bookstore. If not, I’d be worried. But there were so many books in this space that I felt like all of Powell’s Books were crammed into a hall closet. The shelves went from floor to ceiling. A ladder on a rail invited customers to climb to higher shelves and maybe swing to the other end, like Belle in Beauty and the Beast.
The more I thought about it, the more I thought Belle would like this shop. Granted, I didn’t know Belle very well --- I’d only watched the film with Jayne and Levi a few weeks ago.
So many stories…so much information. My fingers tingled to reach for one of the volumes. But I didn’t because two men stepped forward to greet us.
One was older, with gray at his temples and a wide smile. He wore a striped collared shirt, a burgundy wool sweater, corduroy pants, and tassel-topped loafers. He wiped his hands on his sweater before offering one to me. “Richard Cameron. Welcome to R.G. Cameron Books.”
I accepted his hand as Levi taught me and tried to shake it the way he’d shown me.
“Sara Burkholder.” I winced inwardly as I said my name. It sounded so Amish.
“Nice grip, there,” Richard said.
I released my hand immediately. Did I shake too hard? Was I making a bad impression? I stood and worried, barely paying attention as Kim hugged Richard and made small talk.
The other man, much younger, wasn’t paying attention to them either. Instead, he looked at me as if I had facial hair.
I probably didn’t look English enough. I wore Jayne’s blouse and cardigan, but I wore them with a skirt about the same length as the dresses I wore back home. My hair hung down my back in a long yellow braid.
Dressing like an English person turned out to be harder than I used to think it would be. After a few weeks in Portland, I apologized to Jayne for criticizing her wardrobe. How could I tell her how to dress when I got nervous wearing a skirt that showed my knees? No one had ever seen my knees before, and I wasn’t yet ready to reveal them to the world.
And now this English man looked at me as if I had come from the “Worst Dressed” pages of last month’s InStyle. He wasn’t so well put-together himself. His wavy hair flopped around his ears, and he hadn’t shaved for several days. The shirt he wore hadn’t been pressed, and his jeans were faded.
What was he doing wearing jeans at work anyway? This was a bookstore, not a woodshop.
As he scowled at me, I fought the urge to scowl back. Instead, I forced myself to stand up straighter and meet his gaze.
“This is my store manager, William,” Richard said.
William’s expression didn’t change as he shook her hand and then mine.
Richard smiled at me. I smiled back.
“Kim tells me you’re looking for a job.” Richard motioned us farther into the bookstore. “Do you have any retail experience?”
“I’ve made and sold my own quilts,” I said, knowing as I said it that it wasn’t enough.
“Quilting. That’s, ah, that’s neat.” Richard rubbed his hands together. “You like books? You know books?”
I think William rolled his eyes.
“I love reading. In the last six months, I’ve read Jane Austen’s complete works, some Anne Lamott, The Princess Bride, The Chronicles of Narnia, the Brontës, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Ruth Reichl…”
“In six months?”
“I like books.”
Richard crossed his arms. “If someone asked you for a recommendation for a romance, you’d suggest --- ”
“What about political satire?” William asked. “What would you suggest?”
I read the books, but I couldn’t remember what satire meant. “The Princess Bride,” I said. It was a book with romance, horror, sport, and comedy, so it was possible there was some political satire also.
Richard laughed. “Very interesting pick. Goldman’s handling of the royal family and the references to Vietnam.” He looked to Kim. “She’s a sharp one.” Back at me. “We’ve got a nice little store here. We cater to the literate crowd that prefers not to need a map to find things. There is a part-time position available. It’s yours if you want it.”
I hesitated for the tiniest moment. William the Crank wouldn’t be pleasant to work with. But maybe I wouldn’t see him much. And the job would pay, so I could start supporting myself.
Supporting myself and being surrounded by books couldn’t be that bad. “I want it,” I said with a grin.
No one but me noticed William’s frown deepen.
Richard didn’t waste time. While I was there, he photocopied my Social Security card and the student ID from Portland Community College that I’d acquired during my GED studies. Kim helped me figure out the W-2 form.
William glowered the whole time before leaving for a lunch break.
“I’ll start you off doing inventory,” Richard explained as I filled out the paperwork. “William and Zach will deal with customers and the register. You’ll meet Zach when you start work. I deal in both new and rare antique books. William assists me with the acquisitions of the collector’s volumes.”
“How many antique volumes do you keep stocked at a time?” Kim asked.
“Anywhere between fifty and a hundred. At the moment I have a first-edition Anna Karenina.”
“Seriously?” Kim’s eyes went wide. “Can I see it?”
“Sure. It’s in the workroom.” Richard gestured toward me. “We’ll be right back. Are you doing okay? IRS forms are a pain.”
I smiled. “I’m fine.”
The moment they stepped out, William stepped in. I had no idea he was still lurking around. I tried to ignore him, but then I remembered why I was here --- I had to stop hiding.
“Anything I can help you with?” I would not let him frighten me.
“For starters, don’t even think about touching the antique volumes. The oil on your fingers can damage them.”
“Okay. I won’t, not unless Richard asks me to.”
“He won’t. Richard’s rarely at the store. It’s just me and Zach.”
I struggled to keep my temper in check. I might not have attended high school, but I wasn’t stupid, and I didn’t like to be bullied. I squared my shoulders. “You need a haircut.”
“And it wouldn’t hurt you to shave.”
“Don’t talk to any of the customers.”
I looked back at him innocently. “Don’t wear orange. It’s not your color.”
Richard and Kim’s voices floated down the hallway and filled the room as they returned.
William crossed his arms. I wondered if, as a child, he’d made that face and it froze on him, just as his mother said it would.
“Finished?” Richard asked.
I signed my name one last time on the tax form. “Yes.”
“Excellent. Oh, and if you’d like your paycheck deposited into your account, I’ll need a blank check or a deposit slip.” Richard collected and glanced over my papers. “When would you like to start?”
“As soon as possible is fine with me.”
“Monday, then? We’re closed Sundays.”
Monday gave me only two days to ready myself. “Monday,” I agreed.
Richard shook my hand again and we said our goodbyes. William avoided my gaze. I gave him a sunny smile. “See you Monday morning!”
Excerpted from SIMPLY SARA: Plain and Simple, Book 2 © Copyright 2011 by Hillary Manton Lodge. Reprinted with permission by Harvest House Publishers. All rights reserved.