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"This isn't easy to say, but I have to let you go, Joann. I'm sure you understand."
"You're firing me?" Joann Yoder faced her boss across the cluttered desk in his office. For once, she wasn't tempted to straighten up for him. And she didn't understand.
"Ja. I'm sorry."
Otis Miller didn't look the least bit sorry. Certainly not as sorry as she was to be losing a job she really needed. A job she loved. Why was this happening? Why now, when she was so close to realizing her dream?
She'd only been at Miller Press for five months, but working as an assistant editor and office manager at the Amish-owned publishing house was everything she'd ever wanted. How could it end so quickly? If she knew what she had done wrong, she could fix it. "At least tell me why."
He sighed heavily, as if disappointed she hadn't accepted her dismissal without question. "You knew when you came over from the bookstore that this might not be a permanent position."
Joann had moved from a part-time job at the bookstore next door to help at the printing shop after Otis's elder brother suffered a heart attack. When he passed away a few weeks later, Joann had assumed she would be able to keep his job. She loved gathering articles for their monthly magazine and weekly newspaper, as well as making sure the office ran smoothly and customers received the best possible attention. She dropped her gaze to her hands clenched tightly in her lap and struggled to hang on to her dignity. Tears pricked the back of her eyelids, but she refused to cry. "You told me I was doing a good job."
"You have been. Better than I expected, but I'm giving Roman Weaver your position. I don't need to tell you why."
"Nee, you don't." Like everyone in the Amish community of Hope Springs, Ohio, she was aware of the trouble that had visited the Weaver family. She hated that her compassion struggled so mightily with her desire to support herself. This job was proof that her intelligence mattered. She might be the "bookworm" her brothers had often called her, but here she had a chance to put her learning to good use. Now it was all being taken away.
She couldn't let it go without a fight. She looked up and blurted, "Does he really need the job more than I do?"
Otis didn't like conflict. He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms across his broad chest. "Roman has large medical bills to pay."
"But the church held an auction to help raise money for him."
"He and his family are grateful for all the help they received, but they are still struggling."
She'd lost, and she knew it. Only a hint of the bitterness she felt slipped through in her words. "Plus, he's your nephew."
"That, too," Otis admitted without any sign of embarrassment. Family came only after God in their Amish way of life.
Roman Weaver had had it rough, there was no denying that. It was a blessing that he hadn't lost his arm after a pickup truck smashed into his buggy. Unfortunately, his damaged left arm was now paralyzed and useless. She'd seen him at the church meetings wearing a heavy sling and heard her brothers say the physical therapy he needed was expensive and draining his family's resources.
Her heart went out to him and his family, but why should she be the one to lose her job? There were others who worked for Miller Press.
She didn't bother to voice that thought. She already knew why she had been chosen. Because she was a woman.
Joann had no illusions about the maledominated society she lived in. Unmarried Amish women could hold a job, but they gave it up when they married to make a home for their husband and children. A married woman could work outside the home, but only if her husband agreed to it.
Amish marriage was a partnership where each man and woman knew and respected their roles within the Ordnung, the laws of their Amish church. Men were the head of the household. Joann didn't disagree with any of it. At least, not very much.
It was just that she had no desire to spend the rest of her life living with her brothers, moving from one house to another and being an unwanted burden to their families. She'd never had a come-calling boyfriend, although she'd accepted a ride home from the singings with a few fellas in her youth. She'd never received an offer of marriage. And at the advanced age of twenty-six, it wasn't likely she would.
Besides, there wasn't anyone in Hope Springs she would consider spending the rest of her life with. As the years had gone by, she'd begun to accept that she would always be a maiden aunt. Maybe she'd get a cat one day.
Otis folded his hands together on his desk. "I am sorry, Joann. Roman needs the job. He can't work in the sawmill with only one good arm. It's too dangerous."
"I must work, too. My brothers have many children. I don't wish to burden them by having them take care of me, as well."
"Come now, you're being unreasonable. Your brothers do not begrudge you room and board."
"They would never say it, but I think they do." She knew her three brothers had taken her in out of a strong sense of duty after their parents died and not because of brotherly love. Hadn't they decided her living arrangements among themselves without consulting her? She stayed with each brother for four months. At the end of that time, she moved to the next brother's home. By the end of the year, she was back where she had started. She always had a roof over her head, but she didn't have a home.
She wanted a home of her own, but that wasn't going to happen without a good-paying job.
"Joann, think of Roman. Where is your Christian compassion?"
"I left it at home in a jar."
Otis scowled at her flippancy. She blushed at her own audacity. Modesty and humility were the aspirations of every Amish woman, but sometimes things slipped out of her mouth before she had time to think.
Why couldn't someone else give Roman a job he could manage? She dreamed of having a home of her own, a small house at the edge of the woods where she could keep her books and compile her nature notes and observations unhindered by her nieces and nephews. Best of all, she'd be able to go fishing whenever she wanted without her family's sarcastic comments about wasting her time. The only way she could accomplish that was by earning her own money.
She was so close to realizing her dream. The very house she wanted was coming up for sale. The owners, her friends Sarah and Levi Beachy, were willing to sell to her and finance her if she could come up with the down payment by the end of September. If she couldn't raise the agreed-upon amount, they would have to sell to another Amish family. They needed the money to make improvements to their business before winter.
What only a week ago had seemed like a sure thing, a gift from God, was now slipping out of her grasp. Joann didn't want to beg, but she would. "Can't you do anything for me, Otis? You know I'm a hard worker."
"All I can offer you is a part-time position"
"I'll take it."
"One day a week on the cleaning staff."
"Oh." Her last bit of hope vanished. Her book learning wouldn't be needed while she swept the floors and emptied wastepaper baskets.
Otis leaned back in his chair. "Of course, your part-time position at the bookstore is yours if you want it."
A part-time salary would be far less than she needed. Still, it was better than nothing. She wasn't proud. She'd do a good job for him. In time, she might even get a chance at an editorial position again. Only God knew what the future held.
She nodded once. "I would be grateful for such work."
Otis rose to his feet. "Goot. You'll work afternoons Monday through Wednesday at the bookstore, and here on Saturdays. But there is something I need you to do for me before you switch jobs."
"What is that?"
"I need you to show Roman how we do things here. He's only worked in the sawmill and on the farm. The publishing business is foreign to him. I'm sure it won't take you more than two weeks to show him the ropes. He's a bright fellow. He'll catch on quickly. You can do that, can't you?"
He gets my job, but I have to show him how to do it? Where is the justice in that? She kept her face carefully blank.
Otis scowled again. "Well?"
"I'll be glad to show Roman all I've learned." It wasn't a complete lie, but it was close. She would do it, but she wouldn't be happy about it.
Otis nodded and came around the desk. "Fine. I hope my nephew can start on Monday morning. After you get him up to speed, you can return to the bookstore. That's all, you can go home now."
"Danki." She rose from her seat and headed for the door. Pulling it open, she saw the man who was taking her job sitting quietly in a chair across the room. Did he know or care that she was being cast aside for him? They had attended the same school, but he had been a year behind her.
After their school years, she saw him and his family at Sunday services, but their paths rarely crossed. He'd run with the fast crowd during their rumspringa, their running-around teenage years. She had chosen baptism at the age of nineteen while he hadn't joined the faith until two years ago. His circle of friends didn't include her or her family. She studied him covertly as she would one of her woodland creatures.
Roman Weaver was a good-looking fellow with a head of curly blond hair that bore the imprint of the hat he normally wore. His cheeks were lean, his chin chiseled and firm. He was clean-shaven, denoting his single status. His years of hard physical work showed in the muscular width of his shoulders crisscrossed by his suspenders. He wore a black sling on his left arm. It stood out in stark contrast to his short-sleeved white shirt. His straw hat rested on the chair arm beside him.
Compassion touched her heart when she noticed the fine lines that bracketed his mouth. Was he in pain?
He looked up as she came out of the office. His piercing blue eyes, rimmed with thick lashes, brightened. He smiled. An unfamiliar thrill fluttered in the pit of her stomach. No one had ever smiled at her with such warmth.
His dazzling gaze slid past her to settle on Otis, and Joann realized she'd been a fool to think Roman Weaver was smiling at her. She doubted he even saw her.
"Hello, Onkel," Roman said, rising from his chair.
"It's goot to see you, nephew." Otis stepped back to give him room to enter his office. Roman walked past her without a glance.
She kept her eyes downcast as an odd stab of disappointment hit her. Why should it matter that his smile hadn't been for her? She was used to being invisible. She'd long ago given up the hope that she'd become attractive and witty. She wasn't ugly, but she had no illusions about her plain looks. She was as God had made her.
She consoled herself with the knowledge that what the Lord had held back in looks He'd more than made up for in intelligence. She was smarter than her brothers and her few friends. It wasn't anything special that she had done. She was smart the way some people were tall, because that was the way God fashioned them.
For a long time, she thought of her intellect as a burden. Then, an elderly teacher told her she was smarter than anyone he'd ever met and that God must surely have something special in mind for her. That single statement had enabled Joann to see herself in a completely new light.
Being smart wasn't a bad thing, even if some others thought it was. When she landed this job, she knew being smart was indeed a blessing.
As Roman Weaver closed the door behind him, old feelings of being left out, of being overlooked and unvalued wormed their way into her heart. They left a painful bruise she couldn't dismiss.
Crossing to her desk, she lifted her green-and-white quilted bag from the back of her chair and settled the strap on her shoulder. Roman Weaver might look past her today, but come Monday morning, he was going to find he needed her. He wouldn't look through her then.
Roman forced a bright smile to his lips in order to hide his nervousness. The summons from his uncle had come out of the blue. He had no idea what his mother's brother wanted with him, but the look on her face when she relayed the message had Roman worried. What was going on? What was wrong?
The better question might have been: What was right? He had the answer to that one: not much in his life at the moment. The gnawing pain he endured from his injury was constant proof of that.
Otis indicated a chair. "Have a seat."
Roman did so, holding his injured arm against his chest, more from habit than a need to protect it. "I've often wondered what it is that you do here."
He glanced around the room filled with filing cabinets, books and stacks of papers. The smell of solvents and ink gave the air a harsh, sharp quality that stung his nostrils. Roman preferred the clean scent of fresh-cut wood.
His uncle was the owner of a small publishing business whose target audience was Old Order Plain People, Amish, Mennonites and Hutterites. A small bookstore next door housed a number of books he published as well as a small library. Although Roman occasionally read the magazine his uncle put out each month, he'd only visited the office and bookstore a few times. He wasn't a reader.
"How's the arm?" Otis asked.
"It's getting better." Much too slowly for Roman's liking.
"Are you in pain?"
"Some." He didn't elaborate. It was his burden to bear.
"I'm sure you're wondering why I've asked you here. Your parents came to see me last Sunday," Otis said, looking vaguely uncomfortable.
"Did they?" This was the first Roman had heard of it.
"Your father asked me for a business loan. Of course, I was happy to help. I know things have been difficult for all of you."
Roman's medical bills had already cost his family nearly all their savings. His inability to do his job in the sawmill was cutting their productivity, making his father and his brother work even harder. If his father had come to Otis for a loan, things must be dire.
"You have my gratitude and my thanks. We will repay you as soon as we can."
"I know. I'm not worried about that. Before they left, your mother spoke privately with me. My sister is very dear to me, but I will admit to being surprised when she asked if I would offer you a job here at my office."