Hidden Among the Stars

The year is 1938, and as Hitler’s troops sweep into Vienna, Austrian Max Dornbach promises to help his Jewish friends hide their most valuable possessions from the Nazis, smuggling them to his family’s summer estate near the picturesque village of Hallstatt. He enlists the help of Annika Knopf, his childhood friend and the caretaker’s daughter, who is eager to help the man she’s loved her entire life. But when Max also brings Luzia Weiss, a young Jewish woman, to hide at the castle, it complicates Annika’s feelings and puts their entire plan—even their very lives—in jeopardy. Especially when the Nazis come to scour the estate and find both Luzia and the treasure gone.

Eighty years later, Callie Randall is mostly content with her quiet life, running a bookstore with her sister and reaching out into the world through her blog. Then she finds a cryptic list in an old edition of Bambi that connects her to Annika’s story . . . and maybe to the long-buried story of a dear friend. As she digs into the past, Callie must risk venturing outside the safe world she’s built for a chance at answers, adventure, and maybe even new love.

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Chapter 1



MARCH 1938

The blade of a shovel, cutting through frosted grass. That’s what she remembered most from the spring of 1938. In the year that followed, on the darkest of nights, she could almost hear the whisper of digging again. The sound of Max Dornbach calling her name.

“Annika?” His confident voice bled into the fluid sounds of that evening, but her heart took on a rhythm of its own, twirling like the feathery seeds of dandelion caught in an Alpine storm.

How did Max know she was hidden behind the pines?

When she peeked between the branches, he was looking straight at her. Reluctantly, or at least attempting to appear reluctant, she stepped out from her haven, into the cast of blue moonlight, Vati’s winter coat buttoned over her calico chemise.

Temperatures had dipped to near freezing again, but Max wore a linen shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. Strength swelled under those sleeves, arms that had rowed a wooden fuhr boat around Lake Hallstatt nearly every summer of his seventeen years, carving his muscles like the fallen birch her father liked to shape into benches and chairs.

“What are you doing out here?” he asked, though she should have been the one questioning him. He’d awakened her when he snuck by the cottage she and her father shared in the woods.

At first she’d thought it was Vati who crept by her window, on his way to the tavern, but then, in the beam of light, she’d seen the threads of blond in Max’s brown hair, the shovel resting against his shoulder as if it were a rifle readied for battle. She liked to think he’d purposely rustled the branches because he’d missed her these winter months as much as she’d missed him.

“You woke me.” Annika took another step toward him. “I didn’t know you’d returned from Vienna.”

“My parents wanted a holiday.”

The Dornbachs visited at Christmastime, but rarely in the spring while Max was studying in Gymnasium. Unlike Annika’s father, his parents thought an education with books and such was important.

“I’ll tell Vati you’re home,” she said. “He can light the furnace.”

“It’s not necessary.” Max stomped the heel of his boot onto the shovel to remove another pile of earth. She imagined the rust-colored clumps yawning after their hibernation this winter, shivering in the frigid air. “My father already lit it.”

She hadn’t realized Herr Dornbach could do such things on his own, but then again, even after living fifteen years—her entire life—on this estate, Annika knew little about Max’s parents. Neither Herr nor Frau Dornbach bothered to befriend someone beneath their rank. Certainly not their caretaker’s girl.

Annika scanned this knobby plot of land, harbored between the pines. “Why are you digging at night?”

When he shook his head, refusing to trust her with this, her heart wrenched. She’d never told another soul any of his secrets. Not about the dent in Herr Dornbach’s motorboat four summers past or the gash in Max’s leg that she’d helped wrap or the evening he’d cried when he lost Pascal, the pet fox he’d rescued from the forest.

Pascal now rested peacefully in this piece of earth along with numerous rabbits, four cats, two squirrels, and a goldfinch, each grave marked by a pyramid of stones that Max collected from the cliffs on Hoher Sarstein, the mountain towering over his family’s estate.

When they were younger, Annika had helped Max conduct a service for each animal, solemnly crossing herself as they transferred the care for these animals over to Gott. Once a laugh slipped from her lips, as they’d been reciting the words from Job.

“But as for me I know that my Redeemer liveth, And at last he will stand upon the earth: And after my skin, even this body, is destroyed, Then without my flesh shall I see God. . . .”

They’d been burying a beetle named Charlie in the dirt, and the thought of this creature standing before a heavenly being, his six spindly legs trembling in awe, made Annika laugh. Looking back, it wasn’t funny—irreverent, even—but she was only eight and quite nervous at both the thought of death and the unknowns surrounding the afterlife. All she could see was a frightened Charlie, feeling as small as she would feel under the gaze of the almighty God.

Max hadn’t invited her to another funeral since that summer, seven years past. She thought he’d stopped burying his pets, but apparently he’d been burying them in the night, when no one would ridicule him.

She moved closer to the hole. A cloth seed bag rested near the shovel, partially hidden behind Max. “What are you burying?”

“Oh, Kätzchen,” he said, shaking his head. He’d called her kitten since she was in kindergarten. As if she were one of his pets.

Annika’s hands balled into fists, and she buried them deep in Vati’s pockets. “I am not a kitten.”

Max resumed his work. Blade against earth, determined to conquer the soil. When she lifted the bag, he swatted her away. “That’s not for you.”

“Did you lose another animal?” she asked, still holding the cloth rim. It was heavier than she’d expected.

He shook his head again, this time more slowly. “I fear we’re about to lose everything.”

This new tone frightened her. “I don’t understand.”

He scooped out two more mounds of dirt, and she dropped the bag into the hole. Then he pushed the dirt in and smoothed his shovel back and forth over the ground as if he were trying to iron out the wrinkles. “Come along,” he finally said, hiking toward the wall of pine trees that separated this plot from Schloss Schwansee, his family’s castle.

“What’s wrong, Max?”

“The parliament approved our annexation into Germany.”

“I know,” she replied, glad she was already privy to this bit of news. “Vati is pleased.”

“The German Reich is no longer willing to tolerate the suppression of ten million Germans across the border.”

That’s what Hitler had said on the wireless last month. Salvation was what he promised, the rescue of Austrians who’d been mistreated. Anschluss—as he called it—was prohibited by the Treaty of Versailles, but their new Führer didn’t seem to be daunted by treaties or the fact that the Austrian chancellor wasn’t interested in a union between his country and Germany.

Her father had celebrated the Anschluss at the beer hall. He’d fought as a foot soldier in the Great War, and this new union, he thought, not only would revitalize Austria, it was reparation for their empire’s bitter losses twenty years ago. This time, Vati said, no one would defeat a unified Germany.

Max stopped at the edge of the trees, light from the castle’s windows filtering out onto the lawn, erasing the blue haze of moon. “Your father’s pleased because he isn’t Jewish.”

Annika shrugged. “None of us are Jewish.” Except her friend Sarah, but Hitler would hardly concern himself with the Jewish Austrians who lived back in these Alps. Only summer tourists—and the occasional skier—visited their mountains and lake.

Max planted his hands on her shoulders, anchoring them so she couldn’t shrug again. She tried to focus on his eyes, but his touch electrified her, a jolt that ricocheted between her fingers, her toes.

“Adolf Hitler isn’t a savior. He’s the devil incarnate.” Max’s eyes flashed, the fierce edge in his voice frightening her. “And he won’t be satisfied with the devotion of our country, Kätzchen. He’ll want the hearts of our people, too.”

She’d heard the stories about Hitler and his thugs, about the years Hitler stirred up trouble in the streets of Austria, but still she protested. “Hitler’s home is in Berlin now.”

Max released her shoulders and stepped out from the mantle of pine. “It won’t stop him from trying to build his Reich here.”

Annika shivered as she followed him toward the cottage she shared with her father, though she tried to pretend that the trembling deep inside her, flaring across her skin, was from the cold. She’d never heard Max speak of politics before. Usually he talked about his animals or school or the music he loved in Vienna. She, his devoted audience, listened to his stories every summer and in the winter weeks when he came to ski.

To her right, the gray slate on the castle’s turrets glowed in the moonlight. Back in the seventeenth century, the owner of the local salt mine had built this place as a fortress between the mountains and the lake. The upkeep and expansions kept her father and now her employed year round, though one day she dreamed of being the mistress of this castle, sipping tea in the parlor instead of scrubbing its floors.

Max tucked his shovel into the large shed where Vati kept his tools and equipment. “You’d best go home. Before your father begins to worry.”

Annika dug her hands into the coat pockets. “I’m glad you’re here.”

“It’s only for a day.”

“Still, I’m glad.”

He lifted her right hand from the warmth of her pocket and pressed his lips against it. “Don’t let one of Hitler’s men steal your heart, Annika.”

He released her hand, but it stayed before her, suspended in the air.

Shouting erupted inside the main house, Herr Dornbach swearing. And then the voice of Frau Dornbach stole through the open library window, yelling back at him. Max moved quickly through a side door that led into the castle, and then he closed the window to silence the fight, at least to her ears.

Annika shuffled across the ice-glazed grass, to the lakeshore. Birch benches were scattered across the property, but this bench near the reeds was her favorite.

Sitting, she pulled her arms out of the large sleeves and wrapped them tightly over her chest. Tiny clouds rose with her breath, each one climbing in the air as if it wanted to scale the mountain ridge that curled around the lake, a glorious sea creature guarding its den.

Moonlight shimmered on the water, and several lights flickered on the other side of the lake in the village called Hallstatt. When they were children, she and Max had dreamed about one day swimming across this expanse of lake together, racing to see who would win. They’d never done it, of course. Vati wouldn’t have cared if she tried, but Frau Dornbach took great care in keeping her only son safe.

Why had Herr Dornbach been yelling tonight? The arguing between him and Frau Dornbach had escalated this past summer, their words escaping through the windows and finding Annika in the garden or hammering nails into a board as she helped Vati build a bench or fix a wall.

Herr Dornbach yelled at Vati last summer as well, though usually because Vati didn’t arrive early enough for work, too sluggish after a night in the beer hall.

Sometimes she wondered if her parents would have fought like the Dornbachs if her mother had lived. Or perhaps Vati wouldn’t drink if her mother were still alive. Sometimes her father still called out to Kathrin—her mother—in his dreams, his sorrow a storm that shook the cottage rafters and pine walls.

When her father woke, he often called Annika’s name, but only because he wanted her to bring black coffee to chase away the fog in his brain.

She closed her eyes, the cold settling over her face as her thoughts returned to the young man who’d been digging in the forest. If only Max could have seen her with her hair properly curled, dressed in the pale-pink summer frock she’d sewn for his return, instead of lumped up inside Vati’s ragged coat.

Her gaze wandered back over her shoulder to the light on the ground floor of the castle, to the library where Max enjoyed reading one of the many books that trimmed its shelves. Was he looking out at the lake like her? Or perhaps he was missing whatever he’d buried.

The thought of buried bones made her stomach roll, but these animals were important to Max, so they were important to her—just as important as keeping his secrets.

A breeze rustled through the branches, stirring up the depths of this lake before her and the longings in her heart. And her mind wandered back to Max’s hands on her shoulders, his lips pressed against her hand.

No one else could steal her heart because it had already been stolen. And nothing could ever change her love for Max Dornbach.

Nothing at all.


Chapter 2




People tuck the strangest things into the pages of their books. Dried flowers. Birth certificates. Twenty-dollar bills. One time I found a baby’s tooth crammed down the spine of Ginger Pye. I’m not entirely certain what type of person stores a tooth in a children’s book—perhaps a boy or girl saving it for the tooth fairy.

The owner of a book, I’ve discovered, can be as intriguing as the author. And owners often lose more than someone else’s story when they give away their books. Sometimes they give away a part of their story as well.

My story is the same as any other in that no one owns it except me. And it’s filled with threads of achievements and regrets, seemingly random bits of plot that meander across the pages of my everyday even as I sell other people’s stories, the sort neatly sandwiched between two covers with a spine that’s either stiff or slightly worn, smelling of musty leather and ancient ink.

Below my bedroom—a bedroom where, at this very moment, I’m supposed to be asleep—is the bookstore owned by my sister and me. Some nights, like this one, sleep is fleeting as my mind tumbles the unpolished pieces of my story over and over, trying to smooth out the edges.

When I realize there’ll be no respite from the tumbling, I decide to seek the company of friends and their secrets. A mug of chamomile tea in hand, I slip down the back steps of my loft apartment.

More than fifty years ago, Charlotte Trent opened Magic Balloon Bookshop on the ground floor of this colonial brick building, next to her husband’s ice cream and soda shop so kids could enjoy a treat along with a new or used book. The Trents were never able to birth children, so they welcomed an entire village into this store as their own, including my sister and me.

When I was younger, I’d spend hours here after school, reading books that took me to the faraway places I longed to see. Now, as a bona fide adult, I can go down and read whenever I like, including these late-night hours while everyone else in our small town is asleep.

While some might proclaim the death of the print book, every day dozens of kids still tuck themselves away with a book on beanbags or in the hidden spaces of the two-story castle that my sister’s carpenter husband, Ethan, built for us. The kids of Mount Vernon and the surrounding county now know me as Story Girl, a role I’ve embraced since my fifteenth birthday, when Charlotte gave me a pair of red-striped socks and a copy of L. M. Montgomery’s novel about a girl who entertains a group of children with the most fascinating tales, some true, some not.

Charlotte’s gift changed my life in more ways than one. In The Story Girl, the children find a picture of God portrayed as a fierce, cruel man and take this picture to a minister, crying as they ask if that is what God truly looks like—a face of hatred instead of love.

The minister’s reply is simple, but his words affected me in a profound way.

“God is infinitely more beautiful and loving and tender and kind than anything we can imagine of Him.”

In my own tears, a new picture of God began to form, a smile on His face instead of an angry scowl. Montgomery’s words, the truth ingrained in them, stitched themselves into my teenage mind. God wasn’t cruel like my own father had been. He loved me, Calisandra Anne Randall, a girl who craved beauty and kindness and, more than anything, a family who cared about me.

After reading The Story Girl, I realized that I wanted to spend the rest of my life working with books, helping change and expand the perspective of others through the power of a great story.

A few years later, Charlotte gave my sister, Brianna, and me another present. After she retired, Charlotte gifted us with the keys to her bookstore and then she moved out of the apartment over the shop, into a condo east of town. I still have my striped socks. And a decade after Charlotte handed over the keys, Brie and I still own this shop.

A cramped office in the back of the store hosts Charlotte’s antique desk—a giant walnut piece with carved braiding around the edges, fancy Queen Anne legs, and iron pulls on the eight drawers. The desktop is covered with papers, a computer cord, and paper clips, along with two pictures of my sister with Ethan and their four-year-old twins, Owen and Oscar. Two boys who I’m pretty sure worked together to hang the moon with their dad’s hammer and nails.

Books line shelves above the desk and spill over the edges of cardboard boxes on the carpeted floor, filling in all the spaces of this room. The bottom desk drawer holds the thick album that Brie and I have been compiling since we took over the store, the forgotten items left in the stacks of used books sold here.

With one swoop, I push aside the clutter on the desktop and open the album to see if Brie has added anything new to our collection. Stored inside the fifty or so vinyl sleeves are letters, theater tickets, and all sorts of pictures—formal ones dating back a hundred years alongside Polaroid prints and more contemporary pictures of birthday parties, beach trips, and one of a family visiting a medieval church somewhere in Europe. But there’s nothing new inside.

Brie is two years younger than me, and she’s the chief book collector and manager of our little shop. I’m part-time sales clerk, website manager, blogger, and Story Girl, though my name should probably be Story Lady since I’m fast approaching my thirtieth birthday. The income for all the above is miserly, but my apartment comes with the job, and I have a bicycle and two good legs to pedal wherever I need to go in this town. And if I want anything else—I lower the voice of my mind as if I might offend these walls—I can buy it online.

I’m the curious one of the Randall girls—Curious Callie is what Brie used to call me after our favorite little monkey, though my curiosity is fueled by purpose these days. I research and post articles about children’s authors and then spend my free time updating the expansive Lost & Found section on our Magic Balloon Bookshop website.

When Brie and I first took over the bookshop, I tried to find the previous owners of the bits and pieces we discovered in our collection of used books by contacting whoever sold us the book. Now when we find something, I post the item online instead.

The postings generate a lot of traffic from other curiosity seekers like me, but in the past eight years, no one has ever emailed or called to collect a letter or photograph or that tooth I found in Ginger Pye. Still I post, driven by the hope that one day I might actually reunite someone with a significant item they’ve misplaced. Restore what was lost to its original owner.

At least once a month Brie and I also find money hidden in the pages of a book, but we keep mum on the cash lest we have a host of people calling to claim it. While kids and adults alike often view their books as safety-deposit boxes, my sister and I have started a real savings account with this extra money in a bank down the street. It’s our own secret stash, more than two thousand dollars now accumulating interest.

I jump at the sound of rustling behind me. Inkspot, our resident cat, hops onto the desk and knocks his tail into my tea, the drops splattering across the vinyl pages of the album. A swift whisk of my sleeve wipes up the liquid, and then I pet his white fur and the perfectly formed black splotch between his ears.

Sometimes I wonder if he’s down here at night with his super vision, reading about poor Tom Kitten or perhaps the Cat in the Hat. Like me, he’s found refuge inside these walls.

Some books, I think, can be like cats. No matter where they’re sent, they have this uncanny ability to find their way back home.

Turning, I lean over and lift a hardcover book from a recently delivered box. It’s a newly printed edition of Djibi, the tragic story of a cat who liked adventures.

I ordered four books to read as I research for my next monthly post about a children’s author, this one an Austrian man named Felix Salten who wrote in the 1920s and ’30s. Salten wrote stories about a variety of animals, some of the creatures pursued by hunters. Sadly, as a Jewish man, he became the hunted one when the Nazis took over Austria.

“You can read this one later.” I nudge Djibi toward Inkspot, tapping the cover illustration of a gray cat. “Assuming you know how to read.”

He doesn’t mew in response, but he eyes the cover.

Under Djibi are three other recent editions of Salten’s books, all of them translated into English. The Hound of FlorenceFifteen RabbitsFlorian: The Emperor’s Stallion. After I publish my blog on Salten, I’ll put all these books on our shelves to sell.

A much smaller box sits beside the one with the Salten stories. The tape is dangling off the edge, and I peel it back to remove another of his stories. Instead of a new copy, this worn, early version has the ruby-red sketch of a deer embossed on its cloth cover, the deer’s eyes seeming to search for a friend.

Bambi: A Life in the Woods.

A 1931 edition, according to Roman numerals on the copyright page, printed in Vienna. It’s a classic I’ve read before in English, a story that bears little resemblance to Disney’s version. I didn’t order this book, but Brie knows about my featured post for July. Perhaps she’s planning to surprise me with an early edition for my birthday.

Nothing sparks my imagination more than the discovery of an old book in any language. Like an abandoned house, I wonder at the many stories it could tell of its journey, beginning with its birth in an Austrian printing shop almost ninety years ago.

The clock on my phone reads a quarter past two, but I’m still wide awake so I wander out into the bookstore, the old Bambi edition under my arm, and settle into a blue twill beanbag sized for an adult.

Light from the streetlamps filters past the display of books in the front windows, streaming between the shelves in this room. I flip on the bronze sconce high above the castle gate and glance across the shop. Colorful Japanese lights bubble above the front window, and curved bookshelves ripple like sea waves across the carpeted floor, around the dozen or so beanbags that stand like stones in the tide. A hot-air balloon, pieced together from papier-mâché, dangles above the castle, beside the loft. To my left is the front counter with its antique cash register alongside a modern iPad and white Square.

When Charlotte first opened this store to supply readers with French, German, and English resources, she thought it vastly important that children read books that would grow and expand their minds, stories they could cling to as friends when others weren’t friendly. Brie and I followed suit when we took ownership, only buying books for the store that we’d let our own children read. Or read eventually. I don’t have any kids yet, and Brie’s twins prefer picture books over ones with actual words.

In the back corner of the shop is a platform with a puppet theater. I’m no good at puppets, but I sit on that platform every Saturday for my weekly appearance as Story Girl to read the brilliant words of authors such as Dr. Seuss, Robert Munsch, and Doreen Cronin. Lately I’ve taken to wearing a cherry-red cape to match Charlotte’s striped socks since my younger audience members are convinced I’m somehow related to WordGirl from PBS. The youngest kids also think I can fly.

I’ve never bothered to explain that the only time I’ve ever flown is in my dreams, on the nights I’m able to sleep.

Inkspot settles in beside my beanbag on a pink square of rug, and I open the cover of Bambi. Inside is an inscription, written in beautiful script. Thanks to Charlotte, I can read some German.

Annika Knopf

Schloss Schwansee, 1932

I push down one of the corners, bent from wear, as my brain tumbles the words into translation. The Castle of Swan Lake.

Underneath the name of the castle and date is another inscription, simple and yet deeply profound.

Mit all meine Liebe, Mama.

My fingers against the page, I can almost feel the lingering heat from this mother’s love, and my thoughts travel back to the woman who birthed me and then thought it witty to name me Calisandra, after herself and the abbreviation of her favorite state—a woman who moved to Santa Monica when I was two and left me behind with the man who never got around to proposing marriage. A man who died fourteen years later. Sandra Dermott friended me on Facebook while I was in college. She has a family in California now, four children whom she clearly adores.

What happened to the girl who once owned this book in my hands? Did she treasure her mother’s gift for the rest of her life, or give it away?

The pages are smudged, worn. In the first section are illustrations of Bambi and Faline, and then pictures of the stag and Man.

The book was written a decade before Hitler came to power, but Hitler, I’d read in my research, amplified the anti-Semitism already rampant in Europe. Perhaps Salten saw the scribblings of persecution long before they coated the walls.

Turning the pages, I begin to notice something different about this version of Bambi. In black ink, under the original German print, are extra lines on every other page as if someone decided to add to the story. I recognize many of the German words in the story, but none in the handwritten lines.

My eyes finally heavy, I close the book and lower it to the carpet.

Brie and I have found plenty of books marked up in the past, but I’ve never seen handwriting like this at the bottom of the pages, as if the words were part of the original story.

Who marked up this valuable edition, almost a hundred years old? An aspiring author, perhaps? Or had someone tried to leave a message hidden in the pages?

My skin tingles at the thought.

Charlotte’s ability to read German has faded in her twilight years, but it’s not gone. Tomorrow, after my appearance as Story Girl, I’ll ask her to help me translate these lines. Perhaps there’s a simple explanation for the additions.

My hand slips down to find Inkspot’s fur, but it lands on the Bambi book instead. And I fall asleep right there, dreaming of old books and balloons and cats who like to fly.


Chapter 3

“‘This is George.’” I hold up the picture book so every child seated on the carpet can see. “‘He was a good little monkey, and always very curious.’”

I slowly turn the page as I tell the story of the monkey and the mysterious man with the yellow hat, on their way to camp in the wilderness. The man warns George not to wander off, but when he turns around, it’s too late. George is already gone.

My audience scoots closer, several dozen children anxiously waiting to hear what happens to the monkey they love. And I, in my red cape and silly socks, unfold the story for them.

In this day of unlimited screen time, countless games and movies, I’ve often wondered if this next generation of kids will be the one to turn their back on books. So far I’ve seen no evidence of a rebellion. They come in droves to the store and—usually—listen without interruption. Perhaps it’s a testament to their parents’ love of the written word.

After I finish George’s adventure, one of the younger boys in the front row raises his hand, whipping it around like a flag caught in a storm.

“Yes, Michael?”

“I’m wearing new underpants,” he announces confidently, as if everyone will be just as excited as he is by this news. “Spider-Man.”

I quickly reach for the crate where I store my reading books. “Very good.”

He stands, turning to the children behind him. “Do you want to see them?”

Thankfully his mother rushes forward before I have to intervene. “No one wants to see your underwear,” she says in one of those mortified mom whispers meant for a crowd.

I march my fingers quickly across the book spines in the crate and pick up one that I hope will redirect, ASAP. We have ten minutes left, plenty of time for Dr. Seuss. “Anyone ever hear about the fox who wears socks?” I lift one of my legs for a visual of my striped pair.

A few of them raise their hands.

I open the book and repeat by memory. “‘Fox. Socks. Box. Knox. Knox in box. Fox in socks.’”

The front door chimes, and I’m hoping it’s Charlotte so I can ask her to help me translate the lines in the Bambi book. But when I glance up, I choke down a groan. Kathleen Faulkner and her six-year-old son, Jack, walk into the store.

Focus—back to the blue-socked fox in my hands, my words slurring a bit as I continue with the story.

Kathleen seems like a perfectly nice woman, and her son is adorable—but I am a victim of the smallish-town curse where every resident’s path seems to intersect everyone else’s at one point or another. And I can’t very well turn away the wife and stepson of my ex-fiancé from a reading of Dr. Seuss. I’m only grateful that not once in the past two years, to my knowledge, has Scott Faulkner stepped through the front door.

Jack squeezes into a space beside my feet, Kathleen joining the lineup of adults curled around the outskirts.

“‘Let’s do chicks with bricks and clocks, sir. Let’s do tricks with bricks and blocks, sir.’”

“You messed it up,” Owen, my nephew, shouts. Then he grins as if he’s done my audience a great service by correcting me.

Unfortunately, the tongue-twisting in this book only gets worse from here, and I’ve lost my momentum.

I start to read the next page about stacking the chicks and bricks and blocks, but it’s a disaster. Perhaps I should ask if Michael has anything else he’d like to share.

“I hate to interrupt,” my lovely sister says from behind the parental wall, “but I have it on good authority that chocolate-chip cookies taste best when they’re warm, and I’ve just taken a batch out of the oven.”

With those words, the fox and his socks are forgotten as my audience surges around the castle steps, up to the counter with the cookies and hot chocolate that Brie has waiting for them every Saturday. Next week, I’ll take a mulligan on the book about the quirky fox.

“Have I told you lately how much I love you?” I say, slipping beside my sister. About two minutes have passed since she made the call, but only crumbs remain on the ceramic cookie tray.

Brie collects the paper cups that line the counter and wipes her hands on her polka-dotted apron. Her brown shoulder-length hair is newly streaked with lime green. “I’ve got your back, Callie.”

“You are the best of sisters.”

As Brie pours several more cups of chocolate, handing them out to the children, I glance around the busy store until I find Kathleen and her son in the loft, snuggled together on a couch. Surely she knows that Scott once proposed marriage to me, but the fact that he was seeing both of us at the same time in the weeks before our wedding day doesn’t seem to bother her in the least. Unlike me, who can’t seem to move past the betrayal. The colossal failure in the spotlight of our town.

Two years come and gone, and I’m still stuck, wondering about what might have been while my ex-fiancé has clearly moved on.

“I wish you could let it go,” Brie whispers, and I worry for a moment that she might break out into song.

“It only bothers me when I see Kathleen around town.” And when I’m trying to ignore the bump swelling across her abdomen.

“The wounds of the heart take the longest to heal,” she says.

“But one day they heal, right?”

“You just have to meet the right man.”

I swipe one of the remaining cups of hot chocolate and step back before she starts listing the available men in our church and across Knox County.

When I was in my early twenties, I longed for a husband and children to love, a family who loved me back. But that would require dating again, and I have zero desire to expose the fragments of my heart and past to another man. I haven’t gone out with anyone since Scott, at least not more than one date and only at Brie’s insistence. Brie thinks a good man will steal my heart one day, but I doubt any decent thief would want the shattered pieces of it now.

Brie checks out two customers, slipping their books into white bags designed with a bouquet of balloons. Kathleen and Jack are moving toward the top floor of the castle.

“I’m done talking about men,” I whisper after the customers leave.

Her lavender-glossed lips pucker. “That’s good because I was planning to ask you about the box you broke into last night.”

I lean back against the papered wall. “Technically, it was already open.”

She sighs. “I wanted to give you that book for your birthday.”

“I promise to be surprised.”

Her head tilts slightly to the right as she assesses me. “At least you’ll be surprised when I give you your other gift.”

“You don’t have to give me anything else, Brie.” A little boy whizzes past, holding a book like a paper airplane in his hands. Sometimes I wonder how we make any profit at all. “Where exactly did you get that Bambi book?”

“From a dealer in Idaho.”

I sip the overly sweet chocolate. “I found something inside it.”

Her eyebrows rise. “Money?”


“More pictures, then?”

“Wait here.” When I return to the counter, I open the worn cover for my sister and point down at Annika Knopf’s name.

She shrugs. “We find names in most of our used books.”

“But we’ve never found this.” I turn to the third page. “There are extra lines on some of these pages. The handwriting looks almost like the font in the printed text.”

As Brie examines the copy, I watch Kathleen’s son emerge from the slide at the bottom of the castle. His mother descends the spiral stairs to meet him, the bump under her shirt clearly visible as she reaches for his hand. Jealousy rears somewhere deep inside me, peeking its ugly head up over the wall that circles my heart.

“Did you translate any of this?” Brie asks, and my gaze falls back on the page.

“I tried, but I couldn’t make out the words.”

She hands me the book. “I wonder where Schloss Schwansee is located.”

“I couldn’t find it online.”

“So you’re off to Charlotte’s . . .”

“This afternoon, if you don’t need me here.”

“Have at it,” Brie says before greeting another customer. Her interest in the German notes has come and gone, but me, I’ll obsess until I know what they say.

Annika Knopf, I suspect, has probably passed away by now, but every time we receive a book with something unusual inside, I want to reunite the item and book with the child who once owned it, as if I could return a piece of what I hoped was a happy childhood. In this case, perhaps Annika’s descendants would be intrigued by whatever she wrote inside this book. In my story-world optimism, I can help provide a happy ending for their search.

Then again, it’s entirely possible that Annika’s descendants sold this book even though they knew about the handwriting. The money might have been more important than preserving a family heirloom.

Kathleen reaches for her son’s hand, and before I can escape to the back room, they are beside me. Jack in his pressed shorts, button-down shirt, and a clip-on tie. Kathleen in white capris, a sage-green blouse, and heeled sandals. I, on the other hand, resemble Raggedy Ann, except my curly hair is light brown and I’m wearing black-framed glasses with my striped socks and blue sundress.

“I’m sorry we were late for story time,” Kathleen says, sounding genuine with her apology.

“No worries. I’ll be here again next Saturday.”

Jack eyes the cape tied around my neck. “Are you Superwoman?”

I swallow my sigh, deciding in that moment that Superwoman is better than Raggedy Ann. “Perhaps.”

“I like your socks,” he says.

“Thanks. I like your tie.”

A stack of new books in their bag, Kathleen and Jack walk out of the store hand in hand, headed north toward the roundabout—known in our town as the square—where the annual Memorial Day festivities are about to begin.

Watching Kathleen through the window, my thoughts drift again to how different my life would be if Scott hadn’t met her. I’d be married like Brie, perhaps even have a child of my own. No wandering around a bookstore in the midnight hours for me. I’d be content in my own home, with my own children, not trying to reunite lost items with their owners.

Drums thunder in the distance, followed by the crashing of cymbals. In seconds the bookstore empties, our customers pouring out onto the sidewalk as they wait for the bands and floats to roll by, the candy raining down from the sky.

Inkspot curls around my ankles, and I tuck the old Bambi book under my arm to pick up the cat. Together we watch the grand marshal, the mayor of our town, marching toward us, the high school band and color guard close behind.

In our celebration, we remember together those who served our country around the world, those who lived to tell their stories and those who died fighting against tyranny. And we remember with hope for peace against the tragedy of war, hope that none of my Saturday-morning kids will have to leave their families to fight.