The Story of Beautiful Girl


By Rachel Simon

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It is 1968. Lynnie, a young white woman with a developmental disability, and Homan, an African American deaf man, are locked away in an institution, the School for the Incurable and Feebleminded, and have been left to languish, forgotten. Deeply in love, they escape, and find refuge in the farmhouse of Martha, a retired schoolteacher and widow. But the couple is not alone-Lynnie has just given birth to a baby girl.

When the authorities catch up to them that same night, Homan escapes into the darkness, and Lynnie is caught. But before she is forced back into the institution, she whispers two words to Martha: “Hide her.” And so begins the 40-year epic journey of Lynnie, Homan, Martha, and baby Julia-lives divided by seemingly insurmountable obstacles, yet drawn together by a secret pact and extraordinary love.


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The Bride's Request



At the end of the night that would change everything, the widow stood on her porch and watched as the young woman was marched down her front drive and shoved into the sedan. The girl did not fight back, bound and tied as she was, nor did she cry out into the chill autumn rain, so surely the doctor and his attendants thought they had won. They did not know, as the car doors slammed shut, the engine came on, and the driver steered them down the muddy hill toward the road, that the widow and the girl in the backseat had just defied them right under their noses. The widow waited until the taillights reached the bottom of the drive, then turned and entered her house. And as she stood at the foot of the staircase, hoping they'd show mercy to the young woman and worrying about the whereabouts of the runaway man, the widow heard the sound the doctor hadn't been seeking. It was the sound that would always connect her to the girl and forever make her remember the man. It was the sweet, deep breaths of a hidden person. A sleeping stranger. A baby.

That November day had seemed as ordinary as any in the widow's seventy years. The mail carrier had delivered letters, birds had flown south across her fields, and storm clouds had wheeled across the Pennsylvania sky. The farm animals were fed; the dishes were used and washed; new letters were placed in the roadside mailbox. Dusk fell. The widow lit the logs in the fireplace and settled into her reading chair. Then, perhaps thirty pages later, the clouds cracked open, releasing a deluge that made such a din that she peered over her tortoiseshell glasses toward the living room window. To her surprise, the rain cascaded so heavily, the glass looked opaque. After half a century on this farm, she'd seen no sights like this before; she would mention it in her letters tomorrow. Drawing the lamp closer, she lowered her eyes to her book.

For many hours, she shut out the din and concentrated on the page—a biography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., gone just a few months from this life—but then became aware of a knocking on her door. She turned. Soon after their wedding day, when her husband was building onto the original one-room house to make room for a wife, she realized he'd never remarked on the view, with its sweeping fields, dense woods, and distant mountains, all watched over by the colorful vault of the sky. He lived here simply because the farm had been in his family and was thirty rolling miles, an hour's drive, and a county line away from the closest town, Well's Bottom, where she was a schoolteacher. As she'd watched the walls go up, she noticed how few windows he'd included, and how small each was, and understood she'd have to be satisfied with meager portions of the landscape. The front door, for instance, was all wood and no glass, with only a single window set in the wall to its left. But tonight's storm obscured even that limited view. So the widow crossed the living room and turned the knob on the door.

She thought, at first, that there were two of them. A man and a woman. From under the roof of the porch, the man, a Negro, looked at her with startled eyes, as if unaware that the door upon which he'd been knocking had just pulled back. The woman beside him did not look up. Her skin was pale, and she was biting her lip. Her face was bone-bare, with shadows in every rise and dip. Was the woman as lean as she seemed? It was impossible to tell; she was covered in a gray blanket. No, several blankets. Wool, like bedding issued in the war, draped into layers of hoods and capes. The man's arm lay protectively around the woman's shoulders.

The widow turned back to the man. He too wore coverings, but they were not the same as the woman's. USED CARS, read one. OPEN TILL NINE, read another. The widow recognized them as large signs from businesses in Well's Bottom. Water was pouring off them, as it was from the sodden wool; her porch was now a puddle.

Dread squeezed the widow's chest. Five years into retirement, she was long past the time when she knew all the faces in Well's Bottom, and she did not know these. She should slam the door, call the police. Her husband's rifle was upstairs; was she agile enough to bound up to their bedroom? But the man's startled look was now melting toward desperation, and she knew they were running from something. The widow's breath came out heavily. She wished she were not alone. Yet they were alone, too, and cold and frightened.

"Who are you?" the widow asked.

The woman slowly lifted her eyes. The widow caught the movement, but no sooner had she tilted her gaze up—the widow was slight, five feet one, and the woman before her was tall, though not as tall as the man—than the woman jerked her head back down.

Unlike the woman, the man had not acknowledged the widow's voice. But he had noticed his companion's quick gesture and retreat, and in response he gently rubbed her shoulder. It was a touch of tenderness, and even in the dim light that reached the porch from her reading lamp, the widow knew it was a look of caring. Yet she did not know that, in a trance of seeing what she'd forgotten she'd once felt herself, her face, too, revealed so much she was not saying.

The man looked back at the widow. A pleading came into his eyes, and he lifted his free hand. The widow flinched, thinking he was preparing to strike her. Instead he opened his fingers and flicked them toward the inside of the house, like a flipbook of a bird flying.

That's when the widow realized the man could not hear.

"Oh," she said, breath expelling her ignorance. "Please come in."

She stepped aside. The man moved his hands in front of the woman. The woman nodded and clasped one of his hands, and they stepped over the threshold.

"You must be—are you?—please," the widow mumbled, until, as she closed the door, her thin, schoolteacher voice finally settled on the proper statement: "Let's get you out of those wet things." Immediately she thought herself foolish; the man could not hear, the woman was focused on the lamp, and anyway, their backs were to her. As one they crept across the living room, their makeshift raincoats dripping, but the widow couldn't bring herself to say anything. They appeared too relieved to be inside, mindful only of the closeness between them.

The man walked with muscular legs protruding from the oversize signs. His was evidently a body accustomed to labor, though why his legs were bare in November, the widow could not imagine. As for the woman, the blankets hung too low for a glimpse of anything aside from shoes—shoes that seemed too large. The woman's gait was uneven, her posture a slouch. Yellow curls wisped out from the woolen hood, and the widow thought, She is like a child.

The fire had gone low, and now the widow drew open the fireplace screen and added a log. Behind her she heard the woman grunt. She turned. The woman was gazing at the fire, and as the widow watched, the woman's face filled with curiosity. The man tightened his arm around her shoulder.

There were only two chairs by the fire: her reading chair, with muslin covers over the worn armrests, and the wooden chair where her husband had read his sporting magazines and westerns. The sofa sat farther back. I should offer that, she thought. Before she could, they lowered themselves to the chairs.

The widow stepped back and took them in. Her husband had lost the hearing in one ear before he'd passed away; otherwise she'd never known a person who couldn't hear. And she'd never known someone quite like this woman. I should be scared, she told herself. But she thought of the passage in Matthew, which she'd not been in church to hear for years: "I was a stranger and you invited me in."

She moved toward the kitchen and glanced back as she crossed the dining room. They were still huddled together. The man's hands were aloft, gesturing his words. The woman was grunting again, the sound easing like an assent.

Give them privacy, the widow told herself. Everyone needs privacy; most children could not add 13 + 29 if you stood behind their shoulders. Privacy could go too far, though; look at her husband, his heart encircled by silence. Look at her now. Except for monthly trips to the market, she was alone three hundred sixty-four days a year, one degree short of a full circle of privacy. Though there was that one degree, Christmas Day, when the students of hers who'd blown like seeds across the country returned with children and grandchildren to visit relatives in Well's Bottom, then stopped in at the widow's open house. Her privacy was so complete, it was almost zero. But almost zero, her student John-Michael once said, is totally different from zero.

The widow let herself into the kitchen and put on the kettle. Yet even as she pulled down the flour, sugar, and oats she'd need for cookies, she asked herself larger questions. Who are they? Why are they out in this storm? The thought returned the pounding rain to her awareness. The river between the counties was sure to flood. She couldn't hear her spoon in the batter.

In clear weather she could hear a great deal from her house. The songs of birds. The distant gurgle of the river. The rare vehicle out on Old Creamery Road, half a mile down the slope of her drive. Even the mail carrier's truck, his AM radio wafting up her fields. But the best sound came when the mail carrier idled at her curb and flipped the mailbox flag from up, where she'd placed it the evening before as she'd secured newly composed correspondence to her students in the box, to horizontal, once the carrier ferried her greetings away. She hadn't always heard that mailbox flag. Then Landon, the student who'd loved making dioramas and had grown up to be an artist, fashioned a little metal lighthouse that, one Christmas, he gave her as a gift, then attached to the mailbox with a brass hinge. It wasn't just any lighthouse. When it was laid flat, the sign of no outgoing letters, its windows were dark, though when it was vertical, its windows lit up—and revealed the top of the lighthouse to be the head of a man. Her lighthouse man, she thought of it. How she loved hearing its brass hinge squeak.

She slid the cookie dough into the oven. Then she inched open the door and peered out.

The woman was facing into the flames. The man was rising from his chair and peeling off the wet signs. The widow expected him to drop each to the floor. Instead he folded them like large sheets and set them before the fireplace. Uncovered, he was revealed to be wearing only an undershirt and loose shorts. Either he'd recently lost weight or the clothes were not his.

What are they running from? Should I ask? Or should I just give comfort?

She stepped back inside the kitchen.

The refrigerator was well supplied. She had milked the cows this morning and baked bread. She'd picked apples from her trees only last week and made apple butter. All this she put on a plain serving tray. She did not need to be fancy. She'd never built up finery after her husband died, though a few of her students had given her gifts to that end: a four-piece tea set, a silver tray. She needn't put any of that out now. But as the kettle sounded and the bell on the timer dinged, she changed her mind.

Silver tray full of cookies, bread, fruit, and cheese, she pushed open the kitchen door.

In the living room, the man was seated and the woman was shucking off the woolen blankets into a heap beside the chair. The widow was momentarily annoyed—she'd thought the man would handle the woman's wet garments properly. Then the woman, with one blanket still on, ceased moving and began making soft sounds. This time, though, the sounds were not grunts; the tone was lighter and higher than before.

The widow set the tray on the dining room table and stepped into the living room. She rounded the chairs and approached the wet cloths, wondering where she could dry them. The sounds continued. The widow turned, her back to the fire, and looked at the strangers.

Tucked deep into the folds of the woman's last blanket was a tiny baby.

The woman—the new mother, the widow suddenly understood—held the child, her arms shrouded by the blanket. The man was leaning toward the child. In his hands was a piece of damp cloth—the muslin cloth that had covered the hole on the armrest. He was using it to wipe the blood from the infant's face. The baby was making the whimpering sounds that the widow had mistaken for the woman.

The man's touch was gentle. He had removed a pitcher of water from the dining room table, and now he dipped the muslin inside, wetting it again. Then he pushed back the blanket and cleaned the kicking body. It was a girl, the widow saw. She saw too that the baby's skin was white. The man was moving with the caution of a father, but he was not this child's father. Somehow he and this woman had come together, and maybe he had even delivered the baby. Yet he had done it out of a different sense of duty from the one stirred by the sharing of genes.

"Oh, my goodness," the widow said.

The young mother looked up. "No!" she cried. "No, no, no, no!"

The man turned his face toward the mother, then followed her gaze to the widow. He stared at her hard, though his eyes wore no fear. They wore only a new form of plea.

"It's okay," the widow said, knowing it wasn't okay at all, whatever it was. There was a baby. A couple on the run. And they were different. They were not right.

She should call the police. She should run out of here and drive herself to safety. But her mind was accelerating even past those thoughts, so far past them that it hit a curve and turned back toward itself and then hurtled backward in time.

She scooped up the wet blankets and burst out the front door onto the porch.

As she stood staring out into the rain, holding the drenched blankets, she thought of him, her only child, the son who'd never grown as big as a name. She saw the doctor striding into her hospital room, her husband, Earl, in the chair beside her. Earl had drawn himself up as the doctor took a deep breath. "God knows what's best with children like these," the doctor said. "He takes the ones who are defective." She had said, "What do you mean, defective?" The doctor had replied, "It's gone now. You can forget this ever happened." Her husband's face became pleats, and he twirled down into the chair. When the moon rose that night, they got in the car in their new silence. He insisted they give the gravestone no name.

But this baby, inside her house, was alive.

She threw the blankets over the railing to dry and went back in.

The living room was empty. So was the kitchen. She called out, "Where are you?" They had to be inside; she hadn't heard the back door open. She went into the basement and checked around the washer, the root cellar, the sump pump. Back on the first floor, she opened the closet under the stairs. Then she mounted the stairs to the second floor.

The bathroom door remained open, as she'd left it, the towels untouched. She turned the knob for the bedroom door. The spread lay tidy on the bed. The two closets—hers on the left, Earl's on the right—were not occupied, and the rifle had not been moved. The other bedroom, her study, where she kept her books and writing desk and Christmas ornaments, looked the same.

No, it didn't.

She turned on the lamp. Her desk blotter—the map of America that had once hung in her classroom—was askew.

She looked to the ceiling. They must have found the panel above her desk that led to the attic, where she stored thirty years of student papers and long-forgotten mending. The man and woman must have found the tucked-away space where she rarely ventured, climbed in, and closed the panel.

These were people accustomed to hiding.

She stepped on her chair to her desk. For years now, she'd felt the strain of arthritis. She still managed her farm chores, though even with few animals left, and even with letting all but a small garden go to seed, they took longer than ever. Yet this was not a time to concern herself with aches; she tugged the rope for the folding ladder, opening it until its legs touched the floor beside the desk. She set her hand on the rungs and climbed up.

It took time to adjust her eyes to the pale light in the tiny attic. Then she saw them on their knees, leaning over the basket of mending, and in the basket she could hear the baby.

She watched them cast their caring looks into the basket, the woman leaning with obvious exhaustion against the man, her arm around his waist, his around her shoulder. As they showered their love upon the child, the widow was struck by how these two people—one Negro, one white—clearly shared hopes and feelings for this child, and for each other. Their color did not seem of the slightest consequence to them, nor did the woman's childlike manner or the man's deafness; and so, although she had never seen a couple such as this, she decided it was of no consequence to her, either. She simply stood in the shadows, admiring their unbridled caring.

Then, grasping what she needed to do, she stepped back down the ladder.

In her bedroom, she opened her husband's closet. She had long thought she should give her husband's clothes away. But she'd grown used to the way a turn of a knob and the sight of a shirt could fill her inside, as his memory, untainted by the pain of vanished parenthood, ushered her back to the early days of their marriage, when he hadn't stifled his tenderness, nor she her affection. Now she pulled out a shirt and laid it on the bed. At its hem she placed trousers. She unhooked a jacket, too. She remembered him wearing it when he first drove her to this farm, she newly arrived from Altoona for a job at the schoolhouse. He had looked so smart in that jacket.

She opened her own closet. The woman too needed clothes; her misshapen attire was threadbare and as worn as an overread book. The widow set out a white dress, left over from the days of church. She found white slippers, a shawl, and underthings. Remembering the aftermath of birth, she unearthed a long-forgotten pad in the bathroom.

Then she heard them emerge from the attic, shutting the ladder. She stepped into the hall—and they were finally fully visible. The man was maybe twenty years older than the young mother, who was a natural beauty. Her hair was ropy and unkempt, but her bones were delicate, not bone-bare, as the widow had first thought; the woman's features were almost elegant.

The widow urged them into the bedroom.

"Yours," she said, and by the woman's astonished look, the widow knew her word had been understood. The woman gestured to the man. The two moved forward, and with no indication they had any right to be alone, they stripped the clothes right off their backs.

The widow went downstairs. She stoked the fire and set the dining room table. They would sit, proper guests in proper clothes, and eat a decent meal, whoever they might be.

Later, so many miles from here, she would wonder how she could not have known. Yet maybe no one could have known. Her farmhouse was two hours away—two counties over. How could she blame herself for what she had never seen?

She heard them leave the bedroom, and by the time she'd reached the foot of the stairs, the man and young mother were descending the steps toward her. Newly dressed, hands clasped together, they were both breathtaking. The jacket brought out the man's handsomeness. He looked fit as a farmer on Sundays, turned out and proud. He had helped himself to one of her husband's hats, too, the brown woolen cap she'd loved so much. It looked so good on him. The dress and shawl brought out the mother's loveliness. Both their faces were radiant.

The widow touched her chest as they came toward her. "Don't you look like a dream."

Thwunk, thwunk.

The young mother froze, one step from the bottom of the stairs, and held back the man.

The widow whirled around. Thwunk. It was a pounding on her front door.

She gasped. Even above the rain, the sound overtook the room. She looked back to the couple. Their faces wore terror.

"No, no, no, no!" the woman said.

The man said nothing. He must have felt the force through the floor.

All this happened in an instant, so quickly that the widow had only enough time to turn back before headlights came on and shone through the front window.

"Police," said a voice on the porch, sounding more weary than menacing.

The widow glanced back at the couple again. They looked as if they wanted to run but hadn't the slightest idea where to go. She whipped back toward the front door.

"What do you want?" asked the widow, making her voice louder than the rain.

"If you'll just open the door."

"I would appreciate knowing why you're here." She extended her arm behind her, gesturing for them to stay where they were.

"Martha Zimmer?"

"That is correct."

"Are you all right, Mrs. Zimmer?"

"Why wouldn't I be?"

"Please just open the door."

"I would like an explanation."

"Don't make this difficult. We've been out here for hours, and we just want to finish our job and get home."

"I believe the Constitution would support me in saying that I have a right to know why you're shining a light through my door."

"There are two people missing, Mrs. Zimmer, and we're concerned for their safety."

"Their safety?"


"Perhaps I misunderstood. I thought you were concerned for my safety."

"Look, we don't want to break down this door. If you'll just open up—"

"And from where are those at risk to themselves and to me missing?"

"A school."

"I taught at every school in Well's Bottom except the high school. Since when does the high school send out police rather than truant officers—and at this hour of the night?"

There was a pause. She could hear shuffling. Through the window beside the staircase, she saw silhouettes rounding the porch toward the back door.

"I've asked a question," she said. "What school?"

"The State School, Mrs. Zimmer."

The words hit like a hard wind. She knew. She'd known all along. She could see it now, the name printed in block letters on the wool blankets draped on her porch railing, illuminated by the headlights: the Pennsylvania State School for the Incurable and Feebleminded.

She whirled around. The couple no longer stood on the steps. But before she could search, the front door flew open, and she heard the back door do the same. And into the house came policemen—two she'd seen in Well's Bottom, four she'd never set eyes on—and also a tall beanpole of a man she'd never seen before, who wore white like a hospital orderly. He must have been an attendant from the State School, the place behind the high walls, the place for the defectives, the place her husband would never drive by after their baby—after their defective son—had been born and died.

And the flurry was all around her. They were swarming her house, no question about privacy, no response as she circled the floor behind them, saying, "Please, be civilized!" They were going through the closet under the stairs, the living room, dining room. When they poured into the basement, she returned to the door and looked outside. With the headlights beaming, she could see halfway down her sloped field, though she made out no runaways. Just three police cars and a sedan from which a man was emerging. He wore a trim mustache and expensive raincoat, his gray hair parted in the middle. He opened his umbrella and came up the drive.

"Got the girl," she heard a voice say from the kitchen.

"Where's the boy?" another voice called out.

"Not on the first floor."

"Try the second."

The footsteps spread out behind her as the man in the raincoat reached her front door.

"I'm Dr. Collins," he said. His voice was low and quiet, just what she would expect of a doctor. "You have my apologies for this disruption in your evening." He extended his hand.

She shook it, hearing feet moving through the second floor, closets opening. She felt motion behind her and turned. The young mother was being marched out of the kitchen and into the living room. Her handler was the skinny attendant, a bald, goateed man with wire glasses. The young mother's face was as downcast and fearful as it had been on her arrival.

"What is all this about?" Martha said, releasing the doctor's hand.

"Nothing to cause you any concern," the doctor said, "now that we've found them."

"Did they do something wrong?"

"They know the rules. Unapproved departures disrupt the order in our facility."

Martha turned toward the woman. The attendant was reaching into the pocket of his white uniform, producing something that looked like a straitjacket with extra-long sleeves.

"What is that?" Martha said.

Dr. Collins said, "Camisoles are for their own good."

The attendant was now threading the woman's arms into the sleeves of the camisole, crossing the sleeves over her chest, and drawing the long cuffs behind her back.

The young mother glanced at Martha, a rage in her eyes. But she was not resisting the camisole, even as the attendant tugged the sleeves tight behind her and buckled them together.

Martha winced. The attendant, noticing her reaction, said, "You got to do this. They don't learn anything; they don't understand anything. This is the only way to get them in line."

"But it must hurt."

"They don't feel pain. They're not—Look, if she knew right from wrong, she wouldn't have stolen these clothes from you."

"I gave her the clothes."

Dr. Collins said, "A kind though unnecessary generosity."

"I'd be glad to let her keep them."

"So," the attendant said, walking around the young woman so his face was in hers. "What did she say to you when you gave her this dress?"

The young mother lowered her head.

Martha knew the young mother had only a single word in her vocabulary. She tightened her lips, as she often had with Earl.

"He's not up here," she heard, and then the police were clattering toward the first floor.

She looked to the ceiling—the ceiling where she no longer heard footsteps. The attic! she thought. They missed the attic! And they never said they were looking for a baby!

"Maybe you officers should search outside," Dr. Collins said. "After all, he got her here on foot. He's not afraid of the natural world. Go check the outbuildings."

They hurried outside. The doctor stepped into the doorway and watched.

Martha turned back and looked for the captive mother. She found her in the dining room with the attendant. She wanted to do… something. But what? A hundred thoughts landed inside her, then scattered, until only one remained. She asked the woman, "What's your name?"

The young mother met her eyes, then blinked back down.

"She's an idiot," the attendant said. "A low grade. Her only word is 'no.' It's as far as her little brain goes."

"That's enough, Clarence," Dr. Collins said without entering the dining room.

"I'm just telling the truth," Clarence said. "The lady asked, so she should know."

Martha moved closer to the young mother. "What's your name?"

The woman flinched but didn't look.

"Doc, can't I bring her to the car now?"

"She's Lynnie," the doctor answered, again not leaving the doorway.

"Lynnie," Martha said, and at that Lynnie lifted her lids and looked. Yes, her eyes displayed the dullness Martha thought all retarded children wore. Why hadn't she noticed that? Because Lynnie was so beautiful, and her eyes contained so much emotion.

Martha said, "And the man? What's his name?"

Clarence expelled a laugh. "He's got no name. He's Number Forty-two."


  • "In its sweeping breadth and textured detail lies a finely crafted testament to the benevolence and brutality of our humanity....The Story of Beautiful Girl is a beautiful story, indeed."—John Grogan, New York Times bestselling author of Marley & Me
  • "For those who loved The Help by Kathryn Stockett, this one's for you."—The Utah Daily Herald
  • "The most compelling, resonating novel I've read in years....A breathtakingly beautiful, yet heart-wrenchingly aching story that, despite its cruelty and humanity, uplifts the reader."—Omaha World-Herald
  • "Heart-tugging."—O, The Oprah Magazine

On Sale
Feb 13, 2012
Page Count
368 pages

Rachel Simon

About the Author

Rachel Simon is an award-winning author and nationally known public speaker. She is best known for her critically acclaimed, bestselling memoir Riding the Bus with My Sister, which was adapted for a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie of the same name. The book has garnered numerous awards, and is a frequent and much beloved selection of many book clubs, school reading programs, and city-wide reads throughout the country. Simon is also the author of the bestselling novel The Story of Beautiful Girl.

Learn more about this author