Chapter 11


On Sunday morning, Nick was woken, once again, at the crack of dawn.  He fumbled through the morning milking with Analiese and then sat down to breakfast with her family, as he had the day before.  He ate slowly, savoring the hearty food, dreading another long day of work ahead, until Analiese looked over at him and said, “We have church today.  Will you be joining us, Nick?”

Nick swallowed.  He should have figured people as religious as these would devote Sunday to worship, rather than work.  Although it was tempting to go back to bed while they went on to church, he thought it would seem ungrateful not to accept her offer and accompany them, so he reluctantly nodded and said, “Sure… I mean, if that’s okay.”

Overhearing, Analiese’s father offered a rather stiff smile and replied, “Of course, you are welcome to worship with us.”

Nick hadn’t been raised in a religious family, but he had been to Catholic church with Howie and Baptist church with Brian before, so he thought he at least had some idea of what he was getting into.  But, as usual, he was wrong.  Amish church was completely different from any other he’d experienced.

For one thing, there was no actual church.  Nick, who had been expecting a building with a steeple on top and pews inside, looked over at Analiese in confusion when the buggy stopped instead outside a small, white house, almost identical to her own.  “This is church?” he asked, as her little sisters and brother clambered out after their parents.

“Church is held at a different house, every other Sunday,” Analiese explained, motioning for him to get out.  “This week, we will worship at the Yoders’.”  Nick climbed out of the buggy and turned around, offering his hand to help her, but Analiese ignored it and jumped neatly down to the ground.  They walked together across the yard, following the flock of Amish people into the house.

From the back, everyone looked identical, in their dark clothing and matching black bonnets and wide-brimmed hats.  AJ would hate this, Nick thought, smiling as he pictured his friend, who went out of his way to look different, with his variety of hats and sunglasses, crazy hair colors and tattoos.  The smile faded as he wondered when, or if, he’d see AJ again.  How could he face him, or any of the guys, after what he’d allowed to happen?

“The men and women sit separately for the service,” Analiese said as they entered the house, interrupting his thoughts.  “You’ll go with my father, into that room.  Lukas is helping put the horses in the barn, but he’ll join you when he’s finished.”  She pointed through a doorway, into a large room where all the furniture had been cleared away, replaced with rows of simple, backless wooden benches.  The men were clustered in small circles, mingling until it was time to sit down.  Nick hung back, feeling awkward about going in there alone, but when he turned to say something to Analiese, she was already gone.  He saw her entering the next room, where circles of women had gathered.  He wasn’t about to follow her in there, so he sucked in a deep breath and wandered in with the men instead.

He picked out Analiese’s father, Joseph, among all the other long-bearded, broad-shouldered men in the room and stood near him until it was time to sit down.  He started to follow him to one of the benches in the back, until Lukas appeared at his side and said, “The youth sit at the front.  This way.”  Nick didn’t want to sit up front, but he went with Lukas, who asked out of the blue, “How old are you, Nick?”

“Nineteen,” Nick replied, caught off-guard by the question.  “Why?”

“The youth sit in age order.  Most plain people join the church and are baptized at around age eighteen, but since you are not a member, I suppose you should just sit beside me.”  He pointed to a spot on one of the benches, and Nick sat down.  As Lukas sat down next to him, Nick recognized the guy sitting on his other side as Emeric, the Albrechts’ field hand.

“Hey,” he said, offering a half smile.  Emeric just nodded his head in greeting, but Nick could see him studying him out the corner of his eye, as the other boys filed in and sat down around them, preparing for the church service to begin.  He could feel the eyes open him as they craned their necks to goggle at the stranger in their midst.  Even though Nick was dressed Amish, having borrowed more of Analiese’s opa’s clothes, it must have been obvious he wasn’t one of them.  Maybe it was his dyed blonde hair that gave him away, or maybe it was his body language, the way he kept fidgeting on the bench, clearly uncomfortable.  Maybe it was just the fact that no one in this small, close-knit community had ever seen him before.  He was used to being stared at because he was famous, because he’d been recognized.  Being stared at because no one knew who he was was an altogether new experience for Nick.  He wished they wouldn’t stare at all.  He wished he could just blend in and be anonymous.

Things settled down once it was time for the church service to begin, and as everyone took their seats on the long, wooden benches, Nick saw thick books being passed around.  “What are those?” he asked Lukas in a whisper.  “Bibles?”

“The Ausbund,” answered Lukas in his odd accent.  “A hymnal of songs.”

Nick instantly felt more at ease.  Finally, something he knew about – singing.

“We can share,” Lukas offered when he received one of the large hymnals, opening it on his lap for Nick to see.

As quickly as it had come, the relaxed feeling went away, as Nick looked down at one of the hymns.  He was dismayed to find that there was no musical notation on its pages, only lyrics.  Lyrics written completely in German.  So much for singing, he thought, suppressing a sigh.

The hymn was the strangest song he’d ever heard.  Not that Nick was well-versed in religious music, but he knew his Christmas songs, and he even knew a few German songs, if he counted “99 Luftballoons” and Rammstein’s “Du Hast,” and not even those were as strange as this one.  It had a melody that was slow and sad and not at all catchy.  The congregation sang it in unison, almost like a chant, with no harmony and no accompaniment.  Their voices seemed to drag on forever, plodding through stanza after stanza, each as unintelligible to Nick as the next.  The first song took a full fifteen minutes to sing; Nick timed it on the grandfather clock in the corner, thinking, Damn, this shit’s even longer than “Stairway to Heaven!”  And then they started a second song.

Shoot me now, thought Nick, as the singing dragged on and on, but that was only the beginning.  It set the tone for the rest of the service, which went on for three hours, according to the grandfather clock.  More than one person stood up to deliver a sermon, and while those were presented in the same, strange dialect of English that Analiese and Lukas used, the many Scripture readings were done in German.  Nick could count to three in German.  Beyond that, he only knew how to say four things – hallo (hello), wie geht’s (how’s it going?), danke schön (thank you very much), and Ich liebe dich (I love you).  Since the Scriptures didn’t seem to be limited to these four phrases, he quickly spaced out.

Looking around, while he waited for it to be over, Nick was glad to see that at least he wasn’t the only one having a tough time sitting still through the service.  The younger boys in front of him were as fidgety as he felt, and when he turned his head to sneak a peek toward the back, he could have sworn some of the older men had nodded off to sleep, under the guise of bowing their heads in prayer.  He smirked to himself, ducking his own head so no one would see.

Nick wasn’t someone who prayed regularly, but after he’d given up on trying to understand the Amish prayers and started tuning them out, he had his own private conversation with God in his head.  What am I doing here?  I mean, no offense, God, but I don’t belong here with these people.  I should be hanging out in my hotel room right now.  I should be gearing up to go onstage tonight.  But I guess I wouldn’t be, even if I were still in Philadelphia, because Kevin’s dead…

The hard reality hit him again like a wrecking ball straight to the gut.  It knocked the wind out of him, and for a scary few seconds, he felt like he couldn’t breathe.  The room was stifling, packed with people, but even if he’d dared to get up and go out for some fresh air, he didn’t see any way out without creating a scene.  He was stuck in the middle of the bench, sandwiched between Lukas and Emeric.  There was no escaping.  So he sucked in a shallow breath and let it out slowly, trying to keep his composure.

Why did you let that happen, God? Nick asked angrily, but he knew it wasn’t fair to blame God.  If it was anyone’s fault, it was his own, for being so naïve and stupid.  Why hadn’t he called the police as soon as he got back to the hotel that night, the night he’d seen them dump the body?  Why hadn’t he confided in Kevin when he kept asking what was wrong?  He hadn’t wanted to involve anyone else, but like it or not, Kevin had gotten involved, in the worst way imaginable.  If Nick had just been honest with him, Kevin might have been able to help him.  Kevin would have handled it a lot better than he had.  Kevin always knew what to do.  But Kevin had been killed, because Nick had done all the wrong things.

I’m so sorry, Kev, he thought, tears filling his eyes.  God, if he’s up there in Heaven with you, will you tell him I said that?  Tell him I’m sorry?  Tell him I never meant for him to get hurt?  He was my brother… almost like a dad to me.  I loved him… like family…

Nick wasn’t sure he really believed in Heaven, but if there was such a place, he knew Kevin had to be there.  Kevin was too good a person not to be.  He hoped there was, and that God could hear him and pass his message on.  He wondered if Kevin himself could be looking down on him right now, to see his tears and know how sorry he was.  Rather than comforting him, the idea made him slightly uncomfortable, Kevin watching his every move, knowing his every thought.  What would Kevin say if he could see him now?  What would he tell him to do?

He’d tell me to go home, Nick decided, or back to Philadelphia, anyway.  He’d tell me how much I was hurting people, hiding out here.

He squirmed guiltily on his seat, knowing he was right.  He had taken the path of least resistance, staying here with Analiese instead of going back to face his fears.  But it wasn’t so easy, being here, either.  His back ached from shoveling cow shit and sitting so long on this hard bench.  His ass had gone numb an hour ago, and his legs felt stiff and cramped, but there was no space to swing them or stretch them out.  His physical discomfort was nothing compared to the emotional anguish he was feeling inside, though.  Maybe this is my punishment, he thought.  Is that it, God?  Are you punishing me for being so stupid?

He didn’t know what to do.  If he went back, he’d be putting himself and others in danger, and he’d have to answer some tough questions and face the hard reality head-on.  He didn’t want to do any of that.  But he didn’t want to stay here, either.  Analiese and her family had been helpful and kind to him, but he could never be like them.  He didn’t see how he could get up before dawn each day to work on the farm, sit through three-hour church services every other Sunday, and survive without electricity.  He was just kidding himself, thinking this could be a solution to his problems.  It was only creating new problems in place of the ones he was avoiding.

Furtively wiping the tears from his eyes, he decided that when the church service was over, he would thank Analiese’s family for their hospitality… and tell them he was leaving.

***

Brian brushed away tears as he left the hospital chapel.  He knew it would be obvious he’d been crying, and that was okay, but he wanted to regain at least some measure of his composure before he went back upstairs to join the others in their ongoing vigil outside the Neuro ICU.

“You okay?” asked his bodyguard, Tom, who had been waiting outside the door for him.

Brian shrugged.  “Not really,” he admitted.  Although the swelling in Kevin’s brain had gone down, his cousin was still in a coma, and his best friend was still missing.  How could he possibly be okay?

Tom clamped a meaty hand down on his shoulder and gave it a squeeze.  “I’m sorry, man.  I can’t believe this is happening.”

“Neither can I,” muttered Brian, shaking his head.  It felt like a nightmare, but three days had passed, and he hadn’t woken up.  He rubbed his eyes again; they were swollen and sticky with half-dried tears.

“Mr. Littrell?”

When he opened his eyes, Brian found himself looking up into the face of Police Sergeant Bruce Malcolm, who was heading up the investigation into Nick’s disappearance.  “Sergeant Malcolm,” he said in surprise.

“I was on my way upstairs to talk to you,” said the sergeant.

Brian eyed him curiously, wondering if he had any updates for them.  “We were just heading back up.”

“I’ll walk with you.”  He fell into step next to Brian, flanking him on the opposite side as Tom, and the three of them made their way back to the elevator.  Sergeant Malcolm didn’t say anything more until they were in the privacy of the elevator.  Then he turned to Brian and said, “I wanted to tell you, I was able to trace the phone number you got that strange call from on Thursday night.”

Brian nodded, remembering the silent caller he’d assumed to be paparazzi, until Howie had brought up the notion of it being Nick.  They’d mentioned it to the police, who had copied down the number from Brian’s cell phone log and promised to look into it.

“The call was placed from a pay phone at a gas station in Paradise, a small town out in Lancaster County, about sixty miles west of here.  I sent a couple of my officers out to investigate, but they weren’t able to find much.  They talked to the gas station attendants who were working that night, but no one remembered seeing anything, and they don’t have surveillance cameras – a lot of them rural, rinky-dinky places don’t.”

“Surveillance cameras,” Brian repeated, the phrase jogging a related question to the forefront of his mind.  “Did the hotel have cameras?”

Sergeant Malcolm nodded grimly.  “Yes, but we didn’t get anything useful off of them.  They only cover common areas – the main entrance, the lobby, the elevators, the pool.  Unfortunately, Nick – or whoever took Nick – knew enough not to go through any of those areas.  Based on the blood evidence we found on the stairs, we’re fairly certain he exited through the stairwell and out a back door.”

“Oh.”  Brian didn’t bother to hide his disappointment.

“Anyway,” the sergeant went on, as the elevator went up, “my guys tried to dust the pay phone for prints, but there were too many of ‘em to get anything conclusive.  You’d be surprised, but pay phones in those parts still get a lot of use – that’s Amish country, and they don’t have phones, see, so they use the public ones when they need to.”

“So there’s no way to know if it was Nick calling?”

Sergeant Malcolm shook his head.  “Honestly, I doubt it was Nick.  More likely, it was his abductor.”

Brian’s eyes widened.  “You think?”

The sergeant shrugged.  “Could have been.  Maybe he thought he’d try to get some ransom money out of you and chickened out at the last second, or maybe he just wanted to spook you.  In any case, it’s gonna be hard to track him, but if he called once, he might call again.  I doubt it’ll be from the same phone – he was probably just passing through – but just to make sure we’ve got all bases covered, I placed a plain-clothes officer on a stakeout near the gas station, in case he comes back.  I’d also like permission to put a tap on your cell phone, so we can monitor any other suspicious calls that come through.”

Brian nodded.  “Sure.  Do whatever you need to do.”  Then an unsettling thought occurred to him.  “But how did he get my number?”

“Would Nick have had your number on him?  Maybe stored in his cell phone?”

Brian’s heart sank.  They hadn’t found Nick’s phone in the hotel room.  “Yeah,” he said, his voice cracking.  “That must be how.”  As much as the thought of this psycho knowing his phone number disturbed him, it was even more disturbing to imagine him taking Nick’s phone from his lifeless body and using it to leech personal information from his contacts.

Sergeant Malcolm must have seen the look on Brian’s face, reflected in the elevator doors.  As they slid open, he patted Brian twice on the shoulder and said, “Don’t lose hope.  The pay phone might be a dead end, but my guys are still chasing lots of leads.  We’ll find him.”

Brian hadn’t lost hope.  He hoped the police sergeant was right, that Nick would be found.  Even more so, he hoped Nick would be found alive.

***


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