It was a relief to Nick to escape outside after the three-hour Amish church service. The sun was high overhead in the clear blue sky, and although it was warm, a cool breeze rustled the leaves on the trees, which were already starting to change color for the fall. It was a beautiful day in Paradise, and for a second, as he sucked in a breath of fresh air, sweet with the smell of cut grass and hay, Nick felt satisfied and grateful to be alive.
Then he remembered that Kevin was dead.
The vivid colors seemed to fade from the idyllic world around him, as his mood darkened again. He plodded across the lawn after Lukas, his footsteps heavy with the burden of what he knew he must do. He had to go back and face the music in the merciless world he’d left behind, a world in which people brutally murdered other people and dumped their bodies in polluted rivers to become fish food. Even though he wasn’t cut out for Amish life, a part of him longed to stay in their world, where everything seemed so much simpler.
He found the Albrecht family milling around outside the house, mingling with the rest of the congregation. “Can I talk to you?” he asked Analiese, pulling her aside.
Analiese blinked up at him in surprise. “Of course,” she said in her high, sweet voice, walking away with him. Once they were out of earshot of the others, she asked, “What did you think of our church?”
Nick looked down into her open, innocent face and hated to lie. “It was… long.” He figured that was close as he could come to honest without offending her. “I didn’t understand a lot of it,” he admitted, shrugging his shoulders.
She nodded, smiling. “I’m sure that made it seem especially long. It feels like a long time to sit even for me, sometimes, and especially for the younger children. But that is the way it is. Perhaps it is also why we only go to church every other Sunday.”
That surprised him, considering how religious they were. “What do you do on your Sundays off?” he wondered.
“On opposite Sundays, we visit with family and friends. Sometimes we travel to other communities. It’s an opportunity to see folks we don’t get to see often.”
He nodded. “That’s cool. Sounds nice.”
“It is,” she agreed, still smiling up at him. “So what did you wish to talk to me about?”
Nick realized he’d been stalling. “I did some thinking during church, and I decided I’ve gotta go back.”
“Back? To Philadelphia?” When Nick nodded, Analiese raised her eyebrows in concern. “But I thought you said you’d be in danger there. That the men who hurt you would come looking for you.”
Nick’s heart jumped into his throat, hammering hard. He swallowed with difficulty. “They might,” he answered slowly, “but this time, I’ll go to the police. They’ll be able to give me some protection.” Maybe they’ll put me in the Witness Protection Program, he thought, his mind running away with this possibility. Maybe I’ll have to move to another state and change my name, my appearance, everything. He wondered if that would even work. Where could he go where no one would recognize him, even in disguise? The reality was, the only place he’d been in the last year where no one knew him was… here. Among the Amish, he was safely anonymous. This realization made him automatically start rethinking his decision again.
He didn’t know what to do. He looked to Analiese for answers, but she was in no position to give him advice. “Of course,” she said with a nod. “I’m sure they will do all they can to keep you safe. But how will you get back to the city? My dat would never let me go so far in our buggy.”
Nick couldn’t help but smile. “Don’t worry, I’m not expecting you to take me. If you could just give me a ride to that pay phone again, I’ll call the police. They can send someone out to get me.”
Analiese nodded again. “I can do that. If you’ll stay for the rest of the day, Lukas and I will take you to town this evening, after the Sunday night sing.”
“Sure, whatever, that works. Thank you,” Nick added, not sure he’d ever adequately expressed his appreciation for her hospitality. She was a total stranger, from a completely different culture, yet she’d taken him in, lied to her family to protect him, and he could never thank her enough for that.
“You’re welcome,” replied Analiese humbly. Then, with a glance back at her family, she added, “Let’s walk back. It’s time to get ready for the midday meal.”
He followed her back across the lawn, where her sisters and brother were waiting. Most of the adults had gone back into the house.
“There’s not enough room to seat everyone at once,” Analiese explained, “so we eat in shifts, oldest to youngest.”
Back at the kids’ table, Nick thought, suppressing a smirk, when he finally sat down to eat lunch with Analiese and her younger siblings. He was sandwiched in between nine-year-old Miriam and thirteen-year-old Kirsten on one of the wooden benches from church, which had been rearranged to look like long picnic tables. Across from him, next to Analiese, sat six-year-old Samuel. The little boy watched Nick intently as he ate, while the two younger girls shyly looked away whenever he turned his head toward one of them. They were both like miniature versions of Analiese and the only two girls their age Nick had met who didn’t shriek in his presence.
No one spoke much, until Samuel broke the silence with a loud belch. Everyone looked at him, and Nick started to laugh. “Wow, that’s a big burp for such a little body!” he exclaimed. Samuel just grinned, looking pleased with himself. Nick expected someone to reprimand the little boy for being rude, or at least remind him to say “Excuse me,” but no one did.
Apparently sensing his confusion, Analiese smiled and explained, “A belch shows appreciation for a good meal. It was good, right, Sam?”
“Ja!” said Sam, patting his belly.
Nick grinned. “Wish someone had told me sooner. I can do that on command, you know.” He winked at the little boy.
“On command?” Sam crinkled his nose in confusion.
“I mean, I can make myself burp.”
His blue eyes lit up. “Really?? Show me!”
“I need soda… something carbonated.” Nick looked up and down the table, but the only drinks they seemed to be serving were coffee and water.
“There aren’t any soft drinks here,” said Analiese. Then, her eyes sparkling just like Sam’s, she added in a whisper, “But there may be at the sing tonight.”
That evening, as the adults and younger children started to leave in their buggies, Nick was surprised to see a group of teenagers setting up a volleyball net in the yard. He looked over at Analiese, eyebrows raised. “Y’all play volleyball?”
She giggled. “I don’t play well, myself, but ja, we do. Would you like to play? You can join Lukas’s team.”
“Yeah, sure.” Nick preferred beach volleyball, but this was better than nothing. It would help pass the time until they could take him into town. He walked over to where two teams were assembling, joining the side Lukas was standing on. “Mind if I play?”
“We need one more on our side!” a deep voice called. Nick looked across the net. It was Emeric who had shouted; he stood with his arms crossed, surveying Nick the same way he had during the church service. “You any good, city boy?”
Sensing the challenge in his tone, Nick smirked back. “Good enough. Let’s just say you’d rather play with me than against me.”
Emeric grinned. “Come on over then, English.”
Nick shrugged at Lukas. “Guess I’m playing for the other side.” Lukas didn’t seem to mind. Nick ducked under the net and trotted over to Emeric, raising his hand for a high-five. When Emeric slapped his hand, he felt accepted for the first time since he’d arrived in Paradise. Maybe a little friendly competition was all he needed.
“Why don’t you serve first?” suggested Emeric, tossing him the ball.
Nick nodded, knowing this was his chance to prove himself. He could feel the Amish eyes upon him as he took his place in the back right corner. He sucked in a deep breath, tossed the ball into the air, and hit it as hard as he could with the heel of his hand, driving it up and over the net. Lukas and an Amish girl both dove for it, nearly butting heads, but it dropped neatly between them and bounced off the grass.
“Nice shot, English!” Emeric exclaimed, nodding his approval. “Point goes to us. Serve again.”
Nick smiled, waiting for the ball to be rolled back to him. Despite the ache in his shoulders from shoveling, it felt good to hit something. He served the ball over the net again, and this time, the other side volleyed it back.
The game quickly intensified, as each side scrambled to save the ball. Nick enjoyed the teamwork as much as he enjoyed the sense of exhilaration he felt, his heart pounding as he bumped, set, and spiked to score for his side. Sports had always been a stress-reliever for him. Whenever the rigors of life on the road got to be too much, he would grab a basketball – Brian always brought one on tour – and find a court where the two of them could shoot hoops.
Brian… Just thinking the name made him feel sick to his stomach. He could still hear his friend’s voice over the phone, sounding exhausted and annoyed. He hated himself for putting Brian through such pain. Because of Nick’s mistakes, he’d lost both his cousin and his best friend in one night. Would he blame Nick if he knew the truth? Nick knew that if anyone was capable of forgiveness, it was Brian, but he couldn’t imagine his best friend ever being able to look at him the same way again after he found out it was Nick who’d gotten Kevin killed. Their friendship would be forever changed. Everything would be changed.
This thought made Nick content to postpone the inevitable a little longer. Unfortunately for him, it also distracted him from the game. He didn’t see the volleyball flying toward his face until he heard Emeric shout “Head’s up!” and by then, it was too late to react. The ball smacked him in the center of his forehead and bounced straight off. Emeric bumped it to another Amish boy, who spiked it over the net, but the other team quickly called foul.
Analiese came running up to Nick. “Are you alright?” she asked, her eyes wide with concern.
Behind her, he noticed Emeric watching him, a smirk on his face. Embarrassed, he laughed and tried to play it off. “I’m fine,” he replied loud enough for the others to hear, pointing to the healing scab on his chin. “As you can see, I’m more than a little accident-prone.”
The Amish teenagers chuckled, exchanging uneasy glances. It seemed no one wanted to ask how he’d gotten the array of cuts and contusions on his head.
“Well…” Lukas seemed anxious to change the subject. “Back to the game?”
They played until dusk. Once it was too dark to see the ball, they took down the net and trouped back into the house, where the church benches had been cleared and a long table put in their place. The girls sat on one side of the table, the boys on the other. Once again, Nick found himself wedged in between Emeric and Lukas, who was sitting across from Analiese.
As Nick had surmised, the “sing,” as Analiese kept calling it, involved singing. Now that all the old folks had gone home, he had hoped they’d be singing some better songs, more modern songs, songs in English, songs he knew. But while the songs they sang sounded slightly more upbeat, they were still in German and, thus, completely foreign to him. There was no sheet music with which to follow along; they all seemed to know the songs by heart. He only recognized one tune – “Amazing Grace” – but since they weren’t singing it in English, he just hummed along.
The Amish teens took turns leading out the songs. One would start by singing a few bars, and then the rest would join in. After two hours of this, Nick couldn’t take it anymore. He decided it was time for him to take a turn. After yet another song had ended, but before the next could begin, he cleared his throat and started singing, “This is the song that never ends… oh, it goes on and on, my friends…”
Heads turned up and down the table as everyone looked at him in surprise. He just smiled and kept singing. “Some people… started singing it, not knowing what it was… and they’ll continue singing it forever just because this is the song that never ends…”
After a second round, some of them started to catch on. Emeric was among the first to start singing, along with the blonde girl who sat across from him. “…Oh, it goes on and on, my friends…” Slowly, others followed their lead and joined in. “Some people… started singing it, not knowing what it was… and they’ll continue singing it forever just because…”
They sang it three times before Lukas stood up. “Genug! Enough!” he shouted, glaring up and down the table before frowning at Nick. “The Sunday night sing is for songs of worship, not songs of… frivolity.”
He seemed so flustered that Nick wanted to laugh, but he didn’t want to offend Lukas, who had helped him, so he bit the inside of his cheek and tried to keep a straight face as he said, “I’m sorry. It’s just… I didn’t know any of your songs, so I thought I’d teach you one of mine.” He shrugged, hoping he looked innocent enough.
“You’re forgiven,” said Lukas stiffly. “I think this concludes the sing.” Without another word, he slung his leg over the back of the bench and stalked out of the house. Analiese quickly jumped up and followed him outside.
Nick looked at the girl across the table who had sung along with him. “Wow… I honestly didn’t realize it was such a big deal,” he said.
She laughed, tossing her white-blonde hair over her shoulders. “Well, some of us are a bit more conservative than others. I enjoyed your song.”
“So did I,” said Emeric. Grinning, he slapped Nick’s shoulder and said, “Some of us are going to light a bonfire behind the barn and hang out awhile longer. You should stay, English.”
Nick smiled. The offer was tempting, but he now knew where he belonged. “Thanks, but I think I’d better head back with Lukas and Ana.”
Emeric shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
Nick untangled his long legs from the bench seat and walked stiffly outside to find Analiese and Lukas. They were standing apart from the others who had started to drift out. Nick approached them awkwardly. “Look, I’m really sorry if I caused a scene in there,” he apologized again.
“It’s alright, Nick,” Analiese reassured him. “Some Amish just disapprove of anything English.” She cast a sidelong glance at Lukas, who said nothing. He suddenly seemed very interested in his boots.
“Well, all you have to do is take me back to town, and you can be rid of me,” said Nick to Lukas. “Sound like a plan?”
Again, Analiese spoke for him. “Yes,” she agreed, nodding. “Let’s go.”
She took Lukas’s hand and pulled him toward his buggy. Nick followed, feeling like a third wheel. Just a little while longer, he told himself. Then you’ll be out of this mess… and back in a much bigger one. He sighed to himself as he climbed into the back of the buggy. Sometimes, the thought of going back seemed even scarier than staying here.