Chapter 15


Another week passed.  Nick threw himself into his work on the farm, wanting to stay busy and focused on anything but the problems he’d left behind in Philadelphia.  He found that the hard labor had gotten easier, as muscle memory kicked in.  Nick could feel his body getting stronger, better accustomed to spending his days working outside.  His back and shoulders no longer ached after hours of reaping crops, raking leaves, and shoveling manure.  His blistered palms had formed thick calluses, and his sunburned skin had turned into a ruddy tan.

After seeing his work ethic, Analiese’s father, Joseph, had slowly warmed up to his new farm hand.  His demeanor was friendlier and less intimidating.  At lunch on Friday, he even struck up a conversation with Nick.  “Nick, I want you to know that I appreciate your help with the harvest.  I do hope you’re getting the experience you sought during your stay with us.”

Swallowing a mouthful of soup, Nick nodded.  He hastily wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and smiled.  “Yes, sir.  I’m learning a lot.”

“I’m glad.  When will you be returning to school?”

Nick glanced uncertainly at Analiese before answering.  He wasn’t sure if her father was wondering how soon he’d be gone or simply making conversation.  “Well… the next semester starts in January,” he replied and left it at that.

Joseph nodded.  “And what is it you’re studying?”

Nick picked up a piece of bread and took a bite, biding his time as he thought of what he should say.  There was really only one area he knew anything about:  “Music.”

“Ah.  Then I trust you’ll be attending the youth sing again on Sunday night?”

Inwardly, Nick groaned at the thought of sitting through another one of those “sings,” but he forced himself to smile and nod.  “Yeah, I guess so.”

While Analiese’s mother, Mathilda, came over to refill Joseph’s place, Emeric nudged Nick in the ribs.  “You should plan to stay after the sing this time,” he said in a low voice, leaning close to Nick’s ear.  “Trust me, English, I’ll make it worth your while.”

His curiosity piqued, Nick nodded again.  “Okay… count me in.”

***

“What’d you think of the movie, babe?”

Gianna paused to adjust the strap on her handbag, then hurried to catch up to Joey.  “Eh… it was alright, I guess,” she answered.  “Kinda weird.  Little too violent for my taste.”

“You kidding?”  Joey glanced over at her, then shook his head.  “That movie was friggin’ awesome!  I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Gianna shrugged.  “It was different, alright.”

Joey snorted.  “It was better than that last chick flick you brought me to.  At least this one had some action.”

“Whatever, Joey.”

As they walked to the nearest subway station, they must have passed a dozen missing person posters for that kid Nick Carter, the Backstreet Boy.  Gianna paused to look at one on a light pole, drawn by the boy’s crooked smile in his picture, until Joey said, “Light’s green, let’s go!” and hurried her across the intersection.  There was yet another flyer inside the subway station, right next to the ticket kiosk.  Gianna studied it while Joey paid their fare.  Her eyes widened when she saw the words $50,000 REWARD at the top of the poster.  If you have any information, please call the Philadelphia Police Department, it said at the bottom, where a hotline number was printed.

“Here ya go, babe.”  Gianna nearly jumped when Joey came up behind her and handed her a subway token.

“Thanks,” she said and started walking toward the turnstile before her body language could betray her.  She went through first and looked overhead for signs leading to the orange line, which would get them closest to their apartment building.  They had left Luci with the neighbor girl while they went to dinner and a movie.  The night out had been Gianna’s idea.  “Something to take our minds off our troubles, eh, babe?” she’d said to Joey when she had suggested it.

“Only if I get to pick the movie,” was his reply, which was how they’d ended up in a crowded theater, watching a new release called Fight Club.  The movie had lasted longer than Gianna had expected, and she was anxious to get home to Luci.  It surprised her to hear Joey call, “Hey, babe, wait up!  How’s ‘bout we take the blue line instead?”

“The blue line?”  Gianna turned and waited for him to catch up.  “Won’t that take us toward the river?”

“Yeah.”  Joey grinned.  “I was thinkin’ we could take a nighttime stroll along the riverfront.  Whaddya say?”

Gianna raised her eyebrows.  Except for on Valentine’s Day, Joey rarely did anything that could be considered even remotely romantic.  She shrugged and said, “Okay.  Why not?”  They could afford to pay the babysitter for an extra hour.  She hooked her arm through Joey’s elbow, and he steered her toward the blue line platform instead.

They boarded the blue line train and got off at the 30th Street Station, the stop closest to the Schuylkill River.  From there, they made their way across the Market Street bridge and down the steps that led to the river trail below.

When Joey turned right onto the trail, Gianna assumed they were heading to the park, but they had only walked a couple of blocks when he suddenly stopped.

“What’s up, babe?” Gianna asked, as she watched him wander off the trail to the water’s edge.  There was a dock nearby, but the bridge stretching over their heads cast it in shadow.  She couldn’t tell what he was looking at.  “Joey?”  When he didn’t answer, she walked up to him.  “Hey, you okay?”

“Yeah, why?  Can’t a guy stop and smell the roses?”  He lifted his head and inhaled deeply through his nostrils.  Gianna wrinkled her nose.  All she smelled was dead fish.  “I mean, look at that,” added Joey, pointing down to the river.  “Ain’t it beautiful?”

Gianna cocked her head.  She supposed there was a certain beauty to the way the city lights sparkled off the surface of the Schuylkill, but she remembered how the water looked during the day:  dirty and gray, a polluted dumping ground for garbage and dead bodies.  She didn’t see the appeal… and then, suddenly, it all became clear.

She looked over at Joey and saw the way he was staring down at the water, studying its depths.  She saw the lines of worry on his face – the crow’s feet around his narrowed eyes, the creases in his furrowed brow, the tension in his clenched jaw.  She saw the wheels turning in his head, and she knew.

She knew, or could at least surmise, where Nick Carter was.

***

After sitting through another three-hour church service on Sunday morning, the last thing Nick felt like doing was staying for two more hours of monotonous singing that night.  But he had promised Analiese he would go to the youth sing, and Emeric had promised to make it worth his while.

Both the service and the sing were held at the Roth family’s home that week.  Nick was introduced to Emeric’s parents and three older brothers, each of whom had a wife and a house nearby.  Nick noticed that all three of the brothers had full, black beards, while Emeric was clean-shaven.  “So what’s the deal with the beards?” he asked Analiese after lunch.  “Do you have to grow one when you get to a certain age or something?”

“An Amish man stops shaving his beard once he marries or is baptized into the church.  It’s a status symbol, to show he is an adult member of the community,” Analiese explained.

“Oh, okay.”  Nick stroked his chin, glad he wouldn’t be expected to grow a beard of his own.  The mental image of himself sporting a bushy, blonde beard was laughable, considering he could barely grow more than peach fuzz.

No one at the sing that night had a beard.  Looking around the table, Nick realized these “youth sings” were meant to be social events for the teenagers in the community.  English kids threw parties and hung out at the mall; Amish kids sat around a table and sang songs in German.  It was weird, alright, but he supposed he shouldn’t judge.  He’d spent most of his youth singing, too.  He just wished he knew some of these songs.

While the Amish kids droned on and on, chanting lyrics he didn’t understand, Nick filled his mind with words he knew by heart, words he used to sing on stage every night.  He mentally went through the set list of the Backstreet Boys’ show, imagining each lyric projected on the bare wall in front of him like words on a karaoke monitor.

First came “Larger Than Life.”  He pictured the five of them floating down from the rafters on their surfboards, as the Star Wars theme played.  When they landed on the stage, their backup dancers would be waiting to release them from their harnesses, and Kevin would lead them in their salute to all sides of the stage.  A lump rose in Nick’s throat as he thought of Kevin, their fearless leader, falling to the floor in the hotel room, while feathers floated all around him.  He quickly forced his mind back to song lyrics.

“I may run and hide when you’re screaming my name…”

That was Brian’s part.  Just as clearly as he could hear Brian singing it, Nick could hear his confused voice on the phone, asking “Hello?” again and again.  Nick was the one who had run and hidden that time.  Guilt gnawed at his stomach, but he ignored it, focusing on the next line.  His line.

“But let me tell you now there are prices to fame…”

Kevin had paid the ultimate price.  But while fame may have brought him to Philadelphia, it wasn’t to blame for his death.  It was Nick’s recklessness that had cost Kevin his life.  Remembering made Nick feel like throwing up, so he closed his eyes and tried to block the memory from re-entering his brain.

“All of our time spent in flashes of light…”

He opened his eyes and looked around the cozy Amish kitchen, lit by kerosene lamps.  How different it was from his tour bus, which had just about all the comforts and modern conveniences of his home in Florida.  Life here was so much simpler than his life in the spotlight.  Physically, it may have been harder to live plainly, but mentally, it was much less stressful.  He realized he didn’t miss the screaming girls and the paparazzi snapping his picture.  He didn’t miss the long hours on the road or the greasy fast food meals he ate along the way.  All he missed were the people:  Brian, AJ, Howie, and most of all, Kevin.  None of the people sitting at that table could take their places.

Somehow, Nick made it through the rest of the sing by humming his own songs in his head and repressing memories of the night that had ruined the lives of everyone he loved.  When the singing stopped, he felt an overwhelming sense of relief.  Not only had the torture ended, but he was free to talk again.  He needed some normal conversation – even Amish conversation – to take his mind off what he’d spent the last two hours trying not to think about.

When Emeric’s mother appeared with bowls of snack mix to pass around the table, Emeric stood up.  “I’ll be out back, lighting the bonfire,” he said and walked out of the kitchen.  Nick noticed the way his mother’s eyes followed him, her mouth puckered with disapproval, but she didn’t try to stop him.  Suddenly, he poked his head back through the doorway.  “Hey, English, care to lend a hand?”

Nick was all too eager to stretch his stiff legs and leave the sing.  He scrambled over the back of the bench and followed Emeric outside.

“So, what do you think of our sings?” Emeric asked, as they trekked through the darkness.  He seemed to be taking Nick out to the barn, its hulking shape silhouetted against the starry sky.

Nick wasn’t overly concerned with offending Emeric.  “Eh… to be honest, they’re kind of boring for me, since I don’t know any of the songs – or understand any German.”  Nick laughed a little to show he was being a good sport about it.

Emeric chuckled, too.  “Yeah, they’re pretty lame, aren’t they?” he agreed, and Nick laughed some more, surprised by his use of English slang.  “They’re an Amish tradition,” Emeric added, “but I think the after party will be more to your liking.”

“After party?”

Emeric threw open the door to the barn and led Nick inside, lighting a kerosene lantern to brighten the interior.  At first glance, it looked like a normal barn to Nick, containing livestock, animal feed, and farm equipment, but that was before Emeric showed him into a small room in the back.  “This is where I keep my stash,” he said in a hushed voice, reaching for an old saddle blanket that was strewn over a bale of hay.  He whipped the blanket off of the hay and slid the bale a few inches to the left with the side of his foot, revealing a large, plastic drink cooler tucked behind it.  He flipped open the lid and grinned up at Nick, who leaned over to look inside.  Nick’s eyes widened when he saw that the cooler was filled with cans of not only soda, but beer as well.

“Dude, you guys drink?” he asked in disbelief.

Emeric gave him a look.  “Don’t tell me you’ve never had an alcoholic drink before.”

Nick snorted.  “Well, sure I have, but… you’re Amish!  I would’ve thought you, of all people, would-”

Emeric shook his head, still grinning.  “That’s what you’d think, but we’re allowed – well, sort of.  One word, my friend:  rumspringa!”

“What does that mean?”

“Literally, it means ‘running around.’  Starting at the age of sixteen, we’re allowed to run around, to do what we want and live as we please, to experience the outside world – the English world,” Emeric explained, his eyes gleaming.

Nick raised an eyebrows.  “Really?  How come?”

“Well, because becoming Amish is a choice, see.  When you choose to be baptized and become a member of the church, you’re committing to live plainly and forsake all fancy things.  But it’s not a sacrifice if you’ve never experienced those things – you won’t know what you’re missing.  Rumspringa allows us to make an informed decision about whether or not to be baptized and remain Amish.”

“Wow,” said Nick, shaking his head.  “No offense, but why would anyone choose to stay Amish after seeing what it’s like in the real world?  I mean, the English world.”

Emeric was still smiling.  “You’d be surprised,” he said with a shrug.  “Most of us do stay.  My brothers all got baptized after their rumspringa.  Besides, I thought that’s why you came, so you could live plainly.”

Sometimes Nick forgot that most people thought he’d come by choice.  “Well, yeah, but I don’t plan to stay here forever.  I just wanted a change, a chance to experience something different.”

“See?  That’s what rumspringa is for us, only in reverse.  In the end, we all go back to what we know, to the way we were raised.”

Nick supposed it made sense when he put it like that.

“So you guys sit out here and drink, and your parents are okay with that?”  Nick remembered the way Emeric’s mother had watched him in the kitchen.

“Well, they don’t know about the alcohol,” he admitted, “but even if they did, they wouldn’t say much.  Most folks try to look the other way during rumspringa.”

“Wow,” was all Nick could say for the second time.

Emeric laughed.  “Come on, help me get the fire going.”  He took Nick back outside and around the barn to the wood pile out back.  They worked together to collect firewood and arrange it in a suitable pile in the center of the yard; then Emeric struck a match and ignited it.

As they were kindling the fire, the other Amish kids came out of the house, bringing the wooden benches along with them.  They arranged the benches in a circle around the bonfire.  Some of the kids staked out spots to sit right away, while others stood mingling in the yard.  Nick noticed Analiese, Lukas, and two other teenagers hanging back from the rest of the group and wandered over to them.  He wondered if Analiese knew about Emeric’s secret stash of beer.

“Nice work with the fire,” said Analiese, smiling at Nick.

“Thanks.”  He smiled back.

“Nick, this is my friend Johanna Sweitzer.”  She introduced him to the girl standing next to her, then gestured at the other boy who was with them.  “And this is Micah Zook, a friend of Lukas’s.”

“Nice to meet you,” Nick told them both and noticed they were holding hands.  He had a feeling there was more than friendship between those two.  “Are you both staying for the bonfire?”

He saw Johanna and Micah exchange glances.  “Just for awhile,” Micah said.

“We’ll only stay awhile too,” said Analiese.  “Then we’ll ride back in Lukas’s buggy.”

From her body language, Nick suspected she did know about the beer and wanted no part of it, but she and the others followed him over to the fire anyway.  “Drinks are in the cooler,” Emeric was telling everyone.  “Enjoy!”

Analiese turned suddenly to Nick, her eyes shining in the firelight.  “If I get you a soft drink, will you show us your trick?”

For a second, Nick was confused.  “What trick?”

“You know… you said you can belch on command?”

“Oh!”  He laughed, remembering their conversation at lunch after the last church service.  “Yeah, sure.”

Analiese walked over to the cooler and returned with a can of Coke.  “Will this do?”

“Yep, perfect.”  He popped open the top and took a sip, then sucked in a few mouthfuls of air, letting it build up in his stomach.  Then he opened his mouth and let out a long burp.

Analiese and the other Amish kids giggled and clapped, as if this was the best party trick they’d ever seen.  “Do it again!” they urged him, and before he knew it, he’d become the life of the party.  “Do you know any other songs?” someone asked him.  “Like the one you sang at the last sing?”

Nick thought for a moment, trying to come up with another silly song he could teach them.  “Yeah,” he said suddenly.  “Hey, Emeric – bring me a beer, would ya?”

“You bet, English.”  Emeric must have thought he was cool because he made a beeline for the cooler to get Nick a beer.

“How do you get this stuff, anyway?” Nick wondered aloud, as he cracked open the can of Budweiser.  “You’re only, what, sixteen?”

“Seventeen.”  Emeric smirked.  “Let’s just say I have some older acquaintances in the English community.”  He looked past Nick to Lukas, who quickly averted his eyes.  Emeric cleared his throat.  “So… how does this new song of yours go?”

Nick smiled and raised his beer.  The crowd of kids quickly fell silent.  For just a second, he felt self-conscious, realizing they were all watching him, waiting to hear him sing.  Then he remembered that he made his living performing in front of people.  He took a swig of beer and then started to sing, “Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall, ninety-nine bottles of beer… You take one down, pass it around, ninety-eight bottles of beer on the wall.  Ninety-eight bottles of beer on the wall, ninety-eight bottles of beer…”

By the time he got to ninety-five, almost everyone was singing along.  Everyone except Analiese, who was looking at Lukas.  Nick could tell from the expression on his face that he disapproved of this song even more than he had hated the song that never ends.  He was not surprised when Lukas got up and stalked off into the darkness, nor when Analiese went running after him.  With a sigh, Nick set down his beer and left the others singing as he went to find them.

He caught up to them in the front yard.  “Hey guys, where you going?”

Lukas turned to glare at him.  “Home,” he snapped.  “Ana, you are coming with me in my buggy, aren’t you?”

Analiese hesitated a moment, then nodded.  She looked back at Nick.  “Are you riding home with us, or would you rather stay awhile longer?  I suppose I could come back for you in my father’s buggy…”

“In the dark?  By yourself?”  Lukas rounded on her.  “You’ll do no such thing.  He can come with us now, or he can walk.”

“It’s okay.  I’ll walk,” said Nick, shrugging.

“I can drive Nick back.”  Emeric appeared out of the darkness, walking casually toward them.  “I have to take Lisbet home later anyway.  You go on home, Lukas, if that’s how you’re going to be.”

Lukas took a step toward him.  “Liquor has no place at our sings, nor do vulgar English songs.”

Emeric shrugged.  “If you don’t like it, don’t come next time.  Won’t bother me any.”

Nick looked from Emeric to Lukas, waiting to see what they’d do next.  The tension between the two of them felt thick enough to cut with a knife.

It was Analiese who stepped between them, placing her hand on Lukas’s shoulder.  “Come, Lukas,” she said quietly.  “Let’s go home.”   She left her hand on his shoulder, steering him away from Emeric, and together, they walked toward the line of buggies parked in the front lawn.

“We were all wondering where you went, English!” said Emeric, slinging an arm around Nick’s shoulders.  “Come on back to the party.  We still had ninety bottles to go, at my last count.”

Nick laughed and let Emeric lead him back to the bonfire, but as he sat down and rejoined the singing (“Eighty-four bottles of beer on the wall, eighty-four bottles of beer…”), he couldn’t help but feel he had done something wrong.

Still, with a warm fire in front of him and a cool beer in his hand, he had to admit, this was the best night he’d spent in Amish country so far.  I could get used to this, he thought, watching the flames dance on their wooden pyre.  I could definitely get used to this.

***

Gianna had mulled it over all weekend, but by Monday morning, she still hadn’t made a decision about what to do with the information she had.

She was getting ready for work with The Today Show on in the background when she heard Katie Couric say, “It’s been almost three weeks since Nick Carter, the youngest member of the world-famous pop group The Backstreet Boys, went missing, following a violent attack in his Philadelphia hotel room that left his bandmate, Kevin Richardson, fighting for his life.”

She shouldn’t have been surprised; the story of Nick Carter’s disappearance was still headline news.  Even so, hearing his name caused her to stop in her tracks and turn her attention to the TV.

“Now his mother, Jane Carter, joins us to talk about the search to find her son,” continued Katie, and the camera zoomed out to show her sitting next to a woman with black hair.  “Jane, thanks for joining us this morning.”

“Thanks for having me, Katie.”  Nick Carter’s mother spoke in a monotone.  Her polite smile wavered, never reaching her eyes.  Gianna could see that this was a woman clearly struggling to hold herself together.

“I know it can’t be easy to talk about your son under these circumstances,” said Katie, giving Jane the sad eyes, her voice laced with artificially sweet sympathy, “but would you tell us what it’s been like for you these last few weeks, not knowing where Nick is, wondering what’s happened to him?”

“Honestly, it feels like I’ve been living in a nightmare.”  Jane shook her head, looking down at her lap.  “I wake up every morning and think, ‘This can’t be real.  This can’t be happening.’”  She sniffled, pausing to take a swipe at her right eye.  “It really is every mother’s worst nightmare, losing a child.  I just keep hoping and praying that we’ll find Nick alive.”

Gianna felt a twisting sensation in her gut, as if it were being wrung out to dry.  She couldn’t imagine what it would be like to lose a child.  What if it were Luci who had gone missing?

“Now, Kevin Richardson did survive the same attack – presumably the same attack, since it’s my understanding that he and Nick were sharing a hotel room at the time.  Is that correct?”

“That’s correct,” said Jane.

“Knowing how grievously Kevin was injured, does that dampen your hope of Nick being found alive after this many days?”

Jane shook her head.  “I’ll always have hope,” she said adamantly, blinking back tears.  “At this point, hope is all I have to hold onto.”

Katie nodded, giving the sad eyes again.  “Well, you’re certainly not alone in that.  Messages of hope have been pouring in from people all over the world, especially Backstreet Boys fans.  I don’t know if you saw them on your way in today or not, but there are quite a few fans gathered outside in the Plaza to show their support.  You have a lot of people praying along with you, Jane, and we at The Today Show want to extend our thoughts and prayers as well.”

“Thank you, Katie.”

“Before we wrap up, what would you like to say to our viewers, especially Nick’s fans who are watching?”

Jane turned to the camera, donning a tearful smile.  “I just want to say thank you, again, for all your prayers and positive thinking.  It helps knowing so many people are pulling for Nick and Kevin.”

“Besides praying, how can the public help in the search for Nick?”

Looking directly into the lens – directly into Gianna’s soul, it seemed – Jane Carter cleared her throat and said, “Someone out there knows something about what happened to my son.  I urge that person to come forward with information, to contact the police and share what they know.  All we need is that one missing piece of evidence to help the police connect the dots and lead us to Nick.  We just want to find him, no matter what.”

It was at that moment that Gianna made up her mind.  When the police hotline was splashed across the screen, she jotted it down on a scrap of paper, which she folded and put in the front pocket of her uniform.  After walking Luci to school like always, she stopped at a pay phone a few blocks from the café where she worked.

Looking around to make sure there was no one watching her, she stepped inside the booth and slid the door shut behind her.  She pulled the piece of paper out of her pocket and unfolded it with trembling fingers.  Then she picked up the phone, deposited her quarter and dime, and dialed the number on the paper.  A moment later, a pleasant voice answered, “This is the Philadelphia Police Department.  How can I help you?”

Gianna sucked in a deep breath and released it slowly before she spoke.  “Hi.  Um… I may have some information on the whereabouts of Nick Carter?”

“Okay, and your name, please?”

Gianna shook her head.  “I’d prefer to remain anonymous.  Thank you.”

“What is your information?”

“I… I think you need to look in the Schuylkill River,” Gianna said, her voice shaking.  “That’s all I’m saying.”

Then she hung up.

***


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