Nick lay naked in bed, listening to the sounds of crickets and owls and wishing he could sleep. But his mind was wide awake and hard at work, seesawing between dread and despair, regret and resolve.
He replayed his brief phone call to Brian over and over again in his head, wondering why he hadn’t said anything, wishing he had, and then willing himself to believe he’d made the right choice. Joey and D thought he was dead, and as long as they thought that, as long as they believed their secret was safe, he and the people he loved would be safe, too. They would have no reason to come after Nick’s family and friends if they thought the memory of what he’d seen that night had died with him.
But if they knew he was alive, it would be a different story. And if Brian knew, if anyone else knew, they would know. They would find out. It would be impossible to cover it up, to hide the truth. This wasn’t a movie; Nick couldn’t just fake his own death until the killers were caught. He was simply too famous. The story of his disappearance, of Kevin’s murder, was probably all over the news – not that he would know, since the Amish had no TVs, computers, or radios. If he was found, there would be no containing it. So he had to stay missing, to protect Brian and everyone else who cared about him too much. He would not let anyone else die for him.
Still, the guilt made him squirm in his bed. His stomach ached with it – guilt, not just over what he was doing to his family and friends, but over what he’d already done to Kevin. They would tell him it wasn’t his fault, but he knew, deep down, that it was. If they knew the whole story, if they knew he had witnessed the aftermath of a murder and not gone to the police, they would blame him. Maybe they wouldn’t say it, but they would think it. Stupid Nick, always saying the wrong thing, always getting himself into trouble, always fucking up somehow. This time, it wasn’t something they’d be able to laugh about later. This time, his stupidity had gotten Kevin killed. He could hardly live with himself, knowing what he’d done, but the thought of everyone else knowing was more than he could bear.
He tossed and turned, sweating profusely beneath the thin sheet that twisted around him, until he heard a sound that made him freeze.
Footsteps on the wood floor.
Someone had broken into the grandfather house.
He sat up stiffly and silently, clutching the sheet to his chest, and strained his ears to listen. It was very late, or very early, depending on which way you looked at it. There was no clock in the room, but he guessed it was three or four in the morning, when the rest of the world was supposed to be asleep.
Traveling on the tour bus overnight, this was the hour when the highways were dark, hardly a car in sight. When he was younger, in the early days of touring, Nick hated waking up in the middle of the night and being the only one awake. He would lie in his dark bunk, wondering where the bus was. Sometimes he’d get up and look out the window, but it unnerved him to realize they were in the middle of nowhere, no city lights on the horizon, no headlights or taillights in the distance. The world was silent and dark, except for the rumble of the bus engine and the arc of its lights on the road in front of them. Then he would start to wonder, what if? What if the bus driver got sleepy and dozed off while he was driving? What if they crashed or broke down, and no one came along to find them? Sometimes he would sneak up to the front of the bus and talk to the driver – to keep him awake, Nick told himself, but if he was being honest, he needed the company more than the driver.
Now that he was older, Nick liked being awake in the middle of the night. He liked the peaceful silence and solitude it offered. He was no longer a lonely little boy, afraid of the dark. But when he heard the footsteps growing nearer, his heart began to hammer against his ribs, so hard he thought the person on the other side of the door would be able to hear it. His first, irrational, panicked thought was that it had to be Joey or D, back to finish him off.
But of course, it wasn’t. It was only Analiese, her pale face illuminated by the flickering light of the lantern she held out in front of her, as she crept through the door, ghostly in her long, white nightgown.
“Hey,” said Nick from his bed, and she jumped, nearly dropping her lantern. It wobbled in her hand, its flame dancing precariously for a few seconds, before she managed to steady it.
“You frightened me,” she gasped, her hand fumbling at the neck of her nightgown. “I didn’t think you would be awake.”
“Sorry,” said Nick flatly. “You scared me too. What are you doing up so late?” Then he thought, Maybe she always gets up this early to do her farm work.
“I awoke and couldn’t fall back asleep,” she admitted. “I couldn’t stop thinking. It was foolish of me, but I wanted to talk to you and thought I might come and see if you were awake.”
“It wasn’t foolish,” said Nick. The old-fashioned word sounded weird coming out of his mouth. “I’m awake, aren’t I? I was having the same problem. Too much thinking.”
In the dim light, he could just make out Analiese’s smile. “I thought you might be. You’ve been through quite a lot.”
He nodded. “Sit down,” he offered, reaching out to pat a spot on the end of his bed. As he did, the sheet slid down to his lap, and he saw Analiese’s eyes widen when she realized he was shirtless. She quickly turned away and scurried over to the rocking chair in the corner instead. Even once she’d sat down, she kept her eyes averted, and when she spoke again, she stammered, clearly flustered.
“I… I just wanted to discuss your… your situation…”
He couldn’t tell in the golden firelight, but he was sure she was blushing furiously. He smirked briefly, wondering how she’d react if she knew he was naked below the waist, too.
“Sure,” he said. “I wanted to talk about it, too. I mean, I appreciate you letting me stay and all, but I don’t wanna put you out or anything…” He’d spent the evening looking around the spare little room, his thoughts alternating between, How can I stay here? and How can I leave? Now he wondered if Analiese was going to make up his mind for him and kick him out, even after offering him a place to stay. He wouldn’t blame her; he knew he was putting her in a difficult and potentially dangerous situation just by being there.
“Yes… Lukas and I spoke about it before he left, and I’ve thought of it constantly since.” Analiese paused to take a deep breath. “I don’t think you can continue hiding here much longer,” she said, her voice shaking a little.
Nick was surprised at the way his heart sunk. It wasn’t that he wanted to stay; it was that staying had been the easy choice. Nonetheless, he forced himself to nod. “I understand.”
“Concealing you would be the same as lying, and if you were discovered here, my parents would know I had dishonored them with my dishonesty. And eventually, you would be discovered; I don’t know how I could continue bringing you meals without being noticed.”
“Sure.” Nick continued to nod, wanting to spare her the guilt he felt. “That makes sense.” There would be no hard feelings; she had done enough for him in the last day. She owed him nothing; he was the one who owed her.
“I’ll leave in the morning,” he added, at the same time she said, “I have to tell my family about you.”
“What?” said Nick, and finally, she looked at him directly.
“I have to tell my family about you,” she repeated. “It would be dishonest not to.”
He blinked in surprise. “You mean, you’re not kicking me out?”
“Kicking you out?” The phrase seemed foreign on her tongue. “No. I offered you sanctuary, and I stay true to my word. But I feel – and Lukas agrees – it would be better not to keep it a secret from my family.”
Nick could understand that. He knew now how dangerous keep a secret could be. But he couldn’t help but wonder aloud, “What if your family wants nothing to do with me? Like your boyfriend said… I’m ‘English.’”
“I’ve thought of a plan. Lukas has agreed to it. We will tell them you are an English pen pal of Lukas’s from the city, who has come to stay for a time. Lukas’s parents are very mistrustful of English and stricter than mine; they would never allow you to stay with them.”
“But yours will?”
“I think I can convince them. After all, our grandfather house stands empty, and we could use an extra field hand, in exchange for food and shelter. You’re not opposed to farm work, are you?”
The mere words “farm work” made Nick shudder, but he swallowed his pride and answered, “No, of course I’d help out.”
“I’m sure my dat could use you. Ever since my opa died, he’s had to hire help. My brothers are both too young to be of much assistance, and my sisters and I are kept busy doing household chores and tending to the barn. Lukas used to work our fields, but ever since his… well, now he’s needed more at home. Dat would appreciate your help with the harvest.”
So there it was: the offer was on the table. Nick could stay, hidden away from the world and those who wanted him dead, in exchange for a little manual labor. It would be a far cry from the kind of work he was used to, which never felt much like work at all, but in that moment, it still sounded less painful than going back to Philadelphia to face the music.
“Sounds good,” he heard himself tell Analiese. “I’ll do it.”
She nodded. “Then we’ll tell them in the morning.”
With that, she went back to the main house, leaving Nick alone with his thoughts. He wasn’t sure how to feel about what he’d just agreed to. His decision seemed like the coward’s choice, the easy way out.
He didn’t have a clue how just how hard it was going to be.
Morning came far too quickly for Nick.
It felt like he had just drifted to sleep when he was jostled awake. For a second, he expected to find Brian bouncing on his mattress, and he kept his eyes determinedly shut, muttering, “Go away, Frick…”
“Wake up, Englischer,” was the reply. That was all it took for Nick to snap to his senses and remember where he was. He opened his eyes and looked up groggily from his pillow to find Analiese’s boyfriend, Lukas, standing at his bedside. “You must get up now,” he said shortly. “You’re supposed to have ridden over in my buggy. Get dressed.” He dropped a stack of neatly-folded clothes onto the bed.
Nick sat up and looked at the jeans and t-shirt in surprise. “You have normal clothes?” he asked without thinking, glancing back up at Lukas. He looked as Amish as ever, in his suspenders and wide-brimmed straw hat.
“English clothes,” Lukas corrected stiffly. “You’re supposed to be my English pen pal, aren’t you? It would look strange if you turned up dressed plain. Folks might wonder if you were making fun of us.”
Nick nodded. “Thanks,” he said, pulling the t-shirt over his head.
“Ana said your own clothing needed washing.”
“Yeah. This is better.” The t-shirt was a size too small, but it would do. Nick wondered if it was Lukas’s or where he had gotten it on such short notice if it wasn’t, but he didn’t ask. Lukas didn’t seem to want to stay and chat.
“I’ll wait outside,” he said and left the bedroom.
Nick finished dressing, squeezing himself into jeans that were straight-legged and too small in the waist. Thankfully, whoever owned them was tall, so his ankles didn’t show. Still, he felt almost as uncomfortable in these “English clothes” as he had in the Amish ones he’d worn yesterday.
He found Lukas in the sitting room. “Let’s go,” said Lukas at once. “If anyone asks, you came to know me through my brother, Nathaniel. When they hear that, they won’t ask any more questions.”
Nick nodded, though he didn’t quite understand what that was supposed to mean. He followed Lukas outside, where his buggy was parked, the horse pawing at the dirt path. Nick was surprised to find that the sun was high in the sky; it wasn’t as early as it felt. Lukas told him to climb into the buggy, and they rode up to the main house.
Analiese came out just as Lukas tugged on the reins to stop the horse. “Lukas!” she cried cheerfully. “What a nice surprise!” Clearly, they were pretending this hadn’t all been planned. “You’re here just in time for lunch. Would you like to stay? I’ll let Mam know.” She ran back into the house before either of them could reply, but they heard her shouting, “Mam, Lukas is here! He’s going to join us for the noon meal.”
Lukas climbed down from the buggy, and Nick followed suit. When Analiese came back out, she was followed by an older woman, similarly dressed in a long, black dress and white apron, a bonnet covering her hair. “Hello, Lukas,” she said, before her questioning eyes shifted to Nick. “And who is your friend?”
“This is my pen pal, Nick, here for a visit,” Lukas replied, adding unnecessarily, “He’s English.”
Clearly, Analiese’s mother could already tell that. She nodded warily, her lips pursed together, but then she smiled and said, “Welcome, Nick. I’m Mathilda Albrecht.” She extended her hand, and Nick shook it, smiling back.
Analiese came forward. “I’m Analiese,” she said, her blue eyes sparkling at him. “Pleased to meet you.” She winked as she shook his hand.
“Come inside,” said Mathilda, leading them in. “We’d be happy to have you join us for lunch. I’ll set two more places.”
They followed her into a large kitchen, where a long, wooden table was set for the meal. There were wooden benches on either side, long enough for a dozen people to sit, but there were only four place settings on the table. Nick must have looked confused, because Analiese said, “The children take their lunch with them to school.”
“How many brothers and sisters do you have?” he asked her, his eyes sweeping over the long benches again.
“Four,” she replied. “Kirsten is thirteen, Miriam is nine, and Samuel is six. They are all at school. My youngest brother, Benjamin, is just a baby.”
Nick nodded. “I’m the oldest of five, too. Three younger sisters, one brother.”
Analiese smiled. “Big families are nice, aren’t they?”
Nick thought his big family was crazy and dysfunctional, but that really wasn’t his siblings’ fault. He smiled back and replied, “Yeah, I guess so.”
“Ring the dinner bell, Analiese,” said her mother, as she set two more plates out on the table. Analiese brushed past her and went out to the front porch, where Nick had noticed a large bell hanging. It was louder than he’d expected when he heard it ring. “The men will be coming in shortly from the fields,” Mathilda explained.
Sure enough, it wasn’t long before two men came stomping into the kitchen in their work boots, both dressed like Lukas. They hung their hats on a couple of pegs on the wall and sat down with Lukas and Nick at the table. Lukas repeated his introduction of Nick, and then Analiese chimed in, “Nick, this is my father, Joseph Albrecht. And this is our field hand, Emeric Roth.” She gestured to the younger of the two men, who looked about Nick’s age. Emeric was big and muscular, deeply tanned from working in the sun. He gave Nick an appraising look and tipped his head in a nod of greeting.
Joseph asked, “What brings you to our farm, Nick?”
Nick glanced at Lukas uncertainly before answering, “I, uh… I’ve been wanting to meet Lukas in person and experience the Amish culture. I grew up in the city, so this is all new to me.” It was a half-truth, anyway, and it sounded good, for having to wing it.
Lukas added, “Nick’s taking a semester off school and was hoping to stay with us and learn how to live plainly. Unfortunately, my parents aren’t open to having an Englischer in our home.”
An awkward look was passed around the table. A few seconds passed before anyone spoke, and it was Mathilda who broke the silence, as she started bringing dishes of food over to the table. Analiese jumped up to help her, and in no time, the table was heaping with food. It looked almost like Thanksgiving to Nick, who thought incredulously, This is lunch??
The dishes were passed, and everyone loaded up their plates. Nick picked up his fork, eager to dig in, until he noticed that everyone around him had bowed their heads. Oh, right, he thought, lowering his fork awkwardly. These people are religious. He had not grown up in the kind of family who prayed before meals, but he’d eaten enough dinners with Brian’s family to be used to this sort of thing. He bowed his head and folded his hands under the table, but he was surprised when Joseph started saying the prayer… in German. Nick didn’t understand a word, and he tried not to fidget as the prayer dragged on and on. Finally, it was over, and he muttered a grateful “Amen.”
At first, there was only the scrape of forks against plates, the clink of glasses being set down on the table, but eventually, Joseph spoke up. “You know, Nick, I’ve seen a lot of English folks aspire to simplify their lives by adopting some of our customs. But there’s more to being Amish than dressing plainly and living without electricity.”
“Oh, I know,” Nick replied quickly. “That’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m just here to… learn. Not convert or anything.”
Joseph nodded solemnly.
“Actually, Joseph, I wanted to speak with you about Nick,” said Lukas. “I know you could use some extra help in the fields, and Nick is willing to work in exchange for a place to stay. Might you be willing to take him on as a farm hand?” For being Amish and not particularly fond of Nick, Lukas played his part well and lied convincingly. For a second, even Nick started to think he had chosen to come, before he remembered the real circumstances that had brought him there.
Analiese added, “We do have the grossdaadi haus. Nick could stay there.”
Joseph chewed thoughtfully and washed his bite down with a long swig of milk. He took his time answering. When he spoke, all he said was, “You’ll be up at five a.m.”
“O-okay,” stammered Nick, his heart speeding up.
“You’ll work until suppertime, with a break for the midday meal.”
“You’ll work hard, and do as I ask?”
“Just show me what to do.”
A thin smiled twitched at Joseph’s lips. “Very well, then. You may stay in the grandfather house and help with the harvest. You’ll start tomorrow.”
Tomorrow’s Saturday, thought Nick, before he realized the Amish probably didn’t abide by the same sort of work week the English did, especially on a farm. “Thank you, sir,” he said, forcing himself to smile back, as he resigned himself to the new life he’d just agreed to. He still didn’t have a clue yet what he was getting himself into, but as he shoveled a forkful of potatoes into his mouth, he could at least attest to one thing.
The Amish made great food.