Read an Excerpt
Fire in the Night
Lancaster Burning Book 1
By Linda Byler
Good BooksCopyright © 2013 Good Books
All rights reserved.
The flannel cloth around his neck kept bothering him that night. It smelled of the Unker's salve that was slathered all over the cloth and was supposed to soothe his sore, dry throat. He put two heavy fingers between the cloth and his neck and struggled to turn on his side before a cough tore through his sensitive throat—burning like fiery sandpaper.
Fully awake now, he turned his large, ungainly body and struggled to sit up. Lowering his legs to the side of the bed, he extended one foot, searched for his schlippas (slippers), and muttered to himself.
His room on the first floor used to be an enclosed porch, the place Mam and Sarah did their sewing and quilting. The spray-painted coffee cans lining the windows held blooming geraniums of various ages.
His single bed was one from the hospital with wheels on it and a crank. Whenever he was ill, they would make him comfortable by turning the handle at the foot of the bed to lower his head or to raise it when the coughing started.
A white doily with a small brown pony embroidered on it and crochet work binding the edges covered a nightstand next to the high bed. An insulated carafe of ice water occupied a cork coaster next to a plastic tumbler with a blue bendable straw. A small battery-powered alarm clock sat invisible except for its illuminated numbers. A box of Kleenex, a bottle of Tylenol, and a tall green bottle of Swedish Bitters completed the assortment of necessities.
Levi Beiler was born with Down syndrome and gained weight easily, which was the reason he was a large man. He was the oldest of ten children, born to David and Malinda Beiler in the winter of 1977 when the snowplows opened the roads from Ronks to Gordonville in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
It had been a shock when their firstborn appeared different—the eyes so small and unseeing, the tongue so oversized and uncontrolled, the hands and feet square and without muscle tone.
"Siss an mongoloid, gel? (He's a mongoloid, right?)" she had whispered.
For some reason, it had been harder for David to accept—his firstborn son's defect a dagger to his heart. What had he done to deserve this? Was it a curse?
As was the Amish way, he examined his heart. He must have done something wrong for God to send them a "retarded" son. As always, the community rallied around them saying that God only sends special children to special couples, recognizing their outstanding abilities to care for them.
What a cute one! Grandmothers clucked and swaddled and gave advice. Grandfathers clapped David's shoulder and said He would provide strength for the coming days, and He had—far beyond anything they could imagine.
Levi was thirty-one years old now and still in reasonably good health. Except for his fiery throat.
The house was dark—no switches on the walls, no lights flicking on with the push of a finger, devoid of electricity. The small flashlight he normally kept under his bed was not in its usual place, so he turned to go to the kitchen, holding onto the doorway and then the wooden desk with his slippers sliding across the spotless linoleum.
A movement caught his eye. Something white.
Turning clumsily, he watched but could not see clearly without his glasses. Holding onto the brown recliner, he peered past the maple tree, its budding branches hanging just above his line of vision.
Well, that was a dumba monn (dumb man). Why would a white car drive past the house with no lights?
Moving to the window, he gripped the oak trim. Lifting the green blind slightly, he watched, his eyes narrow and brown and cunning. It was a small car, he thought. But with only a half moon to provide a little light, he couldn't tell for sure.
He held his breath and waited. A cough tore through his infected throat, and he squeezed his eyes shut tightly, struggling mightily to swallow.
Should he wake Dat? Maybe they were schtaelas (thieves).
Ach (oh), now he needed to use the bathroom. Turning away, he shuffled carefully through the darkened house with a small yellow sliver of light from the half-opened bathroom door to guide him.
Mam kept a small kerosene lamp burning all night for Levi, and now its soft, golden glow was a sign of her love and caring. He was glad he had a good Mam.
When he was finished, he washed his hands and dried them on the brown towel that hung by the sink and decided to go back to bed.
Likely someone turning around, he thought. He put the car from his mind, replacing it with the missing flashlight.
A white form appeared at his parents' bedroom door.
"Levi, iss sell dich? (Is that you?)"
"Are you alright?"
"Do you need help?"
"No, I'm going to take Tylenol."
"Where's your flashlight?"
"Lost. Ich bin aw base (I am mad)."
Smiling widely in the dark living room, Mam made her way across it, touched Levi's shoulder with one hand, his forehead with the other. She clucked and then shook her head.
"You have a fever."
Mam reached beneath Levi's pillow, retrieved the missing flashlight, and clicked it on, waiting while he poured the water and opened the pill bottle. He removed two pills and swallowed them, grimacing and moaning, watching his mother's face for any sign of sympathy, which was there, of course.
"Poor Levi. That throat of yours just acts up now and again."
"I need to eat more ice cream."
"Yes, you do."
Mam went back to bed, rolled onto her side, pulled up her knees, and fell asleep, listening to Levi settling himself in the night.
Upstairs, Sarah had left her west window open just a sliver, the crisp, spring air freshening her room with its fragrance. Her windows were covered with sheer beige panels with scarves of darker hues entwined on a heavy rod above them. So when a flickering light played across her pretty features, her wide, green eyes fluttered, squinted, and then opened completely.
At first she thought it was the swaying branches of the maple tree playing tricks with the light of the half moon. But the sheer beige panels hung still. Blinking, she watched the light. Chills crept up her arms and across her shoulders. Was she being visited by some heavenly spirit? God didn't send angels now the way he had in Bible times.
The light was intensifying. In one easy movement, her tall form sat erect, her eyes wide. A crackling!
Chills ran over her entire body; her nostrils flared. When her feet hit the floor, she was already running and pushing aside the curtains. She knew before she actually saw the grim spectacle before her. Through the branches of the large tree, a hot, orange light on the barn's east side danced, the mocking tongues of flame daring her to do something about them. She could only think of demons, of hateful, vengeful destructive devils in the form of licking flames, greedy in their intent to destroy.
A scream, primal and hoarse, tore from her throat. She backed away, a hand to her mouth, as if to stop that awful sound, that implication of horror.
She was aware of the floor creaking. She wasted no time, her hands on the walls to steady herself as she descended the stairs. She called out, or thought she called, but in reality it was another hoarse scream.
Her mother reached her first, a hand at the neckline of her homemade nightgown, her eyes wide with terror. By the light of the crackling flames, the kitchen had taken on an eerie, orange hue, with shadows that pulsed and danced.
Dat came to the bedroom door, his hair and beard wild in the undulating light. He yelled, then dove back to retrieve his pants, buttoning them as he reappeared.
There was a high shriek from Levi's bed. Instinctively, Sarah rushed to his bedside, telling him to stay calm. The barn was on fire, and she needed to make a phone call.
Dat was incoherent. Mam was shoving her feet into her barn shoes, crying out about dialing 911. Sarah pushed past them both, ripped open the kesslehaus (wash house) door, flew down the steps, and dashed across the lawn to the phone shanty beside the shed.
She tried to turn the knob three times, but it was stubborn. So she turned in the opposite direction, and the door flung inward. Turning her head, she gasped in terror as the voracious flames licked their way to the barn's rooftop.
The horses screamed. The high, intense sound scattered Sarah's senses for a second. Summoning all her strength, she focused on the telephone on the wooden shelf.
She had no flashlight. Her hands scrabbled wildly now, searching desperately for a source of light. She felt the smooth roundness of a small Bic lighter. Thank God.
Instantly, she flicked it with her thumb and held it steady. A tiny orange flame rewarded her with a small circle of light—ironically so necessary when only a few hundred feet away the same element was now destroying their livelihood.
Lifting the receiver, she jabbed hard at the 9 and then hit the 1 twice. Instantly, a dispatcher on the other end of the line spoke in clipped, precise tones. Sarah gave him articulate directions and then replaced the receiver, a terrible dread seizing her as she kicked open the door.
Acceptance would have been easier if she hadn't had to listen to the desperate cries of the horses. They thrashed and kicked, completely beside themselves with fear. Cows and heifers bawled, their raw fear transforming ordinary moos into sounds of frightful proportions. Sarah barreled straight through the stable door as flames roared overhead, the haymow fully engulfed.
Dat was a dark tragic figure now, so human and pitiful, somehow so unable. Mam, so small and helpless, shoved open the barnyard door.
With a cry and a yank, Dat released the cows from the iron locks around their necks, the lever opening them in perfect unison. Each cow backed over the gutter and turned, bawling, as Dat waved his arms. He yelled and yelled, the sound of his voice futile now, as the roaring and crackling became louder.
The horses! Oh, please!
The floor above them broke—the hissing, tearing sound a knell of doom.
Sarah dashed after her sister, whose sole purpose was to reach her riding horse, Dutch. Grabbing her by the shoulders, Sarah screamed and pointed to the break in the floorboards, the sparks raining down on the dry hay stacked by the stone wall. Priscilla wrenched her body from Sarah's grasp, flung herself along the corridor, and wedged beside the horse, desperately searching for the chain fastened to his halter.
It was then that the dry hay burst into flames, the sparks turning into blazing flares. One landed on Dutch's back. He screamed and pawed the air, but he remained tethered to his death by the chain. Sarah fought to contain Priscilla, who was crying out and babbling like a mad person, her need to save her beloved horse dispelling all common sense and thoughts of her own safety.
Choking on the thick, black smoke, Sarah tripped and pitched headlong toward the concrete corridor, the eerie flames consuming the rolling, tumbling smoke above them. As wailing sirens broke through the night, she thought this surely must be the hell written about in the Bible.
Clutching Priscilla, her knees torn from falling, Sarah crawled out of the barn to the stoop beside the cow stable and fell sideways onto the dew-laden grass. The night hissed black and orange as the menacing fire continued to swell. There was no time to rest.
Jumping up, Sarah ran to safety—a sobbing, terrified Priscilla on her heels.
"Stay here. I'm going to help Dat!"
Sarah was vaguely aware of Suzie and Mervin huddled together on the porch of the farmhouse, their faces white in the glow of the fire. Red fire trucks were screaming their way toward the barn, silver flashing on the wheels and sides of the huge vehicles. As the men in fire gear jumped down and wielded hoses, Sarah knew her help was now completely useless.
She turned to go back but felt Mam beside her and reached out a hand as Mam's arm slid about her waist. The cries of the tortured animals pushed Sarah's hands to her ears, where she clamped them as though her life depended on ridding herself of the terrible sounds.
"It's awful, I know. Oh, it's terrible," Mam kept repeating, over and over, as if her banal speech could fix it all.
Sarah was glad when Mam went to the porch to comfort Mervin and Suzie. Dropping down beside Priscilla, she pulled the younger girl against her lap. Pricilla lowered her head and shuddered from the force of her sobs.
They both cried out in high-pitched despair when the diesel fuel tank exploded, sending rockets of flames roaring high into the night sky, increasing the heat and velocity of the fire. That was when the animals' cries ended, each creature mercilessly engulfed and burned to death.
Sarah lifted her face to the night sky and found friendly white stars shimmering in the heavens, as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening. She wondered if God cared that their barn had turned into a raging inferno and trapped the innocent animals in its fiery maw.
Cars arrived, some with blue lights flashing on their roofs. Neighbors—Amish and English—appeared in the line that separated the light from the dark. They were like creatures emerging from a strange other world, their faces grim, their straw hats and camouflage caps all pulled down as if to shield their minds from the horror of it.
Sarah watched the line of men, most in black wearing wide hats, a silhouette of sameness and brotherly love. As neighbors, they stood by Dat, not saying much, their silence a better comfort than words. Words would be about as useless as their blazing barn, Sarah reasoned, so that was how the men likely viewed the situation.
Great streams of water continued to shoot from the expertly controlled hoses. The trained firemen on duty went about their business saving what they could, which Sarah knew wasn't much. The flames hissed where the water rained down on them, sending up plumes of white steam that were immediately swallowed up by rolling billows of black smoke. And still sirens wailed as more fire trucks rumbled to the scene.
The flames crackled, hissed, and steamed. The fire engines idled, and pumps roared to life as firemen swarmed about. The police arrived wearing dark uniforms with pistols and gold braids and an air of authority. Dat looked old and a bit humpbacked, his homemade Amish clothes drab and ill-fitting, his beard wagging as he told the officers what he knew. Sarah guessed it probably wasn't much.
The night burned into a weariness after that. As Priscilla continued crying, everyone crowded around Dat, the darkness taking back some of the light as the water quenched a fraction of the flames.
Looking down at her sister, Sarah bent her head and whispered, "Hush, hush."
Priscilla nodded, rubbed a forearm across her face, and said, "Let's go in."
Together they walked across the yard and up to the porch, where Sarah thought she heard a soft sound, a calling, but she couldn't be sure. Opening the door, she heard Levi crying out for assistance. Mam had already heard him and, after putting the smaller children back to bed, was a step ahead of Sarah.
"I can't find my flashlight!" Levi said indignantly.
"It's under your pillow, Levi. You don't need it. The house is bright from the fire," Mam assured him.
The loss of his flashlight, coupled with his fever and pain and the terror of the fire, was the small frustration that threatened to send him into one of his seizures. They were frightening to watch, the way his eyes rolled back in his head and his body became rigid, his head jerking and flopping. It was then that he could slide out of bed and fall on the floor with a terrible crash. They always worried about a broken hip or shoulder.
"I want my flashlight!" Levi bellowed.
Sarah quickly thrust a hand deep under his pillow and sighed with relief when an object hit the floor on the other side. She retrieved it, handed it over, and Levi grasped it greedily to his chest. He immediately quieted himself, the object a solace to him and his safety.
He sat, a large lump of a man, his hair disheveled, his beard uncombed, his eyes watering with the fever. Morose but calmed, he watched the barn burn.
Sarah found Levi's glasses, washed them in hot running water, and dried them with a clean paper towel. She brought them back and placed them on his face gently so he wouldn't get upset.
"You know an dumba monn drove his car in here." He said it flatly, without expression, his voice gravelly with the infection in his throat.
Excerpted from Fire in the Night by Linda Byler. Copyright © 2013 Good Books. Excerpted by permission of Good Books.
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