After the end of the Outside world, the Plain folk survived.
At the time, I didn’t know that the end of Outside had happened. None of us really did.We knew that something was wrong, of course. That knowledge trickled in slowly, like a leak in a roof. The signs accumulated, and then there was no denying the dark stain spreading over the pale ceiling of our world.
My first inkling was on a day in late September under a cloudless blue sky. The ravens had begun picking at the corn that was drying in the fields, black specks in the gold. I leaned on the wooden fence post, watching the birds scratch and listening to them caw to one another in their inscrutable hoarse language. The wire fence was pierced here by a wooden gate, to move farm equipment and cattle.This was a remote part of our little settlement of Plain people, but it made a good place to get away from chores and parents.
Beside me, Elijah had picked up a rock to scare the birds away.
“Don’t throw that,” I said, automatically.“It’s mean.”
Elijah looked at the stone, shrugged, put it down. He was a year older than me, but he would do anything I asked.Tall and lanky and sunburned from working outdoors,he cut a handsome figure: dark hair and hazel eyes that crinkled when he smiled. I wasn’t sure what I thought about that yet. We had grown up together. But things were changing.We both could feel it.
He leaned against the fence beside me, staring out at the field. I knew what he was looking at, the same thing I was . . . at what lay beyond the field. At the black ribbon of road just beyond the corn that carried the English to and from their business Outside. They drove their shiny cars down the two-lane highway, intent on going home or to work or school. At this distance, we could barely make out the drivers. Sometimes men or women drove boxy sedans in pressed suits and blouses. Often they would be couples with children strapped into harnesses in the back seat. Other times the drivers would be people around our age, talking on their phones or chatting with friends in the passenger seat.We were too far away to see their expressions. But during the summer, with the windows down, we could sometimes hear snippets of their laughter.
Since the time we were children, Elijah and I had made up stories about the people in the cars.We imagined that they were driving to the movies or going to parties. Once, we spied a sleek black limousine and fancied that it contained men in tuxedos and women in evening dresses. Maybe a group going to prom. It was as far away from our everyday world as we could envision.
“Someday that’s going to be us out there,” Elijah said, gesturing with his chin toward the road.
“Soon. Three more weeks.” I’d been daydreaming about Outside for so long. And it was almost time for Rumspringa. Literally, it meant “running around.” It was the time for young Amish men and women to go beyond the gate and taste the Outside world.After years of begging and pleading, my parents had finally relented and let me go Outside this year, on two conditions: that I wait until the harvest was completed, and that Elijah go with me.We wouldn’t be formally living together, of course. I intended to room with one of the girls I’d grown up with, Hannah Bachman. And one of Elijah’s friends, Sam Vergler, would go too. Sam and Hannah had been courting since Hannah had turned sixteen.We’d have a girls’ apartment and a boys’ apartment. Proper. But for all practical intents, Elijah and I would be going on Rumspringa together.
Though he could have gone sooner Elijah had declared that he wouldn’t participate in Rumspringa without me. He’d been saving money, apprenticing to a master carpenter and helping out with his father’s farm. He seemed content, though, with his day-to-day life, content with the waiting.And I knew that my parents hoped that Elijah and I would someday be married. Indeed, I couldn’t picture myself being married to anyone else . . . though I admitted that it would be strange to see him with a beard like the ones worn by all married Amish men, rather than his handsome, clean-shaven face. It was the destiny I’d accepted. I was Amish. I didn’t dislike my life and accepted the inevitabilities cheerfully. Still, I wanted the experience of Outside.To know that I’d made the right choice.To be absolutely certain.
There was a difference, I had decided, between knowing and believing. And I wanted both.
“What’s the first thing we’re going to do Outside, Katie?” Elijah asked, grinning.“Eat sushi?”
“Ugh. No.” I wrinkled my nose.This was a game we played often: When we are Outside . . . “I am going to buy a pair of britches. Jeans.”
He stood back and looked at me, considering. “You? In britches?”
“Ja,” I said, lifting my chin defiantly. “And I want to go to the movies.”
“The movies?” he echoed. He was still fixated on the jeans; I could tell by how he stared at my rump.“What kind of movie do you want to see?”
“I’m not sure.” I smiled slyly. I’d found a newspaper while Outside with my father earlier that day. He occasionally delivered fresh produce to a convenience store that catered to English tourists. If I picked the produce, I could keep the money. I kept mine squirreled away in a wooden box that Elijah had made for me, with the word rumspringa carved on the top. After we delivered the produce, I found the page of movies in a trash can outside of the store and had tucked it away in my apron pocket. I pulled it out now and smoothed it over the top beam of the fence.“See.There’s a lot to choose from.”
Elijah leaned over my shoulder, and I could feel his breath disturbing the tie on my bonnet. “Wow.” His finger traced over the listings.There was one that showed an explosion and soldiers in uniform. Another depicted a cartoon dragon with wings wrapped around a castle. I was partial to that one. It seemed magical, dangerous, and compelling. Though he was only printed in black-and-white, I imagined that the dragon was blue — blue as the sky at dusk.
“How about this?” Elijah pointed to an advertisement for a film that showed a female spy in a leather suit. Her breasts strained to be released from the zipper that contained them, and she held a gun longer than her impressive legs.
I peered at the woman in leather.“If you want. As long as I can see the dragon film.”
Elijah laughed.“I would think you’d object to that. But she is wearing britches.”
I shrugged. The woman seemed very unreal, as two-dimensional as the paper she appeared on. I wasn’t threatened by fantasy. “No. I’d be eager to see if she really looks like that in the film, though.”
“So am I.” He lifted his eyebrows. I swatted him playfully.
Our gazes gradually settled back to the horizon, at the black ribbon of road. The whine of an engine echoed in the distance, like a mosquito.
“Ooh, a speeder,” Elijah said. He stepped up on the lowest rail of the fence for a better look. Sometimes the speeders were followed by policemen with lights blazing and siren howling — a special thrill.
I shaded my eyes with my hand and peered at the faraway road.To my surprise, it was not a sports car that zinged along. This was a square sport-utility vehicle, piled high with luggage and boxes lashed to the roof. The driver, a man, was yelling. His wife was turned around in the passenger’s seat, and I could not see her face. Nor could I see the expressions of the children. But I could hear high-pitched crying.
“They must be in a hurry to go camping,” Elijah murmured. “I’m glad I’m not going on that vacation,” I said.
The vehicle sped out of sight, and no police car followed it. I frowned, feeling sorry for the family. That sense of unease was foreign to me. My parents had always given my younger sister and me a happy home. I had never been afraid of my father, nor could I remember him ever having a cross word with my mother. Like Elijah and me, they had grown up together. That familiarity had not bred contempt, and they didn’t concern themselves with what lay beyond the gate.
I did. And I wondered if Elijah and I would ever be like them.
I jumped, hearing my father’s voice behind me. I whirled, stuffing the newspaper page into my apron pocket.
My father was crossing the meadow to the fence. Under his straw hat and above his gray beard, I could see the glimmer of a smile.Though his voice was stern, he wasn’t angry with me. And I had never given him reason to be, never been disobedient . . . that he knew about. He didn’t know about the time that I’d spent at the county library when I’d been ostensibly studying to be a teacher. He didn’t know that I’d read about dinosaurs and planets and plenty of other things not accepted by the Amish. He may have suspected, but he didn’t know. And he was a fair-enough man not to punish me just for the simple suspicion of wrongdoing.
He nodded at Elijah. He never chastised me for spending time with Elijah.“Mrs. Parsall is here to see the puppies.”
I smiled,though my stomach churned. “She’s at the kennel?”
“Ja. She stopped by the house first, and I told her to go on to meet you there. She’s wondering how many puppies to expect for her customers.”
“I’ll see to her now.” “Good girl.”
I gave Elijah an apologetic smile and hurried across the sloping meadow to the weather-silvered barn in the distance.
My father had given me the responsibility of managing the family dogs three years ago. I’d been very proud to have the job — he even allowed me to set the prices and keep a portion of the money. He’d told me that it would help make a businesswoman of me. I’d made a profit every year, tucked it away in my Rumspringa box. Maybe it should have gone into the sparsely filled hope chest my mother had given me. But Rumspringa was the apple of my eye, my immediate future.
Running the kennel was often a challenge for me—letting go of what I loved.Though we’d always been kind to our dogs, we’d heard stories of others who weren’t so humane. Those tales made me very, very sad. I loved the dogs dearly, and it was hard for me to give them up. Even to Mrs. Parsall, who promised that she found them loving homes and showed me photographs that people had sent her of the puppies as they grew up. She sometimes told me what their new names were, though they were still classified in my head under the nicknames I’d given each and every one.
Mrs. Parsall was waiting for me outside the dilapidated barn, dressed in jeans and a floppy sun hat. She was a plump, middle-aged woman with blond hair and glasses that slid down her nose. I adored her. She extended her arms out for a hug, and her blue eyes crinkled. She often encouraged me to use her first name, Ginger, but that seemed too disrespectful.
“Katie, how are you, dear?”
I grinned against her shoulder.“Good, good. And you?”
Mrs. Parsall smiled. “Wonderful. And how is Sunny? Is she ready to have her babies?”
“Come see for yourself!” I pushed open the creaky sliding door and led her into the barn.“I expect she might go another week, maybe two. But she’s huge.”
Mrs. Parsall grinned.“That’s great. I have a waitlist . . .The more, the merrier.”
The barn was cool in shadow, and it took a moment for my eyesight to adjust from the brilliance of the day. It was an old gray barn, not for any good use for cows and horses anymore, and more than distant from my house. It sat a stone’s throw from the foundations of a house that had once existed decades ago. I’d been told that the house had been struck by lightning.The neighbors who once lived there moved east, and their property had fallen into disrepair. But it was my own little kingdom.
The Hexenmeister had painted a hex sign over the barn door years ago, when I’d started breeding dogs. The symbol he’d picked included sheaves of wheat, for fertility. That part was for the dogs. He’d also worked in spokes of purple tulips, signifying faith and chastity. That part was for me. I’d smiled when I saw it, but it felt like the Hexenmeister was giving me a lecture every time I saw the contradictory images.
Sunlight streamed into the barn through chinks in the old slats, and I smelled sweet hay.Though I called this place a kennel and there were wire cages, I rarely used them.The golden retrievers I raised were a good bunch and had free run of the farm, except when birthing or when the puppies were very small. It wouldn’t do to have one injured or have a bitch give birth in an unknown place.
But Sunny was here, waiting for me. She ran up to me, her bulging body wobbling as she came to greet us. She licked my hands and arms, made an effort to jump on my shoulders, but she was just too heavy with puppies for that kind of horseplay. Mrs. Parsall crouched down at Sunny’s level, and the dog vigorously washed her face with her tongue.
Mrs. Parsall ran her hands over Sunny’s sides. “Oh my. You look about ready to pop, old girl.”
Sunny wagged her tail. This was her third litter. She was a good mama, attentive and loving to her pups.
“Who’s the sire?” Mrs. Parsall asked.
“The papa is Copper. He’s likely to be around somewhere, maybe chasing chickens.”
“Ah. They’ll have beautiful pups.” She rubbed Sunny’s glossy stomach.“Just beautiful.”
“I think so,” I said modestly. “Copper has the broad chest and that dark gold. I’m hoping that the pups will inherit their mother’s desire to stay home, though.”
Mrs. Parsall kissed Sunny behind the ear. “A little wander-lust never hurt anyone.”
I laughed. “You’ve not seen Copper being chased by the rooster. He isn’t fond of the dog harassing his hens.”
Mrs. Parsall looked up at me through her bifocals. “This will be your last litter before you do the Rumspringa thing?”
I nodded. As eager as I was to experience Outside, a pain welled in my throat at the idea of leaving the dogs.“It will be. But I’ve been training my little sister about the dogs. She’ll care for them in the meantime.”
“How long will you be gone?”
I shrugged. “I’m not sure. I haven’t really thought about how long.” The group of us had talked about going north, to the nearest large city, to rent apartments and find some work. We could be gone a week or a year.
Or . . . a small voice in my head prodded. Or you could be gone for always.
But as much as I wanted to experience Outside, the Plain community was all I’d ever known, and I didn’t know if I had the desire or the fortitude to leave it permanently.
I suppose that was what Rumspringa was for. To test limits and make decisions. Most of the young people in our community came back after only a few weekends Outside, spent at amusement parks or camping. Some made no formal display of leaving.They just wandered to the malls and cities during the day, wearing jeans and makeup and experimenting with cigarettes and fast food in a halfhearted way before being baptized into the Amish faith and giving up those things for good. Very few Amish “jumped the fence” and stayed Outside. But it still seemed possible.Vague, but possible.
Mrs. Parsall smiled. “You are always welcome at my house. You know that.” Her home was empty now that her son and daughter had gone away to college across the country.Though she was very proud of them, I could tell that she was lonely. But contemplating Rumspringa at Mrs. Parsall’s house seemed a bit like a sleepover at a favorite aunt’s . . . not the full experience of Outside that I craved.
I gave her a spontaneous hug and a grin.“Thank you.”
She patted my cheek. “You just have to be careful. There are a lot of dangers out there for a young woman.”
“Don’t you mean for a naive young woman?” I didn’t bristle; my tone was teasing.
“For anyone.” Mrs. Parsall’s pretty moon face darkened.“It’s not like it used to be.”
“My parents went Outside for their Rumspringa,” I said. “They told me to be wary of the intentions of strange men. And smoking and drinking and staying out late.” My parents had raised me to be a so-called nice girl; they wanted me to return as one.
“Not only that. Things have become more violent.” She frowned.“There was a mass murder, not too far from here, last week. A whole family slaughtered in their sleep.”
I shuddered, though the idea seemed unreal as the movie advertisements.“I will have Elijah.”
“Just be very, very careful,” the older woman said. “It’s a dangerous world.”
“You sound like my parents.”
“All parents love their children. You should have heard the lecture I gave my kids before they left the house.” She grinned. “Though they were well-armed with cell phones, checking accounts, laundry soap, and condoms, I still worried.”
“Mrs. Parsall!” I could feel the blush spreading beneath my pale cheeks.Though I had seen the dogs breed many times and knew perfectly well what caused children, I was still uncomfortable with the idea of myself having babies. Or experiencing sex, for that matter.And love . . . love was a mysterious thing. I saw a lot of couples marrying out of a sense of acceptance, of duty. That was a kind of love, but not the passionate love that I saw people emphasize Outside.
“These are the facts of life, m’dear.” Mrs. Parsall chuckled. “Love and lust and laundry soap. Just ask Sunny.”
Sunny grinned her inscrutable canine grin, her pink tongue protruding beyond her teeth. She was a dog and already more wise than I was about such things.
I walked Mrs. Parsall outside the barn, through the golden field back to my house. No one but she and I and the dogs ever came back here, and there was no path worn in the grass.The sun had lowered on the horizon, shining through the leaves of sugar maple trees just beginning to yellow with the coming of fall. I could still feel the warmth of the day through the dark brown cotton of my dress. If I didn’t look up at the trees, I could almost convince myself that it was still summer. Almost.
But our community was bustling with the work of autumn and the activities of harvest: younger children gathered apples from a small orchard; men drove horses with carts containing bales of hay to barns; a group of women was busy gathering grapevines to make wreaths to sell in the English shops for Christmas.
We were a good-size settlement of Plain folk, about seventy families, spread over half a county. We had heard rumors of other Plain communities that were shrinking, owing to the youth and the spell of Rumspringa. And there were tales of other communities that grew so fast, there was no farmland for young families. But not ours. Ours had remained the same size and shape as far back as anyone could remember.There always seemed to be enough land for everyone to have at least forty acres to farm, if they wanted it.
And everyone seemed happy, unaffected by the schisms that seemed so common in other Amish settlements. The Bishop said that was because we stuck to the old ways. Everyone knew what was expected of us.There was no renegotiation of rules every time some new technology flew up a bonnet.The Ordnung was the Ordnung. Period. And we had been rewarded for following the Ordnung: there was always enough work and food and spouses and land for everyone. God provided for his people.
The pumpkin patch that my little sister tended was nearly as ripe as Sunny with distended gourds. There was one particularly large monster of a pumpkin that Sarah had a special fondness for.Twice daily she squatted beside it, whispering to it and petting it.Whatever she was doing seemed to be working — the pumpkin was easily over a hundred pounds, with another month to go before it would be severed from the vine.
Mrs. Parsall leaned against the bumper of her old blue station wagon. She pulled her keys from her pocket, gave me a one-armed hug.“You take care of yourself, kiddo.”
I grinned against her shoulder. But something dark against the blue sky caught my attention. I squinted at it, first thinking it to be a bird. But it wasn’t a bird at all.
I stepped back from Mrs. Parsall, pointing at the sky.“Look!”
A dark dot buzzed overhead, growing larger. It was a helicopter, flying so low that I could hear the whump-whump-whump of its blades. It was painted green with a white cross on the side, seeming to wobble in the blue.
Mrs. Parsall shaded her eyes with her hands, shouting to be heard above the roar.“It’s Life Flight.”
“It’s a what?”
“It’s a medical helicopter. From a hospital.” “It shouldn’t be doing that, should it?” “Hell, no. It — ”
The helicopter veered right and left, as if it were a toy buffered by a nonexistent tornado.The breeze today was calm, stirred by the helicopter blades and the roar. I thought I saw people inside, fighting, their silhouettes stark through a flash of window, then lost in the sun.The helicopter made a shrieking sound, the whump-whump-whump plowing through the air as it bumped and bucked. It howled over us, so close that I could have reached out and touched it if I’d been standing on the roof of our house.
Mrs. Parsall grabbed me and flung me to the ground. I shoved my bonnet back from my brow in enough time to see the helicopter spiral out of control, spinning nose over tail into a field. It vanished above tall tassels of corn.
For a couple of heartbeats, I saw nothing, heard nothing.
Then I felt the impact through my hands and the front of my ribs, bit my tongue so hard I could taste blood. Black smoke rose over the horizon.
“Oh no,” Mrs. Parsall gasped.
I scrambled to my feet, began to run. I heard Mrs. Parsall behind me, the jingle of her purse strap. I dimly registered her voice shouting into her cell phone. I ran toward the fire, across the grass. I swung myself up and over the barbed-wire fence, mindless of the scratching on my hands and in my skirt.
I plunged into the stalks of corn, taller than me, following the smell of smoke and the distant crackle of fire. I was conscious of the brittle yellow stalks tearing at me as I passed and realized that they were too flammable this far into the season. If the fire got loose in the corn, we’d have no way to stop it.
But my immediate concern was the people on the helicopter.
I ripped through the field and shoved aside blackened stalks of corn to view the site of the crash. The heat shimmered in the air, causing my eyes to tear up. I lifted my apron to cover my nose against the smell of oily smoke.
Fire seethed above me in a black and orange plume, curling around the husk of the dead helicopter. The bent and broken tail jutted out from the ground at an odd angle. The cockpit had broken open, flames streaming through the broken glass.
And I swore I saw something moving inside.