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Six months later
He dressed in his English clothes. Blue jeans. Plain white T-shirt. The cowboy boots he’d laid down a boatload of money for at the Western store in Berlin.
Anticipation sizzled inside him as he left his bedroom and stepped into the darkened hall. He didn’t like this secret thing he’d become. The part of him he barely recognized these days. But there was no stopping it. He’d learned to live with it. Some small part of him had learned to embrace it.
His parents’ bedroom door stood ajar; he could hear his datt snoring from within. The door to the room where his sisters slept was open halfway. He thought he could smell their sweet little-girl scents, and he smiled as he slid past. The door to his other sister’s room was closed. She’d been doing that for about a year now. Growing up, he supposed. Girls kept secrets, too.
He wasn’t unduly worried about getting caught as he started down the stairs. He was on Rumspringa, after all. For the last few months he’d pretty much done as he pleased; his parents pretended not to notice. He’d tasted whiskey for the first time. Bought his first car. Experienced his first hangover. Smoked his first Marlboro. He’d been staying out late and coming home at all hours. Of course, Mamm and Datt didn’t like it, but they held their tongues. They made excuses to his sisters. Your brother’s working a lot, they would say. But they prayed for his soul. It was all part of growing up Amish. Maybe the best part.
Around him, the house was silent and dark, the only light filtering in through the windows in the living room, twin gray rectangles set into infinite blackness. The aromas of lamp oil and the remnants of the fried bologna sandwiches they’d had for dinner mingled with the cool breeze seeping in through the screens. He pulled the note from his pocket as he entered the kitchen. Pausing at the table, he plucked the tiny flashlight from his rear pocket, shined the beam on the paper, and read it for the dozenth time.
Meet me in the barn at midnight. I’ll make it worth your while. ?
She’d written the words in purple ink. There were hearts over the “i”s and frilly little curlicues on the tails of the “y” and the “g.” The smiley face made him grin. He almost couldn’t believe she’d finally come around. After weeks of cajoling, and a hundred sleepless nights filled with the longing that came often and with unexpected urgency now, he would finally have her.
No time to waste.
He was wishing he’d thought to brush his teeth as he let himself out through the back door. Around him, the night was humid and breezy, the sky lit with a thousand stars. A yellow sliver of moon rested against the treetops to the east. Ahead, he could just make out the hulking silhouette of the barn sixty yards away. His feet crunched over gravel as he traversed the driveway and went up the ramp. The big sliding door stood open about a foot. Datt always closed it to keep the foxes and coyotes away from the chickens. She’s here, he thought, and an electric thrill raced through him with such force that his legs went jittery, his stride faltering.
He went through the door, the smells of horses and fresh-cut hay greeting him. The interior was pitch-black, but he knew every inch of the barn, and though he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face, he knew exactly where to find the lantern, on its hook hanging from the overhead beam. He reached for it, felt around, but for some reason it wasn’t there.
“Shit,” he muttered, and pulled the flashlight from his rear pocket, flicked it on. The shadows retreated to the corners, the beam revealing a floating universe of silver dust motes.
“Hello?” he called out. “You there?”
He listened, but there was no reply.
Puzzled, he walked past the wagon mounded with the hay he and Datt had cut last month. Next to it stood the old manure spreader with the broken wheel he’d promised to repair a week ago. In the back of his mind he wondered why the two buggy horses didn’t greet him from their stalls. No matter the hour, they were always ready for a snack and never shy about asking for it. He crossed the dirt floor, reached the step-up to the raised wood decking where they stored the burlap bags of oats and corn and chicken scratch. He stopped, sweeping the beam right and left. A grin spread across his face when he spotted the sliver of light beneath the door of the tack room.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are!” Lowering the beam, he started down the aisle.
At first, he thought it odd that she would choose the tack room. But on second thought the small space was clean, with a hardwood floor that was swept daily, and smelled of leather and saddle soap. It was the place where they stored the horse blankets, halters, and harnesses. More important, the door had a lock. Datt had installed it after a halter, a saddle, and two leather harnesses were stolen a couple months ago. He knew it was the Englischer down the road who’d done it. Probably sold them at horse auction in Millersburg for some quick cash. The guy was a thief and a boozer, to boot.
He hadn’t even laid eyes on her yet, but already he could feel his body responding as he drew closer to the tack room. His datt called it lusht and warned him to beware of its power. But what did an old man remember about lust? What did he remember about being eighteen years old? If God had put it into the hearts of men, how could it be bad?
Reaching the tack room, he twisted the knob and opened the door. Golden light filled the small space. The smells of freshly oiled leather and kerosene and the lingering redolence of her perfume filled the air. Two horse blankets had been spread out on the floor. Atop the old fifty-gallon drum, a candle on a little white dish flickered. She’d even brought a bottle of wine. Two plastic glasses, the kind with stems. His smile grew into a laugh as he stepped inside.
“The only thing missing is the girl,” he said, knowing she was within earshot, listening. “I wonder where she is.”
Keenly aware of his surroundings, knowing she had to be close, he flicked off his flashlight and walked over to the blankets. The wine bottle was already open. Setting the flashlight on the drum, he sat down cross-legged, resting his hands on his knees.
“If she doesn’t show up soon, I’m going to have to drink this wine all by myself,” he said, louder now, expecting her to sweep into the room at any moment, giggling and ready. He’d already gone hard down there, a heated pulse he could no more control than his own breathing. He could imagine the soft warmth of her body against his, the firm rise of her breasts, and he couldn’t believe he would finally have all of her tonight.
Reaching for the bottle, he poured, anticipating the sweet tang of red wine against his tongue. He was thinking about all the things they would do when the tack room door creaked. A quick jump of anticipation, then the door slammed hard enough to jangle the halters hanging on the wall.
Startled, he set down the bottle and rose.
The sound of the lock snicking into place sent him to the door. “What are you doing, babes?” He tried the knob, found it locked.
“Hey!” he called out. “Baby, you are so going to pay for this!”
Sounds outside the door drew his attention. Something being dragged across the floor. Heavy things thumping against the door. Perplexed, he jiggled the knob and forced a laugh. “What are you up to?” He’d intended for the words to come out playfully, but there was an edge in his voice now. He wasn’t in the mood for this kind of game. Not tonight.
“Come on, babes!” he snapped. “Enough playing around! Come on in here and keep me company!”
The sounds outside the door ceased. Curious, he set his ear against the wood, listened. Nothing.
“If I have to break this door down, you’re going to be sorry!” He tried to keep his voice light, add a playful note, but his patience was wearing thin. “You hear me?”
He waited a beat. Thought he heard footsteps. Wood scraping against wood. What the hell was she up to?
“All right, baby. Have it your way.” He jiggled the knob again, tamped down a rise of irritation. “I’m just going to pour myself a glass of wine and drink it without you.”
Moving away slightly, he braced his shoulder and shoved against the wood, testing its strength. The door shuddered, but held. Frowning, he jiggled the knob again. “Come on, baby, let me out. Whatever I did, I’ll make it up to you.”
When no reply came, his anger surged. Using his shoulder, he rammed the door. Another satisfying shudder. He was gearing up to do it again when the smell of smoke registered. Not from the candles or lantern. Not from a cigarette. Something was burning.
Cursing beneath his breath, he looked down and was shocked to see tendrils of smoke rising from beneath the door. Something definitely burning. Wood and hay. Kerosene maybe. What the hell?
All semblance of playfulness left him. He slapped his open palms against the door. “Open up!” he shouted, anger resonating in his voice. “You’re going to burn the damn place down, baby. Come on. This isn’t funny!”
Backing up, he got a running start and slammed his shoulder against the door. Wood creaked, but it didn’t give way. He set his hand against it, realized the surface was warm to the touch. What the hell was this? Some kind of joke? What could she possibly be thinking?
“This is a dangerous thing you’re doing!” he shouted. “Stop screwing around and open the damn door. Now!”
He listened, heard the crackle of what sounded like fire. Fingers of alarm jabbed into the back of his neck, sharp claws sinking in deep and curling around his spine. He stood back and landed a kick against the wood, next to the knob. Another satisfying crack. Raising his leg, he kicked it again. Part of the wood jamb split. He could see the brass of the dead bolt now. At some point he’d begun to cough. Smoke was pouring in from beneath the door, black and choking and thick.
“Come on!” he screamed. “Are you fucking nuts? Open the door!”
Coughing, he stepped back and lunged forward, his shoulder crashing against the door. Pain zinged across his collarbone, but he didn’t care. The door opened an inch. He shoved it with the heels of his hands. There was something in the way. Something outside the door. Too heavy to move. Through the gap, flames and smoke and heat rushed in, scorching his face and hands, stinging his eyes. He smelled singed hair and the cotton fabric of his shirt. He stumbled back, stunned by the scope of the fire, disbelieving that she would be so irresponsible. That this could be happening at all.
“Hey! Go get help!” Looking around wildly, he grabbed the bottle of wine, the only source of liquid, and thrust the open end toward the blaze. Wine splashed onto the fire and door, but it wasn’t enough to douse the flames. The fire seemed to drink it in and ask for more.
Heat sent him back another step. Smoke poured through the gap, hot black ropes twisting and rising, taunting him, reaching for him. Yellow flames licked at the wood, growing and moving closer. Raising the crook of his arm to his face, he rushed the door, slammed his body against it. Heat seared his shoulder, the side of his face, his ear, but he didn’t feel the pain. The lock had given way; he’d gained another inch. Hope leapt in his chest. But within seconds the opening ushered in a tidal wave of ferocious flames, hungry for fuel, gobbling up the dry wood, eating up the floor.
“Help me!” he screamed. “Fuck! Help!”
Smoke and fire streamed in through the gap. The heat scorched his face, set his lungs ablaze, stole all the air in the room. He could hear himself panting and gasping, every inhale like a hot poker shoved down his throat. Choking, he looked around, seeking something, anything, he could use to pound his way to freedom.
Through the thick smoke, he spotted the homemade saddle rack—dual two-by-fours formed into an inverted V and nailed to the wall. He shoved the saddle to the floor, raised his foot, and slammed his boot down on the boards. Nails screeched as they pulled from the wall, the rack slanting down. He stomped it again and the boards gave way, clattered to the floor. Another dizzying leap of hope as he snatched up one of the two-by-fours. Rushing the door, he swung the section of wood like a bat, slammed it against the door. Once. Twice.
On the third swing, the board tore through the wood. An instant of hope, and then fire burst through the hole, a roaring beast with flames tall enough to lick the ceiling.
Panic tore through him. The blaze was burning out of control. There were thirty bales of hay in the loft, dry as tinder and waiting to explode. If the fire reached that hay, he wouldn’t make it out.
Choking and cursing, he stumbled back. Too much heat now. Too much smoke to breathe. Ripping off his T-shirt, he dropped to his knees and set the fabric over his nose and mouth. Lowering himself to the floor, he rolled onto his back, raised both legs and rammed his booted feet against the door. Once. Twice.
The door gave way. Wood and ash and sparks rained down on him, embers burning his bare chest and arms and face. A rush of superheated air washed over him. Acrid smoke in his mouth. In his eyes. Through the haze he saw glowing cinders on his jeans, the fabric smoldering, the searing pain of a dozen burns. He brushed frantically at the tiny coals, but there were too many. Too much heat. Not enough air to breathe. Dear God …
Fire burst into the room, a rabid, roaring beast that came down on top of him, tore into him with white-hot teeth. Smoke seared his face and neck and chest. The full force of his predicament slammed into him. He screamed, twisted on the floor, rolling and flailing, trying to get away from the pain, but there was no place to go.
His lungs were on fire, burning his lips, his teeth, his tongue. Air too hot to draw a breath. Blinded by smoke and heat. Eyes sizzling in their sockets. The smell of burning flesh in his nostrils. I’m dying, he thought, and he was incredulous that this could happen.
“Datt! Datt!” But the words were little more than muffled cries. He rolled, clawing at the flames crawling over his body, but he hit the wall, no place else to go. No escape.
He tried to scream, but his spit seemed to boil in his mouth, his tongue clogging it like a piece of cooked meat.
With a final hideous roar, the fire swept over him. Red-hot teeth tearing into him, chewing him up, grinding flesh and bone into a molten ooze, and sucking him into its belly.
Copyright © 2018 by Linda Castillo