Somewhere in the woods of Pennsylvania
Lara stared into the dirty brown water pooled at the bottom of a chipped mug, closed her eyes and pretended it was a bowl of the rich vegetable soup her nana used to make especially for her. She took a sip and moaned.
The sound echoed through the stillness of the woods and startled not only Lara, but her companions as well. She hadn’t intended to be so loud, or maybe the silence of the forest exacerbated her small cry of despair.
“You need your strength,” Mrs. Potter said. “I know it tastes awful, but it is the best we can do.” Mrs. Potter patted Lara’s arm encouragingly and moved on to comfort and reassure the other girls huddled in a circle on logs around their campfire.
As she watched the older woman interact with the others, Lara fought against despondency.
A week before, her life had been idyllic, filled with anticipation and hope. The fall semester of her senior year in college and prospects loomed brightly for Lara. A member of the college social committee, teaching assistant for the most popular professor on campus, and a supportive family helping her to plan her future.
Yes, life was working out even better than she could have imagined.
And then one day when she was heading back to the dorm after class—a day just like any other, the sun sparkling brightly in the clear blue sky—the ground started shaking. At first, she didn’t think it was anything unusual, but in a matter of seconds the gentle rumble morphed into a violent tumult. Trees swayed like wheat fields on a windy day and buildings cracked and crumbled. Terrified students screamed and ran in all directions. Amidst the chaos, Lara’s thoughts turned to Armageddon.
Remembering that week’s chapel service on The Last Days, she couldn’t help but wonder, was this it?
While others scattered in search of shelter, Lara had been frozen in place, dumbstruck by the chaos around her.
Miraculously, she had survived.
Nearly everyone else on campus had not.
In the seven days since the earthquake that destroyed their college, and as far as they knew, possibly everything and everyone in the nation, Mrs. Potter was the only member of their group who had not succumbed to the utter misery that had overtaken the band of survivors. Lara assumed it was an act meant to keep their spirits up. What else could it be? As their house mother, Mrs. Potter no doubt continued to feel responsible for her girls even though guiding the troop of terrified students into the woods for miles was well beyond her job duties.
Lara forced herself to take another sip and did her best not to pull a face. There was no point in complaining. They all needed to keep their wits about them if they were going to survive, though if this was what survival felt like, she wasn’t so sure she cared to continue.
The sun glinted through the trees. They did their cooking during the day and doused the flames before darkness fell in order to avoid drawing undue attention to themselves, although they had not encountered any other humans in the past seven days—at least none that were alive. Lara shuddered at the memory of mangled bodies in the rubble of their dormitory. Still, if they had lived, it made sense that others likely had as well.
Including Lara and Mrs. Potter, there were a total of seven who had survived the earthquake. Once the dust had settled and it was clear there were no other living beings, the shaken group had foraged through the ruins for as many supplies as they could carry. In retrospect, they had chosen poorly in many instances. None of them had any experience in roughing it. Bringing their electronics along had seemed wise at the time, but it quickly became evident that all communication across the country had halted. Whether from technical problems or due to the deaths of all who might run the systems, Lara dared not ponder.
Mrs. Potter insisted they eat a hot meal each day, even if that consisted of a putrid soup made from stream water they boiled endlessly before adding roots and herbs they gathered in the woods. In the past, Lara had rolled her eyes whenever Mrs. Potter talked about the healing powers of herbs, but now she was grateful for the older woman’s knowledge and kindly spirit. She hated to consider what might have happened to the ragtag group of girls if Mrs. Potter had not been around to take charge.
Scanning those around the fire, she considered the young women who were now her only companions in a world that, for all they knew, was completely unpopulated.
Shawna and Kimber sat a bit apart from the rest. They’d been roommates since their first year on campus. Lara had lived across the hall from them and envied their instant camaraderie. In this hell-hole that their lives had become, she envied them even more. She wished she had a best friend amongst the group.
In a twist of fate, which she had not allowed herself to dwell upon for more than a fleeting moment here and there, Lara’s best friend and roommate, Misty, had been killed when their dormitory collapsed, while the roommate she’d been assigned as a firstie, Brittany, had survived.
Lara had instantly known she and Brittany were not a good match, but she’d given it a few weeks hoping things would change. They had, for the worse. Despite their obvious incompatibility, Brittany had not taken Lara’s decision to move out well. The two had barely spoken in the three years since.
And now they had to rely upon each other for their very existence.
Lara glanced at the final member of their little tribe, Katie, and smiled. In the midst of despair, Katie made her feel better. Chubby and cheerful, she had joked and tried to keep their spirits up as they trudged through the dense woods.
Ooops. She’d forgotten about Grace. The quiet girl was seated on a stump behind the rest of them, head bowed over a Bible.
They washed up their dishes and doused the fire, then each went to their preferred sleeping area and bedded down as best they could on the forest floor.
Lara had the first watch. Armed with a sturdy tree branch and a blanket around her shoulders, she sat on a stump on the edge of their encampment staring into the darkening woods. Keeping watch provided her with time to think while the others were quiet, even if they were not sleeping.
Much as Mrs. Potter attempted to buoy their spirits with talk of finding others and possibly an area that had not been destroyed, Lara had seen too much death and destruction to pin her hopes on such fantasies. As far as she could tell, they were doomed. In the few days they’d been homeless, the nighttime temperatures had already begun to drop. It seemed that since the earthquake the weather patterns had been totally disrupted and what ought to have been warm fall weather had become uncommonly cool. If they didn’t die of starvation, they’d eventually freeze to death.
Mrs. Potter was clearly their leader and she’d done a good job. However, Lara believed they needed to be more aggressive about leaving the woods and seeing who or what they might find beyond the dark, damp forest. Mrs. Potter believed they were safer hiding in the trees.
Maybe it was safer, but how long could they survive on roots and berries, especially with winter approaching?
Despite the complete destruction of their entire community, Solomon Miller and his sons rose before the sun as they always had and broke their fast around the large family dining room table.
Caleb, the second eldest, glanced around the room, still amazed that their house stood after the earthquake. Had it been divine intervention that a wall of their storm cellar had collapsed the day before the devastation hit so that when the mighty quake happened, all seven members of the family had been below ground making repairs?
When their father decided it was safe to exit the storm cellar and the men saw that their house and barn were intact, they assumed everyone in their sect had been as fortunate. Perhaps the tremor had sounded worse than it really was. Sadly, they were wrong. The three eldest sons, Daniel, Caleb, and Gabriel, had been dispatched in the wagon to check on their friends. They had not been prepared for the horror of seeing the home of their nearest neighbors collapsed into a heap of splintered wood. They had searched the debris of the whole farm hoping to find a sign of life, but all of the Stolzhaus family had been lost.
Determined to find life amidst the ruin, the three brothers had spent the entire day traveling from farmstead to farmstead desperately searching for their friends and family. Finally, when nightfall made additional travel perilous, they returned home to share the shocking news with their father and brothers.
The Miller family had been through many difficult times, most significantly the death of their dear mother a few years earlier when she had given birth late in life to a much longed for daughter. The wee babe did not outlive her birthday and both were buried together in the family plot.
In the years since, the boys had matured, each taking on household duties. Many a young lass had offered services to the handsome family, but all had been politely rebuffed. Solomon’s widowed sister, Agnes, had moved in with the family to take on the womanly chores. When the earthquake hit she had been in Ohio visiting relatives. In the years since their mother’s passing, the Miller boys had become quite fond of their aunt Agnes and though none of them had spoken aloud of their concerns for her, they held out hope that she was safe, wherever she was.
Despite the care provided by Aunt Agnes, the Miller men were able to fend for themselves. Solomon encouraged independence and competence in his boys and if that meant Benjamin could bake a pie worthy of a county fair ribbon and Caleb’s hands were red and raw from doing the laundry, then so be it. Others in their community believed Solomon to be a bit too progressive in his ideas of the roles of men and women and he had been brought before the elders to explain himself. Shortly thereafter Aunt Agnes had come to live with them. Still, Solomon insisted that his sons continue their training in household chores, not wishing to burden his sister with the entire weight of caring for six growing sons.
However, Caleb couldn’t help but wonder how life might have been different if he had taken a wife. Though they had a sturdy roof over their heads, a stocked larder, crops in the field, and even a few remaining animals, a future where he and his brothers grew old together without any hope of families of their own loomed as a grim prospect.
None of them had spoken of the future, but Caleb knew his brothers well enough to recognize that their thoughts were similar to his own. He loved his father and brothers, but yearned to lead his own family. He’d spent the last year building a house for himself on a distant corner of the family property. His plan had been to set about courting a proper wife once he had a home to bring her to. Who could have predicted the events of the last seven days? If he’d had any idea, he would have changed his priorities. A few small tasks remained until the house would be complete, but the work seemed pointless now. When the earthquake was over, he had been surprised to see his unfinished house had withstood the mighty tremor.
Much of life seemed pointless.
The meal ended and the brothers, all save Benjamin who stayed behind to tend to the kitchen, headed out for a day of chores.
Caleb paused when he stepped inside the barn. He glanced at the draft horses, Abraham and Sarah, noting the irony that the horse had a mate while he, their master, did not. Sensing something wrong, he held still and surveyed the interior of the building. The usually sedate beasts pawed the straw in their stalls and swished their tails. It could be nothing. All the animals, and humans, had been on edge since the earthquake.
Curious, he walked as quietly as a six foot tall Amish man in work boots could toward the stall and peered in.
Lara sighed, wrapped the heavy blanket more closely around herself and drifted back into a deep sleep, the best she’d had in over a week.
She’d never been so close to horses before, particularly not massive creatures like the draft horses whose stall she’d invaded, but something about the animals made her feel secure, so she’d bedded down in the back corner of their area telling herself she’d just take a short nap before waking at dawn to explore the homestead she’d discovered.
She’d drifted off to sleep with visions of meat and potatoes dancing in her head.
Unfamiliar noises roused her. Daylight flickered through the slats in the wall of the barn and she realized she’d slept later than she’d planned. Sitting up quickly, she pushed the blanket away and got to her feet. She carefully walked around the perimeter of the stall whispering “nice horsey” to her hosts. With her back to the door, she reached behind to open the latch. Instead of a wooden panel, her hands grasped what could only be the well-muscled midsection of a man.
She shrieked and spun around, coming face to face with a man whose broad shoulders blocked her vision. His dark eyes flashed with surprise to match her own. When he reached out to grab her, Lara dove to her left and scuttled past him, but instead of running toward the door and escape, she ran directly into a dim corner of the barn, with the large farmer close behind.
Aggravated by her horrible sense of direction, she pulled up short just before slamming into the back wall of the building.
“Hold still, I mean yee no harm,” the hulking man said when he caught up to her.
Lack of proper nutrition, as well as general panic induced by surviving a cataclysmic event, turned the usually sensible Lara into a frightened animal. Seeing a wooden ladder leading up to the second story of the barn, she began to climb, ignoring the farmer’s plea that she stop.
She’d only made it to the third rung when the frustrated man grabbed hold of the back pockets of her jeans, which had become perilously baggy after a week of living in the woods eating scavenged food. While Lara went up the ladder, her pants and her pursuer went down. Unrelenting, he yanked again, pulling her from the ladder and the two of them tussled in a pile of hay on the floor.
“Yee fight like a mountain lion, woman. Stop at once.” The man’s voice was warm in her ear and though she had little energy remaining, she struggled onward, grabbing hold of his shirt and yanking it open. His muscled chest arrested her attention momentarily but she continued to thrash against him.
He quickly overpowered her and rolled them both so that she was pinned beneath him. Panting, she stared up into his face, which hovered inches above her own. Mesmerized by his somber eyes with amber flecks, an overwhelming urge to kiss him came over her. She couldn’t overpower him with her muscles, but she was still a woman. Pulling his face to hers, she kissed him. Hard.
The weight of his body atop hers, combined with the struggle, had lit a fire of desire inside her.
At first, her attacker appeared surprised by her change of tactics, but soon adjusted, his lips warm against hers. She grasped the muscles of his bare shoulders, his shirt having fallen halfway down his arms, and relaxed into the soft hay beneath her.
“Caleb! What the devil are yee doing?” Lara blinked at the intrusion and suddenly remembered where she was. She pulled her mouth away and turned to see an older man with a beard, hands on his hips, staring down at them. Behind him, four young men stood gaping at the scene—her jeans around her ankles with only a thin pair of panties covering her private parts while she clung to a practically shirtless man who was kissing her quite soundly.
Caleb quickly stood, reassembling his shirt. “Father, I found her in the stall with Abraham and Sarah.”
The older man, presumably Caleb’s father, looked from Caleb to Lara, who felt a serious blush covering her entire body, then back behind his shoulder at the horse stall. “If yee found her over there,” he gestured with his head, “what’re the two of you doing over here?”
Lara, suddenly very aware of her nearly nude bottom half and the curious looks of the young men whom she suspected were Caleb’s brothers, reached down to pull up her jeans. Once covered, she stood, not sure what to do or say. Caleb’s father continued to stare at his son, waiting for an answer. The brothers focused on her, and she wondered how long it had been since they’d seen a woman.
Instinctively she stepped back and to the side, partially shielded from their view by the mass of man that was Caleb.
“I chased her, Father,” Caleb said.
“She didna look like she was running just now,” his father replied. His stern voice sent a shiver down Lara’s spine, but Caleb stood his ground.
“She is not very fast, sir.”
“‘Tis difficult to run with your pants pulled down around your ankles,” his father replied. The brothers snickered and Lara noted that their father seemed to struggle a bit to keep his lips in a straight line.
The father held his hand out to her. “Come here, child,” he said. His eyes were dark like Caleb’s but weary and kind as well. She stepped forward, hands clasped at her waist.
“What is your name and what are yee doing here?” the gentleman asked, his voice much softer than when addressing his son.
“My name is Lara. I-I came looking for food and shelter.” She glanced from the father to the sons standing in a semi-circle behind him.
“I am Solomon Miller and these are my children.” He gestured to the group of men, pointing to each and naming them. “Daniel, Gabriel, Josiah, and Samuel. Benjamin, the youngest, is at the house.” Each of the sons doffed their hat and nodded when introduced. “You have already met Caleb. I apologize for my son’s ungentlemanly behavior.”
“I-I kissed him first,” she confessed, lowering her gaze.
Mr. Miller chuckled. “Aye. ‘Tis that true, Caleb?”
“Yes, Father.” Caleb spoke with respect to his father while maintaining his own stature.
Based on their dress and manner of speaking, Lara assumed they were Amish. Recalling that Amish men allowed their beards to grow when they got married, she noted the clean-shaven faces of all the sons, particularly Caleb, as well as the absence of any women. The hungry looks of the younger men made sense. And gave her a bit of a chill.
“Where did yee come from?”
“I have been hiding in the woods since the earthquake. I am… was… a student at Collier College.”
“That’s twenty miles away,” Caleb said. “Did yee travel that far alone?”
“Y-yes,” Lara lied. Although the Amish family seemed friendly, the fact remained that the world as they all had known it just a few days before had changed into an unfamiliar and dangerous place. Caution ruled her thinking and she dared not reveal the whereabouts of her classmates and Mrs. Potter. Not yet, at least.
“Well, we always have room at our table for a stranger in need,” the father said to Lara before turning to Caleb. “Please take our guest to the house and see that Benjamin prepares a decent meal for her. Stay with her until I return.”
“I can take her, Father.” One of the brothers—their names had become a muddle in her brain, but she believed him to be Daniel—stepped forward. Two others chimed in with offers.
“Nay, there’s work to be done. Caleb shall see to the girl and we shall see to our chores.”
Caleb noted Daniel’s glare when he stepped forward and claimed his prize. As the eldest of the Miller brothers, Daniel was used to getting what he wanted.
Not this time, brother.
Caleb touched her elbow. “This way, Lara.” Her name on his lips sent warmth through his body.
She smiled up at him and softly said, “Thank you.”
As Caleb escorted the beautiful girl out of the barn and across the lawn to the homestead, he grinned, happier than he had been in weeks. Even before the earthquake he had felt a gnawing emptiness, like there was something else in life for him. What that something else could be had been a mystery. He had followed all the traditions of his community and once his house was finished, he intended to find a bride. At social events and church gatherings, he had surveyed the pool of potential spouses eagerly. While they were all pretty, pious young women who would make any man a good wife, none of them had lit a fire of excitement within him.
Until a little hellcat hid in the barn, wrestled with him, and then kissed him, that is.
He was ashamed to admit that since the earthquake he’d forced himself to banish thoughts of a wife and family. It was a futile effort.
He glanced down at Lara, taking in her doe-like brown eyes, silky hair, and kissable lips.
Maybe there was a point now.
“You have been alone for a week. That must have been very frightening.”
She peeked up at him from beneath her lashes. “The whole event was terrifying,” she said, her voice quivering. A lump formed in his throat, thinking about this poor little girl all alone in the forest after surviving such a horrible tragedy.
He had been frozen in place, huddled with his brothers during the trauma, and continued to have nightmares about the horrific day and its aftermath. He could not even fathom what it might have been like for a small wisp of a girl like Lara, all by herself.
“Well,” he said, trying to be comforting, “you are here now and we will keep you safe.”
Lara looked up at him with her big trusting eyes, unshed tears threatening at the corners. “Thank you,” she whispered. “I have been so frightened.” She rested her warm hand on his arm and gave a gentle squeeze. “I am just so relieved to be here, with you to protect me.” She covered her face with her hands and cried. Great racking sobs that to Caleb sounded like they came from deep within her soul. It broke his heart.
He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her against his chest. Although the Amish were unused to such emotional outbursts, Caleb was not uncomfortable. Everything about Lara was just perfect as far as he was concerned. They stood that way for several minutes. He stroked her hair and murmured soft comforting sounds while she poured out her agony against his fresh white shirt. When her sobbing slowed, he reached into his pocket and passed her his handkerchief.
His instinct was to gather the little thing up in his arms, find the nearest rocking chair and lull her to sleep like the sweet girl she was, but that would be highly improper. Besides, she was an adult, a college student, not a child.
She brought out the strangest combination of feelings in him. A deep desire to protect her like a young girl and also to know her as a woman.
What a bunch of foolishness. He’d just met her. He was letting his loneliness, and the apparent lack of any other women for miles, at best, overshadow his good sense.
“If you’re ready, we can go inside. Benjamin is a good cook.”
She returned his handkerchief to him. “I seem to have gotten it all wet,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”
Stuffing the damp rag into his pocket, he reassured her. “Please, do not be sorry. I am happy to be able to help you.”
Caleb had not exaggerated when he said Benjamin was a good cook. The youngest of the Miller brothers, Lara guessed him to be about fifteen, stared with surprise when Caleb entered the kitchen with a girl, but he recovered quickly and hurried to prepare a plate of food for her.
Pancakes, sausage, and hot coffee. The most delicious meal she’d ever had. It took every ounce of willpower she possessed not to shovel the bounty into her mouth in great heaping forkfuls, though she chewed and swallowed at a shocking pace.
Her breakfast companions, Caleb and Benjamin, sat across from her, sipping coffee and no doubt marveling at her ability to put away food.
“I’m so sorry,” she said after cleaning her plate for the second time. “I’ve been living off of herb tea and a few nuts and candy bars that I was able to salvage from the wreckage of my dorm. Of course, the good stuff was gone first and that left me with just what I could find in the forest.”
“Why did you hide in the woods?” Caleb asked.
“Mrs.… um, it seemed like a good idea. I didn’t know what had caused the earthquake or who else had survived.”
“Have you seen any other people?” Benjamin asked.
Lara had a mental picture of Mrs. Potter and the rest of the girls sitting around the campfire drinking the horrid herb tea and guilt knotted in her stomach. When Grace had relieved her of guard duty, Lara had gone back to camp and left a note for Mrs. Potter asking them not to worry or risk their safety looking for her. Maybe she should have spoken to Mrs. Potter about her plan, but she didn’t want to defy the housemother if she’d forbidden Lara’s departure. At the very least, she needed to find a way to take some food back to them, but she still did not feel safe revealing everything to her hosts. “No,” she said between sips of coffee, “not a soul.”
“The same for us,” Caleb said, lowering his head and slowly shaking it back and forth, as though trying to rid himself of reality. “We checked on other members of our community, and none survived.”
The trio was silent for a few moments, each with their own thoughts. Finally Lara said what she suspected they were all thinking, “Why did we survive when others didn’t?”
“Aye,” Benjamin said shyly. He was gradually warming up to Lara. “I have been asking myself that same question. What do you think, brother?”
Caleb paused and looked out the window, gathering his thoughts. “I do not know,” he said. “All I can say is that I believe we have been spared for some unknown purpose.”
She reached across the table and squeezed his hand. “Thank you, Caleb. I needed to hear that.”
Caleb placed his other hand atop hers, enveloping it between both of his and looked at her with wonder. “Lara,” he said, his eyes gazed at her earnestly. “You are an answer to prayer. I have been asking the Lord for a bride and now here you are. I claim you as my wife.”
Benjamin gasped and Lara gaped, then smiled and nodded in agreement.