Hanna held up a small, faded mirror to inspect her appearance. A pair of haunted but determined blue eyes stared back. A hint of blond hair peeked from beneath her black kapp, and her cheeks looked paler than usual, almost sickly. Apprehension twisted her stomach, but her pulse raced with determination. She placed the mirror down and glanced around her small room, making certain all the belongings she wished to take had already been gathered. A quick getaway was necessary. A bag containing her few treasures waited between two rocks in the cornfield. She’d placed it there two days prior.
The aroma of baking bread and the light clatter of dishes greeted her as she tiptoed down the steps, careful not to wake her youngest nieces and nephews who were still asleep. Her sister-in-law, Sarah, was always the first one awake. Normally Hanna would take a place beside her to get breakfast started. Today wasn’t a normal day though.
She paused at the bottom of the steps and closed her eyes, imagining what her life would be like if she stayed. Emptiness consumed her, giving her the resolve to keep moving and not back down from the difficult decision she’d already made. The expectations that rested on her shoulders were a burden she refused to bear. The life she faced if she stayed in his house was a blackness enveloping her soul and her very will to live. Change was the only cure. The only way to change was to leave. She’d known this her whole life, even as a small child.
Hanna approached the kitchen and lingered in the doorway. “Sarah?”
“Good morning, Hanna. Help me with these pie crusts. The babies will be awake soon. I have eggs and oatmeal ready.” Sarah glanced over her shoulder.
“I’m leaving, Sarah.”
“What?” Sarah turned to give her a sharp, disapproving scowl.
“I’m not going to join the church. I’m certain of it, and now I know I must leave.”
“Where will you go?”
Hanna debated telling Sarah of her plan, but decided against it. No one would follow her or try to bring her back, but it still seemed best to keep it a secret. “I’ll be fine. Trust me. I have a place to go and know someone who will help me find Eli.”
The color drained from Sarah’s face. “How dare you speak his name?” She turned to focus on the pie crust, dusting it with flour before rolling it out with angry movements.
Until now, Hanna had only whispered her oldest brother, Eli’s, name in secret, tucked under her covers at night. Even when she visited the English neighbor, Ben Foster, who allowed her to send Eli letters from his address, she’d never uttered his name as loud as she had now. It felt right. Liberating.
Hanna’s gaze traveled around the plain house. The walls threatened to close in. It was a heavy feeling that never left her, a suffocating tightness in her chest that sometimes clouded her vision. Nothing about being Amish felt right. Deep down, she’d always known she hadn’t belonged. Not really. Her few interactions with the English energized her and made her long for a different life. A life far away from these Pennsylvania mountains. Eli lived in Oregon, and she hoped beyond hope to see his face again.
Hanna straightened. “Good-bye, Sarah. I told the babies good-bye last night when I tucked them in.”
Sarah continued rolling out the dough with her back to Hanna. At least she had tried to leave on good terms, though there was really no such thing. Those who didn’t join the church might as well be dead. Even worse than dead. Erased from existence. Sarah would live the rest of her life never speaking Hanna’s name, as would the rest of their community. Hanna wondered if any of them would whisper her name in secret while tucked under their covers at night.
The solitude she felt within her huge Amish community had always been her secret sorrow. She’d tried so hard to capture the sense of community her family and friends felt here, the genuine happiness she saw all around her, but it was no use. After years of trying to force it, she finally realized it couldn’t be forced.
The screen door banged shut as she fled the house. The early August air was cool but promised a warm day. From the front porch, she scanned the farm through the faint morning light. To her left over the tree-covered mountain, the horizon glowed pink with the imminence of sunrise. At this hour, the best place to find her daat was in the barn. Determined to face him bravely, she took a deep breath and set off. Nerves turned her stomach sour, her heart accelerated, and her palms broke into a sweat. Was this how Eli had felt before he left? Brave yet terrified at the same time?
“Daat?” She crept through the open doors. The smell of hay and animals surrounded her. “Daat?”
“I’m here, Hanna.” From behind an out-of-order milking machine, he popped up and wiped his brow on the back of his sleeve. He scratched at his thick, brown beard and raised an eyebrow. “What is it? Why are you wearing shoes?”
She glanced at her feet. During the summer, the only reason she, as well as Sarah and the children, had to wear shoes outside was to go to church or for a rare trip into town. In contrast, her daat and brothers worked around machinery and large animals, so they wore boots year round. She finally met his gaze, his impatient scrutiny. “I’ve made a decision about joining the church.”
The large vein on his temple pulsed. Anger, a warning, flared in his cold blue eyes. He swallowed hard and wiped at his brow again. “And?”
“I’ve decided not to. I’m here to say good-bye.”
“You’re a foolish girl!” he spat out, rounding the milking machine to approach her. Though he walked with a limp, she instinctively backed up, ready to make a fast escape should he become violent. “The Devil’s Playground looks good to you, does it?”
Hanna trembled and stepped back. “This life isn’t for me.” She gestured to the door behind her, looking at the rolling fields behind the house. “I don’t belong. Just like Eli didn’t belong. I can’t stay for one more day.”
“Do not speak his name! You’re forsaking your family and friends. Not to mention God and His plan for you. If you leave, you’ll have no one. Nothing.” He paused and softened his voice. “You’re part of this family. You can’t leave. We care about you.”
Her throat burned, but she had resolved not to be swayed by his words, no matter what he said. In her heart, she believed her daat cared more about his reputation in the community and how a second child leaving would affect his image. First Eli. Now her. He’d probably say or do anything to make her stay.
A noise caught her attention, and she spotted a few of her cousins peering at them from behind a ladder that led up to the loft. The sight of their little faces almost broke her resolve.
“Go tend to the goats!” her daat growled, his face reddening more by the second. Her cousins scrambled away, and Hanna hated that she wouldn’t be able to say good-bye to them all. Daat would prevent her from speaking to anyone else before she left—of that she had no doubt.
“I’m leaving now,” she said, angry with herself for trying to say her farewells. What had she expected? A hug and well wishes? An invitation to visit the farm whenever she liked? Not likely.
His bushy eyebrows pinched together and he limped forward. He held a wrench in his hand, and the livid expression he wore revealed his intentions. Hanna turned and ran from the barn without a backward glance. She had no wish to see his anger or to feel it. Those days had come to an end.
As she passed the woodshop where her brothers, Jacob and Abram, spent their mornings, she paused to gaze through the windows. She spotted them moving about the shop, but shrank away from an encounter with them. After being shut out by Sarah and her own daat, Hanna couldn’t bear the thought of another cold rejection.
No one called out her name, and no one came running after her as she headed for the cornfield. It took a few minutes to reach the rocks where she’d hidden her bag. Luckily it hadn’t rained. She peeked inside, inspecting the contents. A hairbrush, a skein of her favorite yarn, several crochet hooks, a small sewing kit, a pen, a set of correspondence cards, her birth certificate, an apron, and two blue dresses identical to the one she had on. No food. No water. No money. Nothing of any real value. Yet Hanna wasn’t worried—much.
She had a plan.
As she exited the field and made for the forest path she knew well, the rising sun began to chase the shadows out of the tall trees and underbrush. Hanna walked slowly, keeping her attention on the narrow trail. A blacksnake had bitten her in the forest last year while she was picking berries, and she had no desire to repeat that experience, even though none of the local snakes were poisonous. Eli had taught her all about snakes and bears and bobcats—the only real threat posed by nature near the farm. The best way to keep safe when alone was to make noise, so she hummed the tune to In the Still Isolation, her favorite childhood song.
The path ahead led to the Hartzlers’ farm, but Hanna did not intend to stop there. If she stayed in the woods and traveled a bit farther, she would happen upon Ben Foster’s property. Mr. Foster lived in the middle of the forest and rarely left his home. He was kind and trustworthy though, and he had helped Eli when he’d left home years ago.
She smiled as she recalled the one and only letter Eli had sent to the farm. She’d intercepted it and thrown it in the fire before her daat could find it. It had been a simple note addressed to her. Eli had been brief and vague, only telling her that he’d spent time living with and working for Mr. Foster, but that he’d traveled across the country and met a nice woman in Oregon, where he planned to settle down. He’d assured her Mr. Foster was a decent man she could trust, and she would be able to visit his home and write him letters without their daat finding out. So she’d been sneaking away to Mr. Foster’s cabin for the last three years.
The forest grew thicker, and Hanna recognized her surroundings enough to know she was halfway there. Only two more miles to go. Mr. Foster claimed it was a four-mile walk to his house from her farm. Her insides softened as her anticipation over seeing Mr. Foster grew. She hadn’t visited him in a few weeks, and she’d missed seeing him something fierce. It struck her as strange as she continued, ducking under branches and brushing away cobwebs, that she was thinking so hard about him, imagining the smile he would greet her with, and wondering whether or not he would be clean-shaven or showing a few days of dark stubble. Shouldn’t she be despairing over never seeing her family again? She blinked a few times, testing her eyes as she thought of never seeing her daat again.
Nothing. No burning sensation in her eyes or her throat.
Vaguely, she wondered if she could learn to cry again. She hadn’t cried since she was a small child. Crying wasn’t allowed, not even when someone died. Not even when the brother you cared for most left for good. She’d wanted to cry an ocean of tears for Eli, but she’d had to swallow her grief and pretend nothing had happened.
“Eli,” she said, lifting her chin to the trees. “Eli, Eli, Eli!” She shouted his name at the sky.
As she came into a small clearing in the woods, she stopped to gather her thoughts.
The memories of her first visit to Mr. Foster’s home rushed back. He’d been expecting her, and he went out of his way to make her feel welcome and comfortable that first time. She’d never met him, never known about him until reading Eli’s letter. Had she known Eli was only a few miles away, she would’ve snuck away every chance she’d gotten to visit. Mr. Foster had helped her understand Eli’s reasoning for keeping silence for years. He’d thought her too young to be able to sneak away, and he’d worried about the ramifications if their daat found out.
Hanna took a few more steps and eyed the cabin with a wraparound porch. Ben Foster’s residence. Would he help her in her quest for independence, as he’d helped her brother years before? Only one way to find out. She smoothed her hands over her skirt and stepped into the clearing.
* * *
Lady jumped from her spot on the rug and bounded to the front door to bark at nothing. Or maybe it was something. Ben rubbed his eyes and traipsed out of the kitchen, wondering if a herd of deer was passing by. Whatever Lady was making a fuss about, it likely wasn’t another man. Ben didn’t even have a real driveway leading to the main road a few miles away. Just a dirt path, covered with grass and weeds, with a mailbox situated along the road. He doubted anyone in their right mind would venture on this path that wound through the trees to his cabin. This was exactly the reason he built on this land. Guaranteed privacy.
“Calm down, Lady. You’ve had your breakfast. You don’t need to go chasing after any deer.” He stroked his trusted dog’s head. Her barking ceased to be replaced by a whimper as she sat impatiently, her tail wagging.
All the thick curtains were drawn, and the small glass pane in the front door didn’t reveal anything near. Ben moved to the living room window to pull the fabric aside.
“Oh, damn,” he muttered when a small Amish girl appeared on the edge of the forest. He watched as she stopped, staring at his cabin. A small bag hung over her shoulder. When she finally began to walk again, Ben looked down at Lady. “It’s only Hanna. Why don’t you go say hello?”
Ben slid aside the two metal deadbolts, unlocked the knob, and flung the door wide open for Lady. The energetic German Shepherd barreled outside. Ben couldn’t help smiling. While Hanna’s visits made him uneasy, he anticipated them more and more. When a few weeks passed without her dropping by, he spent way too much time glancing out the windows, wondering when she would appear in the clearing. She tended to visit in the afternoon, and for this reason she never failed to pass through his thoughts each day after lunch.
The heat of the day hit Ben hard as he jogged down the porch steps. Hanna was crouched on the ground, rubbing Lady’s stomach while the dog licked her face. Lady would’ve ripped anyone else’s throat out who stepped foot on Ben’s property, except for Hanna. Well, Eli too. But he was long gone and sent letters in his stead.
“Good morning, Mr. Foster!” Hanna giggled as Lady continued her silly antics.
“Good morning, Hanna.” He eyed the bag she’d dropped beside her. What the hell was in there?
“I’m afraid I don’t have any new letters from Eli. He’s probably waiting until Annabel has the baby so he can write with good news. But if you’d like to come in and write him a new letter, you’re more than welcome.”
The sadness in her expression when she glanced up tugged at his heart. Something was wrong. Seriously wrong. He ached to rush forward and gather her up, bring her inside, and hold her while she told him of all her troubles. He cared for the sweet young woman, and hoped she wasn’t as miserable as Eli had been on the farm.
“Come on, Lady, leave the poor girl alone. It’s not like I don’t give you enough attention.” At his command, the dog raced onto the porch, her tail still wagging and her big pink tongue hanging from her mouth.
Hanna grabbed her bag and rose up. The sadness in her eyes transformed to uncertainty. Ben had the distinct feeling she was about to ask for something.
Could it be true? His heart raced. Was she following in Eli’s footsteps and leaving the Amish behind? Dare he hope?
He winced. His reasons for wanting her to leave the Amish were dark indeed. Fantasies involving her writhing underneath him during the throes of passion visited him on sleepless nights. Sometimes during the day too. Despite his fantasies though, he simply wanted her to be happy and healthy, whether she was tucked in her bed on the farm or… elsewhere.
“Come on inside, Hanna. It’s only going to get hotter today. I’ll get you a cold drink.”
“Thank you, Mr. Foster.” She breezed past him, her dark blue dress grazing his leg as he held the door open.
Excitement surged through Ben at the close contact, and he tried to push it down. As he turned to face her, he glimpsed an errant strand of blond hair poking out of her black kapp, running down the side of her neck. That, along with the vision of her flushed face and pretty blue eyes, nearly caused him to come undone. She was too pretty. Too young and ripe and, most of all, tempting.
It was official. Ben Foster had a one-way ticket to hell. Christ, she was young enough to be his daughter. Well, if he’d been a promiscuous teenager anyway.
“Come have a seat at the table.” Careful not to touch her, he guided her to the kitchen and pulled out a chair. Head bowed as more pink stained her cheeks, she placed her bag on the floor next to the chair, sat down slowly, and folded her hands in her lap.
Ben busied himself by pouring two glasses of iced tea. A million questions buzzed through his mind. Certainly Hanna wasn’t here to check her correspondence with Eli. Though she was generally on the shy side, her demeanor was off balance today. Besides that, she’d never come to him in the mornings. He suspected it was easier for her to sneak away in the afternoons when she typically visited.
He delivered her drink and sat across from her. Silence stretched between them awkward and thick as they sipped the tea. Her face remained flushed so prettily, and another strand of hair had fallen from her kapp. With each breath she took, her chest heaved up and down, drawing his gaze to her breasts, which were unfortunately well hidden underneath a plain dress. In his imagination though, he pictured her firm, pale mounds and hardened, dark pink nipples clearly.
Ben shook away the image and placed his glass down, leaning forward to peer directly in her eyes. “What’s happened, Hanna? Are you all right?” He surveyed her face for bruises, knowing her father had a heavy hand, or at least he had with Eli. To his relief, he saw no hint of bruises, fresh or fading.
She blinked a few times and sat her drink down. “I—I’ll be nineteen next month.”
Nineteen. Christ Almighty. Young, innocent, and fucking Amish. Yep, not only did Ben have a one-way ticket to hell, but he had a seat reserved in the first-class section.
“Is that a problem?” he asked, ignoring the stirring in his loins. “You turning nineteen? You getting married soon or something?” Jealously rippled through him at the possibility.
She inhaled deeply and smiled when Lady curled up at her feet under the table.
“My daat thinks I should have joined the church already. He’s been asking me almost every day about it.”
“You left.” He regarded her with wonder—and respect. Most girls who didn’t want to join the Amish church would’ve done so anyway. None of them had much of a choice. It was a matter of survival. With no education beyond the eighth grade and no immediate job opportunities, leaving was a near impossibility. Yet Hanna had done just that.
“I did,” she finally said, reaching down to scratch Lady’s ear. “I told my daat I choose not to join the church.” She shrugged. “It happened this morning and I know I’m already dead to him. Sarah even refused to say good-bye to me. She turned her back and refused to look at me, and she’s the most open-minded of them all. I didn’t bother telling Abram and Jacob good-bye. I knew they would treat me the same as Daat and Sarah.”
“Eli came to me like this one day,” Ben said. The memory of a sixteen-year-old Amish boy came rushing back. Eli had shown up on his porch with a black eye and a swollen jaw, asking if Ben had any work for him. Against his better judgment, Ben offered Eli some work and a place to stay. It was supposed to be temporary, but he’d stayed for two years. The longer he stayed, the more Ben wanted to help him. After Eli earned his G.E.D., he left with the wages he’d painstakingly saved to find his place in the world, a young man of eighteen years.
“Mr. Foster?” Hanna gnawed at her lip. “You’re the only friend I have. I—I was hoping you could help me the way you helped Eli. I’m not asking for charity, but I’d ask you to help me find work. I’m a hard worker. I can do most anything.”
Ben studied her, taken aback. He had hoped she would directly ask to work for him, the way Eli had worked for him, doing chores and laboring around the cabin while Ben worked to build a series of underground storage rooms that connected to the basement, back when Ben was going through a survivalist phase.
“Hanna, I feel uncomfortable helping you find work.”
Her face fell. “Oh.” Her chair scratched the floor as she stood up. Tremors shook her hands, and she clamped them together as her gaze ventured near him, but not quite meeting his eyes. “I will leave you, then. I’m sorry to take up your time. Thank you for the tea.”
“Wait. Sit back down, Hanna. I wasn’t finished speaking.”
Slowly, she returned to her seat, sitting down with her back as stiff as a board. Lady rose up to lay her head in Hanna’s lap. The dog whimpered and stared up at her with compassionate, large black eyes.
“I can’t in good conscience send you out into the world cold turkey. It’s a scary place out there for someone like you. People might take advantage of you, and I’d hate to see any harm come to you. Eli became like a son to me, and I’d never turn his sister out. Besides, Hanna, I consider you a friend too. I can find some work around here for you. I can even help you earn your G.E.D.” He leaned back in his chair, his decision made. “You’re staying here, Hanna. That’s final.”