A Gathering of Secrets – Linda Castillo

She didn’t sleep. Hadn’t slept through the night in a long time. There was too much darkness, not the kind that was restful. At dawn, when her mamm peeked into her bedroom and told her it was time to feed the animals and get ready for worship, she was already awake, waiting. Ready. Ever the obedient daughter, she pulled on her dress, tugged her hair into a bun, and covered her head with her kapp. Stepping into her winter tights and sneakers, she left her room and took the steps down to the living room. She avoided the kitchen, where she could hear her mamm clanging breakfast dishes and frying sausage, and went out through the side door and into the cold. The morning was wet and gray, drizzle floating down from a sky the color of iron. Once in the barn, she tossed hay to the horses, filled their water buckets, dumped scratch into the chicken feeder, and gathered six brown eggs. She’d never lied to her parents. Not once in all of her seventeen years. But when Mamm told her to get cleaned up for worship, she complained that she’d been sick and throwing up half the night. Mamm wasn’t pleased that she would miss such an important day. But what could she say? Morning chores complete, she went back to her room and lay down on her bed.

She stared at the ceiling and listened to the sounds of the house. The voices of her younger siblings. The scrape of silverware against plates. The silence while the gebet nach dem essen or prayer after meal was recited. The slamming of the door when her datt went out to harness the buggy horse. The pound of feet on the wood floor when the little ones went out to help. Oh, how she would miss them. At half past seven the back door slammed. A few minutes later, she heard the clip-clop of the old Standardbred’s hooves against the ground. Rising, she went to the window and parted the curtains to see the buggy moving down the lane toward the road.

Time to go. It was a cold morning, well below freezing outside, but she didn’t bother with a coat. Pushing open her bedroom door, she stepped into the hall. The lingering aromas of toast and coffee and kerosene from the kitchen heater comforted her as she descended the steps. She thought about her little brothers and sisters, and the pang of melancholy that assailed her nearly sent her to her knees. She’d known this would be difficult, but she also knew it was the only way. She’d asked God for guidance, after all, and He’d sent her a sign. Unlike her, He never, ever lied. At the base of the stairs, she went left, through the kitchen, trying not to notice the still-warm cup of tea and dry toast her mamm had left. The sight of it made her smile.

Dry toast and tea were her mamm’s cure-all for everything that ailed the world. If only life were that simple. I’m sorry. The words echoed inside her head as she crossed through the mudroom, pushed open the back door and stepped into the early-morning drizzle. She didn’t feel the cold or wet as she ran down the stone path to the barn. Shoving open the big sliding door, she walked into the dimly lit interior. The aroma of her datt’s pipe tobacco mingled with the earthy smells of horses, alfalfa, and damp earth. The hay wagon was parked against the wall to her right, her datt’s pitchfork leaning against the side. Ahead, the old plow horse stuck its head over the stall door and whinnied. If the circumstances had been different, she might’ve taken a minute to stroke its muzzle.

This morning, there was no time to spare. The stairs to the hayloft were to her left. Not giving herself time to debate or dawdle, she took them to the second level. There were only two windows in the loft. Not much light penetrated the grimy glass. But even in the semidarkness she knew the place by heart. It was her refuge when things got bad. This morning, she knew exactly where to find what she needed. Her sneakers padded softly against the wood plank floor as she crossed to the mound of loose hay beneath the window. Kneeling, she raked it aside with her fingers, uncovering the coil of rope she’d hidden yesterday.

Datt had bought it last summer when he’d made the swing for the boys. He’d had a few extra feet left over and stowed it in the shed for some future project. She didn’t let herself think about her family or what this would do to them as she uncoiled the rope. They wouldn’t understand, and that would hurt them. But there was no recourse. God had spoken to her, and she had listened. This was the only way she could keep her secret. The coil consisted of about ten feet of rope. It was about half an inch in diameter. She thought it might be cotton, but she couldn’t be sure.

Not that it mattered. She carried the rope to the place where the floor opened and the rafters were visible. Below, she could see the wagon and pitchfork and the horse in its stall. Lying down on her belly, she looped the rope around the nearest rafter and tied a triple knot. She yanked it a couple of times, testing it, deemed it strong enough to hold. Sitting up, she studied the other end, not exactly sure how to fashion it. Her fingers shook as she formed it into a loop and tied another triple knot. A couple of quick yanks told her it would do. Taking a deep, calming breath, she slipped the loop over her head, careful not to skew her kapp. The rope felt stiff and rough against her skin.

At some point, she’d begun to cry. But she thought they were tears of happiness, of relief. Mamm had always told her that death was part of God’s divine plan. This morning, she believed that with all her heart. She knew the Lord would welcome her with open arms. He would see her through this. Her family would just have to have faith in His wisdom. Someday, they would join her, and they would all be together again. Still, she trembled as she rose, trying not to notice the quiver in her stomach, or that her legs weren’t quite steady. She didn’t think about what came next, but prayed it would be over quickly enough.

Once it was done, she would be free. “I forgive you,” she whispered. Closing her eyes, she stepped forward and fell into space. CHAPTER 1 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.” No response. 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

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