After being raised in a strict Amish household, with a father who abuses their religion to make his own rules that border on abuse, Kate cannot wait to live anywhere but at home. When she reaches the age of sixteen, and her mother gives her permission to go and experience her own “Rumspringa,” a time during which Amish can go experience other cultures and religious, Kate jumps at the chance.
She leaves behind her father, mother, Luke, Mary, and brother, Matthew. Kate moves in with Michelle, the cousin of Jacob, her neighbor, and only friend since kindergarten. He is the only person she truly trusts.
As dawn breaks, sunlight creeps into the mostly deserted parking lot of a decrepit convenience store. Abandoned items and trash litter the pockmarked asphalt. An exhausted young woman sits in the front seat of a filthy Chevy, so dirty, it’s hard to tell what color the car used to be. Kate slowly peels back the wrapper of a candy bar but does not consume a bite. A half-drunk bottle of soda rests in the front seat next to various possessions, including a man’s sweater, a book, and a Bible.
In the backseat, her toddler son David sleeps, strapped into a car seat held together with duct tape. Tear tracks leave clean stripes down his otherwise dirty face. He wears only shoes and a full diaper, and he has angry red ligature marks on his neck and wrists.
Kate sighs and turns the key in the ignition. The car turns over but doesn’t start. Banging on the steering wheel as she tosses the candy bar into the seat beside her, Kate meditates silently, then turns the key again. Silence. She turns the key once more and the car starts, an early morning miracle, “Not long to travel now, David,” she says to her sleeping toddler, as she eases the car slowly out of the parking lot and onto a paved road. A horse driven buggy passes her, driving in the opposite direction. She waves to the Amish farmer, but her wave is not returned. Instead, he glares at her with suspicion, as their vastly different modes of transportation pass one another.
Leaning her left elbow carefully on her open window to stay awake as she winces from the pain of the rope burns on her wrist, Kate drives on a well-traveled, yet rural road, with several gravel driveways that turn off to houses and farms vaguely visible in the distance. She hums as she passes mile markers and mailboxes that are distanced from one another. The car has a radio and a tape deck, but she doesn’t bother to turn either of them on. She passes two more buggies driven by men in formal Amish clothing. The men perch stiffly on their hard seats, their black hats and lengthy beards cover the tops and bottoms of their faces and allow them little room for expression. After her previous encounter, she no longer attempts to wave.
Kate stops at one of the unremarkable gravel driveways and pauses in the middle of the road, listening to her left turn signal click loudly; she is consumed with her own thoughts, powerless against the forces of her memories. Minutes pass while she sits frozen, until her hypnotic state is broken by the sounds of a car roaring up behind her. Horn blaring, the driver yells, “Make your goddamn turn!”
Conditioned by the men in her life to follow orders, Kate turns the car onto the driveway. Trying to force her memories out of her mind, she looks in the mirror so she can see David. But even the sight of her baby boy safe in the car cannot help her control the panic, forced by her exhaustion and pain. She breathes deeply and manages to shift the car into park just before uncontrollable shaking overwhelms her.
She silently cries, trapped in an escalating panic attack. Kate is helpless to do anything except ride the wave of emotion until it passes. Minutes click by. She regains control and with trembling hands, reaches for the candy bar and takes a giant bite. Immediately, Kate regrets the impulse and spits the hunk of chocolate out the window. She drinks some soda, and forces herself to eat, one tiny bite after another until about half the candy bar is gone and she feels stronger. She concentrates on her breathing and slows it down until once again her emotions match the peaceful stillness of the morning.
Kate sees newly planted crops and a giant red barn outside her window. She shifts the car into drive and slowly makes her way down the well-maintained gravel driveway, parking opposite the barn. Cows, horses, and sheep graze peacefully among the early spring flowers. The green grass in front of the old farmhouse ripples in the early morning breeze. Kate manually raises her window, sits back in her seat, and exhales. Her eyes closed, she turns the car off, and falls asleep as the engine noise fades into the morning.
A large, fit farmer, dressed in dark pants, suspenders and long-sleeved shirt, pitches hay out of the barn’s upper doors for the pasture grazing animals below and sees the car parked in the driveway. Perhaps someone is lost, he thinks, or the passengers want to see an Amish farm up-close. His people, Matthew’s people, are nothing but entertainment to some from the outside world. He continues with his chores, assuming the car will drive away when its spectators have seen enough. A half hour later, the car is still parked in the same place when he finally exits the barn.
Approaching the vehicle from the rear, Matthew creeps closer until he can see a toddler sleeping in the back seat. Seconds later, he notices the woman asleep in the front and moving around to the front door, his footsteps surprisingly soft for someone well over six feet tall, he is shocked when he realizes the woman in the front seat is his sister, Kate.
He raps lightly on the windshield; she does not stir. He squints at her, wondering why she has returned home. He turns toward the farmhouse as if to ask the woman inside what to do, but hearing no answer, he decides to wake Kate by rapping his large knuckles on her car window.
Kate awakens with a gasp and fear in her eyes. She shakes her head “no” and points to her sleeping son. Matthew tries to open the car door, but it is locked. He scowls at her. She swallows hard before unlocking the door.
As she slowly exits the car, she wobbles on her feet, and Matthew holds out his hands as if to catch her. Thanks to her recent sugar consumption, she remains upright.
“You on drugs, Kate?”
“Greetings to you as well, Matthew. I can hardly believe my older brother got taller, but you did.” Kate leans closer to him, as if to embrace him, but he stands as still as a stone pillar. Realizing there will be no hugging, she drops her arms to her sides. “I’ve had a long journey, and I’m tired,” she says. “Stop looking at me like that, I’m not on any drugs.”
Matthew roughly grabs her left arm looking for needle marks, but he instead gently rubs his large fingers over the angry red rope burns on her wrist. Kate yanks her hand back and places both arms behind her. She tilts her face up to the early morning sun, closes her eyes, and inhales the fresh farm air.
“Where have you been, Kate?” She opens her eyes as innocently as she can to counter Matthew’s angry tone.
“I’ve been everywhere and nowhere.” Kate kicks the gravel driveway with the toe of her shoe, but she stands up to Matthew, although he physically dominates her.
“You look different.”
“Spoken like a true older brother. Are Mother and Father inside the farmhouse? It’s not like Father to let you complete chores alone.” Matthew removes his hat, and she sees his facial expression and wonders where his anger is directed.
“Mother is probably cooking breakfast. Father passed away a few years ago.” They look anywhere but at each other. Matthew stares at the barn as Kate glances toward David, then she shivers, both from the shock of his words and the cool morning air.
“Was Father ill long?” Kate asks, quietly.
“No.” Matthew is ready to move on from this conversation. He places his hat onto his head and glances into her car. “Have you got more clothes to put on? Mother’s not going to like seeing you so uncovered.”
Kate hugs her thin body and tries to tug the hem of her short, spaghetti-strap denim dress lower. Walking around the car, she grabs the dirty cardigan sweater from the passenger seat and puts it on; she holds it closed as its buttons are missing. Matthew notices the soda and Bible on the passenger seat. “Glad to see you travel with the Bible.”
“That Bible has proven to be useful. Can you keep an eye on David? He usually sleeps another hour or so. I’d like to speak to Mother alone if that’s okay with you.” Opening the driver’s side door, she bends over to crank open the window to allow some air into the car.
“The morning air will make him cold. He has no clothes on. Leave it to you, sister, to have a son you don’t even know how to dress.”
Kate hurries to close the window. “Bringing my son here was the best chance for our survival.”
Matthew ignores her remark and says, “I’ll put the car in the barn. It is quite warm in there.”
“Do you want me to move the seat back so you can fit more easily?”
“I’ll push the car into the barn. I’ll not drive it. How dare you suggest such a thing?” He hisses at her and Kate’s shoulders sag at her misstep. Kate’s hope that returning home was a solution immediately crumbles.
“I should have. I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry.” The words tumble out of Kate’s mouth in a nervous rush.
Matthew takes pity on her obvious discomfort. “I have a daughter around the same age as your son. There’s a sleeping area in the barn. I’ll move the car and transfer him there.”
“You have a daughter? And a sleeping area in the barn?”
“Time did not stand still during your absence Kate. Our lives have moved on too.”
“Is your wife inside? Do I know her? Can I meet her?” She bites her lip knowing she has already asked her stoic brother one too many questions. She is surprised by his quiet answer and the sadness she sees in his eyes.
“Elizabeth, my wife, died even as our daughter Sarah came into our world, all part of God’s plan.”
Thinking her brother’s anger is justified by the loss of his wife, she utters, “Or the lack of medical care forced on you by Father.” Wishing she could take her words back as soon as she says them, Kate bites her lip, unwilling to meet Matthew’s gaze. He offers no response. Instead, he puts her car in neutral and manually pushes it into the barn. Kate watches him, embarrassed by her behavior. “I’m sorry I’ll never get to meet your wife,” she calls softly, but her remark is met with silence. She’s unsure if Matthew heard what she said. Shoulders sagging lower with the burden of her words and the confrontation she knows she faces in the house, Kate begins the short walk to the kitchen door.
Overhead, a hawk makes lazy circles, and Kate hears the cows mooing as they await their morning milking, her brother’s next chore. Chickens cluck racing past her, pecking at their food intermixed in the gravel as they wander around the property. Gathering eggs was always one of my chores, she muses, I wonder who does it now?
Tears pool in her exhausted eyes. Her gait as uncertain as a newborn colt, she steps onto the wooden porch and peers into the kitchen, smelling food through the screen door. Kate looks behind her and sees her car is gone. There is no way for her to escape this moment.
Mary sits at the familiar wooden kitchen table. The smell of bacon, eggs, and potatoes make Kate’s stomach rumble. Quietly, she pushes open the screen door, instantly calmed when she hears it creaking its familiar welcome. Mary looks up from her plate, expecting to see Matthew, but shock crosses her middle-aged face. She sits, frozen, with her fork halfway to her mouth. Glancing around the kitchen, Kate notices the room is as immaculate as ever, looking the same as she remembers it. Mary places her fork on her plate, her chair making a loud squeak as the wooden legs scrape along the linoleum floor. Kate remembers the many times she was told to lift the legs of her own chair when she moved it, so it wouldn’t make marks on the linoleum. In Mary’s haste to stand, she knocks her glass of water onto the table. Kate moves toward her mother to embrace her, but Mary firmly shakes her head “no.”
Kate walks to the oven door, removes the dishtowel hanging there, and approaches the table. She looks at the dishtowel, unsure about what to do. The women exchange a look as the pooled water begins to drip onto the cracked, linoleum floor, and Mary grabs the towel from Kate. After cleaning up the water, Mary returns the dishtowel to the oven door, sits down at the table, and begins attacking her food. Kate waits for her mother to address her, but Mary continues to eat while she ignores her daughter. Then, she finally looks up. “Katherine, I’m surprised to see you.” Glancing at her mother, Kate notices Mary looks a little older, a little rounder, and has more facial wrinkles.
Reciting the words she rehearsed during her car ride, Kate proceeds with caution. “I’m here because David and I need a place to stay.”
Thumping a fist on the table, Mary bristles. “David now, is it? Did you get tired of Jimmy?”
Kate winces. “You’ve received my letter then? After leaving Michelle’s house, I only sent the one. There were reasons.”
Mary glares at Kate, her dark brown eyes unwavering. Uncomfortable with her mother’s scrutiny, Kate sways back and forth. She struggles to pull her dress lower and keeps her cardigan tightly wrapped around her abdomen.
Mary wears the traditional Amish floor length dress, an apron and a bonnet, clothed from head to toe in dark blue. Although the color of their clothes is both blue, the similarities between them end there. Kate’s hair is barely chin length while Mary’s is wrapped in the traditional bun and presumably still falls below her waist. Kate both envies and abhors the way her mother looks. She misses the protection the clothing provided, yet she also remembers how suffocated she felt when she wore it. The lengthy silence in the small room is deafening. Kate is unsure whether to remain standing or to sit down. She releases a pent-up breath when her mother finally speaks.
“Jimmy is not welcome here. Neither is boyfriend David.”
“David is my son,” Kate replies with quiet pride. Mary reacts visibly to her daughter’s news. She rises holding her dish, and Kate stands in place, the fidgeting of her hands announcing her continued tension.
“You have a child? Where is he?”
Kate looks hungrily at the leftover food. Mary notices but does not offer her daughter food and instead takes her own plate to the sink, drops it in, and returns to the table. With a hand gesture, she offers an invitation for Kate to sit in a chair.
“David is sleeping in his car seat. It’s so early. We need a place to stay, Mother. I’m asking more for him than for me. But I hope you will allow us both to stay.”
“You look awful,” Mary blurts out. Kate blushes, unwilling at this moment to concede anything, even how she looks, but she knows her mother is right. She bites her lip to keep herself from speaking, hoping Mary will continue talking, and she is grateful when she hears her mother’s answer. “If I allow you to stay there will be conditions.”
“Of course, Mother.”
“You must dress as our family dresses.”
Already anticipating this request, Kate had previously decided to compromise her own wardrobe for a safe place to stay. She nods in agreement. “I will dress myself and David appropriately, and we will conduct ourselves in the way of the family.”
Mary snorts, “A first for you, daughter. I’ll have to see my grandson myself to know what he is capable of. How old is he?”
“Almost three,” Kate replies with pride, and the two women stare at each other until they hear the approaching sound of male footsteps. Kate rises and, like a caged animal, looks around the room to find an object she can use for self-defense. Mary recognizes her daughter’s fear but makes no comment.
“That’s only your brother.” Kate exhales in relief and sinks back into her chair as Matthew strides into the room with a happy David on his hip.
“David woke up. I’m hungry, Mother, meet your grandson,” Matthew says as he hands David to his mother, then moves to wash up at the sink. “Kate, your son needs a diaper change.”
“And a bath,” Mary says as she wrinkles up her nose at the stench coming from the happy little boy. “Katherine, get yourself washed up. You may eat while I clean up my grandson.” As Kate pushes back the sleeves of her giant cardigan to wash her hands, Mary notices the marks on her daughter’s wrists. Mary looks at Matthew, who nods his agreement, and then Matthew abruptly leaves the kitchen.
Kate fixes a plate of food, sits at the table, and consumes it heartily. At the sink, Mary examines David quickly so that Kate doesn’t notice. He has bruises like Kate’s, and marks around his neck. While Kate eats, her mother and David leave the kitchen. She enjoys a moment of solitude until Matthew returns. He fixes himself a plate of food. They sit in silence, shoveling in their breakfast, not even noticing how it tastes, or that it’s no longer very hot.
Moments later, Mary re-enters the kitchen with David. He has wet hair and is now clothed from head to toe in dark blue clothes. Kate swallows her shame and takes him from her mother.
“Mother, thank you for getting David cleaned up. Matthew, thank you for moving my car into the barn.”
“You can drive?” Mary’s hands fly to her face, so great is her shock. Her daughter is not supposed to operate mechanical machinery.
“I’ve had to teach myself some unexpected skills,” Kate says to her mother, and she kisses the downy-blonde fluff on her son’s head. She feeds David bits of her leftover eggs.
“There’s a chair for the child, right there.” Matthew points to a highchair in the corner that Kate hasn’t even noticed. She puts David in the highchair and thinks, now they will need two of them. As if he can hear her thoughts, Matthew says, “I’ll fashion another one this afternoon. Sarah’s did not take long to make.” Kate nods to her brother as David sits contentedly in the wooden highchair.
“Why was David only in a diaper?” Mary asks.
“We left in a hurry.” Kate offers no other information to her mother or brother. She continues to feed David tiny bits of food, as Mary cleans up the dishes and frying pan. Matthew eats the last of his meal.
“Jimmy won’t be coming after you, will he?” Mary asks sharply over her right shoulder from the sink as she drains the water.
“There’s blood on her Bible,” Matthew interjects quietly before Kate can reply. Mary gasps and Kate glares at her brother; she hadn’t realized he would notice the stain.
“I’ll never see Jimmy again.” Kate calmly continues to feed David, unaware of Mary and Matthew’s worried glances about Kate’s obvious detachment from the situation.
“Kate, there will be proper clothes for you in Elizabeth’s closet. Mother knows where they are. I have more chores to complete.” Matthew rises to leave the kitchen as he hears a car pulling up on the gravel road.
Mary looks out the window and sees the patrol car, and she signals frantically to Matthew. Engrossed in feeding David, Kate pays no attention to the silent argument occurring between her brother and mother. Matthew walks outside to speak with the police, and Sarah’s cries send Mary running upstairs. Kate continues to feed David, unaware of the intense conversation happening outside.