* * *It takes fifteen minutes to tack Blaze up to the buggy and forty-five minutes to ride into town for groceries. Renting a driver and van would cost $30, but Father claims it a waste when we have all the time in the world and time is free. Another currency for Amish girls is blowjobs. I’ve heard the stories. It’s how most our age ride for free. There’s a branch of the Cleveland Library which drives a Bookmobile through all of the Amish communities. It’s how we get our school textbooks. Mary Ann and Samantha have a few more years left, but have today off for Columbus Day. I’m not a good example for them, but they need to be pushed outside their comfort zone.The three of us huddle together like a raft of ducks in the back cab of the buggy, watching the Yankee cars speed towards us, praying they’ll see us and pass with caution. We stare at each one and create stories for their lives. Lives that can go anywhere and do anything. Horses have two sets of vision which can view 350 degrees around them. We attach blinders onto Blaze so he’ll focus forward on the road. A dusty van approaches and we giggle, recognizing it immediately. It’s Creepy Larry driving our neighbors to the grocery store. Creepy Larry stares at us as we cover our mouths to hide. “He’s always watching us. I think he wants to drive us somewhere.” Mary Ann says it hushed so Father won’t hear but with enough animation so Samantha can read her lips. Samantha shakes in fits, trying to suppress her laughter. She nods her head, keeping her eyes wide open for conversation.Walmart has gotten weird. Yankees have begun to wear masks, talking about a virus spreading. Our community hasn’t noticed anything different yet. We’ve had several weddings this summer. I’m coerced into attending each one, listening to Father’s comments: “Another boy your age stolen. I bet he drives cart well.”I envision stealing the televisions from the electronics section. Other Amish gather here to role-play for a brief moment. There are so many screens lining a wall with the same images moving in sync with each other. It’s a show about girls our age, 16 and pregnant. Their bedroom walls filled with cutouts of magazines, boys hanging up on display.We browse the makeup section: two full aisles to change your appearance. Different shades for different skins, moisturizers and creams to keep your skin young. I crack open a vile of nail polish: Crimson Red. Mary Ann and Samantha watch in awe as I decorate myself. My nails turn a glossy deep red as Father passes by, pushing a cart full of toilet paper, batteries, and ibuprofen. He swivels his head, breaking eye contact with me, avoiding our sins. I return the vial and grab a bag of cotton balls, pushing my finger against the plastic until a hole forms. I unscrew the nail polish remover and swab my nails back to normal. I could have all of this if I wasn’t Amish. Sometimes I question the faith, how I would lose my family if I ran away.There’s a picture of a supermodel wearing a new series of expensive mascara. The container is smooth and slender. I’m amazed how easy it disappears up my sleeve without anyone noticing. We leave the store quicker than it takes Blaze to trot here. When we get back home the Bookmobile is parked at the farm across the street. I let Father and my sisters finish untacking Blaze in the barn while I rush over for my book. Several women are there, returning their Amish romance novels and getting the next in the series. The first woman who gapes down at my feet doesn’t bother me, it’s when I realize that each of them is gawking that I know they’re expecting the ground to glimmer where I walk. “Name?” the Yankee clerk asks.“Beth Yoder.”“Oh, we’ve been talking about this one,” she gets out Witchcraft: Advanced Level and reads the title aloud. She’s old and I’d wager she spends most of her time sitting in front of a television, bingeing shows about housewives. “An odd book for a young Amish girl to reserve.”The other women in the mobile library keep glancing my way. Each of them attend church with us. They spread stories like wildfire.“You know it’s all fake, right?” the Yankee clerk says this as if I’m a toddler first learning about the Salem witch trials. She taps her temple. “The magic is all in your head.” “Um—it’s for school. To cite for a history project,” I say.The clerk doesn’t snoop any further, but the others in the bus seem to suspect what ploy I’m conceiving.
* * *When we ride scooters to Middlefield there’s East Branch Park. It’s miles of hiking trails next to the buggy path that cuts through the woods by the reservoir. East Branch has these sort of half cabins where the other half is exposed to the wilderness around a fireplace, like a fancy tent contractors forgot to finish building. The restroom for these tenants is a luxury outhouse equipped with a chimney to evacuate the smell. Workers prop the door open as they steam clean the inside. I considered applying for work here, but the season is coming to an end.Mary Ann, Samantha, and I find a spot in the woods where no one will discover us. This spell needed help, and although they don’t practice witchcraft, I threatened to stop helping with their math homework. The Geauga Park District linked the forest with sap lines, an interconnected spiderweb of blue tubes tapped into maple trees. It flows downhill into a collection tub for the sugar shack to produce maple syrup. It requires two cords of firewood to boil over a twelve hour period for Grade A Amber syrup.We build our fire with foraged branches, prop stones in a circle containment, and rest the cauldron in the center. We fill it with stolen maple sap, intact cicada husks, blood red hibiscus petals, devil’s shoestring, and my wishing nickel—minted the year I was born. A rolling boil forms as the sun descends. We unscrew the lid on the mason jar containing the suffocated fireflies, smacking the bottom to drop their lights in. We chant. The bubbling potion is like road apple soup—all sorts of shit shades coagulating. We untie our hair and let it fall to our knees. Evaporated water wafts through each strand and split end, lungs filling with vapor. Our fingers interlock as we pyramid around the fire. We’re fluent in English and Dutch but right now we are chanting in memorized Latin—a dead language, torn into pieces and buried throughout the world. It sounds like a church hymnal, but we aren’t worshipping God. I don’t tell my sisters what to do, but we naturally get louder and louder. Samantha mouths words to her own beat and time until I pump a pulse through her palm, we follow her, squeezing tighter. I don’t dare peek at my sisters for fear the spell will break upon itself, a wave we ride together. The ground spasms and something crunches leaves behind the maple trees. We should be casting a protection spell to guard us from this risky life we were dealt. Instead I’m fishing. Casting a line out into the shallow waters in hopes of hooking a boy with my selfishness. I think of Mother, what she would say. I bet she’d support us. She might even have joined her daughters. She wouldn’t turn an eye and make believe we didn’t exist. My eyes remain tight. I picture her, feeding Blaze his joint supplements in his stable. Such a massive creature doesn’t know its own strength, the sudden shift pinning her body against the stall, no one near as her last breath escaped. Every meal father forgets to season, every corn seed I sow, every silent night in the living room, I evoke her presence. Blaze stole her from us, yet he remains an essential part of our family. The ground shakes, the planets align, goddesses show me the way. I sense the exit to a maze I’ve been searching for since birth.“I don’t think it’s working,” Mary Ann says. I open my eyes. My sisters appear bored, like I’m the only one who felt a temblor. My skin tingles, returning to reality. I release Samantha’s hand and she understands play time is over. Mary Ann kicks the cauldron and extinguishes the flame. Leaves crunch again, somewhere in the forest a creature might be watching us. Or a spirit ready to lead the way. We take the path back home, where Father is tending chores alone. The parking lot for East Branch is overflowing with people. Recently, more have been out exploring the park systems, flooding our territory. Creepy Larry pulls up in his dusty white van, transporting a crew of Amish boys on lunch from barnraising. His front passenger-side tire looks low. Our scooters have solid tires made of layers of rubber because trapped air is against our religion, yet we use air compressors for nail guns. Anything is allowed for jobs. There’s something exploitative about needing to work to live and ignoring your beliefs to do so. Norman steps out and his head turns like a valve handle, attention streaming in my direction. He gives me the Amish Finger and approaches.“What are you girls doing Thursday?” he says, running his hands through his sandy blonde bowl cut. It takes me a moment to realize he’s talking to us. “Oh, uh, we usually have game night with Father after chores. Why?”“I was thinking, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen you at any of our parties before. You should come.” He doesn’t take his eyes off of me. Like I’m the sun and he doesn’t give a fuck if it burns. I pinch myself and may have drawn blood. Rain starts pouring hard, washing away the grime from Creepy Larry’s van, forming a prismatic puddle.
* * *It’s endless mist until the party. Samantha says it’s God’s spittle, good during the summer months but useless to us now. We’ll walk to the party, even if it takes most of the night to get there.We feign sleepiness and act like we’re going to bed early. Father sits in the living room and studies the Bible, disappointed we didn’t want to play dominoes tonight. Upstairs at my altar, I drop the tarot cards. Cards I adore fall: coins, cups, and wands. It took late nights studying each card by candlelight to comprehend how each one could affect me. The final card that falls this time is the first I learned: The Fool. I allow another card to fall and alter my fate, covering signs from the past.We wait until Father’s lantern is out, then we tiptoe downstairs. Each step creaks and pops like knuckles cracking. We take our time floating across the uneven floorboards as light as sawdust. The back door’s hinges are excruciating; opening the door slow makes it squeal louder. With any luck it’ll be mistaken for Blaze whinnying. The LED porch light is always on, batteries dying and needing replaced every Saturday. We apply the mascara on each other, believing the darkness will conceal how bad we are at adding this new appearance upgrade. We huddle under Mother’s old umbrella, scurrying along the backroads to the East Branch Trail. Headlights turn on as we enter the parking lot. That white van we know so well. “What are you girls doing out here by yourself this late? It’s not safe for cute girls to wander by themselves.” Creepy Larry gets out and slides open his side door, beckoning us inside from the bleak night. Samantha enters before we can make a decision, already needing to sit. “We’re just heading home now, we’ll be fine,” I tell him.“Oh? I thought you were going to that party on the other side of town? You’ll be needing a ride to make it in time. Hop in, it’ll only be twenty minutes for me to drive you girls. I know right where it’s at.”I don’t want to say it, but I do. “We don’t have any money on us.”“Don’t worry about that. I’m sure we can figure something out.”I tell him we will pay whatever it costs the next time he stops over for church. Mary Ann and I join Samantha in the backseat. Driving is so much quicker than taking the horse and buggy. I sit in between my sisters and imagine not being Amish, how Creepy Larry cut all the bullshit and chose his own path. I wonder if my sisters will follow me wherever I end up. Maybe down to Sarasota, Florida where most Amish escape. A paradise to soak up the sun without a dress requirement.Rain taps the metal roof. The worn rubber wipers are slow but efficient, clearing our vision. Empty beer cans clatter on the floor as we pass through town, past the police department, past the fire department, through Middlefield’s main intersection. We pass churches that aren’t barns, past plastic factories that make hunting decoys. Creepy Larry pulls over into the parking lot of a veterinarian clinic. “Why did we stop?” I ask.There was one other time we were here. Our pet cat, Sebastian, ate a thimble and fucked up his insides. This was when Mother was still alive. Sebastian liked to walk on the baby grand piano in the living room when Mother played. We rushed to no avail. Sebastian died on the way. If only we could have gotten here sooner. “I figured now be a good time for my payment,” he says this through the motion of putting the van in park and unzipping his pants. My stomach is a bed of shale, a pit of rocks where a well has run dry. “Well c’mon. It’ll be quick if you’re good,” he says. Samantha examines him on display in the driver’s seat and can’t break away. Her face is stock-still and inquisitive. I start to crawl to the front passenger seat before I overthink it. I place the party to the foreground—an upgrade in social status. Creepy Larry says no. “I want the other one.” He nods to Mary Ann. I’m stunned when she crawls there without hesitation, as if called to the head of class. Is she following my lead, or does she want to do this?“I’ve seen you take your teeth out before,” he says, waiting for her to do so. She wiggles and pries her dentures out. I reach out and she places them in my palm, her saliva coating my fingers. Her dentures look like Stonehenge connected by a pink tarp. Samantha watches the driver’s seat, her eyes unblinking. The rain cuts off the rest of the world outside.Obscured by the driver seat, Mary Ann grunts and her arms are rigid by her side. She tries to cough but it comes out like a duck quacking. Creepy Larry’s seat squeaks, the coils contracting and expanding how our buggy contorts when Blaze navigates tight curves.Mother played piano when she was depressed. The only pieces she’d play were Beethoven’s sonatas. Her favorite was No. 8. The ending would grow louder and louder before finishing, her fingers pulsating up and down the keyboard, pressing each key with clout to strike a note within the body of the baby grand. Creepy Larry doesn’t last as long as Beethoven’s No. 8 sonata. He holds his breath, both hands clamped on the back of Mary Ann’s neck. Her bonnet slides all over, her hair unravels. When he removes his hands from her, we know he’s finished. Mary Ann crawls to the backseat, her mascara pooling beneath her eyelids. She wipes her face and sits there in a ball, contemplating. I elbow her and present her dentures, having kept them safe. Returning from a daze, it takes her a second to realize they were missing.
* * *It’s a fire the size of Nauvoo Flea Market. Multiple areas for beer—kegs of Miller Lite and coolers like bases—surrounding a giant ring where two boys are fist fighting. We’re in a large corn field tamped down in the middle of nowhere. It’s loud with a generator powering flood lights and speakers, blaring rock music from the 80’s. I link arms with Samantha and Mary Ann as we navigate through boys and girls that are already drunk. They laugh a little too loud, sway a little too wide, and stare a little too long. I recognize the two boys in the fighting ring, brothers who live at the end of Princeton Road and manage the largest farm in the area—brightest carrots at the Geauga County Fair. Is this brotherly love or some way to release their testosterone? Boys forming the circle pass money around placing wagers. The cash collector has one hand fuller than the other, calculating the odds. They duck and dodge, predicting each other’s movements, until one tires enough, slowing reactions for contact. The older, bigger brother knocks his younger sibling out cold. The crowd cheers and rushes to collect the few dollars they’ve earned.Creepy Larry is parked off in the distance chugging Pabst tallboys. His van idles, headlights and heat on. What does it take to bring a vehicle to life? Maybe like a generator, gasoline combusting to power a home in a blackout. Father always jokes about his buggy having a one-horse powered engine. The fire is wild, no bricks to contain it. The rain can’t extinguish the amount of lighter fluid doused onto these branches. Two boys heave a door on top of the bonfire. It diverts the smoke into a nearby blue spruce, singeing the needles.“Fuckin’ Larry said he won’t go out and buy us more beer,” one boy says to another. “We’re out of MGDs and the kegs are gettin’ light.”One of them wobbles and bumps into me, spilling skunky liquid across my yellow dress, making it turn stale shades of maize. I pause in disbelief, waiting for an apology I don’t receive. This must be a part of the ritual—a rite of passage.Norman swaggers on the outskirts of the fighting ring with a handful of boys we don’t recognize. I unlink with my sisters and they pause as if fallen from a train. Norman keeps snapping his suspenders and scratching his groin. I think about the proximity of our community to others. How there are many people in the world, but we orbit the ones closest to us. I hope he’ll notice my makeup and not that my face is beet red. I seize a can labeled Icehouse from a cooler and crack it open. My first sip tastes freezing and bitter acid, like a tomato gone bad.I take a deep breath and clear my head. A quick meditation for positive energy. When I reach Norman, he glimpses me then smacks his buddies, laughing like I tripped and fell in horse shit. “My god, I didn’t think you’d actually show. This is that girl I was telling you guys about!” The others scrutinize me as a painting subject. Norman calls over a few more boys and tells them The Gem Girl came. I hear gasps and murmurs as others hurry over. The party has halted, diverting all of its spirit to me. They pinch my dress, running the polyester through their thumb and index fingers. Hands are touching me from all directions. For the first time, I’m the center of attention. Breathing is arduous, surrounded by boys on the verge of becoming men. I push and plow until I break free. I try my hardest to walk away in an even step. I picture Blaze cantering and wonder how horses keep track of all their limbs. I arrive to relink with Mary Ann and Samantha, but they are a locked gate. They exit, out past the ring and onto the open road. The cold has me frozen on the spot. My siblings. My bloodline. I linger a lifetime to thaw.
* * *There’s two bars in Middlefield, both in the center intersection of town. It’s closing time and a bunch of drunkards are hollering at Mary Ann and Samantha from the covered patios as I play catch-up. They slur their words but the message is clear how appetizing we are. We walk by the police department and the white van returns. I feel like a dead animal attracting scavengers. It’s what I deserve. “Girls, get in! It’s not safe for you out here alone.” Creepy Larry rides up against us. Police cars must be out on duty, the station is hibernating. Does he treat them to breakfast like he does the Mayor?“We’re fine! Leave us alone Creepy Larry!” I shout so loud, as if I’m trying to get Samantha to hear me. “Hey now, that’s a bit uncalled for. I’m here to save you.” Not paying attention to where he’s steering, his van drifts into Mary Ann, hard enough to knock her down, thumping onto pavement. Her dress tears and instead of seeing skin it’s maroon that spreads and stains. “Ah, Christ,” he says, parking the van and rushing out to assess the damage. “I didn’t mean to do that. Let me see it.”“You’ve done enough, get away from us!” I grab my sisters arm and hoist her back up to power-walk away. He follows us, calling out to stop and listen to him. We run as fast as our dresses will allow our legs to stretch. It’s pitch black in East Branch Trails, except for the cabins’ bathroom light, guiding bugs together for mating. We’ve been walking for hours, past the plastic factories, through town, along the buggy path,. If Father was awake and knew we were out, there would be no way of knowing if he was searching for us. There’s twigs snapping in the distance. We stop and hold Samantha back, to silence her. It sounds like an animal limping somewhere, possibly hurt. The woods are foggy. We’re close to home now. One moment I see the finish line, the next I’m jolted. I land on the ground, tackled by something—someone. Creepy Larry is holding me down. “Just let me talk without you girls walking away. I’m at least owed that much.”“Get off of me! You’re hurting me!” My braids have come undone and Creepy Larry is pressing my shoulders against the gravel path. Samantha stumbles into the forest, off the trail. I hear her clotheslined by a maple sap line with a whip-like warble vibrating from the pressure. She’s on the ground grunting from the wind being knocked out of her. She slithers through the dead leaves, crinkling beneath her deviating body. Mary Ann pushes Creep Larry with all her might, but it’s not enough to remove him and all of his weight off of me. “Listen! I didn’t mean to hurt you. I’m a good guy, let me take care of you.”“Please!” My spine is riding the edge of a rock back and forth. It bends in a way it shouldn’t. I kick him where Mary Ann was forced to go. It’s not hard enough but I do it over and over again until my dress tears, until it hurts him enough for Mary Ann to roll his large body off me, until I’m no longer restrained. We sprint for safety. My dress has a rip torn down the middle as high as my belly button. We can’t find Samantha and have no time to stop. I wish people were still renting these half cabins so someone could hear us screaming. Mary Ann and I flock to the fancy restroom for campers. Once inside, I lock the door. I evaluate the situation—we are not overreacting, this is not something we could laugh about tomorrow. There’s a dripping of water in the sink, pulsing a time signature. The dim bathroom light is shaded by cobwebs filled with moths as wide as a baseball gloves ready for a catch. The animal kingdom has muted, guarding against predators. A shrieking pierces the woods, a young girl’s timbre. I breath Samantha. She finds us and bangs the door thunderous, striking with the meat of her palm. We grant her access, knowing we’ve chosen our base to bunker. I lock the door as soon as her feet cross the threshold. We hear him stomping right behind her. No more running tonight. He knows where we are. “Larry, please listen to me carefully. We just want to get home. We don’t blame you for anything. Please leave us alone.”“Beth, I’ve always admired how different you were. But now it’s starting to annoy me. I just want to face each other and show you that I’m a true gentleman.” His words are slurred and strung together with effort. The door handle slowly rotates but the deadbolt saves us. “I’m better than those guys you know. You should hear the shit they talk about in my van when I drive them. Come out. This talking through a wall is so impersonal, you know?”“Larry,” I speak slow and try to keep my voice even, like I’m balancing on the sap lines, overcoming the swaying tension, “We’re tired. We think you’re a great guy. We can talk about this tomorrow.” I say this although I question if the sun will rise.He pounds at the door. There’s only one answer he’s willing to accept. The one object in here that isn’t anchored into the wall is a large rock used to prop the door open, airing out any moisture when the workers steam clean. My hands swoop and cut, signing the plan without speaking. I herd my sisters into one of the bathroom stalls. He stops pounding when the deadbolt slides back into the door.“That’s more like it.” He opens the door lazily, but instead of hitting the door stopper against the wall, I wait behind it, praying he won’t sense me. Larry walks past me to the first stall and pushes it in—empty. My sisters try to control their breath, but fail, sounding like balloons squeaking. He pushes in the second stall—empty. “C’mon girls, I’ll watch over you.” He pushes the third stall door revealing Mary Ann and Samantha. “Where’s Beth?”Channeling all of my rage I smash the heavy rock against his head. The connection contains everything I possess, all of my hatred. He collapses to the damp bathroom floor with a thud. I’m shocked there isn’t any blood. There are tears though. Samantha and Mary Ann flood out of the stall, crying and hugging me. There’s a pressure relief as we melt into each other’s embrace.We can’t leave him here; his story will be much different than ours. We drag his unwieldy mass out of the bathroom and into the forest. Our angles acute, heels digging into the Earth for movement. There’s a glow drawing us in. The fire we built days ago is still burning despite all of the rain this week. It’s burning without any wood as a fuel source. A stream of colors shine, like the altar Father built me, prehistoric gems left before humans. We drape Larry across the fiery rubble. It reeks rubber and gasoline. He stirs but not with enough energy to yell or gasp. He simply vanishes and ceases to exist. I revolve, shielding my eyes and view a figure pass beyond the maples before disappearing. Unclear if what I witnessed was a ghost or if it was the light of a star beginning ascension.