Agnostic Chicagoan Aiden Cermak travels to central Illinois Amish Country and finds himself falling for a devout Amish farmer and furniture maker. Can his love be reciprocated?
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Between Two Worlds
Aiden Cermak and Daniel Schrock are the definition of “worlds apart.” It doesn’t get more different than agnostic and Amish, and no one is more aware of this than Aiden. The young Chicago journalist travels to central Illinois Amish Country to research an article and ends up as a house guest of Daniel and his family after an act of bravery leaves the Schrocks in his debt.
Aiden is drawn to the solemn and mysterious Daniel and decides to hang around Amish Country for a while longer, despite the risk of terrible consequences for Daniel. But Daniel’s suspect sexuality might not be the only secret he’s harboring, and as Aiden becomes more and more enmeshed in the community, he discovers that a hidden past may make it even harder for Daniel to face his emerging feelings. It may be impossible to build a bridge between their worlds—their only hope may be to carve out a world of their own.
Aiden Cermak navigated the central Illinois country lanes in his 1994 Chevy Cavalier, hoping he'd find the Interstate. He'd been in such a hurry to do more research for his Amish article before heading back to Chicago, he'd left the directions in his room at the bed and breakfast. He'd forgotten even his Oakley knock-offs. Not that he needed them. Drizzle had begun falling that Sunday morning the moment he'd pulled out of the inn's parking lot. He knew I-57 lay somewhere east, but each time he turned down one of those slick, buggy-battered lanes, that cross-stitch of blacktop and compacted gravel weaving through mile after mile of corn, soybean, and grain fields, he'd hit a dead end.
Heading along one such impasse he spotted, through the intermittent sweep of his windshield wipers, a black family buggy ambling ahead. He figured they were stragglers on their way to church. Once alongside, he slowed to a snail's pace and lowered the passenger window. The dark-bearded driver reined the horse to a near stop and craned his neck at Aiden over the heads of the woman and two children sitting to his left, his face screwed up with suspicion. Aiden noticed a few more children and adults crammed into the backseat. He was about to ask for directions when, out of the corner of his left eye, he saw something which struck him as odd. About fifty yards away, a pickup truck was careening toward them. The driver swerved left, then right, then left again--bearing straight at the buggy.
Aiden floored his Chevy, tires screeching and loose gravel spitting up, and veered into the pickup's path. The pickup was deflected off of Aiden's front left bumper, sending the bumper flying like a maple seed into the nearby soybean field. Aiden's coupe slammed into the legs of the horse, causing the horse to slam down onto the pickup's hood. He heard a horrible sound of crushing metal and shattering glass and felt a dizziness that seemed unearthly.
Coming out of the spin, he sat, shaking, and gazed through his shattered windshield. On the opposite side of the lane in a deep ravine, the pickup truck lay upside down. A small fire had ignited on the undercarriage. The tires, facing the dreary June sky, spun freakishly.
He looked toward the buggy, about twenty yards from where his coupe had stopped. It was upright but askew. The passengers, dressed in black church clothes, had already alighted and appeared uninjured. By the look of the shaft, twisted and snapped in half and lying in the middle of the lane, he marveled that the buggy had not been hurled onto its side, tossing out all of its passengers. The driver with the short dark beard sprinted to Aiden's side.
"Are you okay?" he asked in a husky voice.
"Yeah, I think so." Aiden scanned his body, still strapped in by the seatbelt. He swept the shards of glass from his lap. "I seem okay."
The man, his eyes so dark they reminded Aiden of deep pond water, waved over the two boys who were examining the horse that lay quivering on the side of the lane. "Take care of things here," he told the boys, one a teenager, the other about twelve years old. "Make sure he's okay. There's nothing you can do for Dexter now." He hurried to the pickup where the eldest-looking man with a long grizzled beard was pulling the driver from the truck's cab. Aiden watched the dark-eyed man help lay out the driver, then smother the undercarriage flames with his black coat.
Overcome with a sudden urge to get out of his car, Aiden unhooked his seatbelt and, with the aid of the two boys, floundered out of the coupe. Brushing flecks of glass from his jeans and hair, he suppressed an impulse to roll in the wet soybean field, as if to rub out the entire episode. He remained calm, not wishing to look like a faint-hearted Englisher in front of the Amish.
"Everything all right?" The gray-bearded man jogged over.
"Yeah. What about you?"
"Ya, we are goot." He raked a shaky hand through his beard. "By the will of God, my wife and all my children are fine, but not so much that boy."
Aiden followed the man's doleful gaze. Along the side of the lane lay the pickup driver's limp body. He looked about Aiden's age, in his mid-twenties. His eyes were closed, almost serenely. The dark-eyed man, apparently the gray-bearded man's eldest son, knelt beside him. Near the buggy, the wife and her two young daughters huddled together. Their calf-length black dresses and white capes hung heavy from the drizzle. The smallest girl trembled in the arms of her big sister.
"Do you have a cell phone?" the teenage boy asked.
"Yes, of course!"
Chastising himself for failing to have thought of it before, Aiden reached into his front jeans pocket for his Motorola and dialed 911. The father gave him their location, and the operator said she would dispatch help right away.
Snapping his phone shut and stuffing it back into his pocket, Aiden noticed his Chevy. All the windows had shattered from the impact. The left headlight was smashed in like a watermelon and the bumper was gone. The left side of the hood was concaved, the front right quarter deeply dented, and his two front tires had blown out. Aiden shook his head in disbelief and realized just how lucky he was to be standing.
He noticed the two boys staring helplessly at their chocolate-brown gelding. More had been lost in that accident than his sixteen-year-old secondhand coupe. So much more. He looked at the pickup driver lying on the side of the lane. "I'm sorry about all this," he said.
"You have nothing to be sorry for." The father stared at the injured man along with Aiden. "We saw what you did. You steered your car in front of that pickup on purpose to spare us. My whole family would be dead if not for you."
"It was all very automatic." Aiden flushed. "I guess anyone would've done it."
"Nay." The father shook his head. "Da Hah led you to save us."
A few minutes later, screaming emergency vehicles raced down what seemed the endless ribbon of gravel lane, followed by flashing red lights reflecting off the sides of the family's wet buggy and the crack of static and voices transmitted through police radios. Emergency medical technicians scrambled to the pickup driver's motionless form and rushed him off to the hospital. Firefighters doused his truck. Only the calmness of the police officer, as Aiden tried to keep his voice from quaking while giving his account of the accident, matched the serenity of the surrounding farmland.
The father stepped in and related what he knew, highlighting how Aiden had been so quick in cutting off the pickup driver from careening into their buggy and how the pickup truck had just missed striking them. Aiden shuddered, remembering the image of the pickup driver's face, twisted in horror, just before their vehicles had collided.
A second team of emergency medical technicians examined Aiden. He appeared uninjured, but based on the condition of his car, the EMTs encouraged him to ride to the hospital in Decatur for further tests. Rolling his eyes, he protested. The father insisted that he go. Embarrassed, Aiden reluctantly allowed the technicians to place him on a stretcher.
Just as the EMTs loaded him into the back of the ambulance, he heard the pop of a handgun. Poor Dexter, he thought. He closed his eyes, wishing he were back home in his studio apartment in Chicago.
* * * *
The curtain to Aiden's emergency room cubicle was pulled aside with a discordant screech, and a young, attractive doctor stepped in.
"Looks like you're good to go." She closed the curtain haphazardly so that the emergency room remained partially visible. "All your tests came back negative. No internal injuries. No contusions. Nothing broken. Barely a scratch."
"I could've told you that." Aiden sighed and rested his head back against the thin white pillow of his gurney. He turned his head away, tired of looking at the same white-tiled ceiling.
After more than six hours, he was eager to leave the hospital. Yet, with his car totaled, there was so much he needed to do before he could go anywhere. He'd already reported the accident to his insurance company. Now he needed to find transportation back to Chicago. He supposed even a small city like Decatur had car rentals.
"It was a good idea you came to the hospital to make sure," the doctor said. "You can never be too certain. You had a pretty nasty accident from what I heard. Lucky you came out unscathed."
"What about that man in the pickup? How's he doing?" Aiden knew the doctor had bad news the moment she averted her eyes toward the white granite floor.
She looked at Aiden and said through stiff, plum-red lips, "I'm afraid he didn't make it."
Aiden flinched. Even though he did "save" a nine-member Amish family from a head-on, he was unable to dispel the shock that he had caused another man's death--someone near his own age.
When he'd left for the town of Henry in the heart of Illinois's Amish Country Friday afternoon for what he'd hoped would be a productive research trip, he had never imagined he'd be involved in a fatal car wreck. He wished he'd never accepted that writing assignment from Midwestern Life magazine.
Initially, he had been excited about learning more about the Amish. He remembered the small Amish community where he grew up in southern Maryland and always wished he'd gotten to know them better. Being agnostic, he knew he could never share their religious zeal, but their old-fashioned lifestyle had always captivated him.
"Do you have someone to give you a lift home?" the doctor asked with a soft voice.
Aiden's mind still hovered over the dead man. "I need to pick up a rental car."
"I wouldn't recommend you drive home tonight. Do you have a place to stay locally?"
"He'll stay with us."
Both Aiden and the doctor looked in the direction of the coarse, yet warm, voice. The Amish father from the accident stood in the opening of Aiden's curtain. In one hand he held Aiden's duffel bag and in the other a black, wide-brimmed hat. His grizzled beard fell nearly to his belly and his gray eyes sparkled under the fluorescent lighting.
"I'll be taking him back home with me," he said.
"Just in time," the doctor said. "I just gave him the green light. He's looking fine. I'll go get his release papers." She smiled and eased past the Amish man with a nod.
"We got this from your car." The man took one step into the cubicle and set down Aiden's duffel bag. "I was going to leave it for you earlier but wasn't sure you'd get it. You were getting tests."
"Thank you for thinking of it." Aiden sat up on the gurney, his eyes riveted on the middle-aged man. "I'm glad it was in good hands."
"I'm Samuel Schrock." He offered his large hand. "We never got a chance to formally introduce ourselves."
"I'm Aiden Cermak." The two men shook hands. Aiden noticed the rough calluses on Samuel's farm-worked hand, and he was embarrassed Samuel might think his computer-using hand was too soft. He feared two years of city life was rendering him squishy. He had always wished he could live a more subsistence lifestyle like the Amish. Modern life, with urban-centered jobs, made that dream near impossible.
"Ach." Samuel dropped himself into a chair in the corner of the cubicle. His chubby belly pushed passed his suspenders. "Getting your release papers might take another two hours. You know hospitals. They do their job, but sluggish machines."
Aiden pondered how an Amish man would be such an expert on the running of hospitals, but he smiled in agreement. Still gazing at the man in wonder, he said, "You really don't have to put me up."
"Where else would you go? Hotels are costly. It's the least we can do."
"I don't want to be a burden. It's asking too much."
"It's no burden. My wife and me discussed it, and we both agree you should come. Nimmand hott graysahri leevi vi dess, es en mann sei layva gebt fa sei freind." Samuel interpreted for Aiden, although Aiden understood enough textbook German to figure out what he'd meant: "No greater man of God than he who lays down his life for another."
"Oh, but really." Aiden flushed.
"I heard you telling the police officer you're here from Chicago doing research on the Amish, ya?"
Aiden lowered his eyes and nodded. "I'm writing a magazine article."
"It'll work fine for you then. You can see firsthand how we live, for your article. My family's a large brood, but we have room for you. You can stay with us until someone comes and gets you or until you rent a car. Your car, like my horse, didn't survive the accident."
The legendary Amish generosity left Aiden near speechless. But he worried whether such devout Christians would be so quick to welcome him into their home if they knew the truth about him. And on top of that, he was a non-believer.
"I really don't know what to say." He pushed aside his concerns for the moment. "I'm very grateful, beyond words."
"It's us who are grateful to you."
Samuel gazed toward his lap, slowly shaking his head. His beard swept across his belly like a furry pendulum. "If only we had been a trifle earlier leaving for church, maybe things would've turned out otherwise. With nine of us going off to the same place in one buggy, we can sometimes be sluggish. Ach, but when God wills things, there's nothing to be done."
God's will--something Aiden failed to understand in Amish culture, in any culture. He knew the Amish placed everything in the hands of God, no matter what, good or bad. Aiden could not reduce everything so simply to a matter of mystical forces, not when people ultimately caused most of life's heartaches.
A specter of the pickup driver's horrified face just before their vehicles had collided flashed through Aiden's mind. He gathered his hands into a tight ball and swallowed. "Do you know anything about the man in the pickup?"
"Bobby Jonesboro? He's a local English boy. Twenty-three, I think. The sheriff said it was pretty clear by the accident he was at least double the legal limit. I was sorry to hear he died, but the Jonesboro boy was known for his weekend binge drinking. In a way, you saved him, too."
"You saved him from killing nine people."
A nurse broke their contemplative silence when she brought in Aiden's release papers. After she left with the signed forms, Samuel gave him privacy to dress. Before stepping outside his cubicle, he tore off the hospital bracelet, tossed it into a receptacle, and washed his hands of the whole place.
He expected to see a horse-drawn buggy idling in the hospital's main entrance drive-thru, but when Samuel slid open the door to a passenger van, he flushed from his assumption. A half hour away by even a fast-moving ambulance, Henry was, of course, much too far from Decatur for a buggy ride.
"Hi there," the driver said. Samuel introduced him as Joe Karpin. Samuel explained that Joe shuttled the Amish, or anyone else needing a ride, for a small fee in his fifteen-seat Ford Club.
"You folks buckled in?" Joe asked, grinning through the rearview mirror.
"Ya," Samuel said. "We're all settled. Off for home, Joe."
* * * *
Daniel Schrock was measuring an oak plank for his mother's corner kitchen cabinet in the quiet of his woodshop when he heard the crunch of gravel from an English vehicle pulling into the driveway. Peering out the window, he saw that it was Joe Karpin dropping off his father and that Englishman from the crash scene. He was unsure what to think of his parents inviting a stranger to stay with them. He understood the man had risked his life to save his family; still, they knew nothing about him, other than he was writing some article about the Amish.
Few people stayed with the Schrocks, particularly anyone English, and Daniel preferred it that way. Strangers, from his experience, caused too much trouble. Especially those from the big city who made their living by prying into other people's lives. Not that he disregarded all that the man had done; he was impressed with his fast thinking. He simply did not wish to deal with a pesky guest.
With just five bedrooms, it was hard enough to squeeze in the nine of them. His parents had made him give up his bedroom for the Englishman and temporarily move in with his two younger brothers. They didn't seem to care. Young David was excited to get to sleep in Daniel's sleeping bag. But Daniel cared. He'd felt bad enough when he had moved back home three months ago and had forced his teenage brother back in with David. And now with an extra body, things were really going to be tight. He hoped the Englisher would have enough modesty to keep his visit short.
Whether he had saved them or not, the whole idea of his staying there seemed ridiculous. What would an Englisher know about life on an Amish farm, Daniel thought, as he watched his father place a bill in Joe Karpin's hand. He seemed sturdy enough. At least he had the gumption to swerve his car in front of that crazy Bobby Jonesboro. But he was obviously too city-soft to be of any practical use on their labor-intensive farm.
Daniel watched his father and the Englishman wave to Joe as he pulled out the driveway, then head up to the house. What was it about the stranger's eyes? He remembered being struck by them when he'd first craned his neck to look at him when he had pulled them over, most likely to ask for directions. He'd never seen eyes so pale brown, like the color of honey. And that raven-black hair of his. Shiny and curly like a lamb's. Tugging at his beard, he turned back to finish up his work before heading in for supper. He figured he had no choice but to officially meet the Englisher.
* * * *
Duffel bag in hand, Aiden followed Samuel up the gravel driveway and gazed wide-eyed about the midsized farm. The two-story white house stood on a manicured lawn surrounded by a weathered white picket fence. Across the driveway sat a metal-framed shed and large brown barn, both a bit worn but functional-looking. A thin windmill leaned toward the barn. Next to what he assumed must be the henhouse stood a smaller wood-framed building; a moment ago he had thought he'd seen a man with a beard peeking out the window.
An oat field stretched across the flat land to what seemed the horizon. Oat bundles lay in the field in tidy rows like strange, furry creatures. The unharvested oats swayed in the light breeze and sparkled golden as the afternoon sun broke through the gray clouds and the temperature rose.
Samuel held open the door. "Come the house in."
Aiden wiped his feet on the well-trodden welcome mat and stepped inside, inwardly chuckling at the man's interesting vernacular. Surrounded by the smells of beeswax and wholesome cooking, he thought the house looked similar to the typical American home. The sitting room where they entered was furnished with what one would expect to find in sitting rooms across America, except perhaps less ornate, and of course they had no television. No pictures or knick-knacks hung from the ivory walls other than one red and blue patchwork quilt above the sofa. Rag rugs were strewn over the dull and worn mahogany floor. An enclosed staircase led from the hallway to presumably the upstairs bedrooms.
He saw down the hallway into the large eat-in kitchen where Samuel's wife and daughters scurried about preparing supper. There looked to be a refrigerator and oven, but he was uncertain how modern. He caught a glimpse of the wife opening the refrigerator and made a mental note to ask about the use of modern conveniences once he became more comfortable with the family. In his online research before leaving Chicago, he had been confused about how modern the Amish really were.
"The kinner are around someplace." Samuel hung his black hat on a wooden wall peg. Many other wide-brimmed hats hung from pegs, along with bonnets and shawls. Grunting, he took Aiden's duffel bag and leaned it against the wall. "Ach. Here they come."
One by one, Samuel's barefooted kinner shuffled in from all parts of the house. They undoubtedly recognized Aiden from the accident scene, but no introductions had been made. Samuel gathered his children closer and introduced each one: Elisabeth, twenty-three; Mark, eighteen; Grace, fifteen; David, eleven; Moriah, nine; and Leah, seven.
"Goot. You're here." Samuel's wife came in from the kitchen wiping her hands on her apron. Samuel introduced her as Rachel. She blushed under her white head-covering, a tad longer in front than those worn by her daughters. The kapp pushed out in the back, and Aiden knew it hid hair that hadn't seen shears in perhaps as many years as she and Samuel had been married.
"It's very good to make your acquaintance," Aiden said.
"Yours, too. I hope your stay in the hospital went okay."
"For my first time in a hospital, it wasn't too bad." It was, in fact, for Aiden so far a trip of firsts: first ambulance ride, first time in an emergency room, first visit in an Amish home. What other firsts lay ahead?
"Doctors didn't find anything wrong with him," Samuel said. "He's in goot shape."
"Fine." Rachel grinned with a blush.
"Supper ready?" Samuel arched his eyebrows high on his forehead. Rachel's unwavering smile indicated that it was. Turning to her two middle daughters, Grace and Moriah, she instructed them in Pennsylvania German to set the table. Obediently the girls set off for the kitchen, where Aiden heard them grab dinnerware from cupboards and place it around the large oak dining table.
"Where's Daniel?" Rachel glanced around.
"I'm here." Daniel had just opened the front door and was wiping his boots on the mat. He stepped inside and hung his hat next to his father's. Samuel took his dark-eyed son by the arm and introduced him to their guest.
They shook hands clumsily, like bashful schoolboys. Aiden was surprised the stalwart twenty-five-year-old didn't clasp his hand with two or three forceful pumps. Impossible that Daniel could've been as flustered as Aiden was at that moment. Easily six-four, near a man's hand-length taller than Aiden, Daniel's masculine physique forced blood into Aiden's cheeks. With all the commotion at the crash scene, he'd failed to notice his striking good looks. Now it was impossible not to. But the eyes he remembered. They were as dark as onyx. His handsome features snatched Aiden's voice.
Like his father, he sported a moustacheless beard. His was much shorter and a deep brown. Aiden knew the Old Order Amish of central Illinois permitted only married men to grow them. He figured Daniel lived on a farm of his own someplace with a wife and perhaps a few small children, yet he did not see any sign of them. Come to think of it, they hadn't been with him in the buggy that morning, either. He wondered where they were hiding.
Daniel released his awkward grip and quickly excused himself to wash up. Aiden watched the brawny Amish man march down the hallway and disappear around a corner. He mentally punched himself for what he was thinking about Samuel's eldest.
* * * *
During the lengthy meal prayer when Samuel thanked da Hah for sending Aiden to save the family, Aiden was glad everyone's eyes were shut. He didn't want anyone to see his searing cheeks. Glancing around the sturdy dining table as he pretended to pray along with the family, he believed he was undeserving of such praise--especially since he remained unconvinced there was a god who had sent him. A spasm shot through his throat when Samuel paid tribute to the deceased Bobby Jonesboro. Difficult to believe that a mere eight hours ago he'd been involved in a car accident in which someone had actually died.
After the prayer, heavy bowls filled with baked chicken smothered in cheese sauce, mashed potatoes, succotash, homemade biscuits, applesauce, pickles, and peanut butter circled the table. Aiden asked about some of the food. The Amish peanut butter interested him the most; it was a mixture of homemade peanut butter, marshmallow cream, maple syrup, and butter. He put some on his biscuit and took a taste. Everyone giggled when he moaned with pleasure.
Everyone but Daniel. He sat stiff and austere, his dark eyes focused on his plate, as if he held the weight of the entire house on his back. Since taking his seat at the other end of the table, Daniel had not paid any attention to Aiden, who was only too aware of the handsome man's presence. Aiden thought he appeared preoccupied, perhaps even angry.
He speculated whether the day's events might've affected him worse than the others. The smaller children seemed remarkably unfazed. Still, Aiden had a deepening impression that Daniel resented him for everything that had happened. Daniel had been so quick to rush to him at the crash scene--why the sudden aloofness? Remembering the way Daniel had knelt beside Bobby Jonesboro, Aiden wondered if he and Bobby had been close friends. Did Daniel blame him for Bobby's death?
Excited in front of an English stranger, the other children lavished Aiden with attention. They smiled at him with unblinking eyes, eyes that seemed to come in all colors, from the palest gray of Grace's to the softest brown of Mark's. The youngest girls in particular peered at Aiden over their food, turning away giggling when he looked their way. Using Pennsylvania German, Samuel and Rachel admonished them for their poor table manners. Aiden waved it off, chuckling.
"What? You understand the German?" Samuel said.
Aiden explained that while in college he minored in German to get in touch with his "roots." But he understood only a fraction of their unique pronunciation of German words.
"My mother's ancestors came from the southwest German state of Baden-Wurttemberg," he told them. Samuel nodded, asserting that they could trace their roots back to that same area in Switzerland on the banks of the Rhine River where the first Anabaptists broke from the Catholic Church, giving nascence to the Amish faith.
"We'll have to be careful what we say," Samuel said. "No retsha in front of you."
"Don't listen to him," Rachel said. "We don't gossip."
Glancing at the surprisingly contemporary-looking kitchen with its numerous stained oak cupboards, full sink, two ovens, and large refrigerator, Aiden thought it an appropriate time to ask about modern conveniences for his article. "Are you allowed to use plumbing and electricity?"
"We can use plumbing," Samuel said. "We get water pumped in from the windmill by the barn. Gives us good enough pressure for our kitchen and the bathroom. But electricity? Nay."
Rachel shook her head. "All our appliances are gas-powered," she said. "We can use gas for our ovens, refrigerator, and lanterns, but never electricity. Nothing from a public service."
"With the price of gas these days," Samuel said, crinkling his bulbous nose, "it's just as costly."
"Are you not married?" eleven-year-old David asked out of the blue, his large dark gray eyes shiny like marbles. He wore a mound of bowl-cut hair atop his head like his eldest brother and father. Only the teenage Mark stood out; his hair was rebelliously cut short.
"Don't be so shussly," Samuel said, tossing a stern glance at his youngest son.
"I'm not being silly," David said. "I was just wondering. Englishmen don't grow beards when they marry, it's hard to tell."
"You can tell by their left hands," nine-year-old Moriah said from across the table, as if she and she alone possessed this knowledge.
"Hold up your hand," David said.
"Kinner, shtill!" Rachel shot her children an admonishing glare.
"That's all right." Aiden flushed. "I don't mind, really." He laid his fork aside and raised his left hand, showing the children the back and then the palm.
"See, he has no ring, he doesn't," Moriah declared. "He's not married."
"Why aren't you married?" David asked.
"That's his business," the oldest daughter Elisabeth stated, as if she, at twenty-three, had been asked the same meddling question many times before.
Moving his food with his fork, Aiden tried his best to appear unruffled. How honest could one be with the Amish? He couldn't tell them the truth--that he was gay.
Would they even know what that was?
Being gay for Aiden was never a large part of his identity, yet it was still a part. Could he tell the Schrocks that right after college he'd followed his boyfriend, Conrad, all the way to Chicago like a lovesick puppy--something he'd promised himself he'd never do again--to be dumped two months later, abandoned and alone in a strange city?
Could he tell them his desires weren't much different from theirs, only he envisioned himself "married" to another man, living a subsistence lifestyle, much like the Amish, but without religion?
Aiden knew he could not. If he dared, the fears he had while at the hospital would no doubt come true. Surely they would throw him out, slam the door behind him, wash their hands of him for good, whether he'd saved their lives or not. In their world, Aiden's "lifestyle" renounced acceptance. Such notions of sexuality must be as alien to them as milking a cow was to Aiden.
Surrounded by the Amish, he figured the best approach to answering questions such as "why aren't you married?" was to avoid particulars.
"I guess I haven't met the right person yet," he told David, the wholehearted truth.
"You should get married and buy a farm," David asserted, repeating what he'd most likely heard all around him since the day of his birth.
"He's a city folk," eighteen-year-old Mark said. "That would be like you moving to Chicago or St. Louis."
"Actually, Mark, I don't like the city much." Aiden was happy to shift the conversation away from the topic of marriage. "Chicago is great as far as cities go, but I would love to live in the country, someplace out west."
"Like a cowboy?" Moriah asked. The table vibrated with giggles.
"No, not really like that."
"You like the mountains," Mark stated, biting into a buttered biscuit.
"Yes, exactly. I would love to live in the mountains. My dream is to one day live someplace like Montana, maybe buy a small cabin with some land." With the man of my dreams, he wanted to add, but held the musing for himself.
Daniel stirred in his seat and seemed to stiffen; fifteen-year-old Grace looked as if she adhered to his every word.
"Do you know how to farm?" David asked, shoving a heaping forkful of mashed potatoes into his mouth.
"My grandfather used to own a small farm where I grew up in southern Maryland. I even helped out on it a few times when I was a kid."
"Ach." Samuel's gray eyes widened. "What did you do there?"
"He grew tobacco. I used to cut off the flowers that grew on the stalks, I think he called it topping. I only did it a few times. He sold the farm when I was thirteen. Sold it to an Amish family, actually."
"Ach, he did?"
"Most the tobacco farms in Maryland are owned by the Amish," Aiden said, recalling an article he'd written on the topic for his college newspaper his sophomore year. "There's a really interesting story about how that came to be."
The fascinated gapes of his host family prodded him on.
Taking intermittent bites of the hearty Amish meal, Aiden related his article about the Maryland government's attempt to eliminate the tobacco crop from the state by offering buyouts to farmers and how the local Amish capitalized on the move.
"The state forgot that it's against the religion of the Amish to take government subsidies," Aiden said. "The English farmers were quick to take the buyouts, but no matter how hard the government tried, the Amish wouldn't go against their customs. Before long the Amish were the only ones farming tobacco. On top of that, with all that vacant land laying all around them, the Amish realized they could buy their English neighbors' farms and expand their own crops. My grandfather was one of the first to sell. It meant he couldn't get the government subsidies anymore, but he didn't care. Like most of his English neighbors, he was just happy to take the good money the Amish offered and retire to Florida once and for all."
Samuel threw his head back and laughed. His grizzled beard, speckled with food crumbs, jiggled. "So the Englisher's government wanted to get rid of tobacco and only succeeded putting it into the hands of the Amish? Ha! That's goot!"
The rest of the family giggled also, even the younger children, although Aiden suspected they did not quite understand the story and found amusement only in their father's mirth.
"Sell is en goodi!" Samuel dabbed at his eyes with his paper napkin. "That's the best story I heard in a long time. Sweet justice. I don't remember reading about that in The Budget. We should all know about that."
"I got a kick out of it myself," Aiden said, beaming from Samuel's reaction to his story.
"We don't believe in government." The amusement evaporated from Samuel's eyes. "It's not the source or the center of our lives."
"Yes, well, I'm with you on that." Aiden lifted his glass of whole milk, mimicking a toast. "I wish more people thought like that."
"God is the center of our lives," Samuel said, returning to his chicken and biscuits.
Aiden reddened. Whenever people talked about God, he always grew ill at ease. Visiting among the Amish, he knew he would have to adjust to religious references being liberally expressed, no matter how uncomfortable it made him. Their denomination, after all, dictated their entire existence.
Staving off his discomfort, he looked to Daniel to gauge his reaction to his tobacco story. Just as before, he sat erect on the bench, his ebony eyes peering at the food on his plate, as if thinking deeply about the story... or some other matter on his mind.