After the end of the Outside world, the Plain folk survived.
At the time, I didn’t know that the end of Outside had happened. None of us really did.We knew that something was wrong, of course. That knowledge trickled in slowly, like a leak in a roof. The signs accumulated, and then there was no denying the dark stain spreading over the pale ceiling of our world.
My first inkling was on a day in late September under a cloudless blue sky. The ravens had begun picking at the corn that was drying in the fields, black specks in the gold. I leaned on the wooden fence post, watching the birds scratch and listening to them caw to one another in their inscrutable hoarse language. The wire fence was pierced here by a wooden gate, to move farm equipment and cattle.This was a remote part of our little settlement of Plain people, but it made a good place to get away from chores and parents.
Beside me, Elijah had picked up a rock to scare the birds away.
“Don’t throw that,” I said, automatically.“It’s mean.”
Elijah looked at the stone, shrugged, put it down. He was a year older than me, but he would do anything I asked.Tall and lanky and sunburned from working outdoors,he cut a handsome figure: dark hair and hazel eyes that crinkled when he smiled. I wasn’t sure what I thought about that yet. We had grown up together. But things were changing.We both could feel it.
He leaned against the fence beside me, staring out at the field. I knew what he was looking at, the same thing I was . . . at what lay beyond the field. At the black ribbon of road just beyond the corn that carried the English to and from their business Outside. They drove their shiny cars down the two-lane highway, intent on going home or to work or school. At this distance, we could barely make out the drivers. Sometimes men or women drove boxy sedans in pressed suits and blouses. Often they would be couples with children strapped into harnesses in the back seat. Other times the drivers would be people around our age, talking on their phones or chatting with friends in the passenger seat.We were too far away to see their expressions. But during the summer, with the windows down, we could sometimes hear snippets of their laughter.
Since the time we were children, Elijah and I had made up stories about the people in the cars.We imagined that they were driving to the movies or going to parties. Once, we spied a sleek black limousine and fancied that it contained men in tuxedos and women in evening dresses. Maybe a group going to prom. It was as far away from our everyday world as we could envision.
“Someday that’s going to be us out there,” Elijah said, gesturing with his chin toward the road.
“Soon. Three more weeks.” I’d been daydreaming about Outside for so long. And it was almost time for Rumspringa. Literally, it meant “running around.” It was the time for young Amish men and women to go beyond the gate and taste the Outside world.After years of begging and pleading, my parents had finally relented and let me go Outside this year, on two conditions: that I wait until the harvest was completed, and that Elijah go with me.We wouldn’t be formally living together, of course. I intended to room with one of the girls I’d grown up with, Hannah Bachman. And one of Elijah’s friends, Sam Vergler, would go too. Sam and Hannah had been courting since Hannah had turned sixteen.We’d have a girls’ apartment and a boys’ apartment. Proper. But for all practical intents, Elijah and I would be going on Rumspringa together.
Though he could have gone sooner Elijah had declared that he wouldn’t participate in Rumspringa without me. He’d been saving money, apprenticing to a master carpenter and helping out with his father’s farm. He seemed content, though, with his day-to-day life, content with the waiting.And I knew that my parents hoped that Elijah and I would someday be married. Indeed, I couldn’t picture myself being married to anyone else . . . though I admitted that it would be strange to see him with a beard like the ones worn by all married Amish men, rather than his handsome, clean-shaven face. It was the destiny I’d accepted. I was Amish. I didn’t dislike my life and accepted the inevitabilities cheerfully. Still, I wanted the experience of Outside.To know that I’d made the right choice.To be absolutely certain.
There was a difference, I had decided, between knowing and believing. And I wanted both.
“What’s the first thing we’re going to do Outside, Katie?” Elijah asked, grinning.“Eat sushi?”
“Ugh. No.” I wrinkled my nose.This was a game we played often: When we are Outside . . . “I am going to buy a pair of britches. Jeans.”
He stood back and looked at me, considering. “You? In britches?”
“Ja,” I said, lifting my chin defiantly. “And I want to go to the movies.”
“The movies?” he echoed. He was still fixated on the jeans; I could tell by how he stared at my rump.“What kind of movie do you want to see?”
“I’m not sure.” I smiled slyly. I’d found a newspaper while Outside with my father earlier that day. He occasionally delivered fresh produce to a convenience store that catered to English tourists. If I picked the produce, I could keep the money. I kept mine squirreled away in a wooden box that Elijah had made for me, with the word rumspringa carved on the top. After we delivered the produce, I found the page of movies in a trash can outside of the store and had tucked it away in my apron pocket. I pulled it out now and smoothed it over the top beam of the fence.“See.There’s a lot to choose from.”
Elijah leaned over my shoulder, and I could feel his breath disturbing the tie on my bonnet. “Wow.” His finger traced over the listings.There was one that showed an explosion and soldiers in uniform. Another depicted a cartoon dragon with wings wrapped around a castle. I was partial to that one. It seemed magical, dangerous, and compelling. Though he was only printed in black-and-white, I imagined that the dragon was blue — blue as the sky at dusk.
“How about this?” Elijah pointed to an advertisement for a film that showed a female spy in a leather suit. Her breasts strained to be released from the zipper that contained them, and she held a gun longer than her impressive legs.
I peered at the woman in leather.“If you want. As long as I can see the dragon film.”
Elijah laughed.“I would think you’d object to that. But she is wearing britches.”
I shrugged. The woman seemed very unreal, as two-dimensional as the paper she appeared on. I wasn’t threatened by fantasy. “No. I’d be eager to see if she really looks like that in the film, though.”
“So am I.” He lifted his eyebrows. I swatted him playfully.
Our gazes gradually settled back to the horizon, at the black ribbon of road. The whine of an engine echoed in the distance, like a mosquito.
“Ooh, a speeder,” Elij...