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Anathema
by Colleen Coble
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Anathema


"Hannah, why do you fight back? Always you kick against the goad. We're told to turn the other cheek." Patricia Schwartz

Hannah Schwartz quickened her pace along the path from the farmhouse until she stood on the hillside peering down at the covered bridge. The Indiana winter wind pierced through the black wool cape she wore. She played nervously with the strings on her bonnet.

Had he come already? Oh, she shouldn't be here. Mamm would be so unhappy with her. But Hannah had made this choice for a good reason.

Though only seven o'clock, the darkness deepened with the storm clouds building in the southwest. Thunder rumbled, and she heard the strains of her cousin Moe's yodeling as he went to the barn. She couldn't let him see her. Slipping past the bare branches of an arching goldenrod barring her path to the road, she hurried the last few feet. Flanked by bare maple trees, the opening yawned ahead. She stepped onto the planks of the bridge. A lingering odor of gasoline exhaust made her sneeze three times.

Pausing, she waited until her eyes adjusted to the deeper gloom. She didn't need light. The interior of the covered bridge was as familiar to her as her own bedroom. Reece would be along in a few minutes. She shivered, but not from the February chill that swept down off the hills of Parke County, Indiana.

It was wrong to be here. If her parents knew ... and Noah.

She paced the wide wooden boards of the covered bridge, pausing occasionally to listen for the sound of Reece's truck. She'd expected him to be here waiting for her like usual. Perhaps he'd had to attend to a convenience.... store break....in or some minor law violation. She leaned against one of the massive crossbeams supporting the bridge and looked through a cutout in the siding that formed a window overlooking the water. Still there was no sign of Reece. If he didn't come soon, she would have to go back.

She heard an engine and turned with an eager smile, only to face two men she'd never seen, approaching in a small four....door car. She stepped up onto the footpath of the bridge and waited for them to pass, but the car slowed. The window ran down, and a man who looked to be in his thirties leaned out as the car stopped. He hung his arm, covered with a red and black plaid jacket, out the window.

His blond hair was thinning on top, and his pale blue eyes gleamed in the light from the car's dash. "Hey, pretty lady, need a ride?"

"No, I'm waiting for a friend," she said. "Well, your friend's not here, but we are." The door opened and he got out. The other man hopped out as well. He was about the same age and wore an orange hat. They approached where she stood.

Hannah shrank back. "My friend will be here any minute."

The man's smile turned predatory. He grabbed her arm and pulled her toward him. "We can have some fun."

"No!" She struggled to pull her arm from his grasp, but his other hand snaked around her waist. To her horror, she felt him grappling with the snaps on the back of her dress. "Let go of me!" Panicked now, she began to kick and strike at him.

"Whoa, we've caught ourselves a little wildcat." He pinned her hands down and began to drag her to the car. The other man held open the back door.

Where was Reece? She opened her mouth to scream, but the man clapped his hand over it. She smelled tobacco on his fingers and beer on his breath. He tossed her like a rag doll into the car and began to crawl inside with her. She kicked him in the face and scrabbled for the other door, only to find the other man there. A shriek tore from her throat. Hannah's limbs froze. This couldn't be happening.

The first man's face twisted into a snarl, and he grabbed her ankle when she tried to kick him again. He managed to climb in next to her. "Get us out of here," he told the other guy.

The man in the orange cap ran around to the driver's seat and jumped in. He accelerated toward the end of the bridge. Hannah shrank against the door and fumbled with the lock.

The blond man grabbed her arm. "No, you don't."

He tried to kiss her on the neck, but she bit him on the ear. Bile rose in her throat at the taste of his blood. He swore and pulled away, holding his ear. His face darkened, and he raised his hand. His arm and hand cast a shadow in the light of the overhead dome. She cringed just before his slap landed on her cheek. Her vision darkened, and she saw stars.

The car was nearly to the end of the covered bridge. The man in the front seat swore, and the brakes began to squeal. The car fishtailed as he tried to stop. Over the top of the seat, Hannah saw a truck blocking the end of the bridge. Reece stood between the vehicles, gun drawn. The car's headlamps caught the gleam of his badge.

"Get out of the car!" he shouted. "Hannah, get out of the car."

Hannah found the strength to grab the lock and flip open the door. The blond man made a halfhearted attempt to grab at her, but she slid out of the car. He slammed the door shut, and she heard him shout to the driver, "Let's get out of here!" The car reversed and backed quickly toward the other side of the bridge.

She lay on the wide wooden boards with the stink of car exhaust filling her lungs. She could see the glimmer of water through the cracks in the boards. What had almost happened? Shudders racked her shoulders, and she rose painfully to her hands and knees. Her palms stung, and her neck muscles throbbed. Running steps sounded on the boards, and Reece called her name.

"I'm here," she said, her voice trembling as hard as her limbs.

Then his strong arms were lifting her. He held her close to his chest, and she felt the way his heart pounded in her ear. His breathing sounded ragged, and she knew he'd been just as frightened as she. "You saved me," she whispered. "Again. You always are there at the right time."

He cupped his palms on each side of her head and kissed her. "I'll always be here for you. No one is going to harm myHannah."

The possessiveness in his voice thrilled her. No one had ever made her feel she was so precious. "The first time we met, you chased off kids who were throwing tomatoes at me," she said, a smile finally finding its way to her lips.

"Stupid kids," he growled. "Just because you Amish don't fight back is no reason ..." He broke off, his voice choked.

"I got in some licks this time," she said. "I'm ashamed to admit I fought back. But they...."

He put his fingers over her lips. "Don't think about it. You did the right thing."

In spite of what he said, she'd actually bitten a man. The shame felt too heavy to bear. All her teachings told her a Christian shouldn't fight back, should meekly accept whatever God sent her way. She'd have to carry this choice without telling her parents.

"Let's go to the jail and file a complaint against those two."

"No!" She shuddered at the thought. "I don't know who they were anyway. You got here in time. That's all that matters. Where were you?" she asked. "I was about to go home."

He slipped his arm around her waist. "Got hung up at work. I'm here now."

"And just in time." She dared to put her arm around his waist, too, and he grinned. His smile was the first of his many good traits to attract her. A smile that reflected a zest for life. He was Englisch which made him taboo. And maybe that was part of the attraction that spread over her at the sound of his voice. He was older too....nearly thirty. Experienced. She liked that about him.

The emerging moon gleamed on the badge pinned to his shirt. "I wasn't sure you'd come," he said.

Hannah's free hand went to the strings on her bonnet. "I promised I would." The word promise mocked her. Honoring her word tonight had caused her to break even bigger pledges. "I shouldn't have come."

"You belong with me." His hands came down with a possessive grip on her shoulders.

Big hands, softer than Datt's. As a sheriff's deputy and a detective, Reece didn't chop wood or handle a saw like the men in her community. He smelled good too. No odor of perspiration, just the spicy fragrance of oriental woods. She'd spent a whole afternoon at the department store last week, trying to identify what he wore, before deciding it was a fragrance called Contradiction.

And that pretty much summed up how he made her feel.

She dared a glance at his face and smiled back. "I can't stay long. Someone is at home buying Mamm's quilts. They'll miss me in a few minutes."

He pressed a kiss onto her forehead. "What are we going to do, honey?" he whispered against her hair.

"Come to meeting with me this Sunday," she said. "It's at our house. Visitors are welcome."

He smiled. "Trying to convert me?"

"It would solve a lot of problems," she admitted. While it was unusual for an Englischerto convert to the Amish faith, it had happened. Her own mother had walked such a path. And it would keep Hannah from having to make an impossible choice between her family and the man she was falling in love with.

He tugged her toward the shadows. "Come sit in the truck with me." He took her hand and led her to his pickup, a black Dodge he'd bought just last week. He opened the door for her, and she slipped inside. It still smelled new, and her cotton dress slid across the leather seats. She ran her palm across the supple leather. So beautiful.

Reece got in on the other side and drove under a walnut tree, where he parked. He clicked on the auxiliary power. Music spilled from the radio, his favorite, Creedence Clearwater Revival. "Bad Moon Rising" blared from the speakers behind her. He slid out from under the steering wheel and pulled her into his arms. His lips came down on hers. She wanted to savor the sensation of his strong arms, let the music blot out her misgivings. Noah had never even embraced her. It wasn't allowed. This was wrong, too, but in this moment, she didn't care. All she knew was the touch of Reece's hands and the scent of the mint on his breath. She relished the mastery of his hands on her.

Reece lifted his head, and his breath whispered across her face. "You know how I feel about you. Marry me, Hannah. We can leave right now. I'll take care of you. You'll never have to worry about anything. You're mine....you know you are."

The bright joy beating against her ribs exploded into panic. She put her palms on his chest and pushed. "The bishop would put me under the Meidung. " Why couldn't she have met Reece three months ago, before she was baptized? But even then she would have been faced with an impossible choice. She slid away to brace her back against the door, but still she couldn't bring herself to open it and walk away from him.

She was weak, so weak.

The thought of leaving her family made her lungs ache. Being Amish was as much a part of her body as the bone and sinew that kept her upright. Her life was about laughing and talking around the dinner table with loved ones, working side by side with her mamm. She'd never expected to find herself in this place, loving one of the Englisch when she was engaged to one of her own people.

"You could convert," she whispered.

"I'd have to give up my job, my life. I can't do it, Hannah. I wish I could. But I'll take care of you. There's a world out there you know nothing about. An exciting world of new experiences."

He was right. The Amish faith forbade military service or a job in law enforcement. If she went with him, she would have to give up everything. If he came with her, he'd be in the same position. It was an impossible situation. Oh, but she wanted to be with him! His power and strength made her feel safe when her world seemed filled with uncertainty. He knew so much....all about the world she'd seen only glimpses of.

The day after he'd saved her from some neighborhood bullies, he'd come into the café where she worked and ordered coffee at one of her tables. She'd been drawn to him from the first. She watched the way the other deputies deferred to him. And every minute she was conscious of his eyes watching her.

She shivered. Noah would be so hurt if he saw her in Reece's arms. She should have been stronger.

"Hannah?" Reece reached his hand toward her. "Come back over here, honey. It's okay. I won't push you. I just want to take care of you."

God would punish her if she accepted the invitation in his voice.

From somewhere, she found the courage to grab the door handle and yank it open. She found the motivation to turn and run toward home. Reece called after her, but she didn't slow. The Bible said to flee temptation. The cool wind brushed against her face and shivered down her back. It slowed the blood pounding along her veins, throbbing in her head. Her feet grew lighter as she sped from the bridge toward home. Harsh breaths heaved in and out of her chest.

Scalding shame swept through her veins. What had she become? Could this relationship be good if it caused her to sin so grievously against her parents, against Noah?

Her soles slid over gravel, and she stumbled, nearly went down on one knee. Daring a glance behind, she saw that Reece hadn't followed. She stood and hurried on, stopping on the road to catch her breath. Up ahead, the gaslights glowed yellow through the window. She hoped her parents thought she was still in the barn.

Composing her features, she stumbled toward the house, though she doubted serenity would do her much good. Mamm would take one look at her face and see the guilt etched there. Her mother could almost read her mind. Mamm knew what it was like to struggle against the strictures of their faith. Maybe Hannah could talk to her. Mamm would understand. She'd tell Hannah how to deal with these emotions.

The thought of leaving her Amish faith left a hollow sensation in Hannah's soul. She'd been taught....and believed....that they'd found the true path to God.

The house was quiet when she opened the back door. Where were her parents? She walked past the wringer washing machine in the utility room and stepped into the kitchen. The empty lemonade packets she'd left by the sink still lay there. Her mother had promised to clean up while Hannah did the barn chores.

"Mamm?" Hannah called. Only silence answered her.

Her feet stuck to spilled lemonade on the floor. Her mother never would have left the kitchen in such a state. Had someone taken ill? Alarms began blaring inside her head, and she quickened her pace to rush into the living room, still calling for her mother.

Her eyes fixed on a bumpy quilt hugging the middle of the living room floor and, oddly, a jumble of feet poked out from under it. Her mind fought to sort what her eyes saw. A quilt she'd never seen lay on the floor, black but bright with her mother's trademark hummingbird pattern. Datt's size 13 black shoes extended from one side of the quilt, while Mamm's size 5 shoes peeked out on the other side.

"Mamm? " she asked. Could this be a joke? Her father loved to tease. They'd hop up any minute, laughing at her gullibility.

No one moved. She bent down and touched her mother's exposed leg. It was cool. Hannah scrabbled back on her haunches. A scream built behind her teeth, then blared out with such force that her throat went raw. She couldn't stop screeching. The room began to swirl as she rolled onto her stomach and began to crawl. A red symbol had been painted on the wall. The wheel....and....spokes pattern imprinted itself on the backs of her eyes. A strange word was written just below it. Bile rose in the back of her throat, and she choked it back before stumbling out the door. She had to get to the greenhouse.

Bubble lights atop the four squad cars parked outside the farmhouse strobed into the night. All available Parke County deputies had responded to the call to the Amish farmhouse. Deputy Matt Beitler parked his SUV behind his partner's truck and got out. He buttoned his coat against the wind. When the call came in, he had been enjoying his day off with Analise. He'd not been happy to be summoned to work.

He opened the back door and let Ajax, his year....old K9 search dog, out of the back. Taking a firm hold on the German shepherd's leash, he walked toward the house. The odor of manure from the barn wafted over him as he strode over the rough ground. Double homicide on an Amish farm. The Amish were peaceable and model citizens. Reece had sounded almost incoherent when he called, which made Matt break every speed record getting here. His partner wasn't often anything but calm and methodical. O'Connor loathed losing control of anything.



Meet the author:
Colleen Coble


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