Two years. That was how long it would be before Gary saw any of them again, and he wasn't sure how many of them would be here when he returned. He had heard stories from some of the lifetime members about how they had lost girlfriends, or how some of their older relatives had passed on while they were away, and it always seemed to tarnish his view of the whole process.
But God wanted him to go, and more importantly for Gary Dumont, his parents wanted him to go. They had been scraping and saving for his missionary service ever since they had joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints when he was twelve, and they were ready to fund the entire experience. He couldn't let them down, even if he had his doubts about the truth of the gospel; this was what his parents considered the most important thing he had ever done.
He only wished that he didn't feel like he was doing it for the wrong reasons.
"You look ill."
Gary turned to face his grandfather, who had been sitting quietly on the side of the room, watching everyone else as they mingled with one another. Grandpa Dumont had always been close to Gary, as they shared a lot of the same interests, even though his paternal grandfather had never seen what his son saw in the church. It made for a strain on most of the festivities involving the religion, but Grandpa Dumont had always been respectful in public.
"Maybe I'm just a tad overwhelmed by all the attention," Gary replied as he walked toward his grandfather. He ran his hand across his recently buzzed scalp, feeling the blonde stubble and wondering if he'd ever feel comfortable in his own skin again. Grandpa Dumont moved his wooden cane off the seat next to him and patted it to indicate Gary should sit down. Gary knew better than to refuse, and with a polite smile he turned around and sat down, and then felt his grandfather's arm settle around his shoulders, drawing him close.
"You know, I don't really understand any of this. You're eighteen and should be going off to college, shouldn't you?" Grandpa Dumont whispered, eyeing the people mingling around the room. The room was filled with relatives and members of Gary's local ward-the people he went to church with every Sunday. Only half of his relatives were Mormon, and most of the others were non-religious. But everyone was being generally polite to each other. Gary wondered if the reason his grandfather wasn't mingling was because he didn't want to get into an argument with anyone.
"Well, it's what they expect of us at this age," Gary said with a shrug and a weak smile. "I mean, Mom and Dad have been talking about my mission since I was a deacon and-"
"But you don't really want to go, do you?" Grandpa Dumont interrupted with a chuckle. Gary sighed and looked away, but he knew that even if he hid his eyes his grandfather would see right through him. It was almost always that way. "Come on, you might as well admit it. If that's the way you feel, then why are you going?"
"I have my reasons," Gary said as he looked down at his shoes. "It's true that I'm not sure I want to go, but at the same time . . . maybe this is just a way for me to find out if I really do believe all the things they're teaching me, you know?" He looked up and met his grandfather's warm but calculating gaze, and he smiled a crooked smile which didn't show his teeth. "I guess this is my way of learning if I think the church has it right."
Grandpa Dumont gave Gary's shoulder a squeeze before he withdrew his arm. "I suppose you've a right to make that decision, though delaying college is only going to make things financially harder for you and your family in the long run. I guess your parents are okay with that though, so why shouldn't you be?" He chuckled dryly and looked out at the room. "Seems as if you've got a lot of support from people to do this, so who am I to disagree with your decision?"
"You're my grandpa and I love you," Gary replied with a grin. "Don't think that your opinion doesn't matter to me, because it does. More than most."
Grandpa Dumont beamed at Gary's confession and patted him on the knee before folding both hands over the top of his cane. "I appreciate that, Gary, though I don't expect you to follow everything I say. You've got to live for yourself, and you're living in a different world than the one I grew up in. There's so much to do in this world today that I get dizzy trying to comprehend it all." He shook his head in wonder and then continued with a sly smile, "One thing I do know is that the girls where you're going are pretty, and you're going to have a hard time following your mission rules."
Gary chuckled even though he felt a slight twinge in his heart at his Grandfather's remarks. There was another reason he was going on his mission, and it was one he didn't intend to tell anyone, no matter how close he felt to them. He had known he was gay for years, and he had gone to great lengths to keep this fact hidden. His involvement in the church had been largely driven by his need to conceal the attractions he felt for his male classmates, and to keep everyone believing he was a good boy. He didn't know exactly how his parents would react to his coming out, but he was sure it wouldn't be pretty. They were too involved in the church for them to ever accept that he was different from them in such a fundamental way.
What made matters worse was that his grandfather was openly homophobic. Gary clearly remembered his grandfather's constantly negative remarks as marriage equality was fought for and won in the Supreme Court, and the intensity of his outbursts had only grown worse as he aged. He didn't advocate for violence or avow that homosexuality should be illegal, but he was a proud defender of what he called 'traditional marriage' and he was sure the fabric of society was going to unravel now that marriage was available for all.
"I don't think I'll be doing much with any Korean girls," Gary said with a chuckle as he looked away from his grandfather again. "There's a system to keep you in check. You have to stay with your companion at all times, and that means there isn't a lot of room for fooling around. Besides, I plan on being good, you know. Are you saying I can't do it?"
"You may have a really strong will for your age, Gary, but you're still a teenager," Grandpa Dumont replied sagely. "You're going to have hormones raging through you which you'll be repressing, and the longer you're out there, the harder it will be. Just promise me you'll take it slowly when you get back and not jump into marriage like so many of these boys do."
"Trust me," Gary said, "right now, marriage is the furthest thing from my mind."
"Glad to hear it," Grandpa Dumont snorted. "Some of your cousins have already given me grandchildren, so I really don't need to pressure you!" He roared with laughter and Gary found it contagious; before they knew it the whole room had gone quiet and was watching them, smiling at the exchange between grandfather and grandson.
"Son, glad to see that you're finally enjoying yourself," said Brother Dumont, Gary's father, as he stepped through the crowd and looked at his son with eyes full of pride. "I was beginning to think you were going to be sick. Not a good thing when you're giving your farewell speech tomorrow at church. We wouldn't want you collapsing at the pulpit."
"I'm fine," Gary said as he tried not to blush. "I'm just realizing how much I'm going to miss everyone here, and I find it . . . well, let's say I'm just glad everyone could make it, and I hope I won't let any of you down."
"Oh Honey," said Sister Dumont, Gary's mother, "You know you couldn't let us down even if you tried. We're so immensely proud of you for getting your mission call, and we know you're going to do great. South Korea won't know what hit them."
"Thanks, Mom," Gary said with a nod. "I appreciate your confidence, even if this all feels a little unreal to me still. I'm going to be in the MTC in less than a week, and I don't know if I'm ready." The 'MTC' was the Missionary Training Center; the place where all missionaries went to learn the language of their mission and to study the gospel. Gary had more than a few reasons to be nervous about it, as it was also the place he'd meet his first missionary companion. He had no idea what spending every single minute of his day with another person would entail, but he wasn't fond of the prospects.
"Oh, you're ready," Brother Dumont said, smiling wide. "Trust me, you were born to teach the true word of God, and I know you'll return with honor."
Jason's knees were shaking, and though he tried to keep them under control, he knew it would only be a matter of time before he was standing in front of the congregation and they would start trembling again. He hated public speaking, but this was beyond his normal level of nervousness. This was his missionary farewell, and he was under a lot of pressure to make sure the talk he gave was memorable.
The Sacrament had finished a few moments earlier, which meant that the bishop would address the congregation briefly and then it would be his turn to speak. He had been asked to cover at least ten minutes with his talk, but after looking at his notes, he was unsure as to whether or not he could even speak for five. The subject he had been given to speak on was something he believed in fervently, though he knew several of his friends sitting in the congregation would hate him after hearing what he had to say.
It was the price to be paid for being true to one's faith, he had once been told, and it was something he had not taken lightly. He was about to go out into the world as an ambassador of his childhood faith to the people of South Korea, and he knew the sooner he got over himself and learned to stand up for what he believed in, the easier missionary work would come to him. It was necessary to be firm in your convictions, even if it might hurt the feelings of the sinner.
Bishop Brewers stood and approached the pulpit, smiling slightly as he shuffled the papers in his hands and surveyed the crowd below him. He glanced back at Jason for a moment and winked before returning to the microphone in front of him and addressing those in attendance. "I notice that there are a lot more people here than normal, and I'm sure it's not to hear Brother Perry from the High Council speak, much as we love hearing his words."
Laughter rumbled quietly through the congregation, and the remark brought a smile to Jason's face as well. He glanced to the man at his right, a wizened figure in a simple grey suit, with a white shirt and a dark-blue tie. Brother Perry was chuckling in response to the joke, but he paused when he caught Jason's glance and smiled at him encouragingly. "You're going to do great," Brother Perry whispered as he patted Jason's arm. "Don't worry about them. Remember, we're basically family here."
Jason nodded and mouthed 'thank you' as Bishop Brewers continued his remarks. "Today we have a very special speaker. As many of you know, Jason Hadley has recently received his mission call to the South Korea Pusan Mission, and he'll be entering the MTC this Wednesday. Soon to be Elder Hadley will be addressing us first, followed by an Intermediate Hymn, How Great Thou Art, and then we will hear from Brother Perry. Brother Hadley, the time is yours."
He looked out into the congregation as he stood and he immediately locked eyes with his mother. She was grinning from ear to ear as she looked up at him, her eyes full of compassion and encouragement. Jason's legs were trembling a little less as he walked up to the pulpit, keeping his eyes on his mother as he straightened his notes and pushed his dark-rimmed glasses back up his nose. She gave him strength when no one else could, and he couldn't imagine how life would be without his mother or father in his life. It was the perfect image for what he was asked to speak about.
"G-good morning, brothers and sisters," Jason stammered, coughed, and then continued, "Thank you for coming. Maybe it would be better if I said, 'Good morning, brothers and sisters, and aunts and uncles, and grandparents, and cousins, and . . . well, I could go on, but I'd end up taking all of my time just greeting you, and then Brother Perry would have to talk about everything by himself."
Ripples of laughter coursed through the congregation, and Jason smiled meekly as he surveyed the crowd, seeing his many friends from school. He was amazed so many people had come to hear him speak, and he was grateful to have their support. "I was asked to speak on marriage," Jason continued, meeting his mother's and then his father's eyes, "and more concisely, what a righteous marriage has meant for me and my family." He paused, and this time his eyes went to a section near the back where a number of his friends were sitting. In particular, they fell upon two young men sitting side by side who were leaning into each other. One was Jason's best friend, Zach, the other was Zach's boyfriend, Kai. "I know that I have a number of friends here who aren't members of our faith, and I am grateful you came today. I wanted to make it clear now that I appreciate the many conversations we've had over the years, and I value your opinions greatly. But there comes a time when I am called upon to tell you what I believe, and why I believe it."
He paused, and he tried to look away from Zach's piercing gaze, but the look on his best friend's face held him fast. It was as if Zach was daring him to go on and say something homophobic, as Jason had been known to do every so often over the last few years since Zach had come out. Zach knew where Jason stood, and up until this point they had managed to continue their friendship, but Jason realized that in the next few minutes, he was about to cross a line.
He uttered a small prayer for strength and then continued speaking. "My own life has been blessed by having a mother and father, who raised me in righteousness. I learned how to be a man from my father, who taught me the role of the priesthood and the man's responsibility to look out for his children." Jason paused again when he saw Kai look up and lock gazes with Zach for a moment, whispering something to him. Zach shook his head and they both turned to face him, their faces expressionless, but Jason could feel the intensity of their eyes on him. He glanced at his mother for renewed strength and then continued. "I learned how to nurture from my mother, and how to care for others. From her I learned the role of the Mother in Zion. She is a source of strength to me in ways I can't imagine living without."
"I wanted to testify to you today that I know that marriage is ordained of our Heavenly Father as being between a man and a woman, and that no other union can grant us exaltation. It is better to live in righteousness than to follow the carnal pleasures of the world of men," Jason said with tears in his eyes as he watched his parents nodding in solemn agreement. He heard the door to the chapel open and close, and turned his attention to the back row again, only to find an empty space on the pew. Zach and Kai were gone.
It was for the best. He knew they didn't want to hear what he had to say, but he had to say it. Jason Hadley always did what was right, regardless of whether it earned him any friends or not, and if Zach and Kai didn't want to speak to him again, he understood. They wanted to live in sin, and who was he to stop them if they didn't want to listen?
Christopher Knight spent his last day of freedom in the company of deer and mountain lions, and he wouldn't have had it any other way. While most of the missionaries he had known in the past had large parties before they left everyone they knew behind, he had always preferred the solitude of the mountains.
But he was being sent to one of the largest cities in the world, and was going to be deprived of solitude for two solid years. He was willing to make the sacrifice; the gospel had brought him a great deal of peace since his mother's death, and there was little he wanted more than to bring that same peace to everyone he could. If that meant he had to give up his own hobbies and passions for a couple of years, he would do so gladly.
Seoul would be bearable, and would likely bring him new experiences he would never expect and would end up cherishing for the rest of the life. He was all about new experiences and seeing new things.
He was on the Lake Blanche trail in Big Cottonwood Canyon, just beneath the waterfall, watching it cascade down into the small pool that fed the stream which ran along the side of the trail. The scenery was beyond breathtaking, with the autumn weather giving vibrant color to all the leaves around him. He paused near a massive boulder at the side of the path, and then climbed to the top of the rock. When he was on top and could see the Salt Lake Valley stretching out beyond the miles of woodland, he finally felt a true sense of longing.
In less than twenty-four hours he would be leaving the city of his birth behind, along with all of the beautiful mountains which had been his playground. He took a deep breath and then exhaled slowly, watching his breath in the cool air as it floated in front of him. Releasing the longing was almost as easy as releasing the breath; he knew that he'd be returning to the valley soon enough, and the mountains would welcome him home.
He started up the trail again, pausing briefly in front of the waterfall to consider the majesty of its creation. Over all of his twenty years of life he had always had a profound a respect for nature, and he felt that being out among the wonders of creation brought him closer to God. It amazed him the way that water could be such a powerful and constant force, carving out rock as it wound its way ever downward, but still remaining so beautiful in its movement.
God, Chris reasoned, was a similar force but on a much grander scale. People had often told him God moved in mysterious ways, but Chris had never found God hard to find. He was in everything, for all bore the mark of His hand in its creation. One need only look at the miracle of birth or the power of a thunderstorm to recognize that power.
He pressed onward, clambering over boulders and across small rivulets which fed the waterfall. It was largely runoff from the lake, located some distance above him on the mountainside, but some of the water originated from melting snow in the varied temperatures of Utah's autumn. He had seen occasional patches here and there, and they had made him wonder whether it snowed in Korea. He was used to snowshoeing in the winter, and he would miss that almost as much as anything else.
A vibration in his pocket interrupted his thoughts. He hadn't been expecting to get service as far up as he was, but then he remembered there was a ski resort nearby which likely had cell towers providing him with reception. With a sigh he stopped and took the call, knowing what it meant.
"Hi, Dad," Chris said as he put the phone up to his ear. "What's happening?"
"You're up in the mountains, aren't you?" David Knight stated more than asked. Chris smiled and he knew when his dad chuckled that the expression had been sensed somehow through the phone. "I know I probably don't want the answer to this question," Mr. Knight continued with mirth, "but the Stake President called and wanted to know if we could set you apart an hour earlier. Any chance you're going to be off the trail that soon?"
Chris considered answering with his usual wit, but he surveyed his surroundings and sighed. "Yeah, I can be home soon. I'll start down now."
"I wasn't expecting that," Mr. Knight said with obvious surprise. "You sure you're feeling okay? I thought this hike was really important to you."
"It was," Chris replied with a laugh, "but I also realized that it's going to be here when I get back. It's time to start a new journey."
Mr. Knight was silent for a moment before he replied, "I'm really impressed, son. Maybe there's more to this church of yours than I give it credit. This must be really important to you."
"It is, Dad," Chris said with a sad smile. "But don't worry, I'm never going to force my beliefs on you. You taught me better than that."
"Hey, about that," Mr. Knight said slowly. "Mike wanted to know if he can come, even though . . ." He trailed off and Chris could hear the doubt in his voice.
"As long as he doesn't get in a fight with the Stake President, I think that will be fine," Chris replied with a smile. "Besides, I want to see him. He's a second father to me, you know?"
"Thanks, son. I'll make sure to tell him right away," Mr. Knight said, a smile evident in his voice. "You know he just wants to support you like I do, right?"
"I do," Chris said. "Don't worry about me. I accept that the two of you are in love, even if my church doesn't. You know I love both of you, right?"
"Definitely," Mr. Knight replied with a chuckle. "We'll see you soon, all right?"
"You bet," Chris said. "Just as soon as I figure out how to get off of this mountain without breaking anything."
"I can't believe this is actually happening. Luke, this is crazy." Jordan Phillips was practically bouncing in his seat as he looked out the window of the small passenger plane. They were going to be landing in Salt Lake City in less than an hour, and then they would be taking a rental car down to Provo so Luke could enter the Missionary Training Center.
Luke was not as enthused about the experience as his brother was, and he was still trying to hold down his lunch from the short flight in from California. He hated flying, and though his family was always taking trips by air, it had never become any easier. He didn't have a fear of it; it made him physically ill and usually gave him vertigo by the time he landed.
He put his hand over his face and then ran it back through his short but not too short black hair. It was parted to the left and had been neatly done when they had boarded the plane, but he was sure it was a mess now. He wondered what everyone in Provo would think when they saw his disheveled form walk into the MTC and ask to be taught how to teach the gospel.
If he could even do it without throwing up. That would surely be a scene that would fit his track record. He was always doing embarrassing things in front of everyone. He had to thank God and his parents that they had gifted him the ability to laugh at his blunders. He always seemed to have a reason to laugh at himself.
"This isn't even our first time in Salt Lake," Luke said as he eyed Jordan curiously. "What makes it so different?"
"Cause you're going to be a missionary, dude!" Jordan said enthusiastically, shaking his ten-year-old head up and down vigorously. "That's totally awesome!"
"You didn't react this way when I left for my first year of college. Why is this so different? You probably won't even notice I'm gone," Luke said with a wry grin. "I bet you're just excited you're going to have the room to yourself again."
"That's not true," Jordan protested. "I'm going to miss you."
"Hey, I was just messing with you, Jordan," Luke said as he reached his arm around his brother's shoulders and hugged him tight. "I'm going to miss you too. I'm glad you're excited for me though, I just wish-" He pulled away suddenly and covered his mouth as the plane began to shake.
Almost as soon as the turbulence had begun it subsided, but that did little to calm Luke's volatile stomach. Not for the first time he wondered if he was going to survive the fourteen hour flight to South Korea. It was going to do a number on his systems, and he hoped they wouldn't expect him to start proselyting as soon as they landed in Incheon.
"Are you all right, son?" Ms. Phillips asked as she reached from behind him and put her hand on his shoulder.
He glanced over the seat at her and took his hand from his mouth for a brief moment to say, "Yeah, Mom. I'll be okay. It's just the flight, you know?"
"Oh? Is that it?" she asked with an amused smile. "I thought it might be those jitters you explained to me last night before we left. Glad it's just physical."
Luke shook his head and returned his gaze forward. He was worried about the doubts he had expressed to his mother the night before, but their talk had done a lot to soothe his nerves. He was coming from a different background than a lot of these boys would be, and they might not understand some of the experiences he had gone through.
He had been completely honest with his bishop, and the bishop had told him he had nothing to worry about, but still he worried what his fellow missionaries would think when they learned that he had been a practicing atheist for a year and had briefly engaged in a relationship the church did not approve of. That relationship had been the turning point for him; showing him his life was in shambles and that the only time it had been working for him was when he was still going to church.
Life was complicated when one went to college at sixteen, but Luke had to hope his missionary service for the church would be less rather than more complicated. He already had an Associate's degree in linguistics, and he could be doing a lot more with his life if he chose to take a different path, but he needed something which would take him away from normal life for a while.
But one doubt he had never expressed to his mother was whether or not his chosen path of escape was the right one.