"Are you ready for this?"
Luke looked up at Jason's question, wondering at his companion's tone of voice. Jason seemed oddly nervous, but there was something else in his voice that Luke couldn't identify, but it raised the hairs on the back of his neck.
The Church service had ended several minutes ago, and the four missionaries were on their way to meet with the branch presidency for their MTC exit interviews. Luke put Jason's mental state out of his mind; he had plenty of his own problems to worry about. He and Gary had come to an agreement about how they were going to handle this day, but it didn't make it any less nerve-wracking.
"Yeah, going to have to be ready, right?" Luke said, forcing a laugh. "I mean, if these next few minutes go right, we're going to Korea next week. It's insane. I never thought our time in the MTC would end."
"You've got that right, Elder Phillips," Chris said from behind them. Luke turned around to see Chris and a rather solemn Gary walking side by side. He met Gary's eyes for an instant and they shared a barely perceptible nod before Chris' suggestive tone regained his attention. "This has been quite the experience for all of us, hasn't it?"
"You could say that," Luke said, giving a half-smile. "I've learned things I never thought I would learn, and done things I never thought I'd do. I'm looking forward to two more years of that."
"I'll second that," Jason said, bringing Luke's focus forward again. "Hopefully we'll all serve diligently so that we can return with honor."
"That's an excellent sentiment," Luke said, his smile faltering. "Elder Hadley, you seem a bit upset this afternoon; is everything all right?"
"Yeah, just nervous," Jason replied without making eye contact. "I'm not sure if I'm good enough, or if I'm ready to do what needs to be done."
"You will be, surely," Chris said, with the same undertone that had been present in Jason's speech. "I'm sure you'll be guided to do what you need to do when the time comes."
Jason nodded slightly, and Luke looked back to see Gary watching him with a blank expression. Chris noticed the exchange of looks and met Luke's eyes, shaking his head slightly. There was no doubt now. Jason knew, and he was going to come clean. Luke and Gary would be going home.
The branch presidency consisted of President Billings, First Counselor Brother Evans, and Second Counselor Brother Davies. While the four elders had the most experience with Brother Evans as he was also their Korean teacher, they had gotten to know the other two members of the presidency through Sunday services and a number of other meetings. All three had always seemed to be kind hearted men who served diligently in their positions and who obviously took pride in educating the missionaries.
But Jason wasn't sure how the mood was going to change once he told them what had happened and presented them with Gary's letter. He patted his pocket to make sure it was still there and felt the paper crinkle. It was nestled right over his heart, a fitting place it seemed considering how fast his heart was beating. He still wasn't sure he could go through with what needed to be done.
He was preoccupied with those thoughts when President Billings arrived with Brother Evans in tow. Brother Evans had a notebook open in his hand and was flipping through it while President Billings took the lead and began addressing the missionaries.
"As you may know, we finished interviewing the sister missionaries this morning. As for you and the elders from the other districts, we have a lot to go through, so we'll try to keep this as short as possible." President Billings looked down the row of the four missionaries, meeting all of their eyes and smiling warmly. "Elder Dumont," he said at last. "We'd like to speak to you first. If you'd come with me?"
"Um, sure," Gary said as he stood and adjusted his suit nervously. "Yeah, that works for me." He followed President Billings toward one of the empty rooms and the heavy door swung shut behind them.
"I have to get some of my notes together before I interview any of you," Brother Evans said absent-mindedly. He opened the door to another empty room but before he stepped through he looked up at them and said, "But I'll call for you in a minute, all right Elder Knight?"
Chris nodded. "Sure thing, Brother Evans."
Without waiting for a response, Brother Evans stepped into the room and closed the door behind him. Jason took the sound of the closing door as a sign that the three of them would be alone for a while, and he turned to Luke. "You're looking well today, Elder Phillips. Is everything all right?"
"Why would you ask that question if I'm looking well?" Luke shot back, grinning, though his eyes betrayed some of his nervousness as he glanced at the closed door Gary had disappeared through. Jason didn't miss the glance and filed it away as Luke added, "You're weird, Elder Hadley."
"Well, for the past few weeks it seemed you've been a little on edge," Jason said with a shrug. "I guess I'm just surprised you're doing so well now that we're doing our exit interviews. I would think that would make you more nervous."
"I don't have anything to hide, Elder Hadley," Luke said cryptically. Jason didn't think it was said defensively; it was almost as if Luke was saying he admitted to his faults.
Jason smiled at Luke. "I wasn't trying to insinuate that you did."
"Don't worry," Luke said with a grin. His eyes were filled with emotion, which Jason found completely perplexing. "I have everything under control," Luke continued, confidently. "I guess I'm just ready to face the next stage of my life. It's going to be nice to get out of here and back to the real world."
"Yeah," Jason said, looking away and leaning his head back against the wall. "Korea is going to be a blast, isn't it?"
"Yeah..." Luke replied, drawing Jason's attention back to him. "Listen, Elder Hadley, I..."
He trailed off as a door opened and Gary stepped back into the hallway. His face was pale, and his eyes were wild, but he seemed to be breathing normally. President Billings stepped into the hallway afterward, his face unreadable. "Elder Phillips," he said, "Could you come in here?"
"Wow, that was quick," Chris said as Gary resumed his seat next to him. "I didn't expect you to be done so quickly."
Without answering, Gary looked down the hallway, watching as Luke approached President Billings. "Step into my office, Elder Phillips," President Billings said with a weak smile. Luke returned the expression and then he was hidden behind the closed door.
"What was that about?" Chris asked Gary.
"I'm not sure..." Gary began quietly, but stopped when another door opened and Brother Evans poked his head into the hallway.
"Elder Knight, I'm ready for you now." Brother Evans said, smiling politely.
"Excellent," Chris said, rising to his feet. He glanced down at Jason and wiggled his eyebrows. "Let's get this show on the road."
Jason smiled at him sadly and watched him disappear into the other room. He turned his attention to Gary and asked, "Elder Dumont, are you okay?"
"Yeah," Gary sighed. "Just thinking about the interview."
"Oh?" Jason asked, his eyes widening. "Is it not over yet?"
"No, I'm pretty certain that it's over..." Gary said ruefully. Jason was about to press him for more details when the sound of footsteps drew his attention down the hallway. Brother Davies was hustling to join them, and he smiled as he laid eyes on them.
"Elder Hadley," he said with a jovial grin. "Sorry I'm late. I got held up with another class. I'm ready for your interview."
"All right," Jason said, standing. "See you in a minute, Elder Dumont?"
"Um yeah, sure," Gary replied weakly.
Jason followed Brother Davies into another empty room and prepared himself mentally for what he knew he had to do. He walked to one of the chairs sitting opposite each other across a small wooden table and sat down and waited as Brother Davies took the other one. He didn't have much time to think before Brother Davies began speaking. "Elder Hadley, thank you for meeting with me today."
"Just coming as requested," Jason said, smiling politely.
"I know, but I appreciate you, and your service," Brother Davies replied. "It's a wonderful thing you're doing here today, and I like to show my gratitude to others whenever I can."
"Well, thanks for teaching us so well," Jason said, his smile faltering. "I'm happy to be serving."
"Do you mind if we start with an opening prayer?" Brother Davies asked as he set his bag down on the floor and started opening it. He pulled a small notebook out and set it on the table as he waited for Jason to respond.
"Not at all," Jason replied.
"Would you please say it for us, Elder?" Brother Davies requested as he folded his hands and bowed his head.
Jason complied and offered a short but heartfelt prayer for direction and guidance during the interview. He also added a prayer of health for Brother Davies' family and thanking God for all his teachers for good measure, knowing a little bit of flattery might go a long way.
"Before I get into everything, I'd like a chance to get to know you a little better." There was nothing in Brother Davies' tone or smile which made him come across as anything but sincere, and Jason started to feel more comfortable with the interview. "What's your family like, Elder Hadley?"
"I have two brothers and three sisters, and I'm the second eldest," Jason explained, glad that he didn't have to address the issue riding in the back of his mind yet. "My older sister is married and lives in Washington. I miss her a lot. By the time I get back, I won't have seen her for almost three years."
"That must be difficult," Brother Davies said, nodding in understanding. "Do you miss home?"
"Yes. Not only my family," Jason paused as he thought of Zach, "but I have a number of friends I miss a lot, too."
"And how about your time in the MTC?" Brother Davies asked, opening his notebook and flipping through the pages. "Have you enjoyed it? Do you feel you've made a lot of friends here?"
"Yeah," Jason replied, feeling a sudden pang of guilt as he thought about the others, his friends, and the pain he was about to cause them. But he knew what he had to do. If he didn't tell the truth, then he'd end up regretting it for the rest of his mission, if not his whole life. "My roommates are all great guys. But..." He reached into his pocket and withdrew the letter.
"But what?" Brother Davies asked as Jason unfolded the letter.
Jason stared at the letter in shock. Instead of Gary's letter to Luke, he was staring at a letter written by Chris to him. He read through it quickly, and then again as Brother Davies watched him with growing curiosity.
I know you weren't expecting this, but what's done is done. You'll find out soon enough what that means. I hope you have a great mission, and that you're able to serve diligently, and return with honor as you've always dreamed of doing. I hope you'll find it in your heart to forgive us.
Best of luck, and enjoy Korea.
Jason's eyes welled with emotion as he wrenched his eyes away from the letter and looked back at Brother Davies. He had nothing. He couldn't turn them in now, not without proof, and he was certain Chris had destroyed any hope of that. "Elder Phillips, Elder Knight, and Elder Dumont..." he shook his head, smiling sadly, "they're all great guys. There were times where I could be a real jerk, so judgmental, and they all forgave me." He shrugged, not sure what he could say anymore. "They all... I'm sorry, Brother Davies. I've only known them to be great guys..." His smile faltered as he put the letter away again. "I'm sure they'll make great missionaries."
"I'm glad to hear it," Brother Davies said, smiling back at him. "Well, I think it's time we moved on to the meat of the interview, shall we? I'm going to ask you a series of questions and..."
Jason nodded numbly as he listened to the questions, and responded robotically. Chris had betrayed him, he was sure of it. He had waited too long to do the right thing, and now Luke and Gary would continue on to Korea as if nothing had ever happened. Jason had failed.
"Elder Knight," Brother Evans said, smiling politely across the small wooden table at Chris. "I just need to ask you a few quick questions if that's all right?"
"Sure, whatever you need to do," Chris said with a shrug. "I'm ready for this."
"You haven't had many interviews like this, have you?" Brother Evans chuckled. "I remember you mentioning that you were a convert?"
"Yep. I was sixteen when I joined the church. I haven't had the same amount of exposure to the routine as a lot of people have who were raised in the church, I suppose," Chris replied.
Brother Evans opened his mouth to respond when President Billings opened the door and said, "Brother Evans. There's a situation, I need to ask Elder Knight some quick questions."
"Certainly," Brother Evans said as he gestured for President Billings to continue. Chris' pulse quickened as he wondered what had happened. He had taken the letter from Jason's pocket and switched it with another one earlier that morning, and had planned on destroying the original to protect Gary and Luke. He was certain Jason wouldn't act without evidence to back up his claim, and was also certain he could keep everything under wraps.
"There's something that has been going on in your room, Elder Knight and it's..." President Billings paused, shaking his head in dismay. "Well, to put it bluntly, it's a serious violation of the rules. I need to know what you know about it."
"How long has this been going on?" Brother Evans asked, turning a critical eye on Chris.
"Almost since the beginning of their time in the MTC," President Billings said before returning his gaze to Chris. With both President Billings and Brother Evans looking at him, Chris began to sweat, though he wasn't finished yet.
"Could you be more specific? I mean, I don't have any context here for what you're talking about," Chris replied cautiously.
"How would you describe the relationship between Elder Dumont and Elder Phillips?" President Billings asked pointedly, his eyes narrowing. Chris knew as soon as he looked into those piercing brown orbs that President Billings already knew the whole truth, and there would be little use in lying about it now.
He sighed and fished Gary's incriminating letter from his inner pocket, handing it to President Billings. Chris hung his head in sorrow as President Billings read the letter, his eyes widening with each word. When he was done he handed the letter to Brother Evans, who repeated the process.
"So you already knew?" President Billings said neutrally. "And why didn't you come and tell us? You should have come forward immediately, and you know that."
"I do," Chris said, knowing he was defeated. But then he shrugged and threw his hands up in the air in frustration. "But they are my friends, and I wanted to protect them."
"What does Elder Hadley think about this?" President Billings asked.
Chris suppressed a smile at the question. If they were asking, then Jason hadn't told them, and that changed things entirely. Either Gary or Luke must have decided it was time to tell the truth, and that was something of a relief to him. He also knew there was no reason Jason had to share their fate. "He doesn't know," Chris said after only a momentary hesitation, "or if he does, then he certainly didn't tell me about it, but I sincerely doubt he does know anything. I caught them in the act when we were returning from gym on companion exchanges when Elder Phillips was on crutches, and Elder Hadley had gone straight to the restroom. I agreed to keep silent if they promised not to let it happen again, and the three of us went to great lengths to keep what had happened from Elder Hadley, because we all knew he would come straight to you."
"You should have been concerned about protecting them from sin, rather than from the consequences of sin they'd already committed," Brother Evans said angrily, thumping the letter down on the table and glaring at Chris. "They need to repent. Homosexuality is one of the most grievous of sins and-"
"I beg your pardon?" Chris scoffed.
"Elder Knight," Brother Evans continued, his eyes smoldering, "the homosexuals have one agenda, and that is to destroy the family, they-"
"I respectfully disagree, Brother Evans," Chris interrupted, overriding Brother Evans' words. "I've known many LGBT people in my life, and many of them are my friends. They are not lost in sin, they are wonderful people who happen to live differently than you do."
"Elder Knight, if you support homosexuality, then why did you give us the letter at all?" President Billings asked, frowning. Unlike Brother Evans, his voice didn't seem to carry the same edge of anger, which earned some respect from Chris. "Why didn't you continue to try and protect them?"
"There is nothing wrong with being a homosexual," Chris replied, addressing President Billings directly as he tried to ignore Brother Evans' glare. "There is something wrong with disobeying mission rules and having sex on your mission, especially with another missionary who is bound by the same rules. I've always had a problem with people who don't keep commitments, and those two elders made a promise to obey mission rules, which they failed to do. You're right that I should have told you earlier, but I don't consider their sin to be as great as you do."
"So you support mission rules but you also support one of the most abominable of sins?" Brother Evans scoffed. "You, Elder Knight, you are definitely not fit to remain in the mission field."
"I understand, Brother Evans, but let's get one thing straight: you are not God, and you do not dictate who receives His love," Chris growled, sick of being polite. He matched Brother Evans' glare as his voice began to rise. "You may think I am at fault for loving my friends, but I cannot understand how you could be so filled with hate and yet still have the audacity to call yourself a servant of God."
"I think we should talk about how grievous of an offense this is, Elder Knight," President Billings began. "You've broken mission rules and been directly complicit in helping others to do the same. I think we need to-"
"With all due respect, President," Chris interrupted, "I think Brother Evans made the church's stance quite clear. Now, if you'll excuse me..." He rose to his feet and started toward the door. He knew the way out of the MTC, and he saw no reason to continue to play by their rules, especially if it meant staying in the same room as Brother Evans.
"Let's just call your family and see what they have to say about this!" Brother Evans shouted, jumping to his feet as he trembled with rage.
Chris turned back and laughed in Brother Evans' face. "You obviously don't know as much as I thought you did, Brother Evans. My father is happily married to a wonderful man whom I consider to be my second father. You bring my family into this, and all you'll accomplish is reinforcing the idea that our church is filled with ignorant, homophobic bigots like yourself. So go ahead and make the call, Brother Evans; do your missionary work. As for me, I'm out of here, and I'm happy to be leaving."
Brother Evans opened his mouth to respond, but President Billings silenced him with an upraised hand. "I see," he said calmly. Brother Evans looked as if he was about to explode with fury, and President Billings turned toward him with a cautionary eye. With a final glare at Chris, Brother Evans slumped back into his seat with a thud and President Billings resumed his speech. "Well, to say I'm disappointed would be beyond putting it lightly. All three of your families will be contacted, because I'm afraid you will all be going home tonight. We'll be moving Elder Hadley to another room for the night, so he won't have any contact with the three of you while you're getting your things together."
"I understand, President," Chris replied, glad that President Billings was keeping calm about the situation. "Could I please speak to Elder Dumont for a moment?"
"Although I want to say that you've done enough harm already, I also know Elder Dumont is having a rough time right now, and perhaps the support of one of his friends will help him," President Billings said with a disappointed smile. "The Lord is merciful, and I would rather Elder Dumont have the help he needs from people who care about him. You'll find him in the office at the end of the hall. He's calling his parents."
"Gary?" Sister Dumont's voice answered on the other end of the line. Gary winced when he heard the worry in her voice. He had expected her to be worried, but in a few minutes he doubted she'd ever want to speak to him again. "What is going on? Son, are you okay?"
"Yeah, um..." Gary took a deep breath and said, "I'm coming home."
Instead of the silent disappointment he expected to have on the other end of the line, his mother immediately bombarded him with questions. "Are you okay? Are you sick? Are you at a hospital or something? Do we need to come get you?"
"Yes, you do need to come get me, and yes I'm okay, and no I'm not sick..." Gary inhaled even deeper than before and said, "Mom... I'm afraid I'm being sent home... I'm sorry... well, you see... I'm sort of... I'm gay."
This time he was greeted with silence at first, but then his mother said with concern in her voice, "Son..."
"I'm gay, Mom, and I..." he swallowed hard to fight back the sob which threatened to keep him from communicating at all. "I can't do this anymore. I can't lie about it anymore. I can't run from it. I know that you'll probably..."
"Gary, stop right there," his mother said, and his heart skipped a beat. He knew she was about to tell him how disappointed she was and that he was no longer her son.
"Mom?" He asked, and then a giant sob overtook him, preventing him from saying anything else.
"Son, that doesn't matter to me. Not really," his mother said, emotion heavy in her voice. "There are things in my past and your dad's past that we've never told you, and... We'll talk about it when you get home, okay?" She was crying. He could hear it over the phone, which only made his own tears fall faster. "I love you, son. Your dad is here with me, and he loves you too. We knew something was wrong from the moment you decided to go on your mission... you became so distant. We were honestly surprised that you decided to go."
"So you're not disappointed?" Gary asked, his voice breaking.
"In your being gay?" His mother asked. She chuckled and said, "No, though I'm sad that you felt you couldn't tell us. Whatever we did to make you feel that way, I want you to know we didn't want that to happen, okay?"
"Mom..." Gary whispered, blown away by the relief he felt. "I'm so... I love you."
"I love you too, son," she replied. "We're going to come pick you up as soon as we can get to Provo, okay?"
He said his goodbyes with tears streaming down his face and then hung up. Of all the things he had expected to come from the day, he would never have seen that coming. His mother didn't hate him, and she said his father didn't either. The relief he felt was so profound he wasn't sure he hadn't dreamed the whole phone call.
"You told them yourself."
Gary turned around to see Chris standing at the door, smiling at him fondly. "What are you doing here?" Gary asked, blinking in surprise.
"I'm sorry, Elder Dumont," Chris said sadly. "I told them the truth. Admittedly, it was after you'd told them, so hopefully you can forgive me."
"No, Elder Knight, you were right," Gary said, shaking his head. "We should never have tried to hide it in the first place. If the last eighteen years of my life have taught me anything, it's that hiding your true self only makes you miserable. The lesson I learned here is, being true to your heart sets you free."
"I'm going to stand by you every step of the way when we get back, Elder Dumont," Chris said, bowing his head apologetically. "If you can only forgive me for what I've put you through these past few weeks."
"Of course I do," Gary said, walking forward and offering a hand for Chris to shake. Chris ignored the hand and wrapped him in a hug instead, and Gary eagerly accepted it. They didn't hold the embrace for long, but when they pulled apart both were certain their friendship had only just begun. Gary smiled and rolled his eyes, "Now, can we drop all this ‘Elder' crap and get back to the real world?"
"You're starting to sound like Luke," Chris said, grinning.
"What can I say?" Gary chuckled. "He's starting to rub off on me."