Gary wasn't paying much attention to the speaker at the front of the room, though he was sure his parents were. The speaker was an older gentleman preaching of the great sacrifice the missionaries would be making, and how their dedication would bless the families they would be leaving behind. Gary didn't care about all of that, and he felt he was ready to leave his family behind.
As long as he wasn't surrounded by everyone who had told him how to think his whole life, he might get a chance to breathe, think for himself for a change, and with any luck figure out what he was supposed to do with his life. He had the next two years before he'd ever have to worry about what they might think, provided he followed the strict rules of the mission with diligence.
He tried to keep his eyes facing forward, but he couldn't help letting his gaze wander over all the other missionaries gathered in the room. There were many young men around his age and a number of young women as well. He hadn't known he'd be meeting with both Elder and Sister Missionaries at the same time, but this was the final orientation before they were to say goodbye to their families, and as such there were a large number of older men and women as well; mostly parents and relatives of the missionaries, not to mention the numerous younger siblings of those about to go into the field.
Every so often his eyes would cross over a young man whose appearance made his heart flutter, and then he'd immediately redirect his gaze back to the front of the room and the speaker, though knowing that he was surrounded by so many attractive young men didn't help Gary focus on the words being spoken at all. His thoughts were traveling in more directions than he could count, and it wouldn't settle on any one of them.
So distracted as Gary was, he failed to realize that the speaker had finished his remarks until everyone was standing up and beginning to mill about. Families turned toward each other and embraces were exchanged. Mothers, fathers, and missionaries were crying and laughing, and saying their goodbyes. Gary bolted upright and turned toward his mother and father who were both watching him with concern in their eyes.
"Are you all right, Gary?" His mother asked as she stepped up to him and looked up at his face, her eyes beginning to moisten. "It's okay to be scared, you know."
"No." Gary shook his head and reached out for his mother, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her tight. Now that he was a missionary he wasn't allowed to hug any woman other than his mother, and he intended to make good on the last chance he'd have to feel her warm embrace for the next two years. They held each other for nearly a minute as he whispered in her ear, "I'm fine. I'm going to be fine, and I'll see you sooner than you think-uh, what I mean is that time will pass quickly for both of us."
When they finally pulled apart and stared into each other's eyes, the tears were flowing freely down both their cheeks, but they were smiling. Sister Dumont reached for her son's hand and gave it one gentle squeeze before she dropped it and said, "I love you. Be safe, and return with honor."
Gary nodded and turned to his father, who immediately reached around and embraced him, pulling him into a tight but quick hug. He let go after only a few seconds, but then gripped both of Gary's shoulders, holding him close as he stared into Gary's eyes. "You're going to be great, son," he said as a single tear slid down his cheek, though his eyes promised more. "I'm proud of you, and I love you."
"I love you both," Gary replied with a sad smile. "I'll see you soon."
His parents nodded and whispered their love again, and Gary reached down to pick up his luggage and start toward the doors opposite the ones he had used when entering the chapel. He kept his gaze locked on the exit doors, knowing if he turned back to face his parents again before he stepped through them, then he might not have the strength to keep from losing control of his emotions entirely.
After he greeted the senior missionary who stood at the exit door with a handshake, he took a deep breath and stepped into the hallway beyond the chapel. It was time to start the next chapter of his life, and hopefully learn a way to dispel the encroaching shadows which threatened to still his violently beating heart.
The grounds of the MTC were difficult to navigate, even with the map handed to Elder Jason Hadley as he left his parents and siblings behind in the chapel. His eyes were still red from the crying he had attempted to suppress during their emotional parting, and knowing that made him want to avoid asking anyone for help. He had never coped well with showing his emotions in public, and he covered the bright orange sticker on his nametag with the strap of his shoulder bag to make sure that no one could easily spot him as a brand new missionary. He didn't want their attention, least of all in his current state.
There were more people in suits and dresses than he had ever seen in his life, and that included going to General Conference. It was a sea of black, blue, and grey, and all were wearing nametags which were quite similar to his own. He noted many different languages on the nametags as he'd briefly glanced at them in passing, but none of those he read were written in Korean like his own.
He eventually found the building where his room was located, and he entered immediately behind a pair of young Elders who were hurrying to get inside and out of the cool autumn air. They didn't notice he was following them, and he had to catch the door quickly, causing him to stumble and his bag to slide heavily down his shoulder to the crook of his elbow. The missionaries in front of him heard him grunt in effort as he slid the bag back into place while keeping the door open, and they turned back to assist him.
"Sorry, greenie," the closer of the missionaries said with a grin as he held the door open wide so that Jason could gather his luggage to get through the door. Jason looked down at the elder's nametag and read 'Elder Kane' before looking up to the missionary's eyes. "I didn't see you there, or I would have held the door for ya," Elder Kane said as he flattened himself against the wall to allow Jason to pass.
"Thanks," Jason replied, nodding as he pulled his luggage into the building. "Is everything in this place hard to find?"
"You'll get used to it," the second missionary said before he shared a laugh with Elder Kane. "Hey, Elder er . . . Hadley," he continued, looking down at Jason's nametag, "you're with the Koreans, aren't you? That's so cool. I wish I was going somewhere exciting."
"Yeah," Jason replied with a noncommittal shrug. "I suppose it's going to be pretty cool, even though I'm a little worried about the food. I hear it's pretty weird."
"I wouldn't know," Elder Kane said with a grin, "But I'm sure it's weirder than the food in Ohio. That's where Elder Bruin and I are going. At least we don't have to spend as much time here as you do. Twelve weeks here is going to be crazy."
"I'm looking forward to it, actually," Jason replied as he pushed his glasses back up his nose. "That way I can at least get some grasp of the language before I get to the country."
They shared a laugh at that and the two more seasoned elders helped Jason get his luggage up to his room before they went their separate ways. They promised to look for each other at meals whilst Elder Bruin and Elder Kane were still at the MTC, but Jason knew that it was unlikely he'd remember either of them for long. As soon as they were out of sight he sighed and put his key in the door to his room and turned the knob.
He noticed light from the crack underneath the door and opened it slowly to see if anyone was waiting inside. A blonde-haired young man was pacing on the other end of the room, his suit-coat draped over a chair sitting several feet back from a simple wooden desk. He appeared not to notice Jason, as he was lost in thought walking back and forth between the desk and a set of bunk beds.
Jason stepped into the room cautiously and looked around, noting another set of bunk beds and another desk which were much closer to the door. There were two simple wardrobes as well, one of which was sitting open with several shirts and pants hanging inside, but only occupying half of the space inside.
The pacing elder hadn't noticed Jason despite the sound his luggage made as it rolled across the entryway. Jason paused, watched for a moment, and then decided he needed to get the other boy's attention. He cleared his throat and the other elder looked up, meeting his eyes and smiling wide. "You don't happen to be Elder Phillips, are you?" Jason asked with a raised eyebrow. "He's assigned as my companion, so I was hoping I'd get to meet him right away."
"No, I'm Elder Dumont," the blonde missionary replied as he walked toward Jason. "So, that must mean you're not Elder Knight then? I guess both of our companions are coming later."
"I guess so," Jason said with a sigh. "So, have you claimed a bunk yet?"
"Yeah, I'm on the bottom over here," Gary said as he pointed to the pair of bunk beds at the far end of the room. "I guess you can have whichever one you want, since you're here second."
"I'll take the bottom nearest the door, I guess," Jason said with a shrug. "It makes sense that companions share the same side."
"I'm sorry, I'm totally being rude," Gary said as he hurried and took Jason's rolling luggage. "Can I help you put your stuff somewhere?"
"Nah, you can just leave it by my bed and I'll deal with it later," Jason replied with a grin. "We're going to be here awhile, so we might as well make it home."
Gary's smile faded for a moment, but then he began nodding slowly and replied. "You know, you're right. Wanna be my companion for the moment and explore our new place?"
Jason couldn't have been more pleased. "I thought you'd never ask."
"Whoa there," Elder Chris Knight said as he was nearly run over by the dark-haired missionary who was too busy reading his map to notice where he was going. Chris stepped quickly to the side but not quick enough to avoid collision, and the dark-haired elder nearly toppled over from the impact.
"I'm so sorry," the other elder replied as he straightened his suit and then looked up and smiled apologetically. "I was so intent on figuring out where I was going that I didn't notice you, and I thought you were calling to someone else. My name is Luke . . . I'm sorry, I mean Elder Phillips."
"No worries, man. I'm Elder Knight," Chris replied as he stuck his hand out in greeting. "I just got here myself, and I think we're all still getting used to it. Did you just come in with the last group?"
"Yeah," Luke replied with a nod. "It was kind of surreal, wasn't it? It's like we're in a completely different world just by stepping through a doorway."
"Wow, that's some deep stuff right there," Chris said with a solemn nod. He then looked down at Luke's nametag and noticed the Korean writing matching his own. "Hey, you're going to Korea too? Right on!"
"What a coincidence. I wouldn't have expected to run into someone going to the same country so quickly," Luke replied as he finally noticed Chris' extended hand and shook it firmly. "I guess we can find our building together?"
"Shouldn't be too hard," Chris said with a grin. "I'm pretty good at navigating, anyway, so I think we'll get there all right. Where are you from, Luke, er . . . Elder Phillips?"
"California, though I was born in Salt Lake. We moved to Cali when I was ten," Luke replied easily. "What about you? You sound like you've got the Utah accent to me."
"You got me," Chris replied with a chuckle. "You must be a genius or something. I was born and raised in Salt Lake City - well, more like the canyons - but we can call it the city if you want. You seem like a city kid."
Luke shrugged and said, "I enjoy the outdoors, I mean, I spent the whole summer swimming, but you're right, I'm normally curled up inside with a good book over anything else, and a nice warm cup of cof . . . herbal tea."
"You drink coffee, huh?" Chris asked with a wry smile. "Don't worry, I won't judge you for that, though I'm surprised you would even hint at it here. A lot of people here wouldn't get it."
With a sigh and a sidelong look Luke answered, "I used to drink coffee, but I haven't since I decided to come back to church. I won't lie though: that life isn't as far behind me as I'd like it to be."
"We've all got a few skeletons in our closets that we have to sort through," Chris said with a shrug. "But I'll tell you right now, that whatever pain you've gone through, you're in a good place to deal with it. The church has helped me through more than I would have thought possible, and I don't think there's any place I'd rather be. If there was, I'd be there."
"You're a wise man, Elder Knight," Luke replied, grinning. "Now, let's go find our companions, shall we?"
It was just before lunch when Elders Hadley and Dumont returned to their room to find Elder Knight and Elder Phillips waiting for them. Gary hung back slightly, allowing Jason to enter the room first and begin the round of introductions. Gary was blown away by Luke, who stood unabashedly in the center of the room. From his slim build to his intelligent eyes, and the way his suit seemed tailor-made to accentuate his lithe figure, Gary felt that Luke Phillips was the most attractive male he had yet laid eyes on.
Luke picked up on Gary's shyness but he did not share it, and he approached with a wide grin and extended his hand in greeting. "You're not my companion, but we're going to be sharing the room so I think we should be properly introduced. I'm Elder Phillips, and you are?"
"Elder Dumont," the shy elder replied as he shook Luke's hand. It was soft and warm, and he wanted to hold onto it longer, but he knew better and dropped the handshake quickly. "It's a pleasure to meet you."
Luke's eyes narrowed briefly as his smile faltered, but then he shrugged slightly and said, "As fun as this is, I believe I saw lunch on our itinerary, and I'm absolutely famished. Anyone ready to go see what kind of gourmet cuisine they plan on feeding us?"
"You've got some vocabulary," Jason observed with a grin. "I'm looking forward to working with you. I appreciate my friends having brains."
Luke blushed and said, "Sorry, I know it sounds as if I'm trying too hard, but I studied linguistics these last two years and I have a habit of speaking like an academic."
"Are you going to show us up in Korean too?" Chris asked with a chuckle. "No worries if you do, because that just means I can learn from you when I get stuck."
"Works for me," Luke replied with a shrug. "I don't know how good I'll actually be until we're there. Immersion is the best way to learn a language, well, except for learning it when you're young."
"Dang," Chris groaned. "I guess being twenty already means I'm going to have an even harder time at it, huh?" He laughed and then turned to Gar. "Hey, it's good to meet you finally, Elder Dumont. We're companions and we still haven't said a word to each other. I'm Elder Knight, if you couldn't tell from the nametag."
"It's a pleasure," Gary replied, shaking Chris' hand. "I think we should take Elder Phillips' suggestion though and get to know each other after lunch, what do you say?"
"Sounds good to me," Chris said. "I like a companion who knows when it's time to eat. Come on, we'll race them to the cafeteria. Last companionship there has to clean up afterward!"
The four young men scrambled over each other to get through the door, and for the first time since they had said goodbye to their families, they managed to forget how long it would be until they saw their loved ones again.
The cafeteria was bustling with hungry missionaries who were eagerly stuffing their faces. Luke smirked with inward amusement as he compared the scene to a high school cafeteria, considering the noise level of those inside. Unsurprisingly, he thought, as most of the people inside were fresh out of high school anyway.
His smirk became a thoughtful smile as he realized he had acted like a teenager himself only minutes before when he had joined in the race which Chris had suggested. It made him wonder if there might be more to acting his age than he had first thought.
He heard the other missionaries begin discussing which meal they would get, but he knew what he wanted immediately. He made a direct line to the station serving the beef lasagna without waiting to see if any of his roommates were planning on joining him.
As soon as he reached the end of the line and received his generous helping of the hopefully succulent dish he felt he had made the right decision. The smell of the meat and melted cheese was tantalizing and made his mouth water. He thanked the woman working behind the counter and then started searching the crowd for his companion.
"Luke? Luke Phillips?"
He stiffened at the sound of his name, and more particularly at the voice of the person who said it. He recognized her from the singles ward he had attended briefly during his time at Stanford, though he wasn't sure which of the nagging female members it actually was, until he turned around and saw her. Sister Pamela Rodriguez, the short and stocky woman had been notorious among the men in his ward for dating everyone she set her eyes on.
It hadn't mattered to her that he was only sixteen at the time and she was nineteen, three years of difference when he shouldn't even have been in the singles ward until he was eighteen, except he had refused to attend a family ward while at college and his parents insisted he still go to church. Sister Rodriguez had tried to get him on more dates than he could count over his two month stint before Luke decided he'd had enough and left the church entirely.
"Sister Rodriguez," Luke said, forcing a smile to his lips as he turned around to face her. Sister Rodriguez was looking him up and down in stunned silence, and her eyes were as wide as they could open. Luke wanted to get away from her, but years of training in proper etiquette kept him from being so rude and so he continued politely with the conversation. "What a pleasant surprise. I hadn't realized you had put in your papers. Has it been that long?"
"It must have been a long time if you're here," Sister Rodriguez replied, shaking her head. "This is the last place I expected to run into you again. Not after . . ." She noticed his glare and thought better of continuing her sentence and said instead, "It's good to see you. Where are you serving?"
"South Korea; Seoul," Luke replied, sighing in relief. "How about you?"
"London, England," Sister Rodriguez replied. She waved to someone at the nearby crowded table full of missionaries and a tall, slender blonde rose from the group to join them. She smiled as she approached but remained silent until Sister Rodriguez spoke again. "This is my companion, Sister Leonard. Sister Leonard, this is Elder Phillips."
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Sister Leonard." Luke nodded his head in greeting as his hands were full with his tray of food. "How long have you two been here?"
"This is our second week, and we'll be leaving next Tuesday," Sister Rodriguez answered. "Maybe we should get a picture together in front of the map or something if you happen to be free?" Her eyes were hopeful, but it seemed as if she were only making a friendly gesture and had no other ulterior motive. She had changed from the woman he had known at the University, and he was about to accept her offer when he felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to see Jason.
"Hey, Elder Phillips," Jason said in greeting. He smiled politely, an expression which didn't reach his eyes as he regarded the sister missionaries. "We were wondering where you were. Who are your friends?"
"Oh, sorry, Elder Hadley, I'm being rude," Luke replied as he nodded to the sisters. "This is Sister Rodriguez and Sister Leonard. I knew Sister Rodriguez at Stanford, and she and I were in the same singles ward."
"He never told me he was only sixteen at the time, and I actually asked him out a few times," Sister Rodriguez said with a laugh. Luke felt a sudden pang of guilt as he realized that he may have misjudged her back when he had known her. If she hadn't known he was sixteen at the time, then it was his fault if he hadn't made it clear to her. "I didn't expect to see him here at all, since it's been well over a year since we've spoken."
"Well, I'm sure it's been a good reunion then," Jason said with a firm nod, "but if it's all right with you, I'd like my companion back."
"Um, sure," Sister Rodriguez said with a shrug, but then she turned her attention back to Luke. "But hey, if you've got a minute after lunch or maybe dinner, we should go take those pictures together."
Luke smiled warmly and replied, "I'll see what I can do." Sister Rodriguez and Sister Leonard both nodded in acceptance and then turned away to rejoin the others at their table, and Jason relaxed his grip on Luke's shoulder.
They turned and began walking toward their own table where Elders Dumont and Knight were waiting for them. Chris was in the middle of speaking with broad gestures but Gary didn't appear to be paying much attention. Instead, his eyes were watching Luke, but as soon as he realized Luke had noticed his stare he dropped his gaze to his meal.
Luke was too distracted by other matters to make much note of this. "Elder Hadley, what's up with you?" He asked, frowning. "Don't you think that was a little rude?"
"Why are you fraternizing with the sister missionaries, Elder Phillips?" was Jason's quick reply, as if he had been rehearsing it. "You know that we're not supposed to be flirting, right?"
"I wasn't," Luke protested. His eyes widened as he glanced over his shoulder to where Sister Rodriguez and her companion were sitting before he returned his stare to Jason. "Oh wow, you honestly think I was? Seriously, Sister Rodriguez is the last person I'd flirt with. You heard what she said about asking me out when I was sixteen. If she's the type to rob the cradle then I want nothing-"
"That's no way to talk about them," Jason snapped, glaring at Luke briefly. "Those are daughters of God you're referring to."
Luke blanched at Jason's anger and looked away. "Whatever, Elder Hadley," he muttered, "I think I'll just keep my thoughts to myself from here on out."
They arrived at their group's table a second later and were instantly greeted by an enthusiastic Chris. "Hey, what took you two?" he asked with a wide grin.
"Elder Phillips was flirting with one of the Sister Missionaries," Jason replied coldly with a stern glance at Luke.
"Seriously?" Luke said as he set his tray down with more force than he had planned, the loud crack of the tray against the table serving to draw the attention of all the nearby missionaries. He shook his head and met Chris' eyes as he explained quietly, "Okay, I really wasn't, and I have no idea why Elder Hadley thinks I was. I ran into someone whom I used to know. That's all."
"Cool," Chris said with a shrug. "Don't worry, Elder Phillips. I wouldn't think anything different of you anyway. I know you're a good guy, and we're all here for the right reasons, aren't we?" He switched his grinning face from Luke to Jason and suggested, "Why don't we focus less on what others are doing and focus on our own dedication? You know that whole 'speck in another's eye when you have a plank in your own' philosophy?"
Jason sighed and nodded slowly before turning to his companion. "I'm sorry, Elder Phillips. I suppose that Elder Knight has a point. I was only trying to look out for my companion."
"It's cool. I'll live," Luke replied, flashing a disarming smile. With the apology from Jason he was ready to move on and hope that the matter was closed. He sat down on the bench and turned to the others, asking, "Hey, what did everyone decide to get? I did the lasagna, but it looks like I'm the only one."
With his attention diverted to the meal, Luke failed to notice that two of his new-found friends were still watching him. Jason continued to pout and glare in his direction whenever he wasn't looking, and Gary continued to study him for reasons he would continue to keep hidden from the others at all costs.
Only Chris noticed the looks, but he filed them away, knowing that to address either of them in a public setting would be an abuse of their friendship, but planned to do so when a more appropriate opportunity arose. Until then, he was happy to enjoy the company of his new friends, even if the feeling wasn't as mutual as it had appeared to be at first.