"Elder Hadley, wait!" Luke called as he ran after Jason. He was still in nothing but his garment bottoms, but he didn't care. They were still in the dorm and surrounded entirely by male missionaries. As far as he was concerned, he wasn't breaking any rules yet, though that could change quickly if he was forced to follow Jason outside.
"I don't want to talk to you, Elder Phillips," Jason yelled back as he stepped through the pair of double doors that led toward the stairwell. He turned around for a brief moment and shook his head, his face contorted in a frown, and then he turned away and continued toward the top of the stairs.
"Wait," Luke said as he reached the double doors himself and pushed through them. He had a good idea of how to stop someone as dogmatic as Jason, or at least slow him down. "You can't go anywhere without a companion," Luke insisted. Jason hesitated and turned around, biting his lip before starting down the first flight of stairs, shaking his head. Luke continued speaking but with more urgency, "If you're going out there, then I'm coming with you. That's what we're supposed to do, right?"
Jason stopped at the first landing and looked up at Luke, his scowl easing as his certainty faltered. Luke nearly sighed in relief as he reached the top of the stairs and looked down the bannister at his companion below and saw that for the moment at least, Jason's momentum had been halted.
"You're not coming dressed like that," Jason replied, glancing up at Luke's scantily clad body. "And I'm going there, so what exactly do you suggest? Do you really think I'm going to wait for you to think up some way to cover this up?"
"If you're that concerned about it, take Elder Knight with you," Luke replied carefully. "But you really should take a moment and think about whether or not we would really have been doing what you were thinking."
"If you weren't doing . . ." Jason paused and crossed his arms over his chest, and glared up at Luke. "Look, Elder Phillips. My best friend is gay, and I know what he does with his boyfriend. It's not like he keeps it a secret. I don't have any problem with gay people, but it's a sin, and-"
"Would you fucking listen to yourself for a second?" Luke snapped, rolling his eyes and then letting out an exasperated sigh. "Just take a moment and think, and you'll realize that unless you think we're complete imbeciles, we wouldn't have been doing anything like that. Why would we even risk something like that if we knew anyone could walk in? Do you think I'm stupid, Elder Hadley?"
Luke was furious, and he was almost ready to let Jason continue with his plan so he wouldn't have to deal with him anymore. If the church was willing to listen to Jason's word over his and Gary's for no reason other than the appearance of evil, then he had been right to leave it in the first place two years before, and he could stand to go home early knowing that was true.
But then Jason surprised him, as he sighed and shook his head. "No, I suppose not." Then he cocked his head to one side as he rested his hand on the railing, leaning into it. He looked up at Luke, his lips pursed thoughtfully for several long moments. "But that doesn't really explain what was going on," he continued at last. "You don't just end up in a position like that by accident."
"Actually," Luke replied slowly, "that's exactly how we ended up in that position."
Jason's eyes widened and he took a step back, crossing his arms over his chest as he said, "You better make this really good."
Luke took a deep breath and then began a measured explanation of what had happened. "I got back from my shower and Elder Dumont was getting his shower stuff ready. Apparently I've stored my things in the same wardrobe as him instead of with your things, and so I walked over and waited for him to get done; when he stood, he bumped into me. We both lost our grip on what we were holding and I bent over to pick some things up which rolled behind me. That's when he must have lost his balance because he fell into me just as you happened to open the door."
Jason stared thoughtfully at Luke for several seconds, meeting his eyes with his lips pursed. He exhaled loudly and then spoke in an unconvinced tone, "I suppose that's possible, but . . ." He trailed off, shaking his head in disbelief as his scowl began to return.
"You're still angry, aren't you?" Luke asked, feeling the bile begin to rise in his throat. He wanted to scream but he fought the urge. "Why?" He continued, "What gives you the right to be so angry about everything all the time? Nothing happened. At all."
"I simply want to be a good missionary, Elder Phillips," Jason replied, raising an eyebrow as he began gesturing with his right hand while keeping his left arm folded over his chest and his left hand tucked in the crook of his right elbow. "Is that such a bad thing? Is it so bad to want to be the best I can be and hold tight to the iron rod?"
The iron rod was a reference to a parable in the Book of Mormon, the principal text of the Mormon faith. Luke knew the story well, and he couldn't help but think about the parable as he studied Jason's earnest face. The parable spoke of a tree that represented eternal life, and a path which led to the tree with an iron railing running alongside the path, which was also referred to as 'the iron rod', representing the word of God. At times the path would lead through patches of darkness and the people walking along the path were to hold tight to the iron rod, in order to make it through the darkness and eventually reach the reward of eternal life at the end of the path.
Luke was already beginning to consider other implications of Jason's choice of reference, as there were other features in the parable which could be applied to their situation. To the side of the path was a colossal building which held many of those who had decided to leave the path. These people would taunt and jeer at those remaining on the path, goading them to leave the path and join them in the building. It only took a moment of staring into Jason's eyes for Luke to realize that Jason saw him as being in danger of leaving the path. Luke smirked at that thought and considered letting Jason make good on his false belief about the situation, but then he remembered Gary.
He had no right to decide Gary's fate for him, and letting Jason get away with telling the administration what he had seen would certainly impact Gary in unforeseeable ways. And so Luke took a deep breath to calm his anger and said, "You can do that without judging everyone first. There was nothing happening between Elder Dumont and me like there was nothing happening between Sister Rodriguez and me." He forced a smile to his face as he continued, "Wait until you have all the facts before reacting, and don't jump to conclusions, because things may not be as they seem. Isn't there a scripture that says something like, 'judge not lest ye be judged'?"
Jason stared back at him for a moment before nodding slowly, "You have a point. I guess I may have overreacted." He dropped his left arm to the side as he reached up and scratched the back of his head with his right. "Maybe we can go back to the room and discuss this between the four of us? I'd like to have a chance to apologize to Elder Dumont. I think I may have freaked him out a bit."
Luke sighed in relief and his smile became more genuine. "Sure, but you might want to give him a moment. You've likely freaked him out a hell of a lot more than 'a bit'. I got a chance to see his face as you ran off, and he seemed to be panicking. He might not be ready to talk for a while yet."
Jason climbed the stairs and looked back at the closed double doors which would lead them back to their dorm room. He nodded and returned his attention to Luke. "Yeah, I suppose you're right."
"Hey, Elder, um . . ." Luke began uncertainly and then with a deep breath he asked, "can I ask you something?"
"Yeah," Jason shrugged, "sure."
"You said your best friend is gay," Luke began, and he was met with a blank stare from Jason, but he continued with his question anyway. "What's that all about? I mean, I attended university in California, and trust me, I've got plenty of gay friends, but . . ." He shook his head and shrugged, "It's not something I expect to hear from someone who was born and raised Mormon in Utah, you know? Especially from Provo of all places."
"Well," Jason sighed, "it might be more appropriate to say that I had a gay best friend. I'm not sure we're on speaking terms or will be ever again. I had to tell him the truth about my beliefs, and well..." He shook his head and grimaced, "It didn't go well."
"What do you mean?" Luke asked. "Did you call him a sinner or something?"
"Well, yeah, of course," Jason replied without hesitation. "I mean, I gave my farewell address on the sanctity of marriage. What else was I supposed to do? We're called to preach the gospel and tell the truth, aren't we?"
"Those are all tough questions, I guess." Luke shrugged and then cocked his head to the side and smirked. "Well, maybe not as tough as they could be. I think this whole judgment thing you've got going on in your head probably affected you there too."
"What do you mean?"
"You can't immediately assume everything is black and white, you know," Luke said in a level tone. "The church even announced that although church doctrine is against homosexuality, they have no problem with members supporting marriage equality on social media. I think that tells you something right there." He grinned and added, "Just because you believe something is true, doesn't mean you have to be an asshole about it."
"Hey," Jason replied, raising two of his fingers and holding them in front of Luke's face, "that's the second time you've cursed tonight, and I can't allow you to keep doing that."
Luke sighed. "We still have a long way to go, I suppose."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Jason asked, leaning back and scowling. "Are you saying I need to change? You're kind of a butthole too, aren't you?"
"You know what, maybe I am," Luke said with a shrug, and then his grin returned. "I guess that means we can learn from each other. I'm not opposed to that, are you?"
"I suppose not," Jason said after a moment. He then put his hand out for Luke to shake and asked, "So, are we cool, Elder Phillips?"
"Yeah, I think we are," Luke replied as he took Jason's hand and shook it. "Now that we're through this, I have to say I'm actually glad we had this talk."
"Me too," Jason replied as he pulled his hand back. "And I'll try not to jump to any conclusions in the future."
"And I'll try not to be a hypocrite," Luke laughed.
Jason smiled wide and nodded. "Deal."
Chris walked away from the conversation with Luke feeling optimistic about the next twelve weeks. Although their talk had been nothing more than a brief exchange about the state of the showers, Chris appreciated the precocious manner in which Luke spoke and carried himself. It made Chris feel less like the old man in the group and more like an equal.
He entered the large communal bathroom and walked toward the showers. There were three elders in line waiting to get into any one of the eight curtained-off stalls. It would still be a wait, but likely not a long one, and Chris went to stand at the back of the line. He was eagerly looking forward to feeling clean again after his first day of running around the MTC.
He heard shouting and looked back the way he came. He thought he recognized the voice, which meant it was one of his roommates. Listening more intently now, Chris heard the sound of the double doors opening and then the even louder sound of one of the heavy dorm room doors being slammed shut.
Whatever had happened to produce that series of noises, Chris knew it couldn't be good, and without a second glance at the showers he headed back to the dorm room. As soon as he was in the hallway he encountered a group of missionaries from other rooms down the hall. This was the first time he had had an opportunity to interact with anyone else in their dormitory, and he noticed those who were still wearing nametags each had ones written in Korean. He wondered which of the missions in South Korea they were going to, but he put that thought aside as he realized the missionaries were all gathered around his door.
"Whoa," Chris said, pulling up in front of his door and turning to face the other missionaries, "what is going on in there?"
"The blonde Elder, your companion I think?" began one of the Elders, a tall and broad-shouldered youth with dark brown hair. "He slammed the door a minute ago after the other two missionaries ran off."
"Well, I didn't take my key because I knew someone would be in there. Dang it . . ." He paused and turned to the door, raising his hand to knock before turning back to the small crowd. "Whatever it is, I'll take care of it." He waited for them to nod and turn to leave before he knocked. "Elder Dumont, come on, open up. It's Elder Knight."
He swore he could almost feel the hesitation on the other side of the door, and was about to knock again when the door opened a crack and he heard someone moving farther into the room. Chris stepped into the room and closed the door behind him before looking up to see Gary pacing at the far end of the room. Chris calmly walked forward and placed his toiletries on the desk before asking in a soft voice, "Elder Dumont, what's going on?"
Gary stopped pacing and turned toward him, giving Chris his first good look at his companion's face. It was red and his cheeks were wet, but Gary was no longer crying. "I . . ." Gary's voice broke and he shook his head, "I c-can't."
"Gary," Chris said, stepping forward and putting his hand on Gary's shoulder. "Come on, talk to me. I told you I'd support you with whatever, right? What happened? Where are the others?"
"Elder Hadley, he . . ." Gary began and then immediately became flustered. "He thinks Elder Phillips and I . . . it was all just an accident."
"Come on," Chris said, offering a comforting smile, "you're going to have to do better than that. I can't help if you don't tell me what's going on."
Gary nodded and began again after taking a deep breath. "Elder Hadley knows . . ." he paled as if he realized what he had been about to say would have ended badly and then said, "He thinks Elder Phillips and I were doing something we weren't supposed to be doing."
"What?" Chris asked, letting his hand leave Gary's shoulder as he scratched the back of his head. "It's hard to think of what could really be that bad that . . ."
"He thinks we're gay," Gary blurted out.
"What?" Chris asked, surprised. "Wait a minute, Gary," he continued, cautiously. "You were going to say that Elder Hadley knows that you're gay a moment ago, weren't you?"
Gary's eyes widened as he turned away from Chris and toward the bed, leaning into it as fresh tears began to flow down his cheeks. "Oh dang it, I don't know what to do! What am I supposed to fuckin' do, Elder Knight? I'm a fucking mess. My whole life is . . ." a loud sob interrupted his speech, and he pounded the bed with his fist before he went on, "I'm a joke, and I shouldn't even be here."
Chris stepped up and put his arms around Gary, giving him quick hug before pulling away and asking, "Why not?"
"Why did you . . ." Gary started, turning around to face Chris, a question in his eyes. "Why did you just hug me? Why aren't you yelling at me to get out and threatening to tell everyone like Elder Hadley did?"
"Before I answer that, can you tell me if you and Elder Phillips really were doing something?" Chris asked, attempting to make his smile supportive.
"No." Gary shook his head. "We weren't. We bumped into each other when I got in his way and . . ." He shook his head more emphatically. "It was just a frickin' accident."
"Good to know," Gary replied with nod and a sigh of relief. "I'm not sure what I'd have to do if you two were actually doing something unbecoming of a missionary. Now we have that matter out of the way, however, I can work on making you feel better."
"Okay . . ." Gary said cautiously. "I'm ready for that, even though Elder Hadley is going to come back any second with someone who is going to be asking a lot more questions . . ."
Chris shook his head. "I doubt that."
"Oh?" Gary replied, surprised.
"Elder Phillips chased after him, right?" Chris asked, and smiled when Gary nodded. "I doubt he would chase him outside if he was still half-naked as I imagine he'd be, considering how short of a time I was gone, and he hasn't come back yet. They must be talking somewhere."
"You make a good point," Gary agreed.
"So," Chris said, eager to get to other matters before Luke or Jason returned, "to answer your question, I hugged you because you're my friend, and I know that you're scared right now. I wanted to make you feel better. I may have only known you for a day, but I think you're pretty awesome, Gary."
"Thanks, Elder . . ." Gary stopped and smiled. "Thanks, Chris."
"Don't mention it," Chris chuckled, patting Gary on the shoulder. "It's what friends are supposed to do for each other." His eyes grew serious though his smile remained as he continued in a different vein.
"The other thing I want to tell you is that there's nothing wrong with being gay, all right? Someone very close to me is gay, and I wouldn't trade him for anyone in the world."
"Who?" Gary asked.
"My dad." Chris replied.
"No way . . ." Gary said, eyes widening in disbelief. "And he let you come on a mission?"
"He knows I don't buy into the whole 'being gay is an abomination' dogma," Chris said, chuckling. "I think that's just the Apostles speaking as men, not as prophets. You know it doesn't concretely mention anywhere in the Bible or the Book of Mormon that being gay is a sin, right? It's all kind of arbitrary."
"Yeah, but the church . . ." Gary began to protest.
"Forget about the church for a second," Chris said, waving his hand dismissively. "We're only talking about you, and making you all right with yourself."
"All right," Gary said, "Go on."
"There's nothing wrong with being gay, all right?" Chris said, meeting Gary's eyes. "You are normal, and you need to know that. You need to know that these feelings you're having are natural, and it's also okay to feel that way. What wouldn't be okay, is breaking mission rules and having a romantic or sexual relationship of any kind while you're out in the mission field. It's against the rules for straight missionaries, and it should be against the rules for gay missionaries, too." His smile took the edge off of his words as he explained, "That's why I asked if the two of you had actually done anything, because I might have had to report you myself if you had."
"That makes sense," Gary replied, nodding. "You know, I'm starting to feel a bit better, though I don't really know what to feel about some of what you've said. I'm not sure I'm ready to accept myself or anything . . ." he exhaled slowly and added, "This is the first time I've ever even thought of saying it out loud."
"Well, you will when you're ready," Chris replied. "All I want to do as your friend is support you."
"Thanks." Gary grinned. "I'm lucky that you're my companion."
"You've got that right." Chris chuckled, then he held his arms out wide. "Here, let me give you another hug." Gary grinned and accepted the embrace easily, though he looked up in alarm and tried to pull away as the door to the room opened and Jason stepped through with Luke right behind him.
"Oh no, not you too!" Jason said, staring at Chris and throwing his hands up in the air. His scowl was quickly returning as he turned and almost ran into Luke.
"Elder Hadley, stop right there," Luke said with a glower to match Jason's. "You are not going anywhere. Now, we agreed we were going to talk about what happened, right? And what about not jumping to conclusions?"
"You know there's nothing in the rulebook about us hugging our companions as a friendly gesture, right?" Chris asked with an incredulous chuckle.
Jason sighed and turned back to face the other two. "Look, I'm sorry. I'm a little high-strung at the moment."
"I think that's exactly why we should all sit down and just talk about this," Luke said, crossing his arms over his chest and staring daggers at the back of Jason's head, though he addressed his words to Chris. "Don't you agree, Elder Knight?"
"Definitely," Chris said with a nod. "Though I know that Elder Dumont and I both need to shower, still."
"I'll do it in the morning," Gary replied with a shrug. "I'll just get up a little earlier. I think I want to sleep more than I want to shower after everything that just happened."
"Okay, that makes sense," Chris said. "Maybe I'll do the same. So, what did you guys want to talk about?" he asked as he turned back to Jason and Luke. "I trust you cleared things up with Elder Hadley, Elder Phillips?"
"I think so," Luke replied, though his glower remained as he continued to stare at the back of Jason's head. "But he wanted to have a discussion about proper conduct."
"We already had a conversation about that, so I think we're all on the same page," Chris replied politely. "But what did you have in mind, Elder Hadley?"
"I'd like to start reading from the missionary handbook every morning as a group, and possibly doing some other group study together," Jason replied, meeting Chris' gaze. "I told Elder Phillips I want to be the best missionary I can be, and I can't do that if I don't know what's expected of me. I think we can all help each other be better. In return, I'll try to resist the urge to jump to conclusions."
"I think that's a reasonable request," Chris said before turning to his companion. "What do you think, Elder Dumont?"
"Works for me," Gary said, looking anywhere but at Jason or Luke. "As long as I don't get accused of things I haven't done in the future."
"I'll try not to," Jason said, smirking. "You have to admit though, it didn't exactly look innocent."
"You're right," Gary replied, chuckling nervously, "it was pretty awkward."
"It was probably the most awkward for me," Luke said, finally dropping his scowl and grinning at Gary. "And I'm good now."
"Then we're back on track," Chris said, smiling at his roommates each in turn. "Working together, I'm sure we'll all stay there, too."