The ticking of the clock sounded ominous in the small room as the small group of teenage boys sat on the couch, watching as the hands of the clock moved, their hearts pounding with every tick.
This was the moment of truth! Their first act of, intentional, rebellion! Their first real protest against authority by saying: This rule makes no sense and we’re not going to follow it!
Connor felt slightly ill.
He’d been feeling various degrees of ill for most of the day, actually, starting from the moment the phrase “My name is Joseph Smith and I’m going to fuck this baby” was uttered. His stomach had been on a roller coaster ever since. He had gone from wanting to throw up when the Mission President yelled at him and when Nabulungi ran from them in tears to feeling slightly okay when Elder Price - when Kevin - had stood in front of them and told them they were all Latter Day Saints despite everything… that the rules didn’t have to always be obeyed, that being a good person and being a good Mormon weren’t always the same thing.
The second hand jerked closer to its awaited destination and Connor winced.
They had all decided to stay in Uganda, despite the Mission Presidents wishes. He wasn’t sure what was going to happen, in all honesty. It was entirely possible the Church wouldn’t fund them to stay, that they were going to be excommunicated, that their parents wouldn’t pay to bring them home now or two years from now, and… and…
Connor swallowed back against the bile tickling the back of his throat. He closed his eyes and took a slow, deep breath.
Now wasn’t the time to worry about that… they can all have an existential crisis tomorrow morning but for now… now…
A series of soft gasps broke the tedium of ticks and Connor opened his eyes.
Connor stared up at the clock, his hands gripping his knees so hard his fingers were digging into his leg. The second hand ticked steadily, unaware of the audience watching it.
The room was silent, everyone too enraptured to even move until, finally, the clock struck 10:31pm.
They all let out the breath they had been holding.
They were all officially up past lights out.
It wasn’t an exhilarating as Connor had thought it would be.
He looked around him and saw the same slightly disappointed look on the rest of the Elders faces. Even Eld-Kevin looked put out.
“W-What should we do now?” Connor asked, forcing his hands to relax. His fingers and legs hurt now.
Ever since he had started his mission, there had actually been very little downtime. A missionary was expected to work, work, work! Work until 9pm then study until it was time for bed. In the few times they weren’t working or studying, they had a few Church-approved boardgames they could play as long as it didn’t distract them from their work. Anything else was considered a distraction and an affront to Heavenly Father.
But it was too late to go out searching for lost souls and he wasn’t entire sure what they were suppose to be studying anymore. It wasn’t like they had a book to replace the Book of Mormon if that was really what they were doing.
Connor’s eyes drifted to the small bookcase that held a few well-worn boxes. They had Guess Who but that wouldn’t entertain them all. There was Monopoly and the Game of Life but both had most of their pieces missing so maybe not…
“Come on, guys!” Connor blinked as someone stepped in between his gaze and the boardgames. He looked up from the rumpled white shirt blocking his vision to see the bright, expectant face of Kevin Price. The other boy grinned down at them all and spread his arms out as though welcoming them into a whole new world. “We can do whatever we want! We don’t have to follow those rules anymore - I mean, a few of them sure but I don’t think any of us want to go out on a killing spree or anything like that… right?”
He was answered with a chorus of soft ‘no’.
“Then let’s do something!” Kevin said, his teeth distractingly white. “Something we’ve always wanted to do but were too afraid!”
Kevin was met with uncomfortable silence.
His smile wavered ever so slightly.
“Elder McK… Connor!” Kevin turned his grin toward him. “Isn’t there anything you’ve always wanted to do? We’re all in support here, right? If there’s anything you want to do… anything at all… I’m - we’re here!”
Connor felt all the eyes in the room turn toward him and he felt the blood rush to his cheeks.
Was there anything he wanted to do? Something that he’s always but always denied himself?
He licked his lips nervous and looked back at the curious boys around him.
“W-well,” he started as he tangled in fingers in his tie, wrapping the light blue fabric around his fingers before letting it slip away before repeating the movement, “T-there is something I’ve always been curious about but my parents never let me… but I don’t think it’s possible…”
“What is it, Connor?” Kevin said, appearing in front of Connor in an instant, kneeling down so they were on the same level. His warm brown eyes were almost glittering.
“We’re all here for you,” Kevin said, leaning in closer.
Here goes nothing. Connor squeezed his eyes shut and, before he could think to stop himself, blurted out what he wanted, the only thing he could think of himself wanting.
“I want to read the Harry Potter books!”
Connor cracked an eye open.
In front of him, Kevin looked confused and, perhaps, a bit disappointed.
Connor shrugged a shoulder and looked around at the other Elders with a small, sheepish smile. Some of them looked just as confused as Kevin but a few of them looked wide-eyed and… and awestruck, as though the thought had never crossed their minds.
“HOLY MOLY, YOU’VE NEVER READ HARRY POTTER?!”
Connor jumped in his seat as Arnold all but launched himself out of his seat, a look of shock and open excitement on his face.
“M-My parents said it was of the devil,” Connor explained, with a small shrug. There was a spattering of agreement around them. “B-But I don’t think it’ll be possible. We don’t even have the -” Arnold ran from the room before Connor could ever finish, “- books.”
Connor sank back down into the uncomfortable couch cushions, his heart pounding.
“You… want to read a book?” Kevin asked, sitting down properly on the ground in front of him, shaking his head. He looked extremely put out, almost pouting.
Connor refused to think of how cute it made him look.
“I’ve always wanted to read them,” he answered, forcing himself to hold his head up high, trying to look as proud and defiant as possible. It was true though. He’d go to school and the library and he’d see ads for the movies… people would make references he’d never gotten because the world of Harry Potter was completely alien to him. While it was true that Mormons, in general, didn’t have anything against the books, his own parents forbid him from ‘learning witchcraft’, even though it was explained to them multiple times that Harry Potter wasn’t an instruction manual.
It only made him want to read the books more but Connor had always tried to be a good son and a good Mormon and that meant obeying his parents…
If over something as stupid as reading a book.
Connor jumped as Arnold came crashing back into the room, a child-sized Star Wars backpack in his hands. Arnold all but pushed Kevin out of the way and stood in front of Connor with an almost wild look in his eyes.
Connor stared up at him, open-mouthed.
With a seriousness that went against everything Connor knew about their new prophet, Arnold dropped to one knee, reached into the small black bag, and pulled out a hardcover book and held it out to him like an offering. Connor took the book as reverently as if he was accepting the Golden Plates from Moroni himself.
“Read it,” Arnold said, breathless with anticipation, his eyes wide behind his glasses. “Read the book for us, Connor McKinley, and bestow this gift to these poor souls who have gone without for so long.”
Connor stared at Arnold and nodded slowly, swallowing hard as he looked down at the book in his hands. The worn but well-cared for book seemed to gleam in the light of the room.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone the title said, some of the shine worn off of the letters.
The book looked so harmless in his hands. He ran his fingers over the dust jacket before, slowly, he opened the book, the spine creaking gently in the holy silence that had descended over them.
“This isn’t what I had in mind,” Kevin muttered softly from the floor where he was now sitting but his eyes lingered on the book in Connor’s hand. He wondered if Kevin’s parents were as strict as his own when it came to the book series.
“You don’t want to read it?” Connor asked, his fingers hovering over the corner of a page - as soon as he’d turn it, they would be committing another - thought unofficial - sin. This felt a bit more exciting than staying up past bedtime.
“… I didn’t say that,” Kevin said after a moment, his eyes locked onto the book in Connor’s hands with reluctant curiosity. “Though, uh, we should probably take turns reading it out loud, you know? Make sure everyone has a turn.”
Connor nodded and gave Kevin a small, nervous smile that was quickly returned.
Connor turned the page and began reading aloud for all to hear.
* * *
The coffee machine was a tiny contraption with a dull red exterior and a glass pot that only held six cups. It bubbled away happily, dripping dark brown drops into the pot, oblivious to the audience it had acquired in that last few minutes since it had been turned on. Beside the coffee machine was a row of chipped mugs of various styles - one for each of them.
Kevin, already dressed and grinning brightly, stood in front of the display as the other Elders filed into the kitchen, drawn in by the foreign smell that permeated the small hut. Connor wasn’t sure if he liked it or not.
“I got it in town yesterday!” Kevin beamed, gesturing to the coffee pot like it was a valuable prize worthy of praise. “I got us some coffee and mugs too. I figure we can each have a favorite mug and - Yeah, the Star Wars one is yours, Arnold…”
Arnold whooped and darted forward to grab the dark mug with the image of a man in a oddly shaped mask printed on it. Kevin beamed at him as Arnold held the cup close to his chest.
Connor reached forward to carefully pick up a chipped cup and looked it over. It was white with stripes of color ringing around it, almost like a rainbow that had been stretched out.
“I’ve never had coffee before,” he admitted, staring into the cup as though it might answer him. He heard the other Elders muttering their agreement with the notable exception of Kevin and Arnold.
“It’s fantastic!” Kevin grinned, picking up the full pot of coffee and holding it up for all of them to see. “Here,” Kevin stepped forward and carefully poured some of the hot coffee into Connor’s cup. He stopped once the cup was half full and took a step back.
Connor stared at the dark brown liquid steaming in his mug. Connor glanced up at Kevin.
“W-what do I do?”
“Drink it!” Kevin said, nodding his head toward the cup. “Be careful though, it’s hot.”
Connor looked back at the cup.
“I-Isn’t their sugar or milk or something?” he asked, frowning. He was pretty sure that was a thing people did to coffee.
“Well,” Kevin paused, a sheepish now, “you can if you want but, uh, we don’t really have those things.” His smile brightened again. “Black coffee is just as good!”
Even Arnold looked doubtful at that. Their prophet had told them about Kevin drinking twelve cups of black coffee in a row the day before the ‘incident’ with the Mission President and how the man had acted before coming back down to Earth. It was obvious Kevin’s taste for the stuff was well and truly established.
Connor brought his mug up to his face and took a small sniff and wrinkled his nose.
It smelled… not good.
He glanced up at Kevin to see the dark brown eyes focused on him, his smile wide and hopeful but starting to fade. Connor glanced around. No one was drinking.
He sighed softly and brought the cup to his lips and took the smallest sip he could manage.
If he had to describe the bitterness that was now flooding his mouth, he’d have compared it to the time when he was fifteen and he had asked his best (female) friend to the school dance only to have her stand him up and show up at the dance with another boy who was way out of both their leagues but wore tight pants and who ended up dumping her half an hour in anyway and if either of them wanted to get any dancing done they had to dance with each other and it was unnecessarily awkward because Beth could have just told him she wanted to go with someone else beforehand but no…
“Well?” Kevin asked, his voice ripe with anticipation.
Connor held the sip in his mouth for a few more moments, desperately trying to swallow. He could feel his eyes starting to water.
Kevin’s smile started to fade.
Connor squeezed his eyes closed and swallowed.
“It’s good,” Connor croaked out the lie. Lies were alright now, right? As long as it wasn’t hurting anyone… “It’s strong.”
Kevin didn’t buy it.
“It’s okay if you don’t like it,” Kevin said, his smile turning into something resembling a pout.
“Sorry,” Connor sighed, setting the mug down and glancing back at the other Elders who were now staring into their own mugs with open distrust. “You guys should try it though, maybe you’ll like it?”
“It’s better with sugar,” Arnold supplied happily.
“Which we don’t have,” James, formerly Elder Church, reminded him.
“I have some Pop Tarts,” Chris, formerly Elder Thomas, said with a shrug. “Maybe we can, I don’t know, dip them in or something?”
Kevin wrinkled his nose at the suggestion.
“We’ll put it on the list,” Connor said before Kevin could jump in to defend coffee’s honor. “Sugar and maybe the powder stuff they put in it…”
“Creamer?” Kevin filled in.
“Yeah, that,” Connor smiled at Kevin until the other boy returned the smile. “I don’t think I have the strength for strong black coffee. I’m impressed you can drink it, Kevin.”
It was blatant praise and, while true, it wasn’t the reason he had said it. Everyone in the mission house knew the way to cheer Kevin up was by pointing out his good qualities. It was very easy to do even if it felt a little bit on the cheaty side but it was usually worth it. Connor didn’t want any of the other boys under his care to be sad.
In the seconds that followed his words, the wilted smile on Kevin’s face bloomed into a proper grin and any guilt Connor felt at the mild manipulation was forgotten.
“I thought it might be a bit much,” Kevin said, shrugging slightly as he set his own cup of coffee down on the counter. He turned and opened a cabinet door and pulled out a small box. “I, uh, got some tea as well though I haven’t really tried any of it. I got Earl Grey because it’s the only kind I’ve ever heard of.”
Connor took the box and looked it over. The smell coming off of it was certainly much nicer than the coffee.
Connor smiled and looked over at the other Elders. As far as he could tell, none of them had taken their experimental sip.
“Go on, give it a try,” Connor said, moving around Kevin and plucking the used, dented kettle off the stove. They never had much of a reason to use it before beyond cooking. “It’ll take a few minutes for the water to boil. If we’re going to try new things, we’re going to do it together!”
“Yeah!” Arnold chirped up before he punched the air. He brought the cup to his lips and took in a mouthful of the black coffee. Immediately, he spat out the coffee back out in a fine mist that covered the table in front of him. Connor wrinkled his nose. He was going to have to clean that… “Ugh, that’s disgusting, why would you do this to yourself, Kev?! I mean… Go Team Uganda!”
“Team Uganda,” the other Elder’s said back with much less enthusiasm.
Connor hoped the tea would be better…
* * *
In the span of a few days, what was once a heavy 5 o’clock shadow along Kevin’s jawline was now a scruffy beard and mustache and Connor wasn’t entire sure how he felt about this new development. It certainly suited Elder Price, outlining his strong jawline and it helped hide the reddish sunburn all of them had developed since living in Uganda.
Kevin certainly seemed proud of it, holding his head up a bit higher than normal so that it was just that bit more obvious. It also seemed to itch like the dickens if the way Kevin kept scratching at it was anything to go by.
Connor tried not to stare but it was a hard thing.
“What is this?” Nabulungi laughed, reaching forward without fear and ran her hand along the scruff on Kevin’s face. Connor wondered what it felt like, if it would be soft and rough against his hands.
“Do you like it?” Kevin asked, looking like he was making an effort not to preen but failing.
“You look like a lion cub,” Nabulungi giggled and Kevin openly beamed with pride now. “Scraggly and unkept.”
“Oh,” Kevin frowned, deflating a bit. “It’s, uh, still growing in.”
“It suits you,” Nabulungi laughed, shaking her head.
“Thank you,” Kevin had smiled then paused, “Wait, didn’t you just say it was…”
“Movie Time!” Arnold announced, holding up his Star Wars backpack over his head. “I brought a few movies from home though I didn’t think I’d actually get a chance to watch them since they’re, you know,” he dropped his voice to a loud whisper, “R-rated,” he brought his voice back up, “but I’m glad I did! You guys’ll love it!”
Arnold dropped down to his knees in front of their small TV and beat up DVD player and started pulling DVD cases out.
“I think we should watch the scary movies first since that’s what people usually think of when they think,” he dropped his voice into the Not-Whisper again, “R-rated,” louder now, “movies!”
He held up a DVD case for all to see. A man in a bloody hockey mask holding a blade of some sort adorned the cover.
“Friday the 13th Marathon!”
The lights were turned off and the movie started playing and Connor began to suspect that this movie was taking liberties when it came to how summer camps functioned.
He had never actually gone to a proper summer camp - the closest he had ever gotten was a dance camp that lasted two weeks and they had been in the city because you can’t tap dance on grass - but he was fairly certain summer camps didn’t work like this.
For starters, he was almost certain that counselors would be required to wear clothing at all times, even when swimming.
He was also fairly certain, though in no way positive, that women’s breasts didn’t actually look like… that.
Surely they didn’t… float… in water like that?
Connor risked a glance around the dark room, trying to gauge the others reactions but, for the most part, it was a mixture of bored, mildly interested, or, Pop Tart’s case, enthralled. He glanced over to Nabulungi and was rewarded to see the confused frown on her pretty face as she glanced down at her own chest.
She seemed to be as mystified as he was.
She looked up to see him looking at her. She glanced at the TV then back at Connor with a confused tilt of her head. Connor shrugged and shook his head helplessly.
He sighed, satisfied that he wasn’t alone in this strange introduction to a modified female body, and turned his attention back to the movie.
The woman gurgled as a machete bisected her head.
Connor barely stifled a shocked scream but only just. A few of the other teenagers in the room screamed as the movie intended but it was followed by embarrassed laughter.
Connor didn’t laugh but, instead, gingerly set the bowl of popcorn that had been in his lap into Kevin’s. He didn’t much feel like eating anything else.
“You okay?” Kevin asked, his voice mostly hidden by the loud TV a few feet from them.
“I don’t think I like horror movies,” Connor admitted quietly so only Kevin could hear him. He didn’t want to ruin the others fun.
“Well,” Kevin frowned, a hand reaching up to scratch the scraggly beard growing on his face, “I’m sure Arnold has other R-rated movies that aren’t scary. We can try one of those next?”
Connor nodded, smiling weakly.
“Let’s finish this one first,” he said softly, pressing back into the cushions of the worn couch. He turned his eyes back toward the TV but was really just looking at the space just off to the side.
Breaking some of the rules was certainly an experience and he couldn’t say he regretted it so far but he had the feeling that he just wasn’t meant to break some of them. Who’d have guessed horror movies would have been his hurdle?
He risked a glance back to the boy beside him and watched Kevin’s face in the flickering light of the television.
As awkward as the budding beard was, it did look good on him, outlining his face in just the right way. It turned his boyish good looks into something more adult and masculine. He tried to imagine what Kevin would look like with a proper, full beard but the image refused to come to mind properly. He could imagine it, somewhat, but his brain insisted on adding other features to the imaginary picture that he was positive wasn’t appropriate.
He didn’t even know if Kevin owned a flannel shirt and he probably wouldn’t wear one without, at least, an undershirt anyway. Besides, there were no tall pine trees in Uganda as far as Connor had seen so Kevin really wouldn’t need to be chopping wood with an axe so heavy that he’d work up a sweat by lifting it so often and… and…
Connor bit his lower lip and looked back at the spot that was near the TV but wasn’t the TV and focused on waiting the movie out.
* * *
Mafala set the bottle down on the worn table of the Uganda Mission’s kitchen and the Elders stared. The liquid inside the clear glass bottle looked innocent enough, like water actually, if not for the label and Mafala’s amused smile as they crowded around it.
“This is really your first time drinking?” the older man asked as the former Elders gathered up glasses and mugs for everyone.
“It was, uh, frowned upon,” Connor said, holding his rainbow mug with both hands as though it could protect him from anything bad that might happen in the next few minutes. He had heard bad things about alcohol and he wasn’t going to let his guard down around it. There was a reason people were always saying it was bad, right?
Maybe they shouldn’t do this one? They didn’t have to break all the rules, right? They could let this one go, couldn’t they? Somehow, this was different than reading a book or watching a movie or even drinking coffee.
Bad things actually could happen if they weren’t careful.
“Well, it will definitely be an experience for you all.” Mafala’s laugh did little to calm Connor’s nerves.
The man opened the bottle, the metal cap’s holds breaking as he twisted the cap off, and poured a generous amount into his own cup. As they watched, Mafala took a deep drink, grimaced ever-so-slightly, and smacked his lips.
He didn’t burst into flames. That was good.
“Come, come!” Mafala smiled brightly and picked up the glass bottle. “I will fill your cups and you can all try it together, yes?”
The Elders stared at him for a moment before, almost as one, they turned their heads to look at Kevin who was still staring at Mafala. It took him a moment to realize the attention had shifted. Kevin looked back at the rest of the mission and then down at his empty cup.
He looked back and held his head up high.
“It’s just a drink, guys,” he said, scoffing a little bit as he shook his head. “People drink it all the time. It can’t be that bad!”
They stared at him for a moment longer before they turned to look to their prophet.
“A-Are you sure this is alright, Arnold?” Andrew Neeley asked, sounding as timid was Connor felt. “I mean it’s… well…”
Arnold frowned and looked down at his Star Wars mug then at the bottle waiting on the table.
“I’m sure a little won’t hurt,” he said after a moment. “Just don’t, you know, go overboard or anything and it should be fine.”
Connor felt a bit of the tension in his shoulders ease but not by a lot.
“See?” Kevin smiled and, with a shake of his head, held his cup out to be filled.
Mafala’s smile didn’t waver as he poured a bit Waragi into Kevin’s Mickey Mouse mug.
“Uh,” James spoke up, setting his empty cup on the table, “I think I’ll sit this one out… if you don’t mind, that is?”
Kevin frowned at James for a moment before his eyes grew wide and his face paled.
“Oh! Oh, yeah, of course,” Kevin sputtered, shaking his head. “I didn’t even think… I’m sorry, you don’t… that is…”
“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, James,” Connor interrupted, smiling softly at him before looking at the rest of the Elders. “That goes for all of us. If we don’t want to try something then we don’t have to. No judgments, right?”
James looked relieved.
Pop Tarts smiled at James as he set his own cup down beside his where it was quickly joined by two more. Zelder, as he preferred to be called, and Jon Davis shrugged in apology before taking a step away from the table.
“I’ve never seen the appeal of drinking,” Zelder explained, shaking his head.
“I promised my mom I’d never do it,” Jon said, looking sheepish. “Like, promises to the Church is one thing but promises to your mom is something else.”
“Hey, don’t worry about it guys!” Arnold grinned brightly at the small group who had retreated from the event. “We’re just having some fun, right? It wouldn’t be fun if you guys got forced into something you don’t want!”
The small group nodded though there was still an air of embarrassment to them. Connor watched the few abstaining Elders as they moved away from the booze and considered putting his own cup down and joining them. No one would blame him and no one would force him.
Connor sucked in the corner of his lip. He, technically, wasn’t District Leader anymore, he wasn’t obligated to watch over everyone anymore than any of the others… but habits died hard. Could he really let some of the Elder’s take part is something potentially dangerous without him or would it be better that way?
There had to be come kind of middle ground…
“We’re just trying it out, right?” Connor asked, glancing around the table to judge their expressions. “Just tasting it, right? We don’t have to get drunk, right?”
Kevin frowned beside him. They were all very much aware that Kevin didn’t like to do things halfway. Connor elbowed him in the side. “Right?”
“Right,” Kevin said softly, looking into his own cup. Connor wasn’t sure if he was annoyed or relieved.
“So, we’ll have a sip or so,” Connor nodded, feeling slightly more at ease. He smiled at Mafala who was still grinning a bit too brightly.
The remaining cups were offered and a small amount of the Waragi was poured into each. Connor looked at his share and wrinkled his nose. It definitely didn’t smell like water, no matter how it looked.
“Well,” Kevin started, looking around at the small group gathered around the table, “Count to three? One… Two… Three!”
Connor closed his eyes and brought the cup to his lips.
That was all Connor could think as the fire filled his mouth. Tears welled up his eyes and, before he could think better of it, sprayed the alcohol back out of his mouth with a yelp of pain.
“MY FACE IS MELTING!” He heard one of them - Arnold, maybe? - scream.
“MY TONGUE IS ON FIRE! HOW IS MY TONGUE ON FIRE!” screamed another.
Beside him, Kevin’s face was contorting into various expressions all of which could be described as ‘pain’.
Between the other boys yelps, Mafala’s delighted laughter, and the remaining Elders concerned mutterings, Connor hoped that no body noticed he was quietly sobbing into his cup.
This was definitely one experiment they will not be repeating anytime soon.
* * *
There was a part of Connor that wanted to feel guilty about what they were about to do but it was something he had been wanting to do for the longest time - since he stepped off the plane in Africa, in fact.
The hotel in Kampala was far nicer than they could probably afford with what little money they had available to them but it was also the only hotel that met all their requirements. It had enough room for all of them, even if they were crowded five to a room with the Hatimbi family having a room of their own, but most importantly, it had a pool. An actual, well-cared and maintained pool full of clean and clear water.
Connor stared at the gleaming water and felt his heart flutter.
The No-Swimming for Missionaries was a rule he had actually dreamed of breaking.
With the unrelenting sun of Uganda and the sweltering heat, he had often daydreamed of jumping into the nearest river and cooling off in the waters and he was positive that dream was one all the boys at the mission shared.
The only real thing stopping them from making it a reality was that one pesky rule… and the crocodiles… and the hippos… and the snakes… and the lions… and the hepatitis… and the hookworms… and the parasites…
Connor repressed a shudder at the warnings and stories the people of Kitguli showered them with when they mentioned wanting to go swimming in the shallow river. It was certainly a better deterrent than the church’s warnings of the devil controlling water and thus waiting to drown them if they dared go for a dip.
Connor, wearing the new bright pink swim trunks he had bought earlier that day, stood at the edge of the pool with the rest of the Elders and just looked at the clear blue water of the swimming pool.
“I thought we were going to swim while we’re here?” Nabulungi shook her head, watching them with confused amusement. “That is why you all insisted on finding the right hotel, isn’t it?”
“We’re going to!” Arnold assured her loudly, clutching his towel in front of his chest. “We’re, uh, we’re just getting ready! We’re not debating the likelihood of drowning because of demon water or anything like that…”
Nabulungi rolled her eyes.
“Well, I did not sit in a bus for two days just to look at a swimming pool,” she announced, placing her hands on her hips as she looked the boys over. “I came here to swim and that is what I intend to do!”
This those words, she turned on her heel, walked to the edge of the pool and with jumped in without a moments hesitation. The water splashed over the side of the pool and Nabulungi emerged with a delighted cry.
Connor could see Arnold watching her longingly.
“You know, she’s right!” Kevin said, taking a step forward to stand in front of them in his black Mickey Mouse printed swim shorts. “Nothing is going to happen to us! It’s just water! No super-spooky water devil is going to drown us or wreck our ship or anything like that! That’s dumb!”
The group stared at him, none of them taking a step toward the pool. Connor looked at the glittering blue water. It looked cool and pretty and he really wanted to jump in.
“Oh, come on!” Kevin threw up his arms. “We’re not even Mormon missionaries anymore, technically speaking! That rule wouldn’t apply to us anymore anyway!”
“Well, you jump in then!” Andrew Neeley crossed his arms and glared at Kevin. “You’re always the one wanting to break the rules! So go do it!”
Connor sighed and took a step forward to stand beside Kevin.
“Andy, Kevin’s just trying to…”
“No, Connor, it’s fine,” Kevin interrupted him, holding up a hand. “If he wants me to jump in and if it’ll get you guys to loosen up and have fun, I will.”
Kevin turned his back on their small group and started walking toward the pool, his head held high. Connor watched him for a moment before turning back to look at Andrew, putting on his best disapproving frown. They all knew how Kevin took to challenges, it was hardly fair to dare him to do something. Kevin will either make it a point to go swimming at every opportunity regardless of health hazards the water might contain or he’ll pout for days to come.
“Andy,” Connor scolded in a whisper, “You shouldn’t have…”
Before Connor could finish, there was a yelp of surprise followed by a cry of pain followed by a loud splash.
“Technically, I wasn’t in the water,” Kevin grumbled ten minutes later, sitting sideways at the edge of the pool with his right leg propped up in front of him, an icepack on his ankle.
“I know,” Connor reassured him, his arms folded in front of him on the float, his chin resting on the back of his hands. “Everyone saw. They should be more careful where they leave the pool equipment.”
Kevin huffed, crossing his arms as he looked out over the water.
After Kevin had tripped over the pool hose, somehow managing to get the thick plastic hose wrapped around his ankle, and had falling face first into the water, the other Elders had lost any paranoia they had had regarding the pool. Something bad had happened and now the pressure was off. They had just needed something to break the tension though Connor couldn’t help feel a bit guilty that it came in the form of Kevin somehow managing to hurt himself in an unexpected yet somehow karmic way.
“At least you only twisted your ankle,” Connor smiled, trying to cheer Kevin up. “And you got everyone else to come into the pool.”
Connor gestured over toward the deep end of the pool where a few of the others were laughing, having started a dunking contest that Connor wanted absolutely no part of, thank you.
“I guess that’s true,” Kevin sighed, still in a full on sulk.
“You can still swim, you know,” Connor pointed out, lazily turning the pink inner tube he was in so that he twirled slowly in the water in front of Kevin. He might have been teasing him a bit but how could he not? One small set back and Kevin acts like the world has betrayed him, despite getting what he wanted to begin with. The irony of having to try and coax Kevin into the water was not lost on him. “You can easily keep pressure off of it in the water.”
Kevin didn’t answer but tightened his crossed arms around his chest.
“…I’ll let you have the float?” Connor offered, stopping in front of Kevin again but letting the float continue to spin lazily. They didn’t have much money to spend on pool supplies - just their swim suits, arm floaties for a few of them, and this one inner tube because it was on sale and Connor had fallen in love with the fluorescent bright color.
Kevin glanced over at him, considering. Connor could see him weakening.
“…I guess,” he said after a moment, still sulking. “Since you’re offering.”
Connor smiled up at him.
* * *
Connor looked down at the cluttered table in bemusement. Sheets of paper surrounded a large, cardboard map as the few Elders that agreed to play worked on filling out the forms. They only had one handbook to pass between them but Connor was glad to see the small group making the most of it. Connor couldn’t see how all supplies and game essentials could fit on the rather small (for all of them) kitchen table but, then again, Connor didn’t see how it had all fit in Arnold’s deceptively small Star Wars backpack to begin with.
In the last few months, Connor had seen Arnold pull out of the bag the entire Harry Potter book collection along with the movies, all of the Star Wars films as well as Blu-Ray player to watch them on, and now he had a Dungeons & Dragons handbook, pre-made map, pre-made figures, and a large bag of strangely shaped die. If Arnold was to be believed, he also had all of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies stashed in there as well as a few other movies and books he couldn’t leave home without.
It was mind boggling.
“Are you sure you don’t want to play?” Arnold asked again as Connor looked over the cluttered space. Some of it had migrated to the floor and counters surrounding them. He hoped he didn’t have to be the one to clean it up, he’d feel horrible if he messed up someone’s game…
“It’s a bit crowded,” Connor shook his head, smiling slightly. “Maybe next time when a space opens up?”
“Alright,” Arnold said, looking only slightly putout by Connor’s refusal. “But I already promised Kevin he gets the first available space so you’ll have to wait longer.”
“He’s not playing now?” Connor would have thought Kevin would be first in line. They had all heard the horror stories of how playing this game was the same as selling your soul to the devil. It was right up Kevin’s alley.
“He said it was crowded too,” Arnold openly sulked now. “It’s only five players! That’s not that many really.”
“I’ll… take your word for it,” Connor nodded, glancing around the table. Pop Tarts and James were currently hogging the handbook but they seemed excited as they wrote on their bits of paper. Michaels and Davis seemed to have finished their characters and were taking turns playing with the dice. Beside Arnold, Nabulungi was cooing over the figures Arnold had painted just for her (He had model paints with him as well. Just what else was in that backpack?!). The model had her dark skin and hair and vines wrapped around her arms and legs. At her elbow was a zoo of animals, including a pink wolf, a blue bear, and a green hyena to name a few.
“Well, I hope you all have fun,” Connor told him, watching as he pulled out a cardboard screen thing from the backpack. “Do you know where Kevin is then? If he’s not playing?”
“Oh, he said he was going to get some fresh air,” Arnold shrugged, glancing out the window. It was already dark out. “He’s probably on the roof.”
Connor wasn’t sure who had started going up onto the roof of the mission house whenever they wanted some quiet time but it had become a regular occurrence once they didn’t need to be with their companion at all times of the day. Besides a few incidents with leopards, snakes, and a monkey that one time, it was a nice enough place to clear ones head.
“I think I’ll go check on him.”
Arnold nodded and started pulling out notebooks from the Star Wars bag now.
“Tell him we’re going to start soon,” Arnold said, not looking up from his work as he opened one of the notebooks. Connor could see the front page was already filled with Arnold’s chicken scratch handwriting. “You know, if he wants to watch.”
“I’ll let him know,” Connor promised before heading out the door.
The night air was refreshingly cool and Connor took a deep breath of the fresh air. There was the singing of insects nearby and Connor felt that, if he closed his eyes, he could pretend he was back home in Colorado, relaxing in the backyard before heading inside to do the dishes.
He let the breath out slowly, trying to use it to force the sudden pang of homesickness out with it. There was time for that later, preferably when he was alone in bed and everyone else was asleep so they couldn’t hear anything if it came to it. While Arnold’s assurances that letting their feelings out and sharing was a good thing, there were still some things Connor felt he needed to feel on his own, for now at least. Missing home and their families was something they all felt, bringing it up would only remind everyone of their own longing for home.
Connor took another deep breath and walked around the side of the mission house to the ladder they had leaning against the side. It was dark out but the glow from the mission windows provided more than enough light to find his way.
“Kevin?” Connor asked from the bottom of the ladder, looking up at the thatch roof.
“I’m up here,” Kevin said back and Connor could see the outline of his head peeking over the side. “Is everything alright?”
“It’s fine,” Connor reassured him, reaching out to grab onto the ladder to start climbing up. “Arnold is about to start the Dungeons and Dragons game so I decided to give them some space.”
“Didn’t feel like playing?” Kevin asked, scooting aside to give Connor room to join him on the roof. “Or watching?”
“It seemed crowded,” he repeated, sitting down beside Kevin, “and I’m not much of a fantasy guy anyway…”
“Yeah,” Kevin nodded, leaning back onto his arms and turned his attention up toward the sky. “Neither am I.”
“So, what are you doing up here?” Connor asked, drawing his knees up to his chest. There wasn’t much room and his shoulder was pressed against Kevin’s. It was pleasantly warm in the cool night air.
“Star-gazing,” Kevin answered, not looking away from the sky.
Connor glanced up as well to see the sky full of stars. As impressive as it was, he knew it would only get more so once his eyes adjusted to the dark.
“Have you ever stopped and just looked at them?” Kevin continued, his voice soft as though he might scare the sparks of light away if he spoke too loudly. “It’s just so… so different from home, you know?”
“Yeah,” Connor smiled, shaking his head. “We usually don’t go out at night, you know, because of the rules and everything but… but the second night of being here, Chris and I got held up in the village, trying to get them to at least listen to us. The sun had set and we were running to get back to the house before curfew. We made it with five minutes to spare and when were we catching our breath at the door, I looked up.” Connor let out a loud sigh. “It was so gorgeous I think my heart stopped.”
Connor could remember that night so clearly, even though it happened months and months ago.
Back home, his family would also take a few weeks in the summer to go camping. They would choose a national park, drive however long it would take to get there and pitch their tents in a clearing with the best view. His father used to bring a telescope just for those nights so they could all admire the beauty around them. Connor had always been so entranced when they looked at those stars back home but he had come to find that the stars in Colorado had nothing on the night sky of Uganda. The blue-black sky and the millions upon millions of star shimmering above them and the milky way spread out across it all, it had taken Connor’s breath away.
“Don’t laugh,” Connor said softly, crossing his arms over his knees and resting his chin on them, “but I… I think that sight made me believe in Heavenly Father more than any sermon or book ever did.”
For a moment, the only sound was the buzz and chirp of insects.
“It still sounds kind of blasphemous,” Connor continued, closing his eyes. In his mind, he was looking up at the stars from the front door of their tiny hut and remembering the feeling of being so utterly small in comparison but still engulfed in the wonder of it. He opened his eyes to stare out at the black night surrounding them. “I just felt so awestruck and small but somehow… I don’t know… not alone, I guess? With something that big and all encompassing, how could you feel alone?”
“I guess I can see that,” Kevin said, “I mean, it’s certainly more inspiring than any sermon I heard, even when I was trying my best to be the poster boy for Mormonism.”
“I guess we were never really good at being Mormon, huh?” Connor laughed softly, turning his head to rest his cheek on his arms. His eyes were slowly adjusting to the dark but he could only just make out the outline of Kevin beside him. “We all came here, thinking it would be so easy to convert everyone. We had no doubts, we had our faith, we just had to believe and, somehow, everything would turn out alright…”
“You’re kind of preaching to the choir here,” Kevin laughed, finally lowering his eyes to meet Connor’s gaze. “I came here thinking everything would just fall into place just because it was me. That’s how it seemed to work at home. I just acted like a good Mormon, smiled, and everyone just gave me what I wanted. I thought I just had to tell these people the story and that was it.” He scoffed, shaking his head. “As though that wasn’t something all other missionaries were doing, as though, just because it was me, it would suddenly work.”
“You were…” Connor paused to think of a nice way to phrase it, “very confident.”
“I was an ass,” Kevin scoffed.
“Well, so were we,” Connor lifted his head from his arms just so he could shrug properly. “I mean, when I heard you were the best student at the training facility, I thought ‘this is it!’. I was confident in you too but you were just like the rest of us.”
“…That’s not really making me feel better.”
“Sorry,” Connor chuckled, “I didn’t mean it in a bad way. I mean, when Arnold said he had gotten the villagers to listen, I all but shoved you aside. I was just so… excited that we were finally getting some converts that I just…
“Acted like an ass?” Kevin filled in.
“Yes,” Connor smiled slightly, finding no fault with that description. “Then everything fell apart and, well, here we are.”
“Here we are,” Kevin said, voice soft, agreeing.
“I… I think it all worked out in the end though,” Connor continued with a shrug. “I mean, we were all lost before but now we’re all lost together.”
“Lost together?” Kevin repeated and Connor could see the starlight gleam off his white teeth as he smiled. “I kind of like that.”
“It seems appropriate,” Connor shrugged, letting his legs drop so he was sitting crossed-legged now, his knees pressed against Kevin’s thigh. “I think… I think we’re doing actual good now though. A lot better than what we were doing with the church anyway.”
“You really think so?” Kevin asked, his smile fading slightly. “I mean, I know we’re actually helping the village now instead of just preaching at them but… we did kind of start a cult centered around American pop culture.”
Connor laughed softly.
“I think Arnold was right,” he said with a shrug. “It’s not the stories themselves that matter, it’s about giving people hope. In 1823, believing Jesus came to America to save mysterious and archaeologically missing Jews while being oddly period appropriately racist and sexist seemed to help people back then.”
Kevin snorted back a laugh.
“I think that’s the first time someone other than me pointed out those kind of flaws!” Kevin grinned, obviously delighted. “I kind of like it.”
“You would,” Connor rolled his eyes but he couldn’t help but return Kevin’s smile.
“Doesn’t it bother you?” Kevin asked, twisting around so he was facing Connor now. “All the crap we were taught? Even when it went against every logical and progressive thing we’re taught in school? Even when we know it should be wrong?”
“Kevin,” Connor shook his head. “I’m gay, remember? I think I’m all too aware of the morally questionable nature of our former religion.”
“Oh, right,” Kevin frowned, dropping his gaze. “I, uh, I forgot for a moment there.”
Connor rolled his eyes. He reached out and found Kevin’s hand, resting on the roof between them, and slipped his fingers though Kevin’s. Kevin all but froze but he didn’t pull his hand away from Connor’s.
“I… I don’t know if you still have gay thoughts,” Connor said softly, keeping his grip on Kevin’s hand loose and easily breakable, “I know you denied them before but I just… I wanted to say I’ve stopped trying to suppress them and… and I’m going to be more open about it. Well, as open as you can be about it in a country where it’s punishable by death but you know what I mean… I just want you to know you can do the same. If you want.”
“That’s… good,” Kevin said after a long moment of silence, “but I meant what I said that day. I… I wasn’t having gay thoughts.”
“Oh.” Connor felt the blood rush to his cheeks and ears. He had been so sure… now he wouldn’t be surprised if the dark roof around them lit up with the red glow of his blush. He gently tried to pull his hand away.
“No, wait,” Kevin held onto his hand tighter, not letting him go. “I wasn’t having gay thoughts then but… I never had any kind of… of those thoughts back then, you know? It wasn’t allowed so I just… never let myself have them.”
“Does it work that way?” It never seemed to work for him that way.
He felt Kevin shrug.
“I don’t know,” Kevin admitted, “but, uh, that was months ago and… I think I… that is I…”
“Kevin,” Connor swallowed back the butterflies that were starting to swarm in his stomach and chest, “are you… having gay thoughts?”
“I don’t know,” Kevin said and Connor could see him shaking his head in the dim light around them. “I… When I bought that rainbow mug, I got it because I thought it would make you smile. I wanted to see you smile. And… I thought you looked cute in your swimsuit and I think it’s sweet how you pretend to watch scary movies but you’re really just looking at the wall behind the TV. I like that you never gave me hell for my hobo beard before I started actually grooming it and I wanted to… to…” Kevin lapsed into silence for a moment, struggling for more words. “So, if… if those are gay thoughts then… then, yeah, I’ve been having them.”
Connor was certain his cheeks could be used as runway lights for any planes looking to make an emergency landing at this point.
“Well,” he said softly after a moment. His eyes had adjusted enough to the starlight that he could just make out Kevin’s face to see him staring at him intently, want and hope clear in his eyes. Connor swallowed hard. “I… I think those might… might be gay thoughts.” He licked his lips nervously. “Is… Is that all?”
“No,” Kevin admitted, speaking softly as he leaned in closer. “I… can I kiss you?”
Connor’s heart jumped into his throat.
“I,” he croaked. He cleared his throat and tried again. “I think I’d like that.”
Kevin looked like he wanted to smile brightly but, instead, he leaned forward, rapidly moving into Connor’s personal space. Connor could feel the other man’s breath ghosting over his face, over his lips. He closed to eyes and moved to meet Kevin halfway.
They jumped apart with a yelp, their hands going to their mouths. Their teeth ached from colliding with each other, their lips pinched and bruised from being caught between them.
They stared at each other in embarrassed horror.
“Oh, God, I’m so…”
“I shouldn’t have…”
They stopped and stared at each other a moment longer before Connor laughed softly.
“I think we, uh, were a bit too quick,” he said, lowering his hand. “Slower, maybe?”
“Uh, yeah,” Kevin laughed, nodding so hard a strand of hair came loose from it’s carefully part to fall across his face. Connor reached up and swept it back into place.
“Slower,” Connor repeated, smiling.
Connor closed his eyes and, slowly, leaned forward. He felt Kevin’s lower face brush against his lips, their noses almost colliding, but with a turn of his face, he felt lips touch his own.
There was no burst of magic or a flood of warmth through his body. Time didn’t stop and his heart didn’t burst in his chest. The kiss didn’t do all the things it was suppose to do in movies and books… What the kiss did do was leave Connor’s lips tingling, his heart pounding, and a sense of complete and utter comfort saturating every cell in his body.
Every forbidden thought was open, every doubt and guilt he had ever felt was, for that moment at least, gone.
Connor sat back and stared at Kevin, breathless.
Kevin looked at him much the same way.
“That was…” Connor trailed off.
Kevin nodded, a smile growing across his face.
“I liked it,” Connor laughed softly, squeezing Kevin’s hand that was still in his own.
“Yeah, me too.” In a fit of inspiration, Kevin brought their clasped hands together and pressed his lips to the back of Connor’s hand. “Connor, do you want to watch the stars with me?”
“I would love to,” he said, giggling.
Their hands still clasped, they slowly laid back onto the roof of the mission house and gazed up at the stars glittering high above them. Connor rested his head against Kevin’s shoulder and let the calm of the night permeate his being, chasing away any lingering shadows in his heart.
Below them, in the ancient but magical world of Argnar, a group of adventurers, having just awoken in the dark tombs that served as the home base for a band of bloodthirsty thieves, were getting ready to fight the Thief King Bakkar to the death. Their quests would be long and many and, unbeknownst to them on this night, their tiny party would grow by two members in a few (in game) days time. Many things awaited these brave souls: a ring of unspeakable power, a quest to save a wayward angel, trips to other worlds and dimensions, a murder mystery dinner in an ancient spooky castle that would lead them to an abandoned starship that would take them to dozens of new worlds, and a talking pony. But that had not yet happened but the groundwork was set this night.
It was a very good night for all.