Chapter 1: Uncrush It
In the immediate wake of the Mission Presidency’s departure, an eerie sense of catharsis settled. It hung on them as pervasive and portentous as the inescapable heat, and nobody seemed ready to acknowledge that Elders Davis, Gale, and Zelder had gone with them.
Connor didn’t know whether to laugh or sob when Elder Cunningham broke the silence.
“Shut down. Whoa. So does that mean we’re, like, excommunicated—or what?”
“Not yet?” said Elder Price, curiously calm at the prospect, having just admitted that he was feeling agnostic. “We’d need to go back and face individual disciplinary councils. It would involve a lot of bureaucratic hassle for everybody.”
“I can tell you right now that’s what will happen to those three,” Connor offered grimly, waving in the direction of the speeding van. “Unless they’re deemed less at-fault than the rest of us, but something tells me we're all on the apostate list.”
Wearing a wry half-smile, Elder Price shuffled closer to Connor, inspecting his wheelie suitcase.
“Nobody’s more at-fault than me,” Elder Cunningham volunteered proudly, sounding every bit like he believed he deserved his non-existent medal. “Manning up means owning your mistakes, and I’m gonna own the—the hell out of this!”
“I don’t think that the part your President thinks is a mistake is actually a mistake,” said Nabalungi, tugging on Elder Cunningham’s elbow, of which she’d never let go. Back in Salt Lake, they would have been married by now.
“Fuckin’ right,” Kimbe offered, punching Nabalungi lightly in the shoulder. “Hey, Elder,” she said to Cunningham, with all the enviable enthusiasm of the newly-converted, “can we join the mission since those arseholes left?”
Elder Cunningham considered this for a moment, the knit of his brows more intense than usual.
Connor exchanged weary, furtive glances with Elder Price, determined not to burst out laughing.
“Well, I guess technically you’d be Sisters,” said Elder Cunningham, at length. “The Church allows that, so I don’t see why we shouldn’t. Equality and being nice to each other and everything.” He frowned at the young women, as if concerned. “How old are you?”
“I’m almost twenty!” Nabalungi said cheerfully. “And Kimbe here just turned twenty-three.”
“Yeah,” Kimbe added, poking Elder Cunningham right in the chest. “Older than you.”
“Then you’ll be the literal Elders,” Cunningham said. “But, only, you know, Sisters.”
“Unbelievable,” Connor muttered under his breath to Elder Price. “He makes it all look easy.”
“That’s the amazing thing about Arnold,” Price sighed with weary fondness. “Everything is.”
“Does that mean you’re our District Leader?” asked Nabalungi, starry-eyed. She kissed Elder Cunningham’s cheek, and Connor felt Elder Price twitch next to him. “You’re perfect for the job.”
“Wait just a minute,” said Elder Price, halting them with an authoritatively-raised hand. “Nobody stripped Elder McKinley of his title. We should include him in the decision.”
Connor closed his fingers tighter around the handle of his suitcase, turning to Elder Cunningham.
“I’ve failed District 9,” he said. “If you can own your mistakes, then I can own mine. Just a warning, District Leader Cunningham. The Elders you’ve got here are…a real handful.”
Elder Cunningham saluted Connor and Elder Price, his grin so wide that it hurt to look at him.
“I think that Na—” he paused, adopting a look of comically fierce concentration “—balungi and I are up to the challenge. Sister Kimbe can be my other councilor. This is so cool!”
“What a relief,” Elder Price quipped, nudging Connor’s elbow with his own. “I’m done courting that kind of responsibility. How about you?”
Done with that, Connor thought, nodding dazedly at him, but not done courting.
“The others have already gone inside,” said Nabalungi, nudging Elder Cunningham toward their quarters. “Maybe we should see about…reassigning companions?” she suggested hopefully.
“Nah, I’m not gonna do that,” said Cunningham, leading her and Kimbe inside. “People can pick their own. And there’s better rooms up for grabs, too!” he added, dashing ahead.
“Come on,” said Elder Price, startling Connor out of his reverie by taking his suitcase. “Let me get that for you,” he added, seeming to linger over contact with Connor’s shaking hands.
“Oh,” said Connor, readily striding after him, dizzy with the swiftness of change. “Oh, right.”
By the time they’d caught up with the trio, Nabalungi and Kimbe had already claimed one of the two vacant rooms. Elders Church and Thomas had reassigned themselves as companions, which left Connor feeling vaguely hurt; Elders Neeley and Michaels had done likewise.
Elder Price was processing this information with his usual shrewd and calculating approach.
“Maybe the District Leader should get his own room,” he suggested to Elder Cunningham.
Connor knew a veiled invitation when he saw one, and he wasn’t about to blow this chance. Unless the opportunity should arise, in which case—
“I’ll room with Elder Price,” he interjected with as much assertiveness as he could muster.
“Kevin’s always complaining he can’t sleep,” Cunningham agreed. “Yeah! Maybe I should.”
“You just saved my life,” Elder Price said to Connor, between painfully clenched teeth. “I love the guy to death, but his snoring’s worse than your hell dreams and mine combined.”
“I mean, where was I supposed to sleep?” Connor hissed bitterly, backpedaling in a hopeless fit of nerves. “The—the shitty common room sofa covered in Pop-Tart crumbs?”
“There you go,” Elder price replied encouragingly. “Let it all out. Feels good, doesn’t it?”
Oh, the things I imagine would feel good, Connor thought, realizing they stood closer than ever for the sake of whispering in tones that everyone else could probably hear anyway. Swearing’s the least of them.
“Yeah, so you should take Arnold’s bed,” said Elder Price. “I’m down a roommate.”
Connor swallowed hard, nodding before he could lose his nerve again. “Okay. I’ll do that.”
“And a companion, it looks like,” Elder Price went on, grinning. “I was kind of a dick to him.”
“But you guys seem tighter than ever,” Connor protested weakly. “I wouldn’t want to—”
Without hesitation, Kevin tilted his head and brushed their lips together. His fingers trembled at Connor’s wrists, clasping and letting go. Which of them had moved Connor's suitcase? How had they even ended up like this?
“Never mind,” Connor croaked, leaning into the longed-for contact with conviction. “I want to.”
“I was too shocked to...” Elder Price cleared his throat. “When you tried to—well, that day I came back covered in...” He swallowed, kissing Connor more firmly. “You know. That was not my finest moment or my best day.”
“I know, Elder,” Connor said, grateful that the others were too distracted with helping Nabalungi and Kimbe convince Elder Cunningham that District 9 shouldn’t include temple garments in its new dress code, likely because they didn’t want to wear them.
“Can you do me a favor,” Price asked tersely, almost bashful, “and not call me that anymore?”
“Only if you’ll use my name, too,” Connor challenged. “It’s no worse than saying Arnold.”
“Come to bed with me?” asked Kevin, in an awkward rush. “Wait, no, I meant—come to the bedroom with me. We can get you settled.”
How Connor expected to get settled when so much tension vibrated between them was irrelevant. Kevin fucking Price was propositioning him, and if merging their hell dreams was the culmination of his middle-finger to the Mission President, Connor could get behind that.
They drew a few bewildered glances in their hasty, suitcase-dragging retreat, although Kimbe winked and gave them a suspiciously knowing double thumbs-up. Once they’d slammed the bedroom door, Kevin dropped the suitcase and grabbed Connor instead.
“I’m not gonna be shy about this,” muttered Kevin, like a self-help mantra on repeat, unbuttoning his shirt between them, “I am not…”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” Connor said gently, loosening Kevin’s tie. The untidy knot slid apart at his slightest bidding, already so much worse for wear that he wondered what Kevin had been through. “We can take it easy.”
“Yeah,” said Kevin, vehemently, turning his attention on Connor’s tie. “We deserve easy, too.”
“Imagine that,” Connor said, shedding his shirt with a swiftness that made Kevin swallow hard.
Not to be outdone, Kevin kept his hands to himself long enough for them to finish undressing.
“For what it’s worth, you’re the only person who’s ever made me want to be…um, easy.”
Connor staggered back until he hit the edge of the mattress, wordlessly collapsing on it. Kevin was more than just a sight for sore, affection-starved eyes; he was acceptance freely offered, he was home.
“Kevin,” Connor said, scooting further so that he could lie back, reaching for him, “come here.”
They struggled to arrange themselves on the tiny mattress without either one pushing the other off. Only once Kevin’s weight was on him, overwhelmed by the impossible warmth of Kevin’s skin, did Connor think that maybe pushing the beds together would have been wise.
“Don’t know what I’m doing,” Kevin whispered, pressing closer in desperation. “What even…”
“Like you think I do?” Connor blurted, but he clung to Kevin all the same. “Hilarious.”
“You’re the one with romantic fantasies,” Kevin said, breathy in a way that hit all of Connor’s buttons. “What did, ah—in those daydreams, what did your friend Steve try to—”
“Kiss me,” said Connor, too far gone to be ashamed of begging. “Just that, so—please.”
Kevin nodded, cupping Connor’s cheek, obliging his curt, breathless request without delay. He tugged the covers over them, pulling Connor closer with a perfect, shivery sigh against Connor’s mouth.
“Oh fuck,” Connor whimpered, more appalled at his first use of the word than at what was about to happen. “I’m…I’m…”
Even though it was too soon, he licked into Kevin’s mouth and blissfully shuddered against him.
“Me too,” Kevin gasped, and, yeah, he wasn’t lying. He was loud about it. Clingy, too, as if he was terrified to let himself experience that much pleasure. “Oh fuck, oh God—”
“Glad you managed that in English,” Connor teased softly, holding him tight. “Shhh.”
“Shut up,” Kevin whimpered, still shaking in Connor’s arms even though he was obviously as wrung-out as Connor. He buried his face in Connor’s hair and mumbled something.
“Hey,” Connor soothed, wonderingly rubbing circles between Kevin’s shoulder blades. “What?”
“I want to uncrush it,” said Kevin, fervently, lifting his head to stare wild-eyed at Connor.
“You—huh?” Connor replied, finding it impossible to think with that gaze fixed on him.
“The box that’s gay,” Kevin clarified, turning adorably pink. “That is, um. Your heart.”
To keep from tearing up, Connor kissed him so hard that they couldn’t breathe. It didn’t work.
Sudden, raucous banging on the door did nothing to salvage the moment. They froze, mortified, and then had no choice but to cling to one another in fits of tearful, disbelieving laughter as the perpetrator persisted.
“Hey!” Arnold shouted. “Hey, if you two are acting on your gay thoughts in there, it’s totally cool! Nothing in my religion says that being gay is bad! Switching it off is out. Revering the clitoris—and, oops, uh, whatever you guys are doing—are in!”
Connor was too overwhelmed to respond. Fortunately, his companion had things under control.
“Each other!” Kevin shouted. “We really appreciate it, Elder, but would you mind going away?”
“It’s kind of wrinkled,” Connor said, flushing when Kevin blinked at him. “My heart,” he went on, bumping his nose against Kevin’s for emphasis. “Are you sure you want it?”
Kevin kissed Connor’s forehead, deftly rearranging Connor’s mussed hair. “Yes. I want you.”
I more than want you, Connor thought, closing his eyes. I’m fucking smitten.
“No matter what the future holds,” he cautioned, “you’re the one thing I refuse to let go of.”
Arms tightening around Connor’s shoulders, Kevin coaxed him into another doubt-melting kiss.
“If you think I’d let go of you—or Arnold, or anyone else—after all of this? You’re nuts.”
Connor smiled, raking a hand through Kevin’s somehow flawless hair just because he could.
Chapter 2: Sorting Pains
It took a full week for Brother Hatimbi to notice that his daughter had been moving her possessions into the mission house by degrees. She had routinely lingered late, but never overnight, which had led to gripes from Kimbe about being left alone with a bunch of man-babies.
Meanwhile, Connor hadn’t noticed much of the goings-on beyond the room he now shared with Kevin. That was because, since lashing the bed-frames together and finding a queen fitted sheet to wrangle over the mattresses, he and Kevin had not spent much time outside of it.
Arnold was so excessively loud in congratulating them that avoiding the common room altogether seemed like their best bet. Nobody saw much of Church and Pop-Tarts, either, least of all Neeley and Michaels, who had joined forces with Kimbe to plant a garden.
Nabalungi and Arnold were awkward, enthusiastic, proselytizing dorks joined at the hip.
It was a miracle that the next village over hadn't kicked them out for being an unmitigated nuisance. Either Nabalungi's so-called texts to her friends there had sufficiently paved the way, or the residents were enjoying the free entertainment.
When Kevin remarked to Connor that he was pretty sure they were joined more places than that, Connor had covered his head with a pillow and refused to remove it until Kevin apologized for giving him that mental image. The attempt at a blow-job, while not required, was nice of him.
Which brought them to this morning, where Connor was experiencing the same level of fail in returning the favor. However, Kevin’s breathy sobs and fingers tangled in Connor’s hair more than made up for how shitty Connor had discovered his gag reflex was.
“Just,” Kevin panted, shoulders taut and trembling against the rickety headboard, “go slow. You don’t have to—um, to swallow me whole or, you know, anything like that. Seriously, I mean—fuck. Are you even listening to me? Don't choke yourself.”
Connor let the tip of Kevin’s erection slip out of his mouth and nuzzled Kevin’s heaving belly.
“Oh em gosh, you’re just the sweetest,” he teased, pecking his way up Kevin’s hickey-covered chest until Kevin whimpered and tugged him in to straddle his lap. “Does it feel good?” he murmured between kisses. “Please tell me you feel good.”
“I’m gonna come, Connor, so yeah,” Kevin gritted out, blushing through his desperately-aroused sarcasm. “You feel pretty great.”
“Mmm,” Connor hummed, wrapping his hand around both of them, shivering at the delicious jolt it sent through him. “You do that, honey.”
Kevin’s mouth dropped open, but he was otherwise nearly silent as orgasm overwhelmed him. That gorgeous face, wrecked, was a marvel.
Connor kissed Kevin’s cheek, giving them another swift tug. He came, hugged tight to Kevin’s chest, with Kevin caressing his hip and stammering how perfect and sexy he was. If this wasn't the definition of heaven, then Connor didn't want the real deal.
“Jeez,” Connor huffed, melting against Kevin’s shoulder as he tried to recover his breath. “Give a guy some warning before you talk like that.”
“Look, I didn’t even know sex was a thing I’d want,” Kevin said, hugging him tighter. “I used to worry about falling in love with a girl and just...not being able to...” He shook his head. "I just wasn't interested in anyone before..."
Connor sat back and framed Kevin’s face in both hands, stroking his flushed cheeks.
“You are just darling,” he marveled, kissing Kevin’s forehead. “Who even deserves you?”
Kevin patted Connor’s backside—half in affection, half humoring him—and then pinched it.
Suddenly, there was a racket from outside that sent them diving to the floor for whatever clothing they could find. Connor was not in the mood to die at the hands of an angry, one-man mob, although he suspected the worst that this one might do was shout a lot.
“Where in the hell is my daughter?” Mafala demanded, presumably banging on the bedroom door because every other door had failed him. “She is never at home anymore and leaves me nonsense letters! I demand to know what is going on!”
Connor fumbled with his underthings, dropped them, and dived back onto the bed. He had scarcely enough time to wrap himself in the thin sheet and huddle against the pillows. Fleetingly, he felt like Kevin's spoiled, debauched mistress.
Kevin had pulled on undershorts and one of the two-piece garment tops he’d retained out of sheer pragmatism. Breathless, but no doubt ready to use that silver tongue of his, he answered the door. That kind of conniving, reckless courage was a devastatingly attractive look on him.
“Brother Hatimbi,” Kevin said brightly. “Have you tried looking out back? Sister Kimbe has organized everyone. They’re starting a garden.”
Mafala just blinked rapidly at Kevin for a few seconds, and then at Connor. And then back at Kevin, all of the steam gone out of him, with a relieved grin on his face. At least he wasn't disgusted at the sight of them in this much obvious disarray.
“All except for you two?” he said, making finger-guns at them. “Too busy with the...praying in here?”
“Uh, yeah,” Connor agreed, clutching the sheet to his chest, hands folded. “Dear Heavenly Father.”
Kevin turned and gave him the most scandalized look Connor had seen on him since the villagers’ ill-fated, yet delightfully-choreographed facsimile of the Hill Cumorah Pageant. What the heck? he mouthed, unselfconsciously adorable, not even trying to hide his utter dismay.
“Okay, well, I leave you boys to it,” said Mafala, waving as he departed. “Pray safely!”
“Oh God,” Connor muttered into his knuckles. “That was, like, more of a sex talk than I ever got.”
Kevin came back to the bed, sat down beside him, and leaned in for a self-satisfied kiss.
“At least he knows we’re not the asses to kick when it comes to Nabalungi’s deflowering?”
“I love you,” said Connor, coyly. “You’re such a Slytherin.”
“Says the butt-fucking naked Hufflepuff?” Kevin shot back.
Chapter 3: Hope All Things
Five weeks later, the Kampala Mission leadership decided to crack down on what was left of District 9. In Kevin’s words, the fact it took over a month for them to return was something incredible.
This time, when Kevin helped Arnold threaten to turn their enemy into a lesbian, it didn’t work.
“Brother Price, these orders are not negotiable. They weren’t even the first time around,” said the Mission President, slapping the stack of seven printed plane tickets against Kevin’s chest. He glared at the somber assembly. “Go pack your things—now!”
“Fuck you!” Kimbe shouted, adamantly flipping him off. “We were gonna have food storage!”
Nabalungi let go of Arnold’s shoulders and stepped between him and the Mission President.
“If you are going to take them away from us,” she said, refusing to surrender to her tears, “then at least let us keep this house. It has a library, and electricity, and places to sleep.”
The Mission President shrugged. “We have no use for it. Continue with your emergency preparedness, for all I care,” he said. “Miss Hatimbi, tell your father we’ll send the deed.”
“That’s Sister Hatimbi,” Nabalungi raged, clutching Arnold’s hand. “We may not be Mormons to you, but we are still Latter-Day Saints.” She sniffed disdainfully. “Hasa diga—”
Connor elbowed Kevin in the side, tilting his head urgently at the argument. “Do something.”
Kevin shuffled through the plane tickets, checking the particulars. All seven of them were on the same flight, leaving the capital in three days.
“We’ll take the bus to Kampala tomorrow,” he cut in, before Nabalungi could continue to cuss out the Mission President. “We’ll need more than a few minutes to pack, and we owe it to Brother Hatimbi and the rest of Kitguli to help clean the house for whoever moves in.”
“I already live there,” said Kimbe, defiantly, “and I’m not movin’ out. I will feed my people.”
“I live there, too,” Nabalungi said, her voice quavering. “Now there will be room for Baba.”
The Mission President looked from Arnold, who’d wrapped his arms around Nabalungi and begun to cry quietly, over to Kevin and Connor.
“Whatever kind of…community you’ve built here, it ends now,” he said tonelessly.
Connor felt a spark of perverse satisfaction at the sudden, defiant clench of Kevin’s jaw. When Kevin took hold of his hand and took his time about lacing their fingers, he squeezed back.
“It’s more of a community than we had before, and it’ll continue after we leave,” Kevin said.
Connor couldn’t help but notice that Neeley and Michaels had stepped up to flank Kimbe, their arms folded.
Meanwhile, Church had a sobbing Pop-Tarts clutched to his chest.
“I’ll arrange disciplinaries with your Bishops at home,” replied the Mission President, and left.
“I think we’re excommunicated now,” Arnold sniffled, louder since Nabalungi was crying, too.
“Fuck that guy,” said Kimbe, grabbing Neeley and Michaels by their ties. “We got plants to water!” she declaimed, leading them through the kitchen.
Connor didn’t resist when Kevin hugged him tightly, letting his head fall against Kevin’s shoulder. He watched the rest of the proceedings sidelong, curiously detached.
“My aunt in Bountiful’s a lesbian,” Pop-Tarts mumbled against Church’s nametag. “And, let me tell you, being a lesbian’s a huge improvement over these—these fucking jerks.”
“Then I’m sorry we couldn’t actually turn him into one,” said Kevin, wryly, his voice a soothing vibration against Connor’s cheek and chest. “Or, uh, the General, for that matter.”
“Nobody has seen the General,” Nabalungi said, wiping her eyes. “Some say he has left the region in shame. I hope he will think about what he has done and ask forgiveness!”
Arnold got down on one knee, starry-eyed in spite of his tears.
“Nabalungi, I just had a revelation,” he said. “If you marry me, they’ll have to let you come, too!”
“Oh my God,” Connor moaned, digging his fingers into Kevin’s shoulder blades, wrecking crisp cotton. “I wasn’t going to start crying, I wasn’t—”
“Arnold, you know I'll marry you,” said Nabalungi, tugging him to his feet. “But how can I leave Baba when there is so much work to be done?”
“Then I’m gonna stay,” Arnold said resolutely. “If the Church wants me out of here that badly, they’ll have to get the U.S. Embassy involved.”
Kevin shifted his grip on the plane tickets against the small of Connor’s back. “That’s risky.”
“Everything’s risky,” said Arnold, breaking into an exhausted smile. He kissed Nabalungi.
“This is too much,” said Church, leading Pop-Tarts away with a protective arm around him.
“How did I not know my companion was fucking somebody else’s?” Connor blurted in dismay.
“Because you were wandering around in the dark,” Kevin said, shaking him lightly. “C’mon.”
“But what’s the game plan?” asked Arnold, plaintively. “Is anybody else gonna stay with me?”
“We should discuss this,” Connor said, stalling as Kevin began to drag him toward the bedroom. “It’s Monday, right? We could call one last FHE.”
“Family Home Evening is a wonderful idea,” said Nabalungi, with a burst of cheer, dashing out through the kitchen. “I will go tell the others!”
“Eight o’clock!” Arnold said before racing after her. “That’ll give you all time to prepare.”
“Did you hear that, guys?” Kevin said, raising his voice as he approached the closed door belonging to Church and Pop-Tarts. “Eight o’clock FHE!”
“We shouldn’t disobey our District Leader,” Connor said, leading him down the hall. “Let’s pray.”
Heaven help Connor if the sight of Kevin naked on his knees wasn’t infinitely more glorious than any divine vision. He shifted on the edge of the mattress, thighs already trembling in Kevin’s grasp, undone by the exquisite attention of Kevin’s now-practiced tongue.
Once he could breathe again, Connor hoarsely told Kevin his face needed messing-up more often. He slid to the floor, knelt in front of him, and kissed the taste of himself from Kevin’s lips. Tugging Kevin’s hand out of the way, he finished Kevin off with an easy caress.
They stayed like that for a while: forehead to forehead, sticky hands clasped, knees aching.
“I love you so much,” Connor whispered, stroking Kevin’s wrists. “What do we do now?”
“Hope for the best?” Kevin ventured, grinning at him tearfully. “I feel the same way, Elder.”
Connor laughed helplessly at Kevin’s endearing slip, wiping Kevin’s eyes, and then his own.
“How does it go? We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things…”
“And hope to be able to endure all things,” Kevin finished. “I can do that if I have you.”
“So much for being chaste,” said Connor, with a thrill of wistful glee, “but yeah. Yeah, me too.”
They got cleaned up and slept for a few hours, lulled by the sound of familiar voices from outside and an unexpected breeze through the window-screen. Waking up hungry led them to commandeer dinner duty, dressed in the only casual clothes they’d been allowed to bring.
After eating, heartsick with the subdued silence and bleary eyes around the table, Connor told them to forget about the dishes for now. He led everybody into the lounge while Arnold and Nabalungi spoke heatedly together at one end of the crumb-covered sofa.
“Saved you a seat,” Arnold said to Kevin, patting the space next to him. “Connor, you sit there.”
“Lucky I fit,” Connor muttered, wedging himself between Kevin and the threadbare arm rest.
Somebody knocked on the door, so Kimbe rose from her place on the rug, where she’d been sitting with the other four, and answered it. She led Brother Hatimbi over to their circle.
“When my daughter sends a text,” Mafala said, sitting down next to Pop-Tarts, “I come.”
“We’re not going to have any fancy opening or lesson,” Arnold said, satisfied that everyone was present. “And we all know why. Kevin’s got plane tickets with our names on ’em.”
“You will stay with us,” Kimbe said, extending a fist toward Arnold in solidarity. “Who else?”
“Not so fast,” said Mafala, gently lowering her arm with the his hand. “They have families.”
“I can’t,” said Neeley. “Edwina’s waiting. If she isn’t too mad, she’ll be happy to see me,” he continued, daring to hope. “Maybe we’ll only be slapped on the wrist. I want to get married.”
Michaels was nodding in fierce agreement, his smile infectious in spite of his red-rimmed eyes.
“All the way, bro,” he said, bumping Neeley’s shoulder. “I’m gonna be your best man whether it’s a temple wedding or not—you know that, right?”
Connor grinned at them, wondering what in the world he’d done to deserve their company.
“Fuck this,” Kimbe sighed, pulling out her handkerchief. “Now who’s gonna pull weeds?”
“Pop-Tarts is going to ask his aunt if we can stay with her,” Church volunteered. “She said her community there always needs support. They help—” he took a deep breath “—queer Mormon kids whose families kick them out. I plan to resign my membership before they can excommunicate me.”
Pop-Tarts nodded in agreement. “My dad’s gonna be okay with us. Aunt Becky’s his sister.”
“I am glad that you will have a place to go,” said Mafala, with grave relief. He glanced pointedly at Connor, and then at Kevin. “My door is open.”
Connor twisted his fingers together in his lap, sighing as Nabalungi and Kimbe looked to him.
“You wouldn’t think it from the way I talk,” he said, “but my parents are super understanding. So’s my little sister. They’ve always given me as much space as I need to…to struggle with it, like it’s this…this fucking oldest-kid thing, you know? I wanted to be perfect.”
“Your parents and Caitlin will be relieved,” Kevin said, sliding an arm around Connor. “I doubt they enjoyed watching you beat yourself up.”
“Yeah, but what about your parents?” asked Connor, apprehensively. “Your brothers?”
“Oliver’s too young to care about that kind of thing,” Kevin replied, and Connor could tell he was putting on a face much braver than he felt. “He’ll deal. Jack’s married and has my two nieces to worry about, so at worst he’ll grill me a bunch before letting them near me again.”
“But your parents,” said Nabalungi, reaching across Arnold to set a worried hand on Kevin’s.
Kevin stared blankly at the rug, shaking his head. “I, well—to be honest, I don’t know. They’ve never…” He shook his head and looked up at her with a faint smile. “I doubt they’ve considered, even remotely, that one of their sons might bring home a guy.”
Kimbe was nodding at Kevin, as if she understood. “Wait and see. Maybe they surprise you.”
“They must do what the Spirit tells them is best,” said Mafala, shrugging. “Mysterious ways.”
Connor set his hand on top of Nabalungi’s, bearing down harder against Kevin’s, reassuring.
“Remember how I mentioned my grandparents live in Sarasota?” he said. “They don’t even understand what gay means, much less care. They love meeting my friends, and they keep getting on my case about coming to visit. We could hit the road out there.”
“Florida’s nice, but the mosquitoes are as bad as here,” said Pop-Tarts, twitching at the thought.
Kevin’s worried air had lessened somewhat, and he was ridiculously tangled up now that Arnold had reached over and latched onto his free hand.
“Hey, it could be worse,” Connor said, ruffling Kevin’s already-mussed hair. “Disney World’s always hiring. Maybe they need a Prince Charming.”
“Or a Gaston,” said Arnold, elbowing Kevin in the ribs. “Just kidding, bestie, but only kinda.”
“You would really put off college for a little longer?” Kevin asked Connor. “Just so I could…”
“I don’t even know what I want to do,” Connor admitted. “Except, uh, not go to BYU.”
“That makes two of us,” Kevin said, turning to Arnold. “Hey, buddy. Think you’ll be okay?”
“Okay?” Arnold scoffed, grinning wider than ever. “I’m only marrying the smartest, hottest LDS girl in the entire galaxy. Uh, yeah. Hello!”
Chapter 4: Latter Days
1. Trip to Paradise
Thirty-five days and a lot of stressful phone-calls between the Mission President, the U.S. Embassy, Arnold's parents, and the office of some harried official in Washington, D.C., Nabalungi and Arnold were in possession of not only a marriage license, but also enough immigration documents in Nabalungi's name to make their eyes cross. It was miraculous.
The U.S. visa in Nabalungi's brand-new Ugandan passport looked even more official than Nabalungi had imagined it would. She held it up to the bedside light with both hands, running her fingers over and over the text of her name. Nabalungi Hatimbi Cunningham.
“It has a very nice ring to it,” her father had said, hugging her tight before leaving them alone at the Guinea Fowl Guesthouse the previous evening. Unashamed of his tears, he'd turned to Arnold and hugged him, too. “To think I gave you the shovel talk the day you got here!”
“Like you said,” Arnold had squeaked, patting Mafala's arm. “The Holy Spirit's got mysterious ways!”
“It is God's ways I should not have questioned,” Mafala had said, releasing Arnold to take Nabalungi's hand. “I am losing you for now, but I cannot curse Him for this. You have a bright future ahead.”
“I'll text you every week, Baba,” Nabalungi had replied, indicating the ancient typewriter in her satchel.
“Letters are fine, but please get mobiles,” Mafala had urged her and Arnold both. “I will do the same.”
Before Nabalungi could let her hands drop to her chest, Arnold snatched the passport and squinted at it in the dim light. The airport guesthouse was only two-star, but it still felt like a palace after Kitguli.
“If I didn't know any better, I'd say you're more in love with your new name than you are with me,” said, tucking it under his pillow. “You won't need your passport till tomorrow morning. The first flights of your life will be the longest.”
“Give it back,” Nabalungi insisted, sprawling overtop of him to retrieve it. “I don't want it to get lost!”
“It won't,” Arnold insisted, grinning up at her, finally past the point of blushing over how naked they were. “This room is the size of, like, the one I shared with Kevin. There aren't many places it can go.”
“I have seen you lose a Book of Mormon in your back pocket,” Nabalungi scoffed, kissing him before she snatched her passport back.
“I didn't lose anything important on the way out here, you know,” Arnold said, pretending to be hurt.
“If I remember that day, you lost your entire suitcase,” said Nabalungi, smirking. “To the General.”
“You would've handed it over, too, if there'd been a gun in your face,” Arnold mumbled, rolling over.
“Yes, I have handed over things because of guns in my face,” Nabalungi agreed, rolling so that she could be the big spoon—such a delightful expression—and cuddle him. “You did right to survive. I would not have my silly, clever husband if you had been shot.
“Oh, Naba,” Arnold said, turning to regard her in admiration. “I'm not the clever one in this relationship.”
Nabalungi nodded, lightly pinching the softness of his belly. “You can pretend you are. I don't mind.”
“My father always says that the key to a strong marriage is knowing who's in charge,” Arnold replied.
“Is that one of your stories?” asked Nabalungi, narrowing her eyes even as Arnold dragged her arm back up to his chest and wrapped it around himself. “I hope you're not nervous There is no reason to be.”
“I'm not nervous at all,” Arnold said dreamily, lacing their fingers together. “It's the absolute truth.”
2. Something Incredible
When it came down to it, Mafala could not in sound conscience take up residence in the former mission house when Kimbe, by force of example, had led him to see so much potential in it. He told her to stay, tend the garden, and proceed with her food storage plans. Two recent widows and their children, as well as two other young women to whom Nabalungi had been close, moved in to help Kimbe.
The common area became their chapel, insofar as gathering weekly to share their grievances and retell Arnold's outlandish stories for cheerful solutions counted as worship. Kimbe suggested that it was more like village-wide Family Home Evening. She found another typewriter, and, soon, Nabalungi's lone, left-behind copy of their play became a dozen copies bound in red cardstock.
As the weeks passed, letters from both Nabalungi and their much missed not-quite-prophet began to arrive. Mafala helped Kimbe add these stories to the Book one by one: encountering Salt Lake City Airport for the first time while simultaneously jet-lagged and high on caffeine, meeting Arnold's charmingly dismayed parents, and Arnold's pigeon-feeding fiasco on their visit to Temple Square.
“What the fuck is a Temple Square,” Kimbe sighed, hole-punching the last typed copy of their latest letter from America, “and have they been excommunicated by the Mormons or not?”
“It is the place where that huge, white building with the golden statue of Moroni stands,” Mafala reminded her, taking the pages so that he could add it to the remaining unmodified copy. “There are many of these temples, but the one my Nabalungi has visited was the first.”
“I wonder if Arnold has shared his teachings in Utah,” Kimbe mused. “Being Mormon and being a Latter-Day Saint are not always the same thing. Not all Mormons are Latter-Day Saints, and not all Latter-Day Saints are Mormons. If you ask me, avoid the ones who are just Mormons.”
Mafala considered this while he shelved the Books, his eyes falling wistfully on the chalkboard where the former District 9 companions' names and baptism scores were posted. He could not bring himself to erase it. As for the bulletin board, the Mission President's photograph had been creatively defaced, and many of the villagers had added artwork and written contributions of their own.
They had left the door open to let in a rare hint of afternoon breeze. A sudden intake of breath on the threshold alerted them to the fact they had let in something else. The figure was bearded and haggard, but his eyes, unobscured by sunglasses, held a listless spark.
“What about those who have done evil, but are not Mormons or Latter-Day Saints?” he asked.
“If you have come here seeking forgiveness and salvation,” Mafala replied, retaining one of the copies, which he confidently offered, “then I suggest that you read what is between these covers first.”
General Butt-Fucking Naked, seemingly retired, turned the Book over in his trembling, callused hands.
“In another life,” he admitted ruefully, “I would have shown you exactly where you could shove this.”
3. We Are Here for Us
Former Elders Neeley and Michaels were formally excommunicated the week before former Elders Church and Thomas hand-delivered their notarized membership-resignation letters to Church Headquarters. From around the state, they'd all converged on the capital.
More specifically, they'd converged to celebrate Church's and Pop-Tarts's resignations and the civil marriage license issued to Neeley and Edwina. They had deliberately arranged the proceedings to fall on the same day.
Michaels, nostalgic for the one thing at which he'd shown promise during high school and his two pre-mission semesters of college, had appointed himself photographer. He was unspeakably impressed at Edwina's lack of anger toward her freshly-minted spouse.
“Trust me, I was looking for an out,” Edwina said under her breath, wrenching the camera out of Michaels's grasp. “Want me to take a group photo? Arnold and Naba are so photogenic it's ridic.”
“My family kicked me out,” Michaels said sadly. “I wasn't looking for it, not consciously.”
“Sweetie, I know,” said Edwina, with sympathy, shoving him toward the rest of the group and waving to get their scattered attention. “And I'm not gonna kick you off my hubby's sofa when I move in later tonight, so count your blessings.”
Count them one by one, Michaels thought, humming the hymn-snippet as he joined the others.
“Oh my God, get down,” Nabalungi was saying to Arnold, tugging on his sleeve. “You'll fall in again.”
“So? Who cares if I do?” Arnold challenged, returning her grin. “It's the cleanest fountain in the city.”
“Listen up, Prophet Cunningham,” said Neeley, pointing at Edwina. “My wife says it's photo time.”
Michaels found a spot in the cluster, between Nabalungi to his right and Church to his left. More accurate to say Church-and-Pop-Tarts to his left, maybe, as they were busy being cute at each other.
From Arnold's right, Neeley leaned forward and beckoned to Michaels. “Get over here, bro,” he said.
“I guess that'll balance things better,” agreed Michaels, complying with Edwina's urgent hand-gesture.
Two dozen snaps later, both Arnold and Nabalungi were soaking wet, and everyone was damp.
While most of the group argued about where to get an early dinner and what kind of food would most likely please everyone, Nabalungi rummaged in her shoulder bag. Edwina had held everyone's things to one side, so their possessions, at least, were dry.
“I wanted to save these until we were finished,” Nabalungi said, removing a large, battered manila envelope and a smaller business-sized one. “You should see them first,” she said, placing them in Michaels's hands. “I think maybe they will cheer you up.”
Michaels noticed the postmarks before anything else: Uganda on the manila item, Florida on the other.
“Hey, whatcha got there?” Pop-Tarts asked. “Mail? Ooh, mail is just the best! So—who is it from?”
“Family,” Michaels said, offering the Florida letter. “Ours,” he added, indeed feeling blessed.
4. Planet Orlando
Three weeks of kicking around laid-back, sunny Sarasota with a doting Connor on his arm had been more than enough to reinforce Kevin's idea that the Sunshine State was paradise. Granted, it perforce made some amendments to his childhood impression of the concept.
Nowhere in his nine-year-old dreams had risking a nighttime ocean swim figured anywhere into it, much less one where the rating exceeded PG-13. He and Connor had scarcely been able to look Connor's oblivious grandparents in the eyes at breakfast.
That afternoon, they'd both started hitting up various job websites, because, as Connor put it, they needed their own space yesterday. Guiltily, Kevin had restricted all of his searches to Orlando while Connor made an enthusiastic statewide survey of upscale retail prospects.
They moved to Orlando almost exactly six weeks after touching down, because Kevin got hired first.
It wasn't the Disney job of Kevin's dreams, that was for sure. They hadn't been hiring for cast roles to which Kevin would have been suited, although a remark from Connor about everybody remembering the wittiest monorail drivers convinced him to give the gig a shot.
Luckily for Kevin and every passenger in his care, he remained adept at operating complex vehicles. He got stuck with the late shift a lot because he was too damned polite to say no, and coffee remained his new best friend. It took a month to figure out that nobody was going to remember his stories about himself—but that they'd scramble to hear his stories about Uganda and Arnold Cunningham.
On a lark, Kevin started to talk about Connor, too. Connor found out not because Kevin had asked for his permission, but because he took a ride with intent to surprise Kevin off work one night.
“Um,” Kevin said, cornered by a serious-looking Connor in the midst of his inspect-for-sleeping-passengers-and-abandoned-belongings run. “I can explain. You and Arnold are so much more—”
“Wouldn't take much to be more interesting than you,” Connor sighed, “but prettier? Not a chance.”
“I'm sorry?” said Kevin, hopefully, pinning Connor against the curved wall of the empty car. “So, so—”
Connor pushed forward and kissed him, dangerously skirting the edge of their exhibitionist streak.
“You're outing us to thousands of strangers on a daily basis,” he murmured. “You know that, right?”
“We've been excommunicated from the Church, and half my family's speaking to me as little as possible,” Kevin said bitterly. “It makes me want to tell the world about the best thing in my life.”
“How could I be,” Connor choked, abruptly hanging onto Kevin's neck in a fit of tears. “I cost you your big brother and his kids, and your dad's being a passive-aggressive ass about it, too!”
Kevin pressed his lips to Connor's temple, smoothing his palms over Connor's dress-shirt covered back.
“Caitlin is the sweetest kid on the planet, and she emails us both, like, on a daily basis,” he said softly.
“I kinda wish we hadn't left my parents' place in such a hurry,” Connor hiccupped. “She misses us lots.”
“You smell like every cologne in that department store,” Kevin said, drying Connor's eyes for him.
“Speaking of letters,” Connor said, sniffling, “we got a whole packet of Naba specials from Utah.”
“How about we go home,” replied Kevin, steering Connor out onto the platform, “and read them?”
Nodding, Connor reached into his breast pocket, removing a stack of glossy, old-school photographs.
“Each of these is worth at least a thousand texts,” he said, handing them off to Kevin as they walked.