After what seemed like such a promising start, it didn't take long for Elder McKinley to realize that Elder Price was probably not going to be the heaven-sent Mormon missionary savior that he had been hoping and praying for on a weekly (recently turned nightly) basis. That was a rather bitter letdown, Elder McKinley ruefully informed his missionary diary one night, and it was only compounded by the fact that virtually every feature Price possessed, on the surface at least, seemed to exude perfection.
Consider, for instance, his dazzling white smile...
His charming, confident airs...
His beautiful eyes...
His distractingly well-shaped backside...
(What, like a Mormon boy wasn't allowed to just notice these things?)
Elder McKinley sighed and reluctantly drew a strikethrough over the last few lines, then "X"-ed out the last couple pages, just for good measure.
Anyway, it all began to fall apart that night the two newest missionaries had returned from their first day of failed proselytizing, Elder Price splattered with blood and babbling something pretty nonsensical about Lion King. And after the initial shock had subsided, there had occurred maybe a stray, horribly inappropriate thought in the back of Elder McKinley's mind that even being half-drenched in a dead man's blood failed to make Price seem less attractive. And then another thought immediately on top of that that reminded him that he still had a job to do and a mission to miraculously rejuvenate before the mission president arrived, and for heaven's sake Elder Price really had to stop getting up all in his face like that when he shouted, because their faces were separated by mere inches of air, and it would be such a terrible, terrible thing if one of them were to accidentally stumble forward, and their lips were to accidentally brush together, right there in front of everyone...so wrong and awful and repulsive that Elder McKinley couldn't stop imagining it.
In hindsight, that probably should have been the first sign that Elder Price was going to be giving him a massive amount of trouble over the following months. But Elder McKinley had been momentarily a little preoccupied with how badly he wanted to run his fingers through Elder Price's disheveled, blood-soaked hair – except that that would be terribly unsanitary. And sinful, obviously.
When Elder Price finally stormed out, like a petulant, hot-headed, gorgeous vessel of sizzling homosexual temptation, Elder McKinley couldn't decide whether that was more of a disappointment or a relief. But at least that was the end of that. So he thought, anyway.
A few weeks later into his mission, after the whole kerfuffle with the mission president had faded into a mildly nauseating memory, Elder McKinley was pleased to discover that his hell dreams were finally beginning to recede. Maybe it was the effect of not having to be quite so constantly on guard about masking certain things, or having to worry about being reported for unseemly behaviors...regardless, he heartily welcomed the change.
He was, however, less thrilled about the fact that they were starting to be replaced with another, equally unsettling sort of dream, in which Elder Price starred quite frequently. He would say that he'd almost prefer to have the hell dreams back (the devil you know and all), but...the way he saw it, if he was going to suffer through massive, seemingly endless cycles of guilt anyway, he might as well have the benefit of imagining Price naked first.
These dreams would start out innocuously enough, much like any average day at the missionary headquarters – perhaps they'd be alone, sitting cross-legged in a spot of shade and studying verses of scripture together...Elder Price would be reciting some select passages from Alma or Mosiah and offering his impassioned commentary on them, and Elder McKinley would ostensibly be nodding along in wordless agreement. But really he was passing the time being enraptured by the sound of Price's voice, how assertive and almost melodic it was, how nice his hands were, how nice they'd be on him...
Elder Price would occasionally take a break from his studies to stretch his arms and yawn, looking as ridiculously and effortlessly handsome as he always did, and Elder McKinley's eyes would involuntarily rivet towards how tightly and tantalizingly the cloth of his white shirt clung to the light definition of muscles underneath...
And then Elder McKinley's breath would catch a little, and before he knew it the dreams would plunge into any number of horribly indecent scenarios. Sometimes it would be rubbing sunscreen on each other...rubbing themselves on each other...kissing, touching, caressing on the vast savanna plains with dry grasses tickling their skin and the feel of warm earth pressing against their backs and nothing around to judge them but the blazing white-hot sun overhead...Elder Price slowly taking his clothes off with a seductive glint in his eyes, sunlight patterning his bare torso and accentuating every exquisite contour...Elder McKinley feeling so deliciously corrupted and excited by the intensity of his gaze as Price bent over him, and getting so lost in the depths of his dark eyes...
...All right, that was quite enough of that. To put it bluntly, Elder McKinley found it all very, very frustrating. Nothing about these vulgar, pornographic dreams was helping him strengthen his faith or achieve a better relationship with the Lord. (Even if he did feel a little bit closer to heaven whenever Price touched him in his dreams...that was beside the point.)
"Why do you keep looking at me like that?" Elder Price asked groggily at breakfast one morning, as he swished his spoon around a bowl of lumpy, suspicious-looking oatmeal. Even while bleary-eyed with sleep he was beautiful, which Elder McKinley thought was patently unfair. No one had the right to look that good this early in the morning.
"What do you mean?" Elder McKinley asked, his expression carefully schooled into innocence.
Elder Price shrugged and gestured vaguely, pushing a hand through his hair. "You're giving me this look like, I don't know, I did something bad." He did an imitation of a disapproving glare, slightly grinding his teeth against his lower lip.
Oh, you were very bad, Elder McKinley reflected with an inward sigh, shivering a little. "Just finish your breakfast, Elder."
Most of the time, things in their district went more smoothly than Elder McKinley had dared hope, considering those dismal first few months. Oh, there was still the occasional incident here and there, such as the memorable time Elder Davis had accidentally brought a scorpion into the house, and they spent all day squealing and jumping on furniture until they got one of the Ugandans to trap it and throw it out...but nothing major really sullied the mission experience, for the most part.
Though one thing Elder McKinley found himself having to deal with, every now and then, was Elder Price's somewhat vexing tendency to get drawn into heated rivalries with some of the other elders. He was prone to doing this because Elder Price really didn't like not being seen as the best at anything, which often brought out his aggressively competitive side. Like how he got during game nights, when the elders would pass the time playing activities like Mormon Jeopardy! and Wheel of Mormon and Who Wants To Be a Mormonaire? Or that one tense instance when Elder McKinley had complimented Elder Church's prayer slightly more than his, and Elder Price had proceeded to glare daggers in Elder Church's direction for the next couple hours.
All of this was especially annoying because Elder McKinley was then forced to play peacemaker in these conflicts – usually by distracting everyone with candy, which he'd found tended to work quite often with these boys. Elder Price would usually drift away from the others to go sulk in a corner by himself, but even he was not immune to the charms of Elder McKinley smiling and dangling candy in front of him persistently until he relented.
(The one exception was whenever Elder McKinley held his monthly tap-dancing competitions and put out the call for challengers, which Elder Price politely bowed out of. Probably a wise choice, really. Most of the time Elder McKinley could be as cordial and friendly as any other Mormon boy, but when it came to dancing he would not hesitate to humiliatingly wipe the floor with Elder Price and his cute little butt.)
Anyway, such a situation arose again on a blisteringly hot summer day, when the elders found themselves with some recreational time to kill, and someone had naively suggested starting up a game of volleyball. Over time the heat began getting unbearable, and one by one they each retired to the shade, until there was only Elder Price and Elder Michaels left slamming the ball at each other, both stubbornly refusing to cede what had turned into an all-out contest of egos. Elder Cunningham was hobbling about playing cheerleader for Elder Price on the sidelines while sweating profusely, and Elder Zelder was (much more feebly) rooting for his own companion. Meanwhile, everyone else was trying not to die from heat stroke.
"You guys, the game ended over an hour ago," Elder Schrader bellowed through cupped hands. Both of them ignored him.
"You're in over your head, Price," Elder Michaels declared, mopping his brow with his forearm. "I'll just have you know that you're up against the former captain of Provo High's varsity men's volleyball team." He triumphantly pounded his chest with his fist.
Elder Price placed a defiant hand on his hip and made a loud scoffing noise that clearly said big deal.
"Oh, it's on now, Price. It – is – on." Elder Michaels made a grand display of dramatically taking off his shirt and tossing it aside...then realized he still had the top of his temple garments on, so after an awkward pause, he started to strip himself of that as well. Not to be outdone, Elder Price looked around hesitantly and then began doing the same.
"Uhhh, shouldn't you be putting a stop to this?" Elder Thomas whispered to the district leader, who was lounging in one of the folding chairs while cooling himself with a paper fan and had suddenly begun observing the match with intent interest.
"I'll give it a few more minutes," Elder McKinley replied, idly waving him off with his fan.
Taking cues from Elder Cunningham, most of the other elders had begun to abandon trying to teach from the literal scripture and were coming up with more...inventive ways of interpreting the holy word, or in some cases disregarding it completely.
For his part, Elder McKinley had taken to engaging with the villagers through non-traditional avenues, like music and performing arts, which he greatly preferred to the usual mundane channels of spiritual expression. It was a nice learning experience for him too, because the villagers had their own fascinating traditions when it came to singing and dancing. Some days he would just sit and quietly observe them during local ceremonies or their spontaneous bursts of revelry, watching how they non-verbally communicated emotions of pain and joy, heartbreak and love, anguish and hope, synchronized to the pounding of drums or the airy melodies of reed flutes. It amazed him sometimes that despite the hardships so many of them had endured, they were still capable of dancing and making music that was so full of life and vitality, which was a dramatic turnaround from the first time he'd stepped foot in this village.
Elder Price, meanwhile, was still having a hard time connecting with the community there, because Price (bless his soul) didn't have a creative bone in his otherwise perfect body. Elder McKinley liked to tease him about this, in part because of how Elder Price became all cutely flustered and defensive about it.
"I don't know how Elder Cunningham does it. Everyone just goes along with everything that comes out of his mouth, no matter how inane it is," Elder Price sighed, taking the little pink bouncy ball that Elder McKinley had offered him. (Whenever someone handed you the Feelings Ball, you had to share whatever you were feeling with that person. That was Elder McKinley's new rule around here.) "I mean, what's wrong with the things that come out of my mouth?"
Elder McKinley patted him on the shoulder consolingly. "It probably just takes time to find your niche. Besides, I'm sure your mouth is good for plenty of other things, Elder."
Elder Price stared at him. "What?"
"Like giving us motivational speeches," Elder McKinley said quickly. "My point is, you can't just rush these things. It's all about establishing a connection." He cautiously scooted closer to Elder Price, gazing at him with wide, sincere eyes. "I've found that some of the villagers have very interesting stories to share. Maybe instead of talking you could try...not saying anything at all and just listening to them, for a change."
"Just...listening...to people," Elder Price repeated, as if Elder McKinley had just voiced an utterly alien and unheard-of concept. He sounded mildly offended.
"Yes, silly, it's what you do with your ears." Elder McKinley playfully slapped him on the arm. That's what "bros" did to each other, right?
The next day, while he was passing through the village, Elder McKinley spotted Elder Price sitting on a wooden bench with a male villager around their age, who was talking and gesticulating with great enthusiasm. Trying to be stealthy about it, Elder McKinley slowed down and managed to catch snippets of dialogue here and there – something about playing sports, perhaps? Soccer? It was all rather outside his realm of understanding.
At the end Elder Price and the village boy shook hands, and the boy ran off, kicking a ball at his feet.
As Elder McKinley walked by, pretending like he hadn't just been snooping, Elder Price reached out and briefly touched his arm, to stop him. "You know, I think you were right. About listening, I mean."
"I was?" Elder McKinley asked in surprise. "I mean, of course I was. You should follow my advice more often, Elder."
Elder Price grinned suddenly. "Even your advice about 'turning off' gay thoughts?" Elder McKinley couldn't tell from his tone if he was just teasing (probably, if a little sassy, much) or genuinely asking (and then...?).
"Well, officially none of us should be thinking about pursuing any sort of romantic entanglements," Elder McKinley reminded him sternly, though he felt his pulse quicken by a few beats.
"Tell that to Elder Cunningham," said Elder Price, rolling his eyes.
Elder McKinley cleared his throat and sat himself down on the bench beside the other elder, demurely crossing his legs. "However – this is strictly off the record," he continued, leaning in and dropping his voice to a low, conspiratorial tone, " – I think if – hypothetically – someone around here were to be experiencing such thoughts, and – hypothetically – the subject of those thoughts might possibly be having similar thoughts...it wouldn't be the most horrible thing in the world if those two people were to – in private – think those thoughts together, and maybe some time down the line they could turn them into...something more than thoughts."
He casually swayed back on one hand and gave Elder Price a long, meaningful look, ending with a wink.
"...I'm not following you," Elder Price said after an interval of silence, his brows knitting together.
"Oh, forget it," Elder McKinley sighed as he sat up, his shoulders sagging back. It wasn't Elder Price's fault but he couldn't help but be a little disappointed...even putting aside all the weird, twisty feelings he got in his stomach whenever Elder Price was around, a small part of him had been clinging onto the hope that maybe he wasn't entirely alone in this place...that he'd found someone like himself.
But after all, that might have just been his own foolish, wishful thinking.
"You're really strange," Elder Price said slowly, with the blunt, matter-of-fact air of someone who was used to their observations and opinions being treated as law. "But...I kind of like that."
"Really?" Elder McKinley chanced a sideways look at him.
"Yeah. It's...interesting." He took out his Book of Mormon and thwapped Elder McKinley on the head with it, a corner of his mouth quirking into a smile. And then he smiled some more at the flush of protest that immediately swept over the other elder's face.
They sat there for a while until the sounds of their talking and bickering dissolved into laughter and the other elders came over to join them. And by then Elder McKinley had – almost – forgotten how much his hands had thrummed with longing.
But the worst offense occurred several months after Elder Price's arrival in Uganda. Elder McKinley didn't bother to record any of it in his diary at the end of the day, because...well, some things were best left to memories.
In the spirit of welcoming in the fall, Elder McKinley managed to spearhead a banquet and dance along with Nabulungi Hatimbi that turned out to be surprisingly successful, if he did say so himself. Nabulungi had even persuaded the neighboring villages to participate, with her uncanny way of mobilizing people for things they wouldn't ordinarily partake in.
For the first hour the Hatimbis led the whole group in a few traditional dances that got the entire place reverberating with the sounds of lively voices and stamping feet. Afterward some of the elders started showing a group of village girls the partner dances that they did back home (always tastefully at arms-length), and gradually several Ugandan couples joined in and mirrored their example. Somehow, watching them brought back for Elder McKinley bittersweet memories of church dances in his mid-teenage years, of awkwardly swaying with prettily dressed girls eyeing him as a potential marital prospect while he tried desperately not to pine after boys he couldn't have.
He excused himself from the crowd and left the festivities to get a breath of fresh air, the cool night wind gently wafting against his face. The stars were starting to come out, and the moon cast a dim, ethereal light amid the thick blanket of darkness that enveloped the area.
He went over to a small clearing behind the bushes and stumbled upon one of the elders lying in what seemed to be a rather compromising position with a girl from the next village.
"Elder Neeley! Good gracious!"
"Elder McKinley! We were just – I was only – it's not what it looks like, I swear," Elder Neeley sputtered, turning bright red, while the girl beside him hid a small smile. He looked so distraught that Elder McKinley closed his mouth and decided not to press the matter.
Elder McKinley swiftly departed the scene, thinking that he had experienced quite enough heterosexuality for one night. He then glimpsed Elder Price standing several feet away from the periphery of the main events and, without thinking too much about it, started heading over towards him. Elder Price was currently hunched over, pouring out a bowl of banana juice onto the soil.
"I caught someone spiking the juice bowl," Elder Price explained, seeing Elder McKinley's bewildered expression. "I didn't want it to ruin your dance."
"Spiking?" Elder McKinley couldn't imagine any of the villagers doing such a horrific thing. "You mean like with...coffee?"
"...Sure." Elder Price carefully set the bowl down and turned around, dusting off his palms on his pants.
Elder McKinley laughed suddenly and sailed forward to hug him, then rapidly leaped back, shocked at his own audacity. "Oh! I didn't mean..." he began nervously, but then Elder Price startled him even further by firmly grasping his shoulder and drawing him in for a kiss.
Elder McKinley was too amazed to return the kiss, his eyes widening and cheeks searing as he felt arms encircle his waist, tightening against him and setting off an electric tingle that pulsed steadily up his spine. Elder Price's lips were soft and warm, the sugary sweet taste of banana juice still faintly lingering on them. Dimly he registered Price's hands pressing up against the small of his back, in a hold that was strangely intimate but not quite possessive, heard the shakiness of Price's breath as it quavered with confused, unadulterated want...and maybe Elder McKinley's heart fluttered a little in response, palpitating wildly and hovering somewhere in the vicinity of his throat.
"I'm sorry," Elder Price said abruptly, pulling away just as Elder McKinley's lips were beginning to part. Shades of guilt and penitence were seeping into his eyes, flickering in the pale moonlight. "I guess I misinterpreted..."
In a daze, Elder McKinley touched his mouth with his fingertips, as if trying to capture whatever was left of the kiss before it melted away. That had been his first kiss...
Before he had even noticed Elder Price had slipped away, leaving a chilly void in the space he had occupied seconds earlier. So Elder McKinley continued to stand there alone, cold, and confused in the dark, helplessly wringing his hands. For Elder Price to just steal his first kiss and bolt like that...darn it, that wasn't fair. That wasn't fair at all!
He wondered if he should try going after Price, to tell him that he hadn't been mistaken. All his life, Elder McKinley had never been one to take risks, to run after things. He thought about it, certainly, fantasized...but he never actually ran. He knew too well what would happen if he did.
On the other hand, he had a funny feeling that if he didn't stop Elder Price now, they'd go on pretending like this never happened, like it meant nothing that Price had been holding him so tightly, and so close...and then he might never have another chance. The last thought sent up a bubble of panic inside him.
"Wait," Elder McKinley exclaimed, frantically chasing after him. "Elder – Elder Price. Kevin. Come back."
At the sound of his name Elder Price stopped in his tracks and turned around, catching the other boy in his arms. Elder McKinley tilted his face upward, tentatively touching noses, then lips, in a silent, hopeful affirmation.
"So it is true what they say, about hearing music," Elder McKinley said delightedly, as they drifted apart moments later, still wrapped in each other's embrace. Elder Price was wearing a broad smile that shone even in the darkness. "It sounds like a magnificent chorus of angels, descending from the heavens..."
"I think that's just Kalimba and the others singing hymns..."
"Shhhh," replied Elder McKinley, closing his eyes and settling his head against Elder Price's shoulder. One of Elder Price's hands rose to gently stroke the back of his neck, and in that moment he felt a peace like he had never known before.
And that was how it started. Maybe calling it a secret relationship made it sound more exciting than it was...and after all, it might not have been much of a secret. Elder McKinley had a feeling a few of the others suspected more than they chose to let on, judging from the odd looks Elder Cunningham would shoot them every once in a while, or the smugly knowing expression on Elder Church's face, or the fact that Elder Thomas would often develop a sudden, inexplicable craving for Poptarts whenever Elder Price dropped by their room and proceed to leave them alone for a few, wonderfully pleasant hours.
As it was, their relationship only really surfaced in the interims, the heartbeats amid the hustle and bustle of their daily ventures. It manifested itself in holding hands when no one was looking, taking small naps together, touching and mapping out the warm expanses of each other's bodies (he was happy to report that Elder Price's tush did, in fact, feel fantastic)...and, okay, possibly fooling around in the shower once or twice, but you didn't hear that from him.
It was good enough, for now. It had to be enough.
And in the years ahead, when they finally went back home and would have to face the consequences for the various things they chose, and the things they didn't choose, maybe there would eventually be fall-out and anger and tears, hard looks and smashed plates and you're-dead-to-me's and please-just-go's, days of seemingly unendurable isolation and hopelessness...and maybe there would also be days of boundless exhilaration and freedom, of linked hands and soft reassurances and sweetly worded promises...maybe there would someday be laughter no longer tinged with fear or sadness, as well as the immeasurable thrill the first time Kevin whispered I love you as they laid twined together in the dark, and the knowledge with every subsequent kiss that he meant it with all his heart.
For now though, Elder McKinley was content with remaining firmly in the present, and being with someone who could often be so maddeningly difficult and who forced him to experience such a range of baffling emotions. But that was how it went with wanting difficult things, he supposed. Sometimes it was exasperating, painful, even terrifying...but it made you feel something. Like the vibrant rhythms that swelled from the villagers' drums and flutes as they clapped and jumped about in pure exultation, or the jazzy chords that swirled through his mind whenever he dove into an improvisational tap number, they were the unexpected things – the dizzying little syncopations in the melody that threw you off balance and reminded you that you were dancing, that you could feel alive.