Noah sighed and stood up, carefully brushing the dirt off his black pants. He looked around to see if he could see any of the other Elders. A few hundred feet away, under a broad tree, he could make out what looked like Elder Michaels and – he assumed – his mission companion. Elder… Zelder? Yeah, that was it. They were kneeling next to each other, facing toward him but their heads bowed so it was hard to see their faces.
Out of habit, Noah ran his hand through his short hair, making it stand on end, before remembering that it was supposed to be parted to the side. He smoothed it over to fix it, and looked toward the mission house to see Elder McKinley on the corner of the porch, on his knees, and Elder Thomas just a few feet away from him doing the same. That accounted for all of them, except-
Noah felt a heavy hand on his shoulder and jumped, startled, before turning around to see that it was only Eric.
"Oh, Er- Elder Schrader. You scared me!" said Noah, smiling, his hand over his heavily beating heart.
"Heh. Sorry about that," said Eric sheepishly. "Um…You okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. Why wouldn't I be fine?" Noah peered into Eric's face, searching. He had been silent. There was no way Eric could know what was going on… right?
"No reason. Just checking." Eric smiled broadly at Noah, then grabbed his arm and pulled him back toward the house. "Come on, let's go!"
"What are you so eager for?" asked Noah warily.
"Remember? P and P?"
Noah looked at him quizzically. Then a look of comprehension dawned on his face. He'd completely forgotten that the other Elders had planned a few hours of fun and games. Smiling slightly, he inhaled deeply and let out a long, slow breath. "Okay. Yeah. That'll be good."
"Are you sure you're okay?"
"Yes. Elder Schrader, I'm fine. Please."
Eric paused for a moment, frozen, then nodded. "Okay. Let's go play some games, shall we?"
"Come on," said Noah smiling. The two headed inside, where Elder McKinley and Elder Thomas had moved inside and were already waiting for them with a stack of cards, a board game, and a plate of Poptarts.
"Elder Thomas? You're really sharing those?" called another voice. Noah turned around and saw the other pair of missionaries walking in through the door. Elder Michaels was smiling, his eyebrows raised in surprise.
"It's a special occasion!" announced Elder Thomas happily. "I always share on special occasions."
"Okay," said Noah, reaching for a pink one. "These are strawberry right?"
Elder Thomas nodded encouragingly. "My favorites!"
Noah laughed and took a bite. "Mmm, delicious! I forgot how good these were!"
The other Elder beamed, as proud as if he'd made them himself.
"Okay Elders," said McKinley, gesturing to the space he'd cleared in the middle of the living room. "It's time to start the party!"
Noah sat down, carefully folded his hands in his lap, and watched as the other Elders pulled out the game board and directions. Not used to acting informally around other missionaries, he felt a little out of place as he watched them setting up. Eric noticed and gestured for him to join in, but Noah just shook his head.
"I can't believe you're making us play trivia, Elder Zelder! You're the worst!" complained Elder McKinley good-naturedly.
"Hey, you're just complaining 'cause you two always lose!" said Elder Michaels, defending his mission companion. He smiled at the district leader to show that he was just joking around.
"Always? We've only played once before!" laughed McKinley in return. He threw the deck at Eric. "Could you shuffle?"
"Sure," said Eric.
"Okay, okay," said Elder Thomas, pulling out the game pieces. "We've only got four colors, so who wants to be-"
"We call blue!" shouted Eric, dropping the deck and stretching his out his hand eagerly. Elder Thomas dropped the bright wooden triangle into his palm.
"We do?" asked Noah, a little upset that his friend hadn't consulted him.
"Um… sorry, did you want a different color?" asked Eric awkwardly.
Noah felt bad, and ducked his head. "No, sorry, blue's fine. Really."
"It's okay. You sure?"
"Yeah, Elder Schrader." Noah smiled at this. "It's fine, really."
"Okay! We call pink!" yelled McKinley, way too enthusiastically. All the other Elders giggled a little, hiding their amusement behind their hands so as not to embarrass their district leader.
"Ugh, Elder McKinley," said Elder Michaels, rolling his eyes and laughing. "You always pick pink!"
"Well, it's a nice color!" said Elder McKinley, blushing a little.
"Besides, it's the best flavor of Poptarts!" defended Elder Thomas. He reached for another one, but his companion slapped his hand away.
"We only have a few left; if you eat them all now, what are you supposed to do until we go shopping this afternoon?"
"I can manage," pouted the tiny man, stuffing half of the next Poptart into his mouth. He moaned a little, his mouth closing around the treat, and savored the flavor.
"Does he ever stop eating those?" asked Noah, a little put off by the display.
"Never," said Elder McKinley. "Only when we're in the actual act of speaking to a Ugandan about the Church. He even keeps a box in his backpack to eat on the way from one hut to the next!"
"Do not!" said Elder Thomas, sticking out a crumb-covered tongue.
"Do too!" said Elder McKinley. He grabbed the other man's backpack, which was leaning against the couch behind the district leader.
"Hey! Give me that!" yelled Elder Thomas, making a grab for his bag.
"No way," said Elder Michaels, holding the thin man down as Elder McKinley unzipped the bag, reached in, and pulled out his prize – a nearly empty box of S'mores-flavored Poptarts.
"So the truth comes out," teased Eric, taking the box from Elder McKinley and shaking it. "Hmmm, sounds to me like there's one little Poptart left." Eric undid the cardboard flap and took out the single pastry.
"You… wouldn't… dare!" said Elder Thomas, his face bright red and his voice out of breath from struggling against Elder Michaels' strong arms.
"You're right, I wouldn't." said Eric, lowering his arm.
Elder Thomas let go of a big breath. "Thank goodness!"
"But I bet Elder Neely would!" Eric tossed the snack to Noah, who caught it easily. He checked the other Elders' faces, looking for guidance. McKinley was trying to contain his laughter at Elder Thomas's bright red face, Elder Michaels was giggling as he pinned Elder Thomas to the floor with very little effort, and Elder Zelder was looking quite pleased at all the commotion. He felt nervous with everyone's eyes on him; they were all waiting for him to take a bite.
Still, one look at Elder Thomas' pained face and Noah just couldn't do it. He sighed. "Okay, Elder Thomas. I'll surrender and give you this Poptart, if–"
"No! Eat it!" encouraged Elder Michaels, laughing.
"Elder Neely! Please!" begged Elder Thomas, straining against Elder Michaels' muscled arm.
"Wow, you really are attached to these, aren't you?"
"Yes! I love them!"
"Well, if you love them so much, Elder Poptarts, you can have this one back."
Elder McKinley burst out laughing, the last vestiges of his District Leader demeanor flying out the window. He collapsed onto his side, laughing hysterically. "Elder Poptarts! O.M. Gosh, that's just…"
"Too good!" roared Elder Michaels, letting Elder Thomas go.
The poor man rushed at Noah, grabbing the Poptart and stuffing it into his mouth before anyone else could take it from him. He stood in the corner, sniffling. "That's not funny you guys!" he pouted, looking out over the other five boys, all of whom were in varying states of uncontrollable laughter.
"Oh Elder Thomas, " said McKinley, pulling on his companion's arm so he'd sit down again. "You know we're just teasing. We've all got our quirks. We just appreciate that you're so… obvious about yours."
"Yeah," added Elder Zelder. "We'd call Elder McKinley 'Elder Funky Ties' if he wasn't our district leader."
Elder Thomas had to giggle a little at that one. Elder McKinley looked down at his tie and blushed, seeing the flashy array of squiggles and stripes that, he thought, just brightened up his otherwise dreary missionary uniform.
"What's so wrong with my ties?" he asked.
Elder Thomas just smiled and shook his head.
"I like them," said Noah, venturing a comment.
"Thank you, Elder Neely," said the other man. Then, turning to his companion: "Come on, Elder Thomas. We won't call you Poptarts if you don't want us to, we promise. Right guys?"
The other Elders nodded, promising. Elder Thomas blushed a little. "No… actually, it's okay. I don't really mind."
"You don't mind?" repeated Eric.
"No… actually, I kind of like it," smiled the thin man shyly.
"Elder Poptarts it is then!" chorused Elder McKinley and Elder Michaels, clapping their hands.
Everyone laughed a little as they reached around them to find the little pieces they'd kicked every which way during their individual fits of laughter. After all the pieces had been retrieved from the corners and from under the chairs, the six Elders sat around the trivia board. Elder McKinley placed his pink block on the starting square next to Noah and Eric's blue one.
"Elder Michaels?" he asked. "What color do you guys want?"
"Can we take green? Please?" asked Elder Zelder, holding up the piece to his eyes. It matched his iris hue-for-hue.
"You want green because it matches your eyes?" sneered Elder Michaels. "Really, Elder?"
"What so wrong about that?"
"Ugh, what a queer," said Elder Michaels to Noah, rolling his eyes and jerking his thumb at his mission companion. "I can't believe I got stuck with this homo!" He laughed at his own joke.
Everyone else was silent. Elder Thomas tried to laugh, if only to lighten the atmosphere, but he couldn't do it.
"Elder Michaels." McKinley was the first to speak, putting the deck he'd been shuffling down on the ground and turning his head to look straight at the other missionary.
"What?" said the Elder indignantly. "I was just messing around!" He turned to his companion. "Elder, come on, I was just joking."
Elder Zelder didn't respond.
"I know you're not gay – you know that right? I was just messing around. Geez, just man up a little." He turned to the rest of the group, looking for some agreement. "Guy can't even take a little joke!" The only one who would look him in the eyes was his district leader, and he was not happy.
"Elder Michaels, that was completely inappropriate and unwarranted," said McKinley, his voice tight.
"What? It was just a joke!"
"It was not a funny one."
"I don't know why not. I mean, it's not like any of us are–"
Elder Michaels stopped protesting, but he didn't apologize either. The room was silent for another moment, and then Elder Zelder quietly cleared his throat. "It's just…" He took another breath, gathering strength. "Two… two of my brothers were diagnosed with SSA in the past three years."
A small ripple of shock went around the room. Elder Michaels' face dropped.
"Oh… I'm so sorry, Elder Zelder. I had no idea."
"It's okay, no one really does." He took a deep breath. "Joseph's getting treatment for it and it's working, he responded really well to the therapy, but Leo…" The man couldn't handle it and broke down, tears streaming down his face. No one knew what to say. Elder Thomas awkwardly put a hand on his shoulder, trying to comfort him.
Noah turned to Eric, confused and hurting for Elder Zelder. Keeping his voice to a whisper, he murmured, "What's SSA?"
"Same-Sex Attraction," said Elder McKinley in a loud, monotonic voice. Noah stared at him.
"Are… are you serious?" He searched his district leader's face for any sign of compassion. Any feeling at all, even disgust. But McKinley's face was a blank canvass.
"That's a disease?" said Eric, shocked.
"What, you've never heard of it? Everything's just fine and dandy in New Zealand? No SSA to pollute your perfect paradise?"
"No, I just–"
"You just what?" shot back Elder Zelder. "You just didn't realize that sometimes people are born into a life full of sin? That some people have to live their whole lives watching their older brothers give in again and again to temptation? That some people have the pleasure of watching the Devil torture their family daily – and succeed?"
Elder Zelder was standing up now, almost yelling. He turned to Elder Michaels. "What the heck is wrong with you? I told you about Leo and Joseph the very first day we met, and now I find out you don't care? You're an awful person, Elder!" He slammed his fist down on the rickety table, making them all jump.
"Elder, please, calm down," tried Elder McKinley.
"No! I will not calm down! My older brother has a boyfriend, you guys! He has sex with men and he likes it, and he won't even admit that what he'd doing is wrong! He refuses to listen to me, he refuses to read the Bible… My older brother is going to Hell, and all you can do is tease me about the color piece I want to use for trivia?"
"Well, it's not really Hell, it's just –"
"The Telestial Kingdom," said the Elder in a mocking voice. "Excuse me." He turned bitter again. "Does it even matter? When you die, you all get to be with your families forever. Not me. We'll have to live for all of eternity knowing that Leo is missing. And maybe Joeseph too. I love them, you guys!" He sunk down to his knees. "I love them, but they're sinners. They're evil. And I can't do anything to help them…"
Noah felt himself welling up, but he refused to let anyone else see. He pushed himself off the wooden floor the palms of his hands, stood up, and walked quickly out of the room. But he stayed just outside the living room, in the hallway, listening in.
"What was that about?"
"I don't know."
"Maybe I should…"
"No, let me."
Noah heard Eric get up and quickly dropped to the ground so it didn't seem like he'd been listening. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, trying to get rid of the tears before Eric saw them. Slowly, he felt the other Elder sit down next to him and lay a hand on his shoulder.
Noah whipped his head around to see Elder McKinley – not Elder Schrader – next to him.
"What are you doing here? Where's Eric?"
"He's… he didn't really know what to do."
Noah heard more quiet sobs coming from the living room and Eric's voice trying to comfort Elder Zelder.
"Oh! Is he… okay?"
"He'll be alright. We're all hurting for Elder Zelder. The real question is, are you okay?"
Noah looked up into his leader's face, less than a foot away. McKinley's eyebrows were raised and knitted in concern; his lips were slightly parted and glowing slightly from the light glinting off the moisture resting there. Then their eyes connected. A bright blast of blue hit Noah and for a split second he stopped breathing. He turned away, his breath returning in hurried gasps.
"Are you sure?" That soft, sweet, voice. No.
"Yes, I'm sure. Please. I need Eric."
McKinley was silent for a moment, then he stood up.
"Okay. I'll go get Elder Schrader."
Elder Schrader. Right. Noah could have kicked himself.
Elder McKinley turned the corner and a few moments later, a tear-stained Eric came into the hallway. Without a word, he sat down next to Noah, took his hand, and squeezed once. Then he just sat there, not letting go, and not speaking at all.
Finally, with Eric there, Noah could let himself go. He let one huge sob rip from his throat, then took big, heaving mouthfuls of air until he was composed enough to handle himself. He began his mind for a joke, a song to play, anything else to focus on besides what had just happened in that room.
He settled on "Yellow Submarine". It was repetitive, he knew it well, and it was catchy enough to distract him. Perfect.
In the town where I was born, lived a man who sailed to sea…
He sank into the song, remembering Jessie dancing to it at her seventh-grade talent show. Remembering Dean practicing it with his "band" in the garage. The song continued to play in his head as his mind rolled through other images of his family – his dad throwing a football around with him and Kyle on the Fourth of July, his mom trying to teach Nick how to barbeque so at least one of the men in the family would be able to cook, how handsome Caden had looked as the ring-bearer at their cousin's wedding… he knew what Heavenly Father was trying to tell him.
"I don't want to lose them," Noah breathed quietly, trying to stop the tears.
"Shhh… It's okay," said Eric quietly, breaking his silence. "I know you miss your family. It's hard to be away from them for so long. But we can write letters, and you can talk to me, and it will get easier. I promise."
Noah smiled in spite of himself. Eric didn't get it, and if Noah succeeded, if he was capable enough to resist, he never would. But Eric was a good friend – a best friend – and he was trying his hardest to help. That was all that mattered. Noah turned up the volume and paid close attention to his song, blocking everything else out.
We all live in a yellow submarine, a yellow submarine, a yellow submarine. We all live…
As the song ended, Noah smiled again. He could barely remember what had been wrong in the first place. He took a breath and turned to Eric.
"You okay?" Eric looked carefully at him, making sure everything was all right.
"Yeah, I'm fine." Noah smiled. "Let's go do some trivia."
I'm fine. Everything is fine. I'm okay.