The mix of booming bass, people hollering and shouting to what they called "music," and the empty plastic clank of balls on the beer pong table was so loud that Kevin Price would have missed the text if his cell phone had not been on vibrate. He pulled the phone out of his pocket and smiled when he saw the sender's name and his message.
"how r u doing bff"
He swiped his finger across the screen and started typing in a response when his girlfriend, Sarah Brown, leaned into his shoulder.
"Who are you texting?" she nearly screamed into his ear. As much as he wanted to, he couldn't fault her for doing that. It was the only way to get heard around here. Still, he wanted to shove her away and tell her that it was none of her damn business, but he reminded himself that they were among mutual friends, and he had to be nice.
"Mission companion," he said as he finished off the too impersonal text ("Good u?") and pocketed his phone. "Where're your friends?"
She shrugged and scooted closer to him, and Kevin was dismayed that the arm of the couch prevented him from inching away. She was being rather forward for the nice Mormon girl his parents wanted him to finally settle down with, but that was far from his problem.
"Did they leave?"
Sarah Brown nodded. Figured. Kevin was only surprised they came here in the first place, but at least now he could finally get up and get a drink already. Those girls, plus Sarah Brown, and technically Kevin himself, were the only Mormons in the joint. Everyone else at this party was made up of all the rest of the non-Mormons at the University of Utah, Kevin was pretty sure, who had just gotten back from their trip to Evanston, Wyoming for their monthly booze run.
"You can go too, if you want."
Sarah Brown shook her head. "Someone needs to look after you."
Kevin scowled and stood from the couch. "No one asked you to," he muttered as he made his way to the kitchen.
Different colored and shaped bottles of liquor and Red Solo Cups lined the counters and tabletops in a messy order, and many of them, thank God, were still at least half full. Most people were probably spending their time at the kegs anyway or drinking their cheerleader beer or whatever. At eleven o'clock, for non-Mormons, the Saturday night was still young, especially for the last hoorah before finals.
His phone buzzed again. "doing ok," Arnold Cunningham texted back. "miss u."
"Miss u 2 buddy. Hang in there. I'll call soon."
Kevin could not help but to hate the Cunninghams for what they had done to their son since they returned from Uganda. What good was sending him back to Provo going to do? A diploma from Brigham Young University wasn't going to be enough to change the Church's mind, no matter how many strings Mr. Cunningham tried to pull to get his son ex-excommunicated. If Kevin's parents could not get his disfellowshipment reversed with all their community service and even reminding the leaders of the church of all the good that Kevin had done before, after, and even at Uganda, then Arnold stood no chance.
And besides, he was pretty sure that the Cunninghams did not for a second ask what Arnold wanted. As soon as they stepped off the plane at Salt Lake City International Airport, Arnold was gone from Salt Lake City and back in the hellhole that was Provo, and he sounded worse and worse every time Kevin talked with him on the phone.
Not that Kevin's parents were much better about the whole thing. They had wanted to send him to BYU, too, but Kevin was quicker and managed to get a full-ride scholarship to the University of Utah. They still forced him to attend Sunday services and they had set him up on many dates with nice, Mormon girls in hopes that love would set him back on the path of righteousness or whatever bullshit like that. Only one, Sarah Brown, had been able to put up with his rebellious stances against his family and the Church, and that was only because she was a plain-looking wallflower who never had the guts to speak to him while they were in high school, and now, finally, she was the girlfriend of a stupid crush that just wouldn't die. Like hell she'd let go of him now.
Whatever, though. If it appeased Kevin's parents enough that they'd get off his case on the other things, then he could deal, for now. He was just going to let her make all the calls.
"Kevin!" she cried as she pulled the vodka bottle of his hands. "You shouldn't drink that! If the bishops knew—"
"What, Heavenly Father already does. He's not smiting me, or anyone at this party. So big whoop."
"But you could be excommunicated!"
But Kevin knew what she meant. Disfellowshipment was only a step away from excommunication, and no matter how many community service events and soup kitchens and home-building opportunities he attended, any minor slippage away from the teachings of the Mormon Church would get him thrown out in an instant.
Still, he didn't care. He just couldn't believe that he wasn't excommunicated yet, given that Arnold had fallen to apostasy out of his good heart and trying to make people's lives better while Kevin rebelled for reasons other than. He only agreed to go with his parents to all these different charities because it was the right thing to do—not for Heavenly Father, mind you, but for the good of humanity. He only wished his parents could see that instead of interpreting his actions as those of a lost, confused boy who was led astray by a false wannabe-prophet in Uganda and who so desperately wanted to become a true Latter Day Saint again.
Blind idiots. Kevin still couldn't believe he used to be one of them, and he had been proud of it, too!
Once again, his phone buzzed, and Kevin ignored Sarah to read the text. "ok sorry if i'm bothering u."
"Never a bother buddy."
He hit send and went back to scouring the counter for a suitable drink when his eyes fell upon a familiar bottle of cheap rum. On Elder McKinley's last day in Uganda, Mutumbo had managed to pilfer a couple of bottles of this brand for the small going-away party. It was the first time Kevin Price had dared to drink, and he had shoved a plastic cup full of it into Elder McKinley's hands.
"Come on, they're never going to let you back in the Church anyway the way you defied them and your folks to stay here," he had slurred. "Drink!"
And Elder McKinley did.
How Kevin could still remember this was beyond him. He had been so drunk, and embarrassingly only off of two shots! Now, holding the rum bottle, he remembered also what those pesky tiny shots had compelled him to do, and despite all his protests and actions of rebellion, this was one secret he desperately kept to himself.
Did Elder McKinley ever come out to his family, much less the Church? Was it even right to call him Elder McKinley anymore?
Kevin knew nothing about any of the friends he had made in Uganda. No more missionaries were sent there after him and Arnold, and most of those who had been there before caved to the pressures of the Church and their parents and left. The rest had stayed to finish what they had gone there to do, and all of them had friended him on Facebook, though Kevin never accepted any of their requests except for Arnold. Arnold, who probably more than happily clicked the Confirm button as soon as the requests came to him, or more likely, sent all the friend requests himself. Kevin never spent any time on that site anyway except to accept party invitations that he just knew would make his parents' blood curdle.
But most pointedly, he denied Michael McKinley's friend request and briefly toyed at the idea of blocking him outright.
Kevin glanced over at Sarah, who had a hopeful smile on her face. How long had he been staring at this bottle? He wrinkled his nose and grabbed a clean Solo Cup from the top of the stack and poured the rum a good third of the way. To add further salt to the wound that was all over Sarah Brown's face, he filled the rest of the cup to the brim with Coke.
How many of these, plus maybe a game of beer pong or two, would it take for him to black out completely?
Arnold Cunningham knew that he was losing the staring contest between him and his stupid old flip-phone. His father had promised an iPhone for when he returned from his mission in Uganda, but that was before the Book of Arnold and before the excommunication. So now he was stuck with this piece of junk and constant phone calls from his parents yelling at him to quit texting so much and get back to studying so that he could stop being a disappointment to the family already.
Okay, so maybe they never actually voiced the last part, but Arnold knew. Arnold knew that no matter what his brothers and sisters did for the Church, there was a nasty taint on the Cunningham name and he knew that he was all to blame for it. And no matter how many times Elder Price—Kevin—told him otherwise, no matter how many times Elder McKinley—Michael—thanked him for everything he had done for him, the more time Arnold spent at BYU, the more he knew that his parents and the Church were absolutely right. This was not a hole he could ever climb out of. So why bother?
He missed Uganda. He missed people quieting down when he opened his mouth to speak instead of being talked right on over as though he wasn't even in the room. He missed everyone coming to him every day to thank him for giving them hope and something to believe in instead of people mocking the way he spoke and snickering at him when he walked past. And most of all, he missed Kevin Price's easy if disillusioned smile and strong arm around his shoulder whenever he was having a bad day and Nicaragua's beautiful face and shy giggles whenever they walked along the trickle of the creek by her village.
"Hey, Arnold," grumbled his roommate from the top bunk. "Turn it off. We have church in the morning."
"Sorry," Arnold mumbled and he stashed the cell phone under his pillow.
He still couldn't believe he was allowed back in church, but he guessed his dad had something to do with it, being friends with some higher-up here at BYU and everything. That's how he got in for cheap in the first place. Plus he had a lot of meetings with the bishops every week who counseled him on how he could get let back into the Church, but he never really listened to what they had to say. It was just like the Book of Mormon itself: so boring! At least the Book of Arnold had lightsabers!
"Do you even want to be part of the Church again?" Kevin had asked him many times when they talked on the phone. "Trust me, it's not so great."
Hearing the great Kevin Price say that was not as reassuring as Arnold had hoped, and the last time they spoke, Arnold replied, "If it gets my parents to stop hating me, I do."
"They don't hate you, and if they did, do you really want conditional love from your family like that?"
"Easy for you to say. You're already headed straight for the top again, aren't you?"
Arnold hadn't meant to sound so spiteful, and he knew it was no excuse but he had just heard his mother go on and on about all the wonderful things Kevin was doing for the community even though he'd been disfellowshipped, and that he was doing so well in school, and that he had a girlfriend now and since they'd been together for a couple of months now they were sure to be engaged soon.
But Kevin sounded confused instead of hurt. "Wait, is that the impression I'm leaving on those people? God damn it."
"Kevin!" Arnold had cried. "You can't damn Heavenly Father like that!"
"I—okay, fine, you're right. Look, things aren't so shiny for me either—"
"Yeah, I watched Firefly, and I liked it. A lot, actually. Thanks for the rec. Anyway," Kevin paused. "Okay, yeah, I guess I don't have it as bad as you. When are you coming back here?"
"We'll have to hang out."
Though Arnold was not looking forward to finals (WoW was a much better alternative to studying material he had no interest in), and he was not looking forward to spending Christmas break with his disapproving father, his disappointed mother, his mocking and sneering siblings, and his tsking aunts and uncles, and a grandmother he couldn't even look in the eye anymore, he was looking forward to having a friend in his life again, even if it was a friend he was sure was super annoyed with him by now. After all, now that they were no longer in Uganda, Kevin Price could leave him whenever he wanted, just like everyone else in his life ever did.
Arnold jumped when his pillow violently vibrated, and he excitedly pulled the phone out from beneath it.
"Gosh darn it, Arnold, I said off not vibrate, it's past midnight!"
But Arnold wasn't sorry, not in the least bit, not even when the text he got back from Kevin said, "Hty let nd call in ghd morning dyunkkkk sugary buddy." In fact, he held his hand over his mouth to keep from bursting out into obnoxious laughter. There was something comforting in knowing that Kevin was drinking tonight and would likely not go to Church in the morning because of it. Plus, "sugary buddy." Kevin Price was not going to live that one down.
"lol ok have fun try calling after lunch ok?" Arnold responded before he turned the phone off, like his roommate insisted, and dropped it onto the desk right above his head. Well, at least he now had something to look forward to after the services were done. That was enough to get him through the morning.
It was, after all, only the little things that kept him going anymore.
"Kevin Joseph Price!"
Ow, the sunlight hurt, but not nearly as much as his mother's screeching voice. Maybe if he just laid perfectly still…
"Wake up this instant, young man! I'm not even upset about the fact that there's no way you're going to be ready for Church at this rate. How dare you make Sarah bring you home in that kind of state? The poor girl! Can you imagine the humiliation she's sure to face today, and for weeks to come, because of the stunt you pulled?"
Not the first time I've ever been drunk, Kevin wanted to say, but he held his tongue, at least on that bit. "'Least I'm home alive."
"You almost weren't if your father would have had anything to say about it!"
"Oh, great, so murder is now a family value, fantastic."
"Don't get mouthy with me, young man! You know you shouldn't be drinking, and yet you do it anyway!"
"'m twenty-two, I can do what I want."
"Not if you want to be a full member of the Mormon Church, you can't!"
This was not an argument Kevin wanted to have again, so instead he said in protest, his voice still muffled even to his own ears against his pillow, "Ma, not going to church today, leave me alone."
"Well, I think for once that's something we can both agree on. I can't bring you out in public like that!" Kevin rolled his eyes as he drifted back to sleep to his mother's rambling. When he woke again, the house was quiet minus the barking dogs in the backyard, and he knew that this rare chance to have the place to himself was not to be wasted, so he pulled himself out of bed and over to his desk to get some homework done.
Boring, he knew, but it was Sunday and if he was caught doing work, even for school, the lecture he would have to withstand would be more than he could bear. Leaving the house for any reason was unacceptable, too; it was Family Day, not that every other evening wasn't Family Day anyway. But finals week was upon him, and he needed to keep his scholarship, so he needed to keep his GPA up. He refused to give his parents a reason to take the roof over his head away, too, as a "told you so" gesture for not going to BYU instead.
Pft, "family" indeed.
Speaking of which, he checked his cell phone, which was hovering low on battery. Oh, so Arnold had replied last night, but Kevin did not cringe nearly as hard at ditching his best friend as he did at the last text he had sent him. Yikes. Had he really been that drunk?
But Arnold was at Church, and there was little point in trying to call now. Fine, he would just have to wait until that sweet spot between Arnold being released from services to when his parents arrived at home. Kevin had gotten good at it by now, and he hoped that Arnold had not been too hurt at Kevin's inability to speak last night.
The computer finished booting up, and Kevin went through the motions of opening his browser and typing in his university username and password for his email. Eventually he would get this stuff forwarded to his Gmail account, but he enjoyed having this tiny separation between his Mormon life and his non-Mormon life too much. It was too symbolic, and he would take the extra few minutes a day to check both accounts separately for as long as he could, as long as he needed to.
Between Saturday and Sunday, there weren't a lot of emails sent except by some of his Mormon group project members who had spent the night studying instead of partying and had managed to get some work done. Well, at least these were stuff he could put off until tomorrow and no one would complain. Besides, they were not due until Thursday. So no big deal. Someone in his class asking for help on an assignment here, a lengthy email from Sarah Brown (oh great) there…
And an email from Michael McKinley?
How did he…?
Kevin stared at the unopened message in his inbox. The size was only a couple of kilobytes, so at least it wasn't long, but when it came to Elder McKinley the message didn't need to be long. Did Kevin even want to open this?
Oh, man up, he chided himself and he double-clicked the bolded letters of the subject line. He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that it was addressed to Arnold Cunningham too, but the message quickly took all of that away:
"Hey, guys! I'm coming to SLC for the holidays. Do you want to go grab a bite to eat while I'm in town and catch up? Let me know when your winter breaks are! xoxo, Michael McKinley"
Oh, crap, crap, crap.
Ignoring the rapid fluttering in his chest, Kevin instantly deleted the email without a moment's hesitation as his mouse flew straight over the reply button. Turn it off, Elder McKinley had first advised him in Uganda. So turn it off Kevin intended to do by turning the Mormon heavily on.