Chapter One

 

PARLEY HAD had enough. He scowled at the ground as he walked, thinking hard about what he was going to do with his life. He wanted to get away, to run, to be free, to be able to shuck the formality of wearing suits and ties every day—even to school, and damn, hadn’t that made his life difficult—and he wanted out. He wanted to get away from the expectations of his family, the expectations of his religion, and the expectations of his few friends at church. He should be preparing, everyone said, to go on the most important journey of his life, his crowning moment: going out into the world in the service of God and the church. Parley found that to be a pile of garbage. He’d graduated in one piece and, as far as he was concerned, that was the crowning moment of his life.

School had been hell. Parley, his parents, and his four brothers had moved to Vancouver when he was thirteen. He had enrolled in one of the local high schools with his brothers, even as his parents turned to their new church—same religion, different location, less stringent and controlling, and more welcoming and gentle. They immersed themselves in what they believed was right. They’d fled their previous home in eastern British Columbia the previous summer. Parley’s father had supposed it to be a sinful place, home to apostates and pretenders, more interested in passions of the flesh than passions of Christ. Parley hadn’t minded leaving. If anything, he’d been thrilled. The chance to see a big city such as Vancouver was exciting, and going to a real school, a school with more than sixteen kids, to learn things other than scripture study was intriguing.

The reality, while mentally stimulating and challenging, had not been at all what Parley had imagined. His two older brothers, Heber and Reed, and his younger brother, Parker, had remained aloof, convinced of their own superiority by reason of their upbringing, but Parley hadn’t wanted to be that way. He’d wanted to make friends and just be a regular kid. The first stumbling block to that, apart from the fact that he wore suits and ties to schools, was his name.

Parley had found himself the butt of many jokes, called “Parsley” or, more often than not, “nerd,” “geek,” “weirdo,” and sometimes, much to his shame, “faggot” or “Bible basher.” The first four didn’t bother him, not really; the last two did. Parley had no real problems with the Bible. He’d been raised to read it and supplementary books, and over the years, those books had become less of a chore and more like friends. There were stories in those books about people with diverse lives facing great trials and tribulations, being persecuted and hated. Parley had grown to love those stories and he clung to them when, late at night, he would lie awake in his bed trying to ignore the tears that streamed down his cheeks as he thought about school. His brothers snored around him, oblivious to his turmoil, and Parley retreated more and more into himself.

But it wasn’t just his fondness for the stories in the Bible, no. It was that Parley was painfully aware, more and more as he got older, that he was not like other boys. He wasn’t talking with his friends or family about taking Sarah Smith to the prom or Louise Gray to the church’s debutante ball. He was thinking about the boy who would be taking Sarah to the prom, what he’d be wearing, how he’d move on the dance floor, how he’d smile and laugh. He would watch the young man escorting Louise, trying not to let his gaze linger on the seat of his dark-colored trousers, not wanting to be obvious that he, Parley, was ogling another boy’s bottom. His father would kill him, his mother would never stop crying, and his brothers would disown him. Parley’s life had been focused on family and religion for so long that being bereft of either was frightening. As he grew older, the thought of losing his family became his biggest fear. Religion was everywhere, after all, as he learned in school. Family was not.

So Parley was definitely a faggot and he liked reading the Bible, which, he supposed, made him a Bible basher. He was a geek, a nerd, and a weirdo; he wore clothing more suitable for church or one of those super-expensive private schools. He was quiet, not interested in sports (except hockey, but everyone was interested in hockey), partying, getting high, or any other sort of teenage rebellion.

School had been dismal, all in all, bleak and full of a depressing sort of sameness. Go to class. Sit through it. Go to the next class, repeat until lunch time, then find a quiet spot to eat and make sure you didn’t get picked on. That had been Parley’s life until his final year when he’d met Zach. Zach had been sidelined from the soccer team due to an injury, and then he’d been made to take on a tutor, as he was failing math. That tutor was Parley. At first, things had been strained between them, but a mutual love of hockey had brought Zach out of his bad temper and they had quickly become friends.

Parley felt the corners of his mouth quirk upward. He couldn’t stay angry when he thought about Zach. Zach was his first and only real friend. Zach swore like a pirate, laughed a loud, bellowing laugh that seemed to be the very definition of joyful, and was quite possibly the most gorgeous guy Parley had ever seen in his eighteen years. Zach was funny and kind, and, as their tutoring sessions had progressed, he’d apologized for being so cranky when they’d first met. Parley’s smile grew as he remembered Zach saying to him, “Dude, sorry I was such an asshole back when I met you. I love soccer, you know? And being sidelined, that was like the shittiest thing in the world. And being told I was failing? That topped off the shitty cake with a shitty cherry. So I took it out on you, and I shouldn’t have and I just wanted to say, you know, I’m sorry.”

That apology had solidified Zach as the Sexiest and Nicest Guy Ever in Parley’s mind. Their friendship had deepened quickly and lasted the whole of their graduating year. More than that, it was Zach’s face that Parley would imagine late at night, when he lay curled into a ball in bed, his hand inside his pajama pants as he touched himself. It was Zach’s name that Parley would repeat like a litany as he fought away the sense of shame that came from what he did in the dark, the sinful touches that felt so good, so right. Parley was bad. He knew that. He was made wrong, and one day, sooner or later, he’d be punished for it.

Eighteen and cranky, hot in the sweltering Vancouver sun, his discomfort was made worse by the cheap polyester suit he wore. He walked toward the school—the old school, the school that was now in his past—because he didn’t know where else to go to get away from his family for a few hours. They were preparing for church service and his mom had been assigned to do the flowers for the chapel, and so everyone was running around, fetching things for her as she juggled the baby in one arm—Parley’s sister, Emma—and vases and other things in the other. Emma was a blessing, everyone said. Emma’s arrival was a sign to show that coming to Vancouver was following God’s plan. If that were true, Parley thought, then he’d build a temple in Emma’s honor.

Coming to Vancouver had ended up being the best damn decision his parents had ever made. Despite the disappointment that school life had been, everything else had improved dramatically. Here, there was less restriction on who Parley could see and talk to, there were more people—many thousands more, in fact—and the city seemed to stretch forever, like a tide of humanity and color that filled Parley's heart with wonder. There was less fear and there were people who weren't part of his religion, perfectly kind, honest, genuine people. The best of them was Zach, who Parley felt was one of the nicest guys on the planet.

Parley turned into the school, the gates wide open as the soccer team trained. He gave the field only a cursory glance and kept walking, making his way toward the atrium, with its shaded walls and lush plants. This was where he’d spent a good deal of his final year sitting with Zach and talking about more than just math or hockey.

In the atrium, he stopped, staring in surprise to see he wasn’t alone. It was summer vacation and he’d expected everyone to be gone. That the soccer team was training wasn’t really a surprise. Coach was always yelling about how they needed the extra practice after school, before school, on weekends, during vacations. Parley had sometimes wondered if Coach would make his team run drills in their sleep.

Parley squinted as he tried to figure out who was sitting there, half-hidden by a large palm tree that seemed so incongruous in a space full of bushes and flowers and an ancient oak tree. But the figure turned and Parley started. It was Zach.

“Zach! Hi!” Parley ran over to join his friend. He couldn’t wipe the smile off his face. He suddenly felt lighter, as if he were running on air, his feet given wings by the surge of happiness he felt at seeing Zach.

Zach looked up and his handsome face split into a broad grin. “Parley, hey. I didn’t hear you.”

“Sorry.” Parley shrugged and sat down beside Zach. “What’s going on?”

Zach huffed, the smile fading. “I had to get away for a while. My parents are giving me shit because my grades suck too badly to get into UBC. Honestly I don’t think they’re good enough to get into Kwantlen. They got pissy because I said I didn’t really want to go to college, that I wanted to get a job, and then Dad… well, Dad slapped me, and so here I am.”

“Oh my goodness. Your father hit you?” Parley was shocked.

“Yeah, but it didn’t hurt. It wasn’t that hard. I think he was more horrified he’d done it than I was. He’s never done that before and I did kind of push his buttons. But damn, man, I know that if I don’t get a scholarship, there’s little to no chance of getting to college. We just can’t afford it. And I’m not so smart that I’d even stick it out. So I’d rather get a job and support myself, but Mom and Dad didn’t like that idea. I don’t know why—it was a good idea, I thought.”

“Parents are weird,” Parley said.

“Damn right. What about you? What brings you here? I would’ve thought you’d be off somewhere, like Bible Camp.”

Parley laughed at that. “No, we don’t do that sort of thing at my church. Mom’s busy with my brothers and sister, and Dad’s at work, so I ducked out and went for a walk. I left them a note on the fridge, though, so they wouldn’t worry.”

“You know, if you got a cell phone, they wouldn’t worry so much anyway.”

“Mom doesn’t like them. She thinks they’re tools of Satan. That’s not part of the church,” Parley hastily added as Zach gave him a look, his eyebrows raised almost to his hairline. “That’s just Mom.”

“Ah. Okay. Weird, though.”

“Yeah.” Parley didn’t add that his mother had been born and raised in a closed community dedicated to a fanatical interpretation of his religion. He didn’t say that his mom had been raised to believe that a woman’s place was in the home and to be a good wife and mother, to have as many children as she could before her body gave out. He didn’t say that the compound where she’d grown up had been raided a few years earlier by the FBI, and hundreds of young men and women taken into state custody. That was another country, another time, another world.

“I’ve been thinking,” Zach was saying, and Parley pulled himself from his reverie to concentrate on his friend’s words.

“What about?”

“Well, I think I might just pack my things and go. Just… hit the road and see where it takes me. I’ve got a bit of money, not much, but it’d get me a cheap, crap car and I could just take off, go somewhere else, look for work, maybe do some classes at community college a bit later. The more I think about it, the more I like the idea.”

“Where would you go?” Parley was astonished at the audacity of the notion. He couldn’t imagine doing such a thing, certainly not on a whim. “Would you tell your parents? They’d stop you!”

“Of course I wouldn’t tell them, Jesus! I’m poor, not dumb. I’d leave them a note, like what you do, and just go. Call ’em when I got settled. I just don’t want to stick around here for the rest of my life.”

“But where would you go?” Parley asked again.

“I don’t know. North, south, east, west—does it matter? Pick a road, and drive.” Zach shifted to face Parley. “You should come with me.”

Parley gaped at him, stupefied by the statement. A legion of reasons why that was a bad idea marched through his head, promptly followed a small voice saying, You could be free. Really free. And with Zach, who you really like. Isn’t that what you want? To be free? To be who you really are?

Parley swallowed hard, as he felt fear rise within his chest. “I-I don’t know….”

“Come on, man, it’d be fun.” Zach lightly punched Parley’s shoulder. “You could wear clothes that weren’t suits. Wouldn’t you like to get up and put on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt? Go barefoot, walk through long grass and wriggle your toes in the dirt? Or what about not being made to read the Bible all the time? I know, I know. You like reading that, but wouldn’t it be better to read it when you want, and to read what bits of it you want, without someone else ordering you to?”

Parley privately admitted to himself that did all sound rather awesome. But the whole idea of taking off, of running away from everything he knew, was more than a little terrifying.

Zach continued. “We could go to a smaller town, somewhere away from here.” He leaned back on his elbows, so that he was half on the low wall and half on the garden bed behind it.

Parley pursed his lips. “I don’t know….”

“All right. Let me put it to you this way. Do you like your life the way it is now?”

Parley frowned. “You know I don’t.”

“Yeah, I know that, but do you?”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Parley protested.

Zach shrugged. “You keep telling me that you hate how your family lives, the stuff you have to do in the name of religion, that it’s not the religion that bothers you, or the Bible or that stuff, but how people twist religion to suit themselves and, most of the time, that doesn’t help anyone who follows it. Here’s a chance for you to get away from all that, to be your own guy, and to hang out with me, your best friend in the universe. At least try it out and see what you think.”

“Zach, running away in a beat-up old car is not exactly trying something out. It’s running away. My problems, and yours too, will still be here when we come back.”

“If we come back.”

“Fine. But they’ll still be here. And you say you’ll call your folks after you settle somewhere, but don’t you think they’ll take the whole country apart to find you? It doesn’t matter that I’m nearly eighteen or that you already are. They’re our parents and they love us. They worry about us. They just want us to have a great life and to be happy.”

“No, what they want is to live vicariously through us.” Zach scowled. “And don’t look surprised that I know a word like ‘vicariously.’ I’m not an idiot.”

“I know you’re not, and I was surprised that you felt like that, not that you used the word,” Parley said. “I would never say you were stupid. Never.”

Zach wrinkled his nose. “Sorry, man. I know you wouldn’t. But come on. This thing. Let’s do it.”

Parley shook his head and got to his feet. “I can’t. I have responsibilities.”

“You’re almost eighteen,” Zach said. “We’re teenagers. We should be about to begin our lives, not have them mapped out for us already by someone else.”

“I can’t listen to this. If you do it, at least come and say good-bye before you go,” Parley said.

Zach sighed. “Okay.” And then he hugged Parley, hugged him tight, and for a moment, Parley thought seriously about going with him, especially as it would mean being near Zach, his warmth, his vitality.

“I have to go,” Parley said.

“I’ll come see you tomorrow,” Zach said, ending the hug and stepping back. Parley felt suddenly colder and as if all the color had drained out of his life.

“Okay.” Parley turned and walked quickly out of the atrium. He didn’t look back, instead keeping his head down and his eyes fixed on the pavement as he made his way home. He wouldn’t do something so reckless and irresponsible as what Zach had asked him to. No, he wouldn’t.

But the closer he got to his home, the louder the little voice at the back of his mind grew. And as he entered the house and was assaulted by the sounds of his sister screaming, his mother yelling, his brothers talking over the top of one another and, from next door, a dog barking, Parley wondered. What would it be like? What would life be like not having to crowd into one room with twin bunk beds, sharing with three other teenage boys? What would it be like not having to start the day at 5 a.m. to do an hour of scripture study before getting ready for school? What would it be like not to have to say a prayer before every meal that was so long that by the time “Amen” was said, the food had gone cold?

“Parley! Get in here and take care of Emma!” Heber poked his head out of the living room and glared at him.

“Okay,” Parley said, and went to pick up his sister, gently jiggling her and singing wordlessly to her. Her face was as red as a tomato, screwed up as she wailed, and thankfully she was dry. Parley sent a quick prayer up toward heaven for that small mercy—he hated changing diapers. Soon, she calmed, and although her eyes were glassy and her small, pink bow lips were turned down, she was no longer wailing in his ear.

Parley moved to sit on the sofa and settled Emma on his knee. He leaned down to pick up one of her toys, a plush dinosaur with an outlandish yellow hat on its head, and Emma clapped her tiny hands together as he wiggled the toy in front of her. Of all his family, he would miss his sister the most, Parley thought. And then he stopped as he realized what it was that he’d just thought to himself.

He was going to do it. He felt a frisson of fear and excitement shoot down his spine. He was going to leave everything in his life behind him and go with Zach to wherever it was they ended up. He’d pack his bag and throw it out the window when his brothers were greeting their father, and then he’d grab it when Zach came to see him tomorrow.

Parley felt himself grow hot, as if he’d stuck his hand into a bucket of boiling water. It wasn’t summer doing this to him, but nerves. He cooed to his sister, and then he kissed her forehead. Smoothing back the fine ginger-blonde hair, he gazed into her wide blue eyes and said very softly, “I’ll miss you, Em.”

Emma made a happy noise and then giggled, reached out, and grabbed his nose in one hand. He yelped, then laughed. She giggled again and Parley hugged her close, feeling as if they were already separated. That had to mean something, but what it was, Parley had no idea. All that remained now was to pack the few things he wanted to take with him, along with his allowance, and leave. He’d tell his mom that Zach had bought a new car and they were going to the library to do some studying so Zach could apply to community college—anything that sounded plausible enough for her not to ask questions. And then he’d get in the car with Zach and they’d go.

“I love him a lot,” Parley whispered to his sister. He knew that she wouldn’t understand a word of what he said and there was absolutely no chance of her repeating to anyone what he told her. “I love him and that shouldn’t be a sin. It shouldn’t be something that’s immoral. Heavenly Father made us all in His image and if this was wrong, no one would ever feel the way they did.”

Emma nodded seriously, as if she understood what Parley was saying to her.

“Thank you, baby girl,” Parley said. “I’ll miss you when I’m gone. I promise I’ll try and keep in touch.”

Emma promptly hit him on the side of the head with her plush dinosaur and Parley laughed.

“Right, there will be no try. I will keep in touch with you.”

Emma nodded again and then giggled and leaned into him.

“I hope this doesn’t end badly for us,” Parley whispered as he cuddled her. Around him, the chaos of his family ebbed and flowed as his mother ran into the living room, demanding Heber tell her where he’d put the big vases the last time she’d brought them home from church, Heber in her wake saying he’d put them where she’d told him to and it wasn’t his fault if they’d been moved since then.

Parley watched it all, watched as Parker and Reed came into the room, Reed saying that their father was home now and had just pulled up in the drive, so they should go and greet him. Parley took a deep breath and got to his feet, saying, “I’ll just put Emma in her playpen first.”

No one paid him any mind as he left the living room carrying Emma and went to do exactly that… and pack his duffel bag with the clothes he liked the most, a few books, and the allowance money he’d saved up and hidden in his mattress. Heart pounding, Parley carefully dropped his duffel bag out the window, where it landed in a clump of rhododendron bushes and was hidden by foliage. Then he rushed out of his room, made sure that Emma was all right in her playpen, and went out to join his family in welcoming home his father. He stood slightly apart from the rest of his brothers, watching and listening, knowing they were paying little to no attention to him at all.

As Parley watched his parents discuss the flowers for Sunday, he wondered where he would be by then. His family would be sitting in pews near the front, singing gustily along with the choir and gazing rapturously at the speakers at the meeting, but he, Parley, would not be with them. He’d be with Zach and it would be the first Sunday in his entire life that Parley hadn’t been in a church service of some kind.

“I’ll make it up,” he said, directing his words heavenward. “I promise.”

There was no bolt of lightning, no clap of thunder. No sign or portent to suggest that what Parley was doing—and promising—was wrong. Parley took courage from that and felt comforted a little. Maybe this was the right thing to do after all.