Autoboyography

Chapter 15

Auddy smiles, but it’s this weird, bright, robot-girl smile. I nearly laugh, because the first thought I have is how much better Sebastian is than Autumn at fake smiling, and how that would be the worst possible thing to let slip out of my mouth right now.

“Let’s talk in the car?” I say.

She turns and walks around to the passenger side just as robotically. I’m in a weird state of shock, where Manny’s words and expression are looping in my head, and I know this conversation with Autumn is about to happen, but I’ve been waiting for it for so long that more than anything, I just feel insane relief.

Her door slams shut. I climb in beside her, sticking the keys in the ignition just to turn on the heat. “So.”

She turns to face me, tucking a leg beneath her. “Okay. What just happened?”

“Well, apparently Manny figured out that I’m into guys.”

She blinks. I know that Autumn is pro-gay rights—she adores Emily and Shivani, she rails about the LDS policy about queer members, and she helped put up flyers for the Provo High Gay-Straight Alliance party last spring. But it’s one thing to support it in theory. It’s another to have it right there, in her life. In her best friend.

“Technically, I’m bi. I’ve known probably forever, but I’ve been sure since I was thirteen.”

She points to her own face. “If I look anything other than fine with this, please understand I’m only upset that you didn’t tell me sooner.”

I shrug. I don’t really need to point out that the timing of me sharing this information isn’t up to her. “Okay. Well, here we are.”

“This feels like a big deal.”

This makes me laugh. “It is a big deal. I’m describing how my heart beats.”

She blinks, confused. “But you made out with Jen Riley sophomore year. I saw you,” she says. “And what about Jessa, Kailley, and Trin? You’ve had sex. With girls.”

“I also made out with you,” I remind her. She flushes, and I point to my chest. “Bi.”

“Wouldn’t it be weird if there was a girl at school—a girl we had talked about, who we both thought was insanely hot, and sweet, and perfect—and I was in love with her and dealing with that on my own and I didn’t say anything to you about it?”

I hadn’t really thought about it this way, and even that hypothetical makes me feel the tiniest bit sad, like all this time I was there, available, invested, and Auddy didn’t come to me because she didn’t trust me. “Yeah, okay, I get that. But in my defense, it’s Provo. And you know my mom. She is, like, militant about this stuff. There’s no room to be anything but one hundred percent on my side. I didn’t want to risk that you’d have any conflict or issue with me.”

“Oh my God. So much makes sense now.” She exhales, long and slow, turning to blow her breath on the window. A cloud of condensation appears, and Autumn draws a heart in it and then takes a Snap, typing an enormous red “WOW” before posting it.

“So, Sebastian,” she says.

“Yeah. Sebastian knows,” I say, intentionally misunderstanding her. “He found out by accident, though. The summary of my book . . . I forgot to take the word ‘queer’ out, and it’s pretty obvious it’s autobiographical.”

Her eyes widen at the way the word slips so easily from my mouth, and I forget not everyone lives in a household where a parent sleeps in a MY QUEER KID RULES nightgown. “Your book is about him?”

“It started out being about who I am, in this town. And then Sebastian came along and . . . yeah. It’s about falling for him.”

“Is he . . . ?”

“He’s never told me he’s gay,” I say. Technically, I’m not lying. It is not my place to out him, no matter what. “And he’s still going on his mission, so I assume . . .”

She smiles and takes my hand. “That doesn’t mean he’s not gay, Tann. Lots of Mormons are gay. Lots of missionaries, lots of married men, even.”

“I guess. I’m just . . . bummed.”

Autumn squeezes my fingers. Her cheeks flush just before she asks, “Have you had sex with a guy?”

I shake my head. “Kissed. I had a boyfriend for a few months back home.”

“Wow.” She bites her lip. “The idea of you and Sebastian kissing is . . .”

A laugh bursts out of my throat, and it sounds like relief. “And there she goes. Autumn is back.”

She peppers me with questions, and we decide to drive to the mall.

How did my parents react?

What does Hailey think of it?

Are there other guys at school I’ve liked?

How many guys have I kissed?

Is it different from kissing girls?

Which do I prefer?

Do I ever think I’ll be totally out?

I answer everything—almost. I obviously can’t tell her that kissing Sebastian is better than anything I’ve done, ever.

And, of course, I tell her that as soon as I get to college, I plan to be out. I was out in Palo Alto. The second my wheels hit the state line, I am going to roll down my window and wave my flag.

There’s an undercurrent to the conversation that’s impossible to ignore, an edge of hurt that I didn’t tell her sooner. Luckily, Autumn is easily distracted with hugs, and jokes, and ice cream. A spring inside seems to uncoil.

Autumn knows.

We’re okay.

Spending the rest of the day under the heat of her gentle grilling has the added benefit of not allowing me to obsess over Sebastian being gone, Sebastian not being gay, and—maybe especially—what Manny said back at the lake. It’s great that he’s supportive, I guess, but it still irks me that I’ll probably spend most of my life dividing the people I know into two groups: the people who support me without question and the ones who should. I’m glad that Manny ended up on the right side, but I can’t let myself dive into the rabbit hole of wondering how he knew. I hop between being relieved that it seems obvious to someone and still not a big deal, to worrying that it’s going to be obvious to more people . . . and become a big deal. Please let me just get out of Provo before the shit hits the fan.

We lick our ice-cream cones and meander through the thick Saturday evening crowd. Everyone shops on Saturdays; Sundays are for worship and rest. Mormons aren’t supposed to do anything on Sundays that require someone else to work, so most of the time, they stay home after church services. It means the crowds today are dense and exuberant.

The other thing that’s easy to notice is that prom is on the horizon: Storefronts at every clothing shop proclaim they have dresses, tuxes, shoes, earrings, flowers. Sale, sale, sale. Prom, prom, prom.

With Eric having manned up and asked Autumn, I get to be Supportive Best Friend again, which apparently means waiting patiently while she tries on dress after dress in the brightly lit fitting room.

The first one is black, floor-length, and fitted, with cap sleeves and a neckline that dips questionably low. It also has a slit that runs clear up her thigh.

“It’s a bit much . . .” I wince dramatically, keeping my eyes in the general vicinity of her face. “It’s a lot much, actually.”

“A lot as in good?”

“Can you wear that to a school dance in Utah? It’s . . .” I pause, shaking my head. “I don’t know . . .” I motion to the lower half of her body, and Autumn leans forward to see what I’m looking at. “I can practically see your vagina, Auddy.”

“Tanner, no. Don’t say ‘vagina.’ ”

“Can you even sit down with that on?”

Autumn moves to a fuzzy pink chair and crosses her legs as if to demonstrate.

I look away. “Thank you for proving me right.”

“What color are my underwear?” she asks, grinning like she thinks I’m lying.

“Blue.”

Autumn stands, tugging the dress back down. “Damn. I like this one.” She moves to stand in front of the mirror, and a tiny spark of protectiveness hums in my chest as I imagine Eric and his hands and eighteen-year-old hormones all over her. She meets my eyes in the glass. “So you don’t like it?”

I feel like a dick for making her think she’s anything less than perfect and shouldn’t wear whatever she wants, but it’s in direct conflict with some big-brother-like instinct to tie Eric’s hands behind his back. “I mean, you look hot. It’s just . . . a lot of skin.”

“I look hot?” she asks, hopeful, and I feel my brows come together.

“You know you are.”

She hums as she considers her reflection. “I’ll put it in the maybe pile.”

Autumn disappears back into the dressing room, and from the bottom of the louvered door I see the black fabric pool around her feet before being kicked aside. “How’s the book coming, by the way? Now that I know a little more about it, I’m even more curious.”

I groan as I scroll through Instagram. “I like it, but I can’t use it.”

She peeks around the curtain. “Why not?”

I keep it vague: “Because it’s obvious that it’s about me falling in love with Sebastian, and I don’t think the bishop’s son would particularly appreciate being the star in a queer love story.”

Her voice is momentarily muffled as she slips into a new dress. “I can’t believe it’s about him. I could beta read it for you?”

The suggestion sends a panicked shiver across my skin. I’d feel less exposed sending a roll of naked selfies to the Provo High LISTSERV right now than I’d feel sending this book off to someone. Even Autumn.

The curtain parts again, and she steps out in a dress that’s a third of the size of the one before, and I feel like I’m missing something here. Autumn’s changed in front of me before, but it’s been in more of a rushed my-boobs-are-coming-out-so-if-you-don’t-want-to-see-them-you-better-make-a-run-for-it-now kind of way. But this feels different. A little . . . flaunty.

God, I feel like a douche for even thinking it.

“It looks like a bathing suit,” I say.

Undeterred, she flips her hair over her shoulder and adjusts the tiny skirt. “So can I read it or not?”

“I’m not quite there yet. Soon.” I watch her shimmy in the dress, not happy with either direction this conversation is going, but knowing the dress is the safer route. “I like this one. It’ll get you grounded till graduation, but I think that’s the fun part.”

She looks in the mirror again, turns around to see it from the back. “It might be too short,” she says, considering. Her ass is just covered by the fabric. If she bent over to adjust her shoe, the entire dress would climb up her back. “But I’m not buying anything today. Just getting a feel for what’s out there so I can start an idea book.”

“Like you’d do for a wedding dress?”

She gives me the finger before moving back to the changing room. “Are you sure you’re not going to prom? It won’t be the same without you there.”

When she peeks out of the curtain, I give her a flat, patient face.

“Yeah, yeah. I know,” she says, slipping from view again. “I mean, you could ask him.”

It’s strange that this is reality now: talking about my sexuality to someone besides my parents. Talking about him.

“I’m pretty sure it would be a hard pass.”

I watch her feet as they climb into her jeans. “That sucks.”

I’m worried she’s starting to assume that something is happening with me and Sebastian even though I haven’t indicated it. “Let’s list the reasons it’s unrealistic: I don’t know if he’s gay. He’s LDS. He graduated last year. He leaves soon on his book tour and then his mission. I swear the last thing he would want to do is go to prom with me.”

Somewhere in my monologue, Autumn has emerged from the dressing room, but now she’s looking wide-eyed over my shoulder. I turn just in time to see Julie and McKenna leaving the store, madly typing on their phones.

• • •

Autumn doesn’t think they heard anything, but how the hell would she know? She was in the dressing room the whole time. I’m trying not to freak out, and as nice as it is that I think this brings it home for Autumn how precarious it can be to be queer here, her sweet babble in the background of my blender-brain isn’t helping calm me down.

Despite blowing up his phone nearly constantly, I haven’t heard from Sebastian. Now, for the first time, I’m relieved he’s out of cell range and I won’t be tempted to spill the events of the day with Manny, Autumn, Julie, and McKenna. I have to do some damage control or he is going to Lose. His. Mind.

“Do you think I should text Manny and find out what he was talking about?” I ask Autumn, turning onto her street.

She hums. “Or I could?”

“No, I mean, I would do it, but . . . I wonder if it’s better to just leave it alone. Pretend nothing is different.”

I pull up at the curb and put my car in park.

“How did Manny know, anyway?” she asks.

This right here is what I can’t figure out. And if Manny knows, maybe everyone knows. And if everyone knows and they see me with Sebastian . . . they’ll know about him, too.

• • •

I’m stress-watching an episode of Pretty Little Liars when the first text from Sebastian comes in. I almost bolt off the couch.

Just got home. Is it cool if I come over?

I look at the empty house around me. Hailey is at a friend’s and my parents are enjoying a rare night out together. It’s nearly nine, but no one will be home for a few hours. I know what my dad said about using this place to sneak around, but he can at least come over, right? We’ll hang on the couch, watch some TV. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Yeah, it’s just me here. Come over whenever.

His reply comes almost immediately.

Cool. See you in a few.

I run upstairs and change my shirt. I grab the kitchen garbage and clean up my soda cans and chip crumbs and throw the leftover pizza box away. I’m just coming in from the garage when the doorbell rings and I have to stop, take a few calming breaths before I cross the room, and open the door.

He’s standing there, wearing a black T-shirt, worn jeans with a rip in the knee, faded red Converse. Even lacking some of his normal polish he’s . . . breathtaking. His hair has fallen in his eyes, but it doesn’t mask the spark I see there.

I smile so wide my face hurts. “Hey.”

I step back so he can follow me in. Inside, he waits just long enough for me to move away from the door before he’s pressing me to the wall. His lips are as warm as his hand on my hip, where his thumb presses into the skin just above my jeans. That tiny touch is like a starter pistol in my blood, and I rock forward, so worked up by the thought of his hand and its general proximity to other parts that I can’t even remember why he’s not supposed to be here. I want him to tug the denim down. I want to take him to my room and see if he blushes everywhere.

A few more kisses and Sebastian sucks in a breath, moving to drag his teeth along my jaw. My head falls back with a mild thud, and only then do I see that I never got around to closing the door.

“Let me just . . . ,” I start, and Sebastian takes a step back. He looks around for the first time, in a mild panic as if only just realizing where he is.

Following the path of his attention, I tell him, “It’s just us.”

I can tell it shocks him how he just came in here and kissed me without any regard to what was going on deeper in the room. I won’t pretend it doesn’t surprise me, too. It’s the sort of impulsivity I’m known for, but he’s always seemed so much more measured. I like that I can break down his manufactured borders though. It makes me feel powerful, and hopeful.

Tugging him down onto the couch, I watch him fall back next to me. That’s right. I bet he was working his ass off all day building houses or digging ditches or something equally servicey. “How was your day?” I ask.

He loops his arm around my shoulder and pulls me closer. “It was fine.” I tilt my head back enough to see a splotchy blush bloom just beneath his skin. “I missed you.”

That sound you hear is my heart running full speed and jumping out of a plane. It’s flying. I don’t think I knew until he said that how much I needed to hear it. It lifts an eraser, rubs across the “Not . . . that.”

“I missed you, too, in case you couldn’t tell by the unending texts.”

A few moments of comfortable silence pass.

“Tann?”

I hum, looking over to see him squinting at the screen, confused. “What is this?”

“Oh. Pretty Little Liars. It’s the teen equivalent of a soap opera with dead-end plot twists and red herrings, but oh my God, I can’t look away. How many people have to die before you call the police?” I pick up a bag of chips and offer him one. “I’m shocked you haven’t seen it, Brother Brother, in all your spare time.”

He laughs. “What did you do today?”

My heart punches me from the inside. “Hung out with Autumn.”

“I like Autumn. She seems nice.”

My stomach clenches, and I wonder if I should tell him that she knows about me now, and then reject the idea immediately. She doesn’t know about this, right? It’d be cool for the three of us to hang out at some point, but I don’t think he’s anywhere near ready for that yet.

“Autumn is the best.”

The rest of what happened today trails like a stalking shadow: Manny, Julie, McKenna.

But Manny doesn’t know about us either. And if Julie and McKenna did overhear me at the store, all they would have heard is that Sebastian isn’t gay and won’t go to prom with me. He should be okay, right?

Sebastian’s phone goes off on the table, and he reaches for it. When he settles back, he pulls me closer. If I turned my head, I could kiss him again.

He types in his code and frowns down at the screen.

“Everything okay?” I ask.

“Yeah. I just . . . my mom.” He tosses his phone to the other side of the couch. I sit up, getting some distance for the first time since he walked in the house. His eyes are puffy and bloodshot. It doesn’t look like he’s been crying, but it does look like he’s been rubbing them an awful lot, something I’ve seen him do when he’s stressed.

“Oh, man. What now?” On top of school and tutoring and drafting his second book, he has his upcoming mission stuff to juggle.

“No, it’s fine.” He waves it off. “She wants to talk about what happened at the camp.”

This sets off some tiny alarm bell in my brain. “What happened at the camp?”

“We did an activity and it sort of got to me.”

I look over at him. “What kind of activity?”

I can see the flickering of the TV reflecting in his eyes, but I know he isn’t watching it; his head is somewhere back up on the mountain. “We do this thing called Walk to the Light. Have you heard of it?”

My expression must be largely bewildered, because he laughs and doesn’t wait for an answer. “They blindfold us as a group and have us line up, telling us to hold on to the shoulder of the person in front of us.”

Blindfolds in the woods? It sounds more horror movie than church activity.

“The group leader gives us instructions. ‘Go left,’ ‘go right,’ ‘slow down,’ and it’s fine because you can feel the person in front of you, feel the weight of a hand on your own shoulder.” He takes a breath, eyes flickering to the floor and back up to the screen. “Until you don’t. One minute you feel a hand on your shoulder, and then it’s gone. And it’s your turn to let go and follow directions.”

“That sounds terrifying,” I say.

Sebastian takes my hand, lining our fingers up. “It’s not too bad. Most of us have done the exercise before and know what to expect, but . . . it felt different this time.”

“Different like more confusing?” Because, honestly, that sounds awful.

“I don’t know how to describe it. The person who leads you off the trail takes you to a spot and tells you to sit and seek diligently for the Spirit, just like they always do. But it was different. I felt different.”

I sit up, fully turning to face him. “They leave you in the woods alone?”

“I know it sounds bad, but I’m sure if we could see we’d realize we’re not that far away from each other, and only barely off the trail. But we can’t look, so we sit quietly with our eyes closed, and wait, and pray.”

I look down to our hands and twist my fingers with his. “What do you pray for?”

“For whatever I need.” He looks down at our hands. I see a small quiver in his chin. “So I’m sitting there on the ground, and I can’t see, and after a while I hear something through the trees. Someone is saying my name—my dad. It’s quiet at first, but then gets louder as he gets closer. He’s calling my name and telling me to come home.”

A tear slips down his face. “I’ve done it before and it’s always a little scary. I mean, you can’t see, so of course it is, but this felt different—to me. Urgent in a way it’s never been before. So I stood up and followed his voice. My eyes were still closed, and I was tripping down this hill, hoping that I wasn’t about to fall off a rock or walk into a tree. But I kept going, knowing my dad wouldn’t let me get hurt but feeling like I had to hurry. When I finally got to him, he hugged me so hard and said ‘Welcome home,’ and that he loves me and he’s proud of the man I’m becoming. And all I could think was ‘Are you really? Would you still be if you knew about Tanner?’ ”

My chest goes tight. “Sebastian . . .”

He shakes his head, wiping tears away with the back of his hand. “You know, I have this dream where I’ve told them everything, about how I had a crush on a guy in eighth grade, and a handful of guys after that, and no one ever knew. In the dream I tell them how I’ve never wanted to kiss a girl—not once—and I can’t promise that I’ll ever want to get married. Then I’m waiting in the woods, and nobody ever comes. Everyone else peels off, heading out with their family, but I’m sitting there with my eyes closed, just waiting.” He blinks up to the ceiling. “I was so relieved that Dad was there this weekend that I almost promised myself I wouldn’t ever do anything to jeopardize that. But what if I never want what he wants for me? What if I can’t do it?”

My throat feels like it’s full of wet sand. I don’t even know what to say. Instead, I pull him to me, pressing his face to the crook of my neck.

“I’m just thinking about this so much lately,” he says, his voice muffled by my skin, “and trying to figure out what it means, but there aren’t any answers anywhere. There are all kinds of essays written for us about falling in love, and getting married, and becoming a parent. Even losing a child or questioning your faith. But there’s nothing about this, nothing helpful at least. Everywhere, it’s like ‘Same-sex attraction is just a technical term; it’s not who you are. You might not be able to control the feelings, but you can control how you respond,’ and it’s such a lie. We’re taught to turn our life over to Christ and he’ll show us the way. But when I pray? The Heavenly Father says yes.” He rubs his eyes with the heels of his hands. “He tells me he’s proud of me and that he loves me. When I kiss you, it feels right, even if everything I read says it shouldn’t. It makes me feel crazy.”

He turns in, and I kiss his temple, struggling to not lose it with him right now. No wonder he’s “not . . . that”—a label would take away everything he’s ever had. I want to be strong. I have it so easy. I have so much support. It aches to see that he has none of that.

“Babe, I’m so sorry,” I whisper.

“We’re supposed to pray, and listen—so I do. But then, when I turn to others, it’s like . . .” He shakes his head. “It feels like I’m pushing through the dark and I know that what’s ahead is safe, but no one is following me there.”

• • •

I’m still shaken up when I park outside Sebastian’s house a few days later.

After his confession, he stood up to use the bathroom, and when he came back and sat down next to me, he smiled and it was like nothing even happened. I’ve never met someone who is so good at switching gears and filing their feelings away so they can sort through them later. I’m not sure whether it’s the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen, or the most depressing.

We held hands as we watched TV, but when his phone went off again, he said he needed to get home. He kissed me at the door and looked back over his shoulder as he walked down the driveway, and e-mailed me that night to let me know that everything was fine.

Sebastian is really good at being fine.

The church has changed some of their wording lately, and just like Sebastian said, it emphasizes acceptance and kindness—always with the kindness—to those who are struggling with their sexuality. But it’s not actually a change in position; it’s a way to counter arguments that say the church isn’t welcoming to the LGBTQ community. In reading, I found it’s only recently spoken out against conversion therapy, saying a change in attraction should not be expected or demanded as an outcome by parents or leaders. So Sebastian could technically say that he was gay and not be forced from the church, but he couldn’t be with me. Having a boyfriend would mean he was actively pursuing a homosexual “lifestyle,” and that would still be against the rules.

Basically, it changes nothing.

I put my car in park and hop out. Sebastian’s mom is out front unloading groceries, and even though I really want to ask her who the hell would embrace a religion that excludes people for who they love, I jog up the driveway to help instead.

“Oh my gosh, Tanner. You are so sweet. Thank you,” she says, reaching for her purse.

I follow her into the house, setting the bags on the counter before going back outside for more. I don’t see Sebastian anywhere, but Faith is in the front room, stretched out on the carpet, coloring.

“Hi, Tanner,” she says, flashing me a toothless grin.

“Hey, Faith.” I look down at her drawing and realize it’s some sort of Ten Commandments coloring book. Don’t these people have anything that isn’t church-related? She’s halfway through the current page, on which a blue-haired Jesus is standing on a mountain addressing a rainbow-colored crowd. I sort of love this kid. “That’s a pretty great picture.” I point to a camel she’s embellished with wings. “Very creative.”

“I’m going to glue some glitter on it later, but I’m only allowed to do it in the kitchen. Are you looking for my brother?”

“I am,” I say. “He’s going to help me with my book.”

He’s not, but this remains an excellent alibi.

Mrs. Brother steps into the living room and smiles at both of us. “Wow,” she says to Faith. “Blue hair?”

“Jesus can have blue hair.” Her crayon scratches defiantly over the paper, and I want to tell her to remember that, to remember the things she believes and not let someone’s rules change them.

“Yes, I think he most definitely can.” Mrs. Brother turns to me. “Tanner, honey, I think Sebastian’s downstairs in his room.”

“Thanks,” I tell her. “Nice drawing, Faith.”

“I know,” Faith says, aiming her grin up at me.

“Tanner, there are some cookies on the counter.” Mrs. Brother straightens and motions toward the kitchen. “Can you take them down with you? He’s working on something and has barely come up for air.”

Yes, Mrs. Brother, I can definitely take cookies down to your hot son’s room. My pleasure.

“Of course.” I gather up my things and follow her into the kitchen.

“I’m taking Faith to dance soon, so if you two need anything else, just help yourself.”

A plate with six chocolate-chip cookies sits on the granite countertop. I’m just about to turn toward the stairs when something outside catches my eye, a flash of blue near the swing set. Sebastian had a blue shirt on today. It stretched across the defined expanse of his chest and showcased his biceps. I barely paid attention to anything else. I wonder whether he dresses every morning to torture me.

The sliding glass door slips silently across the track, and I step outside and onto the patio. I can see him from here, head down as he sits on one of the swings, drawing large swaths of yellow highlighter across lines of text in his book.

I cross the grass, and he looks up when he sees me. “Hey, you,” he says, eyes dropping to the plate in my hand. “You brought me cookies?”

“Technically, they’re your mom’s cookies. She just gave them to me.”

“She likes you,” he says, dragging his feet across the grass. “They all do. I knew they would.”

I laugh. “I have no idea why.”

“Come on, everyone likes you. Girls, boys, teachers, parents. My grandma called you the adorable one with the hair.”

“Your grandmother thinks I’m adorable?”

He looks up at me, squinting into the sun. “I think you know you’re adorable.” I want him to write those words down so I can read them over and over and over. “Are you going to give me a cookie?”

I hold his gaze for a moment before handing him one from the plate. They’re still warm. “She told me to take them to your room,” I say with a suggestive lift of my brow. “That’s where she thinks you are, by the way.”

He looks so much better today—happy—church-activity trauma apparently behind him. His mental and emotional resiliency is some kind of superpower.

When he grins, my heart does a little hiccup in my chest. “If she thinks I’m inside, I vote we hide out here.”

“She’s taking Faith to dance.”

“Still, it’s nice out.” Sebastian picks up his things, and I follow him to the shade of a giant tree. To anyone in the house we’d be invisible, completely hidden by the canopy of new, bright green leaves overhead.

I take one of the cookies and break it in half. “What are you working on?”

“Psych.” He flops the book closed and stretches out in the grass. I work to keep my focus on his face, but when he turns to me, I can tell he knows I was just checking out his happy trail. “How was it working in a group with McAsher today?” he asks.

I love that he seems so above the gossip cloud but totally isn’t. Sebastian sees everything. “She nearly fell out of her chair trying to show off her cleavage.”

“I caught that.” He laughs, taking a bite of cookie.

“How was the rest of your day?”

“Economics quiz.” He takes another bite, chews, and swallows. Watching his jaw work is mesmerizing. “Latin quiz too. Choir practice.”

“Wish I could have seen that.”

“Maybe next time you can cut school and watch.” He opens one eye to look at me. “I know how much you like flipping the bird to authority.”

“That’s me, four-point-oh student and juvenile delinquent.” I lick chocolate from my thumb and catch the way his eyes follow the movement now. A shiver moves down my spine. “Autumn is almost done with her book.”

He considers this. Maybe he sees the tightness in my eyes. “That’s good, but not necessary. I mean, you still have a month. Some people need more time to revise. Some people need less. You just need a finished draft by the end of term. Not a polished manuscript.”

I avoid his gaze, and he ducks down, catching my eye. “Are you going to send me chapters?”

I hate the idea of making him fix my book.

I also hate the idea of him seeing my fears and neuroses laid out so plainly.

So, I divert: “When did you finish writing yours?”

“Um.” He squints up at the branches overhead. “I finished in May—right before the deadline, if I’m remembering correctly—and turned in a draft a week later. I still wasn’t sure it was any good.”

“But apparently it was.”

“People like different things. You could read my book and hate it.”

“I highly doubt that.”

“You could. My mom’s probably already promised most of my author copies away, but I’ll snag you one. That way we’ll be even because you’re going to give me your book.” He offers up his most charming smile.

I tap the bottom of his shoe with the toe of mine. “A fancy New York editor has already read and bought yours. You know it’s not crap.”

“Your book isn’t crap, Tanner. It isn’t possible. Sure, details need to be changed to protect the innocent, but it isn’t crap. You’re too thoughtful, too sensitive.” He grins. “Yeah, I said ‘sensitive’ . . . despite your outward flippant thing.”

“My ‘outward’—” I start with a grin, but clap my mouth shut at the sound of voices overhead.

“What are you doing here?” Sebastian’s mom asks, and we duck lower, as if we’ve been caught doing something wrong. “I wasn’t expecting you home until dinner.”

When I lean forward, stretching to see, I see an open bathroom window just above our tree. She’s not talking to us.

Sebastian starts stacking his books. “Let’s go inside,” he whispers. “I don’t want to—”

“Brett Avery married his boyfriend in California last week.” We both freeze at the sound of his dad’s deep voice, and the tenor of hardened disapproval there.

Sebastian looks over at me, eyes wide.

I can only imagine the stricken expression his mom must be wearing, because his dad sighs, saying sadly, “Yeah.”

“Oh no,” she says. “Oh no, no. I knew he moved away, but I had no idea he was—” She stops short of saying the dreaded G-word, and lowers her voice. “How are his parents?”

For the briefest moment, Sebastian’s face falls, and I want to reach out and cover his ears, pull him into my car, and take off driving.

“They’re managing, I suppose,” he tells her. “Apparently Jess took it more calmly than Dave did. Brother Brinkerhoff is praying with them, and added them to the temple roll. I told them I’d stop by, so I just ran home to change.”

Their voices fade as they move to another room. Sebastian is staring mildly off into the distance, and the thunder of my silence rolls through me as I struggle to think of what to say.

How are his parents?

It can’t have escaped Sebastian’s notice that his mom didn’t ask about Brett or whether he was happy; she asked about his parents, almost like having a gay son is something they have to manage, to explain, to deal with.

He’s gay; he didn’t die. Nobody is wounded. I know Sebastian’s parents are good people, but holy hell, they just inadvertently made their own son feel like there’s something about him that needs to be fixed. So much for acceptance. So much for welcoming.

“I’m sorry, Sebastian.”

He looks up from where he’s gathering his highlighters, a tight smile on his face. “What’s that?”

A few seconds of bewildered silence tick between us.

“Isn’t it weird to hear them talk like that?”

“Talk about Brett being gay?” When I nod, he shrugs. “I don’t think anyone is surprised his parents are reacting the way they are.”

I search his face, wondering why he seems so resigned. “I don’t know. . . . Maybe if enough people get angry, things will change?”

“Maybe, maybe not.” He leans in, trying to get me to hold on to his gaze. “It’s just the way it is.”

Just the way it is.

Is he resigned, or realistic?

Does he even feel any of this is about him?

“It’s just the way it is?” I repeat. “So you’ll go off to wherever and preach the Gospel and tell more people that being gay is wrong?”

“Being gay isn’t wrong, but it’s not God’s plan, either.” He shakes his head, and I think this moment, right here, is when it really hits me that Sebastian’s identity isn’t queer. It’s not gay. It’s not even soccer player or boyfriend or son.

It’s Mormon.

“I know this must not make any sense to you,” he says carefully, and panic squeezes my gut. “I’m sure you have no idea what you’re doing with me or what I’m doing with you, and if you—”

“No.” I squeeze his fingers, not caring that someone could see. “That’s not what I’m saying. I want you. But I hate to think that your parents would ever look at us and think we are something to be fixed.”

It’s a long time before he answers, and I can tell he doesn’t entirely like what I’ve said because he pulls his hand away, tucking it between his knees. “I don’t presume to know why Heavenly Father does the things He does, but I know in my heart that He has a plan for each of us. He brought you into my life for a reason, Tanner. I don’t know what that reason is, but I know that there’s a purpose for it. I know that. Being with you isn’t wrong. The way I feel about you isn’t wrong. Somehow it’ll work out.”

I nod down at the grass.

“You should come along next weekend,” he says quietly. I hear it in his voice, the way he begs for this to be solved by me joining the church. The way he lifts the corner of the rug and capably sweeps this inconvenient dirt pile underneath. “We have a youth activity, and it should be pretty fun.”

“You want to bring your boyfriend to a church activity?”

His brows flicker down at this before he clears his expression. “I want to bring you.”