Being on book tour is like being able to breathe again. There are no chaperones or parents. There is no church.
Not that his mom didn’t try to tag along. He’s not sure if it was seeing Tanner that instigated it or just last-minute mom jitters, but she’d e-mailed his publicist two days before he was scheduled to leave. Thankfully, his publicist had explained that flights had been purchased and accommodations booked, and unless his mom was prepared to book cross-country flights and hotels for a thirteen-city tour, there just wasn’t time.
Sebastian has traveled outside of Utah for school trips and family vacations, but never like this. His publishing house arranges a car and driver to pick him up from the airport and drop him off at his hotel, he has a handler to get him to and from events, but the rest of the time is his.
His next signing is in Denver, and though it’s obviously not as big as the one back home, it’s still pretty crowded. There are only a handful of empty chairs during his talk. What a surreal awareness to catch, like a whiff of something delicious, that the strangers in this room even know who he is.
The line is mostly girls, but there are a few guys scattered in. Sebastian knows Tanner isn’t coming, but it never stops the way his pen runs off the page at the sound of a deep voice near the back of the line, or his eyes snap up in the hopes of a head of dark hair above the crowd.
Sometimes he can’t believe Tanner was actually there. His parents certainly didn’t want to acknowledge it. There was no one he could turn to after Tanner and Autumn left to ask, “That was Tanner, right?”
He’d wanted to tell him how much he loved the book, how reading it had changed something inside him, and how he’d printed it out the very next morning, knowing he’d take it on tour with him. But he couldn’t, not there. He hadn’t wanted Tanner to leave, but he had nothing articulate to say because the words “I miss you” were shoving their way to the front, boisterous and shrill.
It’s the missing that keeps him up at night—in Denver, in Austin, in Cleveland—and that’s always when he reaches for it, searching through his bag to pull out Tanner’s book. He can open it anywhere—page twenty, page eighty—because on every page he’ll find a love story that shines a light into the dark, dusty corners of his self-loathing, that remind him something did happen, that it was real. And it was right.
Sometimes he thinks about what he wrote in Tanner’s copy of Firestorm, and wonders whether Tanner even opened the book to see it.
Sebastian is hit with a wall of heat as he steps out of the Salt Lake City International Airport, and wishes he had changed out of his shirt and tie before leaving JFK.
“I can’t believe you got to go to New York,” Lizzy says, clutching a small glittery Statue of Liberty to her chest. She’s back to her old self, and it makes him wonder whether it’s because everyone expects he’s back to his, too. “Was it as cool as it looks on TV?”
“Cooler.” He wraps an arm around her shoulder and pulls her in, pressing a kiss to her hair. It was nice to get away, but he can’t believe how much he’s missed her. “Maybe we can go there sometime,” he says. “When the next book is out.”
Lizzy pirouettes her way along the crosswalk. “Yes!”
“If Lizzy gets to go to New York, then I think we should go to San Francisco and visit Alcatraz. Did you go there?” Faith asks, looking up at him.
“I didn’t, but I saw it from the pier. My handler took me to dinner at this seafood place, and we walked along the water. I didn’t know you wanted to go or I’d have sent you a picture. I think I have one in my phone.”
Faith forgets any possible insult when Sebastian scoops her up to carry her over his shoulder. Her delighted squeal is deafening in the cement parking structure.
Mrs. Brother unlocks the doors, and the question sits like a stone in Sebastian’s chest. “Dad and Aaron couldn’t come?”
“Your father took Aaron along to a couple of house calls today, but he said he’ll see you at dinner.”
Sebastian spoke with his dad a handful of times over the last two weeks, but there’s a knee-jerk reaction to him not being here. His father’s absence from this return is a heartbeat in the tip of a cut finger. He feels it so acutely, so constantly, because it’s wrong.
Fortunately, he doesn’t get to dwell on it because as soon as Lizzy sings that dinner is a surprise, Faith—unable to keep the secret any longer—shouts, “It’s pizza!”
Lizzy clamps a hand over Faith’s mouth and delivers a loud smooch to her cheek. “Way to blow the surprise, dweeb.”
Sebastian leans forward, helping Faith with her seat belt. “Pizza for me?”
She nods, her giggles still muffled behind the weight of Lizzy’s hand.
Sebastian loads his bag into the back.
“And before this one blows it,” his mom says, buckling her seat belt as he climbs into the passenger seat. “There’s something else.” She grins over at him. “I sent your papers off.”
He nods, giving her a pleased smile, but words don’t immediately come because the wind has been quietly knocked out of him. Time away was good. He misses church, and the kinship of being surrounded by like-minded people. He misses Tanner, too, but knows the mission is still the best path for him.
It’s just that he thought he would send off his mission papers himself when he got home. He’d hoped sending them off himself might solidify the decision, make it real and set his path in motion.
Her grin slips, and he realizes she’s been anxious about telling him. She was worried she would get this exact reaction—uncertainty.
He does everything he can to wipe it from his face, replacing it with the smile that seems to move across his mouth with the reflex of an inhale. “Thanks, Mom. That . . . makes things so much easier for me now. One less thing to worry about.”
It seems to have done the trick. She softens, turning back to the wheel. They drive down the ramp, navigating the maze of construction cones as they go. Pulling up to the kiosk, she slips her parking stub into the machine and turns to him. “I was wondering how you’d feel about doing it with everyone together.”
“Do what together?”
“Opening your letter.” She turns back to the kiosk to pay, and in that ten-second reprieve, Sebastian struggles to bury the panic that follows the reality of those three words. She means his mission call.
A voice in the back of his head screams no.
It’s like living with a split personality, and he closes his eyes, inhaling slowly. It was so much easier to be away. The impending mission was palatable from a distance. The constant imposition of his mother, the weight of expectation—coming back home is overwhelming even ten minutes in.
He can feel the engine rumble and realizes she’s done paying and they’re moving forward. When he looks over at her, her jaw is tight, eyes hardened.
Sebastian feigns a yawn. “Oh my gosh, I am so wiped. Yeah, Mom, that sounds amazing. I assume Grandma and Grandpa would come too?”
Her shoulders relax, smile returns. “Are you kidding? They wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
An hourglass has been tipped over in his stomach, pouring lead. He takes a shallow breath.
“But I don’t want Sebastian to leave again,” Faith calls from the backseat. “He just got home.”
“He wouldn’t leave yet, honey,” his mom says, meeting her eyes in the rearview mirror. “Not for a couple months.”
Sebastian turns and gives his baby sister an encouraging smile, and he can’t even explain it, but he has the urge to reach for her, pull her to him. Two years. She’ll be almost thirteen when he gets back. Aaron will be learning to drive, and Lizzy will be ready to start college. He’s homesick and he hasn’t even left yet.
“So you’d be okay with that?” she asks. “It wouldn’t be too nerve-racking to have everyone there?”
Sebastian leans his head against the back of the seat and closes his eyes.
Heavenly Father, please give me strength. Give me the wisdom I need, the surety of decision. I’ll follow wherever you lead me.
“I think it’s a great idea,” Sebastian whispers. “It sounds perfect.”
• • •
The plus side to being gone was that his problems seemed a lot smaller from far away. The feeling isn’t real, and he realizes it as soon as he walks into his house—surrounded by familiar sights and sounds and smells. Reality comes crashing back.
He’s just put his suitcase on his bed when there’s a knock.
“Can I come in?” His dad peeks his head around the partially closed door. “I see our world traveler is back.”
“Yeah. And exhausted.”
There was a tentative cease-fire when the book came out and his parents were able to see the pride of the entire community focused on Sebastian. But he hasn’t had much time alone with his dad in months, and Dan Brother’s presence in Sebastian’s room makes the space feel claustrophobic.
“You have plenty of time to rest up before dinner,” he says. “I just wanted to bring you this.” He hands him a stack of mail. “And I wanted to welcome you home. We’re very proud of you, son. I know you had a rough patch, and it’s made me prouder than you can realize to have witnessed you rise above it all, and be stronger for it. ‘Adversity is like a strong wind: It tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that we see ourselves as we really are.’ ”
Sebastian frowns, trying to recognize the Scripture. “I don’t know that one.”
Bishop Brother laughs, and looks at Sebastian with fondness. “Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha.”
“Okay, yeah, I would never have gotten there.”
The laugh deepens, and his father’s eyes shine. “I guess I’ll leave that one out of Sacrament next week.” He turns to leave before stopping near the door. “Oh, and your mom said there was something in there from Mr. Fujita.” He nods to the stack of mail in Sebastian’s hand. “Might be your last paycheck, so don’t wait too long to open it.”
“I’ll go through it after I unpack.”
When his father leaves, the air slowly drains from his lungs. He closes his door completely and crosses the room to unpack. Toiletries, sweaters, suit, jeans. Underneath is the copy of Tanner’s book he’d printed and taken with him.
The pages are worn, there’s a grease stain on the front from a restaurant in Denver, and the edges are curled in the upper right corner where he would flip through with his fingers as he read. Although he’s probably read the entire thing at least ten times, after the first read, he never started at the beginning. He would flip through and stop, reading from whatever point forward he chose. Sometimes he would start while Tanner was clothes shopping with his mom and Autumn. Other times he would open to the section at the lake, and faggot, and Tanner’s mortifying exchange with Manny.
But being far away from home made him feel removed from this, too. His problems at home might not be real, but if they weren’t, that meant Tanner wasn’t real either. He didn’t have any photographs of him, but he had this book.
Sebastian takes the manuscript and slides it behind his headboard before opening the envelope from Fujita.
I hope this letter finds you many books lighter, and many adventures richer. I wanted to update you on our mutual friend’s manuscript. I’m not sure if you’ve spoken to Tanner, but he knows how I came into possession of his novel. He called when grades were posted, certain I’d made some kind of mistake. I was happy to inform him that I had not.
I’ve been working with him on revisions, and encouraged him to make significant changes. Not changes to the subject per se, but seeing as how I think he could really have something here, I suggested changing the names and characteristics of the two lead protagonists, along with any other identifiable details. I’ve been in contact with a handful of editors, and there’s a possibility the Seminar could be two for two. We would, of course, consult you first.
My deepest gratitude, Sebastian, for your bravery. I wish you well. You are an exceptional human, with depth and heart. Don’t let anyone—or anything—dim that light inside you.
Indeed, behind the letter he finds his final check, and Sebastian sends up a silent word of gratitude; when his parents ask about it later, he won’t have to lie.
Staring down at the paper, Sebastian understands his mom’s urgency in sending his application off. Fifteen minutes and he’s right back where he started, missing Tanner with an intensity that has every muscle poised and ready to propel him straight out the door.
It’s too much to imagine Tanner’s book being published, and so he pushes it away, suddenly grateful he’ll be gone again soon, maybe out of the country. Far enough that he can outrun the ache and the temptation to see him again, just once, and tell him everything.
• • •
The next weeks move in a time warp. House calls with his father, mowing lawns for everyone and their grandmother, helping families move. Sebastian barely has time to dig behind his bed every night and read a few pages of Tanner’s book before his eyes are pulled closed by total exhaustion.
The letter, his mission call, arrives on a Tuesday, and the envelope sits on the kitchen counter, untouched, for four days. His mother’s family is flying in from Phoenix. His great-grandmother is due to arrive from St. George by five. A dozen friends and family are driving down from Salt Lake, and countless others are coming from just down the road.
By three his mother has tiny armies of appetizers laid out on baking sheets. Pot stickers, quiches, mini Frito pies, and—to the side—a huge vegetable platter. Faith and Lizzy are in matching yellow dresses. He and Aaron wear identical navy suits.
His hands shake. His jaw is tight from clenching it. They all pace, make small talk, wait.
Tanner’s voice is a soft, teasing loop in his head. If you hate this so much, why are you doing it?
The answer is easy. When he thinks of being gone, he relaxes. When he speaks to God lately, he feels better. It isn’t the mission or the faith he’s unsure of. It’s the weight of his parents’ shame and the pressure of their expectation.
He walks, heart on fire, to the kitchen. “Dad. Can I take the car for a few?”
Bishop Brother looks up, eyes concerned. “You okay?”
“Nervous,” he says honestly. “I’m fine. I just . . . I need to go down to church for ten minutes.”
His father likes this answer, cupping his shoulder in a palm and squeezing with a gesture of solidarity before handing over the keys.
Sebastian means to go to church, he does. But instead, he turns left, not right, drives straight when he should turn, and eventually finds his way down the NO ACCESS dirt road. He parks there, dragging a blanket from the trunk and staring up at blue skies, trying to remember the stars.
It isn’t the same out here now. For one, it’s sweltering; the air swarms with mosquitoes. The second difference—the absence of a long body beside him—is even more notable. He gives himself ten minutes, and then twenty. He tries to say good-bye to Tanner, but even when he closes his eyes and asks God for the right words, for the spell that will unlock his heart, they don’t come.
Sebastian learned on tour that one of the responsibilities of being a published author is having social media. He has accounts, but they remain largely inactive, in part because the temptation is so great.
He’s resisted so far, but lying on the hood of his car, he finally caves and opens Instagram, searching for Manny’s name. Scrolling down his list of followers, he finds what he’s looking for: tannbannthankyouman.
A laugh tears out of him.
Tanner’s account is unlocked, and Sebastian presses his thumb to the profile image, expanding it. It’s a terrible idea. He knows it. But when Tanner’s face pops into view, his heart seems to fill with warm water, pressing everything else aside. It’s a picture of Tanner holding an enormous pink flower. It obstructs half of his face, but his eyelashes seem three-dimensional. His eyes are luminous, hair shaggier than the last time he saw him, mouth curled into that singular, joyful smirk.
Tanner’s Instagram feed is even more addicting than Sebastian expected: a picture of him in the backseat of his car, pretending to strangle his father from behind. A picture of Hailey, fast asleep beside him, with the caption, I NEED AN ALIBI #NOREGRETS. A picture of a hamburger, some terribly fake aliens, Tanner’s Camry parked at a curb in front of a building called Dykstra Hall, and then—Sebastian nearly sobs audibly—a photo of a smiling Tanner standing in an empty dorm room, wearing a UCLA shirt.
Sebastian’s thumb hovers over the “like” icon. If he touched it, Tanner would see. Would that be so terrible? Tanner would know he was thinking of him. Maybe in time they could even follow each other, keep in touch, talk.
But this is where Sebastian gets into trouble. In his head it never stops at talking. It goes to phone calls, and meeting up, and kisses, and more. Because even now, as people are probably arriving at his house—all of them here for him—he’s still thinking of Tanner.
In a few weeks, he’ll receive the Melchizedek Priesthood, and after that he’ll go through the Temple, receive his endowments—and he’s thinking of Tanner. He tries to imagine wearing his garments—something he’s looked forward to his whole life—
And he can’t breathe.
He’s gay. He’ll never be anything else. Tonight they’ll all be waiting for Sebastian to give his testimony and speak on how full of joy he is that he’s been called to spread God’s word wherever He’s chosen to send him, and he doesn’t even know where he fits into God’s word anymore.
What is he doing?
• • •
As he goes inside his house, his mouth waters—it smells like food. His mom comes up, gives him a squeeze and a cookie.
She looks so happy, and Sebastian is about to ruin everything.
He clears his throat. “Hey, guys.” Not everyone is here yet, but the important ones are. Five smiling faces turn in his direction. Faith tugs at her dress, straightening proudly when he looks at her. He remembers what it feels like, to be little like that and watch someone as they’re about to open their letter. It’s like sharing a room with a celebrity.
His heart splinters. “You all look so nice tonight.”
His mom moves to stand near the dining room table. Her apron says KEEP CALM AND SERVE ON, and all he can think about is Tanner’s mom and her rainbow apron that embarrassed her son, and what Sebastian would give to have a parent who accepted him for what he was, no matter what.
“Sebastian?” his mom says, taking a step closer. “Honey, are you okay?”
He nods but feels a sob rise in his throat. “I’m sorry. I’m so . . . so sorry. But I think I need to talk to Mom and Dad for a few minutes alone.”