Of course he loved the story of Joshua in the Bible the best. He had been named for him, after all. And there was a magic about it: the idea that the voices of the people could cause the walls to crumble.
He didn’t say any of this at Bible study, though. Something had changed in him this summer. He no longer wanted to reveal his understanding of the Bible to the others. Now he was like the others: bored, complacent. He would not, however, slump in his folding metal chair like some of them. Regina didn’t deserve rudeness. Since she was the leader of the youth group she was supposed to be called Miss Regina, but she had recently told them to please not do that anymore unless they were in front of the preacher. “It makes me seem like a kindergarten teacher,” she had said, quietly, as if speaking loudly would put too fine a point on this small defiance. She was the only relatively cool adult at their church. Unlike her husband, the music leader for the youth group, she didn’t try to be cool. Lonnie was always strutting around or posed somewhere strumming his guitar and trying to get everyone to do singalongs of “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” with him. The kids liked Regina because she wasn’t openly judgmental, like the others, and found small ways to show this.
She could have been really pretty, Joshua thought. At twenty-one she was barely five years his senior. Regina was very slender, with a long, elegant neck. Her hands floated in front of her like birds as she tried to draw comments out of the teenagers gathered around her. But she was so intentionally plain, the way the women at the Cumberland Valley River of Life Church were expected to be. No makeup, no jewelry, their dresses ill-fitting and styled for old women. Even her pantyhose were awful: white. Joshua couldn’t understand why anyone would wear pantyhose to make their legs appear more white, especially in summertime.
She wore her long sleeves throughout the summer, too, and he knew why. Once her sleeve had slid away from her wrist and Joshua had caught sight of three round bruises the size of fingertips on her forearm. She had jerked the cuff of the blouse back down to her wrist and crossed her arms as if freezing.
“What do you think, William?” Regina asked the new preacher’s son, who was gorgeous but Joshua couldn’t let himself think about that. His big mop of curly brown hair was made more wonderfully disheveled each time he thoughtlessly ran his long fingers through it. His right hand possessed a constellation of freckles arranged on that meaty V below his thumb. Joshua wanted to kiss those freckles and William’s full lips, the color of red grapes.
William was saying how the story of the Battle of Jericho was about obedience. “Joshua always does what God tells him, even when it seems crazy, like marching around the city seven times and then shouting.” Joshua looked at Regina to avoid staring at William and found that her eyes were firmly locked on William’s beautiful hands.
“I think Joshua should talk about it since he’s named Joshua,” William said, in conclusion, a little laugh at the edges of his words.
Joshua snapped his chin up, suddenly alert, like someone who has been dozing in class. All eyes of the group were on him now. William had been thinking of him. William actually knew his name. This was only the new boy’s second visit to Bible study. His father had started as the new pastor at Cumberland Valley just a couple weeks ago. They had never spoken to one another.
“Well?” Regina said. “Joshua?”
“I don’t know,” he said, stammering. “It’s a pretty good story, I guess.”
“Why?” Regina asked.
“I like that they bring the walls down without violence,” he said. “Instead they do it with prayer. With their trumpets and voices.” He realized then that he seemed too into the story so he shrugged and added: “That’s pretty cool, I guess.”
“Yes, I think it’s about the rewards that come when we are obedient to God,” Regina said, now allowing her eyes to skim over the faces of all eight teenagers gathered around her. “They win the battle of Jericho through being dutiful. So it reminds me that all things are possible, through God. Through obedience and prayer.” Regina sounded to Joshua as if she were trying to convince herself of this instead of them. “Sometimes we get in impossible situations where we can’t see a way out. They were up against impossible odds. But they prayed, and obeyed, and that was their saving grace.”
“But what about Yvonne?” This from Joshua’s younger sister, Hannah.
“I know, honey,” Regina said. “God has His own plan and sometimes that surpasses our own understanding.”
Hannah slumped forward with her wrists on her knees, defiant. “We prayed and she still died.”
Somehow she had an endless supply of concert tees: Blondie, AC / DC, ELO. He couldn’t imagine where she got them.
Regina’s little sister, Yvonne, had died of bone cancer a year ago, when she was fifteen. Her death had changed all of them, but Hannah the most, as they had been inseparable since kindergarten. Ever since Yvonne died Hannah could barely hide her contempt for all things of the church. Now she changed into Levi’s and a T-shirt when she got to school instead of the dresses their mother required her to wear. Somehow she had an endless supply of concert tees: Blondie, AC / DC, ELO. He couldn’t imagine where she got them. Joshua had heard the rumors about his little sister. People said she gave hand jobs to the basketball players down by the river behind the school.
“It’s not our place to question Him,” Regina said, not very convincingly. “That’s one of the lessons of Joshua and the Battle of Jericho.”
“Oh, come on,” Hannah said, and crossed her arms with force. Of course she was wearing the paisley vest Yvonne had given her from her death bed. She had worn it ever since Yvonne’s funeral, which had been held in the school gymnasium because so many people came. The girls had cried and collapsed on the coffin. The boys had all stood unnaturally silent and shoved their hands into their pockets. Joshua wished he had not gone to the casket because he was haunted by the sight of Yvonne in her powdery makeup. Her small hands folded over one another. The watermelon-pink dress.
Regina had stood at the coffin with her parents, tears streaming down her face, but Hannah had not cried. Hannah had only been angry.
Now Regina rose and crossed to Hannah. William jumped up from his place beside Hannah so Regina could take it. He sat down next to Joshua. Joshua wondered if she ever wanted to shake Hannah and tell her that Yvonne had been her sister, after all, that she should be allowed to grieve her instead of constantly reassuring Hannah. But she was always patient with his sister. Everyone else watched Regina but Joshua studied the freckles on William’s hand.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” Regina said, pulling Hannah to her. He was surprised that his sister surrendered herself to this embrace. “I know it doesn’t make sense right now.”
“It never will,” Hannah said, sounding very little, and pity stirred unexpectedly in Joshua’s chest. When they were children he had been protective of her but these days she just embarrassed him all the time. Her face was pressed tightly against Regina’s chest but her hands lay without commitment on the woman’s back. “Never, ever.”
“We have to trust in God, sweetie. We have to pray and try our best to get through it.”
Hannah tore herself away and sat very erect, took a shuddering breath. Only then did he realize how close she had been to weeping. “Can we just go?” Hannah said, her eyes lighting on Joshua’s. “I want to go home.”
“Let’s pray first,” Regina said.
Hannah rose and stomped away. When she went out, the rectangle of white light at the open basement door was a surprise. The group looked at Joshua as if he should follow her, but he didn’t move. He expected her to slam the door but instead, she left it halfway open, which somehow seemed even more disrespectful.
Regina put her hands out to the girls on either side of her, which caused them all to do the same. And so William was holding his hand, his thumb pressed firmly into the meat of Joshua’s palm. His groin was stirring and he was so afraid he would get an erection that he forced himself to think about the way Yvonne had looked in her casket, her small hands, her frilly pink dress.
“Help us to better understand your mysterious ways, O Lord,” Regina whispered. Usually her closing prayer went on for ages, with special time spent on the Iranian hostages, but today’s was blessedly short. Joshua snuck a glance at William but when he did he saw that William’s eyes were clenched tightly shut. “And spread your happiness over us all. Amen.”
Two days later William showed up at their house in his little white Datsun and asked Joshua to go swimming with him.
As soon as they were on the road, William thrust a cassette into the player and AC / DC started playing “You Shook Me All Night Long.” William bobbed his head to the beat, one hand on the steering wheel and the other floating out the open window. The only other band that was more forbidden to them was KISS. William’s father’s very first sermon had been about KISS, AC / DC, and Prince. KISS was the worst because their name stood for Knights in Satan’s Service. The preacher said the name AC / DC either meant that the band promoted bisexuality or it stood for Anti-Christ / Devil’s Child. Most likely both. And he had declared everything Prince sang to be “sex songs.”
Joshua did not bob his head. He had no intention of going to hell. The one comfort after Yvonne died was that he knew she was in heaven. She had most certainly never cursed or listened to dirty music. She prayed in the lunchroom over her food long after others stopped doing that because they were embarrassed to, like cowardly Peter who had denied Christ.
“Don’t you like this song?” William said, turning down the volume enough to talk.
“It’s pretty dirty,” Joshua said.
William laughed. “Are you serious?”
Joshua just looked back at him, hating that he had disappointed him.
“You really believe all that stuff?” William asked.
“Not all of it. But some of it, yeah. I mean, I think we have to act a certain way to get into heaven.”
“Dude,” William said. “We don’t. We are seventeen years old, man. You think those fuckers didn’t party when they were our age? They did.”
Joshua hadn’t heard the f-word much. Most everyone he knew went to church with him and were afraid to say it, too. Part of him hated the word but another part of him felt a thrill at hearing it spoken by those lips.
“I don’t know. There’s plenty of good music so I don’t see any reason to listen to the dirty stuff.”
“Like what?” William was leaned back in his seat, driving with his wrist propped atop the steering wheel.
“Like the Police. Or Michael Jackson.” His parents didn’t allow him to listen to either of them. He felt a little guilty about sneaking around but since there was nothing vulgar in their music he didn’t see the harm in it.
“Yeah, the Police are pretty good. Michael Jackson’s too pop for me. But hey, I know somebody you might like,” William said, his eyes green as lake water. He directed Joshua to get his cassette carrier from the back seat. It was flat and brown like a little briefcase and the silver latch on the front gave a pleasing click when he undid it. The case was full—twenty-four cassettes, he counted, and arranged alphabetically. He imagined William carefully putting them in order.
“Please tell me you love John Lennon,” William said. He took his hands off the wheel for two seconds to put them together in a praying pose. “Please please please.”
“I’ve not really listened to his solo stuff.” The Beatles were absolutely not allowed in their house. Especially John Lennon because he was the one who had said the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. That went beyond sacrilege—that was blasphemy. And blasphemy was the one unforgiveable sin, even worse than homosexuality, which could at least be forgiven as long as someone stopped doing it before it was too late. Then Lennon had also gone and encouraged people to imagine there was no heaven, which had sent Joshua’s parents both over the edge. The only person they hated more than John Lennon was Madalyn Murray O’Hair.
“I know. My dad hates him the worst too. But he’s my favorite of all time. Lennon. Oh my God. I’d fuck him I love him so much.” William glanced down at the cassettes and slid his pointing finger across the spine of one of the tapes. “Play that one, buddy,” he said.
Joshua inserted it and William immediately hit the fast forward button. “I’ll start you off with his most accessible. Ease you in,” he said, smiling like this was mischievous. He came to the place he wanted on the tape as the song before faded away. Then: the blare of a saxophone, a pounding piano, and Lennon launching right into the song.
“That’s Elton John on piano and background vocals!” William yelled over the music. “I fucking love Elton John too. Do you?”
Joshua didn’t see the point in cussing when there were plenty of good words.
No, he did not, mostly because Elton John had put out that song that said “bitch” about a hundred times. He wished William wouldn’t say the f-word because he knew good and well that was wrong and there was just no sense in it. Joshua didn’t see the point in cussing when there were plenty of good words. He did not agree with his parents and the pastor and practically everyone else he knew that cursing would send a person to hell—why would it, Joshua thought, when it was just words men had made up—but he did think it was rude and unnecessary.
Now Lennon was singing that his darling should listen to him and trust him. And William was singing every word: Whatever gets you through the night. He was moving around in his seat and nodding his head and twisting his shoulders, feeling every part of the song. Joshua liked it too. He liked the horns—just like in the Battle of Jericho.
Everyone from their youth group was at the spillway.
Hannah was doing cartwheels in a red two-piece at the water’s edge. She had told their mother she was going over to Karen Adams’s house to plan out a Girls’ Group bake sale. William never even glanced toward the gaggle of girls who were lying on beach towels on the bank, but they all sat up in unison to watch as the boys made their way down the shore. William threw his towel down on the sandy bank, kicked off his rubber flip-flops, and plucked off his shirt. The girls collapsed against each other in giggles.
And God, he was magnificent. His stomach was flat and hard like the models in the JCPenney catalogs Joshua’s mother kept in a stack by the toilet. The same models Joshua masturbated to when his prayers failed him. He always felt guilty, afterward. Sometimes he wished he had never been born, afterward. More than once he had considered killing himself, afterward. Taking pills or hanging himself. The only thing that stopped him was the prospect of eternal damnation.
William ran into the water and so Joshua followed, diving in and slicing through the water as he blew air out of his nostrils. This was the only time he felt free, speeding underwater. As soon as he came up William was splashing him and laughing like they’d known each other their whole lives. He felt like they had. He felt like he had been wishing for William before he even knew he existed.
After a while William stopped splashing and wiped at his eyes. His elbows pointed at the sky as he raked both hands through his tangle of curls, briefly exposing his armpits, which were the only part of him that weren’t tanned golden.
William looked to the bank where Hannah was maybe watching them or maybe just looking out at the acorn-green water of Cedar Lake. Joshua figured she was probably thinking of when Yvonne’s parents used to bring all of them down here for a swim.
“Is your sister a psychopath, or what?” William said.
“She’s just sad about Yvonne,” Joshua said, cutting him off before he could be more insulting.
“She’s a mess, man,” William said.
Joshua didn’t know how to reply. He was surprised by how defensive he felt of her. She did act like a mental case sometimes, but there was some kind of power in the way she said what she thought and did what she wanted.
William lunged toward Joshua and caught his neck in a chokehold, their bodies slick against each other in the silky water. “Got you, asshole!” William cackled and maneuvered around behind him so that Joshua could feel his penis against his back. Not stiff but absolutely present, and big even if it wasn’t hard.
Boys were always wrestling, but nobody ever wrestled with Joshua. Most of the boys at school ignored him for the most part. He had always been friends with plenty of girls but boys didn’t like him. In elementary school they had always called him a sissy to his face and now, more than once, he had heard someone cough the word “faggot” into their cupped hands as he walked by.
“Whoa, son!” William yelled and pushed himself away out into the water and Joshua knew then he had felt his throbbing erection against his leg. He was sure of what would come next. William would call him a faggot too, and then he’d race out of the water and drive away and Joshua would have to ask one of Hannah’s friends to take him home.
But instead a smile broke out across William’s face. “It’s all right, man. I stay horny all the time too,” he said. Then he backstroked out into the deep water, where sun nipped at the waves and caused little glints of light to flicker all around his head.
That last month of summer was the best month of Joshua’s life. He and William spent every day together.
They went to see The Empire Strikes Back and instead of sitting with an empty seat between them the way all the other boys did, William had plopped down right beside Joshua.
Afterward they lay back on the windshield of William’s car in the parking lot of the Cinema Two and talked about everything. About the Russians and William’s certainty that they would live to see a nuclear winter. About Joshua’s lifelong fear that he would be left behind during the Rapture. About William going to the library every day for a week last summer so he could secretly read The Exorcist.
William had big dreams. He wanted to be a writer like Stephen King, who was his favorite. On Joshua’s birthday William tossed him a copy of The Stand. “If you don’t read it we can’t be friends anymore,” he said, not cracking a smile.
Joshua did read it, although he had to do it in hiding, as Stephen King was absolutely not permitted. At church, Joshua’s mother was in charge of watching popular culture to see what should or should not be forbidden, so sometimes it felt she was more up to date on books and music than he was. Once Joshua had asked her how she stood to read all the vulgar and Satanic stuff. How did it not rot her mind? “I have to pray a lot,” she had said, looking at him overtop a copy of Rage of Angels, which she claimed to find scandalizing. “And I mostly scan.” She never appeared to only be scanning, especially when it came to Sidney Sheldon books.
He was scandalized by The Stand, but he loved it, so much that he read all 823 pages in less than a week. And when he talked to William about it for an entire afternoon he could tell this had changed their friendship into something solid and real.
They sat in silence and listened to Lennon’s first album over and over, with William sometimes whispering observations (On “Mother”: This is probably the saddest song ever recorded; on “God”: Can you imagine if our parents heard this? I mean, Jesus Christ, they would die; on “Working Class Hero”: It turns me the hell on when he says the f-word). When Joshua’s parents were gone he pulled his copy of Off the Wall by Michael Jackson out of its hiding place in the back of his closet and made William listen to it. William closed his eyes while he lay on the bed, moving his shoulders around and snapping his fingers, listening intently to the entire record before proclaiming, “Okay, I get it. It’s really really good.” William talked about the production values—Quincy Jones was a genius, he said—and things that Joshua had never even noticed before.
Joshua feigned sickness to miss the next Bible study meeting. He couldn’t bear to face Regina. He thought if anyone could sense the electricity running between his body and William’s it would be her. He sat on the porch and waited impatiently for William to return from the meeting, but his mother drove Hannah home a full half hour before William’s Datsun zoomed over the hill.
His aggravation was forgotten as soon as William hopped out of his car. “I’m gonna spend the night,” he said, by way of greeting, and Joshua couldn’t stop the smile that overtook his face. When he asked what had taken William so long, he said he’d stayed after to talk to Regina, but he didn’t say about what, and Joshua felt he would appear too needy if he pressed for more.
Later that night, however, he felt his face burning when William said that Regina had flirted with him when the two of them were alone. “She’s kind of sexy, really,” William said. Joshua wanted to tell him he was a liar, but he didn’t say anything at all. His jealousy was overshadowed only by the loyalty he felt for her.
In one window a box fan spun its comforting sound all night long, and in the other the curtains breathed the slight breeze that slithered up from the river.
William often stayed the night at his house, and Joshua’s parents were so glad he was friends with the preacher’s son that they left them alone, only giving a light knock to offer their good nights from the other side of the door. The boys stripped down to their white underwear before climbing into bed. The windows were open. In one a box fan spun its comforting sound all night long, and in the other the curtains breathed the slight breeze that slithered up from the river in the hot, black night. William went to sleep immediately, his breath both noisy and soft. Joshua lay awake all night, swallowing hard, tossing and turning and trying to maneuver a way that would allow him to touch William without seeming like he was trying to. He didn’t pray for these feelings to stop because they felt too good. Later, in the middle of the day, he might beg for forgiveness, but in the balm of the night he pushed all thoughts of God out the open window.
Only once or twice did he work up the courage to allow the side of his hand to lie against the side of William’s thigh, or, very briefly, alight on his tight stomach. He always did this while making little sleeping sounds in the back of his throat. His was a misery that had a kind of stuttering thrill to it all the same.
One night when the room was lit silver with moonlight, Joshua was acting like he was sound asleep when William threw his wide thigh across Joshua’s crotch, which had stirred to attention as soon as they had lain down, his hardness straining at the cotton of his briefs. After a moment of stillness, William arched closer so that his chest was against Joshua’s arm. William brought his hand up very slowly and lay it atop Joshua’s bare belly, his fingers spread wide. Joshua made the sighs of deep sleep.
“You okay with this?” William whispered. He moved his hand down, into Joshua’s shorts, and cupped the heat of Joshua’s groin in his hand. “I think we ought to try everything, at least once. Don’t you?”
Joshua didn’t move or speak.
“I know you’re not asleep, buddy,” he said, and squeezed. Joshua felt he might go right then and there. He wouldn’t be able to hold it back.
“What are you doing?” he said, trying to sound like he had just awakened.
“We need to live completely,” William said, his breath hot on Joshua’s face. “Before the Russians kill us all.”
“It’s wrong,” Joshua said, his voice a shudder, wanting nothing more than this, right now.
William held tighter and Joshua had to fight the urge to let out a moan.
“It’s wrong,” Joshua said again and this time he scrambled away so that William unloosened his grip and sat up. Joshua had ached for this, but still, he turned and sat on the edge of the bed.
“God’s the one who gave us those feelings, man,” William said.
“You shouldn’t say that.” Joshua wasn’t sure if he had spoken aloud or not.
“I’m not queer or anything,” William said. “I didn’t mean to freak you out. I just think we ought to try out everything.” William laid his hand flat on Joshua’s back. “Hey? Are we cool?”
Joshua turned to him then, and kissed him, pushing his lips hard against William’s, slipping his tongue in briefly before William laughed and pulled back. “Not that,” he said with a little laugh caught in his mouth. He slid off his underwear with one quick motion and kicked them to the floor. “But we can do this.” He laid them both back and William perched his chin on Joshua’s shoulder, looking down to where his hand was moving rhythmically. Joshua watched his face, his long eyelashes, the curve of his nose, his lips so close. After Joshua was spent on his own belly, William let go of him and lay back spread-eagled on the bed, arms and legs making his body an X. He was completely naked and the moonlight was all over him. Joshua tried to memorize every part of him.
“What are you waiting on, man?” William directed, a mischievous smile on his face as he gave the back of Joshua’s head a squeeze. Joshua moved down and took William inside his mouth.
When it was over William went straight to sleep. Joshua laid awake the rest of the night, praying to be forgiven, promising he wouldn’t do it again, knowing all the while that he would.
They did it almost every night for the next couple weeks. Twice in William’s car, including one time while William was speeding down the winding backroads. Once in the woods so close to the lake he could see the girls lying on their beach towels in the sun down on the bank. A couple more times Joshua tried to get him to kiss but William always turned his face away. In fact, he never put his mouth on Joshua at all, but had no objection when Joshua went down on him. After a few times he even put his palm atop Joshua’s head to push him down there. And after the first time Joshua did everything on his own. William lay back and watched with a smile on his face when Joshua finished himself, but he didn’t offer to help. Joshua didn’t mind. As long as he could have William, that was all that mattered to him.
He didn’t know how he’d worked the courage up to say it out loud, but he had. It was done now.
“Stop that trembling,” Regina said, and put both her hands around both of his. They were alone in the church basement, which always smelled like chalk and damp. “You’re safe with me.” She reached into her Aigner purse on the floor and plucked out a blue Kleenex, the exact color of his mother’s hydrangeas. “Wipe your eyes now, honey.”
“You can’t tell him, Joshua. I don’t think he’s . . . that way, sweetie.”
He had not told her what they had been doing. Only that he was infatuated with William. He didn’t even tell her that the guilt was much thinner now, that his whole idea of sin had become hardly more than an occasional breath.
“If my parents found out, they’d send me away. My father might kill me.”
Other people might have said, Oh no, they won’t. He wouldn’t. But Regina had known his parents her whole life, even longer than he had, so she said: “Yes. You cannot tell them. You listen to me.” She leaned forward, her face very close to his. “You keep it a secret until you’re away from them. But someday, you’ll get to be yourself. Just be patient.”
He had thought they would kneel and pray together. He had thought she would help him find a way out of this.
He had thought they would kneel and pray together. He had thought she would help him find a way out of this. And only now, with his confession done, did he notice the change that had come over Regina. She was bare-legged, for one thing. And her fingernails were painted a soft pink. She had curled her hair so that it hung in bouncy ringlets and her mouth was shiny with lip balm. He could smell it: cherries. But more than anything there was something different about the way she held herself. There was a strength in her shoulders he had never seen before. The way she crossed her legs now possessed a kind of new confidence.
“Joshua?” She snapped her fingers in front of his eyes. “Are you listening to me?”
He nodded, feeling as if he were floating out of his own body, drifting above the both of them with his back to the church basement’s swirled ceiling.
“In a year you’ll be an adult and you can leave. Promise me you’ll leave.”
“I promise,” he said, nodding some more. At this point he just wanted to stop talking. He had said the unsayable thing and there was some kind of comfort in that. He realized now that that was the reason he had come here. Not for any kind of absolution. Just to say it aloud.
“I mean it,” Regina said, firmer now, squeezing his fingers. Her wedding band cut into his right hand. He thought about the way she had run off with Lonnie to Gatlinburg to get married back when Yvonne was so sick. The way his mother had said it wasn’t appropriate. They had only been gone a weekend but she had been trying to get the church’s forgiveness ever since. “Really promise me. Swear it,” she said, sounding much younger than she was, like a child demanding a pact. “Say it. Say, ‘I swear, someday I’ll get away from here.’ Swear it, Joshua Lee.”
“I swear,” he whispered, because they both knew that swearing anything at all was against church doctrine and here they were, right in the church basement, doing just that.
“Good,” she said, and only then did she release his hands. She sat back as if exhausted.
“But do you think it’s a sin? Do you think I’ll go to hell even for thinking it?”
“I don’t know.” She looked past him, at nothing. “But I think the biggest sin of all is to assume we know the mind of God. They all do that, all the time. But there’s no use arguing with them.” She looked at him then. “That’s just the world we live in.”
“And it’ll never change.”
“You’ll be happy one day,” she said. “When you can be yourself.”
“You won’t ever tell anybody, will you?”
“Of course not,” she said, looking him in the eye to assure him. And he knew she wouldn’t.
He thought about her husband, a little bantam rooster of a man who walked around like he owned any place he inhabited. Why she had ever married him was anyone’s guess; everyone knew she was too good for him. Too pretty, too sweet, too good.
She must have read his mind. “And especially not Lonnie,” she said. “I don’t tell him anything.” Her last sentence was tight with so much malice that she might as well have been saying how much she hated him. She leaned forward. “I’ll tell you a secret.”
“Okay,” Joshua said, glad for a change of subject.
“I’m done obeying him,” she said. As soon as the words were out of her mouth Joshua wondered if she was talking about Lonnie or God.
The daytime was always blinding when he left the church basement. After leaving Regina, he stood in the doorway for a moment to let his eyes adjust. Down in the woods behind the church he saw Hannah sitting by the creek.
Beside her was William.
Joshua opened his mouth to call out to him, but then William leaned toward her in a way that made Joshua stop. At first she scooted away, but when he moved closer, she jumped up and skittered up the hillside toward the church. Without knowing why, Joshua stepped behind a big cedar so they couldn’t see him. William turned and called after her but when she ignored him he lay back on the creek bank, his hands behind his head. Joshua had no way of knowing then that he’d never see him again.
“What were you doing?” Joshua said to Hannah, as soon as she got close enough to hear.
“I was waiting for you.” She walked past, rounding the corner of the church and leaving him behind until he followed. The trees were full of screaming cicadas. “Then there he was all of a sudden,” she said as soon as he caught up with her.
“What did he say to you?” Joshua wondered how long they had been down there together. He thought of what people said about her, about what she supposedly did to the ball-players. He reached out to catch her by the crook of the arm. “What did you all do?”
She spun around and looked at her brother with a strange mix of shock and humor, appalled that he would grab hold of her that way. “Calm down,” she said. “I’m not interested in your stupid boyfriend.”
“What are you talking about? Don’t even say that.”
Her face changed then, softened. She took a step toward Joshua. “Oh God. It’s true.”
“Don’t say that, Hannah. I mean it.”
“It’s just us,” she said, and turned, starting walking back toward home again. He followed her. He couldn’t say why he didn’t want William to know he had seen him down by the creek. “Nobody else is smart enough to figure it out, so don’t worry,” she said. Joshua felt much younger than her, although he was more than a year older. She had things all figured out and he felt he didn’t know anything. “But forget him. He’s a jerk.”
Joshua wanted to tell her how he knew every inch of William’s body. The way he tasted and smelled. How his eyes rolled back in his head in that moment of pure pleasure. He wanted to tell somebody. But he knew he couldn’t.
“He’s my best friend.”
Hannah spat forth a single laugh, but didn’t say more. She had come upon an RC Cola can and now she was kicking it in front of her so that her words were accompanied by its clatter.
“What did he say to you?”
“He asked if I’d jerk him off.”
“You’re lying,” Joshua shouted.
She stopped and looked at him, a flicker of pity. “I’m not, and you know it.” She laughed. “ ‘The world’s going to end in a nuclear winter,’ ” she mimicked William. “ ‘We might as well do everything we can.’ ”
“I don’t believe you,” Joshua said, fully believing her.
“I don’t care what you believe,” she said, and took off across the pasture, taking the shortcut to their house that required squeezing between four different barbed-wire fences and stepping around the cow patties decorating the field. Joshua paused on the shoulder of the road for a minute, then followed her, the distance between them feeling much larger than it actually was. He called her name once, but she didn’t turn to face him. Instead, she increased her pace, breaking into a near run.
Joshua wanted to tell her that he was sorry. Not only for not believing her, but also for not being there even once during this whole year when she had been grieving Yvonne. He fancied that when he caught up with her he’d be able to apologize for that and she’d collapse into his arms, crying at last. He would tell her then that he had never believed the rumors, that the next time someone said that within earshot he’d punch them in the mouth, and he’d hold her close and she’d be his little sister again. Once they were home he bounded up the stairs and stood for a moment at her bedroom door, which she had only moments before slammed shut. But he didn’t knock or even call out to her.
That evening, Joshua called William’s house but nobody answered. Part of him was glad because he didn’t know whether he would have confronted William about what Hannah had told him or if he would have invited him to come on over. He sat on the porch watching for William’s little white car to round the curve and pull into their driveway, but it never did. The day died in a fury of red on the western horizon and then hundreds of lightning bugs busied themselves between the yard and the river. There had been a night like this years ago, just before Yvonne got sick, when he had sat on this porch and watched Hannah and Yvonne twirling around on the yard. Before everything changed.
Night settled over the land as Joshua sat there, listening to the soft tambourines of the cicadas and the harsh songs of the katydids. He refused to watch Little House on the Prairie with his parents—the only show they ever watched together besides The Waltons—feigning an upset stomach, and instead sat on his bed trying to read a secret copy of The Dead Zone, but all he could think about was William. William’s hands. The freckles on William’s hands. The mole beside his belly button. The softness of his scrotum.
Once he fell asleep, he dreamt that William came to his window in the blue hour before daylight. In the dream he crawled in silently but Joshua awoke because of his mere presence. He undressed there without a word and slid into bed beside Joshua. The spicy smell of him. The taste of the salt in the sweat on his shoulders.
But when he awoke there was no one there. In the morning his eyes opened to bright light falling through the bare windows. The dream had been so real that he felt the sheets next to him to see if William was there. The smell of bacon frying drifted from downstairs, and in his underwear there was an aching erection he satisfied with violent pounding that splattered his sheets.
He scrubbed at the spots with a wet washcloth and then he fell onto his knees beside the bed and prayed. He held his hands together very tightly. He prayed with his lips moving but no sound escaping. Please please please. Always before he had prayed to change. To be different. To not be the way he was. But this time he only asked to be happy. Please.
Downstairs his mother stopped talking to his father as soon as Joshua entered the kitchen. “—and it’s liable to hurt the church,” she was saying.
“I’m afraid you won’t be able to run around with the preacher’s son anymore, honey,” his mother said, pouring more coffee for his father. “He’s done something—”
“—terrible,” his father completed, then brought the cup up to his lips, supped the coffee with his eyes on Joshua.
“Lonnie found him and Regina in the basement together, honey,” his mother said, and although she sounded apologetic in thinking that Joshua might be disappointed in Regina, he could hear her pleasure at the scandal too. “It’s just too terrible to talk about, what they were doing.” An image flashed through his mind: both of them naked on the stiff carpet of the church basement floor, Regina’s neck arched back while William kissed her.
“It’s a thousand wonders that Lonnie didn’t kill them both,” his mother said. “He’s always had such a terrible temper.”
“A terrible temper?” Joshua was surprised to hear himself speaking. “Y’all knew he’s been beating Regina and you just sat by and let it happen.”
“You can’t get involved in people’s marriages, Josh,” his father said, using the nickname Joshua had always hated. “But apparently the preacher’s boy gave him a good fight. I’ll say that for him—he defended Regina. Lonnie busted him up pretty good, I reckon.”
Joshua could see it all playing out. William holding Lonnie down while she got out of there, before Lonnie was able to throw her around the room. Lonnie only getting loose once she had run out of the church, watching as her tires showered the church with a spray of blue gravel as she peeled out. Perhaps he would never know for sure if this is what happened but he hoped so.
A strange kind of joy bloomed in Joshua when his parents said that William’s father was leaving the church because of it, that they’d never cared much for him anyway and that everyone knew he wasn’t working out as their pastor.
Joshua’s mother said how she always had thought Regina was flirty with the boys. “Always laughing and carrying on,” she was saying now. “Always rubbing their backs and touching them one way or another.”
“Well, she never was right after Yvonne died,” his father said now. He chomped on a piece of bacon and talked around it: “That family went through too much.”
“That’s no excuse, Harold,” his mother said. “But anyway, the Lord’s taken care of it all. They’re all gone, and good riddance.”
“Regina left?” Joshua asked.
“Called and told her mother she was going to the Gulf,” his father said. “To not come looking for her.”
“That poor woman has lost two daughters now.” His mother poured more coffee into his father’s cup even though he had pushed it back as if he wanted no more.
“Ah, she’ll be back,” his father said, and blew across the coffee to cool it. “How’s that little girl gonna make it without her husband and her family? She’ll be right back to the church before too long, mark my words.”
“She’s a grown woman, Harold,” Joshua’s mother said. “And I certainly don’t want her coming back to our church. I hope she stays in Alabama.”
The phone was ringing now and somehow Joshua knew it was William calling to tell him goodbye, that he’d write to him, that he’d sure enjoyed knowing him. “Don’t answer that,” he said, more forcibly than he had ever spoken to his parents before. The three of them sat in silence until the phone had gone silent.
Then Hannah was padding into the kitchen sleepy-eyed in her big furry pink slippers she only wore on Saturday mornings, so the conversation was over. She yawned and his mother kissed the top of her head. Hannah shuffled over to the pantry and plucked out a box of Froot Loops. Used to, the two of them would sit on the couch together and eat their cereal and watch cartoons for a few hours. They hadn’t done that in a couple years. The kitchen was silent now because his parents would have never talked about this in front of her. She was a girl and had to be protected from such conversation.
Joshua didn’t need to hear more anyway. He could see William before him, golden and beautiful, and he would have him like that for a while. For as long as he wanted. But most of all he was thinking of Regina. He could see her: driving away, the car speeding down the road that sliced through the green hills of summer, all the windows down, the radio turned all the way up, her curls a wild fury in the wind.