It should have been just another ordinary day of work and prayer, followed by more work, followed by more prayer. I had endured almost twenty years of those days already. But this one would turn out to be very different.
Also, I had a headache.
It was a crisp November afternoon, and we were out in the dry bean field, gathering in the crop. This was, hands down, my least favorite chore. Every fall we stood out here in the wind, fingertips sliced to bits by the sharp-edged bean hulls, the dried stems clattering in the breeze.
The throbbing at the base of my skull put an extra special twist on the whole experience. Hooray and hallelujah.
When I was a boy, we had a machine to hull the beans. I’d loved that crazy old diesel-fueled hunk of metal. The men had pitched the dried sheaves into one end, and the machine shook them senseless. Beans (and dust) came shooting into a hopper on one side. All the chaff was chucked out of the back, and the work went ten times as fast.
That machine wore out, though. And our Divine Pastor did not replace it. Why would he? It wasn’t his fingers bleeding on the beanstalks.
To entertain myself during our long days of labor, I often took over the compound in my mind — all two thousand acres of dusty Wyoming ranch land. The first thing I always planned (after ex-communicating all the assholes) was to invest in farm machinery, tripling the acreage for our cash crops. In my mind, I built us a shiny, efficient operation, diversified to minimize the risk of crop failure.
I enjoyed these fantasies while standing in that row of beans wearing torn trousers and hand-me-down boots a half size too small. Not a soul at the compound would ever listen to my plans, even if I were stupid enough to share them. I’d learned at an early age never to point out the foolishness of our leadership, or the inefficiencies of our operation.
Nobody wanted to hear this from the skinny kid with slow hands.
Beside me — just a few feet away — stood the other object of my fantasies. Caleb Smith was my best friend. We’d been close since we could barely toddle. There wasn’t a day of my life when I hadn’t counted the faded spray of freckles which stretched across his nose, or admired his slightly crooked smile.
While my elders might have little patience for my farming fantasies, the thoughts I had about Caleb were a punishable sin. He was the last one I saw before I closed my eyes at night and the first person I looked for when I opened them again in the morning.
Even now, as he leaned over the next plant, I coveted his broad chest and fine shoulders. He was quicker than I was at tearing the bean pods off the stalks and liberating the beans with his thumb. They dropped into his bucket with a satisfying clatter. My own slowness was probably due to my habit of stopping to admire Caleb’s rugged-looking hands.
At night, in my bunk all alone, Caleb’s hands made frequent appearances in all my best dreams.
Again, I pushed aside my sinful fantasies and tried to pick faster. It was my lot in life to be always two steps behind the other young men. For a long time I assumed that I would grow out of my dreamy nature. That I would someday be quick with farm tools and chores. But now that my nineteenth birthday had passed, it was obvious that my skills on the compound would never be praised.
I’d come to accept a lot of things about myself, actually. It’s just that I could never speak any of them aloud.
We had reached the end of a row. Caleb leaned down to yank his bucket around the end of it. But at the last second, he grabbed the handle of mine instead. Before I could even protest, he and my bucket had disappeared around the corner.
His bucket remained at my feet. And it was nearly full to the top.
With my face burning, I did the only conceivable thing. I hefted it, swinging it around the corner, setting it down at my feet, as if I’d picked all those beans myself.
Beside me, Caleb dropped more beans into the bucket formerly known as mine, his tanned hands threading into the dried sheaves the way I’d always wanted them to tangle in my hair.
Biting back a sigh, I grabbed a pod and cracked it in my hand. Discomfort and shame were my constant companions. Caleb covered for my mediocrity as best he could. My best friend had saved my backside too many times to count. And how did I repay him? With sinful, lusty thoughts.
Just another day in Paradise. That’s what they called this place where we lived and worked and prayed when they told us to.
Depressingly, the little kids of The Paradise Ranch didn’t even know that the rest of the world was not like this place. Sometimes I peered into the window of the little schoolhouse where the children were learning to read the Bible. (Only the Bible, and a book about our Divine Pastor. There weren’t any other texts. Poor little souls.)
Until the third grade, Caleb and I went to a real school in Casper. We all did. And man, I loved that place. Teachers pressed books into my hands and told me I was a wonderful student. School was my refuge.
But then, ten years ago, our Divine Pastor decided that the public school was a bad influence, because we came back to Paradise asking for Go-Gurt and Jell-O and Harry Potter. We came home corrupt, wanting things from the sinners’ world.
The elders didn’t like it. So they built the schoolhouse (which is really just a drafty pole barn) and taught us exactly what they wanted us to learn, which is almost nothing.
I haven’t been off the Paradise Ranch since then.
Caleb sees the outside world, though. He’s the first born grandson of an elder, and therefore has a much better standing than I do. He has a valid birth certificate and — even better — a driver’s license. Once a week or so the elders send him out to the post office or to the feed store. Once they sent him to Wal-Mart, and he came back with lots of colorful stories of what he saw there. Bright television screens (we didn’t have any at Paradise, but we’d seen them when we were younger), crazy clothing, and all kinds of food in plastic packages.
There were no stories for me today, though. We couldn’t gossip on a bean harvest day, because there were too many others around to hear us. Though it was nice to be near Caleb. I could even hear the tune he kept humming under his breath.
Singing was not allowed. Caleb was very good at following the rules, but music was his downfall. Some of the compound trucks still had their radios. And since Caleb was handy with engines (and branding cattle, and the ancient tractor, and all the stuff I could never seem to manage) he was often asked to do mechanical maintenance. Even though it was risky, when he worked alone he would sometimes play the radio.
I couldn’t tell which tune he had stuck in his head today, because only little bits of it escaped. But even those breathy sounds made me want to lean in. I wished I could put a hand on his chest and feel the vibration when he hummed.
My head gave a brand new throb of pain, and I dropped some flaky pieces of chaff into the bucket, and had to fish them out.
* * *
The day ended before the never-ending bean field, which meant that we’d have to come back again tomorrow. Carrying my last ungainly bucket, I felt oddly exhausted. I stumbled, nearly spilling all those ill-gotten beans on the ground.
Ezra, the evilest of the bachelors, came running over — but not to help. Instead, he laughed in my face. “The little faggot can’t even carry the beans.”
Do not react, I cautioned myself.
Ezra used the word faggot whenever he felt like it, and not always on me. But I knew what it meant, and when he said it I always felt transparent.
That’s when Caleb arrived at my side, setting down his own bucket without a word. He just loomed there, a quiet wall of support.
Ezra grinned in that mean way he had. “Why do you help the little faggot, anyway? People gonna talk.”
My blood was ice, then. Our whole lives, Caleb had been taking heat for helping me. To hear such ugliness come from Ezra’s mouth terrified me. Because if, even for a second, people believed the things that he had just implied about Caleb? I would die of unhappiness. My sin was my own, and I couldn’t stand to see that ugliness tainting my friend.
Luckily, Caleb had both parentage and competence on his side. He always shook off Ezra’s taunts. When he spoke, his tone was mild. “I help everyone, Ezra,” he said. “Even you. Christian charity? You ever heard of that? You been sleeping through Sunday mass?”
At that, Caleb picked up both our buckets and carried them to the truck. He lifted them as if they weighed no more than two chickens.
* * *
Then it was dinner time, thank the Lord. My headache had spread down my neck and across my shoulders. For once in my stupid life, food did not even sound very appealing.
But I took my seat as usual at the end of a bench in our bunkhouse common room.
All the bachelors lived together. Usually around age sixteen, boys moved out of their family houses and into the bunkhouse. There were, at present, twenty-seven family houses on the compound, though the number went up by one or two houses each year. Each house held one man’s family, which meant they were crowded. Since each man had several wives, there were lots of children, too.
Teenage boys were very useful for farm work, of course. But the men did not like having their grown sons in the house. They took up too much space, for one. But also, it was not fit to have lusty young men share a roof with so many women. Since the girls in Paradise were married off at seventeen or eighteen, that meant that the youngest wives were often the same age as the bachelors.
Boys, on the other hand, could never marry as teenagers. The difficulty with polygamy was the imbalance. I had worked this out at a very young age, and naturally kept my conclusions to myself. But if a man deserves four or five wives, and women have boys fifty percent of the time, there are always far too many boys.
A boy in Paradise could expect to wait until he was in his twenties to marry. That gave the compound more than a decade of his farm labor while he tried desperately to prove himself worthy of his own wife and home.
Evil Ezra was twenty-four already, and probably the next in line to settle down. (I couldn’t wait to see him go, even though he wouldn’t go far.) In our bunkhouse there were twelve men over the age of twenty. Caleb turned twenty last month. I would turn twenty come springtime. There were a slew of teens, too.
Owing to the math, many of us would never get the chance to marry. But neither would we be welcome to stay on. Five years from now, quite a few of my bunkhouse roommates would be gone from Paradise. Some would run away, but many would be kicked out.
Nobody spoke of this practice, of course. There were many, many idiosyncrasies at Paradise that were not to be mentioned aloud, but the throwing away of half our young men was the ugliest one.
And here’s a sad thing—it often took Caleb and me a day or two to notice that someone had gone missing. We might hear a bachelor say at lunch, “where has Zachariah been today?”
And the question would be met with deep silence.
Then, a day or two later, a story would begin to circulate. Zachariah had been caught behind the tool shed with one of the daughters. Or, Zachariah had worshipped the devil. There was always a crime that was responsible for his downfall. And the crime did not need to sound original, or even plausible. Those who disappeared weren’t around to defend themselves. The ones who disappeared, however, were often the most dispensable among us. The weak and the slow. The ones whose labor would not be missed too badly.
The boys who disappeared looked a lot like me.
Caleb sat down on the bench beside me, folding his big hands in a typical gesture of patience. Whereas I was a pile of nerves, he was a calm giant. His body language was always serene. It was only when I looked into his eyes that I sometimes saw anxiety flickering there. That always gave me a start.
In those rare moments when I caught Caleb wearing a pained expression, he always looked away. Whatever it was that bothered him, it was something he did not want me to see.
And I always had a strong desire to comfort him, which would never be tolerated, of course.
When we were at prayer, I spent a good portion of my time praying for his safekeeping and happiness. The other portion was spent apologizing to God for my sinful preoccupation with him.
As they did before every dinnertime, daughters began to file into the room, each one of them bearing a pan or a dish. It was the families’ job to feed the bachelors three times each day. During an ordinary work week, mealtimes were the only moments when the daughters and the bachelors saw one another.
There was always supervision. Even now, Elder Michael stood at the head of the table, his serious eyes watching the proceedings, vigilant in the face of possible sin.
The swish of skirts continued. Since the daughters were made to dress alike, in long, roomy pastel dresses of identical design, all the swishes sounded the same.
A plate, napkin, and cutlery were placed in front of me. And I saw a particularly succulent chicken casserole land on the table as well. I kept my eye on it, even though someone quicker than I would probably reach it first, just after the prayer.
There was never quite enough to eat in the bunkhouse. More than two dozen hungry farm workers can put away an awful lot of food. None of us was ever truly full. And nobody ever got fat. Only married men had that privilege. In the family houses, a man was king, with a small army of women and children who were all vying to be the one who pleased him best.
That’s what the Ezras and Calebs of the bunkhouse were working toward — their own little promised land.
One particular skirt swished to a stop behind us. “Evening Caleb,” a soft voice said.
I did not look up for two reasons. In the first place, I did not need my eyes to identify Miriam. She had been a part of our lives since I could remember. Our mothers were all friends. As children, the three of us had climbed onto the school bus together back when that was allowed.
Miriam and Caleb always seemed meant for one another, too. It wasn’t something we talked about. It just was. Caleb showed Miriam the same favor as he showed me, helping her whenever possible. He even had a special smile for Miriam, which I coveted. It was a smile that knew secrets.
The other reason I did not turn around to greet Miriam was as a favor to them both. My lack of notice helped them have a brief and whispered conversation. It was the only sort of conversation they could have, except on those rare occasions when there was some sort of party. A barn raising, or a christening, maybe. Otherwise, the daughters and the bachelors were kept apart.
“I need to speak with you,” she said in the lowest possible tone.
Caleb answered under his breath. “After supper I’ll change the oil on the Tacoma.”
With the message received, Miriam darted away without another word.
Elder Michael began to say a prayer, so I bowed my head. And then there were “amens” and the passing of dishes.
I did, in fact, secure a chunk of the chicken casserole, as well as a rice dish and some potato. This I forced myself to eat, even though I felt ill. Because you did not pass up food in Paradise.
* * *
Two hours later, I lay in my bed, shaking. From fear, not illness.
In front of me, I held my Bible. Quiet prayer was one of the few activities acceptable just before curfew. So I often sat here with the heavy book on my lap, thinking.
Or worrying. And tonight I was definitely doing that.
After our meal, our Divine Pastor had walked into the bunkhouse common room. All conversation stopped, of course. He was accompanied by Elder Michael and two others.
“It has come to our attention that a handgun has gone missing from the tool shed,” our Divine Pastor said.
I felt Caleb’s body go completely still beside me.
“I must ask,” our Divine Pastor continued, “Which of you was the last to perform an inventory of our supply of tools?”
Lord in heaven. My stomach cramped in distress. Slowly, I raised a shaking hand into the air.
“Joshua,” our Divine Pastor barked. “When was this?”
“T…two weeks ago,” I quavered. “After the pumpkins were in.” I always volunteered for inventory jobs, because it meant brainwork instead of outdoor labor.
“Did you perform the inventory piece by piece? Or do you keep an old list as a guide? I am trying to discern how easily you might have erred. Which might, in turn, help me learn when the gun went missing.”
“I…” I cleared my dry throat, feeling every pair of eyes on me. “I never use my old lists, because if there are new tools then I’d miss them.”
“So. You make a new list each time?”
“Yessir,” I choked out.
“The missing weapon was part of your recent inventory,” Elder Michael said, pinning me with his gaze.
I nodded. It was silent in that room. Nobody even breathed. Because no one else dared draw the attention of an angry elder.
“Do you have anything to say for where it might be?” he asked.
Of course I did not. And many people had access to that storage room. But I would not point this out, because it would sound as if I were desperate to shift blame. “I have no idea, sir,” I said. It was not a great defense, but it was my only move. “I remember the gun. It was new in August.”
The portly elder frowned. “Well then. Tomorrow, first thing, you will come with us to the tool shed and look again at the inventory. We need to know what else may be missing.”
“Yessir,” I’d said.
My stomach had remained in knots ever since.
I had no idea what would happen tomorrow. None at all. It was possible that they really only wanted my assistance. But an inventory was an easy thing to read, with or without help.
My fear was that someone had stolen the gun, knowing the theft would be pinned on me. There was nothing I could do about it. A man cannot prove his innocence. He can only prove another’s guilt.
I had, of course, no idea who took the gun. And it did not matter a whit that I had no reason to take a gun. I had no way to sell it, or curry favor with another for handing it over.
But you must never look for logic in Paradise.
Stewing over the problem wasn’t going to help. It’s just that I didn’t have anything better to think about. Caleb was not here. He was in the garage, changing the oil in the Tacoma.
And kissing Miriam, maybe.
Someday it would happen for real. Caleb would marry a woman. He was just the sort of bachelor who would eventually be granted a wife. When the time came, I would watch the ceremony with horror in my heart. And I would lie awake in the bunkhouse that night, wild with jealousy as he made his bride into a woman.
I forced myself to imagine it from time to time, if only to maintain my grip on reality. Caleb building a house for his bride. Caleb in a wedding suit.
Caleb removing all his clothes, and spilling his seed into a woman.
When I was twelve, I had seen the act done. I’d been home at an odd time of day, because my mother had asked me to change a couple of lightbulbs after lunch. With my task finished, I’d walked quietly along the upstairs hallway of our house.
At the end of the corridor was the youngest wife’s room. The door had been open a crack. I paused there because I heard the strangest sounds coming from within.
My real father had died when I was four, when he overturned a tractor. The man I’d called “father” ever since had married two of my birth father’s wives, including my mother. His name was Seth.
Seth’s hairy ass was the thing I saw first when I peered into that room.
It took me a moment to realize what I was witnessing. But even when I understood, I could not look away.
It was fascinating.
The breathy grunts he made washed over me like steam. And the way his powerful thighs flexed through each thrust was beautiful to me. He growled and he groaned, and finally he shook. With a cry, he collapsed onto the wife that I’d barely noticed was underneath him. Coming to my senses, I’d snuck away.
Someday, that would be Caleb. And no amount of wishing otherwise would help.
I stared at the page of my Bible until the letters blurred together.
* * *
Perhaps two hours later, I woke in the dark. The Bible was gone from my hands, but I spotted it on the bedside table. Someone had placed it there for me.
Even in the darkness, I could see his large form in bed across the room that we shared with two others. He lay on his back, hands clasped behind his head.
Strong and confident, even in his sleep.
There were snores coming from Ezekiel’s and David’s corners of the room, My head did not ache so much now, but I felt hot and irritable. To ease myself, I focused on Caleb’s silent form. His shoulders were wide, taking up a goodly portion of the narrow bed. His legs were long and solid under the quilt.
I wished I could spread my body out on top of his, sinking into all that muscle. I wanted to bury my face in the hollow between his shoulder and neck, breathing in his cottony clean scent.
I wanted so, so many things that I would never have.
My cock began to feel full between my legs.
Lying there, I squeezed my ass together a few times. It had been such an awful, scary day. I deserved a little comfort, didn’t I? Unbidden, my hand slipped beneath the waistband of my boxers. Touching myself was risky. It was a sin, of course, although surely everyone did it sometimes. Even Caleb.
In fact, once when we were sixteen, he asked me to stand guard. We were out by the cow shed, sitting on the hay bales in between jobs. “Can I ask a favor?”
“I need five minutes alone. Would you stand at the fencepost and wait for me? If somebody comes, just talk to them, and I’ll know to cover up.”
“Okay,” I’d said, “but why?”
He’d rolled his eyes at me. “I have to jerk. It’s a desperate situation. You can take a turn after I do.”
Do not look at his dick, I’d ordered myself, scandalized. Do not. I’d marched away immediately, where it was safe. Then I’d stood at that fence post like a sentry, ready to holler at the first sign of anyone.
But not a soul had wandered by. And all the while my ears were peeled, desperately hopeful that I’d hear him come. And I did, though it was just a quick gasp, over practically before it began.
“Your turn?” he asked me about two minutes later.
“Nope, I’m good,” I stammered, my face the color of a tomato.
“Suit yourself. But if I were you, I’d stay out of the tall grass back there for a day or so.” He’d laughed at this joke, and so I did too.
That was the extent of my sexual experience—watching my step-father plow a teenage wife and listening to my best friend jerk.
And touching myself, of course, which I was doing now. I closed my eyes and ran my hand slowly up and down my shaft. When I did this, I made it a point never to stare at my best friend. He wouldn’t like being the center of my sexual fantasies. And it wasn’t his fault that I was a pervert.
But who was I kidding? The faceless bodies in my dreams all matched his. And it was his full lips that I so badly wanted to kiss…
I clamped my mouth shut, to avoid making noise. And I sank into my mattress, silently coaxing my body toward climax. I pictured Caleb smiling at me. And I heard him whisper my name…
My hand went stock still. Because that whisper was not part of my imagination.
I opened my eyes to see Caleb moving through the shadows. He tiptoed silently to my bed, sitting down on the edge. In the dark, I could see his blue eyes roll at me. Stop it, he mouthed.
Then, as my heart shimmied with surprise, he put an elbow down on my pillow and leaned down, his lips skimming my ear.
My entire brain short-circuited. And then I realized that he was just trying to talk to me in the only way possible at this hour.
“Move over,” he whispered directly into my ear.
Immediately, I rolled onto my side, away from him. Not only did this make room on the mattress, but it pointed my traitorous dick as far away from him as possible. God have mercy on me, I inwardly begged. My friend caught me stroking myself while I was thinking of him.
Hell was waiting for me. No question.
Caleb cupped one of his big hands over my ear, and I had to bite the inside of my cheek to hide my reaction. “How can you jerk at a time like this?” he asked, while my heart spasmed. “We need a plan. Like, yesterday.”
“Sorry,” I mouthed, stupidly. I wished the mattress would roll up and swallow me whole.
Caleb gave me a little punch to the shoulder, like he always did. But then he put his hand on my bicep and squeezed. He was always touching me. Caleb was a toucher. That was just his way. It made me crazy half the time, because I wanted those touches to mean something. (They never did.)
“I’m worried,” he said into my ear. “This isn’t good.”
That snapped me out of my own head, and quickly. Because Caleb wasn’t a worrier. In fact, I craned my neck to see just how serious he was.
The most familiar set of eyes blinked back at me from inches away. He beckoned to me, and I put my ear up against his mouth again. “Tomorrow, I need you to be prepared. Just in case. Can you do a few things for me?”
I gave him a little nod.
“Okay, listen. I need you to put on your newest clothes in the morning,” he breathed. “Anything valuable you have, put it in your pockets.”
A chill snaked down my spine. “Really?” I mouthed.
He gave a sad sigh, his warm breath sweeping sweetly down my neck. “Maybe I’m being paranoid. But I’m afraid they’re going to…” he didn’t finish the sentence. Caleb couldn’t stand to say it. Throw you out.
With another sigh, he put his hand on my chest, right in the center. “Do not panic. Maybe it won’t happen tomorrow. But Joshy, it’s coming. And I need you to listen to my instructions.”
Nobody had called me Joshy since we were seven, and eating cookies in his mom’s kitchen. And now my throat was tight.
It’s coming, he’d said. Not only was this terrifying, it meant that I was just as pathetic as I’d always feared. Caleb knew I was useless. He saw.
“Sh sh sh sh sh,” he said into my ear. His hand closed over mine. “Are you listening? This is important.”
I squeezed his hand to tell him that I was.
“I’m not sure where they’d take you. If I had to guess, I’d say the bus station in Casper. They’d pick somewhere far enough away that you wouldn’t try to walk back and steal anything. If it wasn’t Casper, it would be Riverton. Either way, you and I are going to meet up in Casper. Whether this happens tomorrow, or any other time, I need you to get to Casper. Hitchhike if you have to.”
My heart skipped an actual beat, and I spent the next few seconds trying to figure out if I’d heard him right. Slowly, I turned my head on the pillow so that I could see Caleb’s eyes.
We? I mouthed.
Slowly, he nodded. Then he pushed my chin aside so that he could get to my ear again. “We’re going together. But if they toss you one morning and I don’t see it happen, I have to know where to find you.”
All my insides did a nauseous, crazy dance. It was the maddest thing I’d ever heard, and I really did not trust that I’d understood him. I whipped my head to the side again. WHY? I mouthed.
He put his lips so close to my ear that I could feel them tickling my skin. “I have to get out of here. There’s no life for me here. I’ve been saving money, but I don’t have enough yet. I could really use a little more time.”
I’d never been so surprised. Caleb was set up to do very well in Paradise. He would someday be married and have his own house. Everyone liked him, except the jealous ones. And he’d managed to steer clear of trouble even from them. And…
There was one question that I had to ask. I pushed an elbow into the bed and rose up to get near his ear. “What about Miriam?”
Caleb flinched. He whispered to me again. “Elder Asher wants her.”
Oh no! I mouthed.
He gave me a sad nod.
I felt a stab of pain in my chest for Miriam. Asher was not a nice man. At sixty-something years old, he had five wives already. And two others had died, while one had run away. In fact, it was Miriam’s own sister who had escaped from him. One morning she was just gone. Nobody knew where she went.
What Asher wanted, Asher got. He was the half-brother of our Divine Pastor. If Asher wanted Miriam… I shuddered.
I turned to study Caleb’s serious profile. It was hard to make sense of everything I’d just heard. My best friend thought that I would be taken out like so much garbage tomorrow. Into a world where I knew literally nobody. Penniless, too. And Caleb wanted to run away?
If he couldn’t have Miriam, that made a tiny kernel of sense. I’d always dreaded the thought of him in another’s arms. Perhaps it was the same for him. If he could not stand to watch Miriam marry another man…
I put my hand close to his ear. “You could ask for Miriam first.”
The expression on his face then was hard to read. It was disappointed, maybe. “She wants me to ask,” he whispered. “But I know it will never work.” The pain on his face doubled, and so I did not ask more questions. The fact that Caleb wouldn’t even try was a shock to me, though. He was loyal to a fault.
Abruptly, the snoring from Ezekiel’s corner of our room came to a halt.
I felt Caleb go absolutely still beside me. We could not be caught like this, lying on the same bed. Plotting together was nearly as great a sin as whatever else they might imagine we were doing.
For many long seconds, we lay there like statues. I still had a hold of Caleb’s hand, though, and I squeezed it. He squeezed back, too.
No matter what happened, I would always remember this night.
An agonizing minute later, Ezekiel began to snore again. Beside me, Caleb relaxed. Then he gripped my hand one more time. Into my ear he said, “the bus station in Casper.” And then he stole silently across the room to his own bed.