She'd been babbling on like that for forty-five minutes. Everything the neighbors had said, every last aunt, uncle, and cousin, the other ladies at church - did they know about all of this? David hadn't been paying very close attention to his mom since she arrived and declared "Merry Christmas!" Funny, they'd promised he'd be home by now...
Not that he really could pay attention. Since arriving at Exodus, part of David's "holistic" therapy had consisted of a steady diet of pills left him feeling groggy and seemed to make everything he heard make that much more sense in senseless sort of way. Not that it really made sense - on the pills nothing really made sense. Probably why he and his roommate spent most of that night a few weeks ago laughing at their own ceiling. It made him want to laugh right then and there.
"Is something wrong, honey?"
David tried to focus on his mom. "Hmm? No, nothin' wrong."
"You were just -" she began to say something but stopped, her strained smile looking even more so. "Well, never mind. Anyway..."
She went back to chattering. It took David some effort to keep the receiver by his ear, creating the illusion of attention. His mom had visited once before, back before the pills had really started to take effect and they'd had more of a proper conversation... Though David couldn't just then remember any of the specifics.
His gaze drifted from side to side, looking at the others who had visitors that day, all arranged behind the glass and listening to their mothers on phones. Or sisters, fathers and brothers never came to visit. Well, there was that one brother, but security hadn't believed him at first and demanded to see ID. "Family members only!" they'd insisted, though they'd never been so nervous about the female family members. Someone had suggested in the cafeteria one day that things were dead opposite on the girls' side of campus, with all the mothers and sisters getting carded to prove they weren't a secret girlfriend coming to tempt the patient back into sin.
"Hmm?" David said, trying to focus.
"Are you doing okay, sweetie?" his mom asked again. "Are you - that is, do you think you're..."
She must have been trying to ask if he were any less gay. "M'okay," he said. "Keep us busy with, mmm, stuff." His eyes were losing focus again. How much had they given him this time?
"Attention!" a voice boomed through the building. "Visiting hour will end in ten minutes! Visiting hour end in ten minutes!"
A few of the more energetic patients made noise at this but not much.
"Oh dear, should I let you go?" his mom asked.
"Yeah," David said. "I'll see ya next... whenever."
"Okay," she seemed to hesitate.
David vaguely remembered how they supposedly briefed all visitors on words not to use. His mom must have wanted to say she loved him. Instead, she hung up her phone and gathered her coat, hurrying out the exit without a look back.
David felt some mild discomfort at that. He couldn't quite place it but something about the way she left just didn't feel right. Damn, what did they give him this time? It was a minute or so before he realized his phone had fallen to his lap. He sluggishly hung it back up on the wall and pushed himself up from the chair, a surprisingly great effort. The others soon followed, hanging up on whoever had bothered to show up and shuffling off behind David.
...All except Stephen. Not Steve, as he was always quick to point out - Stephen. He still sat there, chattering with his sister. It looked like his sister, or maybe cousin. Of all the other guys at Exodus, David thought he looked the most like a real fag. He was skinny with that feminine look to his face and a voice to match. Even the other guys avoided him, like they were all back in the real world and it was understood if you got too close to Stephen you might catch a bad case of the gay.
David couldn't avoid him too much though, seeing as they were roommates. Not that they had very much in common - Stephen's only interests were reading and theater, both things David tended to avoid. But still, if asked, David would insist Stephen wasn't such a bad guy. He was okay for conversation if you gave him long enough - he could rattle off just about every line from those Monty Python movies - and he'd never hit on David or really acted all that gay. Of course, seeing as he was here...
"Visiting hour is over!" the voice boomed again. "All visitors please exit the facility! All patients please return to your rooms!"
Stephen still wouldn't move. David lingered by the door long enough to see security "ask" his sister to leave, hanging up for her. Stephen got moving without a fuss after that. He knew they would just carry him wherever he was supposed to be.
Oddly enough, they both arrived back at their room at the same time. David had once heard horror stories about the tiny dorm rooms to expect in college and how you were expected to share such a tight space with another person. He hadn't noticed anything all that unbearable, although they weren't allowed any personal items besides clothes - which they were never allowed to wear anyway, being issued drab sweat clothes - and toiletries. And upon arrival, everyone was issued the official Exodus Plan Workbook and a Bible.
Not that David read much of either. Neither did Stephen.
"So," David said after a while. "Good talk with your, uh, sister?"
"Cousin," Stephen corrected. Perched on the edge of his cot, he hung his head rubbing his eyes under the glasses. "Yeah, we talked about, y'know, stuff."
Their conversations never got more in depth than that. David suspected, when he had the presence of mind to suspect anything anymore, that Stephen liked it that way. The other patients tended to pick on him for being a fag - despite where they all were - and the councilors always singled him out as a "special case." The consensus seemed to be that he was in denial and had to admit he had a problem, much like David when he first arrived. David got beyond that pretty quick though, as everyone made it clear sucking off Brad made him really gay.
But Stephen, he still insisted he didn't like guys.
"We've got another group meeting in fifteen," Stephen said, stretching out on the cot. He muttered something.
"Hmm?" David asked. His vision was starting to focus more easily now.
"I said I'm fucking sick of this!" Stephen snapped. "Jesus, I shouldn't be here at all, I -" He saw David's bleary eyes. "How much of that shit did they give you this time?"
"Mmm," David held up first three, then two, then corrected himself again and held out three fingers. "Think it's wearing off now."
"You know those are fucking horse tranquilizers, right?" Stephen dropped his voice, "I started palming them just last week. You should too, makes everything clear up." He added, with a vicious look to his eyes, "Makes it harder for those bastards to mess with your head too."
David shook his head. "Don't want to get in trouble."
Stephen laughed. "Dude, you're in fag rehab! You're in enough trouble already! Little more won't hurt you. Besides," he sat up, leaning closer to David so he could whisper, "They don't check to make sure you take 'em, y'know?"
David shook his head again. He'd promised his mom he'd try. He didn't really want to be gay - he thought. He liked Brad but didn't want it to go beyond that - even though it had already. "Gotta stop while I'm ahead," he completed the thought out loud, then laughed like a hyena. "I said head!"
"Jesus, you're high," muttered Stephen. "Can't say I blame you..."
They sat in silence - except for David's snickering - until the booming voice announced the next group session. David and Stephen shuffled down the hall along with the others, most of whom were still a little groggy from the medicine. It was a necessity, they were told. Their urges had to be suppressed somehow until they could purge them. Otherwise, who knows what they would get up to with each other when the lights went out?
David and Stephen were in the same group, along with some six other boys. They took their seats at one of the dozens of round tables in the main hall - which also doubled as the cafeteria, which doubled as a clinic when the councilors wheeled in privacy screens. Their councilor - in group and individually - was Robert, an orange-tanned and upbeat character with the habit of calling everyone "brother." Like all the other councilors, he was a graduate of the program.
"Grace and peace, brothers!" Robert said once they were all seated, smiling with those perfectly white teeth. "Everyone have a good visit? Brandon, what about you?"
He always did that, singling one of them out to guarantee someone would answer. "M'okay," Brandon said. As Robert kept looking at him, he hastily added, "My mom, uh, said there was this girl asking for me and, um, everyone at home's praying for me?"
That was a popular answer. Robert liked it so much he would leave whoever said it alone for the rest of the session. "Well amen to that! The support and prayers of your family are always needed in these difficult times. But it always comes down to you to get yourself right with the Lord!"
It always came back to the Lord with Robert. Same with all the other councilors but Robert liked to be very loud about it. "- Because only through the Lord and the sacred blood of his only Son, Jesus Christ can you be purged of your wickedness... Along with the Exodus Inc. program."
The program actually came first in Robert’s formula. First, they all had to admit they had a problem. Next, they all had to identify their “wound” – some moment from childhood that turned them from the straight and narrow, as it were. David had never really believed that psychobabble crap, but at Exodus he’d soon found himself blaming his own quiet, agreeable mother for being the emasculating force behind his own turn to wickedness. The things he’d said about her...
Others produced similar stories. Except for Stephen who visibly held the whole program in contempt. The most of a “wound” Robert had ever gotten out of him was “That time I was molested by an alcoholic Marxist in a chicken suit.” David suspected this was a joke.
And now, it the third phase of the program they were all confronting their “wound” – or would that be “wounds?” – with the healing blood of Jesus or something. The medicine made everything so fuzzy... Today in particular. He couldn’t catch much of anything until the fog in his head started to clear near the end.
"...But I asked her to hold onto my books - hide them if she needed to - until I got back." Now Stephen was talking and, as usual, Robert didn't look too happy.
"Oh Stephen," he said in that exasperated tone, as though he were his mother. "You're here to leave that behind you! If you leave here and go right back to your old ways, you can so easily fall to temptation. And you'll fall so very far you'll feel like you can never get back up!"
"Now," and Robert addressed the whole group, "I don't know if I've told you boys about my good friend Gary -"
"Only every Tuesday," muttered Stephen.
"Gary repented and washed away his wickedness and thought he'd won," Robert continued, pointedly ignoring Stephen. "But the Devil does not give up! This is war! Spiritual war and Gary just wasn't ready for that. He went right back to the same friends and the same clubs and within a month he was dead from AIDS!"
Most of the stories around there that began with "I had a friend..." ended that way. And most of the other boys at the table reacted with appropriate fear at this. Even David shifted uncomfortably but Stephen just rolled his eyes.
"Now how about a prayer?" It wasn't a question. Robert bowed his head and the group followed suit. "Oh Lord!" he said, "Please come into these poor, confused boys. Pass over and through them and fill them with Your love so they might better work to do Your work and keep themselves pure. Amen!"
"Amen!" the group responded. No speaking in tongues today, it seemed.
As they all got up to leave, Robert pulled David aside. "Brother, I couldn't help but notice you were awfully quiet today. What's wrong?"
His wooziness all but gone, David just shook his head. "No I'm fine. Just not alot going on today."
"You sure?" Robert pressed. "This can be a confusing period of adjustment. You had a good visit, didn't you?"
"Yeah, yeah," David tried to inch away. "Mom's doing great and everyone's thinking of me and stuff." He then added, hoping it would get Robert to leave him alone, "And praying."
"Oh good, that's good," Robert said, still keeping David close. "But... How about your roommate?"
David stiffened some as they left the main hall. "Stephen's cool. Doesn't talk much but -"
"Now David," Robert said, "We both know he talks quite a bit. He's not making any secret about how he feels about Exodus. He's not committed to bettering himself like you." And he placed a firm hand on David's shoulder.
They were alone now, in one of the many long snaking hallways of the building. "I bet this used to be an asylum!" Stephen had said one night. It would explain the comforting beige colors and chain-link on the windows. David's head was now clear enough to know exactly what Robert would ask of him.
"Ask yourself," Robert said, steering them to a custodian's closet. "What can you do to help Stephen in his struggle? How can you help him to purge his wickedness alongside you? Or -" and he lead them into the closet, wedging a dust pan in the door to keep it from latching. "Have you really been helping him to backslide?"
It was the same accusation every time. David wondered why Robert went to the trouble anymore. "Oh no, nothing like that."
"Because it would be a shame if the two of you were cheating at the program," Robert continued while unbuttoning his jeans and motioning for David to kneel down.
David took Robert into his mouth - hard already.
"Yep, real shame." He placed a hand on David's head and thrust some. A graduate of the program, like all the other councilors.
Read One Nation Under God to see the happy ending! Available now on Kindle and on the ereader of your choice February 28th!