My name is Brian Patrick McAllister, and I am going to hell.

“In Romans 1:24-28, we find that God calls these people and these acts that they perform unnatural—an abomination against him. It says, ‘Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen’,” the preacher cried, slamming his beefy hand onto the straining wood of the pulpit. In response there was a resounding chorus of “Amen!” throughout the small congregation. I looked around and found that they were all, Jamie’s mother included, enthralled by this charismatic, white-haired Baptist preacher. Even though they were fanning themselves or wiping their brows in the sweltering heat of the late southern Alabama morning, their attention never wavered.

The small tide was of congregants dressed in their Sunday finest, some of the men in short-sleeved button-downs and clip-on ties, others in long sleeves and perfectly knotted standard-issue paisley specials. The women were almost clones of each other, most wearing gaudy floral dresses with perfectly respectable neck- and hemlines that preserved their modesty. Their children were perfect little carbon copies of their parents, with one glaring exception: these miniature adults in their ties and floral dresses seemed to be bored almost senseless.

Taking a deep breath that nearly popped the straining buttons on his starched white dress shirt, the preacher continued reading from his large hardcover Bible, encouraged by his followers’ enthusiastic responses. “‘For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions, for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned’—notice, folks, that it says burned—‘in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error. And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper’!”

The thunderous sound of him slamming his Bible closed against the wood jarred me, and I jerked in my seat. Jamie looked at me, concerned, but after meeting his eye for the briefest second, I looked away. He seemed so angelic in his light-blue button-down and dress pants, his blond hair falling into his eyes. Due to the heat, Mrs. Mayfield had let him skip the tie, and I could see the smooth, soft skin of his throat behind his open collar. My stomach lurched, and my mind and my heart were both racing. The way I felt about Jamie, I was everything the preacher was ranting about: depraved, indecent, and immoral. Jamie Mayfield was my best friend in the world, and I wanted him more than anything else in it.

I looked up again at the giant of a man in his threadbare sky-blue Sunday suit. He was using a white narrow-brimmed hat to fan his sweaty, flushed face. The excitement blazed in his eyes, and it was obvious he was passionate about his sermon, and he truly believed in everything he preached. Had his words really come from God? The preacher loosened his dark-blue patterned tie, just enough to reveal the top of his neatly buttoned shirt to the captivated audience. No clip-on tie for this man; he was the real deal, the embodiment of Southern grace.

The pulpit where he tended and shepherded his flock was old but lovingly maintained. While the worn wood no longer gleamed in the morning sun, it was spotless, without even a wayward scratch. The large, perfectly crisp engraved cross on the front nearly glowed from its recent waxing and polishing. If everything in the world had its place, this was certainly the preacher’s place. He was perfectly at home, frightening as he was, and comfortable in his element, addressing the Sunday crowd from his old wooden pedestal.

As his sermon came to a close, I thought about what he’d said. For a few years now, I had tried not to like looking at other boys, instead forcing myself to think about girls when I lay in bed at night jacking off. I thought about the half-naked, faceless girls I’d seen on television. I thought about their bare silicone-infused breasts, naked hips and thighs, and tight bodies in their jeans. Sometimes, I even used hand lotion from my foster mother’s bathroom to make it feel all slick and wet, as I imagined a girl would feel. I was fairly certain Carolyn would have been horrified at the uses to which I put her emollient.

But when it came down to it, when I was so horny that my mind disengaged from my conscious fantasies, when those random images shot through my head, there was only one thing I would see. My imagination focused completely on the shaggy mop of blond hair, mischievous blue eyes, and skinny body of a seventeen-year-old boy. I imagined my best friend in the world. I could almost feel his soft blond hair brushing against my stomach, his faintly trembling hand on my thigh. In that moment, all I had worked so hard for, trying to be normal by imagining the faceless girls, shattered into a mind-blowing orgasm that left me shaken and riddled with guilt.

“Brian, darlin’, are you all right?” Jamie’s mother, Patsy Mayfield, asked quietly, breaking into my thoughts as the collection plate was passed down our row. Tossing in the few dollars Carolyn had given to me, I wiped my hand across my forehead, brushing my damp brown curls out of my eyes. I was sweating, and my skin was clammy. On the other hand, she looked perfectly at ease, even in the light sweater covering her blinding yellow sundress. Her long blonde hair was pulled back into a single braid down her back. It was obvious where Jamie had gotten his beautiful hair and soft, delicate features. Her hazel eyes were the only difference, because his were like sapphires. But her eyes were also kind as she watched me with concern.

“No, ma’am, I’m sorry. I don’t feel well,” I told her, looking up slowly, my hopeful brown eyes meeting hers. It was true; I didn’t feel well, not at all. The guilt brought on by the sermon was causing my stomach to lurch precariously, having just found out that I was going to burn in hell for something I absolutely could not control. I’d tried to control it; I’d wanted to like girls, but I was just wired wrong. I wanted to have sex with boys, and I was surely going to spend eternity in the lake of fire because of it. That was certain to cause some measure of nausea.

“Well, the service is just about over. Why don’t you leave a little early and head home? I’m glad you could stay over and go to church with us this morning. I’d love to see you attend more regularly,” she whispered as the murmuring started to die down. Her voice was soft and kind, like you would expect any mother’s voice to be. Then, with a reassuring smile, she added, “I told you maybe cold pizza for breakfast wasn’t a good idea,” and patted my hand.

I tried to smile back, but it came off feeling more like a grimace. Before Jamie or anyone else could call me back, I walked swiftly for the double doors. The disapproving faces flashed past me, row after row, making me feel like a criminal escaping from prison. At any moment one of them could try and stop me, could call me back to finish my Sunday-morning sentence. Once I pushed through the left-hand side door at the back of the small church, I broke into a sprint, and I did not stop until I reached my own back porch.

Sprinting through the humid, ninety-degree heat, it was a wonder I hadn’t collapsed. When I stepped through the screen door, my too-tight suit jacket was balled up in my left fist and my tie was wrapped around my right hand. The cluttered screened-in porch offered a small respite for me to catch my breath. I took off my shoes, as was customary at my foster parents’ home, and leaned on the arm of the yellowing wicker sofa that dominated the space. I couldn’t remember what color the cushions on the worn-out couch had been originally, but now it held a faded jungle print, washed out by years of the sun’s harsh rays.

The Schreibers, my foster parents of nearly six years, were the best I’d ever had. They didn’t have a lot of money, because Dr. Schreiber was on staff at the local hospital and not in private practice. What they lacked in financial strength, they made up for with an abundance of stability and compassion. One junkie looking for a stereo to hock for drugs had changed the whole course of my life, but I felt safer here than any home I’d lived in since my parents had been killed. I had only been three years old, so I didn’t remember much about them now, just flashes, vague impressions, and half-forgotten nightmares.

I tried to open the door quietly, but luck was not on my side. Carolyn was standing in the kitchen, and I watched her for a moment as she pulled a fresh apple pie from the oven. She was the best foster mother I had ever been placed with. To be honest, I was thankful for her and for her husband, Richard. Reluctant as I was to admit it, I felt rather ashamed of my first thoughts of my foster father. Richard had specifically requested a teenage boy to be placed with them. At first I thought he was one of those. I had already dealt with a few of them in foster care.

One such foster parent was Mrs. Butler, who would come into my room at night and make me jack off while she watched. I was eleven years old, so I had no idea about the context or the scope of the act, only the quick breathless instructions she had given me that first time. She got so excited when I would finally blow. I remember her face would get all red, and she’d kind of bounce a little in the chair she sat in next to my bed. It took forever, because it was kind of hard to get all worked up with your foster mom watching you get off. Even though she would always try to “help me clean up,” I’d just grab the towel from her and get under the covers, terrified that one night she would want to get in bed with me. To be honest, she creeped me out. However, it wasn’t long before I was removed from her care and placed with the Schreibers, because Child Services had been called to investigate the rumor that Mrs. Butler was having sex with my younger foster brother. Only eight, he wasn’t old enough or strong enough to resist her. I was thankful that I never saw her again.

Richard was different, though. He just wanted a teenage boy because, in his sixties, he was getting too old to do certain chores around the house and needed some help. Richard and Carolyn had started taking in foster kids years ago, after their baby boy had suddenly died in his crib. A montage of school pictures from each of their wards was arranged and dutifully maintained on the southern wall of the living room. At eleven, about to turn twelve, I had been the closest they could find to what they wanted, but he seemed happy enough with me.

“You’re home early,” Carolyn commented as she turned off the oven. Shrugging, I quickly looked away from her gaze, noticing the mess on the kitchen counter. She was a fantastic cook, but her cleaning skills left something to be desired. Tossing my balled-up jacket and tie onto one of the kitchen chairs, I went over to the counter. Feeling a little calmer now that I was out from under the preacher’s watchful eye, I started to clear away some of the mess. After a few moments, I felt Carolyn’s hand on my shoulder.

“Is everything okay, Brian?” she asked gently. This was exactly why I didn’t mind helping out around the house—cleaning the gutters, mowing the yard, and doing dishes. She was the closest thing I could ever remember having for a mother. Having been just a toddler when my parents were killed, my own mother was a faint memory stored somewhere between Sesame Street and potty training. I briefly considered talking to her about how I felt, but since I wasn’t really sure about her views, I couldn’t take the chance. Reaching behind her, she untied the worn apron and hung it on a peg behind the door. Pushing her graying, light-brown hair back in the general area of her messy bun, she watched me with speculative concern, but I remained silent, concentrating on my cleaning. She took off her oval-rimmed glasses to rub her deep-set gray eyes.

“Going to hell, are we, Brian McAllister?” she finally asked in an offhand voice. Spinning where I stood, I openly gaped at her, the cluttered counter forgotten in an instant. Any thoughts of concealment were lost in my surprise at her question, and I couldn’t even form the words to find out why she would ask me that. “Old Preacher Moore thinks everyone is going to hell for one thing or another. Whether it’s Richard for having wine with supper or me for gossipin’ with the ladies in my sewing circle, someone’s always in trouble,” she said with a chuckle. “I’m sure whatever you’re feeling all guilty about isn’t worth fussin’ over. You’re a good kid, Brian.”

“Thanks, Carolyn,” I told her with genuine affection, though not altogether reassured, and turned back to cleaning. She couldn’t know that I had nothing to worry about, since she didn’t know how I felt or what I’d done. For all I knew, she might agree with the preacher on the subject of boys being attracted to other boys. After wiping down the counter, dodging the obstacle course of appliances, racks, and the newly baked pie, I dropped the rag on the divider between the two sides of the stainless steel sink and grabbed the broom from the corner. As I swept the flour from the worn pattern on the slightly warped tile floor, she continued to talk.

“Now, if it has anything to do with the”—she started and then lowered her voice to a whisper—“birds and the bees….” She looked meaningfully at me and then resumed in her normal tone, “You may want to go and talk to Richard. The last thing on earth you need is to knock up some cheerleader.”

I almost laughed right out loud at that. If only, I thought wryly, but just nodded, and finally the thoroughly awkward subject was closed.

That night, after cleaning up the supper dishes, I lay in my bed and stared up at the blank expanse of ceiling for a long time. Not for the first time, under the guise of attempting sleep, my eyes traced its cracks and imperfections. My bedroom was simple but safe and warm, which was exactly what I needed. The small student desk under the window was perfect for doing schoolwork or building models whenever I got them for Christmas or birthdays. That was my passion, building things. I had built ships and cars from kits, but lately I had been working on buildings with old scraps of trash I found around the house—toilet paper and paper towel rolls, newspaper, and for signs I would use color advertisements from magazines. It was wonderful of Richard and Carolyn to indulge me in my fascination with models when they could.

The dresser, with its deep scratches and gouge marks, held my finished models as well as my clothes, and looked like it literally had fallen off the back of a truck. The bed was a slightly different story. After years of housing a couple of foster kids at a time, they had gotten too old to handle the discipline problems that usually accompanied abandoned and sometimes abused children. So, after their last two charges had turned eighteen, they’d decided to only have one at a time and had replaced their bunk beds with one brand-new sturdy twin. It was the most comfortable bed I’d ever had. The worn green comforter, good no matter the gender of the kid sleeping in the bed, was warm and reassuring. I couldn’t have asked for anything better.

My thoughts raced as I continued to trace the cracks in the ceiling with my tired eyes. I thought about what Carolyn had said; maybe I’m not so horrible after all. I mean, I wasn’t looking for this to happen. I don’t want to be like this; I don’t want to like boys. Maybe there is something wrong with me that a doctor could help with. Maybe I should talk to Richard. A small measure of hope flared within me at that thought. Or maybe that’s the way God intends for me to be? If He has absolute control over everyone and everything, why would he make me bad? Broken? Wrong?

It was hours before sleep finally took me.

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