Over five months had passed since the Sunday afternoon in late spring when Reverend Will Tanner talked twenty-two year-old Embry Carson out of jumping off the bridge overlooking the local river. Now it was October, and Embry found himself sitting in the clawfoot tub in the reverend’s upstairs bathroom, wet, naked, and staring at the cream-colored walls that stretched out before him.
In Will’s house, he at last felt at home, though this relatively new home was a bit close to the aforementioned river for his personal taste. Right next to the seawalls’ lowest point, the house’s two residents could even hear lapping waves from the front porch at the right time of day. Still, it was comfortable enough for Embry to be satisfied. (Really, after the life he’d led, satisfaction didn’t take much.)
Will’s house itself, if a bit large for a bachelor to occupy on his own for too many years, nevertheless managed to feel lived in. Its most defining feature was that it was filled to the brim with shelves upon shelves of books, along with plenty of nooks and crannies to read them in. Embry had never been much of a reader himself, but lately he found himself wanting to be for Will.
As for the apartment above the attached garage where Embry slept and kept what little personal items he had from his previous life, it was quite cozy. It was complete with a bed, a kitchen, and a bathroom with a shower but no tub, hence why Embry went into the main house on chilly fall afternoons like this when baths were what he craved.
Of course, Embry found himself coming into the house more for company than for baths. Quiet and standoffish as he was, in the past five months he found himself not wanting to be alone for long. Perhaps the issue was that, at the end of the day, he wasn’t used to the silence. His entire life thus far had been noisy, filled with his mother’s groans and his father’s threats, the slamming of doors and the snapping of leather—
God. Embry closed his eyes and sank beneath the surface of his bathwater, brown skin pressed against the porcelain tub.
He later wouldn’t be sure how long he would have stayed, blind and breathless, under the water if someone hadn’t knocked on the door in the next few seconds.
“Are you still in there?” he heard Will call.
“I’m fine,” Embry yelled back, jolting up so fast that water splashed onto the floor. “Taking a bath.”
“I see,” Will said, and Embry could hear him shifting from foot to foot on the other side of the door. “Will—will you be done soon?”
Embry furrowed his eyebrows. “I think so. Need something?”
“It’s just—It’s just I left all my pads in there. I woke up from a nap a few minutes ago and I could really use one.”
“Right,” Embry muttered, rising from the tub and wrapping himself in one of Will’s lemon yellow towels before he could drip anything else onto the floor. Louder, he added, “I’m just getting out of the tub now. I’ll grab you, uh—I’ll grab you one of your—”
“Floor’s a little wet in here too, so don’t slip if you come in. I’ll wipe it up later.”
After rummaging through the cabinet under the bathroom sink, Embry grabbed one of the pink-wrapped pads—not Will’s favorite color by any means—from its box. Quickly, he turned to open the door behind him.
“Thank you, Embry.”
At the sight of Will’s rapidly pinkening face as he stood uncomfortably in old denim shorts and a t-shirt wrinkled from sleep, Embry shifted in his towel. Even in an upset state, Will managed to look so sweet.
God, Embry, he’s a pastor.
Will reached up and put his hand on Embry’s shoulder. Embry had never particularly enjoyed being touched, even in his prior (and ultimately broken) engagement to a man, which had alienated him from his parents and his former church, drawing him to the railing of the local bridge in the first place. Inexplicably, though, there was something he didn’t mind about Will’s hands on him, a gentleness that made him believe in Jesus’s healing touch, or at least in the power of touches to heal. He’d felt it when Will hugged him on the bridge after finding him about to jump, and later that evening when Will had held him on the sofa, after they’d had dinner and Embry had started to bawl again.
Like a child, a weak child.
Although Will wasn’t both man and divine, there was a certain duality within him. PMDS, or persistent Mullerian duct syndrome, as he had, meant that he had a set of female reproductive organs even though he was otherwise phenotypically male, down to his outward genitalia. (Or so Embry was told. It wasn’t as if he’d ever actually had a look.) Often these inward organs in a case of PMDS would be non-functioning, but in Will’s case they functioned perfectly well, able to bleed or give life. If it wasn’t for the necessary bloodletting of puberty and the pain that came with it, Will may have never known what, in his childhood, was fused shut behind his—
God, don’t think about that.
Patting Embry on the shoulder again, Will murmured, “Can I squeeze past you, dear?”
“Sorry,” Embry exclaimed, jolting again before he stepped out of the doorway.
“You’re perfectly fine. Go get dressed, and we can go out for dinner this evening. I don’t feel like cooking, and you got sweaty enough raking those leaves in the yard earlier that you deserve a break even more than I do. You don’t have to do that, of course, but, well, I don’t keep my yard up very well myself. Oh—see you in a bit.”
When Will rushed through the doorway, Embry caught a glimpse of blood, rosy and blooming, on the seat of his pants. Then, the door closed.
As someone who’d spent all seventy-five years of her life in the rivertown where Reverend Will Tanner and Embry Carson were also born and raised, Beulah Davis had seen hundreds of young people fall in love over the years. (And yes, people in their twenties seemed younger and younger with each year that passed.) As such, she knew quite well when two people were falling for one another. In fact, it was something she had observed plenty of times even while sitting in her favorite booth at the only diner in town, a little wooden building that looked about the same now as it had when it was built in the 1940s.
And so it was that when she looked at Reverend Will Tanner, who’d been her pastor for just a few years but whom she’d known since he was a slobbering little baby, a knowing smile rose on her wrinkled features. She recognized that soft look in his eyes quite well, not to mention the gentleness with which he patted Embry’s arm from across the table. His attention was even more closely trained on Embry than on his food, and that was certainly saying something, considering how delicious the potato salad and slaw were today. Moreover, he kept running his free hand through his tousled brown hair, a sure sign that his cluttered mind was racing.
As for the tall, quiet man who’d garnered quite a bit of Will’s attention for the past five months or so, he was harder to read. His eyes stayed trained on his food as he sat, tense enough that he looked as if he could combust any minute. Of course, this was how he looked during Will’s sermons, too, and he still came to church. Likely it was just the nervous habit of a man who hadn’t had an easy life.
Yes, Beulah was sure that was all there was to it.
“Y’know, if they’re courtin’ now and they wound up gettin’ married, they could make a baby,” interjected Aurelia, Beulah’s sixteen year-old waitress and the diner’s most recently hired employee. “And they wouldn’t be livin’ in sin as they are now, since Rev’s got Embry in the garage apartment, not in the house with him.”
“You ought not to talk about a minister like that,” Beulah said, not taking her eyes off the men who—hopefully—were far enough away that they couldn’t hear the two women talking about them. “It’s improper.”
“Of course, ma’am,” said the waitress, refilling Beulah’s glass before flouncing away.
Teenagers these days are all the same, Beulah thought to herself, no sense of decorum.
Still, as she gave Will and Embry a parting look, as she was sure she would get caught staring if she didn’t stop now, she thought to herself that Aurelia may very well be right. With the way those two were looking at each other, a courtship was sure to happen eventually, and when the time came, Beulah would be happy to welcome a new baby into the church pews. Of course, that wouldn’t be for some time yet.
An hour later, Embry and Will sat together on their front porch swing, overlooking the yard Embry had tended to earlier that day. Bird songs filled the air as the two men munched on leftover chocolate cake from a church potluck the previous Sunday. Will had insisted they needed something sweet to follow their dinner.
“I hope I didn’t embarrass you too horribly earlier,” Will said, wiping his mouth with a cloth napkin.
Sweet, soft lips. God, Embry, don’t you dare.
“No,” he replied. “You didn’t.”
“Good,” Will said. “You see, even after all this time I dislike talking very much about my, ah, condition. I still remember, after my surgery when I was eleven, how—”
When Embry saw Will’s chin start to quiver, he didn’t think before he reacted. He just put his plate on the nearby table and wrapped his arm around Will’s shoulders.
After smiling and leaning against Embry’s side, Will continued, “Schoolchildren can be cruel, and as kind as my congregation and my family are to me today, I don’t like being looked at as an oddity or a miracle. All I want is to be me, but I often feel too strange to ever have a normal existence. When I have children someday, the last thing I want is for them to be stared at the same way I am, just for coming from me.”
“Y-you want kids?” Embry stammered. “I mean, I always thought I might someday too, but then when I found out I was—I wasn’t sure about how they’d be treated either. I mean, sure, I think if I was married to someone like y—someone who was more respectable, then I…you know.”
“Well, I’d certainly like to be a father someday,” Will said, politely ignoring Embry’s verbal fumbling. “Stared at or not, I feel as if I’ve been given a gift, not that I ever would have called it that when I was younger. The idea that I could conceive a child, given a partner with the proper, ah, parts when many people in similar positions to me could not, is wonderful. Embry?”
“I’m very fond of you.”
Embry stiffened, his grip around Will tightening just enough to make the reverend flinch.
“And,” Will added, “I don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable, or like I would ever take advantage of you, especially since you’re in a vulnerable position in your life right now. I invited you to be my tenant purely because I was sympathetic toward what you were going through. I want you to know that you’ll always have a safe place with me, whether or not you feel—”
Again acting through some sort of unconscious volition, Embry, with his free hand, cupped Will’s chin. After pausing for a few seconds to look into a pair of brown eyes partially eclipsed by the glare of streetlights on wire-rimmed glasses, Embry leaned forward and kissed him.
Sweet, soft. Oh, God.
“Why, hello,” Will whispered when he and Embry at last pulled away from each other. “You too?”
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