"A walkabout is a life-altering experience," Ezekiel said.
He stood at the head of the parlor, addressing the men. They were all tired and sunburnt, but otherwise no worse for wear.
Jacob and Alex sat on opposite sides of the room, both listening intently.
"It forces a man to look death in the face, to reach deep down within himself to discover whether or not he has what it takes. The fact that each of you is standing in front of me today proves that you're serious about your recovery. A weak man could not have survived the night the way that you gentleman did. And for that, I commend you."
Jacob nodded along, but inside he could feel a pit in his stomach. An hour ago he would have felt nothing but guilt for defeating the entire purpose of the assignment by actively betraying it in the tent that night with Alex.
Now, however, he felt nothing but rage at Ezekiel. He forced himself to stay expressionless.
"No man is an island. We can't walk this path alone, and Jesus doesn't ask us to. We're not meant to eschew our bonds with other men, of course not! But the friendships, the real bond that you have with another man, that's not about sex. It's about brotherhood."
Jacob looked around at the rest of the men as Ezekiel prosthelytized to them. They were all nodding along, eating up everything Ezekiel was saying without a shred of doubt.
It killed Jacob to think that he had been just like them. He didn't know how Alex had managed to keep his true feelings hidden for so many days. Jacob didn't know how he would last another five minutes.
"You are now bonded to your fellow brother for the rest of your life. When you feel the urge to engage in sin, remember your brother. Lean on him, reach out to him, take his hand and let him pull you up out of temptation and into the light."
At those words, Jacob couldn't help but steal a glance over at Alex. Alex was smiling neutrally, listening as though he didn't have a care in the world. He looked so cute in his little clear glasses, scratching his black mustache as it tickled his nose.
Jacob still had no idea where they stood. He had barely had time to tell Alex what he'd seen before they were called into the parlor for their morning activity. They'd agreed to find a time to talk later, but not to say anything in the meantime.
The waiting was absolute torture for Jacob. He was pissed at Ezekiel, that was for sure. But he wasn't ready to deal with the feelings that had been unleashed by his night in the tent. Ezekiel's lies didn't take away the part of Jacob that couldn't reconcile his faith and his homosexuality. He wasn't sure that anything could.
The rest of the afternoon was like a haze. Jacob barely paid any attention at all as Ezekiel led them through a retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk, focusing on the coming-of-age tale of man's virility and the female desire to stifle it.
He ate his lunch alone, unable to bear talking to Chris or Wesley now that he knew they were both privy to this deception. He wished he could talk to Alex out in the open, but he knew they had to be smart.
Finally during a free period after lunch, he and Alex snuck away to their room. They sat and talked on Alex's bed as Jacob brought them both hot chocolate from the kitchen.
"My editor says I need more than just Brad," Alex said as Jacob handed him the hot cocoa. "He says I need something on Ezekiel as well. We need to cut the head off the snake."
"Well, Ezekiel's just as bad," Jacob said, sipping his drink. "I can vouch for that after what I saw this morning."
Alex shook his head. "It's not enough. We need proof, like video evidence of the two of them fucking. I've got Brad and Chris, but I need something with Ezekiel."
"I'm sure they'll fuck again. We just need to keep a close eye on them."
"We only have 2 more days here before we leave Saturday morning," Alex said. "If we miss our chance, I might not get another one until next year's retreat."
"We'll get it. We'll bring them down, I promise," said Jacob. He grabbed Alex's hand and squeezed it. He quickly caught himself and pulled his hand away awkwardly.
"You're right," said Alex. He smiled at him.
Jacob set his hot chocolate down on the table and laid back on the bed, rubbing his face with his hands.
"How could they do that?" he asked. "How could they lie to people like that? Pretend that they could show them how to change when really they were just fucking in secret this whole time?"
"I don't know," said Alex. He laid down on his side on the bed next to Jacob. "Self-deception is a crazy thing. I mean, look at you."
Jacob raised his eyebrows.
"I don't mean that in a negative way, I promise. I just mean that you got married to a woman because you thought it was your only option. You didn't know that you could have a different life."
Jacob sat up, folding his arms. "I'm still not sure I believe that," he said. "I agree with you that Brad and Ezekiel are liars. They've never successfully changed anyone. But I don't see how the whole thing could be pointless. Why would God make us suffer this way if there was nothing we could do about it?"
"Maybe it's not God who's making you suffer. Maybe He just wants you to be happy," said Alex.
Jacob furrowed his brow. "Can I ask you something?" he said.
Alex sat up. "Sure," he said.
"What's your life like? You know, your real life. Not the stuff you said about being sober."
"That wasn't a lie," said Alex. "I am sober. I just made up the part about that being my reason for coming here."
"Oh," said Jacob. "So, the drinking... is that because you're gay?"
"No, I don't think it had anything to do with that," said Alex. "I mean, it didn't really help, having to grow up with my dad and all. But I would have looked for any excuse at all to drink."
Alex laughed. "It's funny," he continued. "But for me, getting sober was a lot like coming out. Until I was able to accept that I was an alcoholic, I wasn't able to really see myself for who I was. Before then I was always rejecting the label, because I was afraid of what it meant."
Jacob looked up at Alex nervously.
"What's it like just... being gay? I just... I know that's a stupid question, I just mean... is it hard?"
Alex pondered for a moment.
"It's a mixed bag," he said. "I mean, I live in West Hollywood, so it's not like it would be being gay in Kansas or something. But it's not perfect. I get lonely sometimes."
Jacob looked at the ground. "Me too," he said softly. "Sometimes I feel fine, and then all of a sudden it hits me. I'll be with my wife, and we'll just be sitting on the couch with the baby or something and I'll just remember how lonely I feel. And I know I should be happy, but I just... I feel like I'm the only person in the world."
He looked at Alex. "I wouldn't mind your life, I don't think."
Alex smiled. "I like my life. And I like who I am. It's taken me a while, but I wouldn't change anything about myself."
They sat in silence for a moment as they sipped their cocoa.
Finally Alex said, "Can I ask YOU something?"
"How did you feel when we were together? I don't mean after, but during. When you were kissing me, when you were inside me... how did it make you feel?"
Jacob's face turned red. "I-"
"It's okay," said Alex. "It's just me. You can be honest. No judgement, no nothing."
"I don't know..." said Jacob. He took a deep breath. "It felt incredible. Like I was finally alive for the first time. Like my life had been some sad dress rehearsal up until that point. But when you touched me, it was like... anything was possible. I could be happy and I could be present and maybe God did love me."
"So why is that a sin?"
"Because, it... the Bible says-"
"Let's set the Bible aside for a moment," Alex said. "Let's look at you and me. Look into your heart. What does your conscience tell you? Who are we hurting by being together?"
Jacob looked at Alex, his face trembling.
Alex looked down. Jacob began to cry.
"What do you think she deserves?" Alex asked.
"A husband who loves her. Who's attracted to her, who's devoted to her, who doesn't fuck other guys behind her back," said Jacob, his voice thick with tears.
Alex lifted his hands up. "Okay, fair enough. But you're not attracted to her. And you can't be. So what if, by being with her, you're not only holding yourself back, but you're also holding her back?"
Jacob sniffed. He looked away, biting his lip.
"Have you ever told her that you're gay?" Alex asked.
"I'm not gay-"
"Fine, fine. Have you ever told her that you have same-sex attraction?"
"No," Jacob said.
"Well, shouldn't she get to make that choice for herself? Whether or not she wants to be with someone who can love her, who can give her the kind of devotion she needs?" asked Alex.
"But if I tell her, if I leave her, I'll ruin our family, I'll be alone-"
"You don't know that," Alex said. "But even if you did, you can't keep going on living a lie. It's not fair to her, and it's not fair to yourself."
He took his hand.
"And you won't be alone."
Jacob looked into Alex's eyes. Alex stared back at him with such empathy and caring that he couldn't help himself.
Their lips met suddenly and firmly, locked in a passionate embrace as their bodies longed to become one.
Jacob could taste the sweet cocoa on Alex's tongue as his own tongue crashed against it. He reached his hand underneath Alex's shirt to feel his tight abs. Jacob ran his fingers over the individual muscles, counting them out in his mind.
Jacob pulled Alex on top of him as he laid down on the bed, his arms wrapped tightly around Alex. The two lovers kissed slowly and passionately as their hands traveled across each other's bodies.
"Are you sure you want this?" Alex said breathlessly as he pulled away from the kiss.
"I need you," said Jacob as he grabbed Alex's face and pulled him back in.
Alex stuck his hand underneath Jacob's shirt, lightly rubbing his nipple in between his fingers. Jacob ran his hands along Alex's back, feeling Alex's warm skin underneath his fingers as he tasted his mouth. He could feel himself growing hard with Alex on top of him, and he wanted nothing more than to be as close to Alex as possible.
Alex lowered his pants down over his cheeks, then unzipped Jacob's pants and pulled out his growing cock. He continued kissing Jacob as he positioned Jacob's cock against his hole. Jacob moaned as Alex slowly lowered himself onto Jacob's dick, joining them as intimately as two men can be joined.
"Oh Jay..." whispered Alex as he slid down onto Jacob's cock.
Alex began to gyrate on Jacob's, the two men fucking fully clothed on Alex's bed. Jacob groaned at the feeling of his dick deep inside Alex's ass. He would never get used to how warm and welcoming Alex made him feel. He bucked his hips forward, trying to penetrate deeper into the younger man.
Alex was in heaven, with Jacob's cock hitting his prostate at just the right angle. He kissed Jacob even more fiercely as he moved his hips back and forth, taking his lover deeper inside him. His own cock was sticking straight out, dripping precum onto Jacob's stomach as the pleasure grew stronger and stronger.
Their union was brief and intense, quickly building to a climax as they both came in unison. Alex sprayed his load all over Jacob's chest and stomach, while Jacob's seed shot deep within Alex. Their lips never parted as they came down from their orgasms, tightly holding each other's arms.
Suddenly Jacob pulled away from the kiss, burying his head in Alex's shoulder and shaking as he held the man tightly.
"Shh... it's okay baby..." whispered Alex as he held Jacob in his arms. "How do you feel?" he asked.
"Terrible. Amazing, I don't know," Jacob said, pulling his head away to look at Alex through tear-stained eyes. "I... I feel amazing. I do, I really do. I just... don't understand-"
"Hey," said Alex, wiping the tears out of Jacob's eyes. "It's okay. We don't have to figure it all out now. Let's just take it one step at a time, okay?"
Jacob nodded. "I wanna stop him. I need to."
"I know you do, baby," said Alex. "We will."
"We really need to hammer out a plan, some way we can catch Ezekiel fucking and capture it on video," Alex said as they changed clothes.
"Can't we just look on his computer or something?" Jacob asked.
"I don't know. That feels too risky to me. Breaking into someone's computer to steal their information? That doesn't exactly scream journalistic integrity," said Alex.
"You lied to get into this retreat and recorded two people fucking," said Jacob. "I think we're bending the rules here."
"If I got caught breaking into his room I could get in serious trouble. Ezekiel could get me fired."
"Well, you wouldn't have to do it. I could go in there and get it for you. Then I could send it to you and you'd just say you got it from an anonymous source," said Jacob.
"I don't think so, Jay. It sounds too risky to me. I don't like the idea of you putting yourself out there on a limb like that. What if he caught you?"
"What's he gonna do? Kick me out of his phony retreat?" Jacob scoffed.
"He could tell your pastor. Hell, he could tell your wife."
Jacob's face fell.
"What are you talking about?" he asked.
"This is why I came to investigate Voyage Into Manhood in the first place," said Alex. "I've heard all these reports from guys who've been on Voyage Into Manhood and say that Ezekiel is as corrupt as they come. He gets all of this personal information about you and your secrets and uses it against you to keep you in line. None of the guys I talked to were willing to go on record for fear of being outed."
Jacob's face drained of color. He hadn't thought about the potential that anyone would talk about his same-sex attraction without his knowledge. The idea of being outed to his wife or to his entire church was terrifying to him.
"I'll keep an eye on Ezekiel tonight and try and watch for anything strange," Alex said. "If I see him going off somewhere, I'll try and follow him and see if he and Brad end up fucking again."
"What do you want me to do?" Jacob asked.
Alex touched his face with his hand, softly brushing his thumb against Jacob's lip.
"You just cover for me. And stay safe--I don't want anything to happen to you."
When they gathered in the parlor for that night's activity, Jacob and Alex made sure to stand far away from each other again to avoid arousing anyone's suspicion.
"Tonight, we're going to be acting out some of your past trauma," said Ezekiel. "Drama therapy is a proven tool to help you work through troubling events of the past and come out the other side a free man. It gives you a chance to say the things you never got to say."
He looked around the room at the men. "Who wants to give it a try?" he asked.
Wesley and Chris both raised their hands. Ezekiel ignored them.
"Brother Alex," he said.
Alex looked up, surprised.
"Why don't you come to the front?"
Alex slowly walked over to stand next to Ezekiel in front of the other men. Jacob watched him, his heart pounding in his chest.
"I don't think I have any past trauma," he said.
"Nonsense," said Ezekiel. "You've told us a little bit about your difficulties with your father. I'm sure there's something you can explore there. What's a memory you have of your dad that's particularly painful?"
"Um... well, I mean I guess it would be the last time we talked. It was right before he died."
Alex paused. Ezekiel looked at him expectantly.
"And?" he said.
"He told me he didn't want me to come visit him in the hospital," said Alex.
"Mm," said Ezekiel. "That must have hurt. What did you do?"
"I told him to stop being a stubborn old man, and to let me see him. He told me..." Alex trailed off. "We had a really big fight," he finished.
"Why didn't he want you to see him?" Ezekiel asked.
Alex was quiet. Jacob watched him, his heart hurting.
"He was ashamed of me," said Alex.
Ezekiel clapped Alex on the shoulder. Alex had to consciously keep himself from recoiling.
"Of course. Chris, come on up," said Ezekiel.
Chris bounded to the front, his red curls flopping as he eagerly took his place next to Alex.
"You're going to play Alex's father. You're in the hospital on the phone with your son. And, go!"
Alex looked at him in shock.
"I don't think-"
"Don't think. Just do the exercise," said Ezekiel.
Alex looked at Chris. Chris nodded at him, smiling.
Jacob watched in disbelief. How could Ezekiel think it was a good idea to so casually recreate this scene from Alex's life? He knew that it must be taking everything within Alex not to storm out of there and blow their cover. He wished he could stop it for him.
Alex closed his eyes, then said, "Dad... please just let me come visit you."
"No, son," said Chris, putting on a low voice for dramatic effect. "You're a disappointment. I hate you."
Alex rolled his eyes. "Yeah, I don't think this is working," he said to Ezekiel.
Ezekiel walked over to Chris, whispering in his ear. Chris nodded.
"Try it again," said Ezekiel. "Really commit to it."
Alex sighed. He turned to Chris. "Dad, I want to come see you."
"You think I'll let you come and make a fool out of me? The way you did when you were younger?" Chris sneered.
Alex looked taken aback. "That's... you don't mean that," he said.
Chris scoffed. "I would rather die than have a homosexual as a son."
Alex looked at Ezekiel, his eyes pleading. "This isn't right."
"Stay in the scene!" Ezekiel commanded.
"He wouldn't say that!" Alex said angrily.
"Say it to him, not me," said Ezekiel.
Alex turned to Chris. "Dad, you don't mean that. Stop it."
"Yes I do, son," said Chris. "You're weak, and you're sick. You're not my son. I could never love you the way you are."
Alex looked close to tears. Ezekiel clapped.
"All right!" Ezekiel said. "Powerful stuff. Now, let's try and unlock some of that. Alex, how did it make you feel when he said that to you?"
Alex looked at him, his eyes red. "Fucking awful," he said.
"And what could you have said in return?" asked Ezekiel.
"I don't know, I-"
"We're giving you the opportunity to tell your father exactly how you feel. To let go of the anger and the resentment that's holding you back, that's keeping you in your sin."
Alex was shaking. Jacob could tell that he was trying as hard as he could to keep his feelings hidden, to keep himself from shouting at Ezekiel.
And what was Ezekiel up to? This didn't feel productive at all. It felt almost like Ezekiel was punishing Alex. But for what?
Jacob wanted more than anything to run over to Alex and comfort him, even just to hold him for a moment. But he knew that they needed to stick to their mission. It was what Alex wanted.
He looked around the room. He could tell that everyone was too focused on what was going on to notice if he was gone. If there were ever a time to sneak into Ezekiel's room and get a look at his computer, it was now. But Alex had told him not to...
Jacob looked over at Alex, struggling at the head of the room in front of the other guys. The way Ezekiel was staring at him so smugly, the way he seemed to revel in Alex's emotional pain... it made Jacob's blood boil. He needed to go down.
Jacob quickly slipped away, stealing down the hallway towards Ezekiel's room. He opened the door and ducked inside, closing it quietly behind him.
Jacob turned back around and looked around Ezekiel's bedroom. The place was immaculately tidy. The bed was so perfectly made that you wouldn't even have known that two men were fucking on it just a few hours ago. He searched for the computer, opening dresser drawers and looking under the bed.