Illustrated by Brenna Connell/OutWrite
Content warning: religious trauma, mentions of conversion therapy
Lea was already late, running down the sidewalk like a marathon sprinter in the last leg of a race. She dodged around screaming babies in strollers, men in ironed suits in the midst of an argument, and bright yellow fire hydrants. She yelled a quick “Sorry!” or an “Excuse me!” as she weaved her way through the crowds of people hustling to enter the sanctity of their cars after work. Los Angeles at five in the afternoon was not a friendly place.
She frantically checked the time on her phone, almost colliding head-on with a gaggle of soccer moms fitted in Lululemon attire. The time read 5:03.
Up ahead, she saw a building she had extensively stalked online for months to prepare for her interview. It looked like any other building: gray and boring, with too many windows in a bland attempt at artistic architecture. Most people passed it a hundred times without caring who worked within its walls. She only cared because it housed the career she had always wanted. Sherman & Welkin LLC was her best shot at a well paying job in environmental law, but she was already three minutes late.
She dashed through the set of glass doors that led into the building, spotting a secretary waiting inside the overly modern lobby.
“Hi, what can I help you with?” the secretary asked her. Her name tag read Charlotte, and though her voice sounded friendly, her blood red acrylic nails tapped against her desk impatiently.
“My name is Lea. I’m here for my interview with Mr. Welkin,” Lea stammered, her statement coming off as if she were asking for permission.
“Yes, I see you right here. You had an appointment at 5:00? I’ll give him a call, but seeing as you’re already late, I would prepare to wait a while, as his schedule is very busy.”
Charlotte motioned with her hand for Lea to go sit down in the small corner of couches off to the left of the desk. As Lea walked away, she could hear the clicking of the nails on the keyboard and a murmured conversation. She let out a breath she had been holding since she stepped inside the building.
She stared out the window, watching as dark gray clouds gathered outside. Lea’s mood seemed to be summoning the weather that matched her thoughts: gloomy, dark, and depressing. She sat in her stiffly perched position until rain began to fall, sending tear-shaped droplets cascading down the glass surfaces surrounding her.
“Of course I didn’t bring an umbrella,” she mumbled to herself, checking her phone for the 18th time. The time now read 5:47, and the secretary had yet to even glance in her direction. Finally, she couldn’t take it anymore.
Shaking away her nerves, she made her way back to the desk. Charlotte looked startled to see her after Lea lightly rapped her knuckles on the desk’s stained oak surface.
“Can I help you?” She sighed, scrolling through Instagram on her phone under the desk.
Swallowing the lump in her throat, Lea asked timidly, “I was just wondering if I was still able to speak with Mr. Welkins… about my interview?”
“Oh honey, I’m so sorry. I honestly forgot you were still here. Mr. Welkins had to go to another meeting. He absolutely does not tolerate any form of tardiness. I’m sure he’ll email you to reschedule. Have a nice day.”
Her biggest opportunity had just slipped through her fingers, and there was nothing she could do about it. She spun on her heels and ran toward the doors, hoping Charlotte hadn’t noticed the tears welling in her eyes.
As soon as she stepped outside, she was affronted with a lash of stinging rain that soaked her blazer and oversized slacks within seconds. Of course she would have to walk home in the pouring rain. That was just her luck.
Maybe I can wait it out? She thought, hurrying down the empty sidewalk. The rain pelted her eyes, making her mascara drip down her cheeks.
Up ahead, she saw an alleyway protected from the rain by an assortment of balconies. She slipped between the two buildings and huddled beside an overfilled dumpster, watching the torrents of rain drench the city.
Lea usually loved the rain. The smells it brought from the earth always made her feel like she was back home in Seattle. But LA was definitely not Seattle; though she could detect the faint freshness in wake of the rain, it was overpowered by the acrid stench of garbage and smog.
She was so focused on the downpour that she didn’t hear the steps approaching behind her until a voice called out, “Hey, are you okay?”
Lea whipped around, losing her balance in the process and nearly falling back into the storm. A thin hand wrapped around her wrist before she could fall butt-first onto the concrete. Suddenly, she found herself inches from the face of a stranger, whose gray-blue eyes were filled with surprise and a little bit of pity. Lea traced the stranger’s features, noticing the thick dark lashes blinking back at her. Lea broke her gaze first, but not before spotting the light splash of freckles that decorated her savior’s cheeks and nose. The stranger laughed as Lea quickly retreated. When she was able to take them in fully, she couldn’t help but let a blush creep across her cheeks. This person was truly beautiful. Their choppy, bleached blond hair framed an angular jaw and cheekbones, pointing toward a dazzling flash of white teeth that appeared between light pink, parted lips. They wore a faded blue sweatshirt over a pair of black skinny jeans. Lea found herself inadvertently checking out her surprising alleyway guest.
“Should I repeat myself?” the stranger demanded.
“Sorry. Yeah, I’m fine. Just forgot an umbrella, so I was waiting out the rain,” Lea responded awkwardly.
“I’m Chris.” the stranger responded.
Chris pulled an umbrella from their backpack, light orange with yellow spots. Not exactly the color umbrella that Lea expected the stranger — Chris — to have.
“You know, I think I’m good here. The rain won’t last forever, right?” Lea laughed uneasily as Chris opened the umbrella with a flourish.
“Have you not checked the weather report today? It’s supposed to rain until tomorrow morning, so unless you wanna crouch in this alley all night, I’m your best option,” Chris said, pulling her into the rain. Lea found herself slightly stunned, hand in hand with Chris under the protection of their giant polka-dotted umbrella.
Her flats splashed through the inch of water that had already gathered on the surface of the sidewalk, drenching her socks. Wet feet. Great. Now she would probably catch a cold to add to her hellhole of a day.
“Where are you taking me?” Lea asked, secretly enjoying the warmth of the stranger’s slim fingers intertwined with her own.
“The park,” Chris responded matter-of-factly, as if it was the most obvious place in the world.
“You know, that sounds wonderful, but I’d really love to get home. I probably had the worst day of my life today, so I don’t think a playground would be the best place for me,” Lea said, wrapping her free arm around her midsection in an attempt to warm herself up.
Chris just chuckled, turning to look down at Lea’s slightly shivering body. “Trust me, I know what you need right now. And it’s definitely not in your apartment. If you really had a horrible day, then an adventure with a stranger is exactly the thing to take your mind off of things. So how about you just believe in the powers of chance that led you into my sphere of spontaneous awesomeness and go with the flow for once in your life?”
Lea was speechless. Her stranger had gone from barely saying two words to her to monologuing life lessons. Chris took her silence as permission to lengthen their stride and pull her deeper into the torrential rain.
They walked down the glistening streets with barely a person in sight. Aside from the honking cars, Los Angeles seemed peaceful. Chris yanked lightly on her arm, leading her between two buildings where the umbrella could not travel through in its current form. They pressed the silver button on its worn wooden handle, causing the umbrella to compress quickly and splatter water droplets onto Lea.
“Thanks for that,” she snapped quickly. Her emotions from the day rose into the back of her throat like bile.
“You’re welcome, gorgeous. Not like you can tell the difference. You’re already soaked,” Chris quipped, motioning to her drenched clothing.
Lea just glared back at them, flicking rainwater at her annoyingly factual companion.
“Don’t worry, we’re almost there.” Chris linked hands with Lea once again, dragging her deep into the concrete jungle of downtown Los Angeles. Lea lost track of the twists and turns Chris made as they navigated through back alleys and side streets. She realized, somewhat belatedly, that she was completely lost and letting a stranger lead her wherever they desired. She wasn’t a girl who was especially known for her spontaneity, but she decided that if today was the day she got kidnapped, at least she wouldn’t have to deal with the consequences of missing her interview.
“OK, we’re almost there,” Chris said while opening up the splash of color that protected them from the rain that continued to drown the city.
This time it was Lea who reached her hand out to intertwine her fingers with her strange new friend. Chris’ small smile was a reward Lea wanted to keep receiving.
Hand in hand, the pair walked across the street and into the protection of a small grove of trees. Lea had never been to this part of the city. The only parks she had ever frequented in Los Angeles were on the grounds of UCLA, where she completed her undergraduate degree. Chris seemed surefooted on the uneven and overgrown path. They weaved through the trees, occasionally stopping to leap over a puddle or skirt around an especially watery patch of mud. A playground of yellow and red plastic could be seen in small glimpses through the trunks.
Stopping at the edge of the tree line, the unlikely pair made their way to the structure. Lea noticed the caution tape surrounding the pylons that held up what she could now see was a deteriorating and dilapidated remnant of a play structure. The structure itself, once a castle with four triumphant towers, now only had one left standing. The slide was disconnected from the castle, laying unevenly on the weeds that had torn through the wood chips that had once covered the playground like a splintery blanket. This place where children once laughed, played, and chased each other with reckless abandon now sat empty and forgotten.
Chris led her up a rusted ladder into the center of the castle. Though the roof was broken in some places, it protected them from most of the rain. Only a few drops splattered against the aging wood planks that made up the floor of the interior. Chris and Lea had to crouch and crawl across the floor to reach the driest corner of the dilapidated castle. Lea noticed there was already a blanket and a small pack of belongings stored in the corner. Chris spread out the rumpled blanket and leaned against the yellow plastic wall with a sigh of contentment.
Lea followed suit, her legs tired from the long walk and her brain whirring with ricocheting thoughts that had been building toward a headache all day.
“I have to ask…” Lea prompted in a soft voice. “Do you live here?”
Chris let out a hearty laugh, their body shaking with the force of their amusement at Lea’s question. “No, I don’t live here. I have an apartment about a fifteen-minute walk from here. I just… come here sometimes when I’m overwhelmed. When my thoughts are too loud. I found this place when I moved here from Utah. Kind of glad this city doesn’t give a crap about public works projects or bettering the community. I would hate to lose my Castle of Solitude.”
Lea laughed alongside her new friend. She realized she no longer felt Chris was a stranger: not some mysterious person leading her blindly through the streets of LA, but instead, someone who was nice to her. Something that was truly rare when it came to strangers.
“You’re from Utah?” Lea asked. Noticing for the first time the intricate tattoos on each finger of Chris’s hand. A blue eye, a feather, a pen, an upside down cross, and a rose.
“Born and raised. Grew up in Mormon country. I guess back then I fit in to some extent. Coming out will kinda ruin your street cred in a place like St. George. I didn’t even tell my parents when I decided to chop off my hair. It used to be down to my butt, if you can imagine that. I just took a pair of scissors and hacked it off.” Chris answered, pulling at the fraying edges of their jeans. Lea felt her hand reach up to touch a strand of Chris’s hair, feeling for the first time how much meaning could be held in someone’s appearance.
A light blush appeared across their cheeks. They coughed lightly before continuing their story. “I tried to explain how I felt, but a label like non-binary was never going to help them understand who I was. They tried forcing me to talk to a bishop, even had conversations about some conversion type camp they could send me. So one night, I just left. I had put in an application for a job in LA, just some small tattoo shop that liked my work and was willing to take me on as an apprentice. I left the day after I was accepted and moved in with a friend I had here in the city. I know you didn’t ask for my whole life story, but sometimes I just want to tell it.” Chris looked at Lea with a tired smile and eyes that held a stronghold of pain.
“I’m so sorry that you had to deal with… well, with everything. I came out to my mom when I was thirteen. Just flat out told her I was gay. She was overjoyed that I would never bring a boyfriend home. Being a single mom with a string of failed relationships may have turned her a bit bitter when it came to the opposite sex.” Lea laughed lightly, inadvertently leaning closer to her new friend.
“You’re lucky it was so easy for you. I still don’t talk to my family. But… maybe one day we will reconnect. I guess it’s something I have moved on from, but it would still be nice to just pick up the phone and call my mom.” Chris turned to look at Lea. “So why were you crouching in an alley?”
Lea had almost forgotten how awful her day had been. She had nearly escaped from the feelings of crushing disappointment and self hatred that she knew were waiting for her just around the corner. “I missed a job interview. Probably the most important one of my life. I woke up late on the one day I had to be up early, and now I don’t really know what to do with my life. Got any ideas?”
Chris feigned a thinker pose, ensuing an embarrassing spurt of giggles from Lea. “I mean, I do have one idea if you’re up for it?” They asked slyly, leaning in ever so closely to Lea’s fluttering heartbeat.
“What’s your idea?” Lea asked, her voice a breathless whisper. She thought that there was no way Chris felt the same as she did. This beautiful stranger couldn’t possibly feel the spark that ignited her veins every time their fingers touched. But staring at her new companion’s face, she noticed the quiver of their lips and the darting quality of their gaze. They were just as nervous as she was.
Chris leaned even closer, their breath tickling her cheek. “You could let me kiss you?”
Lea closed the distance between them, and their lips touched. For a moment, the two people forgot their worries and were simply and irrevocably happy.
Author: Taylor Kunin-Ur (She/Her)
Artist: Brenna Connell (She/They)
Copy Editors: Ava Rosenberg (She/They), Bella (She/They)