This story is by Jacqueline Houchin and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I’m standing on the edge of a lookout point on the rim of the Grand Canyon. It’s just before dawn. I can see the sky in the east becoming less black. I’ll have to do it soon. I don’t want to be a spectacle for curious eyes.
I just want it done.
I look down into black nothingness. If I remember right when I found this place yesterday, there is a straight drop of about one-hundred feet before the zigzagging walking trail cuts across. A hundred feet should do it.
I touch my cell phone and bring it to life. It’s already on the phone app, the number displayed, and the screen ready for the tap of my finger. I lick my dry lips and swallow.
What were my instructions? Hit dial, wait for a pick up, and then step off. AND DON’T DROP THE PHONE! The sounds of my demise would be recorded and become the proof I held up my end of the deal. I wouldn’t drop the phone. I’d taped it tightly to the inside of my left wrist.
I take a deep breath and hover my right index finger over the green circle. My trembling finger nearly touches the screen and I draw back. Why do I hesitate? I’d agreed, hadn’t I? It’s just that…
I glance eastward; a pale pink line marks the horizon. Soon.
I touch the screen and hear ringing….
When I joined the Family some years before, I knew I would be required to blindly obey certain orders. My first was to leave my natural family origins and head to a new country; geographically and politically different from my own. I could bring my wife, they said. It would be good cover.
But despite my vehement objections, my elderly father demanded to come along. Was I not going to a land of wealth and power beyond imagination? Why could he not join me? I was being selfish.
The Head of the Family conceded and supplied us all with the required documentation and commercial passage. What I failed to see until we landed some hours later was that the tickets fell short of my final destination.
My father complained bitterly, saying it was a trick to leave him behind, but in the end we all settled in the very opulent Family guest quarters and were made to feel comfortable.
Meanwhile, in the next year I learned the ways of the Family. So much of it consisted of instant obedience to the smallest – and greatest – commands. There were wonderful promises of advancement. There were also dire consequences for disobedience.
When my training was finished, I was notified of my father’s imminent death. He’d been in the hospital in an ICU for months, and only recently moved to a life support system. The Family Head decided it was time to let him go. The disconnects were finished and in minutes he was gone. I felt grief and relief.
My marching orders came quickly after that, and my wife and I made preparations. There would be a series of small moves so as not to attract open hostility. We were to assimilate in each place, establish a trustworthy reputation, and begin the quiet elimination of the Family’s enemies. Miami, New York, San Francisco; I understood that at each place I would be tested for allegiance.
I was joyfully diligent in my new profession, fitting into the populace of each new region, making friends, discretely sharing the Family agenda, warning of consequences, and destroying the works of the enemy where I could.
My wife supported me totally in all the gala affairs and political soirees we attended. She listened more than talked, demurely pointed all questioning “seekers” to me, and playfully fingered a ruby earring when she perceived a charlatan in the crowd which I needed to confront.
At home, in the privacy of our bedroom, she confessed a deep longing for a child. She begged me to ask the Family Head for a recommendation to a fertility clinic. I relayed our desire to the Boss, as I was now allowed to call him, but he said it wasn’t the time. I had advanced training to do in the Middle East. If I succeeded, perhaps then.
I held my wife close as we said our good-byes and left home with a heavy heart. She was brave and strong and sent me away with a reassuring smile. The next day she went to a fertility clinic she found online. She registered under an assumed name and at the proper time was artificially inseminated by semen from a donor as close to myself as she could find.
When I got home, she was eight months pregnant. A spike of fear entered my heart. Not that she’d been unfaithful, but that she had gone against the word of the Head of the most powerful Family on earth. I interceded for her, but strangely the Boss was silent. A week before she was due, our maid, carrying a large laundry basket, inadvertently collided with my wife at the top of the stairs.
Later at the hospital, the doctor gave me the sad news. The baby boy was born dead. In fact, he had been dead for two weeks. My wife hadn’t known.
It took months for her to gain back strength. The Boss paid for special attending nurses to care for her physically and emotionally. When she was well, we moved to Houston, to join an established team already at work there.
One day, the Boss visited us in person. My wife, overcome with regret and shame, admitted she’d been wrong to go against his plans for us after he’d brought us so far. Would he forgive her?
On the way out, he handed me the name and number of a prestigious fertility clinic. In due time we had our own precious son. We gave him the name the Boss suggested.
He grew up in the Family, compliant, obedient to every command or suggestion by the Boss. He was the pride of my life. I spent every minute I was not at work with him, teaching him insider truths, praising his progress, and enjoying his company. He learned quickly, excelled in some areas beyond me. He would take over my work when it was my time to go. My beloved son.
On a day like any other day, our son was abducted. My wife was away at a weekend seminar, and I found the maid unconscious. There was evidence of a struggle in our son’s room and a lingering smell of chloroform. And a note.
“It’s your choice,” it read. “You can live, or he can live.”
It seems I’d done my job too well. The Family’s enemies were experiencing too many losses. They wanted me out of the picture. Their conditions for my son’s safety were clear. They would release him to his mother, minus his right hand (an unavoidable accident), when I was dead.
Here’s how it would happen. There would be no contact with the Family Head, or the boy’s other limbs would arrive at our home in a FedEx box. I was to procure a designated rental car, and then drive it to the Grand Canyon to the spot indicated on the GPS. Once there, I was to use my cell phone to dial the number given, and when someone picked up….I was to jump.
The following was in caps; DON’T LOSE THE PHONE!
One… two… three rings. I can still abort! But my son’s face flashes in my mind. No, I will die for him.
I lean over the precipice and shift my weight to one foot. My eyes watch the screen.
The fourth ring is interrupted and I lift my foot to take a step. I swing my arms back and then forward to propel my body far out into the void.
As my left wrist comes even with my body I glance at the phone and notice a change. The dialed number is different….familiar. What? And then I hear the word shouted through my phone’s speaker. “STOP!”
But I can’t. I feel my center of gravity tip forward. I cry out the name of the Boss!
I feel the hit before I hear the rifle’s report. My left shoulder explodes in pain even as my body twists away from the abyss. I land hard on my side, pain, red as blood, filling my vision. I dimly hear the chopper’s blades invading the morning’s silence as I lose consciousness.
In a private room in Houston’s finest hospital, with my wife and my son—quite whole and unharmed—by my side, the Head of the Family explains.
“This was your final test. I knew before, of course, but now YOU know that your total allegiance and love is for me and the Family. You passed, my friend. Your faithfulness will be remembered and emulated by many.