This story is by Sandy Juker and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Wrapped in white satin, I floated down a rose petal covered aisle. The plank, I would later call it. A thorny path taken one step at a time, ever edging to the final leap.
Two weeks after that first step, my groom, Howard D. Mendelson, sold his oil rights for twelve billion dollars. A skilled mountain climber, the tall blonde known as Howie, fancied himself a real jokester. To me, the former Sarah Lynn Faust, daughter of a Fortune 500 company’s CEO, he was no comedian.
But I laughed anyway. Accustomed to appeasing a powerful man from the age of seven when my mother’s death left just Papa and me, I was the perfect acquiescent wife and hostess. And, if you asked my husband, the perfect long-legged blonde eye candy.
Howie sold the mansion in Beverly Hills and swept us away to a villa in Spain, where I wandered the thirteen bedrooms dreaming of a home full of happy children. We celebrated our first anniversary looking out over a panoramic view of the Mediterranean Sea.
I took a mere sip of the 1982 Lafite Rothschild and clinked my wine glass against his. “Howie, I have a surprise. You’re going to be a father.”
His fingers twitched and his fist clenched around the neck of the four-thousand-dollar bottle of wine. It shattered against the stucco wall like a Shimamoto Bottle Crash work of art.
Howie stood over me, his face flushed as red as the wine. “There will be no fruit of my loins!” His words were like a punch to the gut. A blow to the womb that had conceived his child.
I stared at a single wine droplet that soaked into the satin lapel of my white cocktail jacket. Like a miniature handprint pressed into plaster of paris, the bloody tinge would forever represent my first child. My only child. The child that was never born.
Doctor Serrano assured me the miscarriage was nature’s way of aborting a fetus that could not survive. I had my own interpretation. It was an escape by an unwanted child. Howie’s vile outburst had afflicted our unborn child with fear. He murdered my baby, my daughter. I was sure of it.
Diamonds, rubies and other impersonal gifts overflowed my jewelry box. Every room in the house reeked of roses; a constant reminder of the plank. Frozen in an emotional limbo of bitterness and loss, I was numb to Howie’s apologies. Until one evening, he caressed my hand. “Sarah, I think we should try again. We should have a baby.”
On our second anniversary, and our third anniversary, and our fourth anniversary, I wore the satin cocktail jacket. A pink carnation strategically placed to protect the memorial blemish from Howie’s sardonic gaze.
The day before our fifth anniversary, I was scheduled for my annual exam. Every year I asked Doctor Serrano the same question. “I got pregnant once, why can’t I get pregnant again?”
A young doctor entered the exam room, his speech clipped, and his eyes focused on a clipboard. “Serrano retired. I’m his replacement, Doctor Feldon.”
I ignored the introduction and asked my question. Feldon flipped through the pages of my chart. He looked up and studied me like I was a freak in a paper gown. “You can’t get pregnant because you had a tubal ligation four years ago on June 25th.”
I pressed both hands to my abdomen. “No, I didn’t! You’ve got the wrong file.”
Like a wave, his words washed over me, tumbling my memories. June 25th. The miscarriage. I didn’t doze off, Serrano knocked me out. “Does the chart show a post-miscarriage exam on that date?”
“No, just the tubal ligation. There’s a note here that says, per HDM.”
How dare he! That conniving son of a—
Dressed in my traditional jacket and pink carnation, I toasted our fifth anniversary. The anniversary of the worst choice of my life. I looked into Howie’s eyes and with a seductive lilt said, “Darling, what mountain will you climb next? I’d like to go with you.”
He cocked his head. “Well, that’s a surprise. I was going to attempt Cho Oyu, but I will gladly change my plans for you. Perhaps we could climb Island Peak.” With that choice, his fate was determined.
I smiled, knowing every year after this would be the anniversary of the worst choice of his life.
A regime of strength training became my daily routine. I had trekked some of the lesser of the Himalayan mountains, but Island Peak required a more strenuous ascent.
In mid-September, a week before our planned twenty-one-day expedition, I fell from our bouldering wall. I was only ten feet up, but I hadn’t moved the vertical climber from the mat after my workout. The metal frame jammed into my ribs and I banged my knees and scraped an elbow.
Howie rushed to my side. “Are you okay?” He scolded me. “You should never leave the climber below the wall.”
I gulped for breath. “Yes, I know.” I’m not as dumb as you think. My voice squeaked. “I’m fine. Just give me a minute.”
Howie wanted to cancel the trip, but I assured him they were just bruises. These bruises will not spoil my plan.
On my father’s birthday I would be on a mountain peak so, I posted an envelope containing special pictures and a letter. He would be surprised. I envisioned his creased forehead when his assistant, per my instructions, delivered the envelope on October 5th.
From Kathmandu, Howie and I flew to Lukla, where we joined four other affluent couples to begin our guided trek. The bruises on my knees and elbow had faded to a purplish yellow. My ribs were still sore, but determined to make the climb, I kept them bound and hidden from Howie.
We reached Tengboche Monastery on the fifth day. A fervent desire to view the Himalayan peaks awakened as I read the words of the Hindu scripture Skanda Purana inscribed at the entrance of our lodge: In a hundred ages of the gods… As the dew is dried up by the morning sun, so are the sins of mankind by the sights of the Himalaya.
On day nine, we arrived at Everest Base Camp. Howie’s glee when he sighted Everest’s crown was palpable. “I can’t believe I’m here. One day, I’ll be back to climb that mountain.”
I smiled. No, you won’t. If he saw a sparkle in my eyes, it was no doubt mistaken for belief in his dream.
On the twelfth day, we rose at 1:00 a.m. to begin the climb to Island Peak summit. As we hiked by the light of our headlamps, I spoke quietly to Howie. “I know why I can’t get pregnant.”
“What?” He turned toward me in the darkness.
I wished I could see his expression when I said, “You paid Doctor Serrano to tie my tubes.”
Howie jammed his walking sticks into the snow and stuttered, “How—Who—I don’t know what you mean.”
“Oh, yes, you do.” I quickened my pace, and we trekked across the glacier in silence. We reached the far side and secured ourselves to fixed ropes to climb a steep snowy headwall to the summit.
At the top, I raised my voice. “Why would you do that to me? I agreed to come here because I thought you loved me.” I stomped away from the group. Some turned to watch, others averted their attention.
Howie followed me, hissing under his breath. “Keep your voice down.”
“Why? Are you afraid the other cold-hearted billionaires will know how cruel you are?” I moved close to the ridge of the East face, a vertical rock wall. I stepped forward, deliberately bumping into him. He caught me as I appeared to stumble.
I yelled, “No Howie!” and thrust myself from his arms. His eyes opened wide as I slipped from his grasp to take that final leap. I plummeted backwards off the ridge. The look on his face while I flailed in midair was the satisfaction I sought. For the first time since I’d met Howard D. Mendelson, his face twisted in helpless confusion. As he shrank from sight, I prayed. May the Himalayas forgive my sin.
Los Angeles, California – Two hours before Sarah’s final leap.
Arnold Faust’s forehead creased when he received the envelope. His mouth gaped in stoic disbelief as he examined the photos of his daughter’s bruised and battered ribs and knees.
He tore open Sarah’s letter.
Dear Papa, I can no longer keep the horrors of my marriage a secret. Howie is out of control. I fear for my life. He insisted I join him to climb Island Peak. If I do not return, please know that I love you. Sarah
Arnold pounded his desk. “He’ll never get away with this!”
New York Times Headline: Billionaire Howard Mendelson – Guilty