A Precious Life

Submitted into Contest #170 in response to: Write about a plan that goes wrong, for the better.... view prompt

31 comments

Suspense Horror Fiction

“Would you like a free DNA test? It could change your future,” a man asks while handing me a pamphlet as I walk past a shopping mall on the second day of my vacation in Maui. He points at a QR code. "Just register here."


I want to grab him and shout some violent threat, and ask if he knows my sister, but he says “have a good day” and walks off before I get the chance.


This is because my sister Courtney sent me different versions of that same ad for years after she dropped out of university and disappeared from my life. Then two weeks ago, I received a message; "I'm in Maui, can you come visit? I have permission to meet others now. Sometimes I'm confused about what I'm doing here and would love to talk to my brother." I canceled my trip to Boston to meet my ex-girlfriend Ashley, and booked the expensive flight here. I've waited days now to see her.


Back that night at the hotel bar having a beer, I feel people watching me. I know common feeling right? So perhaps I’m being paranoid. But I do want to talk to someone, anyone, and send Ashley a message, "How are things in Boston?" I see a "..." for a a few seconds and then it disappears.


I reread the last update Courtney sent me from last week:


“My group knows you are coming. We will prepare a feast for your arrival on newcomer Wednesday. Sorry I can’t meet you until then, beloved brother.”


Courtney had been our family's star student and this doesn't sound like her at all. Everyone wondered what happened to her after she dropped out of medical school without consulting anyone months after the start of the pandemic, and just dropped off the face of the planet without a trace except "I'm fine, don't worry" updates at regular intervals, which to be honest, made us worry even more in some ways.


Laying on the hotel room bed I study the mold that outlines the borders of the faded wallpaper. It’s eerily quiet here alone. The stillness was the hardest part after Courtney disappeared. After spending years listening to her daily stories, her loves, her hates, her crises; without her things are deathly still. At our parent's home when I laugh at the TV I still hear an echo of her laughter along with me.

.

The next morning, I program the rental car's GPS to take me to an isolated property up in the hills on the rainy side of Maui island, an address I received from Courtney. Google Maps shows “Reynolds Organic Farm”. On Kaupakalua Lane, I take a right turn and pull up to a country-chic farmhouse surrounded by papaya tree groves. It's completely secluded.


She must have been waiting as Courtney comes out from the house as soon as I pull in.


It’s been years, I’m ecstatic to see her after so long.


“Sis..” We hug. I don’t know what to say except the obvious. “It's been so long.”


“Yes.”


“What are you doing here, when are you coming home? What about your medical degree?” I ask.


“So many questions!” She shrugs. “Sorry I know its a big change but I was never interested in becoming a doctor.”


I look at her doubtfully.


She gives me a reassuring smile and says, “I’m helping people in a new, better way now.”


“What about, Mom, Dad… me?”


“We can talk more about all that tomorrow.” She motions toward the house. “First, I’d like to introduce you to Daniel and the group I work with. Let me know what you think about them afterwards?”


We enter a rambling Hawaiian style plantation style house.


"And how's Ashley doing?" she asks as we walk in.


I shrug. "I don't really know."


"Oh, sorry to hear that."


An older man with a vaguely academic demeanor introduces himself.


“I’m Daniel, CEO of the Life Curation Group.”


"Nice to meet you," I introduce myself, then say a few things about growing up with Courtney in Milwaukee. Then he starts to introduce me to the people now walking into the main hall. The guy who gave me the DNA pamphlet a few days earlier walks in and says hello but doesn’t recognize me. 


**


Fifteen minute later, I’m sitting down for lunch with twenty people, and Courtney, the person I really want to talk to, is on the other side of the table. They serve me something that tastes very much like canned ravioli for lunch. The man next to me eats noisily and then crunches an apple. The other woman chortles at inside jokes someone tells her. This isn’t how I imagined meeting my sister, not at all, actually.


A woman who sits next to Daniel moves over next to me, introduces herself, her name is Amanda. Her wavy red hair highlights her alert eyes. She starts to ask me about myself. Compared to the others, her charm and wit is effusive. When she asks, I tell her about my passion for 1600s history. She’s surprisingly knowledgeable. She complements my insights and says I have a special talent for retelling stories of the past to make them relatable. She mentions how I can unlock my true potential with a DNA test, learn what my strengths and weaknesses are, how to focus my energy if I really want to be influential in the world someday. After a while she goes back to her other seat and I'm left with my two less interesting companions.


Toward the end of the meal, Daniel asks everyone to be quiet and looks at me.


“I can see some things about our meal were... unfamiliar...to our guest. Our food, how loud we ate, how some of us laugh.” I hear a giggle.


“It was fine,” I shake my head apologetically.


“It's because of the emptiness of the outside world. That’s why he is restless and irritable, like so many people these days.”


Twenty pairs of eyes are now studying me.


“I’m not irritable,” I say back, slightly too loudly.


“Courtney says you have been restless since you were young,” he says, "Let’s all have a moment of stillness. Let’s pray for the well-being of our guest.”


Everyone bows their heads in silence. The silence goes on for longer than I expected, perhaps ten minutes. I feel compelled to stay quiet with twenty people praying for me.


Daniel looks up at last and smiles and says, “We have all wished you well.”


“Thank you.” I don’t know what else to say, reciprocity perhaps prevents me from being angry at this weird intrusion of my personal boundaries. Mom and Dad barely ask me how I'm doing, so all this attention is new.


Daniel says, “I’d like to show you something, come with me.”


Everyone restarts their conversations while Daniel takes me down a hallway into a room full of books and then closes the door. 


“So, do you really want to know what we do and why Courtney is here?”


I nod. My body trembling slightly to find out what this odd group is all about.


“Your sister took our DNA test.” He pauses. “She’s carrying the CA 19-9 marker.”


“What does that mean?”


“Life is but a fleeting mistress for us all.” He looks somber. “Courtney is going to die of pancreatic cancer within 18 months, A childhood defect in her DNA has manifested. It’s medically incurable.”


I feel my face flush. “That's a lie,” I blurt out. 


“When you can go back to your hotel you can look it up.”


“I’ll do that.”


“We like you here. After you take all this in, you should come stay with us for a few days, with your sister. No one is trapped here, you can leave anytime.” He looks at me in a fatherly manner. “We are sampling DNA all over the island. We are maximizing the happiness of those with limited time on the planet. If Courtney was back home, she would be studying and working endlessly for a future that will never happen. Here she can be happy and free.”


“Let me think about it,” I say slightly dismissively.


I go back to the dining room and tell Courtney I think I’m leaving and ask when I can meet her again.


“Can you give a lift to town now?” she asks.


“Yes, let’s go.” I’m eager to get away from this house.


We have an awkward drive back to town. I want to ask if she knows about her DNA problem, or cancer. I find it very hard to think about the other topics she brings up. When we get back, she asks me to drop her off at the shopping mall.


“I do recruiting on Wednesdays. Hope I can find someone today,” she says and looks at me. I haven’t seen her this buoyant about something since she was young. 


“Good luck?” I say.


“And, I’m not setting you up or anything, but Amanda said she would like to talk to you more sometime,” Courtney says, ”There’s not many people like you on this island.”


I’m flattered, but I say, “I’m here to meet you, Courtney.”


“No problem,” Courtney blinks. “How about lunch in town tomorrow, Outback steakhouse, me and you?”


“We have a deal, see you there.”


I go back to the hotel, and in my quiet hours alone, I digest everything that’s happened. Have I been too judgmental? I too have been following our parent's nudges since primary school, to join medical school and then do residency, and then pop out exhausted ten years later with a name on the office door like they have. 


Was this my choice or theirs?


Over the next few days, Courtney and I have lunch together in town. She even comes over to the hotel and we watch TV and laugh, just like the old days. One day, Amanda comes with her. She asks me if I would like take their DNA test and then spend the day learning to surf with her. “What do you have to lose?” she asks.


I think it all over and decide, with classes still being held remotely, there is indeed nothing much to lose by extending my flight home for a week. 


**


I’m watching the Pacific trade winds pummel the banyan trees lining the shore. I think about their strength in standing their ground and pushing back against the onslaught of nature. I’ve learned so much over the last three months. All my presumptions were wrong. Life Curation is helping people, Daniel has shown me how modern society with its exploitative social hierarchies traps people into meaningless existences. His group has guided people to find the freedom to help others maximize their potential. Helping others is the path to happiness.


I'm still standing in front of the shopping center, scanning the faces of tourists for people I haven’t seen yet. I spot and approach a young man about my age coming out of the Thai Buffet. I match his body language and give him a pamphlet and ask him if he would like a free DNA test. He says no thank you, but thanks anyway. Maybe he’ll come back. Rejection doesn’t stop me, because I never feel happier than when I find someone about to die.

November 03, 2022 23:33

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31 comments

Sayonee M N
14:04 Nov 04, 2022

Twisted story:) Great job. The morbid happiness in the last sentence gave me chills.

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15:16 Nov 07, 2022

Thanks for the nice comment;)

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Tommy Goround
16:00 Nov 05, 2022

Scott has successfully transferred Norwegian Wood to the Americas. The song was penned down by the Beatles. Then the mantle, the zing...the essence was taken to Japan by Haruki Murakami. He wrote the most tremendous Love Story. Eric Segal can sit down now. It takes acres of context to feel the student revolution of Japan, a land without Christian European customs. How the main character can fall in love with a person who will never be available. (Maybe he read The Sun also Rises). Mr. Son-of-a-Christian has endeavored to show us the love...

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15:29 Nov 07, 2022

Norweigan Wood.. one of my favorite books! A man's nostalgia in choosing unfulfilled romance over student politics while being a penniless university student and living in a Japanese military-faction's dormitory simply because its cheaper. This may be the only novel that takes Basic Plot #37 to the top of a bestseller list. And btw, you are hired for the Sister Cult back cover book blurb.

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Tommy Goround
16:44 Nov 07, 2022

Thank you. I have several sisters to put in your Cult. About 17 sisters are prime candidates.

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Tommy Goround
16:48 Nov 07, 2022

One of them is actually already in a cult though she has been trying to resist for about 12 years now. She is married to the cult leader and their children are cultists, (I could not possibly make this up)... And the grandpa is from Visalia and is probably the chief money giver deacon All the women have the same haircut in that cult. They have the short bob that was popular in maybe 1996 Hillary awesome Clinton. They like to hug strangers as they pickpocket the wallet They give their children $10. Then they take back $6.66 of the $10. The...

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Delbert Griffith
11:12 Nov 04, 2022

Nice! I like the cult-like aspect of the story, and how easily we can be manipulated - not just by cultists but by societal norms. Well done! I think you need a small edit here: Compared to the others, Her charm seems almost ebullient. Keep writing, Scott. Love your stories.

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11:44 Nov 04, 2022

Thanks Delbert! This one wasn't as easy to write, it originally started out as a horror story (i genre i've never written before) until I decided it worked better as drama. Thanks for the edit!

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Graham Kinross
15:57 Nov 12, 2022

This gave me some Dexter vibes. The manipulation of the society feels like a comment on somewhere like North Korea or one of the cults that ended in a massacre.

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19:49 Nov 12, 2022

I started this trying to write a horror story which didn't really work out, and then it morphed into a psychological exploration of how a modern day concept could suck people into a cult way believing they have a life/death mission. Decade ago now, I was on the subway in Tokyo about 20 minutes behind the Aum Shinrikyo cult attack (heard an announcement: there's a small fire incident, so we are not stopping at the next station) and did a lot of reading about them afterward. Watched the Netflix doc about NXiVM recently as well

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Graham Kinross
21:36 Nov 12, 2022

Amazing how people can be drawn into those things and completely lose their sense of reason. It’s like the quote from Men in Black. “A person is smart, people are dumb, panicky, dangerous, animals and you know it.” I read about the siege at Waco and the origin of the cool aid saying, bodies lying all over the ground as people ‘ascended’ with their leader. Then there’s the Moon cult in Korea which I think is still going.

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Marty B
06:53 Nov 09, 2022

A description of before- 'Laying on the hotel room bed I study the mold that outlines the borders of the faded wallpaper' vs. a description of after- 'Rejection doesn’t stop me, because I never feel happier than when I find someone about to die' The LCG is successful in creating a vibrant following. And hard to beat living in Maui! The cult has changed an unhappy person and given him a purpose. Just because the LGC's DNA tests are fabrications, why the horror? Many modern religions/ Utopian societies are much worse.

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07:23 Nov 09, 2022

HI Marty, thanks for the feedback! I agree with you, they are doing a good thing giving people a purpose depending on how you look at it. Organizing people to kick a ball around a grass field for no purpose is judged extremely socially acceptable today, but organizing people to do something new and unfamiliar is usually considered bad. Also, 'horror'. the story originally had a violent section in it, but that seemed to be clouding the theme of proposing an ethical dilemma to the reader to think about so I deleted it, but couldn't delete the...

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Michał Przywara
21:42 Nov 08, 2022

A great horror read indeed! Oh man, this was disgustingly greasy in all the best ways. Made my skin crawl :) Almost right from the top it screamed cult. When he met them, sure, there were pleasantries, but they didn't miss a single opportunity to try to sell their DNA test. Like buying a car. Massive timeshare presentation vibes. Even the sister. She seemed to be following a script more than anything, behaving as he might have expected her to, just to keep upselling him. "its exploitative social hierarchies traps people into meaningles...

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07:38 Nov 09, 2022

Thanks, pleased you saw how the MC's voice showed he was really buying into their beliefs, yet he was also trapped standing in front of a shopping mall handing out pamphlets. I guess beyond the cult theme, a deeper theme is how we as individuals yearn to have freedom, but we feel utterly lost when we alone, and almost always join a social group or belief system or a job that gives us those, and go along with their rules to feel a connection to others. The DNA results, are they fake? are they real? I wasn't sure yet myself when I was writing...

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Tommy Goround
17:46 Nov 09, 2022

Poignant

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Philip Ebuluofor
16:11 Nov 07, 2022

Funny groups like that do exist everywhere these days. This is a captivating work. Great job.

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07:25 Nov 09, 2022

Thanks, yeah a lot of groups like those. Some of them even sell cosmetics or health products lol. People like to join groups.

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Philip Ebuluofor
16:21 Nov 11, 2022

Yeah, I got you. They are here too.

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Daniel Allen
13:47 Nov 07, 2022

Really enjoyed this. You expertly charted the protagonist's descent into the cul- I mean, Life curation group. A vivid setting and believable characters. Perhaps the most chilling thing about this story is how easily I find myself falling into the same trap as the protagonist and thinking that maybe this isn't so bad after all...

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07:24 Nov 09, 2022

Thanks, happy you enjoyed it and found it a bit of puzzle at the end.

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Dave West
02:29 Nov 07, 2022

Agree with previous comments: crisp telling of how easy it is for people to be hooked, even if they don't know they've taken the bait. I love the implied contradiction: taking people away from their loved ones to support them while they die.

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15:25 Nov 07, 2022

Thanks, was trying to keep things a bit ambigious, and we're also never quite sure if the professor isn't toying with the results, I hadn't decided yet either. IRL so many cults are based on having a mission, and feeling superior to others, which is deeply emotionally attractive and easy to draw people in even if they don't believe it in logically in the beginning. happy you enjoyed the story.

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Tommy Goround
17:47 Nov 09, 2022

Clapping. You said that very well.

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08:46 Jul 21, 2023

Oh my gosh that was crazy. So good, so twisted. Made me shiver. Very creepy. If we were happy all the time, would we be human? What if we're happy at the wrong things? Is that real happiness? I love a story that makes me think!

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05:39 Jul 22, 2023

Thanks for reading and commenting! Yeah what if people believe in the wrong thing, it can be scary and happens so often with cults.

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Shy-Ann H
14:50 Dec 07, 2022

The twisted last sentence.. What the heck. A for real character change. Did they do a science experiment on him or something? I suppose I'll never know.

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23:58 Nov 28, 2022

It's amazing what people will do for their sister. This was very nice to read.

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02:44 Nov 29, 2022

Thanks for reading;)

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Kai Kinomoto
17:31 Nov 15, 2022

I'm a bit confused, but besides that, you did a great job!

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18:08 Nov 15, 2022

Thanks! Curious, how did you find my story and this website btw?

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