Saving Faith, a short story in the Everton Shores Thriller Series

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Writing Award Sub-Category
Award Category
Golden Writer
Logline or Premise
In a high-stakes escape from a dangerous cult, a young man finds courage in unexpected friendships. Amidst chaos, he grapples with the conflict of newfound freedom and the guilt of leaving his sister behind, discovering hope in the transformative power of faith and the promise of rescue in the future.
First 10 Pages


The East River snaked around my home in the Halcyon Island Compound, separating our community from the rest of the world. An ancient oak hovered next to the river bank, its branches stretching across to graze the airspace of Everton Shores. I shimmied up the tree and took in the view. The deep orange ball slid lazily toward the horizon, casting long, shadows over the last day of my childhood. The microchip surgery and celebration stood apart in a sixteen-year-old’s life. Tomorrow I would be a new person.

Wilbur, a squirrel friend of mine, climbed onto my sneakers and dropped a shiny treasure on my shoe. The little fellow had an affinity for anything that sparkled. “Hey, what’s this treasure?” Typically, Wilbur would give me odd things, such as crumpled tinfoil or fake princess rings misplaced by kids. But this time, his gift was different. Sitting on his haunches, he waited for me to pick it up. Dude, this object was minuscule, perfectly square, with some scribbles etched across the width. Only a high-power magnifier could read the inscription. Only one of those existed on the island and my father owned it. The clinic was closed. Dad played golf every Tuesday instead of staring at petri dishes. How hard could it be to sneak in and use the machine and sneak back out? Piece of cake, right? Unless someone notices the clinic isn’t vacant. Public facilities were off limits to kids under sixteen.

Wasting no time once inside, I placed the tiny chip beneath the magnifying lens, turned on the light, and examined it. One word engraved from end to end. Female.

Confused, I stared at it. Pulled my face away from the machine. Blinked a couple of times and took a second look. Nothing changed. Why use separate chips for the girls and boys?

Dad’s latest gadget - an electronic reader for what? I didn’t know, but I hoped it could show the code inside. An indention the exact size of the microchip sat like an open tray waiting for input. The microchip fit perfectly. The tray closed automatically. Lines of code scrolled down the flickering screen like movie credits.

Between the jumble of numbers and letters, phrases and sentences appeared. Yes, I pledge utter loyalty to the Father of Halcyon. I jolted forward in my chair, looking for a pause button. Herbert Halcyon founded the commune. Everyone called him Father, but pleading allegiance to him? No way. I finally found the pause button and scrolled up to read the words again.

Yes, I pledge utter loyalty to the Father of Halcyon.

There was no mistake. “What the heck?”

Unpausing the machine to read more, dreading to read more, but I had to know. Over and over, dozens of command scenarios attacked a young woman's mind, stripping away freedom of choice to please some power-hungry individual. A terrible thought came to me — my dad invented the microchips. The shock stunted my thinking. Leaning back, I slouched in the chair, dumbfounded by the sheer absurdity. As my thinking came back online, a scary question gripped me. What code did my dad write on the chips made for boys?

Reaching forward, I switched off the machine like it was a bomb that would explode if I didn’t and took the shiny little square out. Surely there was another explanation. Desperate to think of a more acceptable reason for the circuit board sitting on my palm, I wondered if maybe my friends had made a counterfeit. They loved practical jokes. It was the day before my chipping. I could hear their devious plan in my mind. Let’s give John a scare.

That’s what I wanted to believe. But deep down, I knew the answer. For one, the complex code was too advanced for any of my friends and for two, a man named Brien warned me, but his story was too wild to believe.

A few months ago, I met Pastor Brien O’Connor when I was fishing in the brackish water between Halcyon and Everton Shores. He was easy to be around. Different from the men in the Compound. Almost all of them were distant, uptight, and harsh, except maybe the groundskeeper.

Brien didn’t monitor my every move or bombard me with questions about my thoughts. He made me feel like a grown-up, and I liked that. So, we agreed to fish together every Friday. We would fish and talk about nothing really or sometimes the deep stuff in life, stuff I’d been pondering. And sometimes we didn’t talk at all. That was fine, too. He didn’t judge my ignorance or push his ideals on me until last week when I told him my sixteenth birthday was coming up and how excited I was to get my microchip. The older boys I hung out with liked how it changed their life. Especially the guys who struggled the most with impulse control. Brien put a damper on my enthusiasm. “It’s too dangerous,” John, he told me.

Sure, it had its risks, all procedures do, but everyone got chipped and I had heard no stories about bad stuff happening. After I gave him that assurance, he spun an outrageous story, maybe to convince me he knew something I didn’t.

Girls get a separate chip from the boys.

That was new to me. Brien didn’t have an explanation for the difference, but he was right.

The girls attend a secret ceremony in the sanctuary on the evening of the chipping process.

Never heard of that. The sanctuary sat in plain sight. How could something like that take place and I had missed it for sixteen years? If Brien was right, I’d need proof.

A girl leaves for a ten-day trip and doesn’t return until the chip fully syncs in her brain.

Brien was right about the sweet sixteen retreat the girls got to enjoy. And it did last for ten days. But the information about a secret ceremony and the capture of their wills seemed more like fiction. Girls came home from their retreat, giggly chatter boxes just like before they left. I chalked the bizarre aspects of his story up to wild rumors circulating outside the compound by people who thought our lifestyle was weird. He gave me a card with a phone number and begged me to get out before my birthday. I remember shaking my head and smiling as I took the card. To be polite, not because I believed his wild story.

Now, staring at this shiny little square and knowing Brien’s story lined up with the code, I wondered if Brien got a hold of a chip and set it out for Wilbur to find. I had shared Wilbur with him and his love for sparkling objects. Brien was the guy who would stick his neck out to help. If it was him, he really believed I was in danger.

My girlfriend, Mary, got her chip this morning. If she was on her way to her sweet sixteen retreat, that would debunk the ceremony theory. If Brien was right, Mary’s induction would happen in a few hours and she would never be the same.

Intense frustration built up inside. I wanted to kick a wall in, bust up that machine. The injustice to the girls was so unfair. The whole idea disgusted me. I had to find out the truth. A ceremony, or lack of, would definitively prove or disprove Brien’s story. If he was right, I had no choice but to escape the commune and expose the injustices Herbert Halcyon was inflicting on young women, and possibly the guys, too.

If the ceremony was a reality, I had to witness it for myself before I could reach a conclusion.


The religious building was clearly visible. How many years had the general population missed secret ceremonies happening in plain sight? This absurdity worked against Brien’s theory.

A low side window in the shadow of a thick shrub made the perfect hiding spot. I hid myself behind the thick shrubs, wincing as my shoulder scraped against the jagged stonework.

Through the window, I could see the back of the church and the stage. The elders walked in a bizarre procession towards the platform from the rear of the sanctuary. They could have another motive for this meeting besides the ceremony for Mary. I needed more evidence to debunk Brien’s story. The elders’ long, white robes dragged behind, moving as if they were a ghost parade floating up the aisle. Every facial feature revealed as they turned a corner to step onto the stage.

With a mix of fear and hope, I watched the final two ghostly figures approach the stage. I was terrified that my dad might appear as one of the twelve, but I desperately wished he wouldn't. Anticipation dwindled into disappointment when the last man removed his hood and I saw my father among the group of twelve elders.

Turning away, my back pressed hard against the unforgiving stone wall and slumped to the ground. The elders, the march, my dad. All of it struck me like a kick in the gut. One question remained: Was this event a ceremony for Mary or not?


The pipe organ started playing a somber tune. I got back to my feet, peering over the window ledge, my gaze fixed on the massive curtain bisecting the platform. And there she was, Mary, wearing a flowing white dress. I waved subtly, using slight gestures to catch her attention without alerting others. But something felt wrong. She seemed there, yet distant at the same time. It was like she was a marionette, controlled by invisible strings.

Mary, my girl since third grade, strode to the stage’s center, her hand clamped in her dad’s. Dude looked like he thought she might bolt. The old Mary wouldn’t put up with this nonsensical show, but this version was complicit. Her dad led her like she was a bride headed for her groom. Only, it wasn’t some starry-eyed groom waiting for his bride. It was creepy, Father Halcyon, all puffed up and proud.

Hand outstretched, he signaled her to kneel before him, and she did. This was the guy the adults taught us to respect above all other members, to call ‘Father’. After what I know now, no one would want him as a dad. Grinning down at her, his smirk twisted, sharp and dark as a raven’s beak.

My focus ping-ponged between Mary and Halcyon. Seeing him now, it all clicked. Dude wasn’t a spiritual leader. He was more like a puppet master. And Mary, I could almost see the invisible strings tied to her. This was twisted and seemed impossible to change.

The cold window ledge bit into my grip, knuckles going bone white. A dry lump formed in my throat, making it hard to swallow. Tomorrow, I would turn sixteen. No way I was signing up for this life. Jaw clamped down hard. A wave of urgency hit me, screaming to act. But how? What could I even do?

Father Halcyon spoke in a calm, seductive sounding way. My insides twisted.

“With great honor bestowed upon her, yet another of our beautiful young women has been granted the remarkable opportunity to lead a virtuous life and dutifully cater to her masters,” he announced, his countenance glowing with self-satisfaction. His words bounced around in my mind, stirring up a mix of emotions.

My fists clenched tight. Impotent fury consumed my innermost being. I was inexperienced and had no clue how to approach a room full of dangerous men. But that emptiness in Mary’s eyes… compelled me to find a way. Do something, anything, to help.

I took a big breath, filling my lungs with the chilly night air. Bursting in to disturb their ceremony would give me peace of mind, but it wouldn’t help Mary. Outmatched, I would hold off satisfying my desires and expose Halcyon.

I made a promise. Uttering quietly, “I’ll set things straight.”

The vow hung in the cold air, a solemn pledge. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.


Like a ninja, I entered the house through the side door, holding my shoes, and tiptoed up to the second floor. Passed Faith’s room on the way to mine. Man, just like Mary, she’d be a puppet on stage in two years. Hatching a plan to get her outta there became my top priority.

Once inside my room, I paced like a caged animal, brainstorming ways to sneak Faith out with me. Every thought ended the same way — impossible. Wound up like a spring, I booted my jacket into the corner. It landed with a soft thud. I stopped pacing, remembering I hid the contact information Brien gave me under the floor. I kept the card, at the time not understanding why, stuffed it into a small wooden box and tucked it beneath a loose floorboard. Grabbing the card, I held it under the moonlight. Seven numbers stared at me. A phone number to call for help.

A plan formed in my mind. Sitting down, I pushed the pile of papers off my desk and worked out every detail. I’d been at it awhile when the ticking of the clock in the background started grating on my nerves. I got up to tear it off the wall. But then I reconsidered. Throwing the clock would be too loud. Pulling my hands away, I noticed it was 1 a.m. Four hours had passed. I was putting off the inevitable and didn’t even realize it. It was time to go.

My bedroom door knob turned slowly. My breath caught. I attempted to return the box to its hiding spot, but I didn’t get the plank back in place, so I scooted into the corner to conceal the gap. Picked up a book on the floor and pretended to read it. With shallow breaths, I waited to see who it was. A sandy colored head of hair was my first clue. Faces of everyone I had ever known, with light-colored hair, filed across my mind. I prepared responses based on who it was.

The voice that accompanied the sandy hair was my next hint. “Hey, man.” I breathed a sigh of relief. It was only my cousin, Seth. “Hey, dude,” I whispered, trying to steady my racing heart.

A friendly smirk lit up on his face. “Did you forget our game night or what?”

Sneaking off to Seth’s house every Tuesday night to play video games was one of my favorite things to do. It hadn’t crossed my mind. “Right. Game night,” I said and glanced at the clock. Seth had been waiting thirty minutes for me. I hated breaking a promise and especially to my best friend. “I’m sorry.”

Seth quietly eased the door shut behind him.

“Change of plans,” I said. “I’ve got a problem to solve that can’t wait.”

Seth studied my face, looking me directly in the eyes. His smirk faded. “Okaayy. What gives? You seem wound up tight.”

Seth didn’t mince words. And now, more than ever, I needed his sharp, analytical mind. His expression softened. Seth wasn’t just my best friend and cousin. He was my ally, my partner in crime, my sounding board. But would he back my outlandish plan? I had no reason to doubt him, so I got started. “Have a seat. This isn’t a simple story, and it will be tough to hear.” I stayed in my corner and told him everything. He already knew about Brien and the phone number, so I started with Wilbur and the microchip. He just sat on the side of the bed with his mouth half open.

“Seth?” I broke the heavy silence. He didn’t answer.

“So, what do you think?”

When he spoke, he didn’t argue or try to talk me out of my plan. He just posed a single question, “Are you okay, Johnny Boy?”

The thought hadn’t occurred to me. He was good at thinking about the deeper layer of stuff. Being okay wouldn’t change anything. Given the circumstances, what other choice did I have? “Sure, I’m okay. A call to Pastor Brien for directions was all I needed to do.”

Seth gave me a long look. “In here,” he put his palm on his chest, “are you a hundred percent sure you’re doing the right thing?”

My middle finger tapped against my thigh, a nervous habit that showed up when I got anxious. Seth knew I couldn’t refuse the challenge. He hated injustice as much as I did. “Yeah, Seth. I’d rather be dead than let them turn Faith and me into mindless machines.”

Seth looked thoughtful for a moment, his eyes scanning the worn pages of the Halcyon Bible that lay on my nightstand. “And if you get caught?”

“What’s the worst that could happen?”

“Dude, they locked you up for a week in a tiny closet just for visiting your relatives without permission.”

I could still feel the chilling dark pressing against me, could still hear my breath too loud in the silent dark and the feeling of an elephant sitting on my chest. I reached under the floor, curled my fingers around the small box, and pulled it out. A tiny box stood between my life and a new future for my sister and me.

I pushed off the floor, crossed the room to where Seth was sitting. I tried to meet his gaze, but something about his serious face made the words stick in my throat. We’d faced a lot together, but this... this was different.

Seth stood up. We were quiet for a bit, the sort of silence when you’re waiting for a storm to break. Not the kind you get just before your folks lecture you. It was the quiet that said we both understood what was coming and neither of us wanted to kick start it.

I spoke first. “Honestly, I’m scared. Like, terrified. If I don’t do this now, they’ll put the chip in my brain in the morning.”

Seth laid a hand on my shoulder, his grip firm and comforting. “Agreed.” His voice was steady, but I could see his jaw clenching, a telltale sign he was worried too. “You’re doing the right thing. Sometimes we have to challenge the system to bring the truth to light.”

“Brien said something similar.”

“He sounds like a good man. A great person to have on your team.”

Seth’s pep talks always hit the right spot. I yanked the backpack from under the bed. I stowed the phone number in my pocket and left the empty box on the table. Deep breaths, steady and rhythmic, that was the aim — make it seem like any other school day, but it wasn’t. Fear needed to stay out of my head, or I’d bungle everything. A nod toward the door to set my plan in motion. “Let’s go before the sun comes up,” I said.

Seth reached toward the bedside table. “Not without this.” He handed the empty little box to me.

I smiled and shook my head. “I don’t know what I’d do without you, man.”

“Get caught,” Seth said with a grin.

We shared the joke, but I didn’t feel lighthearted. Seth probably didn’t either.


Jennifer Rarden Wed, 26/07/2023 - 06:16

I would have loved to see more of the ceremony, because right now, I didn't see a ton that would make him freak out as much as he did.