Chapter 1

I COULDN’T stand it. It had sat there unopened, propped against a vase of my mom’s daffodils, since I brought it in from the mailbox. That had been hours ago, but it seemed like days already. I’d been checking that dang mailbox every day for, like, two weeks. It was my first stop when I got home from classes at the University of Idaho.

I’d been obsessing over that letter’s arrival with a mixture of fear and excitement ever since I filed my mission papers. It held my future—a future directed by God’s own prophet. It was the most important piece of mail I’d ever received.

And there it sat, unopened still.

I interrupted my pacing to stomp out to the back deck, where my mother was grading papers at the picnic table. “Mom, this is making me crazy. Can’t I just open it?”

“RJ,” she said, not even looking up at me, “you know we agreed the whole family would be together for this. After all, this call affects all of us, and we want to share in the excitement together.”

We’d had this conversation before. My parents had both taken on extra work to help fund my two-year mission for the Mormon Church. Dad had started keeping his mechanic shop open on Saturdays; Mom would be teaching summer classes at Taylorville Middle School just down the street. And, as my dad liked to point out, my sister, Mary Anne, had willingly sold her car to contribute to my mission fund.

“Look, honey,” Mom went on, “I’m not picking up your sister from soccer practice until six, and your father won’t be home for another two hours. Why don’t you go for a run? It’ll help take your mind off it.”

She was right. Thirty minutes later I was running north along the Idaho Falls Greenbelt Trail and the time was passing more quickly. I felt better already, with the sun sparkling on the surface of the Snake River to my left, and the temple coming up on my right. The temple. The very place I had entered for the first time just six weeks earlier.

It was a sobering moment when I was washed and anointed, and I finally received my temple endowment. The responsibility that came with that was scary, actually. It was a lot to live up to. Just a year earlier I’d given up on ever being worthy of a temple recommend, so it was hard to believe I’d made it to the temple at all. I’d had so much repenting to do, I thought it would be impossible.

But all of that was behind me now; I was done with my sinful rebellion. I was ready to become the faithful servant my patriarchal blessing promised me I could be if I remained obedient. I was an Elder of Israel, wearing the sacred garments, and I had received a calling from the Lord. A calling that sat inside that enigmatic envelope on the kitchen table.

Where would they send me? Spain? I’d had three years of high school Spanish. Latin America? The church was growing exponentially there. I’d be guaranteed lots of baptisms. Maybe they were sending me somewhere more exotic; I’d get to learn a new language at one of the Missionary Training Centers around the world. My mind reeled with the possibilities as I ran.

The answer, of course, was already written. The Lord’s prophet had made the decision already. And as soon as I got home, my fate would be revealed. But that was still an hour away.

The late-afternoon sun was warm on my face. I slowed my pace and closed my eyes to soak it in. The light breeze felt good as it played across the sweat that trickled down my neck and shoulders. My calf muscles thrummed with that pleasant burn only running could produce. Mom had been right—a run was just what I’d needed. I felt alive and invigorated, ready for whatever the Lord had in store for me.

When I opened my eyes, returning from that brief reverie, I was surprised to realize I’d already jogged as far as Freeman Park. I hadn’t meant to go that far. In fact, I’d vowed to forget that place and never return. Yet here I was. It was fraught with memories I’d made a solemn covenant to forget. I was instantly filled with regret.

Without hesitating, I reversed course and headed for home. I tried to focus on the temple ahead and banish the troubling memories that had returned so unexpectedly. I recalled Bishop Hunter’s counsel: the Lord had forgiven me and forgotten. I needed to do the same.

When I reached the house, both my parents’ vehicles were in the driveway, just as I’d hoped. Yes! The wait was over!

“Mom? Dad?” I called as I burst through the front door. “C’mon. Get in here!” I made straight for the kitchen table. “Mary Anne? Where are you?”

“Take it easy, son,” Dad said with a chuckle as he came from the kitchen. “It’s not going anywhere.”

“Geez, Dad. I’ve already waited over four hours. The suspense is killing me!”

“All things are eternal unto the Lord, Ricky. It would do you good to learn some patience. This is a solemn moment. A turning point in your life. Don’t you think it deserves some proper respect?” Dad gave me an affectionate pat on the back. When he pulled his hand away and gave it a conspicuous look, I decided I’d better go shower.

Less than fifteen minutes later I returned to the kitchen, still damp under my clothes. I didn’t care; I’d barely paused to dry off. I made straight for the table where Mom, Dad, and Mary Anne were waiting, as though I was the one who was late. My parents’ beaming faces barely registered as I grabbed the envelope and began ripping it open.

Dear Elder Smith, I read, the Lord is pleased that you have chosen to serve in this great and glorious work.

“Out loud, Ricky,” Dad prodded. “Share the moment with us, son.”

I repeated the letter’s opening lines and hurried through the boilerplate content that had nothing to do with me personally. Finally I reached the nugget of revelation I’d been waiting for.

“The Lord has called you to serve in the Oregon Portland Mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” I read aloud.

“Honey, that’s wonderful,” Mom enthused.

“Congratulations, son,” Dad said, reaching over and patting me on the arm. “I know you’ll serve the Lord well.”

I did my best to share their enthusiasm. I smiled but said nothing as news of my fate sank in. Only my sister’s expression seemed to reflect the disappointment I felt.

Portland? That was just one state away! Besides, how many people could I baptize in Oregon? Surely everybody there already knew about the church. There were already scads of Mormons in Oregon. What was the point of proselytizing there?

The look on Dad’s face told me my forced smile wasn’t cutting it. I’d have to try harder. I didn’t want to seem ungrateful. It was the Lord who had made the assignment, after all. I needed to accept it with humility. “I’m so excited,” I said, in an earnest effort to convince myself as well as my family. “I’m sure the Lord has some amazing experiences in store for me.”

It sounded forced, even to me, but I really was trying. It would take some getting used to. The prophet had spoken: my future was to unfold only ten hours from home. There had to be a good reason. It would be my task to find out what it was.