Tender Branson sits in the cockpit of a Boeing 747-400, telling his life story to the black box. He is alone in the plane, having hijacked it; he has released all of the plane's passengers and crew prior to this point. He explains the events leading up to the hijacking.
Tender is a member of the fanatical Creedish cult, which engaged in a mass suicide ten years previously. He is one of the Creedish members who was sent out into the world to work as a servant, and send his income back to the Creedish community. Creedish members have been steadily killing themselves since the mass suicide, in keeping with their belief that the deliverance is at hand. At the start of his story, Tender works as the housekeeper for a rich couple he never sees in Oregon. They issue directions via a daily planner and a speaker phone. At his dingy apartment, he gets phone calls from people who want to kill themselves - the result of a newspaper misprint which printed his phone number as the number for a suicide prevention hotline. Tender, enjoying the thrill of passing divine judgment on these people tells them to kill themselves as often as not, and sees this as an act of mercy. Although the newspaper prints a retraction, the calls keep coming, and when they dwindle, Tender prints up fliers for a fake crisis hotline with his number on them so the calls will continue.
One of the calls comes from a Trevor Hollis, a man who wants to kill himself because of the nightmares he has been having about disasters, like plane crashes or fires. Tender tells Trevor to kill himself, and soon after, reads his obituary in the paper. One day, Tender goes to the mausoleum to steal fake flowers for his employer's garden (a common pastime), and decides to visit Trevor's tomb while he is there. At the tomb, he meets Trevor's sister, Fertility, and they talk. Later that night, Tender has his weekly meeting with his caseworker from the Federal Survivor Retention Program, a government agency that keeps tabs on the survivors of suicide cults. As usual, he asks how many survivors of the Creedish faith there are remaining, and she tells him, "One hundred and fifty-seven survivors. Nationwide."
Tender begins to explain how the Creedish Church works. Only the firstborn sons and their wives get to stay and reside in the community (located in rural Nebraska) - the rest, like Tender, are sent out to work as humble servants, and are considered to be the Church's missionaries. They are extensively trained in etiquette, housecleaning, and other menial labor, after which they are baptized and sent out into the world to make a living. Every month, they are expected to send back money and a letter of confession. "Tender" is not really a name, but a title, which is given to all male children except the firstborn, who is called "Adam". Likewise, all female children are called "Biddy", including the eldest. "Tender" is meant to denote one who tends; "Biddy", one who is biddable. Once a girl is married, her title is changed to "Author". All but the firstborn sons and their wives are discouraged from having sex of any kind and are forbidden to marry, and the latter are expected to have sex only for procreation. All the Creedish wear highly recognizable clothing, both inside the community and out. This makes it easy to spot another member of the Church in the outside world.
Tender further describes how, ten years previously, someone leaked the Church's doings (i.e. cult brainwashing, tax evasion, unregistered births) to the police of Bolster County, Nebraska, and the FBI are put on the case. The FBI move in to arrest the cult leaders only to find the entire community dead in an act of mass suicide upon hearing the news. The remaining survivors are expected to be prepared for such an event (called the "Deliverance" by the Church), and kill themselves as soon as they hear the news.
After their meeting, Fertility calls Tender thinking she has called the crisis hotline. Tender soon realizes it's Fertility, so he begins to talk to her in a fake voice. Because it is revealed later that Fertility is psychic and knows "everything", it is understood that she knows at this point that she is speaking to Tender. She talks about her brother's suicide and how she met Tender ("a pretty weird guy") at the mausoleum, mentioning how he reminded her of a Creedish cult member, and adding that he was extremely unattractive and she believed him to be Trevor's ex-homosexual lover. Eventually, she asks the man at the "crisis hotline" (i.e. Tender) to have phone sex with her, but he hangs up after turning her down. He then stops answering his phone in fear that Fertility will be on the other line, wanting to have phone sex or growing more attracted to him as a mysterious voice than as a person.
During another meeting with his caseworker (which regularly takes place at his employers' house), Tender gets frustrated and tells her that if she wants to help him, she can start by scrubbing the shower tiles. Burnt out over a decade of lost suicide cases, the caseworker quickly grows obsessed with cleaning and soon takes over Tender's job, drifting more and more away from helping him confront his past. She reveals at this time that many of the Creedish suicides were really murders masked to look like suicides to encourage more survivors to kill themselves.
A week from their last meeting, Tender and Fertility meet again at Trevor's tomb in the mausoleum. Fertility teaches him to dance, while revealing that Trevor had been psychic, and all the things he had dreamt about had really happened. At home, Tender receives a suspicious call from a man he recognizes as a member of the Creedish Church, and he soon realizes that the murderer of Creedish survivors is actually Creedish himself. The call scares him, for he fears that he will be the next victim. Abruptly after the call, Fertility also calls Tender, again trying to reach the crisis hotline, and she tells him about dancing with the man at the mausoleum and asks him to get together with her. Tender (as the man at the crisis hotline) agrees, on the condition that she agrees to take the man from the mausoleum (i.e. him) out on a date. She agrees.
On their date, Tender and Fertility ride the bus downtown, where a stranger rudely begins telling them facile jokes pointed at the Creedish mass suicide. Tender laughs at all the jokes, secretly wondering if the joker can tell he's Creedish. Fertility snaps at the joker for making fun of suicide. When the joker rises to exit the bus, Tender recognizes the man's pants as Creedish dress, and suddenly recognizes the man as Adam, his twin brother. Tender speaks Adam's name aloud, but when Adam asks if they are brothers, he desperately denies it. After the bus incident, Fertility takes Tender to a department store that she presciently knows will catch on fire, but that she knows will not harm them. Fertility explains that she has the same talent as her brother for dreaming the future.
Tender soon learns that he has become one of the last two survivors of the Creedish Church. The caseworker has him go over photos of dead Creedish to see if he can identify the other survivor, but he already knows it to be his brother Adam. He begins receiving phone calls from journalists and agents wanting his story. The caseworker manages to suffocate on a chemical solution of ammonia and chlorine that she was using to clean the fireplace, which had been secretly mixed together by Adam, and whose intended target was Tender. Adam steals the caseworker's files on the Creedish suicides immediately after the murder. The police suspect Tender, but he claims innocence and slips away. Tender, meanwhile, calls an agent and takes a flight to New York that very night. Thus begins his road to stardom.
The agent's company has been planning for years to turn the last survivor of the Creedish cult into a religious celebrity. They create a fake history for Tender and completely overhaul his body. He is given steroid injections, health food, teeth caps, and is made to exercise and diet incessantly until he is the model of attractiveness. It is made clear by the agent that no one will worship an ugly religious leader. Tender is entirely agreeable to all of it, as he has no will to live and desires fame only in order to have an enormous audience for when he commits suicide.
As his agent's plans are realized, Tender's fame grows. These plans include the publication of Tender's "autobiography" and the "Book of Very Common Prayer", as well as the conversion of the former Creedish land into the Tender Branson Sensitive Materials Sanitary Landfill (a 20,000-acre (81 km2) repository for America's outdated porn). Tender is constantly waiting for the opportune moment to kill himself, and continually puts it off as circumstances fail to meet his criteria. Then, as his popularity starts to wane, the agent tells him that he needs to perform a miracle in order to stay famous. It is then that Fertility finds Tender and gives him a prediction to make on TV that will seem like a miracle when it comes true. Naturally, it does, and Tender's fame swells to even greater proportions. It is unclear at this point why Fertility has shown up and decided to help.
This pattern goes on for some time, until the Super Bowl comes up and Tender's agent plans him an elaborate wedding to take place at half-time, following which, Tender will issue another miraculous prediction. Tender goes wandering around, trying to meet up with Fertility, which he finally does in a men's bathroom where they've taken adjacent stalls. Adam appears then with a gun, and reveals that he's already laid a trap to kill Tender's agent the same way he killed the caseworker, so that Tender would be suspect for both murders. Fertility confirms that the agent will die the next day at the Super Bowl, and comes up with a plan for Tender to make a prediction big enough to distract the police long enough for him to escape. Adam, intending this all along, plans to escape with Tender and Fertility. Agreed on their course of action, the three part.
The day of the Super Bowl, the agent dies, Tender is married, and as the police come to arrest him, Tender predicts that the Colts will beat the Cardinals 27-24. The stadium erupts in a chaos as angry football fans pour out of their seats to chase Tender and it is all the police can do to stop the crowd from mobbing him to death. Tender escapes with Adam and Fertility to a Ronald McDonald House. The three then begin their journey across the country by hitching rides in semi-trucks transporting incomplete sections of houses from one location to another. During their journey, Fertility intentionally gets separated from the brothers.
Adam and Tender, then, steal a car that Fertility foretold would be unlocked in a particular parking lot. Attached to the dashboard is a little commercial figurine of Tender. The brothers, heading north to Canada, come to the Tender Branson Sensitive Materials Sanitary Landfill on the way. As they drive through it, Adam begins recounting the way the Church leaders terrorized the children into fearing sex by forcing them to watch every time a woman went into labor. Tender denies this, but it is unclear whether he simply doesn't want to remember, or whether he actually can't remember because the trauma is buried so deep in his memory. Adam believes the only way to cure Tender is for Tender to have sex - to reject the Church doctrine at its core. Tender resists, and as Adam recounts the details of the "mental castration" (as he calls it), Tender loses control and crashes the car into a giant concrete pylon in the middle of the landfill.
The crash causes the airbags to deploy, and the one on the passenger's side sends the Tender figurine into Adam's left eye. Adam pulls out the figurine and asks Tender to find a rock and hit him with it. Tender refuses, but Adam asks him to find any rock that he can just to disfigure him with, pleading that if he goes to jail for his murders, he doesn't want the other inmates to even think about sexually abusing him. Tender reluctantly agrees to do this, as long as Adam will tell him when to stop, but Adam keeps telling him to swing again until it is too late and Adam dies. Immediately afterwards, Fertility shows up in a taxicab and takes Tender away from the landfill. They go back to Oregon, and Fertility plans to go on a quick job assignment to make some money. Fertility's job is being a surrogate mother for couples who can't conceive (Fertility is actually a pseudonym - her real name is Gwen); however, Fertility actually happens to be barren, so her job is, in essence, prostitution. The job she takes coincidentally happens to be for Tender's former employers. In the middle of the night, Tender sneaks into the house, and Fertility has sex with him in the guest bedroom (for a short while, for according to Tender, he only got in her a half an inch and it was over.)
The next morning, Tender wakes up; and Fertility tells him that she's pregnant. She then leaves for the airport to board a plane to Sydney, Australia. In her planner that she leaves behind, Tender reads that someone is going to hijack the plane and crash it into the Australian outback. Following Fertility to the airport, Tender finds her, takes Adam's gun (which she has stashed in an urn purportedly containing her brother's cremated remains), and uses it to board the plane. He then begins searching for the "real" hijacker until the joke dawns on him and he realizes that he is the hijacker. The plot thus returns to the beginning, with Tender telling his life story. He mentions that Fertility told him there was a way for him to escape the plane before it crashes, but on the record, he can't seem to figure it out. The book ends mid-sentence, but without any definitive answer as to whether Tender lives or dies. However, it has been stated by the author that Tender survives, and an explanation is available on Chuck Palahniuk's official website .