Chapter 1

I am high.

“I—” My voice catches. I cannot string together a whole sentence. My eyes open. I’ve been deposited in the back of my parents’ black Mercedes. I look at the dashboard clock. Where did the last forty-five minutes go? Beyond the windshield, gates swing open. The car rolls forward. I turn: I want a parting shot. Through the back window, I see twenty-foot walls lined with electrified barbed wire.

The Mercedes picks up speed. Desert surrounds us. No won- der Serenity Ridge was built in the Nevada outback. Even if a kid manages to escape, there’s no way you can survive the run.

“I need to use the restroom.”

My parents stick with their preferred mode of communica- tion: the nonresponse. I won’t know if it’s a “yes” or a “no” for several minutes. Did I already say, I am high? Medicated, mobi- lized, and tranquilized?

This morning, when the nurse slid the needle into my ass, I thought about Raoul. I met Raoul in fourth grade. Raoul loved waving Magic Markers under his nose, acting stupid and say- ing, “Chil’, this’ll make ya high.” The drugs jumped into my bloodstream, and all I could think was, “Chil’, this’ll make ya the Reluctant Junkie.” And then I passed out.

Now, I’d say, “I feel like shit” but the drugs make me so woozy, I don’t know what I feel. But that’s what they want: sep- arate me from my feelings so that I don’t “act out” or run. For- tunately, they have yet to figure out that feelings are different than ideas. Being stripped of my feelings is a good thing. Be- cause now I can focus on Idea Numero Uno: ESCAPE.

You’d probably be similarly obsessed, too, if you’d been in my place. For eleven months, twelve days, four hours, two min- utes and twenty-one seconds, I’ve been locked up in Serenity Ridge, an RTC (short for residential treatment facility, a.k.a. pay-as-you-go-prisons-for-queer-teens.) In my head, I hear, “Baby, you’re on the brink.”

Brink? More like, abyss. And I’m not sixteen, I’m fifteen (going on sixteen). Minor detail. I wasn’t cured of my “crime” (see above, “gay teens”). Coz I resisted. I lived in fantasy. I knew what was beyond Serenity Ridge’s walls and barbed wire: Swim- ming pools! Laughter! Music! Beach balls! Fun! Nekkidness! Tan golden skin! (Or, Boys! Boys! Boys!)

“Ahmed?”

Haifa’s eyes meet mine in the rearview mirror. Haifa is Step- mother Number Four. Or, five. I’ve lost count. See, Moustapha, my father, believes in marriage, harem-style. IDK. I can’t place Haifa’s face because she’s the new Haifa? Or, because she’s had a radical nip / tuck? During my time in the queer penitentiary, this Stepmother has either acquired a new face or is a new Step- mother. Haifa Whoever twists her face into an expression that’s a cross between a grimace and a smile. Looks like? Aging super- model with bad face-lift.
“Um, yes?” I press my index fingernail to thumb and remind myself to: Pause. Think before I speak. Sound / act obedient. And bright. And alert. Even if I am loaded on downers and the car feels more like a coffin than a luxury four-door sedan. And I really, really want to scream. . . .

I feel a second set of eyes. Hidden behind mirrored, aviator- shaped shades, those eyes scan me for signs of “trouble.” Am I talking Green Beret? Special Forces Military Paratrooper? Or, Saddam Hussein’s ghost? No, just Dad, or Moustapha. Today, he wears one of his tacky Village People (the gay cop) getups.

Moustapha waits for me to throw up my arms and drop my wrists, a Middle-Eastern Marilyn Monroe. In fact, he’d love nothing more than for me to spontaneously queen out with a shrill “Girrrllll!!!” He’d pull a hard U and drive back. Mou- stapha would have no problem leaving me at S.R. to rot on the forever and forgotten treatment plan.

He hates me. He really hates what I am. Or, what he thinks I am: a wannabe cocksucker and buttfucker. What Moustapha really hates about me is that I remind him of my mother. (Or, “that bitch.”) The bitch who decided she had enough, stood up and left his hairy ass. Her “See ya!” still drives him crazy. And he doesn’t know, but I plan to leave, too. Leave as in, Escape. You know. “Junkie whore,” he said. “Just like your mother.”
Moustapha believes his silence convicts me—for sins I have yet to commit (buttfucking, cocksucking, etc.). In Moustapha’s world, gay (“queer” in my world) equals sex. He could never understand how it’s possible I’ve had sex but am also a (emo- tional) virgin. By Moustapha’s dated definition—circa 1998?— gay is nuthin’ but a messed-up ’mo.

“Did you enjoy Serenity Ridge?” Haifa asks. Amazing, she thinks I just got back from a trip to . . . Hawaii! Her question reminds me: I can’t feel the beige leather seat (but I can hear). Convenient. Allah forgot to turn off the audio.

“Yes, I did. Very much.” I’ve mastered the Good Boy tone: flat, humble and certain. Now, if only I could get the straight dude part of my act down, everything would be fabulous. “Thank you for sending me there.”
My stepmother nods, “pleased.” I study her hair. It’s rock hard. A helmet. I can’t figure out the look. Accidental motor- cycle mama? Or, escapee from the Planet of the Apes? Then, I see the netting, and realize, that’s not Haifa’s hair but a wig! Thank G-D, no homosexuals were involved in her ’do. I blame Moustapha. I bet he told her that a bad wig counts as a head scarf. That reasoning fits with The Phantom of the Opera soundtrack. This being the couple who tell everyone they’re “strict, observant Muslims”—and so fake I want to barf.

Hating them changes nothing. I shift my thoughts to the car’s alloy wheels. Beneath us, those wheels speed over asphalt— miles and miles of black . . . tar. I pray the road liquifies under the brutal late August heat.
Flash! Black letters on a yellow face. The sign reads: LAS VEGAS, 30 MILES.

Two days ago, in the cafeteria during breakfast, Eric leaned toward me and whispered, “There’s a store a couple miles after the sign that says, ‘Thirty miles to Vegas.’ ” I’d said, “Uh-huh,” and promptly forgot. Everyone said Eric was crazy. But damn if crazy Eric wasn’t spot-on correct.

“Uhhh!” My body shivers. The sign signals escape (mine) is mere minutes away. Boy Scout, be prepared. Problem is, I got kicked out of Cub Scouts for trying to kiss a boy, Timmy. Also: I can barely keep my eyes open.

“Wake up!” A girlie-boy voice. Oh, fucking hell. I’m hearing voices. Figure, it would belong to Lance. “Wake up, darling! Rise and shine!”

I want to shout, “Lance, would you shut the fuck up!” But I don’t. Talking out loud to my (invisible) roommate from Serenity Ridge would be the perfect excuse (“He’s crrrraaaaaazzzzzz yyyyyy”) for my parents to turn around, drive me back to Seren- ity Ridge and drop me off.

All I need to do is keep my eyes open, my mouth shut and— What!?! I muffle my shriek. Where my male Mata Hari eyes should be (in the rearview mirror), there’s two squinty blue eyes. Blink: Corn-colored eyelashes come down like a pair of giant, frilly fans. Lance.

I must be really loaded. Because I know he’s not here in this luxury car slash coffin. Lance, he of the square-jawed, blond flat top, football player body of death and . . . lisp! I met Lance the day I “officially” checked into Hotel d’Serenity Ridge. Looking at him, I’d expected a deep-voiced dude. Then he opened his mouth and a purse fell out. Looked like: Thug. Sounded like: Bitch.

“Wake up,” Lance trills. Bitch is per-sist-ent. For the next twenty-nine miles, Lance’s voice keeps me awake, repeating the horror story. What Happened. To him, to me, to all of us: “You couldn’t hide. . . .”

I look away from the rearview mirror. No good: Lance’s face is there, in the window’s tinted glass. I surrender, listening to our story unspool like a book on tape, “ ’Cause even if you didn’t get a boner when they were showing you the pornos . . .”

The Mercedes lurches, rolls onto a large, dirt lot and parks between two semis. “Miller Time!” promises the side of the semi with its bright, painted letters. Beer is not what the doctor ordered. I need something to wake me up. Ritalin. Or, speed. Surely, there must be a meth lab tucked away somewhere in one of those desert trailers.

I look back, blinded by the windshield field, bright and mi- grainey. What am I doing here? Can I really escape? My confi- dence dips. Lance’s voice pipes up, “. . . this little thing tracked your pulse, telling them when you got excited.”

I reach for the door handle. Locked. In the rearview mirror, my father’s eyes drill into me. This pit stop is a test. See Ahmed Run. Knock Ahmed Down. Watch Ahmed Crawl. If only Moustapha knew how much energy it takes just for Ahmed to grab the handle. The lock clicks. The handle moves. The door swings open.
My right leg steps out. Somehow, the rest of my body fol- lows. I stand, suspended in hot air, dusty from the semis’ tires churn. My legs buckle and my lungs seize up. Cold to hot. My body’s shocked by the abrupt change in temperature.

Sorry, Lance, but I can’t follow through on my half-assed plan. I’m too weak. Or, I might have caught a cable movie dis- ease. You know, when the adult playing the child actor starts aging prematurely and dies in the quick ninety minutes that passes in-between commercials?

“And then they’d shock you.” Lance’s lisp makes me remem- ber: the dark room. The wires that creep up and reach between my legs, electric tentacles.

I reach, grip the door, then the roof. I hold up my body. I feel like an old man. I can’t do this.
“It felt like when you drag your feet over carpet.”

Oh, yeah. Now I remember. The electric shocks. To my dick and balls. The pain. Every time I looked at the pictures on the wall.

I can’t go back. No fucking way am I going back.

White dust cakes my lips, tongue and mouth. Fuck it, I breathe deep because I can.

Suddenly, I really am outside, alone, almost free. Soon, I’ll be able to walk anywhere, speak with anyone, live.

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TOMAS MOURNIAN's fiction debut, hidden is based on his article about the little known world of underground safe houses for GLBT Youth. Mournian has written for The San Francisco Bay Guardian, Marie Claire, and Los Angeles, among others. Mournian was awarded the Eli Cantor Chair at Yaddo, studied at UC Berkeley and lives in Los Angeles.

3 responses to “Excerpt from hidden

  1. Irene Zion says:

    Tomas,

    This is harrowing.
    What a story this must be.
    I didn’t know there were underground safe houses for GLBT Youth; I’m happy to know there are.
    This book will teach and help a lot of kids.
    Good for you.

  2. Henning Koch says:

    Yes I agree, very brave of you to try and say these things.

  3. dwoz says:

    great, engaging teaser. start and endpoints well-chosen for full effect. It’s tempting to dismiss this as too implausible, until you realize that places like “Serenity Ridge” actually exist, and that they exist because there are parents that are capable of sending them their children. It does require a certain suspension of disbelief to think that the Mengele-like techniques might be real. Who would have thought that “A Clockwork Orange” was a documentary?

    Would appreciate if you’d take a moment to review the formatting though. Hyphenation hell.

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