3.7 9
by Tomas Mournian

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When Ahmed's parents send him to a residential treatment center known as Serenity Ridge, it's with one goal: to "fix" their son, at any cost. But eleven months of abuse and overmedication leave him desperate to escape. And when the opportunity comes, Ahmed runs away to San Francisco.

There, he moves into a secret safe house shared by a group of teens. Until…  See more details below


When Ahmed's parents send him to a residential treatment center known as Serenity Ridge, it's with one goal: to "fix" their son, at any cost. But eleven months of abuse and overmedication leave him desperate to escape. And when the opportunity comes, Ahmed runs away to San Francisco.

There, he moves into a secret safe house shared by a group of teens. Until they become independent at eighteen, the housemates hide away from authorities, bound by rules that both protect and frustrate. Ahmed, now known as Ben, tries to adjust to a life lived in impossibly close quarters with people he barely knows, all of whom guard secrets of their own. But even if they succeed in keeping the world at bay, there's no hiding from each other or from themselves. And there's no avoiding the conflicts, crushes, loneliness, and desire that could shatter their fragile, complicated sanctuary at any moment. . .

"This fresh and original novel defies easy labels. It's knowing yet vulnerable, observant yet naive--a wholly unique and compelling read." --Rachel Cohn, New York Times bestselling author

Tomas Mournian attended U.C. Berkeley. A freelance journalist, he's written articles for The San Francisco Bay Guardian, Los Angeles Magazine, OUT, In Style and Marie Claire. His investigation journalism ("Hiding Out," "Anywhere But There," and "Girls Sent to Institutions") has been recognized with awards from the Peninsula Press Club, East Bay Press Club and NCCD Pass awards, with nominations by the GLAAD Media Awards and Pulitzer. Writing under a pseudonym, his plays have been produced internationally. He held the Eli Cantor Chair at The Corporation of Yaddo and lives in Los Angeles.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Based on a news article written for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Mournian's exquisitely written and impossibly sad fiction debut charts America's latest version of the Underground Railroad. When 15-year-old Ahmed inadvertently outs himself to his parents, they take him to a residential treatment center in the Nevada desert, Serenity Ridge, where he's tortured, molested, and put through a "straight" rehabilitation program. After 11 months, Ahmed manages to escape to a safe house for runaway gay teens in San Francisco, where he meets a slew of other kids like himself, all with their own stories to tell, most just as traumatizing as his own or worse. But life inside the safe house is never entirely safe, as Ahmed, now known as Ben, learns to his sorrow just as he begins to let his guard down. Regardless of their sexual orientation, readers will wait with bated breath to the end, almost suffocating on the palpable sense of fear and claustrophobia that permeates this heartbreaking story. (Feb.)
VOYA - Jamie Hansen
Ahmed is on the run—from his counselors, from his parents, from the police, and perhaps even from himself. When his unbelievable narrative begins, the fifteen-year-old is fleeing from the ironically named residential treatment center, Serenity Ridge, where his sadistic parents dumped him in the hopes of "fixing" his homosexuality. The memories of those nightmarish months of overmedication, emotional abuse, and rape haunt Ahmed, as well as the reader, throughout the novel. When presented with a freakish chance to escape, Ahmed seizes it, ultimately finding his way to a strange and secret safe house in San Francisco, where he can hide until his eighteenth birthday. In the dim, claustrophobic apartment, Ahmed, now calling himself Ben, finds an eccentric assortment of other reckless, damaged gay, bi, and transgendered teens who variously become his enemies, allies, crushes, and lovers—sometimes all four. The author's feature article, "Hiding Out," about safe houses for gay teens was the origin for hidden. Although hampered by its excessive length and inadequate character development, this oddly moving novel does succeed in revealing the tragic, but ultimately hopeful, voice of a brutalized and oddly naive young man. Numerous incidents of graphic sex and crude brutality render this title suitable for older teen readers only. A reading group guide and interview with the author is appended following the text. Reviewer: Jamie Hansen
Library Journal
A gay teen living in a San Francisco safe house is the focus of this unusual and provocative first novel. Ahmed is a 15-year-old Arab American boy whose parents sent him to a sadistic Nevada boot camp/treatment facility in the hope of changing his sexual orientation. Escaping the hospital and his parents while being driven home, he's rescued by an underground group and given contact information in San Francisco. There, living in close quarters in the safe house with six other troubled teens escaping similar circumstances, he begins to develop a greater degree of self-understanding and acceptance and to learn of love, all the while in constant fear of being discovered and returned to his previous situation. VERDICT Mournian has created a memorable character in Ahmed. It's his voice, at once raw and tender, knowing and uncertain, that guides the reader through the general hell and occasional heaven of this little-seen world. Based on Mournian's earlier journalistic work, this outsider coming-of-age tale has the potential to attract a mainstream audience.—Lawrence Rungren, Merrimack Valley Lib. Consortium, North Andover, MA

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Copyright © 2011 Tomas Mournian
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-7582-5131-2

Chapter One

I am high.


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 wonder 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 communication: 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, mobilized, 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 saying, "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: separate me from my feelings so that I don't "act out" or run. Fortunately, they have yet to figure out that feelings are different than ideas. Being stripped of my feelings is a good thing. Because 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 minutes 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: Swimming pools! Laughter! Music! Beach balls! Fun! Nekkidness! Tan golden skin! (Or, Boys! Boys! Boys!)


Haifa's eyes meet mine in the rearview mirror. Haifa is Stepmother 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 Stepmother. Haifa Whoever twists her face into an expression that's a cross between a grimace and a smile. Looks like? Aging supermodel 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. Moustapha 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 (emotional) 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 motorcycle 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 Serenity 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 migrainey. What am I doing here? Can I really escape? My confidence 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 follows. 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 disease. 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 remember: 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.

Chapter Two

Moustapha's hand tightens on my tiny left bicep. He "guides" me across the parking lot, grip crushing both my arm and self-confidence.

"Moustapha!" Haifa shouts. "Wait! I need something."

She's stepped out of the car. I can't believe my luck: Inside a store, Haifa always demands an escort. She won't go anywhere alone.

Glad as I am, I can't help but think, My real mother wouldn't pull this crap. Even though she left when I was like, two, I know her. Know what she's like. For one, I inherited her common sense.

This is how my stepmother shops: She drags my father into the liquor section and leaves me to wander the aisles. Moustapha acts tough, but he cannot resist the gravitational pull of my stepmother's planet-sized demands.

Our family's shopping habits haven't changed in eleven months. At some point, I will be left alone. And left alone to wander the aisles means Escape. My heart rate speeds up. I cannot, for the life of me, control my pulse.

"My dick started bleeding and they blamed me, called me 'uncooperative,'" Lance says, reminding me what happened the last time my heart sped up: It triggered a virtual fireworks display of electric shocks.

"Make it quick!" Moustapha barks. He's a die-hard fan of the bark-shout. I guess he thinks I'm not just gay but deaf, too. Add that to my case of premature, movie-of-the-week aging disease and I have so many health problems that it'll be a miracle if I can make it inside the bathroom. He gives me a shove. I mouth a silent, "Thank you." Really. I am that exhausted, grateful for every extra bit of help.

The bathroom's a cubicle-sized room. One toilet with matching sink. It stinks of shit, piss and vomit. Footsteps. Moustapha's behind me. Is he here to change my diaper? Or, help me unzip?

I don't dare raise my head or look him in the eye. Still, I manage to survey the layout. The window over the urinal is propped open. Fresh air squeezes through the crack. The second it hits the bathroom's warm, disgusting soup, it collapses.

I suck at math. Today, however, panic turns me into a human calculator. I'm able to instantly calculate the distance from floor to window. Too far. I nix that escape route.

I push, opening the stall door. No hand'kins. Fuck! I'd planned to splash my face with cold water and wash off the sleep. I am not about to touch the faucet knob. The round push button's smeared with bacteria, trillions of invisible germs. I look for a stack of cheap doily napkin wipes (you always need a handful 'cause the first five dissolve). I don't mean to, but I look in the toilet.

Soggy turds float in the yellow-brown water. They're pressed up against one another like dead coy fish. My stomach revolts. I taste bile, the pre-vomit stuff that dances in your throat right before you barf. Which only guarantees that you will, in fact, barf. If only I'd known today I'd be so barf obsessed, I would have stolen a barf bag from the seat pocket on my flight back from Honolulu. Oh, silly me.

I turn to leave. Moustapha stands outside the stall. Oops. The stall door slams into his Santa Claus–sized paunch: While I was away and Haifa (or, her twin) got to work transforming her face into an Arabian Wonder Woman, Captain Cuckoo's been pigging out on Ding Dongs and Ho Hos. Suddenly, I understand why he's agreed to stop. Junk food raid.

"Sorry." My apology's drowned by the outside roar of several semi engines. Moustapha's eyes are invisible behind the sunglasses' mirrored panes. I'm face-to-face with Darth Vader.


The Force of Darkness does a double take. He sees the shit-filled toilet bowl. Oh joy! Darth puts out an arm and blocks my body.

"Flush it," he commands. "Or didn't they teach you that?"


He spins me around, and shoves me back, into the stall. I hold down the flusher. It's stuck. The toilet gurgles, churning, tossing up shit chunks and dirty water.

"See?" I step aside. "It won't flush."

Darth's thick lips press together, his Bert unibrow knitting. This is his "serious" look. The "don't give me any lip" expression.

"I think it's broken." I instantly regret voicing my opinion. Ever since Haifa opened my journal and read the scrawled words, "I might be queer," Moustapha's lived for confrontations that pit his anger (righteousness and hypocrisy) against my budding sexual identity.

"We're not leaving till—"

"Ahmed?! Moustapha?!"

Haifa possesses the instincts of a homing pigeon. I wonder if she knows that my father hires hookers. That I wish I'd written down in my journal: the afternoon I walked into his office and found him face fucking a tranny.

I bet that incident crosses Moustapha's mind, too. He grabs my head, shoves me down and holds my face near the cloudy brown water. My stomach tightens, forcing up breakfast and tranquilizers. I taste the stew just before it hits the cloudy water. The shit soup splatters, up and onto my face.

My eyes are tightly shut. Still, I feel hot tears burn my cheeks. I just lost hope that my father might ever look at me as anything other than an animal. I remind myself I'm lucky to be alive and, literally, eating shit. We've all heard stories about Arab parents who think nothing of killing their queer kid.

My head jerks up. Blind, I cannot see him. But I hear his low, nasty laugh.

"Feel better?"

Arms out, I step forward and touch ... nothing. He's gone.

I stagger to the sink and throw water on my face.

"Is he all right?" Haifa's voice drifts into the bathroom through the open window. I'm surprised by the concerned tone of her voice. Then again, she's so good at faking everything else, even her concern's probably a put-on.

"He claims he's sick. Hurry up!"

"One—" I stop short, cut my impatient tone. Readjust, Ahmed, use the Good Boy tone (flat, humble, certain). "Please, could you give me one minute?"

"We'll meet you in the store!" My stepmother's voice is crisp and round, Broadway style, Janice Dickinson on mood elevators.

I step out the bathroom. The water ran out every two seconds and I only had ten. So I'm not sure if I cleaned off the shit slime. Again, my will to run slips. Doubt rushes in—nature abhors a vacuum—and I know, I can't follow through.

"But after a while," Lance says. "They didn't know how to make the bleeding stop."

I walk toward the Shop 'N Go. Flies swarm my face. They're drawn to my skin. It must be glazed with shit slime. Although I'm anxious to flee the flies, I slow my pace and look, taking notes. Rows of semis form long alleyways. Each one is a potential escape route. I could run right now, but I'd risk getting lost. I might turn the wrong way.


Excerpted from hidden by TOMAS MOURNIAN Copyright © 2011 by Tomas Mournian. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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