Editor’s Note: What follows is an excerpt from Speaking Truths, a forthcoming novel based, in part, on actual events. The trauma-filled world of Landon Starker, created by author Dayna Hester, has been lauded as a psychological case study and a plea to raise awareness about child abduction. The book is inspired by the humane work of Take Root, a non-profit agency whose mission is to help victims of child abduction recover from the ordeal of being abducted. Speaking Truths marries the testimonials of real-life victims to the theories of acclaimed trauma specialist Dave Ziegler, Ph.D. The story examines the up-and-down recovery of a foul-mouthed teenager whose life is filled with half-truths and repressed memories until his fractured psyche is kicked open like a floodgate. The novel is due to be released in the fall.
“What? No, I’m awake.” I wasn’t, though. It was only nine o’clock, but between the police station bullshit the night before, and then trying to fake a school day when I didn’t have one, I was exhausted. I readjusted myself on the couch and tried to keep my left eye open, the one on Bob’s side, and let the other one shut.
“Landon, you’re falling asleep. Go to bed.” There was something kind of sad in Bob’s voice. I figured it was because he didn’t have the Jack Daniel’s flowing through his veins. Bob and sobriety don’t mix. He had this angry side to him, like the world was out to get him, and if something set him off, he was gonna take care of it—sober or drunk. But I learned early on that if he’s drunk, I could get him sidetracked by agreeing with him and telling him I saw the world through his eyes.
And anyway, I wasn’t too worried about his mood. I looked over to the half-filled bottle of Jack on the kitchen counter. I was sure it was only a matter of days until the top came off again. His “cutting back” on the drinking always followed the same pattern: something crazy would happen, like me getting arrested; he’d vow not to touch the hard stuff and only stock up on beer; a few days would pass; by the end of the week, he’d be back to shooting whiskey chasers during TV commercials.
When we first moved into the trailer, back when it was a dairy farm, Bob used to hang out with the workers. Most of them were from Mexico, and they left their families to come work in the United States. They lived on the property in what Bob called “the army barracks.” I went inside them a couple of times. They were these half-circle metal buildings filled with bunk beds. They didn’t have indoor bathrooms because there were only three places with running water on the property: up at the milking barn; the main house, which was off limits; and our trailer. That’s how I met Jandro, one of the workers. He knew enough English to tell Bob what the workers needed or what needed to be fixed, and to joke with me. I was his el niño leche.
Bob started taking Jandro and a couple of the guys into town on paydays to make a tequila run. When they’d get back, everyone would sit around on plastic milk crates in front of our trailer, and Bob would build a bonfire. One time, one of the workers got up to use our bathroom, which wasn’t a big deal because everyone was kinda relaxed about going in and out of the trailer. I was twelve at the time and the memory plays in slow motion. Through the window, Bob saw the guy who was using our bathroom stop to touch one of his rifles on the gun rack above the television. In a split second, Bob lost it. I was standing at the front door, inside the trailer, looking at the guy holding the rifle. He was wobbling back and forth, so drunk that he couldn’t hear what was going on outside.
Bob jumped to his feet, pulled out the nine millimeter that he kept tucked in his belt when he’s home, and started pointing it at everyone around the fire. It’s weird what a gun does to people. I saw one or two of the workers run away, not afraid of being shot in the back. The rest, though, put their hands up and shook their head, saying words in Spanish that Bob didn’t understand—I could tell that was making him angrier. I saw the beads of sweat dripping from their foreheads. I wondered whether it was from the flames flaring up out of the fire pit or because of Bob’s drunken index finger on the trigger.
I backed into the kitchen as I saw Bob wobbling his way toward the opened front door of the trailer. I was pinned against the refrigerator, my eyes frozen on the gun. Bob stumbled up the stairs into the trailer. I was positive that he’d trip over the last step and the gun would go off.
Bob yelled out to the worker, “Put my fuckin’ gun down! Now!” only he was so drunk that his sentence slurred into one unidentifiable word. The worker turned around, not because he understood Bob, but because he heard the footsteps. His eyes widened and he started mumbling something in Spanish as he backed into the wall. I just prayed that he wasn’t thinking about running away.
Then suddenly a hand grabbed mine, yanking me out of the trailer behind Bob’s back. It was Jandro. He wrapped his arms around me to hold me still and put his hands over my ears. I could smell the tequila on his breath and felt the sweat through his T-shirt. My heart pounded in my ears. I tried with all my strength to break free, but Jandro kept holding onto me. From where I was, I could only see the back of Bob’s feet standing inside the trailer. I couldn’t scream for fear that Bob might turn around and think I was trying to run away. I knew Jandro didn’t understand what he was doing, but he was holding me so tight, I could barely squirm. He was patting my back, thinking it would calm me down; it just made things worse. Tears started streaming down my face. I kept my eyes glued to Bob’s heels, praying he wouldn’t turn around, wondering where I was.
The gun went off.
I heard Bob’s laugh, a belly-laugh from the bottom of his gut.
The worker holding the rifle bolted out of our trailer. Jandro’s eyes followed the worker, confused. His grip loosened. I squeezed myself free and ran into the trailer. There was Bob on the couch, laughing hysterically, and a bullet hole in the wall about a foot away from where the worker’s head had been.
I looked out the living room window and the workers were gone—all of them, even Jandro. The dairy farm closed about six months later, but even before that, there were no more tequila runs, no more bonfires, and Bob drank only beer for three days after.
“Landon, go to bed. You can have the bed to yourself.”
“No, it’s okay. I’m fine out here.”
“I’m telling you to do something. Go do it.” I bolted up before he said any more. I didn’t want any part of what happened that morning after the police station to repeat itself.
“Wait,” Bob commanded.
I stopped in my tracks and turned around to face him. “Yeah?”
He leaned forward in his recliner, making sure his nine millimeter and remote control balanced on his lap. He shook his head side to side slowly and looked over at me through the corner of his eye. “I try to help you do things with your life but you never see it. You don’t take my advice. You think you’re better than me somehow, don’t you?”
“No, that’s not true.” My eyes darted over to the counter. The half-filled Jack Daniel’s bottle was still untouched. A sober comment about life wasn’t a good sign from Bob. I felt my palms sweating. “I know you try to help me. I just do stupid things sometimes, but I want to learn from what you—”
He turned his head and looked me straight on. “You were a mistake. One big mistake.”
“What do you—” I caught myself, looked again at the whiskey bottle. I let my hands rest at my side, dropped my head, and relaxed my body, wanting to give him all the signs that I wasn’t there to resist. I tried to pick my words to express the right thought. “I’m sorry, Dad. Maybe you can help me fix myself.”
“Too late. You’re too old now. And you’re not worth it anyway.” He turned his head back to face the TV. I stood for a second, waiting for any last words, but he didn’t utter a sound. He leaned back in his recliner and focused on watching his war movie while the TV reflection flickered off his face. I was positive he’d be waking me up in a couple of hours to work out his aggression. Maybe I deserved it.
I was dead asleep. The first sound I heard, I think my brain just said, There’s a weird noise outside, but I didn’t fully wake up. I was too tired. It was some kind of swishing sound against the outside wall of the trailer. My arms and legs felt heavy. I was going right back to sleep when I heard the noise again and realized I knew exactly what it was.
Leaves crunching on the ground.
I threw the covers to the side and sat bolt upright. I thought my ribcage would burst because my heart was pounding so hard. I looked left; Bob wasn’t there. The blankets were untouched. The gun wasn’t on the nightstand. I jumped up, moved the blinds away just enough to see outside. Flashlights? Then a huge crashing sound came from the living room. I went to run down the short hallway toward the front door but froze in my steps as our trailer started to rock back and forth.
“Get on your knees! FBI!”
I dropped to the ground. The first sign I saw of them were the small lights attached to their rifles. Beams of lights swirled and bounced all over the walls. Two men in all black, with their faces behind their rifles, came down the hallway and grabbed me.
I was dizzy, confused.
I didn’t see Bob. Or his gun.
The television was off.
The remote control was on the ground.
They held me under my armpits and rushed me out of the trailer. When we got outside, I saw FBI agents everywhere, crisscrossing in front of me. Most were dressed in black with knit caps, and a couple had a big “FBI” in white letters on their backs. All of them were holding rifles in firing position, like they do at the shooting range. I saw at least two guard dogs, the ones that sniffed out drugs. Through the trees, I caught a glimpse of car headlights driving up the dirt road. The headlights from a car in the back illuminated a cloud of dust that the lead cars had kicked up. A helicopter swooped down and hovered around the area. Its spotlight created a frantic sun shining on the trailer.
The two guys that had a hold of me were nothing like the cops who had busted Sam and me. There was something serious about them that filled me with fear. “In here.” I could barely hear them over the hovering helicopter. The night was a riot of sound: dirt swirling through the air smacked into the cars; the overgrown tree branches whooshed and clanked in the wind. The agent opened the back door of a black car parked nearby and put his hand on top of my head, pushing me down lightly to make sure I didn’t hit myself on the door jamb. He shut the door. I wasn’t kicking or squirming. I didn’t have words for what was going on. I just stared as a huge spotlight powered up. The whole scene looked like daylight, except in the background the moon hung—suspended and still in the night sky.
As if on cue, the helicopter began to rise and banked away. One of the guys hopped into the front seat, nodded to me, dropped it into drive, and we were out of there. I turned around to look through the back window. I could see cars driving up to the main house. In the far distance, over the cornfields that used to be cow pastures, the helicopter spotlight roamed, zigzagging from side to side. I tried to compose myself and gather whatever information I could. I stared out, scanning for Bob’s van, but between the dust and the dimming lights, the world I left had all but disappeared.
When the agent made a right turn onto Highway 91, I faced forward and dropped my head. I was detaching from my life, like a balloon let go in the sky, floating farther away each second. I wasn’t that kid who walked into English class two days ago. I was terrified. Whatever was going on, it was larger than me. Yet a part of me knew it wasn’t larger than Bob.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dayna Hester received her bachelor’s degree in English and philosophy from UCLA. To research her first novel, Speaking Truths, she completed an independent study on the psychophysiology of trauma, focused on the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety disorders. She currently resides in California with her husband, Bruce McNall, former owner of the Los Angeles Kings, and her three children.