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The Wild
Excerpt

1. 

This is the story of a messed-up girl and how her family paid people to send her into the wilderness with a bunch of other messed-up kids in hopes it would somehow make them less messed up.

This is a real thing that happens.

It might even be an eventuality your parents have considered for you.

But this is the story of what happens when things 

go

wrong.

 

2.

Meet Dawn. Dawn is the aforementioned messed-up girl. She’ll be the protagonist and de facto audience surrogate for this little misadventure.

Dawn is seventeen years old and mostly normal. She lives in Sacramento with a drug dealer named Julian, who is roughly twice her age.

This is a continued point of contention between Dawn and her mother, Wendy. Wendy would prefer that Dawn not live with a drug dealer. She’d prefer that Dawn, you know, go to school and not just get high all the time and sneak into clubs.

She’d prefer that Dawn be at home, where Wendy and Dawn’s younger brother, Bryce, live with Dawn’s stepdad, Cam.

Dawn loves her brother.

She mostly loves her mom.

Dawn does not love Cam. Dawn resents Cam and hates that her mother fell in love with him. Her father’s only been gone for two years, and it’s too soon to be talking replacements.

Dawn can’t stand to be near Cam. It makes her feel like she’s betraying her dad. It drives her insane that nobody else sees it that way. That her mother could move on so quickly.

That’s why she’s staying with Julian.

And that’s why she spends her days mostly wasted.

 

3.

The Cam/Wendy/Dawn thing has been an ongoing saga. You don’t need to know the gory details, but suffice it to say, it’s been a lot of screaming and hurt feelings.

It’s been a lot of self-medicating and not going to class.

It’s been a lot of Julian.

Cam and Wendy have been trying to get Dawn to come home. Go to school. Be high less. See less Julian. Be more normal.

Cam and Wendy have failed miserably so far.

But Cam and Wendy have one more bullet to fire.

It’s their last resort.

And it’s going to royally fuck up Dawn’s day.

 

4.

What it is, is a straight-up kidnapping.

Cam and Wendy show up at Julian’s place at sunset. Dawn and Julian are on Julian’s couch, watching cartoons but not really, when Cam knocks on the door. Dawn is too high to get off the couch; she lets Julian answer, hears the door open, hears voices:

Julian, someone else, Julian again.

Then Julian’s back, scratching his head and not looking at Dawn.

“It’s your stepdad,” Julian says. “He says if you don’t go talk to him, he’s calling the cops.”

From the way Cam’s face twitches when he sees her, Dawn knows she must look like shit. She hasn’t showered since whenever, her hair’s a disaster, she’s wearing one of Julian’s Lords of Gastown T-shirts like a dress.

“What do you want?” she asks her stepdad. Looks past him and sees Wendy standing by the minivan, arms folded across her chest, looking anywhere but at the house.

(Dawn briefly wonders where Bryce is, then decides she’s glad he isn’t here. She doesn’t love the thought of her little brother seeing her like this.)

Cam sets his jaw like he’s been rehearsing this moment. He probably has.

(He’s probably not a bad guy, Cam. I mean, it’s not his fault that Dawn’s dad is dead. Cam’s an accountant, and mostly harmless, and Dawn might actually like him if he were, you know, her teacher or something and not someone who acted like he was entitled to any authority over her whatsoever.)

“I need you to come with us, Dawn,” Cam says. “It’s time to go.”

Dawn rolls her eyes, like she always does when Cam starts down this road. “I’m not going anywhere with you, Cam,” she tells him. “And you can’t make me.”

Cam stares at her. Mouth opening and closing like whatever he rehearsed, it didn’t get this far.

Then Julian shows up behind Dawn. “I think you should go,” he tells her.

Dawn spins, like WTF? Julian shrugs. Cam’s looking at Julian like he wants to punch him, but he won’t--

(Julian’s twice his size).

Cam just nods instead, like Listen to the man. “Nobody wants the police involved, Dawn,” he says.

Cam has a point. Julian knows this.

Dawn knows it, too.

If the police show up, they’ll find Julian’s stash of pills. They’ll find Julian, and they’ll find Dawn.

Julian doesn’t want any part of this, obviously.

So Julian’s turned traitor.

Julian’s practically shoving Dawn out the front door.

Go with your parents, Dawn.

GTFO.

So Dawn doesn’t put up too much of a fuss. This has happened before. She’s thinking Cam and Wendy will pile her into that minivan and just take her home, like they always do.

She’s thinking this is just another bullshit power move by Cam to prove he’s cut out to be her father, and she’ll endure it for a couple of days on the absolute outside and then she’ll sneak off again and do what she wants.

And this time she’ll make sure Cam and Wendy can’t find her.

This is what Dawn is thinking.

It’s what she’s expecting.

But Dawn is wrong.

Cam takes her to the airport.

 

5. 

“There’s no fucking way this is legal.”

In the airplane seat beside Dawn, Wendy says nothing. She hasn’t said much the whole plane ride, won’t even answer Dawn’s questions.

(Like, why are we on a plane?)

(Why isn’t Cam coming?)

(Why did you pack me a bag?)

She’s trying so hard to look tough, Dawn can tell. Play the authority figure, the mean mom, but Wendy isn’t cut out for that role. She’s too nice.

But she’s trying to be tough, and it’s clearly taking work, and watching her, it kind of breaks Dawn’s heart a little bit.

(Like, whatever is happening, you made her do this.)

(You made her this way.)

Dawn would never admit it, but maybe that’s why she isn’t putting up more of a fuss. Maybe that’s why she didn’t go batshit and scream kidnapping when Cam dropped them off at the airport. Because for whatever reason, she didn’t.

She put on the shorts Wendy fished out of her overnight bag, watched Cam hug Wendy goodbye and drive off, and then she followed her mom into the airport and onto the plane and stared out the window and waited to land.

And now they’re at the Seattle airport, and it’s nighttime and there’s a guy standing at the baggage carousel holding a sign with Wendy’s name on it. He’s around forty, tanned, wearing a blue fleece jacket with the words out of the wild on it.

He shakes Wendy’s hand.

He doesn’t shake Dawn’s.

“Come on,” he says. “I’m parked in the lot.”

 

6.

The fleece guy’s name is Steve. He has a white van with the same words as his jacket written on the side.

out of the wild.

Steve throws Dawn’s bag in the back of the van. Then he turns back to Wendy. “This usually takes about two to three months,” he tells her. “Depending on the kid. You need a ride to your hotel?”

Wendy shakes her head. Says something about a shuttle bus.

“Okay.” Steve shakes her hand again. “We’ll be in touch.”

Dawn’s wondering if she’s still high or just half-asleep. Can’t process what’s happening. Then Wendy’s hugging her. Telling her she loves her.

She can’t look Dawn in the eyes.

Then Wendy’s walking away and Steve’s opening the passenger door of the van and he’s gesturing to Dawn to get in.

“It’s just you and me, kid,” he tells Dawn. “Your mom ain’t coming back.”

Dawn doesn’t run.

She thinks about running, but where would she go? She’s in Seattle, for God’s sake. And even her mom wants nothing to do with her.

Anyway, Dawn’s maybe a little bit curious. So far, nobody’s told her shit.

She gets in the van with Steve.

It’s a mistake.

 

7.

Steve plays the radio while he’s driving. Something old and annoying. He drives for a long time, out of the city and into dark countryside. The road winds and climbs into foothills and mountains. Steve doesn’t stop at any stop signs for Dawn to jump out. He doesn’t pull over for gas or so she can pee.

“Where are you taking me?” Dawn asks him.

Steve glances across at her. He’s whistling along with the music, and it’s annoying as fuck. “You’ll see when we get there,” he tells her. He doesn’t elaborate.

They drive for a long time. Eventually, they stop.

There turns out to be a couple of ugly little buildings at the end of a long gravel road. There’s a bright-yellow light on a pole between them, a dimmer light on in a window. A sign by the window reads parents this way.

Steve parks the van. Turns it off. Climbs out and walks around to Dawn’s door and waits as she climbs out and looks around. “Come on,” he tells her, starting toward the building with the light on in the window.

Dawn doesn’t follow. She’s still looking around. Peering into the darkness at the edge of the light, wondering what would happen if she ran, like, now.

Steve reads her mind. “We’d get you back,” he tells her. “Or we wouldn’t. And believe me, you’d wish we did.”

He gestures to the building again. “Come on.”

Dawn follows him.

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The Dragon Thief
Excerpt

Kavita
 
 
“Thief!”
 
The word whistles through the air and pricks the back of my neck. I turn to find Aunty’s black eyes fixed on me. She was snoring loudly when I crept into her room just a moment ago. That gave me the courage to pull a chair over to the mountain of boxes and stuffed plastic bags she keeps in the corner. At the very top of the mound of junk is a wire birdcage that’s shaped sort of like the Taj Mahal. I need it--and I need it now.
 
I inch up on my tippy-toes and reach for the birdcage. My other hand sinks into the soft, squishy contents of a yellow plastic bag that’s wedged between two boxes. I don’t know what’s inside the bag, and I don’t care. Mummy would never let me keep my room like this, but no one ever criticizes Aunty--Papa won’t allow it. She’s the oldest person in our family and spends almost every day buried under the heavy, colorful quilt that covers her bed. Sometimes she hums to herself and stares out the window. Other times she watches game shows on the little black-and-white TV that sits next to her bed. Now I see her pointing a wrinkled brown finger at me.
 
“Thief!”
 
She says it louder this time. I feel my cheeks burn with shame.
 
“No, Aunty--I--I . . .” By pressing my hand deeper into the squishy plastic bag, I manage to steady myself and turn all the way around to face her. “I just need to borrow-- Whoa!”
 
I was so close to reaching my prize, but then I lose my balance. I fall off the chair, bounce off the foot of the bed, and land on the floor with a thud. My fall brings down an avalanche of boxes, and so I cover my head with my hands. When I open my eyes, the empty birdcage is rolling on its side next to me.
 
“Tut-tut-tut.” Aunty makes the strange sound without opening her mouth. “What a mess you’ve made.”
 
“Aunty? Is everything all right?”
 
My eyes open wide. If Mummy comes upstairs, she’ll want to know why I’m in Aunty’s room. And if I tell her the truth, she’ll want to know why I need an old birdcage. I can’t tell her that there’s a dragon in my bedroom. I can’t tell anyone that I’m a dragon thief!
 
Aunty watches me with a slight smile on her face. Against her dark skin, her black eyes sparkle with amusement. I don’t think she’s angry with me, so I decide to plead for help.
 
“Please don’t tell on me, Aunty! I’ll clean everything up--I promise.”
 
We both know Mummy’s standing at the foot of the stairs. Her hand is probably on the railing, and she’s wondering whether she needs to come upstairs to check on Aunty. My heart is pounding fast and hard, but I don’t yet hear Mummy’s slippered feet climbing the stairs. “Please, Aunty,” I whisper.
 
Aunty clears her throat and calls, “I’m fine, dear. I just knocked over some boxes. Kavita’s here to help me.”
 
We wait, frozen and silent, until we hear Mummy’s voice floating upstairs. “Okay, Aunty. I’ll be up soon with your lunch.”
 
Because she’s an elder, Aunty doesn’t have to do much around the house. She really only leaves her room to use the toilet and take two-hour baths. Aunty doesn’t even come downstairs to eat with us unless we have company over on special occasions. Mummy brings Aunty’s meals up on a tray. I scan the messy room for a clock and find one on the nightstand next to the bed. It’s a square digital clock that Vik and I gave to Aunty last Christmas. Its giant blue display reads 11:38.
 
I hop to my feet and scramble to pick up all the things I’ve just knocked down. Aunty waves her hand at me and says, “Leave it, child. It makes no difference to me whether they are up against the wall or on the floor. What is it you came to borrow?”
 
I feel guilty, so I set the chair back on its legs and stack a couple of boxes on its seat. Then I point to the pink wire cage and say, “I came to borrow your birdcage, Aunty.”
 
Her dark eyes narrow as she squints at me. “You don’t have a bird.”
 
My cheeks burn again, and I dig my toes into the thick green carpet. “No, Aunty.”
 
After studying me for a moment, she says, “Do you have some other kind of pet?”
 
I nod without looking up. How much should I tell her?
 
“I put it in a box, but . . .” I stop and decide not to tell Aunty that the dragon set the cardboard box on fire. “I need something stronger.”
 
Aunty leans back against her pillows and smooths the quilt with her hands. “I see. And your mother doesn’t know about this new pet of yours.”
 
It’s not a question. I nod again and dare to glance at Aunty’s face.
 
“Then you’d better take it,” Aunty says with a nod at the cage on the floor. “I had a songbird once, but I set it free before I left India. I only keep the cage to remind me. . . .”
 
I pick up the cage and hold it to my chest. “Remind you of what, Aunty?”
 
She sighs and closes her eyes. “That every living thing wants to be free.”
 
I look down at the cage in my arms. It might be shaped like the Taj Mahal, but it’s not a palace and certainly not a good home for a baby dragon. My cheeks burn again, and this time tears spill from my eyes.
 

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Dog Flowers
Excerpt

and boy it burns me up

My mother left the Navajo reservation almost as soon as she could. At nineteen, she moved to the city, as many do, to continue her education. In a brown and water-stained copy of an incomplete job application, I found evidence of these early years: From April 4, 1983, until July 1, 1984, she took classes on cultural awareness, health education, and leadership at the “Albuquerque Job Corps Center.” (“It was the best,” a woman who attended the school in the late eighties wrote in a recent Google review. “I will always remember the good times I had.”) For work experience, my mother found part-time jobs in retail at Kirtland Air Force Base; as a file clerk at the “Albuquerque Rehab. Med. Center”; and as a typist at the “New Mexico State Labor Com.,” a position she held for only a month.

In August, my mother moved to Prescott, Arizona, and began working as a waitress at the “Palace Hotel Restaurant,” where my parents met. My father told me they met at the Hotel St. Michael, which was not true, but my father always loved the sound of his own name.

My father worked for his brother’s computer company as a traveling technician. Those were his glittering days: He charged expensive rental cars to disposable credit cards and drove back and forth across the country. He gave the keys to his cars and hotel rooms to the homeless and traveling people he met. He dropped acid in the desert and once, he claimed, met a man entirely surrounded by a golden aura—Jesus Christ himself.

The way my father told their story, I always believed my parents fell in love quickly. That after those early smoke-filled nights, she left with him when he returned to Florida, where I was born in the summer of 1986. But the application I found was dated March 27, 1985, a few months after she quit her job in Prescott and moved back to New Mexico. The reason given: “Looking for Another type of job.” 

When I asked my father how my mother got to Florida, he said she called him months after they first met. “I could come see you,” she said. 

When I called Eileen to tell her our mother was dying, I wasn’t sure what words to use. I repeated the doctor’s words: Sick. Heart attack. Nonresponsive. Very, very sick. 

She asked, from a distance, what I meant. 

Eileen and I were not good sisters to each other. We never held each other, and we didn’t end conversations with love. But in that moment, I would have given anything to take her in my arms, to give her some small comfort. “Her heart doesn’t work anymore,” I told her. “She’s not going to get better.” 

“What?” My sister’s voice edged on anger, an anger I had always feared. 

“She’s dying,” I said, simply, and then listened as her anger dropped into heavy, wracking sobs. I couldn’t take my words back, and I couldn’t think of anything else to say. All I could do was listen to her cry until she finally decided to hang up. 

She called me a few hours later. Her voice sounded like smoke rising, faint and curling. She was high. She asked if I planned to go down to Florida. 

I had been sitting in front of my computer with flights mapped out, but I hadn’t been able to convince myself to buy a ticket. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go. 

“Someone has to be with her,” Eileen said. She was somewhere in Montana, and she said she would try to buy a bus ticket, but she worried she wouldn’t make it to Florida in time. 

The walls of my room were painted cornflower blue. 

“I’ll go,” I promised. 

“You can’t go down there alone,” she said, but we both knew I would. “I’m sorry, Danielle,” she added, beginning to cry again. “I’m sorry.” 

A few months after my mother moved to South Florida, she was pregnant with me. My father claimed she could get pregnant off a toilet seat. My father’s mother convinced her to keep the baby, and she offered them a two-bedroom apartment in a building she owned on Nokomis Avenue, a chalk-white dirt road. 

Our neighbors were inconstant. My grandmother’s tenants were as poor as our neighborhood, and no one seemed to stay for long. She liked to tell the story of one of her tenants who dragged all his furniture, even the refrigerator, onto the lawn in the middle of the day. She couldn’t get a reason out of him—he talked nonsense, raving about who knew what, so she called an ambulance. Later she found out his rotting teeth were the cause of his madness, but she found the story funny and laughed each time she told it. 

I was too young to remember most of our time in that apartment, but in my mother’s things I find a soft paper envelope labeled with her neat script: “Birthday Negatives, July 28, 1987.” When the pictures were taken, I had just turned a year old. In some of the photographs, I wear a white jumper; in others, only a diaper. Over one shoulder I carry my favorite pink blanket, whose corner will rough and wear from the constant rub of a finger soothed by its exposed stitch. My mother and my father and my grandmother, Evelyn, are all here. 

The way my father tells those early years, my mother was the one who hit him. Angry-drunk, she whipped him with the cord of an alarm clock, and then she called the cops. My mother and the neighbors and I stood in our gravel driveway and watched the police chase my father down the road, around the block. The dust settled soft and white. 

The way my father tells it, my mother was wrong and the police were wrong and my memories were wrong, because I did not remember the violence the way he wanted me to. I remember my father’s shadow in the doorway in the moments before he threw my mother to the floor. The way she curled up under the kitchen table and stayed there, sobbing, even after he was gone. She told me to get rid of his beer. I pulled the chair over to the sink and dutifully poured each can down the drain. 

My mother stayed for years after that fight, after many fights, but I remember one of her early leavings. She took my sister and me to the women’s shelter at the Salvation Army. The light was all cream and yellow. We caught head lice from the shelter’s temporary beds. My grandmother convinced my mother to go back to my father, her son, the way I imagine she always did. Once home, my mother washed our long hair with the special shampoos and picked the nits off our scalps with a comb, but my father, impatient, went to the store and bought a new hair buzzer. I watched him lift the buzzer from its polystyrene cradle. I cried as he cut off all my hair. 

Florida is unchanged and true to memory: fulgid sunlight and flat horizons, broken only by palm trees and scrubby pines. The parking lot at the JFK Medical Center sprawls confusingly, and I circle it twice. After I park, I follow a couple into the building, but as I step onto the sidewalk, a small bush rustles, and a curly-tailed lizard lands on the ground in front of me. I jump back, both startled and embarrassed. I caught lizards as a kid—even wore them like earrings, their small mouths clamped to my earlobes, their thin bodies wiggling against my neck—but this place, this lizard and I, have become strangers. I watch him for a breathless moment: his mouth open, his sides heaving. Then he darts across my path and disappears into another small shrub. 

I enter the lobby through a pair of tinted glass doors and approach the officer at the front desk. He positions me in front of a camera and prints my badge on a sticky label, then directs me to an elevator down the hall. Inside the elevator, I inspect the photo on the badge: a grainy shadow you might call me. 

I follow his directions out the elevator and down the hall to the critical care unit, quiet and cold. The curtain in front of my mother’s room is open. Standing beside her bed, a nurse delicately washes her face. 

I waver at the threshold, and when the nurse glances in my direction, she startles, as if I were a lizard landing on her path. “Who are you?” she asks. 
“I’m her daughter,” I say. 

The nurse frowns and shakes her head. “We were told she didn’t have any family. Nobody’s been here to see her.”

Her words land sharp and heavy on my heart. I glance at my mother’s face, wrinkled and sun worn. Who did they imagine my mother to be? Another homeless woman, unloved and forgotten? Slowly, I walk toward her and rest my hands on the rail of her bed. “I came as soon as I could,” I say—in her defense, and mine.

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