My name is Angel Michael Gabriel Lord–at least that’s the name they gave me. I go by Mike. I grew up in the Mojave Desert—in Wonder Valley. I left here when I was twelve, bounced around a lot after that. Me and my brother Jerry, we lived here and there, then I ended up in jail. My first stint was when I was eighteen: I got nine months on a grand theft felony. Then I did a few more months for possession with intent to sell. And I got a few weeks for breaking and entering–got caught sleeping in an abandoned building. Now I’m in a homeless shelter.
I was born on February 8th, 1988, at least that’s what it says on my birth certificate. I got it when I was eighteen. For a long time, though, I wasn’t sure if I was three years older or three years younger than what it says. Well, I knew, I always knew, I guess, but they kept telling me different things. I guess they thought they’d get paid more for me if I was younger. I was nine–they told me I was six—when they first tried to get a birth certificate for me. February 8th was always my birthday, though, I know that. I’ve always known that.
I wasn’t born in Wonder Valley, I know that, too. We moved there when I was two, after Rainbow died—well, it was because Rainbow died. Rainbow was my other brother. I don’t really remember him dying, but I remember little flashes of it, you know, the day he died, he was sick or something. I remember him screaming and crying and then–it’s hard to say, it’s just little flashbacks. They told everyone Rainbow died from eating drywall, but that ain’t what did it. He might have eaten it a couple of times, but so did we, me and Jerry, and it never killed us. But Rainbow just wasn’t that strong.
After he died, they burned him in the burn barrel. I saw the fire. I remember seeing them, seeing Rajohn, Manaya and Inya with the fire in the trashcan. I know now that they were cremating my brother, but I don’t know if I knew it then. I was only two. And then we moved to Wonder Valley.
After Rainbow died, they destroyed all the pictures of him. We weren’t allowed to say his name or talk about him–Rainbow was to be forgotten. But me and Jerry always talked about him. Jerry told me all about him–he was seven when Rainbow died, he remembered him. Rainbow was six, but we were all really small for our ages.
I don’t remember much about Wonder Valley, outside of our compound. I remember the mountains, how they would burn like fire in the sunset, and I remember the saltcedar trees that walled us in. I remember popcorn. And reading. I’ve always read—I read my first book at three, Danny and the Dinosaur. My sister, Aesha, taught me to read, though after I was about seven or so, all we were ever allowed to read was the Bible. Me and Jerry, we’d read the Bible all day, every day. We’d read it out loud, so RaJohn could hear us. I read the whole King James Bible, front to back, probably thirty times; I’d start at the beginning and read to the end. Genesis and Exodus were my favorites, and I loved Daniel and Ruth–any time there was action going on. But some of the books were so boring. Isaiah was boring to me, and Numbers, oh I hated that one. Sometimes I’d skip over them, skip to Judges, but usually not. Not that he would know, he’d never know, but it felt like a sin to skip a book.
We’d read, me and Jerry, while listening to the radio. We loved music. We loved that radio. Our sisters, Aesha and Morningstar, they controlled it, but nobody really ever touched it, it just stayed on all the time. Sometimes when a good song came on, we’d read softer so we could hear it. At night this show Love Line would be on, Love Line with Dr. Drew and Adam Corolla. It was a show where kids called in with their problems. Dr. Drew would give them advice about their girlfriends or their parents or drugs or whatever. Mostly, I guess, I didn’t know what they were talking about, but I like their voices coming through the speaker as if from another world. I’d fall asleep to that show every night.
When I woke in the morning, I’d listen to what the women were saying in the kitchen. That’s how I knew what was going on. We couldn’t see anything from the room, but I didn’t have to see. I always knew what time it was every day by the sun reflecting off the windows in the room. I could tell who was walking by the sound of their feet, the popping of their ankles. If I heard anything, I knew who it was.
In the morning we would listen for the sound of the pots and pans. If we could hear pots and pans and plates we knew we’re going to eat. We ate bread and rice, mostly, but we had other things. They never gave us fruit, really, but occasionally we ate vegetables, I remember that. Celery and carrots. Greens. Honestly, we ate everything; we were always hungry. We ate wildflowers, sometimes, we ate sand, we ate drywall, I mean, we ate anything to fill our stomachs.
RaJohn fed us himself. RaJohn, that’s what he named himself, that’s what we called him. We could call him RaJohn or Lord or God, but we could never call him dad. We weren’t allowed to look at him, either, not in the eye. If he caught us, he’d beat us. RaJohn was the one who cooked for us, he cooked all the time, loved to cook. He would feed us himself. We were supposed to get food every day, but sometimes he’d forget. I figure he’d forget because he couldn’t eat himself, couldn’t swallow or had no stomach or something. He cooked and tasted the food, chewed it up, and then he’d spit it out. I remember him cooking lobster, oh my god, it smelled so good. He chewed it up and spit it out. Then he would vomit anything he swallowed accidentally. Jerry said it was because he was wounded in Vietnam, shot in the stomach or something. Or so the story goes. He met Inya–that’s what he named her— back in Saint Louis after the war. They had a band together and came out to L.A. to try to make it in music.
The story was always confusing to me. They say Inya and RaJohn moved across the street from another couple, a husband and wife. RaJohn called the wife Manaya. Manaya is my mother, though all I was ever allowed to call her was Manaya. She is a pixie, barely five feet tall, with long blond hair and tight, squinting blue eyes. She had Aesha, my sister, by then–she was the daughter of that other man. Morningstar is Inya and RaJohn’s, she’s five months younger than Aesha. Together, the two families moved to Florida, then months later returned to California. A short time later Manaya’s husband died mysteriously; he drowned in a river. Jerry told me this too.
Manaya stayed with RaJohn, he took her as a wife. They lived as a family from then on, RaJohn and Manaya and Inya and Aesha and Morningstar. Jerry, Rainbow, and me came along later. There may have been others, I don’t know. Neighbors say they heard things over the years, babies crying and stuff. One says she saw Inya pregnant, but then, a week or so later, she was beat up, and no longer expecting.
The neighbors never saw us, though, me and Jerry, that’s what they said. They didn’t even know we existed. Neighbors and friends came into the house, I know that, I could hear them. They’d come to hear him play guitar, play guitar and preach. RaJohn played guitar a lot—every day. After he finished his kung fu exercises, he’d play for hours on end, crunching, searing guitar riffs, Santana, Hendrix, all them. He had a band with some friends, he taught them how to play, Inya sometimes played keyboards and sang. We could hear them, from the room, we could hear them play and talk. I knew them by the sound of their voices, by their footsteps, the popping of their ankles. I imagined them sitting at his feet as he played, but I never saw them then either.
When he was playing guitar, though, he couldn’t hear us reading, so sometimes me and Jerry would stop just to be bad. We always tried to slip something bad in for the day, give us something to talk about at night. We had to ask to go to the bathroom, you know; we had to call to Inya to take us outside to dig a hole to go. From there, we would sneak little things back to the room, rocks and sticks, things to mess around with. We’d try to make a fire or something like they do in the Bible. We never got caught—well, sometimes Inya would catch us. She always threatened to tell him, but usually she wouldn’t. It was Inya who was responsible for us mostly. Her and our sisters. Not Manaya. Even though Manaya was our mother, she wasn’t allowed to talk to us or see us. We never saw her, not unless she felt she could get away with it. Only sometimes, sometimes she would make us sweet milk or something—oh, she did her little sneaky bad things every once in a while, too. But it was Inya who got us up in the morning, wake us up, readjust our chains to the day position.
They chained us differently in the day time and the night time. At night they chained our arms behind our backs and our feet to a little bench at the foot of the bed. Sometimes they’d just chain our legs together, so we’d just slip the chains under our legs and get our hands in front. We’d have to put them back in the morning before Inya came in so we wouldn’t get caught. At first they would tie us up with ropes, but we got out of those, so they switched to chains, chains with heavy links that they thought we couldn’t get out of. In the morning, Inya moved the chains. She’d run the chain from our arms behind our backs up around our necks, then stretch it down to our feet so we were hunched over. That’s how we would spend the day reading. We’d turn the page with our tongues usually. Or sometimes with a foot. Or wait for the wind to turn the page or someone to come into the room. It was difficult, but if you don’t figure it out, you read the same page all day.
If RaJohn chained us up himself, though, it was bad. He’d chain us chicken wing. He’d chain our arms behind our backs, but pull our hands up as far up to our necks as possible, our elbows splayed out like stubs. It hurt way more. And in that position, we couldn’t move. And we would have to read the same page all day.
The chains were supposed to be punishment. If he caught us being bad, he would say, “OK, this time you’re in trouble for a year.” Or, “this time you’re in trouble for two years.” We were chained until he said we could be let go. And it did seem like it was years at a time. When he finally let us free, it would only be a couple of days before he’d find another reason to chain us up again. His reasons, though, made no sense, even at the time we didn’t know what we did right or wrong. I was terrified of him, RaJohn, just his presence. He would torture us, taunt us, threaten us. He would chew and spit his food out and make us eat it. He made me eat shit. He heated a metal cross and branded me and Jerry on the backs of our hands. He beat me, beat both of us, beat all of us, I guess. I was always anticipating a beating because he would save it, save the beating. He’d tell you “I haven’t forgotten you, I still owe you an ass-whooping.” We lived in constant fear.
It wasn’t always like that. I remember when I was really little, like three or four, me and him were close. I was his little buddy. He called me Slick, I would sit at his feet all the time while he played guitar. Sit at his feet and listen to him play. But then something happened, I don’t know what. I just remember it got bad, really bad. I was five or six, I guess. I don’t really know. They kept us in a travel trailer beside the house at first, but Jerry rammed his head through the window to escape. It was then that he first chained us.
From then on, we only got out of our chains when he was in a good mood. It was a long time ago the last time he let me free. I remember he had let me run around and play outside with my sisters, but then something happened, his mood turned, I don’t know. He had a little slot machine, a little mini slot machine that sat on the table. I really liked it. I remember I played with it, he let me. Then when I was outside playing with my sister, he broke it. I don’t know if he broke the arm off on purpose, or on accident, but he broke the arm off. Aesha saw him do it. He called me inside and asked me why I broke the arm off and I told him I didn’t do it, I hadn’t touched it. I remember the beating that followed, it was one of the worst beatings of my life. I didn’t move a muscle the whole time, I didn’t make a peep. It was one of the worst beatings and I didn’t make a peep, not a sound. I remember that. And then he chained me up worse than ever. And he threw away the key.
Not everyone can take the kind of beating we took. He had the Rod of Correction, a fiberglass rod wrapped in duct tape. That’s what he’d beat us with. Not everyone can take a beating like that. Rainbow couldn’t take it. He was sick when they beat him, Jerry remembered Inya kicking him, him screaming and crying, then RaJohn beat him with a board until he died. They cremated him in the barrel behind the house and pounded his bones and teeth to a powder and dumped him in the desert.
They beat us worse than they ever beat Rainbow, though, I’m sure of that. And over time, as the years went by, things got worse. I think it was drugs. He always smoked pot, made us smoke it with him once, but then he got into speed, meth. I remember sometimes he would be up all night playing guitar. All night. For days on end. Of course, I didn’t know what it was in those days, all I knew was that he would play the guitar and preach and rage all night possessed by some demon or spirit, then disappear to his bedroom for three or four days. Then we could relax a little, breath again. We might get a little bit of freedom, then. My sisters might take us out for a walk. They might take us to the mailbox. We might get sweet milk from Manaya. Then he’d come out of the bedroom and everyone would be tense again.
My sisters say they had it bad, that they had it worse than me and Jerry, but I don’t know how they could think that. They had more freedom, they were older and could do what they wanted, pretty much. They had chores and stuff, I guess, had to feed the chickens and goats, I don’t know, but for the most part they took care of themselves. Aesha even had a puppy. For a while. We always had dogs, big dogs. Pit bulls and shepherd mixes. I love dogs, I always have. They will always be your friends. If they know you’re hurting or sad, they’ll come and lie by you. They’re just the best friends you could ever have. And Aesha had one of her own, a puppy. She had it until he shot it. He said he didn’t want the extra mouth to feed. He hung it up from a tree and shot it with his crossbow. Shot the cats too. He made us watch.
Maybe that dog’s why Aesha ran away, maybe it’s the other things. She was like fourteen, I guess, the first time she did it. But he found her, and he whooped her and tied her up, but a week or two later he let her go. She ran away like two or three times after that, but he always found her and brought her back. He’d whoop her and tie her up, but then he’d let her free. She was about sixteen or so when he moved her to her own bedroom. He cut a hole in the wall so he could watch her; he wanted to be able to walk by and see what she was doing, because he didn’t want anyone to have any privacy. It wasn’t a sexual thing, you know, he didn’t need to cut a hole in the wall for that. He’d just walk in there when he wanted and do what he wanted to her. He made my mother watch.
We’re all his family, it was better to keep it in the family, that’s what he said. It’s something he always thought about, I guess. He planned for me to marry my sister, Morningstar, for example. She is a Gemini and I’m an Aquarius; that’s a perfect match, he said. Keep it in the family. It was wrong–wrong for others, but we had different rules for our family.
But I knew it was wrong. And I worried about it. I worried he’d make my mother do to me what he made her do to Jerry. Jerry told RaJohn he wanted a girlfriend, RaJohn said he didn’t need a girlfriend, we’d keep it in the family. He was on speed that night. Maybe. Probably. I don’t know, I don’t remember. I just remember Manaya, our own mother, came to the room and got Jerry, then Jerry came back. He was smiling. He told me everything. What he did with Manaya. What RaJohn made Manaya do to him. Jerry told me everything. And I believed him. We had different rules in our family.
That happened right after Aesha ran away again. Morningstar had left home for college. Morningstar got special privileges: he never beat her, never touched her. Unlike us she went to the dentist, eye doctor, had physicals and all that. She was his daughter. She got her GED, then moved out, moved in with a boyfriend, I think. He just let her go. After Morningstar left, Aesha took off. She left at night and never came back. She went to the neighbor’s, that’s what I found out later. She had met a boy who lived next door and she ran away over there and they hid her. Then the family moved away with her. I didn’t know all that at the time, I didn’t know where she had gone, what happened to her in the house, what RaJohn had done to her, how he’d gotten her pregnant and given her poison herbs to force her to abort. Then she left. I didn’t know who she was with. I thought she’d be back. He’ll find her, I thought, he always finds her and she’ll be back. And I knew things would be way worse for us until he found her. But he never did.
Then things got really bad for us. He feared our escape. He kept us chained. He beat us more. We seldom got food. Even the days he kept to his bedroom were no reprieve. With our sisters gone, no one took us out.
I remember one day he was going out, to the VA Hospital, I think, then somewhere else. Me and Jerry knew this, we must have known, and we had planned to be bad. My arms had gotten smaller and I could slip out of the chains and I could undo Jerry’s where they were attached. Then Jerry would run into the other room and turn the TV on so it was just static. Jerry would mess with everybody, even RaJohn. I was afraid of him, but Jerry wasn’t afraid of anybody. Jerry would turn on the TV then run back in the room and start reading again real loud, and they come in and be “How did this TV come on?” They never suspected it was Jerry. They wouldn’t have thought it was us, you know, because we were chained up, there was no way we could have done it. They never suspected we were getting out.
The day RaJohn and Manaya went to the VA Hospital, Jerry was bad. He got out of his chains and made a prank call. We had been listening to Love Line; kids called in and talked about their problems. They said call 911 if you have a problem. I didn’t know what that was, that it was anything– it was just a number we heard on the radio. But me and Jerry talked about it, about that number. It was daytime and the sun was out and Inya was in the bedroom and Jerry called 911 and hung up. But they called back. Or someone did. Inya answered the phone. She told them it was a mistake or something–I don’t think she knew it was us. We went back to reading. Later that night Jerry called 911 again, and I guess this time he didn’t hang up. He was being bad and I was going to be bad with him, but it was late at night and I was tired. I fell asleep. But I heard Jerry talking, talking to someone. At first I thought he was talking to Inya, I thought we were in trouble for sure, because he came back to the room really scared. It was like a dream. But he told me he called 911, he talked to them like those kids do on Love Line. He told me people were coming. We were scared. People were coming and RaJohn wasn’t here and we were in big trouble. Jerry knocked on Inya’s door and told her what he had done. When she saw him out of his chains she started freaking out. She grabbed us and dragged us to the hose outside. She scrubbed us, washed the chain marks off our wrists, or tried to. I thought she cleaned it all off, the dirt and filth and chain marks, I thought she had washed it all away. And the people would come and RaJohn wouldn’t be there and we’d be in big trouble.
The people came. They flooded through the door, surrounded the house, a dozen cars and a helicopter above us. White lights, and red and blue. I was scared. He was going to come home and he was going to be really mad and he was going to beat us and beat us. They took us outside and put us in a car. We waited there. Then I saw a truck, their truck, RaJohn’s truck drive up the road and approach the house. He was back. We’d been bad and he was going to beat us, this time he might kill us. But instead they took him away. They took us to the police station and I never saw him again. I read later on the internet that he had on a Batman shirt. I never saw his Batman shirt. I didn’t know who Batman was.
* * *
They told me later that John Lamont Davis died in custody a few months after his arrest. Suicide was the official cause. But he wasn’t the type. Carrie–Manaya, my mother–was committed to an institution. She suffered Shared Psychotic Disorder, Dependent Personality Disorder, substance abuse, and others. Inya, back to Faye, did a few years in prison. My sisters went to college, got married. Aesha—Cheri–has a daughter. I’m proud of my sisters, really proud of how they succeeded in life. They overcame so much. They put it past them. They moved on. After they took us from the house I didn’t see them again, not until years later. I didn’t want to see them, I guess. I thought they were mad at me. For doing what we did, for calling the police, I thought they would be mad. They weren’t. They hugged me.
I had never been outside Wonder Valley before, had hardly ever been outside the saltcedar walls of the compound. We had never been to school, never seen a doctor. We didn’t have birth certificates. We were small for our ages, me and Jerry, psychological dwarfism, the doctors called it. Jerry was seventeen when he called 911, I was twelve, but we had to argue with people to convince them of that. They sent us to foster care. A few months later, out there, wherever we were, it snowed. I remember looking out the foster home window at the park next door. It was covered with white. It was beautiful, all clean and pure and white.
We stayed together, me and Jerry. They moved us a lot that first year, group homes and foster homes. Lots of other kids. The kids were tough in those homes, they were abusive, bullies. We were small; they teased us, teased Jerry. They said things about us, about our family, the things we did weren’t right, they were wrong, they were bad. The things RaJohn made us do, made Jerry do they were bad. They teased us and fought us and Jerry, I don’t know, he just, couldn’t take it, I guess. He jumped in front of a car. He jumped in front of a speeding car and tried to die. But they saved him. They fixed his broken legs, put a metal plate in his head. They took him away, kept him to a hospital, one across the street from where our mother was committed. That’s where he stayed for the rest of his life. They moved me thirty-two more times over the next five years.
I saw him, Jerry, one last time, the day before he died. A year had passed and I missed him. I begged them to let me see him, I needed to see him, I needed to see my brother. They brought him to the home where I was living. We sang songs, songs from the radio we had in the room. I gave him a guitar I got. He was tall then; he had grown more than a foot since I had seen him last. He was doing better. They said he was doing better. The next day someone shot him. And he died.
I read in the newspaper that Jerry had gone to a car show, had received permission to leave the hospital for the day. But he’d become disoriented, lost, it was late at night, and he had wandered into a bad area. He asked a cop for help, but the cop turned him down. The cop, I read, told him he wasn’t a taxi. It was after midnight that a police officer heard a gunshot and found Jerry bleeding on the sidewalk. It was there they pronounced him dead. The newspaper told about his life, our lives, me and Jerry’s. I read about Angel and Yahweh–the names he had given us–imprisoned in a camouflaged desert compound. I read what my father said of us, from jail. We were unruly children, spare the rod, spoil the child. I read about the marks on our bodies, the bruises and lacerations from beatings, the bald spots where the hair had been ripped from out scalps, the feces and urine covering us, the clear evidence of severe abuse spanning years. And I read an interview with my sister, with Morningstar. She said she never saw us chained or beaten. She had moved back east and married and started a new life.
I went to jail right after that. Joy-riding a neighbor kid’s bike, I ditched it instead of returning it. I was a kid in foster care, I had gotten scared. I signed a plea to grand theft and got nine months. I did a few days in jail for sleeping in an abandoned building after I got out, and then a few months for holding someone else’s dope. I hadn’t wanted to snitch, so I took the fall. Misplaced loyalty, I guess, the story of my life. I ended up in a homeless shelter, but that hasn’t worked out either.
I went back out to Wonder Valley. People I didn’t know hugged me. They looked at me, you’re OK, they thought, that’s amazing, I saw it in their eyes. They told me stories of us, of my family, of my sisters, they’d see them walking the paved road to town, twenty miles each way, they said. They’d pick the girls up, they told me, they had to, cruel not to, and they’d take them into town or drive them home. The girls, my sisters, they said, were always together. They said that everyone thought they were younger than they were. They, too, were small for their ages.
I remembered the house when I saw it, I remembered the saltcedar trees, the mountains burning like fire in the sunset. The house had been ransacked, the doors kicked open, stuff scattered everywhere. Her family did it, I’ve heard, my mother’s parents, her brother. Once they found her they wanted her back, she’ll go home to them someday, I guess.
Inside the house, it looks the same, like I remember it, the room, the mattresses, Aesha’s bedroom with the hole cut in the wall. There were tapes scattered on the floor, him playing guitar, his voice, and Inya’s singing. The muffled, crunching guitar licks on the homemade tapes was what I remembered of him from the room. There was a picture of him pasted to the wall, a thin black man with dreadlocks, a petite blond woman, Manaya, my mother, on his shoulders. I never got to look at him before, I hadn’t remembered what he looked like.
Outside of the house everything looked smaller, everything was smaller. I found Danny and the Dinosaur, my first book, tossed in the concrete basin behind the house, the homemade swimming pool I only ever saw filled with trash. Aesha’s stories were there, too, loose leaf pages scattered to the wind. There were shoes, Jerry’s shoes, Morningstar’s books, some toys. I had forgotten about all that, I had forgotten about the toys, I had forgotten that sometimes we had played, sometimes we had laughed, that we were children then, that this was our childhood and this was our home, my only home, the only home I ever really had. This is where we lived, together, me and Jerry, we were here together. If I make it through all this, if I survive this house, if I survive him, it will be because of Jerry, because of my brother, my big brother. I miss you, Jerry. I miss you more than anything.
William Hillyard writes what he calls “human disinterest stories,” stories about people and places that don’t register a blip on the mainstream radar. His subjects have included immigrant day laborers, Tijuana hookers, illegal aliens, and cat hoarders. His current project, Wonder Valley, began as a magazine article that has since been included as “Notable Nonrequired Reading” in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2010. Read more of his work at www.williamhillyard.com.