By Tom Swoffer

Johnnie watched the hawks circling above the patch of woods behind the rusty, singlewide trailer where he and his mother lived. Recon planes, he imagined, spying on the dark forces surrounding him. Hidden like guerrilla warriors in the woods, unseen underneath the darkest recesses of the trailer--but Johnnie knew they were there. Powerful forces: he could sense their army growing stronger each day.

He slowly opened the screen door, careful not to wake his mother, sleeping off her usual hangover. Her evening "friend" was gone, sneaking out in the middle of the night like they usually did. Johnnie stealthily crept across the porch, down the creaky steps, and onto the dusty patch of ground that was no-man's land between him and the enemy that seemed to have tormented Johnnie all eleven years, five months, and sixteen days of his life.

At the rear of the trailer was an old shed, listing precariously from neglect. Johnnie kneeled down at the door-less entrance, reached inside, and pulled a large tin toolbox towards him. His mother once told Johnnie that the toolbox had belonged to his father, a man Johnnie could not remember. He opened it and carefully pulled back the tattered rag that covered the gun: heavy and ominous, waiting like the avenging angel for the war Johnnie knew was imminent. A .32 semi-automatic one of his mother's "friends" had drunkenly left behind one time. Johnnie had found it on the floor underneath his mother's bed when he was snooping in her room--way back when he was still curious about her visitors.

Johnnie had never told anyone about the gun. It was his private secret. He had removed the bullets, four of them, and practiced squeezing the trigger. Like they said on TV, "Squeeze, don't pull the trigger." He'd seen enough boys playing around with guns at school to have learned how to clean and oil the barrel, how to operate the safety, and how load and unload the clip.

The thought always made him laugh because it reminded him of all the times his mother harped on him: "Why ain't you doing your homework? You ain't gonna learn nothin' watching that damn TV all the time!"

"Hey, Johnnie! What ya'doin? Lookin' at your dirty magazines?"

Johnnie quickly flipped the rag across the gun and turned around. Out on the road in front of the trailer, Kyle Roach, Timmy Deveraux, and Kami Kaltzer straddled their bikes. "He don't need to look at dirty magazines," Kami giggled, a glint in her hazel eyes that'd been beginning to make Johnnie feel tingly lately, "he can watch his dirty mother."

The three kids howled and then sped off down the road, leaving a wispy plume of dust in their wake. Johnnie was glad he rarely went to school anymore. If everyone considered him nothing more than trailer-trash, so be it.

Johnnie closed the toolbox and pushed it back into the recessed shadows of the shed. He stood up and looked out towards the road, watching the dust sparkle in the still morning air. "The enemy army, fleeing before Johnnie's superior firepower," he imagined a TV newscaster saying.

He began marching back and forth across the back yard, kicking his legs up high and straight--just like that army did in those old movies--pretending he had sentry duty. When he grew tired of marching, he sat back down on the porch. He felt thirsty and wanted to go inside and get a drink of water but wasn't sure if his mother had gotten up yet. He hated to be around her right after she got out of bed, when her guilt and hangover seethed with her bitterest rancor.

He listened for footsteps, not daring to turn around in case she might be looking out the kitchen window. He swore he could feel her eyes staring at him. But there wasn't any noise. His mother certainly was not one to sneak around the house.

And yet the feeling of being watched persisted.

Slowly, he turned his head towards the kitchen window, and what he saw sent a shiver slicing down his spine, as potent as a lighting bolt shot directly from heaven.

In the window stood a man, staring directly at him. A dark man with a shiny, bald head, the color of the deepest, richest chocolate Johnnie could ever imagine.

Johnnie knew his eyes were round and bug-eyed, like some kind of cartoon character's, and he felt paralyzed by the menace projecting from the man's steely gaze. Too scared to cry out.

As quickly as it had come, his fear subsided. The strange man continued to look out the window, though he no longer was staring at Johnnie. He wasn't even sure if the man had seen him initially, his stare had been so penetrating- as if Johnnie weren't even here, sitting on the porch not five feet away from the window.

He found the strength to stand up, though his knees felt like gelatin, his stomach a bouncing ball of fright and excitement. Taking a deep breath before reaching out to grab the chilly aluminum door handle in his sweaty, grimy hand, Johnnie thumbed the handle and pulled the door open. He stood a moment before entering the trailer, expecting his mother to yell at him like she constantly did: "Close that damn door before all the bugs get in, Johnnie!"

He entered the kitchen, and the house was silent. The man still stood at the kitchen sink with a glass of water in his hand. He was tall and solid, wearing baggy orange pants and a white muscle-tee shirt that accented his dark skin as well as an assortment of strange tattoos on his arms and shoulders.

Johnnie stared at the water in the glass, glinting with sunlight coming through the window. He felt parched; at any moment, he knew, he was going to die of thirst.

"You need a drink of water?" the man asked, his voice flat and mean.

"Yes, sir," Johnnie managed to stammer.

"Here," the man said, holding the glass out towards Johnnie.

Johnnie wished his feet to begin moving towards the stranger, feeling as though he were marching across the widest expanse of desert on Earth and Mars combined. When he clutched the glass he was struck by the contrast between the deep brown of the man's hand and his own pale white. When the man pulled his hand away, Johnnie felt a twinge of disappointment. He was certain the dark imprint of the man's hand would remain etched on the glass forever.

"What's a matter? You don't wanna drink outta that glass now?"

Johnnie looked into the man's eyes, clear and intense, full of a masculine vitality Johnnie recognized instantly as something he needed to possess if he ever wanted to conquer those dark forces. He raised the glass to his mouth and drank it down in one long gulp, his eyes fixed on the man's, feeling the strength entering him.

Johnnie set the glass on the counter, the man watching him carefully. "You here alone?" the man asked.

Johnnie quickly glanced towards his mother's bedroom before lowering his eyes to the floor. "Yeah," he tried to lie.

The man stepped lightly over to the bedroom door and peeked in for a moment, shrugged and then came back to the kitchen table and sat down. "Your daddy at work'r somethin'?" he asked Johnnie.

Johnnie had been watching the man move through the kitchen but then cast his eyes downward again when the man asked him about his father. Shame pushed tears close to the surface, but he fought them back and mumbled, "Ain't got no dad."

The man smirked. "No need t'be 'shamed, kid. I never had no father, neither. Look where it's got me."

Johnnie looked back up at the man. He had a forced smile stretched across his face, and a weary sadness in his eyes that Johnnie recognized immediately.

"You gonna rob us?" Johnnie asked.

The look in the man's eyes turned harsh again. "Just used your phone to call a friend. You and your mama be cool, and nothin' gonna happen here. You understand, boy?"

"Yes," Johnnie mumbled, a twinge of disappointment in his voice. He knew this strange man wasn't one of his mother's visitors, and Johnnie wished he'd stay for a while--unlike them. Johnnie felt that there were things he could learn from him, essential things about life, maybe.

"What you starin' at, boy?"

Johnnie blushed, but kept his eyes on the man. "I weren't starin', mister."

The man chuckled as harsh as the look in his eyes. "What your name?"


This time the man laughed easily. "Johnnie, now if that ain't some white boy name." Then as quickly as it came, the ease was gone out of his face. The man looked out the window with a distant, somber gaze. "People call me Luke."

Johnnie was about to say hello, but the man continued talking to the kitchen window. "Luke the Spook, that stupid fuckin' honkie called me. Boy, I cold cocked that sonna'bitch so hard his head bounced against the brick wall like a basketball. That old white head cracked open like it were some kinda watermelon. Put me in juvie till I were eighteen for that one. Weren't even my fault. His damn fault for callin' me that name."

Johnnie tried to imagine a person's head exploding like a dropped watermelon. Timmy Deveraux sometimes called black people spooks. Johnnie wished Timmy were here right now so Luke could crack open Timmy's stupid head. Johnnie would sure laugh seeing that happen.

"You want something to eat, Luke?" Johnnie asked.

"Naw," Luke automatically answered, but then he quickly changed his mind.

"You know how to cook?"

"Toaster waffles. Sometimes hamburgers, if there is any."

"Your mama don't cook you no dinner?"

Johnnie wasn't sure how to answer. He didn't want to embarrass his own mother in front of a stranger, even Luke. "Sometimes."

Luke stared at Johnnie for a moment before he said, "Yeah, I got you, Johnnie boy. How old're you?"

"Almost twelve."

"Sheet, boy. I'uz twelve when I punched that fat ol'honkie t'doomsday."

Johnnie's eyes bugged wide with awe and wonder.

"How old your mama?"

Johnnie realized he really had no idea. To him she was sometimes old, though when she had her visitors around she reminded him of the girls in high school. "Don't know," Johnnie said, "thirty, or maybe forty. But I don't think she's that old."

Luke glanced over towards the bedroom door. "My momma weren't barely fifteen when she have me."

Suddenly there was a thumping sound from the bedroom, followed by stumbling footsteps. Both males watched her enter the kitchen, her frizzy dishwater blond hair disheveled, her rough, pale hands rubbing away the last vestiges of sleep from her heavy lidded eyes.

The two of them watched her, both with the same look of spite, fascination and their own brand of longing. She looked up, confusion in her eyes for a moment when she saw Luke. Johnnie could tell his mother was trying to remember if this was the man who'd brought her home from the tavern last night. He glanced over to see if Luke recognized this look, too, but instead saw something even more frightening: a hunger in Luke's eyes as he stared at Johnnie's mother standing there in her bare feet, wearing little more than cut-off jeans and a bra, one frayed strap hanging off her shoulder.

Johnnie's mother swiped her hair back as she finally decided this man in her house was a stranger. "What do you want?" she spat, her confusion gradually being replaced by a look of hunger, too, as she studied the gang-symbol tattoos spread across the stranger's broad, dark shoulders.

Johnnie watched the changing look in her eyes, and at that moment he wanted to crush her head like a watermelon.

"Don't worry. I just gonna be here a little while. Friend'll be here soon, and then I be gone," Luke said contemptuously.

Johnnie's mother nervously pulled the bra strap back onto her shoulder. "Why here?"

"Cop car takin' me ta' Monroe ran off the road not far from here. Guess that fat ol'fuck must'a had a heart attack, or somethin'. Got myself loose and started walkin'," Luke said flatly. "Saw your place, half a mile away from everybody else. Somethin' tell me you don't get many visitors. Even in a trailer trash town like this. Least not in the day time."

Embarrassment flushed up into Johnnie's face; his fists tightened into knots, small but hard. Even Luke had no right to talk like that.

His mother smirked at Luke. "I need a eye-opener and some coffee," she said, walking over to the stove and turning on a burner under the kettle. "You gonna rob us, too? If you are, good luck!"

"Don't look like there much to rob here?" Luke asked, with an undertone that Johnnie recognized most of the men used with his mother.

His mother leaned against the stove, staring unashamedly at Luke. "You gotta name?"

"His name's Luke," Johnnie blurted out, "you should put some clothes on, ma."

Luke and his mother burst out laughing. "He killed someone, ma. When he was only twelve, same age as me!" Johnnie cried.

"That right, little man." Luke said calmly, looking between Johnnie and his mother. " They say I'a three time loser now. If they ever get me in a jail they gonna throw away th'key." His eyes grew darker, more menacing than at any time since he'd been in their house. "And that ain't gonna happen. You get me?"

The kettle shrieked, and all three of them jumped. Johnnie's mother quickly took it off the burner and then said, "Suppose I probably should get dressed before I have my coffee."

She hurried past Luke's hungry stare as Johnnie called out, "I'll make it for ya, ma."

When she had returned, Johnnie saw that his mother had merely added a large tee shirt that only seemed to make Luke look hungrier. She took the cup of coffee from Johnnie and sat down at the table, across from Luke. "You sure no one saw you coming here?" she asked him, sipping her coffee while staring at him.

He returned her stare. "Suppose I can't say positive for sure. You got snoopy neighbors?"

Johnnie watched his mother turn towards him. He felt her eyes searching him, as if he held the key to all that had been lost in her brief life. She turned back towards Luke and said, "Gave up tryin' to please people round here long time ago. Guess you'll be safe enough, long's you don't hang round too long."

"My friend'll be here in a couple hours."

"You said you was a three time loser. You ever kill anyone else?"

The thought of Luke's having killed three men overwhelmed Johnnie. Once you had to start fighting the dark forces, didn't it ever end, he wondered.

"No. One time got caught robbin' a store. Had a gun in my pocket, weren't even gonna use the damn thing. Now some bitch be sayin' I been beatin' her around."

Johnnie's mother looked at Luke warily. "I don't take much to men that try to beat me around, either."

"I don't hit women. She just kept pushing me, is'all," Luke responded, and Johnnie could see that Luke's eyes were daring his mother to contradict him.

Johnnie saw a sparkle rise into his mother's eyes that he could see thawing the coldness in Luke's stare. She and Luke started looking at each other like his mother and all her other visitors always did. And though he knew what this power his mother had over men was called, he was just now beginning to understand some of it. Like whenever Kami looked at him in that way she could, when she wanted to.

Even before his mother told him he should go outside and play, Johnnie wanted to get out of the house.

Slowly, Johnnie marched out to the patch of woods, like an army in retreat. He sat down against a tree and stared at the trailer. Behind it he could see thick black storm clouds forming on the horizon. Wind was beginning to rustle the tops of the trees, and all the birds were chirping excitedly. Johnnie listened intently for messages from the dark force that he now felt coalescing inside himself. He looked over at the shed, shadowed by the trailer in the late morning sunlight.

When he crept back inside the trailer twenty minutes later, Johnnie could hear the two of them rustling on the bed in his mother's bedroom. He stepped over to the doorway, as lightly as he'd seen Luke step earlier.

He peeked inside. They rolled around on the bed, naked and entwined, rich dark chocolate and pale while cream. Johnnie gripped the gun tightly and raised it towards the bed. Neither Luke nor his mother noticed him in their furious lovemaking.

Johnnie squeezed the trigger, closed his eyes, and kept squeezing till all four bullets had been expelled. He pressed his eyes tight as he could, but still the tears came, thick and heavy. He had wanted to feel so brave, and he felt so afraid. And so alone.