Johnny is a tough guy. But he’s also an aspiring writer of sorts. I’ve heard the two don’t usually mix—toughness and writers. But somehow, he makes it work. He’ll jot down poems whenever a bolt of inspiration strikes his shaved head. A tragic event is almost always the catalyst to his art, always has been. And in our lives, tragedy was a tenant that didn’t pay rent. Johnny has always been my compass for right and wrong, since Papa worked two jobs and was drunk most of the time he wasn’t working. Momma died when I was two. Papa would often tell me I was an idiot and a mistake. Which is probably true, since I am twelve years younger than Johnny, who just celebrated his twenty-first birthday last week. He didn’t celebrate with us, but instead went out with his friends who I’m not allowed to hang out with, or even meet. He says I won’t get along with them. But I still made him a birthday card. It’s not much, just some construction paper I swiped from art class, scribbled with doodles of a birthday cake monster and some sentences telling him I was lucky to have a brother like him.
Johnny, Papa, and I lived in a trailer located just outside of Sandy Belle Heights. Our neighbors were interesting folk, but Johnny instructed me to never go outside alone. He must think I’m still a kid. I’m almost grown, well kind of. I respect Johnny more than Papa, who doesn’t care whether I occasionally take a few sips of whiskey from his special cabinet, where he kept all his liquor. I always made sure to mark the bottle and fill what I drank with tap water. One time I forgot, and he blamed Johnny. Johnny took the fall for me, but he didn’t take the beating. I think Papa is scared of Johnny and his friends. He is just too proud to admit it. So, he just yelled and plopped himself on the raggedy couch that would probably be more suitable residing on the sidewalk, near the garbage cans and recycling bins.
I didn’t have many friends, so Johnny really was my best friend. He didn’t have a real job that I knew of, but he always had wads of cash on him. I now know better than to ask about personal business like that. Last year he bought me a model train set; it must have run him a good couple hundred bucks. I asked him where he got the money to buy me such a great gift. It wasn’t my birthday or Christmas or anything special. He glared at me and told me to appreciate what I have and not to ask any questions about his personal business. He wasn’t mean about it though, but his tone told me not to press the issue of his income any further.
It was a Saturday morning, and like most kids my age, I sat down with a bowl of generic cereal and watched cartoons. It was a weekend routine. Papa was already at work and Johnny was out with his friends, most likely. I really wanted to meet them. They must be good people if Johnny hangs out with them so much. I can be a real nosy kid, according to my teachers. It’s how I know that Mr. Wilks is a married man who kisses the assistant principal, Mrs. Bloomington, who is also married. I don’t understand marriage; maybe it’s just my age, but why commit to someone for life when the world is a buffet? Johnny told me that saying when he told me about the birds and the bees and how it’s important to protect myself. We don’t have internet, so I don’t get the privilege of looking at naked boobies anytime I want. I borrow the nudie mags from inside Papa’s nightstand, where he also keeps a handgun. I don’t if it’s loaded. I never took the time to find out because Johnny told me never to handle guns until I was old enough to learn. I thought I was old enough to learn. I mean, I just started growing hair on my lip. But Johnny insists it’s only peach fuzz.
After about an hour of cartoons and ridiculous commercials, I felt the urge to get out of the cramped but empty trailer. Sometimes loneliness is suffocating. I know I’m never to go outside without Johnny or Papa, but Captain McMahan on TV said it’s important to be brave and strong. And that’s what I felt. So, I changed out of my pajamas and put on an old faded T-shirt and torn but still wearable jeans. Before I left, I looked at the nightstand where Papa’s gun was. Captain McMahan may not need a gun, but maybe I do. Plus, I’ll finally be able to fulfill my dream of carrying a gun. I opened the drawer and picked up the pistol. It was kind of heavy, but light enough to slip into the back of my jeans. I felt like a police officer as I left the trailer and stepped outside with the gun tucked and secured.
The sun immediately covered me in a blanket of warmth, and I basked in the beauty of nature. But there wasn’t much to look at in the trailer park, except more rusty trailers and old cars. I wasn’t exactly sure where I was headed, but I thought I’d go down by the quarry and throw random things in it. It was only maybe a quarter mile from the park. I kicked an empty bean can along the way, but not neglecting to appreciate the privilege of the local graffiti art and vacant buildings. It wasn’t much to look at, but I wasn’t hard to entertain.
I approached the quarry and saw four older looking guys standing around in a circle. Most of them were bald and sported tattoos through sleeveless shirts. Then I saw Johnny. He was talking loudly, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying. He seemed angry though. I know I probably shouldn’t approach them, but whatever was going on sounded serious and, quite frankly, scary. If these were Johnny’s friends, I can see why he didn’t want me around them. They reminded me of the bullies at school. Shoot, they were probably the brothers of those bullies.
I was going to stay out of it because that’s what Johnny would’ve wanted me to do. And I didn’t want him to get upset at me, or embarrass him in front of his friends, no matter how scary they looked. They gathered around Johnny, listening to him rant about something I couldn’t hear. But they were concentrated. Then Johnny threw his hands up in frustration, and his friends disbanded, each of them making calls on their cell phones. How I wished I could have a cell phone. Or even just a game system. But sneaking outside is just as good I suppose.
Johnny left with three of the guys, and one stayed behind. He sat at the edge of the quarry and was busy browsing his phone. He looked the least threatening of the whole bunch. He wore a button up flannel with sagging blue jeans, and no visible tattoos. He was short and clean shaven too. I wanted to finally meet one of Johnny’s friends. Because now maybe his friends could be my friends, and I’d never have to be alone again.
I walked toward the guy, each step with deliberation. He turned quickly when my shadow obscured the view on his phone.
“Ay, who are you? What are you doing here, kid?”
“My name’s Blake. What’s your name?”
“What the hell do you want?”
“Just, I don’t know. Making friends.”
“I don’t have time for friends. Especially not kids, fool. Now get out of here!”
I looked down at the ground, holding back tears before I decided I should go. “But I’m Johnny’s brother,” I said, hoping my voice didn’t break too much.
“J-Johnny’s little brother? Holy shit! Why didn’t you say so, little rascal?” he replied, now smiling. “Let me make it up to ya,” he said, digging in his pocket. He pulled out a small bag that had some kind of white crystal-like rock in it. “Here, take it,” he said, shoving the bag into my hand.
“What is it?” I asked, examining the bag in awe.
“It’s a special kind of adult candy. Can’t believe Johnny’s never told you about it. All you gotta do is break it down really fine and inhale it through your nose. Like blowing boogers, but backwards,” he laughed. “Or just eat it, like regular candy.”
I looked at him to see if he was joking. It was difficult to tell because his lips curled upward in a strange smile, but his eyes were stark and stern. I slowly grabbed the bag from his palm, and he patted me on the back.
“Now you’re a cool kid. I mean, adult. Just remember you didn’t get it from me. Okay?”
“Where did I get it from then?” I asked, confused.
“You found it…in town somewhere. Who cares? Just don’t mention me.”
“I don’t even know your name anyway.”
“Call me Rico,” he replied. “Listen, I gotta bounce. Have fun with that adult candy, all right?” he snickered.
“Okay, bye, Rico!” I waved as he sped off on a bike.
At least I made one friend. Kind of. It was more social interaction than I usually have on the weekends. And when my two best friends—well, the two kids who let me sit with them at lunch—hear about befriending a cool adult, maybe they’ll finally invite me to their house to hang out. They’re always talking about the newest video games and BB guns they get for their good grades at school. My grades are acceptable—mostly Cs with a couple of strong Bs. But I never get anything for it. I don’t mind it so much because Johnny always takes me to The Big Spoon Ice Cream Factory in town every time I show him my report card.
I ran home, excited about meeting Rico and the adult candy I had in my pocket. By the time I reached home, I saw Papa’s truck parked in the front. He is home an hour earlier than usual. My hands trembled as I reached for the door handle. I know I’d be in trouble for leaving the trailer alone and without permission. I stepped inside and saw poppa sitting on the sofa and drinking from a half empty bottle of vodka. His eyes were glazed, and he frowned when he saw me standing in the doorway.
“Boy! Just where the hell have you been? You ain’t never supposed to leave this damn trailer without your brother or me,” he slurred as he placed the bottle on the floor. “Ya hear?!”
He got up and stumbled toward me with his hand in the air. I braced myself for an impact I’ve felt several times before, but before I could feel Papa’s wrath, Johnny came through the door and immediately pushed him against the counter, knocking old pots and pans onto the dirty floor.
“Don’t you dare lay another hand on him ever again,” Johnny said with his forearm against Papa’s throat.
“You sonnuva bitch, you get your dirty hands off of me now,” Papa roared.
As soon as the words escaped his mouth, Papa grabbed a small kitchen knife and slung his arm backwards at Johnny. The knife sliced his bicep, and he let go of his hold. Papa charged at Johnny with the knife, but Johnny held Papa’s arm from allowing him to stab him. I remembered I had Papa’s gun tucked in my jeans. But I don’t even know how to use it, and I didn’t really want to shoot anyone. I also didn’t want Johnny to get hurt. So, I pulled out the gun and yelled. They both turned to look at me, still struggling with each other. Papa backed away from Johnny and put the knife on the counter.
“Hey, hey. Just what the hell are you doing with that, boy?”
“Leave him alone, Papa!” I shouted.
“Boy, you best put that gun down if you know what’s best for ya!”
“Hey, c’mon, Blakey. Give me the gun slowly,” Johnny said, putting his hand toward me.
I handed it to Johnny, and he quickly unloaded it like an expert and put it in his pocket.
“Fuck,” he murmured to himself as he held his open wound. “Get the fuck out the way, old man,” he gritted through his teeth at Papa.
Papa waved him off and went to his room. I saw him sit on the edge of the bed and open a prescription bottle, place it to his mouth and down some of whatever was inside. Then he laid down.
I went to the restroom where Johnny was cleaning his wound. “Are you okay, Johnny?” I asked.
“I’ll be okay. But why did you have that gun? You know better,” he said, ruffling my hair.
“I know, and I’m really sorry. Can we still play toy soldiers like you said the other day?”
“Yes, but not now, Blakey. I’ve gotta go out for a bit. But I’ll be back. We’ll play soon, okay?”
I lowered my head. “Okay.”
I didn’t much feel like staying with Papa, especially when he’s been drinking and taking those pills. I don’t really know what they are. I read the bottle once, and it said to take once a day or as needed. But I’m not sure Papa needed to take them five times a day. I hope he feels better soon, whatever is wrong with him.
As soon as I heard Papa snoring, I opened the door with stealth and slid my tiny body through the opening, making sure not to make a peep. I wanted to hang out with Johnny, no matter what he said this time. I’m tired of not being treated like an adult.
I walked around the trailer park for about a half hour and didn’t find any sign of him. So, I went into town and visited some of the local diners and parks to see if I could find him. And I finally did. I saw him talking to Rico, the friend I made earlier that gave me the free adult candy I had almost forgotten about. I tapped my pocket; it was still there, a small lump.
Johnny looked angry, and he was yelling at Rico. Rico stood, smirking, and rubbing his chin, like he knew something Johnny didn’t. Then Johnny’s right hand landed square on Rico’s jaw, making an audible pop. I winced because I know how much a lickin’ hurts. Poor Rico, I thought. He seemed nice enough, giving me candy and all. My brother is just a jerk for some reason. Maybe it had to do with Papa. I ran home because I had seen enough of the outside world today. It was time to take cover under my own blankets in my small cot. I usually feel safe there.
When I got home, Papa was snoring with an empty alcohol bottle on his big belly. I watched it for a moment as it went up and down with each exaggerated breath. I hoped that Johnny doesn’t get in too much trouble when he gets home. Or worse, another fight. I laid down and wrapped myself in my green cotton blanket that had one too many holes, but it got the job of keeping me warm most nights. I felt inside my pocket for the candy Rico gave me. I examined it for a few minutes. It was white and crystal-like and looked like ice that wasn’t cold. I finally took it out of the bag and felt it. It was raw and cool in my hand, twirling it between my fingers and running them between each little ridge. This is really cool big boy candy, I thought. It wasn’t a lot; it was maybe the size of a lollipop without the stick. I placed it in my mouth and chewed it. I instantly felt different. Like a sugar rush I’ve never experienced before. My eyes widened, and I couldn’t help but to smile and laugh. This was the best candy I’ve ever had, even though the taste of it was nothing close to sweet. It was more bitter than licorice, but I didn’t mind. But then the moment passed, and I felt sick to my stomach. I clutched my tummy and writhed in my cot, tears welling in my eyes. I wanted to cry out, but my throat felt like someone shoved a bunch of socks in it, and nothing came out. I began to gag as I felt my eyes bulge from their sockets. Vomit somehow passed through the “socks” but stayed lodged in with them in my throat. And now I really couldn’t find any air. I felt myself drifting.
Johnny came home hours later, but it was too late for me. The candy had taken over me, and I was no more. If I still had any consciousness left at all, I’d imagine Johnny holding my limp body close to him, weeping and wailing. But at least I know that the lightning bolt of inspiration would come to him, and perhaps the last thing he’d ever write was a eulogy. My beautiful eulogy.