The Christmas lights had flicked on in the front yard. Luther glanced up, out through the door, unaware that the sun had gone down so fast. They had been in the old barn since noon, trenching and re-trenching the churned-up hard pan around their armies. There hadn't been any animals in that barn since the forties. The previous owners had sold it off, and throughout the early sixties, it had been the favored play place of the Richards family. Kids and cousins had jumped from the rafters into piles of forgotten hay, rotten and stinking, and as likely to burst into flames as not. Since time immemorial they had chased coach-whips through the sagging stalls before turning with mixed squeals of delight and terror as the snakes reared up on their bellies and chased their aggressors back to the barn doors. The game had tapered off when most recent of the Miz Richards brought home the barn cats. They hunted everything. No rodents, no snakes, just like Miz Richards liked it. It was perhaps the only point upon which Luther had agreed with the woman at any time in their very short acquaintance.
But if it was one thing those cats never could catch, it was the barn owls. The barn owls flitted through the shadowed rafters, visible only when the light struck their baleful, round eyes. They walked cold fingers up Luther's spine. Luther watched one as it regarded him from the wooden beams in the disused hayloft.
Luther took his gloves off and blew on his stiff fingers. The cool December afternoon had given way to a very cold evening, forcing them into their coats. He glanced around the barn's assortment of stacked garbage and household detritus deposited in the unused space, where it was forgotten until age and dust had quietly settled over all. He flexed his winter-stiffened joints while his eyes roved over crumbling cardboard boxes. Luther and Billy had long since robbed the place of anything they could play with or sell, leaving old magazines, yearbooks, and boxes of junk. It was in one of these boxes that Luther found a small candelabra, cheap, but heavy. He hefted it in his hand and searched the rafters for the barn owl. It hooted at him mockingly from behind him. He spun, his otherwise steadily beating heart jumping into the back of his throat, jerking a strangled yelp from him. But anger washed away his fear, and with a calmer breath, he cocked his arm back, taking steady aim. The barn owl watched, knowing Luther would miss. If it had been able to do more than stare at him with it's insouciant round eyes, Luther thought it would have laughed at him.
His snarl dwindled with a warm hand on his wrist. He felt a sudden wave of heat flush his cheeks, and he turned to the hapless fool who stood between him and his prey.
Billy held a box of graham crackers under his left arm and plastic bag of Raisin Bran in his hand. Luther eyed him askance, irritation pinching his hard expression.
"Don't, Luther," the other boy said.
Luther glanced up at the barn owl, then back at his only friend, his red hair visible in the last few afternoon rays. He dropped the candelabra.
"It's just a barn owl," he said with a downward glance.
"Still," Billy said, "Don't do that."
Billy-Joe Richards handed Luther the bag of Raisin Bran.
"Here. I hope this suits you," he said.
Luther dug into the bag with his bare hand and shoved a fistful of the dry cereal and raisins into his mouth in the time-honored desperation of a teenage boy, nodding his head exuberantly.
"Ma's makin' dinner," Billy said, turning back to their battlefield with his own snack, "Meatloaf and mashed potatoes. You stayin'?"
"Course," Luther replied through a spray of crumbs. He swallowed the dry ball of cereal in a hard gulp, "That is, can I? It's every-man-for-himself night tonight."
"Course," Billy said, "Daddy says you can eat with us whenever. Ma had a place set for you."
"My meatloaf will probably be dog food," Luther groused.
"Mine too if she had her way," Billy said. Luther didn't pursue that train of thought. He didn't like Billy to become morose, and Billy's mother delighted in making her oldest son feel as unwelcome as she did the boy from the projects.
Luther set the bag of cereal down on his side, and eyed the battlefield with what he hoped was cold disinterest in his plight. He was certain that Billy's teachers were conspiring to provide Billy with the idea of trench warfare, rendering Luther's troops as helpless under a barrage of enemy machine-gun fire as the troops at Thermopylae would have been at Normandy. He stood opposite Billy's trench at attention, his hands behind his back. Legions of gray soldiers were arrayed before him in the trench that he had erected too hastily and too late. One roll of the dice, and Billy had wiped out half of his available troops, forcing Luther to draw from the bucket of reserves on his next turn. Billy lounged on his haunches, staring up at Luther with a mixed look of expectancy and triumph.
The rules of the game were simple. Each general had two six-sided die. At the beginning of each round, they would make tactical arrangements, then they placed reinforcements and made their moves. It had been Billy's idea to calculate losses and reinforcements based on the number of casualties to the enemy. They had spent the last month refining their techniques. They would turn their backs on each other and form ranks, advancing and retreating until the final blow could be delivered, usually when the reserves were depleted or if someone surrendered. The option to surrender was on the table, but neither boy would give the other the satisfaction. Whether it was intelligent or not, both boys were fond of playing down to the last man. They re-enacted everything from chariot charges to Roman phalanxes. Only recently had Billy taken an interest in trenches, or modern warfare at all, a fact that took Luther entirely by surprise.
They played when they had time--between school, chores, girls, and whatever else their parents saddled them with. They left the battlefield contentedly on the destroyed barn floor. No one had really messed with it since Billy's cousin Jeff had tried it over the summer. Billy's father had ended the hostile takeover in a manner even Luther thought to be sufficiently hard.
Two weeks before, Luther had arrayed his troops in a phalanx four columns wide, prepared to deliver a death blow to an enemy who was nearly outnumbered two to one and who's troops, according to reports, were severely demoralized and suffering from exhaustion. Luther, in a surprising and uncharacteristic display of tactical fortitude, had marched Billy from one end of the hardpan to the other. Billy had run out of ground, and had been using his "light cavalry" as bait to keep Luther off of the bulk of his retreating army. Luther was certain he would take Billy this time. He almost never won, and Billy could hold his victory over Luther's head for days afterward. Only Luther's own stubbornness, and the satisfaction that propped Billy up like a tent pole during his low periods, kept him from calling it quits and going back to his books.
They had called it a night that week, and when Luther came back the next day after his chores, he found a dramatically different layout. Instead of standing their ground or flanking defensively, Billy had dug into the hardpan, creating a siege that was to last them another two days. Luther had stared at Billy's handy-work with a mixture of awe and astonishment. He cocked his head and narrowed his eyes, glancing between Billy and the entrenched soldiers, unable to even speak. He had read about trench warfare in the Great War, but so far Billy had been content with traditional tactics. They had equipped their imaginary troops with firearms, but Billy upped the ante, adding a little kick to their long-range cannon, and giving both of them the ability to sweep the land with machine guns. Luther found the upgrades amounted to very little in the face of Billy's next move.
As if all the gods of war were allied against him, Billy rolled a six and a four. He mowed Luther's exposed troops down like a thresher in a wheat field. Luther was helpless to do anything but watch, sinking to his knees as Billy all but effectively wiped him out.
Luther had killed his first human being when he was eight. He enjoyed the scenes of carnage in Hollywood war zones. He'd killed so many family pets that no one in his project even owned a guinea pig anymore, but nothing could have prepared him for Billy's assault. He fought to keep real, bitter tears from falling when Billy came to collect his casualties and deposit them in the buckets at the sidelines.
It was cold comfort to Luther when Billy pointed out that he'd merely evened the odds again. He gave Luther ample time to dig his own trench. Luther accepted the handicap grudgingly.
Now, shivering slightly in the failing light, made darker by the shuttered barn, Luther felt his odds of winning slipping. He was attired in a set of second-hand BDUs, his greasy, curling brown hair winding from under a five-cent cap from the thrift store. It shadowed his palid face and hard, brown eyes. He had laced an old pair of his father's work boots over the legs of his pants, held up with his fraying leather belt. None of it was up to code, but it was fitting for the occasion. That afternoon was to be the final sortie. By Billy's own estimation, they had little more than two rounds before it would be game-over for one of them.
"Your move," Billy grinned.
Ass-wipe, Luther thought bitterly, You cornered all the girls at school, then you wrecked my army. I'd surely like to know what the blue blazes I did to deserve that.
He surveyed the land ahead of him. Billy's defenses were air-tight. Short of a Blitz Krieg there was nothing Luther could do to flush him out. He was no brilliant tactician, no real general. For several years Billy had been the thinker, and while Luther loved to read, he never frequented historical accounts of actual battles. Now, staring at the blank patch of the ruined dirt floor in front of him, he wished he'd paid more attention in history class. He swore inwardly again, glancing at Billy's well-defended flank.
There's no way. Lost again. The cheap-shot pullin', cocky son of a--
Luther froze, catching himself in his own surprise before his hand could shoot to cover his mouth. He eyed Billy briefly, then squatted in the dust. He picked up his dice, pointing at Billy's flank with his chin.
"I throw a volley of grenades into your right side," he said with finality.
Billy snorted, "Okay, but it won't help you. I'd call it now, if I was you, and save myself the butt hurt."
I don't think so, Bill.
Luther rolled without another word. He rolled a four and a three. It wasn't bad.
Billy snorted again and pulled four soldiers out of the trench, equating to roughly 48 men. That left him another eight figures in the trench, but Luther didn't care. The round was over. The two boys bounded over the trenches, their backs to each other, both of them operating on the honor code not to peek at the other's work. Luther had been tempted, certainly, but even his persistent losses were not enough to convince him that Billy was cheating. Still, the suspicion nagged him. Luther made sure to make a show of keeping some of his troops in sight, trying to give Billy the impression he wasn't changing anything.
Luther knelt in the dirt and began to dig. He churned up the hardpan as well as he could, pulling up the softer dirt underneath. He worked quickly, if a bit sloppily, jamming his men into the dirt and covering them up again. He pushed the rest of his troops back, piling them up, not even bothering to maintain ranks. He had buried a little less than half of his troops, and he only hoped Billy didn't notice. He retreated two steps, leaving only the freshly-turned floor in his wake. He strained his ears and pretended to fiddle with the troops. Billy had obviously stopped moving, the scratching and scraping of his own boots on the rough sand falling to dead silence. Luther looked over his shoulder. He saw Bill turn back suddenly, furiously working on something in front of him with academic attention. Luther's heart plummeted. Billy was winning, and he still felt the need to peek.
I knew it, Luther thought, shutting his eyes against the sudden anger that clouded his vision, Jeezus, Bill, what the fuck did I do?
Luther dropped a little closer to the ground pretending to reach for another soldier. Billy's worn shoes shuffled on the hardpan. Luther sat back on his haunches and gave the ready signal. Billy replied in kind, and the two boys whirled on each other. Luther took a step back behind his troops again, the picture-perfect image of General Patton. He watched with stoic satisfaction as a broad grin spread over Billy's face. Luther's own triumphant smile stayed locked away.
Billy had reacted as predictably as Luther had thought. Billy's idea of end-game was a dramatic display of fire power and force of will. With Luther low on men and ammunition, Billy felt comfortable making the final dash to victory.
"What'd you do to the dirt?" Billy asked.
"Just a little scratch and burn," Luther thought, hoping to give Billy the impression that he had nothing left to lose.
"Poisoning the wells," Billy said, shaking his head in shame, "Think of the children, Luther."
Luther's stance was rigid, all playfulness having fled him.
"Kill 'em all," he muttered, "Let Gawd sort 'em out."
Billy's smile faded slowly, and the boy didn't reply as he surveyed the land ahead of him.
"I close distance," he said without his usual mirth.
Now Luther smiled as Billy finished arraying the bulk of his army over the loosened hardpan. He sunk his soldiers in towards the back. His hand brushed the dirt, knocking something aside. Luther's smile broadened as Billy cleared part of the sand, revealing a buried soldier.
Luther picked up his die, "I attack."
"Attack?" Billy cried, "But--No."
"Yes," Luther said, putting the dice between his palms and shaking it.
"You--you can't do that," Billy said, his voice rising in pitch.
"Can't do what?" Luther said, "Pull a dick move?"
"You were--you planted landmines!"
"Yeah, I was losing, and I planted landmines. Scratch and burn. Like a dick. I'm a real dick, Billy. I attack."
"You still have to roll high," Billy whined, quickly, watching the die now instead of Luther.
He's right, Luther thought, All of this is for nothing if I don't roll successfully. Please, please be five and a four. Or a three and four. I'll settle for a three and a four.
Luther flicked his hands, aiming at Billy's feet behind the fresh dirt. The dice rolled down a little water-worn gulley. The two boys clambered for it.
"Shiiiiiiit! Fuuuuuuuck!" Billy cried, pounding the ground, as if to shake Luther's successful role.
Luther's dice had come to rest on two sixes. The bulk of Billy's army had fallen into a heinous trap. Luther stared at the terrain, imagining every single one of Billy's troops in the dirt being blown to bits, arms and legs flying up and out, shrapnel reaching out with sharp talons to rake the eyes and faces of the flailing soldiers. The ones in front were eliminated quickly; the ones behind quick enough to see the carnage attempted to flee, but every step triggered another mine until the only thing the rear guard could do was pray. The battlefield became a mire of blood-soaked hardpan. Luther's heart pounded elatedly in his chest, flooding his vision.
Billy stomped his foot dangerously close to the toy soldiers.
"Cheater!" he screamed, his hand shaking as he pointed an accusatory finger at Luther.
"No!" Luther shouted back, his voice finding the depth of a boy leaving childhood behind, "You are! You been lookin' over my shoulder!"
"Have not!" Billy cried, now near tears.
"You have so," Luther growled, "You been pissed off at me for weeks. I thought you was just girl-crazy, then that thing with Lacey last week. You act like I stabbed you in the back!"
"You did!" Billy shouted, unable to contain his anger.
"How? When? With Lacey? You don't even like her--"
"Neither do you!"
"Of course not!" Luther shouted back, finally raising his voice, "And she doesn't like me. Are you just mad cuz I scalped her from you?"
"No," Billy said, shaking his head and sighing, "I don't give a shit about the girls."
"Then why do you act like no one can have any but you?" Luther asked, "Do you really believe that? I can't believe it, that's for sure. You never been that way before."
"I just--" Bill started, clenching a handful of his own casualties, "You just--"
Luther could see the anger rush out of his friend like someone letting go of a full balloon. He sputtered nonsense for a minute before putting his face in his hands.
"Billy," Luther said, "Whatever it is, it ain't nuthin' you can't tell me."
"But we--well, I told myself I'd never bring it up again."
"Bring what up?" Luther asked, "The thing with the whipped cream and the mirror?"
"I was a kid when I did that," Billy scoffed, a look of disgust twisting his lips into a grimace.
"That was last year," Luther offered flippantly.
"Shut up, dammit," Billy said sitting on his haunches and burying his face, "The thing a few months ago, when you nearly killed that guy at the gas station."
"Oh," Luther said, shrugging, "I forgot about that."
"Well I didn't," Billy said, glancing up sharply, "And ever since then I been tryin' to come up with a way to be that--that--."
Billy didn't say the word Luther knew was on his lips. He didn't have to.
"I never figured you'd be jealous of it."
"I am not jealous!" Billy shrieked, jumping back up again, "Why would I be jealous of what you are?"
Luther eyebrows shot up the length of his pale forehead, "Beats me, Bill."
"I'm not jealous of that," Billy said again, "I just--I just don't get how you are always so...so...solid. Nothin' bothers you, not anymore."
The other boy seemed like he would melt like an ice cube under a blow torch, like he did sometimes when the world was too heavy for him, and Luther would put his hands on his friend's shoulders and stand him back up. Luther took a step forward to do just that when Billy stood up straight and glared at him as if Luther were his sworn enemy.
"Well I don't need you," he spat, "I'm not a freakin' sissy! From now on, I want a turn at being the leader!"
"Billy, you are the leader! You always been the leader!" Luther cried, holding his hands out in front of him placatingly. Billy's eyes were dry, but he was breathing hard, as if his anger was drowning him.
"Yer just sayin' that," Billy spat, "You put yer brother before me."
"All the time. Yer always with yer brother. Every time I come over he gets to do whatever he wants. You--you always want him around. It's even worse now he can walk. What are ya gonna do when he can talk? You gonna take him with you to gas station for cigarettes? You gonna steal pin-up magazines with him?"
Luther stared at his friend in utter incredulity. He had seen Billy-Joe Richards sulk, and had even seen him cry--more than once--but the resentment in his voice frightened Luther more than anything else he'd seen.
"Do ya hear yerself, Bill?" Luther asked, "Yer mad at me because of my brother? My baby brother? Yer jealous my parents didn't do to me what yer parents did to you when your sister was born?"
"I'm not jealous!" Billy said. Luther braced himself as the angry teen rushed him. Luther thought Billy-Joe would try to hit him, but it seemed the other boy would be only too happy to tear his throat out. Billy grabbed the front of Luther's BDUs and tried to jerk him off of his feet, but the last several months had been kinder to Luther than they had been to Billy. Luther responded in kind, lifting Billy bodily and slamming him down on the ground amidst the soldiers in a spray of dirt. Billy's eyes widened in terror as Luther bent over him. Billy still had Luther's jacket in his fists, but now he pulled on it pleadingly.
"Luther, don't," he cried, "Come on, man. I'm sorry. I'm sorry! Please don't!"
Luther held him still forcefully, but not hard. Now that Billy was down on the ground, Luther regretted how rough he had been with him. Billy was screaming at him, begging him not to kill him. Luther's brow furrowed in confusion.
"Billy!" he shouted in the other boy's face, "Shut up!"
Billy immediately stopped squirming and stared up at him, silent but nowhere near calm.
"I'm not gonna kill you," Luther said, "Why on Earth would I kill you?"
"Because I came at you," Billy whispered.
"So? It's not like we've never fought before," Luther said, pulling Billy up and sitting back on his haunches. Billy stared at him like Luther had lost his mind.
"I know, but this is different," Billy said breathlessly.
"No it ain't," Luther retorted, "It ain't nuthin we can't talk out like normal folks."
"Sometimes you get this look on yer face," Billy clarified, "that don't look like yer in the mood to talk at all."
Luther cocked his head, "I do?"
"Yeah, like when you almost did fer Jasper," Billy half-sobbed.
Luther hung his head, unable to really come up with a rebuttal. Billy bit his lip and glanced away at the bucket of soldiers to his left.
"What'da ya want from me?" Luther asked.
"I don't want you to do that no more," Billy-Joe said, "Promise me you won't."
"I ain't gonna let you run me around," Luther said, "You can be the leader, but you ain't the boss'a me."
"I don't wanna boss you," Billy replied, "I don't want you to kill nobody else."
"I ain't never killed nobody," Luther lied, reaching for the bucket as if preparing to clean up.
"Yeah you have," Billy muttered, "I can tell, and I never want you to again."
Luther glanced up at his friend though the dirty hair that had fallen in front of his face. He frowned thoughtfully. Billy held out his hand for him to shake. Luther hesitated.
Never kill again. No more red on the ground. No more listening for the rattle before whatever he was choking, stabbing, or crushing stopped moving, taking the red in his eyes with it. Would he ever sleep again? Could he find a way to live without going insane?
Bill still held his hand out, staring at Luther expectantly. Above him, and over the top of Billy-Joe Richards' head, the barn owl flitted to a spot in the empty hayloft and hooted a sharp laugh at him. Luther sighed.
If it'll make him happy, he thought, If it'll keep him from being mad at me.
"I promise," Luther said, slapping his friend's palm. They shook on it. Billy turned to take up the bucket, but Luther stopped him, tugging hard on his jacket and pulling him into a tight embrace. The other boy buried his face in Luther's shoulder. His cheeks were wet when Luther let him go.
They cleaned up the battlefield. Luther noticed the change in Bill's attitude almost immediately. He joked and talked about football, like he always had, as if the incident in the barn had never happened. Luther felt the void after the tension, the usual feeling that the fight was over, but something was still wrong. Billy's laugh was too loud, his pace too jerky. His eyes were still shining with unspilled tears. Luther was heartened, nonetheless, feeling for the first time in months that he and Billy were equals again, "leader" or not, and satisfied that the boy still required his good opinion—such as it was. He found Billy's smile infectious, if it was a bit too tight.
It's almost worth it, he thought, I don't know if I can do it, but I'll try for Bill. Just please don't be mad at me anymore.
Billy's mother stood in the yard in her apron as the two boys emerged from the barn. Billy's sister stood beside her with one fist in her mother's skirt, her own long, red hair wrapped around the other and her thumb crooked into the side of her mouth despite her almost eight years.
"Billy, you're filthy," she cried before her eyes narrowed beneath her drawn-in brows, "You two weren't fightin', were you?"
"No ma'am," Luther said with a shake of his head.
"Well," she nearly spat, not believing him, "Get inside and wash up for dinner. I won't have you at my table lookin' like savages."
She turned on her heel. Her daughter popped her thumb out of her mouth, stuck her tongue out at them with a stamp of her tiny pink shoe in the Bermuda grass, and took off after her mother.
"You sure?" Luther asked, boring holes into the girl's retreating back and wishing they were real.
"Yes," Billy sighed, "I'm sure."
Without another word, Luther followed him into the house.