Arlo hadn't wanted a girl - Frances, truthfully, hadn't either, but for an entirely different reason. She married Arlo because she was pregnant and he was sweet on her, took her to the porch of a house he bought with her in mind and said it was hers if she'd be his. Frances Givens saw what Harlan did to girls and a trailer behind Audrey's was hardly the worst the place could do to any daughter born and raised there. There were things worse than death and not existing, and those things had the scent of blood in their noses and lurked in the shadows with claws that grabbed at pretty long hair and scratched at legs in skirts.
Arlo simply didn't want a girl because they never really made back what they cost you. You couldn't set them on the mines during the summer and they weren't suited to his 'businesses', couldn't crack knee caps or stand shoulder to shoulder with him, block a doorway and put a fist against a face. They were useless, and he growled as much often enough; gave his girl the name Raylan so everyone would know he didn't have a say in the matter, but it was clear as crystal what his say would have been. It was no matter, though, because through accident or a purpose muddled by too much bourbon, Arlo beat anything soft and gentle out of Raylan the best he could before she was old enough to realize she had it. There's something a cruel fist does to a person if it doesn't carve them out and leave behind an unwarranted meekness and propensity toward flinching. Frances was carved out but old enough when she met Arlo that she still fought back, still bit back with a sharp tongue and got the back of his hand for it. Raylan could either be made of iron or paper but the truth of the matter was neither set Frances' soul at ease; neither one was a choice mother should have made for her daughter in the wake of a miserable and cruel man.
The best thing, Frances decided, for Raylan to be was a little bit of a girl and a little bit of a boy, and a structure of limestone as tough as could be against Arlo's sledgehammer.
"Mama," Raylan had said, as much gravity in her voice as an eleven year old could manage. "There ain't no way I'm wearin' a dress to the first day of school. Them Bennett boys above me'll have dirt on it before morning snack, makin' fun of me like I'm goin' to church!"
And so it had gone.
Raylan had a lock on her door that was replaced every time Arlo felt like kicking it in, and scuffed about in the same boots as the high school boys when she was in middle school. At fifteen she kept her hair short for the smile her mama gave her when it was trimmed - cropped more for strategy than style, it was hard to grab by anyone at school or at home, sliding through teasing fingers in the hallway and angry fists in the kitchen, and it suited her long, awkward jawline. Arlo quit laying hands across her face as hard when the bruises couldn't be masked with silky hair, which pissed Raylan off so much that she grew it out grazing the top of her spine as a stubborn (and stupid) act of defiance.
She never got in trouble at school for fighting but it only took several well placed kicks and science textbooks jammed in to ribs until she had a bat placed in her hands by the high school girl's softball team, and no one really gave Raylan any trouble worth her effort after that. The girls of her class didn't like her because she barely entertained their polite conversations about sneaking off to Lexington to see boys or lofty dreams of opening a real, fancy salon when they graduated, Harlan's first. She nodded but never gave anything back, didn't care when they all clutched their notebooks to their chests and said she was plain rude and came to school with dirt on her pants. As far as slanderous rumors went, Raylan wasn't at all impressed, and made a bit more effort to kick about the dust on the sides of the roads when she walked to and from school. The boys were less tactful about it, but the best they came up with was calling her a dyke and as long as they weren't putting hands on her and taking her belongings to throw down a hill sloping in to a creek, Raylan didn't care about that either. She got along with enough people as she needed to (which was too many in her opinion, but that was just the way of the world) and she was polite to those who deserved it (mostly women who knew her mother and asked after Frances with ambiguous wording that never went further than inquiring as to her well-being, bound by hospitality and a bred-deep trait of keeping to your own in the hollers).
Raylan was built of stone like Frances had raised her to be, her silence mistaken for shyness or a holier-than-thou attitude, her hair all but disappeared under a baseball cap, and any shape to her body not as straight as the road was curved was lost to plain t-shirts under open button-ups and bootcut jeans. Nothing clung to her the way every article of clothing did to the girls her age after puberty but the braided belt she wore was hardly necessary. She existed worn in like the furniture in her house, as if she had sprung fully formed from the ground and covered in its dust for all that she resembled the little girl in a church dress and braids. Raylan corrected no one when they called her average, middle of the road, because ordinary was a shield one could hide behind.
The fact Raylan that took to softball as well as she did made it a pity that technicalities kept her from baseball. She cracked her bat in to that ball like she was smashing the windows of every house in Harlan, like it was Arlo's fist hurling at her, and she broke his bones every time, sent glass shards flying across the field, and she ran like she was never planning on stopping once she hit the home diamond, like she was going to keep on going out of the parking lot and past her house and out of Harlan county entirely. She ran like she was running toward something because she'd spent a long time longing to escape everything.
Frances Givens died toward the middle of spring the year Raylan was in the second half of sixteen years old and she begged off the last three weeks of school as easily as Mags Bennett gave her an extra handful of penny candy, mostly because no one wanted to be the hand who came down on a kid who had lost her mother. Everyone assumed it was to get affairs in order but as much as it was organization and mourning, it was Arlo and Raylan circling each other like wild animals day in and day out with their fangs bared, both full with as much whiskey as hatred.
When they ought to have been accepting visitors after putting Frances in the ground not thirty feet away from the front door, they slammed out of the house at the same time as each other that afternoon - Raylan had a long line of violent purple on her left jaw and Arlo's head ached with a hand clapped to the side from the jab to his ear she instinctively managed.
Boyd Crowder stood on the other side of the driveway like they really were having a service, thumbs tucked in the corner of his pockets and watching Raylan patiently, the only Givens left with Arlo's pick-up kicking up dust in the space between them.
"What're you looking' for, Boyd Crowder?" Raylan's voice was loud, harsh, leftover from scraping, and after a second she added, "Ain't nobody stoppin' by for condolences."
Families in Harlan that never much got along set aside differences for nothing less than death, and even then it wasn't a very long grace period before things resumed. Bo Crowder varied between wanting to take Arlo's teeth out with a crowbar and trusting him with collection enforcement given the season and the position of the sun in the sky, but Raylan hadn't been paying close enough attention to know which they were at for the time being. Boyd made no move to bring business up, nor did he initiate any sentence that included the words 'loss', 'passing' or 'tragedy.' Raylan knew Boyd moved and spoke at a pace that suited him and nobody else and it was at least something she could appreciate any other time; not so much when her face ached with the imprint of Arlo's mid-afternoon drunkeness. She sniffed and turned like a boxer taking to their corner and turned toward the porch, pulling her muddied work boots toward the steps so she could sit down and swap them with her Keds.
Boyd followed at the same distance from across the driveway, but now he was looking toward the fresh heap of soil turned in front of Frances' gravestone. "Whatever shit our daddies got between them, I always respected your mama, Raylan. She was a good woman, though I know you don't need nobody else tellin' you that much."
"That's the first lick of sense I've heard out of a Crowder in goin' on a few years." Raylan stood, stomping her feet a few times to kick off the caked mud around the heels of her shoes. After a moment, most of the excess gone and the motion more of a continuance of energy through her legs than a necessary thing, she didn't look up at Boyd but said, "Thank you, though."
"I reckon it'd be the gentlemanly thing to do to offer a drink, ain't nobody in Harlan that don't look like they couldn't use it more than you." At that, Raylan looked up, first to the sun in the sky (it couldn't be later than two in the afternoon) and then down at Boyd, who met her gaze with an unnerving patience, his lips cracking around a grin that was humorless. if nothing else, Boyd Crowder was strange, but he was offering a drink and drinks weren't to be turned down.
It didn't take but a moment for Raylan to shrug, tapping her toe against a rung of the porch railing, conceding. "If it comes in a jar and could peel paint off a barn, then fine."
"You got some home improvement projects you need seein' to, Raylan Givens?"
"The only real improvement would be a match and a can of gasoline."
Raylan didn't exhibit any signs of grief or mourning over her mama, Boyd noted, and looked the same as she did when she set foot in the high school, bruise included. Her eyes weren't red, her mouth wasn't twisted up or wavering, and she spoke as though all she really thought about at the current moment was sitting down with a glass. Boyd had always thought Raylan held herself like she was made of sturdy metal running through her skeleton; even when she relaxed in to a bar stool at Audrey's, there was something tense holding her up, like her body would never let her go limp even if she willed it. She didn't speak and Boyd didn't press anything.
"Ain't you supposed to be in school, Crowder?" Raylan punctuated her sentence with setting down her glass, poking a finger at the ice cube on top and watching it slip and clink to the side. "While I do appreciate a visit to the only place in town that doesn't much care for looking at IDs, if your daddy sent you on up here for some reason you can tell him Arlo's his own man and I'm not lookin' to carry on the family business. He lets me know about as much as he tells the neighbor's dog." She took another drink and made a face at the taste, akin to rubbing alcohol and just as pleasant. "Not that I care."
"That's one area we overlap, then. Never much had political ambitions." Boyd looked, for a moment, as young as Raylan felt sitting on that barstool in a place she never drank at, only ever collected her daddy from, a more adult game of dressing up and emerging from your parents' closet in pearls and polished shoes and a tie. "When my mama went, the right company was something I was mighty grateful for, give or take conversation. My daddy had no part in me walkin' my way on up to your door."
"You think you're my right company?" The question came out more demanding of an answer than teasing, as though the question itself knew what Raylan really meant when she asked, and when Boyd glanced over at her, her head was cocked to the side, one eye squinted, dangling her glass above the bar with two fingers.
"Least I could do is try."
Boyd Crowder was calm and unreadable and serious and nothing of the unhinged arsonist that the whole school would have one believe he was - although the previous summer, the football field had been scorched in a way that dry heat just couldn't do, and Boyd wasn't in school for a suspension's standard week. He had his boots already stuck in the mud of Bo's business at seventeen in a peculiarly accepted way, like he had known from birth that he would have - akin to a son that inherited land or a beat up truck from his father, a grandmother's wedding for use at a later date. Like it was always to be.
Everyone knew the Crowders in the same way everyone knew the Givenses or the Bennetts or Limehouse's establishment over the crest of the hills to the east of them. There were names that never quite washed themselves from the tongues of Harlan, and when there were no new tales attached to the names, then the old ones spun out with nostalgia, never to die. Bo and Arlo's names both went together with new tales for as long as Raylan could recall. Boyd had been to Raylan's house before, had sat at her dinner table and thanked her mama for dinner, but Raylan burnt a great deal of her energy avoiding anything Arlo had a hand in and begged off ever sticking around with fictional team practices and extra jobs mowing properties. When they came over to talk shop, Bo's men slammed in like bears in work boots with no regard and no manners for how Frances kept house, rattling the screen door on its hinges as it slapped shut and leaving trails of crunched leaves ground in the carpet. They drank too much and were too loud and they woke up something in Arlo like tossing steak bones out to a dog tied in the yard just to get it barking.
Frances Givens died, and Arlo bit like an animal forced to fight in a ring until it was sagging skin and bones and vicious teeth, and Raylan spent more than a few hours staring at the grim headstones that were directly under her bedroom window. They felt like a threat on her life, a slow chokehold. When school properly ended, she drove up to Ellstin Limehouse's establishment and stood at the register, didn't ask if he remembered her from when her mama came up with a suitcase and a split brow, asked instead if he needed a hand serving. It wasn't aligning herself with Noble's holler enough to get her threatened or beat, but it was far enough away from Bo Crowder's running that she had made a statement in doing so, donning one of Limehouse's ragged aprons for the summer and sloshing drinks for anyone who came in.
Tuesdays in the summer, after the afternoon heat broke and the holler glowed with the last of the light she had sucked away for safe keeping before the sun sank beyond the hills, the baseball field lit up and pools of teenagers leaked out from every road and driveway like a flash flood of beer and chatter and showing off relationships that had come together since school ended, sly smiles and digs until teams formed from the chattering, bats and gloves and a ball being passed forward like an offering plate in church, whatever anyone could give.
Raylan didn't live for the summer games where no one could bar her from a team for being a girl, but she did thrive, throwing herself harder than required in to each swing, pitching like she was casting a life raft to a drowning man. She put effort in to it, and no one had the heart to tell her there wasn't a trophy for this, that no scout was hidden amongst all the beer bottles left sitting in the first three rows of the stands.
It happened like lightning, people still laughing and shrieking and barely paying attention, no one noticing Dickie Bennett's boot pressing on her face until the dust settles and Lou Crouse slid in to home and stood up cheering for himself. Raylan herself wasn't even sure she knew how it happened, was one minute reaching up for the ball with her side slamming in to Dickie in the infield, both running in the same direction, and the next minute she's flat on her back. She went to reach a hand up, stupidly expecting to be helped up, but instead grappled against jean, scratching her nails in to it. Her head throbbed with the force of pressure but she could see his face clearly, and it was revolting. Dickie Bennett looked like hate was too above her, looked the way humans must look when seven year olds malicious pound their sneakers into the sidewalk to squash beetles. He looked like he couldn't even expend the energy it took to think about her, but was stepping on her because he had the power to do so.
Raylan arched her back and slammed a fist in to his crotch, rolling sideways as his knees turned in and he groaned, and she scrambled for the bat Lou cast to the side. The noise of the field was dying down at the sight of bright red dripping on her shirt but it went completely silent when Raylan swung the bat, and the crack of Dickie's kneecap could have rivaled any summer thunder or gunshot she'd ever heard in her life.
In her head, it had the far away distant feel of a movie on the twenty year old television set in her living room, hazy and a bit disjointed as though the picture was going in and out due to the weather or someone breathing wrong. The whole crowd surged forward like a breaking wave and arms went to tug Raylan back, as though she hadn't let the bat swing down to her side to step back and admire her handiwork in the form of Dickie holding on to his leg and screaming. She was vaguely aware of Coover coming at her with a fist raised but all the noise had died away after the crack, as though it had stolen her hearing along with it, and Raylan only stood there breathing heavily with dirt and blood across her face, would have stayed until she'd been knocked back in to the dirt had a pair of strong hands not wrapped around her upper arm and tugged her back, away from Coover and his Christmas ham fists.
"C'mon now, Raylan, let go of that bat 'less you're planning on swinging it again, but I warn you you'll have Bennetts makin' your life a hell if you do." It registered as Boyd's voice through the static crackling of the television set, and Raylan's breath shuddered in her lungs, throat suddenly too thick to swallow properly.
"Well I might have to if Coover's face doesn't stop turning that ugly shade of purple," she mumbled, but when Boyd's fingers worked hers one by one from the grip she didn't fight it. He was laughing, low and soft beside her like he was flush against her back, though really she had no clue why he was laughing - it was a ridiculous color that only Coover Bennett could manage when he was extra drunk and extra angry.
She didn't remember being led away or cleaned up or swinging at another Bennett (that one she was certain was a daydream), though she must have, really, because she remembered her truck and the road in front of her, and then cigarette smoke and ice. She sat straight up on Aunt Helen's sofa, a slab of steak tight in plastic wrap flopping on to the cushion behind her, boots in the floor beside the arm and her wallet and keys laid out on the coffee table.
"That Crowder boy said you gave DIckie Bennett what for," Helen said gruffly in the morning, sliding two cups across the table and then pouring coffee in to both.
Raylan froze; Mags didn't put much weight in to Bennett-Givens issues, not being blood herself, but her idiot sons did, and she was nearly certain Helen would cuff her round the ear. She kept her head down as she spooned sugar in to her coffee but her hand jerked when Helen started laughing. She brushed sugar crystals off in to the floor, eyes wide in alarm. "You ain't gonna bust my ass for…bustin' Dickie's?"
"I'll bust it if any trouble comes of it, but seein' as it happened, can't really take it back now, can you?" Raylan swirled her coffee in response, and Helen cocked her head to the side, taking in the bruising on her brow and cheek, then clucking her tongue. "As I see it, boy probably deserved a lot more of a beatin' but it's a good thing Boyd Crowder got you home or you'd have a mess of trouble on your hands. Mags ain't got no blind spots when it comes to those boys and reapin' what they sow, but people take justice in to their own hands, Raylan, and those hands are as human as anyone else's. Gets abused, eventually, or bent over backwards with leniency. Retribution ain't for any hands but God's."
Raylan drank her coffee and didn't answer, because she couldn't.
Arlo didn't constantly have a hand raised to Raylan, if only because the amount of time they spent together lessened to near nothing once Frances was gone; he spent a considerable amount of time out of the house, and when Raylan got Helen's old pick up for her sixteenth birthday it only enabled her ability to escape in to a wider radius, to offer her services of yard work to people further than she could drag a pair of shears and a mower. Helen left plates of food in the fridge for the both of them but had come to expect Raylan sloping in to her doorway at night, grass-stained and hair clumped with sweat, looking as shy as the girl could manage when she asked if she could take supper with Helen tonight, if it wouldn't put her out.
Were Raylan honest with herself, she'd admit that she clung to Helen as the last breath of her mama, someone with the same eyes at a different stage - Frances was the soft coal and Helen was the diamond, sharp as one, too. Toward the end of her life, Frances has given out, sighed and expanded in to the fine, black glittering powder that swam in the air outside the mine, like a dark star breathing deeply then exhaling. It was a bad last impression of a mother, but it was the only one Raylan could wrap her heart around. Since she was small, Helen had always been the one to stomp in to the house and jerk her away from Arlo by the arm, or pull her sister to her; more often than not, Helen had simply folded herself in to the rocking chair in the corner with her sawed-off laying across her lap, listening to the radio or staring out the window as Raylan's mother went about her business as usual. Arlo, however, was deterred, jerking away from the living room and demanding why Frances' bitch of a sister paid rent if she was gonna kick about like she lived at their's.
The summer was thick and miserable, as they all were, like the holler was a bowl that kept the humidity contained around them, a breeze never able to roll across the land and shake away the heavy heat. Raylan missed her mother with a lump pressing on the back of her throat, but her hair grew longer still - if Arlo was going to grab her, he would, and now she wore the heavy boots he did, her mother's wedding ring to add an extra bite to a swing if she could get it out. She was finished with running and hiding, her shoulders were as broad as Arlo's and strong legs could stand their ground as well as run away.
Boyd left school a week in to their last year, when he turned eighteen and the mine would take him. It took Raylan by surprise - she was by no accounts stupid, but he opened his mouth to speak and stunned her; his sentences flowed like the black and white film noirs that Frances had loved, but less harsh, slow and sure as though every word was plucked by delicate fingers and pressed in to place, like each word belonged. Boyd was intelligent, and spoke in class with a thread of curiosity twisted around the content, like he was genuinely invested in each lesson. There weren't many like that, not there in Harlan.
Still she was shocked when she saw him sitting outside after school let out, facing the wide front doors rested against a column as though he had tried to walk in and the building had rejected him. No one else stopped in the flow of daily excitement to be free, and she stepped to the side, out of the way.
"Thought the point of quittin' school was not goin' anymore," she teased, hooking both of her thumbs in the straps of her bookbag and tilting her head away from the sun. Boyd looked up as though he were certain he was invisible, and therefore hadn't expected to be spoken to at all.
"Raylan. I came to collect my brother Bowman as he doesn't much fancy the walk." He looked down at the keychain grasped in his hand and let go of it so it danged from his fingers by just the truck key. "I'd be happy to oblige if you needed a ride anywhere, though, and if Bowman's got anything to say about it you just put a elbow in his gut once we go over next bump in the road." Boyd's grin was dangerous but not quite as sharp as Raylan expected it could be, and the laugh he drew out of her was quick and pleased.
"I wouldn't rightly aim for the gut, I'm sure you understand. As much as assaultin' your brother sounds like a fine after-school activity to engage in, my truck's still hangin' in there." Raylan pressed her lips in to a grimace, well-known and at home on her mouth, and had shifted her weight so far to walk away from Boyd, still on the ground, when she paused, one leg behind her and her torso twisting to him. "Why'd you quit? I'd reckon you're as smart as anyone else in here if that weren't an insult - you're smarter."
Boyd looked at her devoid of any hazy, opaque cloud in his eyes, like he couldn't puzzle out how she was here even though they'd just spoken. Like she was suddenly different from any other of the dozen times he'd seen her. "There ain't just one type of smart," Boyd finally said, considerate, drawn out, like the conclusion had taken him a long time to reach; nearly everyone had filtered out of the school, the occasional staff member mingled in with the last of the crowd. "My specific needs cannot be met by this establishment any more than a fish could appreciate a good slice of pecan pie from Josiah's diner."
"Pie's really good, though."
"Fish don't know that."
"Not a minnow. Probably not pike. Bass, maybe. You know, I've seen ones that can talk and all, wiggle their bodies about, sit on a wall all content like, then they see you and they light up. Bet they'd like a saucer and coffee to boot."
Boyd's smile was indulgent, pulled at by his cheeks like he didn't want to laugh at her terrible joke but couldn't help it anyway.
"I could do with a saucer and a cup of coffee myself, maybe after supper." The way Raylan mused the sentiment out loud sounded as though she were thinking and it just happened to have a voice, but she knocked her boot against Boyd's own before she finished her motion of turning toward the parking lot, one side of her mouth quirked up. "See ya, Boyd."
And when Raylan pulled up to the diner with the sun behind the distant hills and her truck groaning under the force of being put in park, she wasn't at all shocked to see Boyd's own toward the end of the tiny lot. She took a moment of victory with a smirk, stretching her arms up as far as the cab would allow and then rolling down the window - it was cool out as autumn eased its tendrils in to the holler, and there would be a few weeks of comfortable nights where she could sleep with the window open in her room before she'd wake up to frost on the grass.
"Fancy you bein' right in my favorite seat." Raylan leaned in to Boyd's shoulder a bit by way of announcing herself, pushing off on the rung of his stool to slide on to her own beside him. "Talk of pie really got to ya, didn't it?"
"Surely it did not, Miss Raylan, it was the enticing idea of strong black coffee of a particular roast that - as I am aware - is not found at the general convenience." Boyd raised his cup to her as a slight salute, but his grin was full of teeth, light and fond. "I just found that the pie went right with the coffee."
Raylan moved to turn over her own cup and clinked it against his before leaning over the counter and picking up the pot on the hot plate in front of them, pouring herself a cup. She didn't look over but her eyebrows raised up as she tore the tops off sugar packets and up-ended them, starting, "I see you've donned the uniform of dust belongin' to a miner, couldn't've waited another year before you hopped on down that hole?"
"You are just about the only soul in Harlan givin' me troubles for my decision. Not even my daddy had a wayward thing to say about it." Boyd spun his stool a few degrees to level her a look over his glasses; he had cleaned up, his hands scrubbed, but the signs were unmistakable when you lived with them your whole life - his fingernails were blackened underneath, and lines of caked coal powder had gathered with his sweat at the base of his neck, staining the collar of his t-shirt.
"I'm not sayin' there's anything wrong with the mine, it's money and it's honest at that. I think Arlo woulda frog-marched me in there the day I turned eighteen, truth be told, if I were a boy," Raylan laughed, but it was lacking a forced humor that she couldn't quite muster, not in front of Boyd at the end of the day. Her brow knitted for a second before she forced it down, tapping a stirring spoon against ceramic. "Pretty sure he thinks me rippin' up Ellen Myers' dead stump last summer was a tall tale." Arlo's disbelief at her ability to do more than mow grass wasn't the only thing he had to say about Raylan being a girl, but the other things he called her - weak, senseless, stupid, and worse - didn't seem right to bring up, not when Raylan was being slid a slice of pecan from Boyd's other side, like he had kept guard over it for her in case a rush came through the diner, which it didn't and never had.
"There are men of a certain nature not meant to work a deep mine, and not because they ain't got the power behind them to do so. My opinion, bein' a man or a woman ain't got nothin' to do with it past a certain requirement. Any girl swing a bat the way you do and kick Dewey Crowe in the shin just for crossin' a young lady in the wrong fashion in the hallway oughta do just fine along side anyone else."
"Still a bit iffy on pickle jars though."
"Can't hold it against ya, they are tough sons'a bitches, temperamental at the wrong angle."
Silence dropped over them and Raylan acquiesced to it, twisting her plate back and forth slightly in between bites, picking the pecans out of the topping and crunching off the crystalized sugar before eating them. Silence was hard to come by, comfortable even more so, and after a childhood of uncomfortably sitting at a kitchen table between a mama with a bruised face and a daddy with a red one, or curling up with her back to the door and forcing quiet in her bedroom so Arlo wouldn't come pounding in with his temper - sitting with Boyd was nicer than she'd have expected from a boy with a leg-breaker for a daddy and an odd glint in his eye from time to time. She kept waiting for it to be ruined, but the only other people in the diner were a couple who looked like they'd run out of things to talk about twenty years ago in a twenty-one year marriage, and the waitresses loitering in the kitchen behind the swinging door, leaning across the counter to talk to the cook. When she glanced at Boyd he had his head bowed, or was drinking coffee so hot it fogged his glasses for a few seconds, but he was silent as well and didn't look as if he had any intention of breaking.
Raylan felt like she ought to have something to ask him about, a girl he was going steady with or a team sport like her softball, at least a hobby he indulged in, but she came up short with the realization that she didn't know much of Boyd Crowder at all, outside of gossip about his daddy that was so closely tied to her own that she adamantly blocked it out.
She wanted to say something about Arlo but her mouth instinctively turned down at the thought, and then as though it were a chain reaction she felt missing her mama well up in the back of her throat - she gulped down her scalding sweet black coffee to drown it. In the end, Raylan made sure her arm pressed against Boyd's slightly when she leaned against the counter to wiggle loose another pecan with her fingernail, and didn't move away once it was free. Like he had said at Audrey's, months ago, the right company was something she was to be mighty grateful for, talking or no.
She was pressing the last flakes of crust against her fork, more for something to do with her hands than a desire to lick up every last crumb, when Boyd set his cup squarely on his saucer and leaned back as though there were a railing to rest against behind him and not just air. "Your daddy don't mind you off at this hour?"
"He don't care about much of anything regardin' me," Raylan's face twitched in to something angry and painful automatically, before she could even begin to stop herself. "It ain't that I'm out doin' whatever I am, it's that he has no control over me." Regret seeped as slowly as molasses in her stomach although she wasn't sure why. It was never anyone else's business what went on at her house although they seemed to think it was, and Raylan had never bothered to correct anyone because agreeing or denying anything would be a confirmation. It was a sore wound that ached without her approval, pressed like a deep bruise as people looked at her with pity when her heavy make-up rubbed off by the end of the day. Eventually she'd given up on concealer and powder, but her knee-jerk blame of softball still tumbled out of her mouth most of the time.
It was a long minute before Boyd spoke with that same slow, measured deliberation. "My daddy used to have these huntin' dogs when Bowman and I were little, for trackin' and chasin' and all. They were real good dogs, never bit at ya or begged under the table, 'cept they weren't really for huntin' when he got 'em. Got it in their minds they were just bein' let free for fun on huntin' trips. Everytime they'd go off chasin' a cat or an interestin' smell instead of what he set them on, he'd bring a stick down on 'em until they'd hop back to. Saw him nearly cripple one 'til he realized it wouldn't be of any use to him if he did."
Raylan's expression turned hard and she whipped her head to look at him. "You callin' me an untrained dog, Boyd?"
Boyd stared back for a second before dropping his gaze with a tiny sigh more like a heavy breath, as though she'd missed the point altogether and he was sad that she did. "People ain't dogs, women ain't good for one or two things and meant to be beat when they don't do those things. Hardly right for dogs who I believe listen better when they ain't half scared of your boot, and damned improper for mankind."
Raylan had her hand stuck in her jeans pocket, fishing for twisted up bills and trying to quell the fury in her eyes but stopped and looked up, quick like she wasn't sure she wanted to meet his eye and she would look away if she did, but Boyd was going about laying down a tip for the waitress like he hadn't said anything, hadn't finally called attention to secrets that lurked in the belly of Harlan long before Arlo ever put a hand on Raylan or her mother.
"You have a good night, now, Raylan Givens. I'll be sure to see you soon." And Boyd left, a finger to his brow like he was pulling down the brim of a hat in farewell.
That night Raylan walked straight up the stairs to her bedroom, lips tight and feet barely making a creak on the stairs; if Arlo wanted to hear her, he would, and if he wanted to shout at her, he would. She was coming to realize that nothing she did or didn't do would change any man's decisions, and the best she could do was to lock her knees and try to give back what she got. She laid in bed with her back to the door, her window half open to the breeze of the evening, lazy and soft and stirring papers on her desk but never whisking them away. She stared at the curtains and the crack of light between them and sucked chunks of pecan out of her teeth to smother the desire to taste Boyd's slice of pie on him and how warm his tongue must have been, from bitter black coffee and words as kind as they ever were coming from a Crowder mouth.
Raylan stood at the edge of November and looked ahead and realized there were a thousand sad reasons to hate the holidays, and yet a good three-quarters of it all boiled down to family - though, that was a reason to hate every day. The first real holiday without her mama, and it dawned on Raylan that she never really taught her how to keep house, Christmas style. Cooking enough to fill a belly and proper cleaning was a skill learned of necessity, but the holidays held in them some strange matriarchal air, warmth and comfort and love that Raylan lacked, like it had accidentally been removed instead of her tonsils and now a mass of scar tissue remained, her homemaking left in a jar for medical display. Thanksgiving had been difficult enough just helping Helen in the kitchen all day then carrying the dishes over to set down on the table for Arlo to get a heaping plate of, and suddenly the idea of repeating that, running away and resting her head on her aunt's dining room table and letting Helen take over, seemed so attractive that Raylan fingered her truck keys in her pocket with coward's hope. Keeping house had never been her strong suite; she knew how to cook fried chicken and that mustard on a burn stopped the pain and kept the skin from bubbling, that damp mold on faucets and pipes were to be attacked with cucumber slices that worked better than any cleaning product -- but she had a feeling she was never going to be quite able to making anyone feel like four walls on a concrete foundation was more than what it was.
They skipped the Christmas tree, and Raylan spent a good hour on a ladder one Saturday nailing hooks for a string of lights to drape around the front of the porch, but the lights and a wreath strangled with red ribbon were the only indications at the Givens home that it was a holiday. Knowing Arlo and his disdain for the sentimental, it was more than likely for the best - he had mocked and sneered the only shred of it left in his daughter years ago, causing her to stash it away deep down and never to be let free. They were not a family photo album generational heirloom people, though Frances was, peppering shelves and mantles with frames and polaroids leaning against the wall.
The day before Christmas break started, Raylan slipped in the door of the front office, falling in to a seat beside other students sprawled out in them like they were frequent visitors and expected to be there for quite a while. She leaned around the corner of an office and knocked, then dragged her bag and body further in to the room, electing to stand instead of sit; she wouldn't be long, and didn't intend to stay and shoot the breeze. The guidance councilor - a new addition to the town's high school, brought in to presumably drag kids with potential by the ear through college applications until they found a one-way ticket out of the place - turned in his wooden swivel chair, and leveled a look at Raylan over his bifocals. She wasn't a particularly problematic student, nor did she stand out or shine above the rest of them all; Raylan kept her head in her books, whether they be for class or not, and she wanted nothing more than to pick up her diploma early without fanfare or a fuss, and leave the school behind.
"Do you have any plans after you graduate?"
Raylan blinked, her hand snaking out for the manila folder on the corner of his over-piled desk darting back to her side. She shrugged a shoulder like she hadn't given it much thought at all, like she hadn't looked at every road and building as she drove past it and wondered where she would fit in to it all. "Thought I'd see about…I don't know." Impossible sums of money came to mind, the possibility of the colleges in Lexington and Frankfurt whose existences she knew of but never investigated as fleeting as the cool side of a pillow in summer.
"The army might be something to think about, you know. Money to go to college on, all you have to give up is a few years of your commitment." He looked at her again, holding out the envelope to where she'd have to lean further to get it. Maybe he thought he could loop her in to sitting down, pressing a few brochures in her hand like the life rafts they were in his mind. Raylan almost laughed at him. "It's something to think about. Training and college paid for and a gun in your hand. Serving the country is a great honor to some, you know. Upholding justice and freedom."
"Soldiers are still men," Raylan said instantly, Aunt Helen coming to mind suddenly and loudly, the clicking of her lighter as vivd as though it were behind her. "Justice in the hands of man is subject to all kinds of emotions and prejudices. Decidin' what's right when he doesn't know better than anyone else. That ain't for me. To decide who deserves what and for doin' what."
Raylan leaned in the doorway further and tugged her diploma out of the councilor's hand, and turned on her heel to leave.
She gave herself the rest of the day off, a reward, snuck her hand in to the liquor cabinet in the kitchen and pulled out a mason jar of clear liquid with several slices of bloated peaches bobbing at the top, then drove to the rock quarry that overlooked the coal mine. It should have been more monumental than it was, although Raylan supposed it would have felt that way were she walking with her class in the summer, sweltering heat trapped under polyester nylon blends, were her mother alive to take picture after picture and eek out a tear here and there. Raylan hitched a leg over the side of her truck bed, not bothering with letting down the door, and sat with her knees angled together on top of a thick blanket she covered her tools with, a book to her left and Arlo's stolen shine to the right. She cracked neither open, instead scooting down a few inches and watching the mine below. Boyd would be in there, laying charges then ducking around a corner, swallowed up by the hot black exhale of the mountain, would emerge in a few hours blackened; by now, his nails would be stained and ridged in black that never quite came away no matter how hard he ran a scrub brush against his fingers. All the men in Harlan had raw red fingers and black nails clutching their Bibles in church on Sunday, and now Boyd was no different than them.
Raylan thought on the salons and parlors the other girls wanted to bring to town, Arlo and how she countered his anger at having a daughter by being just the right balance of feminine and masculine to remind him that she chose, that she always chose - and she leapt back over the side of her truck, sucking on the peach she had fished with two fingers from the jar. A minute down the road and she knocked on the mine's trailer-housed office, sweeping her hair back off her face as she walked in.
"Afternoon, sir. I understand you're always hirin'." It wasn't a question in the least.
Women didn't work the mines. It was backbreaking work on a good day, stripping the earth and coming home to sleep facing the window just for the promise and comfort of light that wasn’t a dim lantern strung up above your head. Men came from below the ground only to be put back in it and were Raylan to think about it more there was something gruesome that the sentiment achieved, but poetic in a way the Givens’ family plots weren’t. Not to her. She didn’t rightfully belong there but it wasn’t a hair salon and it wasn’t her daddy’s businesses, schemes, incarcerations waiting to happen, and it sure as hell wasn’t the army. Raylan climbed back in her truck with tax forms clutched in her fists and spun the lid off the untouched moonshine, drinking so fast that it trickled down her cheek and wet her jacket collar. She narrowly resisted tilting the jar back down and coughing; it burned like breathing close to a hot engine spinning inches from her face, scorched her throat, but it felt good.
It wasn't the moonshine that made her jump and start coughing in the end - it was Boyd, rapping a knuckle against her truck window.
"Jesus Christ you need a bell, Crowder," Raylan shouted, and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, rolling her window down and making a face at Boyd.
"If there was one place on this earth I would never have thought I'd see you, it'd be up here rubbin' elbows with all us dusty derelicts and blue collar laborers." Boyd leaned against the driver's window with his forearms, futilely swiping at the lenses of his glasses. He and his glasses wouldn't have been out of place thirty years ago, a handkerchief twisted and tied around his hand and the top buttons of his jumpsuit undone and pulled down as soon as he emerged from the earth. His hair stuck up in every single direction and Raylan lifted a hand to grab a tuft before she caught herself, then brought it down on the steering wheel instead.
"You callin' me a derelict, Boyd Crowder?" Raylan raised up a tax form and tapped the name of the mine in the top corner to demonstrate. "I start after the new year."
Boyd looked at her over the rim of his glasses, lips pursing minutely. "I seem to recall someone givin' me a bit of a mouthful regardin' leavin' school before his time."
"Well wouldn't you know it, I didn't leave school - they tossed me a diploma and tossed me out the door."
Squinting against the winter sun for a minute, Raylan offered the mason jar out of the window and waited until Boyd took it before she opened the door from the outside and stepped out to lean against the door beside him.
"Unless you were just talkin' me up about men who don't necessarily have what a mine requires. Bit odd for sweet talk but I've heard worse from Harlan boys."
"Wasn't sweet talkin'. Wasn't a lie neither." Boyd didn't go at the shine like Raylan had in her victory chugging, sipped it like the end of a shift and nothing else left for the night but taking his time getting home. "Just because you wouldn't fall behind down there, would've had everybody's back like they'd have yours, doesn't rightly mean you belong down there."
The implication wasn't smooth enough to slide by - he didn't mean because she was a girl, but because she was too smart for the mine. Boyd knew what he was doing, dug under her skin like a sharpened safety pin in the pads of her fingers, tearing up the top layers. Raylan bristled. "Well doesn't mean you don't either, Boyd, but you ain't seen me say anything more about it." Her face contorted after a second, twisted up something awful like she'd had a lemon wedge dragged across a paper cut. "Besides. Ain't forever for me, trust it isn't the same for you as well."
"Well, now, see, I think the worst I could do in these parts is draggin' my ass in that mine every morning. You did say yourself, honest money." A pause and another sip, then the lid screwed back in place. "Ain't what either of our daddies would'a had us doin' so I see that as reason enough already to be here."
In the motion of being handed back her half-empty jar, Raylan raised it up in a half-hearted toast, tipping her brow toward him.
Terror had never plagued Raylan, never in a pure, undiluted manner. It was already threaded through with a slow-burning anger, deep in the pit of her stomach and keeping her forever hot, embers from a fire never quite stamped out no matter how hard anyone tried. The night before her first day in the mine, the weight of Arlo's silent consideration regarding her employment, Helen's poorly hidden disappointment, fear sat on her chest like a sleek beast intent on keeping her breath shallow. It was a dusty old feeling, one she hadn't felt since she was a child until she'd learned that the smallest pain one could bear in life was a smattering of bruises and cuts on her skin.
Raylan set both of her feet on the floor when she woke that morning, flexing the muscles in her leg in a controlled, slow sort of way, like she was coaxing them not to flee with her on top of them. Everything was a dull, gray color, even the air around her as she stood and got ready for work; the sky outside promised the holler rain like squeezing a washcloth in to a bowl, and sure enough it slammed in to the side of the house at an angle as she made coffee enough for a cup and a thermos, and none for Arlo. Her stomach rolled at the prospect of a full breakfast, but Helen would have gave her an earfull if she left for a twelve hour shift without anything in her, so she nibbled at toast and a half brown cold banana from the fridge.
Raylan ducked out of the house with her bag just as she heard Arlo stirring from upstairs, and sat on the swing to tug her boots on, her head bowed and tucking the edges of her pants in the sides. She didn't notice Boyd until she glanced to the side to look at the rain after kicking both feet against the porch to knock off caked mud, but he sat behind her own truck with his in park, headlights on and pointed toward her.
As if it were blue skies outside, Raylan tugged her folded bandana around her neck and up over her wet hair as she made her way over to his window, knocking on the glass so he'd crack it.
"My very own personal driver? If my wishes are being granted, lunch's on me, 'cause I've got a chuck of change headed my way pretty soon."
Boyd smiled, lifting his own cup of coffee to his mouth, tendrils of steam rolling outwards from the mix of temperatures. "I'd prefer you get in, 'less you enjoy the 'pushed in the river' look you're about to be sporting."
Raylan took off for the opposite side of the vehicle and slid in quickly, balling her fists on her knees once her seat belt was firmly in place. She chose not to speak, nerves settling in to her, and Boyd left the silence be like he was still the only person in the cab, though he did glance over once he had parked, leaving the engine rattling.
It marveled Raylan, how all at once anxiety tugged every feeling to the surface, but left them so deeply rooted in the center of her, tugging and pulling her worry like ropes of taffy.
"What's it like in there?" Her voice came out rough like she'd been smoking longer than she had, like it'd not been used in months, and she tried to clear her throat without a sound, as if anything else would cause Boyd not to answer. "Not," she added a moment later, cocking her head to the side slightly, "like I don't know, but..." But you've got a way with words that might make me feel better about this. But it might be better if you tell me. But I want to hear it from you."
"Something like I imagine from Jonah and the Whale, only repentin' doesn't work, and cryin' out for God doesn't work, though I imagine many have over the years. It's like you can press your hand to the wall beside you and feel the earth sighin' around you, swallowin' you whole. It's so hot you can't breathe in summertime, you think you might drown in your own lungs." Boyd looked over at Raylan, his long, eerie stare that broke for no reason other than he wanted to, and Raylan had her own eyes closed but she could feel his on her. It was more comforting than unsettling.
"You need a hand to pull you out, Raylan, I have no problem bein' that hand for you. You ask to work munitions and explosives with me, you work twenty men on down the line, it's up to you and what you wanna do in there."
Raylan knocked her fist in to her lunchbox, reaching out to press down against the seat of the truck so she could lean in to Boyd's space and kiss him, hard and fast, against the mouth. He scrubbed his face with Ivory soap twice a day to be rid of soot and she could smell it against his nose now, both of their mouths filled with the bitter taste of black coffee with little sugar. They were both silent for a moment after, pulling back at the same time so there was a space between them, close enough Raylan could count the lines on Boyd's lips.
"Thank you," she said after a moment, though if she meant for the ride that morning, for the drink after burying her mama, for making sure a Bennett didn't cave her face in, for being something of a peculiar bright spot amidst Harlan County covered in the black stains of misery and coal, she didn't clarify or elaborate.
When Boyd replied, after a moment, "anytime," it was clear between the both of them that he understood she meant all of the above.