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The last house

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Boyd was already waiting on the other side of the glass when the guard led her to the booth. Something more fanged than surprise creased his face, and for a second she thought he didn’t recognize her even though his little brother would give up his own hand to date her, so she blurted, “It’s me, Ava Randolph.” The phone casing creaked in her hand. It smelled sweaty, a metallic tang like cheap earrings.

“Well, how do you do, Miss Ava Randolph.” His tone was so serious it went through mockery right back into sincerity. “Does your mama know you’re here?”

Her mama thought she was at the movies with Jenny Howard, and Jenny thought she was making time with some new beau in Corbin. She’d used her fake ID to sign in.

“It ain’t no matter to you whether she do or don’t.”

“No, of course it ain’t. What can I do for you, Miss Ava?” His smile sat odd on his face, like a frying pan wobbling on a burner that was out of level, hot blue flames whispering up its sides.

“I wanted to talk to you,” Ava said. “I wanted...” To her horror, she felt tears welling hot in her eyes, and she looked up, blinking.

“Don’t tell me you had someone down the mines that day,” he said, suddenly stricken.

“What? No. No, I—it was only the company men down there, I heard.”

“So it was,” he said slowly. “Then if revenge is not the issue at hand, Miss Ava, pleasant as your company may be, I confess I am at somewhat of a loss as to what I could possibly offer you by way of conversation.”

Her neck ached. She smoothed her damp palm over her skirt where he couldn’t see. “I saw you at Raylan’s funeral.”

“I’m sure you did.”

“No. I mean, I saw you. After. By his grave.”

She hadn’t been aware of anything closed off in him until it opened. But now she saw there’d been a wall of glass in him twice as thick as the prison barrier, and Raylan’s name had unsealed it. At the funeral, standing alone away from the Givens house, skinny in his borrowed suit, the tulip poplar’s sweet pale petals bruising brown beneath his shoes as they buried Raylan under the waiting tombstone—he’d looked just like that. A window left open, the storm whipping straight through. Everyone had seen him, though nobody looked. Frances was standing straight as a willow in her black dress, a thousand miles away. Helen stopped Arlo from starting something. The story went that when the rescue crew finally broke through the rubble, they’d found Boyd still cradling Raylan’s bloody head, talking soft and steady like any minute he was gonna get an answer.

“I was helping Mrs. Givens in the kitchen,” Ava said. “I saw through the window. You sat down against the headstone and you were—talking. I saw you pulling them petals off the soles of your shoes and laying them out on the grave.”

Boyd had leaned his head against the booth, eyes closed as if to picture it. With that wall still cracked in him he didn’t care what his face looked like, she knew, but all the same she had to look away from it.

“I came here because it seemed to me like you were telling him something important," she said, soft. “Like you were making sense of things. And I couldn’t get it out of my head, how much I wanted that. Will you—will you tell me what you were telling him?”

He opened his dark eyes, looking flat right at her.

“And what do you offer in exchange, Miss Ava?”

“Exchange?”

“Surely you realize the kind of secret you’re asking for don’t come free.”

“Well, I won’t know what it’s worth till I hear it, will I?”

“You already know it’s worth four men’s lives and a life in prison to me.” His voice was kindling-soft. “And yet I thought you said you weren’t here for revenge.”

“I ain’t.”

“Well, what do you call it, looking to take from a man who took from you?”

She flinched, stung. “That ain’t what I’m doing.”

“You’re a poor liar, Ava Randolph.”

He was leaning forward, intent and still, snake-mean, and for the first time she saw his daddy in him. It made her so mad she forgot to be shaken.

“You think I’m here cause I’m jealous?” Her voice shook. She clutched her coat and purse and climbed to her feet, feeling ridiculous and then even angrier for it when the phone cord yanked awkwardly at her hair. “You think I want to hurt you because you loved him too? You sorry son of a bitch. I pity you, you think that’s what love means. I came here thinking maybe neither one of us had to be so alone, but if that’s what you want, you go right ahead and stay alone.”

“Wait. Ava, please—”

She smacked the receiver back in the cradle. He was straining forward, jamming the phone between his head and shoulder to press his shackled hands palm-up against the glass, almost comical, like a mime in an old movie. His mouth moving, soundless.

That was what stopped her: the thought of him trapped, again, talking to someone who wouldn’t talk back.

Slowly she sat, clutching her things in her lap with one hand and picking up the phone with the other. Boyd went loose with relief.

“What,” she said.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” He glanced away, then back again. “You frightened me. I didn’t—you figured it out. I was expecting you to hate me.”

“Why on earth would I hate you?”

“I would.”

He’d do a great many things she wouldn’t if she were in his position, she thought but didn’t say: it felt thinner, less true, the longer it sat in her mind.

They sat there for a heavy minute, silence spilling like salt between them.

“My daddy died in the mine, did you know that?” she said.

“No, I did not. Was that the, what, ’81 collapse?”

“September 16, 1981.”

With that preacher-deadly way he had, he said, “Ava, I am sorry for your loss.”

“I used to have dreams where I was trapped down there, trying to find him in the dark. Calling for him. He never answered.” It was her turn to look away. “I would’ve wanted someone talking to me, too. Like you did for Raylan.”

He regarded her. “You loved him.”

“I don’t know. Maybe. I didn’t know him, not really. But he—” she didn’t know if there was a word for it, the way he’d swayed so gracefully under the hopes she’d pinned on him.

“He didn’t like being known.”

“Yes. I think I could’ve loved him.”

“Sure, I see it. You seeing what no one else saw, coming all the way out here to prove it—that’s smart. Brave. Another year or two, you would’ve knocked him on his ass.” He was smiling again, that wobbling flame smile. “You would’ve had him wrapped around your little finger. He would’ve killed anybody who did you harm, like a Harlan man should.”

“Is that what you did?”

“Can’t kill a mine. But I tried my best.” He gave another awful, twisted, closemouthed smile; she thought, sudden as a papercut, that he might be shy about his bad teeth. “I was just gonna rob it. Take the money, get out of Harlan the way he wanted. But they had them Eastover bosses down the hole first shift to show off how safe things were after the collapse, and I—they were talking about sorrow, about restitution, but they didn’t even know his goddamn name. And I felt this black cold come up in me. I had a gun, but I hardly needed it, they were so afraid. I sent the Harlan men out. I set my charges. Then I waited at the mouth of the cut and made sure not one of them murdering sons of bitches ever came out.”

Something had moved under him, under them both. She couldn’t look away. It was why she’d come: seeing that weary, grievous rage burn across someone else’s face, now she could name it in herself.

“I’m glad you did it,” she said. “Ain’t you?”

“I'm going to spend the rest of my life in this prison, Ava.”

“All the more need for gladness, then.”

Boyd almost laughed. “Even if Almighty God himself was hunched in the hole right next to me, I couldn’t have done otherwise.” Another flicker, a new flame passing through Boyd’s naked expression. “He couldn’t answer me. Raylan. He thought he was somewhere else. And then he was.”

Off in the distance, a door clanged shut. Ava barely heard it. She was on the other side of the glass now, too: standing next to Boyd in that bright funeral day, the black of the mine pierced through the sunlight like an awl. A hole so deep it pierced all the days after, too. 

“Tell me,” she said.

“He thought he was home, hurting cause Arlo’d been beating on him. I couldn’t bear to tell him he was down the hole. He hated it down there. So I said, yes, you’re home. But it ain’t your daddy’s house. It’s yours, the house I’m building for you. I’d been thinking about it for a long time. I had it all ready in my mind.” Boyd’s eyes were wet, but his voice was calm. “There’s a piece of land in the hills my granddaddy left me for when I turn twenty-one. In the summers the sunrise comes through this gap in the ridge like it’s being poured into a bowl, and in the winters when the trees are bare you can see right down the slope to the little spring pond where Tates Creek starts. Ever since I was little, I always knew I’d build my house there. I just didn’t know it would be for Raylan too.”

“Boyd,” she said, and couldn’t say anything else.

“I couldn’t tell. When he—I couldn’t tell how much he heard before he—” Boyd’s voice cracked like sap snapping a burning branch from the inside. “So I sat by his grave and told him again.”

He was trying to keep himself together. She wanted to tell him not to bother: she felt as good as naked herself; she felt they didn’t have any secrets left. But Boyd was pressing his hands hard on his face, and the phone had slipped into the crook of his elbow, and he couldn’t hear her.

She hung up. She leaned her head against the booth, one hand on the glass.

After a while Boyd smeared his face dry and looked up at her again. His chest was heaving like a bird’s as he leaned his head to match her. And then they were looking at each other off-tilt from the rest of the world, almost like lovers on a pillow. Not that she’d know. She’d been waiting.

Tell me, she mouthed. Tell me.

He nodded. He went slow, so she could read his lips. As she watched, Boyd drew it in the air between them, shackled hands spread as far as they could go: the foundation. The kitchen, the bedroom, the chimney stacked by hand. A porch facing west, to sit and drink while the sun set, because God knew Raylan was never going to be the kind of man to wake up early just to watch it rise. And in the yard a garden, and no goddamned gravestones.

Every time she thought he’d forgotten her—lost to some deep place she couldn’t plumb—he’d look back at her over his crooked knuckles, catch her up in his hellfire gaze.

Thank you, she said. It felt too small, but it was all she had. Thank you, as he was shaking his head, fitting his hands up against the outline of hers.

A door clanged open again, closer. The guard was coming to take her away. Boyd couldn’t hear it, so she didn’t react at all, stretching their strange, humming silence out as long as she could. He’d never been beautiful to her before. Now that he was, she didn’t want to forget.

Suddenly she could see the future waiting for her. Its solid shape on the horizon. It was like the glass between them had tilted and now she was the negative of Boyd’s image, the inverse of every shadow: somewhere, a man she’d love, alive. A house. A good life.

The guard came and stood at her shoulder. Boyd didn’t spare him a glance; he was watching her as she rose, her hand leaving the glass at the last second. She didn’t look away. Please, he said silently. She nodded: she knew. Nothing ever came for free. And this was the other side of the good life coming for her—returning every now and then to Boyd Crowder in his prison, spinning her secondhand love back out like a lifeline the way he’d done for her. Not quite a cost. A duty, somehow, or a debt. The thing she’d want done for her, if it was her down there in the dark waiting to be saved, cradling the body of the boy she loved still warm her lap, building, word by word, the last house either of them would ever know.