The thing about being a Hall, which Ray already fucking said once so it shouldn’t need repeating thank you very much, was that he was and always would be deadweight. That really all he knew how to do was sink, and he’d been tied to enough Halls of his own to know how it felt to be dragged under. To think one minute you were swimming, and the next realize the whole time you were actually just waiting to drown.
Some days he was sure he’d gotten used to the feeling of water in his lungs or at the very least forgotten what air felt like in them, and then the next there was a fucking bird in front of him. Almost within his grasp. One who sometimes let him close enough to touch, to smell, to think about what it would be like to breathe so far from the water you’d never be dragged down again, never fear your next breath.
Ray loved the water, but he was so fucking tired of breathing it. So tired of not breathing at all.
The other thing about being a Hall was loving anything was dangerous. Things you loved left, or were broken, or showed you they weren’t the thing you thought you loved at all.
But Heather Nill was a bird. Heather Nill flew, and she smiled, and she was honest in a way he’d avoided his whole life. Panic was far from the first game he’d played—games to avoid grandpa’s hands, to find enough cash in the cushions for lunch, to laugh things off that felt like punches in the gut. Heather Nill didn’t feel like those games. Sometimes, Heather Nill felt like an answer to a question he’d forgotten he could ask.
He knew from the moment she jumped off the cliff he would fall in love with her. He knew it was going to fucking hurt. He knew, really, there was nothing he could do about it.
He knew there was nothing he wanted to do about it, either. He was so screwed.
Maybe the most important thing about being a Hall was they were fucking stupid.
“Hm.” Heather’s eyes darted from her notepad up at him, where she was scribbling the way Ray had gotten used to as background music. His favorite nighttime lullaby. She looked back down, crouched further over her words, but the hm hung in the air.
“Well spit it,” he said, bringing his half-finished cigarette back to his mouth. He’d have to leave soon to help with a job Tyler had phoned him for that should be quick cash, but he couldn’t help himself from clenching onto every moment he could spare of Heather’s with a tight fist.
There was still the feeling at the back of his head that everything was borrowed time. As he fell deeper, inescapably in love with her, he forever felt the nagging feeling of abandonment. Heather was too good, too smart, too bound for better than this. Someday she would finally leave, and he would be left here like he always was.
Maybe he could leave, he found himself thinking lately. Maybe for her he could finally try to scrape himself up into someone better so he could be worth dragging from the dumpster of this town. But what would he do anywhere else? He was a tool fashioned only for Carp. He had no use anywhere but here.
“Seems like you’re thinking an awful lot,” Heather said finally, setting her pen down.
He reached out a hand and played with her hair, eyes scanning the planes of her face. He could do it forever—drink in her expressions like the best beer on tap, pint after pint until he was drunk on her alone.
Maybe Ray had gotten better at talking about his feelings with Heather, but it still felt near impossible to pull certain words from his mouth. Like pressing the pad of his thumb into a tender bruise for a brief reminder of feeling but painful all the while. You remembered the width of the wound, how deep it ran. He didn’t know if he’d ever be able to say I love you. He didn’t know if he’d ever dare, and yet it bloomed in his chest like something beautiful.
I don’t think good things are going to happen to me anymore, he’d said. Yet he couldn’t explain how the best possible thing had happened, the one that felt so far from reality it was like one of the stories she jotted in her spirals.
“Just wondering what you’re writing. Ever gonna let me read something?” he asked.
“I didn’t know you knew how to read,” she deadpanned, following it with a teasing smile that spread into something sweet. She dipped forward and kissed his lips before he could fire something back. “You can read something. I just need to make sure it’s the right thing.”
“Not the novel, then?” he asked with a tilt of the head.
“Nah. The novel needs a lot of work. The love interest is coming off so difficult to love right now. Mostly because the audience doesn’t know he has a heart of gold under all the bullshit.” Her smile was too delicate. A soft, light, happy thing that Ray didn’t deserve.
“Sounds kinda hot,” he replied with a shrug. “I’ll read whatever you want to share.”
She nodded. “Okay. On it.” She paused, checking her watch quickly before leaning forward and propping her chin on her hand. “Want to make out for five minutes before we both have to leave?”
Ray slapped his hands across the table. “Baby, absolutely. ”
Heather: Let’s go to the movies.
Ray: the movies?
Heather: People go to the movies. They sit and watch a movie for a few hours. Sometimes they eat snacks. I’ve heard it’s popular amongst teenagers.
Heather : Amongst.
“Sometimes texting you is like algebra homework,” Ray said over the phone. “I mean, I guess if I ever did my algebra homework.”
“What’s confusing about wanting to go see a movie?” Heather was driving somewhere by the sound of wind rushing in the back. “I won’t make you see something you don’t want to. I just… I don’t know, I ran into my mom at the pharmacy and it was weird and I want to go to a movie. I can afford to buy us one of those ridiculously big buckets of popcorn and the sodas too. Do you know I’ve never once had a movie theater popcorn? That shit is expensive.”
A wave of something passed through Ray’s ribs like a breeze through tall trees—a feeling he understood, almost, a new level of tenderness beside it. He thought briefly of being in middle school and trying to get the money for a school field trip. The way he’d waited all day for the perfect moment, trying to play it cool so it didn’t seem like he cared about it too much, and the way it hadn’t mattered at all. Not paying for that shit. So he skipped school because what was the fucking point of sitting around all by himself?
“Let’s go to the fucking movies,” Ray said enthusiastically. “I want peanut butter cups, too. But don’t worry, money bags, I think I can cover them. I’d hate to eat into your fortune.”
“Nah, Ray. I’m taking you out for a date.” He could imagine the joking eyebrow waggle she was doing right now, and a laugh stole itself from his throat.
It was there on his tongue so ready to burst. I really fucking love you, Heather Nill. He couldn’t comprehend feeling this happy, that some people were allowed to feel it this often, this frequently. That they’d never lived without it so they didn’t understand what a gift it really was. Even thinking it made him cringe. Those words were never going anywhere outside of his head.
They went to the movies, and Ray only tried to make out with Heather like… three times, which she didn’t seem to mind too much. But then she grabbed his hand, interlacing their fingers together, and they watched the movie like that. In the back row, feet up, popcorn abandoned at their feet. Heather tilted her head onto his shoulder, and Ray wouldn’t blink for fear he’d wake up.
Ray finished tightening the bolt he was working on under the hood of his car before he turned to see the stack of papers beside him. He raised a brow in Heather’s direction, who was looking anywhere but him. Her arms were crossed over her chest, and one of her legs jiggled.
“Now what’s this?” He wiped his oil-stained hands off on his slacks before picking up the papers. The stack couldn’t have been more than fifteen pages, the paper still crisp like it had just been printed.
“You know what it is.” Ray went to flip open to the first page, and a strange halting noise came from her. “Wait until I’m not around to read it, please.”
He rolled it up and put it into his back pocket with a nod.
He didn’t mean to avoid reading it, but he didn’t touch it that day. Or the next. It wasn’t fear that Heather wasn’t going to be good—he knew she was going to be good. Honestly, it was fear he’d be too dumb to get it. He wanted to read it, he’d meant it when he said it, but now he realized the possibility that reading it would somehow lead to him letting her down.
But he felt as if he couldn’t see her until he did, so he sat down on his bed with a beer and laid the pages out in front of him. The beer gurgled as he took a long pull, and then he picked up the first page.
“Leave the gator ‘lone,” Lyra said, cigarette dipping precariously between her teeth. “You know you’re not meant to bother it.”
“Who said anything about bothering?” But Lyra had known Will since before he’d been Will, when one day he’d told everyone he couldn’t be called Willie anymore and he’d beaten up James Parker for doing it anyway. Simple as that. Like he could will everyone to forget he used to build tiny cabins out of sticks on the playground during lunch instead of playing tag with the other kids, but black t-shirts and a good punch when needed could do a lot to change perception.
Which was to say, Lyra knew exactly what Will had been doing. He’d been trying to get her to agree to help get the damned alligator entered in the Johnson’s annual fight, which he’d been attempting routinely every year since he became Will.
The story kept rolling, so easy to read that Ray felt like he was watching it on a movie screen. Will convinced Lyra to help with the alligator. Getting the thing to the fighting ring was a comedy of errors that had caused Ray to laugh out loud, but the whole while you slowly learned Lyra had been telling secrets to the alligator her whole life. Something like a friend, so that Ray started to think maybe the alligator knew exactly what was happening. Like it was its own character. And the last secret you hear her tell the gator, right before the epic fight at the competition, was about Lyra and Will.
I would be happy to build damn twig houses with him if he’d sit still for an hour with me, I would. But I have to give him you, baby. I’m sorry.
The alligator ended up walking into the ring, shooting what seemed like one last glance at Lyra. And Ray couldn’t stop thinking about that. The sacrifice of the alligator like it knew what was going to happen to it. The sacrifice of Lyra’s secret keeper to make Will happy. The ambiguity of the end—whether the alligator would survive or not, and the knowledge that everything would change either way.
“What the fuck,” Ray said. He finished reading it for the second time, setting the pages onto his bed. “What the fuck. ”
Heather crawled through the window, which Ray would never get tired of seeing. It was like every glorified teenage dream he’d ever had, literal perfection perching through the window to see him. The front door wasn’t far away, but Ray suspected Heather hated the unpredictability of who was sitting in the living room. So she would do a little knock on the glass pane before hitching it open and crawling through.
“What am I? Your common whore?” Ray asked, arm behind his head as he laid on his bed watching her with a smirk.
She rolled her eyes, did that cute little smile that meant she was having fun with the joke. “Obviously.” She hopped onto the bed on her knees, dipping forward to kiss at a spot on his collarbone she could reach. “I’ve got a few hours before I need to make sure Lily is in bed.”
“No.” He reached forward and wrapped his arms around her waist, tugging her closer. “Stay with me.”
She flopped her head into his chest as she let out a puff of breath. “I promised her a bedtime story.”
Ray reached out a hand and played with the hair hanging in front of her face before using his palms to push it back so he could view her expression all at once. Sometimes, Heather had this little look that crossed her features like she was embarrassed he wanted to stare at her. As if she couldn't possibly imagine what was worth looking at. When she did, he couldn’t help something soft taking him over. She looked fragile in those moments, and all he wanted to do was help tape her back together. He kissed the bridge of her nose.
“I’ll always take what I can get, baby.”
She smiled. Then her eyes flashed to her story next to the bed. He’d done a third reading of it this morning, and this time the line he couldn’t get out of his head was: Will was a fish—slippery, quick, always looking most at home in the water and like he might not be able to survive anywhere else.
Ray probably liked it because he understood it. As much as he hated drowning, Ray fucking loved the water too. He felt at home there.
“You read my story.” Her face was cautious, hard to read.
He squinted at her. “A few times.”
She raised a brow. “A few times? That hard to understand?”
The smile that crossed her face was, fuck, Ray wished he could tell stories like her to describe it. A perfect sunset over the water with all the bright colors… red and pink and stretching across the whole sky so it reflected off of the water. The one he’d sit on the dock for with a beer so he could watch every color disappear under the horizon. Those sunsets and when he was on the water were really the only times he thought Carp held any beauty at all. Well, that and anytime Heather Nill was around.
“I don’t know who I liked best. Will or Lyra or the gator.”
She hummed. “You're a fish, too. Makes sense you’d like Will.”
He tutted his tongue. “Slippery?” Dipped closer and kissed her lips. “Quick?” For a moment, he caught her lips and lost his hands in her hair. He kissed lines up her neck until he got to her earlobe, catching it in his teeth with a grin. “A fish and a bird in love is a hell of a tragedy. Don’t wanna drown ya, Nill.”
Heather pulled back onto her knees with a groan. “You—” She poked him in the chest, taking a breath before starting again. “You,” she continued and followed with a brief, soft kiss. She pulled back from his face only an inch. “Are not fucking deadweight.” Her lips twisted mischievous. “You could never have that much power to pull me down, Ray Hall. I’m unsinkable.”
“Maybe that’s my favorite part about you.” He brought his thumb to her bottom lip, pushing into it slightly as she went nearly cross eyed trying to spot it. “You’re so fucking talented. You know that?”
It took a second, but then she smiled; she had a strange twinkle in her eye. “I don’t know what the hell you mean about deadweight. You saw me, and not the way I thought of myself but the way I wanted to think of myself, and it seemed… possible. So shut the fuck up about being deadweight, because you’re the fucking wind.”
His chest was filled with helium, his head like he’d just taken that first sweet smoke from a fresh pack of cigarettes, and he couldn’t believe the words she’d just spoken. Not a single one. “I thought I was a fish. You’re getting your analogies mixed up, sweetheart.”
“I didn't know you even knew the word analogy.” Her smile was teasing. Ray wanted to taste it. “Constantly impressing me.”
“Might just be because your expectations are in the dirt.”
She shook her head. “They’re not.” Her fingers found his belt loops between them, pushing herself back into position above him. “And, anyways, I’ve always liked the dirt.”
“That’s a li-'' But the words didn’t matter. How could they when she was kissing him, and she thought he was the wind. What kind of poetic bullshit that he didn’t deserve was that? So he kissed her, and he kissed her neck and her tits and her stomach and every inch he could reach. He kissed her because he could, and he wanted to, and she fucking deserved to feel good.
And there it was, right on the tip of his tongue, so easy to breathe into her if he wanted to. Which he did, but he didn’t, he didn’t… he kissed it into her hip bone. A kiss for every letter. Eight tender kisses followed with the tip of his tongue, and the way the breath caught in her throat made him wonder if she could possibly just know. If she’d sensed it.
Then she whimpered Ray and every thought was sucked from his body.
“Heather,” he whispered. He rubbed his hand over her back slowly, the smooth expanse of it, and she mumbled something incomprehensible into his chest. “Baby, come on.”
“Ugh, what?” She groaned, popping up onto her elbow and rubbing at the corner of her eye.
She tilted her head. “What— Lily. ” Sleep shook off of her as she jumped off the bed, reaching for her clothes. Her hair was a mess, flying around as she stepped into her tennis shoes. Only then did she dip back toward him and plant a searing kiss that was nowhere near long enough. “Thank you.” She patted his chest once.
“Heather,” he called, her body half out the window even now instead of walking out the door. Beautiful and half-wrecked still. “Who’s your gator?”
She worked her bottom lip between her teeth. “My stories, I guess. Maybe Natalie.” He waited when she paused. “Lately… you.” He knew he must have some sort of stupid smile on his face because she smiled right back, shaking her head. “That dimple. I’m hopping out this window before I do something dumb and never leave.”
Ray didn’t have time to get a word out before she was gone, just the memory of her and the puttering of his heart left in her wake. The empty window sill.
It wasn’t that Ray avoided the farm, but they typically found themselves at his or some other middle point. The farm was partially out of the way, and Ray got the sense Heather was worried about intruding too much. Her elevator shrinking body trying to shrink itself even further in some twisted way of not bothering Anne.
Ray knocked, pulling his hat off and pushing his hair back before settling it down again. He twisted toward the fields to see if he could spot Heather, but he didn’t see much besides a llama. They’d been set to pick up burgers before heading over to some party that Diggins was putting on, but he’d finished up with work early and was antsy. He figured he might as well stop to see if Heather wanted a ride or some company for the next hour.
The door opened, and in its opening was her sister.
Lily tilted her head in an expression that reminded Ray of Heather. “Are you the boyfriend?”
“You’re going to make me feel interrogated, little miss.” He shot her a smile which he thought worked, but he couldn’t be quite sure. “I am the boyfriend. And you’re Lily?”
She nodded. “I’m Lily. You can draw with me until she gets back from feeding the horses, if you want.” She didn’t wait to hear his response before she’d turned away.
Which was how he found himself sitting on the floor of Anne’s living room, one leg pulled in and the other spread to the side, drawing and coloring with Heather’s sister.
“You’re hogging the green,” she said, holding out her hand. He happily handed it over. They colored in silence besides for the few moments Lily started to hum bits of songs he couldn’t name. It was actually sort of peaceful.
Heather came in through the back, hair in braids and boots on her feet. Her eyes narrowed at the sight in front of her. “Well, this is an odd one, Lily bug.”
Lily shrugged. “He’s your boyfriend.”
Ray laughed, a real chuckle, and the other two girls smiled at him. Heather nodded to the hallway, and he followed her to her bedroom. She kissed him when the door closed. “Didn’t know you were such an artist.”
“She’s really good. Got a real eye for color. I was learning a whole lot.”
“Is that so?”
He nodded, a smirk spreading. “Yeah. Take a look.” He dipped forward and kissed her. “I made it for you.” Then he slipped the paper into her hand.
When she opened the drawing of the alligator a bright laugh bubbled from her lips. She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him again. “I—” She shook her head. “Ray Hall.”
Ray didn’t know what that meant, but he’d listen to her say his name any goddamn way as long as she was saying it.
It was a month or so later, the two of them floating aimlessly on the boat during a lazy Sunday afternoon, when Heather broke him. Beyond repair broke him with no warning. She stood up to grab her water bottle from the cooler, and when she came to sit down beside him she tossed candy onto his chest. Her hair was still wet from the water, her lips swollen and pink from kissing a little bit ago, and she was beautiful.
“Peanut butter cups. Kept them cold the way you like them and everything. I don’t really get it, but whatever.”
No one had ever stored bits of information about him like that—things to be remembered, of importance. His brother loved him, but his brother was always treading water, and they didn’t live easy lives. You didn't have time for niceties when you were trudging through dirt. Neither Heather or him had been given easy lives, but she cared anyways. She cared enough to try to bring some small surprise of happiness into his day, and it broke him in two.
“I—” Ray propped up onto his elbows from his spot lying on the back of the boat, and he couldn’t stop looking at her. She brought one knee up to wrap her arms around it, sipping her water, and she shot him a strange look at this silence. “I did something stupid, Nill.”
She rolled her eyes. “You’re always doing something stupid.”
“Nope. Something even more stupid than my usual stupid.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
He ran his tongue over his teeth and shook his head. “I fucking love you.”
Her hand shot out, hitting his upper arm. “We didn’t have to fall in love, Ray, remember?”
“Too late.” He shook his head back. “It was always gonna be too late, though. And what’s that I hear? We didn’t?”
“Of course I love you,” Heather said. She crawled over the back seat to get closer, reaching out a hand to his cheek and running her thumb over the edge of his mouth.
He leaned into the touch. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
It was that smile again, the little one that was like prying open an oyster to find a pearl hidden inside. She pursed her lips and leaned her forehead into his chest. “Didn’t want to scare you away.”
Which was the dumbest fucking thing Ray had ever heard because if anyone was going to run, he’d known it would be her. He was in. He was here. He’d tied himself to her, whatever that meant, and he’d known there was no turning back. You didn’t turn back from a woman like Heather Nill. There was nothing sensible about seeing something so beautiful and resigning yourself to never seeing it again.
“Guess you’re stuck now,” he whispered, sitting up and turning so he could be straight on despite having to turn his head down to look at her. His hands held her face between them while his eyes savored every inflection of her expression. “No going back. I love you.”
“Where would I go? I’m right here.” Her gaze was resolved, steely. He believed her. “And I love you. And I like hearing you say I love you right back.”
He jolted forward and picked her up, letting them fall back again onto the seat as a tangle of limbs as they laughed. “Then I love you, I love you, I love you…” The words trailing into kisses, more laughter, whispered promises.
He kissed it into her hipbone again, but then he whispered it straight into her ear. Soft, barely there, but heard.
I love you.
The thing about being a Hall was they were deadweight, they were fucking stupid, but maybe loving anything wasn’t dangerous. Maybe that one he had gotten wrong.
And if he hadn’t? Well, he’d done plenty of dangerous for far less. For Heather Nill he could spare a little more.