Rayla Givens is the result of lousy parents.
In more than one way, this is true.
Arlo expected a boy - a tall boy to carry on the family name, and do whatever the fuck he says, no questions asked. Instead, a Givens girl is born - small with her mama's hair, who questions things from the get go. Arlo's real disappointed, and everybody with a pair of eyes knows it.
Either way, she wonders if it would've killed her mama to think of a better name.
Considering Arlo, it very well might've done.
What Arlo wants, he feels entitled to: a son. Her mama miscarriages every single one of them. Ralya is an only child.
She spends the first five years of her life acting like the perfect girl, all pretty dresses and big eyes and dolls. In every game she plays with Mary - who has a pretty baby sister called Ava - Rayla is a knight, rescuing the pretty swooning princess, and trying not to listen to the shouts of the boys down the street as they play Cops and Robbers.
When she does listen, her stomach gets all twisted up and dark, and surely, it ain't Christian to covert like that.
But one day, she convinces them to let her play. Jimmy Canning is real sweet on her big brown eyes and long auburn hair. She kisses him on the cheek, he goes red, and hands her his toy gun. She skims her knees arresting a suspect, and tackles him to the ground, putting a toy gun to his head, and it is wonderful.
Until her mama sees her.
"It ain't safe, baby," she tells her breathlessly, quick but gentle hands as she smoothens Rayla's hair down over her cheeks. "If your daddy sees, he ain't gonna be happy."
"Ain't he always?" Rayla says sourly.
"Don't talk about your daddy that way," her mama scolds lowly, but her hands pause to cup her daughter's cheeks, thumbs stroking gently over her skin. Francine Givens' brown eyes are wild with fear and dark with pain. "Oh, my girl."
Girl, her mama says, not boy.
One of her mama's last miscarriages puts her in hospital. Helen goes with her, snarling accusation at her brother-in-law as she clambers in the ambulance with her sister. Only he has a meeting, and he don't think kindly on staying home with Rayla. She has a snapshot memory of him on the telephone, blaming her mama, promising to leave her outside to somebody called Bo and then, "You want me to bring her?"
Arlo - he's always been Arlo to her, never daddy, a small something she's picked up from Helen - drives for a long time. The car is boiling with heat, air burning down her lungs as she breathes. She knows better than to ask him to roll the windows down.
Arlo takes her into a bar. She is faintly surprised because he usually makes her wait outside for hours and hours, and she hates the looks she gets - sometimes pity, sometimes something she doesn't understand, and she's real sorry but she ain't supposed to go places with strangers, Aunt Helen says so, and Aunt Helen is always right, especially when she calls Arlo a no-good son of a bitch, though she ain't supposed to say that to his face.
It ain't polite.
Bo Crowder is a big man, dark hair streaked with grey, and for all the world, he reminds her of the grizzly bears her cousin, Archie, hunts. He is sitting at the bar, a small glass of clear liquid in front of him. When they enter, he turns to face them, and suddenly, he don't remind her of a bear so much. There's something in his eyes that scares her, a slick and slimy darkness, meaner than Arlo could ever dream to be.
Bo smiles, big and welcoming, moving forward with his arms open, marvelling. He greets Arlo, all friendly-like, and then his attention turns to her. Instead of ignoring her like most of Arlo's friends, Bo crouches down on her level, looks at her, like he was judging something, "Well, ain't you a pretty thing."
Rayla wants to hide from that look, the dark slippery thing in his gaze, but she doesn't. Instead, she sticks out her tiny hand, all proper just like Aunt Helen taught her, head held high, and says, "Rayla Givens."
Arlo goes stiff beside her, but amusement flares all over Bo's face, and he barks out a laugh, accepts her tiny hand, squeezing lightly. "Good manners on you, girl." The slimy charm leaves his face, and she is relieved. "P'haps you can teach my boy some manners. G'on now, Rayla, just through the back there."
Glad to be away from him, Rayla goes. The store room door closes behind her, and just like his daddy, a boy - Boyd - turns to her. A shock of black hair is the first thing she notices, and then, a pair of green eyes with hellfire burning behind them. His face betrays surprise when he sets those eyes on her, eyebrow arching like something out of the movies. He is a little older than her, just turned six, she remembers.
"You're a girl," he states, like she ain't been aware of that her whole life.
"You're a boy," Rayla retorts in the same flat tone.
For a moment, Boyd studies her, like he's weighing something up, and she looks back at him, unwaveringly stone-faced. The corner of his mouth twitches in a smile, and she senses victory, though only of a sort.
They don't see each other all too often, especially considering how rocky Arlo and Bo's business arrangement is, but it's always fun when they do.
Her old toys get packed away. She starts playing with soccer balls and the boys down the street. Her hair ends up in a braid more often than not. Her hair starts to curl, and she twists her mama's arm for jeans. Arlo sneers and mocks and hollars at her for dressing like a boy. Her mama worries, but Rayla is unconcerned.
There's no way to please Arlo, and she don't care much for trying, either. She might as well get a beating over something worthwhile then for walking too fast in the house. He only scares her somedays, the violent switch in moods that comes so unexpectedly and the furious roars, but she's growing up out of that too.
The domestic situation in the Givens household ain't no secret to anybody in Harlan. Neither is the one in the Crowder household.
Jimmy Canning has a perfectly happy family. He thinks her bruises are from playing rough. Her thinks her mama is crazy from screaming so much at night. He wants to hold Rayla's hand, to kiss her on the mouth when little Ava cries enough to convince them to play house.
In her life, most of the kisses on the mouth include knuckles and blood splattering on the walls. Arlo ain't got no problem hitting his wife and his daughter until they bleed. Her mama takes it without ever fighting back, and Rayla isn't big enough to do more than bite or maybe get a hit between the legs, though she usually isn't quick enough, but one day she will be.
Jimmy has a baby brother, two parents, and nobody ever screams in his house. His family ain't originally from Harlan like hers, and she has to wonder how the hell they'd ended up here. He invites her round for dinner often enough. His house is fancy and pretty and real tidy. No one is drinking Jim Beam or anything like that. She can't help but feel drawn into this world.
When she is seven, she starts thinking a bit beyond life in Harlan.
So Boyd is a little older than her, he is still as crazy and hot-headed as home-made explosives. When Boyd gets angry, Rayla feels cold from the inside to the outside. It ain't fear, ain't that harsh start she gets when Arlo has a certain look in his eye, but it's something just as strong. Sometimes she stops him from taking out whatever triggers him in a wave of fury. But when he talks to someone, all charming and subtly controlling, she has to sit back and watch the master at work.
In a way, their tempers slot together, hot and cold clashing at the exact moments.
Rayla keeps that to herself. Friend or not, Boyd is shaping up to be an opportunistic son of a bitch, and her Harlan-issue survival instincts warn her against tiping her hand to him. Vulnerablity was suicide in her town, and that's a rule even she ain't gonna spit on.
Boyd's mama falls pregnant again. Arlo's hauled her out to Bo's bar again, hand clamped tight to the back of her neck, a distraction for Boyd, and they're caught up in the announcement. Bowman throws a tantrum that goes silent the instant his daddy looks at him, and Boyd smiles in a way that don't reach his eyes. Sometimes he laughs like that too, all hollow and wrong, just like her mama, and it grates on her ears.
While out in the parking lot beside Bo's bar, she wonders what they plan to call the baby, trying to think of other names with 'Bo' in it. She does it quietly, though, because Bowman is a little tattle-tailing bastard, and sometimes, she half considers letting the little rat run straight in front of a car, but Boyd would probably get beaten over it, so she keeps an eye on the kid.
She and Boyd are sitting on the sidewalk, and he's scrawling mindlessly in the dry dust. She keeps pushing at him until a smirk begins to dawn at the corners of his mouth. In the end, Boyd joins in with her wild speculation.
His laughter is real, and his grin is genuine, and Rayla made those happen.
Boyd ain't smiling when his mama gives birth prematurely to a girl. He hides it well, face perfectly normal, but she ain't about to buy that bullshit anytime soon.
"It'll be fine," Rayla says like she's real sure, her accent dragging the words out. Maybe she's a little worried herself, but she ain't about to let on to Boyd. He probably already knows. "I'mma girl."
"My daddy won't be best pleased," Boyd says, voice flat.
"Mine ain't either," she offers. Last attempt to thraw him.
"My daddy ain't like yours," he replies grimly.
There ain't nothing she can say to that. Arlo ain't got Bo's bite nor his brains, and everybody in Harlan knows it.
Eventually, Boyd stays relaxed, but only tentatively like a beaten dog. (Oh, the irony.)
His sister's called Lucy, after his mama's mama, and Boyd is a good brother, far as things went. Bowman's still a pain in the ass, but Rayla doubts anything was ever gonna change that, save a bullet between the eyes, and it ain't good tempting herself like that.
Bo Crowder is dismissive of the baby, like she wishes Arlo was with her, and that strengths their business relationship. Boyd ends up at hers more often than not, both of them pushed off to the side again, and they burn through the days together; sometimes with Mary and Ava, mostly not.
"Would that be your grave stone out on your front yard?"
Just below her bedroom window, in fact.
"Creepy, ain't it?"
As usual, Boyd is right.
Lucy dies within weeks of her birth, too premature to survive long.
Bowman wails at the funeral, Bo is stone-faced, Boyd grips her hand so tight that she feels his hand around hers for whole weeks, and his mama ain't anywhere to be seen.
His mama's dead less than a week later, and it's a closed casket funeral. People flock to Bo, offering apologies and sympathy. Aunt Helen and her mama bake pies, lines tight around their mouths, words trapped inside.
Everyone knows it ain't suicide.
Rayla looks around, ain't exactly surprised that nobody says anything, just wishes it were different. Even in Harlan, where death was a daily event, especially down those coal mines, people talked. Only nobody was, not today.
Across the dark-clothed figures, Boyd looks at her, eyes all dark and shuttered, closed off in a way that just unsettles her. Her mama's distracted, talking to some old lady, and Arlo don't give a shit. Swift as she can, Rayla sneaks through the crowds, going around them until she's behind Boyd.
Bo doesn't give a shit either.
Rayla touches Boyd's shoulder, and he turns. When he sees her, a twisted, strained relief pours in his eyes. She gets him the hell outta there.
The two of them end up outside, sitting on the grass, backs to the church. Boyd is utterly silent and unreadable, no sign of anything on his face. Rayla's silent as well. There ain't much to say in this situation. She watches him from the corner of his eyes, almost wanting a flood of rage, anything but nothing, and she shifts.
Boyd's eyes dart to her, wide and intense, and Rayla gets it. For a split second, she thinks about hugging him but that would be uncomfortable for the both of them. She feels like she should anyway. Ain't that what people did? But that was people other than them, softer than a Crowder and a Givens has any business being. Instead, she elbows him hard.
"Don't get all hopeful on me now," Rayla drawls out, all casual and witty. "You're stuck with me."
Aunt Helen skips the funeral, too proud to pretend like everybody else. Boyd recovers fast, smiles with all his teeth, and nobody else seems to notice how close that is to a snarl. Rayla refines her sarcasm, thickens her own skin, and tries to burrow deep enough under Boyd's to keep mattering, to hit a nerve and just reach him under there. Boyd bites back harder than ever, ruthlessly peeling her own skin back to sink in deeper than blood.
Weeks after the two funerals, no one says a single thing.
Even for Harlan, the insincerity sets her teeth on edge, and though she's fully aware of what would happen to anybody who spoke against Bo Crowder, she can't help thinking that it just ain't right.
After that, Harlan starts to feel like a steel cage. She starts noticing Aunt Helen's laugh lines look more like frowns, how sickly her mama looks, the subtle disdain in Jimmy's face when he looks around.
And Rayla starts to feel some of that as well.
One day, she rolls over in bed, and knows before her head hits the pillow that she needs to get outta this damn town before it drags her under.
Her mama teaches her how to wear make-up when she's only eleven. Rayla sees no need for any of stuff but mama insists, and she looks so frail that Rayla plays ball for once. She teaches her about lipstick and eyeshadow and shades of color and shaving her legs. It's stuff Rayla can survive learning about, knows she'll want in the future, but she really don't care right now.
Jimmy thinks she looks pretty, Mary asks if she was gonna start wearing dresses instead of pants now, Arlo is pissed at the money wasted on her. Boyd smudges her lipstick with his thumb, looks between the pale pink staining his skin and her irate expression, and they spend the rest of the afternoon swiping at each other, aiming for the raw nerves like a game.
Aunt Helen teaches her how to shoot a gun, how to smoke without choking, and other things of use. Boyd introduces her to moonshine, and Jim Beam. Jimmy kisses her, and that's fine, nothing special, but she ain't expecting nor wanting some disney bullshit, just to get that out of the way.
In the years to come, Arlo gets one wish fulfilled - she grows up tall like her mama and aunt.
But tryin' to beat some 'sense' into her never quite sticks, especially when Aunt Helen teaches her how to hit back proper instead of just going for whatever's closest, the eyes, or between the legs. In Harlan, everybody knew where to aim to inflict the most harm, knowing how to hurt's comes quicker than anything requiring brains.
Her mama never quite forgives her for breaking the 'peace' in their home. Ralya never quite forgives her for slapping her blinders on, and calling it peace.
Age thirteen, she starts her period, and everything changes.
She just keeps on getting taller, filling out her clothes in most ways, and her hair grows long, tumbling down her back. Her body is lithe, strong but curving now. Boyd's touches linger for longer than ever, and she starts wanting to touch back, but there's a line right there, one she ain't too sure about crossing, so she don't.
They drink together and fight together and break petty laws together, like shoplifting or driving while underage, getting high more than once. Petty kid stuff that barely even registers to her anymore, not after living with Arlo. He ends up in her back yard more often than in the house considering how unpredictable Arlo and Bo are. They sneak out together some nights, fall asleep in the field sometimes, waking up with each other in the dirt, and no one knows a damn thing.
Sometimes Boyd jokes about her veins pumping ice-water through her body, unaware of how ironic that was. He burns her body up half the time, and the other half, she feels sick with confusion, with anger, with the crushing weight of Kentucky on her shoulders.
Rayla lines empty beer cans up on a log somewhere safe and shoots every one of them down til holding a shotgun feels more natural than not. She's a good shot, all steady hands and hard focus, but she doesn't realise quite how much 'til Aunt Helen catches her once.
One day, fighting with Boyd changes. Her curves bump into his muscles, her hair gets caught on his clothes, and she has to mind her swelling breasts so she don't accidentally give him a show. And then he pins her to the floor, fighting vicious and dirty and rough. They're both breathing so hard, and a grin, crazy and half-cocked, curves his mouth as he looks down at her, and it ain't the same, ain't them, because shit, they get each other, but -
She knows his temper, his personality, all his weakspots and the things to never touch on 'less she wants to remind herself how very well he knows her in return, and she does that sometimes, tests him, but that's fine because he does it too. The two of them ain't anything less than spiteful, a mean streak in 'em both, even with each other, and yet, they ain't the same. In the head, maybe, but otherwise, they just ain't, and it ain't easy to ignore these days.
Things start to change in their relationship, and not for the better.
(Arlo's been coming home in a rage for the last month, so's Bo, and both of them are moving tender, play-fighting because better a bruise gained that way than any other.)
A week later, Boyd is fifteen, and they spent most of the night sprawled out in a field somewhere, passing a bottle or two of stolen Jack between them, just loudly shooting the shit, and it ain't the first time they've done this, stealing the 'shine off their daddies, paying for it in blood.
As things tend to do around Boyd, things get explosive. He has a box of matches, she has a bottle of Jack, and the field ain't exactly useful or close to anybody. It burns up easy, and Boyd howls to the night sky, a manic glee in his voice. Her head ain't exactly clear, but she can't see no more than fire.
In the back of her mind, Rayla thinks about the Crowders, a long line of blood and bodies and crime. In Kentucky, kids age real fast, and Boyd was a man by those standards. Bo's standards.
After that, Boyd grows more distant, and so does she. It smarts like hell, but she's a Harlan girl, so she don't let it impact her much. Rayla fucks Jimmy Canning at fifteen because he wants out of Kentucky just like her, because he gets the aggression this place fills her with.
A week later, the rumors are everywhere. Helen asks if she used a condom, fear in her eyes until Rayla promises that she did, and she used her mama's birth control pills just to be sure. Instead of lecturing her for stealing, Helen only hugs her tight, relieved. Arlo sneers at her, her mama is disapproving, and Mary asks questions. Ava runs around, long blonde hair trailing behind her, and never knows a thing.
Boyd says nothing but somedays, she catches an ugly darkness slivering through his eyes when he looks at Jimmy.
One day, not long after, Johnny Crowder gets into a fight with Jimmy over some small thing, and Rayla shuts it down hard, shuts it down easy, like it ain't ever been with Arlo, with her mama, and well, ain't that something?
There is a hole in her stomach, open and hollow, aching for something more than Harlan's cracked streets. Sometimes she dreams of drowning in oil, the greasy darkness staining her skin - seeping everywhere - filling her up - turning her into somebody Arlo is proud of - and -
The next morning, Rayla starts thinking of escaping to - anywhere and everywhere, just out, just away.
It ain't breaking a promise if Boyd broke it first.
(Sometimes she misses him something fierce, but she ain't about to weep in her hands over it or put her whole life on hold. She isn't Arlo, but she ain't her mama either. )
When she is sixteen, Rayla is the first girl (ever) on her high school's baseball team. (Rumor says she fucks the coach.)
When she is seventeen, she's concussed, and Dickie Bennett's baseball cleat is aiming at her face, and shit, there's a baseball bat just within arms reach, and then Dickie is screaming, a high blood-curdling wail of agony. He is on the floor, she's moving up, arm reeling back, seeing only red, seeing only rage, rage, rage when somebody hollars her name. Arms lock under hers, she spins, slams into a chest, and then - greenbrownblack eyes, Boyd Crowder, ain't that something.
Her once-upon-a-friend hauls her across the field as people rush to Dickie, mostly carrying her, and then she's slammed down on the bleachers, his hands on her face. Boyd is talking, but she ain't listenin', even when he waves his hands in her face. There is red on his hands - blood - and her head hurts so goddamn much.
There's something urgent in his voice, and then Helen is there, and all Rayla tastes is copper and rage and fucking hit that Bennett bastard one more time cause she's tired, so tired, of being hit down and getting up, insults in her mouth, mixing with blood like any of that's right. It ain't. Arlo ain't right, and Dickie Bennett ain't right, and Harlan ain't right, and fuck all that, fuck everybody.
She tries to move, hands try to steady her, and fury implodes in a violent wave through her -
Rayla blacks out the rest of that night, and wakes up in hospital with Aunt Helen's scent in the air, cigarette smoke and strong perfume.
Mags Bennett comes to visit, to assure her of no hard feelings, telling her that Dickie weren't doing right, beating up on a pretty young girl like that. She leaves a jar of her infamous apple pie. When she leaves, the frown lines around Helen's mouth are slack.
Rayla glances at the jar flatly. "What's the likelihood of that bein' poisoned?"
"Mags Bennett is a good woman, you hear?" Helen says sharply. Recognising the tone as one usually only Arlo deserved, she pays attention. "You damn fool, almost stirrin' up an old feud like that, over some game."
"Helen," Rayla says with equal bite, anger steaming through her, making her skin all tight and the world too small. "He was tryin' to take my damn eye out - "
"You're lucky you ain't dead. If Boyd hadn't gotten you away from the crowds like that, you might be in a shallow grave right about now. Doyle Bennett looked ready to swing that bat at you. Stay away from the Bennetts from now on, Rayla, and your father too. He ain't happy with you."
"Yeah, well," Rayla smiles, hard and wry, "Ain't he always?"
Helen ain't a softy, but she wasn't heartless either. "You better lay low for a few days."
By lay low, Helen means crash at her place for a few days.
There are worse punishments in the world.
Arlo is mad as all hell when she gets back home a few days later, raging about her damn near reviving an old feud over some brawl. It's a crock of shit. Arlo and Mags ain't exactly peaceful folk at the best of times, but when they were near each other, it weren't pretty. After her man bit it, Mags had inherited the feud, but she wasn't a Bennett by blood (though an outsider wouldn't know it), and she'd never been less than polite to Rayla. Most times, Arlo is the one stirring that shitfest up.
But he's never needed a reason to hollar at her before, and fair ain't in his nature.
Arlo threatens to cave her head in with that damn baseball bat, and Rayla feels calm, calmer than ever.
"Now why would you go do that?" she says, not the slightest waver or tremble in her voice, and why would there be? "I already owe you a large debt over the last few years, and though I do intend on payin' all that back one day, it would be an inconvenience for the both of us if you added to it."
Arlo calls her an ungrateful arrogant bitch, and Rayla just looks at him, just waits for him to shut up so she can get some damn sleep. Arlo is aging, and his reputation ain't quite what it used to be, though his temper and cock-sure pride swell to make up for it.
Rayla goes back to her bedroom without another bruise.
Later that night, she wakes up to her window creaking open, and he's damn lucky she'd recognise that crazy hair anywhere 'else he would be missing a place to grow it. Yes, she sleeps with a shotgun near her bed; it was Harlan County.
"Most people would throw pebbles at my window or wait until a more reasonable hour," Rayla informs Boyd sardonically, thankful she sleeps in sweatpants and a tank top rather than near naked like some girls her age. Ain't the first time he's crawled through her window.
"I apologise for wakin' you at this early hour, Rayla," Boyd drawls, not looking it in the slightest. He looks strange in the dark, unreadable and serious in a way she ain't never seen on the crazy son-of-a-bitch. He was all grins and manic crazed eyes and usually a match or a firework somewhere close by. "But I needed to talk to you."
"That's mighty interestin'," she says, not giving a crap about anything he has to say right now. "You been doin' a pretty good job at avoidin' me these past few months. If you're gonna apologise about that, can't it hold til the morning?"
"I don't rightly believe it can," Boyd states. He stands still in the middle of her damn bedroom like a creeper, and she should probably get up and thrown him out, but damnit, she's got school in the morning, and most of last night was a blur of getting repeatedly woken up to make sure she didn't die in her sleep from a concussion. "I didn't come here to apologise, Rayla."
"Oh?" she says, temper shortening. She ain't soft enough to be that hurt, not when she could be angry. "Then you best be on your way, Boyd."
She doesn't realise she'd cut him off until he continues, like she hadn't spoken, "Though I know I ought to. I have my reasons for behavin' as I have the past year."
Through the dark, she tries to read his expression, but Boyd was never an easy read in the light, let alone at dark. "And that would be?"
There was a beat, filled with tension. "A long story, one I would like to tell you, only I fear we're rather pressed for time."
"So make it short," Rayla fires back curtly, only she knows that ain't gonna work, not with Boyd who savours every word that rolls outta his mouth.
"I wouldn't know how to tell it any other way."
Rayla narrows her gaze at his shadow in the dark, hard-eyes and just shy of impolite, but her mama raised her better then that. "Then say your piece."
Boyd's hand hovers over the end of her bed, a little twist of mockery in the mannered gesture, "May I?"
His mama raised him just as well, and no matter what people say about Boyd Crowder - crazy son of a bitch, pryo, a headcase constantly on the verge of boiling over - he has manners. Most times, it was just easier to think the worst of him. With her permission and a fold of her long legs, he sits at the end of her bed.
"That was a mighty foolish thing you did some days ago," Boyd states, his voice barely a ripple in the calm night waters.
"You come here to scold me, Boyd?" she asks, disbelief in her voice. It was darn rich coming from him, and the amount of stupid shit his daddy had beaten him bloody over, and she would know something about that. Usually he was dragging her down into his crazy idea of fun, and sure, she could say no, but who was gonna keep an eye on him? To keep him from going too far, like Boyd sometimes would?
"I ain't a hypocrite," Boyd replies, and then he's leaning forward, and -
His mouth tastes like 'shine and tobacco, and she feels a harsh jolt shooting all through her. The kiss is hot and wet and electric, like a live wire spiralling recklessly out of control. His mouth moves, and it works. It fits, like it should always have been, and damn, no wonder he'd looked so pissed whenever she mentioned Jimmy. His hands are rough and hot on her face, holding her in a way. She grips his crazy hair, and steals his breath.
Boyd doesn't kiss fairly. He kisses hard and forceful, using every trick in the book to twist her mind into a run-down mess. Fortunately for her pride, Rayla has her own bag of tricks. The kiss goes on as suspenseful and intense as any fight between them. He ends up mostly above her, but his hands don't reach for any place but her hair, so she keeps hers polite as well.
And then there's a creak in the house, a curse from Arlo, and she ain't the only one who goes still.
Arlo and Bo are at odds again. Arlo weren't above claiming to give a shit about her for a chance to strike back at Bo, though she was damn sure Boyd would win. Boyd was slight and not exactly towering in stature, but he was vicious and as powerful as a hurricane when he got mad. And he had her on his side.
Her heart is racing in her chest, her stomach is in knots, and she feels more awake than ever.
"Ain't we a little too old for this," Rayla remarks, voice low and wry.
Boyd looks down at her, eyes black in the dark. His mouth was red and wet, faced shadowed. "We surely are."
Boyd ain't in school the next day. She spends the day fending off rumours and questions. By the time school lets out, she is pissed beyond belief. As she ditches Mary, ready to get walking home since she'd woken up to find her car's tire slashed (Coover, probably, Doyle or Mags would go for the breaks), somebody calls her name. Automatically, she looks, and there is Boyd. He's in his pickup truck, gesturing her over.
Her copper-brown hair swirls around her, curls tangling, as she stalks over to him. "Want something, Boyd?"
Her voice is not impolite, but it isn't like a girlfriend greeting her boyfriend. Flat out, they ain't like that, and she can't be sure if Boyd wants it to be like that. She ain't sure if she wants that question answered, anyhow. Getting involved with a Crowder - especially the most destructive one - isn't a smart choice. It won't help her leave Kentucky in the dust.
"Well, now, Rayla, is that any way to greet an ol' friend?" he drawls, cool as anything.
"What would you prefer?" she asks, a flat sarcasm in her voice. "Buckshot to the gut?"
He grins, a wide explosive thing. "Come on now. I make far better company than your daddy."
"Hardly something to be proud of," she tells him amicably. "That gut fulla buckshot makes better company."
But Rayla does get in the car. By now, she's used to his reckless driving, like he was daring a police officer to arrest him for speeding and not having a licence. Their voices fill the silence between them, a quick-fire banter with no real importance to it. Neither of them are much for feelings, especially pinning them down and dissecting them until the sting of it all bleed out.
Instead of rehashing over the same shit from last night, they end up sprawling in the back of his truck. She ditches her boots fast, and Boyd lies back, one arm under his head, long legs stretched out, starting to speculate on something or other. They run through conversations, words and retorts flying easily between them under the steadily darkening sky. The air is thick as blood and twice as hot, but neither thinks anything on it.
Somehow they end up talking about literature - maybe she'd took a less than playful jab at him but two years and small change is a damn long time to ignore somebody, more than she can just forget over night, and of course, he'd shot back at her, so the subject had been changed - and then he says something to make her cackle, a sound he soon swallows down, lips crashing down on hers.
And then there are hands and lips and her body is on fire, sparks like nothing she'd ever felt before exploding all through her. It was nothing like kissing Jimmy, which had always felt like a means to some end she ain't too sure she cares for. She likes kissing Boyd just for the hell of it, all teeth and tongue and bursts of pain with pleasure.
Neither of them make any promises of I love you and forever and everlasting cupcake frosting while not either dangerously drunk or screwing with each other in a flash of sick ironic humor. Neither of them is much prone to sentiment. There are no dates or public displays of affection since neither are particularly inclined towards getting beaten bloody more than usual, and really, Rayla would rather avoid the openness of that whole business.
It's just plain dumb broadcasing a weakness in Harlan. Boyd was a Crowder, already starting to sink into his daddy's business, and no matter what Mags preaches, the Bennetts were all kinds of pissed at her. The Givens name was losing its weight, and Rayla ain't exactly sorry to hear it.
The school year rolls on. It surprises no one when Boyd drops out before the end of the year. He's unnervingly smart, a razor sharp intelligence that she manages to convince him to use for good as well as evil by helping her with her homework. It distracts him from whatever the hell his daddy is making him do, and she knows that he likes keeping up with things, no matter how much he bitches.
Rayla gets a kick out of sprawling around somewhere with him, and listening to Boyd - who had the look and accent of a hillbilly - talk shit about Hemingway before moving on to telling her about some dumbass working for his daddy, who actually managed to shoot himself in the foot. He could do anything, she thinks while watching him, a bitter twist in her stomach.
It ain't perfect, especially when they spend most days arguing like sin, tempers clashing into something ugly.
Sometimes the thing with Boyd feels like the aftermath of the lobotomy, other times she feels deluded enough to think herself a bit in love with him (and it ain't no use pretending she hasn't caught a look in his eyes once or twice) but most of the time, it feels like an anchor. On the good days, he keeps her with her feet planted in reality. On the worst, he ties her to Kentucky.
Even for him, Rayla won't stay.
This place is poison, infecting everything and everyone to pass through it, and it clings like coal dust. Some people made it out of Harlan but nobody could ever stay away from it. Harlan was an ocean, and they were all drowning, kicking and fighting desperately to the surface but just as your head breaks through the water, just as oxygen rushes into your lungs, something catches on your foot, and you get dragged down under again.
Rayla knows with the same level of certainty of knowning the sun was gonna rise that Boyd is the only one who could drag her back down under. And unlike Helen, he would.
Fighting sharp tooth and bloody nail for what they what is just the way they were raised.
Somewhere between the beginning of the school year and the end of it, Boyd fucks up. It's real late. Her mama is in bed, and she hopes Aro is in a shallow grave. She's scrawling down a bunch of fancy words, masterfully pretending to give a crap about Of Mice and Men, on her couch with one of Arlo's beers on the battered table when the door just about gets knocked down.
When she opens the door, blistering curses on the tip of her tongue and a shotgun in the corner of her eyes, she sees Boyd and freezes. He is covered in soot and ashes, and for a minute, she thinks he's blown something else up, and then it clicks.
He smells like explosives and something else. Any person in Harlan knows that smell, some better than others. It thickens the hot air, it drags through the school, and sometimes, it haunts the church during funerals.
Dimly, she recalls snapshots of the last few days, the tension in the corner of Boyd's mouth, the quick-fire blaze of his temper, and the bruises darkening his skin. A disagreement with his daddy, and now, he comes to her late, stained from the mines.
People die down those mines, real quick and real ugly. Day by day, a dead body is carted out of there. Working with his daddy to be a crook (one day, Boyd is gonna run Harlan, she feels and hates it so much) is less dangerous.
"Jesus," she states conversationally. The horror is subtle in her voice, hiding it is an old reflex.
"Now, Rayla, you musn't use the Lord's name in vain like that," Boyd chides like this was funny and not one of the worst things she's seen. "May I come in?"
He needs to get the coal-dust off him, and she knows that won't be easy, but she ain't putting much faith in her sanity if she has to keep looking at him like this, wearing death-dust all over his skin.
After he kicks his boots off to reveal blackened white socks, she leads him up to her bedroom. He strips off and steps into the shower, coal dust thick all over his skin, hiding his lithe form. Rayla thinks well, why the hell not? and climbs in with him to help him scrub up.
She touches him, no point in trying to be shy, not when she knows Boyd like she knows herself, and he looks at her with those hellfire-green eyes blackened with desire. It takes five minutes for the water to run clean, for her to be able to see his tanned skn again, and only then does he start touching her back.
In her bed, they don't tangle together. Rayla isn't much of one for touching, maybe Arlo managed to beat that outta her or maybe she came by it naturally, and she assumes Boyd shares that trait because he never brings it up. Her feet are slightly grey, stained by the water, and she can smell fire and coal on his skin, though it is faint.
How long would it be before the skin she likes to kiss is stained by the mines? Before his wonderfully dry voice turns hoarse from black lung? It makes her angry, fucking pissed at the whole damn world. Maybe even a little at Boyd for going along with this shit.
He's damn smart, scary smart. He could be somebody outside of Harlan, away from his daddy and batshit family, but instead, he's playing along. Going down to the mines, and pumping out drugs to all of Harlan, and who knows what else. Back when she was fifteen, she'd figured he was playing an angle because Boyd Crowder was a stubborn son of a bitch.
Except when it came to his daddy, it seems.
"You ever think about leavin' Harlan, Boyd?" Rayla asks. She keeps her eyes on the ceiling, on the watermark above her bed, and tries not to want a yes so damn badly. She knows how this was gonna go.
(The first time she'd mentioned leaving Harlan, Boyd was cool as ice but he'd acted off for the rest of the week. Oh, he wasn't aggressive, not even registering as annoyed by Harlan standards, but his laid-back calm had held a quiet unsettling mence to it that turned even mundane statements into threats.)
The silence is brief and heavy, and neither of them look away from the ceiling.
"I can't rightly see myself any place else, Rayla," Boyd says finally, a whole lot of nothing in his Kentucky drawl. When she wakes in the morning, she ain't surprised to see him gone.
Where can she go from there?
Away. As far from Harlan as she can get. She hates the place with its unruly violence and backwards 50s bullshit about women and scarred half-broken children that turn into pieces of shit like Dickie Bennett or her own daddy.
She balances studying with working part time at a diner, riskes her future freedom with Boyd, juggles love for Aunt Helen and a bitter ugly rage at Arlo. She ain't an angry person by nature (not like her kin) but damn, if she ain't got a lot to be angry about.
Dickie comes back to school with a busted up leg, a limp, and crutches. He goes white when he sees her, and she feels no regret. World would be a better place without Dickie in it, and all those girls with gaps in their memory after accepting a drink from him would agree.
Rayla scraps by in her exams, manages to pass them all, and the next morning, she comes down late for breakfast to find her mama on the floor. When she tries to wake her up and touches cold skin, checks for a pulse and finds none, she calls Aunt Helen.
Her voice comes out all steady-like, and Rayla feels awfully calm until she rolls her mama over, and meets a big pair of gaping brown eyes. Screaming won't do jack-shit, so she doesn't bother but she considers it, feeling a violent pressure swelling through her.
Aunt Helen comes over fast. She runs right by Rayla, leans down to check her sister's pulse, and her aging face collapses in grief. She closes her eyes, lips pursing together to fend off tears, before her face goes hard. Aunt Helen calls the hospital, takes Rayla off to the side when the body is moved.
The paramedics call it a heart attack.
Like any good Harlan girl, Rayla holds strong. "This is his fault," she states, a hard force packed tight in her low voice.
Helen rubs her back, too hard to be a comfort. "Your daddy didn't kill her."
But he might as well have, Helen doesn't need to say.
Her mama is carried away in a coroners black bag. Aunt Helen stands with her on the porch, cigarette smoke drifting up to the sky like one of Boyd's explosions. The paint on the porch is beginning to peal, Rayla notes absently. She'll need to fix that soon. Arlo sure as shit won't. Maybe Boyd will give her a hand but she ain't gonna ask, not when she can do it by herself easy.
Rayla keeps herself from thinking about living on her own with Arlo. It won't be much different from how its always been, considering how much like a ghost her mama has been, but it felt sour in her mouth. She thinks about the shotgun just a few feet from the door and coldly considers shooting him, her own daddy.
But no, she ain't about to sink that low, about to waste that much effort on him.
Beside her, Aunt Helen exhales slowly, letting out a lungful of smoke. "C'mon, Rayla, girl."
"You can't stay around in this town with only your daddy," Helen states. She looks Rayla in the eyes briefly, a little something like sadness under the steady Harlan survival. "I'm gonna get you outta here."
The next thing Rayla knows, she is at Aunt Helen's with a big evelope of cash shoved in her hands, and she feels dizzy, almost sick from how things change, but she lets none of it shows. Instead she goes upstairs to shower, says goodbye to Aunt Helen, and takes the money. Arlo still ain't home, so she packs her bags without a showdown in the damn living room, and hits the road.
Rayla holds off on calling Boyd until she is out of Harlan in a truckstop. The conversation is short and cold, boiling with thinly suppressed anger that he doesn't express to her. She wishes she could feel as bad about leaving as she does about never seeing him again. Only she knows Boyd. He won't leave Harlan, and he has her by the heart, enough to maybe break it in trying to keep her.
She holds none of that against him, and she knows he will forgive her for running, because what else is she gonna do? She misses him already, like an old deep ache so intense that she feels more than a little sick. Boyd is the only thing, excepting Helen, that's kept her from going crazy in that town.
"You ever comin' back?" Boyd asks, voice flat, but she can imagine his eyes - the green sharp and brutal, ready to boil over in one helluva an explosion.
"No," Rayla says, real simple.
The sun beat down on her, sweat sticking the white tank top to her tanned flesh, but it feels like a blessing compared to this - this pause between them. Charged and filled with unspoken things. She doesn't say I'm sorry or it's Harlan, not you, never you because she knows it won't fix jackshit.
No matter how true it might be.
"Goodbye, Rayla," Boyd says, the words just as blunt as flat as before.
And Rayla feels something clump in her throat, hard and spiked, painful. "Goodbye Boyd," she grits out.
In the next moment, the pay phone is back on its hook. Rayla heads inside the truck stop to pay for gas. As she is walking, she sees a collection of hats. One of them is white with a ring of brown around the middle. It's a cowboy hat, and something inside of her goes, oh. Because her mama is just dead, her daddy is a scumbag, her boyfriend ain't anymore, and she is out on the road, all by herself.
Rayla tries it on, and it fits just right.
She buys it along with the gas, liking it enough to ignore the guy leering at her chest behind the counter. She climbs back into her truck, puts her hat in the seat beside her, and falters for one moment, thinking about green eyes and black shocks of hair. It figures that she's spent near her whole life wanting out of Harlan, and now she can, all she can think about - want - is Boyd Crowder. It feels like a chain is linking them together, and with every movement, it is yanking at her chest.
Rayla Givens puts the cowboy hat back on, braces herself, and hits the gas to keep driving forward.