I. October 1977
The fighting gets worse as the big and little hands tick forward on Raylan's Donald Duck watch.
He's home on a Monday because of an in-service. He's not exactly sure what that means, except he knows all the teachers have to be there, while he and the rest of his schoolmates don't. He wishes he was in Mrs. Ferguson's first-grade classroom right now, though. He could be putting together that color-coded wooden puzzle of the United States he likes to mess around with, instead of listening to Arlo's swears and his mother's shaking voice.
After lunch, he wipes the crumbs off his placemat and retreats upstairs to his bedroom. He settles on the floor to play war with the Six Million Dollar Man and a bucket of green toy soldiers, but even when he hums the M*A*S*H theme as loud as he can with his mouth closed, he can still hear Arlo in the kitchen.
"Goddammit, woman, would it kill you to make an effort? Look at this shithole. I can't even find the motherfucking mail."
Raylan can't hear what his mama says, but the smack and thud that follow tell him more than enough.
He crawls underneath his twin bed, dragging Steve Austin with him.
"I got you, Steve," he whispers, his chubby fingers tightening around Steve's rounded, plastic shoulder. "You're with me, big buddy."
The storm door slams once, twice. Living with Arlo, Raylan's learned to play quiet mouse all by himself, and win every time; he doesn't move for what feels like a whole day, just waiting to hear Arlo's steel-toed boots on the stairs.
Next thing he knows, he's being shaken by the arm.
"Raylan," Aunt Helen says, talking around the menthol dangling from her lipsticked mouth, "wake up for me, now. You're coming to my house."
He blinks the sleep from his eyes, and smiles.
He loves Aunt Helen, and Aunt Helen's house. Her TV gets all the best cartoons, and she buys the bona fide Hostess snack cakes, not the cheap imitation ones from the bargain basket at Save-A-Lot.
II. April 1978
Raylan hops off the bus and all but runs up the gravel driveway, backpack hanging by one strap from his shoulder, bouncing against his spine.
He hit two real home runs today, and Coach Shelton even gave him a certificate for a free personal pan from the Pizza Hut in town, redeemable through August.
He knows his mother'll want to hear all about this right away, so he hardly slows down till he gets to the living room.
"You best walk in my house, boy."
Raylan freezes, an uneasy shiver cutting through the sticky sweat on the back of his neck.
The familiar, sour smell of Coors Light and the sweeter stench of Early Times meet his nose a moment later. He looks from Arlo's cold, narrowed eyes to Aunt Helen's tired face.
"She's at the hospital," Aunt Helen says, but Arlo opens his mouth, speaking over her.
"She's sick, that's all."
"What's the matter with -- "
"You deaf and dumb? I said she's sick."
Raylan frowns, hefting his backpack higher on his shoulder. He's smarter than Arlo thinks -- he knows better than to ask for more information. When Arlo's got that ugly look on his face, like he's just lost a fight with a barb-wire fence, it's safer not to talk.
He dips his head, and turns to go upstairs.
"Raylan," Aunt Helen says, right before he clears the first step, "why don't you pack a bag, come over to my house? Your daddy's gonna need some time to himself."
Raylan waits for Arlo to shout Helen down.
But when he doesn't, relief floods Raylan's whole body. Not daring to push this unexpected luck, he forces himself not to take the stairs three at a time to stuff his duffel with clean school clothes and a toothbrush.
III. September 1980
He knows something's wrong when he's called to the office before lunch.
The buzzing hornet's nest in his stomach doubles in size as soon as he sees Aunt Helen waiting for him.
The twenty feet separating them becomes ten, and then five. The smell of industrial-strength floor wax is everywhere, even on his tongue.
"Aunt Helen, why're you here?"
"Well, honey." She crouches down so she's almost level with him. Her eyes are so sad, Raylan wants her to stop talking right now. "I came out here to see you."
He blinks, hard, focusing on the loose white thread that's come unstitched at the collar of Aunt Helen's plain T-shirt.
"It's about Mom, ain't it?"
She nods, and all Raylan can be is grateful that Arlo didn't drive out here. He'd much rather get this awful news from his aunt.
She tells him what he already knows, and he wraps his gangly arms around her neck.
"You think she's happy, now?"
Aunt Helen rubs his back, and smooths his hair with nicotine-stained fingers.
"How'd you get so old for just ten years?"
He juts out his chin to keep his lower lip from quivering.
"But do you think?"
"I'm hoping she is, Raylan." Her skinny arms tighten around him. "I'm sure hoping she is."
IV. May 1987
"Stand still, Raylan."
He lifts his chin another notch, resisting the urge to fidget some more.
"This thing supposed to be this tight?"
"It wouldn't be, if you'd just hold your horses."
"Funny, I don't have any reins in my hand."
"Nobody likes a smart-ass."
"You rather me be a dumb shit?"
"I'd slap you in the mouth if you wasn't about to pick up a pretty girl," Helen mutters, distracted by looping the black satin into a better approximation of a bow-tie.
Raylan smirks to himself, waiting as patiently as he can while she tugs and neatens the corners.
"Much better," she says, stepping back to survey her handiwork with two critical eyes. "You got your tickets?"
"Right here." He pats the breast pocket of his rented tuxedo jacket. "Admit two."
"And you remember what I told you?"
"I do." He nods, fighting another bout of sweaty-palm syndrome. "I'll be sure and ask the waiter if there's any specials, and I promise I'll ask Jolene what she wants before I order for us."
"Don't be nervous," she says, and Raylan thinks it's creepy, sometimes, how well Aunt Helen knows him. "She liked you enough to ask you to senior prom when you're a junior, so you just enjoy the evening in her company."
He takes the keys to Aunt Helen's Fairlane from the hook on the kitchen wall, and he's on his way out the front door when she calls him back.
"I said, did you remember rubbers?"
"I'm just asking."
"Well, I'm leaving." He pokes his head through the weathered threshold one last time. "I'll be home by one."
He swears he can still hear her sharp, two-packs-a-day laugh a quarter-mile away from the house.
V. November 1989
He doesn't know why, exactly, she does it.
Maybe she still feels bad he didn't get that baseball scholarship he'd been hoping for; maybe she's finally too tired of seeing fresh bruises from Arlo's fists on his face; or maybe she doesn't want him to die two miles underground covered in coal dust, smothered by a bed of black rock and dirt.
Maybe it's because she loves him.
Regardless, Raylan stares at the cash she folds into his callused hand. This is more money than he makes in two months at the mine.
"Aunt Helen, you -- "
She shakes her head, the look in her eyes brooking zero nonsense, and absolutely no excess sentiment.
"You pack a bag, you fill up your truck, and you keep driving till you get somewhere you want to be."
"But -- "
"I don't want to hear it. You do what I tell you, and you'll do all right for yourself."
She doesn't let him hug her before he leaves, but he can still smell cigarette smoke and her signature Charlie perfume when he heads out of Harlan for good.