The message was garbled from being passed from person to person, only the gist of it remained -- The Crowder bar, nine o’clock, Harlan.
Raylan had already begun to shake his head, but then Miranda said, “Boyd or Bo or something, Helen said you’d know.”
Raylan blinked, his expression falling blank. “He wants to meet?”
“A party I think.”
“A party?” A frown edged its way between his eyes. “He didn’t say what for?”
Miranda laughed. “What reason do you kids need to throw a party?” Raylan smiled in reply, the expression feeling starchy. “Go Raylan, you deserve a night out, you’re so serious. Helen said...”
Raylan nodded slowly, only half listening as she continued to tell him everything Helen had said. The stab of nerves he’d felt at Boyd’s name was starting to fade. A meeting was one thing, but a party? Why would Boyd call him back to Harlan for a party?
She’d stopped talking and seemed to be waiting for a reply. Raylan smiled again, masking his confusion. “Thanks for letting me know.”
She smiled back, her lips parting to show the gap in her teeth, “No need to thank me for passing on a message. “ She laughed. “Those girls raised you right.”
Raylan ducked his head, his hand going to the back of his neck. He tried and failed to picture Aunt Helen as a girl. Or his mother for that matter, but Frances was an old photo, fading fast.
“Joe wanted me to open this morning.” Raylan straightened. Striking the palms of his hands against his thighs. He pushed away from the table and pushed away thoughts of Harlan as he did so.
“Go on then.” Miranda waved him off as he began to clear his dishes, “Leave that, get on with you. I’ll maybe drop by before my appointment. Check in on you boys.” The idea of Joe -- balding and round bellied -- as a boy was about as much of a stretch as Aunt Helen a girl. Raylan just nodded and took the dishes he’d already picked up into the kitchen before heading out into the hall.
“You tell Joe he’s working you too hard,” Miranda called from behind him.
“Yes ma’am.” Raylan picked up his keys and pulled open the screen door. He would do no such thing, but she said it on principle. Sisters were put on earth to nag their brothers, and brothers to irritate their sisters. At least, that was how Joe and Miranda said it, Raylan having little experience to draw on.
He let the door bang shut behind him, and raised a hand to shield his eyes from the glare, taking a second to scan the street.
The city felt big. It felt as if the streets behind and around had pressed something more than tarmac and stone into the dirt -- routes and highways and long stretches of road after that. For a second he imaged getting in the car and just driving. Picking a direction and just driving, pedal pushed down, radio on and the window open wide. Gasoline and dust and sun-hot rubber. He could do it. He could take the car and go.
He swallowed, pushing his fingers through his hair. He dragged his eyes away from the horizon and down to the sidewalk. He had to open the shop, and the parts Joe had ordered had likely arrived by now, which meant he could start working on the pickup. He exhaled roughly, the vastness of the city collapsing down around him as he walked towards the car.
He wouldn’t go to Harlan. Boyd could survive tonight without him; he’d survived the past month after all. He’d made it this far. He wasn’t going to go back, and if the horizon mocked him from the distance, whispering that Lexington wasn’t far enough, that getting dragged back was inevitable. Well let it. He knew what he was doing. He was out of Harlan wasn’t he?
Still, the thought of Boyd calling the house -- his voice on the line, intruding into Raylan’s new life -- it left him unsettled, left an itch behind his shoulder blades, and a sense of being watched that lingered through the morning.
The day wasn’t busy. The heat was enough to make people slow. Make them more likely to break down and call out than turn up in the shop.
Miranda dropped in at at lunchtime. Joe was called out a little later, he wasted no time climbing in the truck, cutting Miranda’s chatter short with a hurried apology she only rolled her eyes at.
“Lock up when you’re done,” he told Raylan, climbing into his truck. He hands left a smear of grease on the handle. “I won’t be done with this ‘till late.” Raylan nodded and stepped away, waving his good bye as the truck swerved onto the road and around the corner.
Miranda left a while later, and then it was just Raylan and the muted chatter from the radio in the office. The parts hadn’t arrived after all, and the blue pickup in the back was left to work on its growing patina of dust. The Chevy Raylan was supposed to be working on instead wasn’t cooperating. He’d considered calling Miranda for advice; she knew as much as Joe did about cars, (some days Raylan suspected she knew more) but she was likely at her hair appointment already, and Raylan didn’t want to interrupt.
He wiped the back of his neck with a clean rag and put it under the tap, soaking it and squeezing it out again before sliding it under his chin, down his neck and into the v of his chest left bare by his shirt.
He hummed along with the radio and avoided his eyes in the mirror. The heat pressed down on his shoulders and back. He wondered what would have happened if he’d caught the message instead of Miranda. Wondered what commentary Aunt Helen might have added -- things she wouldn’t have told her cousin. But then, maybe she did and it was Miranda who cut them out. It still didn’t make sense, Boyd reaching out for him. There had to be a reason for it. Curiosity trickled down his back like sweat.
He twisted the cold tap, and leaned down to splash his face, then he rinsed the cloth once more and left it hung out over the edge of the sink before heading back into the garage and the intractable Chevrolet.
He spent the rest of the day underneath it, losing himself in car guts and grease, only coming out twice: once for a customer and the second time for a phone call from Joe, who said he was for sure going to be out the rest of the day, and not to forget to pull hard on the window in the back when he locked up.
The sun was heavy in the sky when Raylan finished up in the shop and he drove back with the golden light slanted into his face.
Miranda was still out, but there was cold chicken in the fridge. Raylan showered and changed, then ate in front of the TV, missing half the jokes as his mind went over and over on the message. Harlan intruded into his thoughts in a way it hadn’t done for a month, but with such ease that he wondered if it had been hiding there all the time. Just waiting behind his eyes.
There was a heavy weight pooling in his stomach and he had to force himself to clean his plate. Maybe some things needed putting to rest properly. Maybe cutting and running wasn’t enough.
He stayed in front of the TV after dinner, tracking the actors’ movements across the screen rather than following the actual plots. When he finally stood up and turned it off, he was studiously thinking of nothing. The hands on the clock, pointing to six and eight, sent a dull flash of nerves through his gut.
He spent the next ten minutes exchanging his shirt and jeans, and at one point even trying on a hat before flicking back into the cupboard in exasperation. He grabbed the clothes he’d tried first and got dressed over again. Then he spent five minutes in the kitchen, taking his sweet time over a glass of water that did little to settle his stomach, and another five staring out the window at nothing, before he finally rinsed the cup and set his shoulders back. He grabbed his keys as he left the house.
The light had faded to almost nothing while he’d been wasting time inside. The street lamps were on and punctuated the grey twilight with an chemical orange-yellow glow.
The drive to Harlan took barely any time at all.
Raylan parked a couple of houses down from the bar. The lights were on inside, and the party seemed to be in full swing. Noise from within rose and cut off in sharp segments as people opened the doors on their way in or out.
He cut the engine and sat for a while in the lamplit semi-darkness. His hands tapped a drum roll on the wheel and there was a second when he almost reached for the keys, almost twisted them around and pressed down on the gas pedal to get out of here, get out again and this time maybe it would stick. This time maybe he’d keep going and not stop at Lexington, not settle for ‘anywhere but Harlan’, and push out for somewhere really new.
But there was a difference between leaving and running. Raylan was no coward. He relaxed his grip on the steering wheel, his skin parting stickily from the hot plastic. Then he climbed out of the car and stretched out his cramped muscles. The air smelt sharper than in the city; cooler now than in the day.
Raylan strolled up the street and into the pool of light cast by the bar. Someone stumbled out as he approached, and Raylan held the door open. He stepped in once they were clear and paused a moment, frowning against the glare as the noise and light washed over him.
He’d seen the space fuller, but not by much, and good cheer seemed to make it doubly crowded. The bar was evenly punctuated by people sitting on stools, a couple of larger groups gathered at the end and near the middle. In the far corner there was a shoving, boisterous crowd that looked likely to explode into a fight. The pool table had players and more than a few lookers-on. The jukebox too had attracted its own little solar system, belting out its gravitational pull and attracting people into its orbit. More were sat nearby, watching with lazy eyes and reaching hands. Raylan recognised Johnny clapping his hands to the beat. The sudden sharpness of recognition acted as a strange focus, and suddenly the crowd was separating in his mind into individuals; names and faces cascaded back into place with an ease that sent a strange prickle down his spine.
Someone pushed Raylan from behind and he was surprised forwards a step, getting a glare for his trouble and an irritated mutter to, ‘get out the way, can’t you see you’re blocking the door?’ He took a deep breath, pushing a flicker of nerves deep down in his gut, and began winding his way between tables towards the bar.
A hand reached out, fingers looping around his wrist and Raylan spun, tugging sharply. He followed the line of the arm up, and relaxed as he recognised Boyd’s face. He was smiling, crow’s feet crinkling the corners of his eyes and his hair was shorter than usual, turning the colour more grey than black.
“Boyd,” Raylan greeted him, “I can’t stay long,” he added.
Boyd smiled wider. “Sit down, Raylan,” he said, kicking out a chair.
Raylan pressed his lips into a line, hesitating. Then he backtracked and dropped into the chair. His shoulders felt cold with the gazes he imagined were pinned on them. He didn’t look around for fear he’d be proven right. Maybe with practice this calm he was trying at would ring true. Maybe he’d be able to walk in here, walk in anywhere, and give a slow-eyed grin and sit down, legs and arms akimbo, taking up space like it was made for him. But for now he had to force himself to relax back into the chair, feeling like a fraud.
He swept his gaze around the table and nodded in a general greeting. Bowman sat on Boyd’s other side, his expression slow and loose with drink. Beside him was Ava, leaning against his arm. Her long curls were done up in a fancy twist with only a few long loops hanging glossy and thick to her shoulders. A couple of faces that he recognised from school sat between and rounded out the circle.
Boyd’s eyes hadn’t left Raylan as he made his perusal of the table. Raylan met them, then glanced away. The noise and light pressed in on his skin, and Boyd’s eyes seemed a physical pressure. Why had he come back here?
Bowman was caught up in some loud conversation with the kid on Raylan’s right, and while he’d arrived too late to get the gist of what they were saying, they were clearly both passionate, animating their argument with wide gestures, beer bottles losing their contents as the gestures edged a little too wide. Ava caught his eye for a moment, a shared raised eyebrow, before the girl next to her, Sally or Sandy or something, claimed her attention, pulling her away from Bowman.
Raylan took a deep breath and turned back to Boyd. The usual neat angle of his limbs was relaxed, likely from drink as well as celebration. He seemed content to just watch, eyes flicking between the vocal tennis match a moment before latching back onto Raylan.
“What are we celebrating?” Raylan leaned in towards Boyd, pitching his voice above the hubbub.
Boyd’s eyes went wide for a second, and his smile widened as well, turning into a laugh. He shook his head and leaned in, close enough that Raylan could see the slight flush to his cheeks and neck. He turned his face, angling his lips, breath hot against the curve of Raylan’s ear. “They didn’t tell you? I’m joining the army.” He turned his head to catch Raylan’s eyes, but didn’t move back.
Raylan stared, and Boyd laughed again, finally moving back and spreading his hands wide in a shrug before dropping them to his lap. Raylan just kept on staring, unmoving, as Boyd reached for his glass, draining the little that was left. Then he picked up an empty glass and poured one for Raylan before doing the same for himself.
Raylan took it from him, condensation and spilt bourbon making the sides slick and a little sticky. He raised it when Boyd did but the clink of contact was lost to the background noise.
“Congratulations,” he said finally, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
Boyd nodded his head regally. His short hair, which Raylan now understood, stuck up as sharply as ever, and Raylan had to control an irrational impulse to reach out and rub his hand up it the wrong way, stiff and rough against his palm.
He took another drink.
“You looking to learn new ways of blowing things up?”
Boyd cocked his head, palm cupped around his ear and Raylan leant forwards again to repeat.
Boyd laughed, his teeth flashing sharply against the slick red of his lips. “Well, I do not think the mines have anything more to teach me.”
“Can’t argue with that,” Raylan replied with a sudden flashback of coal dust and Boyd’s grip on his arm.
Boyd mock saluted, the gesture sloppy, but it lit a fuse in Raylan’s mind and images exploded behind his eyes: Boyd saluting, Boyd in uniform; Boyd surrounded by new faces; Boyd flying away from here, faster and further than Raylan would ever go. A flicker of want stabbed sharp inside his chest and he raised his hand to rub the heel of his palm against his ribs.
Boyd tilted his head, a frown lining his forehead, and Raylan pulled a smile up from somewhere inside him. The skin of his face stretched as his lips pulled up wide, and a dull flush of shame had him raising his glass. “Good luck, Boyd. Congratulations.” His voice sounded flat, but the noise of the bar masked his tone. They air-clinked and drank. Raylan made an effort to relax his shoulders as he leaned back into his chair.
“What made you decide to follow me out into the world?” Raylan asked, his question falling into the slight lull as the jukebox changed tracks.
Boyd raised his eyebrows. “The world doesn’t revolve around Raylan Givens. Maybe I got bored.”
“Without me, you mean,” Raylan laughed, but the sound was brittle. Boyd shook his head, but he was smiling. He kicked out at Raylan’s chair lazily and Raylan snorted, tracing lines of condensation up the side of his glass.
“Be no one left if everyone takes after you two.”
Raylan looked up at Ava.
“Maybe I’ll go next.” She tossed her head, and opened her mouth to continue, but Bowman laughed abruptly, the noise cutting across her next words.
“You ain’t going nowhere Ava.” He laughed again and reached for her, sliding his hand around the back of her neck and into her hair. She let him tug her towards him and lowered her mouth to his. Raylan realised he was staring, and, flushing, looked away.
Boyd wasn’t looking at him anymore, his gaze drifted to the rest of the bar. His profile looked strange, almost unrecognisable with his short hair. Again Raylan saw him in uniform, standing in strange and unfamiliar places. He thought of Miranda back at the house, thought about the shop and Joe in his beat up pickup. He thought about Harlan and Lexington, and how far was far.
“And how is Lexington treating you, Raylan?” Boyd asked, taking advantage of a less pounding tune to start some conversation. Raylan blinked at the echo to his thoughts.
“It’s treating me just fine,” he replied, shoving his chair a little closer so he could be heard.
“Your aunt Helen told me you’d like as be too busy to come by. Working in a garage is it?”
Raylan nodded, “Aunt Helen’s cousin, Joe? He owns the place.”
Boyd tilted his head and looked at Raylan with smiling eyes, “And are you enjoying your new occupation?” He stretched out the word, his teeth white in his grin.
Raylan looked at him. “It’s a stepping stone, Boyd.”
“And what is it stepping to?”
“You know,” Raylan replied, irritation clipping his words.
Boyd grinned wider. “I believe I do.” He raised his glass. “Freedom.” He drank, then leaned forwards again, letting his smile fall away. “You know, my feelings were hurt. You just up and leaving like that.”
Raylan gaze flickered away. “It wasn’t planned.”
“I know,” Boyd said softly, and Raylan looked back, catching a flash of understanding in Boyd’s eyes. “I happened to speak to Arlo. He came into the bar, a few days back, and he mentioned that you two had... words..” He paused, tilting his head. “Maybe more than just words.” He leaned forward a little more. “And I realised, my good friend Raylan wouldn’t have just left without telling me unless he had a mighty good reason to do so...” he trailed off, inviting Raylan to speak.
Raylan turned his glass around in his hands, pressing his hot palms to the cooler patches of glass.
“I wanted to kill him.”
Boyd waited a moment, but Raylan said nothing else.
“Well now, correct me if I’m wrong, but haven’t you wanted to before?”
“But I was never ready to go through with it before.” Raylan said softly, so low he wasn’t sure Boyd heard. He glanced at him, then away. “Aunt Helen got me out the house. Gave me her cousin's address and told me to go.” He swallowed. “I meant to come back, but-”
“Once you got out, you didn’t want to any more,” Boyd interrupted.
Raylan pressed his lips closed, tonguing the backs of his teeth. He couldn’t quite meet Boyd’s eyes.
“Well.” Boyd slapped the table suddenly, leaning back “You’re here now. This can be both our sending off parties, how’s that sound?”
Raylan twisted his lips into a smile and saluted with his glass.
Despite Raylan’s lack of enthusiasm, it seemed Boyd was right. As people came up to congratulate and bid him goodbye, they invariably recognised Raylan, and needed only a little prompting to extend their remarks to him as well. Raylan nodded and smiled and tried to ignore the ugly churning in his gut as the parade of familiar faces passed by.
Boyd was in his element, talking and laughing, easily keeping place in the centre of the crowd. Raylan was content to watch and sip his slowly warming drink. He did gradually relax into his chair, tapping his fingers against his leg in time with the music, and watching Boyd talk from under half-lidded eyes.
The jukebox was cranking out something loud and fast, and the group around it were dancing wildly. Raylan remembered a night much like this -- spilling his drink on the jukebox, which likely still played 98 when you pressed 89. He remembered shouting at Johnny for knocking into him, demanding a replacement beer. He wasn’t sure who threw the first punch. Though he certainly remembered who threw the last. He smiled absently, remembering Boyd patching them both up in the back room, calling them idiots in a wide variety of words. Boyd always did love the sound of his own voice.
He glanced over, smile still on his lips. Boyd was talking to Bowman now, their heads inclined towards each other. They were casting short, quick glances across the bar to someone standing by the door. Bowman laughed sudden and wide, head thrown back, the lines in his cheek standing out sharp and so similar to Boyd’s, for all that Boyd wasn’t laughing, just cutting a sharp smirk and leaning back in his chair.
He caught Raylan’s eyes and raised his eyebrows innocently.
Raylan glanced over his shoulder, but whatever it was that had caught the brothers’ attention was gone. Raylan looked back at Boyd, with a frown and slightly exasperated smile. He curled it under his lips, reaching for his glass and draining it.
‘Another?’ Boyd mouthed, reaching forwards and Raylan considered it for a second. Another drink, and another, and one after that. His loose sprawl no longer a pretence, the familiar tunes thickening the air. It’d be so easy to nod agreement. To play a lazy round at the pool table, to find a partner for a song or two and show Johnny how it was done. To have another drink and another and fall into the back room and sleep it off, or walk a short way in the cooling air to Boyd’s, shoulders knocking and Boyd, expansive and eloquent, his gestures unrestrained or sloppy, depending on how much he’d drank.
The night seemed to stretch out, a smooth, unceasing line from before to the future. ‘Now’ disappeared and for a second it was as if he’d never left, as if he never could leave. As if this bar, these people, this moment was all that existed.
He inhaled sharply and stood, his chair clattering as he shoved it back. The room tipped as blood rushed to his head, black spots and a sharp whine in his ears blocking the bar from his senses.
“No.” He blinked and swallowed, his head clearing. “Thank you, but no.” He shook his head. Boyd looked him in askance, but his bladder gave him an excuse to move. He began to wind his way between the tables to the toilet.
One of the bulbs was busted, and the dim light hid the worst of the dirt, the graffitied tiles a dirty off-white beneath the scrawls. The stink of piss and underlying vomit helped clear his head further. He curled his lip in disgust as he scrubbed his hands with a dry, unlathering piece of soap.
He’d make his excuses and leave now. Put Harlan in the rear window and not look back. Boyd caught him as he exited, appearing from apparent nowhere and tugging him out through the side door.
“I’ve got to get back,” Raylan said, heading off any attempt at extending the night, but Boyd didn’t say anything, nor did he pull Raylan anywhere else. Instead he let go once they were outside and slid his hands into his jacket pockets. He walked over to the sidewalk, and settled down on the verge, stretching his legs out in front of him.
Raylan stayed in the shadow of the building, wrong-footed. The street-light painted Boyd's forehead and nose yellow, leaving the pockets of his eyes and bottom lip in shadow.
Raylan glanced behind at the bar, up the dark street towards his car, then, taking a deep breath, he took two steps forward. He eased himself down beside Boyd, his legs stretching out longer into the road.
“That’s the second time I’ve walked out this bar, swearing I’d never come back.” Raylan said into the darkness.
“Never say never.” Boyd knocked his shoulder against Raylan’s.
Raylan’s fragile calm shattered. He heard the echo of Arlo’s voice. “Never coming back? Never.” Spitting on the floor. “Good riddance.” The slam of the door and the bubbling burn of anger in his gut.
Raylan flinched away from Boyd’s reaching hand, but the movement helped pull him back into the present. “Hey, okay.” Boyd met Raylan’s eyes. “Some things don’t stick ‘till the second time. I’m sure this’ll be the last I see of you.” His voice dropped towards the end, and he went still for a moment, nothing moving but his eyes as his gaze flitted over Raylan’s face.
Raylan swallowed and tried for a casual shrug. “Last time for both of us I expect.”. Boyd didn’t reply straight away, just kept looking at Raylan before finally turning back to the empty street. Finally he smiled, his usual wide curve of lips looking smaller in profile. A twist that put bitter dimples in his cheek, and his eyes were lit only by the street-lamps. “Oh I’ll be back.” He slanted Raylan a look, but didn’t say anything out loud. Raylan ignored the echo-flash of unease that turned low in his chest.
He took a deep breath, breathing the cool night air deep into his lungs and finally stood, extending a hand to Boyd, who gripped his palm tightly and didn’t let go once they were both on their feet.
His farewell got lost somewhere between his throat and his tongue. “Good luck Boyd,” he said instead, the ring of finality coming through all the same.
Boyd didn’t bother shaking the hand he still held, instead he stepped forwards and relinquished his grip for a surprisingly firm hug. Raylan’s hands settled softly on Boyd’s shoulders for a second. He gave them an awkward pat before Boyd, giving Raylan’s back a far stronger one, released him and leant away. He clapped Raylan on his shoulder a final time, and when he did finally step back, the cold air seemed to rush in on all the places he’d just touched.
Raylan’s words got lost again, but Boyd just smiled, and it wasn’t as wide as it had been in the bar, but not as bitter as his last either. He nodded then turned and re-entered the bar without looking back.
Light and noise washed out through the open door, before being muffled to a low hum as it swung shut.
Raylan looked along the street, wanting, for a split-second to turn around and pull the door back open, step inside the noisy, welcoming heat and slip his arm around Boyd’s shoulders.
He let his eyes fall shut, feeling his heartbeat in his chest, along his shoulders and in his limbs, then he shrugged off the sensation and walked down past the parked cars to his own, unlocking it and slipping into its warm, stuffy interior.
The engine turned over with a reassuring growl as he pulled out into the street and away.
The drive away from Harlan took a long, long time.