A Good Thing
"Ava?" Raylan squints in the darkness. The moonlight filtering through the warped blinds reassembles the girl, shapes her into something a damn sight finer than the trailer, something more like a dream.
"Were you sleeping?"
Raylan frowns, already rolling to switch on the lamp. His body groans in protest. "Ava, it's - " he glances at the digital clock glowing from the old crate he uses as a night table, " - three in the morning." He snags his jeans from the trailer floor, sliding the worn denim up his legs as discreetly as he can before fumbling for his boots.
"What are you doing here?" For a moment Raylan thinks the worst, that there's been an accident, but when he looks up, the girl only shrugs.
"It's too hot to sleep," she tells him, her long-lashed gaze moving round the trailer. Buddy Hoight rents it to him for a hundred a month; it's tired, and there's not enough room to swing a cat, but it keeps the rain off him. Mostly. "Thought you might want some company."
Company, huh? Raylan finishes yanking on his boots, shakes his head. The girl's burrowed beneath his skin like a chigger in June, and damn if she doesn't know it; finding excuses to come around, drinking sweet tea and snapping peas with his momma. Doesn't mean he's going to scratch that itch, though, he reminds himself, and tries not to look at the soft curves and budding breasts filling Ava's flimsy sundress. Ev McBain keeps a gun and a pack of bloodthirsty coonhounds, both equally relentless. Besides, Raylan still remembers Ava trailing after him in pigtails, begging to shoot his BB gun. Bedding and leaving her just wouldn't sit right. He runs a hand over his rumpled hair to scratch at the back of his neck.
"I don't think that's a good idea."
"No one will miss me," she assures him. "Daddy wouldn't wake up if you drove a tractor clean through the house."
Raylan's mouth curves slightly. He gets on up, grabbing his shirt from the chair and putting what distance he can between them and the bed. "Comforting as that is, I think we'd better get you home."
"What's the matter?" She smiles coyly, tucking a wayward wave of blonde hair behind her ear. "I've seen the way you look at me; I know you think I'm pretty."
"As a picture," he admits, fingers working the buttons of his shirt. "But it's late, Ava. We should both be in bed."
It's the wrong thing to say, and Ava tilts her head thoughtfully. "That an invitation?"
Raylan forgets the buttons and holds up a hand, tries to pull in the reins here. "No."
She looks hurt, maybe a little surprised. "I'm not a little girl anymore, Raylan." As if he hasn't noticed.
"No, you're not. But you're fifteen - "
" - and I'm almost twenty, and it's against the law. Even in Kentucky," he adds wryly.
It's a bitter pill already, but the slight to their home state has her narrow at the eyes. "Fine. You go on and sleep, then; maybe I'll see if Buddy's up. I bet he knows a good thing when he sees one."
Raylan raises his brows in disbelief. "Buddy's drunker than a peach orchard boar."
"Still has more sense than you."
He has half a mind to let her walk away, but damned if he can do it. Raylan sighs. "You might be right." Before Ava can register his intent, he bends and swiftly hefts her over his shoulder, deliberately ignoring the smoothness of her bare thigh beneath his calloused fingers. As he pushes open the screen door with his free hand, her fist pounds his back, right where it aches from hours of shoveling coal.
"You put me down this second, Raylan, or I swear I'll ow!" Ava complains, as his palm smacks smartly against the seat of her drawers. "You stop that."
"Just settle down, now," Raylan advises, as the door bangs shut behind them, "or I'll give you something to fuss about."
It's an empty threat, but she lets herself fall back to his shoulder with a huff. Raylan smiles ruefully as he makes his way over to the truck. It's a shame, really, that he won't be around when Ava turns eighteen; the girl will be a force to be reckoned with someday.
Raylan opens the door to the Chevy and drops Ava in, waiting for her to slide to the passenger side before climbing in himself. He grabs the keys from above the visor.
"You have no right."
"Someday you're going to want me, Raylan Givens."
"I suppose I will," he says. "Let me drive you home?"
Her fingers tap her knee in agitation. "Do I have a choice?"
Raylan's mouth quirks. "Belt up."
"You aren't wearing one," she points out.
"I'm a grown-up."
That gets her back up for sure, but she bites her tongue and buckles her seatbelt, staring out the window for the short drive back to the house. Raylan turns the lights off and pulls over a ways from the front walk, letting the motor idle. They sit there for a while, listening to the jarflies and crickets through the open windows. Lightning bugs flit in and out of the neighboring woods, but the time to run and catch them has long passed.
"Your momma says you might be leaving." Ava finally breaks their silence, and Raylan pretends not to see the dampness on her cheeks.
"Were you going to say goodbye?"
Raylan winces. "Thought it might be easier if I didn't."
And he knows he's left her behind often enough over the years, when she couldn't keep up, whenever she was too young for whatever he had in mind, but this time, this time is different. He won't be back. "I can't stay, Ava." He hopes she understands. Kentucky, this life; he'll suffocate here.
"Even if I let you take me dancing?" she tries to tease, and Raylan realizes he's being let off the hook. For now.
"Well, now. That is mighty tempting," he says, pretending to give the matter serious consideration. "But I'm afraid it's going to have to wait a while."
"If you say so," Ava replies. So agreeably that Raylan never sees it coming. One minute he's sitting there on his side of the cab, and the next her warm lips are pressing sweetly against his. It's quick and fleeting as summer hail, and then she's reaching for the door.
"Don't let the grass take your feet, Raylan," she tells him, glancing back over her shoulder. "A girl can't wait forever."
She jumps from the truck, and the door slams shut. She runs off through the field to the house, leaving behind the faint scent of her mother's rose perfume.
Raylan releases the breath he doesn't realize he's been holding. This is his last goodbye. In another three weeks, he'll be out of here out of Harlan, out of Kentucky. And not hell or high water will ever bring him back. So it's a good thing there isn't anything here he'll miss.
"It's a good thing," Raylan repeats to himself, finally shifting the truck into gear and turning it around on the narrow road. "A damn good thing." And he must find himself convincing.
After he says it a few more times, he actually starts to believe it.
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