Anniversary

Tie that one down, wrap it up, throw it over your shoulder. One more is
one less, moving forward through this pile of madness and words. Rowe
Sween flashed a crooked smile, tilted his head and squinted an eye. The
clock was flashing. There was no time. No way to tell. Even the phone
had been disconnected. Not as in a surprise disconnection, a missed
monthly bill. It had been disconnected a year ago. For Sween, that was
just fine. After what he’d been through, no business for a year was a
nice vacation. He only kept the office so he had someplace where he
could get away from the world. Nights and weekends, he was alone. One
more tiny office in one more crumbling block holding against the
vicious wave of gentrification.

Money was no problem. That was nice to say. He smiled again.

He held both hands up to his eyes, left over right, one on top of the
other, and he looked through eight fingers at the immortal spider plant
flourishing in the corner. It must be sucking up water from the air. He
waggled his fingers, a dizzy fan, then blinked and took his hands away
from his face. Nothing changed. That was the way to go. Nothing
changing.

You know, it’s worth lingering on some things. Money is no problem.

Sween’s thought pattern for a year.

He stood, stared down at the old case files, then ambled back to his
desk. Everything in here was grey and dark, even with the windows open.
It was an old way of life, a memory. Maybe that’s why he really kept
the office. He ran a hand through the dust on the bare desktop —
humility.

He opened his backpack and took out a 10 ounce glass. He put it down
gently and watched it, as if expecting something, then he opened the
mini-fridge squatting beneath the desk at his feet and let his fingers
work blindly for the tiny ice cube tray. Little baby cubes went into
the glass from a warped, cracked plastic tray. He’d had the fridge for
25 years now. Amazing how some of this shit kept running no matter
what. Plug it in, turn it on and, a quarter century later, youth still
had power. It still drew electricity. Nothing perished. Nothing that
was undeserving of death, that is. Youth, beauty, hope. They all lived
on. They may change shape and voice and identity, but they lived on.

That was worth lingering on, too.

He pulled a 750 ML bottle of Stoli out of his backpack and rolled it
around in his hands. Two hours. That’s what he would allow himself to
finish it. He was an older man, now. He had to control himself. He had
to relax and take it easy.

When his mini-fridge was new, Sween had often joked that the building
on the Stoli label was Chernobyl. He was an older man, now. He had seen
Chernobyl. He had seen Russia. He had seen too much. He turned the
label away. “Chill Before Drinking” was on the back. He might put it in
the fridge later, but who really had the luxury time to wait for
chilled vodka? He pulled out a half gallon container of Tropicana and
made a strong screwdriver, then sat back in the old leather chair and
glared at the glass door that led to the outer office and, from there,
to a hallway full of ant traps and flickering lights.

He touched the glass to his lips, meager ice and warm screwdriver.
Nothing mattered. He felt the vodka rush into his body. His lips parted
and he closed his eyes as he felt parts of him, genetic or learned,
connect and fire. The chair rocked back so his stomach pressed against
the edge of the desk, the mini-fridge sending a bass-hum through the
bottom of his feet into his bladder. He shifted back further and
slammed the drink with a hungry, insane shudder, coming up straight and
blinking when a shadow fell across his door.

One year to the day.

And then she walked into his office.

He’d always wanted to say that.

She walked in as if he had seen her just yesterday. She kept her eyes
at a point just over his right shoulder as she sat down, black pants
and black top, tiny purse held at her midriff, legs crossing in a
silken shift that defied her age. Her brown had been visited by grey,
her blue had been invaded by tiny riverbeds, her smile had gone from
trusting to mature. She was beautiful, as always.

“Surprised you’re still here.” She said, turning to look at the window,
the sounds of traffic one story below rushing by on University
Boulevard. A horn blew up the street somewhere, the left turn to Elmo
just beneath her gaze and ‘Elby’s Beer and Wine’ glimmering in the
morning sun. The sign lit the office at night.

“We had a date.” Sween replied.

She shook her head and smiled, meeting his eyes for the first time
since she came in. For the first time in a year. “Back to where it all
began.”

He had a sudden shift in emotions. A storm surge, a surprise punch, a
flick of the wing. Everything came down to something, but he couldn’t
put his finger on what. Then, just as quickly, that lump in his veins
passed and he was breathing again. Same old Sween, one year later.

“Where it all began.” He echoed.

“I was another girl, then.” She said.

“I was another man.”

She held his gaze, blue on green for what seemed a lifetime. He
expected to break away and find that the sun had set, the days had
passed, the windows blown out, the walls rotted around them and trees
risen from the abandoned concrete of a lost civilization.

No time had passed.

“You are the same man,” she replied. “That’s why I hired you.”

She pulled a white envelope out of her tiny purse, crinkled along the
seal, rumpled and folded too many times, the bright white fading.

She slid it across the desk, leaving a clean trail.

“For all we lost. Now it is time for another.” she said.

He thought of West Virginia. He thought of the strange call those
mountains held for his city bones. He could smell autumn, the strength
of September in those insane hills. It was haunting. It was a drug.
Something about her still smelled of West Virginia. After all, that was
where he had shot her. That was where everything had ended a year ago.
He thought of the smell of her blood, her piss, her shit, her musk.
Cordite. Powder on his hands. An ancient musket in the mud. A cave in
the deep hills. The sound of a train in the far distance. King Coal.
King Timber. A woman screaming in his arms. His reality no longer
secure.

He picked up the envelope.

“How are you feeling?” It was a stupid question.

She focused again just over his right shoulder.

“You know it was – ”

“I know.” She answered quickly, cutting him off.

“You’re so beautiful.” He kept his eyes on the envelope, turning it around in his hands.

She laughed. It started in a strange way. Her face broke with a flashed
smile. Then she barked quietly to herself. Then she chuckled in a
staccato burst, a skipping stone. Three or four times.

He waited for the laughter to stop, then set the envelope back on the desk.

“Guess I’m back in business.”

“Twists and turns.” She said, a smile in her voice and creasing her
narrow, pale face. “Neither of us imagined this. Believe me when I say
that.”

“But you have the advantage.”

“I’m the one who was touched.”

Sween looked up at her, as wide-eyed as a child.

“Who can love you and still be standing?” she asked. She looked into
his eyes again. “Do you boys fear the same things we fear? Do you hear
the same things we hear? What is it like for you?” She let her eyes
travel, drift, fall down his chest and to a spot on the desk. “What is
this world we’ve made?”

Sween took a breath. He’d forgotten to do so for some time or, at least, it felt like that.

He closed his eyes till she had left. He held back the horror, the
tears, the fear. When the outer door closed gently, he looked again.
She was gone; her envelope remained. He stood and crossed to the files
he had dug out when he arrived earlier. He dragged his backpack with
him and made a second, warmer screwdriver. This time the orange juice
was only there in spirit, a syrupy discoloration to seven ounces of
vodka. He drank it too fast to notice and hoped that the vodka would
move quickly into his blood, shift into his brain, settle behind his
eyes. He hoped it would erase things. He hoped it would stop him from
sitting, cross-legged, on a filthy floor with his mouth turned down. He
hoped it would silence what was in his ears, he hoped it would take the
envelope from him. He hoped it would erase a lifetime of mistakes. He
hoped.

There are some thoughts worth lingering on.

He picked up a file he had set aside.

Very.

He opened it and looked at her. How she had changed. A year. How she had changed in a year.

He turned past her picture, past his case file template, past his notes on five by five cards.

“Rowe Sween,” he read his name from off the newsprint. Then he read
hers. Then he read the rest. Then he put it aside. He smelled her blood
and shit and piss. He smelled the West Virginia mountains in autumn. He
smelled the leaves and the dreams and the freedom. He remembered
looking at the Appalachian sky and the colored trees and the clouds. He
had looked anywhere rather than look into her eyes


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