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Sunsets always intrigued him; in a last ditch effort to show the world its beauty, the sun put on a fantastic show, just before disappearing for the night–a soft, silent death. It was funny, him thinking that any type of death could be beautiful. He shrugged; death was permanent. The sun would be back in a matter of hours. Now the only question was what to do until that point.

Entering the small house through the garage, he dropped his suitcase by the table, where it would stay until morning. He thought homework was a thing of the past. Not quite. His company was expanding exponentially, and with every midnight merger and under-the-table deal, he was required to file reports, fake them if necessary. At least it distracted him, most of the time.

He poured himself a glass of vodka tonic, such a routine habit that it was second-nature: unlock door, five steps, drop suitcase, three steps, grab glass, half-step, grab bottle, pour, two steps, open fridge, grab bottle, pour, two steps, sip, sip, sip. Half the mix already down, he exhaled for the first time in hours. He physically shrunk, going from an impressive six foot three to a measly five-eleven. His shoulders ached from holding himself perfectly erect all day. You'd think he'd get used to it after this long, but every night, it was the same. He told himself the vodka helped. Like he really needed to justify drinking to himself.

Even with all his financial success at an impressively young age, he was too cheap to buy satellite or internet. He turned on the television, flipped through his seventy five channels, taking a small sip after every dozen or so. What a surprise: nothing. He couldn't remember the last time he had found something–anything–even remotely interesting to watch. With another shrug, he finished his glass and went to fix another. Even though this was all still fairly routine, he was relaxed enough to actually notice his surroundings. A bright pink sticky note hung crookedly from the freezer door. "Hey babe! Call me, and I'll show you another good time ;)" crawled diagonally across the small sheet of paper. A number was beautifully drawn beneath the short invitation. Peeling off the note non-too gently, he gave it a quick thought, then smashed it in his fist. It wasn't anger, shame, or even frustration that prompted him. Rather, the barren, unforgiving lack of any emotion whatsoever encouraged him to dispose of the note. He thought maybe, just maybe, if he tried forcing himself to care about something, someone, anyone, he could find a twinge of feeling. He took the two steps to the trash can and aggressively threw the note away. Standing there, head down, eyes squeezed shut, he dug for the slightest bit of remorse. Nada. With another sigh, he stood back to his relaxed height, poured himself another drink–a screwdriver this time–and settled in his old beat-up recliner. Just as he laid back, his cell phone buzzed from his suitcase. Turning his head only slightly, he shooed the matter away with an indifferent wave of the hand. "Not tonight," he mumbled to himself. Slumping in his chair even more, he gulped down the last of his second glass. Setting it down on the end table at his left, he sluggishly fingered the knob of its small single drawer. It had been exactly one year since he'd last opened this drawer. He could only bring himself to peer inside every three-hundred sixty five days, for its contents threatened to send him back into the deep depression he'd clawed out of only six years prior. But after two stiff drinks and a year of waiting, it was time yet again.

Just as he left it, the first thing he saw was a picture he'd taken of her on their first date. She stood frozen in her favorite yellow blouse, tight blue jeans, and golden sandals. Her fierce blue eyes drilled into him from the photo paper, and her soft voice echoed in his head like she was in the room with him that very moment. "Silly boy, put that away." He caught a faint whiff of her hair. She had always smelled so clean, so pure. Even after making love, she always smelled so damn good.

The next item to be freed from captivity was a small envelope. Purple ink spelled his name in elegant, wonderfully female script. He slowly lifted the flap. The seal still showed the faint pink stain of her lip gloss. He held it to his nose. She had a wonderful habit of misting each letter with the perfume he adored so much. He couldn't tell if the paper still held some of the scent or if it was only his memory again. Really, it was all the same anymore.

He saved this letter in particular, because it was the one and only letter in which she admitted to loving him. Opening it slowly, as if he were afraid it might shatter, he read the words he knew by heart:
Dear Eli,

I know it frustrates you that I refuse to correspond with you electronically, but I think words lose some of their magic if they aren't written by hand. Don't you agree? Something that is done by your own person, by your own ability, is so much more pleasing a gift than something done on a computer. That's my position, anyway. I know we often disagree. You hate waiting on "snail mail," and I do to, to be honest. But the waiting, the longing to hear back, also has a small hint of charm to it, I think.

Anyway, how is London? I know you are incredibly busy, what with all your meetings and fancy-shmansy dinner dates with the top-dogs in Europe. Have you met the queen yet? The prime minister maybe? Kidding aside, I know how important these next few weeks are for you, for your career, for us. If it weren't so busy back stateside, I'd fly over and meet you in Paris, and we could have that dinner under the Eiffel Tower you promised me. Maybe in the off-season, when it's not so hectic.

P.S.
I hope this letter finds you in a moment of solitude, because there's something I have to tell you. I love you, Eli.

Amanda




The letter had indeed found him in a moment of solitude, and also a moment of weakness. Tears started to fall as he pulled out the next item, a newspaper clipping, dated six years ago to the day.


"Sources report that the bombing was an act of domestic terrorism, with targets including high-profile bureaucrats, as well as top businessmen who were to meet and discuss the president's budget plan. Of the 79 victims, Senator James Thamadin and Congresswoman Amanda Tripp were among the first to be identified as dead on arrival."


Tears fully streaming now, there was nothing he could do but reach for the last thing in the drawer, the one final memento of the most important person in his life. Eyes squeezed shut, he pushed his fingers around the bottom of the drawer until he heard it scoot away from his touch. It was such a small, delicate thing. The cool metal felt eerily calming against his flush palm. Holding it up to his face, only then did he open his eyes.

It was never the diamond that he saw first, nor the gold band that held it. Having studied every bit of it, he knew every nick, every scratch, every imperfection. But he didn't see these first, either. The first thing he always saw when he looked at the engagement ring was always the inscription he'd asked to be written on the inside of the band, beneath the stone. There, in fine, even script that reminded him so much of her own handwriting, read:





I will love you Forever and Always

At the time, he hadn't realized that Forever and Always would be this long.



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