“Who do you know that drives a town car?”
Ava rises slowly from the pew. It is not someone she knows exactly, but rather someone she once knew: riding from a long gone past in a silver steel horse.
Here it comes, thought Ava. And maybe she thought: This will be the end of me, but she couldn’t quite place that certain. Or maybe she didn’t think a thing. Maybe she just watched as the skinny, pretty figure walked the steps over the hill, green grass under the heels.
“Look at you! Suit, high heels. Looking good.”
“You think?” she smiled, and it wasn’t the same smile Ava remembered.
“Well, Wi, I can tell for sure you don’t need me sayin’. Bet you got all boys runnin’ around you just like they did in high school.”
They stood there, two pair of hands entangled between them. They had dug coal when they were young girls and then lost touch over the years. Now it looked like they’d be meeting again, this time as marshal and felon, Winona Givens and Ava Crowder.
“You gonna come inside or should we work on our tan more?”
Winona stood with her hand over her gun, squinting up to Devil as the man stood right behind Ava.
“If you think we can catch up the old times… Don’t wanna bore your, hm, associates with girl’s gossip.”
Ava snorted, making it clear she didn’t believe Winona’s act.
“Oh, sure, Wi, you came all the way from shining Lexington just to catch up with your old friend. Devil, go check on Dewey, hm? That boy ain’t right on the head; we can’t trust him alone anywhere.”
They walked inside, and there it was, the big red swastika hanging from a wall. It would be shocking if Winona hadn’t read the Crowders’ file. Even so, she made sure to stop right in front of it, pointing at it with one raised finger.
“What, that?” Ava smiled, as if it was a picture of a cat on her fireplace. “Wi, our boys need a symbol to follow. You may think of Hitler’s empire as somethin’ evil, but you can’t deny there are some deep truths in his words.”
“Oh, are they now?”
“Well, we do have an obligation with our fellow Christians to purify our land from the mud people, that’s what the good word says.” Ava walked around the room, throwing rests of food and other garbage inside a plastic bag. “You gonna have to excuse me the mess, I do try to clean it, but ya know boys, they get together, its worst than children. Besides, they are mourning still, and I didn’t felt like yelling at them over this sorta of stuff.”
“Mourning the loss of your husband, Bowman Crowder?” Winona asked slowly, reaching a cleaning cloth for Ava.
“He did have his flaws but he was their minister, after all. That’s not erased just ‘cause he was an abusive husband. He will be missed.”
“But his flock surely is complacent with his leader’s murderess.”
Ava stopped cleaning, but only for the second it took to fix a lock of blond hair behind her ear, and then she was back at apparently focusing all her energy in cleaning the table by the altar. Winona knew better, though.
“They understood I did what I had to do. They all knew Bowman used to hit me.”
“That so? That’s funny, Ava, ‘couse what I heard in town was that Bowman was a real sweetheart to his beloved wife.”
“Oh, yeah?” Ava moved over to clean one of the pews, not affected by Winona’s words in the least.
“In fact, I heard he was even afraid of his wife. That Bowman wasn’t the one calling the shots.”
“Well, Wi, I would like to hear those words said to my face. Maybe you’ve been away too long, so you may not recall what it’s like to be a woman in our home, but we ain’t got much choice here. Go talk to your momma some, see if it helps you remember. How’s she, by the way? Got better?”
It was clear to anyone watching them that Ava’s words were poison to Winona, but the marshal answered anyway.
“She’s the reason I’m here.” A long pause, Winona looking away. “Got better, got worse again. I had to come.”
“Yeah, I didn’t think your daddy would come back, not after he almost died. What was it? A kitchen knife?”
Winona knew Ava remembered, but she still stood there, looking at her old friend with a question mark on her face.
“An ice picker through his thigh.” Winona answered between her gritted teeth.
“Yeah, right. Girl, your momma was something else on her days, uhn? Remember when she used to sweep Harlan streets naked at the dawn of day, saying she had to cleanse the land from evil? When was that, back in the 90s?”
“I must have been gone already, but if you don’t mind me sayin’, maybe we should check your head as well. A moment ago your lil’ speech sounded just the same.”
Ava stopped, and there was a whole second where there was danger behind her blue eyes, a second where she looked more like the raw animal that used to go under the mountain with Winona, the only two girls working the mine: the second didn’t last, though, and she was smiling big just as quick.
“So here you have it, Marshal Givins: I ain’t a murderer, I’m just a poor country girl who got her head knocked over so many times she lost her mind. You can’t believe me to do anyone’s any harm, can you?”
And she was the picture of a blonde angel, with her pink dress and her curls falling over her shoulders, perfect smile and baby blue eyes, Harlan’s sweetheart.
“Stop the act, Ava. Who am I, an asshole? You forgot who you talkin’ to?”
“I haven’t for a second, marshal Winona Givens. Is it Givens yet? Or are you back at being Collins?”
“Oh, so you heard of that?” Winona took a big gulp of a beer lying forgotten on the floor – she was going to need booze if their next topic was Raylan Givens.
“’Course I did, what with your ex-husband’s choice of partner lately.”
They both stopped, staring at each other, and for the first time that afternoon there was humor between them that wasn’t tainted with threat. They were laughing a second later.
“Yeah, Givens yet, at least ‘till the end of the month. I still remember the Ava I knew back when I was just Collins, though. You ain’t no damsel in distress.”
“Why, ‘cause I dug coal when I were nineteen? That was just ‘cause I didn’t had the stomach to suck hillbillies off and I didn’t have an older sister to pay for my way out.”
“What? I was there as well, wasn’t I? Dee didn’t sent for me ‘till after the cave in. And the only reason we dug coal was ‘cause they needed lighter miners to steal coal, and eight year olds were hard to come by those days. Otherwise we would probably sell pot to Mags before working for Audrey’s.”
“Oh, so you do remember?”
“Audrey’s? Sure I do.” At this, Winona leaned closer. “And you know what else? The whole town knows you’re the one running Audrey’s, Ava, and half of Harlan is damn sure you’re the one behind the meth as well.”
Ava stopped smiling, sitting heavily on one of the pews on the back, making Winona walk towards her.
“My dead husband was not a good behaved citizen, and that actually just confirms he was a violent man. Now, I don’t know what amazing tales you have been hearing on Harlan but the fact I was married with the man doesn’t mean I ever took any part in his outlaw ways.”
“You know what I think, Ava? I think Bowman was just as much a dumb shithead as a man as he ever was as a kid. I think you took the opportunity that he had a well-respected name among low-lives and that he did your every wish to play him around as a fiddle, especially since his brother was out of the game. At this point in life he must have found a way to sneak around some money right under your nose, or maybe, who knows, you just woke up one day and realized you didn’t need him for shit anymore, what with Devil and Dewey and who knows who being your little bitches. So you shot him in cold blood and took the part of the abused widow.”
“Winona, this is my home. You don’t get to walk in here after twenty years and think you know shit ‘bout my life–”
“ –I know you’re the Queen of Harlan–”
“Well then, maybe” Ava rose her voice, and anger was finally clear in her voice. “ya should know better than to go against the queen. Maybe you should go back the way you came, go look after your sick-in-the-head mamma and leave Harlan problems to Harlan people.”
“Watchu gonna do? Shoot a federal marshal?” Winona said it as it was a complete insanity, but she didn’t doubt Ava was capable of it, so her hand was close to her gun.
“Don’t you fucking tempt me, Wi.”
Ava was sitting leaning forward on the church pew, not bothering keeping her good girl act anymore. She kept moving her hands, and Winona knew that tell, had seen it so many times before in criminals: she was itching to grab a gun, to shoot someone, and if the opportunity should arise, she wouldn’t certainly take it. Winona knew it was Ava in her most dangerous, but also knew it was the only time she would be able to push her into a mistake.
“What if I told ya we got something on you? You being a good boss to your workers, Ava? That girl, Ellen May, you trusting her with a lot of your secrets? ‘Cause she surely likes to talk, that one, if there’s anyone to hear.”
Winona saw the exact moment hate and fear overtook Ava’s features and she knew, clear as daylight, that if she was to blink, Ava was certainly going to kill her.
Then, everything happened at once: the church’s doors opened with a loud sound, Winona startled, that dumbass – Dewey Crowe – ran inside, yelling “Hey, boss!” and stopping on his tracks as soon as he saw Ava had company, and Ava herself reached below the pew, grabbing her shotgun and loading it with one single movement.
After that, Winona remembers noises. She doesn’t remember pulling the trigger, but her gun is on her hand and Ava is bleeding out on the floor. It’s all over.
She gets inside easily enough, but doesn’t bother not making a sound. She needs a way of waking him up.
Raylan has grown even lazier in the last two years, it seems, since who greets her in the living is Boyd Crowder.
“Good Lord Almighty!” the man yells, obviously scared shitless.
“Hey, Boyd.” she greets from the darkness, not bothering to sound sorry. “Heard about your brother. And your sister-in-law. My condolences.”
Boyd turns on the lights, giving Winona the bad eye.
“Well, she was your friend too. You came all the way in the middle of the night just to say that?”
“Actually, I wanted to…”
“Boyd, what was it?” came Raylan’s voice from the other room, and a second later he was appearing in the room, bed hair and pj pants running low.
It was difficult, those times, to Winona. Because she was still mad at him for cheating and basically guilty tripping her in thinking she was at fault for the end of their marriage when he obviously wasn’t over his unsolved business with Boyd; actually, she was downright pissed off at him, but if she saw him, suddenly, entering a room or exiting a car, she couldn’t help but feel head over hills for the boy with the lean hips and the clint-eastwood-walk, the same boy she and Ava had a crush on when they were teenagers.
The nostalgia of it all was a bit too much for such a harsh day. She got up and walked out of the house, Ava’s voice echoing on her ears.
“Are you okay?” Raylan asked her outside, a low voice. “I know you and Ava were close. Once.”
“I was the one to take the shot.” Winona said quickly, before she lost her courage, before Raylan said anything else.
Raylan looked over at her, and she didn’t want to see the pity she might find in his eyes. She has no idea why she came, only that she felt like Raylan, ironically enough, would be the only one to understand.
Why she thought that, she had no idea. Raylan worked on the court house, and his idea of tragedy was coming out of the closet at his late thirties.
“She pulled first.” Winona kept going. “It was justified.”
“Ava chose her destiny, Winona. You were just doing your job.”
Winona has to laugh, the sound hurting her throat as if it was acid. “What does this even means, Raylan?”
“It means the bullet was a longtime coming. And that anyone else would’ve done just the same.”
“Anyone else.” she repeats the words in a low tone, but there’s no use: she’s alone in her narrative, and she, alone, pulled the trigger.