The Absolution of Atticus

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10 :: SWAY

— Cooper —

THE ONLY HOPE I have of erasing the past week is found on the rooftop of the apartment building. It is conjured up amidst the humid evening petrichor and the sounds of the sleeping city, low 20s swing music hanging in the air. I don’t know how to do this part, the after part. My best guess is still a shot in the dark, which is something I’d much rather be doing right now than confront the girl who is apparently getting along much better than I am.

Every now and then I glance over at her, and every now and then I have to grip the cement edge of the rooftop wall to keep myself from falling. The wind is raging tonight, throwing my center of balance through more than a few loops. That, or Grace is the moon with a swaying sort of gravity all her own. I could get used to the lack of balance if I had something sturdier to stand on, but I figure if I push my luck, I may very well slip off this ledge.

Grace doesn’t move her eyes when she finally chooses to approach me about halfway through the party. “Mason is on a business trip.” She keeps them trained down below.

“Oh,” is all I can think to say.

“He’s not really into parties, or anything. You know?”

I suppress a cough, which is ill-timed, because she suddenly turns to me with a whiplash gaze. It takes her all of two seconds to assume I have the worst intentions. She’s looking at me like I’m somehow lesser than her, like I’m some sort of fallen prince with a shattered crown. Grinding my jaw to shifting beat of a suddenly hostile atmosphere, my next words come out cold.

“It’s probably for the best. We both know he’d screw your mom if he had the chance.” I take a swig out of my glass, fortifying myself against whatever storm she’s bringing.

First, she tells me to fuck off.

Then, she pivots and stands with her back facing me, looking out toward the city. She’s wearing this long sleeve flapper getup that makes her look shorter than she really is, which seems impossible. I’m wearing a torn-up suit that belonged to my father, and I guess that’s where all the urges are coming from. I haven’t let my glass get empty since this party started. I can feel it seeping under my skin and pulsing through my veins. And what can I say? Grace has already plastered a smile right back onto her face, and she’s reinstating herself in circled conversations with people that know her mother, but also notably aren’t her mother. The girl’s got a lot of people to avoid tonight.

I lean against the barrier, dangling the champagne glass over the edge. Frustration knots itself in my chest and roots me to this spot, watching the party move around from the sidelines. She thinks I’m a liar. And she’s right. I can’t keep denying her the truth, but there’s so much more in Atticus’s letters than she seems ready for. Watching her stumble up the stairs in a drunken stupor the other night only served as a penetrating reminder that I can’t give her the world, and I can’t protect her from the damage she inflicts upon herself. Grace is human. And she’s stubborn as hell.

I resort to throwing my reservations out the window entirely. Sitting down in the first empty seat I can find, I try to remember what time this thing is supposed to be over. I’m never violent when I’m intoxicated, which is more than I can say when I’m sober. So, for tonight at least, I’ll drink to precautions.

Grace’s mom approaches me at some point. I stand up to shake her hand and pull out a chair beside mine for her at the small garden table. She has the same eyes as Grace; that’s how I know who she is.

“A lovely party, no?” She instigates the conversation.

I take another sip and grimace at the bitter flavor. “It is.” I can feel her commandeering gaze weighing down on me, a true aficionado of human spirit. She’s studying me. I force a smile when I finally face her. “Cooper Benson,”

“Cecelia Sinclair,” The woman nods approvingly.

“That’s right,” I smile, shaking my head. “I’m sorry, Grace did tell me your name. I don’t know how I forgot.”

She waits a beat. “You know Grace?”

“Uh, yeah, neighbor,” I swallow the rest of my drink along with the rest of the truth. Best friend. Liar. Idiot.

“She’s never mentioned you.”

The words sting less than I expect them to. I’m hardly surprised. “Well, uh, we were never—”

“Close?” Cecelia cuts me off with a sharp, knowing glint in her eye. I’m more intimidated by this woman than I’d like to admit, but it’s obvious where Grace gets her conniving impulses from.

“Yeah,” I sigh, straining my voice, trying to sound natural.

“Well,” She exhales, pushing around a piece of cheese with the toothpick on her plate. “She’s certainly something, isn’t she?”

For some reason, my mind settles on this statement. It takes a few moments to conjure up an answer through my foggy thought process. Cecelia pushes the ice bucket with the wine bottle in it toward me. I can’t help but laugh a little, and as Cecelia laughs along with me, we are right at ease. Like a pair of old friends. I finally come up with a reply and kind of let the words tumble out of me.

“Grace is more than she lets on. I think she—” I chance a glance up at Cecelia. She nods, and I stammer on mindlessly. “She wants to fix everybody and, and perfect everything. She’s willing to… to cut out pieces of herself to fill in everyone else’s gaping holes and she—well, she doesn’t realize that it’s, it’s never going to be enough. She’s just gonna end up unraveling herself and taking herself apart over and over again until she’s—until she’s… nothing.”

Cecelia raises her glass and her eyebrows. The alcohol has officially taken its toll. I laugh nervously and paw at the base of my burning neck. Cecelia sips from her glass like a vision of 1920s elegance, and says, “That’s a very perceptive statement… neighbor.”

I scoff bashfully, deciding not to drink anymore tonight. Grace’s mother finishes her glass and pats my arm, eyes grazing the crowd of guests. She smiles at me as she rises. I stand up to shake her hand again, feeling more awkward than anything.

“I’m so sorry, really, I don’t know where that came from. I had no right to really say any of that. I’ve probably had too many drinks and I just—”

“Cooper Benson, you have embellished my night with a poetic speech of such magnitude and eloquence that I’m not sure I’ll be able to hold out a viable conversation with another human soul tonight. You are no less than perfect.” She holds my hand in both of her own.

It takes me a few seconds to figure out if she’s kidding or not, but then I break into relieved half-drunken laughter. “Oh, uh, well thank you, I guess. And happy birthday.”

She leans a little closer and shields her mouth from the rest of the crowd. “It was yesterday. That stuff’s old news, but don’t tell anyone.” Cecelia winks at me and glides off into the crowd.

Fumbling around with yet another letter from Cecelia’s ex husband and Grace’s father in my pocket, I try to keep a steady eye on my familiar brunette bombshell in the most inconspicuous way possible. She is dancing with a well-dressed man who looks to be in his mid-fifties, attempting the Charleston and throwing her head back in contagious laughter. No one else really knows how to do it right either. The fast-paced song ends and everyone is clapping. Most of the guests take their seats, their middle-to-late-aged bodies visibly exhausted. Grace remains on the dance floor, and I can tell she’s at least a little tipsy because she looks around after everyone’s sat down, confused at the older generation’s lack of spryness. Another song begins, a slow and brassy piano, crackling through the sound system she made me set up for her earlier today. It’s instinctual to jump to my feet and stumble out onto the dance floor. I catch her in a type of slow dance.

She’s taken aback, blinking these giant, effortful, focused blinks. “Cooper?”

I ease her into a gentle swaying motion, and thankfully, she doesn’t resist. “Didn’t wanna leave you hanging,”

“Hm,” She hums, looking anywhere but up at me. “I’m still completely angry at you, just so you know.”

I laugh softly. I can’t help but breathe in a little of her perfume; white lilac, or at least what I imagine that flower would smell like. “I know,”

She’s quiet then, letting her head rest on my shoulder. The song kind of bubbles like champagne, carrying us away on a cloud. I can still hear the soft chatter from the party going on around us, but it feels like we’re all alone up here, like it’s another Friday night spent with ramen noodles and the occasional cheap whiskey. I can’t help but feel like I should’ve asked her to dance with me a long time ago. Our whole argument from Monday night just evaporates in my memory, along with the existence of our surroundings. I’m definitely drunk, but this is nice. I’ve never felt good drunk before. This is it.

“Grace,” I find myself whispering softly into her hair, not knowing or even caring whether she’s listening or not, not knowing or even caring what I’m actually about to disclose. “Grace, there’s so much I want to say to you. I just—I don’t think you’d ever understand why I’ve been keeping these secrets.”

My throat goes dry and my vision blurs. She’s humming, and I take it as a good sign. Some invisible force is drawing the words out of my mouth and it’s almost physically painful. An audible sigh escapes my mouth, like a barrier being broken or something inside piloting me towards the face of a cliff. I let my head lower to her shoulder, breathing her in, and the stream of consciousness continues. From the crook of her collarbone to the gentle curve of her jaw, I’m finding solace. This is where I leave the most dangerous phrases, the ones that don’t make sense, even at 3am as I’m rediscovering the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. The ones that keep me awake at night. They have their own voice.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m choking in them. Sometimes I wish I’d go ahead and lose my mind already. God, you make me crazy.” I realize that if it weren’t for Grace’s hand in mine, I would be on my knees. “And I’m sorry about who I used to be. I’m scared… shit, I’m terrified. I don’t know if I’ll ever lose that guy completely. I mean, look at me here now, drunk as hell and spewing all this shit as if it’ll ever make any sense to you. I can’t be that guy I was, the alcoholic you let into your apartment, the alcoholic you took care of. And maybe that’s why you’re with him… Mason. He’s that guy, the guy you can take care of, the guy you can fix… the monster who fucking hits you—”

“Oh my god, Mase!!” Grace squeals, leaps away from me, and practically bounds across the entire rooftop.

It’s at this moment, of empty arms and all my words strewn out across the dance floor, that I remember how reality works. The rooftop is a crime scene. I’ve just been brutally murdered. That has to be what this is. My innards spread out from end to end. I feel the sudden weight of her absence and I come spiraling back into this life of mine. Impact, the roaring crunching of metal, the explosion, and the aftermath. This carnage is all that’s left. She must not have heard me. In a stinging, burning kind of way, this is a good thing.

Sure enough, Mason stands in front of the steel rooftop access door, a foolproof grin on his face, a bouquet of red roses in his right hand, and a bottle of wine in his left. Grace throws her arms around his neck, and applause erupts through the crowd. In slow motion and all at once, someone is wheeling out a three-tier cake on a cart. The chorus to an offkey version of the Happy Birthday song floats up into the night air. Grace and Mason are at the center of the crowd, attached at the hip and laughing in unison. Mason adds his bottle of wine to the table of gift wrapped boxes to Cecelia’s right. The whole evening’s pinnacle, I manage to catch glimpses of from the back of the group.

From what I can see, Cecelia knows more than she lets on, and I can tell because she manages to tell me over the cake after blowing out the candles. She locks eyes with me, an unmistakable look of sympathy. The woman must have years of practice at this.

I thought I’d learned how to hide disappointment long ago. Apparently, I’m wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time.

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