The Absolution of Atticus

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15 :: MAROON

— Grace —

CALIFORNIA IS A MIRACLE. Of course, there are likely better views than through the open bedroom window, soothing Mason to sleep. But I’m content here. I’m more than content. This place is all sunsets and Pacific Ocean breezes. The little civilization that exists is only found in small, one-street towns, nestled between the rolling hills of vineyards and wildgrass.

Winding north through the valleys in our little rental Jeep, Mason’s hand in mine with a mind always wandering back toward the east, I’ve come to terms with a few simple facts. The miles between two things can actually make them closer. My mother used to tell me that distance makes the heart grow fonder, and I never believed her until now. That may have just been an excuse for her erratic, seasonal depression-induced, sun-crazed excursions to the Bahamas. Another way of manipulating me into believing that love doesn’t involve responsibility. Looking over at Mason and stifling an ache in my chest, I cling to those two contrasting ideas. The idea that I love him. The idea that our intertwined fingers speak more to my sense of loyalty than his harsh, drunken midnight language ever could. How he is now, silent in the daylight, is how I remember him when he’s raging and riotous in the darkness. And that’s how I’m sure that I love him. I’m sure.

“You’re quiet today.” He observes, arm draped lazily over the steering wheel.

“Sorry,” I laugh softly, placing my other hand on top of the ten-fingered fist we’ve formed together over the cup holders. I smile at him. “I like this.”

He snorts. “Good, cause you wouldn’t believe the hourly rates they put on this rental. West-coasters, think they can get away with anything. I mean, did you check out the gas prices, too? Fuckin’ ridiculous…”

I gulp down a bitter response and turn back to the east. He probably had a little too much wine at the tasting. A sudden inclination to ask him to pull over and switch seats with me passes through my head, but I quickly brush it off. I don’t need to start something with him today, right now, when the evening air is so sweet and the sky is this particular shade of deep, dusty blue. I’m halfway overwhelmed with homesickness, a low discordance in the center of my chest. I close my eyes and lean back against the headrest, imagine Cooper in the afternoon, emboldened by the fading light of the sun and reciting Homer over a single cup of whiskey. One single cup, because he doesn’t take more than he can handle anymore, and that seems important in my head. In my head, it seems important that he’s better than he was when I first met him. It seems important that he’s there, home, still Cooper.

“Let’s just grab something on the way home, yeah?” Mason says.

“Oh, uh, sure,”

“Mmkay,” He pulls his hand out of mine to type something into his phone’s GPS. “I’m feelin’ Italian.”

I nod. “Sounds good,”

Ten minutes later, the Jeep is idling in the gravel parking lot of a tiny mom and pop restaurant called Marco’s. Mason comes out with two brown paper bags and gets in the driver’s side.

“I just got the spaghetti. The place looked a mess.” He hands me the bags like they’re contaminated. “Cockroach infestation’d be my guess,”

The bags of fresh pasta keep me warm on the ride back to the Airbnb, listening to his disgusted rants against America’s small business-owner and their apparent disservice to the capitalist machine. Forehead against the window, gazing out across the looming shadowy hill silhouettes, I remember that today is Thanksgiving. I wonder what I would be doing if I wasn’t here, at this exact moment. If I was home, and keeping my peace with my mother, and with Cooper. Cooper, who dried my tears and held my face in his hands and didn’t shy away from me in the night. Cooper making pancakes and joking about his own vices rather than keeping them at arm’s length. Cooper who doesn’t question the 3am knocks on his door, who knows the dangers of crashing glass and dying moths. I don’t mean to, but I let this one, desperate craving overwhelm me as the car pulls up into the driveway.

Trekking toward the entry, both bags in hand, I let the thought slip. “Mason, do you love me?”

He stops at the door, key inserted into the lock. He doesn’t look at me when he opens the door and leads the way inside, flicking on the kitchen lights. “’Course, why would you ask that?”

“I—I don’t know.” I drop my load onto the island counter and try to read his body language as he moves around the kitchen, but get nothing. So, I try again. “So what… what are you actually looking for?”

He’s rifling through the cabinets, opening and closing and opening and closing. “The Pinot from Tuesday. Should go fine with…” —he pulls a black bottle from the top shelf and scrutinizes it— “with the spaghetti.”

For a few seconds, I don’t process what he’s even saying. I glance from the wine bottle to his face, back to the wine bottle, in disbelief. “Are you serious?”

He rolls his eyes, growling. “What? What do you want me to say, Grace?”

“I mean, I—I want you to at least listen to what I’m saying!” I slam the takeout boxes onto the counter, trying to keep my voice low. “I just want to have a serious conversation right now.”

Mason pulls a pair of wine glasses from the cupboard and pours himself a full glass. He takes it down in monstrous gulps, refilling it as soon as he finishes. “Let’s have a serious conversation then.”

I drag out plates and silverware and napkins as he saunters out to the dining table on the balcony. From the kitchen, I can see him, Pinot in hand, lounging back in the chair like some sort of king. I shovel two servings of spaghetti onto our plates and glide out to the balcony in perfect waitressing form, both cheeks clamped down between my teeth, jaw set. He doesn’t meet my eye as I drop the plate down in front of him.

We sit there a while in resentful, loaded silence as he sips his wine. I would try to eat if I could force my jaw to unlock from its position. This is our game, a waiting game. I want him to say something, anything. Apologize. Put the drink down. Instead, he draws his gaze lazily over to me.

“You want a drink?” Is all he says.

An animalistic rage floods through my whole being. “No, Mason, I don’t want a fucking drink.”

“You know what?” The whole table clatters as he slams his palm down against it. “You know, I brought you out here. I paid for your fucking ticket. Why is this—why are you being like this, huh?”

“I didn’t—”

Another fist against the table shakes me, shuts me up. He continues. “I don’t want to hear any more of this bullshit about me not loving you, okay? I mean, what the hell does that even mean? Like, I dunno’, I just…”

“You don’t know… what exactly? Hm?” I let my fork clatter to the plate and slump back in my chair, arms folded. I don’t want to meet his eyes.

A purple, red, green color overtakes his features. It looks painful, pressure building, circuits overworked or some other malfunction of the human psyche. “I don’t know, dammit! I don’t fucking know!”

Instinct, a raw, unmitigated burning under my skin, sends me to my feet and him to his, screeching of chair legs and overturned silverware.

I raise my voice for the first time in a long time. “What was the point of this whole trip, then? I—I don’t understand, obviously, so just spell it out for me! Where are we going?”

“You don’t get it.” He sneers gravely, abandoning the glass of wine and chugging it straight out of the bottle now. I follow him into the kitchen, determined to get my point across at whatever cost. I need some reason, any reason, to still be here.

“Honest to god, I’m trying to, Mason! But it just doesn’t make very much sense to me, why you would oh so generously invite me across the country with you and pay for my ticket and keep coming up with new ways to keep me—keep me in your fucking shadow!”

My whole world shifts to the right when he hits me. A sharp, sudden, burning sensation spreads its way through the left side of my face, and I’m seeing stars, like this is the sort of heaven my mother, and her mother, and her mother before her, always envisioned for me. Like this is the sort of world where love is a twisted sort of violence, and nothing else.

I inhale deeply, hands cupping my left cheek. I find tears there. I’m trembling, crumbling at the core, when my voice comes out wavering with the plight of all the women who have come before me. I find myself standing a little taller, the fury of women more than me coursing through every limb. “All this time, that’s—that’s exactly where you’ve wanted me, isn’t it? Two pathetic years of you lying to yourself, thinking that you’re good enough to fucking deserve me—”

“STOP!” An explosion of glass shatters my ability to speak and think and keep my balance. Stark, vivid red is clinging to the cabinets and the walls and the floor. It’s on me and it’s trickling down my face and through my hair and against the bottoms of my bare feet, surrounded by sharpness and danger and even more red. When I don’t think I could witness anything more violent than the bloodstained room, I find Mason in the center of the it all, half-turned to face me, his once white button-up drenched with vivid evidence of murder and slowly, so slowly, sinking to his knees. I watch in horror, the deafening cracks of each shard breaking in two and into the skin of his knees, and he is quietly sobbing, empty handed and choking toward the point of impact where the bottle smashed. A moment holds me back, but it’s like clockwork, a pull to him that sends me flat-footed, trekking out toward him over a field of alcohol-poisoned glass shards. Each step is excruciating, but I don’t care. I reach him before he can fall all the way to his palms. I slide my arms under his, support him from behind, shush him ever so gently. I carry all his weight, the trembling and the dampness and the deafening roar of blood pumping in my ears, all familiar sensations that draw my body closer to his. I help him up, and we are both bleeding. The knees of his pants are stained maroon; blood is trickling down my shins and pooling around my feet. We are so close together, it’s like we’re one person. His eyes meet mine, and suddenly I’m looking into the face of a man whose suffering has blinded him. And it looks so familiar that I can recognize him through the tears and the instantaneous regret and the single shred of sanity in me that says no.

It’s magnetic. I reach my hands up and cradle his face down to my shoulder, shush him gently, stroke his hair and whisper “It’s okay,” into his ear over and over and over again, even though I know it’s a lie. And he’s gripping me closer and tighter, hands roaming and grasping so forcefully and desperately I think my lungs might give out when he lifts me up and wraps me around his torso. His breath is hot and electric against the skin of my collarbone, and I don’t even recognize the path to the bedroom through the blur of tears and the fiery stabs of guilt that keep penetrating the walls of rationality that I’ve been trying to reconstruct. Nothing makes sense. Nothing feels right.

+++

I’m awake at dawn. My eyes open to the stark white ceiling where they linger, focused on the pure and the clean and the holy, while I’m down here, twisted up in wine-stained sheets. I get up slowly. From the pillow to gripping the edge of the mattress and dangling my feet over the edge, it takes approximately thirteen minutes. Everything hurts.

Before I stand, I take the time to pluck the individual shards of glass from the soles of my feet, leaving small bubbles of fresh blood ballooning on the surface of my skin. Red-smeared sheets are crumpled about me; the brown layer of dried blood on each of my kneecaps and down both legs crackles with every movement. They serve as ugly reminders of the violence of last night. Mason is snoring softly on the other side of the bed, and the foggy grey light of the morning casts odd shadows over the contours of his face. I almost don’t recognize him.

Wrapping myself in his crumpled, wine-stained shirt, I make my way carefully across the room, leaving blood splotches on the wooden floors. Everything seems destroyed anyway. No harm, no foul.

Slipping quietly into the bathroom, I lock the door and turn the shower head to full heat. A great, evolving sigh escapes me along with the realization that this is the first place I’ve felt safe since Cooper’s bedroom. When I step into the shower, the water singes my skin. It’s almost necessary. I scrub everything, watch the red swirl into the drain, viciously tearing away at this external layer of skin that I can’t force myself to want anymore. I want to convince myself that I’m overdramatizing it all; but at that thought, at the mere prospect of trying to rationalize this behavior one more time, I want to scream.

My reflection is depressing, to say the least. A purple bruise is forming on my left cheek and I can’t find the energy to dry my hair or change into a proper outfit. I settle for sweatpants and a ratty sweatshirt that may or may not have been in the dirty clothes pile.

The kitchen is a crime scene, glass shards scattered everywhere I look. Wine has dried on the walls and the cabinets and the floors in massive, ugly stains. I tie my hair back in a distressed ponytail, manage to find a broom and clear a path for myself in a pair of Mason’s sandals, and protect my raw feet from the carnage. Cleaning up the mess is harder than watching it get made. The house is silent. It’s not my house, and that fact hits me with its own particular sort of sting. I’m gathering the glass into little mountains, dumping them into the trash, over and over until the floor is relatively clear of all danger. Next, I’m sprawling up against the walls with a damp wash rag, jumping up to reach the splatters that are out of arm’s reach. Then, I’m on the floor. I can’t find a mop in the entire house, so it’s a hands and knees job. The sun hasn’t risen yet, which means Mason is still safely asleep.

So I cry.

It’s a quiet sort of blurry-eyed ordeal. I’ve come to master this particular art, but it’s not a beautiful one. I end up having to mop up my own tears in the end, bringing me to the stark realization that none of this has been worth it in the slightest.

I’m halfway done with the kitchen when my phone rings. I leap from the floor to catch it before Mason wakes up.

“Hello?” I whisper.

“Grace?”

“Yeah, what is it?” My shoulders slacken at the familiar sound of Valerie’s voice on the other end. I tuck a stray hair behind my ear and wander toward the balcony.

“I, uh… well, I don’t know if—well, there’s kind of a situation going on over here.” Val stutters. “I—I don’t really…”

“What, what is it?”

She hesitates again. “Well, I just came to your place to feed the stupid fish, or whatever, and uh…”

“Val, what?” I say.

“It’s, uh, it’s that guy, Cooper. I showed up and he was dead drunk on your doorstep, I dunno’, and—”

My chest constricts immediately. “Cooper? What, is he okay?”

“He’s, well, he’s fine.” Val sighs frustratedly. “I helped him back inside his apartment and—and he’s like—he keeps speaking in a different language. I don’t—I don’t really feel comfortable. He doesn’t even remember his own name, Grace, it’s pretty bad—”

“Can you put him on the phone? Is he there with you? Right now, please?” I grip the phone with both hands to keep it from trembling out of my fingers. “Hello?”

“Yeah, Grace, he won’t take it. Oh—oh god!”

“Val! Valerie, what—what’s happening?” I can’t make out any of the background noise. All I can hear is Val rushing around on the other end. My insides are flipping around in knots, and I can’t focus on anything except moving mechanically into the bedroom. I’m yanking stuff off the hangers and out of drawers, shoveling bathroom products into my suitcase by the armful. This isn’t second-guessing or balancing on fences. My mind is sharp, clear, focused, all on a dime, at the turn of a hat.

Val comes on, breathless, panicked. “Grace? Jesus, Grace, he keeps saying something about—about Jaden, I don’t—”

“Jaden, Jaden… his brother, Val! Jaden’s his little brother.” And then it dawns on me. Not like a morning or a slow-burning crescendo, like a tidal wave, with all the force of an angry ocean and five thousand tons of solid, wild water. I yank a jacket over my shoulders and snatch the Jeep keys from the counter, drag my suitcase out and slam the door behind me in a drowned frenzy.

“I’m coming Val, just—just keep him safe, please.” She begs me to hurry and hangs up, and I find myself praying once again. Just keep him safe.

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