The Absolution of Atticus

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— Cooper —

FOR LACK OF a better word, I would describe the manner in which Grace carries out her weekend activities as questionable. She knocks on my door with a mid-morning smile, like she’s already been through the ins and the outs of the day and she wants to share them with me ahead of time so we can plan accordingly.

She pushes past me into the kitchen, slaps a clipboard down on the counter, and wakes me up.

“We’re getting shit done today.” She informs me as she begins to glide around the island, opening and closing every cabinet at least twice.

“Okay,” I rub the sleep from my eyes and slump down onto the barstool, dazed and only slightly confused. It’s not like it’s out of character for Grace to jump from wall to wall, pounding out the semantics of something I vaguely recognize as breakfast, but this is too early.

Her head pops up over the countertop. “You own zero plates. How the hell did you manage that?”

I yawn and give her a cheeky smile. “I’m a man of many talents.”

She rolls her eyes and dives back out of sight, her voice becoming muffled between the walls of my lightly used cabinetry. “You should get dressed. We’ve got to get everything done today ’cause I have to work all week.”

“What about your mom?”

Grace comes up with two mismatched bowls and a look of flustered satisfaction as she blows a stray hair out of her face. “She’s tearin’ up the greater New England area, in her own words.”

I must look stunned, because she laughs a little, sets down the bowls, and floats over to the refrigerator.

“She’s got friends everywhere, I dunno. I never really ask…” She comes out of the fridge with an empty milk jug and a stupefied expression, tossing it in the general direction of the recycling bin. “But that’s why we need to get everything today. I don’t even know how many people are gonna be at this party.”

“When is it?” I ask as she shoves empty bottles and moldy tupperware into my hands.

“Uh, this Saturday. God, you’re a slob. So much for breakfast...”

I follow her orders, tossing practically everything in my fridge and even starting a load of dishes. By the time she’s satisfied, I’ve organized the shoes in my closet and opened the blinds of every window.

“So, what’s the plan?” I come out from the back hallway with this sort of light, jumpy energy. Grace is standing against a barstool, gripping something flat and rectangular in her tiny hands. It makes me stop dead in my tracks. The painting. The thought that I probably should’ve hid it in the same place I’ve been storing all the letters flashes across my mind, and when she looks up, she can probably see right through me. She’s looking at me like I’m full of mystery or some romantic shit. But I know that it’s not me that she’s seeing. It’s the painting; it has a tendency to cloud people’s judgement.

“Sorry,” She sets it down on the counter immediately, crossing her arms over her chest like some sort of penitent child. I cross the room in two strides, pick it up gently, and close it in one of the several empty kitchen drawers. Grace is silent.

I don’t know what to say and it’s obvious that she doesn’t either. Moments pass like this as it hits me, the weight of all the secrets that I’m suddenly keeping from the girl who saved my life.

“Let’s just go.” I finally break the silence, pawing the back of my neck, quelling the ache. She doesn’t protest.

Fifteen minutes later, we are seated comfortably in a corner cafe, sidelined by the light of a crisp autumn sky which casts shadows over the right half of her face. Grace gives me a look of quiet sympathy, one that says I’ve lost people too, but I don’t snatch the bait. She’s got so many problems that she’s not even aware of yet. The story behind the painting isn’t something to bring to light amidst croissants and loose chatter.

“So…” She starts, ballpoint pen hovering over a blank page. “Decorations, food, music, uh…”

“Alcohol,” I suggest flatly, tearing off the bigger half of my croissant with a vengeance.

She crinkles her nose at me and nods slowly. “Alright, alcohol… and I guess we need a theme. Like, a night under the stars or—”

“This isn’t the high school prom, Grace. You’re overshooting.” I deadpan, a mouthful of tasteless bread crumbling dry down my throat. I feel sick.

She glares, a sharp tangible look from which I have to save face by squinting out the window. She clears her throat. “If you don’t want to help then why are you even here?”

For the life of me, I can’t figure out whether she’s angry or indifferent, and that’s what kills me. Studying her expression is like touring the Louvre; you can see the beauty of it all collectively, but you can’t catch all the crucial details in only one day. There are too many aspects. I don’t have enough of Grace to discover them all. So, I switch tactics.

“I’m sorry, you’re right.”

She pulls in her bottom lip and nods. The next hours consist of loads of brainstorming as we tread up and down the better half of Boston, fluttering in and out of antique shops and specialty boutiques. At my suggestion, Grace decides on a roaring twenties party theme. She lights up at the idea the way the street lamps flicker on one by one; she just gets brighter as we go. I can tell by about seven o’clock in the evening that she’s high on the downtown atmosphere, a little tipsy at the soft bustle of the Saturday streets, and more awake than I’ve ever seen her in the chill of the autumn air. Once again, I recognize her tactfulness, the art of conversation which she claims mastery of, the dancing-on-air attitude with which she carries herself. Grace wears a bright red scarf against a brown tweed blazer, a blackish beret that bounces up and down as she does, sheer black tights under a corduroy mini skirt and black Doc Martens she tells me she found at a thrift store in high school. She talks about the ocean and how it’s darker down there than the night sky above us. She explains luminescence to me like it’s a memorized poem and teaches me about the glamorous life of the South African octopus, illustrating out all the facts of life itself. As I twirl her around to the rhythm of the street music, I can’t help but think that, at any moment, she might disappear right out from under my arm.

By the end of our evening escapades, Grace is humming what I can only vaguely recognize as a gospel hymn, armfuls of brown paper bags full of party decorations and appetizers and ingredients. I try to memorize her song before we reach the apartment building.

We arrive at the entrance and she swivels around to face me, “Do you have dinner plans?”

I chuckle at the crinkling of her eyes —ever so inquisitive— and use my back to push the door open for her, struggling to keep a hold of my own grocery bags. “I’ll have to check my schedule.”

“Well,” She chews on the inside of her cheek, readjusting her bags. “I’ve got some ramen noodles burning a hole through the bottom of this bag.” She emphasizes the word and heaves the bag in her left arm farther up against her tiny frame, looking as though she could tip backwards at any moment with the sheer weight of it all. “If you’re interested…”

I can’t suppress a smile. Grace takes that and formulates my answer for me. She starts for the stairs and fakes a British accent. “There’s a good lad.”

Somehow Grace manages to dig through her purse, find her key, and bust through her door with one hand and two armfuls of groceries. We get inside and I begin to help her unload.

“Oh, you don’t have to do that.” She waves me away from the cupboards and snatches two cans of green olives out of my hands before I can protest.

I scoff and lean back against the countertop, folding my arms across my chest. “Yes ma’am,”

For a few moments, it’s like this picture of domestic bliss flashing before my eyes. A procession of flash-forward ideals. When I close my eyes, they seem more like memories than hopes, like deja vu. Grace pulls me out of my reverie when she asks me to turn on some music. I plug in my phone to her speakers, and the sound comes crackling on, choppy with a loud buzzing in the background. I catch her gaze and she can see the bewilderment on my face.

“Hey, don’t give me that. Those speakers have lasted me at least a decade.” She laughs as she reaches to put something on the top shelf, jumping because she’s too short. I grab the jar of pickles over her head and slide it onto the shelf easily. Rolling her eyes, Grace grumbles an insult under her breath and goes back to unloading. We settle into a rhythmic dance around the kitchen, shaking boxes of Cheez-Its like they’re maracas, swinging a loaf of bread over my head like a lasso. She is laughing so hard she’s snorting, and it’s putting my chest in this sort of heavy space, a galactic weight settling in. All I want to do is wave down the pretension. Whatever this is, it’s good.

We wander up to the roof with steaming hot cups of ramen. Grace divides the dark like it’s a curtain. The entire rooftop seems to glow as her picnic blanket billows out in the breeze. We both sit, backs against the concrete ledge, and slurp noodles in silence for the first few minutes. I don’t have time to criticize her lackluster picnicking effort before she criticizes my lackluster picnicking attitude and the real banter begins.

“Fine, I guess it’s not so bad up here.” I have to defend myself against Grace’s pointed accusations somehow, so I backpedal before the argument delves deeper than intended.

“Are you allergic to fresh air or something? Is that what this is about?” She slurps a mouthful of noodles loud enough to wake the neighborhood.

“Nah,” I stir the soup around and around until it swirls by itself. Grace has abandoned the fork altogether and has resorted to drinking her noodles straight from the cup by the time I figure out what to say next. “I’ll prove it to you.”


“Yeah…” I remember something from one of Atticus’s letters.

But time is funny. It keeps some things and destroys others.

This in mind, I find myself taking the moment and making the best of it. “Let’s have it up here, the party I mean.”

Grace’s eyes bulge out of her head when she turns to me. “You serious?”

I shrug and take a gulp out of my own ramen cup. “Why not?”

“Oh, oh actually,” She’s up on her feet now, scoping out the rooftop with a blossoming smile, noodle cup still clutched firmly in both hands. “Yes… yeah, dude, yeah!

“I mean, it might be a little chilly out, but—”

“Seriously, that’s no problem.” She’s giddy, practically bubbling over at this point. “Ah, it’s gonna be perfect.”

The soup is cold by now, so I know for sure that that isn’t what’s causing this eruption of warmth in my chest. I scratch behind my ear apprehensively. “Alright, so I guess we’ll just—”

“Cooper Benson, you’re a veritable genius!

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