The Absolution of Atticus

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09 :: HALLOW

— Grace —

MASON’S VOICE is like liquid gold to my ears. He sounds off balance, but it’s kind of a beautiful disorientation. The way he’s talking, it’s poetry.

“This city’s so fuckin’ beautiful.” He drawls, a warm, sleepy texture to his voice through the phone. “I wish you were here.”

My heart rate accelerates. Mason has been in New York for five days. He sounds whole, steady. I imagine him in his hotel room, necktie loosened, ruffled golden hair and a five o’clock shadow. I miss him.

Seth, my adolescent coworker, is making smoochy faces at me. I can’t seem to escape him today, so I just cover my other ear and stick my tongue out at him.

“I miss you.” I sigh, steering my focus.

Mason shuffles around on the other end of the line. “So, you know what I was thinking earlier today?”

“What?”

He chuckles. “I was thinking we should go away for a while, you know, like a vacation.”

I’m shocked for a few seconds. Mason has never sounded like this before, genuine, thoughtful. He seems to sense my surprise, because he starts laughing. “Don’t worry, I’m completely sober right now.”

A short, strained breath of disbelief escapes my throat, and I can’t help but smile. “Mase, you’re not kidding?”

He laughs again, louder this time. “God, baby, I love you so much. So that’s a yes?”

“I—I mean, I should—”

“Great, sounds great,” He cuts me off suddenly, voice lowering an octave. “I’ll see you in a few baby, okay?”

The line clicks off.

Seth crumples up a receipt and throws it at me, cackling. “Oh, what’s the matter Gracey? Rich boyfriend trouble again?”

I punch him in the arm. “You finally gonna trick or treat without mommy this year?”

Seth is a nice kid. He’s a sophomore at Boston University, too smart for his own good, and barely capable of holding a valid driver’s license in my book. He’s a regular comic con attendee, a faithful visual arts major, and a diehard Hulk fan. We relate on that level, at least.

+++

Hours later, I am standing under an umbrella outside of Java Jamboree scanning the Boston streets for a familiar face. My mother promised she wouldn’t be late. Pulling out my phone, I scroll through our texts again. The whole conversation thread began only yesterday, an ironic reminder that her attentions are only temporary.

The service in this hotel is godawful.

By which, I mean to ask if you’ll join me for drinks tomorrow evening.

Mom this doesn’t sound like a foolproof plan

Really Grace, lighten up. I’m trying to be agreeable.

Well

I disagree

Funny, you sound just like your father.

I get off at 7

Fabulous. I’ll bring you something nice to wear.

Please don’t

Don’t give me that. No daughter of mine goes out in public wearing that skanky barista uniform.

There’s no uniform. These are my clothes. But I appreciate the sentiment.

I’ll be there at 7 promptly.

Thunder erupts overhead, sending massive tremors down through the skyscrapers, reverberating against the cement and asphalt, catching me cold under the Java Jamboree overhang. Everything trembles, from my numb legs to my shivering torso all the way up to my chattering teeth.

The taxi screeches to a halt out of nowhere, and my mother is braving the rain, running toward me in high heels with a bundle of something hid under her faux fur coat. She tears off her head scarf when she reaches me, completely breathless and flustered. “I should’ve stayed in Spain.”

I’m speechless at first. It’s like watching Audrey Hepburn run back to find the stupid cat in the stupid alleyway, crying all beautiful and manic with her waterproof mascara. My mother is this superstar version of Hollywood, 1960s glamour magazine model, the type of beautiful you want to paint. She smiles at me all sassy-like and then pulls a bundle of rosy, shimmery fabric out from under her coat.

“Oh, my god!” I gasp, catching my breath. She laughs a little as she presents it to me.

Ushering me back to the doors, she looks younger than ever. “Let’s get inside.”

The place is empty, closed for the night. Seth is cleaning up behind the counter when I come out of the bathroom wearing the slip dress, goosebumps be damned. He drops a stack of paper cups and they go rolling across the floor.

My mother gasps, applauding as I do a twirl and flip my hair. “Mom, this is…”

“It’s perfect.” She finishes. “You’re perfect, oh sweetie.”

I recognize at that moment, that my mother has washed upon the Bostonian shore the same as she always was: a strong-willed, big-hearted, hapless misfit with an eye for style and adventure.

“You used to dress up every Halloween, you know that?” She hums, helping me slip my coat on. “I haven’t taken you trick-or-treating since—”

“Oh, is that what this is?” I chide. “Candy-hunting?”

“In a sense…” She smirks. “I just want to introduce you to my world.”

My mother takes me to a club.

Of course, my initial instincts ward me away from this particular scene, company well in mind. Every protest seems to be drowned out amidst the glitter and cocktail jazz. This is not just any club.

When we walk through the doors, my senses are overwhelmed by the taste, sight, and smell of cigar smoke. The occupants of the main dining/dancing area are dressed to the nines, salt and pepper dapper dan and clinking champagne glasses. Eyes watering and lungs screaming in a bubbling panic, my mother loops her arm through mine and glides us over to the bar. I hate to believe that this is how the woman that birthed me spends her free time. The notion is forced out of my mind just as rapidly as it enters it, if not for the sake of my survival through this ordeal, then simply because I literally still consider myself underage.

Alcohol tastes better when your mother has dragged you straight from a ten hour shift into a high-class nightclub for middle aged wealthy adults on Halloween night. I don’t hesitate to get drunk. At some point between my tequila refills and stealing someone’s bowl of peanuts, my mother flutters back to the stool beside me, cheeks flushed. Posing against the bar like it’s her throne, she leans close to my ear as I down another shot. “Don’t look now, but there’s a very attractive Italian businessman eyeing you over there.”

I choke on my drink. “Mom!”

“Shh, he’s coming over.” She plasters on a dazzling smile and raises her cocktail glass in the stranger’s direction.

“Jesus, Mom, stop!” I hiss, wiping a little bit of drool from my chin. “I have a boyfriend.”

Her scowl cuts at me. “What, Mason? You’re still slumming with that rat?”

“Mom—”

“Oh, no matter.” She raises her eyebrows and clicks her tongue disapprovingly, gulping down her drink a little too quickly. “You don’t want to live in a billion dollar penthouse or own five Porsches. You’d rather sleep on a hardwood floor and scrape rusty nickels off the bottom of a fish tank. I forgot.”

I can feel my face heating up, and the room constricts around me. “How dare you?”

“How dare I?” My mother scoffs, waves down another drink, and shakes her head at me. “You don’t think I notice the bruises, Grace?”

My throat closes up and, like the ceiling is pressing down on me, every sense is dulled, pressurized all at once. Her once familiar face distorts, the music shifts the floor from side to side. Nothing is upright anymore. The dim golden lighting is no longer classy, it feels like the texture of a fire starting.

I need out.

It’s still raining. There’s a subtle storm raging gently up the eastern coast and it’s biting into Boston viciously. My mother stumbles out the doors behind me, but I’m half-blind. The glistening sidewalks reflect the streetlights and remind me of simpler times, discovering springtime as a child. I don’t walk in a straight line; I follow the swaying memories and avoid the tilting towers as they lean and twist overhead.

“Grace! He is not good for you.” My mother’s voice is desperate but comely. The way it always was. It seems shallow to believe that she has never once been choked and battered, yet I can’t help but blame her. I don’t even feel the rain.

You don’t get to say that to me!” My voice breaks with the cracking of thunder overhead. My pointed finger is shaking as it accuses her. “You have no right!

My mother is silent. I can’t tell if she’s crying. I can’t tell if I’m crying, either.

She inhales sharply, a sob or maybe a stab of realization, or both. She whispers with a trembling voice, but her words cut me to my core. “You deserve better.”

Despite the rain, my chest shrivels up, my heart dries out and I am wrecked. I turn my back on the unspoken things and leave her there, numb to the sound of my name as she’s calling it out. “Grace” is someone I can do without for awhile. I’ve dealt with her my whole life and here she is now, criticizing me.

I stumble through the rain and it feels good to lose my identity for a while. Taking my shoes off is the only coherent decision I’m capable of making. Everything feels so clean when it’s watered down.

I must make it back to the apartment building at some point, because I run into Cooper at a street corner. He grabs me by my shoulders and at first I think he’s Mason, the way he’s shaking me.

“Grace, Jesus Christ, what the hell do you think you’re doing?” He’s angry as he puts his coat over my shoulders and guides me forward. Streetlights look more like fireflies, buzzing around in the storm’s midnight glare. I’m so confused.

We make it inside and I shrug out of his jacket to the opposite wall. It’s sturdy. “Where’d you come from?” I ask him.

He folds his jacket over one arm and runs the other hand through his hair, kind of reaching toward me helplessly. “Your mom called me. I was about to go out and look for—”

A giggle bubbles up from my stomach. I fall into the wall away from him. “That bitch,”

Cooper Benson doesn’t respond to my slurred language. He’s just trying to help, but I think I’m growling at him. “Benson, you—you don’t even know, do you?” I hiccup on our way up the stairs, him following closely behind me.

“Know what, Grace?”

I twist around and aim a painful, snarky smile down at him. “How gorgeous you are,”

He shakes his head and looks down.

“But it’s,” I struggle to find the words through the fog in my brain. Everything is skewed. “It’s not okay. You’re not okay, right? That painting… the whiskey you keep in your bottom drawer. You’re lying about something all the time. You’re just a—a little liar.”

He stops on the stairs and I don’t turn back. I can’t remember if that’s where he leaves me, but I know he’s not behind me anymore when I make it to my apartment door. I leave him alone on the stairwell or storming back out into the rain or wherever it is that Cooper goes when he’s out of his element, because that is all I can think to do.

That boy belongs in rain clouds and monuments. He belongs in fantasies of Olympian warfare, epic romances that transcend time and space. Cooper Benson is a boy built for a life like this, stumbling home on stormy nights, trudging through tunnel vision and warring off the headaches. He lives in the grey area of people, that moment before the sun rises when it’s still too dark to see clearly, before the mist clears. Cooper Benson is all silence and intellectualism and the shit that makes you feel things, as if anyone got anywhere by making up big beautiful nonsense words. Suddenly I can see the rain dripping from his hair onto the lobby tiles, the half smirks and rolling eyes, pivoting on his heel like a sheepish prepubescent teen. I remember every one of his weird tendencies. I’ve known him for years. I’ve been yelling at him for the majority of them. If he would have stayed, I’m positive he would’ve gotten just as angry with me as I am with him. I slam the door so hard behind me the whole floor seems to rattle.

There’s a waterfall outside the window as I sink down onto the sofa looking at Mason’s puke stains, the ones on the rug that I can’t seem to get out.

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