― 18 ―

COOPER

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IN THE MOMENTS before waking up, when the light of the sun is melting into the backs of my eyes, I see Jaden where he lives. Back in his studio chipping away at a giant block of stone, like he could shape the hard and impossible thing into exactly what he knew it should idealistically be. Art has a funny way of making you forget reality. So, here it is.

Sit up. Slowly. Don't wake the dead with your cosmic despair, they'll only feed off of it. You're in a plastic case and the city sounds and the mid-morning noises from the open window come denting the invisible walls and crushing you inside. Move your arm to touch the bedside table. Contract muscles, relax muscles, continue to do so until you are standing, continue to do so until you are balanced and breathing. Continue to do so until you are dead.

Once again, I am wondering about black holes. Something to nothing in an instant. The grave has gravity, as black holes do. And so it only makes sense that to fear the darkness is to fear death itself. Where does the light go? Does it come back in some invisible form of matter? After it's become obsolete, can the gods bring it to their lips and breath life and luminescence back into it again? Science seems to be the only sure way of realizing that impossible things happen every day.

I begin hoping. Maybe it has all been a nightmare. Maybe the past twenty four hours are the afterproduct of an ultimate psychological breaking point that I've always known was coming. Hope, the thing rolls itself out like a carpet, once started it won't stop. No matter how much I step on it, the thing won't disappear. Hope was designed to be trampled on, and the truth of that is debilitating. It's the image of my family gathered around the dining room table, surrounded by warmth and new beginnings. It's burnt into the backs of my eyelids, and it's what's keeping me from successfully standing.

I can feel heat between and behind my eyes, pressure shooting up from the base of my skull as I eventually make my way to my feet in slow motion. Every bone in my body is about to break; the solemn reminder of a night spent tumbling to my knees on hardwood floors and concrete piers and skin-puncturing asphalt. I can only remember the feel of things, not so much the sights or the sounds, but the textures, the pressures, and cold. In reality, it's just the absence of alcohol.

I walk to the hall, and then to the light at the end of it. I walk as slow as possible. And the scene ends up looking the same way I've been simultaneously dreaming of and fearing. Void of strength, I rest against the doorway and bury my hands in my pockets because otherwise she would see how badly they are shaking, and that is something she doesn't need to see.

"Grace." I say.

She doesn't look up.

"Grace." I say again.

It's only then that I see what she's scowling down at. My stomach drops, but then again, realities are based on perception. I could be straight-faced or devastated. I don't know which. The letters are spread out in wild, breathing piles all around her. Like wings, they seem as though they don't belong there, lying limp and lifeless on the floor. A whole man's life.

For the first time, the look she gives me resembles my own reflection. Her brown eyes are void of emotion, so dark that the light outside resists coming in jagged slits through the blinds. That look shifts something so deep in me that I'm overcome with the sudden urge to vomit.

Oh, god.

What have I done?

She stands slowly, envelopes crumpled between both of her fists. She doesn't speak.

I start toward her, reaching. "Grace, I can explain."

She doesn't meet my gaze, eyes first grazing along the hardwood seams and then across the wide blank walls behind my head and then etching stories into the window glass, or otherwise searching for answers outside of these four empty walls.

I try again, "These... these just showed up on my doorstep a few months ago, and I—I was meaning to give them to you. I just..."

Still, she stands there silent, a mask of austerity frozen over her features.

"I never meant for it to—for this to go on for so long, you know. I thought I'd just... look over them or—or hold onto them for you, or something. It was stupid, really—"

"This is my dad's handwriting." She cuts me off, uncrumpling one of the torn-open envelopes in her hand and tracing the ink with her finger. I don't attempt to speak over her. "My mom, she... she never lied to me about him, did you know that?"

Grace's accusatory gaze burns holes in my concentration, turning my throat dry.

She sighs and continues. "He drank... like, a lot. A lot like you."

I gulp down something bitter and mumble, "I know."

"Oh, you do, don't you?" Her lip quavers, but she bites it down, unblinking. "But of course you would know that. Cooper Benson knows everything, doesn't he? Don't you?"

Lungs caving in, I can't tell how deep she's willing to go. All at once, the gut-wrenching sense of loss writhes its way into my intestines like a parasite.

"My mom always told me that he was no good. Sh-she convinced me of all sorts of things, like what I deserved and how to carry the weight of it all. Sometimes she cried, and sometimes I wondered if she'd ever been in love with someone, and I would always hope that that someone was my father. But I never—" She takes down a sharp intake of air. "I never let myself think too much about love, anyway."

"Love?" The broken word forces its way up my throat.

She shifts her weight, eyeing me so dangerously I can't tell which plane of existence she's in, my alcohol-poisoned ideality or this cold hardwood reality.

"Love." She deadpans. A death sentence. A call to arms. That's the most I can make of it.

I blink, breaking the silent conversation we seem to be having with our eyes. She looks the most beautiful I've ever seen her, brown hair half falling from her ponytail and still damp, fresh-faced and fuming. I decide that there isn't anything in this world that I wouldn't do for her. But when she looks at me like this, she's demanding the one thing of me that I haven't been able to give her. I stumble for something, anything, to try and rationalize my own lack of judgement. It sounds more like begging. "Y-you can't just live like this, Grace."

"Like what?" She hisses, shuddering. "Like you? With the lies and the letters and—and the dead brother? No, I hope not."

The icy sting of her words catches me off guard. I steady myself, tears burning at the backs of my eyes. My voice trembles as it rises. "You don't know the hell I've been through these past few months. What, you think I've wanted to hide all of this from you? You think it's been easy to keep myself away from you, as if I didn't wanna just—"

"Just what, Cooper?" She seethes, a challenge flaring in the depths of that all-too-familiar black hole gaze.

I don't hesitate this time. "Just to—to grab your fucking face and—and your whole fucking being and—I can't sleep and I can't fucking breathe and—" Frustration splits my facade and it's not just the half-truths that I need to reveal to her anymore. Honesty's a bitch. "Goddamn, the things I want to do to you, Grace."

I drag my hands through my hair. "Christ, you don't know the shit I've done to keep you safe from that asshole. And never mind the fact that every fiber of my being is—is pulling me to you, dragging me against my fucking will! I can't figure this shit out anymore! I never could! And don't give me your typical shit. Don't try denying it, cause I know you feel it too."

I pause to face her head on, unsteady on my feet, voice wavering. "I see it every time you show up at my door, every time you dance through the kitchen, every time I see those goddamn eyes... it's fucking gravity, Grace. It's gotta be. And I'm so sorry if this isn't what you want to hear, I'm sorry if you're somewhere else that isn't here. If you want to hit me, hit me. God knows you deserve some sort of closure or cosmic justice or whatever... but if you're gonna believe anything, believe that all I have ever done is try to keep you safe."

The apartment settles into silence so loud it could shatter the windows. Grace is expressionless, a perfect, angelic being carved into a cracking stone structure. But before I can tell what she's doing, she crosses the room and strikes me across the face. And if I ever thought that suggesting the idea to her was a good one, I revise that notion instantly. She's so much stronger than she looks, and it isn't just the physical strength that gives her such power over me. It's her presence and her beauty and her fire. She glares up at me with tear-filled eyes that display no sign of doubt or fear or second-guessing.

"Stay the hell away from me."

And with a duffel bag overflowing with Atticus's letters flung over her shoulder, Grace is gone.

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Song: Be My Mistake - The 1975