It was another damp spring night, like tonight. The night of college graduation. It had been raining hard and they’d been drinking hard. Marcus and Beau were in the backseat of Atticus’s new BMW, a graduation gift from his parents. Kwame was in the passenger seat. Atticus remembered the new-car smell mingled with the scents of cologne and whiskey. It was almost midnight when they’d left the graduation party, and bored, they were headed to a nearby club. They were just a bunch of young bucks, feeling no pain, out to celebrate. The night was black and starless. He shouldn’t have been driving, but he was cocky and young enough to believe he was invincible. Back then, Atticus felt he knew better than his mother, his teachers, and, hell yes, his father. He’d found all the advice he needed in the lyrics of hip-hop, the heated whispers of girlfriends, the late-night drunken wisdom of his friends, and the amber magic he’d discovered in a bottle.
The last thing he remembered was losing control of the car as it hydroplaned across two lanes. The tree came out of nowhere. Suddenly there it was, looming large in the headlights. Atticus awoke days later. Blinking heavily, he felt as if he were swimming up from underwater. Sounds were muffled and he saw the world through a watery veil. Someone called his name, “Atticus, Atticus,” over and over, pulling him out from the depths.
They said it was the first word he’d spoken in nearly a week. The police came to take his statement. His friends had been spared with minor injuries. The car was totaled. Atticus was the only one not wearing his seat belt.
By all accounts, Atticus should have died from his injuries. When the doctors found him to be in good health without resulting damage, it was generally accepted by all to be one of those rare occurrences in the medical world that could only be attributed to a miracle. The doctors said this tongue in cheek. They explained how no one knew the hidden strengths that lived in any individual.
Atticus knew in his heart that the doctors were right the first time. It had been a miracle. Something had happened to him in those days teetering between life and death. Images, voices that he could not yet discern because his earthly experiences could not relate to what had happened to him in that other realm. It was otherworldly, outside his nomenclature to explain. Yet as he healed, he felt the nagging sensation that he’d been granted some sort of reprieve. A second chance to make his life meaningful. Atticus tried to brush off the feeling, second-guessing the experience. He was only twenty-one. He didn’t want to change his ways, to take the hand held out to him. He didn’t want to go down that path.
Atticus sighed now as he walked the empty street, remembering the futility of his denial. He’d been pursued by the Hound of Heaven. A lost soul, racked with guilt and indecision. Peace only came to him once he’d accepted that he’d been called. The first thing he did was to accept that he had a drinking problem and begin his recovery. After he was sober, he applied and was accepted to Yale Divinity School. And he never again touched another drop of alcohol.
Yet despite all the positive changes made in his life, Atticus still felt an emptiness inside, a deep loneliness that going out with a girl tonight wouldn’t have filled. His mother had died a few months earlier, his father three years before her. It could be he was still mourning. But though he kept busy and loved his work, Atticus couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing in his life.
He strode at a clipped pace west on Auburn past the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial park with its brick-and-concrete plaza, arch-covered walkway, and reflecting pool. Usually he walked through the garden, but it was late and the pizza was getting cold, so he pushed on past the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he served the congregation. At an older redbrick building near the church he rented an apartment made available at an affordable cost to him as one of the church’s young ministers. Pushing open the building door, he spied on the tiled floor a FedEx box waiting for him. He picked it up and, squinting in the dim light, made out that the package came from the law firm that had handled his mother’s estate when she’d died. He put it on top of the pizza box and climbed the stairs to the third floor, then balanced the boxes precariously while he unlocked the multiple locks on his door.
Once inside, he set the boxes on the dining-room table, then turned to relock the door. He couldn’t be too safe in this neighborhood. He rubbed his hands together, one warm from the pizza, the other cold, and looked around the small apartment, one typical for a bachelor of limited income. The apartment had come with furniture he was sure was donated to the church. Mismatched sofa and chairs were clustered around a wobbly wood coffee table in front of the television. The electronics he’d bought for himself. He was particular when it came to audiovisual. The decor wasn’t creative, but the place was clean and comfortable and would do until he finished his training and was assigned to a congregation permanently. He was barely in the apartment, anyway. His work kept him out all hours.
He’d tried to make it his own, however. His mother had collected art, especially African-American art. If only by osmosis he’d learned to appreciate fine art. He’d hung a few favorite paintings from his mother’s collection. Looking at them made the place feel a bit more like home. His bike leaned against the wall by the door, his books filled several shelves, and a silver-framed photograph of his parents sat in a place of honor on the mantel. His parents were all the family he’d had. And now they were both dead.
He shook out his damp, sleek raincoat and neatly hung it in the closet. Atticus was careful with his appearance. Growing up, his father, a successful lawyer, had taught him that “a man’s worth was noted not by the value of his suit or shoes, but by whether the shoes were polished and the suit pressed.” Baptist ministers didn’t wear the collar, but they were expected to wear somber attire appropriate for his profession. Atticus took pride in his appearance, and though he didn’t buy many, he bought quality suits and took care of them. He hung his black wool suit jacket beside his coat, then pulled out his phone and checked for messages.
An hour later he had showered, put on his pajamas, and eaten the pizza. He rarely ate much at the weddings he officiated. He had to spend the evening talking to guests or, more likely, listening. If it was a Baptist wedding on the church premises, no alcohol would be served. For him, however, at any wedding, the drinking of alcohol was never an option.
Sated, he went to the kitchen to make himself a cup of coffee. The heady scent filled the kitchen. Having poured a cup, he returned to the dining-room table. The caffeine woke him a bit and at last he felt ready to tackle whatever was in the mystery package.