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poison and wine

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In some ways, Hope raises Kelley.

Not that she needs it. From what Hope can glean from the snippets of conversation — which are quite stunted in the early years due to general issues of learning grammar and vocabulary — Kelley belongs to one of those golden families where the children's smiles are perfectly white and Dad wears a tie to work every day and the mom is an expert at baking and wrangling PTA meetings. She doesn't quite mean to resent it, but she can't help but feel a slight tug at her chest when Kelley mentions their family Halloween parties or weekly trips to church.

So she gives Kelley what she can. She gives her what she wished she'd known as a kid, tells her what to read and what to watch, who to sit next to in elementary school to avoid being picked on, how to cheat on a spelling test without getting caught. She's there for the first time Kelley gets all the way through a Harry Potter book, and she stays up half a night writing back and forth, struggling not to ruin six more books' worth of plot line for the little girl scrawling excited misspelled words across her arm.

In first grade they discover that Kelley loves math, a proclamation that is made rather suddenly after she writes an equation on her arm in the mid-afternoon.

2+2=

She leaves it blank and, when Hope doesn't respond, scribbles a small question mark below the equation, then another one above it.

"Need help?" Hope writes back, and she gets a checkmark in response — their own way of quickly saying yes or no — before she writes in the answer. Kelley erases the equation and replaces it with a question.

"Why?" She stares at that question, unsure of what to say, because it's math, it's just math, and of course leave it to Kelley to question the basic building block for the science that holds together the universe.

"It just is," she responds. She sees Kelley erasing her question, the ink fading from her skin, so she does the same, leaving her arm a blank slate.

"I love that." Hope grins. She's not sure why, but she can't stop smiling for the rest of the day.

In many ways, Kelley spends her childhood chasing Hope, asking Hope what she should do, what sports to play and what clubs to join. Hope tells her to avoid softball unless she wants to get hit in the face with a bat during her second practice and lose two teeth along the way. Instead, she tells her to give soccer a try.

(technically, it's another try. Kelley played her first soccer at age four, but she sat down in the grass after a few minutes and began plucking at clovers. On the drive home, her dad asked if she had fun. She said no. They didn't come back for a second game.)

Before Kelley's second try at a first soccer game, Hope tells her to avoid the big scrum of players around the ball and wait on the outside, then to use small kicks to move it so she can keep it under control. Kelley is six and doesn't really get it, instead throwing herself into the middle of that scrum and kicking wildly at the ball, but she's faster than the rest of the herd and therefore secures an upper hand. She scores three goals, and with her mouth still tasting of orange slices she excitedly tells Hope about it as well as she can, her pen markings trailing from the top of her knee to the slight curve of her bony hip.

Hope's response is short — "Good job." — but it's followed by a smiley face and a drawing of a soccer ball, then of two stick figures chasing after the ball. Hope labels one as herself, and one as Kelley.

"We can play someday," she adds at the bottom, and Kelley grins even wider at that.

Kelley always asks her the same thing — "Are you good at soccer?" — and with each passing year that answer changes. "I'm not bad" becomes "I'm pretty good" and somehow turns into "The college scouts are coming today" and finally lands at "I committed to North Carolina" and there's something hopeful to Kelley about knowing the general location that Hope will be in once a year and a half has flown by. She looks up a map of the United States and finds North Carolina, then looks again and finds Chapel Hill. It doesn't seem too far, she thinks, and the world feels a little smaller, a little safer.

She’s a quick learner. She really is. Hope is amazed every day to see the way the letters begin to reshape themselves, the way Kelley’s thoughts grow, the way they move from one word responses scrawled in massive letters to a smaller jumble of words.

But at the base of it all, Kelley is seven and Hope is fifteen, and sometimes she thinks her world is crashing down on her, and sometimes she wishes she could deal with that world without Kelley.

It has something to do with the fact that her dad has just stopped coming around, period. He used to haphazardly live in the house, although he slept on the couch in the basement and sometimes left for days or weeks at a time. But now the man who used to lift Hope on his shoulders so she could see over crowds is missing in action. She asks Marcus where he went, but Marcus is practically mute these days, mumbling something that sounds vaguely like swear words under his breath before slamming his way out of the house.

Partly it has to do with the fact that Hope can't seem to make friends, in class or on the soccer field or anywhere, and this bothers her because she's pretty sure she's trying. Trying to be, well, normal. She knows her eyes can be a little sharp, knows her voice can be a little harsh, but she's trying. She doesn't prefer loneliness, doesn't like the window seat at the back of the bus, doesn't like doing her science projects on her own, doesn't want to skip her fourth high school dance in a row. But she does. She doesn't know what else to do.

And it doesn't matter. She hates where she lives, hates the too-small house with the slightly musty smell and the cracked kitchen table and the TV that loses its signal several times a day. Hates the way her mother sits at that table and stares at that TV and doesn't even seem to notice that smell. Hates the way girls at school stand with their shoulders close and their heads hanging low together, their eyes darting around to find amusement in the exterior of someone else's life. Hates how nobody seems to ever leave, how her neighbors are living in the same houses they grew up in, how Marcus doesn't even have a plan for what he'll do after high school even as his graduation looms close, just over the horizon.

She wants to get out.

Kelley, for awhile, feels like "out." She lives in Georgia — that much she knows, although she refuses to share last names or home towns or cell phone numbers until Kelly is a little older — which is far away, far enough away that maybe Hope could leave and never come back.

But after awhile, the complacent perfection of Kelley's life begins to rub against skin in a way that chafes to a point of hurting. It's jealousy, and Hope knows that, and she hates it. But there's something in Kelley's youthful exuberance that she resents, that she covets and detests in the same heartbeat. She begins to grow tired of the daily messages that she's become so used to.

One day, she just stops. She doesn't respond for hours, then for days. It's a full week before she replies, just a simple "Hey Kell" that almost immediately earns a "Hi Hopey" in return. And Hope tries to pretend that she didn't, at least a little, enjoy the quiet.

It doesn’t go away. It just becomes a pattern.

She’s fifteen and she’s tired of Kelley’s doodles and she doesn’t have the heart to say it so she takes to wearing jeans and sweatshirts, covering every possible inch of skin, hoping no one will see that there’s a rather accurate rendition of Winnie The Pooh on the inside of her left leg, in that no-man’s-land between her knee and her thigh.

She’s sixteen and she’s tired of Kelley, of the constant nature of her affection and attention, of the little messages all the time — “Hopey what’s the weather like?” and “Hope I think I’m actually getting good at math” and worst of all just “Hope?” — and one day she grabs a Sharpie and writes “STOP” on her hand. Just like that, all caps, on the back of her hand where it won’t scrub off easily. She doesn’t wipe it off while it’s wet. She lets it dry. She lets it stay. And Kelley stops, not giving a reply, not even the smallest drawing, her eight-year-old silence weighing heavily on Hope for days. Finally, she tries to wash the ink off, first rubbing at it with soap and water, then finally digging in with her nails, sloughing off her own in her attempt to remove every dot of black ink. She replaces it with a single word — “sorry” — but there’s no response. A day later, Hope glances down to see a math problem on the back of her wrist. She fills in the answer with a smile curling her lips, her heart content with accepted forgiveness.

She’s seventeen and she’s tired of waiting on Kelley to grow up, to catch up, to be a true soulmate, because right now it feels like she's in a long distance relationship with an overly attached little sister who likes cartoons a little too much. And as much as she loves sending her recommendations for her favorite books and movies, as much as she loves telling Kelley good morning and good night every day, as much as she desperately needs the random proclamations of love and trust and loyalty that Kelley is always unfailing in providing, she's just— tired. That exhaustion is always there, it's always present, and if Hope is honest she's curious about everything that is supposed to be happening in a typical teenage life.

So she kisses a boy at a party, lets his whiskey-flavored lips replace any guilt that might rise like bile in her throat if her thoughts linger too long on the nine-year-old girl waiting for her somewhere in this world. He's not gentle and he's not tender and he spends too much time sucking at her neck and too little time undressing her, and his hands are scrabbling down her thighs when he pauses, glazed eyes staring with blinking amusement at a patch of skin on her thigh.

"Taking notes?" he asks, and she glances down to see sentences, almost a full paragraph, in neat lettering on her upper thigh, where Kelley prefers to write, where most people will never see. And she pushes the child from her mind, forces a laugh and then drags the boy whose name she can't remember up to her mouth. Because she shouldn't feel guilty that she's kissing someone her own age, shouldn't feel angry and then perplexed and then just tired again when she sits on the edge of her bed in the pre-sunrise haze of an early morning and wonders if she should write to Kelley. To Kelley, who doesn't even understand, on a biological level, what Hope did tonight, not to mention on an emotional level.

She puts the pen down. It's not important, she tells herself. It's not important that she keeps doing it, that the weekends become a parade of different boys and, on occasion, girls. It's not important that she keeps searching for something to fill the small gap in between her third and fourth rib where she always feels hollow, for someone to soften the edges of her intellect and deepen the quiet in her mind. She's searching for something she can't find, and part of her wonders if that's because she's already found it, already found her person, but has to wait.

It becomes a game, a math equation. How long until Kelley might be ready? She assumes that 18 will be the appropriate age, at least for them to meet, even if she will be 26 and in the middle of her young adulthood while Kelley will only be just beginning it. And if she turns eleven in 38 days, then it's only seven years and 38 days. That's not too long, right? That's not unbearable. Not impossible.

Some days, Kelley reminds her of this. She does the math, counts up the days, the minutes, occasionally the seconds until that birthday. Some days, when Hope doesn't respond, doesn't have the words, she just sends her a number and Hope knows what it means. It's a reminder that this number will always be shrinking smaller and smaller, that they are in on a collision course, moving through life separately but still moving ever closer.

She is eighteen. She is lying on her back in the goal. She can't move.

She knows she needs to do something. Anything. There are worried faces hanging above her, but their voices aren't quite clear enough to cut through the fog that is filling her head. The grass is tickling the back of her neck and she can't help but notice how sweaty her palms are inside these gloves. She wonders if she can take them off, but right now that seems like too much effort, especially when she is beginning to feel her knee again and feel the pain and feel the fear that comes with the pain. She lets her eyes close instead.

Kelley hears nothing for a week. Not even the numbers, quiet promises of a future, can do anything. She's ten years old and she's not in love with Hope but she loves Hope as fiercely as she knows to love anything. And maybe that's why she keeps desperately rubbing off the number, adjusting the calculation, counting down the minutes until she'll be enough for Hope, enough that she won't get shut out, enough that the silences will stop.

It's been eight days and then, in the morning, she sees a glimpse of ink on her knee. She looks down excitedly, but it's just a straight line, then another straight line, and somehow it doesn't feel like Hope. Kelley shows her mother, who eyes it curiously, then pulls Dan to look too.

"Those look like surgeon's markings." Dan looks at Kelley. "Honey, is Hope doing okay?"

She shrugs. She doesn't know. Why would she know? She's ten years old and she's learning what it feels like to long for someone. And that is definitely, entirely, wholly why she doesn't stop her desperate messages, why she doesn't give up, why she keeps pressing for Hope's attention even after the week has become a month. She is desperate, but she is desperate without self consciousness, without remorse. She waits, but she is not patient in her waiting, not for a silent second.

Halfway across the country, Hope wraps extra padding onto her crutches and tries not to think about the words "ACL" or "MCL" or "six months of recovery" or "season ending injury" all too much. She tries to tell herself that she still has her scholarship, that this is what the red shirt freshman option was created for, that she has a chance, a shot, that she can get out.

She tries to write to Kelley. She really does. But every time she picks up a pen, she has no clue where to start, no idea how to communicate the idea of her future, her perfectly created future, crumbling in on itself. How does she tell Kelley that she's terrified that she'll never be enough? How does she tell Kelley that she feels like she's cursed, like that black cloud from Kelley's favorite cartoon is following her around constantly. She doesn't know what to tell her, so she stays silent, hoping the words will come, hoping Kelley will understand.

But Hope takes quiet solace in the numbers, the steadily updated countdown on the skin of her right leg, constantly reminding her that at least part of her future is set in stone.

She prays the numbers never stop coming.