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poison and wine

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Kelley first met her soulmate when she was six months old.

She didn’t remember it, of course, and for the rest of her childhood it would be a constant nagging regret, that she couldn’t quite hold onto that memory, that it slipped away with all the other firsts — the first gasp of breath, the first bite of food, the first wobbling step.

Her mother was cradling her close to her chest, rocking the two of them with one foot on the porch swing in the back of their house, watching an evening rainstorm blow in. The air was hot and heavy with humidity. Erin was sprawled on the floor next to her, a grubby fist wrapped around an orange crayon, filling in a technicolor piece of paper that vaguely resembled its original form as a princess coloring book.

“Look, Er—“ Karen’s voice was excitable, cutting through the nighttime quiet, and the little girl jerked her head upwards, scrambling to her feet and clambering up and into the swing next to her mother. She cocked her head, surveying the light pink skin of her little sister, eyeing where her mother was pointing.

“She’s got the drawing too,” Erin said, her voice soft with wonder. Karen nodded, smoothing her finger over the doodles appearing on Kelley’s skin. Tiny hearts, blossoming into swirling, nonsensical patterns across one tiny kneecap. Karen’s smile grew as she watched the drawing stop. She was tempted to pick up a pen, to write something back — a thank you, perhaps — but she had no idea where this mystery person was or how old they were or if they were even ready to receive anything back yet.

Besides, that was Kelley’s role. To write, to receive. She had all the time in the world.

So instead, Karen pulled a pen out of her own pocket, pressing the ink into the curve just below her elbow, careful not to let it smudge with the sweat of a Georgia summer. She only wrote three words.

“Kelley found hers.”

Dan was downstairs in seconds, Karen’s handwriting fresh on the curve of his arm.

“He's already alive?” He crouched next to Karen and Erin, flashing a smile at both of them as he wrapped his arm around his wife’s torso and peered down at his daughter. His smile faltered slightly at the sketches. “It looks like a girl’s drawing.”

“Oh, who cares.” Karen beamed at her daughter. “She’s already found her. Will you look at that.”

***

Of course, it was a few years before Hope found the same. And a little different.

She woke up the morning of her eleventh birthday to a scrawled smiley face on her wrist. She slammed down the stairs, tossed open her brother’s door and pulled his sheets back.

“What did you do?” Her voice was squeaky in the morning and she hated it, because she was trying to sound tough — and look tough, her fists clenched at her side — but the whole Mickey Mouse early morning voice thing was ruining it completely. Marcus just raised an eyebrow at her, glaring back.

“What do you mean, what’d I do?” He shoved her with one foot. “Get out of my room.”

“You drew on my wrist and I can’t get it off.” Hope shoved the aforementioned wrist in front of his face. “Get it off.”

“I didn’t— What do you mean you can’t get it off?” Marcus sat up in bed, grabbing her wrist and rubbing at the skin, which was red and raw already and smelled vaguely of soap. “Have you tried everything?”

She nodded vigorously, then winced, tugging the wrist back from him.

“You found your person.” Marcus sat up on his knees in bed, his eyes dark with excitement. “Hope, you found your person.”

“What are you talking about?” She wanted to believe that Marcus was just messing with her, but the mystery of this unerasable ink and the strange sense of excitement filling her brother somehow froze Hope in place. “You mean like in the movies and stuff? That doesn’t—"

“You found your person, I’m telling you.” Marcus hopped out of bed and closed the door, then rolled up his sleeve. “You promise not to tell mom and dad?”

Hope nodded, then watched as Marcus pulled out a pen and wrote quickly across his wrist — “Jenny, you up yet?”

After several minutes, Hope could see — no, that wasn’t possible. Marcus erased the ink on his arm as several other letters formed themselves.

“Hey bud.”

“You have a soulmate?” Hope’s voice was strangled as she grabbed Marcus’ arm, examining the script, running her finger across the ink. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Why do you think?” Marcus looked at her, eyebrows raised again, but his eyes were more gentle now, more understanding. Hope knew why.

Because their parents spoke in low, bickering tones and her father spent most nights on the couch, not sharing their bed. Because when they looked at each other, it was with annoyance or resentment or dread or perhaps even guilt, regret, mourning, when they thought the other was looking away. Because when her mother absentmindedly drew a small series of circle, each one smaller than the next, on the inside of her palm, her father’s palm remained bare, empty.

Because their parents weren’t soulmates.

She had always assumed this meant that not everyone had a soulmate, that only the lucky few were selected to see the ink that spilled on the skin of their perfect person reflected on their own skin. But here she was, with a smiley face that grinned up at her like a question, like a new beginning. Hope cradled her wrist lightly.

Hope left and went to her room. She sat on her bed, tracing the outline of the ink with one finger, trying to memorize each curve of each line. It was poorly drawn, done either quickly or by an inexperienced hand. There was so much she wanted to say, to ask, to know. She picked up a pen and balanced it, pulling off the cap and then smashing it back on. Finally, she opted for a simple message, the simplest she could think of.

“Hi, I’m Hope.”

She wrote it beneath the smiley face in blunt block letters, careful that each letter stood out plainly against her skin. It didn’t occur to her that, perhaps, this person didn’t speak English or didn’t know how to read or wasn’t even expecting a reply. In the minutes, then hours, that came afterwards, however, she mulled over each of these possibilities in her mind, trying to pretend she wasn’t worried, trying to pretend she wasn’t desperate for a response.

Finally, Hope pulled on a sweatshirt in the blazing July heat and forced herself to keep her eyes away from her skin. It wasn’t until that night, sweat sticking to the back of her neck and fingers twitching at the corners of her sleeves, that she allowed herself another glance at her arm.

She wasn’t disappointed.

Another wobbly smiley face, smaller and this time outfitted with a nose and eyebrows, decorated the inside of her arm. Hope studied it, and she recognized the uncertainty of the lines, as if the artist in question held the pen balled up in a fist. Her soulmate was clearly younger, much younger than she had perhaps expected, although this made more sense seeing that they’d never had contact before.

That was okay, she decided. Hope laid on her back, one arm crossed behind her head, the other hovering before her eyes for a more dedicated studying of the drawing. She could wait.

***

Kelley wanted to grow up fast.

By age four she was tired of staring at the script that blossomed on her wrists, her kneecaps, the space between her thumb and her pinky finger, and not knowing what Hope was saying. Of course her mother was always patient, reading the daily messages aloud, smiling at the politeness of the mystery girl on the other side of the pen. But Kelley was tired of not being able to say anything back, of chewing on the tip of a pen before drawing a smile or a flower or a crooked little heart as a way of letting Hope know that she was here, she wasn’t going anywhere, she was trying her best to be what she wanted.

She was four and she was already craving the affection of a girl who was fast becoming a woman, something that was rapidly becoming more and more intimidating by the second.

Hope’s messages were alway polite, written in block lettering that seemed almost jagged at the edges, and always starting the same — “Hi, it’s Hope” — as if she perhaps had forgotten who it was, could possibly forget that somewhere the other half of her heart was living a normal life, riding her bike and eating pancakes on the weekends and going to school when the sun rose every day.

“It’s warm here today,” she said on a particularly hot Georgia afternoon, and Kelley wondered where “here” was, when she would get to know what “here” looked like, smelled like, felt like, whether “warm” was a relative word, whether Hope lived in Antartica with penguins and “warm” meant that a little ice was melting, or whether she lived in Africa with zebras and lions and “warm” meant the skin on her nose felt like it was frying off.

“I don’t want to go back to school really,” she said, and Kelley wondered if Hope was good at school, if she dragged home backpacks filled with library books like Erin did, if she could write in cursive and add up numbers and then take them away again, or if she was like Jerry, who pretended to be sick three days a week and always complained over breakfast and acted as if the yellow bus that came each morning was an alien ship about to abduct him, racing around the living room and shouting for Kelley to duck down, staying out of the sight of the aliens.

“I’m sad today,” she said, and Kelley wondered at this the most, because she never really felt sadness for more than a glistening moment or two, because her dad was always there to scoop her up and her mother’s hands were almost as gentle as her voice, and there was always a scoop of ice cream or a trip down to the lake awaiting the end of a spell of crying or a minor fight between the siblings. Her mother, upon reading the words out loud, stared at them, puzzled and perhaps concerned.

“What do I draw back?” Kelley asked, and Karen gnawed at her lip for a moment.

“How about a heart, sweetie.” She nodded, wrapping her fingers around the pen she always kept close by, and she drew back a heart, her favorite shape for Hope. There wasn’t a response, no more words for today, but later she found another heart, much smaller and much less lopsided, drawn next to hers. That was, it seemed, enough for today.

***

Hope never knows what to say. She’s supposed to know, she thinks, but she doesn’t. She’s 12 and she’s lost and she’s lonely and she’s tired — like, exhausted, heavy tired, the type of nauseating feeling that makes her want to slump down and close her eyes wherever she is, whatever she’s doing, rather than sit in a classroom or a bedroom or a living room or any room day in and day out — and she has a soulmate but damn this girl is useless.

Which is to be expected because she’s literally a child, and she doesn’t know how to write yet and that’s fine, it really is. But what is Hope supposed to say? She has so much that she wants to tell someone, to tell anyone, and this is where she — her soulmate, stupid as that sounds that’s all she can call her seeing that the girl can’t even write her own name back — should be coming in handy right now.

And it’s not fair because Marcus has his girl, who is smart and funny and always happy to talk and actually the same age as her brother, and who now texts Marcus instead of taking to the cumbersome method of writing and wiping away ink.

She still remembers that day, remembers Marcus bounding into her room, holding his arm aloft, a grin splitting his face wide open.

“I got her number!” He waved it in front of her, whooping and hollering, as if he’d actually asked a girl out, not asked his future wife to take another step in their predetermined direction. Hope had smiled, but it was tinged at the edge with something that tasted like jealousy, only slightly calmed when she looked down to see another heart, this time a little less uneven, drawn just above her kneecap.

She just had to wait. If she waited, it would be worth it.

In the meantime, she bided her time by leaving little messages, mostly inane and pointless and honestly rather stupid, but nonetheless important because they always resulted in a response, however poorly drawn.

This is enough for now.

***

Karen and Dan send Kelley to Montessori school. On her first day, dressed in light blue coveralls and a faded purple polo, she stares up at her teacher and announces that she needs to learn how to write. She’s greeted with a smile and a laugh and a question that she comes to resent — “Why?” — because she’s wanted to write for, well, for as long as she can remember. For as long as she’s known Hope, or tried to know Hope through scribbles she didn’t understand and haphazard drawings that couldn’t even attempt to contain her excitement and curiosity. So she shrugs in response.

She learns the letters quickly, in a week, and it’s several more weeks until the reading begins to click, until she can sound out the basic words written on the board from her seat at the front of the class — “cat” and “cow” and “mom” and “dad.”

In her fourth week of class, she sticks one hand, still sticky from a pudding pack at lunch that had not opened as expected, in the air and holds it there, impatiently, until she’s called on.

“How do you spell Hope?” she asks, and there’s that slightly condescending amusement from the teacher again, who writes the word with a lowercase ‘h,’ who assumes that Kelley meant a noun and not a name, who praises Kelley for asking about something so closely tied to faith, who doesn’t understand that Kelley does have faith but in a person not a religion.

But still, when Kelley sees that word — hope — written on the board, nearly identical to the word that embellished her skin every day, Kelley can’t help but smile, her grin wide, her eyes focused on the curve of the ‘h’ and the ‘o’ and the ‘p,’ excitement filling her chest and making her whole body feel like a rubber band stretched tight, ready to snap.

She runs to her mother at the end of the day, half-leaping into her arms and begging for a pen, for anything to write with. When Karen digs out an old ballpoint from the glovebox, she clicks it on, pulling up one sleeve and sticking her tongue out slightly through the gap of a missing tooth. Her curves lack the grace of her teacher’s writing and the definitiveness of Hope’s penmanship, but the words are legible as she prints them, large and unruly, across her leg.

“Hi Hope.”

Kelley looks up, freckled nose scrunched with pride, and Karen kisses the top of her head.

“Good job, honey,” she murmurs, and the two of them watch for a moment, waiting for something, anything, in response. Finally, Karen twists the keys in the ignition and starts them on their way home, keeping one hand on Kelley’s head, fingers tousling her daughter’s hair as the girl stares at her thigh, all the impatience of a four-year-old bundled up in a knot of excited waiting.

***

Hope slams her door shut, running both hands through her hair. Her dad forgot to pick her up again, meaning that she walked the three miles home and now has only ten minutes to change before jogging another two miles to practice. The exhaustion weighs even heavier now, pressing down with a weight just behind her eyes, and she strips down to nothing in a fog.

One foot gets stuck in her shorts as she pulls them on, and she curses, tugging and then tripping, resting back on her bed to yank the waistband the rest of the way up. And that’s when she sees it.

The writing is horrible and the ‘i’ looks like it’s falling over, the dot just hovering there in space, but there are words, there are actual words written on her leg in the scrawling writing of someone who is just learning how to write. Hope can barely breathe as she scrambles across her bed, knocking a textbook to the ground as she digs a pen out of the bottom of her backpack, tossing the cap aside and pressing the tip into her leg hard enough to bruise.

“Hi.” She pauses, unsure of what to say, what to ask, where to go. Her mind is racing with a million questions, a million possibilities, but then she remembers how little she knows and how much time she has and how much she wants and she decides to just start at, well, the start. “What’s your name?”

It’s minutes later, and Hope has forgotten entirely about putting on her clothes or going to practice, instead content to analyze every single mismatched letter.

The writing starts and stops and it’s sloppy but it finally spells out a word, a name, and Hope feels something that is whole and rich and not at all exhausted blossoming in her chest.

“Kelley."