Ben stands with the phone held to his ear, eyes following the tiny brunette with her wild hair, curling from her head and stretching out for everything around it like it has a consciousness of its own. Her back is pushed, propped against a black and white furry dog three times her size. Her stark blue eyes, eyes that match his own, concentrate on the television in front of her like it's one of the seventh wonders of the world. Ben's not sure what the show she is watching is about, but it's cartoonish in nature and vibrant, and her high-pitched giggling erupts and swells in the room around them, so Ben doesn't mind it. He finds he likes the sound the more it fills his home. It's a far cry from where the man was last year: pouring over his notes on furniture that didn't belong to him, listening to the buzzing hum of the electricity in an otherwise quiet sublet apartment that was only home for a few months at a time. The warmth of the moment is fleeting, though. As soon as the voice on the other side of the phone drifts through the earpiece, the temperature in the room begins to drop.
"Benny," the nickname effortlessly flows off of her tongue and sends daggers shooting into his chest with such pain that Ben's embarrassed he feels it. He hates that stupid fucking nickname. The loathing always leaves him feeling stupid for how it still hurts him, even after so much time has passed. He doesn't wince, though, despite the overwhelming urge to. "You should see this sunset," the recording proceeds on. Her voice is soft, dreamy, light like she's somewhere far away- like she's in another world. Ben never answers the phone when she calls, even it's ringing in his hand. He can't control the panic every conversation produces, nor the inevitable defeat that follows. He's humiliated every time hope becomes the leading emotion under his skin.
His voicemail has become like a confessional lately. The woman calling seems to realize that no matter how many times she rings the line, Ben won't answer. So, her calls start coming in late at night, when Ben's phone is on do not disturb, and it goes straight to voicemail- straight to the place she has slowly made her audio diary. The voicemail audio diary is the only connection they have left- a one-sided conversation that Ben never participates in. Sometimes the diary entries are intelligible, mismatched and mangled, slurred together in a string that never ends where it started. Sometimes the foreign language makes him clench his jaw so hard that it aches for days after. The defeat is so overwhelming that most nights, he hangs up before the entire message is complete.
"I just wanted you to know I was thinking of you. I'm sorry I'm not home." Ben rolls his eyes at the apology he's heard over the last several months, years even. However, something is different this time. Her speech doesn't seem slurred. She's coherent in a way that strikes a cord that hasn't been played in years. His tongue moves into the side of his cheek like two magnets with opposite poles that have finally found each other as he concentrates. "I'm just no good at being any of that and..." There's a long break, and for a moment, Ben's breath is caught in his throat with anticipation. "You always took such good care of Gram and me. You really were the good one, Ben. I was always the fucked up one," Ben blinks back in confusion, and for a moment, his heart physically feels like it's being split in two. He wonders what this conversation would have looked like had he picked up the phone earlier. You're not a fuck up, Paige. Please, just come home, and let me help you. Or would he get angry? Would he instead tell her to cut the self-loathing bullshit and to take responsibility for her choices for once? That her choices are just that? Choices. Ben wages an internal war, and he doesn't know at the moment which emotion is winning the battle.
"I guess when you think about it, the only thing I was ever really good at was fucking up. So, I don't know, Benny. I really miss you. I miss Caroline... I miss Gram. Anyway, I sent something for Caroline's birthday. I know I'm late, but I just put in the mail this morning, and..." her voice trails off. Ben can't help but notice the regret in her tone. Without realizing it, Ben's hand curls into a fist and rises from his side, where he covers his mouth as if trying to keep something from pouring out of it. "I'll try you again tomorrow. I'm sorry. I hope you pick up. I love you so much, Benny. Please kiss my baby."
So tomorrow morning, Ben waits by the phone from the minute he gets up. He finds himself checking the screen for missed calls like it's a job he hates, and he only has to make it until 5'clock before the weekend hits. It's not until it's nearly 10 o'clock at night, and Ben is standing over his kitchen sink, elbow deep in soapy dish waster, does the ringing phone catch his attention. He almost drops the slippery dish onto the counter in his haste as he launches himself across the small kitchen to dive for his phone. He wants to hear her before he doesn't get another opportunity.
"Benny!" the voice greets him on the other side of the line, but her speech is slurred, and Ben knows that sound in her voice anywhere. Her following sentence is something that he can't make out. The discourse on the other end paints a vivid picture: Ben smells the vodka on her breath, sees her stumbling through the door after he hasn't seen her for a few days. His literal other half was laughing when she came in, but her good mood quickly becomes hostile when she sees him standing there. And maybe it's his fault because he's pissed, and his arms are bent across his chest, and he's looking at her with his eyebrows knit and his lips pierced together tightly because he's ready for a fight. She spits venom as she pushes past him, nearly tumbling into the hallway on her path to get away from him because his form is solid, tall, and she's neither of those things.
"You're not my fucking Dad!"
"You're so fucking selfish righteous, Ben!"
"God, if only everyone knew what a fucking asshole you actually are!"
Ben never finds out what his sister wanted to say because the anger makes him blind, and without even thinking, he sends his phone for a swim in the sink with the glass dish and remnants of tonight's dinner. Thursday morning, the lawyer calls and tells him they need to get ready for the hearing in August, and Ben realizes he's more than halfway over the line he's been hesitant to cross since he came home last fall.