Literary Orphans

Gray Girls by Tess Walsh


Harper Gray was sleeping on the floor of the library when her sister called.

The phone trilled loudly, sounding aluminum in the caffeinated air, and Harper sat up suddenly as if wrenched by the Jaws of Life. She rubbed the space between her eyebrows and picked up the phone, too exhausted to care about the bitter glares of her fellow lawyer hopefuls who were crunched up over books and chipped coffee mugs, ignoring the clocks and responding to every cough, scrape and crinkle that vibrated in the air. Their nerves were raw, pulsing closer to the skin; they felt annoyance physically.

Harper did too; the tinny ringtone seemed to be wrapping around her spine like a snake made of steel wool. She closed her eyes and answered.




“Yeah, it’s me.” There was a pause that rattled over the static. “Did I wake you?”

“No,” Harper lied. “I’m studying in the library.” She ran a finger down the spine of a book. “Why are you up? It’s almost three.”

Ophelia didn’t answer right away and Harper rubbed the spot between her eyebrows again, sensing that something was wrong with her little sister. Ophelia was not quiet, not even at three AM. She was the type to be plastered—to a wall, to a boy, to a rum and coke in a plastic cup—and talked fast enough to shed all the stigma that typically surrounded a small girl with daddy issues and neon-colored clothes.

Harper said, “Is it Mom?”

“No,” Ophelia answered. “It’s me.”

“Are you hurt?” Harper heard the panic in her own voice and tried to swallow it. It was like hands were reaching up her throat, like her heart was trying to climb into her mouth.

“I guess,” she said. “They said you needed to come.”

“Who is they?”

“The hospital.”

Harper Gray left all her books on the floor, cracked open like oysters, and accidentally kicked over a coffee cup, staining the pale pages of history and law with a muddy brown, the paper melting and curling as if it were being burnt. The librarian hissed at her, even reached out to touch Harper’s arm, but she pushed past, causing a scene, breaking the rules, just like Ophelia had always wanted her to.




Their father had been a literature professor at the local college, complete with tweed jackets and a love of strong liquor. He was a handsome man, regal, with a voice like dust and a temper like Hemingway’s. He read his girls poetry instead of bedtime stories. He smelled like whiskey and peppermint and shaving cream, the three things he allowed to kiss him. Harper loved him because he made her feel safe. Ophelia resented him because he made her feel foolish.

They had both been named in the vein of their father’s profession—the eldest after the Southern author of Scout Finch’s lost innocence and Atticus Finch’s found dignity, the younger one after Hamlet’s broken and eventually drenched lover.

The Gray girls lived up to their names.

Harper was careful. Her mind was made of pins and needles, causing her presence to be both pierced and piercing. As a child, she’d look at her surroundings intently, as if trying to memorize the scene so she could reconstruct it later. She read a lot, spoke little, and could barely tolerate the tacky plastic beads and aggressive shades of pink which seemed to permeate the lives of all the other little girls at school.

Harper is a somber child, Mrs. Gray always said, a little line appearing above her nose which made young Harper wonder if the adjective was complimentary.

Ophelia was three years younger and had a galactic imagination. She was a princess, a pirate, a clown; she was—or could have been—the beaming child in Gap catalogues and parenting magazines, brimming with innocence and a deep desire for attention. Her teeth clicked together because she talked so much—chattering to the cashier, the dog in the park, the lunch lady, and, when no one else was available, herself. She always looked slightly fevered, as if breathing were an energetic task, and had a regular rotation of pigtailed look-a-likes parading through the house for cupcakes and dress-up.

Ophelia is a passionate child, Mrs. Gray often said, but there was no line above her nose, just a buttery smile, and Harper always felt queasy when she noticed.

Professor Gray, for all his intellect, could not kick his Hemingway habits and died of liver failure when Harper was thirteen. The funeral had been elegant and poetic, but when Harper bent to kiss her father’s head, just before the coffin was sealed shut, she realized that her father looked the same. Her father had looked dead when he was alive. His body was dressed in a tweed jacket with worn elbows, the one he wore religiously, and the only things he carried with him into his grave were his grandfather’s pocket watch, which had stopped telling time on D-Day, and some rare book of Middle English poetry with gilded pages.

He looked symbolic and dead. Harper wondered if she had merely been a symbol to him and suddenly, abruptly, she found she could not breathe.

She wheeled around and shut herself in the coat closet, among dark-toned shawls and overcoats with linty pockets and peppermint candies. Her stomach felt like it had two summers ago when she’d gone on a roller coaster for the first time—weightless and sick. Harper looked at her hands but she could not feel them.

Everything was very hot and very small. She saw whirlpools in her eyes and then she saw Ophelia.

“What are you doing?”

“I don’t know,” Harper said, and her voice was high, trying to float out of her body. “I feel like I’m having a heart attack. Something’s wrong with me.”

Ophelia snatched a candy from one of the coat pockets. “Here. Suck on this.”

Harper did as she was told—she was good at directions—and her little sister sat beside her, their shoulders pressing together in the dark, branding each other.

“It’s okay, Harpie,” Ophelia said, using a nickname Harper had never much liked until now. “I’ll take care of you.” And Ophelia’s small, hot hand gripped Harper’s, anchoring her to this spot, her sister a talisman in this dark closet in this dark time, a symbol of hope, of redemption. Of all the things Harper couldn’t be.




They found out later that Harper had experienced something called a panic attack. She was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, which explained why her brain felt cramped sometimes, and she was put on pills which were designed to un-cramp it. They worked most of the time.

Ophelia was the one who fought for the therapist, for the pills. Harper had just sat at the kitchen table, blotched and quivering, as Ophelia and Mrs. Gray talked about her like she wasn’t even there.




The Gray girls become self-fulfilling prophecies. Harper studied hard and shrank under any sort of spotlight. She spent high school with her head down. Her friends were all music geeks, science dorks, people who were earnest and intelligent and, Ophelia complained, dull. Harper graduated with a GPA sharp enough to puncture the Ivy League’s many defenses and, armed with a copy of her namesake’s masterpiece, traveled to the city in hopes of defending the innocent. Harper thought that being a lawyer was the academic version of being a knight. Maybe she could atone for the Ophelia reversal by shielding the less fortunate with her needlepoint mind.

Ophelia joined the cheerleading team and got her belly-button pierced. She invented rules just to have the pleasure of breaking them. Her collection of disciples grew with matching accessories and she often called Harper when she was high, encouraging her to break the rules, have fun, get laid.

“Don’t get pregnant on me, Ophelia,” Harper said. She sounded like an old maid.

“I won’t, Harpie,” she said. But she did. And then she got un-pregnant and told Harper while they were Christmas shopping, as if she were commenting on the weather.

“Are you kidding me?” Harper hissed.

Ophelia raised her eyebrows. They were perfectly shaped. “I can take care of myself.”

Harper had rubbed the bridge of her nose and said nothing and Ophelia sang along with the Christmas carols in the car, off tune, as if nothing was wrong. Lately she’d had that fevered look of her youth, when there was so much living to do and she was too small to do all of it.




Bulimia, the doctor told Harper. They were standing in the hallway outside Ophelia’s room and Harper was staring at the doctor’s clunky elephant shoes, thinking about cotton balls and feeling like she was choking on them.

“Your sister has bulimia,” the doctor repeated, as if the word were not bleeding in Harper’s ears. “A young man named Mr. Bennett drove her to the emergency room after she collapsed in the bathroom, attempting to vomit.”

Harper closed her eyes and resisted the urge to vomit as well.

The doctor continued talking. Pamphlets. Rehabilitation. Schedules. Therapy. His voice was low and earnest, warm milk on a raw day. He was like one of the tapes Mrs. Gray used to listen to at night, a repetitive ocean lull or the soft hum of white noise. He was so convincing, in his white coat and his white shoes, so good at selling recovery and medicine. He was the clean tomorrow that is achievable through faith, insurance and diligence.

He was the one who politely ushered away the nurses with glassy smiles and venom eyes, all of them pausing to linger on the girl with a runny nose and ratty slippers. They blamed her.

Harper accepted each paper the doctor handed her, nodding, repeating the word recovery to herself. It was a candy, a drug. It implied that there was enough of Ophelia to be recovered. It implied that Ophelia would continue to be.

No thanks to Harper.

Each nurse felt like a shard of glass.



Harper stood just inside the doorway of her sister’s hospital room, observing the way she always had—with no expression, with attention to detail just in case one detail proved to be crucial later.

There were four Jell-o cups, unopened, lined up on the bedside table like trembling jewels, and a fifth turning cartwheels in the hands of Logan Bennett, the square-shaped boy with ash-blond hair who played varsity sports and was attractive if one considered mountains to be sexy, which Harper did not. Ophelia liked to be in the presence of imposing men. They were very unlike Professor Gray.

Logan Bennett was—had been?—the father of Ophelia’s un-pregnancy and the sight of him, this tree stump of a boy rooted in a plastic chair with one pitiful Jell-o cup rolling over in his huge hands like a marble, made Harper’s knees hurt. He’d looked up when Harper entered the room, nodded once as if to confirm everything, and turned back to the Jell-o.

Besides Logan Bennett and the gelatin, there were two potted plants, one poster depicting a bespectacled frog, a single pastel pink balloon which looked unhealthy and depressing, and Ophelia.

The Gray sisters had always looked alike—small mouths, dark hair, long fingers, skin so pale that violet and navy veins gleamed across their bodies like webs. Their eyes were the color of storms and steel and wet concrete. Old ladies at the grocery store, the kind with coupons and nylon strings threaded through their eyeglasses, often pronounced them to be twins, making Harper smile and Ophelia blush.

The girl in the bed looked like Ophelia’s corpse, bones and wires glued to the skin as if there were nothing left inside anymore but parts and strings. Unnatural. Something dug up from a grave and scrubbed over. She looked even worse than their dead father had in the casket, and Harper could hear the breath shaking in her own lungs as panic crested inside her, lots of foam and the sensation of drowning.

She cried without making a sound, but Ophelia must have sensed the chemical imbalance anyways, tasted the salt in the air. She opened her eyes slowly, as if each lid were attached to a dumbbell, and reached out one hand.

“Hey, Harpie. Don’t look like that. I’m fine.”

Even when she was skeletal, Ophelia was trying to take care of her.

Harper thought about her sister’s Shakespearian namesake, how she went mad from grief and loss and picked imaginary flowers, only to be snared by their weeds.

She wondered if her Ophelia was headed down the same path. She wondered why her father had chosen that name, one so soggy with meaning and ill-fated foreshadowing, and how someone could give such a complicated name to such a pure creature as a newborn.

Maybe he had known, looking at his second daughter, his second disappointment, that she would use her tiny fists to break intangible things and she would use her tiny heart as a capsule for everything else.

“How long?” Harper asked. She didn’t have the strength to sculpt her question into nicer words. She didn’t have the time.

“Just been sick and lost some weight, that’s all,” Ophelia said uncomfortably.

“Don’t insult me,” Harper said, and she rubbed her eyebrows.

“Do you still have that scar?”

Harper dropped her hand. “What?”

“The scar. On your forehead. Right here.” Ophelia tapped the space between her own eyebrows and then motioned for Harper to come closer. Every inch that her body moved was sluggish and demanding, as if her bones had been hollowed and filled with lead. Harper half-expected her wrist to snap from the motion.

Harper sat on the edge of the bed and Ophelia reached up one hand. Her whole arm was a toothpick and it trembled under its own weight. She pressed a thumbnail to Harper’s skin.

“Right there,” she said softly. “That’s my thumbnail. I scratched you and it left this ugly scab. You were always picking at it and it kept bleeding and…” Ophelia trailed off, dropped her hand. “It scarred.”

“I don’t remember that,” Harper said.

“No, you wouldn’t,” Ophelia said. “I was always scratching you up when I was little. That just happened to leave a mark.”

Harper picked at the place her sister had just touched with her dry, translucent hand. She dug around for the scar but couldn’t find it. Maybe some wounds could only be seen by the people who caused them.

Ophelia closed her eyes and Harper could see purple veins, webs. She didn’t turn around but just said, “Logan? Would you mind getting me some more Jell-o?”

Logan left and Ophelia twitched a little as the door closed.

“He’s not going to come back,” Ophelia said.

“Maybe not,” Harper said. “But you’ll still have me. Useless as I am.”

“You’re not useless.”

“How long have you been…like this?” Harper repeated. She closed one hand around her sister’s wrist, feeling relief when she found a pulse.

“Since Mom.” Ophelia opened her eyes.

“You should have come to live with me,” Harper said. She coughed. The cotton ball feel closed in on her again—a panic attack like a heartbeat, contracting and releasing, throbbing around this room, this bed, her sister.

“I would have—“ she stopped. I would have taken care of you, she wanted to say, but it wouldn’t have been true. If Ophelia had moved into her apartment, uprooted from all she’d known, she would have made coffee and kept Harper from drinking too much of it, cleaned the bathrooms and gone grocery shopping. Ophelia would still take care of her.

And would Harper still feel guilty if she was benefitting from her sister’s fierce hospitality?

“But then I wouldn’t be able to visit her,” Ophelia said, frowning slightly. “And she needs me.”

Harper touched the button on her sister’s hospital bracelet, a noose around that slender breakable wrist. “She doesn’t know who you are anymore.”

“Sometimes she does.”

Mrs. Gray had been put into Sunshine Assisted Living last Christmas after she had wandered across two interstate highways, so scrambled that she couldn’t remember her own name when the state troopers finally got her to the station. She hadn’t been the same since her husband died, a frazzled collection of missed dentist appointments and lost keys, but steadily declined as her daughters grew older. Harper had visited her a few weeks ago. Mrs. Gray thought she was a nurse. She kept asking for pills. Harper gave her tic-tacs and felt like Judas.

“She got a lot worse when you left,” Ophelia murmured.

A nurse in clunky elephant shoes came in with a Dixie cup of pills and a glass of water. She waited patiently, with her hands clasped, as Ophelia swallowed each one individually, grimacing like they were rocks.

Harper said, “Why?”

Ophelia pursed her lips, the same gesture she executed when the boys she’d shrink-wrapped and hung from a chain started to break free. “To be in control of something. To be beautiful. To get to the top of the pyramid.”

She shrugged and Harper inhaled through her nose sharply at her sister’s apathy, her pursed lips.

“Ophelia, you’re always in control.” Harper hesitated to reach for her sister’s hand, so fragile and chalky, but did it anyway. “You can take of yourself. You take care of me.”

“Only when you needed me too,” Ophelia said.

“I needed you all the time. I was scared.”

Ophelia took a sip of water. “Wanna know a secret? Me too.”

Harper placed the glass knuckles of her sister’s hand against her forehead. Against that scar. “I’m sorry.” She could hear her voice getting high, a thin line drawn out of her lungs, trying to escape.

“No,” Ophelia said, and she opened her mouth to say something more, but then closed it and turned her face slowly towards the window. It was starting to get light—or, Harper thought, at least less dark, and Ophelia let out some small cry of pain and ecstasy as it slipped through the cracks in the blinds. Harper sat there, holding her sister’s hand, watching her face and repeating the words I’m sorry over and over, her lips numb from their silent motions.

Ophelia the gorgeous. Ophelia the doomed. Ophelia, born on Valentine’s Day, born to be beautiful and bitchy and bright. The Gray household, like its daughters, had lived up to its name. It was a museum. It was quiet. Ophelia, as a child, had tried to bring light into it like this, through the cracks, but it never quite worked—she ended up cracking herself.

It was never about the others. Ophelia had not intended to sacrifice herself for her sister’s well-being, and Harper realized this as she watched her little sister’s lips, parting in sleep with her starved face strained toward the fractured sunlight. Cleaning up Harper’s neurotic spills, whether they be actual or imaginary, was another way Ophelia tried to seal up all the fissure cracks inside her ballerina bones, like the lip-gloss stains on napkins and spotted mirrors, like Logan Bennett and his shovel-shaped hands.

She saved herself by saving Harper. But Harper had left.

The elder Gray sister kicked off her shoes and crawled into the hospital bed. Ophelia was so small she barely took up any room, but Harper was careful. There were so many things that could break here, in this hospital bed which smelled like starch and felt like a spaceship, clunky and blinking, clumsily leading the two of them toward the light. It was all so delicate and fine, thin silver chains of celestial jewelry, more precious than law degrees or memory or even a rare gilded book of Middle-Age poetry, than an un-baby or a boy or cups of Jell-o preserved like congealed blood, liquefied heart.

And Harper mustn’t break any of it. She mustn’t. She could hear Ophelia’s heartbeat, feeble but persistent, the universe speaking weakly through bloodlines, and Harper Gray curled her head to her sister’s chest to better hear what it was trying to tell her.


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Tess Walsh grew up in the Boston area and currently attends Saint Michael’s College in Vermont. She loves peanut butter, football, and naps. Her work has also appeared in The Ampersand Review and CoffeeShopPoems. More shenanigans can be found at


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–Art by Rona Keller

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