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A Thousand Boy Kisses: Chapter 10

Clasped Hands & Awakened Dreams

Rune

 

I woke to Poppy staring up at me.

“Hey,” said Poppy. She smiled and nuzzled further into my chest. I let my hands wander through her hair, before tucking my hands under her arms, pulling her up until she lay above me, her mouth opposite mine.

“Morning,” I replied, then pressed my lips against hers.

Poppy sighed into my mouth as her lips parted and worked against my own. When I pulled back, she glanced out the window and said, “We missed the sunrise.”

I nodded. But when she looked back at me, her expression didn’t show any sadness. Instead she kissed my cheek, and admitted, “I think I’d trade all the sunrises if it meant I got to wake up like this, with you.”

My chest concaved at those words. Taking her by surprise, I flipped her on her back, hovering over where she lay. Poppy giggled as I trapped her hands on the pillow above her head.

I scowled. Poppy tried—unsuccessfully—to stop her laughter.

Her cheeks were pink with excitement. Needing to kiss her more than breathe, I did.

I released Poppy’s hands and she grasped my hair. Her laugh began to fade as the kiss grew deeper, and then there was a loud knock on the door. We froze, our lips still joined and our eyes wide open.

“Poppy! Time to get up, sweetheart!” Poppy’s daddy’s voice drifted into the room. I could feel Poppy’s heart racing, echoing through my chest, flush against hers.

Poppy shifted her head to the side, breaking the kiss. “I’m awake!” she shouted back. We didn’t dare move until we heard her daddy walking away from the door.

Poppy’s eyes were huge when she faced me again. “Oh my God!” she whispered, bursting into a fresh set of giggles.

Shaking my head, I rolled to the side of the bed, grabbing my shirt off the floor. As I pulled the black material over my head, Poppy’s hands landed on my shoulders from behind. She sighed. “We slept too late this morning. We almost got caught.”

“It won’t happen again,” I said, not wanting her to have any excuse to end this. I had to be with her at night. I had to. Nothing happened—we kissed, we slept.

That was enough for me.

Poppy nodded in agreement, but when her chin rested on my shoulder, her arms wrapping around my waist, she said, “I liked it.”

She laughed again and I turned my head slightly, catching the bright look on her face. She nodded playfully. Poppy sat back and took my hand and pressed it over her heart. It was beating fast. “It made me feel alive.”

Laughing at her, I shook my head. “You’re crazy.”

Standing up, I slid on my boots. Poppy sat back on her bed. “You know, I’ve never done anything naughty or bad before, Rune. I’m a good girl, I suppose.”

I frowned at the thought of corrupting her. But Poppy leaned forward, and said, “It was fun.” I pushed my hair back from my face and leaned down over the bed and gave her one last kiss, soft and sweet.

“Rune Kristiansen, maybe I’ll like this bad-boy side to you after all. You’re sure gonna make the next few months entertaining.” She sighed dramatically. “Sweet kisses and trouble-making antics … I’m in!”

As I made my way to the window, I heard Poppy move behind me. Just as I went to sneak out of her window, I glanced back. Poppy was filling out two blank hearts from her jar. I allowed myself to watch her. Watch as she smiled at whatever she was writing.

She was so beautiful.

As she placed the completed hearts back in her jar, she turned and stopped. She’d caught me watching. Her gaze softened. She opened her mouth to say something, when the knob on her door began to turn. Her eyes widened and she flicked her hands in a shooing motion.

As I jumped from the window and ran from the house, I heard her laughter following behind. Only something that pure could chase away the darkness in my heart.

I had barely made it back through my window before I had to jump in the shower for school. The steam billowed around the bathroom as I stood under the hot spray.

I leaned forward, the powerful jets pelting water onto my head. My hands rested against the slick tiles in front of me. Every day when I woke, anger consumed me. It was so consuming that I could almost taste its bitterness on my tongue, feel the heat of it coursing through my veins.

But this morning was different.

It was Poppy.

Lifting my head from the water, I switched it off and grabbed my towel. I slipped on my jeans and opened the bathroom door. My pappa was standing in the doorway of my room. When he heard me behind him, he turned to face me.

“Morning, Rune,” he greeted. I pushed past him to walk to my closet. I grabbed a white t-shirt and pulled it over my head. When I reached for my boots, I noticed my pappa was still standing in the doorway.

Stopping mid-motion, I met his eyes and snapped, “What?”

He edged into the room, holding a coffee in his hand. “How was your date with Poppy last night?”

I didn’t respond. I hadn’t told him anything about it, which meant my mamma had. I wouldn’t answer him. The prick didn’t deserve to know.

He cleared his throat. “Rune, after you left last night, Mr. Litchfield came over to see us.”

And then it came back, rushing through me like a torrent. The anger. I remembered Mr. Litchfield’s face as he opened the door last night. As we drove away out of the street. He was pissed. I could see he hadn’t wanted Poppy to come with me. Hell, he’d looked like he was one second away from forbidding her to go.

But when Poppy walked outside, I could see that he wouldn’t say no to whatever she wanted. How could he? He was losing his daughter. It was the only thing that stopped me from saying exactly what I thought of his objection to her being with me.

My pappa walked to stand in front of me. I kept my eyes to the floor as he said, “He’s worried, Rune. He’s worried that you and Poppy getting back together might not be such a good thing.”

I gritted my teeth. “Not good for who? Him?”

“Poppy, Rune. You know … you know she doesn’t have long—”

I whipped my head up, rage burning in my stomach. “Yeah, I get that. It’s not too hard to forget. You know, the fact that the girl I love is dying.”

My pappa paled. “James just wants Poppy’s final days to be trouble-free. Peaceful. Enjoyable. No stress.”

“And let me guess, I’m trouble, right? I’m that stress?”

He sighed. “He’s asked that you stay away from her. Just let her go without a scene.”

“Not happening,” I bit out, grabbing my backpack off the floor. I slid my leather jacket on and walked around him.

“Rune, think of Poppy,” my pappa pleaded.

I stopped dead and turned back to him. “She’s all I’m thinking of. You have no idea what it’s like for us, so how about you stay the hell out of my business. James Litchfield too.”

“She’s his daughter!” my pappa argued, his voice sterner than before.

“Yeah,” I argued back, “and she’s the love of my life. And I’m not walking away from her, even for a second. And there’s nothing either of you can do about it.”

I stormed through my bedroom doorway, as my pappa shouted, “You’re not good for her, Rune. Not like this. Not with all the smoking and drinking. Your attitude. The chip on your shoulder about everything in your life. That girl worships you, she always has. But she’s a good girl. Don’t be her ruin.”

Stopping in my tracks, I glared at him over my shoulder and said, “Well I have it on good authority that she wants a little more bad boy in her life.”

With that, I pounded past the kitchen, only briefly looking at my mamma and Alton, who waved at me as I passed. I slammed the front door and walked down the steps, lighting a smoke as soon as I hit the grass. I leaned back against the railings of our porch. My body was like a live wire at what my pappa had said. At what Mr. Litchfield had done. Warning me off his daughter.

What the hell did he think I was going to do to her?

I knew what they all thought of me, but I would never hurt Poppy. Not in a million years.

The front door of Poppy’s house opened. Savannah and Ida rushed through, Poppy following right behind. They were all talking at once. Then, as if feeling my heavy gaze, Poppy’s eyes drifted to the side of my house and focused on me.

Savannah and Ida looked over at what held her attention. When they saw me, Ida laughed and waved. Savannah, like her daddy, stared at me with quiet concern.

I flicked my chin at Poppy, telling her to come over. Poppy made her way to me slowly, Ida and Savannah on her heels. She looked beautiful, as always. Her red skirt came to mid thigh, black tights covering her legs, small pixie boots on her feet. Her navy coat was covering her top half, but I could just see her white shirt underneath, a black tie around the collar.

She was so damn cute.

Poppy’s sisters dropped back as Poppy stood in front of me. Needing to reassure myself that I had her, that she had me, I pushed myself off the railing, throwing my smoke to the ground. Cupping Poppy’s cheeks with my hands, I pulled her to my lips, crashing my mouth to hers. This kiss wasn’t gentle. I hadn’t planned it to be. I was branding her, marking her as mine.

And me as hers.

This kiss was a strong flick of the middle finger to anyone who tried to get in our way. When I pulled back, Poppy’s cheeks were flushed and her lips wet. “That kiss better be going in your jar,” I warned.

Poppy nodded, dumbstruck. Giggles came from behind us. When I looked, Poppy’s sisters were laughing. At least Ida was, Savannah was pretty much just gaping.

Reaching down for Poppy’s hand, I clasped it in mine. “You ready?”

Poppy stared at our hands. “We’re going to school like this?”

I frowned. “Yeah. Why?”

“Then everyone will know. They’ll all talk, and—”

I smashed my lips to hers again, and, when I pulled back, said, “So let them talk. You never cared before. Don’t start now.”

“They’ll think we’re boyfriend and girlfriend again.”

I scowled. “We are,” I said plainly. Poppy blinked, and blinked again. Then, extinguishing my anger completely, she smiled and fell into my side. Her head rested on my bicep.

Looking up, she said, “Then, yes, I’m ready.”

I let myself hold Poppy’s gaze for a few seconds longer than normal. Our kiss may have been a middle finger to anyone who didn’t want us together, but her smile was a middle finger to the darkness in my soul.

Poppy’s sisters ran to our side and joined us as we started walking toward our schools. Just before we turned toward the blossom grove, I glanced back over my shoulder. Mr. Litchfield was watching us go. I stiffened when I saw the stormy look on his face. But I gritted my teeth. This was one fight he was definitely going to lose.

Ida chatted the entire way to her school, Poppy laughing fondly at her youngest sister. I understood why. Ida was a miniature Poppy. Even down to the dimples on her cheeks.

Savannah was a different personality altogether. She was more introverted, a deep thinker. And clearly protective of Poppy’s happiness.

With a quick wave goodbye, Savannah left us to go into the junior high school. As she walked away, Poppy said, “She was real quiet.”

“It’s me,” I replied. Poppy looked at me, shocked.

“No,” she argued. “She loves you.”

My jaw tensed. “She loves who I used to be.” I shrugged. “I get it. She’s worried I’ll break your heart.”

Poppy pulled me to stop beside a tree near the entrance of our school. I glanced away. “What’s happened?” she asked.

“Nothing,” I replied.

She stepped into the path of my stare. “You won’t break my heart,” she stated with one hundred percent conviction. “The boy who took me to the creek, and then to listen to an orchestra, could never break my heart.”

I remained silent.

“Plus, if my heart breaks, so does yours, remember?”

I huffed at that reminder. Poppy pushed me until my back was against the tree. I saw students beginning to enter the school, most of them looking at us. The whispers were already beginning.

“Would you hurt me, Rune?” Poppy demanded.

Defeated by her tenacity, I placed a hand on the nape of her neck, and assured her, “Never.”

“Then to hell with what anyone else thinks.”

I laughed at her fire. She smiled and put her hand on her hip. “How was that for attitude? Bad-girl enough?”

Taking her by surprise, I spun her until her back was against the tree. Before she had a chance to argue, I closed in and kissed her. Our lips were slow-moving, the kiss was deep, Poppy’s lips parting to let in my tongue. I tasted the sweetness in her mouth, before pulling away.

Poppy was breathless. Combing through my damp hair with her fingers, she said, “I know you, Rune. You wouldn’t hurt me.” She scrunched her nose and joked, “I’d bet my life on it.”

An ache tried to form in my chest. “That wasn’t funny.”

She held her finger and thumb about an inch apart. “It was. A little bit.”

I shook my head. “You do know me, Poppymin. Only you. For you. For you only.”

Poppy studied me. “And maybe that’s the problem,” she concluded. “Maybe if you let other people in. Maybe if you showed those you love that you’re still you underneath all the dark clothes and broodiness, they wouldn’t judge you so harshly. They’d love you for whoever you chose to be, because they’d see your true soul.”

I stayed silent, then she said, “Like Alton. How’s your relationship with Alton?”

“He’s a kid,” I replied, not understanding what she meant.

“He’s a little boy who worships you. A little boy who’s upset you don’t speak to him, or do anything with him.”

I felt those words tunnel a pit into my stomach. “How do you know?”

“Because he told me,” she said. “He got upset.”

I pictured Alton crying, but I quickly chased it away. I didn’t want to think of it. I may not have much to do with him, but I didn’t want to see him cry.

“There’s a reason he has long hair, you know? There’s a reason he pushes it from his face like you do. It’s real cute.”

“He has long hair because he’s Norwegian.”

Poppy rolled her eyes. “Not every Norwegian boy has long hair, Rune. Don’t be silly. He has long hair because he wants to be like you. He imitates your habits, your idiosyncrasies, because he wants to be like you. He wants you to notice him. He adores you.”

My head dropped to face the ground. Poppy guided it back with her hands. She searched my eyes. “And your pappa? Why don’t you—”

Enough,” I spat out, harshly, refusing to talk about him. I would never forgive him for taking me away. This one topic was off-limits, even for Poppy. Poppy seemed neither hurt nor offended by my outburst. Instead, all I saw was sympathy in her face.

I couldn’t bear that either.

Taking her hand, and without another word, I pulled her toward the school. Poppy gripped my hand tightly when other students stopped looking and started staring. “Let them stare,” I said to Poppy as we entered the school gates.

“Okay,” she replied and edged closer to my side.

When we walked into the hallway, I saw Deacon, Judson, Jorie, Avery and Ruby all gathered near their lockers. I hadn’t spoken to any of them since the party.

None of them knew of this development.

It was Jorie who turned first, her eyes widening when her gaze fell to Poppy’s and my joined hands. She must have said something under her breath, because in seconds, all our friends turned to look at us. Confusion was all over their faces.

Turning to Poppy, I urged, “Come on, we’d better speak to them.”

I moved to go forward, when Poppy pulled me back. “They don’t know about…” she whispered, for only me to hear. “No one does except our families and the teachers. And you.”

I nodded slowly. Then she said, “And Jorie. Jorie knows too.”

That bit of information slammed into my gut. Poppy must have seen the hurt on my face, because she explained, “I needed someone, Rune. She was my closest friend except for you. She helped me with schoolwork and things like that.”

“But you told her and not me,” I said, fighting the urge to walk away and get some air.

Poppy held on tightly to me. “She didn’t love me like you did. And I don’t love her like I love you.”

As Poppy said those words, my anger faded … And I don’t love her like I love you…

Stepping closer to Poppy, I wrapped an arm around her shoulder. “They’re going to find out at some point.”

“But not yet,” she said, firmly.

I smirked at the determination in her eyes. “But not yet.”

“Rune? Get the hell over here, you got some explaining to do!” Deacon’s loud voice rang out over the bustle of the hallway.

“You ready?” I asked Poppy.

She nodded. I steered us to meet our group of friends. Poppy’s arm was wrapped firmly around my waist. “So you’re back together?” Deacon asked.

I nodded, my lip curling in disgust as Avery’s face beamed with jealousy. Clearly seeing me notice, she quickly assumed her usual cynical mask. I didn’t care; she was never anything to me.

“So it’s Poppy and Rune, together again?” Ruby clarified.

“Yes,” Poppy confirmed, smiling up at me. I kissed her forehead, holding her close.

“Well, it seems the world has righted itself again,” Jorie announced, reaching out to squeeze Poppy’s arm. “It wasn’t right, y’all not being together. The universe just kinda felt … off.”

“Thanks, Jor,” Poppy said, and they held each other’s gazes for a second longer, communicating in silence. I noticed Jorie’s eyes begin to water. As they did, she exclaimed, “Well, I gotta get to class. I’ll catch y’all later!”

Jorie walked away. Poppy moved to her locker. I ignored all the stares. When Poppy had retrieved her books, I backed her against the closed door, and said, “See? It wasn’t so bad.”

“Not so bad,” Poppy echoed, but I saw her watching my lips.

Leaning in, I pressed my chest against hers and took her mouth with mine. Poppy whimpered when my hand dropped to her hair, clasping it tight. When I pulled back, her eyes were bright and her cheeks were flushed.

“Kiss three hundred and sixty. Against my locker door at school. Showing the world we’re together again … and my heart almost burst.”

I moved away, leaving Poppy to catch her breath.

“Rune?” she called as I headed to my math class. I turned and flicked my chin. “I’m gonna need more of these moments to fill my jar.”

Heat speared through me at the thought of kissing her at every opportunity. Poppy flushed at the intensity on my face. Just as I turned again, she called, “And Rune?”

I smirked and answered, “Ja?

“Where’s your favorite place to go here in Georgia?” I couldn’t quite make out the expression on her face, but something was going on in that head of hers. She was planning something, I just knew it.

“The blossom grove, when it’s spring,” I replied, feeling my face soften just at the thought.

“And when it’s not spring?” she probed.

I shrugged. “The beach probably. Why?”

“No reason,” she trilled, then headed in the opposite direction.

“See you at lunch,” I shouted.

“I gotta practice my cello,” she shouted back.

Standing still, I told her, “Then I’ll be watching.”

Poppy’s face brightened and she repeated, gently, “Then you’ll be watching.”

We stood, on opposite sides of the hallway, just staring. Poppy mouthed, “For infinity.”

And I mouthed back, “Forever always.”

 

* * *

 

The week passed in a blur.

I’d never cared about time before—whether it went fast or slow. Now I did. Now I wanted a minute to last an hour, an hour to last a day. But, despite my silent pleas to whoever the hell was up there, time was rushing by too fast. Everything was moving too damn fast.

At school, the collective interest at me and Poppy being back together settled down after a few days. Most people still didn’t get it, but I paid that no mind. In our little town, I knew that people talked. Most of the gossip was about how and why we got back together.

I didn’t give a damn about that either.

The doorbell rang as I lay on my bed, and I rolled to stand, grabbing my jacket off my chair. Poppy was taking me out.

She was taking me out.

This morning when I left her bed, she told me to be ready for ten. She wouldn’t tell me why, or what we were doing, but I did as she asked.

She knew I would.

As I walked out of my door and down the hallway, I heard the sound of Poppy’s voice. “Hey, little man, how’re you doing?”

“Good,” Alton replied shyly.

Rounding the corner, I stopped when I saw Poppy crouching down to meet Alton’s eyes. Alton’s long hair was shielding his face. I watched as he nervously pushed his hair from his face with his hand … just like I did. Poppy’s words from last week came crashing into my mind…

He has long hair because he wants to be like you. He imitates your habits, your idiosyncrasies, because he wants to be like you. He wants you to notice him. He adores you…

I watched my baby brother rock shyly on his feet. I couldn’t help curling my lip in amusement. He too was quiet, like me. Didn’t really speak unless he was spoken to first.

“What are you up to today?” Poppy asked him.

“Nothing,” Alton replied sullenly.

Poppy’s smile faded. Alton asked, “Are you going out with Rune again?”

“Yeah, baby,” she replied quietly.

“Does he talk to you now?” Alton asked. And I heard it. I heard the tone of sadness in his quiet voice, the one that Poppy had told me about.

“Yeah, he does,” Poppy said and, like she did to me, she ran her finger down his cheek. Alton dipped his head in embarrassment, but I caught a little smirk through the gaps in his long hair.

Poppy looked up and saw me leaning against the wall, watching intently. She slowly straightened and I walked forward, reaching for her hand and pulling her forward for a kiss.

“You ready?” she asked.

I nodded my head, eying her suspiciously. “You still not telling me where we’re going?”

Poppy pursed her lips and shook her head, teasing me. She took my hand in hers and led me out the door. “Bye, Alton!” she called over her shoulder.

“Bye, Poppymin,” I heard him say quietly in response. I came to a dead stop as my pet name for Poppy left his lips. Poppy’s hand went over her mouth, and I saw her practically melting on the spot.

She stared at me, and in that stare I knew she wanted me to say something to my brother. Sighing, I turned to Alton and he said, “Bye, Rune.”

Poppy’s hand squeezed mine, urging me to respond. “Bye, Alt,” I replied, awkwardly. Alton’s head lifted, and a huge smile spread on his lips. All because I’d said bye.

That smile lighting up his face made something tighten in my chest. I led Poppy down the steps and toward Poppy’s mama’s car. As we reached the car, Poppy refused to release my hand until I looked up at her. When I did, she tipped her head to the side and declared, “Rune Kristiansen, I’m real freakin’ proud of you right now.”

I glanced away, not comfortable with that kind of praise. With a heavy sigh, Poppy finally released my hand and we climbed into the car. “You going to tell me where we’re going yet?” I inquired.

“Nope.” Poppy backed the car out of the drive. “Though you’ll guess soon enough.”

I tuned the radio to Poppy’s usual station, and sat back in my seat. Poppy’s soft voice began to fill the car, singing along to another pop song I didn’t know. It wasn’t long before I stopped watching the road and simply watched her. Like when she played the cello, her dimples deepened as she sang along to her favorite songs, smiling through the lyrics she loved. Her head swayed and her body moved in time to the beat.

My chest constricted.

It was a constant battle. Seeing Poppy so carefree and happy filled me with the brightest of lights, but knowing these moments were limited, finite, running out, brought only darkness.

Patches of pitch black.

And anger. The ever-present unwound coil of anger that waited to strike.

As if she could see me breaking, Poppy stretched out her hand and laid it on my lap. When I glanced down, her hand was palm-up, her fingers ready to intertwine with mine.

I let out a long exhale and slipped my hand through hers. I couldn’t look at her. I wouldn’t do it to her.

I knew how Poppy felt. Even though cancer was draining her of life, it was the pain of her family members and those who loved her that was killing her. When I got quiet, when I got upset, it was the only time her bright green eyes would dim. When I let the anger consume me, I could see the tiredness on her face.

Tired of being the cause of so much hurt.

Keeping her hand tightly in mine, I turned to look out the window. We drove along the twists and turns out of town. Bringing our joined hands to my mouth, I pressed kisses to Poppy’s soft skin. When we passed a sign for the coast, the heaviness lifted from my chest and I turned to Poppy.

She was already smiling.

“You’re taking me to the beach,” I stated.

Poppy nodded her head. “Yep! Your second-favorite place.”

I thought of the cherry blossoms in bloom in the grove. I envisioned us sitting under our favorite tree. And, unlike me as it was, I sent a prayer that she would make it that long. Poppy had to see the trees in their full flower.

She simply had to hold on that long.

“I will,” Poppy suddenly whispered. I met her eyes and she squeezed my hand like she was hearing my silent plea. “I’ll see them. I’m determined.”

The silence stretched out between us. A lump lodged in my throat as I silently counted the months to when the trees would be in blossom. About four months.

No time at all.

Poppy’s hand had become rigid. When I searched her face, I saw the pain again. The pain silently telling me that she was hurting, because I was hurting.

Forcing the lump aside, I said, “Then you will. God knows not to stand in your way when you’re determined.”

And like a switch, her pain faded and pure happiness shone through.

I settled back in my seat, watching the world outside flash by in a blur. I was lost in my own thoughts when I heard, “Thank you.” It was a tiny sound, barely a fraction of a whisper. But I closed my eyes, feeling Poppy’s hand relax.

I didn’t respond. She wouldn’t want me to.

Another song began on the radio, and like nothing had even happened, Poppy’s soft voice filled the car, and it didn’t let up. For the remainder of the journey I held onto her hand as she sang.

Making sure I drank in every note.

 

When we arrived at the coast, the first thing I saw was the tall, white lighthouse sitting on the edge of the cliff. The day was warm, the cold snap seemed to have passed, and the sky was bright.

There was barely a cloud in the sky as the sun sat high, beaming its rays over the still water. Poppy parked the car and cut the engine. “I agree, it’s my second-favorite place,” she said.

I nodded, watching the several families scattered around the soft sand. There were kids playing; seabirds circling, waiting for discarded food. Some adults were slumped against the dunes reading. Some were relaxing, eyes closed, lapping up the warmth.

“You remember coming here in the summer?” Poppy asked, joy lacing her soft voice.

Ja,” I rasped.

She pointed underneath the pier. “And there, kiss seventy-five.” She turned to me and laughed at the memory. “We sneaked off from our families to stand under the pier, just so you could kiss me.” She touched her lips, her eyes unfocused, lost in thought. “You tasted of salt from the seawater,” she said. “Do you remember?”

Ja,” I replied. “We were nine. You wore a yellow bathing suit.”

“Yes!” she said, through a giggle.

Poppy opened the door. She looked back, excitement on her face, and asked, “Are you ready?”

I got out of the car. The warm breeze blew my hair over my face. Taking a rubber band from my wrist, I pushed my hair back off my face into a loose bun, and walked to the trunk to help Poppy with whatever she’d brought.

When I glanced inside the large trunk, I saw she’d brought a picnic basket and another backpack. I had no idea what she had in that.

I reached forward to take everything from her when she tried to carry it all herself. She released them for me to hold, then she stopped, motionless.

Her stillness forced me to look up. I frowned, seeing her studying me. “What?” I asked.

“Rune,” she whispered and touched my face with her fingertips. She skirted them over my cheeks and along my forehead. Finally, a huge smile broke out on her lips. “I can see your face.”

Lifting onto her tiptoes, Poppy reached up and playfully tapped my hair, trapped in the bun. “I like this,” she declared. Poppy’s eyes tracked over my face one more time. Then she sighed. “Rune Erik Kristiansen, do you realize how utterly beautiful you are?”

I ducked my head. Hands ran down my chest. When I looked up, she added, “Do you realize how deeply I feel about you?”

I slowly shook my head, needing her to tell me. She placed my hand over her heart and her hand over mine. I felt its steady beat under my palm, the steady beat that got faster as my eyes locked on hers. “It’s like music,” she explained. “When I look at you, when you touch me, when I see your face … when we kiss, my heart plays a song. It sings that it needs you like I need air. It sings to me that I adore you. It sings that I’ve found its perfect missing part.”

Poppymin,” I said softly, and she pressed a finger over my lips.

“Listen, Rune,” she said, and she closed her eyes. I did too. And I heard it. I heard it as loudly as if it were next to my ear. The steady beats, the rhythm of us. “When you’re near, my heart doesn’t sigh, it soars,” she whispered, as if she didn’t want to disturb the sound. “I think hearts beat a rhythm like a song. I think, that just like music, we’re drawn to a particular melody. I heard your heart’s song, and yours heard mine.”

I opened my eyes. Poppy stood, her dimples deep as she smiled and swayed to the beat. When her eyes opened a sweet giggle slipped from her lips. I pushed forward and crushed our lips together.

Poppy’s hands went to my waist, holding tightly to my t-shirt as I moved my lips slowly against hers, backing us up until she rested against the car, my chest flush against her body.

I felt the echo of her heartbeat in my chest. Poppy sighed as I slipped my tongue to slide against hers. Her hands tightened on my waist. When I drew back, she whispered, “Kiss four hundred and thirty-two. At the beach with my Rune. My heart almost burst.”

I breathed heavily as I tried to gather myself. Poppy’s cheeks were flushed, and she was breathing just as hard as me. We stayed that way, simply breathing, until Poppy pushed off the trunk and placed a kiss on my cheek.

Turning, she lifted the backpack and put it over her shoulder. I went to take it from her, but she said, “I’m not too weak yet, baby. I can still carry some of the weight.”

Her words contained a double meaning. I knew she wasn’t just talking about the bag, but about my heart.

The darkness within me, that she was incessantly trying to fight.

Poppy moved away, allowing me to gather everything else. I followed her to a secluded spot on the far side of the beach, next to the pier.

When we stopped, I spotted the post where I had kissed her all those years ago. A strange feeling spread in my chest, and I knew that before we left to return home, I was going to kiss her there again. Kiss her as a seventeen-year-old.

Another kiss for her jar.

“Is here okay?” Poppy asked.

Ja,” I replied, placing the things on the sand. Seeing the umbrella, and concerned that Poppy shouldn’t get too much sun, I quickly planted it in the sand and opened it to give her some shade.

As soon as the umbrella spread open, and a blanket was on the sand, I nudged my chin to Poppy, indicating for her to move beneath it. She did, quickly kissing my hand as she passed.

And my heart didn’t sigh. It soared.

My eyes were drawn to the quietly rolling ocean. Poppy sat down. Closing her eyes, she inhaled deeply.

Watching Poppy embrace nature was like watching an answered prayer. The joy in her expression seemed limitless, the peace in her spirit humbling.

I lowered myself to the sand. I sat forward, arms draping over my bent legs. I stared at the sea. I stared at the boats in the distance, wondering where they were going.

“What adventure do you think they’re on?” Poppy asked, reading my mind.

“I don’t know,” I replied honestly.

Poppy rolled her eyes and said, “I think they’re leaving it all behind. I think they woke up one day and decided there’s more to life. I think they decided—a couple in love, a boy and a girl—that they wanted to explore the world. They sold their possessions and bought a boat.” She smiled and lowered her chin, cradling it in her hands, her elbows resting on her bent knees. “She loves to play music, and he loves to capture moments on film.”

I shook my head and glanced at her from the side of my eye.

She didn’t seem to care, instead adding, “And the world is good. They’ll travel to far-off places, create music, art and pictures. And along the way they’ll kiss. They’ll kiss, they’ll love and they’ll be happy.”

She blinked as the gentle breeze whispered through our shade. When she looked at me again, she asked, “Doesn’t that sound like the most perfect adventure?”

I nodded. I couldn’t speak.

Poppy looked at my feet, and shaking her head, shuffled along the blanket until she was at the end of my legs. I raised an eyebrow in question.

“You have boots on, Rune! It’s a wonderfully sunny day and you have boots on.” Poppy then set to unzipping my boots, pulling each one off. She rolled my jeans up to my ankles and nodded her head. “There,” she said proudly. “That’s a slight improvement.”

Unable not to find the humor in her sitting there so smugly, I reached forward and pulled her over me, lying down so she lay above me.

“There,” I repeated. “That’s a slight improvement.”

Poppy giggled, awarding me a swift kiss. “And now?”

“A huge improvement,” I joked dryly. “A massive, asteroid-sized improvement.”

Poppy laughed harder. I rolled her over to lie beside me. Her arm stayed over my waist, and I ran my fingers down her soft exposed skin.

I stared silently at the sky. Poppy was quiet too, until she suddenly said, “It wasn’t long after you left that I began feeling tired, so tired that I couldn’t get out of bed.”

I grew still. She was finally telling me. Telling me what happened. Telling me it all.

“My mama took me to the doctor and they did some tests.” She shook her head. “To be honest, everyone thought I was acting different because you had left.” I closed my eyes and inhaled. “I did too,” she added, holding me tighter. “For the first few days, I could let myself pretend you’d just gone on vacation. But after weeks began to pass, the void you left within me began to hurt so bad. My heart was completely broken. On top of that, my muscles ached. I would sleep too much, unable to find any energy.”

Poppy fell silent. Then she continued. “We ended up having to go to Atlanta for more tests. We stayed with Aunt DeeDee while they figured out what was wrong.”

Poppy lifted her head and, with a hand on my cheek, guided my eyes to meet hers. “I never told you, Rune. I kept up the pretense that I was okay. Because I couldn’t bear to hurt you more. I could see you weren’t doing real good. Every time we video-chatted, I could see you getting angrier and angrier at being back in Oslo. The things you said were just not you.”

“So that visit to your Aunt DeeDee’s,” I cut in, “it was because you were sick. It wasn’t just a visit like you told me?”

Poppy nodded and I saw the guilt in her green eyes. “I knew you, Rune. And I saw you were slipping. You were always sullen in attitude. You were always darker in nature. But when you were with me, you weren’t. I could only imagine what finding out I was sick would do to you.”

Poppy’s head gently fell back to rest on my chest. “It wasn’t long before I received my diagnosis: advanced Hodgkin lymphoma. It rocked my family. At first, it rocked me. How could it not?” I held her closer, but Poppy inched back. “Rune, I know I’ve never looked at the world like everyone else. I have always lived each day to the fullest. I know I’ve always embraced aspects of the world no one else does. I think, in some way, it was because I knew I wouldn’t have the time to experience them like everyone else. I think, deep down, my spirit knew. Because when the doctor told us I would only have a couple of years, even with medication and treatment, I was okay.”

Poppy’s eyes began to shine with tears. Mine did too.

“We all stayed in Atlanta; we lived with Aunt DeeDee. Ida and Savannah started new schools. Daddy traveled for his work. I was home-schooled, or tutored in hospital. My mama and daddy prayed for a miracle. But I knew there was none to be had. I was okay. I kept my chin up. The chemo was hard. Losing my hair was tough.” Poppy blinked, clearing her vision, then confided, “But cutting you off almost killed me. It was my choice. The blame lies with me. I just wanted to save you, Rune. Save you from seeing me that way. I saw what it was doing to my parents and sisters. But you, I could protect. I could give you what my family didn’t get, life. Freedom. The chance to move on without pain.”

“It didn’t work,” I managed to say.

Poppy lowered her gaze. “I know that now. But believe me, Rune. I thought of you every single day. I pictured you, prayed for you. Hoped that the darkness I saw sprouting within you had faded with my absence.”

Poppy rested her chin on my chest once more. “Tell me, Rune. Tell me what happened to you.”

My jaw clenched, not wanting to let myself feel what I did then. But I could never say no to my girl. It was impossible. “I was angry,” I said, pushing her hair from her pretty face. “No one could tell me where you went. Why you cut me off. My parents wouldn’t get off my back. My pappa pissed me off 24/7. I blamed him for everything. I still do.”

Poppy opened her mouth to speak, but I shook my head. “No,” I bit out. “Don’t.”

Poppy closed her mouth. I closed my eyes, and forced myself to continue. “I went to school, but it wasn’t long before I fell in with people just as pissed at the world as me. It wasn’t long before I began to party. To drink, to smoke—to do the opposite of anything my pappa told me.”

“Rune,” Poppy said sadly. She didn’t say anything else.

“That became my life. I threw my camera away. Then I packed away everything that reminded me of you.” I barked out a laugh. “Shame I couldn’t pull out my heart and pack it away too. Because that prick wouldn’t let me forget you, no matter how much I tried. And then we returned. Back here. And I saw you in the hallway and all that anger I still carried in my veins turned into a tidal wave.”

I rolled onto my side, opened my eyes and ran my hand down Poppy’s face. “Because you looked so beautiful. Any image I had in my head of what you would look like at seventeen was blown out of the water. The minute I saw this brown hair, those big green eyes fixed on mine, I knew that any effort I’d made over the past two years to push you away was ruined. By one look. Ruined.”

I swallowed. “Then when you told me about…” I trailed off, and Poppy shook her head.

“No,” she said. “Enough now. You’ve said enough.”

“And you?” I asked. “Why did you come back?”

“Because I was done,” she said with a sigh. “Nothing was working. Each new treatment made no difference. The oncologist told us straight out: nothing would work. That was all I needed to make up my mind. I wanted to go home. I wanted to live out my remaining days at home, on palliative treatment, with those I loved most.”

Poppy shuffled closer, kissing my cheek, my head and, finally, my mouth. “And now I have you. As I know now it was meant to be. This is where we were meant to be at this precise moment in time—home.”

I felt a stray tear escape my eye. Poppy quickly brushed it away with her thumb. She leaned over me, across my chest and said, “I have come to understand that death, for the sick, is not so hard to endure. For us, eventually, our pain ends, we go to a better place. But for those left behind, their pain only magnifies.”

Poppy took my hand and held it to her cheek. “I really believe that tales of loss don’t always have to be sad or sorrowful. I want mine to be remembered as a great adventure that I tried to live as best as I possibly could. Because how dare we waste a single breath? How dare we waste something so precious? Instead, we should strive for all those precious breaths to be taken in as many precious moments as we can squeeze into this short time on Earth. That’s the message I want to leave behind. And what a beautiful legacy to leave for those I love.”

If, as Poppy believed, a heartbeat was a song, then right now, in this moment, my heart would be singing with pride … of the complete admiration I had for the girl I loved, at the way she saw life, at the way she tried to make me believe—make me believe that there could be a life beyond her.

I was sure that wasn’t the case, but I could see that Poppy was determined. That determination never failed.

“So now you know,” Poppy declared and rested her head on my chest. “Now, let’s say no more about it. We have our future to explore. We won’t be slaves to the past.” I closed my eyes, and she pleaded, “Promise me, Rune?”

Finding my voice, I whispered, “I promise.”

I fought back the emotions slicing me inside. I wouldn’t show her any sign that I was sad. She would see only happiness from me today.

Poppy’s breathing evened out as I stroked her hair. The warm breeze flowed over us, taking with it the heaviness that had surrounded us.

I let myself begin to drift off, thinking Poppy had too, when she murmured, “What do you think heaven’s like, Rune?”

I tensed, but Poppy’s hands began to circle over my chest, ridding my body of the heaviness her question brought back.

“I don’t know,” I said. Poppy didn’t offer anything, just stayed exactly where she was. Shifting slightly to bring her tighter into my arms, I said, “Somewhere beautiful. Somewhere peaceful. Somewhere where I’d see you again.”

I felt Poppy smile against my shirt. “Me too,” she agreed softly and turned to kiss my chest.

This time I was sure Poppy slept. I looked across the sand and watched as an old couple sat down near us. Their hands were clasped tightly. Before the woman could sit, the man spread a blanket on the sand. He kissed her cheek before helping her to sit down.

A pang of jealousy shot through me. Because we would never have that.

Poppy and I would never grow old together. Never have kids. Never have a wedding. Nothing. But as I glanced down at Poppy’s thick brown hair and her delicate hands splayed on my chest, I let myself be grateful that at least I had her now. I didn’t know what lay ahead. But I had her now.

I’d had her since I was five.

I now realized why I had loved her so hard from being so young—so I had this time with her. Poppy believed her spirit always knew she’d die young. I was starting to think that maybe mine did too.

Over an hour passed. Poppy was still sleeping. I gently lifted her from my chest and sat up. The sun had moved; waves lapped the shore.

Feeling thirsty, I opened the picnic basket and pulled out one of the bottles of water Poppy had packed. As I drank, my eyes rested on the backpack Poppy had carried from the trunk.

Wondering what was inside, I hauled it over and gently opened the zipper. At first all I saw was another black bag. This bag was padded. I pulled it out and my heart kicked into a sprint when I realized what I was holding.

I sighed and closed my eyes.

I lowered the bag to the blanket and rubbed my hands over my face. When I lifted my head, I opened my eyes and blankly stared out over the water. I watched the boats in the distance, Poppy’s words filtering into my mind…

I think they’re leaving it all behind. I think they woke up one day and decided there’s more to life. I think they decided—a couple in love, a boy and a girl—that they wanted to explore the world. They sold their possessions and bought a boat … She loves to play music, and he loves to capture moments on film…

My eyes left the camera bag that I knew so well. I understood where she got her theory about the boats.

He loves to capture moments on film…

I tried to be angry with her. I gave up taking pictures two years ago; it wasn’t who I was anymore. It was no longer my dream. NYU wasn’t in my plans. I didn’t want to pick the camera back up. But my fingers began to twitch, and, despite being pissed at myself, I lifted the lid off the case and peered inside.

The old black-and-chrome vintage Canon that I had treasured stared up at me. I felt my face blanch, the blood moving to rush through to my heart, which slammed against my ribs. I had thrown this camera away. I had discarded it and all that it meant.

I had no idea how the hell Poppy had gotten hold of it. I wondered if she’d tracked down another and bought it. I lifted it from the bag and turned it over. There, scratched into the back, was my name. I had scraped it there on my thirteenth birthday, when my mamma and pappa gave me this camera.

It was the exact one.

Poppy had found my camera.

Flipping the back, I saw a full roll of film inside. In the bag lay the lenses. The ones I knew so well. Despite the years, I still instinctively knew which one would work best for any given shot—landscape, portrait, nighttime, daylight, natural setting, studio…

Hearing a soft rustle from behind me, I glanced over my shoulder. Poppy was sitting, watching me. Her eyes fell to the camera. Nervously inching forward, she said, “I asked your pappa about it. Where it had gone. He told me that you threw it away.” Poppy’s head tilted to the side. “You never knew, and he never told you, but he found it. He saw you had thrown it away. You had broken parts of it. The lenses were cracked, and other things.” I was clenching my jaw so tightly it ached.

Poppy’s finger traced the back of my hand that was resting in the blanket. “He had it repaired without you knowing. He’s kept it safe for the past couple of years. He’s kept up hope that you would find your way back to photography. He knew how much you loved it. He also blames himself for the fact that you gave it up.”

My instinct was to open my mouth and hiss out that it was his fault. Everything was. But I didn’t. For some reason the twist in my stomach kept my mouth shut.

Poppy’s eyes glistened. “You should have seen him last night, when I asked him about it. He was so emotional, Rune. Even your mamma didn’t know he’d kept it. He even had reels of film ready. Just in case you ever wanted it back.”

I averted my gaze from Poppy’s, instead re-focusing on the camera. I didn’t know how to feel about all that. I tried for angry. But, to my surprise, anger refused to come. For some reason I couldn’t get the image from my head, of my pappa cleaning the camera and getting it fixed, on his own.

“He even has the darkroom ready and waiting for you, at your house.” I closed my eyes when Poppy added the last part. I was silent. Completely silent in response. My head was racing with too many thoughts, too many images. And I was conflicted. I had vowed never to take another picture.

But vowing it had been one thing. Holding the object of my addiction in my hands compromised everything I had sworn to fight against. To rebel against. To throw away, just like my pappa had cast aside my feelings when he chose to return to Oslo. The pit of heat in my stomach began to spread. This was the anger I anticipated. This was the blast of fire I was expecting.

I inhaled deeply, bracing for the darkness to overwhelm me, when, suddenly, Poppy jumped to her feet. “I’m going to the water,” she announced and walked past me without another word. I watched her walk off. I watched her sink her feet into the soft sand, the breeze flicking up her short hair. I stayed, mesmerized, as she skipped to the water’s edge, allowing the breaking waves to lap over her feet. She held her dress higher on her legs to avoid the splashes.

Her head tipped back to feel the sun on her face. Then, she glanced back to where I sat. She glanced back and she laughed. Free, without abandon, like she had no cares in the world.

I was transfixed, even more so when a reflected ray of sun from the sea cast a golden sheen on the side of her face, her green eyes emerald in this new light.

I lost my breath, actually fought for breath at how stunning she looked. Before I had even thought it through, I had my camera in my hand. I felt the weight transfer into my hands, and closing my eyes, I let the urge succeed.

Opening my eyes, I lifted the camera to my eye. Uncapping the lens, I found the most perfect angle of my girl dancing in the waves.

And I clicked.

I clicked the button on the camera, my heart stuttering at every snap of the shutter, sure in the knowledge that I was capturing Poppy in this moment—happy.

Adrenalin surged through me at the thought of how these pictures would develop. It was why I used the vintage camera. The anticipation of the darkroom, the delayed gratification of seeing the wonder that you had caught. The skill it took to work the camera to achieve that perfect shot.

A split second of serenity.

A moment of magic.

Poppy, in her own world, ran along the shore, her cheeks flushing pink with the warmth of the sun. Lifting her hands into the air, Poppy let the hem of her dress fall and dampen with splashes from the water.

Then she turned to face me. As she did, she grew perfectly still, as did my heart in my chest. My finger waited, poised over the button, waiting for the right shot. And then it came. It came as a look of pure bliss spread across her face. It came as her eyes closed and her head tilted back, as if it were a relief, as if uncensored happiness possessed her.

I lowered the camera. Poppy held out her hand. Feeling high from the rush of having my passion sprung upon me, I jumped to my feet and walked across the sand.

When I took Poppy’s hand, she pulled me close and pressed her lips on mine. I let her take the lead. I let her show me how much this meant to her. This moment. And I let myself feel it too. I allowed myself, for this brief moment, to push aside the heaviness I always carried like a shield. I allowed myself to get lost in the kiss, lifting the camera up high. Even with my eyes closed and no direction, I was convinced I had captured the best picture of the day.

Poppy stepped back and silently guided me back to the blanket, sitting us down, resting her head on my shoulder. I lifted my arm over her warm, sun-kissed shoulders and pulled her in close to my side. Poppy glanced up as I lazily placed a kiss to her head. When I met her eyes, I sighed and pressed my forehead to hers.

“You’re welcome,” she whispered, as she looked away to stare out over the sea.

I hadn’t felt like this in so long. I hadn’t felt this peace inside since before we parted. And I was thankful to Poppy.

More than thankful.

Suddenly a quiet, awed gasp escaped Poppy’s mouth. “Look, Rune,” she whispered pointing into the distance. I wondered what she wanted me to see, then she said, “Our footprints in the sand.” She lifted her head and smiled a beaming smile. “Two sets. Four prints. Just like the poem.”

I pulled my eyebrows down in confusion. Poppy’s hand lay over my bent knee. With her head tucked under the shelter of my arm, she explained. “It’s my favorite poem, Rune. It was my mamaw’s favorite too.”

“What does it say?” I asked, smiling slightly at the tiny size of Poppy’s footprint next to my own.

“It’s beautiful. And it’s spiritual, so I’m not sure what you’ll think of it.” Poppy sent me a teasing look.

“Tell me anyway,” I urged, just to hear her voice. Just to hear that reverence in her tone when she shared something she adored.

“It’s more of a story really. About someone who has a dream. In the dream they are on a beach just like this. But they’re walking beside the Lord.”

My eyes narrowed and Poppy rolled her eyes. “I told you it was spiritual!” she said, laughing.

“You did,” I replied, and nudged her head with my chin. “Keep going.”

Poppy sighed, and with her finger, she traced lazy patterns in the sand. My heart kind of cracked when I saw it was another infinity sign.

“As they’re walking on the beach, in the dark sky above the person’s life is played out for them to see. As each scene is played, like a movie reel, the person notices that two sets of footprints were left in the sand behind them. And as they continued, every new scene brought with it a trail of their footprints.”

Poppy’s attention honed in on our footprints. “When all the scenes had been played, the person looks back on the trail of footprints and notices something strange. They notice that during the saddest, or most despairing times of their life, there was only one set of footprints. For happier times there was always two sets.”

My eyebrows furrowed, wondering where the story was headed. Poppy lifted her chin and blinked in the bright glare of the sun. With watery eyes, she looked at me and continued. “The person is really troubled by this. The Lord said that, when a person dedicates their life to Him, He would walk with them through all the ups and downs. The person then asked the Lord: why, at the worst points of their life, did He abandon them? Why did He leave?”

An expression of deep comfort washed over Poppy’s face. “And what?” I prompted. “What does the Lord say?”

A single tear fell from her eye. “He tells the person that He had walked with them their whole life through. But, He explains, the times where there is only a single set of footprints were not when He walked beside them, but instead, when He carried them.”

Poppy sniffed and said, “I don’t care if you’re not religious, Rune. The poem is not only for the faithful. We all have people who carry us through the worst of times, the saddest of times, the times that seem impossible to break free from. In one way or another, whether it’s through the Lord or a loved one or both, when we feel like we can’t walk on anymore, someone swoops in to help us … someone carries us through.”

Poppy rested her head on my chest, wrapping herself up in my waiting arms.

My eyes got lost in a blurred haze as I stared at our footprints embedded in the sand. At that moment, I wasn’t sure who was helping who. Because as much as Poppy insinuated that it was me who was helping her through her final months, I was beginning to believe that she was somehow saving me.

A single set of footprints on my soul.

Poppy shifted to face me, her cheeks wet with tears. Happy tears. Awed tears … Poppy tears. “Isn’t it beautiful, Rune? Isn’t it the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard?”

I just nodded. Right now wasn’t the time for words. I couldn’t compete with what she’d just recited, so why would I even try?

I let my focus drift around the beach. And I wondered … I wondered if anyone else had just heard something so moving that it rocked their very core? I wondered if the person they loved more than any other on the planet had opened up to them so purely, with such raw emotion?

“Rune?” Poppy said quietly from beside me.

“Yeah, baby?” I replied softly. She turned her pretty face to me and cast me a weak smile. “You okay?” I asked, grazing my hand down her face.

“I’m getting tired,” she admitted, reluctantly. My heart cracked. Over the past week, I had begun to see tiredness gradually creeping into her face when she’d done too much.

And worse still, I could see how much she hated it. Because it prevented her from enjoying all life’s adventures.

“It’s okay to be tired, Poppymin. It’s not a weakness.”

Poppy’s eyes dipped in defeat. “I just hate it. I’ve always been of the opinion that sleep is a waste of time.”

I laughed at the cute pout that had formed on her lips. Poppy watched me, waiting for me to speak. Sobering, I said, “The way I see it, if you sleep when you need to, it means we can do more when you’re strong.” I brushed the tip of my nose over hers and said, “Our adventures will be that much more special. And you know I like you sleeping in my arms. I’ve always thought you look kind of perfect there.”

Poppy sighed, and with one last glance at the sea, whispered, “Only you, Rune Kristiansen. Only you could give reason to my biggest hate so beautifully.”

Kissing her warm cheek, I stood and gathered our things. When everything was packed, I looked over my shoulder at the pier, then back at Poppy. Holding out my hand, I said, “Come on, sleepyhead. For old times’ sake?”

Poppy looked at the pier and an unrestrained giggle leapt from her throat. I pulled her to standing, and we walked slowly, hand in hand, underneath the pier. The hypnotic sounds of the soft waves crashing against the old wooden beams cocooned where we stood.

Without wasting any time, I crowded Poppy back against the wooden post, cupping her cheeks and bringing our lips together. My eyes closed as the warm skin of her cheeks heated up under my palms. My chest heaved, breathless, as our lips kissed, slow and deep, while the cooling breeze rushed through Poppy’s hair.

Pulling away, I rolled my lips, savoring the taste of sun and cherries bursting on my mouth.

Poppy’s eyes fluttered open. Seeing how tired she appeared, I whispered for her, “Kiss four hundred and thirty-three. With Poppymin under the pier.” Poppy smiled shyly, waiting for what had to come next. “My heart almost burst.” The hint of teeth showing under her smile almost did make it burst, making it the perfect time to add, “Because I love her. I love her more than I could ever explain. My single set of footprints in the sand.”

Poppy’s beautiful green eyes widened at my confession. They immediately shimmered, and tears spilled over and tracked down her cheeks. I tried to brush them away with my fingers as my heart pounded in my chest. But Poppy gripped my hand, softly nuzzling her cheek into my palm. Keeping my hand in place, she met my eyes and whispered back, “I love you too, Rune Kristiansen. I never, ever stopped.” She rose on tiptoes and brought my face down to stay opposite hers. “My soul mate. My heart…”

A calmness settled over me. A restfulness, as Poppy fell into my arms, her light breathing seeping through my shirt.

I held her. I held her close, embracing this new feeling, until Poppy yawned. I tilted her head up to mine and said, “Let’s get you home, beautiful.”

Poppy nodded and, folding herself to my side, let me walk her back to our things, then up to the car. Reaching into the pocket of her purse, I took the car keys and opened the passenger-side door.

Placing both hands on her waist, I lifted her to the seat, reaching across her to click the seatbelt into the socket. As I pulled back, I placed a gentle kiss on Poppy’s head. I heard her breathing hitch at my touch. I went to straighten up, when Poppy took hold of my arm, and with thick tears on her cheeks, whispered, “I’m sorry, Rune. I’m so sorry.”

“What for, baby?” I asked, my voice breaking at how sad she sounded.

I pushed her hair back from her face, as she said, “For pushing you away.”

My stomach hollowed out. Poppy’s eyes searched for something in mine, before her face contorted in pain. Fat tears poured down her paling face and her chest shuddered as she fought to calm her suddenly erratic breathing.

“Hey,” I said, planting my hands on her cheeks.

Poppy looked up at me. “We could have been like this if I hadn’t been silly. We could have found a way for you to come back. You could have been with me the whole time. With me. Holding me … loving me. You loving me and me loving you so fiercely.” Her voice stuttered, but she managed to finish. “I’m a thief. I stole our precious time—two years of you and me—for nothing.”

It felt like my heart physically tore as Poppy cried, gripping tightly to my arm as if frightened I would turn away. How had she not realized by now that nothing could tear me away?

“Shh,” I soothed, moving my head to rest against hers. “Breathe, baby,” I said softly. I placed Poppy’s hand over my heart, as she locked her gaze on mine. “Breathe,” I repeated and smiled as she followed the rhythm of my heart to calm herself.

I wiped her damp cheeks with my hands, melting when she sniffed, her chest jerking every so often through the sobs she’d set free. Seeing I had her attention, I said, “I won’t take the apology, because there’s nothing to apologize for. You told me that the past no longer matters. That it’s these moments that are important now.” I steeled my emotions, to say, “Our final adventure. Me, giving you chest-bursting kisses to complete your jar. And you … you just being you. Loving me. Me loving you. For infinity…” I trailed off.

I stared intently and patiently into Poppy’s eyes, smiling wide when she added, “Forever always.”

I closed my eyes, knowing I’d broken through her pain. Then when my eyes opened, Poppy giggled hoarsely.

“There she is.” I pressed one kiss onto each of the apples of her cheeks.

“Here I am,” she echoed, “so completely in love with you.”

Poppy lifted her head and kissed me. When she lay back in the seat, her eyes closed, called by sleep. I watched her for a second, before moving to shut the door. Just as the door closed, I caught Poppy whispering, “Kiss four hundred and thirty-four, with my Rune at the beach … when his love came home.”

I could see through the window that Poppy had already drifted to sleep. Her cheeks were red from crying but, even in sleep, her lips were tilted upward, giving the appearance of a smile.

I wasn’t sure how someone so perfect even existed.

Moving around to the hood of the car, I pulled my smokes out of the back pocket of my jeans and struck the lighter. I inhaled a much-needed drag. I closed my eyes as the hit of nicotine calmed me down.

I opened my eyes and stared at the sunset. The sun was fading on the horizon, flashes of orange and pink in its wake. The beach was almost empty but for the old couple I had seen before.

Only this time when I watched them, still so in love after all these years, I didn’t let myself feel grief. As I glanced back at Poppy sleeping in the car, I felt a … happiness. Me. I felt happy. I let myself feel happy even through all this hurt. Because … here I am … so completely in love with you…

She loved me.

Poppymin. My girl. She loved me.

“That’s enough,” I said to the wind. “That’s enough for right now.”

Throwing the smoke’s butt to the ground, I quietly slid into the driver’s seat and turned the key. The engine sprang to life and I drove away from the beach, sure we’d be here again.

And if we didn’t, like Poppy said, we’d had this moment. We had this memory. She had her kiss.

And I had her love.

 

* * *

 

When I pulled into her driveway, dusk had fallen, the stars beginning to wake. Poppy had slept all the way home, her light, rhythmic breathing a comforting sound as I drove us down the dark roads toward home.

Putting the car in park, I got out and walked around to her side. I opened the door as quietly as I could, undoing the seatbelt and scooping Poppy into my arms.

She felt as if she weighed nothing as she instinctively curled into my chest, her warm breath drifting over my neck. I walked to her door. As I reached the top step, the front door opened. Mr. Litchfield was standing in the hallway.

I continued forward and he moved out of my way, allowing me to carry Poppy to her bedroom. I saw Poppy’s mama and sisters sitting in the living room, watching TV.

Her mama got to her feet. “Is she okay?” she whispered.

I nodded. “She’s just tired.”

Mrs. Litchfield leaned forward and kissed Poppy’s forehead. “Sleep tight, baby,” she whispered. My chest tightened at the sight, then she nodded for me to take Poppy to her room.

I walked her down the hallway and through to her bedroom. As gently as I could, I placed her on her bed, smiling when Poppy’s arm naturally searched for me on the side of the bed in which I slept.

When Poppy’s breathing had evened out once again, I sat down on the side of her bed and ran my hand down her face. Leaning forward, I kissed her soft cheek and whispered, “I love you, Poppymin. Forever always.”

Rising from the bed, I froze when I caught sight of Mr. Litchfield in the doorway, watching … listening.

My jaw clenched as he stared me down. Inhaling a calming breath through my nose, I walked silently past him, down the hallway and back out to the car to get my camera.

I returned to the house to leave the car keys on the table in the hallway. As I entered, Mr. Litchfield walked from the living room. I stopped, rocking awkwardly until he reached out his hand for the keys.

I dropped them in his hand and went to turn to walk away. Before I could, he asked, “Did y’all have a good time?”

My shoulders tensed. Forcing myself to respond, I met his eyes and nodded. Throwing a wave to Mrs. Litchfield, Ida and Savannah, I walked out the door and down the steps. As I reached the bottom step, I heard, “She loves you too, you know.”

Mr. Litchfield’s voice brought my feet to a stop, and without looking back, I replied, “I know.”

I crossed the grass to my house. I went straight to my room and tossed the camera onto the bed. I intended to wait out the next few hours before I went to Poppy. But the more I stared at the camera bag, the more I wanted to see how the photos had turned out.

The pictures of Poppy dancing in the sea.

Without giving myself the chance to walk away, I grabbed the camera and sneaked down to the darkroom in the basement. As I reached the door and turned the knob, I flicked on the light. I sighed, a strange feeling settling within me.

Because Poppy had been right. My pappa had prepared this room for me. My equipment was exactly where it would have been two years ago. The lines and pegs were ready and waiting.

The process of developing the pictures felt as if I’d never been away. I enjoyed the familiarity of each step. Nothing was forgotten, like I had been born with the ability to do this.

Like I had been given this gift. Poppy recognized that I had needed this in my life, when I was too blinded by the past to see it.

The smell of the chemicals hit my nose. An hour passed, and I eventually stood back, the pictures on their pegs forming into shapes, second by second revealing the moment caught on film.

The red light didn’t stop me from seeing the wonders that I’d captured. As I walked along the lines of hanging images, of life in its glory, I couldn’t stave off the excitement burning in my chest. I couldn’t stop the smile—for this work—playing on my lips.

Then I stopped.

I stopped at a picture that held me captive. Poppy, holding on to the hem of her dress, dancing in the shallow water. Poppy, with a carefree smile and windblown hair, laughing wholeheartedly. Her eyes bright and her skin flushed as she looked over her shoulder, right at me. The sun lighting her face in an angle so pure and beautiful it was as if it was a spotlight on her happiness, attracted by her magnetic joy.

I lifted my hand, keeping it a centimeter away from the picture, and traced my finger over her beaming face, over her soft lips and rosy cheeks. And I felt it. Felt the overwhelming passion for this craft burst back to life inside me. This picture. This one picture cemented what I had secretly known all along.

I was meant to do this with my life.

It made sense that this picture brought this message home—it was of the girl that was my home. A knock sounded at the door, and without taking my gaze from the picture, I answered, “Ja?

The door opened slowly. I felt who it was before I looked. My pappa entered the darkroom, by only a few steps. I looked at him, but I had to turn away again at the expression on his face, as he drank in all the pictures hanging from the pegs across the room.

I didn’t want to confront what that feeling in my stomach meant. Not yet.

Minutes passed by in silence, before my pappa said softly, “She’s absolutely beautiful, son.” My chest constricted when I saw his eyes on the photo that I was still standing before.

I didn’t respond. My pappa stood awkwardly in the doorway, saying nothing else. Finally, he moved to leave. As he went to shut the door, I forced myself to say a sharp, “Thank you … for the camera.”

In my peripheral vision, I saw my pappa pause. I heard a slow, ragged intake of breath, then he replied, “You have nothing to thank me for, son. Nothing at all.”

With that he left me in my darkroom.

I stayed longer than I intended, replaying my pappa’s response in my mind.

Clutching two photographs in my hands, I climbed the steps of the basement and headed for my room. As I passed the open door of Alton’s bedroom, I saw him sitting on his bed, watching TV.

He hadn’t seen me, standing there in his doorway, and I carried on to my room. But as I heard him laugh at whatever he was watching, my feet stuck to the floor, and I made myself turn back.

As I entered his room, Alton turned to me, and in a move that made me feel a crack in my chest, the biggest smile spread on his cute face.

Hei, Rune,” he said quietly, and he sat further up in bed.

Hei,” I replied. I walked toward his bed and nodded toward the TV. “What are you watching?”

Alton looked at the TV, then back to me. “Swamp Monsters.” His head tipped to the side, and then he pushed his long hair from his face. Something in my stomach tugged as he did. “You want to watch it with me for a while?” Alton asked nervously, then dropped his head.

I could tell he thought I would say no. Surprising both him and myself, I replied, “Sure.”

Alton’s blue eyes widened to the size of saucers. He lay stiffly on his bed. When I stepped forward, he shuffled to the side of the narrow mattress.

I lay down beside him, kicking up my feet. Then Alton leaned against my side and continued watching his show. I watched it with him, only looking away when I caught him staring up at me.

When I met his eyes, his cheeks flushed with red and he said, “I like you watching this with me, Rune.”

Breathing through the unfamiliar feeling his words brought out, I ruffled his long hair and replied, “Me too, Alt. I like this too.”

Alton leaned back against my side. He lay there until he fell asleep, the timer on his TV kicking in and plunging the room into darkness.

Rising off the bed, I passed my mamma, who had been watching silently from the hallway. I nodded my head at her as I entered my room, turning and shutting the door behind me. I flipped the lock, placed one of the photos on the desk, and climbed through my window and ran across to Poppy’s.

When I entered her room, Poppy was still sleeping. Taking off my shirt, I walked around the side of her bed to where she slept. I placed the photo of us kissing by the water on her pillow, for her to see as soon as she woke up.

I climbed into her bed, Poppy automatically finding me in the dark, laying her head against my chest and wrapping her arm around my waist.

Four footprints in the sand.


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