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A Thousand Boy Kisses: Chapter 12

Heart Songs & Beauty Found

Poppy

 

I thought I had felt a breeze through my hair before. But nothing compared to the breeze that whipped through my tresses at the top of the Empire State Building.

I thought I’d been kissed in every way there was to be kissed. But nothing compared to Rune’s kisses under the fairy-tale castle in Central Park. To his kiss in the crown of the Statue of Liberty. In the center of Times Square, the bright lights flashing as people rushed around us like they had no time left in the world.

People were always rushing even though they had plenty of time. Although I had very little, I made sure everything I did was slow. Measured. Meaningful. I made sure to savor any new experience. To take a deep breath and drink in every new sight, smell and sound.

To simply stop. Breathe. Embrace.

Rune’s kisses varied. They were slow and soft, gentle and feather-light. Then they were hard, fast and ravishing. Both left me breathless. Both made it into the jar.

More kisses sewn onto my heart.

After eating a late lunch at the Stardust Diner, somewhere I decided may just be my third-favorite place on Earth, I led Rune outside and around the corner.

“Is it my turn now?” I asked, as Rune took hold of my collar and pulled it close around my neck. Rune checked his watch. I eyed him curiously, wondering why he kept checking the time. Rune saw me watching him in suspicion.

Wrapping his arms around me, he replied, “You have the next couple of hours, then it’s back to my schedule.”

I scrunched my nose at his strict attitude and playfully stuck out my tongue. Heat flared in Rune’s eyes as I did. He dived forward and pressed his mouth to my lips, his tongue immediately stroking against mine. I squealed and held on tight as he dipped me back, before breaking the kiss.

“Don’t tempt me,” he said teasingly. But I still saw that heat in his eyes. My heart skipped a beat. Since Rune had been back in my life, we had done nothing more than kiss. Kiss and talk, and hold each other so impossibly close. He never pushed for more, but as the weeks had rolled on, I had begun to want to give myself to him again.

Memories of our night, two years ago, ran like a show reel in my mind. The scenes were so vivid, so filled with love, that my lungs seized. Because I still remembered that look in his eyes when he moved above me. I still remembered the way his eyes watched mine. The way heat flooded through me as I felt him, so warm, in my arms.

And I remembered his gentle touches on my face, my hair and my lips. But best of all, I remembered his face in the afterglow. The incomparable expression of adoration. The look that told me that, though we were young, what we had done had changed us forever.

Joined us in body, mind and soul.

Truly made us infinity.

Forever always.

“Where are we going, Poppymin?” Rune asked, pulling me from my reverie. He held the back of his hand against my burning cheek. “You’re hot,” he said, his accent strong, the perfect sound running through me like a cool breeze.

“I’m fine,” I said coyly. Taking his hand, I tried to lead him down the street. Rune pulled on my hand and made me face his concern head on.

“Poppy—”

“I’m fine,” I interrupted, pursing my lips so he would know I meant it.

Groaning in exasperation, Rune slung his arm around my shoulder and led me forward. I searched for the street name and block, working out where to go from here.

“Are you going to tell me what we’re doing?” Rune asked.

Ensuring we were heading in the right direction, I shook my head. Rune pressed a kiss to the side of my head as he lit up a cigarette. As he smoked, I took the opportunity to look around me. I loved New York. I loved everything about it. Eclectic people—artists, suits and dreamers—all woven into the giant patchwork quilt of life. The busy streets, car horns and shouts the perfect symphonic soundtrack to the city that never sleeps.

I breathed in the fresh scent of snow on the cold crisp air and hugged closer into Rune’s chest. “We would do this,” I said and smiled, briefly closing my eyes.

“What?” Rune asked, the now-familiar scent of his cigarette smoke billowing before us.

“This,” I said, “Us, walking down Broadway. We would walk the city, heading to meet friends, to our schools or our apartment.” I nudged his arm over my shoulder. “You would hold me just like this and we would talk. You’d tell me about your day and I’d tell you about mine.” I smiled at the normalcy of the picture. Because I didn’t need grand gestures or fairy tales; a normal life with the boy I loved would have always been enough.

Even in this moment, it was worth everything.

Rune didn’t say anything. I had learned that when I spoke like this, so candidly about things that would never come to pass, Rune found it best to say nothing at all. And it was okay. I understood why he had to protect his already-breaking heart.

If I could protect it for him I would, but I was the cause.

I just prayed, to all that was good, that I could also be the remedy.

Seeing the banner on the old building, I looked up at Rune and said, “We’re nearly there.”

Rune looked around in confusion, and I was glad. I didn’t want him to see where we were. I didn’t want him to be angry at a gesture kindly meant. I didn’t want him to hurt at being forced to see the future that could be his.

I steered Rune left toward a building. Rune threw his finished cigarette to the ground and took my hand in his. Walking to the register, I asked for our tickets.

Rune pushed my hand from my purse when I tried to pay. He paid, not yet knowing where we were. I reached up and kissed him on the cheek. “Such a gentleman,” I teased, and watched as he rolled his eyes.

“I’m not sure your daddy thinks that way about me.”

I couldn’t contain my laugh. As I giggled freely, Rune stopped and watched me, holding out his hand. I placed mine in his and let him pull me to him. His mouth landed just above my ear and he said, “Why is it when you laugh like that I desperately need to take your picture?”

I looked up, my laughter fading. “Because you capture all aspects of the human condition—the good, the bad, the truth.” I shrugged and added, “Because despite how much you protest and exude an aura of darkness, you strive for happiness, you wish to be happy.”

“Poppy.” Rune turned his head. As always, he didn’t want to embrace the truth, but it was there, locked deep in his heart. All he had ever wanted was to be happy—just him and me.

For me, I wanted him to learn to be happy alone. Even though I would walk beside him every day in his heart.

“Rune,” I urged softly. “Please come with me.”

Rune stared at my outstretched hand, before relenting and clasping our hands tightly together. Even then he stared at our joined hands with a hint of pain behind his guarded eyes.

Bringing those hands to my lips, I kissed the back of his hand and brought them to my cheek. Rune exhaled through his nose. Finally, he pulled me under the protection of his arm. Wrapping my arm around his waist, I led him through the double doors, revealing the show on the other side.

We were greeted with a vast, open space, famous pictures framed by the high walls. Rune stilled, and I looked up just in time to see his surprised yet impassioned reaction on seeing his dream showcased before him. An exhibition of pictures that had shaped our time.

Pictures that had changed the world.

Perfectly captured moments in time.

Rune’s chest expanded slowly as he inhaled deeply, then exhaled with guarded calmness. He glanced down at me and opened his lips. Not a sound came out. Not a single word formed.

Rubbing my hand across his chest, under the camera that was hanging around his neck, I said, “I found out this exhibition was on last night and wanted you to see it. It’ll be here for the year, but I wanted to be here, with you, in this moment. I … I wanted to share this with you.”

Rune blinked, his expression neutral. The only reaction he displayed was the clenching of his jaw. I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing.

Slipping from below his arm, I loosely held his fingers. Consulting the guidebook, I brought us to the first picture in the exhibition. I smiled, seeing the sailor in the center of Times Square dipping the nurse back to kiss her on the lips. “New York City. August 14, 1945. V-J Day in Times Square by Alfred Eisenstaedt,” I read. And I felt the lightness and the excitement of the celebration through the image displayed before me. I felt I was there, sharing that moment with all who were there.

I looked up at Rune, and I saw him studying the picture. His expression hadn’t changed, but I saw his jaw slacken as his head tilted slightly to one side.

His fingers twitched in mine.

I smiled again.

He wasn’t immune. And no matter how much he resisted, he loved this. I could feel it as easily as I could feel the snow hit my skin outside. I led him to the second picture. My eyes widened as I took in the dramatic sight. Tanks rolling forward in convoy, a man standing directly in their path. I quickly read the information, heart racing. “Tiananmen Square, Beijing. June 5, 1989. This picture captured one man’s protest to stop the military suppression of continuing protests against the Chinese government.

I stepped closer to the picture. I swallowed. “It’s sad,” I said to Rune. Rune nodded his head.

Every new picture seemed to evoke a different emotion. Looking at these captured moments I truly understood why Rune loved to take photographs. This exhibition demonstrated how capturing these images impacted society. They showed humanity at its best and at its worst.

They highlighted life in all its nakedness and in its purest form.

When we stopped at the next picture, I immediately glanced away, unable to look properly. A vulture patiently waiting, hovering over an emaciated child. The image immediately made me feel full of sorrow.

I moved to walk away, but Rune stepped closer to the image. My head snapped up and I watched him. I watched him study every part of the picture. I watched as his eyes flared and his hands clenched at his side.

His passion had broken through.

Finally.

“This picture is one of the most controversial pictures ever taken,” he informed me quietly, still focused on the image. “The photographer was covering the famine in Africa. As he was taking his pictures, he saw this child walking for help, and this vulture waiting by, sensing death.” He took a breath. “This picture showed, in one image, the extent of the famine more than all the previous written reports ever did.” Rune looked at me. “It made people sit up and pay attention. It showed them, in all its brutal severity, how bad the famine had grown.” He pointed back at the child, crouched on the ground. “Because of this picture, aid work increased, the press covered more of the people’s struggles.” He took a deep breath. “It changed their world.”

Not wanting to stop his momentum, we walked to the next one. “Do you know what this one is about?”

Most of the photographs, I struggled to look at. Most were of pain, most were of suffering. But to a photographer, although graphic and heart-wrenchingly difficult to view, they held a certain type of poetic grace. They held a deep and endless message, all captured in a single frame.

“It was a protest—the Vietnam war. A Buddhist monk set himself on fire.” Rune’s head dipped and tipped to the side, studying the angles. “He never flinched. He took the pain to make a statement that peace should be achieved. It highlighted the plight and the futility of that war.”

And the day rolled on, Rune explaining almost every picture. When we reached the final shot, it was a black-and-white picture of a young woman. It was old; her hair and make-up seemed to be from the sixties. She appeared to be around twenty-five in the picture. And she was smiling.

It made me smile too.

I looked to Rune. He shrugged, silently telling me that he didn’t know the picture either. The title simply read, “Esther”. I searched the guidebook for the information, my eyes immediately brimming with water when I read the inspiration. When I read why this picture was here.

“What?” Rune asked, his eyes flashing with worry.

Esther Rubenstein. The late wife of the patron of this exhibition.” I blinked, and finally managed to finish, “Died aged twenty-six, of cancer.” I swallowed the emotion in my throat and stepped closer to Esther’s portrait.

Placed in this exhibition by her husband, who never remarried. He took this picture, and hung it in this exhibition. It reads that even though this picture didn’t change the world, Esther changed his.”

Slow tears trickled down my cheeks. The sentiment was beautiful; the honor was breathtaking.

Wiping my tears away, I glanced back at Rune, who had turned away from the picture. My heart sank. I moved before him. His head was hanging low. I pushed back the hair from his face. The tortured expression that greeted me tore me in two.

“Why did you bring me here?” he asked, through a thick throat.

“Because this is what you love.” I gestured around the room. “Rune, this is NYU Tisch. This is where you wanted to attend. I wanted you to see what you could achieve one day. I wanted you to see what your future could still hold.”

Rune’s eyes closed. When they opened, he caught my stifled yawn. “You’re tired.”

“I’m fine,” I argued, wanting to address this now. But I was tired. I wasn’t sure I could do much more without some rest.

Rune threaded his hand through mine and said, “Let’s go rest before tonight.”

“Rune,” I tried to argue, to talk about this more, but Rune swung around and quietly said, “Poppymin, please. No more.” I could hear the strain in his voice. “New York was our dream. There’s no New York without you. So please…” He trailed off, then sadly whispered, “Stop.”

Not wishing to see him so broken, I nodded. Rune kissed my forehead. This kiss was soft. It was thankful.

We left the exhibition, and Rune hailed a cab. In minutes we were en route back to the hotel. As soon as we got into the suite, Rune lay down with me in his arms.

He didn’t speak as I drifted to sleep. I fell asleep with the image of Esther in my mind, wondering how her husband had healed after she had returned home.

Wondered if he had even healed at all.

 

* * *

 

Poppymin?

Rune’s soft voice called me from sleep. I blinked into the darkness of the room, only to feel Rune’s gentle finger running down my cheek.

“Hey, baby,” he said quietly, when I rolled over to face him. Reaching out, I turned on the lamp. When the light flickered on, I focused on Rune.

A smile tugged on my lips. He wore a tight white t-shirt under a brown blazer. His black skinny jeans were on his legs, familiar black suede boots on his feet. I tugged on the lapels of his blazer. “You’re looking real smart, baby.”

Rune’s lips molded into a half-smile. He leaned forward and took my mouth gently with his. When he pulled back, I noticed his hair was freshly washed and dried. And unlike every other day, today he’d run a comb through it, the golden strands feeling silky between my fingers.

“How’re you feeling?” he asked. I stretched out my arms and legs.

“A little tired and sore from all the walking, but I’m okay.”

Rune’s forehead lined with worry. “You sure? We don’t have to go tonight if you’re not feeling up to it.”

Shuffling further forward on my pillow, I stopped just an inch before Rune’s face and said, “Nothing could keep me from tonight.” I ran my hand down his soft brown blazer. “Especially with you looking all spiffed up. I have no idea what you have planned, but if it got you out of your leather jacket, it must be something real special.”

“I think so,” Rune replied after a pregnant pause.

“Then I’m definitely fine,” I said confidently, allowing Rune to help me up to a sitting position when this simple task became too much of a struggle.

Remaining crouched down, Rune searched my face. “I love you, Poppymin.”

“I love you too, baby,” I replied. As I stood, with Rune’s help, I couldn’t help but flush. He was becoming more handsome with each passing day, but looking like this, he made my heart gallop in my chest.

“What should I wear?” I asked Rune. He led me to the living area of the suite. A lady was waiting in the center of the room, hair and makeup equipment spread out around her.

Astounded, I glanced up at Rune. He nervously pushed his hair from his face. “Your aunt organized it all.” He shrugged. “So you’d look perfect. Not that you don’t anyway.”

The lady in the room waved and tapped the seat in front of her. Rune lifted my hand to his mouth and kissed it. “Go, we have to leave in an hour.”

“What do I wear?” I asked, breathlessly.

“We have that organized too.” Rune led me to the seat and I sat down, briefly stopping to introduce myself to the stylist.

Rune moved to sit on the couch across the room. I was filled with happiness when he took his camera from its bag on the side table. I watched Rune raise the camera to his eye as Jayne, the stylist, began working on my hair. And for the next forty minutes, he captured those moments.

I couldn’t have been happier if I tried.

 

Jayne leaned down, checking my face, and, with a final brushstroke on my cheek, moved back and smiled. “There we go, girl. All done.” She stepped away and began packing her things. When she was finished, she kissed me on the cheek. “Have a good night, lady.”

“Thank you,” I replied and walked her to the door.

When I turned around, Rune was standing before me. He lifted his hand to my newly-curled hair. “Poppymin,” he rasped. “You look beautiful.”

I ducked my head. “Do I?”

Rune lifted his camera and snapped the button. Lowering it again, he nodded. “Perfect.”

Rune reached down for my hand and led me through to the bedroom. Hanging on the door was a black empire-waist dress. Low-heeled shoes rested on the plush carpeted floor.

“Rune,” I whispered as I ran my hand over the soft material. “It’s so pretty.”

Rune lifted the dress and placed it on the bed. “Get dressed, baby, then we have to go.”

I nodded my head, still in a daze. Rune left the bedroom and shut the door. In minutes I’d dressed and slipped my feet into the heels. I moved to the bathroom mirror, and a stunned gasp left my mouth when I stared at the girl looking back. My hair was curled and not a strand was out of place. My make-up boasted a light smoky eye, and, best of all, my infinity earrings were shining bright.

A knock came from the bedroom door. “Come in!” I shouted. I couldn’t tear myself away from my reflection.

Rune moved behind me, and my heart melted when I saw his reaction in the mirror … the floored look on his handsome face.

He placed his hands on my arms. Leaning down, one hand lifted to pull back my hair as he kissed the spot just below my ear. I felt short of breath at his touch, at his eyes still fixed on mine in the mirror.

My black dress plunged slightly at the front, showing my chest and neck, wide straps lying on the edge of my shoulders. Rune kissed down my neck, before moving his hand to my chin to turn my mouth to his. His warm lips melted against mine and I sighed, with pure happiness, into his mouth.

Rune reached over to the counter and lifted my white bow in his hands. He slipped it into my hair. Casting me a shy smile, he said, “Now you’re perfect. Now you’re my Poppy.”

My stomach flipped at the huskiness in his voice, then it completely turned over when he took my hand and led me from the room. A dress coat waited in the room and, like a true gentleman, he held it out and guided it over my shoulders.

Turning me to face him, Rune asked, “You ready?”

I nodded and allowed Rune to lead me into the elevator and then out the door. A limousine was waiting for us, the smartly-dressed driver opening the door for us to get in. I turned to Rune to ask him how he’d arranged everything, but before I even could, he answered, “DeeDee.”

The driver closed the door. I held tightly onto Rune’s hands as we pulled into the bustling streets. I watched Manhattan whirr past the window, then we came to a stop.

I saw the building before I left the limousine, my heart hammering in excitement. I whipped my head to Rune, but he had already gotten out. He appeared at my door, opening it for me and holding out his hand.

I stepped out onto the street and looked up at the huge building before us. “Rune,” I whispered. “Carnegie Hall,” My hand slipped over my mouth.

Rune shut the door and the limousine drew away. He pulled me close and said, “Come with me.”

As we walked to the entrance, I tried to read all of the signs to get an indication about the performance. But no matter how hard I searched, I couldn’t discover who was performing tonight.

Rune pushed through the large doors, and a man greeted us on the inside and pointed out the way to go. Rune led me forward until we had passed the foyer and entered the main auditorium. If I was breathless before, it was nothing to how I felt at this moment—standing in the hall that had been my dream since I was a little girl.

When I had drunk in the vast impressive space—the gold balconies, the plush red of the chairs and carpets—I frowned, realizing we were completely alone. There was no audience. There was no orchestra.

“Rune?”

Rune rocked nervously on his feet and pointed to the stage. I followed his hand. In the center of the large stage was a single chair, and a cello resting on its side with its bow lying on top.

I tried to fathom what I was seeing, but I couldn’t comprehend it. This was Carnegie Hall. One of the most famous concert venues in the whole wide world.

Without a word, Rune led me down the aisle toward the stage, stopping at a set of temporary steps. I turned to face him, and Rune met my eyes. “Poppymin, if things had been different…” He sucked in a breath, but managed to compose himself enough to continue. “If things had been different, you would have played here as a professional one day. You would have played here as part of an orchestra, the orchestra that you’ve dreamed about being a part of.” Rune’s hand squeezed mine. “You would have performed the solo you’ve always wanted to perform on this stage.”

A tear spilled out from Rune’s eye. “But because that can’t happen, because life is so damn unfair … I still wanted you to have this. To have known what this dream would feel like. I wanted you to have your chance in the spotlight. A spotlight that, in my opinion, you deserve, not only as the person I love most in the entire world, but as the best cellist. The most gifted musician.”

Realization dawned. The magnitude of what he had done for me began to set in, drifting slowly to rest on my exposed heart. Feeling my eyes fill with water, I stepped closer to Rune, splaying my hands on his chest. I blinked up at him, trying to rid the tears from my eyes. Unable to hold back my emotions, I tried to ask, “Have you … how did you … do this…?”

Rune pulled me forward and guided me up the stairs until I was standing on the stage that had been my life’s greatest ambition. Rune’s hand squeezed mine again, in place of words. “Tonight you have the stage, Poppymin. I’m sorry I’m the only one who will witness your performance, but I just wanted you to have this dream fulfilled. I wanted you to play in this hall. I wanted your music to fill this auditorium. I wanted your legacy to be imprinted on these walls.”

Stepping closer to me, Rune placed his hands on my cheeks and wiped away my tears with the pads of his thumbs. Pressing his forehead to mine, he whispered, “You deserve this, Poppy. You should have had more time to see this dream realized, but … but…”

I gripped my hands around Rune’s wrists as he struggled to finish. My eyes squeezed shut, expelling the remaining tears from my eyes. “Don’t,” I hushed out, and lifted Rune’s wrist to kiss his racing pulse. Resting it on my chest, I added, “It’s okay, baby.” I inhaled, and a watery smile spread on my lips. The scent of wood filled my nostrils. If I closed my eyes tightly enough, it felt as though I could hear the echo of all the musicians who had stepped onto this wooden stage, the master musicians who had graced this hall with their passion and genius.

“We’re here now,” I finished, and stepped back from Rune. Opening my eyes, I blinked in the view of the auditorium from my heightened position. I imagined it full of people, all dressed for a concert. Men and women who love to feel the music in their hearts. I smiled, seeing the picture so vibrantly in my mind.

When I turned back to the boy who had arranged this moment for me, I was speechless. I had no words to accurately express what this gesture had done to my soul. The gift Rune had given me so purely and sweetly … my biggest dream come true.

So I didn’t speak. I couldn’t.

Instead, I released his wrists and walked to the solitary seat that awaited me. I ran my hand over the black leather, feeling the texture under my fingertips. I walked to the cello, the instrument that had always felt like an extension of my body. An instrument that filled me with a joy that one can never explain until it is truly experienced. A joy that is all-encompassing and carries with it a higher form of peace, of tranquility, of serenity; a delicate love like no other.

Unbuttoning my coat, I slipped it off my arms, only for two familiar hands to lift it, then skirt gently over my skin. I glanced back at Rune, who silently left a kiss on my bare shoulder, then left the stage.

I didn’t see where he sat, for as he left the stage, the spotlight from directly above the seat moved from a dim glow to a potent shine. The house lights were brought down. I stared at the brightly illuminated chair with a heady mix of nervousness and excitement.

One foot stepped forward, the heels from my shoes causing an echo to rebound off the walls. The sound shook my bones, setting ablaze my weakening muscles, rejuvenating them with life.

Bending down, I lifted the cello and felt its neck in my grasp. I held the bow in my right hand, its slender wood fitting perfectly into my fingers.

I lowered myself to the chair, tipping the cello to move the spike to my perfect height. Righting the cello, the most beautiful cello I had ever seen, I closed my eyes and brought my hands to the strings, plucking each one to check it was in tune.

Of course, it was pitch-perfect.

I shuffled to the edge of the seat, planting my feet down on the wooden floor until I felt ready and primed.

Then I allowed myself to look up. I tilted my chin to the spotlight as if it were the sun. Inhaling a deep breath, I closed my eyes, then connected my bow to the string.

And I played.

The first notes of the Bach Prelude flowed from my bow to the string and out to the hall, rushing forth to fill the large room with the heavenly sounds. I swayed as the music took me in its embrace, pouring from me, exposing my soul for everyone to hear.

And in my head the hall was packed. Every seat was occupied as aficionados listened to me play. Listened to music that demanded to be heard. Played such melodies that not a dry eye could be found in the house. Exuded such passion that all hearts would be filled and spirits would be touched.

I smiled under the heat of the light, which was warming my muscles and extinguishing their pain. The piece drew to a close. Then I struck up another. I played and I played until so much time had passed that I could feel my fingers beginning ache.

I lifted the bow, a gaping silence now shrouding the hall. I let a tear fall as I thought of what to play next. What I knew I would play next. What I must play next.

The one piece of music that I dreamed I would play on this prestigious stage. The one piece that spoke to my soul like no other. The one piece that would have a presence here long after I was gone. The one I would play as a farewell to my passion. After hearing its perfect echo in this magnificent hall, I would not, could not, play it ever again. There would be no more cello for me.

This had to be where I left this part of my heart. This would be where I said goodbye to the passion that had kept me strong, that had been my savior in the times I grew lost and alone.

This would be where the notes were left to dance in the air for eternity.

I felt a tremble in my hands as I paused before I began. I felt the tears flowing thick and fast, but they weren’t in sadness. They were for two fast friends—the music and the life that created it—telling one another that they had to part, but that one day, someday, they would be together again.

Counting myself in, I placed the bow on the string and let “The Swan” from Carnival of the Animals begin. As my now-steady hands began to create the music I adored so much, I felt a lump fill my throat. Each note was a whispered prayer, and each crescendo was a loudly sung hymn, to the God that gave me this gift. Gave me the gift of playing music, of feeling it in my soul.

And these notes were my grateful thanks to the instrument for allowing me to play its glory with such grace.

Allowing me to love it so much that it became a part of who I was—the very fabric of my being.

And finally, as the delicate bars of the piece flowed so softly into the room, they signaled my eternal gratitude to the boy sitting silently in the dark. The boy as gifted at photography as I was at music. He was my heart. The heart freely given to me as a child. The heart that made up one half of my own. The boy who, though breaking inside, loved me so deeply that he gave me this farewell. Gave me, in the present, the dream that my future never could.

My soul mate who captured moments.

My hand shook as the final note rang out, my tears splashing to the wood. I held my hand in the air, the end of the piece suspended until the final echo of its whispered top note drifted to the heavens to take its place among the stars.

I paused, letting the farewell sink in.

Then as quietly as possible, I stood. And smiling, I pictured the audience and their applause. I bowed my head and lowered the cello to the floor of the stage, laying the bow on top just as it had been found.

I tipped my head back into the tunnel of light from above one last time, then stepped into the shadow. My heels created a dull drum beat as I left the stage. When I reached the bottom step, the house lights came on, ushering away the remnants of the dream.

I took in a deep breath as I ranged my gaze over the empty red chairs, then cast a glance back to the cello still positioned exactly as it was on the stage, waiting patiently for the next young musician to be blessed with its grace.

It was done.

Rune slowly rose to his feet. My stomach lurched as I saw his cheeks reddened by emotion. But my heart skipped a much-needed beat when I saw the expression on his handsome face.

He understood me. He understood my truth.

He understood it was the final time I would play. And I could see, with crystal clarity, the mixture of sorrow and pride set in his eyes.

When he reached me, Rune didn’t touch the tear stains on my cheeks, as I left his untouched. Closing his eyes, Rune took my mouth in a kiss. And in this kiss I felt his outpouring of love. I felt a love, that at seventeen, I was blessed to have received.

A love that knew no boundaries.

The kind of love that inspires music that lasts through the ages.

A love that should be felt and meant and treasured.

When Rune pulled back and stared into my eyes, I knew that this kiss would be handwritten on a pink paper heart with more devotion than any of those that had gone before.

Kiss eight hundred and nineteen was the kiss that changed it all. The kiss that proved that a long-haired brooding boy from Norway and a quirky girl from the Deep South could find a love to rival the greats.

It showed that love was simply the tenacity to make sure that the other half of your heart knew he, or she, was adored in every way. In every minute of every day. That love was tenderness in its purest form.

Rune inhaled deeply, then whispered, “I have no words right now … in either of my languages.”

I offered a weak smile in return. Because I didn’t either.

This silence was perfection. It was far better than words.

Taking Rune’s hand, I guided him up the aisle and out of the foyer. The cold blast of the New York February wind was a welcome relief from the heat of the building within. Our limousine was waiting at the curb; Rune must have called the driver.

We slipped into the back seat. The driver pulled out into the traffic and Rune pulled me to his side. I fell willingly, breathing in the fresh scent of him on his blazer. With each turn the driver took, my heart rate increased. When we arrived at the hotel, I took Rune’s hand and walked inside.

Not a single word had been uttered on the drive here, not a single sound made as the elevator reached the top floor. The sound of the card opening the electronic lock sounded like thunder in the hushed hallway. I opened the door, my footsteps clicking on the wooden floor, and stepped through into the living room.

Without stopping, I walked to the doorway of the bedroom, only glancing back to make sure Rune followed. He stood at the doorway, watching me leave.

Our gazes crashed, and needing him more than air, I slowly lifted my hand. I wanted him. I needed him.

I had to love him.

I watched Rune pull in a deep breath, then step toward me. He walked carefully to where I waited. He slid his hand into mine, his touch sending flares of light and love through my body.

Rune’s eyes were dark, almost black, his dilated pupils blotting out the blue. His need was as strong as mine, his love proven and his trust so complete.

A calm flooded through me like a river. I let it in, and led Rune into the bedroom and closed the door. The atmosphere thickened around us. Rune’s intense, assessing eyes watched my every move.

Knowing I had his unwavering attention, I released his hand and stepped back. Lifting my trembling fingers, I began unfastening the large buttons of my coat, our locked gazes never wavering as the coat opened and I slowly let it drop to the floor.

Rune’s jaw tensed as he watched, his fingers opening and closing at his sides.

I slipped off my shoes, my bare feet sinking into the plush carpet. Taking a fortifying breath, I stepped across the carpet and over to where Rune stood, waiting. When I stopped before him, I lifted my eyes, lids heavy with the onslaught of feelings within me.

Rune’s broad chest rose and fell, the tight white t-shirt under his blazer showcasing his toned chest. Feeling a flush coat my cheeks, I gently laid my palms over his chest. Rune stilled as my warm hands touched him. Then, keeping my eyes locked on his, I slid my hands to his shoulders, freeing him from his blazer. The jacket fell to the floor at his feet.

I breathed in three times, fighting to control the nerves suddenly racing through me. Rune didn’t move. He remained completely still, letting me explore; I ran my hand down over his stomach, over to his arm, and took his hand with my own. I lifted our clasped hands to my mouth, and in a move so familiar to us both, I kissed our intertwined fingers.

“This is how they should always be,” I whispered, gazing at our woven fingers.

Rune swallowed and nodded his head in silent agreement.

My feet stepped back, and back again. I led us toward the bed. The comforter was pulled back, turned down by the maid service. And the closer I got to this bed, the more my nerves settled and a peace set within me. Because this was right. Nothing, no one, could tell me this was wrong.

Pausing before the edge of the bed, I released our hands. Driven by desire, I took hold of the hem of Rune’s shirt and slowly brought it over his head. Helping me, Rune threw the t-shirt to the floor, leaving him standing with his torso bare.

Rune slept like this every night, but there was something about the charged static in the atmosphere and the way he’d made me feel with tonight’s surprise that made this different.

It was different.

It was poignant.

But it was us.

Lifting my hands, I pressed my palms to his skin and ran my fingertips over the peaks and valleys of his abdominals. Rune’s skin bumped in my wake, his labored breath hissing through his slightly parted lips.

As my fingers explored his broad chest, I leaned forward and pressed my lips over his heart. It was racing like a hummingbird’s wings.

“You’re perfect, Rune Kristiansen,” I whispered.

Rune’s fingers rose to thread through my hair. He guided my head up. I kept my eyes lowered until the final second, when I finally looked up and met his crystal-blue gaze. His eyes were glistening.

Rune’s full lips opened and he whispered, “Jeg elsker deg.”

He loved me.

I nodded to show that I’d heard him. But my voice had been stolen by the moment. By the preciousness of his touch. I stepped back, Rune’s eyes tracking my every move.

I wanted them to.

Lifting my hand to the strap on my shoulder, I steeled my nerves and dropped it down my arm. Rune’s breathing stuttered as I freed the other strap, the silk dress pooling at my feet. I forced my arms down by my side, most of my body revealed to the boy I loved beyond anything else in the world.

I was bared, showing the scars I’d obtained over the course of two years. Showing all of me—the girl he’d always known, and the battle scars from my unwavering fight.

Rune’s gaze dropped to run over me. But there was no disgust in his eyes. I saw only the purity of his love shining through. I saw only want and need, and above all … his whole heart exposed.

Just for my eyes.

As always.

Rune edged closer and closer, until his warm chest pressed against mine. With a feather-light touch, he brushed my hair behind my ear, and then drifted his fingertips down my bare neck and on to my side.

My eyes fluttered at the sensation. Shivers ran down my spine. The scent of Rune’s minty breath filled my nose as he leaned forward and dragged his soft lips along my neck, peppering delicate kisses on my exposed skin.

I held on to his strong shoulders, anchoring myself to the ground. “Poppymin,” Rune whispered hoarsely as his mouth passed by my ear.

Inhaling deeply, I whispered, “Make love to me, Rune.”

Rune was still for a moment, then, shifting until his face hovered above mine, he briefly caught my eyes before laying his lips against my own. This kiss was as sweet as this night, as soft as his touch. This kiss was different, it was the promise of what lay ahead, Rune’s vow to be gentle … his vow to love me just as I loved him.

Rune’s strong hands lay on the nape of my neck as his mouth worked slowly against mine. Then, when I was breathless, his hands dropped to my waist and carefully lifted me onto the bed.

My back hit the soft mattress and I watched from the center of the bed as Rune shed the remainder of his clothes, never taking his eyes off mine as he crawled on the bed to lie beside me.

The intensity on Rune’s handsome face melted me, causing my heart to thud in a staccato rhythm. Rolling on my side to face him, I ran my fingers down his cheek and whispered, “I love you too.”

Rune’s eyes closed as if he needed to hear those words more than his next breath. He moved above me, his mouth taking mine. My hands ran over his strong back and up through his long hair. Rune’s hands ran down my side, then freed me of the remainder of my clothes and dropped them on the floor to join the rest.

I was breathless as Rune towered over me. Breathless as he met my eyes and asked, “Are you sure, Poppymin?

Unable to contain my smile, I replied, “More than I have been about anything in my life.”

My eyes fluttered closed as Rune kissed me again, as his hands explored my body—all of the once-familiar parts. And I did the same. With every touch and every kiss, my nerves fell away, until we were Poppy and Rune—there was no beginning to us and no end.

The air became heavy and warm the more we kissed and explored, until finally, Rune shifted above me. Not once breaking eye contact, he took me as his again.

My body filled with life and light as he made us one. My heart filled with such love that I feared it would not contain all the happiness flooding in.

I held him as we fell back to earth, holding him tightly in my arms. Rune’s head lay in the crook of my neck, his skin glistening and warm.

I kept my eyes closed, unwilling to break away from this moment. This perfect moment. Eventually, Rune lifted his head. Seeing the vulnerable expression on his face, I kissed him gently. As gently as he had taken me. As gently as he handled my fragile heart.

His arms cradled my head, keeping me safe. When I broke from the kiss, I met his loving gaze and whispered, “Kiss number eight hundred and twenty. With my Rune, on the most amazing day of my life. After we made love … My heart almost burst.”

Rune’s breath hitched in his throat. With a final brief kiss, he rolled beside me and wrapped me in his arms.

My eyes closed and I drifted off into a light sleep. So light that I felt Rune kiss me on my head then shift from the bed. As the door to the bedroom closed, I blinked in the dark room, catching the sound of the door to the terrace slipping open.

Pushing the comforter aside, I put on the robe that was hanging on the back of the door and the slippers that lay neatly on the floor. As I walked through the room, I smiled, still smelling the scent of Rune on my skin.

I entered the living room, heading in the direction of the door to outside, but immediately stopped in my tracks. Because through the wide window I could see Rune on the ground, sitting on his knees. Falling apart.

It felt as if my heart physically ripped in two as I watched him, out in the cold night air, clothed in only his jeans. Tears streamed from his eyes as his back shook with body-shuddering pain.

Tears blurred my vision as I stared at him. My Rune. So broken and alone, as he sat in the lightly falling snow.

“Rune. Baby,” I whispered to myself as I forced my feet to the door, as I made my hand turn the handle and ordered my heart to brace itself for the grief causing this scene.

My feet crunched on the thin, crisp layer of snow beneath my feet. Rune didn’t seem to hear. But I heard him. I heard his uncontrolled breathing. But worse still, I heard his racking sobs. I heard the pain overwhelm him. I saw it in the way he lurched forward, palms planted to the floor beneath him.

Failing to hold back my cries, I rushed forward and wrapped my arms around him. His bare skin was freezing to the touch. Seeming not to notice the cold, Rune collapsed into my lap, his long, broad torso seeking the comfort of my arms.

And he broke. Rune completely broke apart: floods of tears flowed down his cheeks, coarse breaths ghosted to white puffs of smoke as they hit the freezing air.

I rocked back and forth, holding him close. “Shh,” I soothed, trying in earnest to breathe through my own pain. The pain of seeing the boy I loved falling apart. The pain of knowing I had to pass soon, yet wanting to resist home’s call with all of my heart.

I had come to terms with my fading life. Now I wanted to fight to stay with Rune, for Rune, even knowing it was useless.

I wasn’t in control of my fate.

“Rune,” I whispered, my tears becoming lost in the long strands of his hair in my lap.

Rune looked up, his expression devastated, and asked hoarsely, “Why? Why do I have to lose you?” He shook his head and his face contorted in pain. “Because I can’t, Poppymin. I can’t watch you leave. I can’t bear the thought of not having you like this for the rest of our lives.” He choked on a sob, but managed to say, “How can a love like ours be broken? How can you be taken away so young?”

“I don’t know, baby,” I whispered, glancing away in an effort to hold myself together. The lights of New York sparkled in my line of sight. I chased away the grief that came with his asking those questions.

“It just is, Rune,” I said sadly. “There’s no reason why it’s me. Why not me? No one deserves this, yet I have to…” I trailed off, but managed to add, “I have to trust that there’s a bigger reason or I would crumble with the pain of leaving all I love behind.” I sucked in a breath and said, “With leaving you, especially after today. Especially after making love to you tonight.”

Rune stared into my tear-filled eyes. Gathering some composure, he got to his feet and lifted me into his arms. I was glad, because I felt too weak to move. I wasn’t sure I could have stood up from the cold, damp ground if I’d tried.

Linking my arms around Rune’s neck, I laid my head on his chest and closed my eyes as he carried me back inside and back to the bedroom. Pushing the comforter back, he placed me underneath, following behind and wrapping his arms around my waist as we faced one another on my pillow.

Rune’s eyes were red, his long hair was damp from the snow and his skin was mottled with the depth of his sadness. Lifting my hand, I ran it down his face. His skin was freezing.

Rune turned his face in to my palm. “Up on that stage tonight, I knew you were saying goodbye. And I…” His voice stuck, but he coughed and finished, “It made this all too real.” His eyes glossed with new tears. “It made me realize, this was really happening.” Rune held my hand and brought it to his chest. He squeezed it tightly. “And I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe when I try to imagine living without you. I’ve tried it once, and it didn’t go well. But … but at least you were alive, out there, somewhere. Soon … soon…” He cut off his words as the tears fell. He turned his head from my gaze.

I caught his retreating cheek. Rune blinked. “Are you scared, Poppymin? Because I’m terrified. I’m terrified of what the hell life looks like without you.”

I paused. I truly thought about his question. And I let myself feel the truth. I let myself be honest. “Rune, I’m not scared of dying.” I ducked my head, and the pain that had never taken me before suddenly filled my every cell. I let my head drop to his and whispered, “But since I got you back, since my heart regained its beat—you—I’ve been feeling all kinds of things that I hadn’t before. I pray for more time, just so I can live more days in your arms. I pray for longer minutes so you can gift me more kisses.” Dragging in a much-needed breath, I added, “But worst of all, I’m beginning to feel fear.”

Rune inched closer, his arm tightening around my waist. I lifted my shaking hand to his face. “I feel fear over leaving you. I’m not scared of dying, Rune. But I’m terrified of going anywhere new without you.” Rune’s eyes shut and he hissed as though in pain.

“I don’t know me without you,” I said quietly. “Even when you were in Oslo, I pictured your face, I would remember how your hand felt holding mine. I would play your favorite songs and I would read the kisses in my jar. Just like my mamaw told me to. And I would close my eyes and feel your lips on mine.” I allowed myself to smile. “I would remember the night we first made love and the feeling in my heart at that moment—fulfilled … at peace.”

I sniffed and quickly wiped at my damp cheeks. “Though you weren’t with me, you were in my heart. And that was enough to sustain me, even though I wasn’t happy.” I kissed Rune’s mouth, just to savor his taste. “But now, after this time back together, it’s made me fearful. Because who are we without each other?”

“Poppy,” Rune rasped.

My tears fell with reckless abandon and I cried, “I’ve hurt you by loving you so much. And now I have to go on an adventure without you. And I can’t bear how much it hurts you. I can’t leave you so lonely and in pain.”

Rune pulled me to his chest. I cried. He cried. We shared our fears of loss and love. My fingers rested on his back and I took comfort in his warmth.

When our tears had slowed, Rune gently pushed me back and searched my face. “Poppy,” he asked huskily, “what does heaven look like to you?”

I could see in his face that he desperately wanted to know. Gathering my composure, I declared, “A dream.”

“A dream,” Rune echoed, and I saw his lip hook up at the corner.

“I read once that when you dream each night, it’s actually a visit home. Home, Rune. Heaven.” I began feeling the warmth that that vision brought at my toes. It began to travel over my whole body. “My heaven will be you and me in the blossom grove. Like always. Forever seventeen.”

I took a strand of Rune’s hair between my fingers, studying the golden color. “Do you ever dream a dream so vividly, that when you wake you believe it was real? It feels like it is real?”

Ja,” Rune said quietly.

“That’s because it was, Rune, in a way. So at night, when you close your eyes, I’ll be there, meeting you in our grove.”

Inching closer, I added, “And then when it’s time for you to come home too, it’ll be me who greets you. And there’ll be no worry or fear or pain. Just love.” I sighed happily. “Imagine that, Rune. A place where there’s no pain or hurt.” I closed my eyes and smiled. “When I think about it that way, I’m not so scared anymore.”

Rune’s lips brushed over mine. “It sounds perfect,” he said, his accent thick, voice graveled. “I want you to have that, Poppymin.”

I fluttered my eyes open and saw the truth and acceptance on Rune’s handsome face.

“It will be like that, Rune,” I said with unwavering certainty. “We won’t end. We never will.”

Rune rolled me until I lay on his chest. I closed my eyes, lulled by the hypnotic rhythm of Rune’s deep breathing. As I was about to drift away to sleep, Rune asked, “Poppymin?

“Yes?”

“What do you want out of the time left?”

I thought about his question, but only a few things sprang to mind. “I want to see the cherry blossoms bloom one final time.” I smiled against Rune’s chest. “I want to dance at prom with you,”—I tilted my head up and caught him smiling down at me—“with you in a tux and your hair combed back off your face.” Rune shook his head in amusement at that.

Sighing at the peaceful happiness we had now found, I said, “I want to see a final perfect sunrise.” Sitting up higher, I met Rune’s eyes and finished, “But more than anything, I want to return home with your kiss on my lips. I want to pass on to the next life still feeling your warm lips on mine.”

Settling back down onto Rune’s chest, I closed my eyes and whispered, “That’s what I pray for most. To last long enough to achieve these things.”

“They’re perfect, baby,” Rune whispered, stroking my hair.

And that’s how I fell asleep, under Rune’s protection.

Dreaming that I’d see all my wishes fulfilled.

Happy.


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