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A Thousand Boy Kisses: Chapter 13

Dark Clouds & Blue Skies



I drew lazy circles on my paper as the teacher droned on about chemical compounds. My mind was occupied with Poppy. It always was, but today was different. We had been back from New York for four days now, and with each passing day she had grown quieter.

I constantly asked what was wrong. She would always tell me it was nothing. But I knew there was something. This morning, it was worse.

Her hand felt too weak in mine as we walked to school. Her skin was too hot to the touch. I had asked if she was feeling sick, but she just shook her head and smiled.

She thought that smile could stop me in my tracks.

It normally could, but not today.

Something felt off. My heart dropped every time I thought back to lunch, when we had been sitting with our friends and she lay in my arms. She never spoke, instead just traced her fingertip over my hand.

The afternoon had dragged, and every minute was filled with worry that she wasn’t okay. That the time she had left was coming to a close. Sitting up quickly, I tried to stave off the panic that image brought. But it was no use.

When the final bell sounded, signaling the end of the school day, I jumped from my seat and rushed to the hallway, darting to Poppy’s locker. When I arrived, Jorie was standing there.

“Where is she?” I asked curtly.

Jorie took a surprised step back and pointed to the back door. As I quickly made my way to the exit, Jorie shouted, “She didn’t look too good in class, Rune. I’m real worried.”

Shivers ran down my spine as I burst into the warm air. My eyes scanned the courtyard until I found Poppy standing at a tree in the park opposite. I pushed past my fellow students and ran over to her.

She didn’t notice me as she stared straight ahead, seemingly caught in a trance. There was a light sheen of sweat covering her face, and the skin on her arms and legs seemed pale.

I stood directly in her path. Poppy’s dull eyes were sluggish as they blinked and focused slowly on mine. She forced a smile. “Rune,” she whispered, weakly.

I pressed my hand against her forehead, my eyebrows pulled together in concern. “Poppy? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” she said unconvincingly, “I’m just tired.”

My heart slammed against my ribs as I took in her lie. Knowing I had to get her back to her parents, I gathered her under my arm. As the nape of her neck almost scalded my arm, I bit back a curse.

“Let’s go home, baby,” I said softly. Poppy wrapped her arms around my waist. Her hold was weak, but I could tell she was using my body to hold herself straight. I knew she would protest if I tried to carry her.

I closed my eyes for a second as we stepped onto the pathway of the park. I tried to quell the fear taking hold of me inside. The fear of her being sick. Of this being…

Poppy was silent, but for her breathing, which grew deeper and wheezier the further we walked. As we entered the blossom grove, Poppy’s steps faltered. I looked down, only to feel her body lose all its strength.

“Poppy!” I called out and caught her just before she hit the ground. Looking down at her in my arms, I stroked back the damp hair from her face. “Poppy? Poppy, baby, what’s wrong?”

Poppy’s eyes began to roll, losing focus, but I felt her hand take hold of mine and grip it as hard as she could manage. It was a barely a squeeze.

“Rune,” she tried to say, but her breathing became too fast; she struggled to retain enough air to push out her voice.

Reaching into my pocket, I pulled out my cell and hit 911. As soon as the operator answered, I reeled off Poppy’s address and informed them of her illness.

Scooping Poppy into my arms, I was about to set into a run when Poppy’s weak palm landed on my face. I glanced down, only to see a tear roll down her cheek. “I’m … I’m … not ready…” she managed to tell me, before her head flopped back and she fought for consciousness.

Despite the tear ripping through my heart at Poppy’s broken spirit and failing body, I leapt into a sprint. Pushing myself harder and faster than ever before.

As I passed by my house, I saw my mamma and Alton in the driveway.

“Rune?” my mamma called, then whispered, “No!” when she saw Poppy hanging limply in my arms.

The sound of the ambulance’s siren blared in the distance. Wasting no time, I kicked through the front door of Poppy’s house.

I ran into the living room; no one was there. “Help!” I screamed as loudly as I could. Suddenly, I heard footsteps running in my direction.

“Poppy!” Poppy’s mama came barreling around the corner as I lowered Poppy to the couch. “Oh my God! Poppy!” Mrs. Litchfield crouched down beside me, pushing her hand over Poppy’s head.

“What happened? What’s wrong?” she asked.

I shook my head. “I don’t know. She just collapsed in my arms. I’ve called for an ambulance.”

Just as those words left my mouth, I heard the sound of the ambulance turning into the street. Poppy’s mama ran out of the house. I watched her go, ice replacing the blood in my veins. I ran my hands through my hair, not knowing what to do. A cold hand landed on my wrist.

I snapped my eyes back to Poppy, and saw her fighting for breath. My face fell at the sight. Dropping down closer, I kissed her hand and whispered, “You’ll be okay, Poppymin. I promise.”

Poppy gasped for breath, but managing to place her palm on my face, she said, almost inaudibly, “Not … going home … yet…”

I nodded my head and kissed her hand, gripping it tightly with my own.

Suddenly, the sound of the EMTs entering the house came from behind me and I stood up to let them past. But as I did, Poppy’s hand tightened on my own. Tears leaked from her eyes. “I’m right here, baby,” I whispered. “I won’t leave you.”

Poppy’s eyes showed me her thanks. The sound of crying came from behind me. As I turned, I saw Ida and Savannah standing to the side, watching, crying in each other’s arms. Mrs. Litchfield moved to the other side of the couch and kissed Poppy’s head. “You’ll be okay, baby,” she whispered, but as she looked up at me, I could see she didn’t believe her own words.

She thought the time had arrived too.

The EMTs put an oxygen mask over Poppy’s face and gathered her onto a gurney. Poppy’s hand still held mine; she refused to let go. As the EMTs moved her out of the house, she never loosened her grip on my hand, her eyes never leaving mine as she fought to keep them open.

Mrs. Litchfield ran behind, but when she saw Poppy’s hand clutching mine so tightly, she said, “You go with Poppy, Rune. I’ll follow straight behind with the girls.”

I could see the conflict on her face. She wanted to be with her daughter.

“I’ll bring them, Ivy, you go with Poppy and Rune,” I heard my mamma say from behind me. I climbed into the back of the ambulance; Mrs. Litchfield joined me.

Even when Poppy’s eyes closed en route to the hospital, she didn’t release my hand. And, as she collapsed into tears beside me, I gave my other hand to Mrs. Litchfield.


* * *


I stayed by Poppy’s side as she was wheeled into an oncology room. My heart beat as quickly as the doctors and nurses moved—a blur, a mass of activity.

I fought back the lump blocking my throat. I held the numbness inside me at bay. Poppy was being poked and prodded—blood taken, temperature taken, too many things to count. And my baby fought. As her chest became erratic with her inability to breathe properly, she stayed calm. As unconsciousness tried to pull her down, she forced her eyes to remain open … she forced her eyes to stay fixed on mine, mouthing my name whenever she almost slipped under.

I stayed strong for Poppy. I wouldn’t let her see me fall.

She needed me to be strong.

Mrs. Litchfield was beside me, holding my hand. Mr. Litchfield came running in, briefcase in hand, his tie in disarray.

“Ivy,” he said in a hurried voice, “what happened?”

Mrs. Litchfield chased her tears away from her cheeks and took her husband’s hand. “She collapsed on Rune, on the way home from school. The doctors believe it’s an infection. Her immune system is so low she can’t fight it.”

Mr. Litchfield looked to me, as Mrs. Litchfield added, “Rune carried Poppy in his arms all the way home. He ran and called for an ambulance. He saved her, James. Rune saved our girl.”

I swallowed hard as I heard Mrs. Litchfield’s words. Mr. Litchfield nodded, I assumed in thanks, then ran toward his daughter. I saw him squeeze her hand, but the doctors quickly ushered him out of the way.

It was five minutes before a doctor spoke to us. He stood still, his face blank. “Mr. and Mrs. Litchfield, Poppy’s body is trying to fight off an infection. As you know, her immune system is severely compromised.”

“Is this it?” Mrs. Litchfield prompted, her throat tight with grief.

The doctor’s words seeped into my brain. I turned my head away from him as I sensed a pair of eyes watching me.

The doctors had cleared a space, and through that space, I saw Poppy’s pretty face covered in a mask, IVs in her arms. But her green eyes, those green eyes I adored, were on me. Her hand hung out to the side.

“We’ll do all that we can. We’ll give her a moment before we put her under.”

I heard the doctor say they were putting her into a medically induced coma to help her try to fight the infection. And that we had to see her before they did. But my feet were already moving. Her hand was held out for me.

As soon as I took Poppy’s hand, I saw her eyes searching for mine and her head shook weakly. I briefly closed my eyes, but when they opened I couldn’t stop the tear escaping down my cheek. Poppy made a noise below her oxygen mask, and I didn’t need to take it off to know what she had said. She wasn’t leaving me yet. I could see the promise in her eyes.

“Rune, son,” Mr. Litchfield said. “Can we have a moment with Poppy, to kiss her and speak with her some?”

I nodded and went to move aside, when Poppy made a sound and shook her head again. She squeezed my hand again. Because she didn’t want to let me go.

Leaning forward, I pressed a kiss on her head, feeling her warmth on my lips, inhaling her sweet scent. “I’ll be just over there, Poppymin. I won’t leave you, I promise.”

Poppy’s eyes tracked me as I stepped away. I watched as Mr. and Mrs. Litchfield spoke quietly to their daughter, kissing her and gripping her hand.

I leaned against the wall of the small room, clenching my fists as I fought to hold myself together. I had to be strong for her. She hated tears. She hated to burden her family with all this.

She wouldn’t see me break.

Mrs. Litchfield disappeared from the room. When she came back in, Ida and Savannah followed. I had to turn away when I saw the pain in Poppy’s eyes. She adored her sisters, she wouldn’t want them to see her like this.

“Poppy,” Ida cried and rushed to her side. Poppy’s weak hand drifted down her younger sister’s face. Ida kissed Poppy on her cheek, then stepped back into Mrs. Litchfield’s waiting arms. Savannah went next. Savannah broke down on seeing her sister, her hero, this way. Poppy held her hand and Savannah whispered, “I love you, PopPops. Please … please don’t leave, not yet.”

Poppy shook her head, then looked back my way, her hand struggling to move in my direction. I walked over, feeling like every step was a mile. Inside of me was a flurried storm of darkness, but as soon as my hand slipped into hers, the storm calmed. Poppy blinked up at me, her long dark lashes fluttering on her cheeks. Sitting on the edge of the bed, I leaned down and pushed the hair back from her face.

Hei, Poppymin,” I said quietly, with as much strength as I could muster. Poppy’s eyes closed on hearing my words. I knew that under the mask she’d be smiling. When her eyes fixed on mine, I said, “They need to put you under for a while to help you fight off this infection.” Poppy’s head nodded in understanding. “You’ll get to dream, baby,” I said, and made myself smile. “Go visit with your mamaw awhile, while you gather the strength to come back to me.” Poppy sighed, a tear escaping her eye. “We have things you want to do before you go home, remember?”

Poppy nodded lightly and I kissed her cheek. When I pulled back, I whispered, “Sleep, baby. I’ll stay right here, waiting for you to come back to me.”

I stroked back Poppy’s hair until her eyes closed and I knew she had given herself to sleep.

The doctor entered a second later. “If you all go wait in the family room, I’ll be through with an update when we have her all set up.”

I heard her family leaving, but as I stared at her hand in mine, I didn’t want to let go. A hand landed on my shoulder and I looked up to find the doctor looking at me. “We’ll take care of her son, I promise.”

Pressing a final kiss to her hand, I forced myself to let go and leave the room. As the doors shut behind me, I looked up to see the family room opposite. But I couldn’t go in. I needed air. I needed…

I rushed toward the small garden at the end of the hallway and burst through the door. The warm wind drifted over my face and, seeing I was alone, I staggered to the bench in the center of the garden. Dropping to the seat, I let the sadness take me.

My head fell forward and landed in my hands. The tears dropped down my face. I heard the sound of the door opening. When I looked up, my pappa was hovering near the door.

I waited for the usual anger to hit me when I saw his face. But it must have been buried under a mass of grief. My pappa didn’t say anything. Instead, he walked forward and sat beside me. He made no move to comfort me. He knew I wouldn’t welcome his touch. Instead, he just sat there while I fell apart.

A part of me was glad. I would never tell him. But as much as I wouldn’t admit it, I didn’t want to be alone.

I wasn’t sure how much time passed, but eventually I straightened and pushed the hair back from my face. I wiped my hand down over my face.

“Rune, she—”

“She’ll be fine,” I said, cutting off whatever he was trying to say. I glanced down at my pappa’s hand lying on his knee, clenching and unclenching like he was debating whether to reach out and touch me.

My jaw tensed. I didn’t want that.

Time with Poppy was running out and it was his fault that I would have only had… The thought trailed off. I didn’t know how long I had left with my girl.

Before my pappa could do anything, the door opened again, and this time Mr. Litchfield walked out. My pappa got to his feet and shook his hand. “I’m so sorry, James,” my pappa said.

Mr. Litchfield clapped him on the shoulder, then asked, “Do you mind if I speak to Rune for a minute?”

I stiffened, every muscle in me bracing for his anger. My pappa glanced back at me, but nodded. “I’ll leave you both alone.”

Pappa left the garden, and Mr. Litchfield strode slowly to where I sat, then lowered himself onto the bench beside me. I held my breath, waiting for him to speak. When he didn’t, I said, “I’m not leaving her. Don’t even ask me to leave because I’m not going anywhere.”

I knew I sounded angry and aggressive, but my heart slammed against my ribs at the thought of him telling me I had to go. If I wasn’t with Poppy, I had nowhere to go.

Mr. Litchfield tensed, then he asked, “Why?”

Surprised by his question, I turned to him and tried to read his face. He was looking at me square on. He truly wanted to know. Without breaking his gaze, I said, “Because I love her. I love her more than anything in the world.” My voice cut through my tight throat. Taking a deep inhale, I managed to say, “I made a promise to her that I would never leave her side. And even if that weren’t the case, I wouldn’t be able to leave. My heart, soul, everything, is connected to Poppy.” My hands fisted at my sides. “I can’t leave her now, not when she needs me most. And I won’t leave her until she forces my hand.”

Mr. Litchfield sighed and ran his hand over his face. He sat back against the bench. “When you came back to Blossom Grove, Rune, I took one look at you and couldn’t believe how you’d changed. I felt disappointed,” he admitted. I felt my chest tighten at that blow. He shook his head. “I saw the smoking, the attitude, and assumed you bore no resemblance to the boy you were before. The one that loved my daughter as much as she loved him. The boy that—I would have bet my life—would have walked through fire for my baby girl.

“But who you are now, I never would have expected you to love her in the way she deserves.” Mr. Litchfield’s voice grew husky with pain. Clearing his throat, he said, “I fought against you. When I saw how you two had connected again, I tried to warn her off. But you two have always been like magnets, drawn together by some unknown force.” He huffed a laugh. “Poppy’s mamaw said that you were both thrust together for a greater meaning. One we would never know until it presented itself. She said that great loves were always destined to be together for some great reason.” He paused, and turning to me, stated, “And now I know.”

I looked him straight in the eye. Mr. Litchfield’s firm hand landed on my shoulder. “You were meant to be together, so you could be her guiding light through all of this. You were created perfectly for her, to make this time for my girl special. To make sure her remaining days were filled with things her mama and I could never have given her.”

Pain sliced through me and I closed my eyes. When I opened them again, Mr. Litchfield dropped his hand, but made me face him still. “Rune, I was against you. But I could see how much she loved you. I just wasn’t sure you loved her back.”

“I do,” I said hoarsely. “I never stopped.”

He nodded his head. “I didn’t know until the trip to New York. I didn’t want her to go.” He inhaled and said, “But when she came back I could see that there was a new peace within her. Then she told me what you did for her. Carnegie Hall?” He shook his head. “You gave my girl her biggest dream, for no other reason than you wanted her to achieve it. To make her happy … because you loved her.”

“She gives me more,” I replied, and bowed my head. “Just by being her, she gives me that tenfold.”

“Rune, if Poppy comes out of this—”

“When,” I interrupted. “When she comes out of this.”

I lifted my head to see Mr. Litchfield looking at me. “When,” he said with a hopeful sigh. “I won’t stand in your way.” He leaned forward to rest his face on his hands. “She was never right after you left, Rune. I know you’ve struggled with not having her in your life. And I’d have to be a fool not to see that you blame your pappa for all of this. For you leaving. But sometimes life doesn’t go the way you expect. I never expected to lose my daughter before I left. But Poppy has taught me that I can’t be angry. Because, son,” he said and looked me in the face, “if Poppy isn’t angry about having a short life, how dare any of us be angry for her?”

I stared back, silently. My heart beat faster at his words. Images of Poppy twirling in the blossom grove filled my mind, her smile wide as she breathed in the scented air. I saw that same smile as I remembered her dancing in the shallow water at the beach, her hands in the air as the sun kissed her face.

Poppy was happy. Even with this diagnosis, even with all the pain and disappointment of her treatment, she was happy.

“I’m glad you returned, son. You’re making Poppy’s final days, in her words, ‘as special as special can be’.”

Mr. Litchfield got to his feet. In a move I’d only ever seen from his daughter, Poppy, he tipped his face to the setting sun and closed his eyes.

When he brought his head back down, he walked back toward the door, looking back to say, “You’re welcome here as much as you like, Rune. I think with you by her side, Poppy will come out of this. She’ll come out of this just so she can spend a few extra days with you. I saw that look in her eyes as she lay on that bed; she isn’t going anywhere just yet. You know as well as I do, if she’s determined to see something through, then she’ll damn well see it through.”

My lips lifted into a small smile. Mr. Litchfield left me alone in the garden. Reaching into my pockets, I pulled put my smokes. As I went to light the end, I stopped. As Poppy’s smile filled my head, her disapproving scrunched nose every time I smoked, I pulled the cigarette from my mouth and threw it to the ground.

“Enough,” I said aloud. “No more.”

Taking a long breath of the fresh air, I got to my feet and went back inside. As I entered the family room, Poppy’s family was sitting on one side and on the other, my mamma, pappa and Alton. As soon as my baby brother saw me, he lifted his head and waved.

Doing what Poppy would have wanted me to do, I sat down beside him. “Hei, buddy,” I said, and almost lost it when he crawled onto my lap and pushed his arms around my neck.

I felt Alton’s back shaking. When he pulled back his head, his cheeks were wet. “Is Poppymin sick?”

Clearing my throat, I nodded. His bottom lip wobbled. “But you love her,” he whispered, cracking my heart in the process. I nodded again, and he laid his head against my chest. “I don’t want Poppymin to go anywhere. She made you speak to me. She made you be best friends with me,” he sniffed. “I don’t want you to be angry again.”

I felt each of his words like a dagger to my chest. But those daggers only let in light when I thought of how Poppy had guided me to Alton. I thought of how disappointed she’d be if I ignored him now.

Holding Alton closer, I whispered, “I won’t ignore you again, buddy. I promise.”

Alton lifted his head and wiped at his eyes. When he raked his hair back, I couldn’t help but smirk. Alton smiled in reply and hugged me tighter. He didn’t let go of me until the doctor entered the room. He told us we could go in and see her two at a time.

Mr. and Mrs. Litchfield went in first, then it was my turn. I pushed through the door and froze in my tracks.

Poppy lay in a bed in the middle of the room. Machines were hooked up all around her. My heart cracked. She looked so broken lying there, so quiet.

No laughter or smiles on her face.

I walked forward and sat down on the chair beside her bed. Taking hold of her hand, I brought it to my lips and pressed down a kiss.

I couldn’t stand the silence. So I began to tell Poppy about the first time I’d kissed her. I told her about every kiss I could remember since we were eight—how they felt, how she made me feel—knowing that if she could hear me, she’d love every word of what I had to say.

Reliving every single kiss that she held so dear.

All nine hundred and two that we’d achieved so far.

And the ninety-eight we’d still collect.

When she woke up.

Because she would.

We had a vow to fulfill.


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