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A Thousand Boy Kisses: Chapter 8

Scattered Breaths & Haunted Souls

Rune

 

I’M DYING … I’m dying … dying … I have Hodgkin lymphoma. It’s advanced. And it’s terminal … I have a matter of months left to live, Rune. There’s nothing anyone can do…

I sprinted through the darkness of the park as Poppy’s words circled around and around my mind. I’M DYING … I’m dying … dying … I have a matter of months left to live, Rune. There’s nothing anyone can do…

Pain, the like of which I never knew was possible, pierced my heart. It sliced, stabbed and throbbed away at me until my feet skidded to a stop and I fell to my knees. I tried to breathe, but the pain had barely just begun, moving to rip through my lungs until nothing was left. It traveled with lightning speed through my body, taking all, until only pain remained.

I’d been wrong. I’d been so wrong.

I had thought that Poppy cutting me off for two years was the greatest pain I would ever have to endure. It had changed me, fundamentally changed me. Being broken up, simply being frozen out hurt … but this … this…

Falling forward, crippled by the pain in my stomach, I roared into the darkness of the empty park. My hands scratched at the hard earth beneath my palms, twigs slicing at my fingers, ripping up my nails.

But I welcomed it. This pain I could cope with, but the pain inside…

Poppy’s face flashed into my mind’s eye. Her perfect damn face as she entered the den tonight. Her smiling face finding Ruby and Deacon, and that smile fading from her lips when her eyes found mine. I saw the devastation flash across her face when she saw Avery sitting beside me, my arm around her shoulders.

What she hadn’t seen was me watching her from the kitchen window as she sat outside with Jorie. She hadn’t seen me arrive when I’d never planned to be there in the first place. When Judson texted me that Poppy had arrived, nothing could hold me back.

She’d ignored me. From the minute I saw her in the hallway last week, she’d never said a word to me.

And it killed me.

I thought when I came back to Blossom Grove there would be answers. I thought I’d discover why she pulled away.

I choked on a strangled sob. I never, ever, in my wildest dreams, thought it could be anything like this. Because it’s Poppy. Poppymin. My Poppy.

She couldn’t die.

She couldn’t leave me behind.

She couldn’t leave any of us behind.

Nothing made sense if she wasn’t around. She had more life to live. She was meant to be with me for eternity.

Poppy and Rune for infinity.

Forever always.

Months? I couldn’t … she couldn’t…

My body shook as another raw bellow ripped from my throat, the feeling of this pain no less than if I were being hung, drawn and quartered.

Tears fell freely down my face, pouring on to the dried dirt below my hands. My body was stuck in place, my legs refused to move.

I didn’t know what to do. What the hell was there to do? How did you get past not being able to help?

Tipping my head back to the star-filled sky, I closed my eyes. “Poppy,” I whispered, as the salt from my tears forced its way into my mouth. “Poppymin,” I murmured again, my endearment fading to nothing on the breeze.

In my mind I saw Poppy’s green eyes, as real as if she was sitting in front of me … I have a matter of months left to live, Rune. There’s nothing anyone can do…

This time my cries didn’t clog in my throat. They were freed and they were many. My body shuddered with the force of them when I thought of what she must have gone through. Without me. Without me beside her, holding her hand. Without me kissing her head. Without me holding her in my arms when she was sad, when the treatment made her weak. I thought of her facing all of that pain with only half a heart. Half of her soul struggling to cope without its counterpart.

Mine.

I wasn’t sure how long I sat in the park. It felt like forever until I was able to stand. And as I walked, I felt like an imposter in my own body. Like I was trapped in a nightmare, and when I woke up I would be fifteen again. None of this would be happening. I would wake up in the blossom grove under our favorite tree, with Poppymin in my arms. She’d laugh at me when I woke up, pulling my arm tighter around her waist. She’d tip up her head, and I’d lower my head for a kiss.

And we’d kiss.

We’d kiss and we’d kiss. When I pulled back, with the sunlight on her face, she’d smile at me with her eyes still closed and whisper, “Kiss two thousand and fifty-three. In the blossom grove, beneath our favorite tree. With my Rune … and my heart almost burst.” I’d gather my camera in my hands and I’d wait, my eye ready at the lens for the moment she would open her eyes. That moment. That magical captured moment, where I’d see in her eyes how much she loved me. And I’d tell her I loved her back, as I ran the back of my hand gently down her cheek. Later I’d hang that picture on my wall so I could see it every single day…

The sound of an owl hooting pulled me from my daze. When I blinked back the fantasy, it hit me like a truck—it was exactly that: a fantasy. Then the pain surged back and stabbed me with the truth. I couldn’t bring myself to believe that she was dying.

My vision blurred with fresh tears, and it took me a moment to realize that I was at the tree that I’d pictured in my dreams. The one we always sat below. But when I looked up at it in the darkness, with the cool wind whipping through its branches, my stomach turned. The branches bare of leaves, their spindly arms twisting and turning, all reflected this moment in time.

The moment I knew that my girl was leaving.

I forced myself to walk; somehow, my feet led me home. But as I walked, my mind was a jumble of uncertainty—scattered, refusing to pin anything down. I didn’t know what to do, where to go. Tears poured ceaselessly from my eyes; the pain inside my body was settling into a new home. No part of me was spared.

I did it to save you…

Nothing could save me from this. The thought of her so sick, fighting to keep the light she beamed so bright from fading, destroyed me.

Arriving at my house, I stared across at the window that had captivated me for twelve years. I knew she was on the opposite side. The house was in darkness. But as I moved my feet forward, I slowly ground to a halt.

I couldn’t … I couldn’t face her … I couldn’t—

Turning on my heel, I rushed up the steps to my house and burst through the door. Tears of anger and sadness were ripping through me, both fighting for dominance. I was being torn apart from the inside.

I passed the living room. “Rune!” my mamma called. I instantly heard the catch in her voice.

My feet drew to a stop. When I faced my mamma, who was standing up from the couch, I saw tears tracking down her cheeks.

It hit me like a hammer-blow.

She knew.

Mamma stepped forward, her hand outstretched. I stared at it, but I couldn’t take it. I couldn’t…

I rushed for my bedroom. I smashed through the door and then I just stood there. I stood dead center and looked around, searching for an idea of what to do next.

But I didn’t know. My hands lifted to my hair and gripped at the strands. I choked on the sounds leaving my mouth. I drowned in the damn tears tracking down my cheeks, because I didn’t know what the hell to do.

I took a step forward, then stopped. I moved to go to my bed, then I stopped. My heart thumped in a slow, lurching beat. I fought to drag air through my clogged lungs. I fought to not fall to the floor.

And then I broke.

I let the waiting anger free. I let it infuse me and carry me forward. Reaching my bed, I bent to grip the frame and, with a loud roar, I lifted it with all my strength, overturning the mattress and the sturdy wooden frame. I moved to my desk and, with one swipe, cleared the top. Catching my laptop before it hit the floor, I spun where I stood and hurled it into the wall. I heard it shatter, but it didn’t help. Nothing was helping. The pain was still here. The gut-wrenching truth.

The goddamn tears.

Clenching my fists, I threw back my head and I screamed. I screamed and I screamed until my voice was rough and my throat was raw. Dropping to my knees, I let myself drown in this grief.

Then I heard my door open and I glanced up. My mamma stepped through. I shook my head, raising my hand to ward her off. But she kept coming.

“No,” I rasped, trying to move out of her way. But she didn’t listen, instead she dropped to the floor beside me. “No!” I spat out harder, but her arms stretched out and wrapped around my neck.

“No!” I fought, but she pulled me to her, and I lost all that fight. I collapsed into her arms and I cried. I screamed and I cried into the arms of the woman I’d barely spoken to in two years. But right now, I needed her. I needed someone who understood.

Understood what losing Poppy would be like.

So I let it all out. I gripped on to her so tight I thought it would leave a bruise. But my mamma never moved; she cried with me. She sat quietly, cradling my head as I lost all strength.

Then I heard movement from the doorway.

My pappa was watching us with tears in his eyes, sadness on his face. And that reignited the flame in my stomach. Seeing the man that took me away, that forced me from Poppy when she was about to need me most, it snapped something inside.

Pushing back from my mamma, I hissed at him, “Get out.”

My mamma stiffened and I pushed her back further, glaring at my pappa. He held up his hands, shock now etched across his face. “Rune…,” he said in a calm voice.

It only fueled the flames.

“I said get out!” I stumbled to my feet.

My pappa glanced at my mamma. When he looked back at me, my hands were clenched. I embraced the rage burning inside me.

“Rune, son. You’re in shock, you’re hurting—”

“Hurting? Hurting? You have no damn idea!” I roared, and stepped an inch closer to where he stood. My mamma jumped to her feet. I ignored her as she tried to move into my path. My pappa reached forward and pushed her behind him and out into the hallway.

My pappa closed the door slightly, blocking her out.

“Get the hell out,” I said one last time, feeling all the hatred I had for this man boiling to the surface.

“I’m sorry, son,” he whispered, and he let a teardrop fall to his cheek. He had the audacity to stand before me and shed a tear.

He had no friggin’ right!

“Don’t,” I warned, my voice cut and raw. “Don’t you dare stand there and cry. Don’t you dare stand there and tell me you’re sorry. You have no damn right when you were the one who took me away. You took me from her when I didn’t want to go. You took me from her while she got sick. And now … now … she’s dy—” I couldn’t finish the sentence. I couldn’t bring myself to say that word. Instead, I ran. I ran at my pappa and slammed my hands on his broad chest.

He staggered back and hit the wall. “Rune!” I heard my mamma shout from the hallway. Ignoring her plea, I fisted my pappa’s collar in my hands and brought my face to hover just in front of his.

“You took me away for two years. And because I was gone she cut me off to save me. Me. Save me from the pain of being so far away and not being able to comfort her or hold her when she was in pain. You made it so I couldn’t be with her while she fought.” I swallowed, but managed to add, “And now it’s too late. She has months…” My voice broke. “Months…” I threw my hands down and stepped back, more tears and pain taking hold.

With my back to him, I said, “There’s no coming back from this. I’ll never forgive you for taking me away from her. Never. We’re done.”

“Rune…”

“Get out,” I snarled. “Get the hell out of my room and get the hell out of my life. I’m done with you. So damn done.”

Seconds later I heard the door shut, and the house fell into silence. But to me, in this moment, the house sounded like it was screaming.

Pushing the hair from my face, I slumped down on the overturned mattress, then leaned my back against the wall. For minutes, or it could have been hours, I stared at nothing. My room was dark save for the light from a small lamp in the corner of the room that somehow had survived my rage.

I lifted my eyes, and they settled on a photo hanging on the wall. I frowned, knowing I hadn’t put it there. My mamma must have hung it today when she unpacked my room.

And I stared.

I stared at Poppy, only days before we left, dancing in the blossom grove, the cherry blossoms she loved so much in full flower around her. Her arms were stretched to the sky as she twirled, her head tipped back as she laughed.

My heart clenched at seeing her this way. Because this was Poppymin. The girl who made me smile. The girl who would run to the blossom grove, laughing and dancing all the way.

The one who told me to stay away from her. I’ll stay away from you. You stay away from me. We’ll finally put us to rest…

But I couldn’t. I couldn’t leave her. She couldn’t leave me. She needed me and I needed her. I didn’t care what she had said; there was no way I was leaving her to endure this alone. I couldn’t if I tried.

Before I could over-think it, I jumped to my feet and raced to the window. I took one glance at the window opposite mine and let instinct take control. As quietly as possible, I opened my window and climbed through. My heart beat in tandem with my feet as I pounded across the grass. I stopped dead. Then with a deep breath, I placed my hand under the window and pulled up. It moved.

It was unlocked.

It was as if no time had passed. I climbed inside and gently closed the window. A curtain was in the way, something that wasn’t there before. Silently pushing it aside, I stepped forward, stopping as I drank in the familiar room.

Poppy’s sweet-scented perfume, the one she’d always worn, hit my nose first. I closed my eyes, chasing away the heaviness on my chest. When I opened them again, my eyes fell to Poppy in her bed. Her breathing was soft as she slept, facing me, her body illuminated only by the dull glow of her nightlight.

Then my stomach dropped. How the hell did she think I would ever stay away? Even if she hadn’t told me why she cut me off, I would have found my way back to her. Even through all the hurt, pain and anger, I would have been drawn back, like a moth to a flame.

I could never stay away.

But as I drank her in, her pink lips pursed in sleep, her face flushed with warmth, I felt as if a spear had slammed into my chest. I was going to lose her.

I was going to lose the only reason I lived.

I rocked on my feet. I struggled to cope with the thought. Tears fell onto my cheeks, just as an old floorboard creaked beneath me. I squeezed my eyes shut. When my eyes opened, it was to see Poppy staring at me from her bed, her eyes heavy with sleep. Then, clearly seeing my face—the tears on my cheeks, the grief in my eyes—her expression morphed into a mask of pain, and slowly, she opened her arms.

It was instinctive. A primal power that only Poppy held over me. My feet dragged me forward at the sight of those arms; my legs finally gave out as I reached the bed, knees hitting the floor, head falling into Poppy’s lap. And, like a dam, I burst. The tears came thick and fast as Poppy wrapped her arms around my head.

Lifting my arms, I wrapped them—iron-tight—around her waist. Poppy’s fingers stroked through my hair as, shaking, I fell apart in her lap, tears drenching the nightdress covering her thighs.

“Shh,” Poppy whispered, rocking me back and forth. The sweet sound was like heaven to my ears. “It’s okay,” she added. It struck me hard that she was comforting me. But I couldn’t stop the pain. I couldn’t stop the grief.

And I held her. I held her so tightly I thought she would ask me to let go. But she didn’t, and I wouldn’t. I didn’t dare let go, in case when I lifted my head she wasn’t here.

I needed her to be here.

I needed her to stay.

“It’s okay,” Poppy soothed again. This time, I lifted my head until our eyes met.

“It’s not,” I said hoarsely. “Nothing about this is okay.”

Poppy’s eyes were shining, but no tears fell. Instead, she tipped my face up, one finger under my chin, and she stroked down my wet cheek with another. I watched, not breathing, as a small smile began tugging on her lips.

My stomach flipped, the first sensation I had felt in my body since the numbness that followed her revelation had overtaken me.

“There you are,” she said, so quietly I almost missed it. “My Rune.”

My heart stopped beating.

Her face melted into pure happiness as she pushed the hair off my forehead and ran her fingertip down my nose and along the edge of my jaw. I stayed completely still, trying to commit this moment to memory—a photo in my mind. Her hands on my face. That look of happiness, that light shining from within.

“I used to wonder what you looked like, older. I wondered if you had cut your hair. I wondered if you had grown taller, changed in size. I wondered if your eyes had stayed the same.” The side of her lip twitched. “I wondered if you had grown more handsome, which seemed impossible to me.” Her smile fell. “And I see you have. When I saw you in the hallway last week, I couldn’t believe you were there, standing in front of me, more beautiful than I could ever have imagined.” She pulled playfully on my hair. “With your bright blond hair longer still. Your eyes as vibrant a blue as they’d ever been. And so tall and broad.” Poppy’s eyes met mine, and she said softly, “My Viking.”

My eyes closed as I tried to chase away the lump in my throat. When I opened them, Poppy was watching me like she always did—in complete adoration.

Rising higher on my knees, I leaned closer, seeing Poppy’s eyes soften as I pressed my forehead to hers, as carefully as if she were a china doll. As soon as our skin touched, I drew in a long breath, and whispered, “Poppymin.”

This time it was Poppy’s tears that fell to her lap. I pushed my hand into her hair and held her close. “Don’t cry, Poppymin. I can’t stand to see your tears.”

“You mistake their meaning,” she whispered in return.

I moved my head back slightly, searching her eyes. Poppy’s gaze met mine and she smiled. I could see the contentment on her pretty face as she explained, “I never thought I would hear you say that word to me again.” She swallowed hard. “I never thought I would feel you this close to me again. I never dreamed I would feel this again.”

“Feel what?” I asked.

“This,” she said and brought my hand to her chest. Right over her heart. It was racing. I stilled, feeling something in my own chest stirring back to life, and she said, “I never thought I’d ever feel fully whole again.” A tear fell from her eye and onto my hand, splashing on my skin. “I never thought I’d regain half my heart before I…” She trailed off, but we both knew what she meant. Her smile dropped and her gaze bored through to my own. “Poppy and Rune. Two halves of the same whole. Reunited at last. When it matters most.”

Poppy…,” I said, but couldn’t fend off the whip of pain cracking deep inside.

Poppy blinked, then blinked again, until all her tears were gone. She stared at me, her head dropping to one side, like she was working out a difficult puzzle.

“Poppy,” I said, my voice husky and coarse. “Let me stay awhile. I can’t … I can’t … I don’t know what to do…”

Poppy’s warm palm landed gently on my cheek. “There’s nothing to do, Rune. Nothing to do but weather the storm.”

My words became trapped in my throat and I closed my eyes. When they opened again, she was watching me.

“I’m not scared,” she assured me confidently, and I could see that she meant it. One hundred percent meant it. My Poppy. Tiny in size but filled with courage and light.

I had never been more proud to love her than I was at that moment.

My attention dropped to her bed—a bed that was bigger than the one she had had two years ago. She seemed too small for the large mattress. As she sat in the center, she looked like a little girl.

Clearly seeing me looking at the bed, Poppy shuffled back. I could detect an edge of wariness in her expression, and I couldn’t blame her. I knew I was not the boy she waved goodbye to two years ago. I was changed.

I wasn’t sure I could be her Rune ever again.

Poppy swallowed, and after a moment’s hesitation, she patted the mattress beside her. My heart raced. She was letting me stay. After everything. After everything I’d done since I returned, she was letting me stay.

Making to stand up, my legs felt unsteady. The tears had stained my cheeks, grated my throat to soreness, and the grief, the surreal revelation about the pain of Poppy’s illness … it had left a residual numbness in my body. Every inch of me broken, patched back up with Band-Aids—Band-Aids over open wounds.

Temporary.

Futile.

Useless.

I toed off my boots, then climbed onto the bed. Poppy shifted to lie on her natural side of the bed, and I, awkwardly, lay on mine. In a move so familiar to us both, we turned onto our sides and faced one another.

But it wasn’t as familiar as it once was. Poppy had changed. I had changed. Everything had changed.

And I didn’t know how to adjust.

Minutes and minutes of silence ticked by. Poppy seemed content to watch me. But I had one question. The one question I had wanted to ask her when the contact stopped. The thought that had burrowed inside of me, turning dark for want of an answer. The one thought that made me feel sick. The one question that still had the potential to rip me apart. Even now, when my world couldn’t shatter anymore.

“Ask me,” Poppy said suddenly, keeping her voice low so as not to wake her parents. Surprise must have shown on my face, because she shrugged, looking so damn cute. “I may not know the boy you are now, but I recognize that expression. The one that’s building up to a question.”

I ran my finger over the sheet between us, my attention focused on the movement I was making. “You do know me,” I whispered in reply, wanting to believe that more than anything. Because Poppy was the only one who ever truly knew the real me. Even now, buried under all this rage and anger, after the distance of two silent years, she still knew the heart underneath.

Poppy’s fingers moved closer to mine in the neutral territory between us. The no-man’s-land that separated our bodies. As I watched our two hands, straining for each other, but not quite reaching, I was engulfed with the need to get my camera, a need I hadn’t felt for a long time.

I wanted this moment captured.

I wanted this picture. I wanted this moment in time, to hold onto forever.

“I know some of your question, I think,” Poppy said, pulling me back from my thoughts. Her cheeks blushed, deep pink spreading over her fair skin. “I’ll be honest, since you’ve returned, I don’t recognize much. But there are times that there are glimpses of the boy I love. Enough to inspire hope that he still lies in wait underneath.” Her face was determined. “I think, above anything, that I want to see him fight through what has him hidden. I think seeing him again is my biggest wish, before I go.”

I turned my head away, unwilling to listen to her talk about leaving, about the letdown I was, about the fact that her time was running out. Then, like a soldier’s act of courage, her hand breached the distance between us and her fingertip grazed over mine. I turned my head back around. My fingers opened at her touch. Poppy ran her fingertip along the flesh of my palm, tracing the lines.

The hint of a smile came on her lips. My stomach sank, wondering how many more times I would see that smile. Wondering how she found the strength to smile at all.

Then, slowly retreating to where it had lain before, Poppy’s hand grew still. She looked at me, patiently waiting for the question that I still had not asked.

Feeling my heart race in trepidation, I opened my mouth and asked, “Was the silence … was it only about … your illness, or was it … was it because…” Images from our final night flashed into my brain. Me lying over her body, our mouths pressed together in slow, soft kisses. Poppy telling me she was ready. Us losing our clothes, me watching her face as I pushed forward, and afterward as she lay in my arms. Falling asleep beside her, nothing left unsaid between us.

“What?” Poppy asked, wide-eyed.

Taking in a quick breath, I blurted, “Was it because I pushed too far? Did I force you? Pressure you?” Biting the bullet, I asked, “Did you regret it?”

Poppy tensed, her eyes glistening. I wondered for a minute if she was about to cry, confess that what I had feared these past two years was true. That I hurt her. She put her trust in me and I hurt her.

Instead, Poppy rose from the bed and knelt down. I heard her pulling something out from underneath. When she rose to her feet, in her hand was a familiar glass mason jar. A mason jar filled with hundreds of pink paper hearts.

A thousand boy-kisses.

Poppy carefully kneeled on the bed, and tipping the jar in the direction of the nightlight’s glow, she opened the lid and began to search. As her hand swilled around the paper hearts, I tracked the ones that traveled past the glass on my side. Most were blank. The jar was coated in dust—a sign it hadn’t been opened for a long time.

A mixture of sadness and hope stirred inside me.

Hope that no other boy had touched her lips.

Sadness that the greatest adventure of her life had come to standstill. No more kisses.

Then that sadness cut a hole right through me.

Months. She only had months left, not a lifetime, to fill this jar. She would never write the message on a heart on her wedding day like she wanted. She would never be a mamaw, reading these kisses to her grandchildren. She wouldn’t even live out her teens.

“Rune?” Poppy asked when new tears fell down my cheeks. I used the back of my hand to wipe them away. I hesitated to meet Poppy’s eyes. I didn’t want to make her feel sad. Instead, when I glanced up, all I saw on Poppy’s face was understanding, an understanding which quickly changed to shyness.

Nervousness.

In her outstretched hand was a pink heart. Only this heart wasn’t blank. It was full, both sides. This heart’s ink was pink, practically disguising the message.

Poppy pushed her hand further out. “Take it,” she insisted. I did as she asked.

Sitting up, I shifted into the path of light. I focused hard on the light ink, until I could make out the words. Kiss three hundred and fifty-five. In my bedroom. After I made love to my Rune. My heart almost burst. I turned the heart over and read the other side.

I stopped breathing.

It was the best night of my life … as special as special can be.

I closed my eyes, yet another wash of emotion flowing through me. If I had been standing, I’m sure it would have brought me to my knees.

Because she loved it.

That night, what we did, it was wanted. I hadn’t hurt her.

I choked down on a noise that was slipping up my throat. Poppy’s hand was on my arm. “I thought I’d destroyed us,” I whispered, looking into her eyes. “I thought you’d regretted us.”

“I didn’t,” she whispered back. With a shaking hand, a gesture rusty from too much time spent apart, she pushed back the fallen strands of hair from my face. I closed my eyes under her touch, then opened them when she said, “When everything happened…,” she explained, “when I was seeking treatment,”—tears, this time, did slip down her cheeks—“when that treatment stopped working … I thought of that night often.” Poppy closed her eyes, her long dark lashes kissing her cheek. Then she smiled. Her hand stilled in my hair. “I thought of how gentle you were with me. How it felt … to be with you, that close. Like we were the two halves of the heart we always called ourselves.” She sighed. “It was like home. You and me, together, were infinity—we were joined. In that moment, that moment when our breathing was rough and you held me so tightly … it was the best moment of my life.”

Her eyes opened again. “It was the moment I replayed when it hurt. It is the moment I think of when I slip, when I begin to feel scared. It’s the moment that reminds me that I’m lucky. Because in that moment I experienced the love my mamaw sent me on this adventure of a thousand boy-kisses to find. That moment when you know that you are loved so much, that you are the center of somebody’s world so wonderfully, that you lived … even if it was only for a short time.”

Keeping the paper heart in one hand, I reached up with the other and brought Poppy’s wrist to my lips. I pressed a small kiss over her pulse, feeling it flutter beneath my mouth. She drew in a sharp breath.

“No one else has kissed your lips but me, have they?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “I promised you I wouldn’t. Even though we weren’t speaking. Even though I never thought I’d see you again, I would never break my promise. These lips are yours. They were only ever yours.”

My heart stuttered and, releasing her wrist, I lifted my fingers to press them across her lips—the lips that she had gifted to me.

Poppy’s breathing slowed as I touched her mouth. Her lashes fluttered and heat built in her cheeks. My breathing quickened. Quickened because I had ownership of those lips. They were still mine.

Forever always.

“Poppy,” I whispered, and leaned toward her. Poppy froze, but I didn’t kiss her. I wouldn’t. I could see that she couldn’t read me. She didn’t know me.

I hardly knew myself these days.

Instead, I laid my lips on my own fingers—still over her lips, forming a barrier between our mouths—and just breathed her in. I inhaled her scent—sugar and vanilla. My body felt energized simply from being near her.

Then my heart cracked down the center as I moved back and she asked brokenly, “How many?”

I frowned. I searched her face for a clue to what she was asking. Poppy swallowed and, this time, she placed her fingers over my lips. “How many?” she repeated.

I knew then exactly what she was asking. Because she stared at my lips like they were a betrayer. She stared at them like something she once loved, lost, and could never win back.

Ice-coldness ran through me as Poppy pulled her shaking hand away. Her expression was guarded, her breath held in her chest as though protecting herself from what I would say. But I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t, that look on her face slew me.

Poppy exhaled and said, “I know about Avery, of course, but were there any others in Oslo? I mean, I know there will have been, but, was it a lot?”

“Does it matter?” I asked, my voice low. Poppy’s paper heart was still in my hand, the significance of it almost scalding my skin.

The promise of our lips.

The promise of our halved hearts.

Forever always.

Poppy slowly began to shake her head, but then, shoulders slumping, she nodded once. “Yes,” she whispered, “it matters. It shouldn’t. I set you free.” She dropped her head. “But it does. It matters more than you’d understand.”

She was wrong. I understood why it mattered so much. It did to me too.

“I was away a long time,” I said. In that moment, I knew that the anger that held me captive had taken back control. Some sick part of me wanted to hurt her like she’d hurt me.

“I know,” Poppy agreed, her head still low.

“I’m seventeen,” I continued. Poppy’s eyes snapped to mine.

Her face had paled. “Oh,” she said, and I could hear every hint of pain in that tiny word. “So what I feared is true. You have been with others, intimately … like you were with me. I … I just…”

Poppy moved to the edge of the bed, but I reached out and caught her retreating wrist. “Why does it matter?” I demanded, and saw her eyes glisten with tears.

The anger within me dimmed slightly, but it came back as I thought of those lost years. Years I’d spent drinking and partying away my pain, while Poppy was sick. It almost made me shake with rage.

“I don’t know,” Poppy said, then shook her head. “That was a lie. Because I do know. It’s because you’re mine. And despite it all, all the things that have happened between us, I kept a vain hope that you would keep your promise. That it meant that much to you too. Despite everything.”

I dropped my hand from her wrist, and Poppy got to her feet. She headed for her door. Just as she reached for the doorknob, I said quietly, “It did.”

Poppy froze, her back bunched. “What?”

She didn’t turn. Instead, I got to my feet and walked to where she stood. I leaned down, making sure that she would hear my confession. My breath blew her hair from her ear, as I said, so quietly I could barely hear myself, “The promise did mean as much to me. You meant that much to me … you still do. Somewhere, underneath all this anger … there’s you and only you. It will always be that way for me.” Poppy still hadn’t moved. I drew in closer. “Forever always.”

She turned, until our chests were touching and her green eyes were staring into mine. “You … I don’t understand,” she said.

I slowly lifted my hand and pushed it through her hair. Poppy’s eyes fluttered to a close as I did so, but they opened again to watch me. “I kept my promise,” I admitted and watched the shock cross her face.

She shook her head. “But I saw … you kissed—”

I kept my promise,” I interrupted. “Since the day I left you, I haven’t kissed anyone else. My lips are still yours. There’s never been anyone else. There never will be.”

Poppy’s mouth opened, then closed. When it opened again, she said, “But you and Avery…”

My jaw clenched. “I knew you were near. I was pissed. I wanted to hurt you like you hurt me.” Poppy shook her head in disbelief. I stepped closer still. “I knew seeing me with Avery would do that to you. So I sat beside her and waited until you appeared. I wanted you to believe that I was about to kiss her … until I saw your face. Until I saw you run from the room. Until I couldn’t stand seeing the pain I’d caused.”

Tears spilled down Poppy’s cheeks. “Why would you do that? Rune, you wouldn’t—”

“I would and I did,” I said, curtly.

“Why?” she whispered.

I smiled humorlessly. “Because you’re right. I’m not the boy you knew. I was filled with so much anger when I was taken from you, that after a while, it was the only thing I felt. I tried to hide it when we talked, fought against it, knowing I still had you with me even if we were thousands of miles apart. But when you cut me off, I didn’t care anymore. I let it consume me. It has consumed me so much since then that it has become me.” I reached down for Poppy’s hand and brought it over my chest.

“I’m half a heart. This, who I am now, was due to a life devoid of you. This darkness, this anger, was born from you not being by my side. Poppymin. My adventurer. My girl.” And then the pain returned. For that brief few minutes, I had forgotten our new reality. “And now,” I said through gritted teeth, “now you tell me you’re leaving me for good. I…” I choked on my words.

“Rune,” Poppy murmured, and threw herself into my arms, wrapping hers tightly around my waist.

Instantly, my arms locked around her like a vise. As her body melted into mine, I breathed. I breathed the first clean breath in a long while. Then it became restricted, strangled, when I said, “I can’t lose you, Poppymin. I can’t. I can’t let you go. I can’t live without you. You’re my forever always. You’re meant to walk beside me through this life. You need me and I need you. That’s all there is to it.” I felt her shaking in my arms. “I won’t be able to let you go. Because wherever you go, I have to go too. I’ve tried living without you, it doesn’t work.”

Slowly, and as carefully as she could, Poppy lifted her head, separating our bodies just enough to look at me and whisper brokenly, “I can’t take you with me where I’m going.”

As her words sunk in, I stumbled back, freeing my arms from around her waist. I didn’t stop until I sat down on the edge of the bed. I couldn’t handle it. How the hell do I deal with all of this?

I couldn’t understand how Poppy could be so strong.

How did she face this death sentence with such dignity? All I wanted to do was curse at the world, to destroy everything in my path.

My head fell forward. And I cried. I cried tears that I didn’t realize I had left. It was my reserve, the last wave of the devastation I was feeling. The tears that acknowledged the truth I didn’t want to accept.

That Poppymin was dying.

She was really, truly dying.

I felt the bed dip beside me. I smelled her sweet scent. I followed her as she guided me to lie back in bed. I followed her silent instruction to fall into her arms. I released everything that had been pent up inside as she stroked her hands through my hair. I wrapped my arms around her waist and held on, trying my damnedest to memorize how this felt. How she felt in my arms. Her heartbeat strong and her body warm.

I wasn’t sure how much time had passed, but, eventually, the tears dried up. I didn’t move from Poppy’s arms. She didn’t stop caressing my back with her fingers.

I managed to wet my throat enough to ask, “How did it all happen, Poppymin? How did you find out?”

Poppy was quiet for a few seconds, before she sighed. “It doesn’t matter, Rune.”

I sat up and looked into her eyes. “I want to know.”

Poppy ran the back of her hand over my cheek and nodded. “I know you do. And you will. But not tonight. This—us, like this—is all that matters tonight. Nothing more.”

I didn’t break my gaze from hers, and neither did she. A numb kind of peace had settled between us. The air was thick as I leaned in, wanting nothing more than to press my mouth to hers. To feel her lips against mine.

To add another kiss to her jar.

When my mouth was just a hairsbreadth from Poppy’s, I moved to kiss her cheek instead. It was soft and gentle.

But it wasn’t enough.

Shifting upward, I pressed another kiss, and another, to every inch of her cheek, over her forehead and across her nose. Poppy shifted beneath me. As I drew back, I guessed from the understanding in her expression that Poppy knew I wasn’t pushing things.

Because as much as I didn’t want to accept it, we were different people now. The boy and girl who kissed each other as easily as breathing had changed.

A true kiss would come when we’d worked our way back to us.

I planted one more kiss on the end of Poppy’s nose, causing a light giggle to spill from her lips. It seemed as if the anger had subsided just enough to allow me to feel its joy take root in my heart.

As I pressed my forehead to Poppy’s, I assured her, “My lips are yours. Not for anyone else.”

In response, Poppy whispered a kiss on my cheek. I felt the effect of this kiss travel all through my body. I tucked my head in the crook of her neck and allowed myself a small smile when she whispered in my ear, “My lips are yours too.”

I rolled to pull Poppy into my arms, and our eyes eventually drifted to a close. I fell asleep quicker than I thought. Tired, heartbroken and emotionally scarred, sleep came quickly. But then it always did when Poppy was by my side.

It was the third moment that defined my life. The night I found out I would lose the girl I loved. Knowing our moments together were numbered, I held on to her tighter, refusing to let go.

She fell asleep doing exactly the same…

…a powerful echo of who we used to be.

 

* * *

 

The sound of rustling woke me.

I rubbed the sleep from my eyes. Poppy’s quiet silhouette drifted toward the window. “Poppymin?

Poppy halted, then finally looked back at me. I swallowed, chasing away the razor blades in my throat, as Poppy came to stand before me. She was wearing a thick parka coat over track pants and a sweater. A backpack lay at her feet.

I frowned. It was still dark.

“What are you doing?”

Poppy made her way back to the window, looking back to playfully ask, “Are you coming?”

She grinned at me and my heart cracked. It splintered at how beautiful she was. My lips curved upward at her infectious happiness, and I asked again, “Where the hell are you going?”

Poppy pulled back the curtain and pointed at the sky. “To watch the sunrise.” She cocked her head to the side as she looked at me. “I know it’s been a while, but did you forget I did this?”

A wave of warmth flowed through me. I hadn’t forgotten.

Getting to my feet, I allowed myself a small huff of a laugh. I immediately stopped. Poppy noticed, and sighing sadly, she walked back to me. I glanced down at her, wanting nothing more than to wrap my hand around the nape of her neck and take her mouth with my own.

Poppy studied my face, then took my hand. Taken aback, I stared down at her fingers, wrapped around mine. They looked so small as they gently squeezed my hand.

“It’s okay, you know?” she said.

“What?” I asked, edging closer.

Poppy’s grip stayed on my hand as the other lifted toward my face. She rose to her tiptoes and laid her fingertips on my lips.

My heart beat a little faster.

“It’s okay to laugh,” she said, her voice as soft as a feather. “It’s okay to smile. It’s okay to feel happy. Or what’s the point in life?” What she was saying hit me hard. Because I didn’t want to do or feel those things. I felt guilty just thinking about being happy.

“Rune,” Poppy said. Her hand drifted down to rest on the side of my neck. “I know how you must be feeling. I’ve dealt with this for a while now. But I also know how it makes me feel seeing my favorite people in the world, the ones that I love with my whole heart, hurt and upset.”

Poppy’s eyes shone. It made me feel worse. “Poppy…,” I went to say, covering her hand with my own.

“It’s worse than any pain. It’s worse than facing death. Seeing my illness leech the joy from those I love is the worst thing of all.” She swallowed, drew in a soft breath, and whispered, “My time is limited. We all know that. So I want that time to be special…” Poppy smiled. And it was one of her wide, bright smiles. The kind that could make even an angry guy like me see a sliver of light. “As special as special can be.”

And so I smiled.

I let her see the happiness she brought out in me. I let her see that those words—the words from our childhood—had broken through the dark.

At least for the moment.

“Freeze,” Poppy suddenly said. I did. A slight giggle left her throat.

“What?” I asked, still holding her hand.

“Your smile,” she replied and playfully dropped her mouth as if in shock. “It’s still there!” she whispered, dramatically. “I thought it was a mythical legend like Sasquatch or the Loch Ness Monster. But it’s there! I’ve witnessed it with my own eyes!”

Poppy framed her face with her hands and batted her eyelashes in exaggeration.

I shook my head, fighting a real laugh this time. When my laugh had calmed, Poppy was still smiling at me. “Only you,” I said. Her smile softened. Inching down, I pulled the collar of her coat closer to her neck. “Only you could make me smile.”

Poppy closed her eyes, just for a moment. “Then that’s what I’ll be doing as much as I can.” She looked into my eyes. “I’ll make you smile.” She rose higher onto her toes, until our faces were almost touching. “And I’ll be determined.”

A bird chirped outside, and Poppy’s gaze drifted to the window. “We have to go if we want to catch it,” she urged, then stepped back, breaking our moment.

“Then let’s go,” I replied and, pulling on my boots, followed her. I picked up her bag and threw it over my shoulder; Poppy smiled to herself as I did.

I slid open the window. Poppy dashed to her bed. When she came back, she was holding a blanket in her hands. She glanced up at me. “It’s cold this early.”

“That coat won’t be warm enough?” I asked.

Poppy held the blanket to her chest. “This is for you.” She pointed to my t-shirt. “You’ll be cold in the grove.”

“You know I’m Norwegian, right?” I asked dryly.

Poppy nodded. “You’re a real life Viking.” She leaned in. “And between you and me, you’re really good on adventures, as predicted.”

I shook my head in amusement. She rested her hand on my arm.

“But, Rune?”

“Yes?”

“Even Vikings get cold.”

I nudged my head toward the open window. “Go on or we’ll miss the sun.”

Poppy slid through the window, still smiling, and I followed behind. The morning was cold, the wind stronger than the night before.

Poppy’s hair whipped at her face. Concerned that she was cold, and that it might make her sick, I reached for her arm and pulled her to face me. Poppy looked surprised, until I lifted her heavy hood and pulled it up over her head.

I tied the strings to secure it in place. Poppy watched me the whole time. My actions were slowed under her rapt attention. When the bow was tied, my hands stilled, and I looked deeply into her eyes.

“Rune,” she said after several strained seconds of silence. I tipped my chin, quietly waiting for her to continue. “I can still see your light. Beneath the anger, you’re still there.”

Her words made me step back in surprise. I glanced up at the sky. It was beginning to lighten. I walked forward. “You coming?”

Poppy sighed and rushed to catch up with me. I slipped my hands into my pockets as we made our way, in silence, to the grove. Poppy was looking all around her on the way. I tried to follow what she was seeing, but it only ever appeared to be birds or trees or grass swaying in the wind. I frowned, wondering what had her so transfixed. But this was Poppy, she’d always danced to her own drumbeat. She’d always seen more going on in the world than anyone else I knew.

She saw the light piercing the dark. She saw the good through the bad.

It was the only explanation I had for why she hadn’t told me to leave her alone. I knew she saw me as different, changed. Even if she hadn’t told me so, I would have seen it in the way she watched me. Her stare was guarded sometimes.

She would never have looked at me like that before.

When we entered the grove, I knew where we would sit. We walked to the biggest tree—our tree—and Poppy opened her backpack. She pulled out a blanket to sit on.

When she had laid it out, she gestured for me to sit. I did, resting my back against the wide tree trunk. Poppy sat in the center of the blanket and leaned back on her hands.

The wind seemed to have dropped. Untying the bow from the hood’s strings, she let the hood fall back, showing her face. Poppy’s attention turned to the brightening horizon, the sky now gray, with tints of red and orange pushing through.

Reaching into my pocket, I pulled out my smokes and brought one to my mouth. I struck the lighter, lit the smoke and drew in a drag, feeling the instant it hit my lungs.

The smoke billowed around me as I exhaled slowly. I caught Poppy watching me closely. Resting an arm on my raised knee, I stared right back at her.

“You smoke.”

Ja.”

“You don’t want to stop?” she asked. I could hear in her voice that this was a request. And I could see by the flicker of a smile on her lips that she knew I was onto her.

I shook my head. It calmed me. I wouldn’t be quitting anytime soon.

We sat in silence, until Poppy looked back at the rising dawn and asked, “Did you ever watch the sunrise in Oslo?”

I followed her gaze to the now-pink horizon. The stars were beginning to disappear in a fan of light.

“No.”

“Why not?” Poppy asked, shifting her body to face me.

I took another drag of my smoke and tipped my head back to exhale. I lowered my head and shrugged. “Never occurred to me.”

Poppy sighed and turned away once more. “What an opportunity wasted,” she said, waving her arm toward the sky. “I’ve never been out of the US, never seen a sunrise anywhere else, and there you were, in Norway, and you never rose early to watch the new day roll in.”

“Once you’ve seen one sunrise, you’ve seen them all,” I replied.

Poppy shook her head sadly. When she looked at me, it was in pity. It made my stomach turn. “That’s not true,” she argued. “Every day is different. The colors, the shades, the impact on your soul.” She sighed and said, “Every day is a gift, Rune. If I’ve learned anything from the last couple of years, it’s that.”

I was silent.

Poppy tipped her head back and closed her eyes. “Like this wind. It’s cold because it’s early winter, and people run from it. They stay inside to keep warm. But I embrace it. I cherish the feeling of the wind on my face, the heat of the sun on my cheeks in the summer. I want to dance in the rain. I dream of lying in the snow, feeling its coldness in my bones.” She opened her eyes. The crest of the sun began to inch into the sky. “When I was getting treatment, when I was confined to my hospital bed, when I was in pain and going crazy from every aspect of my life, I would get the nurses to turn my bed to the window. The sunrise each day would calm me. It would restore my strength. It would fill me with hope.”

A trail of ash dropped onto the ground beside me. I realized that I hadn’t moved since she started talking. She faced me and said, “When I used to look out of that window, when I was missing you so much that it hurt worse than the chemo, I would stare at that breaking dawn and I would think of you. I would think of you watching the sunrise in Norway and it would bring me peace.”

I said nothing.

“Were you happy even once? Was there any part of the last two years where you weren’t sad or angry?”

The fire of anger that sat in my stomach flared to life. I shook my head. “No,” I replied as I flicked my dead smoke to the ground.

“Rune,” Poppy whispered. I saw the guilt in her eyes. “I thought you’d move on, eventually.” She lowered her eyes, but when she looked up again, she completely broke my heart. “I did it because we never thought I would last this long.” A weak, yet strangely powerful, smile graced her face. “I’ve been gifted more time. I’ve been gifted life,”—she breathed in deeply—“and now, to add to the miracles that keep coming my way, you’ve returned.”

I turned my head, unable to keep calm, unable to balance Poppy talking about her death so casually and my return so happily. I felt her move to sit beside me. Her sweet scent washed over me and I closed my eyes, breathing hard when I felt her arm press against mine.

Silence again hung between us, thickening the air. Then Poppy laid her hand over mine. I opened my eyes just as she pointed to the sun, now moving quickly, ushering in the new day. I laid my head back against the rough bark, watching a pink haze flood over the barren grove. My skin shivered with the cold. Poppy lifted the blanket next to her to lie over us both.

As soon as the thick woolen blanket had enveloped us in its warmth, her fingers threaded through mine, joining our hands. We watched the sun, until daylight fully arrived.

I felt the need to be honest. Pushing aside my pride, I confessed, “You hurt me.” My voice was coarse and low.

Poppy stiffened.

I didn’t look into her eyes, I couldn’t. Then I added, “You completely broke my heart.”

As the thick clouds cleared, the pink sky turned to blue. As the morning settled in, I felt Poppy move—she was wiping away a tear.

I winced, hating the fact that I had upset her. But she wanted to know why I was pissed 24/7. She wanted to know why I never watched a damn sunrise. She wanted to know why I had changed. That was the truth. And I was learning real fast that sometimes the truth was a bitch.

Poppy sniffed back a sob, and I lifted my arm and wrapped it around her shoulders. I expected her to resist, but instead she fell gently against my side. She let me hold her close.

I kept my attention on the sky, clenching my jaw as my eyes blurred with tears. I held them back.

“Rune,” Poppy said.

I shook my head. “It doesn’t matter.”

Poppy raised her head and turned my face to hers, her hand on my cheek. “Of course it matters, Rune. I hurt you.” She swallowed her tears. “It was never my intention. I desperately wanted to save you.”

I searched her eyes and I saw it. As much as it had hurt me, as much as her abrupt silence had destroyed me, sent me spiraling into a place I didn’t know how to fight free from, I could see that it was because she had loved me. Had wanted me to move on.

“I know,” I said, holding her closer.

“It didn’t work.”

“No,” I agreed, then pressed a kiss on her head. When she looked up at me, I brushed the tears off her face.

“What now?” she asked.

“What do you want to happen now?”

Poppy sighed and looked up at me through determined eyes. “I want the old Rune back.” My stomach sank and I edged backward. Poppy stopped me. “Rune—”

“I’m not the old Rune. I’m not sure I ever will be again.” I dropped my head, but then forced myself to face her. “I still want you the same, Poppymin, even if you don’t want me.”

“Rune,” she whispered, “I’ve just got you back. I don’t know this new you. My mind is foggy. I never expected to have you with me through this. I’m … I’m confused.” She squeezed my hand. “But at the same time, I feel full with new life. With the promise of us again. With knowing that, for at least the time I have left, I get to have you.” Her words danced in the air, as she asked nervously, “Don’t I?”

I ran my finger down her cheek. “Poppymin, you have me. You’ll always have me.” I cleared the lump in my throat and added, “I might be different from the boy you knew, but I’m yours.” I smirked, without humor. “Forever always.”

Poppy’s eyes softened. She nudged my shoulder then laid her head on it.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

I held her close, as tight as I could. “Christ, I’m sorry, Poppy. I don’t…” I couldn’t finish my words. But Poppy waited patiently until I dropped my head and continued. “I don’t how you’re not breaking apart with all this. I don’t know how you’re not…” I sighed. “I just don’t know how you’re finding the strength to keep going.”

“Because I love life.” She shrugged. “I always have.”

I felt like I was seeing a new side to Poppy. Or maybe I was being reminded of the girl I always knew she’d grow up to be.

Poppy gestured to the sky. “I’m the girl who wakes up early to watch the sunrise. I’m the girl who wants to see the good in everyone, the one who is taken away by a song, inspired by art.” Turning to me, she smiled. “I’m that girl, Rune. The one who waits out the storm simply to catch a glimpse of a rainbow. Why be miserable when you can be happy? It’s an obvious choice to me.”

I brought her hand up to my mouth and kissed the back of her hand. Her breathing changed, the tempo racing to double speed. Then Poppy pulled our joined hands to her mouth, twisting them so she could kiss my hand. She lowered them to her lap, tracing small patterns on my skin with the index finger of her free hand. My heart melted when I realized what she was drawing—infinity signs. Perfect figure eights.

“I know what lies ahead for me, Rune. I’m not naïve. But I also have a strong faith that there’s more to life than what we have right now, here, on this Earth. I believe that heaven awaits me. I believe that when I take my last breath and close my eyes in this life, I’ll awake in the next, healthy and at peace. I believe this with my whole heart.”

“Poppy,” I rasped, tearing apart inside at the thought of losing her, but so damn proud of her strength. She amazed me.

Poppy’s finger dropped from our hands and she smiled at me, not a hint of fear on her beautiful face. “It’ll be okay, Rune. I promise.”

“I’m not sure I’ll be okay without you.” I didn’t want to make her feel bad, but this was my truth.

“You will,” she said confidently. “Because I have faith in you.”

I didn’t say anything in response. What could I say?

Poppy looked at the bare trees around us. “I can’t wait for them to bloom again. I miss the sight of pretty pink petals. I miss walking into this grove and feeling like I’m stepping into a dream.” She lifted her hand and trailed it along a low-hanging branch.

Poppy flashed me an excited smile, then jumped to her feet, her hair blowing freely in the wind. She stepped onto the grass and stretched her hands into the air. Her head tipped back and she laughed. A laugh that ripped from her throat with pure abandon.

I didn’t move. I couldn’t. I was transfixed. My eyes refused to move away from watching Poppy as she began to turn, spinning as the wind blew through the grove, her laughter drifting on the wind.

A dream, I thought. She was right. Poppy, bundled up in her coat, spinning in the early-morning grove, looked exactly like a dream.

She was like a bird: at its most beautiful when flying free.

“Can you feel it, Rune?” she asked, her eyes still closed as she soaked up the warming sun.

“What?” I asked, finding my voice.

“Life!” she called, laughing harder as the wind changed direction, almost knocking her off her feet. “Life,” she said quietly, as she grew still, rooting her feet in the dry grass. Her skin was flushed and her cheeks wind-burned. Yet she’d never looked more beautiful.

My fingers twitched. When I glanced down I immediately knew why. The urge to capture Poppy on film gnawed inside me. A natural urge. Poppy had once told me I was born with it.

“I wish, Rune,” Poppy said, causing me to glance up, “I wish that people realized how this felt every day. Why does it take a life ending to learn how to cherish each day? Why must we wait until we run out of time to start to accomplish all that we dreamed, when once we had all the time in the world? Why don’t we look at the person we love the most like it’s the last time we will ever see them? Because if we did, life would be so vibrant. Life would be so truly and completely lived.”

Poppy’s head drifted slowly forward. She glanced back at me over her shoulder and rewarded me with the most devastating smile. I looked at the girl I loved most like it was the very last time I would see her, and it made me feel alive.

It made me feel like the most blessed person on the planet, because I had her. Even though, right now, things were still awkward and fresh, I knew I had her.

And she definitely had me.

My legs stood up of their own accord, discarding the blanket onto the grassy floor of the grove. Slowly, I walked to Poppy, drinking in every part of her.

Poppy watched me approach. As I stood in front of her, she ducked her head, a flush of embarrassment traveling up her neck to rest upon the apples of her cheeks.

As the wind wrapped around us, she asked, “Do you feel it, Rune? Truly?”

I knew she was referring to the wind on my face and the sun’s rays shining down.

Alive.

Vibrant.

I nodded, replying to a completely different question. “I feel it, Poppymin. Truly.”

And it was at that moment that something inside of me shifted. I couldn’t think of the fact she only had months to live.

I had to focus on the moment.

I had to help her feel as alive as possible, while I had her back by my side.

I had to win back her trust. Her soul. Her love.

Poppy stepped closer to me, running her hand down my bare arm. “You’re cold,” she announced.

I didn’t care if I was suffering from hypothermia. Pushing my hand to the nape of her neck, I leaned in, watching her face for a sign this move wasn’t wanted. Her green eyes flared, but it wasn’t in resistance.

Spurred on, seeing her lips part and her eyes flutter to a close, I tipped my head to the side, bypassing her mouth, to run the tip of my nose down her cheek. Poppy gasped, but I kept going. Kept going until I reached the pulse in her neck; it was racing.

Her skin was warm from dancing in the wind, yet shivering at the same time. I knew it was because of me.

Closing in the rest of the way, I pressed my lips over her galloping pulse, tasting her sweetness, feeling my own heartbeat race in tandem.

Alive.

Life being so truly and completely lived.

A soft whimper escaped Poppy’s lips and I drew back, gradually meeting her gaze. Her green irises were bright, her lips pink and full. Dropping my hand, I stepped back and said, “Let’s go. You need sleep.”

Poppy looked adorably bewildered. I left her on that spot as I gathered our things. When I finished, I found her exactly where I had left her.

I flicked my head in the direction of our houses: Poppy walked beside me. With each step, I mulled over the last twelve hours. About the rollercoaster of emotions, about the fact that I’d got half my heart back, only to discover it was temporary. I thought about kissing Poppy’s face, about lying in bed beside her.

Then I thought about her jar. The half-empty jar of a thousand boy-kisses. For some reason that flash of blank paper hearts bothered me the most. Poppy loved that jar. It was a challenge set by her mamaw. A challenge blunted by my two-year absence.

I flicked a look to Poppy, who was staring at a bird in a tree, smiling as it sang from the topmost branch. Feeling my stare, she turned to me and I asked, “You still like adventures?”

Poppy’s ear-splitting grin immediately answered that question. “Yes,” she replied, “Lately, every day is an adventure.” She lowered her eyes. “I know the next few months will be an interesting challenge, but I’m ready to embrace it. I’m trying to live every day to the fullest.”

Ignoring the pain this remark ignited in me, a plan formed in my mind. Poppy stopped; we had reached the patch of grass between our homes.

Poppy turned to me as we stood in front of her window. And she waited, waiting for what I’d do next. Inching closer to where she stood, I placed the bag and blanket on the ground and straightened up, hands by my sides.

“So?” Poppy asked, a tinge of humor in her voice.

“So,” I replied. I couldn’t keep from smiling at the twinkle in her eyes. “Look, Poppy,” I started, and rocked on my feet, “you believe you don’t know the guy I am now.” I shrugged. “So, give me a chance. Let me show you. Let’s start a new adventure.”

I felt my cheeks heat up with embarrassment, but Poppy suddenly took hold of my hand and placed it in hers. Bemused, I stared at our hands, then Poppy shook them up and down twice. With the biggest smile on her face, her dimples deep and proud, she declared, “I’m Poppy Litchfield and you’re Rune Kristiansen. This is a handshake. My mamaw told me it’s what you do when you don’t know somebody. Now we’re friends. Best friends.”

Poppy looked up at me through her lashes and I laughed. I laughed as I recalled the day I met her. When we were five, and I saw her climb through her window, blue dress covered in mud and a big white bow in her hair.

Poppy moved to take back her hand, but I held on tightly. “Go out with me tonight.”

Poppy stilled.

“On a date,” I continued awkwardly. “A real date.”

Poppy shook her head in disbelief. “We never really went on a date before, Rune. We always just … were.”

“Then we’ll start now. I’ll pick you up at six. Be ready.”

I turned and headed for my window, assuming that her answer was yes. Truth was, no way was I giving her a chance to say no. I was going to do this for her.

I was going to do my damnedest to make her happy.

I’d win her back.

I’d win her back as the Rune I was now.

There was no choice.

This was us.

This was our new adventure.

One that would make her feel alive.


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