When I first met my daughter, I didn’t know she was my daughter.
I was only nineteen. She was ten years old. And if that isn’t confusing enough, try this on for size:
She was from the future.
When I first met her, she was just a gangly little girl who ran into me on the street, and I thought she was somebody’s lost child. She was my child. I couldn’t have possibly known that, even if she did have my eyes and she could’ve passed for my younger sister. When she told me her name, I thought, That’s beautiful. Exactly what I would name my daughter.
Of course, it was all just a coincidence for me then.
Time travel wasn’t possible when I was nineteen, for one thing. (It wouldn’t exist for another seven years.) And for another, I was single. There was no one in my life. Well, there was someone, but it wasn’t something. He was my brother’s best friend, older than me by four years, and we weren’t allowed to think of each other in that way. We were just friends. Close friends. We had been since I was sixteen. I was lonely when I was younger, sad, and I didn’t have a lot of friends. He was there for me when no one else was. He was my shoulder to lean on and my pillar of support.
And since I was sixteen and he was twenty, it could never be more than friendship. It never was. All I wanted from him was companionship (even if I did have a little crush), and he gave it to me wholly, with all his heart. He never tried to lead me on and never made me think we could be something more than what we were. There were times when my brother grew suspicious, and my family questioned it, but we promised nothing would ever happen. And they understood, on a deeper level, that I needed him in my life. So they let us be. Even when I turned eighteen, nothing happened, and I told myself that was fine. He was still my best friend, and I was his. As long as I had that, I was happy.
When I met my daughter, I was alone. When she went back to her time in the future, she told me that I would forget everything that happened. But there is a part of me that still remembers every detail of that day. I can recall it perfectly when I think hard enough. And I wouldn’t ever want to forget.
It was a Saturday in April. It was raining. I remember the time, the place, even what I was wearing: two in the afternoon, walking down Carmichael Street on my way back to my off-campus apartment, dressed in pink rain boots, my favorite jeans with the flower patches sewn on the legs, a maroon sweater that had the name of my university on it, my pink hair in a ponytail (I was way into dyeing my hair in college, and pink was my standard color). I was coming back from a trip to the local grocer’s, shopping bags in one hand, umbrella in the other. A block from my apartment, a little girl came barreling around a corner and slammed into me. She almost knocked me backwards, but I kept my balance, desperately clinging to my groceries.
“Whoa,” I said. “Careful, kid.” I looked around the street, searching for a distressed parent, any clue of who this child belonged to. She had her arms around my waist, hugging me with the side of her face pressed into my sweater, eyes squeezed shut. I thought she couldn’t have been more than ten. She had hair that matched my natural color, blonde bordering on brown. It was braided in two pigtails, and she wore a baseball cap that had a weird symbol on it I didn’t recognize. “Um, where’s your mom and dad?”
She just shook her head, still holding onto me. I moved us over to the side, so we wouldn’t be in the way of foot traffic. I tried to pry her off of me, gently removing her arms from my waist. I set my grocery bags on the ground and bent down to her level. Her eyes were almost exactly like mine: blue, but with a tinge of strange hazel around the center that I didn’t have. I’d only ever seen that shade of hazel on one other person before, but the thought passed through my head so quickly it was there and gone in a second. This girl was a stranger, probably lost, and I had to help her.
“What’s your name?” I asked softly, trying for a smile. She was wearing sneakers, jeans, a pink top, and a cool shiny silver rain jacket. When she lifted her hand to chew on her thumbnail, I caught sight of a bracelet on her wrist: double-looped, rose gold, with two circular charms dangling from it. The charms had something etched on them, but I couldn’t make out the words.
She wasn’t talking yet, just staring at me like she was trying to memorize what I looked like. My eyes flit around the street again for any sign of her parents, but no one was running our way, waving their hands around, yelling for a lost girl. No one was even looking at us.
“My name is Caroline,” I said, thinking she would be more receptive to me if I was open with her, and she mumbled something indistinguishable. I leaned closer to her. “What?”
“Nothing,” she said, shaking her head. She chewed on her thumbnail, and then stopped, biting her lip instead.
I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t leave her there. I didn’t want to just drop her off at the police station, either. Something was telling me not to let her go. I guessed she had to be from somewhere around the university, but I had no idea how to go about finding where she lived if she wouldn’t talk to me.
So I made a decision. I stood up, grabbing my grocery bags. I closed my umbrella and put it in my bag; it wasn’t raining that hard, anyway. I offered my free hand to the girl, and she clasped it almost desperately. She burrowed close to my side. I blinked at her a few times, debating about whether my decision was a smart one or not. I looked around the street again, silently pleading for someone to come claim her before I looked like a kidnapper. But no one was paying attention. Maybe they thought she was my sister, or my cousin, or I was her babysitter. I wasn’t sure if anyone had seen her crash into me, but no one was looking at us now.
“Okay,” I said, feeling more sure about my decision the more I stood there and looked at her. There was something about her that pulled at me, almost painfully. My heart felt off-kilter, and my throat almost closed up. I passed it off as hormones; I was supposed to get my period soon, and I was just emotional. This little girl was probably terrified, and the way she was holding onto me, clutching my hand, was tugging at me. “Why don’t you come with me, and I’ll make you some lunch. And then maybe you can tell me your name and where you’re from? Where your parents are?”
She nodded quickly, three little bobs of her head. I started walking, and she kept pace with me, her grip on my hand so tight that my fingers were going numb. My apartment was still a block away, and as we hurried along, I thought for sure someone was going to yell at us to stop, to shout that I was a kidnapper. But no one said a thing.
When we got to my building, she wouldn’t let go of my hand, so I had to put my groceries down to dig out my keys. My roommates (there were two) weren’t home, but I worried one of them would come back early and ask questions. I would hide the girl in my room, and if they saw her, I would tell them she was my little cousin. I did have family that lived nearby, and I had a cousin – though she was older, closer to my age. For a second I considered calling her, or my aunt or my mother, to ask what I should do. But something stopped me from picking up the phone. Something in my gut told me it was a bad idea, and I usually trusted my instincts.
We made it up to my apartment, and I watched the girl look around with her beautiful eyes, taking everything in silently. She finally let go of my hand, and I shook it to get some of the feeling back in my fingers. The little girl ran her hand over the top of the red garage-sale couch in the living room. She looked at the pictures tacked on the walls, Polaroids of me and my roommates, my roommates and their other friends. I got the oddest feeling that she was looking for something specific. I had no idea what made me feel that way, but it was like a putter in my heart, making my skin tingle and goose bumps rise on my arms.
I set my groceries on the kitchen counter, and the girl followed me to my room. I closed the door behind us. She was even more interested in the things in here than the things in the kitchen and living room; her eyes widened when she saw my bed, my desk, all my things. She zoned in on the pictures taped to my wall. She raised her hand to touch the one of me and my best friend, and the charms on her bracelet jingled. Her fingers pressed against the photo so gently. She almost looked like she was about to cry.
I made another decision. I took out my phone, and I made a call.
“Hi,” I said when he answered. “I need your help.”