If somebody had told me when I was twenty that in five years, I would fall in love with my best friend’s younger sister, eventually marry her, and have a child with her, I would’ve said they were crazy.
I would’ve said they were certifiably insane if they told me I would meet my future daughter when I was twenty-three and she was ten, and that she had traveled back in time from the future.
When I met Poppy, I had no idea who she was. But the second I laid eyes on her in Caroline’s room, I felt something in my chest just collapse. I wanted to protect her. As soon as Caroline explained the situation to me, I knew I would help her, because I would do anything for Caroline, always. And I knew instinctively, from just one look at Poppy with her braids and her baseball cap, that I would do anything for her, too.
Poppy and Caroline both fell asleep on Caroline’s bed after Poppy stopped crying. I watched them now, my thoughts running wild. They weren’t touching, but Poppy was sleeping with her back facing Caroline in almost the exact same position. Caroline’s flower-patterned comforter was draped over them both.
They looked alike. So much alike, it freaked me out.
I tried to think through things logically. I knew Caroline and I couldn’t hide Poppy forever. We couldn’t keep her here with us, even if we wanted to. And I knew we both wanted to. I could feel Caroline’s emotions like they were my own. I’d been able to see right through her ever since she was sixteen, from the moment I first met her.
At first, she was just Ethan’s little sister. I hadn’t known Ethan for very long at that point, a few months at most, but we clicked instantly. I met him when we were both sophomores in college and we ended up in the same Communications class together. We’d been assigned a project that required partner work, and I didn’t really have any friends in the class. Most people paired up instantly, and I looked around the room, searching for anyone who looked lost. I was always the first one to jump to the rescue of those who needed help; it was how I’d been raised, and I never abandoned it.
I didn’t have to look for very long. Ethan didn’t look lost, just bored, and like he couldn’t have cared less about finding a partner. When I grinned at him and pointed between us, he shrugged, but then he grinned back. And our friendship was cemented.
I met Caroline during the winter break of mine and Ethan’s sophomore year, when I stayed a weekend at his house. She was sixteen, quiet and reserved, and the loneliest, saddest person I’d ever met in my life. Her parents and Ethan didn’t notice, but that was only because Caroline was a great actress. During dinner that first night at the Parrish’s kitchen table, I watched her smile and laugh with her family like everything was fine. I’d barely spoken more than a few words to her, but I could see right through her mask. I had no idea what she was dealing with at the time, but I knew she was in pain – I’d always been good at reading people, and I could read Caroline better than most. It was why, during that weekend, I made it my mission to become her friend.
Just her friend. Nothing more. Because I could tell that she needed one, even if Ethan and her parents were oblivious.
Three years later, and that friendship meant more to me than anything. It was the world. The whole universe.
There was a point where she stopped being Ethan’s younger sister and started being my best friend. Where she started being the girl I would do anything to make happy. We were close enough to each other that people questioned it, because of our age difference, but I never pushed her, never coerced her into anything, even if I did think she was beautiful – I coached myself not to think of her in any other way than as a friend. Even after she turned eighteen, it wasn’t like that. There was a very small part of me that wanted, that hoped, that dreamed, but I always pushed it down. I would never manipulate her. And I tried so hard over the years to convince everyone around me of that fact, especially Ethan. After a while, people started to relax. They trusted me because I was the friendly guy: “Oh, of course, Page is just being nice. That’s who he is.”
They were right. If Caroline had been anyone else, I would’ve done the same thing. I would’ve been their friend and their shoulder to cry on, just like I was for her.
But now that I’m older, I can admit to myself that Caroline was always a little different. I was drawn to her like a moth to a flame.
I was in love with her. I knew it, I accepted it, and I stayed quiet about it. She was nineteen when we met Poppy, but she’d never given me any hints that she wanted anything more from me, and that was okay. I would be her friend until she didn’t need me anymore, and then I would still be her friend. And after, and always.
I dated other women my age, I hung out with other girls, but none of them were like Caroline. And I was okay with that. I just wanted her in my life, any way I could have her. And I would be okay with whatever she gave me.
As I watched her and Poppy sleep, I heard the apartment door open outside. Quietly, I got up and left the bedroom. I closed the door behind me and walked out into the kitchen just as Hannah, Caroline’s roommate, swept into the room, laughing on the phone with someone. She waved when she saw me, heading straight for her room. I smiled and waved back. I noticed Caroline’s grocery bags on the kitchen counter and started putting things away for her. Just as I finished putting the cereal in the cabinets next to the fridge, the apartment door opened again.
Sullivan, Caroline’s other roommate, came in with her boyfriend. She grinned when she saw me putting the groceries away. “Hey, Page.”
“What’s up, Sull?”
“Not much. You remember Chris, right?”
“Sure.” I gave Chris a nod, and he nodded back. Sullivan squeezed past me to grab some snacks, and Chris made himself comfortable on the living room couch in front of the TV.
“Where’s Care-Bear?” Sullivan asked, grabbing some sodas from the fridge.
“Taking a nap.” I stopped myself from making a face at Sullivan’s nickname for Caroline. Caroline hated it, but she never said anything, always too shy to voice her own opinions. I always told her to stick up for herself, but it was a slow and ongoing process. I didn’t blame her for it. What happened to her in high school, the reason she was so sad when I met her, really messed her up. She’d been healing for three years, and I was always there to help her through it.
“Did she get me my cookies?” Sullivan peeked into one of the grocery bags I hadn’t unpacked yet, and by her frown, I assumed she didn’t find any cookies. She sighed. “Ugh. Chris, can you go to 7-Eleven really quick and get me some Chips Ahoy?”
He threw her a look over the back of the couch, and she rolled her green eyes. “I’ll go with you.” She dropped all the snacks she’d been gathering on the counter, letting the soda cans roll across the top. I stopped them before they fell to the ground. Sullivan squeezed past me again and tugged Chris up from the couch. He went along with her silently, and Sullivan tossed a wave in my direction on her way out the door. “Be back in a few!”
When she was gone, I blew out a breath. I could understand why Caroline didn’t like Sullivan that much. She was nice, but she could be a lot to deal with sometimes. Caroline always described her as a pinball, bouncing off the walls and moving from one place to the next so fast it was hard to keep track of her. There one second, gone the next. Sullivan operated on a higher level than Caroline was used to, and it exhausted her.
But Caroline had always been a good actress. That hadn’t changed over the years. Her parents and Ethan still didn’t know what she dealt with in high school. They still had no idea that she had depression. She was far too good at hiding it. Mostly because she didn’t want to burden them with it, and that was the thing that killed me the most.
I finished putting the groceries away, and then I made a PB&J for Poppy whenever she woke up. I grabbed a few bottles of water and brought it all back to Caroline’s room, where the girls were still sound asleep on the bed. They’d moved closer to each other on the mattress, and Poppy had turned in her sleep so she was facing Caroline. Their hands were a few inches apart, fingers stretched towards one another. Something about it made my heart lurch in my chest.
I sat at Caroline’s desk and tried to come up with a plan. Because we needed to have something if we really wanted to help Poppy.
And I knew nothing would stop us from helping her.
Not then, and not ever.