“Are you sure?” Caroline looked at me with her blue eyes, nervous and uncertain. She’d woken up from her nap not long ago, but Poppy was still sleeping. Caroline had taken her hair down from her ponytail and was running her fingers through the pink strands, gathering her hair over her shoulder. It was almost down to her chest, wild in waves. I loved every new color she dyed it.
“I’m sure,” I whispered, glancing back at Poppy. She snored softly, curled up on Caroline’s mattress. She still had her shoes on, and before I could move, Caroline was already there, gently tugging off Poppy’s rain boots and tucking the blanket around her.
“What if we see her face on the news?” Caroline asked me softly, not taking her eyes off Poppy. The look in them made my breath catch in my lungs. She was terrified and confused, but there was a fierce protectiveness in her eyes, too, an overwhelming need to help Poppy. “What if an Amber Alert goes out for her?”
“I don’t think that will happen,” I said, not sure how I knew. It was a feeling in my chest, strong and sure. No one was looking for Poppy. The moment she’d slammed into Caroline on the sidewalk, she became our responsibility and ours alone.
Caroline finally tore her gaze away from the little girl and joined me at her desk again. “Page, what do you think she meant when she said she couldn’t go back? Where do you think she came from?”
I shrugged, eyeing Poppy’s sleeping face. Her brows twitched and her lips trembled, like she was having a bad dream. I was immediately prepared to comfort her when she woke up. It was so strange. I’d never felt anything like it before, and I knew Caroline was sharing all of my feelings, intense and powerful.
We had no idea who Poppy was yet, and back then, we wouldn’t ever have been able to figure it out. But from the very beginning, she was ours. Always ours.
“A bad home, maybe?” I suggested in answer to Caroline’s question, but even as I said it, it didn’t feel like the right answer.
Poppy didn’t look abused, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t. Caroline shook her head like she knew it wasn’t the right answer, either. “Maybe she’s just a runaway. Foster kid?”
“Maybe,” I whispered.
When Caroline looked back at me, there was determination in her eyes, and I shared all of it.
“If we do this, we have to be careful. We have to plan out every single lie and make sure it’s believable. But you’re sure,” she prompted me again, and I nodded. “We’re taking care of her?”
“She said we had to,” I said. We had no other choice. I felt it like a stone in my chest. Going to the police wasn’t an option. Letting Poppy go wasn’t an option. She needed us. We both knew that, even if we didn’t know everything.
Caroline looked back at Poppy, still snoring. “Then we have to.”
In the silence that followed, I asked her the question I always asked her, every time I saw her. “How are you doing?” Her health, her happiness, was all that mattered. Caroline had bad days and good days, highs and lows. Her depression had been more manageable since she graduated high school, since she left the place where her trauma weighed her down, but I knew she still had days where she couldn’t get out of bed. On those days, I was by her side whenever I could be. I knew I couldn’t fix her and I couldn’t ever fully heal her, but I could be there for her.
She smiled at me, beautiful blue eyes softening, and the sun peeked out from behind the clouds for a minute. “I’m okay. It hasn’t been too bad lately.”
“Good,” I said. “I’m glad.”
Her eyes strayed to the bed again, not to Poppy, but to the wall of pictures above her head. I followed her gaze. Caroline was looking at the picture in the center, my favorite one of the two of us. Taken last year on her eighteenth birthday. I took her out to dinner at her favorite restaurant with Ethan and their cousin Max, Caroline’s closest friend. Max took the picture, on the other side of the table from us. Caroline was leaning over a dessert plate with a decadent brownie sundae on it, grinning big, her eyes on the brownie and her fork raised in the air, about to dive into it. I was laughing, my arm pressed against Caroline’s. She looked so, so happy. That part of her only ever came out in small doses, and I tried so hard to make her happy as often as I could, just so I could see that smile and her eyes light up with joy. Most of the time, Caroline was quiet, leftover sadness from her high school days keeping her subdued. But when she was happy, Caroline was like sunshine. She was kind, and caring, and gentle. She laughed freely and smiled beautifully, and she spread warmth wherever she went. She was carefree. Funny. She liked being out in nature, and she loved the flowers and the ocean especially.
That Caroline was the one in the picture, and that Caroline was the one I wanted with me always. I knew it didn’t work like that – her depression came and went, and it would never go away completely, but when she was happy, I tried to prolong those moments for as long as I could, drinking in every last drop of sunshine.
“She touched that picture,” Caroline whispered, her eyes flickering back to Poppy. “When she came in here, she put her hand against it, and she looked like she was about to cry.”
I didn’t have a chance to respond, because then Poppy woke up, her bad dream rousing her from sleep with a small cry. “Mom,” she whimpered, her voice breaking, and my heart shattered.
I didn’t know where her mother was. Caroline had no idea. We couldn’t have possibly known, at the time, that we were her parents, that she was ours from the future, that we would have a life together soon.
But Caroline was at her side immediately. Poppy looked around, disoriented, searching for her mom, and when she saw Caroline, tears gathered in her eyes. She sniffled and cried into her hand. Caroline was on the bed in an instant, cradling Poppy to her chest.
“Hey,” she said gently, holding back her own tears. “You’re okay. Shh. I’m right here.”
Poppy clutched her so tightly. I couldn’t stay at the desk anymore. I picked up the plate with the sandwich I’d made for Poppy earlier and grabbed a water bottle, and I joined them on the bed. When Poppy pulled away from Caroline, I smiled and offered her the sandwich.
“You hungry? I hope you like peanut butter and jelly.”
“Peanut butter and banana is my favorite,” she muttered after a minute, wiping her eyes with her sleeve, and I smiled bigger. Caroline stroked Poppy’s hair.
“I’ll remember that next time,” I promised. “Eat up for now, though. Here’s some water.”
She dragged the plate in front of her. I watched her eat a big bite of the sandwich and chase it with a gulp of water. Caroline and I looked at each other. She nodded, letting me take the lead, and I looked back at Poppy.
“You said you couldn’t go back to wherever you came from,” I reminded her, and she stiffened, her hand tightening around her water bottle. Her eyes filled with apprehension and fear. “You said we had to take care of you.”
“Please,” she whispered, her voice trembling. “You have to.” Caroline immediately pulled her close again, soothing her.
“We will,” I said, my voice ringing with the promise. It wasn’t a difficult decision. It seemed like the easiest one I’d ever made in my life.
One of the hardest would be letting go of her, even when I knew we would see her again, eventually. Sometime in the future.
Poppy looked to Caroline, both of them with teary eyes. Caroline smiled, wiping away Poppy’s tears before she did her own.
“We promise,” she said softly. “We’ll take care of you, Poppy.”
Poppy looked down. She was rubbing her thumb over the circles on her bracelet, two of them, both etched with words I couldn’t make out from where I was sitting. When she saw me looking, she stopped and tugged her sleeve down. I shared a look with Caroline.
“What’s that?” Caroline asked, her tone gentle. “Is it something your parents gave you?” That would have been my best guess, too. Maybe it would give us a clue to wherever Poppy was from. We both knew she couldn’t have just appeared out of thin air.
That’s what we believed, anyway. Before we really knew what was going on.
But Poppy shook her head, returning her attention to her sandwich. She ate it so she wouldn’t have to speak.
I looked at Caroline again, and her brows creased with worry and frustration. I felt all of her emotions mirrored in myself.
We had to get Poppy to talk.