I’d taken on a new babysitting job. That was our cover story for Poppy, if anyone close to us should discover her and ask. She was the daughter of a rich businesswoman in the city, and her mother was paying me almost one hundred dollars a day to take care of Poppy. My job was to cart her around with me wherever I went and watch her while her mother was at work. Her mother worked long hours during the day and night. Poppy went to a special charter school with an adjusted schedule. Poppy’s mother had found my profile on a babysitting website and called me to set up an interview. That was how I got the job. These were the details. We planned out everything, as carefully as we could.
It had been a week. Poppy still hadn’t revealed anything to us about who she was or where she came from, but at that point, it hardly mattered. We were so connected to her, so invested in protecting her and caring for her, that I think we wouldn’t have minded if she stayed with us forever. We would have found a way to make it work, somehow. I’m sure of it.
Poppy was quiet and thoughtful. Her smile, when we were lucky enough to see it, was beautiful and bright. She reminded me so much of myself when I was younger. All of it, every new thing we discovered about her, only made me more confused. My thoughts were scattered and I could never make sense of my strong feelings when I was around her. But with every day that passed, every time she held my hand and clung to me, my love for her grew. She changed my life in such a short amount of time, and that was before I even knew she was my daughter.
We were always a part of each other, from the moment she slammed into me on the sidewalk. And I knew Page felt the same way.
Watching Page interact with her always made me smile. He made her peanut butter and banana sandwiches, played games with her (she liked Scrabble the most), read books to her (she was fascinated by all the novels on the shelf in my room, and her favorite were the fantasies). She stayed in my room mostly, shy around other people. Hannah and Sullivan were hardly ever home between classes and their social lives, so it worked in our favor. They never even knew Poppy was there.
But it was April. Finals were approaching, and that meant the end of the semester, and the day was coming soon when our lease would be up on our apartment and we would have to move out. We had it for the summer, until early August. I had no idea how long Poppy would be with us, but I was already thinking ahead – Hannah and Sullivan had both told me that they planned to go home to their families over the summer, only returning to the apartment occasionally. I planned on spending most of my time in the city, so I would have the place to myself for the majority of the summer. Poppy could still stay with me.
I wondered, every day, when someone would come looking for her. I watched the news almost obsessively, searching for her face. When I went out, I looked for Lost Child posters stapled to telephone poles.
It seemed too strange that no one was looking for her. She had to belong to someone.
But what would I do if someone actually claimed her? I had no idea. I didn’t want to think about it. It wasn’t a thought that Page liked to entertain, either. We were both too attached to her already.
We enjoyed our time with her, because we never knew when it would end. We had no idea if she would suddenly be torn away from us, so we coveted every moment with her, every time she smiled or every time she talked. When she did speak, it wasn’t to tell us anything about where she came from, and we tried not to push her too hard for information. I think we had both decided to let her tell us when she was ready.
But we did learn her middle name. She was Poppy Anastasia, and when she told us that, all the color drained from Page’s face.
Anastasia was his mother’s name. She died when he was little.
Another crazy coincidence. It had to be, because time travel didn’t exist, and there was no other plausible explanation other than it just being a remarkable twist of fate.
Poppy’s favorite color was pink, like mine, but she also liked yellow. Her favorite flower wasn’t her namesake, but the forget-me-not. She preferred summer to winter, and her birthday was in September. She told us the month, but not the day and not the year. These were the things we learned about her during the week that passed. It wasn’t enough to run a search for her on the internet, not enough to find out anything substantial about where she might be from. But we locked away each little piece of information she revealed to us like we might never hear her speak again.
I was sitting on my bed with her the Friday after we met. Page was at work – he’d graduated last year and got a job as an assistant at a publishing office in the city, and he lived not too far away from me in his own apartment. He was with us as often as he could be, but he couldn’t ignore his job. I was in school during the week, but my schedule was relaxed, my classes spread out enough that I was able to check in on Poppy every few hours during the day. We had no other choice to but to leave her here alone when we left, but she didn’t seem to mind. She liked to be by herself, and she avoided my roommates when they were home. She had enough to occupy herself with when she was on her own – my coloring books, my novels, and I let her borrow my iPod. She seemed content, and she never complained.
I was brushing Poppy’s hair when my phone rang. Her hair was like mine when it was down – wavy and soft, my natural color – but she liked to wear it in braids the most, or little buns on top of her head.
When my phone rang, Poppy tensed, and I put the brush down.
“It’s okay,” I said, rubbing her back. She relaxed only a little under my touch, and I saw her glance at the phone screen. She started rubbing the charms on her bracelet when I answered. It was a habit Page and I had become familiar with in the last week, and we’d learned to recognize it as a sign that meant she was nervous or thinking about something she didn’t want to tell us.
“Hi, Mom.” My mother called every once in a while to check up on me. The university wasn’t too far from home, only an hour by train, but I didn’t go home that often, only on holidays and long weekends. It wasn’t that I didn’t like being around my family, but it was easier for me to be on my own. Ethan came to visit sometimes, when he hung out with Page, and when my parents took trips into the city for work, they would find time to stop by for an hour or two. But it had been a while since I’d last seen them. They didn’t know about Poppy.
“Hi, sweetheart,” my mother said, a smile in her voice. “How are you? I know finals are coming up, so I wanted to check in and see how you’re doing.”
“I’m fine. I’m not too worried about finals.” The academics had never been my problem with school. It was always the people. In high school, my grades slipped after what happened, and when my parents expressed concern, I brought them back up as quickly as I could. I told them it was just stress, which was only partly true. They didn’t know the real truth. I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to tell them. Page was the only one who knew. I think my brother guessed at it, but he never asked.
“Good, good.” My mother was shuffling something on the other end of the line. “Are you coming home anytime soon? I know you said you planned to stick around the city for most of the time, but I’d like it if you stayed with us for at least a few days. We can go to the beach, take a little family vacation.”
“Sure,” I said easily, glancing at Poppy. “I will. A vacation sounds fun.” Maybe Page could took care of Poppy while I was gone, but even the thought of leaving her for more than a day set me on edge.
“Well, let me know whenever you plan on coming home. Did Ethan stop by last week? He was with Page,” Mom said.
“No, I didn’t see him.”
“He said Page has been busy all week. Have you two been spending a lot of time together?”
I could hear the insinuation in her voice, but I was used to it. My parents had always been supportive of my friendship with Page because he’d never given them any reason to distrust him, and he was a naturally trustworthy type of person. He was friendly to everyone. My parents liked him. Ethan was the one who always questioned it the most, especially as Page and I became even closer than Page was with my brother. After I turned eighteen, my mother asked me if I liked Page, and my dad gave me a lecture on making smart choices. I was pretty sure he pulled Page aside at one point, too, and thinking about what that conversation must have been like made me flush.
I was pretty sure my parents always knew that we would end up together eventually. My mother always pressed me for details, even when there were none to give. Ethan had gone from being suspicious of Page’s intentions to trusting us alone together, and trusting that Page would be there to support me. My brother and I had never been the closest, but he’d always been protective, and I think he liked having someone else around to watch out for me when he couldn’t do it himself.
My mother was still waiting for an answer to her question, so I said, “He’s stopped by a few times.”
“I think it’s nice that he lives so close to you. It makes me not worry so much,” my mom said, and I smiled. I liked having him so close, too. It was selfish of me, really, but I was glad he hadn’t moved far away after he graduated, and I was glad he’d taken a job in the city. I didn’t know what I would do if he wasn’t within my reach. In college, I was much better than I was in high school, and I could handle things on my own just fine by then, but Page was my support system in case I fell to darker places. I wanted him close. I couldn’t even count how many times he’d helped me in the last three years since we’d met.
When Page wasn’t around, I had Max, my cousin and my only other close friend. I’d never been much of a social butterfly. Max was twenty-one, a little bit older than me, and a senior at another college close by. She was practically my sister; we grew up together, and we shared everything when we were younger. The only reason she didn’t know what happened to me in high school was because she lived in a different school district, and I was good at hiding things.
Max checked in whenever she could, but I hadn’t heard from her since before Poppy appeared. There was a part of me that wanted to tell her. But I kept plenty of secrets from her and from the rest of my family. Why should this one be any different?
Of course, the secrets I kept about myself were ones that would hurt my family if they knew. That was why I kept them, to save the people I loved from heartache. Poppy wouldn’t hurt them, only confuse them.
But there was a part of me that knew she was only mine and Page’s. Anyone we told wouldn’t understand. They would want to take her to the police and report her missing, and we couldn’t let that happen. No one would understand the connection we had with her. There was always a part of me that knew that if we told anyone about Poppy, bad things would happen. It would disrupt things somehow, and we wouldn’t be able to fix them.
Even when time travel didn’t exist, Page and I always knew the consequences on a deeper level. We couldn’t fully comprehend it at the time, but we knew, at least, never to tell anyone the truth about Poppy. It was another of the things that terrified us about the whole situation.
When I hung up with my mother, Poppy was quiet. She was usually quiet, but I was learning to discern her different kinds of silence. She was still rubbing her bracelet. She never took it off, and neither Page nor I had gotten close enough to read what the words on the charms said.
This was a sad silence. I knew this silence the best because I’d lived in it myself.
“Poppy,” I said quietly, running my fingers through her hair. I twisted it into a ponytail for her, and she turned her head to the side to look at me. I smiled at her. “Can I see your bracelet?”
I’d asked this question a few times over the last week, never expecting that she would show it to me but always hoping that she would. Even if it wouldn’t provide any clues as to who she really was, I wanted to know what the charms said, at least. And it was a gorgeous bracelet. Something I would’ve bought for myself.
Poppy didn’t answer for a few minutes, and I waited patiently. Page and I had gotten used to waiting for her to speak. We never pushed her too hard, and she always spoke to us when she wanted to, sometimes at completely random moments when we hadn’t even asked her anything. She would never say more than a few words.
She wasn’t the Poppy that we would come to know in the future, not yet. This Poppy was sad and lost and scared without her family (the family that she knew – we were her family, but we weren’t her parents, not yet), stuck in a different time. But we loved her all the same.
To my surprise, she offered her wrist to me. I blinked at her, eyes wide, before I gently lifted the charms and read the words etched on the rose gold surface of each one.
The first said this: “If whatever happens remember, I did, I do, and I will always love you.”
The second said this: “Let me not forget what I am moving towards.”
The outline of a forget-me-not, Poppy’s favorite flower, was etched on the back of each charm.
It wasn’t what I expected a ten-year-old to have on her bracelet, but somehow, it seemed to fit perfectly. The words shot through me, and I could’ve sworn I’d heard them somewhere before, spoken by someone I knew. My skin tingled as I read them and goose bumps popped up on my arms. Over the last week, I’d had the strongest deja vu so many times, always when I was near Poppy or touching her.
When I gave Poppy her wrist back, struck wordless by the bracelet, she touched the tattoo of the poppy on my right wrist. It was a small red one. She pressed her fingers into my skin, and I felt my pulse, jumping up and down.
She looked so sad. Often, I would catch her staring into the distance, eyes watering and wet, and she would sniffle and wipe her nose with her sleeve when she thought I wasn’t looking. I hated her sadness. All I wanted was to make it disappear. I yearned to see her smile, to hear her laugh, to see her happy, and I would do anything it took to cheer her up. I would’ve moved mountains for her. I would’ve pulled the sun out of the sky and given it to her, if that’s what she wanted. They were the strongest feelings I’d ever had for anyone in my life except Page.
I had no idea, at the time, why she had such a profound effect on me, but I wouldn’t have changed a thing. Not for a second.
An idea popped into my head, and I smiled. “Poppy,” I whispered secretively, leaning closer to her, and the tone of my voice made her perk up in interest, her sadness ebbing away. I smiled bigger.
“Do you want to go somewhere with me?”