There was a place I went when the world was too much for me to handle, a place I escaped to when I needed solace.
I considered myself to be the luckiest girl in the world because I’d stumbled upon it one day on accident, during a family trip to the beach. It was my safe haven, the place I went when I felt myself retreating in my head, and it was always, every time, like another planet when I went there, one made of water and wind and grass and sky and nothing else. It was nature, pure and unmolested. The way it should be. I couldn’t ever be anything other than at peace when I was there, serene and tranquil. Page took me there when he could tell I needed it, and it had become our place over the years, where we went for quiet. It was best in the late spring and early summer.
I would have liked to believe in magic. When I was younger, I clung to fairytales and fantasy stories with an ironclad grip. I idolized Peter Pan and Tinker Bell, and I pretended every flower I ever picked was home to a fairy. I read so many books and watched so many Disney movies that it stuck with me through my adolescence, and in high school, after what happened, I retreated to my world of magic for comfort and healing. When I found Horizon Peak, I almost couldn’t believe it was real. It was like a world out of one of my books, too beautiful to exist. But it was real – wonderfully real, and it became my favorite place in the entire world. If magic was real, it existed there. I’d spent a countless number of hours there alone when I first learned to drive, and when I shared it with Page, we took the chance to escape to Horizon Peak whenever we could. I wanted to build a house on the land and live there forever.
This was where I took Poppy. We waited until Page was out of work, and then I asked him to drive us. He was happy to. We hadn’t visited in a while because I was in school and he had his job, but it was a weekend, and the weather was perfect, breezy and blissful. Horizon Peak was an hour and a half drive from the city, but Poppy didn’t seem to mind the distance. She sat in the back seat of Page’s car and listened to my iPod, staring dreamily out the window. I recognized the look on her face all too well – she was off in her own world, daydreaming. It was another of her qualities that reminded me so much of myself. Every day that I was with her, I saw more of myself, and more of Page, in the things she did.
While she had headphones in, I told Page about her bracelet. I told him the words on her charms, and they seemed to impact him as much as they had me.
“My mom always used to tell me that,” he murmured, his eyes focused on the highway ahead of us. “‘If whatever happens remember, I did, I do, and I will always love you.'” I watched his chest tighten. Page’s mother died when he was eleven, and it still stayed with him every day. I helped him through it as much as he helped me through everything.
“‘Let me not forget what I am moving towards,'” I repeated the other phrase on Poppy’s bracelet, picking at the edge of a flower patch sewn on my jeans. The words felt heavy and important, but I didn’t understand why. They wouldn’t mean anything to me until later in life. All I understood, at that moment, was that Poppy needed us. I looked at her in the passenger side mirror, watching her draw patterns on the window with her finger. Her long hair was still in the ponytail I’d done it in, her baseball cap on her head. Page and I had tried to look up the symbol on the cap to see if it would help us find out anything about Poppy, but nothing came up. It wasn’t anything we recognized. It looked like a lotus flower, but a weird one, with lines in each of the petals and sharp, pointed edges. As far as we knew, it wasn’t a logo or a brand that belonged to any company.
We had no clues. Nothing that would tell us where Poppy came from. None existed. At some point, I began to realize that we could only get the information from her. She was the only one who had the answers. But we couldn’t force her to tell us.
I hoped that by bringing her to Horizon Peak, she might be persuaded to give us more information. Maybe it was a silly hope, but for me, everything always felt easier at the peak. My problems seemed less than they were. I could talk about them without feeling pain. It was where I told Page about what happened to me in high school, because it was the only place I could discuss it without breaking down in tears. I hoped Horizon Peak would have the same effect on Poppy as it did me. We were already so much alike; maybe we would be alike in this, too.
The car ride was quiet after I told Page about the words on Poppy’s bracelet. He and I had never minded the silence. It was always comfortable with us, never awkward. Talking was never needed. Each other’s company was enough.
I used to think it wasn’t possible to love Page any more than I did, but over the last week we’d been taking care of Poppy, I’d grown so much closer to him. Poppy did something to us. She changed us.
When I first met Page, my crush on him was just a crush, but after he helped me, after he was there for me, it evolved and grew into something much stronger. I never pursued it because I was happy with just being his friend. I wanted him in my life, and I would never do anything to risk not having that friendship. And I didn’t know if he felt that way about me. I never asked. It was enough to have him, any way I could.
After what happened in high school, dating and boyfriends was never on my list of priorities. Nothing changed when I went to college. I was friendly with the people around me, but it wasn’t as if I had a huge social life, and I didn’t have a lot of opportunities. I had friends, I suppose, but never anyone like Page.
I knew it wasn’t smart to make homes out of people, and he shouldn’t have been my whole world, but Page was my home. I could be independent of him, and I was, but he’d been there for me at a time when I desperately needed someone. When my family didn’t realize what was going on with me, Page did. Even through the mask I put up, he saw what was happening. I would always love him for that.
As soon as we got to Horizon Peak, my chest felt lighter. I smiled. Page caught me smiling and mirrored my expression, his eyes crinkling around the corners. I saw Poppy’s eyes widen as Page parked in front of the guard rail and we got out of the car. She turned to look at me, and I got deja vu again. Each time was stronger than the last. I was beginning to get used to it around her, but it still made me uneasy, and it only reminded me that we were still so in the dark about Poppy. I hoped she would open up to us here. If she wouldn’t talk at Horizon Peak, I doubted she’d ever tell us what we needed to know.
“Do you like it?” I asked, and she nodded, turning her eyes towards the horizon. I moved around the guard rail, my feet sinking in ankle-high grass that bent with the breeze. “I come here whenever I’m sad or I need a break from the world. I thought it might cheer you up.”
Horizon Peak was a cliff above a small stretch of private beach in the coastal town just outside of where I lived. It was a lookout point, with a wooden staircase and railing leading down to the little beach. The land on top of the cliff was nothing but green grass with a few flowers poking up, stretching for a quarter of a mile, and the cliff’s edge was marked by a low wall of stones that ran along the length of it. The view was the most breathtaking sight I’d ever seen in my life. It looked out onto the wide ocean and the horizon where the water met the blue sky, and it was the perfect place to watch the sun set. The beach down below wasn’t meant for tourists or vacationers, a quarter of a mile long, blocked off by rocks and the cliff face on either side. Whenever I visited, there usually weren’t people around, but I’d come across people fishing before, and sometimes couples came for a relaxing stroll. The sand lot behind the guardrail was big enough for at least four cars. It was a secluded area at the very edge of the town, a short walk from the nearest residential property. The house at the end of the road where Horizon Peak resided had always been my dream house.
I kept my eyes on Poppy as she walked slowly through the grass, towards the rock wall at the cliff’s edge. Page and I lingered behind her. I breathed in through my nose, and I felt the sea air flow through me. I couldn’t keep the smile off my face. Magic really did exist here. I felt it in my bones, as surely and strongly as I felt towards Poppy.
“Can I go down to the beach?” Poppy asked softly, her voice reverent. She turned to look at us for approval, and I nodded.
“Just be careful,” Page said, and Poppy nodded quickly, hurrying towards the wooden staircase. We watched her descend, and then we moved towards the rock wall so we could see over the edge. We had a clear view of the beach and Poppy. She took off her shoes – her rain boots, the only shoes she had (over the last week, I’d gone out and gotten her some extra clothes, but she refused to part with her boots) – and bent over the shore, rolling up the cuffs of her jeans.
“We have to get her to talk to us,” Page said, his eyes soft on her. He watched her walk along the sand, looking for shells.
“I know,” I said. “We just have to trust that she’ll tell us when she’s ready.” That was all we could do. We were decided on not handing her over to the police, and nothing would change our minds about that. Over the last week, no missing child posters had popped up, and there were no news stories with Poppy’s name attached. We were the only ones who cared about her, and I would never use force to get her to tell us where she was from.
“We can’t keep her forever,” Page reminded me, and I nodded, for a moment hating his logic. I wanted to keep Poppy with us for as long as we could. I knew there were risks – things would fall apart eventually, the longer we kept this secret – but I didn’t care. I wanted her in my life. She was meant to be with us. I felt that, deep down. I’d never felt anything like it before. I’d started to accept the confusing feelings Poppy instilled in me, and I’d almost come to terms with the fact that I loved her so much even though I barely knew a thing about her. But Page had always been rational. When I preferred to live in a fantasy world, he was there to remind me of the facts whenever it was necessary.
“What do you think we should do?” I asked him, tearing my gaze away from Poppy.
Page shook his head, his shoulders slumped. His dusty brown hair, cut short on the sides and longer on the top, blew slightly in the breeze. “I don’t know. I’ve been spending all my free time on the internet, looking up her name every day. Nothing ever comes up. It’s like she doesn’t exist.”
It was like she didn’t exist.
Because she didn’t, not yet. She wouldn’t for another five years.
In three years, Page and I would be married. In five, Poppy would be born. We had no idea, then, what our future looked like, that we even had a future together.
After Poppy went back to her own time, my deja vu never left me. There were moments over the years that I was so sure I’d lived before, moments where I’d get a sudden flash of inexplicably vivid memory that left me reeling. Moments where I saw my life flash before my eyes in vibrant color. It was all part of my remembering, even when I wasn’t supposed to remember. Poppy swore I wouldn’t remember.
Now, it’s more like a dream than a memory, but the details never fade. I know Page remembers it too. We’ve never told Poppy about it, not knowing what effect it might have on the timeline. In small moments, though, it comes back to us, like something we saw in a movie once.
“She has to belong to someone, though,” I whispered, my voice carried away by the ocean breeze.
Page was quiet for a few minutes. Then he said, without taking his eyes off Poppy on the beach, “Doesn’t it feel like she belongs to us?”
“Yes,” I said with conviction. I knew we both felt it, but we’d never said the words out loud, never talked about it. Most of the time, Page and I shared our emotions silently, communicating through looks and gestures rather than words. We had our own secret language that we spoke with our eyes. It had been like that since we met. As soon as he walked into my house that first day three years ago, we connected. Like magic.
Page looked at me, piercing hazel eyes boring into mine. I felt my heart thud in my chest, and the tips of my fingers tingled. “She’s . . . special, Caroline. I’ve never met anyone like her.”
I shook my head. “Neither have I.”
At the same time, we both looked back at Poppy. She’d stopped collecting shells, and she was standing stationary in the center of the beach, staring out at the ocean. Her hair blew around her head. Her back was turned to us so we couldn’t see her face, but I knew, almost instinctively, that she was thinking about her family. She’d never mentioned them, but I knew she had to have one, and when she was quiet, I recognized the look on her face that meant she was missing them.
I stepped closer to the rock wall on the cliff’s edge. Page took my hand and squeezed it. When I looked at him, he was grinning. I grinned back and put one foot on the rocks, balancing my weight. Page put his hands on my waist and held me securely as I stepped up with my other foot. I was standing on the rock wall, mere centimeters from falling. I’d done this before, many times. Before what happened in high school, I was adventurous and daring, unafraid, and there were small moments where that side of me emerged again, seeking a thrill. Always with Page, and always in places like Horizon Peak.
I held my arms out to the sides. I closed my eyes and leaned my head back, a smile on my face. The breeze washed over me, and I listened to the waves crash softly on the shore below.
“There she is,” Page said quietly, his voice tender and soft. My smile grew bigger. “Sunshine Caroline.” That was his nickname for me when he caught glimpses of the real me, my soul, who I was at my core, behind the depression and behind the sadness, behind the kind face I put on for everyone else. When I was with Page, I felt wholly myself.
“What if I fall?” I asked him, the same thing I asked him whenever I stood in this position.
“You know I’d never let go of you.” Always the same answer.
“‘To die will be an awfully big adventure’,” I said, quoting Peter Pan.
Suddenly, Page’s arms were around my waist. He pulled me back into him, and I laughed as we fell backwards, onto the grass. We rolled until he was on top of me, holding his weight over me. I wrapped my hands around his arms.
“I think to live would be an even bigger one,” he said, smiling, and I couldn’t help smiling back, real and true. “Live with me, Care.”
“Isn’t that what we’re doing?” I teased, and he laughed. I loved his laugh. The way he looked at me then made my heart lurch in my chest, and I was suddenly lost for words. My skin tingled from my head to my toes, and my pulse sped up, nervous and excited. Something was about to happen.
And it did.
Page kissed me for the first time.
I kissed him back.
My hands slid from his biceps to rest around his neck, and then up into his hair, pulling him closer. He was using one of his hands to hold his weight up, but the other was on my cheek, cradling my face. He was gentle and sweet, and it was everything I’d ever imagined over the years. And I knew, in that moment, he’d imagined it, too. He felt the same way about me as I did about him.
It felt only natural, like it was always meant to happen. A part of me knew it was.
When he pulled back, leaving me breathless and feeling like I was floating, Page’s smile was infinite. “That,” he whispered, brushing his thumb over my bottom lip. “That’s living.”
For a moment, we just stared at each other, and every romantic cliche in the book popped into my head – the rest of the world melted away, and it was just the two of us, alone together. I understood everything then; that he felt the same way about me as I did about him, but that we’d both been content with being each other’s best friend, too happy with that friendship to risk ruining it with unrequited feelings. Neither of us knew that they were requited all along.
I laughed, and Page laughed with me, and then he kissed me again. I held on so tightly to him. When I broke away, I said, “I think we would’ve just stayed friends forever if you hadn’t done that.”
“It was time,” he said, and I nodded in agreement. My smile was so big it hurt.
We heard footsteps on the wooden staircase, and when we turned our heads, we saw Poppy emerge at the top of the stairs. Page rolled off of me, and I sat up, still tingling and floating from his kiss. I patted a spot on the ground in front of me, and Poppy came to sit with us, rubbing the charms on her bracelet again.
She took a deep breath. And everything in me stilled, like I knew what she was going to say before she said it.
She said, “Bad people are after me. That’s why I had to come here.”
And we learned part of the truth about Poppy.