All I wanted to do was kiss Caroline again.
It had been a few days since Horizon Peak, and I played the moment over again hundreds of times in my head – when I kissed her for the first time, and she kissed me back, and everything fell into place. It felt like a catalyst. Like everything in my life had been leading up to that moment, and as soon as our lips met for the first time, something was set in motion. Our future. The life we were going to have together. When I kissed Caroline, I saw it all – everything we would have and do together in the years to come. The whole world was bright when I kissed Caroline Parrish, the girl I loved, and I felt limitless.
And then Poppy told us why she was here.
She wasn’t specific about the “bad people” that were after her; just that her parents had sent her here because it was the only way they knew she would be safe. She told us nothing about her parents and where they were.
We came to understand, much later, that if she had told us that, if she had told us that we were her parents, everything would have changed. It would have ruptured the timeline, and the tear in the fabric would have been irreparable. There were things she had to keep secret for the sake of all of our lives, for the sake of our futures.
It just made the whole situation more confusing, but Caroline and I just nodded and promised Poppy we’d watch out for her until she didn’t need us anymore. The only other information she gave to us was that only she would know when it was safe for her to return home, and when the time came, she would go back herself, without our help. It hurt us both that we would have to let her go on her own, but we accepted it because we had to. There was no other choice.
I think we both knew, subconsciously, that we would see her again, even if we didn’t understand when or how.
Caroline and I had planned out shifts to take care of Poppy; she would stay at Caroline’s apartment for the first half of the week, and my apartment for the second half. I didn’t have any roommates, so she was safer at my place than she was at Caroline’s with Hannah and Sullivan going in and out. I almost couldn’t believe our luck that neither of Care’s roommates had found out about Poppy yet. It seemed too good to be true. All of it did – the fact that we’d been able to keep her a secret for this long seemed impossible. We hadn’t even needed to use Caroline’s babysitting excuse yet.
It felt like something had to give, eventually. The logical part of my brain kept telling me that something had to go wrong. Caroline knew what I was feeling, and we were always waiting for that moment to come, though neither of us knew what we would do when it arrived.
In between focusing on Poppy, my head and my heart were filled with nothing but Caroline. All I wanted to do was be around her, to make her laugh so I could see her smile. There had been a few quiet moments over the last few days where I would catch her looking at me, and she would blush and look away when I smiled at her. We’d spent the weekend taking Poppy to Caroline’s favorite places around the city, and when I wasn’t keeping an eye on Poppy, I was looking at Caroline, drinking her in. Her bubblegum pink hair tied in a messy bun, her bright blue eyes that softened whenever she looked at Poppy, the sound of her voice, sweet and lilting, the jeans she always wore with the flower patches sewn up and down the legs, the flowers inked on her skin. I loved everything about her, and now that I knew what it was like to kiss her, I knew I would never be able to let her go.
The Monday after Horizon Peak, I had off from work. Caroline’s classes were optional because of finals week, so she brought Poppy over to my apartment to hang out. I was planning a surprise for Caroline that night after Poppy went to sleep, and my nerves were a mess. I wanted everything to be perfect.
I made food for the girls while they sat on the couch, Poppy occupied with a Disney movie and Caroline studying for her finals, her books spread out around her. We’d figured out Poppy’s favorite movies in the time we’d spent with her; she loved Disney, just like Caroline did when she was younger, and her favorite was Peter Pan, just like Caroline. The similarities between them kept popping up, and each new one left us more rattled.
Poppy also liked Fantasia, another one of Care’s favorites. She was watching that now, her eyes fixed on the TV screen. Caroline was biting her lip over a mythology question for one of her elective classes. She tucked a piece of hair behind her ear, twisting one of her earrings. She had a line of three gold-and-diamond studs in one ear, two in the other.
Poppy was rubbing the charms on her bracelet. I kept coming back to the words written on them – the thing my mother always used to say to me for years before she died. When Caroline told me what was on the charms, the pain from my mother’s death felt fresh. Everything that happened with Poppy, we’d been passing off as coincidence, but this was too big to be random. Why would Poppy have my mom’s exact words on her charm bracelet? It didn’t make any sense.
Trying to make sense of it, of everything all at once, made my head hurt. Since we’d met Poppy, I’d been trying to be logical and rational, but that was getting harder and harder the longer we were around her.
I finished making bowls of pasta for the girls and moved over to the couch with them. Poppy took hers without taking her eyes off the TV screen, entranced by the bright colors of Fantasia. Caroline’s eyes brightened and she smiled when I handed her the other bowl. I winked at her, and she blushed. God, I wanted to kiss her. Over the last few days, there had been so many moments where I just wanted to hold her, to grab her and kiss her like I did at Horizon Peak, but it had to be right.
I needed to know if she was all in. Because I was. We hadn’t had a chance to talk about it, about where our relationship would go from here, but I just needed to know that she cared about me as much as I cared about her. If we were on the same page with that, everything else would be simple. We would figure it out.
The day was spent in quiet peace in my apartment. Caroline moved from the couch to my kitchen table to my bedroom to study for her finals, and I did my best not to distract her. Poppy was happy with marathoning Disney movies. She didn’t ask for much. She was a quiet kid, and Caroline and I were getting really good at interpreting her silences. We knew her.
I ordered takeout for dinner and had it delivered, and the three of us sat down and ate together like the small, impossible family we’d become. Caroline tried to get Poppy to talk, and when she only said a few words, Care started telling a story. She did that sometimes, just to hold Poppy’s attention. She was a good storyteller. I loved listening to her.
“Did you know that when I was younger,” she started, smiling at Poppy over her plate, “I used to pick flowers everywhere I went? Every time I was outside, I would look for new ones, and I’d pick the prettiest, most colorful ones I could find and make a bouquet out of them. My room was filled with them. The smell was so strong it almost made my brother puke.”
I laughed at that part, and Caroline grinned at me. Poppy smiled a little.
“I used to pretend that flowers were fairy houses,” Caroline continued. “I thought a different fairy lived inside every single one, and I tried to come up with names for them all, but there were so many. Eventually I started keeping a journal. I would write down the name of every flower I picked, the color, and then I would come up with a name for the fairy. My favorite was Pony. She lived inside a peony, but when I was younger, I always pronounced it ‘pony’.”
Poppy chuckled a little, and Care smiled brightly. My heart danced in my chest.
“Pony was kind of like my imaginary friend,” Caroline said, her face softening as she remembered. “Even after the peony died – I tried to keep it alive for as long as I could – Pony still existed. I made my mom plant peonies in our garden just so Pony could have a new home. She became kind of like my conscience. Like Jiminy Cricket or Tinker Bell, sitting on my shoulder and giving me advice.”
Poppy was invested in the story now, her eyes wide as she listened. I just liked hearing Caroline talk like this.
“Pony faded a little as I got older, but she never disappeared completely. And then I got this to honor her.” She pulled back the collar of her shirt to reveal a small tattoo of a peony on her shoulder, just above her collarbone. My eyes fixed on that exposed skin. I wanted to kiss her there. When Caroline’s eyes met mine, she blushed, her cheeks turning pink, and she smiled at the table. “Pony doesn’t come around much anymore. When I became a teenager, I set her free and let her go off and explore the world on her own. Fairies don’t like to be trapped. They’re free spirits, you know. They like to roam and wander. Sometimes Pony comes back when I’m feeling sad, though. And I see her on holidays.”
I laughed at this, and Poppy laughed, too, a real one. Caroline’s smile was beaming. After a minute of silence where Poppy looked pensively at her plate, she spoke.
“I have Sola when I feel sad.”
I exchanged a look with Caroline, both of us perking up at the possibility of new information about Poppy.
“Who’s Sola?” Caroline prompted, and Poppy hesitated.
“My friend,” she said, moving her food around on her plate with her fork. And we could tell immediately that was all she was going to say. We knew when she was done speaking.
We wouldn’t figure out until years later that Sola wasn’t a person, but a thing. It was a technology that would be invented in the future, around the same year that time travel became possible. Sola was a communication device implanted in Poppy’s charm bracelet. It sounded like Poppy’s parents – us, from the future – and it would speak to her through a microscopic chip in Poppy’s ear that we had no idea was there. We found out later that whenever she rubbed her charm bracelet, she was activating Sola. And she was hearing our voices.
After Poppy left us and our time with her started to feel more like a dream than a memory, I always thought about why she would need Sola. She was with us in the past, but when we first met, we weren’t her parents, not really. Not yet. We weren’t the people we would eventually become in the future. Time had to pass, and things had to happen, in order for us to change, to grow, to become the people we were when Poppy was ten and she was forced to travel back in time. To leave us, and meet our past selves. We were different, back then. To Poppy, we were just strangers who looked like younger versions of her parents. Sola was her comfort when she missed us – the us she’d grown up with, the versions of us that raised her.
It was a long time before we really understood everything completely, but bits and pieces of it always came to light.
When Poppy fell asleep that night, Caroline tucked her into my bed and sat there with her for a few minutes, watching her sleep. The couch in the living room was a pullout, and I set it up for Caroline and I to sleep there. Now that Poppy was sleeping, I could give Caroline the surprise I’d planned for her, and my nerves were all over the place. I wanted her to love it.
I stood in my bedroom doorway and watched her gently stroke Poppy’s hair, her eyes full of emotion. My throat closed up watching them together; I didn’t understand why it made me feel the way it did, but I stopped trying to make sense of it. I just let it happen.
“Hey,” I said gently, and Caroline looked up, not bothering to hide her emotions. She did it with other people, put on a mask and a smile, but with me, she didn’t have to hide. She never would.
She got off my bed and moved out into the hall with me, and I quietly closed the door. Caroline put her arms around me and hugged me tightly. I never knew when I was going to get a hug from her – she did it when she needed it, and I just went along with it. I wrapped my arms around her waist and kissed the top of her head. She buried her face in my chest, and I felt her take deep breaths. I couldn’t tell if her depression was acting up – it always came and went in random moments – or she was just emotional over Poppy, but I held her until she pulled away. Then I stroked her cheek with my thumb, wiping away a stray tear.
“Close your eyes,” I whispered. She smiled with the mystery of it, a little bit of the adventurous Caroline I loved so much shining through.
“Okay,” she whispered back. She closed them, and I took her hand and lead her back to the kitchen.
“Keep them closed,” I told her, my heart jumping up and down in my chest. “Hold on a second.”
She sniffled a little, but she was still smiling. “You know I only like surprises if they’re good. This one better be good.”
“I think you’ll like it,” I said, and she smirked. I wanted to kiss the side of her mouth, but I resisted for now.
“I’d better,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest. She tapped her foot on the ground, pretending to be impatient, and I smiled and went to the hall closet. I’d hidden a bouquet of flowers in there. I went out and bought it this morning, before Caroline and Poppy came over, and it was huge and mismatched, made of one of every flower they had in the shop. Caroline could never pick a favorite, so I bought them all. And in the freezer, I had the ingredients to her favorite dessert: brownie sundae. I’d made the brownies yesterday, and they were hiding in my cabinet, waiting to be topped with vanilla ice cream and drizzled in chocolate sauce and caramel.
I took a deep breath as I brought the flowers into the kitchen. I stood in front of Caroline, and then it was like all my nerves disappeared. Everything had always been simple with us. We clicked and fit together like puzzle pieces, and our friendship had always been easy as breathing. This should be no exception.
“Open your eyes,” I said, and when she did, she put her hands over her mouth. Her eyes widened and glistened with fresh tears, and I could see her smile behind her hands.
“Page . . . .” She shook her head, running her fingers over one of the flowers in the bouquet. The look on her face made me feel like I was flying. “What is this?”
“I’m in this for the long haul, Care,” I said, pouring everything into the words. “I want you to know that. I want to be with you. I’ve wanted to be with you for a long time, but I never wanted you to feel like I was only friends with you because of that. I’m friends with you because you are the most beautiful person I have ever met, inside and out, and you make me happy. Happier than I ever thought I could be after my mom died. And I think we’ve known each other for long enough now that it’s not weird if I already say I love you. Because I do.”
She laughed tearfully, one hand still over her mouth, and then she shook her head and threw her arms around my neck. I put the flowers out of reach, resting them on the kitchen counter, and lifted Caroline off her feet. I spun her around like they do in the movies because it felt like the right thing to do. Caroline laughed again, and when she pulled back, she kissed me. The whole world was bright and warm.
“I love you, too,” she said against my lips, her hand on my cheek. “Let’s do this. Officially. I’m in it for the long haul, too. I want everything – the flowers, the romance, the cheesiness. All of it.”
The words made me feel like I was flying again, and my grin must’ve been a mile wide. “I promise I’ll give you plenty of romance. And plenty of cheesiness.” I kissed her again because I could. She kissed me back and locked her legs around my waist because I was still lifting her up. I held her and kissed her like it was the last thing I would ever get to do. She kept smiling and laughing against my lips, and I just kept thinking, This is how it should be.
I knew there would be roadblocks along the way. I’d been with Caroline through her darkest days, her saddest moods, and I knew there would be more to come. She wouldn’t be happy all the time. She wouldn’t always be Sunshine Caroline, the one I loved the most. But I was ready for it. Just because I loved the happiest version of her the best, didn’t mean I didn’t love the sad parts of her, too. I loved all of her, and I would never give up on her.
“I have another surprise for you,” I said, and her eyes crinkled at the look on my face.
“It’s chocolate, isn’t it?”
I put her down, even though I never wanted to let go of her, and opened the kitchen cabinets. When I pulled out the brownies, she gasped.
I nodded. “Brownie sundae.”
She grinned at me. “You’re my favorite person in the whole world, Page.” The way she said the words, soft and quiet, made my chest feel tight with emotion.
I couldn’t help it. I pulled her close again and kissed her. “You’re mine, too.”
She didn’t kiss me for long, too excited about the brownies, but I didn’t mind. We each cut out a brownie and heated them up in the microwave, and then we scooped vanilla ice cream on top. I heated up the chocolate sauce and caramel, too, and brought out some crushed pecans to finish it off. Caroline dug into hers with rapture, eyes fluttering closed at the taste.
We ate and talked and laughed, and when we were finished, we stretched out beside each other on the pullout couch and just looked at each other. I ran my fingers through Caroline’s hair. Caroline took my hand and pressed the pads of her fingers against mine.
“I don’t tell you this enough,” she whispered, looking at our hands pressed together, “but thank you. Not just for this – for . . . high school. For being there for me. For everything. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had, Page.”
I brushed her cheek with my thumb, and she closed her eyes. It didn’t seem possible that I could love her so much, but I did. I always had.
“You’re my best friend, too,” I whispered. It seemed more meaningful than an ‘I love you’ in that moment.
When she opened her eyes again, she laughed quietly. “What do you think my brother’s gonna say about this?”
I groaned. “Let’s not think about that until tomorrow, okay?”
She laughed again. “That sounds like a good idea.” She yawned, eyes fluttering closed. Without opening them, she said softly, “Thank you for tonight.” She smiled with her eyes closed, her body relaxing into the mattress. “Promise me I’ll see you in the morning?”
My breath caught at the old words. When our friendship had first started out and I was slowly starting to discover all the broken pieces that made up Caroline, I’d figured out that she had trouble sleeping sometimes. One night when we were hanging out in her room, late, she’d started to fall asleep, and I got up to leave. But she stopped me, looking so fragile and hesitant and scared. She’d asked me to stay until she fell asleep.
“Please,” she said. “I don’t know why, but I feel like I’ll sleep better if you’re here. Can you just stay for a little bit?”
This was dangerous territory, so early on in our friendship, but I didn’t hesitate. I would’ve already done anything for her by then. So I nodded and sat next to her where she was lying on her bed, buried under the covers. I was careful not to touch her, all too aware of boundaries and her parents and Ethan somewhere in the house. Just when I thought she was asleep, she’d murmured, “Promise me I’ll see you in the morning?”
At the time, I wasn’t sure if it was something she meant to say or if it just slipped out on accident, but the words held me there. And I said, “Yeah, Caroline. You’ll see me in the morning.”
When she finally fell asleep, I got up and went to Ethan’s room. I made an excuse about being too tired to drive back home and asked if I could crash. He was suspicious of all the time I was spending with his sister, but he didn’t protest. I slept on the floor in his room that night, and during breakfast the next morning, when Caroline walked into the kitchen, the way her face lit up when she saw me did me in. That was when I started to fall in love with her.
She’d been so much younger back then. Sixteen and fresh off the trauma her classmates had put her through. It had only been three years, but three years was a long time to some, and it made a world of difference. She was nineteen and so much stronger. Not fully healed, but getting closer every day. I’d been with her through every step of it, and I planned on being with her through the rest. Every night and every morning.
I still hadn’t answered her, so she opened her beautiful blue eyes. I smiled at her and leaned in, pressing my lips to hers.
“I promise,” I whispered. “You’ll see me in the morning.”
Tomorrow, and every day after.