Caroline wasn’t all there when we woke up the next morning.
She was there physically – I was more than aware of her next to me, so close to me, her chest rising and falling as she breathed, the feeling of her in my arms. But when I saw her face turned into the pillow, she was staring at nothing, and her body was slumped lifelessly on the mattress. I’d seen it enough times to know what it meant, but I’d been naive and hopeful enough to think that last night would’ve made a difference. I wanted to wake up to her smile.
I never knew when she was going to have an episode, which meant that they could happen at any time, even after she’d had a good day. She could be happy one minute and sad the next, and I’d gotten used to it by now. There was no set pattern to Caroline’s depression. Most days, she was fine, but some days it took over her, and those days could happen even after she’d been happy the day before. I knew that. I just didn’t understand why it happened the way it did, so suddenly, without warning.
“Hey,” I said gently, kissing her shoulder. She tried to smile at me, but the corners of her lips lifted barely a fraction. Her eyes were hazy and faraway. I sighed and rested my forehead against hers. “It’s okay.”
I laid there with her for a few minutes, running my fingers up and down her arm, before she closed her eyes and turned her face further into the pillow.
I rolled off the pullout couch and stretched, leaving her there to rest. She probably wouldn’t get out of bed much during the day. I’d make her breakfast and leave it near her, but she might only eat a few bites of it, if any. There was a routine we had on days like this, when I was with her, anyway. When I couldn’t be around, she was alone with her pain. It killed me to think about.
I went to my room to check on Poppy. She was awake, reading one of my books. She looked up when I knocked on the door, and then her eyes flickered back down to the page she was on.
“Hey, kiddo,” I said. “What do you want for breakfast?”
Poppy wasn’t a picky eater. We knew she loved peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches, and we’d discovered her favorite cereal and her favorite type of juice in the time we’d been around her. I liked making a game out of it, trying to figure out the rest of her favorite things. I knew she loved strawberries, and every time we fed her, I’d try to sneak strawberries in there somehow just so I could see her smile.
She’d become so important to me in such a short amount of time. I didn’t know what I was going to do when we had to let her go.
I worried about the bad people that she told us were after her, but she seemed to think she was safe with us. She trusted us. Even if she didn’t talk much, we knew her well enough by then to be able to know that she trusted us implicitly to keep her safe. It meant something to both of us.
Poppy was such a confusing mystery, but Caroline and I both would’ve laid our lives on the line for her.
She didn’t answer me about what she wanted for breakfast, which was about as much as I’d expected. I nodded as if she had spoken. “Alright. Pancakes it is, then.”
As I left the room, I saw her mouth quirk up in a smile.
I tried to make the pancakes quietly, since the kitchen was connected to the living room where Caroline was still motionless on the pullout couch. Every now and then I looked at her to make sure I could still see the rise and fall of her breathing under the sheets. I couldn’t help it.
The first time I was with her on one of her bad days, I didn’t know what to do. I worried and worried over her, and it only made her more upset until I realized there wasn’t anything I could do. That was when I went online and started doing research on clinical depression. I recognized almost all the symptoms in Caroline. Eventually, after I first met her and I started to become a common presence in her life, she opened up to me about it. She told me she thought she must have always had it, in some form, but it hadn’t been that bad until what happened to her in high school. Then it got worse.
Her parents didn’t know, she didn’t go to therapy, and she wasn’t on any sort of medication. Until she met me, she was dealing with it completely and totally alone. I still found it miraculous that her parents and Ethan were so oblivious to it. But the thing about Caroline was that she would do anything to spare the feelings of the people she cared about. She hid her pain very, very well. Still, I couldn’t quite believe that her family didn’t know about what happened to her in high school. Especially Ethan. Caroline told me her brother had been popular in his time at their school, and he was still connected to it through the younger siblings of the friends he’d graduated with. The incident with Caroline had been gossip fodder for months. But he had no idea. I didn’t know if it was because nobody wanted to tell him or because he just refused to hear it.
Caroline was loved by her family, and they’d raised her well, but there was a detachment there that I just didn’t understand. She’d always been quiet and kept to herself, and I guess they just never expected her to share details of her life, so they didn’t ask. Mr. and Mrs. Parrish were always more involved with Ethan’s life only because Ethan voluntarily talked about it. Caroline always told her parents things like “Fine” and “Good” and “I’m happy, don’t worry about me,” and they didn’t ask for more because she was such a good actress that they believed her. All I knew about the Parrish family dynamic was what I’d observed when I was invited over for dinner, and Caroline never talked much about the rest of it.
As I made her breakfast, Poppy emerged from my room. She looked at Caroline on the couch and then at me curiously. Caroline hadn’t had too many bad days since Poppy came into our lives, so Poppy had never seen her like this before. I already had answers prepared in case she asked me about it. Normally, I knew Caroline wouldn’t want Poppy to see her like this, but on days like these, she couldn’t control it.
Poppy didn’t say anything. She stared at the lump of Caroline’s body under the sheets for a few minutes, and then she took a deep breath that I heard from where I was standing at the stove. She went around the couch and crawled onto the mattress, lying on her side next to Caroline. I watched her close her eyes and press her forehead against Caroline’s back. It was such an unexpected thing that I just stood there for a few seconds before I smelled the pancakes burning.
I didn’t know what to say. Emotion crowded my throat, and I had to clear it to get rid of the lump that formed. In retrospect, it didn’t seem all that surprising – one of the things we’d learned about Poppy during her time with us, and something we saw in her much later, as she was growing up, was that she was a particularly empathetic person, always tuned into other people’s emotions, especially ours. When she sensed Caroline was upset, she’d take her hand. When she thought I was upset, she would hug me. She communicated with us in tactile ways more than speaking. She was different than the Poppy that we would come to know in the future – that Poppy, our daughter, was bright and talkative and energetic, so much like the happy version of my Sunshine Caroline – but she was always attentive towards what other people needed. It was another way in which she was so much like Caroline; she never wanted people to be upset.
The day was quiet for us. We stayed in the apartment, and I called in sick to work so I could be with Caroline. I didn’t want to leave her alone when I knew she was like this, and she couldn’t take care of Poppy like this, either. Poppy stayed with her on the bed for most of the day, sitting up to eat, read a book, or watch TV with the volume down low. Caroline barely moved. She ate a few bites of the pancakes and drank a glass of water, but she slept for most of the day, unresponsive. When her phone buzzed with text messages from her roommates and her mom, she asked me to answer them for her. The request was a muffled, quiet mumble from underneath the blankets, Caroline’s voice raspy and low.
I put the flowers I’d bought for her in a vase, and I waited. Waiting until she was out of it and feeling better was really all I could do.
Poppy was patient. She never asked for much from us.
Years later, when we understood everything, it was easy to figure out that the reason Poppy didn’t talk a lot when she was with us was because she was afraid of revealing too much information. Telling us too much about the future could alter it in drastic ways, and she was terrified of that happening. She didn’t want to risk our family. So she stayed quiet, never giving us too many details of who she was. Even the things she did tell us – like her middle name, which was my mother’s name, and showing us the words on her charm bracelet – could have done something to change the timeline in the future. We were lucky that nothing was damaged.
When the sun went down that day, Caroline finally stirred. She moved slowly at first, like sitting up took all of her energy. I watched her, waiting, as she sat cross-legged on top of the mattress and stared at the sheets, picking at a thread in the blanket. Poppy moved closer to her and pressed her arm against Caroline’s side. When Caroline finally looked at me, her eyes were weary and apologetic.
“I’m sorry,” she said, and I shook my head. I moved over to her and kissed her forehead.
“No,” I said. “You don’t have a reason to be sorry.”
“You missed work,” she said, but I was shaking my head again. Her guilt was a heavy thing when this happened. Whenever she fell into a slump around me or she had one of her bad days and I was there, she always felt bad when she came out of it.
“I’ve barely taken a sick day since I got the job,” I said. I sat on the bed in front of her and pulled her into my chest, and she sagged against me, her arms wrapping tight around my waist. “It’s not like they’re gonna fire me.”
“Still,” she mumbled, voice muffled. “I’m sorry. We had such a nice night – everything you did was so beautiful, and I really was happy. I loved it so much, and I love you, but I woke up and it just wasn’t . . . I wasn’t . . . .”
“You don’t have to explain,” I said softly.
When she broke away from me and looked into my eyes, she tried for a smile. “But you were there for me in the morning. You always keep that promise.” She raised her hand and brushed a piece of my hair away from my forehead. I smiled back at her and took her hand, kissing her palm. She sighed heavily and looked around, as if finally realizing what time of day it was. “Crap. I need to go back to the apartment . . . and I should check in with my mom and – ” She got off the bed, stretching slowly. Poppy’s eyes were on her, and Caroline turned back around like she’d just remembered Poppy was there. There was a gentle, easy smile on her face in a second, and the sight of it pinched my chest. “Are you ready to go back to my place?”
Poppy nodded. Then, quietly, she asked, “Are you okay?”
The way she asked it broke my heart. I heard Caroline’s breath hitch, but she was good at hiding it. Her smile barely flickered. She nodded reassuringly and held out her hand to Poppy, who took it and crawled off the bed to stand in front of Caroline. “Yeah, I’m okay. Are you okay?”
Poppy nodded again. “I’m okay,” she said, and Caroline put a hand on her head and stroked her hair.
“Do you need anything from me?” I asked, watching Caroline carefully. “What can I do?”
She shook her head and looked around the apartment, searching for her things. “I’m okay. It’s late, though. We should head out.” She paused when she saw the bouquet of flowers I’d given her last night in the vase I’d put them in, and her face changed. She smiled and ducked her head to smell them, and her eyes closed. When she opened them again, the look she gave me said everything she wanted to say out loud, and I heard all of it. I went to her side and kissed her, because I could now. I had that privilege. And it was such a privilege to kiss Caroline.
“Love you,” I whispered in her ear when I pulled away, and she hugged me tightly.
She replied with a genuine smile, and I grinned. I kissed her again and then helped her gather her things. Her phone buzzed while she was packing up her backpack, and when she read the screen, her eyes widened. “Oh, it’s my brother. Didn’t we say we were going to figure out what to tell him?” Her shoulders slumped, and then she laughed like she’d just realized what the situation was. “Oh, no. What are we supposed to tell him? How and when are we supposed to tell everyone?”
“Deep breaths,” I said, giving her a smile. “We’ll take it one step at a time. Your mom always guessed we’d end up together anyway, didn’t she?”
She laughed again, and the sound made my heart soar. “Yeah. Probably. I think everyone did, at some point. But Ethan might be difficult now that it’s really official.”
“We’ll worry about that when it happens,” I said. “We’ll take everything as it comes.” And just like that, she didn’t seem worried. She smiled at me.
“Thank you,” she said, and I knew it was meant for more than just my reassurance.
“Any time,” I said. “Always. But you already know that.”
I wanted to take her and Poppy back to Caroline’s apartment, but she insisted they were fine with walking. It wasn’t that far, and it wasn’t too late that it would be so dangerous. The streets were mostly safe. Caroline kissed me goodbye at the door, and Poppy hugged me. Poppy took Caroline’s hand as they left. I watched them go until they got into the elevator, and the last I saw of them was Caroline’s pink hair and Poppy’s braids disappearing through the doors.
I was settling in for bed that night when it happened. It caught up to us. There was a part of me that knew things would come crashing down, eventually. The whole situation with Poppy had seemed too calm. No one had figured out we were harboring a strange runaway girl, and it had been a week and a half. Caroline and I both knew our luck was too good to be true, but we’d been trying not to focus on it. Keeping Poppy safe was our priority. But we both knew, deep down, that something had to go wrong. There were bad people after Poppy. Poppy swore that she was safe with us, but I didn’t think it was that simple.
And it wasn’t. There was a knock on my door as I was getting into bed. At first I thought it was Caroline, back again; maybe she forgot something. But when I looked through the peep hole in my door, I saw a man in a black suit standing in the hallway. Goose bumps crawled up my arms at the first sight of him. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I had no idea who he was, but something in me knew he was dangerous. And my first thought automatically went to Poppy.
I considered not answering the door. But what could I do? I couldn’t call the police, because we’d agreed not to get the police involved where Poppy was concerned. She was our responsibility.
So I opened the door.
The man looked at me without smiling. “Hello, sir. Sorry to bother you at this hour. I’m with Child Protective Services. I’m looking for a runaway, and I have witnesses that claim they saw a little girl matching the description I have entering this building yesterday morning. I’m knocking on all the doors to see if anyone’s seen her.”
Everything he said was a lie. I knew it automatically. I didn’t trust anything about him. All I was thinking about was Poppy.
When he first showed up at my door, there was no way I could’ve known who he really was, just like there was no way we could’ve known who Poppy was. He was from the future. In the future, that man would torment our family. He was the reason Poppy came to the past, the reason she had to leave us in the future and travel fifteen years back in time before she was born.
The reasons for all of it wouldn’t become clear until later, but at that moment, I knew not to trust the man standing in front of me. I knew I had to keep Poppy away from him.
So I shook my head and said, “Sorry, I haven’t seen any little kids running around here. This building’s usually pretty quiet.” I smiled at him, my friendly, trustworthy smile, the one that let everyone know I was a good person.
He smiled back, but it was less nice. There was an edge to it.
“I’ll call CPS if I see anything, though,” I said, and he nodded. He looked up and down the hallway, and then tried to glance past me into my apartment. If he tried to come in, I wouldn’t let him. “Do you have a card so I can get in touch with you if I see her?”
“Just call the CPS hotline, and ask for Allen Reynolds,” he said briskly. I didn’t know how I could tell, but I knew the second he said it that it was a fake name.
“Allen Reynolds.” I repeated it and nodded, acting like I was committing it to memory. “Sure. Okay.”
He held out a picture to me suddenly. It was a picture of Poppy. She was a little younger, with shorter hair. She was smiling with all her teeth, and she looked impossibly happy. I didn’t know where the man had gotten the picture, but the mere fact that he had it made my skin crawl. “You sure you haven’t seen her?”
I painted an innocent look on my face. Caroline and I were both good actors. “I don’t recognize her. I’m sorry.”
“Hm,” the man said. He didn’t believe me. I knew it. It was written all over his face. Sudden, inexplicable hatred for him rose up in me and made my blood boil. I didn’t understand where the strong feelings were coming from, but they were as strong as the ones Poppy inspired in me. I hated him as much as I loved her without knowing why. “Well. Sorry to have bothered you, then. Be sure to call if you see her.”
“I will,” I said, keeping a seersucker smile on my face. “Have a good night, sir. I hope you find her.”
“Me too,” he said. The tone of his voice made me hope he never, ever found her. If I had anything to do with it, he never would. I was going to protect Poppy from him at all costs.
When he left, I called Caroline.