Two weeks later
I sat in my chair, in my mama’s bathroom, as my mama coated my lashes with mascara. I watched her like I’d never watched her before. She smiled. I watched, making sure I had etched every part of her face in my memory.
The truth was, I was fading. I knew it. I think deep down we all knew it. Every morning that I woke, Rune curled by my side, I felt just a little more tired, just a little weaker.
But in my heart, I felt strong. I could hear the call from home getting stronger. I could feel the peace of its calling flow through me, minute by minute.
And I was almost ready.
As I watched my family over the past few days, I knew they would be fine. My sisters were happy and strong, and my parents loved them fiercely, so I knew they would be okay.
And Rune. My Rune, the person I found it hardest to leave … he had grown. He had not yet realized that he was no longer the moody, broken boy who had returned from Norway.
He was vibrant.
He was taking pictures again.
But better still, he loved me openly. The boy who’d returned hid behind a wall of darkness. Not anymore; his heart was open. And because of that, he had let in light to his soul.
He would be okay.
Mama went to the closet. When she returned to the bathroom, she was holding out a beautiful white dress. Reaching out, I ran my hand down the material. “It’s beautiful,” I said and smiled up at her.
“Let’s get it on you, shall we?”
I blinked, confused. “Why, Mama? What’s happening?”
Mama batted her hand in dismissal. “Enough with the questions, baby girl.” She helped me dress, slipping white shoes onto my feet.
The sound of the bedroom door opening made me look around. When I did, my aunt DeeDee stood in the doorway, her hand upon her chest.
“Poppy,” she said, tears filling her eyes. “You look beautiful.”
DeeDee glanced over to my mama and held out her hand. My mama held her sister, and they stood there, looking at me. Smiling at the look on their faces, I asked, “Can I see?”
My mama pushed my chair in front of the mirror, and I stilled at the sight of my reflection. The dress looked so pretty, prettier than I could have imagined. And my hair … my hair was pulled to the side in a low bun, my favorite white bow pinned in place above it.
As always, my infinity earrings stood out, loud and proud.
I ran my hands down the dress. “I don’t understand … it looks like I’m dressed for prom—”
My eyes darted to my mama and DeeDee in the mirror. My heart lost control of its beat. “Mama?” I asked. “Am I? But it’s not for two weeks! How—”
My question was cut short by the ringing of the doorbell. Mama and DeeDee looked at one another, and Mama ordered, “DeeDee, you go answer the door.”
DeeDee went to move, but Mama held out her hand and stopped her with a hand on her arm. “No, wait, you take the chair, I have to carry Poppy down the stairs.”
Mama lifted me onto her bed. DeeDee left the room, and I heard my daddy’s voice downstairs, muffled with others. Thoughts were scrambling through my head, but I dared not get my hopes up. Yet I wanted so badly for those hopes to come true.
“You ready, baby?” my mama asked.
“Yes,” I replied breathlessly.
I hung on to my mama as we walked down the stairs and made for the front door. As we rounded the corner, my daddy and my sisters, who were all gathered in the hall, all looked my way.
Then, although I felt weak, my mama brought me to the door. There, leaning against the doorway, was Rune. He had a spray of cherry blossoms in his hand … and he was wearing a tux.
My heart splintered with light.
He was giving me my wish.
As soon as our eyes met, Rune straightened. I watched him swallow as my mama placed me in my chair. When she stepped away, Rune crouched down, not caring who else was there, and whispered, “Poppymin.” My breathing paused, when he added, “You look so beautiful.”
Reaching out my hand, I tugged on the bottom of his blond hair. “It’s combed back so I can see your handsome face. And you’re wearing a tux.”
A crooked smile pulled on his mouth. “I told you I would,” he replied.
Rune took my hand and, as gently as he could, pushed my corsage onto my wrist. I ran my hand over the blossom leaves. I couldn’t help but smile.
Looking up into Rune’s blue eyes, I asked, “Is this real?”
Leaning forward, he kissed me and whispered, “You’re going to prom.”
A tear escaped my eye, blurring my vision. I watched Rune’s face drop, but I laughed and told him, “They’re good tears, baby. I’m just so happy.”
Rune swallowed and I reached out and touched his face. “You’ve made me so impossibly happy.”
I hoped he heard the deeper meaning of those words. Because I didn’t just mean tonight. It meant he had always made me the happiest girl on the planet. He had to know.
He had to have felt the truth of that fact.
Rune lifted my hand and kissed it. “You’ve made me so damn happy too.”
And I knew he’d understood.
The sound of my daddy’s voice unlocked our stare. “Right, kids, you’d better get going.” I caught the gruffness in my daddy’s tone. I knew he wanted us gone because it was all too much for him to handle.
Rune stood and moved around to the back of my chair. “You ready, baby?”
“Yes,” I replied confidently.
All of the weakness I had felt vanished in an instant. Because Rune had somehow made this wish come true for me.
I wasn’t going to waste a single second.
Rune pushed me to my mama’s car. He lifted me from the wheelchair and placed me on the front seat. I was smiling so big. In fact, I never stopped smiling during the entire drive.
When we pulled up at the school, I heard the music from inside drifting out into the night. I closed my eyes, savoring every image: the parade of limos arriving one after the other, the students dressed so smartly, all entering the school gym.
With so much care, as always, Rune lifted me out of the car and onto my chair, then moved before me and kissed me. He kissed me like he meant it. Like he knew that these kisses were as limited as I knew they were.
It made every touch and taste that much more special. We had kissed almost one thousand times, yet the final few that we were taking, they were the most special. When you know that something is finite, it makes it that much more meaningful.
When he pulled back, I cupped his handsome face and said, “Kiss nine hundred and ninety-four. At my senior prom. With my Rune … my heart almost burst.”
Rune took a deep breath and pressed a final kiss on my cheek. He began to push me toward the gym. The teachers that were chaperoning saw us arrive. Their reactions to me warmed my heart. They smiled, they embraced me—they made me feel loved.
The music blared from inside the hall. I was desperate to see how the room looked. Rune reached for the door, and as he wrenched it open, the school gym came into view … a view that was dressed in pastel whites and pinks. Beautifully decorated, perfectly themed with my favorite flower.
My hand moved to my mouth Lowering it, I whispered, “Cherry blossom-themed.”
I looked back at Rune. He shrugged. “What else?”
“Rune,” I whispered, as he pushed me into the hall. The kids dancing nearby stopped when I entered. For a minute I felt awkward when I was met with their stares.
This had been the first time most of them had seen me since… But the awkwardness was quickly forgotten when they began to come over, greeting me and wishing me well. After a while, clearly seeing I was overwhelmed, Rune pushed me to a table overlooking the dance floor.
I smiled when I saw all of our friends sitting at the table. Jorie and Ruby saw me first. They jumped to their feet and ran our way. Rune stepped back as my friends embraced me.
“Holy crap, Pops. You look so beautiful,” Jorie cried. I laughed, and gestured at her blue dress.
“So do you, sweetie.” Jorie smiled in return. Judson came up behind her, taking her hand. As I stared at their hands, I smiled again.
Jorie met my eyes and shrugged. “I think it was always going to happen eventually.” I was happy for her. I liked knowing that she was with someone she adored. She had been an amazing friend to me.
Judson and Deacon hugged me next, then Ruby. When all of our friends had greeted me, Rune pushed in to take his place at the table. Of course he took the seat beside me, immediately taking hold of my hand.
I saw him watching me, his eyes never leaving my face. Turning to him, I asked, “Are you okay, baby?”
Rune nodded, then leaned in to say, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you looking so beautiful. I can’t take my eyes off you.”
My head angled to the side as I drank in his look. “I like you in a tux,” I announced.
“It’s okay, I guess.” Rune reached up and fidgeted with the bow tie. “This was near impossible to put on.”
“But you managed,” I teased.
Rune looked away, then looked back. “My pappa helped me.”
“He did?” I asked quietly.
Rune gave a curt nod.
“And you let him?” I persisted, noticing that stubborn tilt of his chin. My heart raced as I waited for the answer. Rune didn’t know that my secret wish was that he would mend his relationship with his pappa.
He’d need him soon.
And his pappa loved him.
It was the final hurdle I wanted Rune to overcome.
Rune sighed. “I let him.”
I couldn’t stop the smile forming on my lips. I reached over and laid my head on his shoulder. Glancing up, I said, “I’m real proud of you, Rune.”
Rune’s jaw clenched, but he had nothing to say in reply.
Lifting my head, I surveyed the room, watching our classmates dancing and having fun. And I loved it. I looked at each person I had grown up with, wondering what they would make of themselves when they grew up. Who’d they marry, if they’d have kids.
Then my eyes stopped at a familiar face, looking at me from across the room. Avery was sitting with another group of friends. When I caught her eyes, I held up my hand and gave a small wave. Avery smiled and waved back.
When I looked back to the table, Rune was glaring at Avery. When my hand landed on his arm, he sighed and shook his head at me. “Only you,” he said. “Only you.”
As the night passed, I watched on, completely content as our friends danced the night away. I treasured this time. I treasured seeing everyone look so happy.
Rune’s arm came around my shoulder. “How did you do this?” I asked.
Rune pointed to Jorie and Ruby. “It was them, Poppymin. They wanted you to have this. They did it all. Moved the date forward. The theme, everything.”
I eyed him skeptically. “Why do I get the feeling it wasn’t just them?”
A blush flared on Rune’s cheeks as he shrugged casually. I knew he’d done a lot more than he’d let on.
Inching closer, I took his face in my hands and said, “I love you, Rune Kristiansen. I love you, so, so much.”
Rune’s eyes closed for a second too long. He breathed in deeply through his nose, then opening his eyes, declared, “I love you too, Poppymin. More than I think you’ll ever know.”
As I cast my eyes around the gym, I smiled. “I know, Rune … I know.”
Rune held me closer. He asked me to dance, but I didn’t want to take my chair out onto the crowded floor. I was happily watching everyone else dance when I saw Jorie walk to the DJ.
She looked over at me. I couldn’t read the look in her eye, but then I heard the opening chords of One Direction’s “If I Could Fly” flood the room.
I stilled. I had once told Jorie that this song made me think of Rune. It made me think of when Rune was away from me in Norway. And more than anything, it made me think of how my Rune was with me in private. A sweetheart. Only for me. For my eyes only. When he told the world that he was bad, he only ever told me he was in love.
He was loved.
I had dreamily told her that if we had ever married it would be our song. Our first dance. Rune slowly got to his feet; it seemed like Jorie had told Rune.
As Rune leaned down, I shook my head, not wanting to take my chair on the dance floor. But then to my surprise, with a move that completely stole my heart, Rune took me in his arms and swept me to the floor.
“Rune,” I protested weakly, wrapping my arms around his neck. Rune shook his head, not saying a single word, and began to dance with me in his arms.
Refusing to look anywhere else, I stared into his eyes, knowing he could hear every lyric, seeing clearly in his face why he knew this song was for us.
He held me close, swaying gently to the music. And, like it always had for Rune and I, the rest of the world fell away, leaving only us two. Dancing among the blossoms, completely in love.
Two halves of one whole.
As the song hit its crescendo, slowly bringing it to a close, I leaned forward and asked, “Rune?”
“Ja?” he rasped back.
“Will you take me somewhere?”
His dark-blond eyebrows furrowed, but he nodded in agreement. As the song ended, he pulled me in for a kiss. His lips shook slightly against mine. Feeling overcome with emotion too, I allowed myself a solitary tear, before taking a deep breath and shooing it away.
As Rune withdrew, I whispered, “Kiss nine hundred and ninety-five. With my Rune. At prom as we danced. My heart almost burst.”
Rune’s forehead pressed to mine.
As Rune moved us to leave, I glanced to the center of the floor. Jorie was standing still, watching me, tears in her eyes. Capturing her gaze, I placed my hand over my heart and mouthed, “Thank you … I love you … I’ll miss you.”
Jorie’s eyes closed. When they opened again, she mouthed back, “I love you and I’ll miss you too.”
She held her hand up in a small wave, and Rune met my eyes.
I nodded, then he placed me in my chair and took me from the hall. When he had placed me in my seat and gotten into the car, he looked over to me.
“Where are we going, Poppymin?”
Sighing in complete happiness, I revealed, “The beach. Let me see the sunrise from the beach.”
“Our beach?” Rune queried as he started up the car. “It’ll take us a while to get there and it’s already late.”
“I don’t care,” I replied, “As long as we make it before the sun.” I sat back, taking Rune’s hand in my own as we began our ultimate adventure to the coast.
* * *
By the time we arrived at the beach, the night had drawn on. Sunrise was only a couple of hours away. And I was content with that.
I wanted this time with Rune.
As we pulled into a parking spot, Rune looked over to me. “Do you want to sit on the sand?”
“Yes,” I said hastily, staring up at the bright stars in the sky.
He paused. “It might be cold for you.”
“I have you,” I replied and watched as his expression softened.
“Wait here.” Rune slipped out of the car, and I heard him taking things from the trunk. The beach was dark, lit only by the bright moon above. In the moonbeams, I saw Rune laying a blanket on the sand, a few extra blankets from the trunk beside him.
As he walked back, he reached up and undid his bowtie, then snapped open several buttons of his shirt. As I stared at Rune, I asked myself how I had gotten so lucky. I was loved by this boy, loved so fiercely that other loves paled in comparison.
Though my life had been short, I had loved long. And in the end, this was enough.
Rune opened the car door, and reaching in, he took me in his strong arms. I giggled as he cradled me. “Am I heavy?” I asked as he shut the car door.
Rune met my eyes. “Not at all, Poppymin. I’ve got you.”
Smiling, I pressed a kiss to his cheek and laid my head on his chest as he walked us to the blanket. The sound of crashing waves filled the night air, a gentle warm breeze blew through my hair.
When we arrived at the blanket, Rune dropped to his knees and gently laid me down. I closed my eyes and inhaled the salty air, filling my lungs.
The sensation of wool covering my shoulders made me open my eyes; Rune was wrapping me up warm in the blankets. I tipped my head back, watching him behind me. Noticing my smile, he kissed the tip of my nose. I giggled, suddenly finding myself held tightly in Rune’s protective arms.
Rune’s legs straightened to box me in. My head fell back to rest against his chest. I let myself relax.
Rune pressed kisses to my cheek. “Are you okay, Poppymin?” he asked.
I nodded. “I’m perfect,” I replied.
Rune’s hand pushed the hair back from my face. “Are you tired?”
I went to shake my head, but wanting to be honest, I answered, “Yes. I’m tired, Rune.”
I felt as well as heard his deep sigh. “You made it, baby,” he said proudly. “The blossom trees, the prom…”
“All that’s left are our kisses,” I finished for him. I felt him nod against me. “Rune?” I said, needing him to hear me.
Closing my eyes, I lifted my hand to my lips. “Remember, the one thousandth kiss is to be when I go home.” Rune tensed against me. Holding his arm tighter around me, I asked, “Is that still okay?”
“Anything,” Rune replied. But I could tell by the hoarseness of his voice that the request had hit him hard.
“I can’t imagine a more peaceful and beautiful send-off than your lips on mine. The end of our adventure. The adventure we’ve been on for nine years.”
Looking back at him, I held his intense eyes and smiled. “And I want you to know that I’ve never regretted a day, Rune. Everything about you and me has been perfect.” Gripping his hand, I said, “I want you to know how much I have loved you.”
I turned my shoulder so I was staring Rune straight in the eye. “Promise me that you’ll go on adventures around the world. Visit other countries and experience life.”
Rune nodded. I waited, waited for the sound of his voice.
“I promise,” he replied.
Nodding, I released a pent-up breath and rested my head against his chest.
Minutes and minutes passed in silence. I watched the stars as they twinkled in the sky. Living this moment.
“Yes, baby?” I replied.
“Have you been happy? Have you…” He cleared his throat. “Have you loved your life?”
Answering with one hundred percent honesty, I said, “I’ve loved my life. Everything. And I’ve loved you. As clichéd as this sounds, it was always enough. You were always the best part of my every day. You were the reason for my every smile.”
I closed my eyes and replayed our lives in my mind. I remembered the times I hugged him and he hugged me harder. I remembered how I kissed him and he kissed me deeper. And best of all, I remembered how I would love him and he would always strive to love me more.
“Yes, Rune,” I said with complete certainty. “I’ve loved my life.”
Rune exhaled a breath, as if my answer had freed a burden from his heart.
“Me too,” Rune agreed.
My eyebrows pulled down. Looking back at him, I said, “Rune, your life isn’t over.”
I cut short whatever Rune was about to say with a gesture of my hand. “No, Rune. Listen to me.” I drew in a deep breath. “You may feel you’ll lose half of your heart when I go, but that doesn’t give you permission to live half of a life. And half your heart will not be gone. Because I’ll always be walking beside you. I’ll always be holding your hand. I’m woven into the fabric of who you are—just as you will always be attached to my soul. You’ll love and laugh and explore … for both of us.”
I held Rune’s hand, imploring him to listen. He glanced away, then turned to look into my eyes, as I wanted. “Always say yes, Rune. Always say yes to new adventures.”
Rune’s lip hooked up in the corner, as I stared at him with hard eyes. He ran his finger down my face. “Okay, Poppymin. I will.”
I smiled at his amusement, but then said, in all seriousness, “You have so much to offer the world, Rune. You’re the boy who gave me kisses, made real my last wishes. That boy doesn’t stop because he suffers loss. Instead, he rises, just as sure as the sun rises each new day.” I sighed. “Weather the storm, Rune. Then remember one thing.”
“What?” he asked.
Losing my frustration, I smiled and said, “Moonbeam hearts and sunshine smiles.”
Unsuccessfully holding back his laughter, Rune set it free … and it was beautiful. I closed my eyes as the rich baritone washed over me. “I know, Poppymin. I know.”
“Good,” I said triumphantly and leaned back against him. My heart clenched when I saw the dawn beginning to flare on the horizon. Reaching down, I silently took hold of Rune’s hand and held it in mine.
This sunrise needed no narration. I had told Rune everything I had to say. I loved him. I wanted him to live. And I knew I would see him again.
My peace was made.
I was ready to let go.
As if sensing the completion in my soul, Rune held me so impossibly tight, as the crest of the sun broke over the blue waters, chasing the stars away.
My eyelids began to become heavy as I sat so contentedly in Rune’s arms.
“Have I been enough for you too?” The gruff tone of Rune’s voice caused my heart to break, but I nodded softly.
“More than anything,” I confirmed and, with a smile, added just for him, “You’ve been as special as special can be.”
Rune sucked in a breath at my response.
As the sun rose to her place, to watch protectively over the sky, I said, “Rune, I’m ready to go home.”
Rune squeezed me one last time, then moved to get to his feet. As he moved, I weakly lifted my hand and held onto his wrist. Rune looked down at me, and blinked back his tears. “I mean … I’m ready to go home.”
Rune’s eyes closed for a moment. He crouched down and cradled my face in his hands. When his eyes opened, he nodded. “I know, baby. I felt it the moment you decided.”
I smiled. I took one last glance at the panoramic view.
It was time.
Rune gently lifted me into his arms, and I watched his beautiful face as he walked back over the sand. He held my gaze.
Turning one more time to face the sun, my eyes dropped to the golden sand. And then my heart filled with such impossible light when I whispered, “Look, Rune. Look at your footprints in the sand.”
Rune’s eyes left mine to observe the beach. His breath caught and his gaze came back to me. Lip quivering, I whispered, “You carried me. In my hardest times, when I couldn’t walk … you carried me through.”
“Always,” Rune managed to reply hoarsely. “Forever always.”
Taking a deep breath, I laid my head against his chest and hushed out, “Take me home, baby.”
As Rune drove, chasing the day, I didn’t move my eyes from him once.
I wanted to remember him just like this.
Until he was back in my arms for good.
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