It was two days later.
Two days of lying beside Poppy in bed, committing her every feature to memory. Holding her, kissing her—reaching our nine hundred and ninety-ninth kiss.
When we returned from the beach, Poppy’s bed had been pulled to the window, just like in the hospital. With each hour, she weakened, but, just like Poppy, with each passing minute she was filled with happiness. Her smiles reassuring us all that she was okay.
I was so damn proud of her.
As I stood at the back of the room, I watched as each of her family members kissed her goodbye. I listened, as her sisters and DeeDee told her they would see her again. I stayed strong as her parents held their tears for their girl.
When her mama stepped aside, I saw Poppy’s hand reach out. She was reaching out for me. Inhaling deeply, I forced my leaden feet to push forward to her bed.
She still took my breath away with how beautiful she was. “Hei, Poppymin,” I said and sat on the edge of her bed.
“Hey, baby,” she replied, her voice now barely above a whisper. I brought my hand to hers and pressed a kiss to her mouth.
Poppy smiled and melted my heart. A loud gust of wind blew past the window, whistling against the glass. Poppy inhaled sharply. I turned to see what she was seeing.
A mass of blossom petals went sailing in the wind.
“They’re leaving…,” she said.
I closed my eyes briefly. It was apt that Poppy left the same day that the cherry blossoms lost their petals too.
They were guiding her soul home.
Poppy’s breathing hollowed and I leaned forward, knowing this was it. I pressed my forehead to hers, just one last time. Poppy lifted her soft hand to my hair. “I love you,” she whispered.
“I love you too, Poppymin.”
As I pulled back, Poppy looked into my eyes and said, “I’ll see you in your dreams.”
Trying to hold back my emotions, I rasped back, “I’ll see you in my dreams.”
Poppy sighed, a peaceful smile gracing her face. Then Poppy closed her eyes, tilting her chin up for her final kiss, her hand squeezing mine.
Lowering myself to her mouth, I pressed the softest, most meaningful kiss to her soft lips. Poppy breathed out through her nose, her sweet scent engulfing me … and she never breathed again.
Reluctantly pulling back, I opened my eyes, now witnessing Poppy in eternal sleep. She was as beautiful now as ever she was in life.
But I couldn’t tear myself away, and I pressed another kiss to her cheek. “One thousand and one,” I whispered aloud. I pressed another, and another. “One thousand and two, one thousand and three, one thousand and four.” Feeling a hand on my arm, I looked up. Mr. Litchfield was shaking his head sadly.
So many emotions rushed around within me that I didn’t know what to do. Poppy’s now-stilled hand remained in mine and I didn’t want to let go. But when I looked down, I knew she had returned home.
“Poppymin,” I whispered and looked out the window at the fallen petals racing by. As I glanced back, I saw her jar of kisses on her shelf, a single blank paper heart and pen lying beside it. I got to my feet, scooped them all up and rushed out onto the porch. As soon as the air hit my face, I fell back against the wall, trying to blink away the tears streaming down my face.
Slumping to the floor, I rested the heart on my knee and wrote:
Opening the jar, I placed the now-complete heart inside and sealed it shut. Then…
I didn’t know what to do. I searched all around me for something to help, but there was nothing. I placed the jar beside me and my arms around my legs, and rocked back and forth.
A creak on the step rang out. When I looked up, my pappa was standing there. I met his eyes. This was all he needed to see that Poppy had gone. My pappa’s eyes immediately filled with water.
I couldn’t hold back my tears anymore, so I released them, full force. I felt arms wrap around me. I tensed, then looked up to see my pappa holding me in his arms.
But this time I needed it.
I needed him.
Giving up the final traces of anger I still harbored, I fell into my pappa’s arms and set free all of my pent-up emotions. And my pappa let me. He stayed with me on that porch as day gave way to night. He held me without uttering a single word.
It was the fourth and final moment that defined my life—losing my girl. And, knowing it, my pappa simply held me.
I was sure that if I’d listened closely to the howling wind rushing by, I would have heard Poppy’s lips break into a wide smile as she danced her way home.
* * *
Poppy was laid to rest a week later. The service was just as beautiful as she deserved. The church was small, the perfect send-off for a girl that loved her family and friends with all her heart.
After the service, I decided against the wake at Poppy’s parents’ house and came back to my room. Less than two minutes later, a knock sounded on my door and my mamma and pappa walked in.
In my pappa’s hand was a box. I frowned when he laid it on my bed.
“What’s this?” I asked, confused.
My pappa sat down beside me and put his hand on my shoulder. “She asked us to give this to you after her funeral, son. She prepared it quite a while before she passed.”
My heart thundered in my chest. My pappa tapped the sealed box. “There’s a letter in there I was told to tell you to read first. Then a few boxes. They’re numbered in the order you have to open them.”
My pappa got to his feet. As he went to leave, I gripped onto his hand. “Thank you,” I said hoarsely. Pappa leaned forward and kissed my head.
“Love you, son,” he said softly.
“Love you too,” I replied, and meant every word. Things this week had been easier between us. If Poppy’s short life had taught me anything, it was that I had to learn to forgive. I had to love and I had to live. I’d blamed my pappa for so much for so long. In the end my anger caused only pain.
Moonbeam hearts and sunshine smiles.
My mamma kissed me on my cheek. “We’ll be outside if you need us, okay?” She was worried about me. But there was also a part of her that had relaxed. I knew it was the bridge I’d built with my pappa. I knew it was the release of all my harbored anger.
I nodded and waited until they had gone. It took fifteen minutes until I could bring myself to open the box. Immediately, I saw the letter on top.
It took me ten minutes more to break its seal:
Let me start by saying how much I love you. I know you knew that; I don’t think there is a person on the planet that didn’t see just how perfect we were for each other.
However, if you’re reading this letter, it means I am home. Even as I write this, know that I’m not scared.
I guess the last week has been bad for you. I imagine it has been an effort to even take a breath, to get out of bed each day—I know, because that’s how I would feel in a world devoid of you. But even though I understand, it pains me that my absence will do this to you.
The hardest part was watching those I love crumble. The worst part for me, with you, was watching the anger burn within. Please, do not allow that to happen again.
If only for me, continue to be the man you have become. The best man I know.
You will see that I have given you a box.
I asked your pappa to help me weeks and weeks ago. I asked him to help me—he did so without a second thought. Because he loves you so very much.
I hope you know this now too.
In the box there will be another large envelope. Please open it now, then I will explain.
My heart raced as I gently placed Poppy’s letter on my bed. With shaking hands, I reached into the box and pulled out the large envelope. Needing to see what she had done, I quickly broke the seal. Reaching inside, I pulled out a letter. My eyebrows pulled down in confusion, then I saw the letterhead, and my heart completely stopped:
New York University. Tisch School of the Arts.
My eyes scanned down the page, and I read:
Mr. Kristiansen, On behalf of the admissions committee, it is my honor and privilege to share with you that you have been admitted to our Photography & Imaging program…
I read the entire letter. I read it twice.
Not understanding what was happening, I scrambled to find Poppy’s letter and read on.
I know that right now you will be confused. Those dark-blond eyebrows I adore so much will be pulled down and that scowl that you wear so well will be etched on your face.
But it’s okay.
I expect you to be shocked. I expect you to resist at first. But, Rune. You won’t. This school has been your dream since we were kids, and just because I am no longer there to live my dream alongside you, it does not mean that you should sacrifice yours.
Because I know you so well, I also know that in my final weeks, you will have abandoned everything to stay by my side. I love you for that more than you will ever understand. The way you cared for me, protected me … the way you held me in your arms and kissed me so sweetly.
There is nothing I would change.
But I know that your love would sacrifice your future.
I couldn’t let that happen. You were born to capture those magical moments, Rune Kristiansen. I have never seen a talent like yours. I have also never seen someone so passionate about anything. You are meant to do this.
I had to make sure it happened.
This time, I had to carry you.
Before I ask you to look at something else, I want you to know that it was your pappa who helped me assemble your portfolio to secure your place. He has also paid for the first semester’s tuition as well as your dorms. Even when you continued to hurt him, he did this so selflessly it brought me to tears. He did this with so much pride in his eyes that it floored me.
He loves you.
You are loved beyond measure.
Now, please open box number one.
Swallowing back fraying nerves, I took hold of the labeled box and pulled it open. Inside was a portfolio. I flicked through the pages. Poppy and my pappa had pulled together picture after picture of landscapes, sunrises, sunsets. In truth, the work I was most proud of.
But then, when I reached the last page, I stilled. It was Poppy. It was the picture of Poppy on the beach with me all those months ago. The one where she had turned to me at the most perfect moment, allowing me to capture her on film—a picture that spoke to her beauty and grace more than any words could do.
My favorite photo of all time.
Chasing back the tears from my eyes, I ran my finger over her face.
She was so perfect to me.
Slowly setting the portfolio down, I picked her letter back up and continued.
Impressive, hey? You are gifted beyond words, Rune. I knew when we sent in your work that you would be accepted. I may be no expert on photography, but even I could see how you manage to capture images no one else could. How you have a style that is so completely unique.
So special … as special as special can be.
The picture at the end is my favorite. Not because it is of me, but because I knew the passion that picture reignited. I saw, that day on the beach, the fire inside spark back to life.
It was the first day that I knew you would be okay when I was gone. Because I started to see the Rune I know and love breaking back through. The boy who will live a life for us both. The boy now healed.
Glancing back at Poppy’s face, looking up at me from the picture, I couldn’t help but think of the exhibition at NYU. She must have already known that day that I had been accepted.
Then I thought of the final picture. Esther. The picture that the patron had exhibited as the final piece. The picture of his late wife who died too young. The picture that didn’t change the world, but showed the woman who had changed his.
Nothing described this picture, currently staring back at me, more than this explanation. Poppy Litchfield was just a seventeen-year-old girl from a small town in Georgia. Yet, from the day I had met her, she tipped my world on its head. And even now, after her death, she was still changing my world. Enriching and filling it with a selfless beauty that would never be rivaled.
Picking the letter back up, I read:
This brings me to my final box, Rune. The one I know you will protest about most, but the one that you must follow through.
I know right now you are confused, but before I let you go, I need you to know something.
Being loved by you was the biggest accomplishment of my life. I didn’t have long and I had nowhere near enough time to be with you how I wanted. But in those years, in my final months, I knew what real love was. You showed me that. You brought smiles to my heart and light to my soul.
But best of all, you brought me your kisses.
As I write this and reflect on the past several months since you came back into my life, I can’t be bitter. I can’t be sad that our time is limited. I can’t be sad that I won’t get to live out my life by your side. Because I had you for as long as I could, and that was perfect. To be loved so fiercely, so intensely, once again, was enough.
But it won’t be for you. Because you deserve to be loved, Rune.
When you found out I was sick, I know you struggled with not being able to cure me. To save me. But the more I think about it, the more I believe that it wasn’t you who was meant to save me. Rather, I was meant to save you.
Maybe through my passing, through our journey together, you found your way back to you. The most important adventure I’d ever have.
You broke through the darkness and let in the light.
And that light is so pure and strong that it will carry you through … it will lead you to love.
As you read this, I can picture you shaking your head. But, Rune, life is short. However, I have learned that love is limitless and the heart is big.
So open your heart, Rune. Keep it open and allow yourself to love and to be loved.
In a few moments I want you to open the final box. But first, I simply want to say thank you.
Thank you, Rune. Thank you for loving me so much that I felt it every minute of every day. Thank you for my smiles, your hand so tightly holding mine…
For my kisses. All one thousand. Every one was cherished. Every one was adored.
As were you.
Know that even though I’m gone, Rune, you will never be alone. I’ll be the hand forever holding yours.
I’ll be the footprints walking beside you in the sand.
I love you, Rune Kristiansen. With all of my heart.
I cannot wait to see you in your dreams.
Dropping the letter, I felt the silent tears trickling down my face. Lifting my hand, I brushed them away. I took a deep breath, before lifting the final box onto my bed. It was larger than the rest.
I carefully opened the lid and pulled out the contents. My eyes closed as I realized what it was. Then I read Poppy’s handwritten message tied around the lid:
I stared at the large mason jar in my hand. I stared at the many blue paper hearts gathered inside. Blank paper hearts, pushing against the glass. The label on the jar read:
Clutching the jar to my chest, I lay back on my bed and just breathed. I wasn’t sure how long I lay there, staring at the ceiling, reliving every moment I’d ever had with my girl.
But when the night drew in and I thought of everything she’d done, a happy smile spread on my lips.
A peace filled my heart.
I wasn’t sure why I felt it in that moment. But I was sure that, somewhere, out there in the unknown, Poppy was watching me with a dimpled smile on her pretty face … and a big white bow in her hair.
* * *
One year later
Blossom Grove, Georgia
“You ready, buddy?” I asked Alton as he ran down the hallway and put his hand in mine.
“Ja,” he said and smiled up at me with a gap-toothed grin.
“Good, everyone should be there by now.”
I led my brother out the door and we walked toward the blossom grove. The night was perfect. The sky was crystal clear and filled with glittering stars and, of course, the moon.
My camera hung around my neck. I knew I would need it tonight. I knew I would have to capture this sight to keep forever.
I had made Poppymin a promise.
The sounds of people gathered in the grove hit us first. Alton looked up at me, all wide-eyed. “That sounds like a lot of people,” he said nervously.
“One thousand,” I replied, as we turned into the grove. I smiled; the pink and white petals were in full bloom. I momentarily closed my eyes, remembering the last time I was here. Then I opened them again, feeling a warmth spread through my body at this townspeople’s gathering; they had packed themselves into the small space.
“Rune!” The sound of Ida’s loud call brought me back to the here-and-now. I smiled as she ran through the crowd, only stopping when she plowed into my chest and wrapped her arms around my waist.
I laughed when she looked up at me. For a minute I saw Poppy in her young face. Her green eyes were filled with happiness as she flashed me a smile—it was dimpled too. “We’ve missed you so much!” she said, and stepped back.
When I lifted my head, Savannah was before me, hugging me gently. Mr. and Mrs. Litchfield came next, followed by my mamma and my pappa.
Mrs. Litchfield kissed me on my cheek, then Mr. Litchfield shook my hand, before bringing me in for a hug. When he stepped back, he smiled.
“You look good, son. Real good.”
I nodded. “You do too, sir.”
“How’s New York?” Mrs. Litchfield asked.
“Good,” I said. Seeing them waiting for more, I confessed, “I love it. Everything about it.” I paused, then added quietly, “She would have loved it too.”
Tears shone in Mrs. Litchfield’s eyes, then she gestured at the crowd behind us. “She’ll love this, Rune.” Mrs. Litchfield nodded and wiped the tears from her cheeks. “And I have no doubt she’ll see it up there in the heavens.”
I didn’t reply. I couldn’t.
Moving to let me pass, Poppy’s parents and sisters fell into step behind me, as my pappa placed his arm around my shoulders. Alton was still gripping my hand tightly. He’d refused to let go of me since I’d arrived home for this visit.
“Everyone’s ready, son,” my pappa informed me. Seeing a small stage in the center of the grove, a mic waiting, I made my way over, just as Deacon, Judson, Jorie and Ruby stepped into my path.
“Rune!” Jorie exclaimed with a big smile and gave me a hug. As did everyone else.
Deacon’s hand slapped my back. “Everyone’s ready, just waiting for your signal. It didn’t take much to get the word out you were doing this. We got more volunteers than we needed.”
I nodded my head, and surveyed the townspeople waiting with their Chinese lanterns in hand. On those lanterns, in large black writing, was every kiss I’d ever given Poppy. My eyes focused to read those nearest…
… Kiss two hundred and three, in the rain in the street, my heart almost burst … Kiss twenty-three, in my yard under the moon, with my Rune, my heart almost burst … Kiss nine hundred and one, with my Rune in bed, my heart almost burst…
Swallowing the intense emotion from my throat, I stopped when I saw a lantern waiting for me on the side of the stage. I glanced around the grove looking for who had left it. As the crowd parted, I saw my pappa watching me closely. I met his gaze, then he lowered his eyes before walking away.
The one-thousandth kiss … with my Poppy. When she returned home … my heart completely burst…
It was right that I sent this one up to my girl. Poppy would want me to send this to her myself.
Climbing on the stage, Alton beside me, I lifted the mic and the grove fell into silence. I closed my eyes, gathering the strength to do this, and then raised my head. A sea of Chinese lanterns being held up, ready to fly, stared right back at me. It was perfect. More than I could have ever dreamed.
Raising the mic, I took a deep breath and said, “I won’t speak long. I’m not real good with speaking in public. I just wanted to thank you all for gathering here tonight…” I trailed off. My words had dried up. I raked my hand through my hair and, gathering my composure, managed to say, “Before she passed, my Poppy asked me to send these kisses to her in a way that she would see them in heaven. I know most of you didn’t know her, but she was the best person I knew … she would have treasured this moment.” My lip hooked into a crooked smile at the thought of her face when she saw them.
She would love it.
“So please, light your lanterns and help my kisses reach my girl.”
I lowered the mic. Alton gasped when lighters all around the grove lit the lanterns and sent them soaring into the night sky. One after the other, they floated into the darkness, until the entire sky was glowing with lights sailing upward.
Bending down, I took the lantern beside us and held it in the air. Looking to Alton, I said, “You ready to send this to Poppymin, buddy?”
Alton nodded, and I lit the lantern. The minute the flame caught, we released the one-thousandth—and final—kiss. Standing straight, I watched as it sailed into the air to chase the others, rushing to its new home.
“Wow,” Alton whispered and put his hand in mine again. His fingers squeezed mine tight.
Closing my eyes, I sent a silent message: Here are your kisses, Poppymin. I promised they would come to you. That I’d find a way.
I couldn’t take my eyes from the light show above, but Alton pulled on my hand. “Rune?” he asked and I glanced down to where he stood, watching me.
“Why did we have to do it here? In this grove?”
“It was Poppymin’s favorite place,” I replied softly.
Alton nodded. “But why did we have to wait for the cherry blossoms to come out first?”
Taking a deep breath, I explained, “Because Poppymin was just like the cherry blossom, Alt. She only had a short life, like they do, but the beauty that she brought in that time will never ever be forgotten. Because nothing so beautiful can last forever. She was a blossom petal, a butterfly … a shooting star … she was perfect … her life was short … but she was mine.”
I took in a breath and whispered finally, “Just as I was hers.”