Sum of Us

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Ch.12: Rhys

Harper and I are having a jam session. She’s on her new keyboard. She’s allowing me to play her new drums. Instead of poking the keys with one finger, her hands are splayed and she has assigned each finger a different key.

I stop drumming to study her, watching as she hums a tune and creates patterns that do not coincide with the pre-programmed songs that can be played by following the lights beneath the keys.

That doesn’t sound half bad.

I pull out my phone to record her.

“Pway, Daddy!” She points to my drums.

“Can I record you instead? I want to be able to listen to your song later.”

“Wike ong?” Her lips go from poked to smiling.

“I love your song. Play it again for me, Lovebug.”

Harper gets right back to work, further impressing me by repeating the chords she had previously played.

My kid’s a musical genius. I can’t wait to rub it in Taylor’s face.

“Great job!” I clap when she is finished.

She claps too, grinning with glee.

I scoop her into my arms and smother her with kisses and tickles. She giggles and squirms.

“I sing and play songs for my job. Do you want to see?”

She nods. I situate her in my lap and pull up our music video for Bandits on my phone.

“Daddy!” She points to me on the screen.

“That’s right. That’s me.”

“No Daddy.” With a scrunched face, she shakes her head when she sees Taylor.

God, I love this kid.

“That’s your Uncle Taylor. He’s my twin brother.”

“Nuncle Twalor.”

“Yes. Keep calling him Knuckle Trailer. That’s perfect.” I let out a hardy laugh.

“Nuncle Twalor!” She proclaims louder when he appears again.

“’Gain.” She points to the screen as soon as the song ends.

“You want me to play the song again?”

“Pway ’gain.”

“You got it, little lady.”

She crawls off my lap, rises to her feet, and dances to the music. The third time she asks me to play the song, I pull up the track in a music app and put it on repeat. I record her twirls, bounces, wiggles, and toddles.

I can’t get enough of her.

“Lovebug, I’ve got someone I want you to meet.” Poppy walks into the apartment with an empty laundry basket.

Taylor trails in behind her.

“No Daddy! Nuncle Twalor.”

“Did she just call me Knuckle Trailer?” Of course, he knows I put her up to it.

“Pronunciation is difficult at her age. She’s trying.” I struggle not to laugh as I lift Harper onto my hip.

Taylor mouths, ‘fuck you,’ before shifting his attention to my amazing daughter.

“My name is Uncle Taylor. Your father is a very mean man.”

“Daddy no mean.” My loyal daughter adamantly protests.

“That right, baby girl. I’m not.” I hug her close and kiss her on the cheek.

Harper invites Taylor to play. I join Poppy in the back of the room as they grow better acquainted. She’s sorting clothes.

“Do you need help packing?”

“If you could help me with her stuff that would be a big help. She’ll be the diva with a dozen bags.” She jokes.

“Just point me in the right direction.”

“The things she needs to sleep are in her crib. Her toothbrush, body wash, shampoo and conditioner, rubber ducky, hair styling products, and hair accessories can be found in the bathroom. Her multivitamin is in the cabinet behind the mirror. Dishes, cups, and utensils are in the cabinet over the kitchen sink. You don’t need to take all of them. A couple will do. The ones you bought need to be washed. Let’s see what else...” She pauses to think.

“Her diaper bag needs to be restocked. The things that need to go in it are in the plastic bin beside her crib. The bag itself is on top of the bin. We’ll let her choose which toys she wants to bring. That should be everything.” Her hands are on her hips as she scans the small room.

Poppy’s twin-sized bed and Harper’s crib are in the back corner. Plastic storage bins are beneath their beds. Their sleeping area is partitioned from the living and dining area by a toy box and a bookshelf that has been anchored to the wall for Harper’s safety. A short wooden dresser is doubling as a TV stand. Her laptop is being used as a television; it’s the one she got as a graduation present. The colorful rug in front of it features the alphabet, shapes, and numbers. Taylor and Harper are playing with her toys on it. The table and two chairs Poppy and I used during Harper’s snack time and her highchair are the remaining pieces of furniture. All of this is in a space the size of my master bathroom.

“Poppy?”

“Yes?” She offers me a soft smile.

“Will you move in with me?”

Her smile drops. “No.”

“Why not?”

“You live in LA for one. Chelsea is my family. I can’t abandon my support system while things with you are still uncertain.”

“At least let me buy you a better place. The two of you aren’t going to be living like this while I’m surrounded by everything I’ve ever wanted and more.”

“’Like this?’ We’re not in a cardboard box on the side of the road, Rhys. Harper has all that she needs in our HOME. All of her furniture and toys are highly recommended. Her diet is balanced. She has never been without diapers or clothes. She--”

“What about you?” I interrupt.

“Harper’s healthy, happy, and safe. That’s what matters.”

Her deflection tells me all that I need to know.

“You’re a great mom. I want the opportunity to be half the parent you are. I have the means to contribute. Let me.” We speak in hushed tones to keep Taylor and Harper from overhearing our disagreement.

“Relying on you to that extent now will only make things difficult in the long run. What happens when we start dating? Our significant others won’t look to kindly upon you supporting the lavish lifestyle you’ve just proposed.” She continues to skirt the question.

“I’m not dating anyone. Are you?” I play along.

“Yes, Rhys, as a single mother of a toddler, I have plenty of time to go on dates. There’s nothing guys our age love more than kids that aren’t theirs.” Her words drip sarcasm.

“You’re a catch, Pop.”

She rolls her eyes. “I’m not getting into this with you. The answer is still ‘no’. Harper and I are only going on tour because I know you’re stubborn enough to actually cancel it.”

“Pot,--” I point to her. “Meet kettle.” I point to myself.

“Can we drop this? We have a lot to do in a short amount of time.” She gets back to work.

“We’re picking it back up later.”

Kyle calls as I am doing my assigned tasks in the bathroom.

“Yo.” I pin my phone to my ear with my shoulder.

“What’s this about us postponing our tour because of a baby?”

“Toddler. She’s almost two.”

“Okay…why?”

“She’s my daughter. We have bonding and catching up to do.”

“Is this a joke? Like my escort? Mine was way funnier.” He asks.

“Her name is Harper. She’s a musical prodigy and zoologist.”

“Who’s her mother?”

“Poppy.”

He busts out laughing. “No, seriously, what’s going on?”

“What I said. Poppy and I have a daughter. I found out this morning. I’m doing the dad thing now. It’s pretty sweet so far.” I load Harper’s things into the duffel-bag Poppy provided me with.

“Do I have to like babysit and change its diaper and stuff?” He still sounds skeptical.

“She. Harper’s a person, not a thing. I would never let you watch my kid on your own. You can’t keep a goldfish alive for more than a few days.”

“It’s not my fault! I keep getting saddled with dud fish.” He argues.

“Not risking it.”

“She better not touch my food.” Kyle grumbles.

“She will be. You’re twenty-one; it’s about time you learn to share.”

“I had to fight for my food selections to be taken seriously by the label. Do you know how hard it was to get them to make sure I had tater tots and Kraft Singles in Asia? She can’t have it. It’s not fair.”

“She gets whatever she wants. I’ll break Betsy if you try to take something from her.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

“Try me. I’ll smash her without a hint of remorse.”

I will.

“You’re a monster.”

“Will having her call you Uncle Kyle make you feel better?”

“Yes.” He’s still pouting.

“Consider it done. She calls Taylor ‘No Daddy’ and ‘Knuckle Trailer.’”

He laughs. “I like her already.”

“Wait until you meet her. You’ll love her.” I smile, thinking of my little girl.

“What’s the situation with Poppy?”

“It’s complicated.”

“Hates your guts, complicated or confused and trying to make it work?”

“The second one. She doesn’t trust me.”

“I think I know the answer to this question, but I need to be sure. You didn’t know, right?” Kyle’s surprisingly serious.

It’s not a mood he gets into often.

“I had no idea.”

“Why didn’t Poppy tell you?”

“She thought I’d resent her. It’s a story that’s been told a million times -- ‘guy has a big opportunity, he accidentally gets his girl pregnant and has to give up his dream to help with the baby.’” I recount.

“In other words, she took one for the team.”

“Yeah.” I sit on the toilet seat lid.

“How’s she doing?”

“I don’t know. She won’t let me too close. I know that her family abandoned her. She had to drop out of school. She’s holding down two dead-end jobs to make ends meet. ” I bury my face in my hand, resting my elbow on my knee. “I kinda ruined her life, man, and she’s too stubborn to let me fix it.”

“Has Taylor punched you in the face yet? He said he was going to,” is his follow up question.

“No, he’s playing with Harper.”

“Good, I wanna watch. It’ll make me feel better. You made me sad.”

“How did I make you sad?” I ask.

“You knocked her up, dumped her, and told me everyone was mean to her because of it.”

“Oh, okay. ”

“You better not walk out on them.” Kyle warns.

“I’m here to stay. I just have to figure out how to convince Pop of that.”

“I’m rooting for you. But, uh, if it doesn’t work out, is it cool if I take a crack at her? She was looking fine as hell at the club last night, and you know I’ve been super into MILF’s since I met your mother.” He’s back to his usual self.

“I will kill you if you don’t stop talking.”

“I’d be a good step-daddy.” He further provokes me in his typical manner.

“I’ll smother you in your sleep if you keep it up. Final warning.”

“Jeeze, you’re so touchy.”

I roll my eyes. “I’ll see you tonight at the hotel.”

“You bringing your girls?”

“They go where I—” The vibration of my phone interrupts my reply. I remove it from my ear to see why that is the case.

Mom

“My mom’s calling. I’ve got to go.”

Kyle’s hyena laugh can be heard throughout the room without being on speakerphone.

I hang up on him and call my mom back.

“I’m sorry I missed your call, Ma,” I say tepidly, bracing myself for her response.

“DID YOU NOT LISTEN TO A WORD I SAID?!” She shrieks.

I cringe, turning down the volume on my phone. “Don’t listen to Lindsey. She has no idea what she’s talking about.”

“WHY IS SOME GIRL CLAIMING YOU’RE A FATHER, RHYS MICHEAL?!”

“It’s not some girl. It’s Poppy!” I cry in exasperation.

“Poppy?! Penelope James?”

“The one and only.”

“I don’t understand. You haven’t seen her in years.” She’s finally speaking at a volume suitable for conversations.

“I got her pregnant the summer after high school. She told me this morning. Our daughter is 19-months-old.”

“I see.” She states simply.

“Poppy would never con someone. Harper’s mine. I’m taking responsibility for her.”

“Okay.”

My outspoken mother’s sudden restraint makes me feel the need to overcompensate. “Harper and Poppy will be traveling with me. I’m not just throwing money at them and walking away. Changings, feedings, tantrums, naps – I’m going to be a part of it all. It won’t be easy to juggle everything, but I’m ready. I want this – need it, even. “

“Be sure to treat her right. Okay? “

“I will. Harper is—”

“Poppy. That girl did something huge for you. Treat her like it.” She firmly states.

“I know. I am.”

“If I find out you let anyone treat her with less than the utmost respect, I will make you wish you were never born. Have I made myself clear?”

She is not kidding in the slightest.

“Crystal. That’s why I hung up on Lindsey.”

“I’ll deal with her. Becca too. I’m sure she called her before calling me. When are you coming home?”

“Thanksgiving.”

“That’s too far away.”

“That’s our schedule.”

“I want to see Harper. Make that happen ASAP.”

Her enthusiasm makes me smile. “I can video call you.”

“Well, get to it. I’m not getting any younger.”

“See you soon.”

I placed the last of the items that Poppy asked me to retrieve from the bathroom into Harper’s bag and return to the main room.

Harper is babbling away as she and Taylor play with her new barnyard playset.

“Harp, your grandma wants to see you. I’m going to put her on my phone so that you can say ‘hello’.”

“Gamma?” She looks at me with her head tilted.

“Yes. She can’t wait to meet you.”

“Seriously?” Taylor asks me beneath his breath when I join them on the floor.

“Seriously. She told me to hurry up and call her back.”

Harper toddles to me, holding a cow figurine. I pull her into my lap, angle the phone towards the two of us, and video call my mom.

Mom gasps and covers her mouth with her hands with tears in her eyes. “Rhys, she’s – she’s so beautiful. The prettiest little baby I have ever seen.” She says when she gains a grip on her emotions, wiping the moisture from her eyes with her fingers.

“Okay, you do recall that you have six children and five other grandchildren, right?” Taylor wedges himself into the camera’s line of sight.

“Yes, but I’m not blind. Look at her. Her eyes, all that hair, those cheeks – she’s gorgeous.” She flippantly disregards him. “I’m going to spoil you rotten, princess. Yes, I am.” She switches to baby talk and smiles at Harper. “Grandma is going to let you do whatever you want.”

“Gamma,” Harper repeats.

“Her little voice.” My mom places her hand on her chest. “My heart. I can’t take it. Where’s Poppy?”

“Pop, can you spare a minute?”

“Sure.” She makes her way to where we are seated, wipes her hands on her jeans, and sits beside Harper and me on the floor.

“Hi, Claudia. Is it still okay if I call you that? I’ll switch back to Ms. Wilde. Hello, Ms. Wilde. How are you?” Poppy fidgets with her hands as she rambles.

“Mom. That’s what you can call me. Both of you and Harper are mine now. I’m happy because of it.” Mom insists with a reassuring smile and matching tone.

“You almost tore Becca’s husband’s head off when he tried calling you that,” Taylor interjects.

“Because I don’t like him, Taylor. He’s too much like your father.” She shakes her head. “Always with the observations, this one.”

Poppy emits a little giggle. “He was telling me about some of those while I was doing laundry. It was enlightening.”

“You’ve always humored my boys. That’s why I love you. I’ve missed having you around.” Mom continues.

“Oh. Wow. Thank you. I’ve missed you too.” Pop voice cracks.

“Give me your number, sweetheart. I want to check-in and be able to straighten those two out if they get out of line.”

“I can send you pictures and videos of Harper too.”

“Please do. I’ve gotta show off my littlest grandbaby.”

Poppy recites her number once my mom has fetched a pen and paper.

“Be sure to stop by the house when you’re home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Satan doesn’t get you all to himself anymore.” Mom tells her.

“He was particularly satanic three years ago. There were lots of flames, more than a few burns, and I haven’t been allowed back to h-e-l-l since.” She laughs with self-deprecation. “But if Rhys goes to Seattle, we’ll join him.” Pop meddles with the locket on her necklace.

Before I can think better of it, I take her hand in mine and intertwine our fingers. She looks at our conjoined hands but does not pull hers from mine.

“He always does and you will too. Make sure that happens, Rhys.” Mom sends a pointed look my way.

“I will. We have to finish packing. I’ll talk to you later.”

“I love all of you. Travel safely. Make good choices.”

“Yes, Mom,” Taylor says.

“I will.” I use my eyes to vow more to her.

“Bye-bye, Harper. I will see you soon.”

“Bye-bye.” Harp repeats and waves.

My mom blows kisses as our call ends. Harper crawls out of my lap to resume playing.

“You okay?” I ask Poppy softly, still holding her hand.

She nods. “Her family consisted of Chelsea and me before today. Now, she has more people that love her. Thank you for providing them.” She offers me a soft smile.

“Don’t thank me for that.” I bring the hand I am holding to my lips and kiss it.

“The things in the washer need to be transferred to the dryer.” She withdraws from me and rises to her feet.

Taylor winces. “Struck out. Bummer.”

I push him away from me.

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