Sum of Us

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Ch.16: Rhys

Ian and Kyle are the only people in our dressing room when Harper and I walk into it.

“Where are they?” I demand, still fuming.

“XO? We sent them away.” Kyle says as he dips a chicken nugget into ketchup.

“It looks like a daycare center here. The idea of doing pre-show shots felt wrong.” Ian doesn’t look up from his phone.

“I tried to power through the feeling, but Pinky kept staring at me -- judging me-- and I had to put down the Jack,” Kyle speaks with his mouth.

“Wike, Pinky.” Harper pipes up with a sweet smile.

“I know, baby girl. She likes you too.”

“Fwiends.”

“Yes, you are.” I kiss her forehead.

“Did they leave willingly?” I shift my attention back to the guys, my irritated tone returning.

“Yeah, why?” Ian looks up from his phone.

“They gave Poppy a hard time, made her feel so unwelcome that she left the room. Tay and I found her and Harper sitting in the hallway.”

“For real?” His eyebrows pinch.

“Not cool.” Kyle shakes his head.

“I’m going to talk to them about it after the show, but if it happens again, let me--.”

Poppy and Taylor burst into the room.

“Watch your mouth around her!” Pop reprimands me.

“My language has been G-rated. XO wasn’t here.”

She looks at Kyle and Ian for verification; they both nod.

“Good.” She exhales. “So, matter resolved?” She turns to me.

“Not even close, but I’ll handle it later.” I remain tense.

“Calm down, okay?” Poppy touches her hand to my arm. “I was over it as soon as I left the room. I’m tougher than I look.” She graces me with a little smile as she rubs my shoulder.

Because you went through hell as a young single mom.

My muscles relax at her touch, but my mind remains troubled. “No one else is going to hurt you, especially on my watch.”

“Rhys, seriously, it’s—”

“No one,” I state firmly.

Her eyes soften, and she nods.

I get lost in the deep pools of mahogany, wishing I could take away the innate sadness they seem to harbor nowadays.

“Daddy. Mama Daddy pway.” Harper hits my chest.

I clear my throat to switch gears as I turn my head. “We have lots of playing to do. We better get started.” I smile and rub my nose against hers.

Sitting in her playpen, Poppy and I follow her lead and play with every toy she thrusts at us. Her joy and excitement are contagious. By the time I’m due to take the stage, I’m energized and happy, eager to perform for the first time in a long time.

I’m on one knee in front of her in the wings of stage-right. “Alright, Harp, listen up. I’m about to sing some songs just for you.--”

“Daddy ongs!” She bounces and claps.

“That’s not the important part. I’m going to need you to stay right here with Mommy, or I’m going to have to stop playing music.”

“No top.”

“I won’t if you hold Mommy’s hand and don’t let go.”

She puts her hand in Poppy’s. “Pway usic.”

“Can I get a good luck kiss first?”

She gives me a smooch.

“I love you.” I give her a tight hug.

“Wove you.”

I kiss her on the cheek before standing.

“I’m a fan of your shirt, but I think I like your old one better.” I step closer to Poppy.

Her lips quirk into a tiny smirk. “Big fan of puffy paint on plain white t-shirts?”

“Huge. ’I heart Rhys’ written on the back was a nice touch too.”

“Shut up.” She gives me a light seat on the chest. Though it is dark, I can tell she is blushing.

“Mama, no hit.” Harper adorably scolds.

“Yeah, Mama, no hit.” I pick with Poppy.

She narrows her eyes at me and shakes her head.

“The crew’s going to angle the piano in this direction when they roll it out for 'Field.’ I know you plan to head out at ten. We’ll start performing it five minutes before. There’s a high note so I can play off her goodnight kiss as a water break.”

“We are going to step away for a bit near the end. I’m going to bathe Harp in the dressing room’s bathroom and put her in her PJs. She should be sleepy enough for the song to work as her lullaby.” Poppy replies.

“Teamwork.” I hold up my hand.

“Break a leg.” She says after high-fiving me.

“Not literally, right? You looked like you were about to off me when you stormed into the dressing room with Taylor.”

“Not tonight. Harper’s looking forward to the show,” is her playful retort.

“No one else is?”

“You’ve been to one, you’ve been to them all.” She tries to sound bored as she raises and drops a shoulder.

The urge to kiss her is the strongest it’s been.

“I need a Harper high-five. Hit me with your best shot, kiddo.” Taylor appears at my side, preventing me from doing something stupid like following through with my impulse.

Poppy and I watch as he gets on her level, enabling her to hit his hand with all her might.

“You’re getting too strong.” He exaggeratedly shakes out his hand.

Harper breaks into a fit of giggles.

“Your other uncles aren’t around, you can tell me. Am I your favorite?” He loudly whispers.

Harp adamantly nods.

Her proclamation is meaningless. She has told Ian and Kyle they are her favorites today too. Kyle persuaded her to say it by dangling a gummy worm in front of her. Ian did it by letting her hit his drum kit’s cymbals.

“That’s my girl.” He kisses her plump cheek.

Like me, Taylor fell in love with Harper the moment he saw her picture. His mad-dash to Poppy’s place was fueled by his protectiveness of her and her mother. He was appalled at the thought that I would leave them to chase our dream and then go back on my horrible decision years later and interrupt their lives out of selfishness.

I would hate him for having zero faith in my decency if I wasn’t too busy being happy that he chose the right side without hesitation. Poppy and Harper should be the ones who come first. He shares that stance.

Poppy and I have named him Harp’s godfather; it was an easy decision for me for obvious reasons. Poppy agreed without hesitation. She and Taylor have always been extremely close. He was friends with her before I was; they were in honors classes together. He is the smart twin, but I will never admit that to his face.

It’s a matter of principle.

“Rhys.” The stage manager gestures me over to check the levels on my sound monitoring earpiece.

“I’ve got to go—”

“You’re free to do your job, Wilde. Your clone’s keeping her busy.”

Harper’s telling Taylor a barely-sensical story. He’s being a good sport by nodding and asking questions at the appropriate times.

“Maybe I’ll keep him around after I kick him out of the band.”

“He would make a good nanny.” Pop muses.

“I’ll be sure to tell him you said that when I break the news.”

“Go.” She pushes me in the stage manager’s direction.

I do as she says, smiling to myself.

Once the guys and I are in position, the lights go up, and the screams grow louder. We start in on the first song without an introduction. We like kicking off the night by giving the people what they came here for and having a great time.

“Hey, Columbus, how’s it going?” I say.

The crowds’ hoots, hollers, and cheers serve as their response.

“Just okay?,” is my follow-up.

And they get louder.

“Right on. It sounds like you’re doing swell. We are too. Thank you for the well wishes you sent our way during our brief hiatus, but nothing tragic went down. Life happened. We’re back, better than ever. --”

“I’m an uncle six times over and finally a godfather.” Taylor interrupts according to plan, using the microphone he uses for backup vocals.

“I’m her favorite. That’s all that matters.” Kyle interjects, using his microphone.

“False.” Tay defends his top position in Harper’s life.

I shake my head, grinning. “That’s a summary of the past two weeks. Now that we’re here with you fine people, let’s get this show on the road.”

And then we’re off, playing songs from our first and new albums with breaks for song commentary and crowd engagement. Every once in a while, I steal a glance in Harper and Poppy’s direction. Harp’s holding Pop’s hand, singing and bouncing around while wearing sound-diluting ear protectors.

An hour in, Harper’s rubbing her eye with her free hand – a tale-tell sign that she’s sleepy. By the time I am seated at the baby grand piano required to play Field, Poppy and Harper have returned to their starting location.

Pop has her in her arms. Harp’s wearing her Spiderman pajamas; her head’s resting on her mom’s shoulder.

The beautiful sight is enough to bring tears to my eyes. Playing the song I wrote to tell Poppy I love her to lull our daughter to sleep is surreal. It infuses more emotion into the situation than I know what to do with; I take it out on the piano.

The mighty applause I receive has me concluding that we played one of our best renditions to date.

Harper’s asleep when I scurry off stage for my “water break.”

“Sweet dreams, baby girl. Daddy loves you.” I kiss the top of her head.

“You made her proud. Keep killin’ it.” Poppy says as she turns to leave, winking at me.

I go back out there and play my best show to date. Walking off that stage, I feel on top of the world. I’m not brought back down to earth until I’m about to head to the tour bus.

“You were amazing tonight.” Gia is outside my dressing room.

“We need to talk.” I rub the tension out of my forehead.

“Well, yeah. We always talk after shows.” She pushes herself off the wall.

“This time is much different. We need to go someplace more private.”

There are still a lot of people working backstage.

“My dressing room is empty. The rest of the band went to a bar nearby.” She gestures for me to follow her.

“We’re not hooking up.”

“I know.”

I don’t trust the look in her eyes and the swish of her hips.

Taylor told me earlier to turn on my phone’s voice recorder when I have this conversation with her. Right now is the first time in our lives that I’ve listened to him without question.

With my phone recording and in my pocket, I shut the door behind us when we reach the room.

“You can sit down. I’m not going to bite.” She’s lounging on the couch with her legs crossed.

“I’m good.” My back remains pressed to the door. “I heard about what went down before the show tonight. I want to make some things very clear.”

“I’m confused. What happened before the show?” She feigns innocence.

“You met Poppy and Harper.”

“You said I could.”

“Meet them, sure, not make them feel uncomfortable. What possessed you to walk into our dressing room with two bottles of alcohol? I told you my daughter’s here.”

“I didn’t know you meant at the venue. Who keeps a kid out this late?” She says with exasperation.

“Harper took two naps and was in bed before eleven. She’s getting the sleep she needs. You saw her as soon as you walked in and stayed. That’s the problem.”

“Because you deserve to have fun. Your life shouldn’t have to be over because you’re stuck with a baby. You’re twenty-one. She needs to chill out.”

“Who?”

“Piper. We spend months away from home, traveling from city to city, working. Playing around keeps us sane. She chose to join us with the baby. You didn’t have to let her do it. She should be grateful she’s getting a hand out at all.”

I reign in my temper by grinding my teeth. “Poppy. Her name’s Poppy. I asked her to come. She packed up her life in Boston because she knows how much I need to be around Harper. I’m not ‘stuck’ with anything. I have a daughter. Pop and I were together before I had a dime to my name, and she still hasn’t asked me for a cent. So, lay off. You don’t know us.”

“You were into me two weeks ago. I didn’t imagine that! Were you with her then?” She stands.

“Poppy and I aren’t dating; we broke up years ago. We’re co-parents. You and I hung out and flirted; that’s it, and we’re not going to do it anymore. That’s what I came in here to say.” I keep my volume in check to deescalate the situation.

I don’t want to see the explosion Taylor predicted.

“Because of what happened tonight?” Gia stops stalking towards me. “It was an honest mistake.”

“We shouldn’t have started again in the first place. I wasn’t really having fun. I tried, but it was honestly just a way to pass time.” I regretfully speak the truth.

My heart hasn’t been in anything for a long time.

“Well, fuck you too, asshole!” Gia snarls.

“I deserve that.”

And I do, from so many people.

She goes for the door and I step out of her way. When Gia yanks it open with force, her elbow sharply collides with my ribcage. She exits without looking back. I end the recording on my phone once she is gone.

Using the dressing room mirror, I lift my shirt to survey the damage she left in her wake. Poking and prodding, I rule out serious injury, but there’s sure to be a bruise waiting for me in the morning.

Kyle, Taylor, and Ian are eating fast food in the dining area of our tour bus.

“Slapped or kneed?” Taylor asks without looking up from his food.

“Elbow to the ribs.” I steal one of his fries.

“Which side?” He bats my hand away when I try to dip it in barbecue sauce.

“It matters?” I pop the dry fry into my mouth.

“I asked. Answer.” He pushes a to-go bag in my direction. I presume it’s mine. It makes eating his food all the more appealing.

“Left.” I collect a handful of his fries.

“Right in the poppy, kind of poetic.” He hits me there to get me back for eating what’s his.

Grunting, I say, “It’s not. It hurts. That’s it.”

I walk to the back of the bus to check on Harper.

Getting a black ink tattoo of a poppy was not a conscious decision. I got blackout drunk at our first tour’s wrap party and woke up with it on my ribs the next morning; the where, when, and how of its creation is still a mystery. I’ve meant to cover it with something else for years, but I have yet to get around to it. Naturally, Taylor loves applying unnecessary meanings to the tattoo whenever possible and will probably do it for the rest of our lives.

The overhead light is off, but the nightlight we plugged into the wall for Harp’s sake is emitting enough light for me to see her.

She’s cuddling with her stuffed giraffe and sleeping soundly. I adjust her blanket and give her another kiss goodnight.

I catch sight of Poppy on my way out. She’s smiling in her sleep, arms wrapped around a pillow.

“I love you.” I breathe into the darkness, speaking to both of them.

I creep out of the room, softly clicking the door closed behind me.

So this is my life now.

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