Sum of Us

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Ch.18: Rhys

“How many costumes are you going to buy her?” Poppy sighs.

Harper’s showing us today’s outfit selection -- the dress Rapunzel wears in Tangled.

“Just the ones she likes.” I hunt for tights and shoes for her to wear with it.

“Develop stricter criteria, will you? She is starting to treat every day like Halloween.”

“You say that like it is a bad thing.”

“She followed Kyle around, saying ‘wick-o-wheat’ until he gave her c-a-n-d-y the day she dressed as Tigger.”

“How long did it take him to do it?” My hands go to my hips.

“Stop thinking of ways to break his g-u-i-t-a-r.”

“I will if you can look me in the eye and tell me he held up his end of the deal.”

She fixes her eyes to mine without hesitation. “Relax, Kyle shared as soon as he figured out what she was saying.”

“Then what’s the problem?” I go back to sifting through her suitcase.

“Aside from all of the things associated with consuming too much sugar?”

“Yes. Everything has a sugar-free option, even sugar.”

Poppy’s confidence ebbs, and he fixates more attention than necessary on changing Harp’s diaper.

“Pop?” I prompt, abandoning my task to stand by her.

“I’m overthinking. Forget I said anything.”

“I couldn’t if I tried.”

And I have.

“I love that she has access to the things she loves and I was unable to afford, but the ease at which she gets all of it worries me. I don’t want our sweet lovebug morphing into a bratty trust fund baby. That’s where she’s headed.”

“She doesn’t understand the concept of money right now. To her, all the things we buy her poofs up from magic.” I reassuringly rub her shoulder.

She looks up at me, her fire returning. “It’s not just about the purchases, which are out of control, by the way. All of you let her have and do whatever she wants. I’m the only one that tells her ‘no,’ and I’m tired of being the only bad guy.”

“I tell her ‘no.’”

“No, you don’t. You avoid answering and look to me to say the word. I can’t be the only disciplinarian.”

“Have you seen her?”

“Yes.”

“She literally looks like a Disney princess. I can’t say no to a Disney princess.”

She is wearing the outfit from the princess she resembles -- a brunette version of Rapunzel as a child.

“Learn. Soon, Harper will figure out that all she needs to do is go to you when I say no. Toddlers throw tantrums. Responding to them the right way now is how we prevent having a teenager that throws them.”

“You’re going to have to help me.”

“I will. We’re a team.”

“A good one, if I do say so myself.”

“Let’s aim for great.”

“You’ve got it, captain.” I salute her.

She shakes her head with a tiny smirk on her beautiful face.

It takes me a while to find Harper’s light pink tights and lavender high-top Converse.

I really might have to cut back on buying things for her. Her bags are becoming bottomless pits.

“Time to tame the mane,” I tell Harp once she’s dressed.

“ROAR!”

“ROAR!” I tickle her tummy.

She squeals with delight.

We sing Here Comes the Sun by The Beatles as I brush and braid her hair. Flower clips are added to the single braid to complete her costume.

“Look at you, Lovebug! You look marvelous.” Pop picks her up from the bed and spins her around.

“Tank you, Mama.” She giggles.

“You made a great choice in costume. Rapunzel is determined, optimistic, and creative.” Poppy sets on her on the ground.

“She nice,” Harper adds to her description.

“She is nice. That’s very important as well.” Pop smooths out Harp’s dress.

“Her choice in guys isn’t half bad either. Eugene’s a keeper – he’s got great hair and swagger. He’s made his fair share of mistakes, but he’s got a good heart. He did give her a terrible haircut, but the whole ‘sacrificing his life for hers’ thing sorta balances it out.” I muse.

Poppy looks up at me from her spot on the floor.

“What?”

“You better not be describing yourself.” She retorts.

“Whoa there. If you heard that description and immediately thought of me, that’s on you.”

But if the shoe fits.

She shakes her head, laughing softly. She knows exactly what’s going through my mind.

Poppy and I have been cordially invited to the tea party Harper is hosting on the floor of the bus’s lounge area. Other guests include Dina the Dinosaur, Ralph the Giraffe, and Barry the Bear. She invited Pinky the Unicorn, but she’s vacationing in the luggage bin.

The tea is imaginary, but the mini-muffins Harper’s serving are very real. I don’t realize how terrible of an idea it is to give her real food until she mashes a muffin into Barry’s embroidered face.

“Everyone is full, Harp. No more muffins.” I collect the plate that’s in the middle of the circle.

“Noooo.”

“Yes, the tea is plenty.”

“Bawy, hungey.” Her bottom lip is poked out and wobbling as her eyes shimmer.

“Well, I guess if he—”

“Stay strong.” Pop touches her hand to my arm.

I gulp and divert my eyes. “I’m sorry, baby girl. I can’t let you have the muffins back. You’re making a mess.”

“Want uffins.” She continues to pout.

“We can’t always get what we want.” I stand to take the muffins to the kitchenette.

She looks up at me with those big green eyes. It takes all my strength not to drop to my knees.

“I think Barry is thirsty, Lovebug. How about you pour him more tea?” Sensing my internal struggle, Poppy distracts her.

“Here go, Bawy.” She holds the pink plastic cup to his crumb covered mouth.

My phone vibrates as I’m putting the muffins into Ziplock bags. I pull it from my back pocket.

Video Call: Mom

Every. Damn. Day.

“Where’s my little angel?” She fluffs out her hair.

“Hello to you too, Ma.”

“I’ve had you for twenty-two years. I’ve had my little princess for five weeks. She needs more of my attention.”

“Do you call Leo, Becca, and Lindsey every day to speak to their kids?”

“I see them in person. I haven’t had that privilege with Harper yet. Put her on the phone, Rhys Michael.”

She’s not playing around when she breaks out the middle name.

“Harper, guess who’s on the phone for you?” I walk to where she is seated.

She perks up real straight. “Gamma?”

“Yes. Do you want to show Grandma your costume?”

“Uh-huh! Sow, Gamma.”

Poppy helps her onto her feet. I kneel beside her and keep her steady with an arm around her waist.

“Oh, sweetie, you look beautiful! Are you a princess?” My mom rests her hand on her chest, looking as happy as the first time she saw Harper.

“I Unzel.”

“Who?” My mom looks at me.

“Rapunzel. She’s a big fan of hers.”

“She nice,” Harper interjects.

“Just like you.” I kiss her chubby cheek.

Rapunzel’s kindness is what Harper likes most about her and is a true testament to the type of mom Poppy is. She’s taught Harp that character’s what counts. I couldn’t ask for a better mother for my child.

My mom goes through her usual gamut of questions – did you do anything fun yesterday? What did you eat for breakfast? What have you done today? Is your favorite color still purple? How are Ralph, Dina, and Barry?

You’d think they haven’t seen or spoken to each other in years with how excited they are to talk. Harper talks a mile a minute, only slowing down when she’s asked to sing a song.

Harp abandons me for Poppy when I give her the phone. She sits in her mom’s lap and listens as they talk.

Pop and my mom have grown to be very close. They’ve always gotten along, but their shared experience of becoming mothers as teenagers has bound them. I’m more than okay sharing my mom with her. Poppy deserves to have a family that loves her.

We pull over to a rest stop two hours outside of Nashville for brunch. The restaurant is your run-of-the-mill roadside diner. It’s the typical sort of place we stop at between cities.

I carry Harper. Poppy takes care of her diaper bag.

“Wittle fuzzy.” Harp pets my face as I walk through the parking lot.

“I had to trim it down, Lovebug. It was getting too close to a beard.”

“Mo fuzzy, Daddy.”She insists.

“What’s on my face needs to be shorter. I’ll keep the hair on my head the same length, though. I promise. I’ll even let you brush it for me.”

“O-tay.” She runs her fingers through my hair, moving the strands of it that were tucked behind my ear.

“Up top, Little Wilde.” Jamie, the guitarist for XO, holds his hand up for a high-five. Harper hits it.

That’s what most of the people on tour call her. The head sound engineer did it one day; it caught on like wildfire. Harper answers to it, too. I love the name so much that I had it put on the back of all of her Wilde Knight shirts. She wears one every night now. She said she wants to be like her mama. Seeing both of them support me is the highlight of every show.

“You did a great job on her hair.” Gia compliments Poppy.

“Rhys did it. He’s responsible for all of her fancy ’dos. Hair’s kinda his thing.” Poppy smiles at me.

“Cool.” Gia walks away without acknowledging me.

That has been our relationship for the last three weeks.

“What’s that about?” Pop frowns.

“Can we talk about it later?” I gesture to Harper with my eyes.

“Sure.” I don’t miss the brief flicker of hurt in her eyes.

“I didn’t do anything with her.” I can’t break my promise of never hurting her again.

“It’d be okay if you did. You’re single. Gia’s single too. I don’t blame you. I mean, look at her.”

“I didn’t. She’s not you. That was the problem.”

A deep blush tints her cheeks. “Rhys, that’s not--”

“You’re beautiful inside and out. That can’t be beaten.”

“Mama pwetty.” Harp pipes up.

“Mama’s gorgeous.”

Pop’s blush intensifies.

Her bangs have shifted to the side a bit. I kiss the bit of skin that’s exposed.

She takes my hand, intertwining her fingers with mine when I begin to walk to the door.

We have been doing this lately, romantic touches when we are alone. It never goes past hand-holding or kisses on the forehead, cheek, or hand, but it is a start. That doesn’t mean it’s not frustrating. I’m left wondering if it actually happened when it’s over; it’s a tree in the woods situation.

Her hand’s out of mine the moment we cross the restaurant’s threshold.

I instantly miss it.

Our large group fills three booths. The bands are intermingled. There’s enough space for us at all of them, but I still go for the one where Taylor is seated.

We may spend all day every day picking with each other, but the fact remains that not being together feels wrong.

“Can we get a highchair?” Taylor flags down the nearest waiter when he sees us coming.

“Thanks.” I take the seat beside him at the end of the booth with Harper in my lap.

“Just doing my godfatherly duties.” He reaches for Harper’s hand.

“Nuncle Aylor.” She doesn’t just go for his hand. She puts both arms out to prompt him to pull her into his lap.

Much to my chagrin, she has stopped calling him Knuckle Trailer.

“How’s my favorite girl doing today?” He situates her on his leg.

“Tea pawty and Unzel.” She tells him enthusiastically.

“Why wasn’t I invited, Rapunzel?”

“You sweepytime.”

“Wake me up next time. I love a good tea party.”

“Otay.”

“You’ll regret telling her that. She’ll do it.” Poppy tells him.

She’s seated across from me.

“Good. I need to cement my place as Harper’s favorite. If that requires attending a tea party when I’m hungover, so be it.”

“Is Uncle Taylor, your favorite, Lovebug?” Poppy asks her.

Harper nods.

“She loves everyone.” Tay remarks.

“You look like her daddy. That gives you an edge.”

“No Daddy.” Harp scrunches her face and shakes her head.

At least she still calls him that.

The waiter slides the highchair up to the table.

“Thanks, man.” I transfer her to it.

“Do you need anything else?” He stays at our table.

“Do you have whole milk?” I buckle her into the seat.

“We do, but we ran out of kid’s cups yesterday.”

“That’s fine. We can pour it into the sippy cup I brought along.” Poppy lifts the diaper bag from the floor.

“Great. Can I get either of you anything?”

“Hot tea.” We say at the same time.

“I’ll be right back.” He only makes it a step before turning back to us. “I’m a big fan of you guys. I’m driving up to Nashville with my friends as soon as I get off work.”

“Right on,” Tay says.

“What’s your ticket situation like?” I complete his thought.

“Nosebleeds. We were lucky to get those. The show sold out so fast.”

“Write down your name and the number of tickets you need,” Taylor replies.

“We get a handful of VIP comps every show. They usually go to waste,” I add.

“They’re yours if you want them.” Tay finishes.

“Uh, yeah! Holy shit.”

“Sit,” Harper repeats.

“Shi—shoot. Sorry. I didn’t mean to cuss in front of your niece. Do I still get the tickets?” He speaks so fast that I almost don’t catch all that he says.

The word ‘niece’ stands out like neon lights.

“She’s my daughter.” I set the record straight without a second thought.

His eyes widen in shock. “I didn’t know you – that’s cool. She’s super cute.” He stammers.

“The tickets are still yours if you keep this on the down-low.” Tay protects me like the big brother that he is.

“I won’t tell anyone. I promise.” He hastily vows.

“Then we’re good.” Taylor eyes him skeptically despite his promise.

“Awesome.” He exhales. “I’ll go get your drinks.”

“What have you done?” Poppy hisses as soon as he walks away. Her face is the picture of horror.

“She’s mine. I refuse to say otherwise.” I shrug.

“Everyone on tour had to sign an NDA before they could return to work. Nothing is stopping him from spilling the beans as soon as the concert is over.” She needlessly reminds me.

“I’m not ashamed of her or you.” I rest my hand atop the one she’s resting on the table.

“Excuse me.” Head down; she escapes to the booth.

“Jackass.” Taylor shakes his head.

“How is what I did wrong?”

“The person they go after will be her. She’ll be called a gold-digging w-h-o-r-e for suddenly coming out of the woodwork with your kid. That couldn’t be further from the truth, but people will believe what they want regardless of what you say.”

“I didn’t mean to—”

“Start thinking before you open your mouth.”

“I’m trying.”

“Try harder.” He lifts his cup of water to his lips.

“Watch her?”

“Yep.”

I’m exiting the booth as he replies.

The bathrooms are single-stall. I knock on the first one. No answer. I move on to the second.

“Just a second.” I can hear Poppy’s congestion through the door.

“It’s me.”

“I’ll be out soon.” She sniffles.

“We need to talk.”

“I need alone time. Let me have it.”

I sigh and defeat and rest my forehead against the door. “Okay, but just know that I’m sorry. I know I sound like a broken record at this point, but I mean it. I’m sorry for making your life difficult. I’m sorry for not being there when I should have, and I’m sorry for constantly letting you down.”

I stumble forward when Poppy opens the door moments later. She takes my hand and tugs me inside. I take a gamble and pull her in for a hug. Instead of pushing me away, she holds me tight.

“I love you.” I breathe into her hair as I rub her back.

I know she’s heard me, but she chooses to act as though she hasn’t.

She is still holding onto me. That has to count for something.

“One of these days I’m going to stop crying around you.” She removes her glasses to wipe her eyes.

“Don’t stop. You’ve been through a lot. You have to release all that you’ve bottled up to be happy.”

“Did your mom tell you that?” She collects a toilet paper from the roll.

“She didn’t have to. I know you.”

“And what is it that you think you know?” She challenges.

“The last person you think about is yourself, and you’re too stubborn to let anyone take care of you.”

“You think you’ll be able to change that?” Poppy dabs her eyes.

“I’m not going to give up on you. So, yeah. I do.”

She slips her glasses back onto her face. “I wish you the best of luck.”

“I don’t need luck. I’ve got persistence.”

We leave the bathroom at different times. Stepping out together is a bad look.

Harper is drinking her milk. Poppy is sipping her tea. Taylor is staring at me to decipher what I did.

Tried.’

The rest of our meal is smooth sailing. I organize four tickets to be left at will call for Patrick. Taylor leaves him a big tip. Sometimes bribery is necessary for discretion.

We reach the Nashville venue at one. Poppy opts to remain on the bus. Harper is still napping, and backstage isn’t known for being quiet.

“Come in as soon as she wakes up.” I keep my voice down for Harp’s sake.

“Okay.” Pop whispers.

They are cuddling and lounging on the couch that I use as a bed.

“You look pretty sleepy yourself.” I lay a blanket over them.

“This couch is comfortable.”

“Told you.”

“Go to work, Wilde. You’ve got rock starring to do.” She snuggles further into the couch and closes her eyes.

“Sleep tight.” I put her glasses on the end table.

I give each of my girls a kiss on the head before leaving.

“You’re getting bold,” Taylor remarks.

“Go big or go home.”

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