Sum of Us

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Ch. 19: Poppy

“What are you doing?” I mentally chastise as I apply makeup in the bus’s cramped bathroom.

My last shift at Eclipse was the last time I dolled myself up. There, looks determined how much you garnered in tips at the end of the night. The ability to make $500 a night was the only reason I exhorted effort into looking my best.

So why am I dolling myself up to lurk in a dark corner at a concert? I’ve lost my ever-loving mind.

“Maaamaaa!” Harper yells from the bedroom.

And that’s the reason I don’t bother with makeup or contacts.

“Coming, Lovebug!” My face is contorted in the awkward way that’s required to apply mascara.

I quickly shove my makeup into its bag.

“Have a good nap?” I lower her crib’s safety gate.

She’s nodding as she extends her arms to me.

“Are you hungry?”

“Yes.” She rubs the sleep out of her eyes with the back of her hand. “I potty.”

“Clean diaper first, PB & J second. Got it.” I lay her on the bed.

Harper hums and plays with the package of disposable wipes she likes to hold while I change her. Her xylophone holds her attention as I prepare her nighttime snack. After eating, changing her clothes is not done only for the sake of showing her love for her daddy and uncles’ band. She used her Rapunzel dress as a napkin. I’ll have to spot treat it before it goes in the wash to get out the jelly stains.

Harper’s not too pleased that she has to trade her Rapunzel dress for a regular skirt. She is quickly appeased when I tell her she can wear Rapunzel’s crown instead. Rhys’s insistence on buying every costume’s accessories saves the day.

I’ll be sure never to tell him that.

“See, Mama?” Harp randomly says as I am fastening her into her stroller.

“See what, baby?” I blow my bangs out of my face.

She puts her hands on my eyes.

“Oh! My glasses. I can see. I’m wearing my contacts.”

“Why?”

“Just because.”

“Why?”

“Mommy was trying to look pretty. It didn’t pan out how I wanted. I ran out of time.” I explain.

“Mama pwetty.”

“Thank you, Lovebug.” I kiss her. “Ready to see Daddy?”

“See Daddy!”

“Let’s get this show on the road.”

The backstage atmosphere hasn’t gotten less overwhelming with time. The chaos is a little different each night because of the change of venue. The crew and set pieces are all that remain the same. Unlike me, Harper loves it. She looks at all the equipment being wheeled around in fascination and says “hello” to everyone she sees.

She definitely gets her extroversion from her dad.

“Where Daddy?”

I place her in her playpen. “In the potty.”

“Want Daddy.”

“I know, Lovebug. Daddy is almost done.”

“Nunckle Aylor?” She climbs aboard Pinky.

“He’s in the potty too.”

“Nunckle Lyle?”

“Uncle Kyle and Uncle Ian are in the bathroom too,” I answer before she asks.

“No mo’ potty.” She grumbles.

“I’ll let them know,” I smirk. “Would you like to watch Daddy and your uncles talk until they get here?”

“Yes.” Her bottom lip is still poked out in a pout.

I load on of their interviews onto her tablet and arrange it in a way that allows her to see it and ride.

Watching their past interviews is her new thing. Harper waves at and points out each one of them when they first appear on the screen. She then goes on to mimic all of their reactions. When they laugh at something, she cracks up like she’s just heard the funniest thing ever. She frowns and says, ‘oh no! I help’ when someone appears sad. She has no idea what they are talking about, but she loves it. Like most of what she does, it is weird and adorable.

I’m collecting a plate full of fruit from the buffet of food when my phone vibrates in my pocket.

Video call: Chelsea

Rhys’s insistence on upgrading my phone plan to use this feature to keep in touch with Chels is just one more of the infuriatingly nice things he has done for me.

“Hi, darling. I needed to see you and our daughter’s beautiful faces to get through edits and retouches.”

Chelsea’s curly hair is in a mountainous bun on the top of her head. Her face’s stripped free of makeup, and she has a large glass of red wine in her hand.

She’s a professional photographer who primarily does children’s portraits and engagement announcement photographs. The addition of Harper’s pictures to her portfolio triggered a windfall of parents wanting to professionally capture their little ones’ childhood cuteness. Children are not always compliant, especially the younger ones. Her job takes plenty of patience.

“Rough day?”

She lets out an exasperated sigh. “I had a session with a newborn and three-year-old twins. As if getting all of them to cooperate at the same time was hard enough, their mother was a backseat photographer. It was h-e-l-l.”

“Ugh. I am so sorry.”

“All in a day’s work.” Chelsea takes a sip of wine. “Where are you going tonight, Hot Mama? It must be special if you broke out your contacts and makeup bag.”

“Just where I go most nights.”

“Liar. Tell me or else.”

“Or else what?”

“I don’t know yet. Imagine the worst thing ever until I figure it out.” She has more of her drink.

“They were dusted off because I’m tired of looking frumpy while everyone else around here looks like they belong on a runway.” I attempt to satisfy her with a half-truth.

“Take that back right now. You’re not frumpy. You’re sexy and I know it.”

“I know better than to believe you, Harper or Rhys when it comes to my appearance.”

“Was the last time he commented on it three years ago?” One of her eyebrows lifts.

“Today.”

Her mouth falls open. “And you didn’t think to call me as soon as it happened?!”

“Like you and Harper, he just said it to be nice .”

“Lovebug and I are not liars. I need a breakdown of what happened to determine if he is.”

“He was getting cozy with Gia Lovett from XO until Harper and I joined the tour. I found out today. He wanted to upgrade. That’s why we broke up. He called me gorgeous to smooth things over.” My heart pangs as I recount events for her.

“Oh, honey.” Chelsea shakes her head and tsks.

“I’m fine.”

“Let me finish. You’re acting like an idiot.”

“I know.” I sigh heavily.

“Not for being into him, for thinking he wants her over you.” She corrects.

“He’s not blind.” I dubiously reply.

“He did something stupid, but he’s not stupid. His second album is all about missing the one that you let go -- i.e. you.”

“No, it’s not.”

“Now you’re in denial. I have listened and cried to that album a million times. Those descriptions, Pop, that’s your story.”

“The girl he’s describing isn’t me anymore.”

“You’re right. You’re not. You’re so much better. On top of that, you gave him his daughter. He looks so much happier. I’ve seen the pictures and videos. Yeah, I still stalk the band. It isn’t a betrayal because you’re with them.” Chels fires back.

“You can travel with us, you know. Rhys said you could.”

“Stop deflecting. He loves you.” She narrows her eyes at me.

I purse my lips. “He said it today,” I say under my breath.

“What was that?”

“He told me he loves me.”

“Why didn’t you call me, bitch?!” She exclaims loud enough for her neighbors to hear.

“Bith.”

Apparently, my daughter too.

“Thanks a lot!” I whine.

“I regret nothing. Dealing with that is what you get for not telling me. How could you?!” She remains melodramatic.

“It was pretty easy, really. I don’t know how I feel about it, and I know you have strong opinions.”

“It took me a little while to warm back up to him, but now that I have, I get it. I totally get it. If I were you, he’d have charmed my panties off by now.” She goes for her glass of wine.

“Anties.” Harper echoes.

“Knock it off! It is impossible to censor her.” I complain.

“Consider this your punishment for not telling me about the ‘L’ bomb he dropped his morning. Both of you have grown up. Your relationship could work this time around. You need to stop dragging your feet and take what’s yours.”

“Rhys isn’t mine anymore. He’s Harper’s.” I correct.

“Mine!” Harp fiercely marks her territory.

“He can belong to both of you if you go for it.” She addresses me. “He loves being yours, Lovebug. That’s why your daddy is great!” Chels raises her voice to speak to Harper.

“I’ll let you two talk. I’m done.”

I walk to Harper’s playpen and step over the fence.

“Lovebug, your Aunt Chelsea wants to spout nonsense. Humor her.”

“Untie Elsie!” She dismounts Pinky and runs to meet me.

I crouch and the ground to allow them to see each other.

“Hi, Princess Harper. Mama’s the one being silly, not me. Daddy’s lovable, isn’t he?”

“Wove daddy.” Harper agrees.

“Mommy does too, but she is in denial. Can you say denial?”

“Eial.”

“Keep it up and I will hang up the phone.” I wedge myself into the camera’s line of sight.

Chelsea pokes her tongue out at me. “Tell me about your day, Lovebug.” She wisely changes the subject.

Harper and I go back to what we were doing pre-call when their chat comes to an end. I’m eating fruit on the couch, and she is playing her piano when the guys enter the room. I see them upon entry. She does not. Rhys presses his index finger to his lips, cluing me in on his plan to surprise her.

He creeps up behind Harper and tickles her sides. Her squeal-giggle hybrid morphs into a scream when she sees who it is.

“DADDY!”

“HARPER!” He lifts her out of play prison. “Were you writing a song for our new album?”

She nods.

“I think you’re really onto something. Keep following that creative thread. We’ll work out the lyrics later.” He gives her a kiss.

“It’s getting harder to tell if you are joking.” I pick a green grape from my plate.

“I’m completely serious. I’ve already broken the news to Taylor that he’s on borrowed time.” Rhys walks to the couch with Harper in his arms.

Tay holds up his middle finger in response to Rhys’s answer. Thankfully, Harper’s back is to him.

I can’t have both of her godparents sparking bad behavior.

“Can you see?” Rhys sits beside me on the couch.

“Yes. I’m wearing my contacts.”

“You hate wearing your contacts.” He holds Harper steady as she stands on his legs and rearranges his hair.

“I bought them. I should wear them.” I bite into a strawberry.

“Why?”

“Your daughter gave me the same line of questioning, and both of you sound like Taylor.”

“Do you know what’s weird to think about? Rhys and I share identical DNA. If we were to do a paternity test against Harper, we’d get the same match results.” Taylor sits in a nearby chair with a bottle of water.

“Seriously?” Kyle says around a mouth full of cheese puffs.

“Yeah, that’s why it’s impossible to get a 100% match on a paternity test. Identical twins create a margin of error. Our kids appear to be siblings on paper. It’s crazy stuff.”

“Harper’s mine. Back off.” Rhys growls, pulling her closer.

“Mine.” She hugs him back.

“All I’m saying is she could very well be acting like me. She has half my DNA.”

“Scientifically, yes, but I want to make it very clear I have only been with one of you. It’s the one Harper’s currently petting.” I interject.

She’s running her fingers through Rhys’s hair as we speak.

“That goes without saying.” Ian cracks open a can of soda. “We all saw Rhys work to wear you down. Pop. He would’ve killed Taylor if he tried to move in on you.”

“Yes.”

Laughter bubbles in my throat at Rhys’s quick and firm response. “Care to elaborate?”

“I would, but I can’t. Our genius princess is present. I’ll give you a detailed plan after her bedtime.” He replies.

The urge to kiss the sexy grin off of his face sweeps over me. I lose our game of eye contact chicken and go back to my fruit.

The six of us snack, relax, and talk as a family. Harper flutters around the room to each of us, eating up all of the attention we give her. Taylor, Ian, and Kyle leave the dressing room 20 minutes to showtime. Rhys distracts Harper by asking if she wants to play with her letter blocks to keep her from getting upset by their absence.

“You don’t have to skip the ritual every night.” I’m picking up the toys Harper has abandoned around the room.

“I rather play.” Rhys’s stacking blocks with her. “It puts me in a better headspace.”

“Are you telling me what you think I want to hear?”

“The truth is my drinking hit an all-time high this tour. Wasted was better than numb. That’s not my situation anymore. I rather revel in what’s letting me breathe for the first time in years.” He plainly states as he continues to play.

The toys in my arms almost fall to the floor. “Rehab bad?” I can barely get out the words.

“No, but I probably would’ve ended up there eventually. There’s a lot of pressure placed on me to be ‘on’ at all times, much more than the rest of them. Getting lost gave me the strength to do it.”

I go to where they are and drop to my knees. My arms go around his neck when I’m beside him.

“Tell me if you need anything, okay?” I speak into his ear.

“You and Harper.”

“Daddy’s sad, Lovebug,” I tell her.

“Oh no! I help.” She joins in on our hug.

“I appreciate the hugs, ladies, but I’m doing much better now.” I can hear a smile in his voice.

Neither Harp nor I release him.

How could we? We love him.

The thought of a world in which he no longer exists is enough to push me to that conclusion.

~

Just as she does every night, Harper jumps up and down and points to Rhys as soon as the stage lights begin to shine. The crowd’s screaming too loud to hear what she is saying, but I can read her lips – “Daddy! That’s Daddy!”

I nod to let her know I understand.

Harper listens with rapt attention as he addresses the crowd. Her best toddler dance moves are broken out when they resume playing music. She dances her heart out for an hour straight. I’m getting worn down just watching her. When her one-person mosh pit turns into swaying and eye rubbing, I cart her to the dressing room for bath time. We are right on schedule. Lovebug is a creature of habit.

A portable kid tub is waiting in the dressing room bathroom’s shower. We sing the songs we sing every night as I bathe her.

Head on my shoulder, little hand clutching my t-shirt, she is fighting to keep her eyes open when we are back in our designated spots. Rhys settles on the piano’s bench. He checks to make sure we are in place before starting to play Field.

I allow the lyrics to permeate through my brain for the first time in three years.

I’m taken back to the days when we would talk for hours about nothing and everything, back when a simple look or smile was enough to set a forest fire within us, back when I was his and he was mine.

My heart thrums wildly in my chest when he jogs towards us. It actually takes me a second to realize why he is doing it.

“Goodnight, baby girl. Daddy loves you.” He gives her a sweet kiss.

“Mama does too.” My eyes are on him.

His are on her. “We sure do.” He tucks her still somewhat damp hair behind her ear. “Sweet dreams.” He places one final kiss on her forehead.

“Night, Pop.” His eyes finally meet mine.

I softly press my lips to his before I can think better of it.

He stands there motionless, stunned.

“Work, Wilde.”

“You can’t just—”

“I did. Go.” I nod to the stage.

“We’re talking later.” He walks backward, pointing to me.

Harper is put in her crib when we board the bus. Showering and texting Chelsea about the second most impulsive thing I have ever done kills time as I wait for the concert to end. The closer it inches to midnight, the more tired I get. Accepting defeat, I crawl into bed.

A soft touch on the cheek wakes me sometime later.

“Can I stay?” Rhys whispers.

I nod.

I’m thanked with a kiss on the forehead. I roll onto the other side of my body as he walks to the opposite side of the bed.

Rhys joins me beneath the covers and lifts his arm. He holds me close as I rest my head on his chest.

“We’re still talking later.” His chest vibrates when he speaks.

“I figured.”

“Are you coming for my ‘impulsive one’ title?”

Eyes closed, I smile. “Maybe.”

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