Sum of Us

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Ch. 20: Rhys

“Why isn’t she awake? She never sleeps past 6:00 AM.” I sit up in bed.

“She’s growing. She sleeps more during growth spurts.” Poppy pushes me onto my back.

“Let’s wake her up to stunt her growth. I want her to stay little forever.”

“You better be joking.” She returns her head to my chest.

Not really. The thought of her growing up makes me sad. She’ll need me less and less.

“She’ll always need us. The reasons are what will change.” Poppy reads my mind.

“You better be right about that.” I run my hand up and down her back.

“I always am.”

“I’ll let you think that.” I kiss the top of her head.

“Her sleeping gives us time to talk.”

“I want to get back together. And it’s not because of Harper. I’ve missed you like crazy for years. She makes my desire to be with you that much stronger. We made a person out of love, Pop, a weird, brilliant, perfect little person. She’s proof of how great we are together.” I don’t hold anything back.

Poppy’s quiet for longer than I would like. When she finally speaks, I release a breath I didn’t realize I was holding.

“We need to take it slow. We have to take the time out to really get to know the people that we are now. I still feel connected to you. A part of me will always love you, but it wouldn’t be wise to dive into a relationship head first. If things sour down the line, splitting up will negatively impact our weird, brilliant, perfect little person.”

“What are you saying exactly?” I crane my neck to look at her.

Her eyes meet mine. “We’re not dating yet. We are talking. If we like what we hear, we go from there.”

“Are we talking publicly?”

“No. For several reasons. You are a public figure, our relationship is undefined, and failure is embarrassing. Pressure from others can influence us to stick something out that isn’t working. Also, I would like to be mindful of Gia’s feelings, too.”

“I never told her we would date. Flirting is all we did.” I’m quick to clarify.

“That’s how all relationships start.”

“I don’t want to factor her into this. It gives her more power than she has.”

“I feel the way I feel. Take it or leave me.”

I let out an exaggerated groan. “Why do you have to be such a good person?”

“I thought you like that about me.” Poppy smiles at me.

“I love that about you.” I move in close.

She buries her face in my neck to thwart off my kissing attempt. “I’ve got morning breath.”

“I don’t care. I’ve dreamed of giving you a good morning kiss for years.”

“Dreamed? Wow. I guess I’ll oblige.” She makes her plump heart-shaped lips available to me.

I pull her flush to me and deliver the passionate kiss I’ve been fantasizing about for ages.

“Well, good morning to you too.” She mumbles against my lips when we come up for air.

“I vote that we do this every day from now on. We should get the adrenaline pumping before our little lady wakes up.”

“What you’re really asking is if you can sleep in bed with me every night.” She accurately guesses.

“Maybe.” I twirl a strand of her hair around my finger.

“Ask me. I want to be wooed, Wilde.” She perches her chin on my chest.

“Penelope Elise James, may I have the honor of cuddling with you at night and waking up to your beautiful face every morning?”

“As long as those are the only expectations.”

“Are spooning and a kiss allowed?”

“Spooning, yes. There’s a five kiss limit and they can't be in front of people. We’re taking things slow.”

“Deal.” I tuck the hair I am playing with behind her ear.

“Deal.” She gives me a quick peck on the cheek.

“Mama?” Harper whines from her crib.

“Coming, Lovebug.”

“I am. You’re off duty.” I guide Poppy back down onto the bed.

She stays and keeps a smile on her face as I vacate its warmth to get our daughter.

“Morning, baby girl.” I lift Harper out of her cage.

“Daddy.” She puts her arms around my neck.

“Good dreams?”

She nods.

Harp still behaves as though she’s tired after I have changed her diaper. I return to bed, taking her with me. She quickly falls back to sleep on my chest. Poppy joins her; her arm draped over both of us.

I have my world in my arms.

There’s nothing more humbling.

~

We arrive in Chicago on schedule. Our punctuality allows us the opportunity to regroup before our radio interview. Harper and I are watching Peppa Pig and eating a snack on a blanket in our suite’s living room,.

“Lovebug, which toy do you want to take with us?” Poppy steps out of the bedroom the three of us are sharing.

“Bawy.”

“Barry, it is.” Pop retreats inside.

“What are you doing today?” I ask Harper.

“Tore.” She picks a carrot stick from the bag in my hand.

“You’re going to the store with Mama? That sounds fun.”

“You come?” She smiles down at me.

“I can’t, baby girl. I have to go to the potty.”

As much as it pains me to play along, the bathroom truly is the only place Harper doesn’t try to follow people. We have to shield the toilet from view when we give her baths and brush her teeth to prevent waterworks.

“Oh.” Harper’s cherubic face falls.

“I wish you could come.” I rub her back.

She shakes her head. “Ooo, scawy.”

“Why’s it scary?”

“Wooshy and whirly.”

I bite back the laugh that threatens to erupt. “I can’t argue with that.”

“No wike it.”

“But guess what? Mama and I will protect you from it. We’ll help you with all the scary things.” I vow with enthusiasm to sell her on it.

“No scawy?” Harper’s bright eyes shine.

“There will be some scary things, but we’ll help you be brave. That’s what we do.”

“Otay, Daddy.” She promptly goes back to watching Peppa Pig.

“My joey’s missing. I want her back.”

This gets her attention.

“Me!” She crawls closer.

“There she is!” I sit up straight. I arrange us in a kangaroo hug. “I love you.” I give her a gentle squeeze.

“Wove you.” Harper reaches for the carrot she abandoned on the floor to get to me.

“Here’s a fresh one.” I give her one of the carrots from the bag.

“Tat one.” She points to the floor carrot.

“Mama will hurt Daddy really badly if I let you eat off the floor. Save me. Eat this one.” I put the clean carrot in her hand.

Harper drops it on purpose. “Tat one.” She points to it.

I can’t say I’m too surprised. She got a double dose of stubbornness.

I hide the floor carrots behind my back. She squirms in my lap, trying to see them.

“You want a carrot? You have to eat one that’s from the bag.” I hold one to her mouth.

I maintain my hold on it when Harper tries to take it from me, knowing it’ll meet the same fate as the others if I don’t feed them to her.

We have a staredown.

“I guess these are all mine now.” I bite into it. “Yummy.” I chew.

She scrunches her face. “Mine.”

“I’ll share it.” I offer it to her.

Harper takes a tentative bite, accepting defeat.

“You hurt my feelings by not listening to me.” I wait until she has finished chewing.

“Sowy, Daddy.”

“Will you be nice from now on?’

“Yes.” She wraps her little arms around my neck. “Sowy.”

“Just don’t do it again.” I rub her back.

She leaves a sloppy wet kiss on my cheek.

There are no additional showdowns for the duration of snack time.

“Time to go, Lovebug.” Poppy pushes Harper’s stroller into the room.

“Pway, Mama.” Harp makes Dina the dinosaur gallop.

“We need to go to the store, remember? Barry is coming with us. We can play with him in the car.”

“Otay.” She pushes herself up off the floor.

Now standing, Harper takes my hand and tugs it. “Time go.”

“I can’t go to the store. I have to potty. I’ll walk you and Mama to the car, though.” I carry her to Poppy.

“You don’t have to go through all that trouble.” Pop gives me Harper’s jacket.

“I’ll be paged to the car any minute now. It doesn’t hurt to head out early to see you off.”

“We’re going to the mall, not off to war.”

“What has you venturing to the mall? You shop online to avoid them.” I dress Harper on my knees.

“She has almost outgrown the jacket you’re putting on her and she’ll need a winter coat soon. Buying them in-store guarantees she’ll have them before we go to Seattle.”

“Do you need anything?” I ask.

“Nope. Do you?”

“Yes, for you to buy something for yourself.”

“I just said I don’t need anything.”

“Something you want, not need. It’s well overdue.” I put Harper in the stroller.

“I honestly can’t think of anything.”

“Look at what they have. Try to think about yourself for once.” I insist.

“I’ll try. No promises.”

“I’ll accept that for now.”

“Why are you concerned with my personal purchases?” Poppy look at me with confusion.

“All that you do is for Harper. I’m pretty sure the only reason you eat and sleep is so that you have the energy to take care of her. That’s admirable but unhealthy. A mom isn’t all you are.”

“But she needs--”

“She wants you to be happy. When she starts to get a little older, she’ll be able to tell you are faking it, just like I can. We should tackle this issue now.”

“I’m not --”

“You are. I need you to start going after the life you deserve, okay? You were always the one with the most potential in our relationship. I’m doing my thing, do yours.”

Poppy nods, tears pooling in her doe eyes.

I encase her in my arms and hug her close. “I love you. That’s why I said it.”

“I know.” Her arms are around me, her head on my shoulder. “That’s why I’m going to work on it.”

I kiss the top of her head. “I’ll be here every step of the way this time.”

She lifts her lips to mine and gives me a soft peck.

My phone vibrates in my pocket. I begrudgingly break from her to check it.

“Our car’s almost here. Let me grab my jacket. I’ll walk you to yours.”

“You don’t have to.”

“They’re picking us up from the same spot. It’ll probably be there by the time I get downstairs.”

“Better early than late.”

“Exactly.” I hurry to our bedroom.

Pop lets me push Harper’s stroller. The entire floor has been rented out by the label and we have been permitted to use the service elevator to keep fan interactions to a minimum.

We love them, but we need downtime.

A uniformed hotel employee joins us on the elevator several floors down.

“Good morning.” She greets politely.

We return her greeting. That’s not enough for our social butterfly.

“Hi.” Harper waves to her.

“Hello.” She smiles at her.

“I Hawper.”

“Are you having a good day, Harper?”

“Mhmm. Dis Bawy.” She holds up her bear.

“It is nice to meet you, Barry.” She plays along.

“That mama and daddy.”

“Hello again.” The woman waves to us.

I verbally reply but keep my head down to prevent recognition.

Harper proceeds to talk the employee’s head off about nothing in particular.

“Lovebug, leave the nice lady alone.” Poppy manages to get a word in.

“She’s fine.” The woman smiles at us. “She’s adorable.”

“Thank you. She’s a handful.” Pop responds.

“How old is she?”

“She’s almost two.”

“She’s quite the talker for her age.”

“She loves to do it. She’s a people person.”

Harper proves how much of one she is by asking the hotel employee about herself.

“You have a beautiful family.” She says when she arrives at her floor.

“Thank you.” I can’t resist replying to that.

“Have a great day.”

Two black SUVs are waiting in the hotel’s loading dock. The first one has Harper’s car seat in it. I double-check that it had been installed correctly by tugging on it as hard as I can.

Poppy snorts behind me.

“What?” I look over my shoulder.

“Every time.” She shakes her head. “One of these days, you’re going to rip the seatbelt out of the car.”

“I have to make sure my little girl’s safe and sound, especially when I’m not around. If I break a car in the process, so be it.”

“Does this one pass your test?”

“It’ll do.”

“Your standards, man. Tippy top.”

“Only when it comes to things of importance. My beautiful family is top-tier.” I retort.

“You’re going to glob onto that compliment forever, aren’t you?”

“Yup.” I unfasten Harper from her stroller. “It’s official, Harp. We’re pretty.” I lift her high in the air to make her laugh.

“Be good for Mama at the store today. I love you.” I prolong my goodbye for as long as I can. But there’s not much left to do once I’ve got her buckled into her seat.

“Bye-bye, Daddy. Wove you.”

She receives her customary goodbye kisses.

“Do what I told you.” I point to Poppy, who is buckling her seatbelt.

“We’ll see.” The smile she gives me – it’s everything.

It’s contagious. “See ya.”

“Bye.”

I close the door and give a final wave.

~

“Welcome to Hits 100. We’ve got Ian Brooks, Kyle Andersen, and Rhys and Taylor Wilde of Wilde Knights in the studio with us today. How’s it going, guys?” Sarah, one of the show’s hosts, kicks off the interview.

Three of us give different versions of good. Kyle’s grunt requires an explanation from Taylor that he’s not a morning person.

Sarah laughs. “I’m paid to be one. I feel your pain, though.”

Kyle raises his mug of coffee to her.

“We’ll direct our questions to you three. What was your inspiration for your latest album, Midnight Dawn?” Will asks.

“It was approached as a follow-up to our first album, Horizon. We put it out while we were still in high school. That’s the time when you start getting your life plans together. You can barely make out what you’re going to do in the future, but you know you want it to be epic. Midnight Daydreams is ironically grounded in reality. Yes, there are great parts about growing up, but you’ll also make mistakes in moments of confusion and uncertainty that knock you on a word I can’t say on air.”

“Both are so relatable. They’re on heavy rotation on my phone and I’ve got both albums on vinyl.”

“Thank you. We put a lot of ourselves into what we do. Hearing that it’s well-received means a lot.” I adjust my headphones.

“All of you are listed in the writing credits. Do all of you do everything, or do you split the responsibilities?” Will transitions to the next question.

“The lyrics come from Rhys’s brain. Taylor pulls out his red pen and makes edits and adjustments. Once they’re finished completing each other’s sentence, the four of us sit down in a room and decide what inspires us enough to put music to. We add instrumentals to the winners. ” Ian answers.

Sarah gives me “the look”, the one I’m given when superfans when they realize I pen their favorite words. The one that says, ‘I will do whatever you want for a shot at being your muse.’ I’ve never been a fan of it, but this time, it makes me feel guilty.

I divert my eyes and go for my bottle of water.

“Is tackling lyrics as a team a twin thing?” She looks between my brother and me with growing interest.

I wish I could say this is the first time our twindom was seen as a turn on. Tay and I do most things together. Sleeping with a girl at the same time is not one of them. I didn’t realize how common of a fantasy it is until becoming famous. We get at least one proposition every time we go out. It’ll never stop being weird and a little gross.

“Not really. I like puzzles. His handwriting is awful when he writes songs. It’s a weird combination of cursive and printed capital letters. He tosses in custom abbreviations just to be difficult. Decoding it is a game for me. It makes the most sense for me to do it.” Taylor downplays it to douse her growing flame.

Our shared wavelength is a key component in our process. I’m a feeler. Tay’s a thinker. Together, we can compose songs that make you do both.

“Never play charades or any kind of guessing game with them. It’s impossible to win. They can read each other’s minds.” Kyle’s caffeine has kicked in enough for him to contribute.

“Putting them on opposite teams is out of the question too. They’re scary competitive when pitted against each other.”

“That has to be a twin thing.” Sarah fights to keep her dream alive.

“We have two older brothers and sisters. Our mom raised the six of us on her own. Fighting for her attention was a way of life growing up.” Taylor says.

“Old habits die hard,” I add.

“You had to postpone your tour for two weeks because of a family emergency. Do you care to touch on what happened?” Will forays.

I open my mouth to answer, but Taylor beats me to it.

“All of the Wildes are alive and well. The break was taken to ensure that it keeps being the case.”

I know it’s the right thing to do, but not talking about Harper and Poppy is a challenge. I love them. They make me happy. Pretending my new outlook on life has nothing to do with them is getting harder. Taylor sees it as his big brother’s mission to make sure I don’t say anything damning on our international platforms.

“Family first.” I have to contribute somehow.

I can’t help but smile to myself at the thought of my girls.

“I know it is a song from your first album, but I am dying to know – how did you come up with the idea to equate love to a field?” Sarah addresses me with a relevant question.

I can see Tay tensing up from the corner of my eye.

‘Give me some credit.’ I tell him with a brief look.

“It was written with the movie Field of Dreams in mind. It isn’t exactly normal to link love with a baseball movie from the 80s, but bear with me. The main character feels this otherworldly compulsion to fulfill his dream of building a baseball field in his cornfield. His wife is skeptical, but she supports him because she loves him. Everyone thinks he’s crazy, but her support for him is unwavering, and she helps him achieve his dream. There are parallels between their relationship and the one I had with my high school girlfriend. Acknowledging how much she believed in me and how much that meant to me is something I had to do.”

I leave out the part about field poppies. That’s too much information.

“What happened to her?” Sarah asks.

“She still means the world to me. She always will. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it hadn’t been for all that she has done for me.” I scratch the back of my head.

Tay wastes no time confronting me as soon as we are out of the recording booth.

“What’s going on?” He keeps his voice low enough to keep our conversation just between the two of us.

“Today? Downtime, lunch, soundcheck, dinner, more downtime, concert, and bed. You?” I deflect.

“You know what I’m talking about, you did your tell when your relationship with Pop was brought up.”

“You know it’s complicated.”

“There’s more.” He sees right through me.

“I’m not allowed to talk about it.”

“That never includes me, even she says it.” Taylor presses.

“Not this time. I’ve got to do this on my own.”

“Are you sure?”

“I want to be able to say I earned them on my own.”

“I wish you all the best. I like you a lot more when you’re with her. And by that, I mean that I’m not ashamed to call you my brother.”

This earns him a punch on the shoulder. He chuckles softly as he rubs his injury.

We stick around the studio to sign merch for show contests. We’re still there when Sarah and Will’s show comes to an end. She makes a beeline to Taylor and me, completely ignoring everyone else in the room.

“I have been a huge fan of yours for years. Your songs are absolute masterpieces.” She raves.

“They’re a group effort.” I slide my hands into my pockets.

“The lyrics are what resonate with me most.” She moves into our personal space. “I’d really love to pick your brains.” The innuendo is crystal clear.

“I bet you would.” A look of amusement plays on Taylor’s face.

He finds our fetishism hilarious.

“I’ve got to take this call.” I look at my black phone screen. “Nice to meet you.” I escape, leaving Taylor to shake her off.

I take this opportunity to call Poppy.

“Hello?” It takes her a few rings to answer. I hear Harper’s high pitched voice in the background.

The sound of it makes me smile. “How’s the shopping spree?”

“Productive. We picked out a nice jacket and coat. I found a cute outfit for her to wear on Thanksgiving. We’re in the food court sharing a pretzel; it’s her first time eating one. She has mustard all over her cheeks, and she says, ‘yummy’ between each bite. I think it’s safe to say she loves it.”

“Please say you taped her first bite.”

“Sure did. I’ll show you later. I want to see your face when you watch it.”

“Why?”

“I love watching you do dad things. It’s cute.”

My smile grows. “Even hulking out on cars?”

“Especially. I have to fight the urge to pinch your cheeks.”

I breathe a laugh. “Good to know.”

“What are you doing?’

“We’re still at the radio station. We should be packing it in soon.”

“Shouldn’t you be schmoozing and networking?”

“I’ve reached my quota. Have you fulfilled your assignment?” I retort.

“Not yet, but I have a hair appointment in an hour. After we eat, I’m going to take Harp to the mall playground. It’ll tire her out. She’ll sleep in her stroller while I get my hair done.”

“I’ve got a better plan. I’ll text it to you.”

“Look at you being discreet.” I can her a smile in her voice.

“I’ve gotta prove Tay wrong.”

“I should’ve known.”

“Hey, that doesn’t change the fact that I’m helpful.”

“That it doesn’t.” She plays along.

“I’m going to switch modes.”

“I’ll read your text. I’ll reply if it is a good idea.”

“Way to apply pressure.”

“Time’s running out.”

I end the call and start drafting my text.

Me: We’ll meet in the mall parking lot. I’ll take her to a real playground. She’ll take a nap at the hotel. You’ll be free to get your hair done and whatever else you want to do without worrying about her

Pop: Who’s going to push you on the swing if I don’t go?

Me: I didn’t think about that.

Pop: Plan b?

Me: Plan a. I’ll take one for the team

Pop: Do you think you’ll be able to make it here within the hour?

Me: Def. Text me the name of the mall. I’ll let you know when I’m on my way

Pop: K

I round everyone up and push to leave. They are dropped off at the hotel. I remain in the car and have it take me to the mall. The SVU I’m in pulls up beside the one that Harp and Poppy took to the mall.

Pop steps out of the backseat. “She’s already buckled into her seat. Can you send her new clothes to be washed when you get back to the hotel? The bag is in the trunk with her stroller.”

“Consider it done.”

“Have fun.”

“You too.” I give her a quick hug.

“Daddy!” Harper exclaims when she sees me.

“Hey, baby girl. We’re going to go to the park.” I join her in the backseat.

“Pawk!” She claps.

“Bye, Lovebug, have fun at the park with Daddy.”

“Bye-bye, Mama.”

Poppy blows her a kiss.

“See you later.” Pop touches her hand to my shoulder before departing.

Harper and I leave in their car. The one I came in is left behind for Poppy.

Sunglasses on, I take Harper to a playground close to the hotel. She proves, just as she always does when we go to the park, that she is an adrenaline-junkie. The highest, fastest activities are the only ones she wants to do. It’s a terrifyingly good time that leaves both of us ready for a nap.

“Your soundcheck’s in thirty minutes.” Poppy wakes me with a gentle shake.

“Hey.” My voice is gruff as I rub the sleep out of my eyes. “When did you get back?”

“Just walked in. I see you played hard at the park.” She gestures to Harper, who is still laying on my chest.

“What gave it away?”

“The drool.”

Harper’s also snoring.

“It’s a nice day and it was a quality playground. We lived it up. I hope you did the same at the mall. Your hair looks nice.” My eyes go to it.

“What’s different about it?” She challenges, putting her hands on her hips.

“Layers. The color is a little different too.” I really study it.

One thing I learned from my mom and sisters growing up is to only compliment women with sincerity. Anything else, regardless of intention, is not beneficial in the long run.

“Does it really look okay?” She runs a hand through the glossy strands. “I’ve never had my hair highlighted before.”

“You look beautiful. Do you like it?”

“I do but it’s new. I’m still adjusting.” She tucks it behind her ear.

“Did you get anything else?”

“A manicure and pedicure. I saw someone else getting them on my way to the bathroom. It looked relaxing, so I went for it.”

“Was it?”

“Beyond. The entire experience was. Thank you for taking her.”

“I’m parenting, not babysitting. Don’t thank me.”

“I did. Deal with it.”

I shake my head with a smile.

“Are you going to show me your nails or what?” I transition Harper to the bed.

“You don’t care about what they look like.”

“Yes, I do. You finally did something nice for yourself. I want to take in all the proof. Hands.” I hold out mine, palms up.

She puts hers on mine, palms down.

“Dark purple. Nice. Are your toes the same color?”

She nods.

“Looks good on you.” I kiss the tops of her hands. “I should probably go to work.” I stand from the bed.

“You should probably change your shirt first.” She eyes the wet spot left from Harper.

“Good call.”

“Rhys,--” She catches my hand as I take a step in the direction of my suitcase.

“Yeah?”

“Thank you.” She expresses her gratitude with vulnerability.

“You deserve all of it and more.” I kiss her cheek.

“Turn down the charm. I want to do this responsibly.”

“Can’t. Sorry.”

“You’re not sorry.”

“That is correct.”

“You can leave now.” She sits on the edge of the bed.

“As soon as I change my shirt.” I grin.

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