Sum of Us

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Ch. 28: Rhys

Harper loves “Ismas.” She has been talking about Santa, “pwetty ights,” and “leves” for days. Christmas songs have been on heavy rotation per her request. A Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer plush has replaced Barry, Ralph, and Dina. “Rue,” as she calls him, has bells on his collar. Due to her obsessive attachment to him, we can hear every move she makes. She has been making more of them because of her daily sugar rushes.

Her uncles and the crew members seem to have an infinite supply of Christmas cookies and candy to give her. Harp and Mel the Mermaid Toothbrush see each other more often these days. Harper loves it; to her, Mel is one more person that she gets to share her “Ismas eer” with. And every day, Pop and I cuddle up with our daughter to watch a holiday special or movie in a blanket fort.

I almost forfeited the opportunity to harvest these memories. Each time I recall that and the motivation behind it, the Hallmark movie I’m living in darkens. Not only am I controlled by the industry, but the people I love most are being forced to perform for them as well. Harper doesn’t understand, but Poppy does, probably better than I do.

She loves me enough to play along. And it further drives home how badly I screwed up when I broke up with her three years ago. Only a fool abandons their dream girl to fly with vultures. I haven’t wised up as much as I thought seeing as I almost did it again six days ago.

Zara rightfully ignored, there’s another dilemma that I’m running into. I don’t hate my job despite all that I am forced to do for it. I love it now more than ever, actually. The songs I sing are no longer painful. They are testaments to how far I’ve come; they make me all the more thankful for what I get to walk off stage to each night.

Life would be simpler if my love of music was still waning. I could validate leaving this life behind by saying I wanted to focus my attention on fatherhood. I could step out of the spotlight and no longer have to worry about things like if I’ll be able to take Harper to meet Santa without being recognized.

I’d be just another dad. No one other than the people that know us would know I’ve only known my twenty-two-month-old daughter for three months. There would be no chance of it getting out, of our past being the topic of international discussion and the target of ridicule.

I had no choice but to turn to my other half for help detangling my latest mess. Taylor has been his usual blend of sardonically helpful, inquisitive, and analytic. I’ve been treated to a loving slap on the back of the head each morning. Tay warned me that Zara was trouble. He has been able to say, “I told you so” more often. He loves those four words as much as Harper loves Christmas.

~

“Mama? Daddy?” Harper whines.

I’m out of bed before Poppy has the opportunity to open her eyes.

“You worked last night. I’m supposed to get her.” She reaches for her glasses.

“D-day’s tomorrow and I still have plenty of groveling to do. Go back to sleep, Gorgeous.”

Poppy drops her arm and returns to her sleeping position.

I lean over and drop a quick kiss on her forehead.

“Morning, Lovebug.” I lower the gate of Harp’s crib.

“Mornin’, Daddy.” She lifts one arm to me, the other is securely around Rudolph’s neck.

I pick her up by her waist and give her a hug and kiss.

The bus’s bedroom is still dark this time of morning this late in the year. I change her diaper using the glow from Harper’s nightlight.

Pop wouldn’t have an issue with me turning the overhead light on, but again, I’ve plenty of kissing up to do.

“Mama seepytime?” Harp looks over my shoulder to see Poppy as we leave the room.

“Yes. She’ll join in our fun later. Do you want to color a picture for her after breakfast?”

A love of coloring is a recent development. Harper had done it before doing it with my mom, but according to Poppy, she couldn’t focus on it for very long. Age has added to her attention span. Not by much, but enough to stick with a sedentary activity for more than five minutes.

“Uh-huh, and you.”

“You want to make me a picture?”

“Yes, real pwetty.”

“Thank you.” I kiss her cheek. “We have to be quiet. Everyone else is sleeping.” I whisper.

She nods to let me know she understands.

I buckle her into her booth booster seat and play A Charlie Brown Christmas on her tablet. She watches it with her headphones on, humming to the holiday classic’s iconic music. I provided her with her morning sippy cup of milk. The contentment created by a drink and Charlie Brown’s self-deprecation buys me enough time to get through my own morning routine and make our breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, and apple slices.

And by “make breakfast,” I mean putting chef-prepared eggs in the microwave, putting toast into the toaster, and cutting up apples. I’d never subject Harper to something I made myself. It could kill her.

Harp’s headphones are off and the film is playing at a low volume as I feed her. She tries to fight me for independence the entire meal, but I maintain control. Harper can’t handle eating solo when the bus is in motion. Most of the food ends up in her lap or on the floor.

Though it keeps me from eating my food, I enjoy feeding her. It’s a chance to do something I missed out on. It’s one more opportunity to bond, even if she spends the entire time trying to snatch the fork away and reaches for handfuls of food.

“Is your tummy full?” I ask once we’ve cleared her purple unicorn plate.

“Yes. It Rue turn.” She holds him up.

“He only eats carrots and it’s too early for those.”

“Dat no nice, Daddy. He hungey.”

“I’m hungry. Can I eat before we start feeding stuffed animals real food?”

“I help?” She blinks up at me with her sweet eyes.

Chris still refuses to diagnose her as a genius. However, he did say she is highly emotionally advanced for her age. Most children her age struggle to see past themselves. For as long as I’ve known her, she has asked to help people whenever given the opportunity. Her brilliance and caregiving instincts came straight from her mama.

I relent to her request with a smile on my face and pride warming my chest.

Harper holds onto the fork, slices of toast, and apple slices with me. It takes three times as long for me to eat with her “help” but the pleased look on her face can’t be beaten. Rudolph is fed a single baby carrot. I eat it as Harper wipes his face with the baby wipe I used to clean hers.

The things I do to make my little girl happy.

She tells Mel about Charlie Brown’s little Christmas tree and Rudolph’s carrot after I brush her teeth. The bathroom door keeps the bus’s other occupants from hearing Harper’s one-sided conversation with a mermaid toothbrush.

“Mel’s tired. Let’s color and watch a movie.”

Harper divides her attention between her art project and the movie Elf. Harp’s work ethic inspires me to tend to my projects. I pull out my laptop and wireless earbuds and finally start listening to the song demos that have been piling up in my inbox.

I’ve been featured on other artists’ songs in the past. Singing verses for them is the closest I’ll ever come to being a solo act. My lack of desire to break free from the guys is illustrated by my insistence on being credited as Rhys Wilde of Wilde Knights.

Collaborating with others is a way for me to grow as an artist. I’m very selective when it comes to which artists I’ll work with and which songs I’m willing to sing. I haven’t had the energy to take on new projects for a little over a year. Restful sleep, my best friend, and our spawn remedied that. I’ve been bursting with creative energy lately. Turning off the tap, or at least down, would bode well for me.

It’s a shame every fiber of my being is stubborn.

“Ow!” An abrupt slap on the back of my head sends my earbud down the aisle of the bus.

“You o-tay, Daddy?” Harper stops scribbling to check on me.

“No, but I deserve it.” I rub my injury.

She blows me a kiss. “All etter?”

“Yes,” I smile. “Thanks, Lovebug.”

“Elcome.” She goes back to coloring.

“What are you doing up so early?” I turn to Taylor.

“Sociopath-proofing the bus will take time. I want to get it done before we reach Minnesota.” He drops my earbud in my hand.

“Can we put it off a little longer?” I plead.

“I don’t want to box up all traces of them any more than you do, but it has to be done. The victim will be here in less than twenty-four hours.” Taylor rustles around in the kitchen.

“Do you plan on calling her by her name tomorrow?”

“She’s a sociopath and her career is built on being a victim. Those are her names as far as I’m concerned. Zara’s a nickname. Whether or not I use it is a toss-up at this point.” He opens a cabinet.

“I respect that.”

“Are you writing?”

“I’m going through song feature requests. George sent me demos.”

“I bet Victim’s going to ask you to do a song with her.” He says loud enough to be heard over the clanging of cereal being poured into a bowl.

“I know she is. She floats the idea every time we’re in the same room.”

“I’ll never speak to you again if you sing on one of her guilt trips.” Taylor sprinkles almonds and dried cranberries onto the freshly-poured bowl of Grape Nuts.

“I’d drink a cup of acid and shoot myself in the foot before I considered doing it.”

“What if she traps you?”

“I’ll talk. I’m very good at it.”

“Not when it counts. You’re a people pleaser. That’s why I asked.”

“Way to cut a guy down during his time of need.”

“Oh, please. You’re listening to music and having arts and crafts time with your adorable daughter. Poppy sitting next to you would be the only thing that could make you happier.” He pours oat milk over his disgustingly healthy breakfast of choice.

“All I hear is jealousy.”

“There would be some if I didn’t have plans to take them off your hands if you screw up.”

“My ladies are fiercely loyal. They’d never stroll over to the dark side.”

“Beck and Linds have vowed to kill you if you hurt Pop again. You’ll be out of the way. I’ll wait until we’ve appropriately grieved your loss to make a move.”

“That doesn’t make it any better. You’re still poaching.”

“It’s not poaching if you no longer exist. I’ll merely be offering her and the child who possesses half of my DNA a beautiful, drama-free life.” Taylor sits across from me with his bowl of rabbit food and mug of black coffee.

“That is way too specific to be off the cuff. If I get murdered, I’ll go full-on poltergeist if you take a step in their direction.” I growl with my eyes narrowed at him.

“I’ll call in an exorcist. Stepping up and standing up for them is the only way to keep this love train from barreling down the tracks.”

“I wish I was allowed to hate you.”

“The feeling is mutual.” He shoves a spoonful of cereal into his mouth.

“Hi, Nunckle Aylor.” Harper waves.

“Don’t speak to him, Lovebug. He’s trying to steal you away from me.”

“Don’t listen to Daddy. What’s surrendered can’t be stolen. Talk to me all you want. “ Taylor reaches across the table.

Harper giggles as he ruffles her hair. She shakes her hair out of her face and pats it down after Tay has retracted his hand. Harp hasn’t quite mastered tucking her hair behind her ear yet.

“Can Daddy tame your mane, little cub?” I ask.

“Roar!” An adorable grin stretches across her face.

Her smile is contagious. “Roar!” I remove an elastic from my wrist and gather her thick hair with my hand. I’ve got it into a perky high ponytail in no time.

“All done.” I gently tug on the end of it.

“Tank you. You turn.” She says with a giggle.

I let her help me put my hair up in a bun.

“How’s it look?” I ask once we’re done.

“Pwetty,” Harper confirms with a nod.

“Yours too. Thank you.” I kiss her chubby cheek.

She gives me a kiss and promptly resumes to her artwork.

Taylor lifts his mug with a hint of a smile playing on his lips.

“What?” I prod.

“How happy your face looks offsets the nest on the top of your head.”

I push his shoulder with a grin of my own, causing him to chuckle.

I offer to help him pack, but he waves me off and tells me nothing will get done if Harper doesn’t stay seated. If I were to leave her side, she would ask to help, neither of us would be able to say no to her, and the bus will remain covered with her things forever.

“That can stay out. I’ll say it’s mine.” I halt Taylor.

He’s holding a plastic yellow turtle with a hollow green shell and red wheels for legs. Shapes that correspond with the cut-outs on the turtle’s shell are already inside of the storage container at Taylor’s feet.

“It’s a shape sorter.” Taylor deadpans.

“Without its blocks, it’s a turtle. I love sea turtles.”

“Sociopath possesses many adjectives. ‘Stupid’ is not one of them.” The turtle joins its shapes in the bin.

“That can be left--”

Taylor huffs. “You can keep one toy. ONE. Which one would you like?”

“Harp, may I borrow Ralph?”

Before Rue entered the picture, Ralph was Harper’s bedtime stuffed animal. The floppy giraffe has been her cuddle buddy for much of her life. I’ll miss Harper hugs during our day apart; Ralph’s had plenty of them and he smells like her too.

“Yes, I sare. Sare nice.”

“Thank you. I really appreciate it.” I place a kiss on her forehead.

“What’s Ralph?” Taylor looks at the nearly-filled box of toys. “All her things have human names.”

“Her stuffed giraffe. He’s in her crib.”

“You can retrieve him later. Right now, make yourself a cup of chamomile tea and do your breathing exercises. Your stress is going to ruin my backswing.”

“Since when do you golf?” I stand from the table and stretch.

“Kyle, Ian, and I are going to play mini-golf at the two courses inside the Mall of America. We’re putting money down. I will be upset if I’m too tense to play well.”

“Why wasn’t I invited?”

“You and Poppy are taking your daughter to sit on a strange man’s lap.”

I groan in disgust. “Why did you have to phrase it like that?”

“It’s what you’re doing.” He shrugs.

“We are taking her to see S-a-n-t-a. It’s a cute thing that parents do. Don’t ruin it with logic.” I step into the kitchenette area.

“He’s a proud sweatshop owner, animal rights violator, habitual trespasser, and Peeping Tom. He also exploits the differently-abled for personal gain. He was fine with the bullying R-u-d-o-l-p-h endured until it was too foggy for him to go out on his yearly joy ride.”

“If I admit that he’s problematic, will you fight your urge to destroy the fantasies that make my kid happy?”

“Will I still be able to burst your bubble?”

“You’d do it even if I said no. So, sure, why not?”

“I agree to those terms.”

“The big guy in red isn’t golden. Happy?”

“It’ll do. Only because saying something more descriptive will clue Little Miss Holly Jolly into what we’re talking about and I’m a man of my word.” He adds another toy to the bin.

I spare a glance in my bubbly ball of positive energy’s direction.

Harper’s singing a song that is playing in the movie as she switches the purple crayon from her right hand to her left. Once the transition has been made, she goes back to scribbling.

Along with my tea, I prepare a snack for Harper and get a carrot for Rue.

Doing as Taylor said and transitioning Harper from her booster seat to my lap keeps dread from overtaking me.

An hour away from Minneapolis, I venture to the bedroom at the back of the bus with Harper on my hip and Rue in her arms.

“Come in!” Poppy responds to my courtesy knock.

She’s dressed for the day and in the process of folding Harper’s crib blanket when we walk through the door.

“Hi, Mama, I make icture!”

“For you, our lady.” I present it to her with flare.

Pop’s smile reaches her eyes as she accepts Harper’s gift. “Thank you, Lovebug. It’s beautiful.” She gives her a kiss.

“Rue help.” Harper holds him to her.

“Thank you too, Rue.” Poppy gives him a kiss too.

I put Harper on the bed. “How long have you been awake?”

“A little over an hour. I’ve been packing to Prince. We’re heading to his hometown. It seemed like a prime opportunity to celebrate his genius.”

Purple Rain makes everything better.”

“Album, Song, or Movie?”

“All of the above.”

“Right answer.” Poppy gives me a quick on the cheek. “Does she know what we’re doing today?”

“Not yet. I wanted to do it together.”

“Let’s do it, then.”

We join Harper on the bed.

“Harp, we’re visiting someone today.” I start.

“Gamma?”

“We’re going to see Santa.” Poppy corrects.

“ANTA?!” Harper shrieks.

“That’s right. We’re going to go see Santa. He’s at a toy—”

Pop’s explanation of our plans is cut off by a piercing squeal. I cradle Harper in my arms and try to remind her to breathe. Instead of doing it, she sustains a note high enough to serve as a dog whistle until she’s red in the face.

“Should I call 9-1-1?” Ian barrels into the room on high-alert.

“No, she’s just excited about our trip to see—”

Harper heaves a gulp of air. “ANTA!”

“Save your voice, Lovebug. Mama’s got it.” I coo into her ear as I continue to rock her gently.

“I hope she didn’t wake you.” Poppy completes her sentence.

His eyes flit between the three of us, his chest slowly deflating.

“That sound came from her? And it was because of S—?”

“Let’s not say his name until her breathing regulates, but yes, that is what happened.” Pop confirms.

“Is it a good idea for her to see him? I don’t want her heart to stop.”

“It’s too late to back out now,” I tell him. “She knows.”

“Where are you going? Nick’s usual hang out spots are out of the question for you guys.” Ian leans against the doorframe.

“Rhys found one at an independent toy store. It’s a small, family-owned place that online retail has been hitting hard. We’re going in the middle of a weekday. The coast should be clear, but if it isn’t, it will still be okay. We are taking other precautions.”

“Such as…?” He motions for her to continue.

“He’s be tucking his hair beneath a beanie and wearing a pair of Grams’ reading glasses. He’ll be going by his middle name, too.” Poppy details the rest of our plan.

“That should work. It’s very James Bond.”

“You either go full spy or not at all.” She quips with a small shrug.

“I’m sure you’ll successfully complete your mission.”

“One can only hope.”

“I’ll let you get back to it.” He leaves, shutting the door behind him.

“I needs my bye-bye cwoes.”

“Are you finished screeching?”

“See Anta, Daddy. I needs my bye-bye cwoes.” Harper reiterates instead of answering my question.

She says it at a reasonable volume. I’ll let her stubbornness slide.

“If you start yelling again, we’re going to have to hold off on seeing him. You scared Uncle Ian.” Poppy warns.

“Oh, no. I sowy.”

“He understands you were a little too excited. Just keep it in mind for next time.” I kiss away the crinkle between her eyebrows.

She nods.

“Let’s get you into those bye-bye clothes.” I rub my nose against hers.

Harper picks out the “ugly” sweater Becca bought her. It’s navy blue and features Rudolph; his nose is composed of red sequins. His eyes are the googly ones the kids use for arts and crafts. She chooses a red tutu and sparkly red ballet flats.

Pop puts white tights on her. I let Harper’s hair down and complete her reindeer ensemble with the antler headband that my mom bought her. It has a red bow on it, of course.

Poppy takes Harp to the front of the bus to allow me to get dressed. Their absence and the sparseness of the room without their belongings drag me down from the high they gave me. It feels like a return to my dark days. I tug on my clothes as quickly as possible, collect Ralph from Harper’s crib, and escape to the front of the bus.

Harper’s feeding Poppy peeled orange slivers.

“Did she peel the orange too?” I slide into the booth across them.

“She ‘helped.’” Pop corrects.

“I help, Daddy.” Harper squishes an orange into Pop’s mouth. “See?”

“I see. You’re the best helper I know.”

My compliment has her beaming. “Tank you.”

~

Poppy and Harper check-in at the hotel’s front desk as the guys and I enter through the loading dock at the back of the building. They’re on the 16th floor. We’re on the 22nd. As much as I want to go downstairs and make sure they’re pleased with their room and settling in well, I can’t. I have to listen to my morning briefing.

The band has convened in the living room of the two-bedroom suite Taylor and I are sharing. Trina and George are leading the meeting, and Josie is here to make adjustments and take notes.

“All of you are aware that today is your day off. Tyrone will guard the group going to the mall. Carter will accompany Rhys to the store. You—”

“No.” I interrupt George.

“What do you mean, ‘no’?” He looks up from his tablet.

“I have no problem with a bodyguard tagging along with us if they keep their distance, but that person can’t be Carter.”

“Why?” George questions.

Kyle snickers. The glare I send his way only makes him laugh harder.

“I don’t want him with me.” I reiterate.

“Carter’s eyes never leave Poppy’s body whenever they’re in the same room. Safety’s not on his mind as he does it.” Tay adds context to my answer.

“Clearly,” I grumble.

“She’s going to kick your ass when she finds out you’ve been alpha-dogging him behind her back.” He looks at me.

“Good thing you’re not going to tell her.” I retort.

“She’ll figure it out soon enough. Your barking is getting louder.”

“He can’t take a hint.” I gripe. “Today’s an important day. Harper’s meeting Santa; she’s ecstatic. Poppy and I want to enjoy her big moment in peace. We can’t if Carter stares at Poppy’s ass instead of scoping our surroundings. Better idea: don’t reassign him, fire him. All problems solved.” I reintroduce George to our conversation.

“I can permanently assign a bodyguard to you, Rhys. That’s the best I can do. Whom do you prefer?” He responds diplomatically.

“Tyrone.”

Ty’s an ex-marine. He joined the military when he found out his high school girlfriend was pregnant as a means to provide for them financially. They got married to ensure she received spouse benefits. Despite their decision to get married young, twenty years later, they are still very happy together.

Tyrone missed many of his daughter Jasmine’s firsts because of deployment, but he more than made up for it when he returned. He never missed a recital and sat in the front row of every school play. She’s in college now. She and his wife Monica joined us on tour for two weeks last summer. Jazz is a big fan of ours, and it was an opportunity for them to experience Europe together.

Tyrone understands my desire to create big moments for Harper to reconcile for the little ones I missed. He’s capable of taking down the most dangerous of threats without hesitation; I’ve seen him do it. He’s tougher than tough, but whenever he’s with Harper, he transforms into a giant teddy bear. She’s very comfortable with him. The same is true for Poppy; he’s exceptionally kind to her. I trust Ty with my life -- literally and figuratively.

“Consider it done,” George confirms the change.

Josie makes the necessary arrangements on her tablet.

“Carter will be with you three wherever you decide to go. You are free to roam within reason.” He addresses Kyle, Taylor, and Ian.

“Carlie will be with you to take pictures for the band’s social media accounts. If you could post on your personal accounts too, that would be greatly appreciated. Some of you—” Trina shifts her gaze to Taylor and me. “Have been lacking in the online presence department.”

“I’m not allowed to take pictures of Harper or Poppy. They get my free time.” I defend.

“Take pictures around them. Today you can take a picture of the toy store and write that you are buying gifts for your nieces and nephews. Caption a picture of the lights tonight with Christmas song lyrics. Easy.”

“Others take pictures of what we do. All of us documenting the same things is gratuitous.” Taylor argues.

“It helps people feel like they know you.”

“They don’t,” Taylor replies flatly.

“The illusion is enough. Please comply. It is for the best.” Her tight-lipped smile tells him it’s not up for debate.

“Your schedule for tomorrow is jam-packed.” George takes over again. “You have an interview at a local radio station first thing in the morning. They expect you to arrive by 6:00 AM and be prepared to go live at 7:00 AM. The car will be here to take us to the station at 5:30 AM.”

Kyle groans. “No one is going to listen that early.”

“People listen during their morning commute. It’s called drive-time radio for a reason. They’re going to play a recording of the interview later in the day for the people who missed it.” George’s eyes return to the schedule on the screen after his explanation.

He goes on to detail the vacuum-sealed day on the horizon. We will barely have time to sit down, let alone entertain a manipulative superstar. I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

“There is no way to prevent Zara from making an appearance at your show. She will likely be there. You will have to engage with her. A feud is the last thing we need right now.” Trina adds.

“I’m not humoring her. I can’t.” I rebut.

“You have to. She is a power-hitter. It is better to have her as an ally than an enemy.”

“She doesn’t want to be my friend. She wants attention. Giving it to her impacts my actual life. Who cares if backing off hurts my illusion?”

“I second that.” Ian agrees.

“She’s a melodramatic sociopath. I’m concerned about his well-being. You should be too.” Taylor stands up for me with a ferocity only big brothers have.

“Zara is a sweetheart. Rhys is in absolutely no danger. It is clear she wants to make amends.” Trina drops the party line.

“I always get psychopaths and sociopaths mixed up. Which one is she?” Ian chimes in.

“Psychopaths lack a conscience. Sociopaths know what they are doing is wrong. They might even feel the slightest bit guilty about it, but that doesn’t stop them from doing whatever it takes to get what they want. They tend to be charming, intelligent, and manipulative.” Taylor takes care of it for him.

“Yep, that’s her.” Kyle snaps his fingers. “I don’t want to be around that. I’m not trying to get stabbed.”

“If she were going to stab anyone, it’d be me,” I say.

“I’d jump in front of you in slow motion. You’ve got a kid.”

“Thanks, man.” I smile at him.

“Can I be bumped from favorite uncle to godfather?” Kyle tries.

“Never.” Taylor shuts him down for me.

George pinches the bridge of his nose. “None of you are going to get hurt. You will be backstage at the venue with her. Plenty of people, including security, will be present. You can return to your hotel room as soon as the show is over.”

“No after-party obligations?” I perk up.

“We need you to stay out of clubs and bars right now. If news of Harper were to break, pictures of you partying would project the wrong image.”

“Do we have to go out with her?” Taylor asks on behalf of the others.

“You don’t have to, but it would be nice. It is a Friday night, after all.” Trina tries to persuade them with her eyes.

“Pass.” The three of them say at the same time.

I check my watch. “I need to head out. If we leave too close to naptime, Harper will be fussy. Are we good?”

“For now. Keep your phone nearby. There might be last-minute schedule adjustments.”

“Sweet. Later, guys.” I’m off the couch and in my room before they can respond.

My coat and disguise are acquired. I hastily make my way to the 16th floor when my alter-ego transformation is complete.

My fist connects with the door three times. Poppy answers the door holding Harper’s hand.

“Daddy!” She tries to bolt into the hall to hug me.

Pop tightens her grip on her hand and tugs her inside. “Come in, Clark, before she escapes.”

“Clark? I thought I was going by Michael.” I stroll in with an amused smirk.

“Identity shielding glasses are giving me Superman/Clark Kent vibes. I’m into it. You look very handsome and distinguished.”

“You didn’t answer the question. What’s my name?”

“Michael. We’ll stick with what we planned.”

“Daddy you Weese.” Harper corrects as she hugs my leg.

My eyes widen in shock. “That could be a problem.”

“People assume she doesn’t know what she’s talking about because of her age. We’re fine.” Poppy waves her hand dismissively as she walks further into the room.

“Harp, what’s Mama’s name?” I pick her up.

“Hoppy.”

“Do you know what your full name is?”

“I Hawper.” She reaches for my glasses.

I pry her hands off of the rectangular silver frames. “Harper Posy Wilde. Can you say that?”

“Hawper Poosy Wilde.” She repeats, going for them again.

“Don’t touch. I need them.”

“Why?”

“They’re going to let me spend my day with you. Is that okay?”

She nods.

“Now, back to confirming that you’re a genius. What’s your name, Lovebug?”

“Hawper Poosy Wilde.” She answers confidently.

“Good job.” I kiss her cheek.

“Are you going to tell Santa your name?” Poppy asks her.

“He ready know.”

I’ll be sure to sneak him the information before they meet. It’s my duty as her daddy.

We use the service elevator to get to the loading dock. Tyrone and an SUV are waiting for us when we arrive. Poppy, Harp, and I occupy the middle row. Tyrone takes the passenger seat. Harper holds Rue and looks out the window while the car is in motion. Her car seat requires the crossbody straps that only window seats have. The necessary arrangement gives Poppy and me an excuse to sit side by side. I seize the opportunity to ride with her hand in mine.

“Why we 'top?” Harper turns to us.

“We’re at the toy store. Santa’s inside.” I answer.

“Dis no Nort Pole.” She skeptically stares at the store.

“It’s not the North Pole. He’s visiting this store today to make sure the toys look pretty and are fun to play with.” Poppy instantly fabricates a story Harper’s sure to believe.

She’s got a gift.

“Ooh, I help?!” Harper giddily kicks her legs.

“We’ll test them out together. How about that?” Poppy unbuckles her seatbelt.

“Yay! Time go.” Harp claps her hands.

Poppy unfastens Harper from her car seat within the car. With Harper’s diaper bag on my shoulder, I walk around the car to open Harper’s door. She’s ready to get out of the car when I’ve reached it. I lower her to the ground and take her tiny hand into mine. Poppy takes her other hand. Tyrone waits in the car. I’ve been instructed to text him if anything feels off. Poppy, Harper, and I enter the store like a normal family.

Well…as normal as we can be with a skipping reindeer wearing a tutu.

Goodman’s Toys looks exactly as I hoped. The storefront windows house elaborate holiday displays. The “open” sign on the door is handpainted. A bell chimes when we step inside. An electric train set is perched on a play table at the front of the shop. It glides along its track, making train noises and the occasional whistle.

A Lego table is nearby, the blocks have been removed from their boxes and are available to be played with. There are six aisles of toys, all of them appear to be neat and orderly. A red velvet throne, assumingly for Santa, is in a well-decorated corner; it’s worryingly empty.

Shit. Maybe I should’ve called.

“Well, who do we have here?” The elderly woman behind the counter makes her way over to us. Her gaze is squarely on Harper.

“Hawper Poosy Wilde. They Mama and Daddy.” She bounces, still holding our hands.

“Oh, you’re the Harper Santa’s been waiting for! He’s been talking about you for ages.” The white-haired woman bends at the knees to be at Harper’s eye level.

“ANTA!” Harp shrieks, jumping.

The woman laughs. “He’s in the back office. I’ll let him know you are here.”

“Tank you.”

“You are very welcome, dear.” She stands up straight.

“I’m Judith. If you need anything while you are here, don’t hesitate to let me know. Have a look around while I go get my husband.” She addresses Poppy and me.

“Thank you.” Pop smiles at her.

“Pway twain!” Harp bolts for it.

Poppy’s quick to follow her.

“Can you make sure he knows her name? It’ll mean a lot to her.” I ask Judith once we are alone.

“Absolutely. We like to personalize Santa visits. Is her middle name actually Poosy?”

“No, it’s Posy.” I chuckle. “But he can just call her Harper.”

“He will.”

“Thank you.” I flash her a gracious smile.

“It’s my pleasure.”

Harper’s leaning on the train’s table. She’s tracking the train’s movements with fascination and squealing when its whistle blows. Poppy’s kneeling beside her.

“Has she always been into trains?”

Poppy looks over her shoulder. “She loves the one in Mr. Roger’s Neigboorhood. This is her first experience with a real train set.”

Let’s get it.’ I mouth.

Pop rises to her feet and moves to stand beside me. “She’s too young. It’s ages 3 and up. I already checked.”

“She’s brilliant like her mama. If we tell her not to put the pieces into her mouth because they’re dangerous, she’ll understand that she shouldn’t do it”

She cracks a smile. “She does seem to love it.”

“Please.” I poke out my bottom lip.

“Fine. We can get the train.”

“Yes.” I do a little fist pump. “Can we get some Legos too?” I point to the table of them with my thumb.

“I put my foot down when it comes to those. They are way too small. She’s not ready.”

“I’m sure they have bigger ones. I’ll ask Judith when she gets back.”

“You’re going to try to buy up half the store, aren’t you?”

“It’s our first Christmas together. I want to give her what I never had. Please?”

“Yeah.” She kisses my cheek and intertwines our fingers.

“Ho, ho, ho!” A rotund man bellows.

“ANTA!” Harper shrieks as she runs to him.

Judith’s husband’s wearing a high-quality Santa suit. His hat, jacket, and pants are composed of burgundy velvet and trimmed with voluminous white faux fur. A thick black leather belt secures his jacket. His pants are tucked into his leather boots. His robust figure and white beard are what really sell it.

Harp latches onto his leg and hugs it with all her might.

He lets out a deep belly laugh, fully committing to his character. “Hello, Harper, I’ve been expecting you.” He pats the top of her head.

“I help?” She looks up at the man.

“With what?”

“Esents.”

“I’ve never been asked that question before. You have definitely secured your spot on the nice list.” He smiles down at her.

“Leves and Rue fwiends.”

His face scrunches in confusion. He slyly looks to us for a translation.

“Harper’s friends with Rudolph. Rudolph is friends with the elves. She would like to be added to their friendship circle.” Poppy answers his silent question.

“I’ll see what I can do, little one.” He replies to Harper. “How about we sit and discuss what you want me to bring you?”

Santa sits on his throne. Poppy places Harper on his leg. Harp’s hand immediately goes to Santa's beard. Pop and I watch in horror as she gives it a hard tug. Santa stifles his cry of pain by clearing his throat.

“No, Harper, we don’t pull beards.” Pop manually unclenches Harp’s fist. “Say ‘sorry’ to Santa. You hurt him.”

“Oh, no! I sowy, Anta. I sowy.” Harp apologies profusely as she drops her hand to her lap.

“I’ve endured worse in this chair. You’re still on my nice list.” Fake Santa gives her a reassuring smile.

“I nice.”

“You are. That’s why I need you to tell me what you would like for Christmas.”

Without hesitation Harper says, “Pups. They Izmo and Widet.”

“Those are Grandma’s dogs, Lovebug.” Poppy reminds her.

“Uh-huh, we pway at Gamma’s.”

“You just want to play with Grandma’s dogs at her house?” Pop presses, trying not to laugh.

Harp nods with a smile. “We fwiends. We has ots and ots of fun.”

I’m recording all of this on my phone, trying my best not to ruin the video by laughing. A snort breaks through at her response.

“Uh, puppies are nice.” Santa’s thrown for a loop and unsure of how to respond. “Would you like anything else?” He tries again.

“Usic.” Harp rapidly answers.

“You like music. How about an instrument? A drum perhaps?”

She shakes her head. “I pway usic wit Daddy.”

That’s my girl.

“Is there a toy you want me to bring you?” Santa tries to steer her in the right direction.

“Puple.”

“A purple ball? Or how about a purple teddy bear?”

“Puple.” She repeats.

“Purple? You want the color purple as a present?”

“Oh, yes, I wike puple.”

I cover my hand with my mouth, dying to laugh at her misunderstanding of his question.

“I will try my best to fulfill your wish.”

“Tank you.” Harper’s still all smiles.

“Let’s pose for pictures for Mom and Dad, shall we?”

“O-tay.”

Poppy takes care of the pictures. I continue recording.

“We’ve got the strangest daughter,” Poppy says to me once we’re both done capturing the moment.

“What did you expect? She’s a blend of you and me.”

She sighs. “How are we going to get her the color purple for Christmas?”

“There’s plenty of purple in her room. I think it’ll suffice. She’s not hard to please.”

“Yet you want to go all out with the presents.”

“She deserves it.” I shrug a shoulder.

Santa keeps Harper busy by answering her questions about the North Pole. Judith helps Poppy and me shop for suitable toys. We’re going to store them on the bus and put them on the plane when we fly to Seattle.

I collect all the things that look remotely fun. Poppy puts back the ones that she’s too young to handle. Judith stows them behind the counter so that Harp doesn’t see them.

“Lovebug, would you like to help us pick out presents for your cousins?” I extend my hand to her.

“She’s going to pick out the most bizarre things.” Pop says beneath her breath.

“Of course she is. She’s ours.” I send a smirk her way.

As predicted, Harper presents the oddest of toys to us: a butterfly net for Chloe, a pair of light-up gloves for Kevin, a ball of multicolored yarn for Grace, the world’s ugliest doll for Courtney, and an introduction to juggling kit for Robby.

We buy all of them. How could we not?

We bid farewell to Judith and Carl (a.k.a Santa) and exit the store. It takes Tyrone and me several trips to get everything in the car. I take a picture of the place before I leave for good, hoping it encourages others to check out a site that will forever accompany a fond memory.

Harper falls asleep in the car on our way back to the hotel; our energizer bunny has finally crashed. I carry her up to Poppy’s room. Bellhops take our purchases up to my suite.

“Should we wake her? She hasn’t eaten lunch.” I whisper as I place Harper on the bed.

“We’ll feed her when she wakes up. She’s exhausted from all the excitement.” Pop strips off her coat.

I do the same with mine and Harper’s.

“Being able to go out in public together was really nice.” She hangs our jackets in the closet.

“It was.” I take care of Harper’s shoes and antler headband. “I’m sorry it can’t be like this everyday.”

Poppy sits on the edge of the bed. “It’s my fault it can’t be. I know you’d love the opportunity to show us off, but I’m not ready. It’ll be a lot, you know? I’m still getting used to all this.” She gestures around the room. “Your new life.”

I join her on the bed and put my arm around her. “I’m okay with waiting -- more than okay with it, actually. We don’t have the hang of this yet. I don’t want people staring at us while we try to make everything work.”

Pop rests her head on my shoulder. “We’re getting stronger.”

“I’m not going to let you down tomorrow. I can’t lose this -- you and Harper.” I grow teary-eyed.

“You and I made this mess together. If I’d told you the whole truth, you would’ve done the same, and we wouldn’t be in this situation. I’m not pinning it all on you. Zara’s the one I don’t trust. If she tries to pull something, I won’t hold it against you if you’re honest with me about it.”

”When, not if. She always tries to do something. I don’t want her anywhere near me.” I vent.

“Do you have to go anywhere with her?”

“No, but she has unrestricted access to the show. George won’t revoke it because it’d throw up red flags.”

“Unrestricted? What does that mean? She can walk on stage if she wants?”

“She could, but she won’t. She’s on a tour of her own; putting on a free show at the last minute wouldn’t benefit her in any way. Free reign of backstage and access to us while we’re there is what she has. George and Trina have put together a schedule that will keep us out of the arena most of the day.”

“So, post-show is what you’re worried about most?”

“Yes, but I don’t have to go out with her, which is a plus.”

“Go out?”

“Spend time together in the city, whether it be at a restaurant or club. Management doesn’t want to risk pictures of me socializing after-hours circulating. If news of Harper would to get out, they don’t want someone tossing out those photos and making claims that I don’t take fatherhood seriously.”

“You’re a great dad. I hope you know that.” Poppy rubs my chest.

“I like to think so, but it’s hard to know for sure. Thank you for your glowing review.” I kiss the top of her head.

“The review wrote itself when Harper told Santa she wants you for Christmas.”

“She wants to make music with me for Christmas.” I playfully modify.

“That’s even better. Common interests solidify relationships.”

“Harp’s a perfect match for us.” My eyes drift to Harper. “You’re exactly what she needs in a mom. There’s nothing I love more than being her dad.”

“We made a good little weirdo. We’ve got to be strong for her. We’ll get through tomorrow as a family.”

I guide Poppy’s face to mine. “Promise?”

“We’re going to try our hardest -- fight tooth and nail to give Harp the life she deserves. That’s what I can guarantee.”

“That’s what makes you such a great mama.” I move in close.

“You’ll be stepping up too because that’s the kind of dad you are. We’ll handle this together.” She closes the distance between us.

I pour my heart and soul into our kiss.

That’s what she and Harper have. They’re my world.

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