Sum of Us

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Ch. 29: Poppy

Last night, Harper slept in the bed with me instead of in the crib the hotel provided. She wasn’t the one who longed for cuddles; it was me. Her warmth and presence have comforted me for the past three years.

I was depressed for a good chunk of my pregnancy. Postpartum hit me hard, too. The cocktail of heartbreak, hormones, and abandonment was a tough one to swallow. There were days I didn’t want to get out of bed. Looking down and focusing on the tiny entity who relies on me for survival gave me the strength to pull back the covers and face the world.

The feel of her flutters and kicks were nudges of encouragement. After she was born, the way she would hold my fingers and snuggle up as close to me as possible whenever I held her were what motivated me. Giggles and gummy smiles were what did it when she got a little older. Now, songs, pictures, hugs, kisses, and “I wove yous” are what make all the trials that come my way conquerable.

She has no idea she has said, “It’s all going to be okay, Mama. We’ve got this”, each and every day since before she was born.

Drawing her into bed last night allowed me to harness more of her adaptive and optimistic energy.

I’m going to need it today.

~

I jolt awake at the sound of my phone vibrating on the nightstand. Tugging it off its charger, I bring it close to my face and squint to read the caller’s name.

Video Chat: Rhys

I shift Harper to the bed, grab my glasses, and scurry to the bathroom.

“Hello?” I shove my glasses onto my face.

My skin flushes when I get a good look at him.

Rhys’s looking handsome as ever on my phone’s screen. His stubble is evenly shaven and crisply lined. The hair on one side of him messy side part is tucked his behind his ear; the side with the more significant portion of hair has been pushed off his face with his fingers. All of his rich chocolate strands cascade to his shoulders in loose waves. Their deep pigment draws more attention to his pale green. And how good he looks in basic gray t-shirt and a jean jacket should be a crime.

“Morning, were you already up?” He smiles, making the butterflies in my belly flutter faster.

“You should be able to tell by the shape my hair’s in. I’m sure I look like a Troll doll.” I attempt to tame my tangled tresses with my fingers.

“A gorgeous Troll doll.” His smile quirks into a smirk.

I bit my bottom lip to keep from smiling. “What are you doing awake before Harper?”

“We’re due at our first press gig of the day at 6 AM. The car leaves at 5:30. I wanted to see my ladies before heading into hell.”

“She’s still asleep, but I can angle camera toward her do that you can watch her for a bit.”

“I’d like that. Can I get a little more time with you first?”

“Sure.” I climb inside the claw-foot tub. “How did you sleep last night?” I take a seat.

“Dreamless, but restful. Taylor made me take one of his over-the-counter sleep aids. I don’t feel drowsy today. It was a low dose. How about you?”

“I tossed and turned until I stole Harp from her crib. I went to sleep and stayed there until a minute ago.” I cover my mouth to yawn.

“Blame yourself. You said that I can wake up to your beautiful face every morning. That’s precisely what I’m doing. Deal with it. ”

I roll my eyes. “Have you changed your phone backgrounds yet?”

“She’s not coming anywhere near my phone.”

“You can’t guarantee that.”

“The picture on my lock screen is one of my hands and Harper’s on the piano. She won’t be able to tell the small hands belong to my daughter. For all she knows, neither set is mine.”

“Okay, you can keep that one. It’s well-known that you have young nieces and nephews. Your home screen has to go, though. It’s one of the family portraits your mom took of us.”

It’s a candid one of him kissing my cheek as Harper and I smile. I’m not particularly fond of pictures of myself, but Claudia captured the essence of that moment perfectly. I get the warm and fuzzies every time I see it. It’s my home screen too.

“I don’t wanna.” He pouts with his eyebrows scrunched.

“The small details matter. You could publish a nature journal with all the landscape pictures you’ve taken. Choose one.”

“How about I use one of the pictures of the whole family? We’re separated into different rows.”

“Your arm is visibly around my waist and Harper’s front and center, looking just like you.”

“What about the one of you and Harper from behind? Your faces are hidden. Little Wilde is on the back of her shirt. The two of you are holding hands. The cherry on top is your ass looks fantastic in the jeans you’re wearing. It’s an all-around win.”

“You’d have to say that’s a picture of Courtney and Lindsey. Do you really want to look at a picture of Linds’s butt looking good?”

Rhys narrows his eyes at me. “We’ve discussed incest, Penelope. Don’t ruin that holy grail of a picture for me.”

“Set the picture of Christmas lights you posted on your Instagram as your background and call it a day. We were sitting next to you while you took it. The three of us were enjoying our night of family fun.”

“Okay.” He mutters.

“You can change it back the moment she’s gone. Patience, babe. It’s almost over. What does your day look like?” I change the subject.

“Chaotic, but in a good way. What will you be getting up to today?”

“Harper and I are going to have a blanket fort breakfast as we watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas. We’re going to the Minnesota Children’s Museum after that. The afternoon will be spent at the SeaLife Minnesota Aquarium, the Holiday Music Festival, and the Nickelodeon Universe theme park inside the Mall of America. I get to ride all junior rides for free as her chaperone. They turn on Christmas lights at night. She might sleep for days once we’ve done it all.”

His jaw drops. “I’m so jealous. I’m almost debating whether or not I want pictures and videos. They could make me sob with envy.”

“You have a day to wage your internal war. I can’t blow up your phone today.”

He loses a bit of the light in his eyes. “I’d take it all back if I could,” he says, running a hand through his hair.

“Me too. If I had told you what I was going through, you wouldn’t have touched her.”

His eyes return to mine. “I would’ve been holding your hand and encouraging you to curse me out Taylor-style instead.”

A laugh tumbles out of me. “What? Why?”

“Wilde virility is the reason you got knocked up while on birth control. We’d probably have twins if you weren’t on it.”

“Don’t put that into the universe.”

“A two-for-one deal would’ve worked out well. I’d be able to replace Taylor and Kyle in the band at the same time and have twice the quirks and hilarity.”

“You’re trying to boot both of them out now?”

“Kyle’s made too many MILF jokes. One more and I’ll stab him myself.”

“You have the hottest mom ever. Cut the guy some slack.”

“I can tune out the ones he makes about her. He’s been lusting after her since we were eight. He’s on the chopping block for the ones about you.”

“He’s kidding.”

“Barely. If he didn’t think you’d shoot him down on the spot, he’d go for it.”

“Doubtful.”

He shakes his head. “You have no idea which league you’re in.”

“I’m well aware. You two are the confused ones.”

“Usually, but not this time. You’re in a league of your own and I am not talking about the Geena Davis baseball movie. You’re awful at sports, like uncannily terrible. You managed to get a concussion while bowling. I didn’t know what was possible.” He veers off-topic in his typical manner.

“The lanes are slippery and those shoes have zero traction. If I were good at sports, our team name couldn’t be Squints and Smalls when we play as a duo. You would’ve lost your 90’s movie reference and wouldn’t have been able to say ‘You’re Killing Me, Smalls’ in the correct context. You should be thanking me.”

“Just when I think you can’t get any better, you say something like that.”

In the movie The Sandlot, the main character, Scotty Smalls, can’t play baseball to save his life at the beginning and ends up getting hurt and embarrassed his first couple of tries. His glasses-wearing friend, ‘Squints,’ is all about landing Wendy Peffercorn, the beautiful and unattainable lifeguard. The way he secures their first kiss is unsavory, but she goes on to forgive him. In the film’s epilogue, it says that they got married and had nine kids.

Our team name was his idea, obviously, but I was on board the moment he proposed it. We lost the doubles game of pool against Taylor and his then-girlfriend that we choose it for; we were too busy quoting the movie at each other to mind.

Memory lane brings on euphoria. The aftermath slams into me before I have time to wave it away and just live in the moment.

“I love you.” I struggle to speak past the frog in my throat.

His playful expression falls. Worry etches his handsome features. “What do you really want to say?”

I take a deep breath. “We have a great thing going. The thought of it ending again –” I shake my head. “I want you to fight today -- kick and scream, windmill -- you can even bite someone if you have to. Do whatever it takes to come home to us, 'kay?”

“I’ve already got my nunchucks in my back pocket. As soon as I defeated the demon, I’m running to your door. You’re never getting rid of me, Pop. You’re my Wendy.”

I breathe a laugh. “If you pretend to drown to get me to perform CPR and inadvertently kiss you, we’re over.”

His lips quirk into a smirk. “You’re not a strong enough swimmer for that to work. I’d end up having to save you for real. I’ll stick to kissing you the old-fashioned way.”

“It should go without saying that we’re not having eight more kids.”

“It’s only four two-for-one specials. It’s very doable.” He jokes.

“Your line in the sand is a suit and tie in your own home, mine is birthing nine babies. I know you love baseball, but a whole team is not coming out of me.”

“I’ll settle for attending a Mariners game as a family every year.”

“I accept that compromise.”

“…and putting Harper in little league baseball.” He quickly adds.

“We’ll have to discuss that one.”

“She’d be great at it. She has my hand-eye coordination. What is there to discuss?”

“If she wants to play it.”

“She’d never say ‘no’ to playing. She loves to do it. She says it all the time.”

“We’re still asking and she has to start with tee-ball and work her way up.”

“Even better. She’ll be eligible to play when she turns three. It gives me less time to sort out our ‘Harper’s Dad’ and ‘Harper’s Mom’ shirts, but I should be able to make it work. You have yourself a deal.”

I can picture it vividly and it’s got me smiling uncontrollably. “Would you like to watch our future MVP sleep?”

“With you? Always.”

I turn on the bedside table lamp once I’ve returned to the bedroom. Harper’s still sound asleep and holding Rue in her arms. I switch camera views and allow him to see what we made with love.

We whisper our goodbyes after several minutes have passed. Soothed by the best-case scenario we conjured, I’m able to fall back to sleep as soon as my head hits the pillow.

~~

Harper and sleep until after eight. It’s the latest she has slept since she started sleeping through the night. I check her temperature with the back of my hand to make sure she’s not coming down with something. She feels normal, but I’m still apprehensive.

The ten minutes she spends talking about the lights we saw last night and how nice Santa was is what convinces me that she’s in good health. Sick Harper’s not a talker. Asking follow-up questions about each aspect kept her from asking about Rhys, but there was only so much of that I could do.

“Where Daddy?” Harper asks as I setup our fort.

“He’s going to be in the work potty all day long. It’s just going to be you and me today, Lovebug.”

“We go gets him. We pway to-eter.”

“He has to take care of business. We can watch him talk while we eat breakfast. After that, you and I are going to do lots of fun things. You’ll get to tell Daddy all about them when he returns to us. ”

The satellite radio interview they did this morning was filmed. Josie emailed me the link.

Harper’s face alights with joy. “Ooh, o-tay!”

We settle beneath the tent of spare sheets with our breakfasts. The hotel provided us with breakfast-in-bed tray tables that make it possible for her to handle eating on her own.

“That’s Daddy, Mama!” Harper exclaims when Rhys appears on my laptop screen.

“Yes, baby, that’s him.” Her enthusiasm makes me smile.


Harper says ‘hello’ to all of the guys when they introduce themselves, despite their inability to hear her and me sharing that information with her.

Harp’s as headstrong as she is quirky.

“There is a dramatic tonal shift from your previous album to your current one. The first single from it, 'Where to Now?' is a three-minute existential crisis set to music, whereas 'Bandits', the song that put you on the map, is as upbeat as it is self-assured. What happened between Horizon and Midnight Daydreams?” The host asks.

“Life.” Rhys pushes up his sleeves. “We were sixteen when wrote 'Bandits'. Tay and I will be twenty-two in March. Things have gotten very real in the last six years. The rose-colored haze has evaporated. Writing Midnight Daydreams was a means of grappling with the loss of naivety while simultaneously embracing the new lives evolving before our eyes. 'Where to Now?' best represents the darkness and light balancing act that’s at the core of the project.”

“Will future projects have the same feel?” The host inquires.

“It’s impossible to foresee the future, but the lyrics Rhys has been writing lately has been much lighter on our collective soul. The goal when it comes to our sound is to keep pushing forward without forgetting our roots. Long story short: we’ll see.” Taylor contributes.

I’ve caught Rhys writing in his composition book when he thinks I have fallen asleep. He does it by phone screen glow or Harper’s nightlight. I keep my eyes closed to give him privacy; I’ve never asked to see his works in progress. I respect his process. It’s something you have to do when you love an artist. That’s not to say I’m not curious. I’ve been tempted to sneak a peek many times.

“When can we expect your next album?” The other host segues.

“We’re going on hiatus after festival season wraps. We’ll be working on things here and there during our time off, but years on the road have taken its toll. It’s time to head home.” Rhys nonchalantly replies.

My mouth falls open.

The hosts have similar reactions.

“Is the hiatus related to the break you took in October?” Host #1 follows up once he has recovered.

“Downtime was always a part of the plan. I miss my bed.” Kyle laments between sips of coffee.

“My dog has bonded with my dad. I need time to win back her affection.” Ian tacks on.

“I think Sasha’s part cat. You’ve sunk way too much time into getting her to like you for her to be 100% dog.” Taylor teases him with a grin.

“She’s his cat-dog and he misses her. Leave them be.” Rhys jests.

I whip out my phone, wishing I could fire a text to Rhys, but settle for Josie.

Me: Was the hiatus announcement planned?

Josie: Not for today. We were aiming for after the tour ended to boost festival ticket sales. He went off-script. Trina’s pissed.

Me: Is he?

Josie: No. He’s acting normal. He’s much calmer than I thought he would be today.

Me: Is Zara around?

Josie: The Wicked Bitch of the West? No, but she’s on her broomstick. George has me tracking her social media activity.

Me: Do you dislike her on my behalf?

Josie: I’ve had problems with her for years. She doesn’t keep up with her lovable girl-next-door shtick around “the help.”

Me: You matter. The show couldn’t go on without you.

Josie: The fellas are sure to say something to that effect every day. I’m going to miss them.

Me: I’m sorry for tugging them away

Josie: They always planned to return home full-time after completing the festival circuit.

Me: Rhys said they’d be done in April after Coachella. Is that still the case?

Josie: No, the hiatus news has upped their demand. The label pushed it hard for summer concerts and he had no choice to sign-on. They’ve just been added to the Bonnaroo line-up.

Me: I really need to talk to him.

Josie: He’s in a record store signing autographs.

Me: Bathroom break? Security puts earpieces on them to warn them of threats. I know Tyrone would assist you with it. Please.

Josie: I’ll get him. Just a sec

Me: Thank you!

Josie: You and the cutie are the reason they’re coming back. Rhys was crumbling. I could tell Taylor was about to pull the plug. I owe you this.

“Lovebug, I have to go potty. Come get me if you need anything.” I rub her back.

“O-tay.” She doesn’t remove her eyes from her daddy.

I kiss her cheek and crawl out of the fort.

I close the bathroom door and pace the length of the room, anxiously awaiting his call. I flinch when the call finally comes through, and fumble to answer.

“Baby, I am so sorry. I—”

“You ran your mouth. You stated what you’re doing and they had to listen. I’m proud of you, not mad.” I say in one breath.

“I have to perform until the fall. I said I’d be done in the spring.” He remains apologetic.

“Bonnaroo is a huge deal. You’ve dreamed of playing there, the same goes for Coachella. I want you to agree to any other festivals that sound fun. We’re going. You better suck it up and be as excited about it as I am.”

“They go as late as October. You’ll be in school and—”

“A personal three-day weekend here or there is something all college kids do, especially to go to epic concerts. Your mom said she’s available to watch Harper whenever we need a babysitter. Nothing is holding you back.”

There’s a prolonged pause. “Are you trying to take one for the team?”

“I’m trying to self-serve. I’ve always wanted to go to music festivals, but I couldn’t afford to, even before I had Harper.”

“Promise you’re telling the truth?”

“I pinky promise that I want VIP passes to some of the world’s best music festivals to watch my best friends perform.”

He laughs. "What my girl wants, she gets.”

“You’ll play?”

“I’ll play.”

“And you’ll be happy about it?”

“I’ll be ecstatic.”

“Good boy. Are there any other bombs you’ve dropped today?”

“The cat’s out the bag about our upcoming move to the moon.”

“That’s it? That’s nothing.” My smile begins to hurt my cheeks.

“That’s what I thought, but there were a ton of follow up questions.”

“I bet. I’ve hogged you long enough. Get back to work, Wilde. People are playing hooky to meet you.”

“They can wait. I need to say good morning to Harper.”

“Make it quick. The guys will tease you mercilessly for leaving a meet & greet to take a dump, even if you set the record straight.”

“They’re the worst.”

“And the best and we love them.” I re-enter the bedroom to put Harper on the phone.

She’s exactly where I left her, watching the interview with a happy smile on her face.

“Lovebug, Daddy’s on the phone for you.” I sit beside her.

“Nu-uh, he in there.” She points to the screen.

I pause the video by tapping the spacebar and put my phone in speaker-mode.

“Rhys, Harper doesn’t think you’re on the phone.”

“I’m here, baby girl. How are you?”

“DADDY!” She crawls into my lap. “Done potty? Pway time.”

“Not yet. You and Mama will have to play extra hard for me. Can you do that?”

“Yes.”

“I also need you to help me with something. Will you give Mama extra hugs and kisses for being amazing?”

“Yes. I help.”

“Pop, I need you to do the same thing to Harp. Really smother each other with affection until I can join in again.”

“You got it.” I squeeze Harper’s middle with the arm I have around her waist and kiss her cheek.

“I love you both.”

“I wove you, Daddy.”

“I love you, too, Squints.” I say to him.

“You’re killing me, Smalls.” The smile he’s sporting can be heard.

“Context, please. We have to use that sacred line appropriately.”

“You are making it very difficult to get off the phone and go back to work. I can tell Trina would hit me if she could get away with it without leaving a mark. You’re going to get me killed, Smalls.”

“Hit no nice!” Harper scolds.

“It’s not nice, Lovebug. It’s not and—”

I hear a pounding of a door on his end. “I know you’re not actually going to the bathroom. Get off the phone and get back out there. The line has stalled. They’re demanding you!” Trina hisses.

“I could be on the toilet. I had a burrito for breakfast.” He retorts without a hint of shame.

“You better be joking,” I reply to him.

“I’ve got some social etiquette. It’s only acceptable to text. Everyone does it and anyone who says they don’t is a filthy liar.”

“RHYS! Don’t make me get the manager’s keys!” His publicist booms.

He lets out an exaggerated groan. “I’ve gotta go. Bye.”

“Bye-bye.” Harper says sweetly.

“Bye, babe.” I hang up before he can think of something else to say.

“Daddy no baby.”

“Daddy and I have a different kind of relationship. I love him as your daddy and my friend, but I also love him as a life buddy.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s, um, it’s someone who makes you really happy. They make you so happy that you want to give special kisses and hugs to them. You want them to be yours and no one else’s and you work extra hard to make sure it stays that way for a long, long time.”

“Nunckle Aylor mine.”

My eyes widen in panic. “He can’t be, Lovebug. He’s your uncle and way too old for you.”

“Mine.” She stubbornly insists.

“Rue would be a much better choice. You’re not related and you love each other.”

“O-tay! Rue nice.” Her jolly smile allows me to breathe a sigh of relief.

Defusing a crush on her uncle would be an embarrassing uphill battle.

“Do you want to watch the Grinch?”

She needs less Taylor time.

“Yes, pweeze.”

Harper remains in my lap as we eat and watch the original cartoon.

We’re back on schedule after a quick detour.

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