Sum of Us

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Ch. 33: Poppy

“Good morning.”

I finish chewing the cereal in my mouth before answering. “Good morning. You’re awake early.”

“I have a lot to do to prepare for tonight.” Taylor replies as he opens the refrigerator.

Rhys and Taylor are hosting a party. Friends from high school are the attendees. They always make a point to spend time with them whenever they are in town as to not come off as pricks that ditched the friends they’ve had since kindergarten as soon as they got famous.

Today’s date was agreed upon before Harper and I came into the picture. They’ve been so busy that they forgot the event was taking place at all. Gigi texting Taylor for their address yesterday is what reminded them.

They tried to call the whole thing off for my sake, but I stopped them. I want to see everyone I lost touch with after graduation. Doing something age-appropriate appeals to me too. So, the party’s on. Harper’s having a slumber party with Courtney at Lindsey’s house. Both girls are ecstatic and Linds is looking forward to it as well.

She asked if Harper could come over early so that they have time to do more activities. How could we say no to that? I can completely relax and have fun tonight knowing Harper will be doing the same with people who genuinely want her with them.

“Toss a task or two my way. I’d be happy to help.” I offer.

“I can’t ask that of you.”

“Yes, you can. I’m not a guest. I’m a housemate. I should be helping out with any big gatherings that take place under our roof.”

“I can’t. Rhys would throw a hissy fit.” Taylor further ruffles his sleep tousled hair with his hand.

“I’ll tell him. He knows better than to tell me what to do.”

“Okay, if it’s that important to you.”

“It is. What needs to be done?”

“The grocery and liquor stores need to be visited. We need to put away everything we don’t want touched or broken. Movies and music have to be chosen. Games have to be setup.”

“I can go to the grocery store. Harper loves going to grocery shopping. We haven’t had a reason to go in a while. You and Rhys can go to the liquor store. We’ll meet back here and take care of the other stuff during Harp’s naptime.”

“Great plan. I’ll make you a list.”

“Awesome.” I smile as I bring a spoonful of cereal to my mouth.

“I see where Harp gets her love of helping.” Tay returns to his fun for food.

“It’s fun.” I shrug.

“No one else thinks so. That’s why they’re called chores.”

“You’re missing out. More senses of accomplishments for us.”

Taylor texts a list of things for me to get at the store as we eat breakfast. I head upstairs to Harper’s room once we’ve finished sorting everything out.

I snort and have to cover my mouth to keep a full-blown laugh from escaping.

Rhys’s hunched in one of Harp’s pint-sized table chairs. She’s brushing his hair. Half of it is already in a ponytail; the palm tree on the top of his head is supported by a sparkly pink scrunchie. Bow clips of all colors and sizes litter the rest of his hair. He’s reading her a story, relaxed and natural, as though she’s not making a mess of his most iconic feature.

“What’s going on here?” I clear my throat to suppress the laughter that’s still bubbling in my throat.

Both of them look up at me and smile.

“Hi, Mama! It my turn.” Harper boasts with a bright smile.

“Your turn for what, Lovebug?” I kneel down beside her.

“Do air.”

“I practiced her Christmas day hairstyle before I did her do for the day. I wanted to make sure it’ll be just right for her debut photos. I promised I’d let her do my hair if she sat still long enough for me to master it. She did. Now, it’s her turn.” Rhys explains.

“I makes it pwetty wike mine.” Harp confirms his account of events.

“You are doing a stand-up job. He looks beautiful.”

“Tank you.”

I give her a kiss. She does the same to me and adds a hug.

Harper gets back to brushing as I move to sit in front of Rhys. He receives his good morning kiss before I pull my phone out of my pocket.

“No.” He argues as soon as I angle its camera at him.

“Her work of art needs to be remembered forever.”

“Fine. Just don’t send it to Becca, Lindsey, or Leo.”

“Babe, you know I have to.”

He narrows his eyes at me.

“Mom will pass it around if I didn’t. Wouldn’t you rather have it distributed by the source?”

“Not really, no.”

“We tease because we love you.”

“You’re killing me, Smalls.”

“Squints would do this for Wendy. Now, smile.”

He complies. It’s not sincere, but no one will be looking at his face anyhow.

I put the best picture in the family group chat and set it as my home screen background. My lock screen remains our family photo.

“The betrayal.” He tsks.

“This is what best friends do. They razz each other.”

“Mark my words. I will get you back.”

“I’m counting on it.” I walk to him on my knees and give him a kiss.

Our phones ping mere moments later.

Leo: 😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂 YEAR MADE!

Becca: Awwwwwww! My baby takes after me!

Squints: She’s my apprentice. Get your own!

Becca: MOOOOOOOOOMMM! Rhys won’t share!

Mom: Rhys, share with us.

Squints: I made her. She’s mine.

Mom: I made you. She’s mine too.

Squints: Look at what you did, Penelope! You’ve gotten our daughter kidnapped!

Me: Is it kidnapping if she goes willingly?

Taylor: Nope. It’s running away.

Lindsey: Ugh, adorable! We’re going to have so much fun tonight!

Becca: What’s tonight?

Lindsey: girls night at my place.

Becca: Count me in!

Lindsey: Bring the getaway car?

Becca: Already packing my go-bag

Squints: That’s it. I’m building a tower and locking her up for safekeeping!

Chris: A+ parenting. She loves Unzel.

Squints: Thank you, Dr. Wilde. Your expert opinion means more.

Me: Don’t encourage him. He’ll do it.

Taylor: We are. We’ve got a construction company on deck for times like these. It’s happening.

Me: Your Property Bothering is getting out of control. It’s intervention time.

Becca: Not yet! They haven’t redone my kitchen.

Squints: Project’s scrapped if you steal my kid

Becca: Le sigh. Mission canceled, Linds

Lindsey: Next time. Next time.

Becca: I’m still coming over. I’ve been dying to brush Harper’s hair for weeks.

Taylor: She just got a haircut.

Becca: WHAT?!

Me: Trim. Her bangs and split-ends.

Becca: STILL! I am her personal hairstylist! Rhys, you know better!

Squints: …forgot

Becca: You did not, traitor!

Squints: You held me down too tight when you did my hair and makeup as a kid. I suffer from memory loss. Right, Poppy?

Me: I have to read him our life story every day like Noah in The Notebook

Becca: Don’t use my favorite movie against me!

Taylor: That movie is super problematic. It’s up there with Twilight

Becca: TAKE IT BACK!

Taylor: Allie and Noah’s relationship was toxic. They fought the entire movie. He was emotionally abusive and couldn’t take no for an answer. If Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams weren’t pretty, you wouldn’t give a shit

Becca: MOOOOOOMMMM!

Mom: Taylor, stop poking holes in your sister’s hopes and dreams.

Squints: Mine too!

Taylor: Santa’s a creep! ACCEPT IT AND MOVE ON!

Chris: He’s not wrong…

Leo: Wait...what’s wrong with Santa?

A dopey smile is on my face grows to the point of being painful as our text chain continues.

I’m the only significant other that is in the chat. The other members are Rhys’s siblings and Claudia. She added me on Thanksgiving after I was officially introduced as her adopted daughter. There wasn’t a single rebuttal. This is my family, and I love them as much as they love me.

“Harp, we’re going to the grocery store.” I’m checking the supply levels in her diaper bag.

“Oshie tor?!” She stops pouring Rhys an imaginary cup of tea.

“There’s no need for that. We usually get them delivered.” He tells me.

“Oshie tor. Oshie tor. Olors and ount. Oshie tor!” Harper jumps and twirls as she sings her new song.

“She has a blast grocery shopping. I made a game of it. You’re going to buy grown-up beverages with Taylor at the store where you buy those while we’re gone. He’ll need assistance carrying them to the car.” I replace the words “liquor store” and “help.”

Saying “liquor” would result in her asking what liquor is, what it does, and can she have some. If I used “help”, she’d beg to go to the liquor store to help them. And Rhys would contemplate letting her do it for the opportunity to spend more time with her.

I know the two of them very well.

“Photos and videos, please.” His pinky is to the sky as he sips air tea.

“Reasonable request granted.”

Snacks and juice are all that need to be added to her bag. Rhys had gotten Harper dressed and done her hair before I entered the room. She has “bear hair” today (two buns on the top of her head). Each one has a gray bow. The reason for the switch from “pup hair” to “bear hair” is her outfit—brown French terry overalls with an embroidered bear face and 3D ears on the front pocket. The heather gray long-sleeved t-shirt underneath has animal faces drawn all over it. Silver tennis shoes are her source of “signy”.

Once we’re all set, Rhys put her in the car – my car. He bought a new SUV for himself but kept his Range Rover. I held up my end of the bargain and let him buy me a car too. It’s a brand-new mint green Nissan Leaf Plus. High-tech safety features, electric and eco-friendly, spacious and stylish – as much as it pains me to admit it, I love my car more than the older, less expensive one I tried to talk Rhys into getting.

This is an instance in which I’m glad he’s stubborn. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have gotten my dream car as an early Christmas gift. Rhys comes to the driver’s side window after he has Harper situated and given a thorough goodbye.

“Drive safely.” He leans in through the open window.

“Seatbelt on and hands at ten and two.” I pluck the crossbody strap of my seat belt.

He cracks a smile. “I love you.”

“Love you, too.” I kiss him.

“See you later.”

“Bye.”

He takes a step backward so that I can drive out of the garage without running over his toes. I roll up the window and turn on Harper’s daily Rhys-curated playlist before putting the car in reverse. Harp and I sing along to holiday classics all the way to the store.

Harper’s placed in the children’s seat in the shopping cart after I’ve cleaned it thoroughly with an antibacterial wipe. Our coats are removed, she’s given her sippy cup and a baggie of Cheerios, and Rue’s cozied up beside her. And then we get to shopping.

First stop: produce department.

“What’s this?” I hold up a piece of fruit I intend to buy.

“Lime.”

“That’s right. What color is it?”

“Gween.”

“Right again. Let’s count them.”

She counts aloud the number of limes I put into a reusable bag. We do the same with lemons, oranges, and pineapple. Harper nails all of it.

“You’re winning to grocery game so far, Lovebug,” We are cruising the chip aisle.

“Is fun. I wike it whole ot.”

“We’ll have to play more often.”

“Yay!” She claps.

The sudden gesture sends her sippy cup and Cheerios to the floor.

“Uh-oh. I sowy, Mama. I sowy.” She stops when she sees the mess she has made.

“It’s okay, sweetie. Accidents happen.”

“I help.”

“Rue needs you to stay with him. He’s scared.”

“No scawy, Rue. Oshie tor fun.” She hugs and pets him.

I crouch down to collect the pieces of cereal that have scattered in the aisle.

“I believe this is yours, miss.”

The knife that has been in my heart for the last three years is thrust deeper and twisted the instant I recognize his voice.

He jumps at the chance to help a stranger, but he turned his back on his daughter without a backward glance.

I slowly rise to my feet. The time I spend turning is used to brace myself to the see the man I haven’t seen in a lifetime.

My father has aged a decade. Gray is peppering his jet-black hair; crow’s feet crinkle the corners of his dark brown eyes. Deep wrinkles mar his forehead. And at the moment, he looks like he’s just seen a ghost.

I likely look as though I have as well.

“I could’ve done it by myself. I have been for years.” I snatch Harper’s cup from him.

The color remaining in his face drains when he catches sight of Harper.

“Rhys.” He mutters softly, most likely without his knowledge.

“Weese daddy.” She innocently answers his non-question. “I Haw--”

“Don’t tell him your name, Lovebug. He’s a stranger. It’s not safe to talk to them.”

“I’m not a – I’m your—”

Traitorous tears well in my eyes. “Nothing.” I spit. “Leave us alone or I’m calling the cops and telling them a delusional man is stalking my child and me. You’ll get to be in the back of a police car for once.”

“Poppy,--”

“It’s Penelope to you.” Stamping out of the aisle as quickly as possible, I leave him in the dust.

“Mama, sad?” Harper innocently inquires.

“Mama’s mad.” My hands are trembling, my heart’s pounding, and my mind’s racing.

“I sowy. I sowy. I no means it.”

I turn into the nearest aisle. “You did nothing wrong, Lovebug. He did. You can drop a million things on the floor and tell your name to the whole world. I will still love you more than anything.” My hands are cupping her cheeks to make sure she looks at me.

“I wove you ots and ots all time.” She treats me to her sweet smile.

Holding her flush to my chest tends to my wounds. I shower her in kisses and tickles. They make her giggle. The juice from her tainted sippy cup is poured into a clean one from her diaper bag. I supply her with it and the back-up baggie of Cheerios I packed.

Moms come prepared.

She sips and munches away as we continue our shopping trip.

I use her to drown out the noise in my head by continuing our game, recording videos and taking pictures for Rhys, and prompting her to go on tangents about her favorite things. With her help, I’m able to purchase everything we need.

Harper’s loaded into her car seat and provided with her tablet to keep her busy as I transfer the groceries into the trunk. Once they’re inside, I push the shopping cart to the return receptacle next to the car.

It’s not the best place to park a new car, but I don’t like being more than a few steps away from her in public.

“Do you live here?”

The sudden sound of Satan’s voice jumpstarts my heart.

“What’s it to you?” I snarl.

“I want – I – how are you?”

“How am I?” I laugh humorlessly. “I’m doing simply swell, Randall. I found my calling when I became a stupid whore.” I throw his sentiments to me back at him.

He flinches as though I’ve physically struck him. “Have you been here this whole time?”

“No.”

His gaze shifts to my car. “You kept it – her.”

“Her?” I point to my car with my thumb. “No, I kidnapped that little girl. Babies in overalls are my weakness.” Sarcaram is one of my go-to defense mechanisms.

He has the audacity to look at me with frustration. “She has your mother’s nose and lips.”

I bite the inside of my cheek to keep from crying. “They’re mine.”

“You got them from her too.”

I divert my eyes to check on Harper and subtly push away a tear. “Yeah, well, I guess I forgot. You kept all her pictures.”

That’s not entirely the truth. I took a picture of a photograph of her holding me as a baby before I left for school. He didn’t trust me to take care of a hardcopy.

In the picture, she was too busy smiling down at the yellow bundle in her arms to pose for the camera. Her face’s in profile. What I know without a doubt is she’s wearing the necklace she left me -- the silver circle locket I wear every day.

“You still wear her necklace.” His eyes fall to it.

“Do you want it back? Is that why you’re here? You can’t have it. It’s mine! She left it for me!” That’s what makes me lose it. Tears stream down my cheeks as I raise my voice.

I can imagine she would’ve continued to love me as much as she did in that picture after she found out I was pregnant. She’s not here to refute it.

“No, I – I’m glad you still – you can have the pictures. Come by the house. You can have whatever you want. I have all of it -- your awards, clothes, books. It’s yours.”

I wedge my fingers beneath my glasses. “Why?”

“After my parents died last year, I realized how important it is to cherish family.”

A crippling pang of sadness strikes me. “How did they pass?”

“Car accident. A semi-truck slid on a patch of black ice and collided with them head-on.”

“Was it instantaneous?”

“Yes. Neither suffered.”

I gulp the lump in my throat. “Good.”

“They left you their ranch in their will. With how much you loved it, you’re the person they thought would care for it best. I’m making do with farmhands.” He fidgets with his hands.

“No, they didn’t.” I dispute based on his body language.

“They didn’t know about the baby.” His admission is barely audible.

A flame is ignited. “Where did they think I was for two years?”

“School. They thought you were too consumed with your studies to visit Montana or come home. They were very proud of you.” He lifts his eyes from the ground.

“Not me, a lie. Keep the house. I don’t want it.” I start in the direction of the car.

“It would’ve been the truth if Rhys didn’t ruin your life! You should’ve listened to me!”

I whip around. “Oh, go to hell! We’re happy. Live with it!”

After slamming my door closed with more force than necessary, I throw my head back on the headrest and take deep, heaving breaths.

“O-tay, Mama?” Harper looks up from her tablet.

“I’m ready to head home. How about you?”

“Uh-huh. Sow Daddy yummy food!”

“You did such a good job picking it out. He and Uncle Taylor are going to gobble it all up.” I click on my seatbelt.

This makes her crack up. Her laugh brings a much-needed smile to my face.

She’s using her headphones to listen to the movie on her tablet, so I have control of the sound system for once. I use it to play Rhys’s first album. His voice, words, and optimism ice my bruised soul.

All of the cars are in the garage when we get home. Harper’s asleep in her car seat. I carry her to her room before dealing with the groceries. First laying her down in the crib, I strip off her coat and shoes and remove her bows.

“I love you, Lovebug, with all my heart.” I tuck her in and kissing her cheek.

The boys are in the kitchen -- eating as always.

“When you’re done, can you help me bring in the groceries?” I request.

“Sure, babe.” Rhys’s smile falls when he catches sight of my puffy red eyes.

He abandons last night’s leftovers and has me in a constricting hug in a matter of seconds.

Taylor exits the room without comment.

“What happened?” Rhys rubs my back. The pressured strokes loosen the knots in my stomach.

“I saw him.”

“First Leo, now you. Does he live at the grocery store now? Jesus. Did he talk to you?”

I nod.

He curses beneath his breath and guides us to the nearest chair. Rhys sits, I’m positioned on his lap and am still in his arms. My face is buried in the crook of his neck; my hand is resting on his shoulder.

“What did he say to you?” Rhys kisses the top of my head.

“One look at Harper and he knew she was yours. Your name was the first thing out his mouth when he saw her.”

“Who else would she belong to?”

“I didn’t mention you when I tried to explain my plan. He probably assumed I don’t know who her father is.”

His body tenses. I massage his shoulder. “It’s my fault you weren’t there. Don’t beat yourself up.”

“What happened next?” He perseveres.

“Harper said, ‘Weese Daddy’ and tried to tell him her name. I cut her off, told her he’s a stranger and said it’s not safe to speak to him.”

“Good.”

“He tried to argue that he wasn’t a stranger, that he’s related to us.”

“Please say you shut that bullshit down.”

“I did. He called me Poppy. I corrected that too.”

“Did he say anything else to Harper?”

“No. I threatened to call the police before walking away.”

“Did he leave you alone?”

“No, he met up with me in the parking lot. Harper was watching a movie in the car.”

“Did you call the cops?”

“No, I didn’t want to scare Harp, and I was curious as to why he would risk getting arrested.”

“Did you get your answer?”

“His parents died suddenly. He thinks I’d fill the void.”

“Are you kidding me? How much more selfish can he get?” Silent anger is rolling off of him in waves.

“He lied to them -- told them I was too busy overachieving in school to visit them. They believed him. I’m sure he lied to everyone else in his life. He was that ashamed of me.” My voice cracks.

He pulls me tighter. “He’s the one that should be ashamed. Only a monster could do what he did.”

“He brought up my mom. He said Harper looks like her.”

“Does she?”

“Probably. I was always told I look like her growing up. According to him, we have her nose and lips.”

“She has your eye shape, too.”

“Those are from his mom. He knew the comparison to my mom would mean more.” I sniffle.

“I’m so sorry, baby.”

“He is who he is. I should’ve listened to you.”

“No one wants to believe their parent is the devil. You live and learn.”

I smile against his skin, tears still running down my cheeks, and soaking his shirt.

“We’ll cancel the party. Harper will stay home. We’ll have a family cuddle session and watch movies.”

“No, no.” I push up from my hiding place. “He’s not taking this from me. I get to be a normal twenty-one-year-old. I’m going to hang out with friends, play drinking games, and do whatever else happens at the college parties I missed.”

“Are you sure?” He clears my face with a pensive expression.

I swallow hard and nod. “I need this.”

“You can change your mind at any time, even when we’re there. Tug my arm twice and we’ll go. People will think we’re sneaking off to hookup. It’s a common occurrence at house parties. We’ve done it a time or two.”

The blotchiness of my skin masks the blush rising in my cheeks. “I recall.”

“Jacob Manning’s coat closet, Kyle’s basement bathroom, Heather Jenkins’ shed, Alice Copeland’s –”

“Yeah, I know. I was there.”

“Good times.”

“It’s a miracle I didn’t get pregnant sooner. We went at it like rabbits.”

“We were practicing. Harper wouldn’t be who she is if we didn’t achieve perfection in that greenhouse.”

I swat his shoulder. He responds by pressing a quick kiss to my lips.

“You better tell me if you need to tap out tonight.” He switches to a serious tone.

“I will.”

“There’s no shame in it. There’s only so much a person can take.”

“I’m not alone. People can handle more.”

His expression softens. “I’m glad you told me.”

“I’m not a hypocrite. I can’t pester you to share your feelings if I withhold mine, and I really like pestering you.”

“I like that you like pestering me.” He captures my lips with his a second time.

“Is it safe to come in now? There’s food that needs to go in the fridge.” Taylor yells from outside the kitchen.

“Yes.” I vacate Rhys’s lap as I reply.

He pulls me back to it and wraps his arms around my waist.

“We need to help him.” I turn over my shoulder.

“You’re too nice.”

“You like that I’m nice.”

“Wrong. It’s one of the things I love most about you.” He can’t resist another kiss.

“Stop humping her leg for five seconds and help.”

Rhys holds up his middle finger in response to Taylor’s barb. I use it as an opportunity to escape. He doesn’t let me get too far. One moment I’m on the ground, the next, I’m over his shoulders in a fireman’s carry.

“I can walk.”

“And I can carry you.” He walks us to the garage.

“I’d be wasting my breath if I tried talking you out of this, wouldn’t I?”

“Yep.”

“You’re ridiculous.”

“Yep.”

Smiling is the last thing I should feel like doing, but I can’t help it when I’m with him.

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