Sum of Us

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Ch.35: Poppy

A novelty -- that’s what I am tonight. I’m not knocking it, not at all. Being responded to with fascination beats disappointed confusion by a long shot.

Rhys and I were inseparable in high school, so much so that we won the “Cutest Couple” senior superlative. Our victory earned us a special spot in our final yearbook. I was also class valedictorian at graduation; that was a title I’d strived to snag for twelve years. Admitting that I surrendered my relationship and educational status years ago to be a single mom was akin to stripping naked and standing there for all of them to see and scrutinize.

Instead of pointing and laughing or murmuring to each other about what shame my trajectory is, they’re asking questions I have no trouble answering. They just want to know what a Rhys-Poppy baby is like.

As open as I am to indulging their curiosity, Rhys doesn’t want me to spend the night answering the same questions over and over. He’s got his heart set on making sure I make up for lost parties. Screening a slideshow of Harper pictures on the TV and providing commentary, followed by a one-time Q & A session, was his idea. I let him run away with it.

Pre-screening what he keeps referring to as ‘Ode to Domestic Joy’ would probably be in my best interest, but I’ve had a few. It’d take a lot to embarrass me right now. Besides, Rhys’s shamelessness is what drew me to him in the first place.

--

Dinner is devoured before Rhys’s performance. Two slices of New York-style cheese pizza and four garlic knots – Vinny’s Pizza is my culinary weakness. I can and will always eat three days-worth of calories whenever I’m around it. The mountain of carbs serve a purpose this time. Drinking on an empty stomach is an amateur move. I am one, but I’m not going to act like it.

We talk as we eat. Rhys’s placed a ban on baby talk. It’s primarily targeted toward me. I’m more than a mom. He doesn’t want the happenings of her life to be the ones I recount when asked about mine.

So, I talk around the Harper of it all: I worked while I was in Boston. I’m on tour with the band right now but will be resuming school in the fall. I’ve yet to decide where I’ll attend, but I’ve narrowed it down to my top five choices. Rhys and I are dating again. Things are going so well that we recently moved in together. He’s going to follow me to school, wherever that may be.

They can relate. All of them. They’re doing variations of the same things -- working hard to make our uncertain futures possible. And they tell me, chiming in when they have a similar story or experience.

A sense of belonging amongst my peers was one more thing I thought I lost when those tests came back positive. I mourned its loss that night when I cried myself to sleep. But here I am, mixing and mingling with people my own age without feeling ostracized.

And on top of all that goodness, conversations rooted in ordinary reality are a breath of fresh air after months in the realm of the rich and famous.

Seated on the largest sectional in the great room between Delilah and Taylor, I’m primed and ready for Rhys’s explanation presentation.

He has already cast his phone’s screen to the large flat-screen television mounted above the fireplace. He’s standing beside it, his hands behind his back as though he’s a teacher waiting for his class to settle into their seats.

It already has me snickering.

“You’re drunk,” Tay states, not asks.

“Am not. I carb-o-loaded before making my second OF.” I clink my glass to his.

“He’s up there in fake glasses and getting ready to say God knows what. You’re over here wearing his hat and laughing instead of trying to find out what it is.”

Rhys ran upstairs to get the glasses he wore when we took Harper to visit Santa as soon as I okayed his announcement idea. He’s a showman through and through.

“I want to see Ode to Domestic Joy in all its glory. He asked me to keep his hat warm. I’m multitasking. Drunk people aren’t good at that.” I lift my tumbler to my lips.

“Did he call it Ode to Domestic Joy, or did you?”

“The former.”

“Dear God,” Taylor mutters beneath his breath.

And I break out into another fit of giggles.

“Almost everyone, quiet. Pop, you can do whatever you want. Kevin, hit the lights.” Rhys requests as he pivots towards the screen.

The room falls silent, and the lights are flipped off. The TV screen and Tay’s phone screen illuminate the room.

He has to record this, of course.

“Welcome all. During this Tay Talk—”

“Don’t drag me into whatever it is you’re about to do.” Taylor interrupts.

“I’m allowed to name my Ted Talk knock-off whatever I want. Please refrain from hating, sir, or you will be asked to retire to your side of the house.” Rhys maintains the intellectual professional voice he’s been using since the start of the presentation.

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“Then kindly shut the hell up.”

Everyone laughs, myself most definitely included.

Taylor turns on his phone’s flashlight and angles it to ensure Rhys can see his middle finger.

“I shall not be intimidated by spookiness and will instead continue striving to aid others in their quest to higher learning.” Rhys adjusts his unnecessary glasses. “Turn off the high beams or I’m calling Mom and telling her you won’t let me show off her grandbaby.”

Tay does as he says. Rhys clicks to the first picture.

It’s of the two of us after one of his first shows. His arm is around me as we smile at the camera. He’s a little sweaty after just being on stage. I’m wearing my embarrassingly homemade Wilde Knights shirt. He was sixteen; I was fifteen, and puppy love is written all over our babyfaces.

“Penelope Elise James is my best friend, girlfriend, and the mother of my child. Baby Rhys met the love of his life when he was five and was too busy playing with Legos to care. Teenage Rhys was a dumbass who took her for granted. My present self knows just how special she is, how good he has it when he is with her, and is trying like hell not to mess it up again. Anyone who upsets her or tries to steal her away from me will be thrown out of this house like Jazz from the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Think I’m joking? Try me.”

His inability to resist inserting a 90s pop culture in the first minute of his Tay Talk makes a dopey smile form on my face.

He transitions to the next picture.

It was taken after our high school graduation ceremony. Rhys is on the ground, bowing down to me as I hold the bouquet of poppies he gave me in one hand and have my face shielded with the other.

Mama Wilde wanted a simple picture of the two of us in our cap and gowns. Instead of listening, Rhys got on his hands and knees and started worshiping me for being “the smartest in all the land.”

How do I know this?

He chanted it as he bowed.

“She wasn’t pregnant while we were in high school. I’m praising her brilliance in this historical photograph, not her womb. She had just finished sitting on the supreme smartypants throne. I had to pay proper respect.”

The next picture’s the one Taylor took of us the day before I left for college. We were in our go-to booth at Vinny’s. Kyle and Ian were there too. It was my farewell dinner.

I visited the bathroom several times to cry. They all knew, there’s no way they didn’t, but they didn’t call me out on it. It would’ve embarrassed me. They gave me the night I wanted -- a simple one with the people who knew me best. I snuck Rhys into the house through my bedroom window one last time. I was a sobbing mess after we made love; baby hormones weren’t entirely to blame.

Rhys refused to leave me in that state. It was the first and only time he spent the night. He held me the entire time, rubbing my back as he reminded me of all that was waiting for me on the other side of the country.

We had no clue what was in store for us; we had no idea what was growing within me or the conditions of his record deal, but we thought we did. The only things that turned out to be true were that it wasn’t goodbye for good -- it was a goodbye for now -- and we’d always love each other. Even when the reasons to hate Rhys surpassed the tallest skyscraper, I still loved him.

I withheld a piece of himself from him, and he’s still chomping at the bit to tell the whole world how much I mean to him. Our feelings never faded; they were buried for survival. We’ve been excavating since October.

“We didn’t try for a baby. We were eighteen. School and touring were our plans. Harper jumped in the mix before we were ready. Plenty of mistakes were made, splitting up was the main one, but not her. We wouldn’t trade our little girl for the world.” Rhys comments on the picture of our eighteen-year-old selves.

A chorus of “awes” fills the room when he taps to the next photo.

Harper’s a few hours old and swaddled in a white blanket with red and pink hearts all over it. She’s asleep in a plastic hospital bin. She was born with so much hair that it’s peeking out beneath her pink hat.

Chelsea took the picture. I was in the same state as Harper.

Nine months of pregnancy and thirteen hours of labor takes a lot out of a person.

“Harper Posy Wilde was born on Valentine’s Day. That’s the deal with all the hearts and why we call her ‘Lovebug’. She was the world’s cutest burrito. Anyone who says otherwise is dead to me.”

Delilah grabs my bicep and leans on me. “I don’t know her, but I’m in love with her. She’s so cute – so, so cute.” She whispers into my ear.

“Thank you. Knowing her, she loves you too.” I whisper back, patting her hand.

Rhys flips through more pictures of her. They’re his favorite ones. The one I put in the envelope I left for him is included. He gives context and recounts the stories I told him when I showed them to him for the first time.

I’m impressed with his memory. I shouldn’t be -- he tends to remember minute details about the things he loves, but I always get a little awestruck when he reveals just how much of me he notices.

“Harp’s a genius like her mama. Playtime has science lessons built-in. They’re one block tower away from solving the bee crisis.”

Harper and I are watering my plants in the picture.

I remember that particular lesson. Harper found out plants get their energy from the sun. Her first follow-up question was if people are the same way. She phrased it as ‘fwiends,’ but that’s Harper-speak for people. I told her it does in some ways because vitamin D makes people healthy; it has mood-boosting superpowers that make people (friends) happy. She asked to go to the park to see it for herself. Before I could answer, Rhys told her “yes” despite his busy schedule.

He rushed through his soundcheck to take her to the nearest playground with me. And that’s the story of how we spent two hours pushing each other on the swings at the park. Harper asked to push us. Terrified of kicking her in the face, we held her as she pushed Rue in a baby swing.

There was a minor audio issue that night, but it was quickly resolved. Rhys played it off well -- as he always does -- engaging the audience with a playful chat as the sound engineers scrambled to get the problem resolved. His management team wasn’t pleased, but it was mentioned by fans online as a concert highlight.

They love it when he gets personal with them. Josie told me Rhys looked his wranglers right in the eye the next day when they confronted him about it and said, “the people I love are happy. The people who pay you are happier. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

Talk about a turn-on.

“But Harper’s only Poppy’s smartypants assistant part-time. She’s my musical protégé 24/7. Sit back, relax, and witness her greatness.” Rhys presses play on a video of the two of them playing his keyboard.

She’s seated on his lap and her hands are splayed across the keys. They play together. Harper carries the brunt of the melody. Rhys contributes by pressing a single key.

The piece itself wasn’t particularly remarkable. Harper’s not giving Elton John or Mozart a run for their money just yet, but her ability to create and replicate musical patterns is something to stop and take note of. It’s not a skill many twenty-two-month-olds have. Rhys can foster her talent in ways I couldn’t have on my own.

“She’s not an official member of Wilde Knights yet, but that’ll be changing as soon as she’s able to write her name. Who she’ll be replacing isn’t locked in yet. Today, I’m leaning towards Taylor.” Rhys directs his gaze in his brother’s direction.

“You can name talks after me, but I’m the one that gets the boot first?” Taylor complains.

“You’re her godfather. As her backup dad, you’re supposed to want your darling-not-daughter to prosper. Do the sacred job Pop and I bestowed upon you with the courage we know you possess. Let our little girl be a star.”

“Yeah, Taylor.” Delilah teases as she reaches across me to poke his arm.

“You’re enabling him.”

“I am and I’m very good at it. Watch.” She replies. “Rhys, you’re doing great. Keep showing us your beautiful family!” She says as she settles back into her seat.

“Dee, you are a treasure.” Rhys rests his hand on his chest, pretending to get choked up. “Your words of kindness have given me the courage to overcome Tay’s bitterness and continue on with the presentation.”

“I’ll never know how we split from the same fertilized egg.” Taylor shakes his head.

“You’re two pieces – a head and a heart. You’re a match made in heaven.” I have another sip of my drink.

“There’s no way you’re not drunk.”

“I am not.”

“You haven’t tried to reign him in once.”

“He’s doing that good a job.”

“—and she likes to feed people. She’s going to take such good care of Pop and me when we’re old. I’m almost looking forward to it.” Rhys continues.

In the picture Rhys just commented on, he and Harper are wearing bibs. She’s feeding him one of her favorite snacks, ants on a log – it’s a celery stick with peanut butter in the middle and raisins on top of it. She had eaten hers first. Peanut butter is still around her lips. Rhys was left in the same state once she was done sharing her leftovers with him.

“His pink bib has ‘Meow’ on it.” Taylor pokes fun.

“And a cat. Harp wanted her cat and dog bibs to be friends. They were after sharing a meal together. Mission accomplished.” I use my glass to point to the screen.

“Be friends? How—”

“Shhhh. It doesn’t make sense. It’ll never make sense. That’s why we love them.” I loudly whisper.

“Speak for yourself.”

“Liar.”

“In conclusion, you were not excluded because we were ashamed. Poppy and I were too busy trying to work things out to let people in our business. My job’s a lot. She’s sacrificed way too much for me to have it, but we’ve got it as under control as we’re ever going to get it. My head’s been pulled from my ass. I’m not messing around with anything or anyone else anymore. I’m a full-fledged family guy, soon to be a stay-at-home dad. All I’m waiting for now is for Penelope to put a ring on it. She needs to make an honest man out of me.”

The picture of the three of us at Thanksgiving is on the screen – the one of us in front of the fireplace -- he’s kissing my cheek as Harper sits in his lap.

I’m laughing at the conclusion of his spiel.

That’s probably not the typical response when the person you’ve been involuntarily in love with since before you knew what that word meant lays out the life you’ve had and the one he wants with you, but that’s us.

Laughter is precisely what he hoped to get from me. His smile says it all.

“Is there anything you would like to add, babe?” Rhys asks me once all of our laughter has died down; the lights have been turned back on.

“I missed all of you. Thank you for welcoming the jerk who ghosted you for years with open arms.” I say.

“We’re happy to have you home, especially me.” Dee hugs me.

“I missed her more,” Rhys argues.

“You don’t know my life. You can’t prove I didn’t miss her most!” She sasses with her arms still around me.

Rhys rolls his eyes. “Any questions from the audience?” He opens up the floor.

Phoebe Hamilton, another one of Taylor’s exes, raises her hand.

“Yes, Phebs?” My ridiculous human being calls on her.

“What’s your deal with Za—”

“We don’t say that name in this house. Victim, Succubus, and Sociopath are the only ones allowed.” Tay hastily informs her.

“Victim, whatever. I need to know if I should hate you.” Phoebe continues without skipping a beat.

Taylor’s dating history is all the proof I need that we have similar taste in partners. He can say what he wants, but I know the truth. He’s drawn to the unabashedly dramatic but adoring ones. He doesn’t stay with them long. He’s more emotionally withholding than me, and for good reasons, but the fact remains the same. He has no room to talk.

“Touchy subject, but I’ll answer. I promised. Um, you should hate me. Hooking up with her shortly after Harper was born—”

“I pushed him away. The mess with her is on me too.” I step in, unwilling to let him take that hit.

“Why’d you do that? If it were me, I’d have nailed his balls to the wall if he so much as looked at another girl. You pushed out a person -- his person. He should’ve been yours, not hers.” She turns to me from her seat on the floor.

All the guys in the room wince.

“A baby was way more than we bargained for. I was angry about a lot of things, mostly at myself, and I wanted to deal with it that way. We were young and dumb and acted like it -- both doing things we shouldn’t have. We’ve grown up and we’re good now. We’re happy.”

Phoebe nods her approval. “I’m cool with it as long as you are. You did the heavy lifting. Congrats, by the way. You’ve been busy and have a lot of great things to show for it.”

“Thank you.” I smile at her.

“Phebs, who you should hate is Victim. She might stab me, because, you know – she’s all mad that she can’t mooch off my dude.” Kyle has a gulp of his drink. “But I’ll take it. I will because I’m Harp’s back-up back-up dad.”

Christopher is actually next in the line of succession, but there’s no point in raining on his parade, especially when he’s toeing the border of drunktown.

“Wait, does she know about Harper and Poppy?” Delilah sits up, her investment level suddenly spiking.

“They accidentally ran into each other, but it’s being handled. We’re coming clean before she can use us for herself. We’re good. I think. Hopefully.” Rhys is uncharacteristically rooted in reality at the end.

“Coming out of hiding isn’t the worst thing in the world. Rhys gets to get way too into her birthday party without having to look over his shoulder the whole day. We already have matching shirts.” I pick up his slacking optimism.

“What are you doing for her birthday?” Dee strikes up a side conversation with me as Rhys takes on career-related questions.

“Disneyland.”

“Is she obsessed with princesses? I know I was when I was little.”

“Not really, but she does love Rapunzel. Music and animals have her heart.”

“Ah, so, she’s a Lion King girl.”

“Rhys won’t let her watch that movie, actually.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s child abuse.”

“We listen to the soundtrack. Harp knows all the songs by heart. The problem is, they pretend to be lions lot – he’s the leader of the pack and she’s his rambunctious little cub. He said looking her in the eye and explaining why Mufasa doesn’t wake up after the stampede scene would scar both of them for life.”

“But it’s the circle of life. That’s the whole movie.”

“He’s very protective of their collective soul. Arguing will get you nowhere. I tried.”

“That’s good parenting right there.”

“He takes daddy duty as seriously as he can.”

“It’s precious. I want to pinch your cheeks, but I won’t. I’ll be good.” She pokes one of them instead.

There’s a last call for questions. When no one else takes advantage of the open forum, Rhys puts the baby-talk ban back in place for the rest of the night. There are complaints, mostly from Dee, but he stands his ground. He’s that determined to give me my night.

“How’d I do?” Rhys helps me off the couch.

“Well done, babe. Our girl would be as proud of you as I am.” I kiss his cheek.

“We should celebrate with shots. I need to catch up.”

“Anything but tequila.”

I learned on my 21st birthday that my body can’t process tequila. I did one shot of it with Chelsea at the bar she dragged me to. It was my first and only drink of the night. It resulted in me puking my guts out.

“Whiskey?” Rhys suggests.

“Yes. Two things first.”

I rearrange his hair and return his hat to his head.

“Nice and toasty.” Rhys hums.

“Just followed orders.” I remove his glasses and fold them on the neckline of my sweater.

His eyes drop to them.

“Hey,” I snap my fingers. “Eyes up here.” I point to my face.

“You should probably hand those back, then.” He holds out his hand.

I give him the glasses, “You have a problem.”

“Don’t talk about yourself like that. I like that you’re trying to kill me.” He presses a soft kiss to my lips.

“Shots, shall we?”

We walk to the kitchen, holding hands. We’re not the only ones with drink refill plans. The space around the counter is crowded, but space is made for us without us even needing to ask.

Rhys snags the bottle of I’ve been using Jamison for our Old-Fashioneds. “Glass or my body?”

“What?”

“How do you want your shot served?”

“I think I’ll spare everyone and go glass.” I giggle.

“Not everyone. What about me?”

“You included. You just got a tattoo. It would sting like crazy if alcohol spilled on it.”

Harper’s harp has been etched into his ribs. It took hours. I held his hand for all of them. It’s an absolutely stunning work of art, a fitting representation of our baby girl.

“A few more drinks and I won’t feel it.” He pours the first shot.

“Glass.”

“Next time.” He winks at me.

“Ridiculous.” I shake my head, a smirk playing on my lips.

He pours our shots. We countdown from three, tap the glasses to the table, and toss back the drinks.

Liquid fire trickles down my throat.

After swallowing hard to ensure it stays put in my stomach, I throw my hands into the air. “I did it!” I throw my hands in the air.

“Round two?” He smirks at me with amusement, utterly unfazed by the whiskey’s potency.

“Water. Water’s a better idea. Want some? I’ll get us some.” I wander off in pursuit of it.

Ian fills a solo cup with filtered water from a pitcher and hands it to me.

“Thank you, kind sir. May I have another?”

“Are you trying to stay extra hydrated?” He fetches another cup.

“Rhys will drink my water if I don’t get him water. I need all my water. Water washes away hangovers. Words to live by. Do it.”

“How many drinks have you had?” He chuckles.

I swallow a mouthful of water. “I don’t know how to count them. Wine shouldn’t mean as much as a shot. Giving them both a one seems wrong, right? One packs way more punch. It should get punch points.”

He checks his watch. “If you stay away from Tay and Kyle for forty-five minutes, I will love you forever.”

My face is scrunched as I try to figure out his reasoning. I drink while I think. “You bet on me.” I’ll admit that it takes me longer than it should have to sort it out.

Tipsy. I’ll own up to being tipsy.

“I’m not allowed to say.”

“You just did.”

“Do you need a refill?” He points to my cup.

“Are you trying to gaslight me? I think you’re trying to gaslight me. I don’t like being gaslit. Ask Rhys!”

“That sounds like a Rhys/Poppy thing. I probably won’t understand if I ask, so I’ll stay out of it. More water?”

Down to the last few sips, I take him up on his offer.

“Thank you. I’m still mad at you, but thank you.”

“Is Rhys in on it?”

“No.”

“You’re off the hook and I’m free to go.”

“Please don’t tell Rhys. I’ll get into trouble with all of them, especially him.” He hastily adds.

“Can I tell him you’re scared of him?”

“I mean, it’s the truth.”

“The power trip?” I grin.

“Is there such a thing as too committed?”

“Yes, and he’s crossed that line and fails to care. The Lion King thing alone…he knows. We know.”

“So…what are you going to do?”

“Love him.” I shrug. “We’ll get through this as a family.” I lean in, loudly whispering the not-secret.

Rhys and I go back to the great room. We dance as we wait for our turn to play beer pong, too hyper to sit still. Fear of making a fool of myself never crosses my mind.

Eventually, we’re called up to play the reigning champs – Taylor and Jamal.

I wouldn’t have signed up if I knew a Tay v. Rhys showdown was on the horizon.

“Will you get mad at me if we lose?” I tie my hair up in a ponytail.

“We’ll win.” He’s pulling his arm across his chest to stretch.

“But if we don’t?”

He turns me to face him and rests both hands on my shoulders.

“Penelope, my love, we are not walking away from this table until he weeps with defeat. No tears, we’re here. Got it?”

“Is there a rational alternative?”

“No.” Smiling manically, he kisses my forehead. “Stretch. Staying loose is how you sink shots.” He bends down to touch his toes.

When you can’t deter them, join them.

The sport of beer pong is played as followed:

Two teams of two players gather at a rectangular table. There are triangles composed of ten solo cups in front of each team. The way we play it, the cups are filled with water. The beer can get pretty gross when hands and ping pong balls that have been on the floor get in it.

Also, in our version, two cups of beer are poured before each round by the moderator to ensure there’s no cheating. The cup is to be filled ¼ of the way full. People (my highly competitive boyfriend and the other half of their sore-losing matching set) have tried skimping on beer to gain the upper hand with sobriety.

No one was surprised.

Arianna -- another one of Taylor’s exes -- is always the moderator when they play against each other. She doesn’t hesitate to get in Tay’s face and slam his loophole manual closed when he tries to crack it open. Rhys has a soft spot for her because of how good she is at pushing Tay’s buttons; he doesn’t argue with her calls because of it.

What was I talking about? Oh! Beer pong rules. Yep. Those rules.

Each person on one team will take a turn trying to throw one ping pong ball into the opponent’s solo cups. When a ball is sunk, that team must remove the cup from the pyramid, drink the beer, and set the cup aside. The ball’s allowed to bounce, or it can go directly into the cup. The game goes on until one team has no cups left. The team with remaining cups wins the game.

“Aerie’s biased tonight. We need someone else to ref.” Taylor drinks a much better beer than the brand we’re playing with.

“You’re stuck with me. Get over it.” She calmly retorts as she sips the cosmo I made her.

“You’ve missed Poppy and you’re trying to fast track your introduction to Harper. You’ll side with them. The point of you is a fair shot.”

“Play with me or not at all. It’s your call.”

“I can’t not play.”

“I guess you’re stuck with me.” She snarks, just as relaxed as when they started going at it.

He gives her a look of frustration. She winks with a smirk.

“You could forfeit and save all of us some time.” Rhys taunts him.

“Your odds of winning are tragically low. History proves it. Arianna doing what I know she’s going to do is your only shot at staying at this table.”

“Shut up and serve.” Rhys demands.

Taylor takes a ping pong ball out of the ball holding cup on his end. He bounces it on the table once, raises his arm and throws the ball like a basketball player does a jump shot. I know it’s going to hit its target while it’s still in the air.

I send a nervous look Rhys’s way when it plops into the cup at the tip of our triangle.

He’s too busy glaring at Taylor to notice.

“It’s not too late to swap me out for Kyle. I haven’t officially played yet.”

“It is.” Tay answers.

“You and me.” Rhys kisses me.

He takes the beer cup from Arianna and downs all of it in one gulp. Rhys wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.

“You know the drill. This is really between them. We’re here for show,” Jamal relays with a playful air.

Rhys and Taylor are proving his point by having a heated telepathic conversation.

“Yep. ” I laugh.

Jamal misses his bounce shot and shrugs it off in a way our partners are incapable of.

“You’ve got this, gorgeous. Aim at Taylor. If you miss the cup, there’s a chance you’ll hit him; that’s just as good.” Rhys says into my ear as he massages my shoulders.

I feel like a boxer getting ready to enter the ring instead of what I actually am – a nonathlete playing a drinking game with zero stakes.

“Break his leg.” He swats my bottom as he gives his intense version of good luck.

“Hey.” I look over my shoulder, jokingly indignant.

“Sports custom. All the pros do it.”

“Excuses, excuses.” I fish the ball out of it’s designated container.

The cups are a little fuzzy because of my drinks. My strategy is to avoid eye contact with Taylor and throw the ball in the general direction of the triangle. By some miracle, I sink the shot.

“YES!” Rhys jumps with his hands in the air.

“I knew you had it in you.” He wraps his arms around me and kisses my cheek repeatedly in.

“It is one point. One.” Taylor points out.

“It’s about to be two.” Rhys fetches his ball.

It’s a nail biter of a game by all accounts. Alcohol has gifted me with athleticism. If cups had nets, I’d be swishing them. My new strategy is to stay drunk enough to win.

“It’s hot in here.” Pushing up my sleeves doesn’t do enough to stave off the beads of sweat I feel forming on the back of my neck.

“Time out,” Rhys tells them on my behalf.

I’m tugging on my sweater to fan myself.

“We have one cup. You have two. Leave and you forfeit.” Taylor refuses.

“We’re not stalling. She needs to—”

“Oh, Nevermind! Tank top.” I grab the hem of my sweater and tug it over my head.

I try to throw it at Kyle the way Rhys did his jacket before we started dancing. It gets nowhere near him.

I snort and meander over to fetch it.

“Elementary school style!” I declare once I’ve tied it around my waist.

I’m giggling about my own joke as I jog back to the table.

“Can I pretty please exploit you for a win?” Rhys pokes out his bottom lip.

“How…?”

“Baywatch, babe, Baywatch. Same idea, no slow-mo. Stand still.”

“Sure.” I shrug.

“Thank you!” He kisses me. “Thank you, too, ladies. I love you.” He speaks to my chest.

“There’s something very wrong with you.”

“Yep.” He takes me by the shoulders, moves me to where the remaining cup is and turns me to face the table.

“Time out.” Taylor immediately changes his tune.

“We don’t need it anymore. She’s good.” Rhys friegns innocence.

“I’m good.” I play along.

“Ref!” Taylor barks.

“She was hot. They asked to postpone the game so that she could change into something more comfortable. You said 'no'. She made do with what she had. You can’t complain.” Arianna sighs.

“But come on!” Taylor gestures to me.

“Are you body-shaming her? How dare you? She was blessed with bountiful breasts to nourish our child. Poppy’s a giver of life -- an actual goddess. I will not stand for this discrimination!” Rhys concludes his melodramatic spiel by slamming his hand on the table.

“Don’t spin it like that. That’s not what I’m doing and you know it!” Taylor argues.

“Advocating for a strong, independent woman who’s being told she can’t play a game because of her appearance? Yes -- yes, I am.” Rhys doubles down

“Aerie, do your job!” Taylor pleads.

“It’s not her fault you and Jamal are acting like preteens seeing their first set of boobies.”

“I knew you’d do this. I knew—IAN!” Tay yells.

“Nope. Staying out of it.” I shoots back.

“Stop griping and play us or forfeit.” Rhys hits him with an ultimatum.

“I hate you. I hate you so much right now.” He retorts through gritted teeth.

“That’s not very nice.” I pick up my drink.

Rhys takes the cup away before I can drink it. He replaces it with another. That’s when I notice I almost drank out of my ball cup.

“Whoops.” I giggle.

“She’s too drunk to play.” Tay tries another route.

I gasp. “Who won the bet?”

“We’re still playing,” Rhys mutters to me through the side of his mouth.

“No, no. The drunk one. The one about me. Who won?”

“You bet on her?” Rhys raises his voice, anger targeted at his brother.

“We guessed what time she’d be drunk. There were a lot of rules. The main one being we couldn’t give her drinks.”

“Ian give me water. Two of ’em, and Kyle -- Kyle offered me Jungle Juice.”

“It’s a good thing I won. Who knows when we’ll get have a rematch.” Taylor informs us.

“Congratulations!” I smile at him. “Whatcha win?’

“$50.”

“That’s awesome. Now, it won’t be a big deal when you lose this one.”

Rhys belts out a hearty laugh. “See! She’s fine. Let’s play!”

Bested, Taylor and Jamal take their turns. Both of them miss. I switch up my technique and attempt a bounce shot.

Rhys and I throw our hands into the air and cheer when it sticks it’s landing.

“You haven’t won.”

“Yet.” Rhys rolls his shoulders to loosen up for his turn.

“Even if you do get this, there’s a redemption round.”

“We’ll win that too. There’s no stopping us.” I back Rhys.

We do.

Our victory dance is as ridiculous as you would expect.

We do the robot AND the running man.

“It has been a pleasure wiping the floor with you, fellas.” I pretend to mop.

“You didn’t. It was a close game won by an unfair tactic.” Taylor refutes.

“A win is a win is a win.” Rhys rubs it in his face.

“You know what? I’ll let you have this one. No rematch needed.”

“Are you feeling okay?” Aerie checks in.

“I’m A-okay. I’m about to win flip cup.”

“Well, aren’t you cocky?” She breathes a laugh.

“We’re teaming up. The advantage is mine now. Your services are no longer needed.”

“Yeah, no, I’m needed now more than ever. You’re making the face.”

“This is my face. Rhys is making it too.”

“You’re all shifty-eyed like you’re trying to figure out how to pull off a bank heist.” Aerie points out the truth,

“Hack into their system with a foreign IP address. Physically carrying money is a less lucrative waste of time. Flip cup. Let’s go, you two.” Tay snaps his fingers at us.

“You can’t tell us what to do.” Rhys crosses his arms, pretending to pout like a little kid.

I laugh, leaning onto his arm.

“We need to play before she sundowns. Chop chop.” Tay claps his hands.

“Wanna play?” Rhys looks down at me.

I nod.

“We’re in.” He relays to Taylor.

He didn’t hear us. He’s already gone to the flip cup table.

The rules of flip cup are pretty self-explanatory. Each member of the two teams of six has a cup of beer in front of them. The first player on each team has to drink the entire cup of beer and flip the cup over on the table before the next person in line can go. The first team that drinks and flips all of their cups wins the game.

Our line-up is Kyle first, Rhys's second, I'm third, Ian's fourth, Jamal's fifth, and Taylor's last.

I insisted on being in the middle. First or last is too much pressure. A strong finish and end make or break a game. I’m not the best at chugging beer or flipping cups.

What could go wrong?

What does go wrong?

Nothing.

We win by a landslide all three times. I drink slowly compared to the boys, but my sloppiness worked to our favor. A bit of beer spilled from my cup into my cleavage as I tried my hardest to drink all of it in time. It resulted in cup fumbles from the other team. It gave Ian, Tay, and Jamal time to make up for my mishaps.

They name me the team MVP. Rhys crowns me with his hat. All five boys get on their hands and knees and bow down to me. We leave the table to allow others to play after etching our initials and the date into the side of the table.

My dutiful boyfriend fetches me a cup of water when I trip over nothing and wind up on the ground. I stay on the floor. It’s as good a seat as any.

“Can we run around? I want to run around.” I tell Rhys my idea as I nurse my water.

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Rhys’s sitting cross-legged on the floor with me.

“The best idea. Outside! We should go outside.” A sudden burst of energy accompanies my epiphany.

“Finish all of your water and we’ll see.”

“That means no. I’m going. As soon as I’m done. I’m gonna do it. You’ll see.”

It takes a bit of rolling around on the ground and holding onto the couch for balance, but I make it to my feet once I’ve finished my drink.

“I’m coming with you.”

“You have to run around. I want to run around.”

“Running. Got it.”

“Potty first.”

He follows me inside one of the first-floor bathroom.

“Out.” I push him towards the closed door -- I try to anyway. He’s stronger than me.

“Just here as a safety monitor. It’s for your own good. Even Elvis couldn’t make dying on a toilet cool.“

“Close your eyes and no hearing.” I stumble to the toilet.

I hum a pleasant tune as I use the restroom. A little dance is done as I wash my hands.

“All done.” I hug him from behind.

“You survived. Way to go.” Rhys rubs my arms.

He dresses me in my sweater and his jacket before giving me access to the patio on our side of the house.

“Tag, you’re it!” I slap his arm and take off running.

Rhys’s laughing as he chases after me. We go back and forth, tagging and chasing each other. I’m out of breath by the time he has me captured by the waist and spins me around.

“Mama needs a rest.” I huff once he’s returned me to the ground.

“We can go inside or the chairs out here are—”

I’m already on the ground, laying on my back, and looking at the sky.

“There’s nothing to see. Overcast.” Rhys mirrors my position.

“Imagination.”

“I think I just saw a unicorn fly by.” He takes my hand.

“You did. Three of them, Pinky and her parents.” I lace our fingers together.

“What are their names?”

“White and Red. They made Pink.” I snort at my own joke.

He joins me in my silly fit of laughter.

“I have a field,” I speak my first thought.

“A new one? I thought it was saving the world with plant sidekicks.”

“A real one in Montana. Flowers and everything. I didn’t take it.” The word vomit continues.

“What are you talking about?” He props himself up using his elbow to look at my face.

“The ranch. My grandparents -- they left it to me. The guy downstairs told me. I got mad. Said no.” I blow stray hairs out of my face.

“But you want it?”

“It’s why I’m Poppy.” A tear trickles down my cheek.

“We’ll go get it.” He swipes it away with his thumb. “I know how to get it -- everything else he took too. You’ll have all of it.”

“Yeah?”

He nods with a soft smile. “You deserve all the fields you want. We’ll get them.”

“We, you say?” I crack a smile.

“I’ll set up the match, be there to massage your shoulders between rounds, and slap your ass before you get back in the ring. Teamwork. Making that dream work.”

“Our field of dreams work.” I amend.

“God, I love you.”

I draw his face to mine and devour the lips that spoke all those pretty words.

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