Sum of Us

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Ch. 36 - Rhys

’Twas the day before Christmas, and all through the house

a creature was stirring, loud enough to scare off even the bravest mouse;

The stockings were rehung after the party with care,

Harper hopes that St. Nicholas soon will be here.

“Their situation is almost as bad as Willy Wonka’s Oompa Loompas’. Seeing her wearing their uniform makes me sad.” Taylor comments on Harper’s outfit as the four of us wrap gifts on the floor if the great room in preparation for tonight’s family gathering.

She’s wearing a green overall dress that resembles an apron. ‘Head Elf’ is embroidered in gold on the red chest pocket. She also has on a white turtleneck with golden reindeer prancing all over it, red tights, glossy black Dr. Marten boots, and a red and green elf hat with silver bells.

“She is a volunteer, a very willing participant. Look at how happy she is.” I whisper-shout, pointing to her.

Harp’s stuffing tissue paper into a box, singing Jingle Bells with Poppy as she works. Harper rarely doesn’t have a smile on her face, but today, she’s bursting with exuberant energy, happier than I’ve ever seen her.

“Stockholm Syndrome.”

“The costume stays on until it’s time to go to Mom’s house. Turn off your mind and enjoy it like the rest of us.”

“She does look adorable…” He begrudgingly admits.

“It’s our first Christmas Eve together. I had to make sure if it.”

His expression softens. “She doesn’t remember the one you missed. This is the first one that counts.” He keeps his voice down.

“I’m thankful for that. It doesn’t feel too good when your dad’s a no-show.”

“Harris isn’t our dad. He was a sperm donor.”

“It took me longer than you to figure that out.”

“It wouldn’t if you’d listened to me.”

“You got sent to the principal’s office the week before for making half our class cry by proving S-a-n-t-a isn’t real during Show and Tell. If I’d listened to you, I would’ve been twice as heartbroken.”

“Which mattered more?”

“S-a-n-t-a.”

“That’s what I thought. It should’ve clued you in.”

“Baby Rhys was not as critical thinking as the man that sits before you.”

“I wouldn’t go that far.”

“Daddy, look!”

I hide the gift of Harper’s that I’m wrapping before crawling over to where they are. “What did you do, Lovebug?”

“Signy bow!” She points to the gold one adorning the gift-wrapped box.

“Did you stick it on all by yourself?”

She nods. “I ush and it tay.”

“Wow. Is it for me?”

“No, Nuckle Cwis.”

“Aw, but I want it.” I frown and poke out my bottom lip.

“Is okay. I mo’ bows. I gets you one.”

Harp literally tears through the plastic bag of adhesive bows, digging like she has a particular one in mind for me.

Turns out, she does.

She proudly presents me with a green bow – my favorite color.

“You wike it?”

“I love it. Where are you going to put it?”

She climbs into my lap, reaches up, and smashes the bow to my head. It slides off my hair as soon as she lets go. She picks it up and tries again.

“Mama, no tay. I ush real hard.” She complains when it falls to the ground a third time.

“The paper at the bottom needs to be pulled off. Have Daddy do it.” Pop tapes pieces of wrapping paper together.

“I needs help, Daddy.” Harper holds it out to me.

“It would be an honor to serve you.” I take it, kissing her cheek.

I peel the backing, exposing the sticky underside. Harper rearranges my hair before slapping the green bow in the middle of my head.

“Thank you for my bow. It is exactly what I wanted.”

“Elcome.” She hugs me.

“Having fun elfing around?”

“Yes! Lelves help all time.”

“Uncle Taylor wants a bow too. Can you give him one?” I ask Harp when I catch Taylor taking pictures of my hair from the corner of my eye.

“Oh, yes! Oh fun.” She scurries back to the bow mess she made.

“Daddy’s joking. I don’t need—”

“I gots it!” She runs to him with a gold bow.

“Help, peeze.” She extends the bow to him to have him peel off the backing.

Unable to say no to her, he complies with a sigh.

I take a picture of him as soon as she has his bow in place.

“As beautiful as he looks, I think he needs a few more bows, baby girl. He doesn’t have as much hair as us. He’s not a proper lion yet. I don’t want him to feel left out like Rudolph. What should we do?”

“I ix it. No urry.” She pats Taylor’s shoulder to comfort him.

He mouths ‘fuck you’ as soon as her back is turned.

I record them on my phone as Harper sings Deck the Halls and remedies his problem.

Well, she sings the Harper-version of it – there’s extra emphasis on the lyrics “fa la la la la, la la la la.”

“Look pwetty, Nunckle Aylor.” She compliments sweetly once she has covered the top of his head in different colored bows.

“Thank you.”

“Elcome.” She hugs him.

“Harp, he doesn’t know how to roar. You’ve got to show him how.” I encourage from behind my phone.

“ROAR!” She speaks to him in lion.

“Can I be a mute lion?”

“ROAR!” She repeats herself.

“Roar back, or she’ll keep going.” Poppy laughs.

“Roar,” Tay states flatly.

“With enthusiasm or it doesn’t count.”

He groans.

“ROAR!” Harper makes Pop’s prediction correct.

“ROAR!” He finally plays along.

She claps for him.

“Did I do it right?”

She nods. “You lion now.”

“Welcome to the pride.” I smile to further provoke him.

The look he gives me in return almost sets me on fire.

I end the recording. I split the video into two clips. The first one goes from the head decorating to the hug. The second one starts at my roar lesson suggestion and ends with his glare.

“Can a post a video of them, Pop?”

Her smile falters a touch. “Which one?”

“Help me decide.” I make my way over to her.

Today was our agreed upon day. That’s the only reason I don’t take back my question.

As terrifying as it is, it has to be done.

Her smile returns to its former glory and she laughs. “The bows. The lion initiation will only make sense if they know about your two-person lion pride.”

“Bows it is.”

“Do I get a say in this?” Taylor calls over to us as Harper continues to congratulate him on becoming a lion.

“Nope. My profiles, my content.”

“Which in this instance is me.”

“She’s the star that steals the show. You’re just a prop.”

“I wish it was possible to say no to her. She’s too dah-dang –” He catches himself. “Cute.”

“I struggle with it every day.” I sympathize. “My girl’s a beauty like her mama.”

“Shut up. She looks like you.” Pop nudges me as a blush blooms on her cheeks.

“Us. He’d hit me if I called myself beautiful.” I correct as I take my phone from her.

“Hit no nice, Nunckle Aylor. We good lions.”

“Real lions eat other—”

“If you finish that sentence with the truth, you will be very sorry,” I warn.

“What eat?” Harper brings his attention back to her.

“Animal crackers. That’s why they’re called animal crackers. Animals eat them.”

“Me too!” She gasps with excitement. “Amnimal cwakers yummy.”

“I’m sorry I’m forced to fail you.” He laments.

“What that?”

“Be not nice.”

“No sad. You nice.” She kisses his cheek.

“What is the caption going to be?” Pop looks over my shoulder as I upload the video to Twitter.

“How far @TTWilde will go to make his niece happy. #HappyHolidays.”

“That’s perfect.”

“Would you like to press the ‘post’ button?”

“You do it. They’re your fans.”

“She’s your—”

“Our daughter. You’ve been waiting so long to scream what you love about her from the rooftops. Climb on up there, Wilde.” She rubs my back.

“You’re the best.”

“Eh. I try.” She raises and drops a shoulder.

I kiss her cheek before introducing Harper to my world.

After I have posted it on all my social media accounts, I act as Poppy’s wrapping helper. Harper jumped ship to Taylor, unknowingly adding bows to her own presents. Tay’s dying inside as she tells him how excited Rue is to help Santa tonight.

Rue’s upstairs in the dog bed with her puppy stuffed animals. Harp said he needs ‘sleepytime’ to ‘fwhy.’ She tucked him in with a blanket and gave him a kiss after feeding him his breakfast carrot. The whole thing was her idea. Pop and I played along. As Harper’s godfather, Tay has to too.

“Do you need water or anything?” I check on Poppy.

“Just you near me. I feel safe in our bubble.”

I pull her closer and kiss the top of her head.

I pick up my phone when its notification vibrations are coming in such quick succession that it’s one long continuous buzz instead of little bursts.

I brace myself and open Twitter. I tap on the post and select the comments link.

Lulu_Lemonade: OMG OMG OMG! CUTENESS OVERLOAD!

Bananas-Is-Savannah: My ovaries have exploded. Poof. Gone.

Wilde_Bros_Are_Baes: @TTWilde I will have your babies!!!

TwinkleTwinkleStarla: Is she real? There’s no way she’s real. That’s a doll. An adorable babydoll with sexy uncles

ShelbyCorgis: talent and looks are in those genes. The little cutie can carry a tune

Holiest_Guacomole: Aww! Tay is such a good uncle!

Wanderlost0414: MORE! MORE! MORE!

“Pop?”

She looks up from the package to me.

“Check these out.” I hand her my phone.

She timidly accepts it. Pushing up her glasses, she slowly scrolls through the slew of positive remarks. A smile stretches across her beautiful face the more she reads.

Her eyes suddenly widen to their full capacity. “That took a turn.”

“Graphic description of what they want to do to Taylor?”

“Both of you, to increase odds of conception. She wants you to have relations with her so hard that even her best friend’s babies get your features.” She stares at the screen in horror. “There are 132 likes.”

“There’s always at least once response like that every time we post something. Some of the things they say are very creative. Impossible, but creative.”

“That’s just—wow. Wow.”

“You’ve never read one of our thirst tweets before?”

“Uh, no. I look at your posts and the ones of the influential people around you. How many of them do you get?”

“Too many to count.”

“How do they think posting something explicit under a picture of a child is acceptable?”

“It’s the Internet. Only the boldest of the bold say stuff like that to our faces. Security carts them away before they attempt to make their dream come true.”

“Does it scare you?” She eyes me pensively.

“Not really. Our security team is good at what they do, but I am having more guys brought in when the announcements about our relationship and Harper are made.”

“You think someone would want to hurt us?” Fear shines in her eyes.

“It’s a precaution. Nothing will happen to you. This is how I’m going to guarantee it.” I rest a hand on her face and caress her cheek with my thumb.

“Can Tyrone be assigned to us? Am I allowed to request that?”

“You are, but I’m one step ahead of you for once. He works exclusively for us. He’s the head of the team responsible for safeguarding you and Harper.”

“There’s a whole team?”

“Temporarily. It’ll be him and two other guards until things die down. He’s the only one I’ve permanently employed.”

“I’ll be honest, I hate that we need to have security at all, but I’m glad a person who actually cares about us will be protecting us.”

“More than cares. He considers us family. Tyrone’s the only one I trust with you. I’d bought him a t-shirt to wear to Harp’s birthday party even before all this.”

“Oh, yeah? What did he say when you gave it to him?”

“That he’ll wear whatever it takes to witness Harper meeting Rapunzel in person.”

“He’s in for a real treat.” She smiles as she hands me my phone, despite the fear remaining etched in her delicate features.

“We’ll be okay.” I rub her shoulder.

Taylor and I load all of the gifts into the trunk of my Harper-safe SUV after we are done wrapping them. Pop feeds Harp a light lunch and puts her down for her afternoon nap. We are due at Mom’s at 4:00 PM.

Mom calls as Tay and I are finishing up are car-packing. I put the call on speakerphone so that we can keep working.

“Hey, Ma. What do you need Taylor to pick up for you at the store?”

He pushes me. I push him back.

“Nothing. Tim has already gone for me. I’m calling to talk about the video you posted.”

“You’re not screaming. That’s a good sign.”

“Lovebug looks precious and Taylor let her decorate him without complaining. I reposted it as soon as I saw it. Your followers are the problem.”

“All the comments are positive and no one suspects that she’s mine. What’s the issue?”

“The X-rated ones. Delete them.”

“They’ll just keep cropping back up. You know how they are.”

“She is your daughter, Rhys. You can’t let sexual things be associated with her.”

“Whoa, there are no pedos posting. I would’ve reported them in a second.”

“There are girls detailing what they want you and your brother to do to them to get a child as cute as Harper. I’m not having that. It’s wrong. And Poppy—think about Poppy. This is the first time she’s putting her baby out there. She’s vulnerable and you’re humoring groupies’ fantasies.”

“I’m not. I haven’t replied. I haven’t liked. I’ve ignored it, just like I always do.”

“You’re taken. They don’t know it, but you need to start acting like it when you interact with them, including online. You can’t smile and brush it off anymore.”

“Mom, every single celebrity deals with thirst tweets. Reading them out loud is done for laughs. Comedy shows even have segments dedicated to it. It’s no big deal. Pop knows it.” I vent.

“How do you know it doesn’t bother her?”

“She made jokes about it.”

“She spun what her dad did to her into a joke when she told me she hasn’t been to Seattle in years. It was far from funny.” She reminds me.

“Self-deprecating humor is kind of her M.O.” Taylor points out.

“We promised to talk about things that bother us. We do. If she were mad, which she’s not, she would’ve said so.”

“Be proactive, then. They will get to her eventually. She’s human. Make her feel special. Don’t give doubt enough room to slip into her mind.”

“She knows I love her.”

“Stop arguing with me, Rhys Michael.”

“But—”

“I know what I’m talking about. I’m meddling with love.”

“Tell Taylor to delete the comments while I listen,” I grumble.

“He heard you.”

“That doesn’t mean he’ll do it.”

“I will. I’ve got nothing better to do.”

“There you go. Wear nice clothes to dinner. We’re taking pictures. I love you.”

“Love you.” Tay and I tell Mom at the same time.

I end the call.

“Do you know what you are going to do?” Taylor closes the trunk.

“Yes. Do you?”

“Push a few buttons. I think I can handle it.”

“Do you need my passwords?”

“I was there when you reset them.”

“Let’s get to it.”

I collect a small gift bag from beneath the tree on my way upstairs. Harper’s room is the first place I check for Poppy. Harp’s the only person inside, asleep in her crib with Rue in her arms. For the first time since I’ve known her, I do not kiss her forehead while she sleeps.

She’s too excited today not to be sleeping light as a feather.

The master bedroom is my next stop.

“Pop?” I call out.

“Bathroom!” She yells over the music.

The door’s open. I see no harm in walking inside.

“What’s up, babe?” She’s standing in her bathrobe in front of the vanity mirror, curling her midback-length tresses with a curling iron.

“The presents are in the trunk.” I sit on the counter, close to her, but not close enough to risk getting burned.

“Are Harper’s presents from Santa in the closet? It’ll make our lives much easier tonight.”

“They are all there, waiting to be delivered by Santa-me and Rudolph-you.”

“Good. Our headgear and my nose won’t go to waste.”

“I snagged a pair of Tay’s suspenders too.”

“Adding to the authenticity. I like it. Harper’s subconscious will appreciate the extra effort.” She smiles at me through the mirror.

She looks genuinely happy.

“You know I love you, right?” I dive right in without a transition.

“Yes. Why do you ask?” She winds strands of hair around the styling tool.

“The comments fans are posting about wanting to have my babies with extra emphasis on making them.”

“Watching girls throw themselves at you in front of me isn’t new. I dealt with it the first time we dated.”

“The scale makes a difference.”

“Are you asking or telling?”

“Acknowledging.”

“On Christmas Eve?”

“We cracked the lid on our can of worms today. It’s as good a time as any.”

“Did Mom call you?” She quirks an eyebrow.

“Maybe.”

“Start there and continue onward.”

“She’s a big fan of the bow video. The creative propositions that have rolled in are what upset her. Taylor agreed to delete them. She doesn’t want me shrugging off diehards when it is attached to you and Harper. I’m checking-in to make sure I haven’t broken my promise.”

“You haven’t hurt me and I’m not going to sink energy into chasing away people who will never know the real Rhys.”

“That’s what I said.”

“Did I say what you said I’d say?”

“Pretty much.”

“Right on.” She resumes working on her hair.

I place the gift bag on the counter and push it in her direction.

“There’s no need for bribery. Paraphrased answers are accepted in my grading system.”

I smile. “It’s not a bribe.”

“What is it?”’

I push the bag closer to her instead of answering.

She puts the curling iron down and looks at me. “This isn’t very Rhys of you. You prefer to wear me down with your bare hands.”

“That’s how you know this gift is not a bribe.”

She sends me a skeptical look.

“We can play this game all day. I get to sit AND stare at you? There’s no way to lose.” I kick my legs.

She sinks her teeth into her bottom lip as she tears through the tape I used to seal the bag.

“We said,--” She starts when she sees it’s a velvet ring box.

“Just open it.”

Poppy slowly lifts the lid as though the contents are going to jump out and bite her.

“Are you trying to trick me into proposing to you?” A surprised laugh escapes her lips as she lifts her eyes to mine.

“No, but I would if I thought there was a chance that it would work.”

“This black wedding band-looking ring is too big for me, and it has ‘Property of Penelope “Poppy” Elise’ engraved on it. What can I do with this other than give it to you?”

“It is for me, but it’s not an engagement ring. It is a promise one. The ability to mark your territory is one of my gifts to you. Who I belong to will be on my right ring finger for all to see.”

"Siblings are going to give you the hardest time if you wear this.”

“Yes, they will.”

“And?”

“Have their opinions ever stopped me?”

“You’ve got me there.”

“So…are you going to put it on me or what?”

She grins. “Give me your hand.”

I put my right hand, palm-down, on top of her upturned left hand.

“Rhys Michael Wilde, you are a ridiculous human being. I hereby visually proclaim that you are my ridiculous human being.” She slides the ring onto my finger.

“Feels good to be visually yours.” I flex my fingers. “Very right.”

“I may have technically put a ring on it, but that was not a proposal. Don’t gaslight me into thinking we’re married.”

“It’s a ring that plainly states I am taken. That’s all it is.”

She grins. “I had to make sure we are on the same page.”

“We are. There’s something else in the bag.”

“Are you trying to propose to me in a bathroom?” She asks instead of reaching into the bag.

“No. We already agreed that I will be the one that receives the proposal. Did you just propose to me in a bathroom?”

“No.”

“Guess which page I’m on? The same one as you.”

She rolls her eyes and shakes her head in amusement.

This time when she lifts the ring box, she quietly stares at its contents.

“The flower’s real, if that’s what you’re trying to sort out.” Hating the silence, I break it. “The artist picked it while it was still tiny, dried it, and set it in resin. The process is pretty cool. I—”

“Do you know what flower it is?”

“A forget-me-not. Are you going to talk dirty to me by telling me its scientific name and characteristics?”

She snorts. “No, it’s not sexytime. It’s ‘tell-me-why-you-chose-this-flower’ time.”

“You know what it means.”

“I want you to tell me what it means to you. There are many that apply, and I want to know where your head’s at.”

“Well…we’ve gone through a lot –had some great times, terrible ones, too– apart and together. Leapfrogging over all the bad memories will always be tempting, but I want to remember everything with you. There’s less to learn if you don’t forget. I think we should keep using our free time making up for the time we lost, but, I am open to suggestions. I’m always down to hear your thoughts.”

The smile – my favorite smile – that stretches across her beautiful face has me melting.

She hands me the box with Harper-level cheeriness. “Keep wooing me, Wilde.”

I chuckle. “Are you sure you don’t think I’m proposing?”

She nods, her smile firmly in place. “You’re giving me a pressed flower to wear.”

I pluck the ring from the box’s satin folds.

The delicate purple flower is encased in clear resin. It’s cut into a circle, the edge barely missing the petals. The flower-turned-stone sits on a thin silver band.

“You’re my rock and my flower. My field is only complete when you’re in them. It’s nature.”

“Now, who’s talking dirty?”

“I couldn’t resist. Now, hand, please, miss.”

She gives me her right hand.

“I’m not marking my territory. I’m whispering I love you.” I kiss the back of her hand before sliding the ring onto her ring finger.

“Damn, that was smooth.”

“Do you feel thoroughly wooed?”

“Almost too wooed, but the cup did not runneth over.”

“So we’re good?”

“We’re good.”

“Do you like it?” I hop off the counter.

“I love it.” She steps into my arms.

“Good, it cost me a fortune.”

“What? No, you--” She tries to escape my arms.

I tighten my hold on her. “I’m kidding. I got both rings for less than $100.”

“Each or total?”

“Total.”

“Fiscally Responsible Rhys does exist. It’s a Christmas miracle!” Pop looks up at me with her mouth agape.

I draw her close, laughing. Our lips join in an all-consuming union.

“Maaaamaaaa! Daaaaaaddddyyy!”

Harper’s vocal interruption makes me flinch. I look over my shoulder, half-expecting her to be observing from the corner.

“We haven’t scarred her for life yet. The jail bars kept her contained today.” Pop takes our side of the baby monitor into her hands.

“I’ll try to put her back down.”

“She won’t go, but have fun trying.”

“Oh, I will. I will.” Kissing her temple as a distraction, I steal the device out of her hands.

“Aw, give it back. I like watching her give you a hard time.”

“And ruin her look unveiling? I think not.”

“It’s all theatrics with you two.”

“It can’t be helped.”

“Nor should it.”

“And that’s why I will always love you.” I plant a swift kiss on her lips and hustle out the room.

“Nope, no, you don’t. Put that leg down, missy.” I catch Harp in the act of hoisting herself up on the crib’s railing.

She surprisingly listens. “Hiya, Daddy!”

This is strike three. It’s official – she needs to be transitioned to a toddler bed. It’s a good thing her crib transforms into one.

“You’re supposed to be sleeping.” I fold my arms and lean on the crib’s barrier instead of letting her out.

“No seepy.” She pets my hair.

“If I put you in your Christmas dress, do you promise not to get too dirty?”

“I pwomise.”

I have my doubts, but I’ll give her the opportunity to prove herself.

Harper is a big fan of the Disney movie The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. Clara goes through many dresses in the film, but her soldier one is our favorite. It all comes down to the jacket. It’s The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover meets Christmas, A.K.A. totally bad-ass. I found the complete costume in her size on an artist marketplace website. Once I add the Dr. Marten’s she wore earlier and white tights, she looks like boss that she is.

Cutting back on the number of costumes I buy her has not been as easy as I thought it would be. When she likes something, she REALLY likes it, and how happy she is to step into their world makes me happy.

“Look, Daddy! I Lara!” She twirls, her red skirt billowing as she does it.

See.

“You look so cool! Sit in your chair. It’s time to tame the mane.”

“ROAR!” She forms claws her hands.

“ROAR!” I do the same and use mine to tickle her.

I chase her all the way to one of the chairs at her table. She sits when I let up.

It’d be a waste of Harp’s follicle gifts to replicate Clara’s soldier hairstyle. Just as we practiced, she sits still and sings songs with me as I create a pull-through crown braid.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I watched and rewatched online videos before even attempting it. Poppy was my first guinea pig. She always is with elaborate styles – she’s a good sport like that – and my first trial run with Harper was the day of the house party.

I know I’m too invested in her hair, but our hair is the first thing we bonded over. The overdoing continues until she outgrows her fixation and asks me to do the same.

I carry her to the floor-length mirror and set her on the ground.

“Okay, baby girl, lay it on me. How do you think you look?” I put my hands on my hips and wait for her response.

“Pwetty!” She jumps.

“You look beautiful. You always do.” Sitting on my knees, I give her a hug.

“I wove you.” She leaves a sloppy wet kiss on my cheek.

“Love you too, baby girl. I love you too.” I rub her back. “Shall we pack toys in your Peppa pack?” I pull back to look at her.

“Yeah!” She bounces.

We needlessly stuff her favorite toys into her Peppa Pig backpack. Mom has more toys than any child could want at her house, but sharing is vital to Harp. Letting her cousins use her toys brings her as much joy as the toys themselves.

Yes, our daughter is the best.

“We’re running short on time. I need to change or Grandma will get mad at me. How would you like to run around in my and Mama’s bedroom?”

“Ooh, fun! Ots and ots. Time go.” She offers me her hand.

“Pop, we’ve got a visitor, and she comes bearing a drum,” I announce us, shutting the door behind us.

Harp will run out if it is left open. Lesson learned last week.

Poppy steps out of the bathroom as she inserts an earring into her ear.

She’s sincerely trying to kill me. She has to be. It is the only explanation for why she keeps one-upping herself and infinity-upping everyone around her.

Her glasses are right where they should be. Her natural beauty shines through her barely-there makeup. The waves she was putting in her hair during our heart-to-heart are collected into a ponytail; it and her wispy bangs suit her heart-shaped face perfectly and accentuate her long, elegant neck.Her mother’s necklace hangs from it, laying in the V-neck of her dress. The cranberry-colored, gauzy little number wraps in the front, a sash tie singes in her waist and is tied in a bow. It stops mid-thigh. Transparent black tights on her legs and the sheer long-sleeves on her arms show off an alluringly modest amount of skin. Not one for heels, black knee-high boots adorn her feet.

Stunning, that’s the only word that suits her.

“Oh, Lovebug, you look so beautiful!” She rushes to Harper and scoops her into her arms.

“I Lara!” Harp proclaims.

“It was very nice of her to let you borrow her dress for the day.”

“She real nice.”

“And your hair. Daddy did such a good job. Did you sit still for him?”

“Uh-huh, good lion time.”

“It shows. May I take a picture of you for Aunt Chelsea?”

“Yes! Sow Auntie Elsie!”

“Stay put. I’ll be right back.” Poppy puts her on the ground and scurries back to the bathroom.

It’s as good a time as any for me to take some of her too. She poses her heart out for me without my needing to ask.

“I didn’t realize how late it was. You need to get dressed.” Pop reminds me when she returns to the room.

“Yes, ma’am.” I can’t resist kissing her lips. “You look gorgeous, by the way.”

“Thank you, kind sir.” She curtsies.

She gets a peck on the cheek. I walk away while I still have the strength to do it.

A forest green and red flannel shirt untucked, black jeans, and black chukka boots better count as “dressing up”. Despite all the effort I put into Harp’s hair, all I do to mine is run a hand through it. I spritz on a bit of the cologne I know Pop likes best, and I’m ready to head out.

“You are such a Seattle stereotype sometimes.” Poppy shakes her head in joking disbelief when she sees me.

“The flannel?”

“It makes up half your wardrobe. You basically live in it when we’re home.”

Home. She called it home.

“Comfort and style, an irresistible combination.” I opt not to scare her off by pointing out her label for Seattle.

“I must admit that it is one that works for you.”

Harper is too busy twirling in the mirror to take note of what we’re doing. I take advantage of our semi-privacy and kiss Pop.

“You smell incredible.” She rubs my chest when our lips part.

“As do you, my love.”

“Are you trying to make me second-guess giving you that ring?” Poppy tilts her head back to look me in the eye.

“You can’t get anywhere if you don’t push your luck.”

“That is a compelling argument. You win this round.”

“Aw, I love you too, babe.”

She shakes her head, repressing a smile. “Do you think Taylor’s ready to leave?”

“Doubt it. You know how long it takes him to get dressed.”

“Want to sick Harp on him?”

“You read my mind.” I hit her with one more kiss.

The three of us go into his side of the house. Harper gets him to hustle to the car by telling him all the things she can’t wait to do at “Gamma’s” house. He has eyes, ears, and a soul – he is unable to deny her sweet request. She is too cute to resist.

I drive. Poppy sits upfront with me. Taylor and Harper are watching The Nutcracker and the Four Realms on screens on the back of the driver and passenger seats.

He’s as engrossed in it as she is.

“What’s her costume count up to now?” Pop smiles over at me.

“No comment.”

“In other words, you lost track,” She giggles.

“They’ve started blending together.”

“It’s all the glitter.”

“A common thread.”

“Buddoom-ch.” She pretends to play a drum and cymbals.

We snicker in response.

“Shhhhhh.” Harper and Tay scold us in unison.

“We’re going to reach Mom’s before the movie’s over.” I seize the opportunity to crush his dreams for once.

“We will stay in this car as long as we have to. You don’t interrupt a Helen Mirren performance.”

“She’s no Meryl Streep,” I argue.

“That doesn’t make her any less tal--′

Pop and Harp shush us.

“You’re not even watching it.” I shoot Poppy a sideways glance.

“Principle.” She shrugs.

Pop and I wedge into be backseat with them when we reach our destination. We’ve seen the movie enough to follow along despite missing the first half.

Three glares are fired my way when my cellphone starts ringing. It takes some wiggling to get it out of my pocket with Poppy seated on my lap, but I get it out and on my ear as quickly as possible.

“Hello?” I whisper.

“Why are you whispering?” Lindsey skips a greeting.

“Courtesy.”

“To me?”

“No.”

“Who?”

“People. What’s up?”

“Do you need help carrying things into the house?”

“Soon. Still en route.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“Yes.” My eyes are trained on the television.

“I can see you.”

“Mirage.” I hang up on her.

A knock on the window a little while later makes all of us jump.

It’s Leo.

Poppy lowers the window.

“What are you guys doing?” He looks inside the car.

“Wachin’ Lara. She bwave,” Harper answers with a smile.

“What are you holding?” His eyes fall to the stuffed nutcracker in her arms.

“He Ned, my nutcwaker dolly. We fwiends.”

“How do you sleep with that monster in the house? That thing would haunt my dreams.” He aims his question at Poppy and me.

Ned the nutcracker is voodoo doll ugly. Harper saw the felt monstrosity in the toy store we visited Minneapolis and asked if she could be his friend. Saying ‘no’ was out of the question.

“He’s her friend. Be nice.” Pop stifles a laugh.

We have been joking about him starring in horror films for weeks. We’ve even spitballed a few names:

Night of the Living Nutcracker

Nutcracker Slasher

And my personal favorite – The Nutcrackening

“Keep it away from me and I will. What are you guys doing?”

“Finishing up a movie.”

“Which one?”

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.

“The one that had Morgan Freeman in all the promos, but he was only in the movie for five seconds?”

“Yeah,” I answer.

“It’s super boring, but Gracie’s into it, too. Has to be the dresses. Misty Copeland and Kiera Knightley are the only reasons I’m able to stay awake when we watch it.”

“If you don’t shut up.” Taylor finally snaps.

“What if I don’t? What are you going to do?” Leo taunts.

“I know things. I can share said things.”

“I’m an open book.”

“Grace told me her mommy’s been spending time at your house. Does Soo-jin know about the yoga instructor you took out the other week?”

“Yes. We were all consenting adults.” Leo smugly smirks. “I had a very happy birthday.” He continues.

“Ugh, TMI.” Poppy frowns, immediately understanding his insinuation.

“Happy Bird-day, Nunckle Leo.” Harper chips.

I stare daggers at him. “Walk away.”

Leo holds his hands up in surrender. “Blame Tay.”

“Mom won’t take too kindly to the knowledge her lovebug congratulated you on your t-h-r-e-e-s-o-m-e.” Taylor plays what’s sure to be his final move.

“And I’m out.” Leo pushes off the windowsill and heads for the door.

We manage to get to the end of the film without any further interruptions.

“It was subdued and a little disjointed, but I like the message. I’m surprised it didn’t scare Harp. It gets pretty dark. There’s very little music to balance it out.”

“She is wise beyond her years.” I open the car door.

“The costumes and Sugarplum’s cotton candy hair are the reasons she enjoys it.” Poppy sets the record straight as she steps outside.

“Signy and yummy.” Harper tacks on.

“That doesn’t make Harp less of a mature genius,” I tell Tay before following Poppy out.

Knowing Linds and Leo won’t come out to help with gifts after our chats, I call Becca.

“Merry Christmas Eve, baby brother. What can I do for you?” She cheerily answers.

“We’re here and need help carrying in presents.”

“I help!” Harper yells from her car seat.

“You get to carry the most important one of all.” I cover the mouthpiece to appease her without confusion.

“Yay!” She claps.

“I can’t. My heels are too high, but I’ll send Chris and Tim.”

“Is Rob here?”

“He’s busy.”

“Doing what?”

“Do you want help or not?”

“Help.”

“They’re heading out now. See you in a sec.” She hangs up.

“Nunckle Cwis!”

Poppy places Harp on the ground and she wastes no time sprinting to him.

“Harper!” He swings her high in the air.

She laughs as I’m sure he hoped she would.

“I wove you.” She kisses his cheek. “I miss you oh-oh much.”

“I love you and missed you so, so much, too.” He returns the gesture. “What have you been doing?”

I don’t think he knew what he was getting himself into when he asked that question. Harper doesn’t hold back. She tells him almost everything she has done while in Seattle. He hears about what she has eaten lately, the “agic” doors at our house, our “escial” music room, how much “puple” is in her bedroom and all her duties as head ‘lelve’.

He can barely get a word in, but he nods along to actively engage.

“She is certainly a talker.” Tim was to the house with me, arms full of bags of gifts.

“She’s a social butterfly like her daddy.” Poppy replies.

“You’re not?”

“Oh, no. I’m much more comfortable in small groups. Rhys dragged me out of my shell first. I have to stay out of it to keep up with her.”

“I never would’ve guessed. You welcomed me with open arms.” He replies.

“Pop’s nice. Aggressively nice.” I answer.

“Too nice.” Taylor contributes.

“I am not. I stand up for myself.”

“She just proved it.” Tim agrees.

“She was also a beast when Sociopath grabbed her arm,” I confirm.

“Who?”

“The girl Mom wishes she could get away with strangling for making my life and Poppy’s more difficult.”

“She touched you?” He turns to Pop with outrage.

I like Tim more and more each day.

“She wanted to get to the bottom of my relationship with Rhys. Harper was sleeping in my arms. I needed to put her to bed. I would’ve done a lot more than slap her if she made me drop my baby.”

“I would’ve paid to watch that.” Tay muses.

“I was bummed it didn’t happen. I had front row seats.”

“You better be joking.” She says.

“We’re not.” We reply at the same time.

Almost everyone is in the living room when we walk in. Leo, Rob, and Chloe are watching football. Grace, Robby, and Courtney are playing with their toys in the corner. My sisters and my soon-to-be sister-in-law are chatting. Kevin’s playing a game on his Nintendo Switch.

Most of them stop what they’re doing to greet us with hugs. Leo and Rob are the only exceptions. My brother’s too into the game to notice us; NFL games keep him hypnotized. He loses track of time when he watches them. I think he loves football more than his Mustang.

Rob’s just an asshole.

We take off our coats in the foyer after putting our gifts beneath the informal tree. And then Poppy, Harper, Tay, and the dogs (they follow Harp everywhere when she’s around) go to the kitchen.

“Well, don’t you look nice.” Mom takes off her apron before approaching us.

“GAMMA!” Harper hugs her legs.

“Hello, Lovebug! I saw the helping you did today. You did such a good job.” Mom picks her up and holds her close. “You look so beautiful in your dress. Your hair is gorgeous too.”

“Tank you. Daddy do it. I lelve now. Help Anta wike Rue.”

“Where is Rue this fine evening?” Mom smiles down at her.

“Seepin. He have to fwy night.”

“That’s right. Did you have a good nap today?”

“No seepy.”

“I did put her down. She popped right back up.” Poppy defends our parenting.

“She’s going to do the same tomorrow morning. I hope you’re prepared.” Mom flashes a knowing smile.

“I’m looking forward to it. She’s sleeping in our bed tonight so that she can wake us up easier.” I can’t help but smile at the thought.

“You’re precious as parents.” She gives both of us hugs and kisses with Harp still in her arms.

“Am I invisible now that he’s paired off and I’m single?” Taylor complains.

“The opposite. I have to keep a closer eye on you because my lovebug is impressionable.” She hugs him.

“I have been very family-friendly lately. You saw the bows.”

“I did. It was nice to see you stop being a Scrooge.”

“I can’t say no to her. I hate it.”

“I absolutely love it.” She kisses his cheek.

When the oven timer goes off, she puts Harper on the ground to fetch whatever is in there. Harp promptly starts playing with the dogs.

“Try not to get too dirty, Lovebug.”

“O-tay, Mama.”

My mother swats my hand away when I try to pick up one of the dinner rolls she just took out the oven.

“These are for dinner. Eat appetizers.”

“But Maaa…” I whine.

“No if, and, or -- what is this?” She abruptly switches gears and snatches my right hand.

“We’re not engaged or married. It’s a promise ring. Calm down.”

“I was about to say. I expect that from Taylor, not you.”

The running joke in our family is that Taylor will show up to a family gathering with a ring on his finger and woman we’ve never seen before and casually say, ’oh, yeah. I got married last year.” He doesn’t like people meddling in his love life or lack thereof.

“I’m a taken man and I get to show it.”

“You finally listened.”

“I bought the rings before you called. What time I gave them to her is all you influenced.”

“You still listened to me. Poppy’s headstrong. Treating her well is the only way to make her stay.” She pats my cheek.

“She’s going to be the death of me.” My eyes shift to where she is playing with the dogs with Harper.

“At least you’ll be happy.” I can feel Mom smiling at me.

I turn my head in her direction. “Tim’s a keeper too.”

She expresses her gratitude for my support by giving me a dinner roll.

Dinner is not served until all of the food has been transferred to serving dishes, and it has been transferred to the dining room table. It is an extendable rectangular table that seats twelve. The kids (minus Chloe and Harper) are delegated to the children’s table.

This is the first year Chloe’s been deemed “mature” enough to handle the adult table. Harper’s with us because she’s not ready to eat without supervision. The spaghetti-os and ranch incident is a perfect example of what happens when she is not watched like a hawk.

Harper’s trayless high chair pulled up to the table in the space between my chair and Poppy’s. Taylor’s on my right, and Rob’s seated across from me.

I didn’t seek him out, I swear.

Mom’s at the head of the table, per usual. Tim surprises me when he decides to sit in the chair nearest to her instead of go for the other captain’s chair at the other end of the table. Christopher has it, as is the tradition.

My respect for my mother’s beau mounts with every move he makes. He’s a good dude that loves her and isn’t trying to force himself into a position of power in our family.

If they work out, I wouldn’t have an issue with my kids calling him Grandpa. I sure as hell wouldn’t be calling him Dad, but I’d make sure my and Poppy’s little ones were close to him.

I never thought I’d be thinking this three weeks ago. Pop kissed some perspective into me.

Is this what it feels like to be worn down? Huh. Interesting.

“Would you like extra mashed potatoes?” I ask Harp as I prepare her plate.

“Uh-huh. I wove ’em.”

“You can have all the ‘mashy atoes’ you want.” I heap another spoonful onto her Santa plate.

“They yummy.”

“I couldn’t agree more, baby girl.” I put some onto my plate.

“Do you want ham or turkey?”

“Urkey.”

I fill her plate with all the food she wants and make sure her bib is firmly in place before giving it to her. All the while, I see Rob watching me using my peripheral vision.

Feeling gracious, I give him the benefit of the doubt and chalk up his behavior to casual curiosity. Between bites and conversation interjections, I check on Harp to make sure she’s still fairing well feeding herself.

“Is it yummy?”

“Oh yummy. You want ome?” She holds a spoonful of stuffing to me.

I eat it. “Delicious.”

I cut a roasted brussels sprout into smaller pieces with my fork. “Try some of this.” The smallest piece is brought to her mouth.

“Ooh, I wike that.” She blinks up at me with a bright smile.

“They are called brussels sprouts. Do you want more?”

“Yes, pweeze.”

“Beck, do you mind passing the sprouts?”

“Here you go.” She extends the dish across the table.

“Thank you.” I accept it.

“Tank you.” Harp repeats.

“You’re very welcome.” Becca angles her million-watt smile at Harper.

She wants a daughter so badly. Rob jokes about getting a vasectomy every time Robby asks something of him.

Asshole.

“We need to decide where we are going for our family vacation. It’ll be taking place in the fall this year because of Rhys and Taylor’s tour schedule, but it doesn’t hurt to plan early. It’s between Maui and Park City. Hot v. Cold. Snowy mountains v. beaches. Have at it.” Mom steers the conversation.

“Hawaii. I am DYING for some sun.” Becca is the first to jump in.

“Utah, all the way. We did a beach vacation last year. I promised Lo I’d teach her to snowboard.” Leo says.

“We’re going to shred some powder.” Chloe smiles at her dad.

“It’s the Wilde way.” Leo lifts his hand.

She high-fives it.

In the way that Harper takes after me in terms of her musical talent, Lo absorbed all of Leo’s athleticism. He started calling her Junior when he found out. Her mom and his ex, Heidi, fussed at him relentlessly about it. They got back together for a little while because he’s into that. But when he got bored of being with her, he resigned to calling Chloe ‘Lo’.

She’s a tomboy. Lo was a toddler the last time I saw her in a dress. She’d strip down to her diaper whenever they put her in one. It was easier to give in to her pants demands than wrestle clothes on her all day.

“Let me guess: you want Maui?” I start a side-conversation with Poppy.

“Whales and an abundance of region-exclusive flora and fauna? That’s affirmative.”

“Has she ever been to the beach?” I nod to Harper, who is making hums of enjoyment as she obliviously eats her food.

“No.”

“Hawaii?”

“Hawaii.” She confirms our votes.

We both voice them.

“Put me down for Utah. I hate the feeling of sand between my toes.” Taylor joins the other team.

“How do you hate that? Lapping waves, warm sand beneath your feet – it’s one of the most relaxing experiences in the world.” Lindsey questions.

“The aftermath. Sand is like glitter. It gets everywhere, and it is near impossible to get rid of it. Just when you think you’ve gotten all of it, you discover a few more sprinkles of nature’s sandpaper in your bathing suit area. Snow falling outside as you’re curled up by a toasty fire with a good book –that’s relaxation.” He argues.

“I’m swayed. Snow.” Chris sides with him.

A debate ensues. The table ends up split 50/50. The kids are allowed to weigh in to serve as tie-breakers. Initially, it was just Kevin, but Leo pressured him with his eyes into choosing Utah. The younger ones are harder to sway, so they got called in.

“The water. Flip can go! He swims real fast and run real fast. I miss him.” Robby votes for Hawaii.

“Who’s Flip?” Tim whispers to our end of the table.

“His dead fish. He thinks it lives on a farm upstate.” Taylor thankfully keeps his voice down.

Even he knows you can’t deliver a blow like that to a three-year-old the day before Christmas.

“Ariel used to live in the ocean. I wanna visit her sisters and dad.” Gracie proclaims.

“How about you build a snowman like Anna and Elsa instead? You’ve never done that before.” Leo tries to persuade her by speaking her princess-loving language.

“No, you’re not allowed to do that. She picked Hawaii. No outside influences.” Lindsey argues.

“I wanna build a snowman!” Courtney exclaims.

Come on, lez go and pway!” Harper sings the next line in the song.

“That’s two more votes for Utah. We’ve tied again. Time to call Grams.”

“No, Harp was singing a song. Her vote has yet to be cast.” I rebut Leo.

“Would you like to play in the sunshine or snow, Lovebug?” Poppy asks her.

“Sun-sign. Make fwiends and fowers big and stong. I wike fowers. Oh pwetty. Fwiends nice. I wove fwiends.”

“Maui, it is.” Mom announces amongst cheers and groans.

Relaxing on an island with my girls, that’s paradise – a vacation I’m sure we’re going to need after everything is said and done.

Family photos at taken in the formal living room after we clear the dinner table.

We’re ordered by height. Harper’s upfront as the smallest. The Gizmo and Widget sit at her feet without coaching.

She can’t take a step without them following her. Their obsession with her is as strong as the one she has with them.

Poppy’s height means she HAS to be in front of me or Taylor because we’re the tallest.

“You’re basically in from of me anyway. You might as well fully commit.” I propose to Poppy.

“No. You’ll put your arm around my waist. He’ll keep his hands to himself.’

“We’re identical. No one will be able to tell it’s me.”

“You’re absolutely right. Everyone will accept without question that the hair on my head’s grown ten inches since this morning.” Taylor deadpans.

“Extensions exist.” I retort.

“Babe, you’re just going to have to let me go.” Pop rests her hand on my shoulder for moral support.

“Can we secretly hold hands? Other bodies will block it.”

“I’ll give you that one. You’re so needy.” She jokes with a smile.

“I don’t know how you put up with it.” Tay tsks with a shake of his head.

“He’s cute.”

“We have the same face, you know.”

“She has already marked me. You snooze, you lose.” I hold up my right ring finger to show off my ring.

“What the hell is that?” He scrunches our face.

“Language.” Mom turns over her shoulder.

“A promise ring. Awesome, isn’t it?” I wiggle my fingers.

“The exact opposite, but I know you don’t care.”

“Ding ding ding.” I shoot him with a finger gun.

“Now, I really don’t know how you put up with him.” Tay turns to Pop.

“I think it’s sweet. It’s proof he cares.” Becca smiles at me with a hand rested on her chest.

“If I’m ever that whipped, someone needs to shoot me in the face.” Rob barges into our conversation.

Becca looks at him, crestfallen.

“You have a wedding ring, a-s-s-h-o-l-e. You should be.” I fire at Rob.

“Shooting you in the face for being an s-h-i-t-t-y husband and father makes more sense. May I do the honors?” Tay adds harshly.

“Zip it.” Beck hisses at us.

“We’ll be waiting on bated breath until she leaves you.” Taylor continues.

“You shouldn’t have landed her in the first place.” I follow his lead.

“She’s charitable.” He says.

“She donates money every time she sees Sarah McLachlan sing about one-eyed puppies.” I retort.

“I’m 99% sure the song came first,” Tay says to me.

“But it can’t be heard without thinking about the ASPCA. In the Arms of an Angel belongs to those survivors now.”

He nods his understanding. “They deserve it.”

“You don’t, Rob.” I aim our banter back at him.

“I said stop it.” The tears welling in Becca’s eyes are what makes us do it.

Poppy turns and hugs her.

Rob does nothing but glare at us.

Taylor holds up his middle finger in response.

“Taylor Thomas.” Mom threatens when she sees his hand gesture.

“What? My language is being watched.” He drops it.

“Gestures too.”

“My self-expression is being stifled, and my first amendment right to free speech is being violated.”

“They sure are. Hands down and in your places. All of you.” She reigns us in.

We listen.

Tim takes our full family photos. Rules are you have to be married, engaged, or co-parenting in order to be in the picture. He hasn’t earned a spot just yet.

Mom takes care of the breakout photos.

I get some of me and all of the kids. We’re seated. Harper’s in my lap, playing with my hair, as she often does. Robby’s on my back. He jumped on me as soon as I sat down, trying to force me to play horsey. Grace and Courtney are over posing and saddled up to my sides. Chloe and Kevin are lounging in front of us, their heads propped up by their hands.

There are smaller family pictures. Taylor gets added to a few of the ones of Harper, Poppy, and me. He does cohabitate with us, after all.

As everyone else is getting their pictures taken, Pop and I sit on the couch and sort through the candid and posed pictures to find the ones worthy of posting. We turn to Chelsea for her professional photographer’s opinion before I upload the top three to my social media pages.

“How are you feeling?” I put my arm around Poppy.

She exhales. “They look better than I imaged they would, even the staged ones look relaxed and natural – nothing seems off or hidden.”

“But…” I coax.

“We’re one step closer to being all the way out of hiding, to me being the girl they’ll think stole your youth by making a father out of you.”

“You gave me something very special when you became a mom. That’s the first thing I’ll tell them. And then I’m going to be super obnoxious about how much I love you, and how we made the coolest kid ever.”

“They’re going to hate you more than me if you do.” She laughs.

“Yep, and guess what?”

“What?”

“I’ll still be living my best life.”

“I think I made a huge mistake when I gave you that ring. You’re worse than ever.”

“No takesies backsies. I will forever be the proud property of Penelope ‘Poppy’ Elise.”

“I’ll find you another one. I’m not the only person on earth with that name.”

“Impossible. Poppies don’t grow on trees. It’s nature.”

“My weakness. How dare you?”

“I love you,a too, babe.” I kiss her forehead.

Cocoa, cookies, and pastries are served during present time. Harper and I originally share a mug of hot chocolate, but we have to get two fresh cups when she sticks her tongue in our shared mug and laps up the liquid like a dog.

I don’t care. Everyone else does.

“Lelve time!” Harp jumps up and down in front of me.

“Are you ready to pass out the presents you wrapped?” I bite into a sugar cookie.

“Uh-huh. I do good ob for Anta.”

“I believe in you, baby girl. Keep making me proud.”

“O-tay!” She skips to the tree.

She sings an original song about Santa and elves as she sifts through the presents. She finds one of the ones I recognize to be ours and walks it over to Leo after Poppy tells her who it belongs to.

“Rhys, this better be a joke.” Leo holds up his Harper’s Birthday t-shirt.

“It’s not. You have to wear it or a costume to Harper’s party or you’re uninvited.”

“I’m not wearing this.”

“Hey Gracie, I really want you to come to Disneyland and see Ariel with me, but your daddy—”

“FINE! I’ll wear the stupid shirt!” Leo barks at me.

“I get to visit Ariel?!” Grace’s eyes quadruple in size.

“Yes, in a few weeks for Harper’s birthday.”

“Are we going to eat with her again?”

“We have to. She called me and asked if you could stop by and see her. I said, ’yes ’. I hope that’s okay.”

“It is! Daddy, Daddy! Ariel remembers me! We’re still friends.” She bounds over to him to share the good news.

Everyone gets a shirt, Tim included.

Unfortunately, I had to give one to Rob as well. He’s technically family.

On top of their all-expenses-paid trips to Anaheim, they get personalized gifts as well. The kids get the odd toys Harper picked out. My sisters, Mom, and soon-to-be sister-in-law get gift certificates to a luxury day spa. Leo is the happy recipient of Seattle Seahawks tickets. Chris gets mint condition first editions of all the Harry Potter books. Tim is gifted a sporting goods store gift card. We bought Rob a pair of socks.

Tay and I go in on gifts together. We refuse to spend more than $5.00 on Rob. Petty? Absolutely, but he’s not getting more than an obligatory trinket until he learns to treat our sister and nephew the right way.

“This is from Chris and me.” Jess hands me a gift bag.

I give her a thank you hug before opening it.

It’s a book -- Parent’s Guide to Raising a Gifted Child

“You’re finally willing to call her what she is!” I excitedly turn to Chris.

“Off-record. It carries no weight medically, and you can’t use it to argue with other medical professionals or teachers.”

“Can I use it to rub Harper’s intelligence in Tay’s face?”

“By all means.”

“Boom. In your face, Taylor!” I hold up my book.

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – she gets it from Poppy.” He stirs the marshmallows in his mug.

“We have the exact same genes. You’re outta luck if that’s the case.”

“There are subtle variances between identical twins’ genetic makeup, and those distinctions make a world of difference. Right, Chris?” Tay consults with him.

“I know better than to enter that room with you. I’d never escape it.”

“We need you.” I say.

“Do you want us to kill each other?” Taylor adds.

“I have a kid to think about.”

“I have a goddaughter who needs me.”

Chris purses his lips and looks between the two of us. “You get thirty minutes of my time, and you’re not allowed to argue with my verdict.”

“Not even to consult with Jess?” Taylor nods to her.

“My opinion is the only one you’re getting.”

Taylor and I consult with each other using only our eyes.

“We accept the terms.” We say at the same time.

Chris’s conclusion that both of us are correct in different ways is a cop-out, but one we accept. It’s the holidays and he gifted us his undivided attention to settle an admittedly pointless argument.

“Hey, Rhys, who’s your hot sister?” Becca sits on the arm of the couch I’m on, a glass of wine in one hand and her phone in the other.

“I do not and will not ever call you or Linds hot. That’d be gross. That term’s reserved for Poppy.”

“Exactly.” Beck snorts as she hands me her phone.

A candid picture that Mom took, one featuring Poppy laughing with Taylor, Chris, and me is on the screen. I scroll to the comments. Most of them are from dehydrated fanboys asking about my ‘hot sister’. They want to know her social media handles and whether or not she’s seeing anyone.

“They’re trying slide into your girl’s DMs, baby bro.” Leo is leaning behind the couch, reading over my shoulder.

“And you can’t do anything about it!” Tay bursts out laughing.

“It’s not funny.” I grit my teeth.

“It’s so funny.” Lindsey joins in on the teasing.

“Ooh, it sounds like VaughnDuke005 has an issue only lotion and tissues can take care of because of her.” Beck joins in.

“Do the dude a solid. Pass along her handles.” Leo taps my shoulder.

“Poppy, a word, please!” I yell over the others’ barbs.

“What’s so funny?” She looks at me from her seat on the floor, a natural smile playing on her lips.

“The internet thinks you’re our long-lost sexy sister.” Becca fills her in, giggling.

“They what? Why?” Poppy’s eyebrows pinch.

“They just do. Can I please say you’re a family friend? You know how I feel about accidental incest.” I plead with her.

“The same way I feel about gaslighting. You have my permission to edit.”

“Hold the phone. You talk about incest?” Chris raises an eyebrow.

“It was a must. People ask him to double team with Taylor all the time. He had to make sure it wasn’t something I hoped would happen during the course of our relationship -- because, you know, accidental incest.”

“What makes it accidental?”

“They wouldn’t try to touch, but there’s no way they can be in such intimate quarters without unintentional contact. Thus, the incestuous acts would be accidental.” Poppy elaborates.

“Interesting.”

“Perhaps, but don’t think about it too hard.”

“I planned to leave it right there.”

“Wise man.” Pop finishes with Chris and turns to me. “Are there any other pressing matters? I’d like to get back to the game of Godzilla I was playing.”

“Godzilla? With Legos?”

“There’s only one way to play in my opinion. Lego tower destruction will always be the most satisfying.”

“Build that tower extra high, babe. I’ll be over there soon.”

“Robby and Kev are in charge of construction, but I’ll see what I can do.”

“Please do.”

“I said I would.” She sends a playful smirk my way as she resumes working with the boys.

I set the record somewhat straight by editing the captions on the apps that allow post-post revisions. On Twitter, I reply to the first person who refers to Poppy as my sister with the family friend half-truth. And then, I pocket my phone and join my best friend and our nephews on the floor.

We build up a tower, and make monster and action noises as we destroy it with dinosaurs and action figures. Pop and I are Godzilla experts. It’s one of Harper’s favorite games. Rolling around in wrapping paper with Gizmo and Widget is what she’s choosing to do instead of play with us this time. We keep a close eye on her, though. She’s a wily one.

We do one round of karaoke. Becca reads The Polar Express to the younger kids. The kids pass around the sleigh bells that came with the book. The only tug of war is between Kevin and Gracie – they’re brother and sister, it was inevitable. The evening concludes with all of us watching the original How the Grinch Stole Christmas cartoon.

“Anta and Eindeer are hungey.” Harper says from her car seat, still wide awake.

“We’ll set food out for them on your special plates. How’s that?” Poppy answers.

“Signy ones. Real escial.”

“It will be very special. They’ll have everything they need to be nice to everyone.”

“So, so nice. I cited.”

A peanut butter and jelly sandwich made by us, a peppermint mocha cookie baked from scratch by “Gamma” and a cold glass of milk for Santa. Three bowls of water and nine baby carrots are for the reindeer. All of it is served on Harper’s extra sparkly holiday dishware and arranged on the coffee table closest to the Christmas tree.

Harp wants everyone to be full and hydrated.

The day finally catches up with Harper during bath time. She yawns and rubs her eyes instead of playing in her beloved bubbles. We cut the bath short to prevent her from getting soap in her eyes.

The child of the house has nestled all snug in her bed;

While visions of sugar-plums danced in her head;

And Mama in her antler headband and I in my Santa cap,

had just settled downstairs for a long winter’s gift wrap

When out near the hall closet there arose such a clatter,

Taylor sprang from his bed to see what was the matter.

“What am I looking at? My eyes have to be lying to my brain.” He asks.

“You’ve never seen two adults wearing coordinating pajama sets and festive headwear? That’s no way to live, bud.” Pop replies.

“Your blinking red nose is understandable. I’m not even upset he’s wearing the suspenders I was looking for earlier. The other thing is what needs an explanation.”

“The giraffe?” She pretends to be oblivious.

It’s a four-feet-tall stuffed animal. It has a bit of weight on it to keep it upright. Carrying one is a two-person job, and I bought two of them.

They are Ralph’s parents, Gerry and Fay, distinguishable only by Fay’s pair of purple glasses.

“The baby powder.”

“Oh. That. Santa.” I point to my hat as evidence.

“Does your version prefer cocaine to cookies? That’s what it looks like.”

“All of us do. You can’t commit as many crimes sober.”

“That explains so much.” He replies.

“Do you want to join in on the fun?”

“By fun, you mean stage a crime scene in costume?”

“Yeah, we have a fresh set of jammies and an elf hat for ya.” I attempt to pursade.

“N—”

“You’ll be the chairman of the Elves Union. Your primary job is advocating for fair wages and workers’ rights. Santa-Rhys called me, Poppy-Rudolph, in for a favor. Seattle’s extra foggy. I’m doing it, but it turns out he added too many animals and costumes to his online sleigh, and we could use an extra set of hands.” Poppy proves she’s as fluent in Taylor-speak as she is Toddler-talk.

“Am I allowed to wear suspenders too?”

“Uniform modifications are allowed. It was one of the terms you put in your iron-clad contract.”

“Where can I find my gear?”

“Under the tree, the red box with white snowflakes and your name on it.”

“I’ll be back in ten.”

He’s back in twenty.

I don’t complain. He’s wearing everything we bought plus his suspenders with a smile on his face.

The three of us tackle the storage closet sleigh unloading. Working together, we eat and drink the feast intended for our mythical counterparts. After that, we take pictures of our handy work and ourselves and have mulled wine with the fireplace running and music playing to unwind after all the manual labor.

“I’m turning in.” Taylor rises from the couch after he finishes his drink.

“Thanks for helping out,” Poppy says from within my arm.

“Don’t mention it. It was fun.”

“Fun enough to wake up early to see how much she likes it?” I follow-up.

“Nothing is fun enough to wake up at the asscrack of dawn during my time off. Film it for me.”

Pop laughs. “We’ve got you covered.”

Poppy and I move to sit on the floor by the tree to exchange gifts after Taylor retires to his side of the house.

“Open this one first.” She hands me a medium-sized box.

“What is it?” I lift the package to my ear and shake it.

“Opening it is the best way to find out, but you do you, babe.”

Too impatient to keep up the joke, I shred into the wrapping paper tactlessly and throw off the box lid.

Folded inside is a black-sleeved baseball t-shirt with the quote, “You’re Killin’ Me, Smalls” in black sports jersey lettering.

“I love it.” I kiss her, grinning.

“That’s not all. Keep tearing through that paper.”

Flipping over a sheet of tissue paper, Harper-sized t-shirt lays. It is identical to mine in most ways, the saying being the only difference. Hers simply says, ’Smalls”.

I lose it, laughing my ass off at the accuracy.

“Pace yourself. There’s one more layer.”

I remove the last layers of tissue paper.

A red women’s retro lifeguard tank top and white cat-eye sunglasses.

“She’s our Smalls; you’re my Wendy?” My cheeks hurt from how hard I’m smiling.

“We have been for some time. Now, we have visuals. You beat me to it earlier.”

“Same page.”

“Before I agree, I need to reiterate that I am not giving birth to a baseball team.”

“We’d have to get buses to cart all of them around. No, thanks. Infielders only at most.”

“How many players is that?”

“Four.”

“Same page.” Pop initiates our first kiss.

She’d be wearing my baby powder beard If I hadn’t washed it off after we took pictures. If she hadn’t ditched her light-up nose, we wouldn’t be able to hold each other as close as possible.

Poppy pulls away too soon. I could kiss her forever.

“We better keep chugging along. We’re on a time crunch.”

“My Sandlot starter kit is the gift that keeps on giving. We should pack it in now. Nothing’s going to top it.”

“The other one I have for you could. I need to give it to you. It’s overdue.” Playful lust gives way to anxious vulnerability.

“Hey,’” I cup her face in my hands to make her look at me. “I meant it when I told you to take all the time you need. It was never just sex when we were together, and it wouldn’t be making love if your heart’s not really in it. You don’t owe me that part of you. I never want you to feel pressured.”

“I know, honey, and that’s not – you do have a right to this. It’s heavy but happy in a cathartic way. I’m second-guessing how appropriate it was to wrap it up as a present.” She rests a hand on top of one of mine.

“You know me very well. You thought I’d love it. Don’t overthink it.” I kiss her forehead.

Poppy gives me a tender kiss and leaves our embrace. She slides a large box to me.

“I love you.” Her eyes lift to mine.

“I love you, too. Always.” I kiss her cheek.

She sits on her heels and folds her hands in her lap.

“Any disclaimers before I open it?”

“I don’t want to be around when you read the part that can be read, but it’s yours. All of it is.”

“Okay. Is it a multiparter too?”

“Yes.”

“You spoil me.”

She cracks a much-appreciated smile.

My eyes heat and a lump rises in my throat when I’m face to face with a white blanket with red and pink hearts.

I gingerly run my fingers over the irreplaceable cotton square I’ve seen in person once and countless times in pictures. It still smells like her. I know because Harper’s baby-scent has yet to fully fade. Handling it with the care of a museum curator, I fold it as small is it will go before reacquainting myself with the rest of Harper’s keepsake box.

All of the ultrasound photos, her hospital bracelet, the outfit she wore home from the hospital, a pacifier, a little baggie of clippings from her first haircut, the hoodie of mine that Poppy wore when she held her for the first time, a copy of the book that prompted Harp’s first word, and a scrapbook packed-full of pictures of the months I missed – these sacred items were Pop’s most prized possessions.

Now they’re ours.

Three composition books labeled, “Dear Rhys” line the bottom of the box.

“You said you wouldn’t.” Pop pins the cover closed once I’ve pulled one out.

“I’m not going to read. I want to know how full they are.”

Her hand remains firmly in place. “Front and back, college-ruled, my usual handwriting size. Volume Three is the only one not full. It has maybe ten pages left in it.”

“Are they letters to me?” I return the book to its original location.

“Yes.”

“Did you ever plan to send them?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“The truth is morbid, but here it goes – writing letters to a deceased loved one is a common grief coping exercise. It’s to help you feel close to them as you learn to adjust to their absence. I started writing to past-life Rhys while I was still pregnant. He got the real scoop on how I was feeling, what was going on, and what I hoped would happen next – just like he did during our late-night chats about nothing and everything. I should warn you: Volume One Poppy is erratic. I like to think she mellowed out a bit after she gave birth, but I might be too close to the situation. I thought about leaving her part out, but I thought it’d only be fair that you know all that you’re trying to get yourself into.” She flicks away tears and sniffles a laugh.

I crush her to my chest. Not wanting to ugly-cry in her hair, I remain tight-lipped as I hold her. She exhales and snuggles closer, giving more of herself to me.

“You were right again.” My voice is tight when I’m finally able to speak.

“About what?” She blinks up at me.

“That I’d prefer my gift wrapped.” I clear her face, ignoring mine.

“Are you going easy on me?” She takes care of me in all ways, just as she always does.

“No. You should’ve gone second. Your other gift is going to be a giant letdown compared to what you gave me. Geeze, Penelope, I’m turning all these tricks and you granted all my holiday wishes without even trying. Way to make me feel bad about myself.”

She giggles, and it is music to my ears. “How should I make it up to you?”

“Play up how much you like what I’m about to give you.”

“It’s going to take some work, but I think I can get there.” She plays along.

I hug her and kiss her cheek. “Thank you.”

“I’m ready whenever you are.”

“It’s upstairs.” I repacking my gifts into their boxes.

She checks the time on her phone. “It’s straight to bed after I open it. Harper’s a pre-dawn riser on a normal day.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

We shutdown the first floor, and head up to the top one. First, my gifts are placed in a secure location in our room. Pop lets me guide her to the next location without questions. Harp’s sleep schedule isn’t the only one on her mind.

“After you.” I usher her into a room down the hall.

“You’re coming with me.” She tugs me in after her.

The eco lights overhead raise to their full-capacity when they sense our motion.

Glass panels replace the ceiling and outdoor-facing wall. The hardwood flooring was swapped out for stone tiles. Wooden tables are in the middle of the room, metal stools are beneath them. Industrial cabinetry with a farmhouse sink is on one of the interior brick walls. Soil-filled planters’ boxes line the wall of windows. Flower pots and gardening supplies are waiting for her on shelves. A lounge chair and side table are there for when she wants to kick back, relax and marvel at her work.

What was once a spare bedroom is now her greenhouse -- a place for her to be Poppy.

She takes it all in with the same thoughtfulness she did Harper’s room. Just like I did when she saw that space for the first time, I give her space as she initially takes it in.

I encase her in my arms when she wraps me in hers. We hold each other, swaying gently.

“Thank you.” She breathes into my ear and kisses my face.

I feel her tears streaming down my cheek.

“Enjoy your happy place, baby. You deserve it.” I tighten my hold on her.

Harper is plucked out of her crib on our way back to the master bedroom. She takes to the middle spot in our bed like a fish to water. Harp’s sprawled out like a starfish when Pop and I join her beneath the covers. We rearrange her enough to get comfortable and try to catch as many Zs as we can.

“Daaaaadddddyyyy, ake up! Ismas!” Tiny hands knead my face.

I crack an eye open. “Are you sure?”

She nods adamantly. “Anta come Eattle!”

I scrub the sleep from my eyes with the back of my hand and check my watch.

4:27.

“We better go downstairs and make sure he stopped by our house.” I smile up at her.

“Mama irst.”

“We’ve gotta wake Mama first.” I agree.

I watch as Harper gives Pop the same wake-up call. Poppy turns on her enthusiastic voice right away. We race through our morning routine and bound down the stairs.

The first thing Harper does when we enter the great room is run to the food spread we laid out.

“They eats it! No hungey!” She exclaims, pointing to the empty dishes.

“Santa left you a note.” Poppy lowers herself onto her knees to get on Harp’s level.

Harp gets to hold the card as Poppy reads over her shoulder.

“Dear Harper, you have been a very good girl this year. You have helped many people, learned new things, and made plenty of new friends. You made the nice list. Have fun with your new toys and goodies. Ho, ho, ho, Santa. P.S. Thank you for the food and drinks. The reindeer and I were hungry. You helped us do our jobs. Keep up the nice work. Have a Very Merry Christmas! Best of Wishes, Your Pals from the North Pole.”

Harper gasps at the conclusion of the letter. “I dids it! I help Anta!”

“We knew you could do it, Lovebug.” Pop kisses her cheek from behind.

“Let’s check out what they left for you,” I suggest from behind my phone’s camera.

She does her over-the-moon screech as she runs to the tree.

Poppy and I take turns recording and helping Harper unwrap her gifts. The tissue and wrapping paper, boxes, bags, ribbons, and bows are played with and enjoyed as much as the toys. She is so appreciative of every little thing, as is Poppy.

It makes me all the more inclined to try to give them the world.

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