Sum of Us

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Ch.41: Poppy

I knew Harper would be born with a full head of hair. The first sprouts were visible in my first second-trimester ultrasound. There was plenty of time for me mentally prepare myself to see that piece of Rhys in her. Her eyes – their eyes – caught me off guard.

Brown eyes are a dominant trait. I possess the gene and Rhys carries it. Only 2% of the world’s population has green eyes. The shade she inherited is rarer – it’s the pale stormy blue-green of raw emerald. Eight months of denial caught up to me when Harper’s lids fluttered open. It manifested itself as heaving sobs and an irrational fear of her leaving me in pursuit of a better mom.

The nurses and doctor were unfazed by my behavior. They see plenty of new moms cry after giving birth, and it’s common for first-timers to be wary of letting their baby out of their sight. It was a typical day at the office for them. Chelsea knew better. She waited until we were given our privacy and my tears had turned silent to delicately provide me with the obvious solution – call Rhys.

I couldn’t. What would I say? “Hey, Rhys. This is Poppy. We haven’t seen or spoken to each other in almost a year. I know I’m the one that wanted to cut all ties, but I’ve changed my mind. I gave birth to our daughter two hours ago, and I would really appreciate it if you’d step away from the life you’ve always wanted to visit us in the hospital.”

I, a disaster at her most disastrous, immediately dismissed the idea of doing the right thing. Chels didn’t push it, but as an internal compromise, I put on one of Rhys’s hoodies gifted and hummed “Field” as I held Harper skin-to-skin.

A lot of growth took place during year one. As Harper got bigger, I had to become stronger. We took the year one day at a time, and we reached the end of the first one in one piece. It was a cause for celebration. There was little worry that I would have a breakdown that resembled the one I had on her birthing day, but I wasn’t taking any chances.

I braced myself for the worst by tidying my life as much as possible – an early spring cleaning, if you will. There was literal cleaning -- my apartment was scrubbed from top to bottom, Harper’s toys were sanitized, and I purged her wardrobe of clothes she had outgrown. And there was safety net weaving – I picked up weekday graveyard shifts at the diner for a few weeks to put a little extra money in my pocket. Some of it was used to celebrate my world’s birthday; the rest was tucked away in case of an emergency.

Valentine’s Day was the first day I gave myself to exhale, and my mind’s way of saying thank you was to refrain from running its full gambit of scenarios; it settled for repeating one question the entire day: “would Rhys be pleased with who our daughter is becoming?”

That kind of wishing or wondering will not happen on birthday number three; it’s an entirely different ballgame this year.

Rhys will be spending it with us.

~~

“The wait is killing me.” Rhys’s eyes never leave Harper.

She’s sound asleep on his chest.

He and I commemorated Harper’s birthday moment at 12:04 am. We gave her -- and each other -- kisses and went to sleep. Our officially wake up time was 4:00 AM. We want to meet our two-year-old at the same time. She woke up at 4:30 on Christmas; we decided to air on the side of caution today. It is 4:52, and she has yet to stir.

“Waiting is the name of the game on birthing day. This bed is comfortable. You’re having a sweet snuggle. I’m not a beached whale waiting for her calf to Alien her. I vote we leave her be.” I run my fingers through his hair.

I’m sitting up in bed, my back on the headboard. His head’s propped up on a stack of pillows, giving me a height advantage.

He tilts his face upward to look at me. “I have the hospital pictures. You gave them to me for Christmas. There is not a whale in sight, only a Poppy being beautiful and brave. And if or when we have more kids, my hand is yours to crush, you can call me all the names you want, and I’ll beg for tons of drugs on your behalf. I will not stop hounding doctors and nurses until you’re so hopped up that you can’t feel your face.”

“I think I can bear life under those conditions.” I’m smiling as I lean down to kiss his forehead. “Happy Valentine’s Day, by the way.” I settle back into my seat. “Do you like your present?”

“I love it. She’s the exact model I wanted.” His eyes return to Harper.

“What do you think of the wrapping?”

I put Harper in a white onesie with pink and red hearts after Rhys fell asleep. It was the closest one I could find to her baby blanket. And I clipped a little pink bow in her hair -- what’s a wrapped gift without a bow?

“A beautiful touch. Thank you, Wen.” His voice is soft and sincere. His eyes are brimming with tears.

“I should’ve called. I should’ve but I was terrified and exhausted —” My tears pelt his skin because I’ve yet to put on my glasses and am leaning forward. “Sorry.” I apologize for the rain as I quickly dry his face. “I’m sorry.” I sniffle. “I’m so sorry—”

“Stop apologizing and Spiderman-kiss me already.” He interrupts, his jaw taught as he fights not to shed the moisture in his eyes.

I breathe a laugh, put my hands on either side of his face, and give him a mild version of the upside-down kiss Mary Jane gives Spiderman in the 2002 movie starring Tobey Maguire.

“Can I go back to apologizing now?” I ask upon the completion of our tame reenactment.

“No. All that needed to be said is in the ‘Dear My Rhys’ letter you wrote while you in the hospital. I have it; I can read it whenever I want, and I know exactly how hard it was for you to do it without me. We’re good. I promise.” He rests his hand on my leg. “Now, open your present.”

“You didn’t have to get me anything.” I clear my face with the hem of my t-shirt.

“Well, I did. You deserve it. It’s in my suitcase. Please open it.”

“Since you asked so nicely.” I put on my glasses.

The rectangular box’s wrapping paper is covered in red poppies.

The tag reads:

For my Poppy

With all the love in our world, your Rhys

“Cheeseball.” I rejoin him and Harper in bed with a smile.

“It’s true.” He does a little shrug, careful not to wake Harp.

I carefully lift the pieces of tape off of the package, wanting to save the wrapping paper for later. Upon lifting the lid, I have to clamp my hand over my mouth to keep from giving the entire suite a belted-laugh-wake-up call.

Rhys gifted me a VCR, an AV to HDMI cable converter to make it possible to use it with modern devices, and VHS copies of FernGully: The Last Rainforest and FernGully 2:The Magical Rescue.

The first movie was shown to our Kindergarten class on Earth Day. Five-year-old Poppy was instantly hooked. FernGully was to me what Tangled is to Harper. I watched it and its sequel so many times that I can still recite most of the movie.

In my childhood bedroom, I had a FernGully blanket on my bed and the movie posters on my wall. They remained there until I left for college. Rhys didn’t make fun of me when he saw them. He looked at me, smiled, and said: “You’re incredible.”

We watched the movies at his house for our next date. I did laugh when he insisted we watch his VHS copies of the film instead of my DVDs. He had a DVD player. He said, “Crysta and Batty Koda would be disgusted if they knew we were watching their masterpieces with lasers.”

My love for him went from truly to madly that night. I told him after he kissed goodnight. He called me ‘perfect’ for expressing myself with Savage Garden lyrics. Naturally, he put Truly Madly Deeply on the next playlist he curated for me.

I have to get out of bed because the silent alternative to vocalizing my approval makes my body shake. My legs give out when my feet hit the ground. That’s how I end up on the floor of Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel’s Mount Whitney suite’s master bedroom in the fetal position with achy sides and tracks of laugh-tears streaming down my face.

I return to bed when I have finally gotten ahold of myself.

“So…how’d I do?” He shoots me a coy smile.

I take a deep, collective breath. “You’ve still got it, Squints. Knocked it straight out the park. Thank you.” I lay down and hug him as I press a firm kiss to his lips.

“Is it ridiculous enough for you?”

“You got me a VCR that I can plug into my laptop. You might have entered a new nonsense stratosphere.”

“How else would we watch classics on the go?”

“No idea.” I rest my head on his chest, putting myself face to face with the person we made with love.

With a sigh and an eye rub, Harper rejoins the world of the waking without influnce. It took effort on my part to keep Rhys from coaxing her awake.

I jolt to the headboard to make sure I’m not the one she sees first. She squirms in Rhys’s arms and props herself on his chest.

“Hiya, Daddy!” She chirps, her voice not the slightest bit raspy.

“Good morning, Lovebug. Do you know what day it is?” His voice is, overcome with a tidal wave of emotions.

“My bird-day!”

“It is. How old are you?” The first of his tears fall.

“Oh, no! Daddy sad? No sad. It o-tay. I ere. I help.” She uses her tiny hands to wipe his face.

He breathes a laugh. “I’m not sad, baby girl. I’m so happy that it’s falling out of my eyes. That happens sometimes. I get to spend the whole day with you.”

“Yay! We pway! It’s ots and ots of fun!” She’s beaming as she pets his hair.

“You never told me how old you are.”

“Two!”

“You’re going to be bigger than me soon.”

“Yeah. I big girl.”

“May I have a hug from my big girl?”

She gives him an eyes-closed, all-encompassing squeeze. He matches her intensity.

“I love you.” He breathes into her hair.

“I wove you oh, oh uch, Daddy.” She wiggles closer.

He kisses the top of her head.

Rhys has 100% of her attention. Her mop of hair is working as blinders. Knowing it should remain that way to make up for the birthdays I stole, I stealthily push back the covers and creep out of bed.

“Harp, it’s Mama’s turn for a birthday girl hug.” Rhys foils my escape.

“Mama!” She whips her head in my direction and reaches for me from within his arms.

“Good morning, Lovebug!” I can’t resist taking her into my arms. “It’s your special day.” I sit on the bed with her.

“Uh-huh, I big girl. I two!”

“Wow!” I gasp. “What are we going to do today, big girl?”

“Dizzy wit fammy and pups. Wear Unzel dwess with Unzel.”

“Are you ready to start?” I ask.

She nods. “Time go.”

“Did you hear that, Rhys?” I look over at him.

“Let’s get this show on the road.” He hops to his feet and claps his hands together.

We go through Harper’s morning routine as a family. She gets to pretend to brush her teeth as Rhys and I actually take care of ours. He brushes hers for real, and I take care of flossing them. I hand Rhys supplies as he changes her diaper. There is zero question as to what she will wear today.

Rhys had Rapunzel’s princess gown custom made for her. It is an exact replica of the dress she wears ar the end of the film when she has been officially reinstated as her kingdom’s princess. The fabrics selected for it are a vast upgrade from the itchy, over-sheened synthetics that compose Harp’s most beloved costume. The swirls, sunbeams, and floral detailing are immaculately embroidered. The ribbons that criss-cross up the bodice of the dress are silky and elegant.

It’s too lovely a dress to trust a two-year-old not to destroy, but I kept my mouth shut when Rhys showed me its page in his binder. He wants our princess to feel like one on their first birthday together. Pumping the brakes was inconceivable. Besides, the store-bought Rapunzel costume Harper has is the dress Rapunzel wears for the majority of the film, the dress Mother Gothel provided for her. Harp can rotate ‘Unzel’ looks now. No more meltdowns when she learns the dress “Pascal wants her to wear” is in the wash.

I step into the bathroom with my clothes as Rhys continues to get Harper ready. I dressed our newborn in the clothes she wore outside for the first time. He gets to do the same for our two-year-old.

My Harper’s Birthday t-shirt with jeans, purple Keds, and personalized Minnie Mouse Ear hat comply with the party’s dress code. A few touches of makeup are applied, and I’m done.

Harper is dressed and seated crossed-legged on the bed. Rhys is brushing her hair as the two of them sing Rapunzel’s healing enchantment. I sit in the nearest chair and silently watch their daddy-daughter time.

Rhys side-parts her hair and brushes her bangs to either side, exposing her forehead. That is the extent of the styling. Rapunzel’s hair is down when she wears the dress Harper has on; hers has to be the same way. To add a birthday twist, he puts a multicolored-sequined Mickey Mouse Ear Birthday Headband on her. The space between the ears holds a cupcake made of neon pink tulle and white felt with a sparkling lavender fabric candle.

Harper overzealously shrieks when she sees herself in the mirror. It progresses to jumping and flailing her arms as she points out everything she likes about what she is wearing. When she figures out her dress billows well, she twirls as fast as she can, giggling as she goes. She falls to the ground when she is too dizzy to keep whirling, laughing harder than she did while she was spinning.

Without needing to consult each other, Rhys and I fall onto the ground with her. Harper always finds it funny when we pretend to fall. It has to be dramatic enough for her to be able to tell it is fake. She will try to nurse us back to health otherwise.

“Mama and Daddy silly!” She says as she continues to produce the best sound in the world.

“You are too.” I tickle her tummy.

She tips over when Rhys joins me.

This could be all that we do today, and she would be perfectly content.

Harper can find something to love about everything. Her immense capacity to love and the ease at which she can find joy and spread it is perhaps the best thing about her.

What if they change that by – no, don’t even finish that thought. It’s not going to happen. Today will be a good day, a one filled with happiness. He promised. I have to believe in him. He is trusting me not to take her away again. I owe this to him. He loves--

Focusing on my weirdos, who are pawing at each other and roaring, pulls me out of my thoughts.

“I ush your air?” Harper stops playing to pet his hair.

“Yes, my cub. I tame your mane. You do mine. It’s the circle of life.”

“Yet she isn’t allowed to watch T-h-e L-i-o-n K-i-n-g.” I retort.

“Do you want to explain that scene to her, Penelope?” He stands and puts her on her feet.

“Taylor could do it.”

“No way. He’d scar her more than the scene would by throwing in real l-i-o-n facts.”

“He’s going to do it at some point.” I sit in the chair I was previously occupying.

“When that time comes, I will do things I won’t scar Harper by saying aloud.” He hands Harper his brush.

They are soon back on the floor. Rhys is sitting cross-legged as Harper stands behind him, humming as she brushes his hair.

I sneakily record a video of my loveable, hair-crazed family in their natural habitat.

“All done!” Harper announces.

“Do I look pretty?” He pulls her into his lap. “I have to look nice for a big girl’s birthday party.”

“Oh pwetty, Daddy. Likes mine.”

“You’re a lifesaver. I wouldn’t be able to look good without your help.”

“I help.”

“Best helper I know.”

Her high-pitched giggles ring through the room as he covers her face with kisses.

“Silly, Daddy.” She shakes her head at him when he has finished kissy-tickling her.

“Do you like your daddy silly?”

“Yeah!” She’s all smiles and pep.

“I like my daughter Harper-y. Are you Harper?”

“Yes, I Hawper. You Daddy. That Mama,” She points in my direction without looking.

“That’s right.” He presses a kiss to her forehead. “We belong together.”

“We nice.” She’s rubbing his stubble jaw the way she did the day they met.

“Time to celebrate with Mama. I need to go potty.”

“No bye-bye.” Her voice instantly turns panicked.

“I won’t be long.”

“No bye-bye.” She throws her arms around his neck to prevent him from leaving.

“In and out, super quick. You won’t notice that I’m gone.”

She shakes her head, still holding him.

“Lovebug, I need you to help me wake up Aunt Chelsea. She’ll miss out on all the fun if we don’t.” I rub her back and speak in a soothing voice.

“Daddy help.” She’s yet to relinquish her hold on him.

“He needs to put on his bye-bye clothes. His feet will hurt if he goes outside without shoes. We can’t see Rapunzel if we don’t go outside.” I comb my fingers through her hair.

“Bye-bye cwoes, Daddy.” She frees him.

“Wake up calls, daughter. Uncle Taylor wants you to jump on his bed. He told me. Will you do it for me?”

“Oh, yes. I do ood ob. I jump real big.”

“You always do a good job. You’re a chip off both blocks – smartypants like your mama, goofball like me. Go have fun. I’ll catch up later.” He stands from the bed with her in his strong arms and transitions her to me after giving her a smooch on the cheek.

She blows him a kiss as he walks away. He pretends to catch it. Harper cracks up.

“We’ve got work to do, birthday girl.” I’m able to carry her out of the room without protest.

Our lodging might be the most absurd element of Harper’s birthday. Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel and Spa is within the Disneyland park. It’s done up to look like a craftsman cottage. A monorail runs through it. There are three pools, one of which as a 90ft waterslide. There’s a private entrance to Disney’s California Adventure park. The Napa Rose restaurant, the location of the Princess Breakfast Adventures, is on the first floor.

Our suite, Mount Whitney, is one of two presidential suites. Rhys settled on this particular one because purple is the most predominant color in its color scheme. There’s a spacious living room with a fireplace and vaulted ceilings; the full kitchen and dining room are right off it. Both balconies (yes, there are two) have patio furniture and spectacular views of the pools and parks.

The smaller of the two has a fireplace. There’s the master bedroom, which Rhys, Harper, and I are sharing. The second bedroom has two queen-sized beds; Ian and Kyle are sleeping in it. The third bedroom has a king-sized bed, and it’s occupied by Chelsea. Taylor’s on the pull out couch in the living room.

The rest of our entourage has private bedrooms on the same floor with keys to our suite. The goal is to be together as much as possible, and we most definitely have space.

“Auuuuuntttieee Ellllsssie! Ake uuuup!” Harper sings in a Rhys-like manner when we enter her bedroom.

I can’t tell if it’s nature or nurture.

Chelsea groans and throws her arm over her face. I release Harper onto the bed. She crawls on top of her aunt.

“Auntie Elsie! Ake up!” Harp repeats as she struggles to push her arm away.

Chels gives our girl a win and drops her arm to the bed. Her eyes are still closed, though.

“It my bird-day! We pway wit Unzel!” Harper squishes Chelsea’s face with both hands.

“It’s my girly’s birthday?” Chels cracks an eye open.

“I two!”

Feeding off Harper’s energy, Chelsea rises and shines. She sits up and gives her goddaughter all the attention she’s after. We leave her to get ready and head to the living room, where Taylor is sleeping on the pull out bed.

I stand Harper on the couch.

“NUNNNNCKLE AYLORRR!” She jumps.

Taylor wordless pulls the duvet over his head.

“NUNNNNCLE AYLORR! AKKKE UUUUP!” She bounces to her hands and knees and starts shaking him.

“Later.” He grumbles from beneath the covers.

“No. No. We go bye-bye.” She pulls on his cocoon.

They have a tug of war. I help her win.

He sighs heavily in defeat.

“Hi!” Harper beams down at him.

“Happy birthday, Harp. I like your cupcake.” HE sleepily compliments.

“Tank you. I two!”

“You’re getting up there. Are you waking everyone up or did your daddy tell you to jump on me before the sun comes up?”

“Daddy!”

“Can you help me with something?”

“Oh, yes. I help.” Harper’s all ears.

“Tell him I’m going to teach you all sorts of new things the next time I babysit.”

“O-tay.”

“High-five.” Tay holds up his hand.

She hits his hand with all her might.

“You’re much stronger than yesterday. It really must be your birthday.” He shakes out his hand, exaggerating her strength.

“Uh-huh. I big girl.”

“A good one at that. Your mommy’s done a stellar job with you.” He speaks to me through her.

“I wove Mama oh uch.”

“I’m right there with you. I’m on the fence about your dad.”

“Wove Daddy ots and ots.”

“He passed my test. You can tell him that too.”

“O-tay.”

“Also, can you do to Uncle Kyle and Uncle Ian what you did to me? They will love it, especially Uncle Kyle.”

“Yeah!” She tries to get off couch by herself. I help her do it safely. Harper promptly runs away in search of her uncles.

Taylor stretches before standing. I’m hugging him the moment he stands.

“All I did was tell the truth.”

“Thus the hug.” I remain in it.

“Your decency standards are almost as low as hers.”

“They are not. She hugged a room service waiter the other day. I’d never do that.” I contest as I release him.

“You thanked him like four times.”

“That’s called being polite.”

“He did his job. We tipped him for it. Nothing more needed to be done.”

“Agree to disagree.”

“Both of you, too nice.” He shakes his head.

“It’s not a problem if we’re assertive, grumps.”

“I’d have some argument against that if it weren’t so damn early. Make sure she warns Rhys about the babysitting promise. I mean it.”

“She will. She takes her helping very seriously. It’s a side effect of her being ‘too nice’.”

“Raincheck on my retort.” He yawns as he heads for the bathroom.

They performed last night. He has every reason to be exhausted.

Ian and Kyle are awake and chatting with Harper about her birthday when I reach their room.

There is very little they will not do for her. I’ve yet to see them turn down one of her requests, but there has to be something that crosses the line. We’ll discover their limits someday.

“Daddy, all done!” Harper zips to Rhys.

Our outfits are almost identical. His Mouse Ears cap lacks the red bow that mine possesses and his purple shoes are Vans instead of Keds; those are the only differences. Harper’s favorite color and characters have never looked better splayed across his muscular chest and broad shoulders.

Rhys hoists Harper onto his hip as soon as she is within reach.

“Did you do your job?”

She nods. “Real ood and Nunckle Aylor fashcards.”

“Why would you let him do flashcards with her? You know it takes him forever to get dressed. We have a tight schedule to keep, Penelope.”

“They didn’t do flashcards. He told her to tell you he’d be teaching her many things the next time he babysits to get back at you for what you had her do.” I relay with a smile.

“I’d like to see him try,” Rhys growls.

“He will. Best not to leave them alone together.”

“Remind me to tell Chris he’s Harper’s godfather.”

“Nunckle Aylor.” Harp disputes.

“Uncle Taylor wants to be bad, very, very bad and I don’t want him to hurt your feelings.”

“Nunckle Aylor no mean. He real nice.”

“He’s not, not even a little bit, but I get your attachment to him. I’m cursed with it too.” He kisses her chubby cheek.

Park early entry is at 7:00 AM. The princess breakfast is our first activity. Rhys is strictly enforcing the schedule with his cupcake-wearing helper and the dogs who would literally follow her to the ends of the Earth.

I’m assisting Becca by making sure Robby stays out of the toilet. She is helping the other kids put the finishing touches on their costumes. Beck dressed Robby as Nemo before moving on to his cousins.

You may be asking yourself, “why isn’t Rob helping Becca by dressing Robby or playing with him to keep his toys from taking a dip in disgusting waters?” Simple answer: there’s only one person he cares about, and it’s not his wife or son.

I checked in with Becca to see if she needed help with anything as soon as I saw her this morning. She never asks for help. She doesn’t want to acknowledge what Rob is like, but she is never one to turn down help with her Wilde one. She wouldn’t be able to survive without it.

Robby is in the living room of the suite with me. We are playing with toys on the floor with Bubble Guppies playing on the television.

“Imma fish like Flip.” He tells me for the millionth time.

“Does he know?” I continue to push the rolling sailboat he put me in charge of manning.

“Uh-huh. Mommy sent him a card.”

“Did he write back?”

“Yep. He likes it.”

“Is he still happy on the farm?”

“Uh-huh, I get to see him soon to swim and run.”

“Can you swim?”

He nods. “Real good. Just like Uncle Leo.”

“Did he teach you?”

“Uh-huh. We can go really fast. Nemo’s not fast.”

“That’s okay. He tries his best. That is all that matters.”

“Uncle Leo will show ’em, just like me.”

“One day.” I smile at him.

We make wave noises as we move our boats.

I catch movement out of the corner of my eye. Rob walks right past us without a word, going straight to the kitchen.

“Good morning, Rob.” I bite, anger seeping.

“Sure.” He opens the refrigerator.

The hotel has it stocked with complimentary drinks and snacks. Raiding it is not an issue. It’s his complete lack of concern for anyone else in the room. Robby doesn’t say anything to him, either, like he knows to leave him alone. It makes me that much angrier.

“You’re not in dress code. You have to wear your shirt to attend.”

He finally turns to look at me. “You’re insane if you think I’m wearing that.”

“Anyone else would call it loving my daughter and her dad, and wanting them to have the best day possible.”

“It wouldn’t be such a big deal if they’d known each other longer than 15 minutes.”

My skin and heart inflame with fury. “Get out. You’re uninvited.”

“What if they ask if there’s trouble in paradise? Someone could answer.” He taunts with a smug smirk.

I stay quiet, still vibrating with rage.

“That’s what I thought.” He goes back to the fridge.

I pull out my phone. My fingers are trembling as they glide across the keyboard.

Me: Rob’s being Rob. Can you bounce him? I need him away from me

Leo: Am I allowed to use force?

Me: Yes, please

Leo charges into the suite wearing his Harper’s Birthday t-shirt.

“Hi, Uncle Leo.” Robby waves at him.

“Morning, Nemo. Hit me with your fin.”

Robby low-fives him.

“Careful with those boats. That’s how they catch you.” Leo resumes barreling toward an unsuspecting Rob.

Leo yanks him out of the refrigerator.

“You’ll spoil breakfast.” Holding him by the front of his shirt, Leo uses Rob’s back to close the fridge.

“I was getting a drink.”

“There are drinks downstairs. Go get dressed.”

“I am.”

“No shirt, no costume, no service. Rhys’s rules. Harper’s wishes.”

“It’s stupid. I’m not wearing it.”

Leo drags him out of the room by the shirt he shouldn’t be wearing.

“Where are they going?” Robby looks at the hallway.

“To do boring grown-up things. Let’s keep playing.” I boop his nose with the tip of my finger.

Leo can be…well, Leo, but he always comes to bat when an outsider disrespects his family. He’s of the mentality that he can mess with us, but no one else can.

“Oh, honey. What happened?” Becca gentle prods the bruise forming on Rob’s cheekbone.

“I bumped into a door.” He diverts his eyes from Leo, who is silently daring him to say something.

“We need to put ice on this before it swells. You’ve got to start being more careful.” Beck takes him to the kitchen by the arm.

“She’s right. You could get seriously hurt if you don’t watch yourself.” Leo calls after them.

“Thank you. “ I lean over and whisper to him.

“Punching him was a great way to start the day. Happy Harper’s birthday to me.”

“Daddy, daddy, look at our dresses!” Grace and Courtney come running up to him, holding hands.

“They’re really nice. You’ll blend with the other princesses.”

He listens to them talk and engages with the amount of enthusiasm that only a person who truly enjoys kids has.

Everyone else complies with the dress code without force. All the adults have chosen to wear their t-shirts with their ears of choice. The children opted for costumes.

Chloe is Ralph from Up. An Up themed Mickey Mouse ears replace his scout cap. Becca braided Lo’s hair into pigtails. Kevin is Ironman. His Mouse Ears are too. Gracie is Ariel, of course. Beck has her makeup and red wig looking just right. Seashells serve as ears on her Minnie Mouse headband. Courtney is Sleeping Beauty.

Taylor tries to bribe her with a new costume and whatever else she wants at the gift shops if she agrees to go as another character. He has a substancial amount of problems with that movie. Lindsey kicks his leg, threatens to kick him somewhere else if he doesn’t leave her daughter alone, and the matter is dropped. I’m not endorsing a movie that is centered around a nonconsensual kiss, but Court looks awfully cute in Aurora’s dress and a matching Minnie Mouse headband.

Robby, of course, is Nemo, and Gizmo and Widget’s collars are purple for the special occasion.

Rhys and Harper are pleased with the way our group looks.

I’m happy they’re happy.

“How are we feeling today?” Chelsea pulls me aside as our herd files out of the suite to go to breakfast.

“We?”

“You and me. You’re making a face, and I need to know who I need to ‘talk’ to. My guess isn’t Rhys. He and Lovebug are literally skipping to the elevator.”

They’re holding hands too.

I love them so much.

“They’ve been practicing that since she watched the Wizard of Oz, pre-drama, obviously. She’s gotten good at it.”

“Have you been online? Is that it?”

“No. What’s online?”I jerk my head in her direction.

“Same nonsense. You and Rhys aren’t doing it. You’re better than that. No need to dwell.”

The Zara war is still raging. Some view Rhys’s wave as mean and passive-aggressive. Most view what she did on stage as the real offense. The pictures of Rhys and I on the red carpet in the photobooth have been splashed everywhere. The majority of the population thinks our playful pics are cute. The minority sees all the pictures taken of us that night as obnoxious publicity stunts.

“I’m still out of touch with my fiction.”

“If not that, what? I will keep asking until you tell me.” She playfully nudges me with her elbow.

“Rob ticked me off. Leo dealt with him. I’ve almost bounced back. I’ll be skipping with my loves in no time.”

“If you’re not, he’s getting kneed until he can’t walk.”

“I don’t doubt that.”

That’s why I have to downplay it.

“You can go back to your cuties now. I just wanted to check-in. Keep me posted on the ball-busting. I’ll do it, hot mama.” She slaps my butt.

“I know.” I emit a little giggle.

“Mama, I skip.” Harper puts her other hand in mine when I stand beside her as we wait for the elevator to reach our floor.

“I saw. That was A+ big girl skipping.”

“Wit Daddy.”

“I saw him too. It looked like fun.”

“You pway?” She blinks up at me.

“I will next time. I promise.”

“Yay!”

‘You okay?’ Rhys asks with his eyes.

I force a tiny smile and nod.

Becca’s prick of a husband isn’t going to derail this day. He doesn’t deserve that kind of power.

Rhys is unconvinced, but instead of pressing the issue, he presses a sweet kiss to my lips.

“Which one is the number one?” I ask Harper once most of us have loaded into the elevator.

It’ll take two cars to get all of us downstairs.

“One.” She points to the correct button. “I two.”

“I know, Lovebug, but we need to go to the first floor to see the princesses. Will you press the number one for us?”

Rhys gives her a boost to help her reach it. She pushes the first-floor button. She gasps when it lights up

“So pwetty.”

“Does it look like Rapunzel’s lanterns?”

“Uh-huh. Bird-day dweam.”

“Is it yours too?”

She nods with the brightest smile. “Wights!”

“You heard her, Squints, she wants to spend her day in an elevator.”

“We are going to Disneyland and California Adventure, and that is final.”

“But that’s not her dream.”

“Lovebug, do you want to ride lots of rides and make loads of new friends?” Rhys asks her.

“Oh, yes.”

“New dream.” He points to her. “We’re going. You’ll just have to deal with all the fun we’re going to have, Wendy. Do it for Smalls.”

“Okay.” I’m stifling a full-on laugh as I kiss his cheek.

Our table in the restaurant is large enough to accommodate all 20 of us. The dogs are in their crates in the suite for sanitary reasons. The opulent room’s atmosphere and the princesses milling about keep Harper too distracted to beg for her buddies.

The birthday girl is at the head of our long table. Rhys and I are on either side of her. All of us, princesses and Harper included, sing Happy Birthday. Harp blows out the two candles in her blueberry muffin. We clap for her accomplishment. Always one for clapping, she joins us. I pull the candles out of her food before she tries to eat them.

“Do you like your breakfast, birthday girl?” Rhys flips her hair over her shoulders to keep food out of it.

“Oh, yummy. We sare?” She tries to feed him a toddler fork full of scrambled eggs.

Rhys accepts her offer, disregarding the ones on his plate.

“Those are delicious. Do you want to try some of mine?”

“Yes.”

As they needlessly feed each other the food on their identical plates, I struggle to eat through a smile.

We go back upstairs after our meal for pre-park potty breaks and puppy pickup. Rhys texts the guests of honor after Harper has had her diaper changed. He meets them in the hallway to give them a once over to make sure they look perfect -- all to impress a two-year-old who would be perfectly content riding up and down an elevator all day.

“Harp, there are friends here to see you.” Rhys leads the actors into the living room.

Harper stops petting Gizmo and Widget to look at who they could be.

She steam-whistle-screams to the point of turning red. The dogs retreat in fear. The rest of us have our phones pointed at the birthday girl, who is sprinting to--

“UNZEL! ENE!” She gulps air into her lungs between names.

“Happy birthday, Harper! Eugene and I are here for your party.” Rapunzel, whose real name is Brianne, puts her hands on her knees and bends down to get on Harper’s level.

Harp flings herself into her arms and starts bawling.

Rhys and I are on our knees to comfort her as soon as the first cry rings out.

“Lovebug, it’s okay. They’re your friends.” I rub her back.

“U-UNZEL! ENE!” She continues wailing within Brianne’s arms.

“Are you crying because you’re too happy?” Rhys smooths down her hair.

Harp’s clearly not scared of her. She’s on the verge of choking her by hugging her too hard.

“Y-yes.” Harper struggles to pull in air.

“You won’t be able to sing and play with them if you’re crying.” I kiss her cheek.

“Pway.” She releases Brianne from the chokehold she has on her to rub her eyes with the back of her hand.

“Come here, baby.” I hold out my hands.

She comes to me, still sniffling.

I clear her face as best I can. “Today, we’re going to sing songs and play and play until we can’t play anymore with Rapunzel and Eugene.”

“I ing ongs wit Daddy.”

“Daddy will sing them with you too. He’s your singing buddy.”

“He ood ob.”

“He does do a good job. Are you ready to go bye-bye and start playing?” I take her hands into mine.

“We pway!” Her beautiful smile is back.

“As much as you want, Lovebug.” I kiss her forehead.

“Time pway. We go bye-bye.” She tells me as though I didn’t just say it.

“We need to get you cleaned up first. You can’t sing with a stuffy nose.” Rhys scoops her up and swings her high in the air.

He succeeds in making her laugh.

“I no all done. We no go bye-bye.” She directs Brianne and Aiden as Rhys carries her to the nearest bathroom.

The adults in the room, minus the shell shocked actors, start laughing as soon as Rhys and Harper are out the room.

“I am so sorry about that. I knew there would be screaming, but no tears.” I apologize profusely as Robby, Gracie, and Courtney bumrush who they believe to be the real Rapunzel and Eugene.

“Did I do something wrong? I’ve never worked with kids before.” Brianne pats Courtney and Grace’s heads as they hug her legs.

“You were spot on -- couldn’t have been better. She is a theatrical person and expresses herself very loudly. She gets it from Rhys. I should’ve given you a disclaimer about them.”

“What should I do if she does it again? It’s her birthday. I don’t want the poor thing to spend it crying.”

“It won’t happen again. She was overwhelmed by the surprise. She knows you are here now. I can say for sure that she will be her bubbly self the rest of the day.”

Brianne helps Mark answer all the Tangled questions the little ones are bombarding him with. I swivel around and go to the witnesses to her outburst.

“It’s good we introduced them privately. A paramedic would’ve been called if we were in the park.” I exhale and plop down beside Chelsea on the couch.

“Gracie was worse when she met Ariel last year. I had to drag her off of her so that other kids could get a turn. She kicked and screamed herself to sleep.” Leo recounts with a haunted expression as though he’s reliving it.

“It was restraining order bad.” Lindsey agrees.

“Harper was louder. Those lungs – I’ve never heard anything like ’em.” Grams shakes her head in disbelief.

“Alllll Doooone. Time to go bye-bye!” Harper sings, toddling into the room in front of Rhys.

“What she said. Let’s get moving, people. We’re behind schedule.” Rhys taps his watch.

Harper is holding my hand and Rhys’s as we enter the park. We want her with us just in case something happens. Brianne and Aiden are in front of us, pretending to give us a tour of their home. Harper surprised us by not even trying to hold who she is convinced are Rapunzel and Eugene’s hands instead of ours. Rhys and I had a speech prepared to lure her back to us. No need for it. She grabbed hold of us before we had left the suite, and has only let go of us to push the elevator button.

The first ride of the day is one that serves an actual purpose: The Disneyland Monorail. We are boarding at the station in Downtown Disney. It will take us straight to the Tomorrowland section of the park, saving us walking time and lowers the probability of Rhys and the guys getting recognized. And trains are fun. Harper, Rhys, and Taylor have been talking about the ones at Disney for days. We will be riding the steam engine one later today.

“We pway big Twain, Mama.” Harper looks up at me with a brilliant smile.

“It is going to go fast too. Are you going to look out the window like you do on the plane?”

“Cowds?!”

“No, but there will be plenty of other pretty things to look at. Are you excited?”

“I cited.” She agrees before turning to Rhys. “Daddy, I cited.”

“I’m excited too, birthday girl. Are you cold? It’s a little chilly this morning.”

“Unzel no acket.”

Harper’s wearing short sleeves. Though it is California, it’s still technically the winter. The sun isn’t all the way up yet, and there’s a bit of a breeze. Brianne is wearing the Rapunzel dress that has sleeves.

“My magic keeps me warm. Eugene is wearing a jacket.” Brianne looks at him lovingly.

I almost believe they are in love. Rhys picked good ones.

I'll be sure to never tell him that.

“Your jean jacket will look nice with your dress.” I try to persuade Harp again.

She gasps loudly. “Gee acket! Gee acket! Gee acket!” She jumps up and down.

Rhys tugs her diaper bag off of his shoulder and kneels on the ground. “You are the best daughter I could’ve ever asked for.” He hugs her tight.

“It’s a jean jacket, Rhys,” Lindsey says wryly.

“I wouldn’t expect you to understand. Becca does.”Jokingly dramatic, he throws his response over his shoulder as he fetches Harp’s jacket.

“We’d be twinies all the time if she were mine,” Beck confirms it.

“You could wear complementary outfits with Robby like Rhys does with Harper. I see loads of parent-child ensembles during my photography sessions. ” Chelsea shares.

Becca’s face falls a touch, but she recovers quickly enough to be virtually undetectable. “He likes his clothes. It’s best not to change them.” She smiles as she rubs her little Nemo’s shoulder.

“Rob!” Taylor yells from the other side of Rhys to be heard over the people mingling about.

Of course, he noticed her look. Taylor notices everything.

“Yeah?” Rob’s in the back of the pack, talking to Carter, a member of our security team.

Rhys hates Carter for some reason but has put that hatred aside to have all security hands on deck. Today, they are casually dressed as to not draw too much attention.

“I hate you!” Taylor barks.

“Taylor Thomas.” Claudia gets onto him in a hushed tone, stepping into his personal space.

“What? I didn’t curse and I still said what we were all thinking it. I’m improving.”

“You are looking sharp, Harp. That’s how we dress for a birthday party.” Rhys makes the final adjustments on her jacket.

“I wike my gee acket.”

“That’s why you’re my favorite.” He kisses her cheek.

“She’s your only.” I remind him when he’s standing.

“Semantics romantics. “ He steals a quick kiss from my lips.

Harper sits in my lap on the train. She would likely and unintentionally knee Rhys trying to get a better look out the window, and we can’t have that. It could change the way we give her siblings to ‘pway’ with.

Rhys said it as we party planned and made a note of it in his binder’s seating chart section. The aforementioned monstrosity is in Harper’s diaper bag.

Harper loves the train. We end up riding it from point A to point B three times, putting us 39 minutes behind Rhys’s schedule. He doesn’t complain. Harper’s the only person who could get away with such a crime today.

“These are our best friends Mickey and Minnie Mouse.” Rapunzel introduces them when we encounter the costumed duo in the park.

Harp's cousins are all over them, and their parents are taking pictures. Harper keeps her distance.

She looks at the characters with scrunched eyes and a frown. “They no ouse. Ouses ittle.”

I snort and have to cover my mouth to keep my belted laugh contained.

“Taylor!” Rhys yells at him.

“I swear I didn’t do this. There are bigger fish to fry in this park, like the two princesses that teach kids it’s okay for people to kiss you while you’re unconscious if they’re in a position of power. I wouldn’t waste my time on the size of mice.” Tay grins with his hands in his pockets.

“I’m sincerely worried about your future kids,” Ian tells him.

"Don't waste your time on something that won't exist."

“We read animal books all the time. This is probably my fault.” I admit to Rhys.

“I know it’s your fault. She’s a genius because of you.”

“I think I can fix this. Hang tight.” I kiss his cheek.

“I need to go potty. I’ll be right back, Lovebug.”

“No go bye-bye, Mama.”

“I won’t be gone long. Rapunzel, Eugene, and Daddy need your help singing songs. How about you do that and tell me all about it when I get back?”

“I help.”

“That’s my girl.” I kiss her cheek.

I run as quickly as I can to the nearest gift shop. It doesn’t take long for me to find small Mickey and Minnie plushes. The ones I select talk if you press their hands. With a simple scan of my park pass bracelet, I purchase the dolls and hurry back to my family.

A crowd has formed. Children and caregivers are watching as Brianne, Mark, Rhys, and Harper sing. Phones are out, recording the impromptu performance. It’s innocent enough, but it puts me on edge. We have no control over where their content goes.

I wait until the song ends. The gathered group is still clapping when I reach Rhys and Harper. He has picked her up and is standing with his back to the group of onlookers.

“Mama, I big usic.”

“I saw, lovebug. You did such a good job." I tickle her tummy.

“Tank you. It fun.”

“It looked it. Guess who I ran into after I pottied?” I pull my purchases from behind my back.

“Ickey and Innie!” She grins. “I Hawper. It my bird-day. I two.” She gushes.

I press Mickey’s hand, making the laugh recording play.

She laughs along. “Silly, Icky.”

She talks to and laughs with the stuffed animals the way we expected her to go for the costumed park actors.

The rides and attractions she can get on bring her immense joy as well. The rest of us are in high spirits too. Rob is easy to ignore when your daughter is singing and talking her female hair hero’s ear off while holding her ultimate hair hero’s hand. Rhys’s face is nothing short of luminescent.

Almost everyone in the family wants to take an active part in Harper’s birthday. Listening to, laughing with, and ‘pwaying’ is best done in close proximity. Rhys and I are always in arms reach, ready to scoop Harper and run if trouble were to arise. All the help we have containing her is a Godsend.

Lovebug is a handful on a normal day. At a place that touts itself as the happiest place on Earth, she is an electric current of energy. Having extra hands willing and wanting to keep up with the littlest Wilde.

We watch as Courtney, Harper, and Gracie walk in a hand-holding-chain with Rapunzel and Eugene. Grace has been giggling and smiling up at Mark the entire time. She clearly has a crush. Leo has separated from the group with Kevin and Lo to make sure they can get on rides suitable for their age groups. Rhys insisted. He's almost as dedicated to being an uncle as he is to being a father.

Harper is all about Rapunzel. Courtney is all about Harper; I’m fairly sure she sees her as a live baby doll, much like her Aunt Becca.

It’s all sunshine and rainbows until a group of teenage girls recognizes Rhys. Phones come out, paper and pens are thrust into the guys’ faces, and the perimeter of our little world has to be reinforced by security guards. Rhys and the boys have to indulge their fans to keep bad press from swirling.

Harper would be appalled if she knew I was thinking this, but I don’t want to share.

Not today.

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