Sum of Us

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Ch. 43: Poppy

18 hours is the longest period of time I have spent away from since Harper since she was born. Thinking about the 168 of them I am about to spend away from her never fails to bring tears to my eyes.

It’s not because I’m worried about the quality of her care. She is loved and cherished by the entire family. They’d lay down their lives for her. Rhys knows precisely what to do for her in any given situation. He is a certified Harper expert. Mama Wilde has temporarily joined the tour to temporarily to watch Harp while the guys are working.

Harper will be waited on hand and foot. It will come as no surprise to me if I come back to see the Rapunzel and Eugene impersonators are permanent fixtures and the tour bus has been traded in for a purple train.

My reluctance to leave is a textbook case of separation anxiety. I feel guilty leaving Harper behind for a significant amount of time to do something for myself. She’s my baby. I’m her mom. I should dedicate as much of my life to her as humanly possible. My rational mind knows these thoughts are wildly unhealthy, but as hard as I try, I can’t shut them off.

This mentally was ingrained into my psyche when I decided to raise her alone. I had to love and care for her with the ferocity of two parents. I also needed to do it well to disprove all the assumptions made about me because of my age. I’ve been looked at with pity or disapproval from the very beginning. It hurt. My treatment drastically improved when Rhys entered the picture, but residual damage remains. You can’t heal three years’ worth of wounds in five months.

Everything seems to be coming down to time. I can’t express how much I wish I could wave a magic wand and fix all of my dings and bruises. Maybe then I would be able to take a step away from the life I’ve adapted to in pursuit of one that suits me best without an anchor tied to my heart.

~~

“Turn that frown upside down, gorgeous.” Rhys kisses my cheek.

“I’m not frowning.” I continue to fold the shirt in my hand.

“Your eyes are.”

“You can’t see my eyes. They are focusing on their work.”

Rhys sits on the bed beside my carry-on. He cranes his neck to catch my eyes. “Knew it.” He points to them.

I close them. “Don’t see me.”

“You know I can’t help it.” He takes hold of the fingers of my right hand.

“I want to go. I need to go, but I don’t know if--”

“Leave. Harp and I are going to video chat and call you so often that you’ll forget you did.” He caresses my fingers with his thumb.

“Promise?”

“Your phone will start blowing up the moment you’re out of sight.”

I swallow the lump in my throat. “Will you help me triple check my suitcase?”

“Tell me how and I will.” He kisses the back of my hand.

I read off the list of items to pack on my phone. Rhys verifies that they are in my suitcase. He adds his own flair to the process by kissing me each time an item is accounted for.

“All boxes are checked. You’re ready to spread your wings.” He zips my suitcase.

“Not yet. I need one more thing – our clothing baby.”

“I was hoping you’d forget about it.” He tugs on the back of his baseball hoodie.

“Not a chance. We have a joint custody agreement. I would already be wearing it if I didn’t need it to smell as much like you as possible.”

His t-shirt rides, putting his poppy and harp tattoos on display. I help him out by pulling his shirt down as he lifts the hoodie over his head.

I hurt myself by doing it. I could look at those tributes to us all day for the rest of my life – so sweet, so sexy.

He folds the hoodie and places it on the top of my suitcase. “Is that everything?”

“I need a denim jacket. Do you have one I can borrow?”

“If you keep this up, I’m going to have to walk around naked.” He goes to the closet.

“I thought you like it when I wear your clothes.”

“I only give you my favorite clothes to wear. That should tell you how I feel.”

“Actions, not words. Good to know.”

“I’m all yours, baby.” He holds up his promise ring finger.

“Arms out.”

I comply with his request. He dresses me in his favorite jacket. Once he has, he wraps his arms around my waist and draws me close. I meet his face halfway. We share a deep passionate kiss, a goodbye one unsuitable for an audience. Pulling away is not easy – emotionally and physically.

Rhys carries my suitcase up the aisle of the bus as I wear my backpack.

Claudia is feeding Harper her breakfast of oatmeal, apple slices, and milk. They’re watching Peppa Pig in the dining booth on her tablet.

“Mama!” Harp reaches out as soon as she sees me.

“Good morning, Lovebug.” I hug her tight to my chest, breathing her in to harness her scent.

“Mornin’. I wove you!”

“I love you too – so, so much.” I close my eyes to keep from crying.

I don’t dare look her in the eye until I have control of mine. “Is your breakfast yummy?” I continue to hold her but separate our bodies enough to look at her.

“Oh yummy. Sare?”

“No, thank you. Eat it by yourself to get big and strong.”

“I a big girl.”

“You are. Eating yummy food will help you grow even more.”

“O-tay.” She smiles.

“Ralph misses his mommy and daddy. I’ll see them while I am away. How about I take him with me?”

“I go.”

“You need to stay here with Daddy. He’ll get sad without you.”

“Daddy no sad.”

“Give him extra hugs and kisses and he won’t be. Ralph wants to give his daddy extra hugs and kisses too. Can you help him by letting me take him?”

“I help.”

“Thank you, Lovebug. Will you go get him for me?”

“Yes. Down, pweeze.”

She runs to the lounge area. After a bit of digging, she pulls the giraffe out of her toy basket.

“Here go, Mama.”

“Would you like to give him a kiss?”

“Have fun wit Mommy and Daddy. I wove you.” She squeezes him to her chest with her eyes closed.

I kneel on the ground on the ground and unzip my backpack. Harper kisses him before placing him in my bag.

“He need fwiend.”

“I’m his friend.”

“Mo fwiends. Mo fun.” She wanders back to her toys.

She comes back with Barry. “Here go.”

The bear receives the same kiss treatment as the giraffe.

I cup her face. “It’s time for me to go bye-bye, Lovebug. I--”

“No, Mama. No bye-bye.” She scrunches her eyes and pokes out her lip.

“I have to visit places where I can do grown-up flashcards.”

“I go. Fashcards fun.”

“Next time. I’m a big girl. Big girls do things alone sometimes.”

“I big girl.”

“You are. I need you to be a brave and beautiful one by taking care of our family while I’m away.” I force a smile for her.

She throws her arms around my neck and wails. Her tears saturate my shirt.

“Shhh. Shhh. Lovebug, it’s okay.” I rub her back. “Grandma, Daddy, and your uncles will be here with you. You will see me in the phone and computer.”

“MAMA!” She shrieks in agony. Her entire body wracks as she sobs.

Called to comfort her, I repress my crushing sadness to sing "Don’t Look Back in Anger" into her ear. She’s still clinging to me for dear life after I have finished the song, but the tears have stopped flowing. Only sniffles remain. I clean her face with tissue Rhys has fetched for me.

“Grandma needs your help during big music time. She doesn’t know what to do. Will you teach her?”

“Y-yes. I h-help.” Harper hiccups as she scrubs her eye with the back of her hand.

The tracks of tears staining her rosy cheeks are making it harder and harder to breathe.

I cup her face. “I love you, sweetheart. Be a good girl for Grandma and Daddy. I’ll be back soon.”

She nods, her chin trembling.

I smother her with kisses, more for myself than her, and have her on my hip as I give the guys and Mom hugs goodbye. Rhys puts my bags in the car. Our winter outerwear is needed to go outside in Denver. Harper is returned to my hip after I have bundled her in her cold-weather clothing. Rhys is leaning on the car as we deboard the bus.

His smile of acknowledgment is sad as he stands upright. “Suitcase is in the trunk. Your backpack is in the backseat.”

Opening my mouth would lead to crying; I nod with a fixed smile as I continue to bite the inside of my cheek.

“Will you help me give Mama a big hug, Harp?” Rhys holds out his arms to take her.

“I help.”

Harper doesn’t put up a fuss when Rhys takes her from me. The loss of contact almost has me on my knees.

‘What if she doesn’t miss me?’

We group hug. Their warmth does more for me than my insulated coat. Unshed tears are inflaming my eyes when Rhys looks into them.

“This isn’t like last time. You’re stuck with me. She’s the bait that’ll lure you back in if the smartypants spaces make you come to your senses and realize you can do better.”

I mouth, ‘I love you’, not trusting my voice.

“We love you too.” He presses his lips to mine.

Rhys opens and shuts the car door for me. The two of them are waving at me when the car takes off. I blow them kisses as my heart breaks. My breakdown doesn’t occur until they are out of sight. Ralph and Barry are held as I release muted cries.

My phone vibrates in my pocket. In no shape to talk, I ignore the incessant buzzing for as long as I can. There are eight notifications on my screen -- three calls and five texts.

Squints: Testing, testing, 1-2. Is this thing on?

Squints: Pop

Squints: Poppy

Squints: Penelope

Squints: I'm worried. Please answer.

Me: I don't want you to hear me like this. Text only.

Squints: There’s no shame in crying, baby. You’ve never been away from her

Me: What’s she doing?

Squints: Eating. We’re about to start watching Moana. I told her you have gone on a trip away from home because your heart was telling you to go like hers does

Me: Does she think I’m on a boat?

Squint:…

Me: Rhys.

Squints: I handled it. I think. I said you're going on three boats to see which one is the most fun and we’ll all go on the most fun one. She’s looking forward to it. She’s holding her oar right now to prepare

Me: Should I send pictures of water?

Squints: Yes. It’ll really sell the lie

Me: Is she acting like herself?

Squints: Too soon to tell. She’s not tired

Me: Are you snuggled up with her?

Squints: She’s on my lap

Me: Give her a kiss for me

Squints: Done

Me: You need this alone time with her. This is a long time coming. I'm sorry I'm being such a baby about this.

Squints: You're not.

Me: Not even a little bit?

Squints: Nope. Swat those boy nerds off with a stick, Penelope. You’re mine

Me: This is awkward. Dave and I are engaged

Squints: Engaged ain’t married. Do you know how good I would be at disrupting a wedding?

Me: Way too good

Squints: You can bet your fine ass I would. There’s only one Wendy for me

Me: Jane?

Squints: She and Dave are as meant to be as you and me

Me: Just because they’re both stock photo people? That’s awfully narrow-minded of you

Squints: Forget them. You and me. That’s the main point

Me: I can’t forget. Do I really want to be with a person that thinks picture people should only be with picture people?

Squints: There are video stock people too. Pot meet kettle.

Me: You never know the truth until it stares you in the face. I’m ashamed

Squints: We can be terrible people together

Me: Harper redeems us

Squints: She’s the gift that keeps on giving.

My tears are no more by the time I reach the airport. Holding onto Harper’s buddies as I chat with Rhys make stepping away less gut-wrenching. The pain has been reduced to a panging hole in my heart.

Progress.

The first time I see myself is at a newsstand. The second time I’m staring at myself at a counter while purchasing a bottle of water. The third time, I’m being read by the woman next to me on my flight to Chicago.

Family First: True Love or True to His Word? Is the headline printed over a picture of Rhys holding Harper as I walk a few steps behind them, looking dejected.

I wasn’t upset or left out. Not in the slightest. I was holding Gracie’s hand because Leo had left to ride rides with Chloe and Kevin. Grace was telling me how mean King Triton was to destroy Ariel’s treasures. I was looking down to give her my full attention.

The frowning face was made because I agreed with her. They edited Grace out of the picture. The result is me looking as though I’m staring off into the distance with jealousy as Harper and Rhys bond.

Our bodyguard-secured bubble and the blinders it allows me to put on will be sorely missed during my week in the real world.

I call Rhys as soon as I am walking through O’Hare International Airport in the direction of the baggage claim.

“I landed safely.”

“Phew. That’s a relief. I make it a habit not to answer calls from ghosts. I’m only open to making pottery with them.” He sparks one of our usual jokes.

“Especially if that ghost’s Patrick Swayze.”

“Dude’s a legend. How was your flight?”

“Nothing too major to report. I saw you and Lovebug. You looked very pretty.”

“I’m sure you looked gorgeous.”

“I look like I’m pouting, but I know you’re into that, pervert.”

“You’ve been gone for a few hours and the miscommunications have already started. I’m disappointed in us. Your lips are pouty. I don’t like it when you pout. It means you’re upset. I don’t like it when you’re upset.”

“What does pouty mean?”

“Both lips are plump, but the bottom lip is fuller than the top. The upper lip is shaped like the top part of a heart. Perfect for kissing.”

“Is ‘perfect for kissing’ a part of the official definition?”

“It is for your lips.”

“Charmer.”

“Lover.”

I roll my eyes as I fight a smile. “How are things on your end?”

“Nothing too major to report. We’re at the stadium. Harper was by my side all morning. I just put her down for her nap.”

“What did she do while you worked out?”

“She sat on my back while I did push-ups. She laid across both of my arms and I did curls with her. I held her as I did squats. She laughed and squealed the whole time.”

“Has she asked about me?’

“Yeah, during lunch. She wanted to know when you would be eating your lunch because you have to eat your food to be a big girl. I told her you had food on the boat. She wanted to see it to make sure it was yummy. I told her you would call as soon as you reached an island. You need to pay attention to sail straight.”

“You are very good at lying to her. Should I be worried?”

“Yes. Very.”

“I need both hands to pull my luggage off the carousel. Text me when she’s awake. I’ll spin her a whale of a tale.”

“Don’t make it too good or I’ll get worried.”

“You should already be worried.”

“I need to stop talking to you before I start booking flights. Keep traveling safely. We love you.”

“I will. I love you, too.”

“Not goodbye.”

“Not goodbye. See or talk to you soon.” We used the same parting line we used earlier.

Northwestern University is in Easton, Illinois. I take a taxi from the airport to a hotel within walking distance of the school.

Being able to shower and unwind in a hotel room after traveling is pure bliss. When I eat is decided by my stomach rather than a schedule set by someone else. What I watch on television is mine to decide. I’m able to read a book and take a spur of the moment nap without interruption. It's getting easier to be away from them with each passing moment.

Does this make me a terrible person?


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