Sum of Us

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Ch.44: Rhys

I lightly jostle Harper's sleeping form until her eyes flutter open. She extends her arms to me. I pry her from my mom’s hold as stealthily as possible and push a pillow in her place.

Stealing Harper from Ma after shows has been my routine since Poppy left. I’m not four-years-old. I’m not going to crawl into bed with my mommy in the middle of the night; I’m a dad who wants to be his daughter’s source of comfort as she sleeps.

I’ve been sharing a room with Taylor in hotels and sleeping in the bunk we usually store our instruments on the bus. There’s too high a risk for Harp to fall off of the couch if we sleep on it while the bus is in motion. The guys gave in to my griping about going a who week without cuddling either of my girls. They agreed to let me do whatever it takes to have my little girl with me. They love me so much that their guitars, my keyboard, and Ian’s drum pads are being stored beneath the bus.

Harper snuggles closer to me and sighs in contentment. I kiss the top of her head as I hold her a little tighter. Once I’ve grabbed Rue with my free hand, I successfully creep out of the room undetected. I toss Rue into my bunk before climbing in with Harper. The curtain is pulled next. I arrange Harp and Rue on my chest and tuck us beneath the covers.

“Mama and I love you,” I say on an exhale as I close my eyes.

“Daaaaaddyyy.” Like clockwork, Harper wakes me by squishing my face at 5:45 AM. My lids are heavy as I crack my eyes open.

“Good morning, Lovebug. Are you hungry?”

“Uh-huh. And I potty.” Her bubbliness is in full swing.

“I’ll take care of all of that.” I kiss her forehead.

Going through her morning route with the level of enthusiasm needed to keep her happy running on a little over two hours of sleep is a true test of endurance. And it is one I have been powering through for five days straight.

Performing looks like all fun and games, but it’s far from it. Don’t get me wrong, I have had a blast doing it since Poppy and Harper joined the tour, but putting on a show for a stadium of fans that makes validates the amount of money they paid for tickets takes a lot out of me. On average, I burn 1000 calories per show and I perform four of them a week. A special diet and recuperation rest are doctor-prescribed. But Harper has to come first, always, especially this week.

“Get in bed. Now.” Mom demands sternly, nearly making me jump out of my skin.

“Hi, Gamma!” Harper stops doing the wooden puzzle we are working on to wave.

“Good morning, princess.” Ma kneels down to give her a kiss. “Daddy is being very bad. Will you tell him to go to sleep?”

“Seeptime, Daddy.” She wraps her arms around my mom’s neck as both of them look at me.

“I’m not tired and we’re not done playing. Don’t you want to play with me?”

“We pway.”

“You’re exhausted and it shows. You look awful.” Mom contradicts.

“You’re supposed to build my self-esteem. Instead, you called me ugly. My spirit is crushed.”

“I’m not playing with you, Rhys Michael. You'll land yourself in the hospital.”

“That’s a stretch.”

“Dehydration and exhaustion are real and dangerous.”

“I’ve had two mugs of black tea. My 32oz water bottle is right here. Half of it is already gone. Peanut butter on oats, two boiled eggs, and a cup of blueberries was my breakfast. The glamour crew will fix my face. I’m solid.”

“I don’t like this.”

“I’ll nap when she does.”

“You will. I’ll have Tyrone retrain you if I have to.”

“Understood.”

“I’m keeping my eye on you.”

“That’s nothing new.”

“If you show any signs of crashing, I’m yanking you out of whatever you’re doing. I don’t care if you’re in the middle of a song.”

“Understood.”

With a shake of her head, she says, “So stubborn.”

“Your daddy is too stubborn.” She tickles Harper’s tummy.

She squeals and giggles, happy as can be with her grandma.

“At least let me dress her, Rhys.” Mom presses her cheek to Harp’s.

“She gets to pick her clothes. I get to do her hair.”

“Squeeze in a cat nap while we are gone.” She stands up with Harper in her arms.

Instead, I wash our breakfast dishes and put away the toys that have piled up in the dining area. Harp likes to invite her ‘fwiends’ to meals.

“She was doing a pretty good job until it came time to pick shoes.” Mom relays as Harper waddles around the backroom, quaking.

My little girl has chosen a doozy of an outfit today. Her red and navy flannel shirt almost brings a tear to my eye; I might just wear the same one today. Light denim overalls are over it. A navy tutu with silver polka dots is over the overalls. Her sunshine yellow rain boots with duck faces on the toes are the standouts.

“She likes what she likes. Animals are high on that list.”

“Rain’s not in the forecast.”

“It probably won’t be the next time she wears them either.”

I scoop Harper up by her underarms. “Lookin’ good, baby girl. Time to tame the mane.”

“ROAR!”

“ROAR!” I kiss her cheek.

I keep it simple – a ponytail with a red bow. In Harper-speak, it’s “pinky air.” She has fun swinging it as she quacks. It makes me feel less guilty about cutting our lion time short all week.

Mom watches Harper a second time while I get dressed. She resorts to editing videos on her laptop when I lure Harp back to me by joining her on the floor. Poppy video calls midmorning. I take it in the backroom for privacy.

“MAMA!” Harper exclaims joyfully when Pop appears on my phone screen.

“Hello, Lovebug, are you having a good day today?”

“Yes. You boat wit Oana?”

“Moana and I are on an island right now. That’s how I’m able to see you.”

“We pway?”

“She’s pottying right now. I’ll have her send a phone letter to Daddy. He’ll read it to you.”

“O-tay.”

“What have you done this morning?”

Harp describes our morning with meticulous detail. She goes as far as to share the design on her diaper. Poppy encourages and engages her.

“Can you play while I speak to Daddy, Lovebug?”

“Yes. I ood ob.”

“I know you’ll do a good job. You are wonderful at playing. We’ll let you know when you need to come back for your picture kisses.”

“O-tay, Mama.”

I help her off the bed. She gets right to work.

“Are you feeling alright, babe?” Pop brings a mug to her lips.

“Totally fine. Why?”

“You’re less chatty and your eyes aren’t sparkly. Are you coming down with something? Have you tried to give it to Taylor yet? Or did he get it first and gave it to you?”

For as long as I can remember, Tay and I have hated being sick alone. Feeling like garbage together is a comfort thing.

“Are you calling me ugly? You’re the second person to do it today. Looks aren’t all that matter, Penelope.”

“You couldn’t be further from ugly if you tried. You’re annoyingly handsome, even when you’re sick. I’d be in love with you if that weren’t the case. The way your brain works is what does it for me.”

“So, you’ll leave me if I get brain damage?”

“Not if you’re still pretty.”

I breathe a laugh as my lips quirk into a smirk. “How’s your adventure going?”

“You’re not going to skirt my question that easily. If you don’t tell me what’s wrong, I’ll ask Harper. She’s an oversharer.”

“Long days at the office.” I relent.

“I thought your schedule was stripped to the bare minimum this week.”

“It was. Last-minute things popped up. It happens.” I shrug a shoulder.

“What time did you wake up today?”

“On time. I’ve been doing what I need to do. Nothing more, nothing less. I even took my backflip out of the show routine.”

“Please keep it that way. Watching you flip off of Ian’s drum kit platform gives me heart palpitations.”

“It’s our nightly bonding time.”

“You can find a way to solidify brotherhood that doesn’t involve you going airborne while he drumrolls.”

“I doubt it. Have I earned a trip update yet?”

“Yes. It’s going well, really well. I forgot about the buzz I get from being in classrooms. Visiting the schools has made choosing between them harder. I’ll be at the University of Washington today. Why not add to the indecision?”

“You’ll have all of tomorrow to think it over without your favorite distractions. We won’t bug you.”

“I like it when you bug me. You’re both so pretty.”

“We—”

“Daddy, I hungey.” Harper leans on my leg.

“Smalls and I have snacking to do, Wendy. We have to say not goodbye for now.”

“No-no, Mama, no go bye-bye.” Harper’s bottom lip begins to tremble.

My phone is laid on the bed momentarily to pull her onto my lap. “It’s okay. I’m here.” I kiss her cheek from behind.

I angle my phone in front of both of us so she can see Poppy as she speaks to her.

“I have to get back on the boat, but I promise to call you as soon as I land on a new island.”

“I go.” By the way her little voice's squeak, I can tell that she is crying.

Pop’s agonized expression says it too.

“I have to be a big girl like you, remember? I have to do things on my own.”

“I big girl.”

“You are, Lovebug, and I will be with you and Daddy very soon. Will you keep taking care of him until I get back by giving him extra hugs and kisses?” Poppy uses her most soothing voice.

“I help.” Harp sniffles as she rubs the back of her eye with her hand.

“I love both of you.”

“Wove you.”

“Love you.”

“Enjoy your snacks. Give me hand kisses before you go to eat yummy food.”

We blow each other kisses.

I turn Harp towards me once the call has ended. “I miss Mama too, but I’m happy that I get to be with you.” I clear what is left of her tears. “What would you like to eat?”

“Ummm…animal cwakers!”

“With milk?”

“Yes, peeze.”

“You’ve got it, kid.”

Seeing Poppy gives me a second wind, but the rush doesn’t last long. A headache that I have grown accustomed to this week has nestled square between my eyes by the time we reach the stadium. The usual commotion backstage has it throbbing. I smile and laugh through it to keep Harper content and everyone else from suspecting something’s off.

“Which one is prettier?” I have two shirts on hangers, one in each hand.

“Dat one.” Harp points to the black t-shirt I’m partial to.

“What color is it?”

“Back.”

“That’s my genius.” I pat the top of her head. “Black one. Put whatever you want with it.” I hand the shirts to Xavier.

“You are so much easier than that one.” He uses the shirt to point to Taylor, who is in the corner of the wardrobe room, ironing his clothes himself.

He and Xavier butt heads every day. Tay’s particular about his clothes. It doesn’t take a psychologist to know it comes from the years we spent in matching clothes and our brothers’ hand-me-downs. Individuality is hard to come by as an identical twin. My hair is my way of being different.

“I’m way worse when it comes time for me to get a haircut. Ask Quinn.”

“No airut, Daddy. No wike it!” Harper protests, hiding in a rack of clothes.

”No haircuts today, Lovebug. It’s time to visit Pinky.” I part the clothes.

“Yay!” She jumps.

I put her on my hip. “She picks out her own clothes too,” I tell Xavier as I gesture to Harp’s outfit.

“I can dress like that if you’d like.” Taylor goads him.

“She’s the only one who can pull off clown chic.” Xavier has Valerie restock the shirt I didn’t choose.

“Cowns funny.” Harper giggles.

“I think they’re scary. Will you protect me?”

“No scawy, Daddy. I ere.” She runs her little fingers through my hair as I carry her to the dressing room.

“Saddle up, little lady.” I place Harp on her rocking unicorn.

“How much longer until your lesson?” Mom stands outside Harp’s playpen.

“Five minutes. I’ll be out of here in four.”

“What can I do to make it sooner?”

“First, I’m ugly. Now, you want me away from you as soon as possible. I have never felt more unloved.”

“You are loved. That is why I want to help you take it easy.”

“This is easy. You taught me how to pour water into a cup a long time ago.”

“I’ll fill her sippy cup with water. Give her a kiss and go to the potty.”

“Daddy, gots go potty?” Harp thoughtfully inquires.

“I do. Grandma will be here to play with you until I’m done. I love you.” I kiss her forehead.

“Wove you.” She hugs my neck.

“I love you too.”

I don’t leave the pen until I’ve loaded Blue’s Clues on Harper’s tablet and arrange it in front of her and Pinky. She’s too busy yelling the answers to Steve’s questions at the screen to notice me leaving.

“Are there lemon slices in there?” I point to the sippy cup Mom is screwing the lid on.

“She likes it.”

“You can’t go home until you tell Poppy you’re the one that got Harp hooked on lemon water.”

“It’s my job to spoil my grandbabies. Yours is to sing. Go.”

“No puppies. I promised Poppy.”

“Whatever she says goes.”

The sound of my voice and the act of singing have me on the verge of a migraine. I’m not halfway through my warmup scales when my coach slaps me with vocal rest. Her reasoning is my voice doesn’t sound bad now, but her trained ear can pick up mild strain. She instilled the fear of God in me by saying I’ll need surgery to repair damage on my vocal cords if I continue to mistreat them. Even if I got it, it wouldn’t be guaranteed that I regain my three-octave vocal range.

I wouldn’t be able to sing most of my songs again, including Field. It’s Poppy’s song and Harper’s lullaby. Losing the ability to sing it the way it is meant to be sung isn’t an option.

“Daddy!” Harper runs to me as soon as I enter the dressing room.

I swing her high in the air and cover her cheeks with kisses before settling her in my hip.

“We pway twain?”

I nod, smiling at her.

“Why aren’t you talking?” Ian looks at me with narrowed, confused eyes.

I put my hand on my throat.

“Earned himself vocal rest. I told him to let Mom do what she came here to do, but no…” Taylor continues to text on his phone, not even needing to look at me to know what’s wrong.

Mom rushed over to us. “Are you really?”

I nod.

“For how long.”

“An hour before the show. He’ll be skipping the meet and greet to get tested by his coach. Fans will bit-berate--" He catches himself for Mom's sake as much as Harper's. "us as though he consults us before doing something stupid. I get to say ‘I told you so’ for the rest of the day.” Taylor answers again without looking up from his screen.

I narrow my eyes at him.

“You’re on rest-rest too.” Mom takes Harper from me.

“Daaaddddy.” Harp whines, reaching for me.

She’s been uncharacteristically clingy this week.

“He’s sick, princess. He can’t play right now.”

Harp stops fighting to get out of my mom’s arms. “Oh, no! It o-tay, Daddy. I help all etter.”

“There’s not much you can do, sweetie. All he needs to do is take a nap. It needs to be really quiet for him to get better.” Mom adjusts her on her hip.

I shake my head adamantly.

“She can tuck him in. Harp puts her toys down for naps most days. Put one of Harper’s shows on her tablet, a non-musical or interactive one, use her headphones for audio, and she’ll sit on the bed quietly while he sleeps. Rhys won’t take a nap unless she’s with him. My solution’s the only option.” Tay vouches for me.

“What if she wakes him up when she needs something?”

“Supervise. All you have to do is tell her to leave him alone because he’s sick and she’ll listen. Her language comprehension is leagues ahead of where it should be and her empathy is off the charts. She’d never do anything to hurt him. In this case, that’d be waking him up.” Taylor continues.

Again, I vigorously nod my agreement.

“Put on your coats. We’re leaving.” Mom returns Harper to me.

Taylor puts down his phone for the first time since I entered the room and goes to the closet.

“Where do you think you’re going?” She puts her hands on her hips.

“We’re not feeling well.” Tay removes his coat, mine, and Harper’s.

Harp gasps. “Oh, no! I help, Nunckle Aylor.”

“You are fine.”

He produces the fakest cough. “I’m sick.”

Mom shakes her head. “Every time. Tall babies, both of you.”

“Only when we’re sick or significantly injured.”

“You’re not. He is.”

“It’s a comfort thing.” He shrugs as he hands me our coats.

She sighs. “You two might as well come too.” She turns her head in Ian and Kyle’s direction.

“We have soundcheck. We’ll fill in for them. We’ve done it before.” Ian answers.

“When?” She scrunches her eyebrows.

Kyle opens his mouth to respond.

“What happens Reykjavik, stays in Reykjavik.” Tay cuts off the almost snitch.

All I can say is our viewing of the northern lights was a trip of a lifetime.

“Kyle…” Mom coaxes.

Indecision is etched on his face. “They--”

“Finish that sentence and your Mom’s learning all about Rio.” Taylor threatens.

“Sorry, Mama Wilde.” Kyle blurts quickly.

“I’ll find out that later too.”

Mom takes over my care but leaves Harper’s to me. She arranges for a car to take us to the hotel. She argues with George when he tries to prevent us from leaving. Meanwhile, I dress Harp, pack her backpack, and buckle her into her car seat.

She’s acting as my mom. I’m still Harper’s dad.

At the hotel, Taylor and I have bowls of tomato soup. I share mine with Harper. She has already eaten lunch, but she likes it when we share food. She likes sharing everything, really. She likes tucking us into bed too.

“Wove you, Nunckle Aylor.” She kisses Taylor’s forehead.

She rolls over and perches herself on the pillow I’m laying on.

“What’s dat?” She points to my forehead.

“Daddy’s head hurts. Putting the cold mask over his eyes will make him feel better.” Mom answers her question.

Harp tugs it down onto my eyes. “Der go. All etter.”

Mom’s seated on the edge of the bed. “It’s going to take a little while to work, but you helped him.”

“I help.”

“You did, princess. Now, it’s time to watch your show and be really quiet.” Mom whispers the last part to help Harper understand what that means.

“Wove you, Daddy.” Harp’s voice is soft as she presses a kiss to my forehead.

I put my arm around her. She wiggles into the crook of my arm, settling into her spot in bed between me and Taylor.

Mom reaches over me to lift Harper’s headphones from her neck to her ears and presses play on the episode of Peppa Pig I loaded onto her tablet. I allow myself to full succumb to sleep when Harper rests her head on me.

Five-hour naps are disorienting, even more so when the sun has gone down and the two people you were sharing a bed with are gone. Positive: my headache is gone. A glass of water is on the nightstand. I take it with me as I leave the bedroom.

“No, stay there. I've got everything under control.” Mom’s sitting on the couch with her phone pressed to her ear.

Harper is seated on a blanket on the floor, her back towards me, humming as she plays her keyboard.

“Taylor’s back at the stadium. He would still be here, pretending to need medical care if Rhys’s recovery weren’t a sure thing. You have nothing to worry about, sweetheart.”

Walking to the couch, I snap my fingers and gesture for her to hand me her phone.

“Speak of the devil. I’ll you back after I check him out. Don’t book a flight. Love you.”

“Your daddy’s awake, princess. Will you bring him to me? We can give him a doctor check-up.” Mom alerts Harper.

My little lady whips her head in my direction. Her precious face goes from neutrally pleasant to ecstatic.

“DADDY!” Her coordination fails her in her excitement. She trips over one of her boots as she runs to me.

I rush to pick her off the ground.

“Daddy!” Her smile hasn’t faltered.

I kiss both of her palms to tend to her ‘owies’.

“Tank you. All etter.” Her smile grows bigger as I lift her to my hip.

“You all etter?” She pets my hair.

I nod and kiss her cheek.

“Why no alk?” She tilts her head to the side.

“He’s not allowed to yet. He has to save his voice to sing to you and his friends.”

“Ood seepytime?”

I give her a thumbs up.

“Me too. I docker now wike Nunckle Cwis and Es-ka. Real nice.”

I mouth ‘wow’.

“She’s a natural. She treated your brother’s faking with a bandaid.”

My jaw drops with outrage and I point to myself.

Mom rolls her eyes with an amused smirk.

“Princess, your daddy wants a bandaid too.”

“I gets it. Dow, peeze.”

I place her on the ground. Harper scurries to the doctor’s bag Christopher and Jessica gave her. She runs back to me after she has fished out a bandaid. I sit on the floor to get on her level.

“Help, peeze.” She extends the purple Peppa Pig bandaid to me.

I remove one side of the paper backing, exposing the adhesive, and give her the non-stick side to hold.

“Where owie?”

I strip out of my flannel shirt, one that is almost identical to hers, remaining in a t-shirt. Wanting it to be seen by all, I point to the outer side of my right bicep. Harper gives it a kiss prior to softly smoothing it onto my skin. Her gentle touch surprises me. I expected her to slap it on like she did my Christmas bow.

“No tay.” She frowns looking up at me.

I peel off the remaining paper. She applies the rest of the bandage to my skin. Harp nods at her handy work with a smile.

“All etter?” She expectant expression melts me.

I graciously nod and cover her chubby cheeks with kisses. She giggles. She gives me a tight hug when I let up. I stand up with her, unable to let her go.

“Your eyes are much clearer. How’s your head?” Mom surveys me in a way only she can.

I give her an enthusiastic thumbs up.

“Are you still tired?”

I hold my hand parallel to the floor and rock it from side to side.

“Good, you’re being honest. It’s going to take a couple of days you back to normal. I’m not leaving until you are.”

I open my mouth to protest.

“No talking.” She silences me with sternness. “Poppy will be back, I know, but I can’t leave you like this. I’ll worry. You’re expected on stage in two hours. Are you up for it?”

I nod.

Harper gets dressed in a gray Wilde Knights sweatshirt, a lavender tutu with matching leggings, and her duck rain boots. Her bow gets swapped out for a purple one. She talks about ‘big usic time’ from the time her concert outfit is complete until we reach the stadium. I can only assume she keeps it up in the dressing room. I’m not there to witness it.

I’m tugged every which way backstage to get prepped for the show. I’d cheer at the top of my lungs with glee if I weren’t told to take it easy. So, instead of celebratory screaming, I call Poppy to share the good news.

…And get a feel of how much trouble I’m in.

“Guess what, Wen? I’ve been healed by the power of love.” I say as soon as her face appears on my phone screen.

“Thank goodness.” Her voice is relieved but her face is flat.

“You’re mad at me.”

“I’m glad you’ve been to sleep and your voice is back.”

“That doesn’t mean you’re not upset.”

“I don’t want to fight before your show. I need you to go out there and give them the show they came for. My feelings towards your pride-based decision won’t be changing any time soon.”

“How am I supposed to focus on them when I could lose you?” I argue.

“You’re not going to lose me. I’m mad because I could’ve lost you.”

“Having a raspy voice and being tired can’t land someone in a coffin.”

“Disregarding your wellbeing because you want to prove that you can do it all can. It’s the same reason you got upset with me when you found out I skipped meals when money was tight.”

“You didn’t have to live like that. I could’ve helped the entire time." I snap.

“Right back at you. I didn’t ask Mom to help you with Harper because I didn’t think you could do it. I was trying to stop our cycle of making our lives more difficult than they need to be.” She fights back.

“You should’ve told me that straight up. When you give me hints and riddles, I’ll take it as a challenge I need to win. There’s nothing I want more than you and Harper.”

She releases a heavy sigh and a small remorseful smile. “Call it even?”

“Kinda. I still want to hear what you were going to say to me when you were really fired up after the show. It’s hot when you fuss at me.”

“I knew you were into that, Perv.”

“How does appreciating my girlfriend’s passion make me a pervert?”

“Your phrasing. There were implications.”

“Wow. Okay. That’s the last time I share my true feelings. I’m standing here being judged for my preferences. I’m into strong women. I can’t help that.” I fake outrage.

“No! I take it back.” She struggles not to laugh.

“Too late. I--” A knock interrupts my retort.

“Fifteen!” Josie alerts me through the door.

“She didn’t walk in. Are you in the bathroom?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“Are you using it?”

“No, I pottied before my voice check.”

“You could’ve made this call in countless other places.”

“Wouldn’t have been right. The bathroom is a sacred space for us. It’s somewhere only we know.”

“Can our special spot be somewhere other than the bathroom? It can’t be what Keane had in mind when they created that song.”

“You don’t know that. Until you do, this is our ‘somewhere’ and you’re my toilet dial.”

“How romantic.”

“I’m just getting started, baby.” I wink at her.

“Later. Wash your hands and go to work.”

“I can’t leave until you tell me you love me.”

“You’re so needy.” She teases.

“Yes, and?”

“I love you, Squints. Be good and don’t hurt yourself.”

“I’ll do my best. I love you too. Not goodbye.”

“Not goodbye.” She finger-wiggle waves.

Shows with my mother in attendance always have a different vibe. Usually, the youngest of my inner children wants to turn to her and say, “Did you see that, Ma? See what I did?” after each song. Tonight’s different. Tonight, every time I look at her, I have to bite down an apology.

I turn my usual jog into a run when it comes time to say goodnight to Harper after Field.

“Sweet dreams, Lovebug. Mama and Daddy love you.” I kiss Harp’s temple as she sleeps in her ’gamma’s arms.

I hug Mom. “Thanks for putting up with me.” I speak directly into her ear to be heard over the screaming crowd.

“You know how now. It’s time for you to let me go.”

“What? No, I’ll always need—”

“Your arms. I need them off of me. You’re sweaty and I just gave her a bath.”

“Oh.” I free them from my hold. “Sorry.”

“I’d make you need me if you said you didn’t.” She adjusts Harper in her arms.

I grin from ear to ear.

“Go back out there. Take your water with you.” She magically produces a bottle of water.

I take it from her. “Where’d it come from?”

“Off you go.” She gestures me to the stage with her head.

I salute her. Following orders, I drink water all the way back to centerstage.

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