Sum of Us

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Ch.48: Rhys

Jealousy doesn’t brew whenever the party that was supposed to be mine is discussed today. There’s only relief. If I mixed my current state of mind, alcohol, and strangers that’ll think they know me in a public place, I’d wind up in jail. No doubt about it. Someone would say something and I would do everything.

I’m an actor and a reactor. Which one I am in any given situation isn’t under my control. My thought process behind whichever route I wind up going doesn’t form until way after I’ve done whatever I’ve done.

There’s been a lot of that lately. The shape my body’s in shows how much self-control I have at the moment. I’m not proud of it. Not at all. I don’t want Harper to grow to fear me and Poppy consider me more trouble than I’m worth. Attempting to cut this long story a little shorter, I’m trying and struggling not to be a volatile screw-up like my dad.

He never hit us. Never even came close. The people he got wrapped up with while doing the things he shouldn’t have been doing and furniture and toys that got in his way felt his wrath. The aftermath was what we witnessed – the few things we had in pieces, Mom quietly arguing with him as she cleaned him up after fights, and the tense silences that stretched between them whenever she had to bail him out of jail for disorderly conduct. She gave up on him because his chaos was draining.

My siblings and I cowered away because we saw what he did to what we loved – it wasn’t waking up to crushed toys or broken lamps; it was watching a person toxic enough to suck light out of our hero. One look at him was all it took to tell he hated his life. Us kids did all we could to avoid his misery. It took longer for Mom to do it, but eventually, she gave up on the idea that she could fix him with enough love.

I don’t want to be that way, but at the moment, I don’t trust myself enough to be able to say I never will. There seems to be a never-ending list of things that have the power to set me off. People are scrambling to get everything under control, but their progress is too slow-moving for comfort.

Simple, calm, and easy – that’s what I want my birthday to be.

~

Harper’s sitting in my lap and her hands are layered on top of mine. I moved and lowered my keyboard to be able to sit on the couch beside Poppy as we play in the music room.

“Is number one--” I play a chord with her. “or number two prettier?” We play another.

“Two!”

She always picks two. I’m almost positive she thinks I’m asking her age, but I’m going to keep asking her.

Writing songs with her is fun. It’s like a musical Mad Lib because I don’t have particular notes in mind when I give her options. Poppy writes down the notes that Harper and I come up with when she gets in on the fun. It makes it easier to playback what we’ve pieced together. Having a smartypants girlfriend pays off. I didn’t have to ask her to learn to read music. She picked it up for fun.

“I think our song is sounding nice so far. Do you think it does?” I ask Harper, giving Poppy time to jot down the notes in my sheet music notebook.

“Oh, yes. Real good ob.” She pokes keys of her own.

I remove my hands from the keyboard and wrap my arms around her waist to give her the freedom to play whatever she wants.

Pop records Harper’s solo creation for us.

Our baby girl’s not a key slammer. She thoughtfully presses buttons. When she stumbles across a combination she likes, she plays it over and over again until she gets tired of it. Witnessing her musical genius is a pick-me-up that never fails. A Harper is what you get when you combine Poppy and me. There’s something magical about that. I know how babies are made, obviously, but still. There’s a surrealness that surrounds hanging out with a person you made.

“It’s almost bath time. Do you want to play with our train before we pop bubbles?” I check in on her.

“No done usic. Twain afta baff.” Harper repeats the note combination she’s been playing for the past couple of minutes.

“It’s bedtime after your bath.” Poppy reminds her.

“No seepy, Mama.”

“Okay, you don’t have to go to sleep. We’ll play the eyes closed game with Rue instead. He misses you.” I feed Harp a necessary lie.

“He pway twain.”

I look to Poppy for a follow-up.

“He wants to play the eyes closed game, Lovebug. Good friends take turns choosing which games to play. It’s nice.”

“I nice.”

“To keep being nice you have to share. Will you play the eyes closed game with him?”

“Uh-huh, gots go now. He miss me. Fwiends no sad.” Harper tries to wiggle out of my lap.

Harp goes for the door as soon as I put her down.

The joints in my fingers are too stiff to play the guitar well during our bath time singalong.

Subpar playing isn’t allowed around Harper. With a face and soul of pure innocence, she’ll ask what’s wrong with it and if she can help make it all better. Honesty is the only policy when it comes to discussing music with a musical prodigy. She may not know when she’s being tricked into going to sleep, but she knows her sounds.

I tell her the truth that pains me more than my hands – I can’t give her what she wants. Harper doesn’t pout or plead. She throws all of the contents of her doctor’s bag looking for the perfect band-aid for my ‘owie’ and gives me her favorite bath toy to play with after she has treated me with a glow-in-the-dark bandaid. Putting in all my effort behind what I can do for her – singing with her and narrating her toys as she plays with them – is graciously accepted instead of responded to like a consolation prize.

It’s one of the Poppiest things I’ve ever seen her do.

A book about a bear in green overalls and singing her lullaby put Harp to sleep. Poppy and I tuck her in. We silently clean up with the help of the nightlight twinkle lights strung on the ceiling. Harp is given one last kiss from both of us before we tiptoe out of her room.

“What does it feel like when you flex your fingers?” Pop shuts the door behind her.

“My doctor’s appointment is tomorrow. I have hours of birthday left. There’s already been too much crossover.”

“It’s a simple question. I’m not going to rush you to the hospital. Chris would’ve already sent you if you needed to go.” Her face falls at the sight of my hand.

“Stiff and a little achy. Alternating between ice and heat is supposed to help.” I relent.

“We’ll watch something while you ice your knuckles. The shower back washing we had planned will be a warm cuddle bath.”

“Babe, I’m fi--”

“You’re not.” She uses her gentlest touch as she wiggles the ring off of my finger.

I open my mouth to argue.

“You’re going to shut up and let me take care of you. I’m going to wear both rings until you can wear yours comfortably. I need extra love powers to heal you properly.” She kisses my busted knuckles.

I swallow the lump in my throat her tenderness has created. “Can I put it on you?”

“Yes, you may.” She provides me the ring and her left thumb.

“You’re the best pre-fiancée in the whole wide world.” I slide the ring on her finger.

“No, caring about your wellbeing is a standard part of the gig. Check the manual.”

“You do it better than anyone.”

“Your scope is very limited.”

“It’s my birthday, Penelope. Let me win this one.”

“That line expires at midnight.”

“I know. That’s why I’m throwing it around like Mardi Gras beads.”

“You have a copy and paste face, but your brain is all yours. The things that come out of your mouth…”

“And how does that make you feel?” I do my best therapist impression.

“Lucky.” She kisses my cheek. “Hold in your best nonsense until I get back.” She points at me as she starts in the direction of the stairs.

“Anything for you, my love.”

“Ridiculous.”

It pains me to do it, but I remove my birthday shirt and hang it in our closet to dry. Putting on a replacement would be pointless this close to bath time, so I go without one. I’m lounging on the couch in front of our room’s TV, my feet propped up, watching the videos of my girls that I took today.

I’ve lost track of time by the time Poppy appears in the flesh with supplies.

“What are we watching first?” She sits down beside me.

“We’re going to play a game – ‘Poppy Proves She Knows Everything about Rhys: VHS edition’”. You’ll get your soulmate status revoked if you fail, no pressure.”

“what do I get when I win?”

“When? Loving the confidence. It’s sexy. You’ll get a surprise.”

“You don’t know what it is yet.”

“Do I ever?”

“No.”

“Show off.”

She rolls her eyes with a smile playing on her luscious lips. I’m kissing them before I have to think about doing it.

She sighs into it and cups my cheek. Eventually giving in to the gravity of our aggressive liplocks, she falls onto the couch cushions. I follow her down and settle between her legs. We pick up where we left off this afternoon.

“Your hands.” Poppy’s out of breath as she reminds me of the last things on my mind.

“You’ll fix them later. I believe in you.”

“You have to do everything I say.”

“Hot.”

She whacks my shoulder for my joke. I move to hover over her to look her in the eye.

I won’t argue with any of your healing methods, even if you say you want me to get pushed around stage in a wheelchair. Whatever you want, I’ll do. Deal?”

“Deal.” She lifts her head to peck my lips.

We maintain the slow but steady pace we’ve been taking. No birthday exceptions. Putting in a request would go against my birthday motto of simple, calm, and easy. Our second first time will be none of those things. What is done fits the bill.

My hands are wrapped in cotton gauze bandages, ice packs are on top of them, and hand towel top layers seal in the cold soon after.

“We need to organize our tapes. Finding ‘the ones’ took way longer than it should have.” Poppy sits down beside me with her stack of guesses.

“They’re on bookshelves. That’s organized.”

“Neat, not organized. We’ll have a tidy up day with Harper when we come back. But right now, I’ve got a game to win.” She angles herself towards me. “First up is two episodes of Dinosaurs. You like this combo tape because Baby’s ‘I’m the Baby’ music video separates the episodes.” She holds it up.

“Yes, next.”

“Your favorite movies in reverse order: number three, ’The Rookie’ will be first. Number two, ’The Sandlot’ is second. Last but first is ’Field of Dreams’. You’re going to try to watch ‘Ferngully’ before ’The Rookie’ as a thank you to me for taking care of you, but it’s not happening. Being too much of a sweetheart is bad for your health. You’re not allowed to argue, so this is what we’re watching.”

I roll my eyes. “Great, now I have to come up with a surprise worthy of you. Why can’t you take it easy on me?”

“I have to prove that I’m not too nice.”

“Valid. Taylor hogged all the womb room and shoved me out the way to be born first. It was torture being trapped with him. Getting my birthday’s worth is how I prove his reign of terror didn’t hold me back.”

“Ridiculous.” She kisses my cheek before walking to the entertainment center to get our show started.

Any complaints I could’ve had about her doting, jokes or otherwise, have completely vanished come time for heat therapy. I’m too relaxed. Resting my head on Pop’s shoulder as we recline in the tub with my back to her front is almost lulling me to sleep.

“How are these feeling?” The softness of her voice matches the calming atmosphere and the way she’s running her thumbs over the backs of my hands.

“Better than they have in awhile.” My eyes remain closed.

“Are you dozing off on me, Wilde?” She breathes a laugh.

“Just resting my eyes.”

“That sounds awfully close to the eyes closed game.”

“You’re mistaken. It’s fraternal twins with spa day lounging.”

“I see. My apologies for the misunderstanding.”

“You’re forgiven.”

We sit in a silence of pure comfort. My body entire body is languid as the tension in my hands evaporates. There water’s temperature dropping is the only motivation to leave the tub. Poppy getting out is what gets me to do it.

Pajama-clad and snack-prepared, we cuddle beneath a fleece blanket on the couch and start our movie marathon. Some light finger stretching is the only effort I have to put in. Poppy feeds me snacks, shares lemon water, and kisses my cheek every time she does it. Some of finger stretching is used to subtly check my phone for texts or calls from Taylor.

“Go ahead.”

“And do what?”

She lifts her head from my shoulder to look at me. “Babe, this is me. Who are you trying to kid?”

“I’m exactly where I want to be, doing everything I want to do.”

“We need a drink refill, it’s my turn to make sure Smalls is still in bed, and you’re not allowed to watch the movie without me. Call Tay to kill time.” She vacates my arms.

“I love you.” I call after her.

“You’re okay.” She throws over her shoulder.

“You lost Contact Chicken.” Taylor answers on the second ring, but the music and bar chatter make hearing him a challenge.

“Did not. You were staring at your phone.” I raise my voice to be heard.

“So what? You’re the one that called.”

“Poppy made me. Doesn’t count. What aren’t we missing?”

We’ve never spent our birthday apart. As much fun as we’re both having, not being together feels wrong. Hearing each other’s voices and speaking our language as we describe our nights is enough to tie us over until next year.

“Remember to reset your alarm. Our appointment starts before Harper’s day.”

“Poppy’s taking me. We’re dropping Harper off at Mom’s on the way there. You’re free to sleep off your hangover.”

“Pop already knows and I’ve got electrolyte drinks chilling in the fridge. I’m going.”

“When’d you talk to her?”

“She told me about the scans before you did, traitor. I told you – I said – she’s it for you. She’s cool with codependence – ours, anyway. You’re not getting better than that.”

“But you can?”

“The same but different, you and me. Incomparable, but very much so. Wild stuff – ha.” He chuckles at his terrible joke.

“You’re drunk.”

“It’s my birthday.” He grumbles.

“Get back to your party. You’re making me miss mine.”

“You called me.”

“It’s my birthday.”

“Love you too.” We say and hang up on each other at the same time.

Naturally, I text Poppy as soon as the call ends.

Me: Come back. I miss you!!!

Wendy: So needy.

Me: it’s my birthday

Wendy: that’s what they all say

Me: who is they?

Wendy: nothing. No one. Love you!

Me: I want names, Penelope

Wendy: all of them?

Me: Is it Dave Stockphotoman? I can take him.

Wendy: it’s…Rhys Michael Wilde. I’m so sorry, honey. It was a moment of weakness that’s lasted eight years. Will you ever be able to forgive me?

Me: Do you love him?

Wendy: I’m only in it for his personality. You’re prettier. That’s why you have my heart.

Me: Is that it?

Wendy: Well…no. We make the cutest little weirdos you’ll ever see. I found the one we have sleeping under her bed instead of on it.

I read and reread her text, and resort to calling her when I can’t tell if the last part is a joke.

“Tonight?” I’m already on my way to the door.

Poppy comes through it as I’m trying to get out.

“She’s back in bed, unharmed and still sound asleep.” She halts me by resting a hand on my chest.

“Why?”

“I think Minnie fell out of bed and tumbled under it. Her talking must’ve woken Harp, who back to sleep mid-rescue mission with the victim under her arm.”

“Tonight’s escape is your fault, then.”

“How so?”

“Jail beaks to play are me. Lending a helping hand? All you.”

“Should I be offended or flattered?”

“I dunno, both?” I kiss her cheek as I step around her to visit our escapee.

Harper’s securely tucked into her prison, lying on her side towards me with Rue clutched to her chest. Her breaths are coming out deep and even. On my knees, I brush her hair out of her face with my fingers. She sighs contentedly and snuggles further into her pillow. While mentally saying, ‘I love you’, I kiss her exposed cherubic cheek. Thankfully, she doesn’t stir and I sneak out the room before I do something that makes her.

“Is there a bed seat belt or something we can put on her? A cage would get us in trouble.” I ask Poppy as I close our bedroom door.

“She’d find a way out of it.”

“We need to think of something. I don’t want to go the tower route. I love spending time with her, but she’s forcing our hands. She’s going to hurt herself.”

“I don’t think putting her at a higher elevation is the route to go, but we’ll get her sorted out soon. Now, sit. You’re running low on birthday beads.” Poppy pats my spot on the couch.

“We can’t even get on to her about what she did. What’d we say, ‘don’t help a friend in need’? She promised Rapunzel she’d take care of Minnie and Minnie, and--”

She ends my tangent with a sweet peck on my lips. “Movies.”

“Movies.” I steal a second kiss.

She settles into my open arms and presses play.

“Has Taylor been invited to my appointment or is he drunker than he thinks?”

“He’s going. He’d show up even if he weren’t invited and someone has to hold you down while you get your shots.”

“I’ve had all my shots, flu one included.”

“I’ll tell you what’s likely going to happen at midnight.”

“That’s hours from now. I don’t have that kind of patience. Go ahead and break my heart.”

“If nothing more serious is wrong with your hands as Christopher believes, the doctor will inject cortisone into your knuckles to aid with the pain and inflammation.”

“Nope. Absolutely not. I’m opting out. I can do that.”

“You’ll have to sign forms with a regular sized pen.”

I’ve been using thick, chisel-tipped permanent markers for all autographs. The drama in my personal life hasn’t lessened them in the slightest. When in public, I spend half the day writing. A regular pen would be insufferable.

“Damn you and your brilliant brain.”

“We’ll be there.” She runs my chest.

“I don’t wanna do it.”

“For me?”

“Why do you have to be so perfect?”

“I assure you that I’m not, but you and Harper are who I love most in this world. You better believe she complains like you do when she has to get shots. I wrangle her at the doctor to make sure the job’s done. You’re an adult who’s strong enough to overpower me. That’s why I’ve commissioned your true other half.”

“Harp’s a chip off the ole block.”

“You think? She spends all day singing and pushing limits with charisma to get away with her whims.”

“Don’t forget the hair.”

“Ah, yes. You both have an irrational fixation on your hair.”

“Getting it brushed and played with is relaxing. Our randomness takes a lot out of us.”

She shakes her head. “Ridiculous.”

“Says more about you than us.” I kiss her forehead.

“It truly does. Will you accept me as I am?”

“It’d be mean not to and ‘we nice’.”

Poppy’s giggling as she presses her lips to mine.

“The smartypantsness is all you, though. She’d have been a sitting, babbling blob for longer if I flew solo.”

“We make the best kids.”

“Aiden’s been staying out of the toilet. I’ve been thinking having a boy wouldn’t be so bad.”

“Scientifically, you are the one that has control over that.”

“Of course you know that.”

“Uh, yeah. I have a rep to protect.”

I can’t resist kissing my dream girl. I do so with the biggest smile on my face.

We’ve switched positions when we resume our movie marathon. Her arm is around me, my head is resting on my shoulder and she’s playing with my hair.

The Sandlot is the movie that I reference on a daily basis, but Field of Dreams is the movie that speaks to me like no other. Squints wore down the star of his fantasies, but Ray followed the little voice within himself and accomplished all that he set out to with his strong-willed wife’s undying support.

There was only one example of a healthy romantic relationship in my life the first time I saw the movie. My grandpa worshipped Grams until the day he died. He took me to my first baseball game and passed along advice that you can only get from a person with loads of life experience.

Back in the day, Gramps played minor league baseball for years. He never got called up to the Majors. He stopped going for it when his small salary and time spent travelling for away games weren’t enough to support a wife and three kids. Leaving the league was his decision and he chose it with his chest. His post-game life was a good one in all respects. I rarely saw him without a smile. He’s laughing in most of the pictures we have of him. Longing laced his words whenever we talked about the game we loved. The loss of his dream made me try that much harder to get mine.

That was then. I got to the mountain top. My field’s been built. People came. It’s about time I tend to the farm and my family.

“I hope you know I’ll be doing exactly what Annie’s is doing if Harper’s school tries to ban certain books.” Poppy keeps her eyes trained on the scene she’s referencing unfolds on the screen.

“Yep, and I’ll be in attendance, backing you up.”

I’ll be at all the PTA meetings, even the ones she can’t or doesn’t feel like attending. Not touring, lacking album deadlines to meet, and needing to travel to New York or LA to record collaborations will free up all sorts of time.

“Look at me.” Her playfulness has vanished.

I reluctantly listen, knowing what she’ll see.

“What did I say?”

“I’m seeing it through. We’ll come back the right way. We’ve finally got our timing right. We can be together all the time with privacy and without interference.”

“That’s not what I signed up for.”

“And people all over the world saying nasty things about you is what neither of us did.:”

“My Rhys is a dreamer.”

“He screws up the most when he acts on it. The things I get into and how I get out of them aren’t going to be quirky and fun or whatever forever. You had to grow up on short notice. Doing the same shouldn’t be out of the question.”

“There’s one thing I miss about social media -- it’s seeing what you do impacts people. If you push past the thirst posts and idol worship, you’ll see people you don’t know saying what you create makes them feel understood, gets tough times, and some even said you saved their lives.--”

“They don’t know--”

“I’m not done.” She firmly interrupts.

“Geeze, feisty.”

“You’re forcing me, stubborn. We agreed there’s to be no more martyrdom in the name of each other. You’ve matured in the past six months. There’s nothing from you that Harp or I are lacking. Your silliness keeps me from taking myself too seriously. You’re Harper’s playmate and her protector. She’s the only child I’m raising and we’re doing it together.”

“That’s us. There was nothing about them in there.”

“There was. The beginning, the part about giving people a place to belong. Only share the truth through your music; it’s supposed to be up to interpretation. Be the class clown and showman you were born to be when you’re called to perform on stage and in conversations. Not all or nothing. Some and sorted. I don’t want you to throw away something we both love in the name of whatever it is you’re fixated on.”

“I can’t keep hurting you. I’ve put you through hell enough for three lifetimes. Harper has no idea what’s going on now, but she will soon. I don’t want her to wonder why she wasn’t enough of a reason for me to stick around.”

“That’s not how either of us feel or will feel.”

“You will. You can’t travel with me every time something or someone else grabs my attention. You think and say you don’t care that I’ll be in and out of the picture, but there’s only so long that a person can take that in stride. I need to bow out while I have the opportunity to do it with little damage.”

“Rhys, we don’t --”

“I did. My mom and siblings too. I’ve always known how to fix it. Now’s the time.”

“Who’s gotten to you?”

“Does it matter?”

“Yes.”

“Why does it have to? This can be simple. Our lives can be easy. We can be normal. That’s a thing that people do.”

She squints her eyes. “Are you trying to sell me on everything being okay after we walk away from something we’ve made huge sacrifices for?”

“Is it working yet?”

“The condescending cop out? No.”

“My idea is neither of those things.”

“They’re hurting all of us and you still love them. You still love creating and entertaining. It’s making all this that much harder on you. Acting like I couldn’t possibly know your motives is condescending. Leaving behind the job you’ve always wanted because you’re mad at yourself for wanting it is a cop out.”

“Well, I didn’t -- I didn’t know until now, so…” I stammer and divert my eyes. “Congrats, you cracked the case of the Really Selfish and Stupid Rockstar, Poppy Drew.” I grind my teeth to ward off the tears begging to form.

Poppy silently pulls me into a hug. I bury my face in her neck. “The adjectives and adverb are wrong, but the noun’s what it should be. I’d like to keep it that way if we can.”

“You and Taylor did all my homework.” I speak into her shoulder.

“Really’s an adverb. An adverb describes an adjective. An adjective describes a noun. A noun is a person is a person, place, thing, or idea. You, Rhys Michael Wilde, are not really, selfish, or stupid.”

“What if I want to be really?”

“We’ll have to train you for it. There will be plenty of montages, definitely a stair one or two, but we’ll eventually get the job done. It’s in your eyes, tiger.”

My attempt to not laugh turns into a snort.

“I was too harsh, wasn’t I?” She combs for fingers through my hair.

“You can never go wrong with a Rocky III reference.”

“I might not even be right.”

Eye of the Tiger was for sure played during the training montage. You can playback the tape. We have it.”

“There are things I don’t know about you. If I’m off the mark, tell me. I’m not entitled to win all our arguments.”

“You know me.”

“Can you elaborate on that?”

“I love you.”

“I need just a little bit more. Tell it to me straight: am I peer-pressuring bully who ruined your birthday?”

I lift my head from her shoulder and separate myself enough to see her. “I’ve been a moody timebomb for weeks. How dare you try to suss out the problem and help me? That is the cruelest thing you can do to a person on—” I check my watch. “—the day after their birthday. I must be a mosaicist to I love a person who looks after others while she has her own problems to deal with.”

She exhales. “A ‘no’ would’ve sufficed.”

“No, it wouldn’t have. You deserve better than that.” I tuck her hair behind her ear and caress her check with my thumb.

“Where to now?”

“I’ll have to sing it acapella. My caregiver wants me to rest my hands. She’s as strict as she is sassy. It’s sexy.” I wink.

She rolls her eyes with a soft smile. “Not your song. Where are we actually going to go from here?”

“I don’t know.” I admit. “Full-speed ahead with my career backfired last time and the time before that. A legit, concrete, fortified plan needs to be locked in and raring to go for me to reenlist. I don’t have it in me to repeat what we’ve been through.”

“That’s something I can get beside. We have time. Take all of it that you need.”

“You sure about that, feisty?”

“We try in this family. You were trying not to try and we don’t stand for it.”

“The sleeping escape artist is in on this too?”

“She is aggressively supportive. What do you think?”

“You’re amazing.” I move in close.

Our noses brush as she shakes her head. I kiss away her pointless dispute.

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