Sum of Us

All Rights Reserved ©

Ch. 49: Poppy

Harper’s still in her pajamas and asleep as I carry her into Mom’s house.

“Is she still--?” Mom sits up in bed.

I hold my index finger to my lips.

Harper isn’t transferred to Mom’s open arms until I get her coat off and give her a kiss. I mime ‘I’ll text you’ by pointing to myself, pretending to text, and pointing at Mom. She nods her understanding. I kiss her cheek and tote her excitable dogs out of the room before they have the opportunity to wake Harp with their licking and jingling collars. Gizmo and Widget are dropped off in the hallway and I reset the security alarm on my way out the door.

Rhys and Taylor are riding in my car. A label-provided SUV, George, and a Rhys-hired bodyguard are going to meet us at the hospital. Rhys is fiddling with my sound system, articulating his nerves by being particular about which songs we listen to during the trip. Meanwhile, Taylor is in the backseat alternating between a fruit-flavored electrolyte drink, black coffee with shot of espresso, and a breakfast burrito with hot sauce. My stomach hurts every time I catch sight of him doing it through my rearview mirror.

He still has enough alcohol in him to not to care about what he eats or drinks. Taylor didn’t get home until a little after 3 AM. It’s 4:37 AM and he spent the time he could’ve been getting sleeping getting ready. He hasn’t complained about the time or chided Rhys for getting himself into this situation. He was the first person in the car, and I can tell he’s researching the best and worst-case scenarios between consumptions of his garbage meal. He’s as nervous, if not more, than Rhys.

My boys are precious gems, even when they’re being agitating and revolting.

Rhys’s appointment is at 5:00 AM. Medical facilities are deserted this time of day. Backdoor entry and a security guard are excessive, but extra padding is better than bare knuckling and being sorry.

Tay and I sit in on Rhys’s initial evaluation and use our front row seats to tattle. Taylor recounts every fight and how his wounds were treated. I’ve got the aftermath covered – every wince, hiss, and flinch are shared with Dr. Nguyen. Rhys’s “fine” and “alright” aren’t going to cut it this time.

A nurse provides him with a gown to change into and leaves the room along with the doctor to to give him privacy.

“This much radiation is bad for people. She pretty much said what Chris did. We should just go.” Rhys tries to hop down from the examination table.

I keep him on it with a hand on his leg. “It’s safe. She wouldn’t have ordered the scans if it weren’t.”

“You haven’t had any other radiation in the past twelve months and using the machines back to back is standard.” Taylor reiterates.

“I’m not taking medical advice from someone who can’t pass a breathalyzer test.” Rhys lashes out at him because he can’t at me.

“I’d nail the coordination and cognition ones. Do you want to watch me recite the alphabet backward as I walk in a straight line to kick your ass for not putting on that damn gown?”

“I’m in here because I’ve been taking names. If you come at me, you’re going the list.”

“I’m not kissing you until you get these tests. I’m not playing. I will hold out until you take care of yourself. A ‘you’re supposed to love me in sickness and health, Penelope’ won’t get you off the hook. I’m trying to nurse you back to health. I’m doing my job. Do yours.”

He pokes out his bottom lip in a very Harper-like manner. “I mean I can’t not do it when you put it like that.” He grumbles through his pout.

“Is that a yes or no?”

“Yes, I’ll do it.” He draws out in exasperation.

“We’ll be in the hall. No takesies backsies.” I point at him as I migrate towards the door.

“What she said.”

“You’re not going to kiss me either, Tay? How will I survive?”

Taylor characteristically holds up his middle finger in response as he follows me out the door.

“Are you crashing yet?” I ask Taylor as we sit in hallway chairs.

“I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I tried.”

“Me neither.” I admit.

“We know what being benched would do to him.”

“We do.” I purse my lips to keep from betraying Rhys’s trust.

It took a lot for him to tell me what he told me. If he wants Taylor to know, he’ll tell him himself.

Rhys comes out of the room minutes later. “I’m wearing it and I’m going. Can I have a kiss for good luck?”

A nurse is waiting to escort him to the machines.

“No, you could cut and run as soon as you’re out of sight or refuse to stay still during the tests. You’ve earned a hug for showing up.”

“I’ll take what I can get.” He spreads his arms.

I give him a full-body hug. It makes me aware of the split down the back of the gown.

“Are you wearing underwear?”

“Penelope, we’re in public.” He withdraws from me in mock indignation, his hand on his collarbone as though he’s clutching pearls.

The nurse stifles a laugh by playing it off as a cough.

My cheeks heat. “A simple ‘yes’ would’ve sufficed.”

“And pass up an opportunity to see rosy-cheeked Poppy? No way.”

“Go before I change my mind about kissing you.”

“Loophole.” He says just after kissing my cheek.

“Strike two.”

“And I’m out.” He takes a step back. “Tay, fill her in on the details of my will. I want all of it done and nothing can be left out.”

“There’s not going to be a double rainbow at your funeral.”

“I’ll haunt you if there’s not. We’re twins born March 17th. You’re supposed make sure I bow out with a pot of gold if I go first.”

“Strike th--”

“Going.” He finally does it.

I shake my head at his retreating form.

Seated in the examination room again, my leg is bouncing as I text Mama Wilde what we know so far.

“Please stop.” Taylor’s head is in his hands and his elbows are on his legs.

I cross my legs at the ankle to do it. “I’ll wake you when he returns.”

“My body’s tired. My brain’s not. They need to be on the same page for me to power down.”

I rub his back the way I do Harper’s when she’s having trouble going to sleep.

“People will say we’re in love.” He keeps his head down and makes no moves to get away from me.

“That’s a song from Oklahoma. Being in a musical wouldn’t be the worst thing. I’m not the best singer or dancer; I’ll just have fun with it and hope the audience responds positively to my effort.”

“God, you sound just like Rhys.” He groans.

“No, my references era-specific. Oklahoma premiered in the 70s, I think.”

“I know what it means when you deflect like this.”

“Rhys or Chelsea?”

’Both, but there was no need. I’ve been friends with you longest. We all have our means of survival. Zero judgment here. Now you know I know. Do with it what you will.”

“Can I keep it in my back pocket?”

“Sure. Why not?”

“Do you know what that means?”

“No, that’s Rhys territory. Crossing the border has never genuinely crossed my mind.”

“Ouch. Way to wound a girl’s ego.”

“The feeling’s mutual.”

“That doesn’t make a triangle any less flattering.”

“You’re too considerate to orchestrate and manipulate that situation. The identification of the preferred contender is done almost immediately. The other is strung along for attention.”

“We’re back on Twilight?”

“Why was it such a thing?”

“I don’t know, bud.” I pat his back. “Would you like water? I packed Cheerios too. They’ll help settle your stomach.”

“Aw, you restocked our diaper bag.”

“I was doing Harper’s and I figured I might as well. One or both?”

“Both.” He removes his head from his hands.

He watches me as I remove a bottle and resealable bag from my purse. “You are way too nice.”

“Do you want your snack or not?”

“Want.” He relents.

“We’re not the easiest to deal with. Making people feel like third wheels has always been an issue of ours.”

“Tricycles are a beloved mode of transportation and I appreciate a good buy one, get one 50% off deal. In my humble opinion, our setup puts us at a great advantage.”

“Has he been irritable with you?”

“Not at all. You?”

“Yeah, but we have an unspoken understanding. We take out our worst on each other. I had to be sure some of his rage wasn’t trickling outside of our bubble. You’re dealing with a lot too. You can have at me too if you need to. There’s no reason you should collapse in on yourself like a dying star.”

“Blinders and steady steps are working. I don’t mess with what’s working. Thanks, though.”

“Repression is very healthy. Turning a blind eye is even better,” is his sarcastic retort.

“You took four college-level psych courses and suddenly you’re an expert.” I fire back.

“More deflation. Should I put you down for a 3:00 PM appointment? I had a cancellation.”

“My schedule is packed. Harper has a dress fitting and we have playing to do. Both are time-sensitive.”

“She’s going to be a different size by May. What’s the point of making sure her flower girl dress fits her March body?”

“If you want to argue with Mom about it, be my guest.”

“That’d be a fun way to spend the afternoon.” He pretends to muse.

“Your level of hatred for weddings is impressive.”

“They’re the biggest wastes of money.”

His dissection of weddings and the concept of marriage as a whole keeps both of us busy and our minds off of what’s going on in our reality. Taylor’s intuitive nature and overactive mind often come in handy.

“You survived.” I stand as soon as Rhys enters the room.

“Barely. I coded on the MRI table. If the electric paddles hadn’t revived me, I would’ve gotten my double rainbow. Bittersweet, really.”

“Not funny.” I circle my arms around his neck.

“Don’t think about it so hard and it will be.” He leans down and touches his lips to mine.

“Impossible.” I kiss him once more and separate myself.

He gets dressed, putting his jeans on beneath his gown before stripping it off and putting on his shirt. Not checking him out as he does it is a struggle. Taylor’s presence is what makes it possible.

Rhys is seated at the end of the examination table. I stand at his side and rub his back to comfort him when the doctor arrives with the results.

“I have good news and less fortunate news. Which would you like first, Rhys?”

“Good.” His voice shakes.

I kiss his cheek and massage his shoulder.

Dr. Nguyen loads the first of the developed film sheets into the lightbox and flips the switch.

“All of your organs are in tiptop shape. There’s no internal bleeding or swelling. The healing bruises on your body are skin deep. I can say with complete confidence that none of your injuries are life-threatening.”

“But I do have some?” Rhys responds with the glass half empty.

“Yes, but given all that you have been doing, they’re relatively minor. You’re very lucky.”

“Bruises. What else?” He presses.

She switches films and unfurls what I believed to be a pen into a presentation pointer.

“You have a small crack in the bone right below your left pinky. It’s commonly referred to as the ‘boxer’s fracture’. You have another crack on your right knuckle—” She circles them on the slides. “They’re minor enough to be classified as hairline fractures, which is why they didn’t swell as much as clean breaks would have and don’t look deformed. The word ‘fracture’ is scary, but the type you have is minor enough to go unnoticed by some people; they heal on their own without the need for medical treatment.”

“Mine will do that too?”

“No. Because of the locations of yours and the stress you put on them by playing the piano and guitar every day, yours will worsen and grow to be big problems if left untreated.”

“I have to use my hands. I can’t go however long without using them. Am I just out of luck?”

“With splints and activity modifications, you’ll be good as new in six to eight weeks.”

“Weeks? I’m supposed to stroll around with mummy mittens for weeks?”

“You will have access to most of your fingers with the splints on. You will be able to remove them when you need to bathe, use the restroom, and wash your hands. Regardless, all activities need to be done with care.

“Playing instruments included?”

“I advise that you refrain from playing them entirely. Doing so will make it easier for the fractures to heal.”

“I can’t take off work again. I’ve already--”

“I’ll play your keyboard and piano. My sub will play the bass. You’ll sing. Quick and easy mod.” Taylor tells instead of suggests.

Rhys is very particular about who fills in for him. Taylor’s the only person he trusts with the task.

“What about tonight?”

“Nelson lives in LA. He’ll be able to get here before the show with plenty of time to rehearse.”

“You haven’t been to sleep.” I remind him.

“I’ll nap until he gets here and during meals.”

“I won’t be drugged up, will I?” Rhys consults the doctor.

“No, the cortisone injections I’m giving you won’t impact your mental state at all. Over-the-counter painkillers are all that I’m prescribing for day to day pain management.”

“I’ll text George.” Tay pulls out his phone.

Taylor deals with the planning and execution of the action plan. I keep Rhys as calm and comfortable as possible as he gets prodded with needs and patched up. Most of my job consists of distracting him with inside jokes.

His disappointment with his diagnosis decreases a touch after our back and forth about the movie Edward Scissorhands. I write down Dr. Nguyen’s care instructions verbatim and send a copy to Rhys and the people around him.

“I forgot” won’t be an acceptable excuse when he inevitably gets caught overexerting himself.

Despite their new time crunch, Rhys insists on visiting Christopher in the pediatric ward. Taylor chooses to sleep in the car that’s going to shuttle them to the stadium instead of tagging along. The bodyguard accompanied Rhys and I but keeps a breathable distance.

“You can ask for as many lollipops and stickers as you want. Begging to put on his lab coat would be inappropriate. He’s working.” I say on the way.

“He lets his patients put it on. Two seconds as Dr. Wilde would make me feel better too.”

“Don’t ask. It’s different if he offers.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

Chris is standing at the nurses’ station when we arrive. He’s on Rhys before we can say a word. I dislodge myself from his side by removing my arm from his waist to give them the opportunity to hug properly.

“Are you out for six to eight weeks?”

“No, Taylor’s figured out workarounds. The shows are going on.”

“Even tonight’s?”

“Yep. Our sub bassist is on his way as we speak. Pop won’t let me touch my instruments or get away with not wearing my splints on stage. You can stop looking at me like a wounded bird.”

“Why didn’t you tell me your hands were getting worse as time passed? I would’ve known they were hairline fractures and sent you in for treatment. You would’ve started healing sooner and had more time to come terms with the lifestyle changes. This is exactly why you don’t lie when you get evaluated.” Chris reprimands.

“I didn’t straight up lie. I have a high pain threshold. And I thought my hands were healing like bruises, like they had to get worse before they got better. Honest mistake, Dr. Dad. And as you can see, I’m on the road to recovery.” Rhys holds up his splinted hands.

“You better do every last thing Jen told you. Nothing less.”

“Who’s she?”

“The orthopedic surgeon you just saw and will be revisiting again if you don’t listen to her instructions.”

“Pop’s got me under control. Can I see my soon-to-be friend now?”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea anymore.”

Rhys’s easy smile falls. “Are they not feeling well enough?”

“They’re stable. Your hands are what I’m concerned about. You do the most when you visit patients.”

“I’ll be good. Last night, I told Harper I couldn’t play the guitar because my hands were too stiff. You know how often I don’t give her what she wants.”

“Pictures only. No autographs.” Chris strips off his white coat.

“Aye aye, captain. Give me my good boy rewards and point me in the direction of my patient.”

“They’re in the left pocket. The puppy sticker is for Harper.”

“I only accept motivational stickers. I need to know I’m doing a great job eating my lime lollipop.” Rhys flips his hair out of his coat.

“How old are you again?” I look over and up at him.

“22 years old and counting. Candy and stickers have no age limit, Penelope. As a smartypants, you should know that. Stethoscope, please.” He holds his hand out to Chris.

“I need it.”

Rhys’s expression and tone goes pensive. “Is it their lungs or heart?”

“HIPPA. A patient of mine wanting to meet you is as much as I’m allowed to say without getting sued.”

“Do they know I’m coming?”

“Yes, they’ve been looking forward to it all week.”

“Why are we standing around? We’re wasting time.”

“I’m sorry, Pop, but Rhys is the only person the parents have approved to enter. There’s a waiting room right over there with refreshments, a TV, and chairs.” Chris points in its direction.

“No problem whatsoever. We’ll be in there.” I put him at ease with a smile.

“I’ll check in on you as soon as the meeting wraps up.” Christopher discretely says as he hugs me.

“I’m fine.”

“I’ll be the judge of that.” He pats my back and releases me.

Christopher gestures for Rhys to follow him. Rhys kisses me before going.

My time in the waiting room is spent reading through the new student documents the University of Washington sent along with a printed copy of my acceptance letter.

Whether or not I’m going is not a decision that needs to be made. My intent to attend was submitted within an hour of receiving my acceptance email. Getting bullied out of another college is a fear of mine, but the award significantly outweighs the risk. I’ve already lived out the worst-case scenario. It’s survivable. The best case is something to believe in during a time of prominent darkness.

“A nurse is supervising Rhys’s drawn-out goodbye. It’s your turn.” Christopher stands in front of my chair with his hands in his lab coat pockets.

I lower the course catalog to my lap. “You should be in there. He ramps up when it comes time for finales.”

“He’s got himself under control. Your check-in will be short and painless. There’s no reason to drag it out.” Christopher persists.

His time is valuable, so I pack my purse and the two of us go to a nearby meeting room.

“Is this where you break bad news to families?” I take a seat at the table.

“All big news. My younger patients' dependency makes it difficult for us to focus on much other than their needs .“ He occupies the seat across from me.

“How do you handle doing your job? It has to be difficult.”

“Compartmentalizing. How are you coping?” He folds his hands.

“Focusing on the good and what I can control.”

“What else?”

“That’s about it. Harper’s getting fitted for her flower girl dress today. Your big day is soon. Are you nervous?”

“Poppy, I need you to tell me the whole truth. You think admitting you’re struggling will be a burden that weighs me down. It’ll be the opposite.”

“Your job is high impact and you’re getting married soon, which is also stressful.”

“I’m a professional compartmentalizer. I have to be. Work is in one, Jess is in another, so on and so forth. I don’t lump family together. You’re individuals. A box belongs to you. Hearing from you won’t disrupt my system or throw off my equilibrium. Not doing it will. I know enough to worry.”

“There’s no need for all that. Crying in the shower sometimes doesn’t warrant it.”

“How often?”

“Not every day. Only when I need to.”

“Does Rhys know when you do it?”

“He tends to be able to tell. He doesn’t say it, nor do we have a big long discussion about our feelings. He finds an excuse to hold me and does it a little bit tighter than normal.”

“Have you thought about returning to Boston?”

“Leaving him hasn’t crossed my mind.”

“For your sake or Harper’s?”

“Both. He’s doing the best he can at what he can do and he makes us happy doing it.”

“Will you promise me you will go wherever you consider home if that stops being the case?”

“I can.”

“Say it for my records.”

“I promise to return to Seattle if life on the road becomes too much.”

“Regardless of your relationship status with my brother, I want you to call me as soon as you do. If you need anything in the meantime, --”

“I’ve got you and the full roster of Wildes to pull from and turn to.”

“Sounds like I’m late to the support lending party.”

“You made it. That’s all that matters.”

“You passed your exam. You’ve been cleared to help plan my wedding.” He unclips his pager from his waistband.

“Do you know anything about it?”

“The date and wedding party.” He pushes up from the table as soon as he’s read whatever’s on the rectangular device’s screen. “I need to check in on a patient.”

“Your wedding and brothers are in good hands.”

“Great ones. I’ll see you later.” He gives me a hug and hustles out the door.

Rhys is in the waiting room with Jake when I return to it. His eyes are sad and his posture is slumped, but the smile he’s giving me is far from forced.

‘You okay?’ I mouth.

He gives a single nod.

“What’s your sticker say?” I switch to a lighter subject to perk him up.

“You’re super. Super is spelled s-o-u-p-e-r and there’s a smiling bowl of soup on it.” He pushes his unzipped coat open with one of his claws to show me.

“Well worth the fuss you put up for it.”

“I knew it would be. Chris never disappoints. Where is he?” He cranes his neck to look over my shoulder.

“Superman flew away, I’m afraid. He has a child to rescue.”

“If I can’t be Harper when I grow up, I want to be just like him when I grow up.” He stands from his seat. “May I walk you to your car, m’lady?” He stands and offers me his elbow.

“You’re due at work.”

“Tay needs more time to sleep.”

“You should’ve led with that. I’ll gladly help you stall for his benefit.”

“I’m supposed to be your favorite.”

“You are. Your other half needs to be in tiptop shape for you to be able to function your best.” I loop my arm with his.

“Good answer.”

“I’m so sorry to interrupt. I can tell you’re busy. I wouldn’t approach you under any other circumstances, but my daughter’s a big fan of yours. Pictures of your band are all over her room. That’s the only reason I know you’re one of the Wilde Knights boys. She’s in surgery right now. If I could get an autograph or picture, it’d make her so happy. I’m sorry I don’t know which one you are. She’d be humiliated if she were here to see this, but I had to try.” The girl’s mother dabs her eyes with a tissue.

“I’m Rhys Wilde. You look like you could use a hug. Can I give you one?”

She sniffled and nods, smiling at him through her tears.

Rhys gives her a hug most people would reserve for someone they’ve known for years. He doesn’t separate himself from her until she’s got her crying under control.

“I don’t even know who I am half the time. Having an identical twin really doesn’t help. It’s totally fine you didn’t know my name. No offense taken.” He makes her smile. “I’d love to leave her with something. It’ll have to be a video and balloons today, but I’ll send – what’s her name?”

“Caroline. “

“I’ll send Caroline something with a personalized message and all of our signatures on it as soon as my hands heal. VIP tickets to whichever show she wants to see will be coming her way as soon as she’s all better, even if we have to play one for her and her friends to make sure it happens.”

“That is – you’re too kind.”

“It’s nothing, really. I heard being in a good mood helps patients heal faster.”

“Would you like me to record Caroline’s video? It’ll be more special if you’re in it.” I suggest.

“If you could.” She retrieves her phone from her pocket.

“Absolutely.” I take it from her.

Rhys drapes his arm across her shoulders in preparation for the video message.

He doesn’t stop at the video and IOUs. A box of chocolates, a teddy bear, and a Get Well Soon balloon from the gift shop are given to Jane (Caroline’s mom) and the patient I didn’t meet. He leaves contact information with the parents to keep him up to date on their progress.

Rhys is a people person, one who cares about his audience more than they’ll ever know.

“I know I’m irresistibly pretty, but you’re going to hurt yourself if you keep staring instead of watching where you’re going.” Rhys teases on our journey to my car.

“I thought you were rugged now.” I turn my head forward, a little embarrassed that he caught the glances I was sending his way.

“I am. My face is still healing. You’re the one that keeps calling me pretty. I was trying to be nice and pretend you’re right.”

“Pretend? I am right. You look like your mom.”

“Barely.”

“Totally.”

“Wrong.”

“Right.”

“Sure.” He’s smiling as he kisses my temple.

Rhys fulfills his promise of getting me to my car hands-free. I don’t even have to insist to close and open my own door. He follows directions without guidance.

“Keep this up.” I click my seatbelt.

“I’m committed to my scissors. My lady’s into them.” He’s leaning into my car, his arms folded on my windowsill.

“She’s into you taking care of yourself. She loves you safe.”

“Tomato, tamoto. Give Smalls hugs and kisses from me.”

“She’ll get all the affection.”

“Today’s going to be pretty crazy with all the changes, but I’ll try to video chat with you at some point.”

“No worries if it doesn’t happen.”

“Call Josie if Harp cries for me. I’ll pause whatever I’m doing to call her if it comes to that.”

“She does it when she’s tired. I’ll leave you alone and put her to sleep.”

“Call me.” The urgent intensity of his tone fills in the blanks.

“I’ll call.” I soothe him by rubbing his forearm.

“You’ve got to tell me why you were staring too.”

“Later?”

“Now. I’m not leaving until you do.”

He means it.

“What we talked about last night.”

“Harper’s tower?” He plays dumb.

He wants me to say it. The jerk just looooves hearing what makes me find him sexy.

“You provided them with sunshine on a cloudy day.”

“This is Seattle. It’s always cloudy.”

I narrow my eyes at him. “You made those fans’ dreams come true during one of the scariest times of their lives. You agreed to visit the first one before you knew you’d be sentenced to a doctor’s appointment. And you gave Jane something to do other than panic. You used your goofiness for good. I was basking in being right.”

“Right? How?”

“You were built for this. The glow you’re sporting says it all.”

“I still want to chill on the fence.” He shifts in discomfort.

“That’s why I didn’t say anything. I don’t want to be one more person trying to dictate your life.”

He goes in for a kiss. I help him out by cupping his cheek. We share a kiss that says more than we can.

“See you later?” He leans back a touch.

“At the show.” I peck his lips.

“I’ll do my best not to bring shame upon our family.”

“I’ll still be riding on the pride high from earlier. No pressure today.”

“Love you.”

“Love you too.”

He drops a quick kiss on my check and vacates the window.

“Be good.” I say as I start my engine.

“No promises.” He takes a step backward to permit me to leave my parking spot.

~

“Mama!” Harper zooms to me and hugs my legs as Claudia opens the front door of her home.

“Good morning, Lovebug. Did you have good dreams and a yummy breakfast?”

“Oh, yes. Seepytime wit Gamma. Feed pups.”

“Your food or puppy food?”

“Pup beckfast. No tummy hurt.”

“That’s right. Good job.” I pick her up and kiss both of her cheeks.

She does the same to me.

“Where Daddy?” Her arms are around my neck as I step through the threshold.

“He’s in the work potty. We’ll see him later. I saw Uncle Chris today. He gave me a doctor present to give to you.”

“I docker.”

“You are. A very beautiful one. Let me take off my coat and I’ll give your surprise.”

“I help.”

“I would love your help.”

She unzips my coat for me once I’m on my knees. She assists me in putting it on a hanger after I’ve shrugged it off my shoulders. Harp is ecstatic when she sees her puppy sticker. She runs to show Gizmo and Widget as soon as I’ve stuck it to her sweater. I’m saving the lollipop for after her nap.

“Tell me everything about his appointment. Should he even be working?” Claudia embraces me. “Do you want coffee or tea? I made cranberry muffins.”

“Tea and a muffin would be wonderful. I’ll fill you in on everything.”

No detail is omitted when I recount everything that transpired during Rhys’s doctor’s visit. I even send her the pictures I took of his scans and splinted hands.

“Do you think I need to go back on tour with you?”

“No, I truly believe he’s going to do everything she and Chris said. The seriousness sunk in when the word ‘surgery’ started being said. Stay on the home front. It’s where your presence is necessary.”

“If you insist. I trust your judgment. How are Christopher and Taylor doing today?”

I share all that I know about them as we have our morning treats. She fills me in on the early morning happenings of my child. Harper has been talkative, overeager to help, and enthusiastic AKA herself. And I tell her about Rhys’s actions in the pediatric ward.

As a mom, it always feels good when you find out your baby did something impactful out of the kindness of their heart. It’s affirmation that you must’ve done something right while raising them.

Neither the bride nor groom are present when it comes time to finalize wedding plans. Claudia, Jessica’s mother Shana, and Becca (surprisingly) are the ones pouring over planning materials at the table in the corner of the informal living room. Their location gives me the ability to be somewhat involved while I play with Harper.

I don’t have much to contribute. A day dedicated to shining a spotlight on the intricacies of my most intimate relationship is more of a nightmare than a fantasy, but I do know flowers and I confidently and gladly give my opinion when they consult me on those.

Staying still while Becca measures Harper while she’s wearing her flower girl dress. The urge to twirl is great while in a garment that was essentially made for it. Her crying when it comes time to take it off is a clear sign Harper’s overdue for a nap.

“W-w-where D-daddy?” She hiccups.

“He’s still in the potty, Lovebug. We’ll see him on the phone soon as we eat lunch.” I clear the streams of tears marring her cheeks.

“He hungee?”

“I don’t know. How about we ask him?”

Harper’s nodding as she rests her head on my shoulder. She doesn’t say another word as I carry her to the kitchen. A wad of my sweater is bawled into her fist. Seated at the kitchen table with her in my lap, I feed her a quick lunch. Opening her mouth and gripping my shirt are all that she has the energy to do. Her question about Rhys’s eating schedule is forgotten by the time I get him on the phone for her. She can barely keep her eyes open. ‘I love you’ are the only words they exchange and then he sings her to sleep.

He watches as I tuck her into her bed in the room Mama Wilde set up for all her granddaughters. I switch on the highly necessary baby monitor and creep out of the room to talk to Rhys.

“She wanted to know if you are hungry. I need to be able to answer when she wakes up. She’ll ask again during snack time. She’s concerned about your eating habits.”

“Bend the truth for me. I don’t want to get into trouble. Water and a protein bar are all that I’ve had today.”

“The bar you had at for breakfast?”

“Maybe.”

“Baby, you need to put something in your stomach. The medication the gave you is too strong to skip meals.”

He’s having a rough day. I’ll use a gentle approach.

“I didn’t feel hungry until I stepped away. I’ll eat something before going back.”

“Okay, I’ll cover for you. How are the modifications coming along?”

“It depends on who you ask. My perfectionist side’s out.”

“If you ask me, you’re doing what you’re doing to make sure the fans are getting their money’s worth. Harper and I like Perfectionist Rhys. He nice.”

“Wow. Just wow. I’m honored.”

“You should be. She only showers praise on everyone.”

“Hey, I made the cut. Don’t rain on my parade.”

“I’ll stop if you go eat.”

“What do I get if I trick Kyle into feeding me?”

“Do I want to know how you’d trick him?”

“It’d work. What else is there to know?”

“I’ll send you a video of Harper in her flower girl dress if you can do it.”

“Challenge accepted.”

“Hop to it.”

“Love you.”

“I love you too.” I blow him a kiss and pocket me phone.

~

Harper and I spend the afternoon at home. We are leaving Seattle after the show. I pack in preparation. Harp has the opportunity to play with the toys we’re unable to take with us. They keep her busy enough not to notice I’m doing a task she loves to “help” me with. I get the job done in half the time as she has a ball. A car comes to pick us up for the concert two hours until show time. The executive decision was made (by me) to not spend time backstage before the boys take the stage.

Harper and I have been watching shows from VIP boxes as of late. Occupying the isolated spaces give Rhys peace of mind. We have all that we need; Tyrone is with us; there’s no chance for a conflict Rhys will feel the need to resolve. One thing remains the same – I stand in the wings with Harper as he sings Field. We kiss Harper and each other goodnight and go our separate ways.

His request for separation wasn’t a dagger to the heart. He made his motives as clear as humanly possible. It was a impassioned quest, not a command. I tried to do the same today, but admittedly, I didn’t give him much room to say no. His mind’s jumbled. One more multilayered decision would make matters worse. I know him. He’d think about it as choosing between us and them. The reality is his entire life doesn’t need to be about us. He’s putting in his time. We know he loves us. Supporting him with a push isn’t a sacrifice. It’s being a partner.

Harper’s well aware that it’s almost “Daddy usic time”. Her personalized Wilde Knights shirt was chosen with care and she’s been singing and humming a medley of their songs since we left the house. I join in as I push her stroller to the suite. It gets her all the more excited. She’s hyped to the point of squeals and claps.

Our jolly, giggly mother/daughter time comes to an end when I hear group laughter coming from our assigned room. I was warned that Tim, his nieces, and Mom would be joining us. There are more than two voices filtering into the hallway.

“Who’s here?” I stop walking and turn to Tyrone.

“Your friends. You didn’t have the opportunity to see them at the boys’ birthday party. Claudia wanted to surprise you with them.”

“Do they know that was her intention?”

“I’m sure they do.”

“Can you ask?’

“I can, but I’d like to know why first.”

I’m wring the handle of Harper’s stroller as I collect my thoughts.

‘Total honesty is the best policy.’

“They were his friends first. Their loyalties lie with Rhys. Everyone knows the ways I’ve hurt him in the past and can see the turmoil it’s causing him now. Feeling the hatred of people who know me isn’t something I can handle right now.”

“Hang tight.”

As soon as he disappears into the room, I shed a few of the tears I was fighting and wipe them away just as quickly.

“Would you like some apple juice, Lovebug?”

“Yes, peeze.”

After fishing a sippy cup out of her diaper bag, I crouch down in front of her and put it in her open hands.

“Tank you.” She lifts the spout to her mouth.

“You’re very welcome.” I unzip her coat to keep her from overheating.

“Noooooo, Mama.” Harper whines when I touch the brim of her hat with intentions to remove it.

Harp loves the hat I bought for her as a gift to Rhys. She put it on as soon as she saw it in her room this afternoon. I had to take it off of her when I put her down for her second nap. She had it back on when I came to her room post-nap. It was a struggle to talk her to let me remove it long enough to change her shirt. Trouble leaning back in her car seat and stroller and my willingness to compromise by letting her wear the hat to the front kept her compliant in the car and at the venue.

Rhys will be so proud.

“I’ll put it back as soon as I tame your mane. ROAR!”

“ROAR!”

I sift her overgrown bangs out of her eyes and tuck them behind her ears.

“Now you’ll be able to see big music time.”

“Need hat.”

It’s returned to her head. “All better?”

“Yes, tank you.” She brings her sippy cup back to her mouth.

Needlessly redoing the Velcro straps on Harper’s sneakers and rearranging her clothes keep my shaky hands busy and her amused.

To Harp, the crackling of Velcro and the sounds produced by zippers and snap buttons are funny. Regardless of the circumstances, her infectious laughter never fails to make me feel better.

“They knew.”

“And?” I turn my head over my shoulder to look at Tyrone.

“One of them asked when you would be arriving. I kept my answer vague. She seemed anxious to see you.”

“Claudia?”

“No, though she is, of course. I’m not sure, but I think the girl’s name is Cecilia.”

“Delilah?

“Ah, Delilah.” He snaps his fingers. “That’s it. She’s looking forward to seeing you.”

“Me or Harper?”

“She didn’t say anything about her.”

“How did people react when she asked about me?”

“They waited for my answer. I didn’t pick up on any hostility while I gave it. I deem it as safe to go in there, but the choice is yours. We can take this time to get you settled on the bus.”

“We’ll stay. Harper will start going through withdrawals if she doesn’t get big music time stat.”

“It big usic time, Ty. Ing ongs wit Daddy.” She reiterates for his benefit.

“Do you want to dance with Grandma during big music time?” He asks her and simultaneously gives me a way out.

“Uh-uh! And Mama! Ots and ots of fun.”

“Is it time to get to our spots?” I turn to her.

She nods her head with a bright smile.

“Are you sure?”

She nods harder, her smile growing.

“Then we better get going.” I say as I tickle her.

Her high-pitched giggle gives me life.

She throws up her arms when I stand.

“We’re almost to the room. I’ll let you out in there.”

“Up! Up!” Harper bounces and wiggles her fingers.

“I’ll hold you soon, Lovebug. Stay with Rue for the rest of the ride. He’s scared.”

“Oh no! It o-tay. I ere.” She hugs Rue to her chest.

Tyrone joins me on the other side of Harper’s stroller.

“She’ll bounce back from being away from you tonight. Do you want to go or not?” He speaks in a hushed tone.

“I will.” I offer him a soft smile.

“I’ll push the stroller. You can hold her.”

I mouth ‘thank you’ to him as I collect my security blanket.

There are less people than I anticipated, but who they are keeps the tension in my neck pulled taut. Delilah, Jamal, Noah, Matty, and Smith have been at the top of Rhys and Taylor’s guest lists for well over a decade.

Smith and Rhys played baseball together from ages 8 to 15. After Rhys decided to stop playing baseball, he didn’t keep in touch with most of his jock friends, but he and Smith made time for each other. He’s Rhys’s favorite person to talk sports with.

Matty is the younger brother of one of Lindsey’s friends. He and the boys were thrust together whenever their sisters were stuck with babysitting duty. A lasting friendship blossomed out of their love of picking with their older sisters.

Jamal was the first friend who was significant enough for Taylor to venture from Rhys’s side. He marked the beginning of the boys becoming their own people with individual thoughts and interests. It only took seven years to figure out they weren’t looking in a mirror.

Noah’s mom and Claudia are long time friends. They made sure their sons grew up together too. Noah was a guest at the boys’ first birthday, every one since and vice versa.

Delilah started as their neighbor. He’ll never admit it, but it is widely understood that Taylor gave the friendship-based romance thing a shot because of Rhys’s relationship with me. They were on again, off again for most of high school, primarily because of their physical chemistry. When the passion fizzled out for good, they called it quits and did the impossible – they went from a couple to strictly platonic friends. Taylor might be on to something with his system.

These are people who are held to the highest esteem by the boys. I’ve created major memories with them as well. Their opinions matter.

“You’re finally here! Oh! And you brought Ms. Harper!” Delilah sets her wine glass on the nearest surface and bum-rushes us.

She gathers Harper and me into a group hug.

“Hi! This Rue.” Harp chirps as extends her best friend to Dee.

“It’s very nice to meet you, Rue. My name is Delilah.” She shakes his plush hove. “I’ve been friends with Harper’s mommy and daddy for a long LONG time. I love the three of them very very much. Can we be friends too?”

“Oh, yes, real nice.” Harper answers for both of them.

“Yay.”

“We pway?”

“You and your mommy need to get comfortable first. May I help you remove your coat?”

“Yes, peeze.”

To help them along, I put Harper on the floor.

“I’ll hold Rue for you, Lovebug.”

“Tank you.”

“You’re very welcome.” I take him from her.

“You’re Super Mom or you and Rhys bred a unicorn. She’s two. She’s supposed to be terrible.”

Jamal having snuck up beside me makes me flinch in surprise.

“The latter. You should see the other things she does.” I dare to look at him.

“I watched the videos Rhys used to posted. I’ve been trying to figure out who she takes after more for months. I can’t nail it down. Do you want me to add your coat to the pile we started?”

“Yes, thank you. Rhys, no doubt. Right down to the facial expressions.” I shrug out of my coat one-handed to continue to hold Rue.

“I don’t—”

Harper tugs on my jeans. “Hat no wight, Mama.”

I give her my undivided attention. “How do you want to wear it?”

“Back, peeze.”

“Here’s Rue.” I return him to her. After combing her hair with my fingers, I rotate her Smalls baseball hat so that the brim faces the back.

“There you go, Lovebug. You’re all set to play.”

“Tank you.” She hugs my leg and skips off to socialize.

“You were saying?” I tug off the sleeve that was left dangling.

“She has his style, but she went about it like you.”

“And how’s that?” I ask more questions with my eyes.

“With kindness.”

I grind my teeth to keep from crying. “I hurt him.”

“It’s none of our business. You’ve kissed and made up. What else is there? The other stuff is a load of crap. It’d be obvious even if I didn’t know you.”

He gets a bone-crushing hug first, my coat second.

Dee’s outward exuberance is unrivaled, but everyone here is completely void of maliciousness and regarding me with the amount of warmth a person needs during dire times. That said, they’re still talking and goofing around in the ways they typically do.

Harper shrieks and runs to me as soon as she finds out Wilde Knights is about to take the stage.

“Time ance, Mama. We see Daddy!” She tugs on my hand.

“We better get in our spots.” I stand from the armchair I’m seated in and let her lead me to the glass wall that gives us a clear view of the stage.

She talks my ear off about the same things she does at every concert – how excited she is to hear their music, how much she loves Rhys and her uncles, that dancing together is fun and nice and she wishes we could do it all the time.

Knowing the drill, I already have a sippy cup of water on deck. Hydration is the key to a successful “big music time”.

The stadium lights fade to black and Harper’s cheering rivals the audience’s as she bounces up and down. There’s no room for embarrassment when everyone in the suite laughs at her intensity.

The stage becomes illuminated as the first notes of Karaoke are played. Rhys is standing upstage center with only a microphone stand in front of him. His keyboard is off to the side in Taylor’s custody and Nelson is in Tay’s usual spot. The five of them are in sync; there’s not a note missed or awkwardness sensed. They’re a well-oiled machine, reinforced and finely tuned to please the people screaming for them – their littlest biggest fan included.

“What’s up, Seattle?” Rhys addresses the crowd with his signature smile once their applause dies down.

The crowd responds with hoots and hollers.

“Hometown shows are the best shows. For five years, local shows were the only shows. Seattle is where it all started. It’s where our hearts are and where our roots have always been – except for Nelson. He’s an honorary Seattleite for around six to eight weeks” He removes one of his hands from the microphone and uses it to gesture to Taylor’s replacement like he’s a prize on a gameshow. “Let’s give the newest member of the Wilde Knights family a warm welcome,” Rhys leads a round of applause by miming the gesture.

Harper follows his instructions with gusto.

“Would you like to say something to these fine people?” He looks over at him.

“Hello,” Nelson waves at the rabid fans.

“A tried and true classic. Nice.” Rhys nods his approval.

“Moving right along.” He faces the audience once again. “The biggest elephant in the room needs to be addressed –”

“Lelafant?! Wove lelafant. We see lelafant, Mama!” Harper looks up at me with a luminescent smile.

“Not a real one, a make believe one.”

“Nuh-uh. Daddy say lelafant. We ing ongs wit lelafant.”

Dang it, Rhys.

Delilah gasps abruptly. “There it is! Do you see the glass elephant?” She gets on her knees to be on Harp’s level and points at the glass wall we’re standing in front of.

“Hi, lelafant! I Hawper.” Harp waves to the nonexistent animal with gusto.

I mouth ‘thank you’ the moment Dee looks up at me.

‘I love her. So cute’ she responds the same way.

“—And if he breaks my toy, I’m breaking his. Just like the olden days.” Rhys is saying when I tune back in to what’s going on on stage.

Taylor takes this as a challenge and slams both of his hands on Rhys’s keyboard.

“Don’t test me,” Rhys jokingly glares at him. “My fingers may be fractured, but I still have a little fight left in me.”

There are rumblings of surprise within the crowd.

“Oh! I almost forgot. Hurt hands.” He holds them up, elbows bent. “I’m not going to bore you with the details. What it boils down to actions – ones that weren’t and were done. We do what we do for our own reasons. All I can do is hope you have it in your hearts to forgive me for the super cheesy thing I’m about to say. If you don’t, oh well. I’m saying it – let’s try to be nicer to each other. We usually don’t find out how much damage we’ve done until it’s too late. That’s all I’ve got to say about that. It’s time to get this show on the road.”

Rhys gives the audience what they came here to see with the finesse of a born showman. The energy in the energy in the positive energy stadium is palpable. Each time the jumbotron projects a closeup on his face, I smile. It’s not because he’s unfairly handsome – though that is the case – it’s because he’s legitimately having a good time. He’s not giving them the forced swoony smile – unbeknownst to them, they’re being treated to the smile I fell in love with, a smile only a person with unbridled passion for what they love is capable of making.

“Do you have to go?” Delilah pulls a pout when I collect a sleepy Harper from the ground.

“It’s her bath time.”

“Mama Wilde will do it for you, no doubt.”

“Mama.” Harper quietly protests. Her is head on my shoulder and she’s clutching my shirt in her fist.

“I know, baby.” I hike her higher onto her hip and kiss the top of her head. “It’s our routine. It’s harder for her to sleep through the night when someone other than me or Rhys gives her a bath. We haven’t been on the bus in a while and –”

“Say no more. You’ve got to go be a great mommy. We’ll play later.”

“We’ll be back in May for Chris’s wedding.”

“I’ll see you then and talk to you before. Hang in there.” She gives me and Harper another group hug.

“Bye-bye, Harper. I’ll you soon.” Dee rubs her back.

“Bye-bye, Dee-yah.”

We collect hugs and goodbyes from all of my friends and our family. I save Claudia for last.

“Thank you.” I say in her ear as we hug.

”The people who matter still love you. We all need a reminder sometimes.”

“I love you.”

“I love you too, sweetie.” She kisses my cheek before releasing me. “Grandma loves you too, princess. I’ll see you on the phone tomorrow.” She gives Harper multiple kisses on the cheek.

“Wove you, Gamma. Bye-bye.”

The self-consciousness and shame I’ve been carrying with me is lighter. I’m able to look all the crew members we encounter backstage in the eye. I ask for Harper’s shampoo, which wasn’t in the bathroom as it should be, instead of struggling to make do on my own because I feel unworthy of help for having caused the PR nightmare that is making their jobs monumentally more difficult by not telling Rhys about Harper.

Rhys is singing Field while seated on a stool center stage. Taylor is providing the instrumentals by playing the baby grand piano Rhys uses for this song.

The modification changes its significance. Not in a bad way. Quite the opposite. Rhys is finally accepting his limitations and is still able to create something beautiful. Taylor’s facilitating his dream by being flexible. It’s easy for neither of them but they’re doing it for each other.

If Rhys were to quit, it’d affect more than Taylor’s psyche and phantom twin-link pain. He relies on Rhys’s dreams too. They defy the rigid rules of logic that he applies to his life. It gives him a much-needed break from his thoughts. Just as is the case with his fans, Rhys has yet to grasp his full impact on Tay. He sees himself as a burden to him most of the time.

But I see it. It’s as transparent as a glass elephant.

Especially tonight, while they’re playing my song.

Continue Reading Next Chapter

About Us

Inkitt is the world’s first reader-powered publisher, providing a platform to discover hidden talents and turn them into globally successful authors. Write captivating stories, read enchanting novels, and we’ll publish the books our readers love most on our sister app, GALATEA and other formats.